Music

To Hat and To Hold

Annette Peacock at the October Revolution of Jazz & Contemporary Music in Philadelphia. October 5, 2018. Photo: Ryan Collerd.

THE LIGHTS DIM, a slight figure in a huge plumed hat emerges from the wings, walks slowly across the stage and sits down at the piano. The lights do not come back up. “Don’t hurt me,” speak-sings Annette Peacock, launching into her first tune of the evening.  

She might be addressing the audience. Although Annette Peacock’s career is long and distinguished enough for her to be called a doyenne of song, she remains a reclusive mystery even to devoted fans. This performance, for the 2018 October Revolution of Jazz & Contemporary Music in Philadelphia, is likely the first time anyone in the room has seen her in person. And we never do get a glimpse of those eyes beneath the hat.  

Her heart, though, is very much on display.  

Don’t hurt me

Feelings last

Too long and hard to see past

And hard to come back from…  

Annette Peacock’s songs wander—through hard feelings, through surprising keys, through the many genres she has worn and discarded like an outrageous hat that had its role, for an evening. Tonight she is alone at the piano, stripping back and thereby unifying songs from as early as her 1972 psychedelic jazz album for RCA I’m the One, through her ’80s DIY singer-songwriter albums, to the elegant an acrobat’s heart, made with a string quartet for ECM in 2000. Throughout she treats the piano almost like a monophonic instrument, picking out her melodies one note at a time, with minimal harmonizing. But then she occasionally also reaches over to an old ’80s synth, the Roland D-50, to add big swelling chords on fake strings. And every once in a while, lest we get too comfortable with this genre that she is creating for us tonight, she hits play on a CD and adds a blurting drum machine beat. Or maybe this particular genre calls for precisely that, along with the plumed hat?  

The performance, if I haven’t yet managed to make this clear, is spellbinding. Part of its tension is the balancing act of her tightrope melodies—an acrobat’s heart—so difficult that at one point she does indeed fall off, and has to stop. “Why didn’t I write a simple song,” she says quietly in that space, but unlike her opening cautionary gambit this time it sounds like she’s talking not to us but to herself. The acrobat is limp for an instant in the net. And then races back up the ladder.  

Backstage, I finally get a look into those eyes under the feathered hat (which remains on). They take you in directly, unapologetically. One reason she performs so little is it takes so long to prepare these truly difficult songs, she explains. And then there’s the audience—always with crossed arms, she says. Until now, perhaps. Maybe after all these years they finally know what to expect, she muses.  

If we do, it’s because we’re fans enough to know that Annette Peacock’s songs follow their own logic, alongside their acrobatic singer, and end up wherever that leads. Which is necessarily an unexpected place.  

I think back to the audience’s collective confusion at the end of this evening’s performance. Peacock has triggered the CD again, this time with a particularly aggressive beat, complete with popping electric bass. She sings the repeated opening lyric to “Behind the Beat,” a track from a privately released 2005 album 31:31:  

Nothing is pain

Nothing is pain

Nothing is pain…  

She then leans away from the mic, stands up, and walks off stage as calmly as she had entered it. Except her voice continues the song, this time entirely via CD. There is no applause at this dramatic exit, because she is still singing. Except she wasn’t. There is a ripple of tension in the crowd, now on a tightrope of its own. At last the recorded track fades out, and we applaud in relief as well as appreciation for this magic trick of a show from start to finish. But the lights are up, it’s clear she’s not coming back for an encore, and we can’t even be sure she’s hearing us.  

Have we too fallen into the net? If so, it is with arms open and not crossed. And maybe that is what we’ve finally learned to expect, as Annette Peacock’s audience—to follow her acrobatic melodies until we fall. And then bounce back up for more.

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