Spencer Day: Western Standard Time

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Spencer Day 

Western Standard Time 

Feinstein’s at the Nikko, San Francisco, CA, August 19, 2016 

Reviewed by Steve Murray for Cabaret Scenes

Spencer-Day-Cabaret-Scenes-Magazine_212Spencer Day apologized for a croaky voice early into the first few songs of his sold-out show, but he needn’t have. Spencer Day with a head cold is 99% better than most performers and, by my math, that makes him one of the 1%—a talent rare that he transcends mortal discomforts. What makes Day so special would be evident over the course of his show, the majority comprising a decade-by-decade hit parade displaying his considerable musical acumen. 

Moving in reverse chronological order, Day offered a glimpse into the Golden Age of musical history, each decade providing glimpses into the psyche of its inhabitants. Armed with witty quips about the reality of the decade, Day takes each selection and re-interprets it through the prism of his unique style, playing with the melody, phrasing and tempos. Examples of his approach are found in covers of Don Henley/Mike Campbell’s torch song “The Boys of Summer” and a rockabilly  number recorded by Led Zeppelin: “Rock and Roll.” The latter, a standard 12-bar blues, is transformed into a bouncy, upbeat, Django Reinhardt-esque tune enhanced by some fine jazz guitar work by L.A. session guitarist John Storie.  

From the 1960s, Day chooses to rework The Turtles’ hit “Happy Together,” adjusting the tempo and original phrasing into a totally Day creation. Such is his gift: manipulating popular songs into poly-influenced style that bridges the boundaries among pop, jazz, R&B and funk. He accompanies himself on acoustic guitar for a lovely rendition of the 1960s hit “The End of the World” (Arthur Kent and Sylvia Dee). The band—Storie on guitars, Jason Slota on drums and Daniel Fabricant—gets a chance to let loose on a country version of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” “Angel Eyes,” a popular jazz standard written by Matt Dennis and Earl Brent, is one of the best of the saloon songs, showcases Day’s handsome baritone. 

Traveling through 100 years of American music is effortless for Day, whose musical insight belies his young age. Leaving the time travel theme behind, he played a selection of his original songs, and this is where he transcends cabaret crooner to the rarefied strata of brilliant writers who define their eras and leave lasting examples of timeless material. I’m on record saying Day is writing the modern Great American Songbook, and I continue in that belief. One only need listen to “Till You Come to Me” and “The Mystery of You” to understand his great gift: creating smart, moody, film noir-type vignettes buoyed by complicated, lush orchestrations. 

A suite from his Vagabond release—“Weeping Willow”/”Joe”/”Vagabond”—merges his influences from Porter and the Gershwins to modern songwriting masters like Rufus Wainwright, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Paul McCartney. His wit and humor are displayed on his deliciously wicked “Mary Lincoln’s Last Night Out,” an outtake from a proposed show based on famous women in history. Mary asks, “What’s the worst that can happen?,” regarding a much-needed night out at the Ford Theatre. “Somewhere on the Other Side” and “I’m Going Home” are highly personal tales of breaking through despair and the gratitude of self-acceptance. They’re remarkably mature works of art and beautifully emotionally raw compositions. Any one of these songs by any other artist would be a major achievement. That Day has written them all, and that they are just a taste of his vast original material, speaks volumes.

Steve Murray

Always interested in the arts, Steve was encouraged to begin producing and, in 1998, staged four, one-man vehicles starring San Francisco's most gifted performers. In 1999, he began the Viva Variety series, a live stage show with a threefold mission to highlight, support, and encourage gay and gay-friendly art in all the performance forms, to entertain and document the shows, and to contribute to the community by donating proceeds to local non-profits. The shows utilized the old variety show style popularized by his childhood idol Ed Sullivan. He’s produced over 150 successful shows, including parodies of Bette Davis’s gothic melodramedy Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte and Joan Crawford’s very awful Trog. He joined Cabaret Scenes 2007 and enjoys the writing and relationships he’s built with very talented performers.