Sunday, March 30, 2008

Billy Bragg Speaks Out for Artists

If you haven't seen it, check out Billy Bragg's recent op-ed piece in the New York Times!

Another Radio Special

If you missed KFAI's annual celebration of International Women's Day on March 8th, you can catch the 24 hours of special programming here. I hosted the 2-4 a.m. segment of "Ladies Night," where I got to rock out a little bit more with some of my favorite gal pals. Hope you can join the virtual party!

Folk Alliance Fun, Part I: Wednesday

Last month, I made my way to Memphis for the 20th Annual International Folk Alliance Conference. Armed with my banjo, my MoJo flask and little sleep (thanks to a late gig the night before at the Turf Club), I flew to Memphis via Dallas with Red House VP of Operations Chris Frymire. On the second flight, we were interested to see that Texas songwriter Tom Russell was sitting across the aisle from us. He was worried about his luggage that he saw sitting on the runway as we were leaving the gate since he would be performing that night at the Folk Alliance Awards Ceremony. (Based on what he was wearing at the ceremony, I couldn't tell if his luggage had or had not arrived.)

After arriving at the Memphis Downtown Marriott and checking in, Chris and I connected with Red House president Eric Peltoniemi and got some dinner with Storyhill's John Hermanson and singer-songwriter pal Justin Roth. We then headed over to the Folk Alliance Awards...not many surprises but lots of technical glitches, which was too bad since XM was broadcasting it on their folk channel The Village. Tom Russell performed his song "Who's Gonna Build Your Wall?" which won him the Song of the Year Award (and was also featured on the 2008 Winters Collection!). For the full list of award winners, click here.

I then stopped by a cocktail hour, hosted by Susan Werner (who had just won Contemporary Artist of the Year) and her manager Michelle Conceison of Market Monkeys. It was really fun to see Susan again...the last time I saw her was last May when she and Catie Curtis stopped by my radio show before they played a show together at the Cedar Cultural Center (which was followed by too much merriment at the local Town Hall Brewery). I had a glass of wine with her, finally met her tour manager Famous Jane and caught up with many radio folks like Brian Quinn of WUMB. I would have liked to have stayed, but I had to run to prepare for my own Mother Banjo showcase, sponsored by Raining Jane.

(Now for those of you who have never been to Folk Alliance, in addition to workshops, panels and official showcases in the early evenings, there are private or "guerilla" showcases that happen in the afternoon and late into the night. Certain hotel rooms are blocked off as music floors where artists, promoters, agents and others present solo shows and in-the-round performances so conference attendees spend hours navigating through packed hallways littered with fliers wandering from room to room to hear big name artists and up-and-comers play music into the wee hours.)

I had never showcased at Folk Alliance so I feared I'd be a bit nervous playing for a whole host of industry movers and shakers, but those hotel rooms are so darn cozy and the wine Susan Werner had given me was so good that I felt totally relaxed and did what felt like a good set. John Hermanson and Justin Roth who were in attendance said they had never heard my voice sound stronger--must be a result of no PA and my struggle to be heard over the drum session going on in the room next door.

After my showcase, I hung out for a little bit but went to bed early, trying to get one good night of sleep before the true Folk Alliance madness set in.

More to come in Part II...stay tuned!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Erik Satie's Vexations

This post on Alex Ross's blog got me watching the YouTube video that he mentions, which is the appearance on I've Got a Secret by John Cale and Karl Schenzer. The year is 1963, and Cale has just performed part of Erik Satie's Vexations, a work in which three lines of music are repeated 840 times, lasting (in this case anyway) 18 hours and 40 minutes. Schenzer is the only audience member who sat through the entire performance.

I've been known to sit through some painful classical musical performances. (I am fond of my father's remark after I took him to see David Lang's The Passing Measures: "I felt like I was on some sort of extra-terrestrial slave ship crawling though space at a snail's pace with no end in sight.") But I'm not sure that I could have made it for 18 hours and 40 minutes.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

WKCR-FM Country Music Festival

Every year WKCR holds a Country Music Festival where we pre-empt all regular programming and play nothing but country, bluegrass, old-time, Western swing, cajun, etc. music for the whole weekend. We try to do this the weekend closest to Valentine's Day, but various snafus and delays have resulted in it happening this coming weekend.

