Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Frank Wakefield Photo

Based on his comment on this post, I was taking a look today at my friend Steve Ide's photos from this year's Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.

He really captured wild mandolinist Frank Wakefield perfectly in this one:

Check out the rest at 2008joeval.weebly.com.

Richard Shindell's Blog

Richard Shindell has started a new blog. So far, he has posted a long meditation about file sharing and a short on-the-scene report from Argentina vis-a-vis some of the recent protests there over agriculture.

I was most surprised to read the following: "That copy is what economists call a non-excludable, intangible, non-rival good." And worlds collide.

On a Completely Different Note...

I am thoroughly enjoying the Duke Ellington Birthday Broadcast on WKCR today. It lasts until midnight EDT. I think that my understanding of Ellington's style has been very limited in the past; today's broadcast has exposed me to some of his music that is more discordant and rhythmically aggressive than the music I associate with him. Quality stuff.

If you fail to catch the broadcast this year, tune in next April 29th. It will be there then from 12:00 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. (at least).

Sadly, WKCR does not have a Willie Nelson or Rev. Gary Davis Birthday Broadcast slotted for tomorrow, although I have wanted to put the latter together for years and just haven't gotten my act together to do it.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Greatest Resophonic Guitar Player on the Planet

Last Wednesday night, Allan and I made our way to B.B. King's for a night of country and newgrass music. I think that's what you might call it. I'm not really sure.

The opening act was The Wrights -- in their New York City debut! Adam and Shannon Wright are a husband-and-wife songwriting team from Nashville. They opened their set with the only song of theirs that I would know: "You're the Kind of Trouble," a terrific tune that Solomon Burke put on his masterful Nashville CD. (That disc, recorded at Buddy and Julie Miller's house with an all-star cast of musicians is a really fine collection of music and highly recommended.) After having opened with one of their songs that has been recorded by someone else, they segued into an unusual cover song of their own, giving us their take on Boston-based alternative rock group Morphine's song "In Spite of Me." They did a pretty nice job with that one.

They talked about being from Georgia and sang "On the Rocks," after telling the New York City crowd that it was "not like crack." That was a jazzy, nightclub-style duet between the two. Two more covers appeared later in the set: Linda Rondstadt's "These Memories of You" from the Trio album with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris and "In the Summertime," a Roger Miller song. They wrapped up the set with a song that Adam had written for Shannon called "You Got the Thorns" (with the lyric concluding "I got the rose.").

Their set was fine, but the stage at B.B. King's kind of ate them up. They simply did not have the stage presence to really lure the crowd in. So people sat and listened relatively politely but did not get all that excited about the set. The Wrights seemed lost on the big stage and let some downtime slip in between songs. It reminded me of Shaz Oye's opening set before Black 47's St. Patrick's Day set, where the B.B. King's stage with its two screens and constant light show had similarly eaten up a performer made for a more intimate venue.

When Jerry Douglas and his band took the stage, however, they were in full command of the room. They opened with a real spacegrass number: "Unfolding," a tune written by bassist Edgar Meyer and featuring a marvelous bass solo by Jerry Douglas Band member Todd Parks. (Sadly, after this fantastic opening solo, Todd Parks really didn't get to show off his stuff again during the show.) "The Wild Rumpus" and "We Hide and Seek" followed. The melodic figure in "We Hide and Seek" is super-inviting, this slowly descending ripple of music, essentially three notes with a couple of grace notes thrown in that keeps coming back.

Luke Bulla on fiddle consistently impressed throughout the night. From "Unfolding" onto "Route Irish" (a tune written by Jerry Douglas for the troops in Iraq and referring to the road from the airport to the Green Zone), his playing was dead on. Vocal duties also were his, so Luke sang Johnny Cash's "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" (on which Flux switched to a lap steel) and later a song called "The Suit." His voice is quite pleasant, although the Johnny Cash song stands out in my mind as a little too pretty, and the other song has not stayed with me.

