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LETTERS TO EDITOR
by Jerry Weinstein
If you're a record label or a radio programmer, the rock group Betty will confound you. But if you’re looking for music that will make you lose control of your groove thang, Betty will rock your world. Betty Rules is the name of a new self-described "alterna-musical" and the moniker speaks truth to power. For nearly seventeen years the band has successfully staved off Top 40 success, while creating a musical niche that is equal parts rock, cabaret, pop, a cappella, and spoken word. In the process, Betty has earned a cult following, while maintaining a core trio of bassist Alyson Palmer, electric cellist Amy Ziff, and her sister guitarist Elizabeth Ziff.
Details of their first meeting seem to be given to dramatic license. Some of their press materials insist that they have been "friends since an unfortunate incarceration," while their Web site marks their first gig as a birthday party for 9:30 Club owner Dodie Bowers. Perhaps they sang for their bail; in any case, one month later they were touring with Jane Siberry.
Flash forward to the summer of 1999. Michael Greif, best known as the director of Rent, and then Artistic Director of the La Jolla Playhouse, has invited them to workshop a play based on their lives. After fine-tuning the material and playing a sold-out seven week run at San Francisco’s Magic Theater last summer, Betty has taken up residence at New York City’s Zipper Theater. The end result is sparkling, and it is apropos that the Zipper is their venue of choice. The theater is a casual, urban affair with car seats for lounging and a full bar for lubrication. Kind of like a fringe theater offering, but with aisles.
Greif has done a superb job in showcasing Betty. The set is unadorned but for microphone stands, three clear Starck chairs that the players squirm in during band therapy, and supertitles that give us a needed context as the trio shuttles back and forth across the land mines and triumphs of their musical lives. Rather than be immobilized by the usual in-between song patter, there is a strong narrative thread in the band’s journey from post-adolescence to wizened-not-jaded thirtysomethings. Their journey is festooned with countless auditions (i.e., rejections), the release of five albums (Carnival, their latest, broke Amazon’s Top Ten!) endured breakups and makeups, and yes, band therapy (where they "experience mind blowing co-dependency").
Just as Betty are fearless musicians, they are whimsical where narrative devices are concerned. While there are flashbacks to an assemblage of "firsts" – first meeting, first gig, first White House inaugural, there are also unexpected bits like a past life regression to December 31, 1600. Naturally, our heroines are being burned at the stake – as witches, natch. Occasionally, each of the band members performs a vignette as a roadie or a shopkeeper that has crossed paths or swords with the band. When these pieces work, they are caustically funny – the Texas owner of "Guns and Pizza" comes to mind, as does a less-than-Mensa flight stewardess. (Sadly they were only able to tell, not show, of sharing the green room with icons Wayne Newton and Charo at the Jerry Lewis Telethon.) Amy Ziff, she of the blonde dreads, clearly loves these comic interludes as much as the music. Her manic energy is a hybrid Monty Python meets Lea Delaria. Speaking of which, their reenactment of the Michigan Womyn’s Festival is an in-the-know diatribe, written more out of love than cynicism. The threesome (one of which is lesbian-identified) have difficulty hanging out as there are distinct areas at the festival: the "chat-free zone," the "Little Diva diaper-changing zone" and, least tasty for these Bettizens, "the chem-free zone." Try as they might to lampoon the memory, they find both a record deal during one of their stands, as well as love.
For the most part, the song titles are a window into their idiosyncratic minds, but you’ll have to head to the theater and/or their Web site to enjoy "You Clueless Creep with Comb-Over Hair," bask in the post-romance of "I Don’t Even Like Kissing You," and marvel at the stunning spoken-word of Amy Ziff’s composition "Pins and Needles."
Betty’s inspirations are like found art; they’ll make a French rap out of a Joni Mitchell composition, and will cop to exploiting their lives for material. Elizabeth, when interviewed by NPR’s Scott Simon offered that "the song completes the emotion." What comes across above all is their talent, wit, and intelligence. There is nary a note of sentimentality here (if you’re looking for a Baby Boomer’s version of Bette Midler’s "You’ve Got to Have Friends" here, you’ll be rushing for the exits). If I were forced at gunpoint to say what the band sounds like, I might suggest The Roches on Acid with a splash of Martha and the Muffins. But I would be doing the ensemble an injustice. Betty is bigger than Alyson, Amy, or Elizabeth. Although the trio are given to camp in their press materials and overall persona, in this case I take them at face value when they speak of their band and their commitment: "We serve her. Yeah. She is our vole. She’s madam."
The stellar efforts of guitarist Tony Salvatore and percussionist Conlin Brooks are not to be underestimated. They anchor the Betty sound, and give the Three Sistas the freedom to take no prisoners. Betty Rules opens with a voiceover of Bette Davis (from the film All About Eve) warning us to: "Fasten your seat belts; It’s going to be a bumpy ride." I looked down at my seat for a split second; the seat belts had been removed. No doubt it has been a hard road to tow for the group these last seventeen years, but for this audience member, it was better than a ride on the Cyclone.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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