Photo by Ebet Roberts
LENI STERN GOT A NEW AUDIENCE. That was part of what she was shooting for several years back when she stopped being exclusively a fusion-rooted electric-guitar plucker and stepped out as a singer and a balladic songwriter as well. Of course, she also hoped to tug her old audience along. Which hasn't happened so much.
It was like when a friend suddenly finds Jesus; the old fans weren't ready for Stern to start bearing unfamiliar fruit in her 40s. The fruit has been unusual, too: satisfying and sustaining, very fresh, but darkly colored and not overbred. Stern's voice, while rangy, projects an impression less of virtuosity than of urgent conversation, breaking and straining here and there. Her songwriting complements that: naked lyrics set to gently leaping, can't-get-'em-out-of-your-head melodies. And she still plays the subtlest, most expressive guitar this side of Bill Frisell. (Yes, she's recorded with him.)
Such numerous strengths had to draw new listeners, who couldn't believe they'd bumped into a musician who stood up to the kind of expectations they'd built on Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. And she was sort of new.
German-born but based in New York, Stern often gets to Europe and Asia, not skipping L.A. She was in Hollywood last month at Rocco, a club with a different (and good) feel, as if some of the world's head-turningest musicians have wandered into your rec room and started jamming. On this night, Fender bassist Paul Socolow, who's backed Stern for a long time, walked up in his untucked T-shirt and plugged in; young drummer Keith Carlock, whom she picked out of class when she was teaching music at the University of North Texas a few years back, was muss-headed and jet-lagged.
Stern smiled warmly when she talked, and didn't when she played. In her eyes, down-slanted and naturally dark-aproned, there was seriousness and the memory of pain. Her hair was a white bird nest with a little pink in it. On her lean left arm, a black tattoo — the Tibetan character for Om — accented her quiet vitality and determination.
She likes the Stratocaster, a guitar that can stretch, and she sat, lightly wringing it for Latinate strums, pungent blues punctuations, butterfly flutters up and down the neck — even rock-out power chords as Carlock went Moon-crazy behind her. Her singing was direct, vulnerable, unpretentiously beautiful.
But it was the songwriting that made the biggest impact. The ballads “Love Lightly,” “I Call You” and “Love Everyone” sounded eternally familiar. “Empty Hands” defined loss, “Love Is Real” built passion, both coming off as not-yet-acknowledged classics. Just to place herself in the tradition, Stern whispered through the standard “I'll Be Seeing You,” and its recollections and shades of emotion plainly came from the place where she lives. When she sang “Where Is God?” she spoke for everybody. Who else does that?
STERN'S SONGS AREN'T BACKGROUND music. Her words about watching someone sleep, or hearing her own footsteps on a city street, or weeping and praying, will remind you of people you have loved and of those who have died. Compelling as she is, and as easy as she is to hear, she's not easy listening. Facing real emotion is challenging and uncool. But once you've done it . . .
It's been an inspiration to watch Stern's artistic progress. When she couldn't get re-signed in the mid-'90s, she got going with her own label, Leni Stern Recordings (www.lenistern.com). When she wanted to sing, she just did. And after a period when she collaborated with songwriter Larry John McNally, who wasn't always a perfect fit, her last two CDs — the elegantly orchestrated Kindness of Strangers and the star-bedecked Finally the Rain Has Come — have witnessed the full flowering of her art, with nearly all the compositions attributed to herself, and the consistency level at Olympian heights. Which is not to diminish the value of her other LSR releases: Black Guitar offers gems like “One Day” and “Can Joe Cocker (Hit the High Notes Tonight),” while Recollection is a bridge between her two audiences, featuring great recent songs and a selection of her best earlier instrumentals.
One feels obliged to add, if only to reinforce the image of a woman who takes nothing lying down, that Stern is an activist for cancer survivors. And that she holds belts in Shaolin martial arts. But she doesn't have to get near you to kick your ass.