Loving Two Janises

  • by Sari Staver
  • Wednesday March 21, 2018
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Vocalist Kyra Gordon will pay tribute to Janis Joplin and Janis Ian
Vocalist Kyra Gordon will pay tribute to Janis Joplin and Janis Ian

A new show featuring jazz, rock, and folk arrangements of the iconic performers Janis Ian and Janis Joplin will premiere at Ashkenaz, the Berkeley community music and dance cafe, on Friday, March 23, at 8 p.m. Featuring vocalist Kyra Gordon with pianist Larry Steelman, "Loving Janis" will also bring back the 60s with a light show created by Kitty Crowe, who performed with the Grateful Dead.

Gordon, a 37-year-old Oakland native, told the B.A.R. the idea for the show stemmed from an experience she had two decades ago. As a 17-year-old living in Los Angeles, she was asked to audition for the role of Janis Joplin in a film project, "Piece of My Heart" for Paramount Pictures. Although the project was scrapped, Gordon said she hung onto the script with the thought that she might someday put together her own show.

"I was heartbroken when the project was aborted, but I have spent the last 20 years hoping I could revive the idea in a show," she said. Also a longtime fan of Janis Ian, Gordon said "their songs have been part of the fabric of my life."

"They were both strong female bandleaders facing all of the challenges that go along with being a woman in the public eye," she said. "They both fascinate and inspire me, and I look to them for advice from their words and music as I navigate the challenges myself." Among the songs in the show are classics "At Seventeen," "Jesse," "Piece of My Heart" and "Bobby McGee."

Last year, after performing a tribute to Janis Joplin called "Turtle Blues," Gordon decided she wanted to create a "Janis tribute" that would contrast Joplin's work with that of folk singer-songwriter Janis Ian. While Gordon's admiration for Joplin was "all about her charisma as a performer and the trance of the performance," her admiration for Ian stemmed from the "stories she told about life and the human experience.

"I felt a real kinship and connection to Janis Joplin. As a young woman, she wasn't the norm, but her attitude was, 'I don't fit in and I'm going all the way with it.'" Gordon said she also "never fit anyone's vision of what was beautiful or appropriate."

Gordon was drawn to Ian because "she chose to dedicate her life to being a songwriter and a master of her craft. Her lyrics are poetry. They conjure up such vivid imagery." While many of Ian's better-known songs were written in the 1960s and 70s, her songs "are timeless and feel as relevant today as ever." Several years ago, Gordon sent her a video clip of her performance of Ian's song, "Ruby." Ian sent back a note of encouragement, pointing out that "it was a hard song to sing, and you sang it bravely."

In addition to rehearsing her new show, Gordon keeps busy with regular gigs. The first vocalist to graduate from the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley, Gordon has been teaching vocal performance courses at her alma mater, as well as teaching music to over 400 students in the Richmond public school system.

A founding member of the Bay Area's hip-hop collective "The Freeze," Gordon also plays keyboards and sings lead vocals for the original funk project "Captain Input," and performs weekly solo shows at San Francisco's Rite Spot.

Performing with Gordon at the upcoming show at Ashkenaz will be pianist Larry Steelman, a composer and musician who has worked with Johnny Mathis and Natalie Cole; bassist Paul Eastburn, a San Francisco multi-instrumentalist freelance musician; drummer Alan Hall, who also teaches at the Calfornia Jazz Conservatory; and guitarist Matthew Charles Heulitt. Kitty Crowe, who created her first liquid projection light show out of the contents of her kitchen in 1966 for the "Trips Festival" in San Francisco, will produce a light show.

Tickets are $17 in advance, $20 at the door. Info: www.ashkenaz.com/eventcalendar