Minnie Driver Covers Sinatra, the Cure, Crowded House at Hotel Cafe: Concert Review

Chris Willman
The actress-singer puts a Laurel Canyon spin on familiar classics during an hour-long show in Hollywood.

After casting herself as a singer-songwriter with albums of original material in 2004 and 2007, screen star Minnie Driver is belatedly returning to music with a third collection that finds her foregoing the writing duties in favor of acting strictly as an interpreter. Whatever you thought of her uneven penmanship on the previous efforts, there’s little doubt that John Prine, Neil Finn and Elliott Smith are all better writers than she is, so there are dividends to be paid from Driver diving into the rock-era equivalent of the Great American Songbook on Ask Me to Dance, which arrives October 7.

In the lead-up to the album launch, the actress has being doing a series of low-profile club shows around Southern California, the latest of which was in front of a very vocal crowd of supporters Thursday night at Hollywood’s Hotel Café. (She’ll next test her act in a bigger venue when she plays the cavernous Canyon Club in Agoura Hills Sept. 14… at which time she may or may not be able to boast of having an Emmy, depending on how things go with her nod for Return to Zero at the August 25 ceremony.) Her hour-long set, which included almost the entirety of her covers album and a handful of originals, established that exquisite taste can take a crossover performer a pretty long way, although not nearly as far as individuality.

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Some of the set’s most striking moments came when Driver opted for radical reinterpretation in her arrangements. The Killers’ “Human” was rethought as pure Laurel Canyon country-rock, with her ace five-piece group (which includes members of the Wallflowers and Shakira’s band) expertly giving the alt-rock hit much more of a Flying Burrito Brothers earthiness than anyone could have imagined it meriting. A super-subdued version of Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” was an exercise in just how far you could go in making that song neither blasting nor jamming, but an improbably sweet folk ballad. These are stunts, of a sort, but impressive ones.

Adhering closer to the originals brought out both her biggest weaknesses and greater strengths. She could hardly have picked a better modern rock ballad than Crowded House’s “Better Be Home Soon” — and she certainly had a lot of time to consider it, since her longest tour in the ‘00s had her opening for the Finn Brothers on an extended stretch. But as overtly pretty as Neil Finn’s classic is, there’s a deeply unhappy, downright threatening quality to it that was nowhere apparent in Driver’s milquetoast reading of the tune. Whether Driver doesn’t get that this power-pop ballad bears an inherently angry lyric or just lacked the edge to her voice to convey it, or both, was anyone’s guess.

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When you’ve got a voice that nearly every review has historically called “pleasant” (and an actor crossing over could ask for a lot worse; ask Juliette Lewis, Bruce Willis or Russell Crowe), you may have to work a little harder to find ways to bring real passion into the material. Driver’s kind of in a tough spot, with sensibilities that clearly skew toward the smarter side of modern pop and Americana, but also a set of nice, somewhat affectless vocal tones that seem better suited to a low-key cabaret act than bringing your favorite alt-rock classics to life.

What were far and away the highlights of her hour on stage were the two most stripped-down moments, in which there wasn’t much more happening than her voice and a stand-up bass. One was a veeeeery laid-back version of “Fly Me to the Moon,” the one pre-rock chestnut she brought up… because, she explained, it was the soundtrack to her parents’ first meeting. Her stripping the Sinatra staple of any razzle-dazzle wasn’t just a smart take on the material, but provided the first instance in the night where it seemed like she might really have a voice to go with the good taste.

The same sense that she was finding her element came with a similarly simple encore of Prine’s “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” accompanied by not much more than a lightly picked electric guitar. Here, in this most elemental and emotional of songs, she found a basic purity of tone that suited her unshowy voice better than the rocking-out jam of “Wild Wood” that closed the main set…even if there’s something cool about finding out that the girl on About a Boy likes Paul Weller, too.

Set List:

Mockingbird (original)
Human (the Killers)
Close to Me (the Cure)
Beloved (original)
Better Be Home Soon (Crowded House)
Fly Me to the Moon (Frank Sinatra)
Master Blaster (Jammin’) (Stevie Wonder)
Love Song (Elton John)
Wild Wood (Paul Weller)
Speed of the Sound of Loneliness (John Prine)

Twitter: @chriswillman

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