REVIEW: Lena Hall at the Cafe Carlyle: A "B-Side Kind of Girl"

Written by | Miscellaneous

Lena Hall brings her big voice from Hedwig to an intimate set at Cafe Carlyle.

By Paul Hagen

photo by Michael Wilhoite

Mere days after relinquishing her gender-bending, Tony-winning turn as Yitzhak in Broadway’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Lena Hall debuted her show at the Cafe Carlyle on Tuesday, April 7 with a set that may be the most rock ‘n’ roll to ever shake the hallowed space (which is better known for hosting dates with Broadway royalty like Elaine Stritch and the jazz stylings of Woody Allen). Hall was aware of the unexpected nature of the set, offering explanations like, “They told me to sing what I wanted to sing!” and “That may be the first rap ever performed at Cafe Carlyle, but we’ll have to check those stats.”

Though some of her between-song banter may have had the air of apology for these unorthodox choices, there was nothing apologetic about the way she tore up her eclectic playlist — bringing her huge voice to bear on a lineup of songs that included a gritty take on Tori Amos’s “God,” a soulfully slowed-down “Psycho Killer,” and an “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” that nearly ripped the roof off the place. There was also room for decidedly modern tracks, including an adrenaline-infusion in the form of Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl,” Hozier’s recently-ubiquitous “Take Me to the Church” and Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope” (which featured the aforementioned rap, performed by one of her particularly handsome and talented foursome of musicians).

Hall’s voice is almost unbelievable — full of power but controlled and possessing the colorful rasp one might not expect from such a youthful performer. I found myself smiling at the incongruity of her following up rafter-shakers with a sweet little giggle or a comment like “I spilled water on my Zac Posen – don’t tell him!” Indeed, she looked beautiful in that pink-flower-covered dress, with more big white flowers pinned in her hair — perhaps a nod to Billie Holiday, as Hall’s opening night was the centenary of Lady Day’s birth.

Late in the performance, Hall lamented that she was about to sing a very difficult song that, perhaps, she should have sung earlier in the evening for the sake of her voice. It was an Elton John number, she explained, but perhaps not one the audience recognize as it was more of a B-side. “But I’m a B-side kind of girl,” Hall explained – and then sang the living daylights out of it.

Perhaps Hall’s most telling statement came early in the evening, as she first addressed the fact that she would not be doing a more traditional menu of standards and show tunes, when she said, “But I’m Lena Hall; so I do what I want.” She certainly is, she certainly does, and – wow – does she do it well.

photo by Michael Wilhoite

Lena Hall appears at Cafe Carlyle through April 18. Click here for reservations, and follow Lena at @LenaRockerHall.

Last modified: July 27, 2017