Friday night’s gig at The Stone was pivotal. The Stone can be found online and on the corner of Avenue C and Second Street, in a brick building that looks abandoned but has its name in discreet letters on the glass door. It is a project of John Zorn’s, featuring artists chosen by other artists. There are no drinks or souvenir T-shirts for sale at the Stone: only a piano and a few rows of folding chairs and a few more folding chairs onstage behind the piano. Also onstage is a big white box that I took for some kind of backstage storage area. When Dee appeared, to warm applause, she looked baffled. “Oh, you thought I was making my entrance,” she said, laughing. “I’m only going to the bathroom.” And she proceeded to open the door of the big white box and go inside. The audience applauded again when she emerged from the bathroom, and a third time when she made her real entrance.
For this performance, Dee was joined by Matthew Robinson on cello, Emmett Kelly on guitar, and Maxim Moston on violin and mandolin. Maxim did the arrangements for the new CD, “A Book of Songs for Anne Marie,” and Dee began with a few of those songs: “Lilacs” and “Set Me as a Seal On Your Heart.” She also did one she had done the night before, “As Morning Holds a Star,” which I felt I’d never heard properly before. It is available only on “Baby Dee Live in Turin,” so I guess I’ve never seen the lyrics printed out. And, as promised, she did two slug songs: “Regifting of the Light” and “Brother Slug and Sister Snail.” I wonder if Dee is preparing for reincarnation as a slug.
Then Dee introduced a special guest, Aimee Curl, the folksinger who had sung “Small Wonder” at Joe’s Pub the night before. At the Stone she played guitar and sang what she said was one of her favorites, “The Robin’s Tiny Throat.” A friend who went with me said later that she had been watching Dee watch Aimee, and that Dee was beaming. Aimee is right: this is a beautiful song, and one that explains a lot about why Dee is out there singing.
Next Dee and Matthew played some of the music that they recorded this winter for a new new album. Dee calls it classical music for cowboys with cowboy-hat hair. (She was disappointed, incidentally, that more of her fans did not turn up with hat hair.) Dee has been inspired by having at her disposal a magnificent Steinway concert grand Model D, which belongs to Andrew W.K. (The piano could not be moved into Andrew’s high-rise apartment without one of those cranes which were needed to build the high-rise in the first place, so he lent it to Dee, who has it in the dining room of her house in Cleveland.) I don’t have any way of talking about this music, except to say that I liked it. It has a distinct structure, and it is humorous. It put me in mind of Beethoven in his lighter moments.
The room was packed: all the chairs were filled and people were sitting in the aisle. Frankky Lou Hightower and her mother were seated in the front row. Dee did her encore before leaving the stage. There is nothing in show business quite so excruciating as that moment when, who knows, maybe the audience has had enough, but the performer has to gauge the length and sincerity of the applause before either returning to the stage or holding out to leave them wanting more. The encore was a rousing version of The Pie Song, of course.
Outside, I spotted Maxim Moston, carrying his mandolin and with his violin case strapped on his back. He is Russian, and has a noble profile. I’m sure I was not the only one in the audience who was eyeballing him, but I know I was the only one who went up to him afterward and tried to thank him for his contributions to Dee’s recordings, but instead blurted out something about the mandolin, of all things. I felt like I was channelling my mother. I understand that Maxim has done arrangements of Dee's work for whole orchestras. All Dee needs is the orchestra.
This show at the Stone is probably representative of what Dee will be playing on the tour: some old songs and some new ones, lots of piano, and various combinations of strings. And plenty of renditions of Pie.