Jerry Douglas's introductions to the songs were spoken slowly and with rural grit. After introducing "The Emphysema Two-Step" with the story of it being a response to a joke by an unnamed accordion player about "The Emphysema Waltz," he said, "Nice talkin' to you." I was able to later twice get Allan to laugh out loud during quiet moments in the show by repeating this simple phrase.

Introducing a tune by the jazz fusion band Weather Report, Jerry quoted some wise words from long-time Bill Monroe fiddler Kenny Baker: "You put too many chords in your number, you'll ruin your number." But they pressed ahead anyway under the guitar leadership of Guthrie Trapp, who had some mighty fast fingers but played in the "get as many notes in as you can without concern for phrasing or flavor" style that Cody Kilby also favors. I bow down at his virtuosity, but I can't entirely get behind it at the same time. It seems like it's not put to the best use possible.

Jazz also reared its head (overtly -- it was all over the place obviously) in the form of "Cave Bop," a song that Jerry wrote after -- this is what he told us -- imbibing some magical substances at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and having a dream in which Fred Flintstone and Charlie Parker were riding in Fred Flintstone's car, which was being pushed along by Barney Rubble. Whoa. This was followed by the Alison Krauss + Union Station setlist standard "The Choctaw Hayride." The encore included "Patrick Meets the Bricbats" and one other tune.

The show was solid, but not out-of-this-world. I would have taken one or two more vocal numbers. After all, Flux does some of his finest work when he's backing up Dan Tyminski and Alison Krauss or playing with Peter Rowan. It would be great if he could incorporate this into his own band, too. Luke Bulla really did impress me, both with his fiddling and his smooth vocals, and Todd Park's opening bass solo was terrific. And at the end of the day, Jerry Douglas is the greatest resophonic guitar player on the planet, so one needs to sit back and soak that in whenever possible.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Scenes from This Morning's Moonshine Show

This morning on the Moonshine Show, I was joined by clawhammer guitarist Alec Stone Sweet. He plays an extremely unique guitar style that builds off of clawhammer banjo playing. He uses only his thumb and index finger on his right hand and then does a ton of hard work with his left hand in terms of pull-offs and hammer-ons. He strings his guitar with a skinny first string in the sixth string spot and uses a lot of drone notes to get the haunted, modal sound of the Appalachian hills. It is very original material and well worth checking out.

For the second half of the show, the Columbia University undergraduate bluegrass ensemble, Lion in the Grass, played a full set of music from our main studio. These kids get credit -- academic credit, I mean -- for playing bluegrass. They did a nice set of bluegrass classics: "Back Up and Push," "Fox on the Run," a banjoless version of "Talk of the Town," a beautiful duet version of "Lay Down My Old Guitar," "Drifting Too Far from the Shore," "Big Spike Hammer" and "Wreck on the Highway," and then they wrapped up with a version of Frank Wakefield's "New Camptown Races." There were a lot of them!

Thanks to Dan Shapiro for coming by and taking some photographs!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

What's for Breakfast?

Wow. People are blogging about what they eat while listening to the Moonshine Show. And including photos no less.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Transplanted Minnesotan in New York

A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a young man named Carl Creighton asking if he could make an appearance on the Moonshine Show to promote his upcoming CD release party. I took a cursory listen to the tracks on his MySpace page and wrote back saying, "Sorry, kid, you need a few more banjos and mandolins to be Moonshine material. But I'll make a note of the show in my calendar." Well, I did write down the gig in my calendar, but I didn't actually expect to go.

However, a later e-mail from Teddy Goldstein, an old friend from the Postcrypt days and an artist that Ellen used to do some booking for, said that he was playing the Living Room on the same night. So I figured that I would check out the evening. (Of course, the usual New York scene prevailed at the venue -- the folks who had come to hear Carl mostly got up and left when Teddy hit the stage, and a new crowd of Teddy Goldstein fans came in to take their seats. Neither artist made reference to each other during their set. And so goes the New York acoustic scene.)

