Kati Neiheisel
Yesterday… Once More
Oct 30, 2021
Pangea

by Jennie Litt

It seemed like “Yesterday… Once More,” listening to the mellow-voiced Kati Neiheisel take on the Karen Carpenter songbook at Pangea in her tribute show of the same title, backed by MD/arranger Gregory Toroian on piano, Skip Ward on bass, and David Silliman on drums.

The sumptuous arrangements encompassed everything from greatest hits (“We’ve Only Just Begun,” (Nichols/Williams) “Top of the World,” (Carpenter/Bettis) “(They Long To Be) Close To You” (Bacharach/David) to more boutique cuts (“All I Can Do,” (Carpenter/Bettis) “Sometimes” (Mancini/Mancini) to commercial jingles that utilized Karen Carpenter’s instantly recognizable sound to push sales of potato chips, chocolate, and Japanese melon-flavored sodapop.

The material was a natural fit for Neiheisel’s gentle, likable presence and warm, unforced alto. As a sheerly musical experience, it was like bathing in a moonlit pool of warm vanilla custard—sweet and soothing, with no sharp edges. There were even times when, with eyes closed, one could imagine it was Carpenter herself singing, so closely does Neiheisel’s natural gift align with that of the deceased diva. Was she deliberately imitating the original? Or was it the natural result of two similar voices interpreting the same material?

The band was tight, and delicious, with spectacular arrangements by Toroian, who reimagined Carpenter’s iconic hits with new harmonies, rhythms, tempi, and figurations. The trio of Toroian, Ward, and Silliman created a rich and varied tapestry of textures and colors, with titillating excursions into jazz, samba, and lounge, among other styles, all executed with mastery and an infectious pleasure in the sheer act of making music.

In the midst of all this musical richness, however, the singer herself was sometimes overshadowed. She maintained a steady mezzo-forte, which at times was still not enough to cut through the band’s sound. Whether the fault of acoustics or technology within the Pangea sound system, the unvaryingness of sound failed to serve her in other ways as well. In Toroian’s arrangement of “Superstar” (Russell/Bramlett), a swooning, arpeggiated A section alternated with a sharper, percussive B section that Neiheisel failed to differentiate vocally—and therefore interpretively. In fact, it seemed a number of times during the set that Neiheisel was not in the driver’s seat, struggling to rise to the interpretive level suggested by the sheer distinctiveness of the arrangements. Additionally, her patter failed to shed light on Carpenter the artist, or the person, or even her own purpose in presenting a set of songs originally recorded by Karen Carpenter beyond the fact that she remembered them nostalgically from her own childhood.

Neiheisel is more than a merely competent singer; she has a lovely, gentle instrument that seems part and parcel of her lovely, gentle presence. She sings with taste. It would be lovely to see her take the stage with just a pianist or perhaps a guitarist as instrumental collaborator, someone with a delicate touch who can showcase her gifts without overwhelming them. At the same time, she should be encouraged to take more emotional risks as a interpretive performer—to dare to be a more expressive singer, and to delve deeper into her patter writing, revealing the unique, authentic sensibility hiding behind the shy, anodyne front which Neiheisel presents to the world.

Lina Koutrakos directed.

There are two more opportunites to see Kati Neiheisel in “Yesterday … Once More” at Pangea:
Tuesday, November 16 at 7 p.m., and Sunday, December 5 at 1 p.m.

Pangea Restaurant and Bar
178 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10003
(212) 995-0900