It's always been easy to feel sorry for Janis Ian. Fifteen years ago, she gained notice as a persecuted teenager condemned for interracial dating with "Society's Child." In the mid-Seventies, she won public attention again for her melancholy recollection of high school, "At Seventeen." In those cases, at least, her sorrows were transformed into moving artistic statements. These days, though, she's in a sorrier state yet: attempting to conform to the musical tastes of the moment.
Ian's appearance at the Roxy seemed to reflect her worries over her place in the record marketplace. Having failed to sustain a comeback effort, she is currently striking out in a rock direction, punching up her usually restrained style with almost New Wavish touches. At least at this concert, her tougher stance was not convincing. There were some impressive moments in her performance, to be sure--but they did not come when she stepped out as a born-again rock and roller.
The show's opening minutes were promising. Striding into the spotlight with guitar in hand, Iah offered "When the Party's Over," one of her best up-beat songs. Next, her three-piece band joined her for a tastefully-rendered, diverse selection of tunes, including the brooding "From Me to You" and the breezy, samba-tinged "I Would Like to Dance." When Ian again took a solo spot for the plaintive "Jesse," the pacing and atmosphere of her concert couldn't have been better.
Unfortunately, Ian was intent on proving that even "sensitive" songwriters can rock and roll, and ran through several tepid compositions from her last LP, Night Rains. Worse, Ian turned over the spotlight several times to her guitarist, Scott Zito, whose cliched rock star showboating was difficult to endure. Ian went through a ficult to endure. Ian went through a few of the motions herself, essaying an awkward leap or two in her high heels.
It was sad to see Ian laboring in a style inappropriate for her, because she proved herself capable of handling so many other musical genres that night. She ventured into European cabaret balladry with "Party lights" and "In the Winter," singing with a Continental touch of theatrics over her melodramatic piano work. "Silly Habits," a warm supper-club blues tune, was equally charming. Her encore, the bittersweet show business ode "Stars," presented her at her finest, revealing great songwriting craft while ringing true emotionally.
Apparently, these qualities are not enough to score points in the music biz right now, and Ian feels she needs to refashion her sound and image. At the Roxy, these attempts brought few positive results. Ian wants to rock out in front of audiences rather than win their sympathy--and that's the real pity.