“I can’t take it anymore,” Jeanne Marie Boes intoned, hushed and low, standing resolutely behind her electric piano a couple of Fridays ago at the American Folk Art Museum. “All that’s left are roses underfoot.” She wasn’t talking politics: her big theme is heartbreak. And she takes it to the mountaintop, to forbidding heights, Wuthering, Wuthering, Wuthering Heights! Heathcliff, you bastard!
Yet much as Boes can bring the Kate Bush drama, and belt with anyone alive, she has incredible nuance, especially for somebody with such a big voice. As she moved effortlessly if vigorously between blue-eyed soul, brassy cabaret tones, saloon jazz and majestic art-rock, her mic technique wa a dead giveaway, from a close whisper to a distant wail. She may look like a typical sophomore on her way to, say, a Juilliard rehearsal room, but she’s been doing this a long time, starting as a pre-teen singing sensation in her native Queens. And her parents were cool, and encouraged her, and fifteen years down the line, she’s one of the most magnetic singers in town and a strong pianist as well. That song is the title track to her fantastic latest ep Holdin’ My Heart, streaming at her Bandcamp page. She’s probably doing that number along with plenty of others from a pretty deep catalog at LIC Bar on Nov 30 at 7 PM, where she’s opening for a drummer who used to play for Billy Joel and whose leadfoot thump has been sampled on a million hip-hop joints over the years.
“Look me in the eye, all I see is black,” was Boes’ opening line in the luridly desperate Strangers, which she took all the way up to an unexpectedly amusing trick ending. “Every time I fall in love, I fall hard,” she admitted as she opened The One, the ep’s darkly chromatic, suspensefully pulsing first track, part noir cabaret, part oldschool 60s soul, part towering Alan Parsons Project symphonic rock ballad.
Yet as much as she loves minor keys – there’s Chopin, and Tschaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff lurking behind her fingers – and as much raw pain as there is in her tales of abandonment and loss, she doesn’t come across as a sad person at all. In between songs, she smiled and chatted with the crowd, unselfconscious and down to earth, hardly the diva you might expect after hearing her reach for the rafters and hold on for dear life. And that sense of humor came across in a couple of coy soul ballads that wouldn’t have been out of place in, say, the Bettye Swan songbook. Fun fact: onstage, Boes always rocks a hat. Has she ever been seen without one? Go to the show in Queens and find out.
Boes is typical of the acts that impresario Lara Ewen – a first-rate songstress herself – books for the free Friday evening series at the Folk Art Museum, arguably Manhattan’s best remaining listening room. The next show there is Dec 2 starting at 5:30 PM with the rousingly rustic guy-girl harmonies of the Piedmont Bluz duo.