Friday, February 29, 2008

Cajun Cooking at Joe's Pub

Allan and I found ourselves down at Joe's Pub again on Wednesday night. (Most recently, we had been down there to see Rhonda Vincent, as described here.) We were there to see the Red Stick Ramblers, a band that Allan had first told me about several years ago; he used to see them a lot back when he was living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, close to the band's homebase in Lafayette.

My memory from the CD that Allan had, um, lent me was that these guys were kind of a raucous string band--like the Hackensaw Boys or the Bad Livers--but I was pleasantly surprised to find a group singing original songs very clearly rooted in the Cajun twin-fiddle tradition.

The group consists of Linzay Young on fiddle and lead vocals (and he is also equipped with loud paisley tie and huge "Louisiana" belt buckle), Kevin Wimmer on fiddle (who studied with Dewey Balfa and plays with Dirk Powell and Christine Balfa in Balfa Toujours), Chas Justus on electric archtop guitar and stage howls, Eric Frey on bass (and if he has earned it, banjo) and Glenn Fields on drums (and triangle when they're really feeling cajun).

I had the pleasant surprise of seeing Sandy Jenkins and her daughter Cassie when we walked in. Rich Jenkins also appeared in the audience at the beginning of the set. (The Jenkins run a wonderful house concert series that I previously have described here.) As it turns out, half of the band was staying at the Jenkins' house. They all know each other from the Ashokan Fiddle Camps.

The band was terrific fun: very lively but also very musical. Chas Justus's archtop guitar had a really great, bouncy sound to it, and the twin fiddles were well-played in the traditional Cajun style. The songs were fun and inventive--even when I couldn't understand them because they were in French.

The set list went like this:

"Rattlesnakin' Daddy"

"Drunkard's Blues" - in French

A fiddle tune written by Eric Frey, featuring Glenn Fields on Cajun triangle

"Made in the Shade" - title track from most recent CD, which is on the Sugar Hill label

"Lazy Southern Summer Day"

"My Suitcase is Always Packed" - a swingy tune about life on the road

Eric Frey sings "Why Now, Baby, Am I Begging You to Stay?"

"When You Smoke That Killin' Jive" - a reefer madness song from the 1930s by pioneering R&B band The Cats and the Fiddle

"Katrina" - a song written during a three-week post-Hurricane Katrina party; Eric Frey played banjo, while Glenn Fields beat the hell out of the neck of Eric's bass

A song was dedicated to the person who had broken into their van on West 89th Street and stolen their bottle of Jameson; the thief did not, however, steal any CDs

"Doggone My Time" - a new song--they were all new to me!--that Linzay Young sang as a honky-tonk weeper

"I Don't Like You as Much as My Last Girlfriend, But It's Better Than When I Didn't Have Any Girl" - in French -- and that's the band's translation

A waltz inspired by naughty raccoons that stole the band's Doritos

Linzay Young took out two thin sticks and played fiddlesticks on Kevin Wimmer's fiddle--always an impressive display; it looked almost exactly like this

Eric Frey said, "This song explains why you shouldn't let us date your daughters." -- "The You Won't Sleep with Me Blues"

Chas Justus gets his turn at the microphone on an "all-encompassing cowboy song" -- "The Cowboy Song"

"Keep Your Hands Off of It" - oh yeah! with super-hot solos from Chas Justus on guitar and both fiddlers

ENCORE: "Main Street Blues" with pizzicato fiddle opening

And then there was a second song in the encore, but I'll be danged if I can read what it was, and all that I was drinking was Ginger Ale (which will set you back five bucks a pop at Joe's Pub, for the record).

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Alex Battles Brings It for the Man in Black's Birthday

In recent posts, I have been commenting on Blue Highway's chops not being as pin-point perfect as they can be and The Magnetic Fields' missing a few notes here and there. At last night's show, I'm sure there were a few clams, too, but the show was fundamentally different. Last night's show was about drinking beer, shouting along with the lyrics and dancing. And I can safely claim to have done all three things.

Johnny Cash's 76th birth anniversary is coming up in two days (February 26th). Therefore, last night was the night chosen for the annual Johnny Cash Birthday Bash. I believe that this is the fourth year that Alex Battles has put this show on. It has gained quite a following, so like last year, Brooklyn's Southpaw was sold out several days in advance of the event.

Allan and I made our way down there after a visit to the Heartland Brewery--yes, the same one where I found myself after The Magnetic Fields' show--to have a couple of beers with Ken--who bought multiple rounds of fine beer for me: thanks, Ken!--and his friend Amanda. We made a pit stop for some Mexican food (and a little bit of futbol-watching) on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope (that's Brooklyn, y'all), and then made our way through the line outside of Southpaw.

