Best of a Breed

Cheryl Wheeler - Kenny White

Schuba's - Chicago

May 15, 2003

First Appeared at The Music Box, June 2003, Volume 10, #6

Written by T.J. Simon


Singer-songwriters have the particularly difficult task of distinguishing themselves in a genre that is plagued by numbing uniformity. If you see enough solo performers sitting on stools and playing original music, they begin to blend together in your head. To survive in an overly crowded marketplace, a performer must bring something special to the table, something that stands out as unique. Kenny White and Cheryl Wheeler, two of the best solo-performers in the business, co-headlined an evening of singer-songwriter fare at Schubas Tavern in Chicago on May 15, and each brought distinctive sounds to the table unaccompanied by bands, fanfares, or gimmicks.

The matching of White and Wheeler on a double-bill was a wise choice since they’re both recognized for their introspective lyrics and adept instrumentation. Live in concert, both also are known for their wry wits and senses of humor — traits that don’t always shine through on their studio albums. Also, they are both historically linked to popular singer-songwriter Jonathan Edwards as White and Wheeler both penned songs on Edwards’ acclaimed album Man on the Moon. The Schubas audience had more gray heads than one would normally see in a Chicago rock club as the fans were there to see two fellow baby boomers — White is 47 and Wheeler is 51 — sing original compositions.

Kenny White began the evening with a 40-minute set of original songs that included several unrecorded numbers as well as selections from Uninvited Guest, his fantastic 2002 debut. The new material was fresh and likable, which bodes well for his future releases. His set was distinct in that most of the songs were played sitting at a piano, giving the show a Randy Newman- or Ben Folds-like feel. He opened with Last Stop, a tune he crafted while on a lengthy bus ride that is featured on Uninvited Guest. His songs were interspersed with humorous stories of New York life, which included the recounting of a New York Post article about an aquarium that pumped Barry White music into the shark tank to encourage more fervent mating. The only guitar tune he played was Don’t Go out Tonight, and while it was definitely well done, White’s real strength lies in his piano performance skills. This point was further proven during the concluding In My Recurring Dream, a smile-inducing song with a message about the saving power of music that White extended with an impressive piano solo, which enraptured the crowd into the intermission.

Cheryl Wheeler, the show’s headliner, looks like your mother-in-law, tells stories like a comedienne, and sings like an angel. She is one of those singer-songwriters whose claim to fame has been writing tunes that other people turn into hits. In addition to penning country-western chart toppers for Dan Seals and Suzy Bogguss, Wheeler’s music has been recorded by Bette Midler, Juice Newton, and Linda Thompson. Wheeler’s Chicago set generally alternated between serious ballads from her albums, including Driving Home and Ghandi/Buddha, as well as fun novelty songs. She sang no less than three humorous tributes to her favorite cat and a song about potatoes to the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance — I guess you had to be there. She was joined by Kenny White on keyboards and harmony vocals for nearly every song, and his accompaniment was absolutely perfect. Between Wheeler’s songs, they shared a likable stage patter that has clearly evolved from touring America together in a rented Grand Marquis. Throughout the entire evening, they exuded the talent, friendship, and harmony of mature troubadours who have mastered their crafts.

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