IN TUNE: It’s taken a lot for Paula Cole to be able to look over her shoulder at the audience and coyly sing: “You can do the laundry, while I go have a beer.” But the sold-out crowd at City Winery was as grateful for the reborn songstress’ strut as she was to share her new-found fearlessness.
It truly was a release party in more ways than one. Hours before the show, the magnificent “Ithaca” was officially issued.
“I circled this date on the calendar,” Cole told the crowd at the outset. “I love you, New York.”
What has always distinguished Cole from other artists — besides pipes that can literally leap octaves — is the bond between her heart and her work. The closest comparison I can find is one of my own heroes, John Lennon, who wrote confessionals straight from the soul, with no filter. Or Springsteen from his “Darkness…” days.
Cole opened with a hint of doubt: “I might mess up because some of these we’ve never played before,” she told the crowd. “Herbie Hancock says you should be in the zone. And that’s where you’re gonna make mistakes. And that’s OK.”
Like anyone minded — or even noticed.
The secret to Cole’s allure lay in the way she applies the old “radical dynamic shift” to her raw, to-the-bone songs. Stripped down to her voice and gentle piano, accompanied by guitar and drums, they suddenly take off.
She herself acknowledged, in her own way, that the beauty of her work is in the contrasts — soft shakes of the maracas giving way to a rising wail, light piano flourishes building to monumental cries of liberation.
“Without the darkness, there is no light,” Cole said.
And without a divorce that she said put her into a creative closet, she wouldn’t have produced the ready-for-widespread-play of “Music in Me,” “Something I’ve Got to Say,” and the magnificent (yes) “Come On Inside,” from only her fifth studio album.
The split sent her back to Rockport, Mass., the hometown she ran from years ago. There, she spiced her new material with nods to a past that treated her more than somewhat well for a relatively unknown backup singer “discovered” by Peter Gabriel.
With closure comes freedom — and, in Cole’s case, an album that gathers not only some of her best songwriting ever but also her at-times awesome ability to deliver it.
Getting personal, as she’ll often do, she sang lyrics unabashedly aimed at her ex: “Thank you for the laughter. Thank you for the tears. Thank you for my daughter….”
She followed that with the heartbreaking “Happy Home,” a tune from years past that Cole said opened a rift between her and her mom that eventually was healed, allowing her to sing it again:“Sacrified her dreams to motherhood / Waiting and waiting to be fully understood / Sacrificed her years to family / Waiting and waiting to be heard finally.”
Cole’s daughter, Sky, was with her grandmother Tuesday night as her mom plied her trade, belting with a Joplin-esque passion (and I’m not talking about Scott), cradling other songs gently, and bopping around the stage like she was home listening to a dance mix.
She actually goes home tomorrow night to play Boston’s Berklee College of Music. It most likely will be an evening as emotional as tonight’s performance of “Me,“ which left Cole — and many in the audience — wiping away tears.
After all, she’ll be living the dream of “Ithaca,” named for the island that Odysseus finally came home to after a decade of fighting to get there.
“I’m so blessed to have music,” Cole told the crowd, easing back from behind the piano to the front of the stage again, as the show built to a powerful close. She then unleashed a tune as powerful as any she’s ever written, “Comin’ Down,” from her 2007 album, “Courage.”
It was “a cry for help from the subconscious,” she explained. “I was looking at the sheet of paper with the lyrics before I realized that I needed to get it out.”Then, from a place few ever visit within themselves, she sang: “Lord, I’m mistaken in the choices I make / I made me a prison that should’ve been a man.“
The lyrics bent her so far forward that Cole’s raven tresses nearly brushed those sitting up front, as she reached deep, pulled out the pain and presented it as spoils of victory.
Yes, for those wondering, she did “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone” and “I Don’t Want to Wait.” Seven Grammy nominations for 1996’s “This Fire” pretty much make both songs mandatory.
But for the first time since they helped unleash her extraordinary gifts on popular culture, Paula Cole has other songs as worthy of attention — if not more so. For the first time, those sweet songs from nearly 15 years gone are jukebox trinkets that, in contrast, throw soft light on the more powerful new material.
Before she left the City Winery stage with a soulful version of “Jolene,” all doubts — hers and, if so, ours — were gone. Cole had become the pearl.
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