We walked in for the very end of the Susquehanna Industrial Tool and Die Co.'s set. This New York rockabilly trio was playing some Johnny Cash material from the Sun Records days. They were doing a pretty damn good Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two impersonation with acoustic bass, acoustic guitar and electric guitar instrumentation. Because of where we walked in, Allan and I were right down front, enjoying the show and enjoying all the people who were enjoying the show.

When their set ended, we were treated to a series of Johnny Cash videos that had been put together by Clinton McClung. There was some really great material in there. Particular standouts were Johnny Cash singing "Nasty Dan" with interpolated commentary from Oscar the Grouch on an episode of Sesame Street and an elongated version of "Children, Go Where I Send Thee" from the Johnny Cash Show that featured Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters and the Statler Brothers. Everyone sang along with the projection screen and raised beers to complement the late John R. Cash.

WNYU's Honky Tonk Radio Girl supplied some excellent filler music, including Wynonie Harris' "Bloodshot Eyes" and a reggae version of "Country Roads."

And then Alex Battles and the Whisky Rebellion took the stage for the feature event: a cover-to-cover rendition of Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison album. And they simply brought it.

The Whisky Rebellion line-up last night was the great Shaky Dave (also of the M Shanghai String Band) on harmonica, the Great Sammo on washboard and resonator guitar, the Old Professor on lead guitar, mighty Tom Mayer (formerly of WKCR) on upright bass and Smilin' Charlie Shaw on drums (once a member of the 5 Chinese Brothers and these days playing bass or drums with pretty much everyone). Strumming his sparkling red acoustic guitar--a Takamine if my eyes didn't deceive me--Alex Battles was in total control from the opening strum of "Folsom Prison Blues." The band played terrifically: Battles would set the tempo with a measure of chops on his guitar, and they would just launch into it.

The album went in order, and these songs are all stand-outs to begin with: "Dark as a Dungeon," "I Still Miss Someone," "25 Minutes to Go," "Long Black Veil," "Jackson," "I Got Stripes," "Green, Green Grass of Home." Wow! It was non-stop excellence. Shaky Dave's harp was the featured instrument on "Orange Blossom Special." Sammo did a seriously strong rendition of "I Still Miss Someone." Jessica Rose and Mony Falcone came out to sing "Jackson." The Dock Oscar Gospel Quartet (with Ebie Carter and Becky, the Honky Tonk Radio Girl) were there for "Greystone Chapel" and a bunch of other numbers, too. The crowd was singing along and dancing the whole time. I was swilling Miller High Life. What a night!

And then they kept going! After reaching the end of the album, Battles busted out some more Cash, some of his own songs and some non-Cash covers. First, the horns came out--two trumpets--for "Ring of Fire" and then a truly brilliant "When the Saints Go Marching In." The show could have ended right there, as far as I was concerned: "When the Saints" was simply awesome. But then we got a song about hockey (allegedly by the Johnny Cash of Canada), "Pennsylvania" (an excellent, excellent tune), "Raining in Brooklyn" (which you can find on Battles' MySpace page along with the excellent "Jesus Wore Flip-Flops," which the band did not play last night but did play on WKCR's Tennessee Border Show last Sunday), "It Ain't Me That Misses You; It's the Cat," "Polka at Your Wedding," "The Hokey Pokey" (yes.), "Hong Kong Collision" (a killer rockabilly tune also on the MySpace page), "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "Walk the Line" and "Goodnight Irene." The band played tight through all of these tunes, jumping right in with little warning and playing at full throttle. One memory--I'm not sure exactly when it happened--was when Tom Mayer had his bass at a 30-degree angle to the ground and was just pounding away on it. It was so free; it was so energized; it was so characteristic of the night. Wow-squared!

A great time was had by all. Major kudos to Alex Battles for producing such a high-quality event and for bringing such great music to the stage himself.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Magnetic Fields Underplugged

Ben and I saw The Magnetic Fields at Town Hall last night. For Ben, this involved a six-hour, rather annoying train ride from W-A-S-H-I-N-G-T-O-N, baby, D.C. But he arrived a few minutes into the opening act. For me, it involved scarfing down a pulled pork sandwich and some collard greens from Spanky's BBQ before the show. Mmm-mmm!

In the case of the first artists of the evening, "act" is definitely the right word, as opposed to "set," for instance, because the opening act was the Interstellar Radio Company, a four person theatre company that performs sound plays and adopts science fiction stories to be presented as three-person sound plays on stage. They describe themselves on their web site as "New York–based producers of experiments in narrative sound." Not your usual opening act. Last night, they gave us a science fiction story about confronting realized versions of imaginary monsters that you the characters had created as children. Actor Adam Green read all of the parts, using an effects pedal and more analog shifts in intonation to provide different voices. (He is not Adam Green formerly of the Moldy Peaches.) Matthew Beals provided the sound effects, which were neat but not yet at the level of the amazing Fred Newman from A Prairie Home Companion. There was an accordianist, who may or may not have been Rob Amesbury. And the show was directed by Jeremy McCarter, who apparently is the theatre reviewer for New York Magazine.

