Saturday, December 18, 2010
Posted by Nick Toloudis at 5:24 AM
Last night, I drove over an hour and half to Arlington for the Half the Sky benefit concert. Originally, four performers were scheduled to play, but Lucy Kaplansky had a family emergency that drew her away. That left us with Patty Larkin, Chris Smither, and Jorma Kaukonen, all people who have adopted daughters from orphanages in China. The latter two I heard play recently, at the Beacon Theater in NYC. Patty Larkin, on the other hand, I hadn't seen in a couple of summers.
This was my first time at the beautiful Regent Theater, and I loved it. I hope another show comes by that takes me there. It reminded me a little of Town Hall, but folksier, more casual. My only complaint was that the house music was repulsive. It took me about 5 minutes to pay attention long enough to realize how bad it was, but when I did, I realized that it wasn't bad, it was god-awful. Slow, schmaltzy, string-laden renditions of "classic rock" songs. First "White Room." Then, "Touch Me." Then "Like a Rolling Stone." Then I overheard an older gentleman, sitting behind me, mention to his friend that the Doors song "Light My Fire" came out in 1967, when he was a college freshman, and that it got played at every mixer he went to that summer. Then I heard him say...
"Hey, do you know if the band playing this stuff is in the house tonight? I hope so."
"So I can eliminate them."
The host for the show was Signature Sounds' Jim Olson, who has popped up at probably half or more of the concerts I've attended since moving to Pioneer Valley. He announced that the show was very nearly sold old out, that this was a good cause, and that his label works with Patty and Chris. I wonder how many attendees didn't know that last bit. Probably more than at most of the shows at which Jim announces it. The audience was more diverse than the Valley norm, which is understandable, since Arlington ain't the Valley, and because this wasn't any old concert. Half the Sky works to help orphaned children in China, and there were plenty of Chinese and Chinese-Americans in the audience, and plenty of adopted Chinese children. Before the show began, I saw Jorma's wife, Vanessa, and their daughter Izzy, who skipped merrily down the aisles, as her mother reached for her hand.
The show itself was lovely. Each performer played four songs, then there was an intermission, and then there was a "round robin" bit, with all performers on stage together. Throughout, but particularly during the second half of the show, each performer took some time to talk about Half the Sky and the pleasure they've taken in adopting children. And, in Jorma's case, the practical dilemmas of the adoption process. "For instance," he told us, "did you know that fingerprints expire?" This led to a story about having to drive to Cincinnati multiple times to watch an intern at the Department of Homeland Security figure out how to use the fingerprinting machine. Patty gave an overview of the history of the organization. And the ever eloquent Chris Smither spoke simply and movingly about how important it was that we were all there.
I don't know that I had a particular favorite moment from the show. I will say that I have never heard Patty Larkin sound better. This is the first time that I have seen her outside of a folk festival and, in the quiet of the theater, with the spotlight on her, she shone. Her guitar playing was superb throughout. The third song of her four song set was "Dear Heart," played on the electric guitar. It featured some delicate, subtle playing that climaxed with her use of a violin bow. I winced when she picked it up, thinking simultaneously of Led Zeppelin and Spinal Tap, but the sounds she produced with it were haunting and beautiful. She mentioned that Jorma really liked the color of that guitar (a sort of bluish, aquamarine), something which she could now mention on her resumé. She talked about the stories her daughter makes up in the car, before playing "The Book I'm Not Reading." Later on, I found her song "Open Arms" quite moving. Given the time and setting to pay attention to her, I made a strong connection with her music for, essentially, the very first time.
I will also say that, as gauged by audience reaction, Chris Smither basically stole the show. The applause after each song, the audience response to resonant lyrics, and his simple but earnest thanks for everyone for supporting a worthy cause...he had us in the palm of his hand. He began his set with Patty still on stage to accompany him on "No Love Today." As they began to play it, I wondered what all the children in the audience would make of it, if they were paying attention to it at all. It reminded me that Maggie Pesce once told me that her three year old daughter really likes that song. Anyhow, after that, he played "Don't Call Me Stranger," which never fails to hook the audience with the way he sings and slyly smiles through the line "I'm not evil / I'm just bad." Then came the song that I knew was coming, "I Don't Know," which is about talking to his child, interacting with the world, and the eternal search. It's one of his greatest lyrics, one of his greatest songs. And the beautiful love song "Time Stands Still" finished up the set.
When Jorma came onstage, it occurred to me that this was the first time I'd ever seen him onstage without Jack Casady there to play bass. Instead, it was just him and Barry Mitterhoff, who has been his stagemate for many years now. Chris stayed onstage for the first song, "Step It Up and Go," which they played together at the Beacon Theater show I saw two weeks ago and which sounded so good that I just searched for it on iTunes, but couldn't find it. After Chris left the stage, Jorma gave us "Izzy's Lullaby," a lovely instrumental piece. After that, there was a pause in the music as Jorma searched for his capo. Upon asking Barry if he had one, Barry helpfully informed him that mandolin players don't need them. "Rub it in, why don't you," Jorma grumbled, before going into "Come Back Baby," which elicited big applause and some tasty mandolin solos from Mr. Mitterhoff. Then, after a stagehand brought him a capo, they treated us to a new song, "Second Chances," which is about time, and "Hesitation Blues," which is too, sort of, to conclude the set.
It was the second half of the show, though, that made Chris Smither seem like the center of attention. He sat, literally, center stage, with Patty to his left and Jorma and Barry to his right. The performers were all attentive to each other during performance. But Patty and Jorma were noticeably impressed by Chris' playing and singing. Jorma also seemed to be very interested in what Patty was doing, probably because he's less familiar with his music, and her guitar playing comes from a different place than Chris' more blues-based stuff. But when Chris launched "Seems So Real" into the Arlington Theater, the propulsion seemed to move the entire theater, with the audience nodding and foot-tapping, and Jorma smiling and bobbing his head a bit. And when he did "Leave the Light On," the applause was the most enthusiastic of the evening, moving Jorma to say "yikes" and called it "a dandy song." Jorma did "River of Time" after that one, which is one of his best originals in recent years, plainspoken and rich. The only moment that made Chris seem less than dominant was when Patty led the assembled musicians in a bluesy version of John Hiatt's "Have a Little Faith in Me," which was her moment to shine and Barry's and Jorma's moments to play some sharp guitar solos. For the encore, it was Jorma's turn to lead everyone in an ensemble performance, this time of an actual blues: "That'll Never Happen No More."