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Taking the Bar

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Two years ago Tracy Retchin was a self-described homemaker. On July 27 she opens for Natalie Cole at Fridays at Sunset. It's not as unlikely as it seems for a woman whose life has been anything but ordinary.

At first it seems like no one is listening at Retchin's monthly Wednesday gig at Cabo's. Near the entrance, the music is mere background, echoing off the stamped copper ceilings and seeping through the conversations. Moving deeper, closer to the stage, everything begins to revolve around the slim blond singer at the grand piano.

Retchin plays with fluent articulation, polishing and ornamenting pop melodies in the orchestral style of Elton John. She leans into the mike to slip a greeting to a friend and pulls back when the vocals swell, navigating through the set with smiling, professional ease.

"I'm really exited about how the music feels," Retchin says. "The songs I choose are not super-trendy -- a lot of power ballads and some fun pop songs."

Her models are a classic mix of singer-songwriters: Carole King, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and the Beatles, Burt Bacharach and Paul Simon. "I just watched a PBS special about Simon," Retchin says. "I remember meeting him at the Grammys when I was just a kid, and he seemed like a really nice guy."

There are few children in the rarefied audience at the Grammys, but then again, few performers have followed Retchin's path to the stage. She grew up in Los Angeles, the precociously talented daughter of an entertainment industry lawyer.

"I can't remember not playing piano," she says. But despite years of music lessons with top instructors, she majored in political science at UCLA. After graduation, she moved to Paris, where she'd spent her junior year abroad. She worked in a law office by day and sang in a club at night.

Her expatriate adventure ended when she returned to the States and more conventional accomplishments — earning a degree from Georgetown Law, joining the bar, and marrying Sheldon Retchin, a man she describes as "the funniest comedian I've ever met," better known as the chief executive of the VCU Health System.

And so she became a suburban mother, with three children and a West End house with a swimming pool and a grand piano named, after Bette Midler and its Steinway model designation, "the Divine Miss M."

At Cabo's, Retchin weaves her own songs with familiar pop hits. The balance shifts increasingly to originals as the night progresses, including the idealistic "Hold on to Love," "You Are Everything to Me" (dedicated to her husband) and "By Your Side," a tribute to nurses. All are pretty, conventionally structured, mid-tempo ballads, delivered on a bed of rounded melodies with heartfelt sincerity.

And all are on her new CD, "Keys to the Mirror," to be released at her concert on the 27th. Given her pop role models and her Top 40 craftsmanship, could it become a runaway hit? "I don't have any illusions about the music industry," Retchin says. "I just want my songs to be heard."

Her husband, in sunglasses and backward baseball cap, joins her onstage for a couple of numbers, playing blues harmonica astoundingly well for a high-level executive. In the audience, her young twin sons amuse themselves with cards, while her more sophisticated 14-year-old daughter seems to cast a critical partisan's eye on the performance.

The only false note is Retchin's version of Carole King's "It's Too Late." The familiar chords unfold as they should, but her sunny delivery of the sorrowful lyrics is no more convincing than the painting of romantic ruins on the wall behind her. Surrounded by friends and family, it's obvious that this cheerful woman just doesn't believe it's too late. Why should she? S

Tracy Retchin opens for Natalie Cole with Art Sherrod at Fridays at Sunset at Kanawha Plaza, July 27 at 6 p.m. Tickets are $26. Call 644-8515 or visit www.fridaysatsunset.com.

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