The story was kind of neat, and the amount of dialog that Adam Green had memorized was pretty amazing. But--as would be the problem after The Magnetic Fields took the stage--the performance was almost inaudible from where we were sitting (row J in the house left section -- up close but off to the side). I've experienced some bad sound at Town Hall before--a Peter Rowan performance from 1999 stands out (unfortunately) in that regard--but I expected more of a rock sound for last night's show. That was not to be the case, which, in some ways was OK but also was a definite downer.

After a short break, The Magentic Fields took the stage: Stephin Merritt on pineapple ukelele (which looks a bit like an oud), Claudia Gonson on piano, Sam Davol on cello, John Woo on guitar (sadly not on banjo last night -- the photo to the right is from a show in Atlanta in 2004) and Shirley Simms sitting in as a third vocalist (Claudia and Stephin being the first two). Everything was acoustic, which is a far cry from the latest CD, Distortion, which in many ways lives up to its name. It was also somewhat at odds with the huge speaker stacks adorning both sides of the stage. So, as I noted above, everything was quite quiet. The banter, in particular, was inaudible, given Stephin Merritt's penchant for mumbling in addition to the lack of volume in the house. So for the entire first set, I was straining my ears to hear the lyrics. During the second set, they brought up the volume just a tiny touch (and we also filled in a few empty seats in our row, bringing us a little closer to the center).

Part of this is about expectations. I had been listening to Distortion during the day, so I expected maybe a little more rock to occur. And part of it is about the house mains not being turned up enough. But here is what the quietness accomplished: it kept the audience extremely quiet--no chatter, no requests, just polite applause (with a few bursts of really enthusiastic applause). And, perhaps much more to the point as far as the band is concerned, the quietness forced one to really listen to the music intently. And in a way, this is much more classical chamber music than it is rock and roll. The pieces are like Weberian miniatures: everything is in its place or else out of place. So it is not about flashy guitar solos (although Ben was really aching for John Woo to be set loose) or about improvisation at all; it is about taking a composed piece and playing it precisely. So rather than furious movement up and down the neck of the guitar, we had precise picking patterns on guitar, playful pizzicato bass runs and long drone notes on the cello and tinkling accents on the piano. That is not to say that everyone played perfectly--I think that everybody hit a wrong note here or there--but you knew when they hit a wrong note because you were listening closely and because it was so obvious.

The set list looked something like this--not being a true Magnetic Fields afficianado, I'm not sure that I have these all right, but I suspect that it's pretty close:

"California Girls"

"I Don't Believe You"

"All My Little Words"

"Come Back from San Francisco"

"Old Fools"

"Xavier Says"

"Walking My Gargoyle"

"Too Drunk to Dream"

"Till the Bitter End"

"The Night You Can't Remember"

"I Thought You Were My Boyfriend"

---Set Break---

"Lovers from the Moon"

"I Wish I Had an Evil Twin"

"Give Me Back My Dreams" - from one of Stephin Merritt's other bands, The 6ths

"Grand Canyon"

"Papa Was a Rodeo" - Shirley Simms came in perfectly for the final go-round of the chorus (with its narrative reversing properties), and the crowd went (relatively) wild over it

"Drive on, Driver"

Claudia--who, in general, acts as the emcee and snaps out the tempo for each song--paused at this point to describe Magnetic Fields' rehearsals and how they compile three-ring binders full of songs (which they were all using on stage) by passing around the three-hold punch and sometimes someone gets sent out to buy reinforcements if the integrity of a sufficient number of holes has been compromised. Stephin responds from the other end of the stage, "You know, you tell all of these anecdotes. And they're all like half-made-up."

"The Nun's Litany"

"The Tiny Goat" - Claudia sings this winning sad song about a tiny goat who throws a party to which no one comes

"Smoke and Mirrors"

"Zombie Boy"

ENCORE: "Threeway!" - a rocker on the CD, the acoustic version sounds like something that the Kronos Quartet would do

People break the norm and start yelling out requests. Claudia nips it in the bud: "So many wonderful songs... All those wonderful songs... Here is a different wonderful song..."

"Take Ecstasy with Me"

"The Book of Love" - a perfect ending to the concert without a doubt; some friends recently used this as the recessional at their wedding (performance by Matt Schickele)

So Ben and I left with a definite good taste in our mouths despite the low volume levels. We washed down the concert with a couple of beers at the Heartland Brewery, and Ben caught a 12:40 a.m. train for Princeton to rendezvous with his girlfriend.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Bruce Springsteen of Bluegrass?

