Nuanced Comfort Music That Channels Kate Smith

Stephanie Blythe
The New York Times

By Zachary Woolfe

Musical moments at sporting events can be memorable — Whitney Houston’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction — but the singing doesn’t usually affect the outcome.

An exception occurred on May 13, 1975, when the Philadelphia Flyers faced the upstart New York Islanders for a decisive Game 7 in the National Hockey League championship semifinals. The beloved singer Kate Smith, then 68, belted out her signature hit, “God Bless America,” creating such a sensation that to this day the Flyers, who went on to win the game and then their second straight Stanley Cup, give the singer a large part of the credit for the victory.

On Wednesday evening in the Allen Room of Jazz at Lincoln Center, it wasn’t hard to see how Kate Smith might have inspired a hockey team, not to mention galvanized a nation through a depression and a war. In a richly entertaining, commandingly sung program of Smith standards, part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series, the eminent mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe painted a vivid picture of a tirelessly optimistic artist and showed the power of classic songs like “We’ll Meet Again,” “The White Cliffs of Dover” and “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain” while providing far more than a nostalgia trip through old chestnuts.

Ms. Blythe is nearly unmatched in a classical repertory that ranges from Handel to Wagner, but on Wednesday she didn’t coast through lighter-weights like Jerome Kern and Hughie Charles. Approaching their work with respect, intelligence and feeling, Ms. Blythe was in some ways an even better Kate Smith than Kate Smith. Guiding listeners through anecdotes alternately hilarious and moving, and accompanied subtly and stylishly on the piano by Craig Terry, she infused this sometimes frustratingly stable material with nuance and sophistication, filament-thin pianissimos and formidable walls of sound, which excavated fresh emotion in songs that she lovingly called “musical comfort food, mac-and-cheese music.”

Ms. Blythe said she was suffering from a bad head cold, but if anything, that brought an exciting hint of rawness to her warm tone, a vulnerability that troubled the music she described, too simply, as “songs that made us happy.” There was an ineffable quaver at the center of her voice, a determination and almost a fury that improbably found traces of Judy Garland at the core of the placidly unflappable Smith.

The concert ended, of course, with a rousing rendition of “God Bless America.” After encouraging the audience to join her in the reprise, Ms. Blythe left everyone behind as she rose to a booming, ecstatic finale. For want of a better description, it made you want to win the game.

Speaking of winning, Kate Smith’s recording still fires up the crowd during the seventh-inning stretch at Yankee Stadium, but the Yankees hardly need the help. Someone should send Ms. Blythe to work Smith magic on, say, the hapless Mets. Please?