The term “survivor” gets bandied about a lot these days, mostly by twentysomething performers who’ve managed to overcome being dumped by a reality show C-lister. But in the big book of pop culture history, the word is all but certainly illustrated with a series of photos of Marianne Faithfull — from doe-eyed ingénue to wrecked rocker to the emergent stateswoman of avant-cabaret.
At this showcase for her 2009 Decca release “Easy Come, Easy Go” — a performance that was delayed due to a variety of maladies on the part of the singer — Faithfull came across as decidedly elegant, and not “elegantly wasted,” as might’ve been the case just a few years ago. Yes, her voice is often more ragged than right, with wheezes nestled among the whispers, but she’s managed to discern material and arrangements that couch those traits in a positive light.
Faithfull pushed the boundaries of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook Series a bit more forcefully than many of the past participants, delving into standards like Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” (a lyric that seems to have been custom-written for her current persona) as well as left-field modernists like The Decemberists, whose “Crane Wife 3” benefited from an affably see-sawing performance.
The most fascinating material — and not just because of its rarity — came from the ranks of the late ’60s/early ’70s writers who inspired this millennium’s so-called “freak folk” movement. The late Judee Sill’s ravishing “The Phoenix” exuded both the thrill of flight and the muskiness of ashes, while Jackson C. Frank’s “Kimbie” gradually unfolded, origami-like, layer after layer of quiet regret.
Given the fact that the room was packed with partisans, Faithfull couldn’t very well ignore her own catalog of sons, and she cherry-picked the usual suspects — “Sister Morphine” and the still chillingly vituperative “Why’d Ya Do It” — but retooled them with the sort of wry intensity that Bob Dylan often applies to his own chestnuts.
While they couldn’t have started further apart on the cultural spectrum, the Guthrie-worshipping troubadour and the one-time toast of Swinging London have actually turned out to be of the same spirit — one that acknowledges dignity and absurdity can and must co-exist for an artist to be a survivor.