by Whit Hill
Last fall I got a call to play an opening slot at a really nice music series in Royal Oak. I jumped at the chance for the usual reasons. But one reason outshone them all: I could maybe, just maybe, meet the featured act, folk diva Cheryl Wheeler.
I've watched and admired Wheeler for years at various festivals. As much as this is possible while wearing a rumpled T-shirt and pants, she positively shone as MC of the 2006 Ann Arbor Folk Festival, flitting from deadpan skewering of fundamentalist Christians to warm, evocative songs about deep, true love and back to stories about brassieres with utter fluidity and grace. Here was my chance to watch her act up close, to ask her some questions, and, quite possibly, to thoroughly embarrass myself.
The thing about opening for Cheryl Wheeler is the conundrum about funny and clever songs: to do, or not to do. It doesn't really matter how funny and clever your songs are; if you sing them before Cheryl Wheeler takes the stage well, let's just say that my funny and clever songs, such as they are, cowered like damp kittens in the back of my throat. I finished my set and left the stage.
After intermission, I found a seat in the back row and settled in for some quality Wheeler time. This Massachusetts-based singer-songwriter-comedian has spent decades fine-tuning her niche in the folk world; the result is an act that masterfully blends blisteringly on-target observational humor, simple storytelling, gorgeous guitar work, and beautiful, rich songs.
There's no "show" it's just Wheeler, being herself. She talked about having an in-ground swimming pool installed at her home and the surprising tip she read in a magazine for looking slim in
a bathing suit. A lesbian, she talked about how much it meant for her to be able to marry her longtime partner. There was, of course, a good bit of delicious discussion about right-wing
ideology, and there were stories about her beloved dogs. There was a sweet song about her father, another one about her lover, and (I'd hoped she'd sing this) "Potato" a true tour de force of syllabic stress-play, sung to what I believe is the Mexican Hat Dance. It was a remarkable, intelligent, soulful show.
The audience soaked it up and begged for more, but Wheeler's a no-nonsense gal, and when she was done, she was done. I wanted to meet her more than ever, but in the throng of the lobby, I was overcome with shyness. From the parking lot, I saw her quickstep to her nondescript sedan and climb inside. Then she pulled right up to me to turn around. Here was my chance. . . . Our eyes met. But this little opening act just smiled and said nothing, and Cheryl Wheeler drove away.
Cheryl Wheeler is at the Ark Thursday, April 12.
[Review published April 2007]