Singer/songwriter Paula Cole’s musical and personal journey has been a long, sometimes painful hejira.
Paula Cole. At the Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport, MA, August 23.
By Glenn Rifkin.
Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again, but no one told Paula Cole. The Rockport, MA native and Grammy-winning singer/songwriter came home both literally and figuratively, and when she stepped on the stage at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in scenic downtown Rockport last night, the roar from the crowd was a warm embrace for the sensitive Cole.
Cole’s musical and personal journey has been a long, sometimes painful hejira. The Berklee College of Music grad skyrocketed to fame in the ‘90s with two huge hits “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone” and “I Don’t Want to Wait.” By 1997 she had earned nominations for seven Grammy Awards, including Producer of the Year and Album of the Year. After releasing her third album Amen in 1999, she abruptly exited the business for the birth of her daughter Sky. Eight years and a deeply painful divorce later, she made several attempts to jumpstart her career.
In 2008, while grappling with the end of her marriage, she returned to Rockport and settled into comfortable, familiar surroundings. Fed up with the frustrating machinations of the music industry, she decided to eliminate the middleman, and in 2012, she crowdfunded her latest CD Raven via a Kickstarter campaign.
On the Shalin Liu stage, clad all in black, Cole took the supportive crowd through a mix of the old and the new. Accompanied by her long-time percussionist and producing partner Ben Wittman and a talented,recent Berklee grad from Italy, Noe Socha, on guitar, Cole excited the audience with one demo after another of her powerful and unusual vocal abilities. Her swirling vocals, which sweep across many registers, often feel like screams of anguish and despair. Most of her songs are paeans to broken hearts and lost lovers.
During “Billy Joe” (one of several tunes she performed from the new CD), she says that “I’m just a girl who can’t say no.” In its emotionally raw lyrics, Cole explores her personal struggles without apology, as they were throughout the set. On “Strong, Beautiful Woman” she gives herself a pep talk that reflects her struggle to find self-fulfillment and acceptance. “Strong, beautiful woman, do so don’t let the world get you down, Look within yourself and remember who you are.”
On “Manitoba,” another Raven offering, she sings of “the bleakness, the cold eye of ice in you, Tundra-heart, you banish all memories, all feeling, You’re a distant cold-shoulder, I’m reeling. Oh, we’re as dead as doors, we’re as dead as ashes.”
Yeah, bleak stuff, and yet the evening was anything but a downer. Cole’s infectious energy and high spirits had the Shalin Liu crowd, many of whom were friends and family, snapping their fingers and singing along to familiar hits. At times sounding faintly like Laura Nyro, she juxtaposed the sweet and the raw to brilliant effect. She did a stirring version of Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By” and roused the crowd with frenetic versions of both of her ’90′s hits during the second half of the show.
Her moving tribute to her grandfather, “I Don’t Want to Wait,” was a highlight, as was a stirring drum solo by Wittman and an even more passionate harmonica and guitar performance by the vision-impaired Socha. Cole finished up with a tribute to Dolly Parton with “Jolene,” and the crowd jumped to its feet demanding more. Quite an evening, and the best part for Cole is that she could walk home after the show.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic represent a new and exciting direction.