The name Janis Joplin is never mentioned once during Cabaret Oldtown’s new “Sweet Southern Comfort Rock ‘n’ Roll” (perhaps because of a rights question), but Christi Moore does everything in her one-woman revue to resurrect that charismatic, troubled 1960s icon who was once known as the Queen of Psychedelic Soul.
Part of it is the look, from a shaggy, unruly mane that Moore whips and lashes to the pounding beat to the purple hippie tunic over bell-bottoms and bare feet topped with a stringy crocheted vest that completes a then-in-your-face fashion statement.
Part of it is also the choice of music, from the opening featuring Joplin’s almost agonizing “Piece of My Heart” to the closing of the wistfully poignant “Me and Bobby McGee.”
And part of it is attitude, as Moore’s unnamed character unabashedly belts back shots from a bar in the corner between songs and always has an open beer near her fingertips for a quick swig to soothe her throat from the raw power of the music.
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But most of it is her voice – that voice – that takes us undeniably back half a century to a turbulent, rebellious, game-changing, anti-Establishment time of personal expression and exploration.
Moore, whose resume includes lots of traditional music theater, the national tour of “The Wizard of Oz” and several turns with Music Theatre of Wichita, puts her burnished Broadway voice on hold for this performance. Instead, she captures the familiar whiskey growl of a woman who has been around the emotional block (although Moore doesn’t quite capture the raunchy cackle of Joplin’s laugh). Indeed, the subtitle to the show (conceived, written, directed and performed by Moore) is “One Woman’s Journey Through the Emotional Music of the 1960s.”
Backing Moore up is the Cabaret Oldtown Band of Rich Bruhn on keyboards, Ron Smith on guitar, John Probst on bass and Steve Hatfield on drums (posed with Moore on the program cover like a riff on the iconic photo of Joplin and her one-time band, Big Brother and the Holding Company). The amazing thing is that no matter how loud the band plays – and some of it is very loud – Moore is never lost or overwhelmed by the wall of sound. Her strong voice claws its way over the top every time.
“I hope to God you like rock ‘n’ roll,” the singer says with a flip of her hair, giving us fair warning as she grabs a microphone on the tiny stage of what looks like a dingy, intimate, smoke-filled Texas roadhouse (from set designer Monte Wheeler). She saunters provocatively into the audience to banter, flirt, tease and seduce. Moore is quick and witty on her feet in these unscripted moments despite playing someone who is getting drunker and more unpredictable with each song.
Smith is music director for this show, helping Moore choose and arrange – and sometimes duet with her – more than a dozen classic bluesy rock songs that tell a story, not so much in the usual sense of plot but more as an evolution of mood as she works her way through a maze of love and heartbreak.
Her voice wends its way evocatively around lyrics like “These arms of mine are lonely” and “Try a little bit harder” and “You don’t know what it’s like to love somebody like I love you,” not to mention eventually deciding to “Get it while you can.” There are also a few unexpected, but compatible, turns like the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” and Roy Orbison’s “Crying.”
Between songs, she tells of rebelling against parents who wanted her to be a teacher or a clerk or anything respectable, and how she had to leave because she felt her small-minded hometown closing in on her.
“One day, I found out I had a reaaally loud voice and that it was a way to get my feelings out,” she says, adding that “music is like sex – even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty damn good.”
About love, she says: “I’ve been with men who hit, men who steal, men who like other boys. But nothing compares to when they stop loving you.”
Moore never mentions any drug use (Joplin died of a heroin overdose in 1970 at age 27), but she does hint that her character did not get to finish all she might have by abruptly ducking offstage, leaving the band to finish the last song by themselves. It’s a chilling, beautifully subtle, even heart-breaking moment.