One of the best bluegrass bands out there, Blue Highway, rolled into Joe's Pub last night for a 9:30 p.m. set. (Yes, here in New York, you have to stay up late on a school night for your bluegrass fix.) They had been on the road for three weeks and were coming from an appearance at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival (which I have heard great things about but never have actually made it to). Apparently, they had had a day of play around New York with lots of exotic New York experiences like cab rides that are tough to come by in east Tennessee.

There are so many good things to say about this band--so many IBMA awards, so many great CDs, etc.--that the introduction went on for a ridiculously long time, which must have been particularly annoying for the band, since they were standing on the stage for the duration of the welcome speech. There was a buzz during the introduction, and it was still present as the band stepped up to the microphones. So after the long introduction, there was a brief reset while the soundman eliminated the buzz. And to his credit, it was brief, and the band got going pretty quickly.

The set looked like this:

  • "Marbletown" - the title track from their second most recent CD

  • Instrumental with a cool (and rather rare) banjo/mandolin kick-off

  • "Born with a Hammer in My Hand"

  • The band introduced itself: "We've been together for 14 years. ... Yes, we could get married in West Virginia. ... We have far surpassed the average lifetime of a bluegrass band, which is six weeks."

  • "Through the Window of a Train" - the title track from the brand new disc; this features some sweet Wayne Taylor vocals. The line on this band is that there are four great vocalists in the group (with apologies to Rob Ickes who steps back into the shadows when it's an a capella number), but Wayne Taylor without a doubt is my favorite. He has great tone, great feeling and great control. I could listen to him sing all day.

  • "Some Day" - the four singers gathered around Wayne Taylor's microphone to sing this gospel song (and Rob Ickes shrunk back into the shadows); very nicely done, although Jason Burleson's bass vocals were rather quiet

  • Shawn Lane said, "Man it was tough singing through all of that curry" referring to their East 6th Street dinner, and Rob Ickes gave a little sitar impersonation on the dobro.

  • Instrumental with solid dobro playing from Rob Ickes; Tim Stafford's guitar--which looked like one of those new black carbon models--had a lot of buzz on it

  • "Life of a Travelin' Man" - on this song, the band finally hit their stride, I thought; everything had been fine on the earlier tunes, but this one they really nailed, and they came into their own

  • "Danville Pike" - staying in stride, Jason Burleson kicked this off with some hot banjo, and the whole band burned through this horse racing song

  • "Where Did the Morning Go" - Shawn Lane switched from mandolin to guitar, and Jason Burleson picked up the mandolin--now that's pretty rare, a banjo player who also feels at home on the mandolin: he even took a solo!

  • The band spoke about all being songwriters, saying that they realized very early on that they would never be able to play Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs songs as well as Bill, Lester and Earl had played them. I both respect this logic and also think about how much bluegrass fans like those "festival favorites," and how Blue Highway actually does seem to have enough familiar referents up their sleeve (particularly in the gospel department) to have tunes that the average fan will know in every set

  • "Tears Fell on Missouri" - a CMT-style country song

  • Tim Stafford busted out his Ralph Stanley impersonation at this point:

    "Oh, death, won't you spare me over Britney Spears."

    And then he started riffing on what if Dr. Stanley were hanging out with Led Zeppelin. It was pretty good material.

  • "Blues on Blues"

  • Shawn Lane sang a song about a woman leaving that involved a train metaphor, but I didn't catch the name

  • "Still Climbing Mountains"

  • After hearing Shawn Lane sing that one, my friend Abigail turned to me and said, "He's like the Bruce Springsteen of bluegrass! He's unassuming on the outside, but he has this emotional core and this way of singing songs."

  • "Lonesome Road Blues" - Jason Burleson takes the lead on banjo on this one with Shawn Lane switching to fiddle; the playing was a little sloppy, I'm sad to say

  • Tim Stafford decided to teach us a word from East Tennessee at this point in the show. That word is "'preciations." It is shorthand for, "Thank you, I appreciate what you are doing very much." For the rest of the show, shouts of "'preciation!" were heard around the room--mostly from the stage from Tim Stafford, actually.

  • "Two Soldiers" - about soldiers on funeral detail; Jason Burleson was on guitar for this one

  • "We were nominated for a Grammy for our gospel album. We went to Los Angeles for the ceremeonies." "Yes, we did." "We watched Randy Travis win that Grammy." "Yes, we did."

  • "Wondrous Love" - this is the one for which I had been waiting for; they do such a great job with this one--even Rob Ickes sings on the final chorus! The only bummer was again Jason Burleson's vocals; his bass just wasn't coming through as loud as it does on the CDs.