Carl Creighton's set was a very pleasant surprise. He started off on piano and switched to guitar for the majority of the set with a brief visit back to the piano. He had a bassist and a drummer playing with him, and a couple of guest harmony vocalists graced the stage over the course of the night (Erin Regan and also Mimi Lavalley, who herself has recently appeared on the Moonshine Show with the band Hogzilla). The sound of the band was straight ahead, and they played together well. The best part was that Carl's vocals stayed very clear and out front of the band -- dynamically speaking, not rhythmically speaking -- this was great because this guy has some clever lyrics up his sleeve.

As far as I can remember, Carl played exclusively songs from the new CD Minnesota -- this being a CD release party and all. The two main themes of the CD are that of boy from Minnesota making his way in the big city and the family that Carl has left behind, including a sister who died.

The first song on the CD, "Smoking is Ugly," jumps right into the first theme with its chorus of "If money's an issue in New York, / You can go back to where you're from. / Mother's holding down the fort, / Sending you props so you will come back home." The second verse nicely describes paying too much for coffee, tipping the waitress for being pretty and giving her a gig flyer in the hopes that she'll come.

Similarly, both the title track, "Minnesota," and a song called "El Paso," look outward to those places from New York.

"Minnesota" is sung with a haunting Great Plains pace and a beautifully sparse piano accompaniment. A verse that comes around twice is

"'Cause my home is in Minnesota --
You can't compete with 10,000 lakes.
And I won't regret one iota;
I've already made my fair share of mistakes."

But the real kicker is the chorus that gets altered a little bit each time:

"If I ever do come back to you sometime,
Momma's going to worry herself sick.
If I ever do come back to you sometime,
You're going to have to be less of a prick,"

and then

"If I ever do come back to you sometime,
It'll be to visit, not to stay."

"El Paso" similarly is about trying to figure out where you belong. Over the course of the song, the lines, "We weren't meant for this town; / You were meant for me," evolve into the repeated demand at the end of the song, "We weren't meant for this town; / We were meant for us."

In a more whimsical song, Carl pontificates on the existence and extinction of lightbulbs:

"There's a lightbulb in the garbage
Waiting to be taken out
To meet all its fallen brothers
That it left back in aisle nine
When some sucker came and bought it
For to burn bright and die a sudden death."

The chorus on "Never Gave You My Guitar" has a few clever turns of phrase and seems like one that many of us can identify with:

"Sure I could play 'Sweet Jane' or 'Heart and Soul,'
But the quarter notes don't make me whole.
I need a left hand to play to my right.
Sure I could play 'Sweet Jane' or 'Heart and Soul,'
Before the liquor finally takes its toll.
I think I'll cover Leonard Cohen and call it a night."

(Leonard Cohen also gets name checked in the song "Live Tonight" on the CD.)

One of the nicest things about Carl's compositional style is his wise use of rhythm. On different songs, he arranges the words in such a way that you don't get what your ear is expecting. This is never done in a jarring way; rather, Carl is able to add emphasis to his lyrics through his vocal phrasing in a way that many more established musicians should find themselves envious of.

Teddy Goldstein's set was very similar to one that I heard him perform at the Living Room back in January. As in that set, he had the excellent bassist Tim Luntzel playing with him on the upright bass, although I felt that back in January, Teddy let Tim open up a bit more on bass -- I was dying for Teddy to throw him a solo because I really do dig his playing.

With Teddy taking requests, I asked for "Refugee" from The Love Lot CD, and Teddy obliged, although he forgot the third verse, and I could be of no help there, so I ended up feeling bad about the request. (In retrospect, I think I should have asked for "Montana," a great tune that I haven't heard him play in a while.) Some other audience members asked for "Off-Road Automobile" from Teddy's first CD, which is a solid tongue-in-cheek song about trying to figure out whether or not you should trade your baby in.

And after Teddy's set ended, rather than sticking around to see who was next -- certainly no one announced the name of the performer -- I did the New York thing and headed out into the lovely spring evening air.

