Music Review

A community expresses itself in ‘Song Reader’

The Brookline Music School All Stars and Jennifer Hicks perform the song “I’m Down,” at the Somerville Theatre on Thursday.
The Brookline Music School All Stars and Jennifer Hicks perform the song “I’m Down,” at the Somerville Theatre on Thursday.

SOMERVILLE — During the second act, one of the performers let the audience in on what she called “an open secret.”

“It’s not really about Beck,” Jade Sylvan said in a near whisper. “It’s more about the amazing performers we have here in our own community.”

And so it went at Thursday’s heartfelt, two-hour production of Beck’s “Song Reader” at the Somerville Theatre. More than 150 musicians, singers, and dancers brought to life the album, which indie-rock musician Beck Hansen released in December in sheet-music form.


The conceit was simple: In order to hear “Song Reader” you have to play it or listen to someone else’s interpretation of it. Surely Beck would have loved how this ragtag cast of characters reshaped his work with everything from bawdy burlesque dancers and a 50-person choir to bucolic Americana and junkyard blues bands.

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It was a massive undertaking — each song paired musicians with dancers — and had its share of ups and downs. The first act gave the distinct impression you were at a sweet, if middling high school recital. But highlights abounded.

An unhinged vision in cream-colored lace, Mali Sastri, on loan from the band Jaggery and credited on the program as Singer Mali, channeled the psychedelic pathos of Buffy Sainte-Marie on “America, Here’s My Boy,” the notes erupting from deep in her gut. Meanwhile, on “Why Did You Make Me Come?” Mary Bichner put a modern spin on the Old World tradition of torch singing with just a hint of Marlene Dietrich in her voice as a string quartet backed her.

Musician Brendan Burns and dancer Karin Webb, who organized the production and pointed out in their introduction that the performers had devoted three months of their time, made a stark, compelling pair. Her movements, from graceful to suddenly perturbed, mirrored the pretty and then discordant notes he played on electric guitar.

By the time Sylvan closed out the performance with a half-sung, half-recited take on “Title of This Song,” her voice finally rising to a fever pitch, the entire cast had emerged from the wings and spilled onto the stage and into the aisles. In the ultimate display of community, it was hard to tell who was clapping more — the performers or their fans.

James Reed can be reached at jreed@