Paula Cole at City Winery

On a damp, rainy Sunday evening (May 1, 2016), Paula Cole's fans packed into NYC's cozy City Winery, a performance space known for its food and how intimately it allows the audience to engage with its performer. There is not a better space for Paula Cole, whose personal approach to performance fills such a space with warmth, energy, and gratitude. 

Last night's concert celebrated the 20th anniversary of Cole's break-through record, This Fire, which was recorded in a studio only a few blocks from the venue. Though tracks from that seminal album occupied most of the night, the singer/songwriter created a diverse set list around those tracks to show the range of her career and back catalog. When she stepped out on stage, she looked beautiful in an understated black blouse, black slacks, and short-clipped hair. She was accompanied by a small ensemble, including percussion, upright bass, and guitar. Her backup musicians are accomplished in their own right, and she graciously introduced all three men early in the set.

The set list had two movements. The first worked as a mini-summary of her work outside of This Fire, starting with two excellent tracks from her most recent album 7 ("Chickadees (And Sipping Tea)" and "New York City"), and a performance of "Rhythm of Life" from Amen, which emphasized the song's jazz influences and featured a mesmerizing improv section. She also performed an excellent Bob Dylan cover, before which she made the exciting announcement that she will be starting a new Kickstarter campaign to fund the recording of her first covers record--a project she envisions as a mix of jazz standards and Americana. "Bethlehem" was the last tune from the first movement; originally recorded for Cole's debut, Harbinger, the song worked as a bridge into This Fire, namely because it is referenced in Fire's opening track, "Tiger."

Paula Cole then launched into a tour de force track-by-track performance of This Fire. Every song maintained its craft and youthful energy, while also showing that Cole has become an even better vocalist over time. Prior to this concert, I saw her perform at a 2010 concert in St Louis; she sounded wonderful then, but she sounds even better know. Though some singers seem to lose range or tone as they age, Paula Cole has become a more fine-tuned vocalist. For example, she easily moved from the strident "Tiger," to the cheeky satire of hit "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone," to the anger of "Throwing Stones," and then the sweet romance of "Carmen" (and on through the whole album). Because This Fire moves from aggressive to introspective and back again throughout its track-list, Cole consistently and confidently changed moods. She is a great talent, and she seemed to enjoy the vocal challenges presented by the material.

As I said in a previous post, every track on This Fire is a gem, but the highlights from the album in last night's performance included an energetic version of "Mississippi" (Cole threw her leg up on the piano as she played at one point), an intimate, moving performance of "Me," a gentle delivery of "Hush, Hush, Hush," and a sing-along with the audience on "I Don't Want to Wait."

It was a stunning performance and she received a much-deserved standing ovation. For her encore, she performed her much-lauded cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene," which concluded with Cole beat-boxing. At one point during her beat-box performance, she  paused, tipped her head back ,and smiled in delight. It was a moment that captured what is best about Paula Cole because she's a musician of exceptional talent that has brought her great success, and her obvious joy for music continues to reward her and her fans. I am excited to hear all the great music she has in store for us.

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