Laura Nyro – Trees of Ages – Live in Japan (review)

Laura Nyro – Trees of Ages – Live in Japan (Omnivore Recordings)  

Staggeringly good live album showcases under appreciated songwriter

Yes, Laura Nyro was that good.  Sadly, the world wasn’t fully ready for her unbridled talent.  Her compositions drew on classic doo wop, girl groups,  jazz, folk, even Broadway musicals.  Her songs sped up and slowed down, bending to her wishes rather than keeping time to a monotonous beat. Other artists, like Blood, Sweat and Tears, the Fifth Dimension, Three Dog Night and Barbra Streisand, would take her songs and have hits, while Nyro languished in relative obscurity.  Her voice – what range and soul!  And, even though she would disappear for years and then come out of retirement now and again, she always kept her gifts, right up to her untimely passing in 1997, at the age of 49.  

All of her talents are on full display in a new, archival live set from Omnivore Recordings called Trees of Ages – Live in Japan – available in the US for the first time.  

Nyro was a sucker for girl groups – they were a huge influence on her as a young woman.  That’s all well and good on paper.  But, listening to her rendition of the Shirelles’ “Dedicated to the One I Love” is something entirely different – an otherworldly experience, as she imparts a mature perspective on this well-known classic.   I’m just blown away.  She goes from that to Smokey Robinson’s “Ooo Baby Baby,” an extremely difficult song to sing – and she just nails it – changing the songs tempo at will, and even the key at one point.

Several songs are from what would be her final studio album, Walk the Dog and Light the Light.  Despite taking long stretches of time away from the spotlight, these compositions showed that she’d lost none of her abilities.  “A Woman of the World” is soulful, “Louise’s Church” name checks some of her idols and has a fabulous vocal coda, while “Lite a Flame (The Animal Rights Song) shows that her activism hadn’t lost any of its bite.  

Her version of “And When I Die” is telling – she would be gone in under three years, and her delivery is steeped with a wisdom of someone who probably knows their time is short.  Gone are some of her vocal acrobatics of her original from the late Sixties, replaced by a soulful assuredness.  

During one of her sabbaticals from the music business, she would have a son, and “To a Child” is one of her best latter day compositions.  Her voice soars in classic fashion in another recent track, “The Descent of Luna Rose.”

Mostly, the concert is just Nyro on piano and vocals, but she’s joined from time to time by a trio of singers named Diana (!) and they shine on “Wild World,” while the crowd claps along with “Wedding Bell Blues,” perhaps her most enduring song.

She weaves an interesting medley of “Tree of Ages” and her classic “Emmie” (from her breakthrough Eli and the Thirteenth Confession).  She also has time to dig back to her roots for a fantastic rendition of “Walk on By” and the Everly’s “Let it Be Me.”  

The fidelity is crisp, allowing her voice to come through and touch you deeply. Trees of the Ages is an excellent reminder of Laura Nyro’s singular talent.  Any fan of her music should make this a part of their collection.  —Tony Peters