The complete schedule is below. I'll be hosting the Modern Country Storytellers, Norman Blake & Tony Rice and the Black String Bands segments.

WKCR-FM 2008 Country Music Festival

Starts on Friday 28 March at 12:00 p.m. and goes through Sunday 30 March at 2:00 p.m.

Listen at 89.9 FM in the New York area or anywhere in the world.


  • Great Songwriters (12pm-3pm)

    Since country is such a songwriter driven genre, in this segment we will pay tribute to the greatest country songwriters, including music from Bobby Braddock, Billie Joe Shaver, and others.

  • Modern Country Storytellers (3pm-6pm)

    Growing out of the outlaw country movement of the 1970s, borrowing from the folk singer-songwriter genre and paralleling developments in the broader alt-country field, a group of underheralded country storytellers has been traveling the highways of the United States delighting rowdy roadhouse crowds and Southern college campuses while failing to break through into the commercial country mainstream. This segment will hone in on the musical characteristics that unite songwriters like Robert Earl Keen, Todd Snider and Butch Hancock, tracing their evolution back to mainstays of a slightly earlier generation like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.

  • Live Music (6pm-7:30pm)

    A live studio session featuring New York-area country musicians.

  • Gram Parsons Rediscovered (7:30pm-10:30pm)

    Over 30 years after his untimely death, there's been a release of previously undiscovered live recordings. Amoeba records has just released The Gram Parsons Anthology Vol. 1. This segment will air some of these recordings and also include the backstory about how these recordings resurfaced after so many years. The segment will include an interview with a representative of Amoeba Records, a small West Coast label centered around a three-chain record shop.

  • 40 years in Folsom Prison (10:30pm-1:30am)

    This segment will celebrate the 40th anniversary of this landmark recording by Johnny Cash (with June Carter and Carl Perkins) on January 13, 1968 and the subsequent release of what would become one of the greatest albums in country music. We'll air large portions of this concert (from the 2000 re-release), along with background info and historical context.


  • Uncle Tupelo Family Tree (1:30am-4:30am)

    We will play the music of this seminal neo-traditional country band from the 1990's and trace the post-breakup music created by it's members.

  • Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938 (4:30am-7am)

    Based on 2007 3-CD box set of same name produced by the great Hank Sapoznik and put out by Tompkins Square Records.

  • Zydeco Love (7am-10am)

    Zydeco and cajun love songs from 1930 to today.

  • Norman Blake and Tony Rice (10am-1pm)

    Two of the most prominent flatpicking guitarists ever, Norman Blake (b. 1938) and Tony Rice (b. 1951) have influenced countless bluegrass and country musicians and have written and recorded numerous bluegrass and country classics. Tony Rice is recognized as a genre-bending innovator, who has combined jazz stylings with classic bluegrass tunes first as a member of the David Grisman Quintet and then as the leader of the Tony Rice Unit. Rice also was a member of bluegrass supergroups The Bluegrass Album Band and Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen. Norman Blake, on the other hand, is best known for his guitar recordings of classic fiddle tunes but also has contributed backup guitar and dobro to such classic albums as Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline, John Hartford's Aereo-Plain and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Blake and Rice also have recorded two highly regarded albums together. In addition to all of these great studio releases, this segment will treat listeners to a WKCR archival recording of a 1974 visit to the station by Norman Blake and John Hartford.

  • A Tribute to Porter Wagoner (1pm-7pm)

    A tribute to Porter Wagoner, who died October 28, 2007. Wagoner was an American country music singer. Famous for his flashy Nudie suits and blond pompadour, Wagoner introduced a young Dolly Parton to the world on his long-running television show. Together, "Porter and Dolly" were a well-known duet team through the late 1960s and early '70s. Parton wrote the song "I Will Always Love You" after Wagoner suggested she shift from story songs to focus on love songs. This segment will feature an interview with Wagoner from the WKCR archives conducted in the late 1980s.

