With her pathos-deep contralto somewhere between a yodel and a croon, Patsy Cline delivered indelible songs about never being satisfied with the one you’re with — or never being with the one who satisfies you. She didn’t write the tunes (except for a couple), but she made them, exhaling them full of desire and sorrow. Almost 50 years after the Nashville legend died in a plane crash, with a mere three decades under her belt, her cheating-heart recordings are still jukebox classics today, and an all-star line-up including the Living Sisters, John C. Reilly, Zooey Deschanel, and others came out to Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Hall on May 7 to honor the country legend’s classic songbook.
“I’m glad you’re all holding it together,” X’s John Doe semi-joked to the full house, near the end of a 90-minute revue that paid pitch-perfect tribute to Patsy’s perfect-pitch talent while too often missing the ass-kicking soul of her songs. Doe got it though. After assorted performers had rambled on about moms and dads who intro’d them crib-side to “The Cline” (as Patsy called herself), Doe declared, “My parents hated country music.” Heredity is not destiny: The X frontman slid his better-with-age voice up and down the regrets of “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray,” like a true honky-tonk troubadour, every seasoned note a sigh and a hope. Patsy Cline was about transgressions, not limits. That’s why her storied voice has lived on.
Which makes a show about remembering her inherently problematic. The Living Sisters — the all-female folk group featuring Eleni Mandel, Inara George, Alex Lilly, and Becky Stark — came with their heads bowed, having diligently researched their “assignment” (as they put it). But the vocal group treated this installment of the L.A. Philharmonic’s Songbook series as a time capsule. They wore period costumes — pastel taffeta dresses for the ladies, blazers for the all-male band and the guest stars — and broke out affected vintage choreography.Typically, the Living Sisters create exquisite harmonies together: they could seriously rock a tribute to the Andrews Sisters. But when it came to honoring a country singer who somewhat reluctantly became a crossover pop star despite a tragic tendency to crash and burn? (Cline survived two car accidents before her private plane went down.) The Living Sisters couldn’t quite muster the passion that’d befit Cline’s songs.
The quartet took the stage to 1957’s “Walkin’ After Midnight.” Singing in ones, twos, threes, and fours, their arrangements swooped and soared. A stellar five-piece band — including Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Nate Alcott on trumpet and piano, and, on a few songs, Greg Kurstin on a second piano — loped behind them. The Sisters and brothers sounded gorgeous in the acoustically fine-tuned concert hall.
Earlier in the night, Reilly, who looked and sounded rather like the Burl Ives of Americana, ably supplied the first guest turn — the comedic actor proved himself a fine singer, particularly during duets with Stark on “Wayward Wind” and “Crazy Arms.” The evening followed a pattern: a song or two sung by the Living Sisters, with each Sister taking a turn on lead; then two or three songs by semi-famous guests. Glam-grunge goddess Shirley Manson was the first to shake the predictable proceedings. Clad in a clinging black dress, the auburn Scot sacrificed pitch control for emotional power on the defiantly fatalistic “Never No More.” Later, Zooey Deschanel belted the blues and nailed the notes on three of Cline’s finest: “I Fall to Pieces,” “I’ve Got Your Picture,” and the Willie Nelson-penned “Crazy.” The She & Him vocalist actually oversang for the sensitive acoustics of the venue; after all the charming understatement, her big tones literally shook the house.
Curtseying, swaying, and pattering inanely, the Living Sisters played Cline as an icon of hyper-femininity, instead of the heavy-featured, dark-haired, country girl she was. Two decades ago, k.d. lang built her career on a sort of butch love affair with Cline’s womanly tones; she even worked with Patsy’s famous producer, Owen Bradley. I kept hoping lang would storm the Disney stage and wail a torrid torch song. Instead, we didn’t even get an all-star encore, just some cute, awkward ballroom dancing. It was tremendous to hear all these great songs together, well and nobly sung by the finest of the L.A. demimonde. But I had to go back to the real thing to hear that classic Cline throb, a voice as inimitable as Frank’s, Elvis’s, or Aretha’s.