Janis Ian at the Birchmere
Sunday, August 17, 2008 at 11:09AM
Stephen Brookes

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • August 9, 2008


It hasn't been easy being Janis Ian. Catapulted to world fame (and controversy) before she was 16, the singer-songwriter went on to sell more than 10 million records and win multiple Grammy Awards. But then the dark days arrived -- abusive marriage, financial ruin, daunting health problems -- followed, finally, by happiness, with her 2003 marriage to longtime partner Patricia Snyder.

Now comfortably gray-haired at 57, Ian recalled that roller-coaster life on Thursday night at the Birchmere, in a gentle but frequently compelling performance that blurred the line between story and song. Thankfully, she's no longer the self-absorbed teenager of her breakout 1967 hit, "Society's Child." Instead, Ian has grown into a funny, self-effacing and slightly rueful storyteller, dropping a few famous names here and there but focusing more on the challenges of ordinary life.

And though she sang only a dozen songs over the two-hour set, she gave each one a thoughtful, lengthy introduction that added powerfully to the impact. Alone onstage with a black acoustic guitar, Ian talked about being booed off the stage as a teenager by racist hecklers while singing "Society's Child," about recovering from heartbreak with "Silly Habits," about the slow death of her mother from multiple sclerosis (addressed in "I Hear You Sing Again") and about hitting bottom ("Days Like These").

She also sang her most famous hits, including drop-dead-beautiful versions of "Jesse" and the iconic "At Seventeen." But her hilarious, quick-witted "My Autobiography" may have been the most charming song of the evening -- especially its suggestion that Sigourney Weaver play her in the movie version of her life.

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