  • A Tribute to Hank Thompson (6pm-12am)

    A tribute to Hank Thompson, who died November 6, 2007. Thompson was a country music entertainer whose career spanned seven decades. He sold over 60 million records worldwide. His musical style, characterized as Honky Tonk Swing, was a mixture of fiddles, electric guitar and steel guitar that featured his distinctive, gravelly baritone vocals.


  • June and Johnny (12am-3am)

    A segment featuring duets by June Carter and Johnny Cash.

  • Country Rock (3am-8am)

    An exploration of how commercial country music has incorporated, or appropriated, elements from other genres like rock, blues, and gospel, while remaining true to its original influences and boundaries.

  • Country Gospel (8am-10am)

    A festival tradition, this segment will feature country gospel recordings from a variety of musicians, including Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Porter Wagoner, the Carter Family and musicians recorded in Appalachia by Alan Lomax in the 1930s.

  • Early Traditions of Black String Bands (10am-12pm)

    The banjo is a product of Africa. Africans transported to the Caribbean and Latin America were reported playing banjos in the 17th and 18th centuries, before any banjo was reported in the Americas. When most of people think of fiddle and banjo music, they think of the white southern Appalachian Mountains as the source of this music. This segment will trace the history of the sting bands back to its African-American roots well before the Civil War.

  • Everybody Loves Hank (12pm-2pm)

    The festival will end--as it always does--with a segment featuring the music of Hank Williams.

Friday, March 21, 2008

St. Patrick's Day Follow-Up

For more on Black 47's new Iraq album, check out the following two program segments from WNYC:
(Thanks to Laura for the head's up.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

St. Patrick's Day III: Black 47

The final concert of St. Patrick's Day weekend was on St. Patrick's Day itself, Monday the 17th of March. I was recovering from an intense encounter with massive quantities of bourbon and a roomful of guitars on Sunday and was not in my best concert-going form. Nonetheless, there we were at B.B. King's Blues Club on 42nd Street--Ben and I--ready to celebrate St. Patrick's Day with the only New York City Irish band that matters--can I say that?--Black 47!

Attendance was not overwhelming, and I really stopped having any idea what we were in for when we walked down the stairs onto a group of 15 teenage girls being chaperoned through the door. So we mingled with the guys in kilts at the bar for a while during opening act Shaz Oye's set.

Shaz Oye was fresh in from Dublin. She had made her U.S. debut the night before at An Beal Bocht up in the Bronx--a venue to which I have never made my way but which gets solid reviews from my friend Nick who used to live down the block. It was one woman with a guitar, and the crowd grew increasingly less attentive over the course of her set. Sadly, I wasn't really feeling the material either: the songs simply were not reaching out to me. The whole room was getting antsy, and then the set ended. And we moved on. (Well, a table of folks from Dublin were a bit more enthusiastic than the rest of us.)

So then a good number of us moved down onto the wooden dance floor in front of the stage, and Black 47 took the stage--Larry Kirwan on guitar; Geoffrey Blythe on soprano saxophone; Fred Parcells on pennywhistle; Joseph Mulvanerty on uilleann pipes; Joe Burcaw on bass; and the ever-expressive Thomas Hamlin on drums--and they launched into "Green Suede Shoes," and it was on.

The crowd was into it and having a good time, but it was not as wild and crazy as I expected for a St. Patrick's Day show in Times Square. Larry Kirwan indeed chastised us several times for our lack of enthusiasm on the line "You'd sell your soul for a cigarette"--where the usual response is to scream cigarette and throw the same at the stage--from "40 Shades of Blue." We sang when appropriate; we danced; but the groove just wasn't overwhelming. This did not seem to diminish any of Larry Kirwan's energy: he is just amazing in terms of throwing his fist up in the air, shouting out the lyrics and yelling "Black 47!" at the end of songs. He did need to leave the stage from time-to-time to refill his pint glass.

Kirwan also chastised the New York Times from stage, cursing them for "once again" not listing the Black 47 St. Patrick's Day show and giving the Old (no longer) Grey Lady the double middle-finger.

Attention within the crowd was mostly focused on the Old Dancing Guy. If you have been to enough shows around New York, you know exactly who I am talking about. I've seen this guy at many bluegrass shows and at some rock shows, too. He's about 5'3" and has long white hair, a white beard and plastic glasses. And he just gets in the zone and dances with anybody or without anybody for as long as the show lasts. Taking a break is not his thing. He would periodically become the center of attention with lots of clapping in his direction or a bit of dosado with one of the young Irish-American lads in attendance--he would always outlast them.

You can find a complete setlist here, so I won't go through song by song.

The band played several songs from their new CD about and entitled Iraq. Many of the songs on the CD are stories told to the band by men and women who have served with the U.S. military in Iraq. The first of these was "Stars and Stripes" about one friend watching another get shot in Anbar province. Later in the set came the "Downtown Baghdad Blues," which had a pretty good groove to it. And then the first song of the encore was "Sadr City" about a gunner being driven crazy by his tour of duty in Iraq.

The instrumental work was mostly good, although there were a few tuning issues here and there and what Ben described as a "completely unnecessary trombone solo." I really enjoyed the moment when Joseph Mulvanerty put down the pipes and busted out the bodhran for a drum duet with Tommy Hamlin, and Hamlin was just great to watch throughout the night because he emotes so much while pounding on the skins. And Geoffrey Blythe's capacity for making those ancient Irish tones ring true on the soprano and alto saxophones is always impressive.

The set was nicely structured such that it culminated in "James Connolly," "40 Shades of Blue" and "Funky Ceili," three big hits, and then the encore included "Gloria" and "I Fought the Law," crowd-pleasing covers that ensured that we all left with a good taste in our mouths.

I didn't really expect to be hitting 42nd Street before 10 o'clock on St. Patrick's Day night, but there we were--Ben and I--humming the intro to "James Connelly" and walking back to the subway.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Others Praise Alex Battles

A few weeks ago, I described Alex Battles' wonderful tribute to Johnny Cash on his birth anniversary. Apparently, New York Magazine agreed with my assessment of the show. They gave Battles a prime spot in the weekly Approval Matrix in the 10 March issue.

Last night, Sandro, Sarah and I went out to Freddy's Backroom to see a show that Alex Battles put together. Since I had to do both Amazing Grace and The Moonshine Show in the morning on WKCR, we couldn't stay for Battles' set, but we did get to hear Eli Smith sing a bunch of traditional folk songs (including two versions of the "Coal Creek March") and also the Strung Out String Band play a full set of great tunes--fiddler Nate Landau was really on! (If you go to the Strung Out String Band's website, you can find an MP3 recording from their appearance on The Moonshine Show. Who knew?!)

The best part of the evening was that Battles had bought two giant sandwiches--six footers, I guess--and they were proudly displayed on the table in the center of the room with appropriate side dishes (i.e. macaroni salad, potato salad and cole slaw, each made with generous amounts of mayonnaise). Battles became fond of saying, "This sandwich and I were born on the same day 36 years apart!" And the crowd would respond with a yell of "Giant Sandwich!" What fun!

Friday, March 14, 2008

St. Patrick's Day II: The Saw Doctors

So this is the show that I am fresh back from tonight: the Saw Doctors at the Nokia Theatre in Times Square. These guys rock. They simply rock.

Ben (with whom I saw The Magnetic Fields recently, as detailed here) and his girlfriend Julie came into town for this one. I met them at Penn Station, and we trekked to the Midtown hotel where they are staying, which was rather nice, I have to say. We ate some 'cue at Spanky's on 43rd. (Julie and I had pulled pork sandwiches with green beans and baked beans respectively, and Ben had a brisket sandwich with some candied yams. These candied yams were nowhere near as good as the ones that I had the other night at Amy Ruth's, but the barbecue fix was great overall.) And then we made our way to the Nokia Theatre.

