It’s hard to think about Bill Murray and not immediately flash to his iconic roles in films like “Ghostbusters,” “Groundhog Day” and “Caddyshack,” among dozens of others, including his Academy Award-nominated turn in “Lost in Translation.”

In his early days on “Saturday Night Live,” he played a character called Nick The Lounge Singer, but Bill Murray as a serious singer? Or Bill Murray as a dramatic reciter of famous literary works? Turns out he can wear those hats quite well, too.

About 600 or so people were curious enough to attend the Monday night performance at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, and from the reception the show received, it was a decidedly pleasant surprise.

Last fall, Murray and cellist Jan Vogler, who had met by chance on an airplane, released an album called “New Worlds,” and on it is music by composers including Bach, Gershwin, Schubert, Ravel, Bernstein and others played by Vogler, violinist Mira Wang and pianist Vanessa Perez. These pieces are paired with Murray’s reading of works by Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain and James Thurber. It’s an interesting album, to say the very least, and they’ve been on the road the past several months in support of it. The Portland show was the final stop on the North American tour.

The show began with Murray, dressed in black trousers, a colorful patterned shirt and black suit jacket, reading excerpts from George Plimpton’s interview with Hemingway for The Paris Review. The piece had humorous elements, such as Hemingway talking about his terrible cello-playing skills, which gave way to Vogler playing his cello incredibly well with Bach’s Prelude from Cello Suite No. 1.

From there, Murray recited from Whitman’s “Song of Myself” with the line: “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” The reading was downright poignant, and it humanized Murray, taking him from a larger-than-life movie star to a gentle soul reading some of his favorite writing and later singing some of his favorite songs. In fact, this gentleness was a running theme throughout the evening. This was not a night of one-liners and re-created movie moments; this was something entirely different. It was also a welcome escape from the endless cycle of heart-rending breaking news that has become the norm.


And guess what else. Bill Murray can sing. It would be a stretch to call him an excellent vocalist, but he was good enough to be enjoyable. The first song he sang was George Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from “Porgy and Bess.” His delivery was, at times, campy and theatrical, and also a bit reminiscent of Randy Newman. Murray had the houselights brought up and invited us to sing along with him on it. “Not bad, but not really good either” was his good-natured response to our efforts.

Murray also sang Stephen Foster’s mid-1800s tune “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” which led to a song that wasn’t mentioned in the program but was a welcome addition to the set list: “The Piano Has Been Drinking” by Tom Waits. Perhaps Murray’s finest vocal moment of the night was on Van Morrison’s “When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God.” Backed by the piano and strings, the song brought the house down, and while we were still feeling the afterglow, Vogler played Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” which was paired with a reading by Murray from Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that went on a bit too long.

“If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” by Thurber was the funniest reading of the evening, a fictional tale about Ulysses S. Grant being mighty sauced when Gen. Robert E. Lee came calling.

The program ended with the lively medley of “Somewhere,” “I Feel Pretty” and “America” from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” during which Murray pranced around the stage and busted out assorted accents. But the show was far from over, and since it was the last night of the tour, Murray and company were in no hurry to leave the stage.

The first encore was the traditional Scottish tune “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond,” and Murray’s delivery was gentle and sincere. This was another one during which the houselights were brought up and we were invited to sing along. It was a lovely moment.

From there, Murray sang one of the most revered songs the past 50 years: John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery.” It’s hard not to love this song even when sung by someone who maybe should have passed on it. All was redeemed, however, with a rousing, crowd-pleasing rendition of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?” And that still wasn’t the end. In one of the most surprising numbers of the evening, Murray sang the Marty Robbins classic “El Paso” and really belted it out, holding notes when he had to, as he sang the dramatically tragic love song.

Murray ended the night by tossing roses to the audience from the stage, then roaming around the auditorium and handing them out. It was a classy way to end a show that was an unexpectedly gratifying and uplifting way to spend two hours.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: