Jill Sobule and Julia Sweeney might not at first seem an ideal show-business team; the experiential divide between comics and musicians is sufficiently wide that you rarely find them even attempting to forge a bond. (That Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis remain the most successful such duo isn't exactly inspirational.)
But when you give the matter a moment's thought, you begin to see some common ground between the two performers: Sweeney, remember, glanced the Zeitgeist with her portrayal of a sexually ambiguous character named Pat; and Sobule scored a hit with her sexually ambiguous single, "I Kissed a Girl."
More substantively, now both are forty-something women in an industry largely blind to anyone over thirty, and while each retains a certain girlishness--Sweeney's breathy, often giggling line delivery, and Sobule's bright, insouciant vocals--beneath the surface there's nothing gamine about them.
Sweeney, after all, is a woman who's faced down both cancer and organized religion (as she's related in two bravura one-woman shows, God Said Ha! and Letting Go of God) and Sobule, marginalized by the mainstream recording industry, boldly went her own way, and has just released a CD (California Years), immaculately produced by Don Was, that she financed herself entirely through small donations from her fans (many of whom are explicitly thanked on the disc's concluding cut, "The Donor Song").
Spines of iron, then, despite Sweeney's self-deprecating stammer and Sobule's diminutive stature (she's taken to playing a very small guitar, possibly to de-emphasize her slightness).
And no wonder the two should have formed a mutual admiration society; or that the admiration has developed into a partnership, to wit: The Jill and Julia Show, an occasional revue that has frequently played Chicagoland venues (thanks to Sweeney's new residency here; she's comfortably ensconced in Wilmette with her husband and daughter).
On a cool night in early September they came together for the latest outing (accompanied by the leonine bassist David Carpenter) on the intimate and gorgeously lit stage at SPACE in Evanston. Sweeney, whose hair now gleams silver, wore a charcoal grey skirt and an equally dusky shirt tied at the waist; Sobule, still radiantly blond, was in a short, summery blue print dress with red trim.
I didn't really know what to expect; how does a show featuring both a monologist and a musician structure itself? But it became apparent fairly quickly that the framework of the show was fluid, allowing both performers to engage the audience--and each other--as the spirit moved them; with the result that they often seemed as surprised as the audience with the direction it took.
After an opening theme song in which the women declared their mutual ardor (Sobule: "I'm a big fan, I even rented Pat"), Sobule opened with a song from her new album, "Where Is Bobbie Gentry?" a paean to the country-pop diva that's set to the chord changes of her 1967 mega-hit, "Ode to Billie Joe." "I'm the baby who was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge," she sang, and while it got a laugh--it's a camp reference, isn't it?--it's also confessional: Sobule was paying tribute to her influences, a bit self-consciously because she's aware of having surpassed them. (Later, Joey Heatherton was invoked as well.)
This led to Sweeney musing darkly on the "scrutiny that fame brings" and how her goal was accordingly "to get a lot of fame and then withdraw myself from it" to demonstrate her disdain. Again, the expressive Sweeney shrug--this time saying, Oh well, that didn't work out. She's an absolute master of this kind of offhand self-mockery, and manages to deliver it disarmingly sweetly, without any trace of mawkish humility. She struck a similar note in her story of attending the 25th anniversary of Saturday Night Live on her own, only to take refuge for more than an hour in the otherwise empty studio because the ferocious social Darwinism on display at the pre-party was just too much for her.
Throughout the night, there was a kind of loose reciprocity to Sobule's songs and Sweeney's stories; nothing so rigid as a thematic back-and-forth--just enough resonance to keep the whole thing coherent. Sweeney, for instance, delivered a painfully funny piece on how she belatedly tried to bring her adopted daughter, Mulan, up to speed on American Christmas traditions (something she'd resisted earlier because, she says, Santa Claus is just "a starter god"). Mulan's sheer horror at the idea of there being an old man somewhere who is "always watching you" and who will creep into their house on Christmas night eventually evolved into a realization that it's all just a myth, and then again, in the paradoxical way of children, into feigned belief (so that she can fit in with her peers). Sobule followed, entirely appropriately, with a lovely number in which she sang "I wonder where the wonder wandered off to."
Mulan herself appeared at the break to push CD sales, and was breathless in her excitement that she could give us a $5 discount. It's hard to resist a sales pitch from an eight-year-old. Not that there was much resistance on offer, by that point.
Sweeney's mother is one of the more memorable "characters" from her one-woman shows and I was glad that a few more anecdotes about that inimitable lady found their way into the second half; but I hadn't expected Jill's mother to make an even more indelible appearance. At the end of Sobule's song about having had to wear orthopedic shoes as a child ("Big shoes, I'll never forgive / My mother made me wear big shoes"), Sweeney held her cell phone up to the mic so that Jill's mother could rap a rebuttal ("Big shoes, if I hadn't made you / You'd be wearing Dr. Scholl's today").
By the end of the evening, it felt as though we'd had a kind of catharsis, despite the lightness of tone and the often meandering subject matter; but then these are two powerful, confident performers at the top of their game--who, in addition, complement each other wonderfully (Sweeney's warmth, for instance, balancing Sobule's folk-goddess coolness).
I'd come in the company of my friends Annie and Kevin, who are friends of Julia's through her husband Michael, and who had spent the previous day taking both Jill and Julia through the Art Institute--which Annie, as an art archivist, knows as expertly as most of us know Wrigleyville side streets on game day. That's a lot of Jill and Julia for a single weekend. Funny, then, how much I envied them.