Baby Dee at Whelans
The fact that most of the crowd was listening intently to her music did not seem to lift the spirits of Carly Blackman, known to us as Carly Sings. She has herself described her sound as ‘like Leonard Cohen if he was a girl', so a certain amount of darkness is to be expected, but her performance and body language towards the audience in Whelans on Saturday 22 March was verging on hostile. That said, she does look pretty when she's angry. She acknowledged her bad mood to the crowd, a frame of mind at odds with the occasionally light-hearted rambling banter between pop songs with French lyrics she languidly strummed along to on acoustic guitar. Carly Sings walked off the stage without a word at the end of her support slot. We all have bad days at work.
Baby Dee ushered in a different atmosphere, one with a distinct whiff of the circus. Dressed in a Dalmatian-spotted hoodie, with a shock of red hair poking out the top and unfeasibly large hobnail boots laced to the middle, Baby Dee plonked herself down at a keyboard and launched into a tune, after calling to the bar for ‘Lugnuts', the bass player in the band who soon appeared on stage. Hammering at the keys and singing at the top of her voice, then quietly tinkling and whispering, all in the same breath, Baby Dee makes it obvious from the start that she is a performer, at times reminiscent of Tom Waits in his Black Rider days, her voice soaring, rumbling, growling and squeaking. Humour is never far away, with Dee making sure there were not any albinos in the audience, then launching into cabaret with the chorus ‘You just can't keep a good albino down'.
Having been around the New York scene for several decades, she has built up a reputation and lots of friends. Her new album Safe Inside The Day, on the Drag City label, features Bonnie Prince Billy on backing vocals and Andrew WK on drums. Baby Dee has worked with Anthony Hegarty (of Johnsons fame) and their music is comparable in some ways, featuring delicate piano and soaring vocals. The fact that Baby Dee is transgendered is another similarity, although Anthony just dresses up.
Some at the gig had no idea what to expect from the singer, and found it difficult to make sense of the constantly shifting style and vocal ranges. With Baby Dee traditional song structure is briefly but frequently thrown out the window, then picked up and put back together, the glue of the rhythm section holding everything together. The band seemed mesmerised by the spectacle playing alongside them, whose unpredictability kept them on their toes, such as when she played a passage, then told them ‘we're gonna do that again', without anybody missing a beat.
Baby Dee shines on the harp as well as the piano. Unlike Joanna Newsom's instrument, Dee's harp suffers for her art, being frequently struck with an open palm, or played forcefully enough to cause reverb, and ends up rocking out, covered in sweat. Brought to Ireland by the Foggy Notions crew, Baby Dee was a singular treat for live music fans.