Carl Creighton's next gig is at Fat Baby on May 3rd. I've only been there once -- to see Mother Banjo! What a show that was!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Graduate Students with Too Much Time on Their Hands

On his development blog, Chris Blattman posted some links to two recent music videos produced by graduate students in Berkeley's economics department: "(I Can't Write No) Dissertation" and "Stronger." (For those of you not hip to maximum likelihood estimation techniques, I fear that many of the jokes will be lost, however.)

These reminded me of some classics from the Columbia Business School: "Dean, Dean Baby" and "Every Breath You Take."

Now you know what graduate students do all day. (And professors and deans, too, apparently.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Rose Cousins and Edie Carey in Portland

Alright, I have been shamefully absent here, and all I can say in my defense is that I just bought a house and that was somewhat time-consuming. BUT, I did have a chance to discover a great new singer-songwriter last Thursday at Portland's Mississippi Studios. Her name is Rose Cousins, she's from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and she shared a bill with headliner/longtime favorite of mine, Edie Carey (probably one of the most frequently promoted Shining City artists, up there with Tracy Grammer, Myshkin and maybe Jeffrey Foucault.). Rachael Sage played a set in between.

Now Edie had been telling me about Rose for years, but I had never managed to hear her. She is the real deal in the singer-songwriter category. She really blew me away (and this does not happen often), and the friend I brought fell in love with her, too. She has a voice that you could listen to forever, and she has the folk-pop songwriting things nailed. Honest vulnerable lyrics and catchy choruses. And, the best dry sense of humor. One, in fact, extremely similar to Edie's (and I have always said she makes me laugh more than most people in the world). They were on stage together a good amount of the time, and the harmonies and banter were priceless; they absolutely nailed both.

And, at the end of the night, they did a cover of the 80s hit "Broken Wings" by Mister Mister. You know, Take these broken wings, and learn to fly again, learn to live so free... They had everyone belting it out. And admit it, there's nothing more fun than singing cheesy 80s songs at the top of your lungs, or hearing your favorite artists make the song sound way better than it ever was before.

I would highly recommend that anyone reading this go order Rose's most recent album, If You Were For Me, right now (also available on iTunes). It's won a slew of Canadian music awards and is just gorgeous. Plus, I am fond of the cover art.

Rose and Edie are currently touring the southwest (CA, AZ, NM), and you really owe it to yourself to see them together. I'm sure it'll happen again in other parts of both their countries, if you miss them this time. After this tour, Rose will be at Club Passim in Cambridge MA on May 2 and Edie heads to the Midwest (and is pretty much on tour all summer and at all times).

I promise to try to post more often here, and am probably prone to writing mostly about female singer-songwriters, but if you miss me, you can visit my personal blog or my business web site. See sidebar.

Tongue of Wood

My pseudononymous friend Divad Snevets has started a new Onion-style blog called Tongue of Wood. Check it out.

The Irish Have Been Coming Here for Years

As the previous posts on this blog suggest, I can often be found at the more hip and exclusive folk music venues around town. This was again the case on Sunday afternoon when I found my way into the rec room of the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, the Upper East Side equivalent of a senior citizens' center, to hear a touch of Celtic music.

Although I was a minority in the age demographic, everyone started having a grand time as soon as Munnelly, Flaherty and Masure took the stage. I had seen accordionist David Munnelly play with his full band this past summer at the Old Songs Festival, where his Friday night concert set was marred by some rather unfortunate sound problems, and the band's discontent with the situation became increasingly apparent over the course of the set. But he had stuck in my mind as a notably energetic and enthusiastic performer, and I was certainly ready to make the trek over to the forbidden land of the Upper East Side to see what he had up his sleeve with this new trio that includes Scottish vocalist Helen Flaherty and Belgian guitarist Philip Masure.

