11 February 2017, Saban Theatre, Beverly Hills, CA
This was a sweet, tender, and just slightly odd night. Sweet and tender because of three women whose voices individually and separately are delightful, whose signature songs are weighty and whose humility is endearing. Just a little odd because it was primarily a set list of songs about loss and grief and in the middle of the show the house lights were turned on and audience members were invited to share their own stories of loss and grief, and for that part it became seminar-like and, despite the compassion from the ladies on stage, a little unnerving and long-winded.
Thankfully, it mainly was a music concert. And here were Olivia Newton-John and Beth Nielsen Chapman, whom I’ve known and loved for a long time, and who between them have suffered more than enough loss and illness, and their friend, Canadian songstress Amy Sky, whom I was unaware of until the trio released their Liv On album last year, and who also has some moving personal stories about loss and illness. So the emotional power on stage and in the audience was pretty intense. The themes of grief and gratitude made for some enlightening and uplifting music, and the songs that featured the three voices in perfect unison, like the one that opens their album, “My Heart Goes Out To You”, were quite glorious, especially as their voices are strikingly different, yet melded together seamlessly.
But these are all famous solo artists and most of the songs showcased each singer’s own demeanour and vocal style, with all their interesting inner contrasts. Olivia is demure, but her voice is more powerful than you might ever imagine if you’ve never heard her live. Beth is unaffected but the soulfulness in her music and life experience brings an edge to her live singing that can take you aback. And Amy is the firecracker of the three, her delivery somewhere between rock and gospel, her smile bright enough to light up a big sky. (Pun intended, I guess. It just came off the keyboard as I typed!)
Amazingly, in all my years of Livvy loving, I had never seen an Olivia Newton-John concert. I’d interviewed her back in 1994 when she had made her affecting and underrated Gaia album. And in 2002, after I interviewed the great songwriter and producer John Farrar, mastermind of so many of her earlier successes, for my book Songwriters Speak, he invited me to a party on the Paramount lot in Hollywood to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Grease, and there I witnessed Olivia and John Travolta on stage doing Farrar’s show-stopping “You’re The One That I Want” (ooh ooh ooh honey). But that was all I’d experienced of live Livvy. I’ve never heard her sing “Hopelessly Devoted To You” live or my absolute favourite ONJ song written by Farrar, “A Little More Love”, or any of the earlier songs that made her famous like “Have You Never Been Mellow”. And any hopes I might have had that she would incorporate a handful of those solo hits into this Liv On show were misplaced.
But each of these artists brought a signature song with them that were showstoppers and on their own worth the price of admission. Early in the show was Beth Nielsen Chapman’s life-changing ballad, “Sand and Water”, from her 1997 album of the same name (and re-recorded on the Liv On album). I have a little story about Sand and Water that I will share here. I was visiting Los Angeles that year and a friend took me to a huge second-hand record and CD store as I was looking for albums by another female artist I’d seen perform that week and had newly discovered. As I was paying for those CDs, the guy at the register said, “You know, if you like her, you really should listen to this CD.” And he held up Beth Nielsen Chapman’s Sand and Water. I said, “Thanks, I don’t want to spend any more money today.” So he put Sand and Water in the bag with the other CDs, and said, “Then take it for free. You really should have this album.”
It was one of the best musical gifts anyone ever gave me. I found out that Elton John told Oprah Winfrey on her show that Sand and Water was the album that helped him through the deaths of Gianni Versace and Princess Diana. I found out that Beth had written the album not long after the death of her husband from cancer, leaving her with a young son. Every time I would listen to the lyrics of the title song, especially the third verse that goes, “All alone I heal this heart of sorrow / All alone I raise this child / Flesh and bone he’s just bursting towards tomorrow / And his laughter fills my world and wears your smile”, I would spontaneously start crying. Even without having lost a husband or had a child, I was just so struck by the rawness, the heartbreak, the hope and the joy altogether in four lines.
I got to meet Beth the following year at the Troubadour (the same venue where I had seen the artist a year before whose CDs I was buying, nice symmetry) and shortly after that I was asked to interview her for Performing Songwriter Magazine. We stayed in touch for a while; I found her so inspiring. A few years later Beth got breast cancer. She survived that. Her boy grew up, got married and made Beth a grandmother. Beth remarried. The highs and lows of a life of love and family and music were all there on stage last Saturday night and I loved her and her remarkable song as much as I ever did.
Amy Sky’s special song, among several, is “Phenomenal Woman”, in which she put the lyrics to Dr. Maya Angelou’s poem to music, and her telling the story of how she got permission to do that was another remarkable moment of this concert, as was her performance of it. Amy told us about caring for her dying mother (something I certainly connected with) and her battles with post-partum depression and then hearing her sing brought home the power of music to heal and “Phenomenal Woman” should be compulsory singing for all girls growing up in this scary world, but that’s another story.
And then Olivia sang “I Honestly Love You”, the Peter Allen/Jeff Barry masterpiece. Whenever I hear it I think of the story she told me, and which John Farrar also told me, of their recording it in a rickety little studio in London with the control room suspended from the ceiling, and what an incredible sound they got out of that session. And I had never heard it sung live by Olivia until this show, and “remarkable” doesn’t even begin to cover it. That she sings it as beautifully now, perhaps more so, than she did in 1974, is just a fact. That her life of great highs – triumphs and adulation – has been matched with profound lows – her own breast cancer fight, deaths in her family, divorce and other heartbreak – adds to the depth of sincerity in her face and in her voice, that sweet lovely Livvy voice we have spent most of our lives knowing. For a short time back in 1994 I got to know Olivia and it was special, memorable, delightful. I took my dog to her house and she fed her slices of apple. How can you not love a superstar who feeds apple to your dog? All of this and much more was there in my head and my heart as I watched her sing “I Honestly Love You” so beautifully 43 years after she recorded it.
They sang happy songs, too, like Beth’s “This Kiss” (written with Annie Roboff and Robin Lerner, recorded and made famous by Faith Hill, and which paid for Beth’s son’s college education, she told us), and, interestingly, Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”, which could have been cheesy but was purely exultant. They stood on stage for 90 minutes in basic black with only a guitarist and pianist accompanying them, music stands in front of them, unfussy, unpretentious, gracious and loving. I think the Saban Theatre, although small, was too cavernous for this intimate kind of show. It was so intimate I was left wanting. Wanting to have gone up to them and hugged them each for putting their hearts on their sleeves and being so very lovely. Wanting them to come over and sing their songs for me in my living room. And knowing they’re not likely to do that, wanting to go home and listen to their Liv On album. Which is exactly what a concert tour in support of an album should do. And a week later, I’m still thinking about it, which is what a good concert should also do.
These are the interviews I did with Beth and Olivia some time ago, with links on each page to full transcripts: