Lisa E. (for Engelken), whimsical lead singer of the Zimmermans, is leaving D.C. to pursue a theater career in New York. “I want to branch out,” she says, “see what’s out there.” While the 32-year-old Engelken has not yet quit the Zims, her new logistics render the band’s future uncertain. “We don’t really know what the hell is going on,” says bassist John Young, who helped form the group six years ago. Engelken broke the news to members of the jazz-influenced band on Sept. 13Friday, that is.
In addition to her Zimmermans gig, Engelken has kept busy the past few years working at the National Endowment for the Arts, fronting a Birmingham, Ala., band, and performing in local theater productions. But she confesses to feeling artistically unchallenged as of late. “I just feel like I’ve been sucked dry, and I sucked everybody dry. I feel very uninspired,” she says. Soon after settling in New York she’ll begin directing a play about the life of a gay prostitute.
Fans of the apostrophe-eyebrowed Engelken and her avant-garde act might assume she was hatched in some bohemian Manhattan enclave. But they would be wrong. The singer, last of 13 children, grew up on a 240-acre family farm in Kansas and spent summers baling alfalfa and popping heads off chickens. Most every family member played an instrument or sang, and the Engelkens “monopolized performances” at church and school, she says.
There was no hint of backstage melodrama when the Zimmermans performed at the Black Cat Friday night. Guitarist Jonathan Spottiswoode attacked his instrument like a mad surgeon and bled it beautifully. The band’s signature horn section (saxophonist Candace Debartolo and trumpeter Kevin Cordt) was enhanced by former Zims trumpet player Tom Watson, who guested. Drummer Tim Vaill sluiced through syncopated changes like water through a rocky streambed.
Lisa E., for her part, was enjoyably hammy, sashaying onto stage in a vintage lime-green dress with chiffon overlay and a frightening blond wig. Her quirky dance moves, borrowed from Tina Turner and perhaps some whirling dervishes, kept the audience amused, as did the chanteuse persona she adopted for lounge tunes. But as usual it was the singer’s strong, nicotine-cured pipes and fearless vocal creativity that carried her performance.
Engelken referred to her impending move only once during the show. “So will you all come visit me in New York?” she asked the audience, which responded with a cheer. (Engelken’s response: “Yeah? All at once?”) But when she sang “It Is Time,” from the band’s first CD, Cut, Engelken could not help lifting an eyebrow. “When you’ve done your tour,” she sang, “when there’s nothing more, when you’ve seen, heard, and swallowed it all before…it is time.”