The band opened with a set of reels, and David Munnelly's leg slapped down the beat on the stage with great force--he lets it bang around loosely, like a limberjack's leg--and he would punctuate the tunes with the occasional loud yelp as well. (If you were not paying attention and you heard him do this, you might think that he had caught his nose in his accordion or something.) Then Helen Flaherty showed off her vocal skills on a classic Scottish ballad where the young lady's father kills her suitor and then tries to make recompense, but the daughter is having none of it. Munnelly greeted the applause at the end of this song with an appropriate "T'anks very much!" (I guess he hasn't gotten the memo yet.)

"Dr. Picard," given to a Belgian friend as a birthday gift, was the next tune, and Helen Flaherty started playing some bodhran on it. As she would describe at the end of the concert--when the audience was allowed to ask questions--her bodhran was Bavarian in origin. To me, it seemed much deeper than a typical bodhran, and she also spent a fair amount of time tuning it (sticking her head inside the drum to hear the change in tone), which I have not noticed before at Irish concerts.

Some other nice tunes in the set included a set that began with a Venezuelan dance (simply called "La Partita") and segued into an Irish tune and then a Flemish tune and then another Irish tune. Munnelly let loose a loud scream during that one! And then "Whenever," the title track from their CD, which might have been composed either by David or his brother. As David tells the story, he brought home the tapes from the recording session and started playing them, and his brother said, "Oh, you've recorded my tune!" And David said, "I didn't think so, but maybe I have." David also pointed out for us that CDs are "multi-functional": "You can buy a CD for people you like... or for people you hate!"

A New York composer cropped up at last when David announced, "We're going to really annoy you now by playing two Jewish tunes. The great thing about playing Irish music is that you can play more of other types of music because nobody really wants to hear Irish tunes." These were two Andy Statman tunes--Andy received applause from no one in the audience besides me, I am sad to report--and David had learned them during his time playing with legendary Irish band De Dannan. Philip Masure picked up the cittern for these tunes and for the final set of the afternoon. (During the final set of tunes, he even gracefully shifted capo position mid-set. I always appreciate feats of skill like that.)

David Munnelly introduced that final set by saying, "We're coming to the end of our performance," and then when the sounds of disappointment from the crowd were not as loud as expected, "I said, 'We're coming to the end of our performance here,'" and then finally, "Let's try that again! Say it like you mean it! Raaarh!" And so we did. The band answered a few questions after the performance.

I am pleased to note that they will be making a stop in my future home of Champaign, Illinois, on April 20th, playing at the Piper's Hut. I am pleased to note this because it indicates the presence of an Irish music series in the Champaign-Urbana metropolitan area! Woo!

And finally, for completists, you can find the band's stage specifications and meal preferences here.

Feel Like They Own the Place

Since that afternoon concert clearly was not enough Irish music for me, I joined up with Rebecca and Dan who were going to a session at a pub on 30th Street called The Crooked Knife. (Rebecca was in the midst of a weekend of celebrations surrounding the successful defense of her dissertation. Dan threw quite the party for her on Friday night!) The session had been recommended by their friend Tim who is a guitarist that attends a number of different Irish sessions around the City.

Unfortunately, the band described on the pub's website--Heather Martin Bixler on fiddle, Jon Hicks on guitar and Brian Conway on fiddle--was not the band performing on Sunday night. Instead there was a female vocalist and guitarist and a lead tenor banjo player. Although I never caught their names, they proved ready to put on an enjoyable evening of tunes. The banjo fills and solos were particularly nice.

I mostly did not know the songs that they were playing--and I have no ear for recognizing Irish tunes when they are not being introduced. So the only song from the first set that I really knew was "The Raggle Taggle Gypsy," although several others sounded familiar. When they covered the Saw Doctors' "The Green and Red of Mayo" during their second set, I really started to feel it. And then the next song was a cover of Dougie Maclean's "Caledonia," which is a brilliant song. But the hour was getting late, so we couldn't stick around to see what was next in store for us but rather headed out into the New York night.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Living Room 10th Anniversary Show

Speaking of John Platt, check out the post that he wrote about the Living Room's 10th Anniversary concert. A midnight set by Norah Jones? Sounds like a pretty solid show. I'm sad to say that I missed it.

