By the time Eleni Mandell, in a vibrant green dress that had belonged to her mother, emblazoned back and front with the image of a leopard, took the Bootleg Theater stage at the end of Wednesday evening’s “Unsung Heroes” concert, she’d been quite well-sung. The veteran Los Angeles songwriter and performer, cherished by her circle of friends and fans but largely unknown outside of that, was the hero in question of this latest in a series of occasional tribute concerts. And every one of the performances this night — every word, every note sung — was hers.
Before her had come a dozen others, bringing to vivid life their contributions to the just-released album being celebrated on night, “Unsung Heroes: Songs of Eleni Mandell” — all put together by her longtime friend and Living Sisters sibling Inara George, and all benefiting the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Jackson Browne was the big name, and he and his band’s smoldering tour through the dark, complex contours of Mandell’s “My Twin” was a clear highlight, with Jonathan Wilson making a guest appearance.
But every song, every performer nailed it. The other two Living Sisters, Becky Stark and Alex Lilly — plus Steve Gregoropoulous, Priscilla Ahn, Mike Andrews, Samantha Sidley, Philip Littell, John Gold, Wendy Wang and Gus Seyffert — honored their friend with what can only be termed love. And wrapping it up was a masterful, engaging four-song set by the tributee herself, bracketed by her brand-new “Don’t Forget How Good It Is” (written the day after the election, with hopes that Mavis Staple might one day sing it, she said) and her old twangy, menacing “Pauline.”
Even before it all started, it was rather overwhelming to Mandell. As she moved through the various warrens of the Bootleg complex earlier Wednesday evening, there was a lot for her to take in. In the artists lounge, a string quartet worked out the fine points of some arrangements. At the ping-pong table nearby, three musicians ran through some harmonies. In the club’s front room, another pair reviewed their song for the night. And on stage in the main room, Browne and band were doing a dynamic soundcheck, while various other performers and associates mingled and kibitzed through the complex.
“It’s humbling that these people from my community would put this effort into my songs,” she said as preparations were underway.
She also used the words terrifying, embarrassing and nerve-wracking in describing the feelings she was experiencing. But the winning word, she said, was exciting. This kind of tribute isn’t the norm for someone who while respected as a performer and songwriter of depth and distinction inside that community, is largely unknown outside of it, even after many years and many albums of estimable artistry.
To have my peers and friends put so much love and heart into it — I guess I did something after all.
“The most amazing thing about this is feeling validated,” she said. She’s been making great albums for two decades, mentored by such figures as Chuck E. Weiss and Tom Waits early on, but long-ago developing her own set of supreme sensibilities. “I haven’t ‘made it.’ I have not made a lot of money. To have my peers and friends put so much love and heart into it — I guess I did something after all.”
That conclusion was clearly the theme of the night.
“She’s a very powerful woman, even though sometimes she doesn’t think she is,” said George, introducing her opening version of the gorgeously melancholy “Yellow Light,” accompanied by a string quartet. “The first time I heard this I thought, ‘Jesus Christ! This is the most amazing song I’ve heard.”
The notion of someone being under-appreciated is a tricky thing. There are just so many factors that go into it, so many elements of pure chance. But it’s very fair to say that Mandell’s recognition, outside of he immediate group of peers, friends and some long-time fans, is nowhere near commensurate with her gifts as a songwriter and performer.
This night, though, the cumulative impact of Mandell’s work was impressive and profound, the performances all deftly showcasing both her sharp sensibilities and artistry, as well as each performer’s insightful ability to both showcase and personalize them. It wasn’t as easy as it looked. These are songs that in both narrative and melody loop around, stretch and zig-zag and then when you’re not fully aware double back to hit you from behind. These are sneak attacks.
That’s the effect “My Twin” had on Browne after George asked him to do it for the project. Chatting before the show in the Bootleg’s front room, he was deeply thoughtful diving into just how “My Twin,” picked for him by George, grabbed hold of him.
It was like being cast in a role.
“I honestly didn’t know what to make of the song,” he said of his first reaction. “But it was like being cast in a role. It began coming more and more from me.”
The narrative took him by surprise.
“Imagining you have a twin who is somehow a victim of all these disasters, or might be,” he said. “Which is deep. It speaks to the fact that all this bad stuff happens, and good God, we all knew someone who was in the World Trade Center, or another disaster. Or eventually we will.”
He considered the connections to these overwhelming things that we all share.
“The song is very mesmerizing — I was mesmerized by the possibility of being involved in that bad stuff.”
It was a common theme.
“First time I heard her was 2007 — ‘Whoa! What a songwriter!’” said Sidley, before the show, adding that when she met Mandell through George a bit later she was nervous, but was immediately made to feel welcome.
For her too, it was the darkness of the songs that grabbed her. Of the song, “Dreamboat,” which in the show she would give a sultry, torchy twist, she said, “I relate to the tragedy. I always do. It’s about loss and longing and absence of love.”
Stark, who performed a sweet, ethereal “Moonglow Lamp Low” with Nate Walcott, the singer adorably holding their 9-month-old daughter Aurora as she sang, said earlier, “Eleni’s songs are so …” She paused for thought. “So sublime. You can really take them and have them in your heart as your own song, which makes it a classic song.”
But she too finds the shadows of the songs tantalizing: “I think it’s good to be able to delve into the darkened depths of Eleni’s writing. The darkness is very cathartic.”
There’s another aspect to this darkness that came through this night as well.
“Eleni is one of the sexiest songwriters I’ve heard,” George said as soundcheck went on. “She has a way with double-entendres and innuendo that’s amazing, and she has this whole pallet of chords that’s hers.”
Eleni does sexy-sad really well. Or sad-sexy. It hurts, but really good.
Or as Lilly succinctly put it, introducing her lithely bossa nova take on “Strangers,” “Eleni does sexy-sad really well. Or sad-sexy. It hurts, but really good.”
For the star of the night there was also an oddness to it all, an “out of body” quality, she said, as if after all this time her songs were going off into the world through the voices and sensibilities of others. “Wow! Did I write that?” she said on stage about hearing all the others do her songs. “I was so sad when I wrote that.”
But there was more to it than that. Before the show she mused in appreciative wonder, “To hear Jackson Browne sing my words, it’s like it’s not my song anymore.”
She paused and sighed, thrilled that her songs could have that kind of life, fuller than she’d imagined.