Performers come along each generation with the ability to evoke a singer or actor of years gone by and, far too often, once that connection is established, they skate along on the reputation. Madeleine Peyroux, with just two albums recorded, has certainly made the most of her ability to phrase like and texturally render Billie Holiday, bumping jazz and country sensibilities against each other and interpreting a variety of interesting songbooks. It works spectacularly in coffeehouses and clubs, but her act isn’t ready for the concert stage.
A rare breed, Peyroux is a folkie and cabaret singer who is at her best toying with the blues. She opened with a promising “Weary Blues,” setting a dark tone that distinguished her from Holiday and her closest contempo peer, Norah Jones. She played guitar through most of the night — even when it wasn’t necessary — and, to her benefit, it conveyed the idea that Peyroux is in control on a level beyond the singing.
The Greek show was an ample re-creation of the album “Careless Love” (Rounder), which the NPR and coffee-drinking crowd has embraced (about 300,000 sold). While her admirable band — led by the fine pianist Kevin Hays — held its own, lightly swinging through most of the night, Peyroux started slightly flat, and by the time she reached Holiday’s “I’ll Look Around,” her ability to sing a full line without going off-key seemed an impossibility.
Maybe the cold air is to blame: This wobbly warbler wasn’t particularly sharp the whole night, failing to recapture the snap and charm found on record in her rendition of Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and never reaching that involving stage on the dark ballads.
Oddly, the strongest Holiday touch, Ron Miles’ Louis Armstrong-inspired trumpeting, was also the most engaging aspect of the mostly drowsy affair. His lines were clean, mood-evoking and well articulated, whether he was suggesting a wink, a smile or a tear with his horn.
Show was to be a triple bill, with Cesaria Evora headlining. Evora canceled four weeks ago due to illness, and the result was a half-full theater. Were the Cape Verdean singer on the bill, sets from Gabriela Anders, the Argentinian with a Brazilian heart, and Peyroux would have been shorter and their languidity more effective. Plus, Evora would have schooled them on how to control a stage.
Peyroux will spend July on the Euro jazz fest trail and return to the U.S. in August for some dates with Martha Wainwright.