  • "Nothing But A Whippoorwill" - Rob Ickes and Shawn Lane gave this like a three-minute dobro and mandolin intro--I half-expected them to bust into "Eight Miles High"; Tim Stafford co-wrote the tune with Steve Gulley, who used to be part of Mountain Heart and now is a member of Grasstowne

  • ENCORE: "Little Maggie" - Wayne Taylor sang this old chestnut--see, they find a way to sneak them in--with gusto, and Shawn Lane smoked on mandolin

  • 2nd ENCORE: a Scruggs-style banjo instrumental with some more hot Shawn Lane pickin'--hotter than Bruce Springsteen can pick, I daresay...

I've seen this band do better shows. I think they were a bit tired from being on the road, and they just didn't really click into being as tight as they can be (either vocally or instrumentally), but it was still a terrific show, and without a doubt, Blue Highway is the band to see if you can't get those Springsteen tickets.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Going to Church on a Saturday Night

Allan and I saw some serious gospel music on Saturday night at Miller Theatre. I encourage you to check out his review over at Rattle My Cage.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Hoedown in Brooklyn? Killer Santoor in the East Village?

So when you hear that there is a "hoedown in Brooklyn," you perhaps are not thinking about folk music but rather about the need to send for an ambulance. (I was going to use that one on the radio, but then I thought about Imus.) But fear not! New York City country music impresario Dock Oscar, who (along with Alex Battles) has brought us the Kings County Opry, the now-defunct New York City Opry and the Brooklyn Country Music Festival, as well as provided some great music with his band Sweet William and other ensembles, for four years now--four years!--has given old-time string band music a home in chilly Brooklyn.

The first and second Brooklyn Winter Hoedowns were held mostly at Freddy's Backroom, a lovely neighborhood bar in Fort Greene that is also the site of the King's County Opry. But last year, most of the festival moved to Superfine in DUMBO, just underneath the Manhattan Bridge, and that is where this year's festival entirely resided.

I made it down on Friday night, meeting up with my friend Simon (with whom I explored DUMBO back when it was full of artists' lofts and not luxury apartments) and his girlfriend Paula. The dinner that we had at Superfine was lovely if a touch pricey for the country music crowd. I had the bucatini with meatballs and sausage, which was just lovely. We drank some Lone Star beer, which seemed more appropriate, although I soon moved on to some Peak Organic Pale Ale (but only after my request for a Yuengling, the official beer of the Winters family, was denied). The place was packed! (We inferred that people must live in DUMBO now; those luxury apartments must actually work.) And we were seated far enough away that we sadly could just barely hear the music.

So Hogzilla's set seemed fine--Hilary Hawke's banjo was pretty clear and seemed right on; Mimi Lavalley's guitar sadly less so--but I spent most of Jan Bell and the Cheap Dates' set (which again featured Hilary Hawke's banjo) talking with various musicians around the bar. And then with Simon itching to hit the road back to Connecticut, we left the show before the mighty (wind) force that is the M Shanghai String Band could take the stage. I include their photo here as penitence. Count them if you can! (And go to see them because they are a barrel of fun.)

But I was back on Sunday afternoon, and I got myself better positioned to actually hear the music this time. I arrived in between two sets by Blue Harvest. Named after the code name for Return of the Jedi, these guys play solid traditional American music, a mix of old-time string band tunes, Western Swing numbers and bluegrass songs. The set that I saw was terrific. Band leader and fiddler Clarence Ferrari is a super-smooth player, no matter which genre the band is veering into, and guitarist Rick Snell has a ton of nice licks that he has incorporated from his years of jazz training. Brendan O'Grady holds it down on bass, and Brian Axford adds in some nice mandolin chops here and there. And when Edith Silver steps up to the microphone to sing--on the Cousin Emmy song "Bowling Green," for instance--watch out because she's got a set of pipes on her! My favorite tune that they do is "Miss Molly," a Bob Wills' number that is super lively and singable. But on Sunday, the winner was their encore, which was a fiddle jazz tune in the style of Stephane Grapelli: both Rick and Clarence really got to show off their chops, and they brought it home.

Blue Harvest was followed by Long Island family band the Homegrown String Band. I had a really nice time catching up with Rick and Georgianne Jackofsky, the parents, before their set, and enjoyed their treatment of classic tunes like "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" and "Shady Grove." Of particular note is Rick's tribute to Johnny Cash, "The Man Who Dressed in Black," which is out on their most recent CD, Ragged But Right--it is a tune that's worth a listen.

Another group from Long Island, Free Grass Union, played next--or rather, half of Free Grass Union played next. Normally a quartet, only mandolinist Greg Butler and guitarist David Nelinson were at Superfine on Sunday. They played a nice collection of tunes, starting off with the Grateful Dead's "Brokedown Palace" and moving on to "Sittin' on Top of the World" and some instrumental numbers. Rick Jackofsky sat in with them for a few numbers, as David had sat in on the Homegrown String Band's set.

