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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Sandra Bernhard at Pantages: The Lady Also Sings (Sorta)

November 07, 1994|CHRIS WILLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Can Sandra Bernhard sing, you want to know? Well, yes, actually. Should she? That's another matter.

Bernhard is a first-class provocateur , and near-first-class raunchy raconteur. In concert Friday night at the Pantages, the would-be chanteur also referred to herself--in a rare non-ironic moment--as an "artist."

What the art form is, though, is hard to decipher. Beyond the intermittently amusing, routinely profane, self-important and hyper-glib facade, Bernhard really doesn't have much to say. But it seems important to her that she be allowed to say it in every medium.

Music isn't necessarily the least appropriate medium conceivable for her, uh, gifts. As for attitude, she's rock 'n' roll all the way, prowling the stage in a hiked-up black leather mini-dress, a not-so-kittenish jaguar (or Jagger) with a whip, fronting a quite good six-piece band she's dubbed the Strap-Ons.

The swagger came in handy on some of the more latently parodic, blatantly bitchy material--like a "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" that actually rocked out in the gender-updated chorus, or (the night's highlight) an unlikely medley of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Everything's All Right" and Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression" that made a neurotic sense in its weird wavering between sugary sweetness and Prozac-free power chords.

And yet, there was no reasonable reason to indulge in a lugubrious "Sympathy for the Devil," other than that lips of a feather flock together.

What Bernhard seemed to be going for here was some sort of unholy cross between Laurie Anderson, Amanda McBroom and Shecky Greene. The original material--mostly improved versions of songs from her nigh unlistenable album, "Excuses for Bad Behavior, Part I"--was all over the board.

In "Lonely Town," she drew unintended titters reciting the names of her dearly departed (including the guy who designed her drapes and "affirmed me as a woman and an artist") in the same Sunday-morning-soprano singing voice she'd used to spoof Lloyd Webber's bathos, and the same breathy speaking voice she'd used to parody phony show-biz patter at great length earlier.

When she melodramatically spoke of one buddy coming back as a specter to cajole her to fight to preserve reproductive choice, freedom of expression of sexual preference, et al., the idea of a ghost bothering to deliver a progressive-politics stump speech seemed like one of the cleverer satires of the show. Then you realized she was dead serious.

The mistake could have been avoided had we realized earlier how easy, and musty, most of her actual targets are: For some reason, seven years later, she seems to think there's a rich vein of humor in ridiculing Suzanne Vega's "Luka."

When Bernhard's attacks on the status quo are so fangless, it's little wonder her eventual attempts at a positive message ring hollow too. (Her exit line, curiously, is the same as ex-pal Madonna's: "Don't take any (expletive) from anybody.") Most of the Pantages audience seemed willing to regard her stance as the stuff of triumph, but so far--all the will in the world and even some talent notwithstanding--Bernhard hasn't nearly earned her sense of superiority.

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