Already On My Radar: Terence Martin and More

On Tuesday night, I went down to the Living Room to see Terence Martin play. Terence long has been one of my favorite singer-songwriters, and I used to book him at the Postcrypt whenever I could. A published poet and an English teacher, Terence crafts sweet and clever lyrics and puts them into songs that tend to alternate between gently flowing and rollicking. (For instance, tracks two and three on his CD Lost Hills are the slow and slightly mournful "Hank Williams" about someone stealing the tombstone from Hank Williams' grave and the uptempo "East of the River" with its face-changing theme: "You used to be a father / You've always been a son.") I was particularly interested in going to see this show because Terence has a new CD out, Even Trade, and I wanted to hear some songs from it and pick up a copy.

The show, however, was part of WFUV DJ John Platt's On Your Radar series (which used to be called "Under the Radar," but it has received an upgrade in its new home at the Living Room -- it used to take place at the now-defunct Satalla). This meant that there were two other artists -- Kelly Flint and William Hart Strecker -- on the bill and that John Platt would do some interviewing of the artists before each set.

The interview with Terence was interesting because he talked about playing the double-bass in the Burbank Symphony Orchestra, which I had not known about him doing (despite the fact that it is right there in the bio on his website). Asked to cite some songwriting influences, Terence went with Richard Thompson, Greg Brown and Bruce Cockburn. Whoa. That's sounds like a recent Winters Collection CD to me!

Dan Bonis joined Terence on stage. Nearly every time that I have seen Terence, Dan has been with him, playing mandolin, dobro and vintage lap steel guitar. He adds a whole range of nice fills and accents and helps bring out Terence's lyrics just that much more.

Their set started with "I Want Everything" from the new CD, although it is a song that I have heard several times before: "I don't want to be your lover. / I want to be your wedding ring, / Next to you, / Wrapped around your skin. / I don't want much; / I want everything." Then they did "East of the River," "Sleeper" (which is perhaps my all-time favorite Terence Martin song, although "Folding Chairs" is a serious competitor), the title track from the new CD "Even Trade" and then "23rd Street Runs into Heaven." It was a short set, but it was a nice mix of new songs and classics. I was perfectly contented, although I'm looking forward to the next opportunity that I have to see Terence and Dan.

Kelly Flint was the second act of the night. Kelly Flint was the frontwoman for the long-running downtown band Dave's True Story, a group that combined the sound of cool lounge jazz from the 1940s with the ironic New York wit of the 1990s. Dave's True Story were serious Postcrypt mainstays (and appear on the Live at the Postcrypt CD). In fact, they were named at the Postcrypt after someone unceremoniously introduced them by saying, "I've never heard these guys before and I don't know if they're any good, but here they are." When Kelly came around to the last song, "Last Go Round," she said, "This next story is a true story, it's Dave's true story," and someone in the crowd responded, "That's your name!" And so the band was fully born. In conversation with John Platt, Kelly described the original formation of the band under the guiding hand of Richard Julian: "He forced us to do it."

I had seen Kelly back in the fall upstairs at the Living Room, where she has been hosting a series called the Upstairs Sessions in which she brings in two songwriters and has them talk about their craft. (I saw an Upstairs Session that featured Erik Balkey, an old friend from the Postcrypt days, and Jerry Giddens, who was the frontman for the folk-rock band Walking Wounded, whose CD Hard Times I used to listen to every single day in junior high school -- seriously.) As far as I can figure out, she started out her set with two songs that she had done that night: "Cartoon" and "It Would Take an Army of Men," an Iraq War protest song. It was amazing to me how quickly the songs came back to me, given that I had -- to the best of my knowledge -- only heard them that one other time several months ago. But the two songs worked: they totally brought me into the set.

Kelly, who was joined by her husband and third Dave's True Story member Jeff Eyrich on bass, rounded out the set with "Sleepwalking," a good song about being in a marriage where the love is there but the romance needs to be rekindled, "The Letter 1974" (which is based on her father saying, "When you're dead, you'll have plenty of time") and "Drive All Night," the title track from her CD.

