Show Review: Karen Elson at Café Du Nord, 6/8

by Jason LeRoy on June 9, 2010

Photo by David Emery

Last night, supermodel/singer/rock-n-roll wife Karen Elson kicked off the opening night of her very first tour with a sold-out concert at Café Du Nord. When I learned that the show was sold out, I was intrigued. Why was the interest in Ms. Elson already so piqued? After all, she has but a single album to her name, The Ghost Who Walks (Third Man), which was produced by Elson’s husband, Jack White, and just came out on May 25. The buzz has been modestly positive, if not hyperbolic.

So who were all these fans and looky-loos? Were they committed White Stripes fans whose enthusiasm for the group extends even to its spouses? Or was it a decidedly stranger subculture of model-turned-singer fetishists resentful that Tyra Banks’ “Shake Your Body” and Naomi Campbell’s Baby Woman never took off stateside? Or maybe, like me, they were just your garden variety redheaded-girl-singer fans.

Regardless, Ms. Elson and her band certainly took their time getting on stage. I arrived at the venue around 10pm and positioned myself in the exact same spot for the next 45 minutes, trying not to get stuck behind a towering Jewfro in front of me and watching scruffy men in matching black suits saunter casually about on the stage every few minutes; the dramatic highlight of this was when one of them tied a scarf to the mic stand. Obviously this portended an unexpected Steven Tyler cameo, so excitement ensued.

But no, it was just a piece of flare for Ms. Elson, who finally began the show around 10:50. Despite the inordinately long time we’d been kept waiting, Ms. Elson strolled cheerfully onto the stage as though she were Jill Zarin blithely crashing Ramona’s vacation in the Virgin Islands. Would we hold her accountable for starting her show around the time most weeknight concerts would be ending? Or would we forgive this behavior just because she’s pretty?

Well, prettiness won out once again. The instant that Ms. Elson (and her cheekbones), ravishing in a Baby Jane-ish vintage dress with perfect hair and makeup (and have I mentioned her cheekbones?), stood in front of the crowd, we collectively fell victim to an overwhelming instinct to adore her. And why not? While it is always tempting to criticize models when they attempt breaking into another medium, Ms. Elson has actually been working in music for a good portion of her career; in addition to contributing vocals for the likes of Robert Plant and Cat Power, she is one of the founding members of New York City-based art and music collective The Citizens Band.

Furthermore, there is something strangely honest about a supermodel becoming a singer or an actor. After all, most singers and actors are already suspiciously attractive, are they not? And singers and actors frequently dabble in modeling, whether becoming the face of an ad campaign or shooting a fashion spread for a magazine. So, far be it from me to belittle Ms. Elson’s musical aspirations. She certainly has a most impressive producer/collaborator in her husband, who has shaped her debut LP into a moody, dark, languid collection of murder ballads and melodic Americana. And Elson’s vocal skills are certainly competent; she can recall singers from Loretta Lynn to Martha Wainwright, and is mostly reminiscent of Aussie country sensation Kasey Chambers.

So, how was the show? Well…it was definitely her first night. Ms. Elson appeared to be a bundle of nerves from beginning to end, punctuating each of her between-song comments with sharply nervous laughter and attempts to calm down with sips of white wine (“I’m away from the kids, so why not?” she said, in reference to the two young children she has with White). She is obviously still adapting to singing onstage and interacting with the audience.

It was somewhat disarming to see someone so vulnerable to the crowd’s comments, without the professionally impenetrable barriers maintained by most touring musicians. All one needed to do to get her attention was yell “Miss Elson?”, as one man learned when he inquired who she “favored in the World Cup.” Her banter, as she joked about several times, needs some work. When she wasn’t  giving each song a lengthy prologue (or chastising herself for doing so), she was accidentally starting fights in the crowd. For instance, the following exchange:

Karen: “So, uh…tell me something I don’t know about San Francisco!”

Person 1: “It has the best food in the world!” (which: oh, come on.)

Karen: “Yes! I’ve, um…yes!”

Person 2: “Not pizza, though.”

Karen: “Pardon?”

Person 3: “What the fuck are you talking about, our pizza is amazing!”

Person 2: “Burritos. We have great burritos. Not pizza.”

Karen: “Pardon?”

Person 3: “You’re fucking crazy! OUR PIZZA IS AMAZING!”

Person 2: “No. It isn’t.”

Karen: “Okay!”

So, her crowd control is certainly in question. Fortunately she stuffed her 70-minute set with enough album and non-album material to keep the crowd mostly lulled into contentment. In addition to such standout album tracks as “The Ghost Who Walks,” “The Truth is in the Dirt,” “The Birds They Circle,” and “100 Years From Now” (which she noted had begun as a Citizens Band track), she also did a cover of Sandy Denny’s “Milk and Honey,” and a well-received closing cover of “Season of the Witch.”

And despite her nerves, she seemed in good shape vocally, and was supported by an incredible band featuring none other than Jackson “Son of Patti and Fred Sonic” Smith, who is himself married to Meg White. So, we were treated to not one but both White Stripes spouses on one stage. Which makes them…The White Spouses? The Wife Stripes? Nope. I got nuthin’.

Click here to see the remainder of Ms. Elson’s tour schedule.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Caroline June 10, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Who knew her album would be so good. I love spooky red-headed women!


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