Madeleine Peyroux and Mika would seem to have little in common beyond having spent a chunk of their formative years in Paris and having both performed to full houses in Minneapolis on Tuesday night.
Actually, they’re both extreme performers -- she’s sublimely downbeat and intimate, and he’s ridiculously animated and loud. And their concerts are both strong contenders for best-of-2013 lists.
Peyroux @ the Dakota
Peyroux returned to the Dakota Jazz Club for a two-night stand with her fine backup quartet and a four-woman string section. She’s promoting her just-released seventh album “The Blue Room,” which reimagines the material on Ray Charles’ 1962 landmark “Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music.”
The concept is smart because the Georgia-born Peyroux, 40, resides in the same Southern soul-blues-jazz-country territory as Charles did. Using a string section (cellist Beth Rapier, violist Sabina Thatcher and violinist Daria Adams were locals locked out of their respective orchestras) not only gave the tunes a bit of the classic 1960s Nashville sound, but it added texture and depth without smothering Peyroux’s voice or sidemen.
But it was Peyroux’s languorously melancholy vocalizing – those pauses and elongation in her phrasing – that got you to rethink each of the songs. “You Don’t Know Me” became a drunken dirge. “Bye Bye Love” became a blues lament. “I Can’t Stop Loving You” became sad and understated, with B-3 organ underscoring the singer’s sorrow.
By the end of the performance, you were convinced that, in a former life, Peyroux must have been Patsy Cline’s kid sister.
While the songs heard on the Charles disc were satisfying and revelatory, the best stuff may have been the outliers, the way Peyroux got inside Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire” like a morning-after reflection; Randy Newman’s boozy “Guilty” with the strings adding just enough sweetening like Coke in your Jack; “Desperadoes Under the Eaves,” Warren Zevon’s terrific attempt to write a Tom Waits song; and Peyroux’s own jazzy “Half the Perfect World” and the dark, mysterious “Dance Me to the End of Love.”
At 65 minutes, the set felt short but extraordinarily special.
Opening was Rebecca Pidgeon, the actress and sometimes singer-songwriter who did a brief, five-song set of wistful, gauzy folk-pop delivered with her small, sweet voice. Her comic patter (mostly about life in Hollywood; she’s married to David Mamet) was more entertaining than her music.
Peyroux and Pidgeon perform again at 7 and 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Dakota.
Mika @ the Varsity
After the Dakota, I headed to the sold-out Varsity, where Mika, the British pop star, was already a half-dozen songs into his set. This was the intimate Mika, just himself on grand piano and two other musicians, who variously played drums, keys or bass.
Sporting a suit and bow tie with a mop of Josh Groban-run-amok hair, Mika came across like a one-man Queen. He attacks the piano like Elton John but sings with Freddie Mercury’s voice. And plenty of falsetto. And dramatics. The crowd of mostly giddy girls and gay young men loved, loved, loved him.
The 6 foot 3 Mika, 29, was chatty, catty and funny. And totally charming.
His piano pop songs are old-fashioned music-hall ditties on steroids. Although his three albums have led to dance-club hits, the stripped-down treatments felt like peppy, bouncy pop pieces at the Varsity.
Highlights of the 110-minute set included “Love You When I’m Drunk” (which sounded like a terrific Elton John throwaway), the giant sing-along “Origin of Love,” the clap-along “Emily” (which evolved into the French version “Elle Me Dit”), the melodramatic “Happy Ending,” “Love Today” with its burst of drums, and the slow, falsetto-fueled “Over My Shoulder” (which he wrote at age 16).
Mika photo by Andrew Bream