The last act was William Hart Strecker who took the stage with a huge band: drums, keyboards, electric guitar/pedal steel, electric bass, a multi-instrumentalist (guitar, harmonica, saxophone, flute) and himself on acoustic guitar and vocals. The most notable member of the band was John Putnam on electric guitar and pedal steel. John has toured a lot with Richard Shindell and appears on the live Shindell CD, Courier. Seeing him with Shindell, I always appreciated his very tasteful and properly placed licks. With this band, he played with much more of a big guitar sound that was appropriate for the music but not as impressive as his more careful work with Shindell.

The sound of the band oscillated a lot, starting off with a song that sounded straight out of the Blue Rodeo catalog and then hitting us with one that could have been a G. Love and Special Sauce tune and then doing an all-out bar-band rocker. William Hart Strecker threw himself into every song and played with a lot of passion, as did multi-instrumentalist Chris Eminizer. Sadly, I didn't get much out of the lyrics -- in part because they were being trampled by all of the loud instruments -- but the crowd was enthused, and John Platt gave the band an encore -- "Things Don't Always Turn Out Like You Plan."

And I guess that was the case. I had planned on seeing Terence Martin but ended up with a bit more on my plate.

(Note that the photo of Terence Martin and Dan Bonis above is from Falcon Ridge but was taken by Amy Berkson (not me) and pulled off of Terence's web site.)

Follow-Up on Laura Cortese and Aoife O'Donovan at the Jenkins

Sandy Jenkins passed along this photo from the other night. Clearly I failed to get the memo about neck ornamentation.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Groovin' Fiddle Chops at the Jenkins

Two Fridays ago, I was back at the Jenkins House Concert Series. (A performance there by Moira Smiley and Voco was the first ever post here on Sound of Blackbirds.) I had been on the radio earlier in the day (with my friend Allan helping me to play music by "modern country storytellers") and had downed a frozen margarita at The Heights with a few folks, but despite the time crunch, I showed up at the Jenkins in time to eat some good food and settle into a chair next to my friends Peter and Sharon.

The evening started off with Reid Jenkins, the Jenkins' youngest child, playing a tune on fiddle called "Morehouse Farewell" in honor of some upstairs neighbors who had moved to New Jersey. It was a really lovely tune and a great way to begin the evening. (It would also have been a great way to end the evening and probably would have fit in fine elsewhere, too.)

The main attraction was fiddler Laura Cortese. Kate had seen her once before at the Jenkins as part of the Fab Four Fiddlers (with Hanneke Cassel, Jake Armerding and Jeremy Kittel) and had described that concert at the time as "perhaps the greatest concert ever." Accompanying Laura was none other than Aoife O'Donovan, who is most well known as the lead singer for the band Crooked Still and who also plays (with Ruth Ungar and Kristin Andreassen (of The Mammals and Uncle Earl respectively)) in a group called Sometymes Why. Aoife, Laura and Kristin also all live together in the Boston area. Got all that? Aoife was on guitar to begin the night but switched to keyboards (a mini-wurlitzer?), glockenspiel and at one point (if my mind is not deceiving me) an accordion.

For a number of songs, Laura Cortese either would start off holding her fiddle like a mandolin or else end up there. She was running it through a small amplifier, and she would use a mandolin-style chop to lay down a cool groove. And it so worked. Instant pocket, if you know what I mean. She also excelled at singing while playing the fiddle: her tuning seemed just impeccable to me, a perfect match between voice and fiddle.

Some of the memorable tunes from the set were a beautiful version of "Queen Among the Heather" (a Child ballad that Laura sang while Aoife played with two capos on her guitar), "Sometimes When I Am Drunk and You Are Wearing My Favorite Shirt" (just glockenspiel and vocals; sounds like it could be a Two Man Gentlemen Band song), a version of "Greasy Coat" (where Reid Jenkins joined the two performers -- he had learned the song an hour earlier), a song from Lissa Schneckenburger's wedding where Aoife was the best man apparently (this song totally had the groove down and also had some nice modulation), the Magnetic Fields' "All My Little Words" (which totally rocked), a Feist song, and the encore Michael Tarbox's great "Night Train to Chelsea" (which they just nailed).

