Laura Nyro - vocal, piano
Whether one was aware of Laura Nyro or not, almost anyone who listened to popular music in the late 1960s and early 1970s has been touched by her work. Although Nyro was a captivating performer and an accomplished composer and lyricist, her greatest commercial success occurred between 1968 and 1970, when other popular artists covered her songs. Nyro was responsible for major hits by Barbra Streisand ("Stoney End"), Blood Sweat & Tears ("And When I Die"), Three Dog Night ("Eli's Coming") and most significantly, the Fifth Dimension, who scored big with Nyro's "Wedding Bell Blues," "Stoned Soul Picnic," "Sweet Blindness," and "Save The Country," to name a few. Nyro's songwriting style was a distinctive hybrid of Brill Building-style pop that generously incorporated elements of jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, show tunes, and rock 'n' roll. Despite the critical praise for the depth and sophistication of her songs and her gift for writing beautiful pop melodies, Nyro's own recordings sold modestly.
Ironically, Nyro's best-selling single was itself a cover of Carole King and Gerry Goffin's "Up on the Roof." Unfazed, Nyro continued writing perfectly crafted songs, often infused with a social consciousness for the peace movement and women's issues that were more personal and more lyrically intelligent than many of the popular singer-songwriters of the era. Uncomfortable with performing on television and with fame in general, newly married, Nyro announced her retirement from the music industry in 1971 and settled into a life of domesticity at age 24.
Nyro's musical hiatus finally ended in 1976, as did her marriage. She released an album of new material, titled Smile, and with some of the best New York City-based musicians eager to work with her, assembled an outstanding band and embarked on a tour. This tour resulted in her 1977 live album, Season Of Lights. It was during this time that she became pregnant with her only child. Largely ignored or misunderstood upon initial release, Nyro's next album, Nested can in retrospect be heard as the bridge between her earlier and later work. Released in June of 1978, the album featured many provocative new songs by the intensely personal singer/songwriter.
Despite being well into her pregnancy, Nyro decided to tour, performing at select intimate clubs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, and New York City, wearing maternity clothes that celebrated her pregnancy, rather than trying to hide it. The most anticipated dates of the tour were her first ever engagements at New York City's Bottom Line on the 12th and 13th of July. Thankfully, the King Biscuit Flower Hour recorded all four sold-out concerts. This is particularly significant as Nested would again turn out to be Nyro's last album for nearly five years. With the exception of the final gig of the tour, an appearance at the Dr. Pepper Music Festival in Central Park, she would not perform live again for nearly a decade, preferring a life of domesticity raising her son. With that in mind, this final performance of the four 1978 Bottom Line concerts is a fascinating glimpse into the last days of the pre-maternal Laura Nyro and the Nested material in particular. Here the songs are stripped down to Nyro's rich voice and piano, as she performs much of that album solo acoustic before an intimate and totally enthralled audience. A few classic older songs also surface as do a few well-chosen covers.
Nyro begins with two Nested tracks, starting with "Rhythm and Blues. Here she actually sounds like she is relaxed and having fun, not one of her trademarks. This is followed by the introspective and quiet "Mr. Blue," which compares favorably to Nyro's best earlier work. Before continuing with more new material, she delivers "Sweet Blindness," one of the most jaunty and soulful songs from her 1968 album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, its lyrics reflecting a drunken encounter.
Nyro returns to core Nested material for the next three songs. All three are melodious songs with penetrating, intimate lyrics. "American Dreamer" and "Light (Pop's Principle)" reveal an emotional commitment that wasn't so obvious on the more elaborate studio versions, and "Crazy Love," a highlight of Nested, which was stripped down on the album, is even more immediate here. Again resurrecting a vintage number, Nyro next performs "And When I Die," one of the most recognizable songs from her 1967 debut. The audience bursts into applause of recognition as Nyro delivers a delightfully understated take that embraces the beauty of the melody and accentuates the unforgettably catchy chorus.
The title song from Nested is next and reflects her raw emotionality as well as her enthusiasm for domesticity. As one may begin to notice, Nyro's Nested themes revolve around relationships, but now with an emphasis on motherhood and childhood, soon to be the most important aspect of her life. The mother/child relationship is further explored on "Emmie," another vintage selection from her acclaimed Eli and the Thirteenth Confession album. Nyro winds the set up with "Sexy Mama," an infectious cover from her initial comeback album, Smile, released two years prior.
Perhaps sensing that this could be one of Nyro's last live performances for the foreseeable future, the audience has no intention of letting her go. They eventually coax her back and she begins the encore with an unfamiliar song that turns out to be a lovely early reading of "Man In The Moon." This song wouldn't see the light of day until her 1984 release, Mother's Spiritual, which received limited distribution and is now quite difficult to find. This is followed by a sexy captivating take on "Mama Roux," a song she learned off Dr. John's 1968 album, Gris Gris. Nyro's voice and the way she finds the core beauty of the melody turns Dr. John's voodoo queen anthem into melodic pop of the highest order. She concludes with a heartfelt reading of "Child In A Universe," her prayer to a star and another core song from Nested. Rarely has a women expressed the trepidation and excitement of impending motherhood so honestly. She is clearly exhausted and has some trouble playing the piano near the beginning, but the audience is hanging on every word until she softly closes and exits the stage.
The energized audience literally erupts into four solid minutes of clapping, hollering, and eventually unison stomping the small room to its limits. They finally coax Nyro back to her piano for one more. Acknowledging that the crowd is so energetic while she is getting sleepy, she eases in to the undeniably catchy "In A Country Way," a delightfully humorous outtake from the 1969 New York Tendaberry album sessions. From the opening line "My old man, he's a Peter Pan, in the city..." she has the New York City audience engaged, resulting in an audience clap-a-long to end this memorable night.
Throughout this performance Nyro sounds more content and genuinely happy than she ever had before. Her soulful voice, unexpected melody changes and her unparalleled emotionality was never more present than at this second major turning point in her life. Following this run she would again retire from music as she devoted her time to raising her son, who was born just weeks after these Bottom Line performances. At a time when punk rock was starting to impact and disco ruled, Nyro was that rare commodity that still felt every word she sang. Her voice, seemingly untouched by time, reaches more emotional heights and depths throughout these four Bottom Line performances than many more popular songwriters reached in a lifetime. As Richard Harrington of the Washington Post so succinctly put it, "Lots of people were later compared to Laura Nyro. Nyro herself was never compared to anyone."