ANAHEIM — Between songs, Rosalie Sorrels would lean forward over her guitar, her left elbow resting on its neck, her hands folded atop the strings, looking for all the world like a neighbor holding forth across a back-yard fence.
As her long, warmly engaging performance Saturday night at the Anaheim Cultural Arts Center progressed, it became clear that she is the sort of neighbor everyone would like to have.
Sorrels, who wore sandals, a simple, mustard-colored skirt and blouse, and a long, floral-patterned scarf, brought with her a great fund of goodwill, good humor, and good sense born of experience--the sorts of qualities that would draw you to that back-yard fence not only for entertainment, but for advice.
She also brought with her talents that stand out on a concert stage. Sorrels, at 58 one of traditional folk's veteran performers, displayed an accomplished actor's sense of inflection and timing as she delivered readings and strands of storytelling that made her performance less a sequence of separate songs than a twisting but cohesive monologue. Spalding Gray has nothing on her. And her singing was glorious; her voice is a clear, rich alto that could surge with ardor, or subside to a fragile but fully controlled quaver of sadness or tenderness.
Sorrels had gumption, too. Most folk singers conduct sing-alongs, but they make sure the audience is good and warmed up before sticking their necks out and calling for crowd participation.
Sorrels had the house singing along to the second song of the evening. (It was "A Clearing in the Forest," a Utah Phillips tune that begins with the memorable line, "here come the critics, now the music won't be good," then swallows cantankerousness to make an open-hearted plea for a safe mental and spiritual haven from life's unwanted intrusions).
By the time that second number came along, though, most of the people in the large, near-capacity house probably thought Sorrels \o7 was\f7 their neighbor, or at least a fascinating new acquaintance. She'd begun with eight minutes of chat about her life and times during 25 years on the road (which, until Saturday, had never brought her to Orange County), setting the tone for a performance that was always personal, always intimate. You can listen to some performers for years and not have a clear fix on who they are. People who were hearing Sorrels for the first time probably feel they now know her well.
The first of the two sets that made up her 2 1/2-hour performance focused on songs and readings from her current album, "Report From Grimes Creek," a frequently wry account of her Idaho home and her family background.
The second set began with songs about children from a recent album, "Be Careful, There's a Baby in the House." This segment dwelt upon the difficulties of parenthood, and the disasters that await when parents can't or won't handle those difficulties. It included an a cappella version of "God Bless the Child," tinged with Billie Holiday's phrasing but sung as a dark, homespun reverie, suggesting an inner struggle for balance.
The "Be Careful" album acutely demonstrates Sorrels' ability to tap veins of deep sorrow, or to fairly seethe with honed rage during stories about the subjugation of women. But this evening, perhaps because it was her first in a new community, was given mainly to love songs, tunes of wistfulness and humor, and gentle, across-the-fence conversation.
The most vivid characters were her parents, who emerged bit by bit over the course of the evening as flawed but wonderful folks vital enough to dominate the pages of a novel. Sorrels captured the flinty intelligence of her mother, who is 81, and the extravagant zest and lavish idiosyncrasy of her hard-drinking father, who died in 1971.
She told of hurts inflicted, the kind that might have engendered a lasting grudge in a daughter of narrower vision. But Sorrels, with time, clearly has sifted through her family experiences to emerge with a sustaining affection, and she conveys it in lovingly detailed recollections.
By the time she finished, with a lovely reminiscence about her father and a fine, sentimental old Irish ballad, it was as if she had invited her listeners to jump that companionable back-yard fence and join her in front of her very hearth.
Sorrels' concert was part of "The Living Tradition," a series of monthly folk concerts at the Anaheim center. The Occasional String Band, which produces the concerts as well as separate monthly folk dances at the center, circulated a petition opposing a proposal to close the building in May.
The center's concert hall is an old school auditorium that seats about 150, with a wooden floor, good acoustics and a high stage--an ideal situation for acoustic performances. Between "The Living Tradition" shows, a monthly Cajun-Zydeco series launched recently at the Sunset Beach Club in Orange and the well-established concert series at the cozy Shade Tree Stringed Instruments shop in Laguna Niguel, Orange County is showing signs of developing a folk scene worthy of the name for the first time since the folk-boom days of the '60s. It would be a shame to have that budding scene diminished now.