The opening act was Gordon Gano from the Violent Femmes. I had been really excited to see him. Well, you win some, and you lose some. The songs were fine, and we got to see Gordon Gano bust out his fiddle, but there wasn't much substance there. The crowd was respectful or perhaps even encouraging. So maybe it was just me who wasn't feeling it. But I was a little disappointed. Maybe I just wanted to hear "Blister in the Sun."

As soon as The Saw Doctors took the stage, the Nokia Theatre was theirs. They opened with "N17," and everyone was singing along. I love shows like that. When They Might Be Giants used to do their monthly stand at the Mercury Lounge--they now do it at the Bowery Ballroom, a bigger venue, and most recently did a one-off show at the Beacon Theatre, an absolutely huge venue--the crowd's singing along would almost be overpowering. This wasn't quite at that level, but it was great to hear everyone shouting out the lyrics and to see everyone throwing up their hands in the air.

As I mentioned in my post listing these shows, when I first saw these guys, the crowd was mostly thirtysomethings with small children--and I'm talking about the people who were right down front! Well, this crowd was a terrific mix of twentysomethings, thirtysomethings and beyond. There was a great range of folks--predominantly Irish-looking folks--there to enjoy this band.

And they just put on a terrific show. No one stopped dancing or singing until it was over. And no one walked away disappointed.

The set looked like this:


"Macnas Parade"

"Michael D. Rocking In The Dail"

"You're In Love with Someone Else"

"Tommy K" - during this song Ben questions whether or not the drummer is wearing any clothing on the lower half of his body; we later determine that he is wearing shorts

"She's Got It" - this song name-checked John Prine with the lyric "The way she reads my mind; / The way she loves John Prine"; for a list of other songs that name-check John Prince, see here

"All the Way from Tuam" - dedicated to the people in the audience actually from Tuam

"Midnight Express"

"Stars Over Cloughanover"

"Green and Red of Mayo" - simply awesome with everyone signing along; I sang it all the way from the theatre to the 1-train stop at 50th street

"Galway and Mayo" - Leo Moran segues into "Maroon and White Forever," his poem/song about the Galway football team

"Share the Darkness" - this song is so excellent, and despite rumors to the contrary, it is not about Guinness

"I'd Love To Kiss The Bangles" - yeah, you know where it ends up: "Jesus Christ almighty, I'd love to bang The Bangles!"; tickets are on sale now, as I understand it

"Exhilarating Sadness" - with the lyric "I still see your likeness through the years"

"Who's a Lucky Boy?" - a song from their next CD

"Clare Island" - another crowd favorite; Leo just turned the first chorus over to the crowd instantly, and we did not let him down; the bassist played a sax solo

"I Useta Love Her" - the crowd gets into the band's breakthrough song

"To Win Just Once" - the crowd goes nuts again

"I'll Be on My Way"

"Bless Me Father" - not quite as rocking as we had hoped

"That's What She Said Last Night" - the keyboardist gets his moment to step out front and sing "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" in the middle of the song

ENCORE: "Red Cortina" - the band all switches instruments for the final chorus of this song; Davy Carton ends up on the drums - pretty cool

"Chips" - played at a fast tempo

"Joyce Country Ceili Band" - oh yeah: get that accordion out there!

"Why Do I Always Want You" - yes, this still is one encore: it was epic

"What a Day" - oh, they just kept going

"Hey Wrap" - including the Beastie Boys' "You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Party" in the middle: now, that is a solid New York ending

Like I said, they just rocked from start to finish. A great show from a great band that likes to entertain and that has a group of loyal fans who like to sing along.

Oh, and by the way, like in the Lunasa/Karan Casey show, I noticed that the band relied much more heavily on "T'anks a million!" than "T'anks very much!" What happened? Was there some sort of all-Ireland memo? I hope that it hasn't reached Tom Landa of The Paperboys--he's my all-time favorite "T'anks very much!" guy.

The Saw Doctors return to New York on August 23rd for a 6pm show on Governor's Island, sponsored by the Highline Ballroom.

