Folk singer-songwriter Susan Werner appeared for one night only Friday at the trendy Cabaret at the Columbia Club and lived up completely to the title “the empress of the unexpected,” a description given her by NPR. Accompanied by percussionist and harmonica player Trina Hamlin, a noted folk rock singer-songwriter in her own right, Werner performed mostly her own compositions from the sixteen albums she has recorded to a packed Crystal Terrace room
Werner, a classically trained singer, played acoustic guitar and piano as she sang her original tunes which showcased her ability to switch effortlessly between folk, jazz, pop, gospel and even a little light opera.
The self-effacing Werner, a native of Manchester, Iowa, projected a Midwest appeal as she proved herself to be a consummate story teller by singing songs about the human experience. With a sparkle in her eye, the tongue in cheek comedian also shared anecdotes and stories that reflected her quirky sense of humor. One had to do with her brother the drag queen, who called herself Anita Mann, winning the Miss Southeast Minnesota pageant (a drag competition), a feat Werner claimed “was not that hard to do.”
During Act 1, Werner, playing an acoustic guitar, sang three songs which spoke to her rural upbringing (she grew up on a hog farm) which she is obviously proud of as a farming advocate. They included, “Back to the Land” along with “City Kids,” “Egg Money” and “Amish,” all three of which reflected her sardonic, irreverent wit.
The lyrics "don't work with your friends, don't sleep with the boss, don't hire your wife, don't count on your kin" were included in “Don’t Work With Your Friends,” which further illustrated her talent and penchant for writing songs that are bitingly funny but thought provoking at the same time.
Werner, this time playing a piano, opened Act 2 with “Chicago Any Day,” an affectionate tribute to the city in which she resides, with references to Studs Terkel, the Field Museum, Grant Park and the Cubs. If “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)”, weren’t so iconic, Werner’s valentine to the Windy City could well be its official song.
“May I Suggest,” a poignant ballad about not taking life for granted with lyrics such as “Of private scenes and brilliant dreams that mesmerize/A lover's trusting smile/A tiny baby's hands/The million stars that fill the turning sky at night/Oh I suggest/Oh I suggest to you/Oh I suggest this is the best part of your life”, reflected Werner’s brilliant writing and outstanding musicianship.
Many of Werner’s songs also reflect her political sensibilities. One of her more compelling was “(Why Is Your) Heaven So Small”, a song about religious intolerance.
“Did Trouble Me,” a country/bluegrass/gospel song once recorded by Tom Jones, reinforced Werner’s versatility as she closed her set.
The biggest surprise of the evening, from this “empress of the unexpected” came when she invited Shannon Forsell, a performer herself and the Cabaret’s executive and artistic director, to join her on stage for a duet of “Someone to Watch Over Me.” The look on Forsell’s face revealed that she was totally blindsided by the moment, but with Werner’s encouragement she quickly regained her composure and embraced the opportunity to sing with who she said was one of her favorite performers.
Speaking of versatility, Werner thought she might become an opera singer and even went to graduate school at Temple University with that goal in mind. However, according to an interview she once did, she decided not to pursue a career in opera because she knew she “was not loud enough.” Nevertheless she demonstrated she has the chops to sing that genre when, accompanying herself on the guitar, with Hamlin on guitar, she sang a non-amplified, magical and moving interpretation of Edith Piaf’s signature “La Vie en Rose” during an encore.
Do you wish to become a regular reader of this column? Receive e-mail alerts when new articles are available. Just click on the “Subscribe” button above. Also, "Like" Tom Alvarez on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.