Then Alicia Jo Rabins and the Halo Boys closed up the show. I had had the great pleasure of having Alicia on The Moonshine Show the previous Sunday along with Dock Oscar and the Ambassadors of Love. Trained as a classical fiddler, Alicia has, through various chance encounters, stumbled into playing old-time tunes and klezmer tunes. (She is one of the members of the absolutely fantastic, cannot be missed, you must see them Golem, the world's greatest punk-klezmer band.) She has a wonderful tone and a very smooth playing style, and she can sing a good tune, too. Alicia's set on Sunday closely mirrored the set that she had played on WKCR with a number of songs off her CD Sugar Shack. She played her medley of "Sail Away Ladies/Sugar Shack" and her beautiful rendition of "Neil Gow's Lament for the Death of His Second Wife," a two-centuries old Scottish tune. Sadly, my friend Dan (who had joined me during the Homegrown String Band's set) and I had another engagement, and so we left in the middle of Alicia's set to brave the frigid New York City air and get ourselves to the East Village.

Rockin' the Santoor

Where were we headed, you ask? We were headed to Drom, a swanky (some might say pretentious) new venue on Avenue A that never would have been found anywhere near the East Village of my youth. The service was surly, and the beer selection was lacking, but the food was pretty good, and the music was downright great.

We were there to see Gaida Hinnawi, who turned out to be a simply amazing vocalist. Of Syrian descent, she has amazing vocal control and a great ability to weave about and hover around the melody in a way that draws your ear in and forces you to pay attention. It was beautiful, beautiful vocal music.

But I was really sold on Amir ElSaffar, an Iraqi-American musician playing with Gaida. Equally dexterous on santoor and trumpet, he is a true musical virtuoso. The santoor is a hammered dulcimer, and he used his hammers to play these shimmering Middle Eastern scales with pitch-perfect control. His trumpet was terrifically expressive, providing a nice solo partner for Gaida's voice, and drawing us all in a little bit more.

The rest of the band was bass, oud and percussion, and all of the other musicians were terrific as well. On a few numbers, they really got their groove on, making the whole room clap and tap.

Gaida and Amir ElSaffar play on March 20th at Joe's Pub in a free show. Dan and I saw the band Zikrayat play at a party recently, and they were worth the trip even before we had seen Gaida sing; now it is doubly so.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

John Gorka for President

Ellen and I have been talking about the possibilities of a write-in campaign to elect John Gorka president.

I wanted to offer up several possible campaign slogans, all taken from John Gorka lyrics, of course, and starting with the most obvious:
  • "I'm from New Jersey. Gorka '08"

  • "Freedom for Freedom - Call That an Even Scheme. Vote Gorka!"

  • "Fill Your Clothes with Keys and Damned Responsibilities. Gorka!"

  • "Why is There a Fence for Every Open Range? Vote Gorka in 2008"

  • "I am Good at Dreams -- I am Good at Dreams! Gorka for President"

  • "It's a Good Noise That's Preferred. Sing with Gorka for President"

  • "Just Trying to Get Close Enough to See the Face of Love. Gorka in 2008"

  • "I Can't Make Up My Mind. Gorka for President 2008"

  • "People My Age Have Started Looking Gross. Vote Gorka in '08."

Get your write-in ballots ready!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

More Dobro in the Non-Monitors

I've just come back from the Postcrypt, and the show was one of those shows where you're standing there going, "Why didn't I invite all of my friends to this gig? This is so good!"

First, for those of you who have not had the pleasure of visiting the Postcrypt, it is a tiny coffeehouse located in the basement of St. Paul's Chapel on the campus of Columbia University. It has been there since 1964, offering acoustic music on Friday and Saturday nights during the semester with three acts per night at 9, 10 and 11 o'clock. The music is always free and so is the popcorn. (Yeesh, it's like I used to be the manager or something.) The room is completely acoustic. There is a wooden stage (with a tendency to creak), no microphones, no speakers, no monitors. The Guastavino tiles provide all the sound reinforcement that is necessary. And given the lack of amplification, it is a listening room: people come to hear the music, and those who talk are appropriate shushed. (Such as tonight when my friend Richard Cucarro, editor of AcousticLive New York forcefully said, "Hey, guys! Why don't you move to the other room! Thanks!" to some gregarious undergraduates.)

Tonight, the place was packed: people were sitting on the floor and gathered around the two doorways to catch an earful. (Therefore, it's a good thing that I didn't invite all of my friends, as they wouldn't have had anywhere to sit.)

