Nyro, who died in ’97, inspires rabid fans of her culthood. While some may remember her best for early songs, covered by hit-makers-Streisand’s “Stoney End “, Fifth Dimension’s “Stoned Soul Picnic “?she soon disclaimed such Brill Building-ish swingers (they’re not here), becoming an introspective, jazz-influenced piano warbler and taking long spells out of music in favour of domesticity. Her reputation’s now high as a late icon of sadness?the Joni you can’t hum.
Believers, then, will love this unearthed treasure, not least because it sounds like underwater ghosts of songs. That’s not vague deepness but due to the tape quality, which even producer Al Quaglieri admits in his sleevenotes “has not aged well…audibly flawed”. It’s taken from three mics mixed to a stereo tape recorder, so don’t expect Trevor Horn. It’s just one woman and her grand piano, plus so much over-zealous applause that you have to skip between tracks.
In ’71, aged 23, Nyro was soon to record the Gonna Take A Miracle album with soul men Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, backed by LaBelle. As if to work herself in for that, she here performs sparse medleys of “A Natural Woman”, “Spanish Harlem”, “Dancing In The Street”, “Walk On By”, you name it. They serve as relaxing interludes between the intensity of her own songs. The East Village’s Fillmore was closing. For its final weeks, promoter Bill Graham booked names: Nyro had previously shared the bill with Miles Davis and Jackson Browne. She lends the occasion gravitas, especially on “I Am The Blues”, which she wasn’t to record until five years later. “Christmas In My Soul”is brittly passionate. There are two here, gold dust for aficionados, which she never recorded. Opener “American Dove”has the album title as its refrain: she’s high-pitched, edgy from the off. Finale ” Mother Earth”finds her cruising the margin between hippie dreaminess and a half-hearted recollection of pop’s signatures.
This offers only a silhouette of what made Nyro, on occasion, transcend genre. It can’t match the cutting lyricism of Jim Webb or the melodies of Carole King. Its strength is its frailty: at any moment you fear she and her audience might pack up and burst into tears. Devotees will tremble.