Karen Irwin's endearing personality brings to life one of the finest "tribute shows" I've witnessed. Irwin has the voice, charisma and musicality to emulate Janis Joplin's singular style. And beyond that is the arc of honesty in Irwin's program, showing facets of Joplin's emotional and chronological life through the songs Joplin composed and delivered on stage and in albums during a very short career.
Irwin brings the immediacy of her own life into the mix, revealing how Joplin's approach to "different-ness" influenced her own choices, similarly to the manner in which Joplin was influenced by African American Blues and Gospel singers, particularly the strong African American female singers at the dawn of, and into, the 20th century. Their baring of their souls and philosophy of life through music opened the way for the perpetually lonely, insecure Joplin to do the same, to reveal her emotions at that very moment. However, though Irwin herself feels rooted within the legacy of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, Odetta, Billie Holliday and Big Mama Thornton through Joplin, the line is drawn between self-destruction and motivation to succeed. Irwin absorbed the cautionary tale of Joplin's dependency on drugs and alcohol and determined to move beyond "psychedelic soul-ness" to a more wholesome approach, slowly building a local reputation as a fine performer.
Over the past decade [or longer?] I've watched Irwin grow through multiple genres while appearing in a variety of venues, including being a teacher and role model for young theatrical aspirants. Irwin always has been on the cutting edge while seamlessly integrating into the mainstream movement of those who dared to do something out of the ordinary in staid Indianapolis.
At the Columbia Club Irwin showcased what I'd like to call "Stand-up Cabaret" - a judicious mix of relating with the audience through telling anecdotes, shy and blatant humor, winsome revelation, fiery point-making and raw honesty. A large part of the capacity audience showed they were into Joplin's songs through their own growing up years as they anticipated the song from the first chord, swayed, stomped and lip-synched their way through the roster.
Emerging through the audience clad in a gold sequin mini, Irwin opened with the scorchingly plaintive, "Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz ? / My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends. / Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends... " setting the pace for an evening of delving into the litany of Joplin's oeuvre of skirting between "wink-wink, yeah I know" unfulfilled neediness and the romantic love song, "Piece of My Heart."
Working with an excellent combo including Sean Baker on keys, Matt Roberts on drums, Bryan Van Vlymen on bass and Andy Therber on guitar, Irwin gave her all to "Me and Bobby McGee," "Half Moon," "Ball and Chain," "Try," "Little Girl Blue," "Get It While You Can," "Turtle Blues," "Move Over," "Bye Bye Baby," "Down On Me" and Bessie Smith's "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." Closing with Joplin's "The Last Time," the audience absorbed the knowing epitaph:
"Oh, I can't stand your loving, honey, it's tearing me apart,
You done got my soul, but now you're after my heart."
Irwin is a Cabaret star. I hope to see her back.