On stage, it was Anthony da Costa and Abbie Gardner. (Hey? Didn't I see her last night? Why, yes, I did.) Anthony da Costa is 17 years old. And he is not afraid.

I first saw him this past July at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival (and the photo here is from a well-attended jam session that he led on the midway). And he went all out. On stage during the Emerging Artists Showcase, he brought his best material--his hit song "Poor, Poor Pluto"--and got the crowd excited and listening. And then during the jam session on the midway, surrounded by David and Adrian Mowry from Beaucoup Blue and Greg Klyma (who once, as Ellen can recount, crashed our blanket at Falcon Ridge during the Saturday evening concert), he was the man in charge, figuring out what songs were going to be played, who was going to take the breaks, what the vibe was going to be like. He was 16 back then!

He and Abbie have been playing a lot together, and talking to her after the show, she considers her playing with him to be as much of a gig as her playing with Red Molly, and they, in fact, are recording a duo album. They were great on stage together. Abbie's dobro was not heavily featured, but she found terrific fills and flourishes for the songs. (Ubiquitous New York old-time fiddler Bill Christophersen complimented her after the show for her tasteful work.) Her harmonies, again, were not out front but were suitable for filing under the category of "just right."

They did a number of songs from Anthony's brand new CD, but, in general, played a nice mix of tunes. "Runnin'" and a cover of Josh Ritter's "Girl in the War" were stand-outs for me. Abbie and Anthony nailed "Girl in the War" with great harmonies and a sparse arrangement. We also got "Snakes on a Plane" to the tune of "The Wheels on the Bus":

The snakes on the plane go hiss, hiss, hiss / hiss, hiss, hiss / hiss, hiss, hiss...

And then, despite a request for a different song, Anthony chose to end the set with "Poor, Poor Pluto" about the death of Pluto as a planet. The crowd sang along with gusto.

The songs were good, but what is great about Anthony da Costa is that he is a performer. His patter was terrific and (seemingly) spontaneous. He had a recurring joke about a recent high school assembly where a retired detective warned the students about the dangers of the Internet. "You wouldn't jump in the ocean in a fish suit if there were a bunch of sharks around, would you? So why are you going to go on the Internet?" It had us in stitches. He also riffed on the presidential debates to good effect. His one short-coming was perhaps talking directly to Abbie too much on stage, but mostly, I watched this great entertainer perform for us, and I watched the crowd enjoy every minute of the ride.

Jonathan Byrd sums it up pretty well: "Anthony da Costa is a good teenage songwriter, which is about as rare as a good teenage accordionist." Worth checking out. Keep your eyes open for him.

(Warning: this post was composed under the influence of R.E.M.'s Document album.)

"In New York, I found a friend to drown out the other voices": Response to Ellen

Ellen makes some excellent points on U23D. I wanted to pick up on a few.

  • I wish that the 3-D effects had worked with my eyes so that I could have appreciated the sense of being in the crowd a bit more. I definitely thought that the movie was representative of my U2 concert experiences--including the song selection--and so the movie does capture the current period of U2's career. Even the multi-layered effects were kind of like being at a U2 concert given the way that they do multi-media effects on the projection screens and lighting displays (something that I thought the movie picked up nicely.

  • I agree (and said) that Rattle and Hum really wasn't a fair comparison. But I think that Live from Sydney is, and I would have to watch that concert again to really judge it, but I think I would lean toward seeing that one. Another interesting comparison is the 2002 U2 go HOME (filmed in 2001). I haven't actually seen the film, but I've heard the CD recording. U2 go HOME has the advantage of being signifcantly longer than U23D, and therefore can include, in addition to "Sunday Bloody Sunday", "Where the Streets Have No Name," "Pride," "Bullet the Blue Sky," "With or Without You" and "One" (the last five of which all appear in a row), "Wake Up Dead Man," "Staring at the Sun" and "Desire." Which of the songs would have made the final cut if it had been compressed down to U23D's length? I don't know. But I'd hope that "Wake Up Dead Man" might sneak in there.

  • I totally agree with the power of Bono taking over the stand-alone drum at the end of "Love and Peace or Else." And that image and that song have stood out strongly in my mind since seeing the movie. I have found myself singing that song unexpectedly. It clearly had a marked impact. And it, of course, was one of the perhaps less expected song selections in the movie.

Something about folk music: a band to watch

I saw some good music last night. The first was a rather fun set by a jazz trio called Elizabeth!. My friend Dan and I had met Elizabeth at a party and committed to going to see her show. She played with pianist Jason Domnarski and bassist Rob Jost; Elizabeth sang and played trombone. Rob Jost was notably excellent on bass and also notably familiar. A quick series of questions after the gig revealed that he used to play from time-to-time with the great Jack Hardy, the legendary downtown don of New York City folk music. A glance at Rob's MySpace page reveals that he also plays with New York composer and Alarm Will Sound member Caleb Burhans, who I know. Small city.

