k.d. lang's spellbinding interpretation of the Leonard Cohen song Friday night at Starlight Theater affirmed her status as today's premier saloon singer. She made another convincing case: that she inhabits the same rarefied realm of immortals like Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole.
Lang was half of an inspired double bill with Lyle Lovett. Both are quirky, highly stylized artists that have strayed far from their Nashville-oriented debuts of the late '80s.
"We were part of that crazy new country scene they were talking about," Lang recalled. She and her excellent four-piece band touched on country, but they also easily shifted between cabaret, folk, jazz and torch songs.
Lang's vocal range is massive, but it's the coloring, dynamics and investment of raw emotion that make her immaculate voice one of the most dynamic instruments in popular music.
It was shown to intoxicating effect on "Wash Me Clean." In addition to "Hallelujah," songs from 2004's "Hymns of the 49th Parallel" included a ravishing take on Neil Young's "Helpless" and a hypnotic interpretation of Jane Siberry's "The Valley."
Lang is a charming entertainer. She engaged in carefree dancing worthy of a 5-year-old on a sugar high. The audience of about 2,300 loved it.
"I did notice that you have a refined sense of choreography here in Kansas City," Lang laughed.
It was distressing to see many latecomers and Lovett partisans initially treat Lang as an anonymous support act. But even the most insensitive in attendance quickly realized that Lang's performance was something extraordinary.
She concluded her hour-long set with a heartbreaking version of Patsy's Cline's "Three Cigarettes and an Ashtray." Even as she paid loving tribute to one of her primary sources, Lang soared far beyond Cline's original sterling performance.
The hearty standing ovation Lang received seemed to be motivated by equal parts delight, gratitude and awe.
His show didn't match Lang's memorable performance, but he satisfied fans with two hours of off-kilter chatter and music. He sometimes seems like Garrison Keillor's troubled Texas cousin.
Lovett's 17-piece band was so large that Starlight's enormous stage seemed cramped. The usual stalwarts were on hand, including guitarist Mitch Watkins,
vocalist Francine Reed, bassist Viktor Krauss and cellist John Hagen.
A number of ringers were added to the mix, including drummer Russ Kunkel and primary members of the Muscle Shoals horn section. In full swing mode, the all-star band conjured Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Lovett mixed and matched the remarkable assemblage of talent for each song, frequently dispatching entire
sections of the group.
It reveals a great deal about Lovett's confidence in himself and in the patience of his audience that he played a full hour before offering any of his most familiar material. Nonetheless, the first 60 minutes were riveting. Highlights included a set of bluegrass -- he called it "the dark side of country music" -- and a delicate new song best described as "chamber folk."
Somewhat shopworn songs like "I've Been To Memphis," "This Old Porch" and "Church" dominated the second half of Lovett's show. The material was rendered fresh by the formidable band. The extended soloing on "She's No Lady" was especially remarkable.
The band ran through "Kansas City" during Lovett's encore. It was a nice try, but Lang owned this town Friday night.