A tornado in the form of Karen Irwin touched down Friday at the Cabaret at the Columbia Club during “Karen Irwin: A Piece of Her Heart: A Tribute to Janis Joplin.” Her appearance was the first of a two day engagement which saw the singer brought back by popular demand after her sold out shows this same time last year.
Indianapolis native Irwin is best known for roles she’s played at Phoenix Theatre, her years in karaoke as Karenoke DJ and her turn as lead singer of Karen and The Beast, a blues band.
Accompanying Irwin was her very fine band consisting of Sean Baker on piano, Bryan Van Vlyman on bass, Alex VanBergeijk on drums and Erich Anderson on guitar.
Irwin possesses the same raspy, husky quality that Joplin has, sounding very much like the music icon, both in her speaking and singing voice. As she stated in a previous interview, Irwin does not seek to mimic Joplin but pay homage to her. It was clear during her show that rather than singing Joplin’s most well-known songs note for note, Irwin definitely put her own spin on them for the full house crowd with whom she clearly connected.
Included in the show’s first act were “Mercedes Benz,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Ball and Chain” (which showed off the extraordinary abilities of guitarist Anderson during a solo), “Try,” “Little Girl Blue,” “Get it While you Can” and “Turtle Blues.”
Irwin screamed, growled, wailed and shrieked song lyrics as she exhorted the deep emotional content from Joplin’s songs, much like her idol did while interpreting the blues, all the while moving about the stage like a woman possessed. With and hands and arms flailing in the air, head shaking, legs kicking and even occasionally flinging herself to the floor of the stage, Irwin could have come off as a Joplin caricature but instead demonstrated that she, like Janis, is capable of losing herself in music and singing with every fiber of her being.
“Move Over,” “Bye, Bye Baby,” “Down On Me” and “Piece of My Heart” were Joplin songs Irwin performed during Act 2 Admitting that she wasn't sure she had anything left to give, Irwin nevertheless managed to pull out all the stops when she sang "Cry Baby" as her encore.
Joplin, who died from a heroin overdose at the age of 27, regularly performed while impaired on alcohol and pot. Irwin on the other hand only drank bottled water as she delivered a performance that presumably left her exhausted, such was the amazingly high level of energy she maintained throughout.
In between songs Irwin displayed a candid sense of humor, as she shared facts and information regarding Joplin’s life, such as her unhappy adolescence, addictions, and her other vulnerabilities. She also commented about those female blues singers such as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Big Mamma Thornton who Joplin regarded as her influences. Sprinkled throughout Irwin’s comments were details about her own life, crediting Joplin for the influence she had on her and other female singers such as Melissa Etherege, Pink, and Stevie Nicks, who are, in fact, the rock legend’s legacy.
In the end, Irwin’s performance reflected an artist with formidable vocal skills, and, like Joplin, a larger than life personality with charisma and talent uniquely her own.
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