The raw heat that comes off of “Nick Cordero: Live Your Life: Live at Feinstein’s/54 Below” makes the loss of the vocalist-actor known for awe-inducing Broadway roles in “Waitress,” “A Bronx Tale” and “Bullets Over Broadway” feel devastating all over again, although the shock has hardly worn off since he died in July after a struggle with Covid-19. In recorded form, the performance captured within is further evidence that few singers of any genre or standing shared the natural dramatic intensity that emanated from Cordero with ease and energy.
This club set wasn’t intended to be a commercially released album, a lack of expectation that works entirely to its benefit. Cordero’s music director and pianist, Michael J Moritz Jr., has said this recording of one of two April 2019 dates at the New York’s club was meant to be an EPK for potential booking agents and venue operators around the country as the actor-singer was looking to tour. It’s easy to imagine that f it had been planned for public release, much of “Live Your Life’s” off-the-cuff feel and wildly spontaneous intensity might have been scrubbed clean in rehearsals, if not the final edit. That would never do. Released on Sept. 17 on what would have been his 42nd birthday “Live Your Life” is nothing if not raw, in the best way.
Cordero’s husk and intensity as a vocalist here – abetted by as the sympathetic and intuitive backing of Moritz Jr. and his band – might be just as well-received by lovers of energetic in-concert classics like Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” as by the typical customer for cabaret performances by a Broadway or off-Broadway actor.
The heavily-accented Cordero, who often played Italians and hot-heads from a Bronx zip code on Broadway, was born to a Canadian mom and Costa Rican dad and was raised in Hamilton, Ontario. How he was usually taken by audiences as an Italian with Bronx cross-streets is something he brings up in the first spoken interlude of the album, as part of his personal history and its running narrative from when his parents met to how he got to where he was at recording’s close.
Starting this live set in a deep, fluid voice with a hint of MeditEthnoAmerican-ese that signals the many boroughs of Manhattan is what makes corny covers such as Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” (in Cordero-speak, “lawwwng,” and ‘playawwn”) feel potent and fresh. The same can be said of the ensemble’s wah-wah-heavy take on Stevie Wonder’s overdone “Higher Ground,” and particularly – and surprisingly – of a later selection, INXS’ “Break It Down.” Having explained earlier in the evening that he sang in an ’80s cover band to make ends meet once he left Ontario for Williamsburg, Cordero’s version feels lived-in and cocksure. He rides with the cut’s stammering rhythm and its matching jutting cellos, and manages to out-burly Michael Hutchence. Moving forward in time, Cordero, Moritz Jr. and company turn Coldplay’s staid “Politik” into something theatrical in every manner. With an autumnal piano line and a halting blues vibe as accompaniment, Cordero opens up his throat in singing “Open your eyes” and soars with a musky, histrionic passion that Chris Martin could never achieve on his best day.
While most of the rest of “Living Your Life” features songs from the stage musicals that Cordero was heralded for, you won’t be put off by having not witnessed them in real time. There’s no need to have been up-close-and-personal to the characters Cordero played on stage with “The Toxic Avenger” (“in a hot rubber suit”), “Bullets Over Broadway,” “Waitress” and “Bronx Tale” to enjoy the emotional picture of it all.
A tender “Hot Toxic Love” duet with his “Avenger” co-star Sara Chase (of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” fame) turns into a faux-metal power ballad with rich dueling harmonies. The same goes for “You Matter to Me” from “Waitress,” where Cordero’s co-star Drew Gehling and a surprise appearance from Zach Braff (“I crash every cabaret”) make for the manliest three-part harmony since Bryan Adams, Sting and Rod Stewart tackled “All for Love” on the soundtrack to “The Three Musketeers.”
Cordero doesn’t just belt them out like a soulful bruiser, however. On his cut from “A Bronx Tale,” the vocalist and the band turn “One of the Great Ones” into something casually convivial, with supple jazzy phrasing, a handful of handsome bottom notes and fluttering highs. Two back-to-back tracks near cabaret’s close – Ben Rector’s “The Men That Drive Me Places” and Brandi Carlile’s “The Mother” – are also tightly coiled and loosely knit, both with the feel of an early solo album by Paul Simon. “The Mother” will choke up even the most emotionally casual listener as he talks about the child that he and his wife, fellow actor Amanda Kloots, were soon set to have. (Their son, Elvis, turned 1 while Cordero was in ICU this year.)
Veering away from cover choices, the album closes on a crisply rocking “Live Your Life” — “a break up song, cloaked in an uplifting message” — and a track from Cordero’s own hand. Too few actor-singers associated with the stage and cabaret write their own material, let alone something so bold and catchy. Suddenly, then, we learn that Cordero was a triple threat… another, less expected reason to mourn. That even more personal closer puts a bittersweet cap on “Live Your Life” as a hell of a celebration of one artist’s deep voice, and how he gleefully and soulfully went about the adventure of his craft.