It was a very fun show. Laura and Aoife were having lots of fun playing together. And it sounds like they have a great time living together and making music. (Aoife burst into the theme from Twin Peaks at one point to show us what exactly it was like.) The whole Jenkins family was up there playing at one point, and the crowd --despite many members not knowing who Feist is or which Sex and the City character they are--had a great time.

Bottom line: it was some groovy fiddle playing.

Laura played tonight at Arlene Grocery along with Kristin Andreassan. The fact that I'm writing this means that I wasn't there. But I look forward to seeing her down the road again.

Arab Music at Joe's Pub

Well, it was almost a month ago now that my friend Abigail and I went down to Joe's Pub to see one evening of the Brooklyn Maqam Arab Music Festival. (Wait a second. Isn't Joe's Pub in Manhattan? Hmm... I guess Brooklyn is a state of mind.)

I had been tipped off to this show by seeing one of the two groups involved--Zikrayat--playing in band leader Sami Abu Shumays' living room. (I know his downstairs neighbor.) And I also had seen the featured vocalist, Gaida, along with the leader of the second band, Amir ElSaffar, in a wonderful show at Drom, which I described in a previous post.

The show at Joe's Pub was also terrific (particularly after Abigail and I moved from the bar--where there were several tall people standing in front of us--to some bar stools down on the lower level of the venue).

Zikrayat specializes in repertoire from the Golden Age of Egyptian cinema, and so most of their set focused on songs from Egyptian films. I know very little about the genre, so I just sat back and enjoyed the groove. The band consisted of violin, buzuq, oud and two percussionists. Two different vocalists, Gaida and Salah Rajab, sang several numbers each. The crowd was completely into the show, and so was the band. I really like watching these guys because they play in such a nonchalant way: percussionists Johnny Farraj and Nikolai Ruskin just sit there doing their thing, as if nothing could really disturb them (and sometimes bordering on appearing not to actually want to be playing), while Tareq Abboushi lets the notes ring out of his buzuq with a sly smile on his face.

The band Safaafir played second. When Dan and I had seen band leader Amir ElSaffar at Drom, he had played both santoor (Arabic hammered dulcimer) and trumpet and had not said a word. He played some amazing music that night but left the spotlight mostly to Gaida, who was the featured performer. At this show, he began with a monologue describing how he had come to learn the Maqam, an important Iraqi vocal tradition, and describing his travels to Iraq before the beginning of the 2003 U.S.-led war. He noted that the concert was happening exactly on the fifth anniversary of the beginning of U.S. attacks on Iraq.

Joining Amir ElSaffar were Dena ElSaffar on violin and joza, the spike fiddle made from a coconut, and Tim Moore on percussion. They performed a range of maqam with Amir providing brief translations of some of the poetry. Interestingly, the story lines in some of the poetry reminded me of the translations of French-language Cajun songs that one hears at folk festivals: something like, "This is a song about a boy who sees a girl that he likes, but her father is a big man, and so he tells him to buzz like a bee. But the boy is persistent, and eventually the girl sneaks out to see him in the moonlight. But then they hear a bee buzzing nearby." (Something like that anyway.)

They put on a wonderful set, although the focus was much more on the songs and the singing than on the santoor playing, and Amir did not play trumpet at all. It was beautiful and interesting music, and I wish only that I knew more about it.

Zikrayat will perform on May 3rd in Jamaica, Queens, and then on May 15th at the City University of New York. Check their website for the details.

David Francey in Acoustic Live!

My friend Richard Cuccaro (who I just saw tonight at the Living Room) has a very nice article on David Francey in the latest issue of his Acoustic Live! newsletter. David Francey is one of the most "underheralded" songwriters out there. He is a great songwriter and a great singer. Definitely worth checking out.