Late Boomer

She intimates.

Some performers, gifted with elegant or sumptuous voice, merely sing a song to you. Croon and trill; carry notes in a gracefully woven basket. Not Lucy Kaplansky (who appears this weekend at Rosendale Cafe.) Her captivating voice unequivocally embraces the superlatives conjured by those called upon to comment on her singing style- "Bold, vibrant...Kaplansky's vocals seem to glide into the heavens," saith the Boston Globe..."-filled with nuance, power and emotion," observes the Patriot Ledger... "Her voice is sweet and pure as fresh sheets and ice water," applauds New Country. But, that's not it.

All of those glossy turns of phrase- as a singer's lines turn mournful and moody; sexy and girlish or whatever the line calls for- are tools in the kit of any good vocalist. Kaplansky steps beyond that in her ability to convey the soul of a song and that is her major league talent. She doesn't just sing a song; she communicates it. Like a cubist sketching all sides of a guitar in one view, Lucy Kaplansky's voice comprehends the sum of how the melodic structure of a tune works with the meaning of a song and intimates its essence to an audience. It's an ability which raises her above scores of better known artists.

The current issue of a British music magazine called The Beat carries a brief review by the perceptive Arthur Wood of an appearance in December, during Kaplansky's first overseas foray as a solo performer, in which he notes that "What sets Lucy Kaplansky apart from other singer/songwriters and interpreters is her ability to inject the fragile and personal into her own lyrics and those of other composers; the unique ability to make the hairs on the listeners neck stand erect is possessed by few."

Wood is credited for his deep research into Kaplansky's background by another notable Brit critic, John Tobler, in a recent issue of Folk Roots magazine and his probe gets the nod here for the engaging light it sheds on the question of why Kaplansky's name has only now begun to stir wide recognition. It also fills in some of the gaps left in my own chat with Kaplansky last week.

It was a lengthy New York Times article about a 1977 revival of the Greenwich Village folk scene which first prompted her move to New York at 18, some 20 years ago, Kaplansky told me from her Manhattan apartment. Daughter of a piano-playing math professor in Chicago, she had formed a duo with folksinger Elliot Simon when she read the piece that got them both headed east.

"It featured the Roches, Steve Forbert and George Gerdes and that's what got me to New York," Kaplansky said. "I wanted to be a folksinger and it was obvious that New York was going to be the place to be."

Simon & Kaplansky broke up after contributing to an anthology of acts recorded by the Cornelia Street Cafe and she became involved in a group called The Song Project while singing harmony parts for Cliff Eberhardt. She had also formed an "informal duo" with Shawn Colvin in this period and gotten her own glowing NYT review in that shared spotlight. But when a major label tried to sign them, Kaplansky balked. Too scary, she thought at the time, and besides she was busy studying psychology. Music: fun. Psychology: work.

Colvin, of course, went on to success in the spotlight while Lucy became Dr.Kaplansky, a practicing therapist with a singing hobby. Meanwhile, her exceptional harmonizing talents kept her in the demand of artists such as Nanci Griffith, Richard Shindell, Suzanne Vega, Dar Williams and others. A sentient duet with Hugh Bloomenfeld springs to mind. Should have been a hit.

Kaplansky's first solo album, The Tide, recorded at Colvin's urging and issued in 1994 by Red House, is an irresistible blend of indelible tunes of varying flavor; all true to the song itself. A stunning pair of Robin Batteau songs; a Tom Russell-Greg Trooper collaboration; a beauty by novelist/songwriter Bill Morrissey; a haunting take on David Massengill's "My Name Joe"; a deliciously acoustic version of Sting's "Secret Journey"; her own collaborations with her film professor husband, Rick Litvin. (Yes, Lucy & Rick...a juxtaposition of names which elicited a good natured groan of familiarity with the clowning of Eberhardt and John Gorka during an appearance at the Town Crier two summers ago in the closest previous gig she's done in the area).

"First and foremost, it has to be a song I fall in love with," she said. "I try it out with audiences and if I don't get a response, I stop doing it. Most importantly, though, I can't do a song I don't love- there's no point."

A critical smash, Kaplansky followed The Tide with appearances slotted around office hours, realized she really did want to perform and finally dropped her practice about a year ago to focus fully upon the lure and psychology of music. She found the field had changed agreeably in some ways. Once upon a time, you weren't really "folk" unless you did a take of "Banks of the Ohio" in your set. Then, Dylan & the "singer-songwriter" scene and Judy Collins got a listing in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll because of a slot called "folk rock." Now, it's "unplugged" if it doesn't unravel your socks and slotted as "Americana" and there's actually a market.

"There's more labels and clubs than ten years ago and you can really have a whole career in the folk world without ever having to be part of the pop/major label world," she said of a less "scary" scene. "You can have a whole big audience because there's a real hunger among people my age for music that really speaks to them in a way that pop music doesn't."

A second album, Flesh and Bone, is another seamless entry with an increased ratio of originals and inimitable covers; even a sultry marvel of a hidden Lennon/McCartney tune. (This is a new one on me, since "hidden" tracks usually show up on the CD b and register but here, you've got to "rewind" from the beginning to find it.) Bound to put Kaplansky well on the way to a fame she deserves, the CD also includes an original which begins with the revealing lines: "I have words in me/That I need to tell you/There are times in my life/When I know what I want/I walked away one before/I won't walk away again/There are promises you keep/because you mean them." Oh, yeah.

- Gary Alexander