Rachel Anne Warren opens her heart at the Ottobar
A few years ago, Gunwife Gone were one of the most unique and refreshing live bands in Baltimore, and they never really got their due or released an album (they still play shows now and again — apparently one is coming this Halloween). So it was exciting to hear that frontwoman Rachel Anne Warren would be debuting a new stage show, A Pulp Cabaret, at the Ottobar this past Friday. Her aesthetic as a solo artist, a mix of glitzy camp and openhearted sentimentalism, is much the same as with her band. But the level of showmanship was turned way up, and the repertoire was a tapestry of cover songs, spanning decades and woven together into a loose narrative, or at least an evocative emotional arc.
Over the course of two hours, Warren was backed by a crack five-piece backing band, and occasionally joined by two dancers and Gunwife Gone saxophonist Tiffany Defoe. She wasn’t performing that entire time — there was one intermission, as well as several pauses to allow for costume changes and, at times, technical difficulties. Warren changed dresses and wigs between pretty much every song: she was a nurse for Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” and a flight attendant for The Carpenters’ “Superstar,” but more often simply donned a different glamorous gown and brightly colored hairdo.
The projection screen behind the singer aired a different prepared video for each song, some of them simple atmospheric visuals and some more involved thematic pieces. During a rendition of John Waite’s “Missin’ You,” a web browser pulled up Craigslist to created a Missed Connections entry, and then typed in the words of the song as Warren sang them. Nina Simone’s “Sugar In My Bowl” was accompanied by an elaborate presentation including props, signs, and a commercial starring Warren for an imaginary cereal called ‘Lonely O’s.’ The aforementioned technical difficulties involved in such an intricate affair occasionally held things up for a few minutes at a time, but the momentum was never lost and Warren stayed in the audience’s good graces.
Through all the costumes and diverse song selections, Rachel Anne Warren was the constant. Her taste, her sense of humor, and most importantly her voice tied the evening together as an individual statement nearly on the level of Gunwife Gone’s original songs. Not many singers, after all, can handle The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” Bjork’s “Joga” with equal aplomb. But “I Feel Love” by the late Donna Summer felt oddly anticlimactic; the song was accompanied by some of the most impressive visual effects of the night, including blinking lights on Warren’s dress, but the short performance came across muted and insubstantial, especially for a song that runs 8 minutes in its definitive version. Of course, when taking on such a disparate array of great songs, the odds are nobody would be able to knock them all out of the park, and in that light Warren had a pretty impressive batting average.