by Mike Corrigan

Every Sunday evening in Dempsey's ground-floor lounge, chanteuse ABBEY CRAWFORD takes the stage and engages the crowd -- sometimes a handful of family and friends, sometimes a packed house -- with her charm, wit and extraordinary set of pipes. Alone with a microphone, bathed in white light, cradled by purple sequined curtains and backed by a karaoke machine, she is nothing less than mesmerizing. Life here's a cabaret, old chum, a live, intimate and emotional experience for those willing to brave the lonely, deserted streets of this ghost world at weekend's end.

Crawford's cabaret has been a popular weekly fixture at Dempsey's since early last March.

"It was kind of out of the blue," she says, describing how the whole crazy cabaret thing came to be. "[Dempsey's management] wanted me to do something, and I had taken over a show from the drag queens when they were gone. But I'm so different as far as what I do. And I wasn't in drag, of course."

Crawford is the genuine article. Her voice is resonant and soothing. Her between-song banter further lulls the audience into a state of ease. Her modesty and willingness to indulge her fans' many requests are endearing.

"I'd always wanted to do something for myself, but I never really expected that, in Spokane, I would have a show once a week where I get to sing whatever I the hell I want, mess up and they'd still be happy."

Crawford, it turns out, is her own most severe critic.

On this night, during an a cappella rendition of "Danny Boy," she stops midway through, chooses another key, one that better suits the dynamics of the song, and begins again. Though her first run was, in my opinion, note perfect (if a tad strained), by the time she got to the bridge of the second version, it was clear that, as her rich, silky voice assuredly filled the lounge, the decision to restart was an insightful one.

"I like being comfortable enough to do what I need to do," she says. "If I screw up a song, I'm going to stop it and do it better. I would rather acknowledge it instead of pretending it didn't happen. I hate doing songs badly."

Crawford has been singing since age 4 but claims to never have had any formal vocal training.

"I did have someone help me with breathing," she admits. "But what I do mostly is listen to other people and learn from them."

Her family moved to Spokane when she was 16. Her first big break came in a school play with the role of Maria from The Sound of Music.

"They made me a nun," laughs Crawford, who is also a familiar presence in the local theater community. "I was a little confused about that."

Her repertoire includes "anything that catches my fancy" -- mostly show tunes, jazz standards, contemporary and even a little rock and country. Tonight she performed "Cabaret," "In My Life" and a version of "Suddenly Seymour" (from the off-Broadway musical --and later, film -- Little Shop of Horrors) as a vocal duet with her soundman and fianc & eacute;, Billy Heim.

After her Dec. 9 show (a huge, recurring cavalcade of local singers and thespians Crawford calls "Abbey and Friends"), she's taking a month-long break to get married, among other things. But Crawford will be back in February with batteries charged and undoubtedly a few new tunes to try out on the benevolent Dempsey's crowd.

"Cabaret is live, intimate entertainment where anyone can come and be comfortable," she explains. "I want people to come in and listen and feel the intimacy and friendliness of each other and be happy with how they are. They don't have to be a certain way or look a certain way or feel that they have to tip me. But this is a very generous audience."

"I love it," she adds. "And if you love something, then it's going to be better."

Abbey Crawford performs cabaret at Dempsey's every Sunday evening through Dec. 9 at 7 pm. No Cover. Call: 747-5362.

Northwest Winterfest @ Spokane County Fair & Expo Center

Fridays, 5-8 p.m., Saturdays, 4-8 p.m. and Sundays, 3-6 p.m. Continues through Jan. 1
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