After that show and some dinner at an overpriced but pretty damn good pizza restaurant with Dan and his wife Rebecca--we had the acetaia pizza, made with pumpkin puree and sprinkled with 40-year-old balsamic vinegar--I met up with Allan at the Living Room to see Red Molly.

Red Molly formed as a band at the 2004 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival (and the photo here is from one of their 2007 appearances at the festival). Laurie MacAllister was a singer-songwriter who had had Cliff Eberhardt produce her second album. Carolann Solebello was an actress and a member of the folk quartet CC Railroad. And Abbie Gardner did not yet know how to play the dobro. Well, Abbie has learned to play that dobro mightly finely now and plays some guitar, too. Laurie plays banjo and guitar. And Carolann usually plays an acoustic bass guitar, although last night, she played guitar, and Mike Weatherly sat in on upright bass. They have been playing throughout the Northeast and beyond, too, and have really, really grown since I saw one of their earliest gigs at the Postcrypt. These days, they are selling out venues like the Turning Point in Piermont, New York, and they pretty well packed the Living Room last night.

They put on a terrific show, playing mostly tunes from their as-of-yet-untitled new CD. The harmonies were tight. The playing was on (save for one tuning issue involving--you might have guessed--a banjo). The crowd was appreciative, right down to an uncomfortable exclamation of "Brilliant!" just as a song ended. And the band made much of having a rare "hometown" show.

Allan is eagerly anticipating their major label debut and puts his money on "Long Island Cowboy" (take a listen here) being the breakthrough hit. I'm just looking forward to seeing the band continue to grow and take on new fans.

Friday, February 1, 2008

1 Minnesota Girl Responds to 4 Irish Guys and 1 New Yorker's Comments

Matt Winters suggested I post my comments to his blog about the U23D movie as a blog...probably since they were so extensive and thought-provoking. :) As Matt knows but you may not, I am no causal U2 fan--I love this rock band like no other. With that in mind, here are my thoughts on the U23D movie, which I saw at the Minnesota Zoo Imax Theater this past Monday...

- In my opinion, the movie would not have been the same without the 3D. It made you feel like you were one of the screaming fans, not just a spectator in the theater. And I loved the way they often had 2 layers of footage that were juxtaposed, one in the background and one in the foreground. And neither me nor my date, got motion sickness, and I'm prone--even the trailer for Cloverfield turned my stomach with its handheld camera work.

- I totally agree with you that Rattle & Hum is a fantastic rock band movie documentary, capturing a snapshot of a band at a specific time. It's both sweet and fiery and a happy trip to my youth. That being said, it's not quite fair to compare that movie to this one. The purpose is totally different. U23D is mean to give you a multi-media experience of the band in a big arena, inspiring you with its impressive sound and energy. It does this, and I enjoyed it entirely.

- The Edge certainly sported a ridiculous number of fancy guitars--I counted 7.

- Poor Larry Mullen! For over 2 decades, he was the Dick Clark of the band--now his age has certainly caught up with him. But as you said, Matt, the haircut was the real problem. Maybe he needs a hat like The Edge, or perhaps he should just go back to his old crew cut look--that would probably shave off a few years.

- What I liked about the song selection is that the songs seemed to fit together to have a pretty cohesive political message of love and peace (admittedly that much of their material has), and so although, Bono didn't make any grand speeches like in the "Sunday Bloody Sunday" of Rattle & Hum, I felt it had the same message, only expressed in a manner more accessible to some. I was just having a conversation with a co-worker the other day about U2, and he said he loved the band until Bono got "all preachy." I'm betting this movie would appeal to the music fan who only wants to hear music and hear it played well. Don't get me wrong, I like Bono's rants, but I don't think they're necessary to appreciate this fun, politically charged band.

- One of the things that struck me about hearing the older songs, is that these songs are not only still great (and relevant) songs, but the band actually plays them better than they used to. As we all know, this is not true with every band--Rolling Stones, anyone?

- I loved the bit where Bono takes over the drum that Larry Mullen was playing out on the protruding runway and beats the hell out of it before "Sunday Bloody Sunday." I'm thinking I need something like that in my office so when I'm stressed or frustrated by something I hear on the news, I can just bang away. Good therapy, methinks.

- My biggest complaint was that almost all the songs were so rousing that it seemed to me to have several false endings...okay, this is going to be the big, this one is...wait, here we go. And then, when the credits, came there was one more. But as you said, Matt, that ending was great and worth the wait.

All I know is I enjoyed almost every moment of this movie, and I left feeling inspired and ready to revisit my entire U2 collection.