Popular musicians often attempt to curry favor with fans of “serious” music by dipping a toe into classical waters or taking a turn on the Broadway stage — but it’s rarely a two-way street. Legit theater stalwart Ute Lemper, however, is not only iconoclastic enough to attempt a fusion of fringe-rock and mid-century standards, she’s an odd enough duck to make it work on several levels.
Best known for her interpretations of the Kurt Weill catalog — which she revisited at several points during the evening — Lemper has just released “Punishing Kiss,” a disc dominated by covers of songs by rock mood creators like Nick Cave and Tom Waits. While her decidedly melodramatic stance seemed best suited for the stage-derived material she performed over the course of this 90-minute set, Lemper proved fearless about tackling more envelope-pushing pieces.
After giving fair warning to some of the audience’s more conservative members, Lemper proceeded to deconstruct some of her best-known performances with an ear toward rock discord. A slurry, decadent take on “Alabama Song” (far more adventurous than Jim Morrison’s long-ago attempt) slid into “I’m a Vamp,” which was more redolent of mental imbalance than sensuality.
Lemper proved every bit as adept in tackling rock material — and, for the most part, proved more willing to let the song outshine her delivery. This worked in her favor on a pair of appropriately blowsy Tom Waits covers (highlighted by an encore version of “The Part You Throw Away”) and a subtly disturbing take on Nick Cave’s chilling murder allegory “Little Water Song”).
Subtlety seldom figures into Lemper’s approach, however. And while it can be a bit exhausting to witness constant switches of tempo, mood and language like those that all but tore apart “Mack the Knife,” her unbridled intensity is, more often than not, an edge-of-the-seat delight, as borne out by renditions of Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” and “Ne me Quitte Pas” that impart a boozy reverie that would no doubt draw a toast from the composer himself.