St. Patrick's Day I: Karan Casey and Lunasa

I almost did not go to this show last night. I had mentioned it to a good number of people--you know who you are--and despite some interest did not really have any takers. But then my friend Joyce sent me an e-mail yesterday morning and asked me if I was still up for the show, and I said, "Let's do it!" Well, Joyce, I owe you one because I am really glad that we got to see this concert.

The gig was at the Highline Ballroom. I was there back in early January with Peter to see Bill Evans' Soulgrass featuring Sam Bush--a combination of jazz and bluegrass featuring one of the great bluegrass musicians of our time. The only problem with that particular show was that you couldn't hear Sam Bush at all! He had the only acoustic stringed instrument on stage, and it was just lost underneath the electric banjo, electric violin and electric bass--not to mention the drums and saxophone. So I was a little bummed but not entirely surprised by the buzzing in the speakers that persisted throughout much of the first set last night. I think that it had something to do with the keyboard--when the keyboardist asked for more volume, the buzz came back after it had gone away for a bit.

But enough complaints. Karan Casey was the opening act, and the focus was pretty thoroughly on her voice. CaoimhĂ­n Vallely was playing keyboards; his brother--Karan's husband--Niall Vallely was on concertina; and Robbie Overson was on guitar. The arrangements though were sparse. Karan's voice was allowed to shine through.

She opened with a version of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," emphasizing the missing limbs of poor Johnny, and then went into "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair." The centerpiece of the set consisted of a medley of three very sparse tunes. The first song was "Dunlavin Green" about the killing of 36 Irish prisoners by the British military in 1798, and the middle song was in Gaelic. At the end of the set, Karan said, "Well done -- yourselves, I mean! 'Cause that was pretty intense! Are ye all right?"

I respect Karan Casey's great vocal ability, but I have to say that the highlight of the set for me was when Niall Vallely got to wail on concertina. He performed a simply captivating medley with his fingers just flying across his 30-button Anglo concertina--at least, I think that is what he was playing. The tune was bluesy and gutsy. The other band members joined him to add some backup, but the concertina was holding center stage, and it was simply an impressive set of tunes.

For the encore, Karan asked us to sing, and in true New York fashion, no one clapped or shouted or anything. She sang, a capella, "One I Love," and a good number of us even joined in.

Lunasa followed Karan Casey. For whatever reason, I had not realized that these guys would be all instrumental. The line-up was upright electric bass, guitar, fiddle, uilleann pipes and flute; on two occasions, fiddler Sean Smyth and piper Cillian Vallely--yes, another brother--switched to flute, so that we had three-flute tunes. Kevin Crawford, the main flautist, doubled as MC. Their opening tune laid down a solid groove, and I was sold.

They were great. I didn't keep track of the tunes, so I don't have that much information to pass on. Sean Smyth fiddled in that aggressive, one-foot-forward way. Paul Meehan played a solid guitar backup and got to do one solo tune. Cillian Vallely's pipes meshed perfectly with the fiddle and flute. Kevin Crawford kept asking that Trevor Hutchinson's bass be turned up in the monitor. (Hutchinson played for a number of years with The Waterboys.) And Kevin's flute was delightful.

Kevin Crawford's best line of the night had to do with the fact that he and Paul Meehan were wearing green shirts in preparation for St. Patrick's Day: "And the rest of the boys, well, they're still preparing for the priesthood. ... We got our shirts at Daffy's, by the way. Love that place!"

He also scored when introducing a medley of three Breton dances: "I used to say that these were dances from Brittany, but people always thought I meant Spears, and she was getting all this credit for being a great Celtic songwriter." The Breton tunes were followed by a set of wonderful tunes from Galicia.

Each member of the band got to solo, and they nicely built up one tune out of the pipes solo--it became a total jam.

To just sit back and enjoy Irish tunes is an experience--no concern for lyrics and less concern for virtuosity than if you were watching a bluegrass or a jazz performance. These guys know these tunes inside and out and know how to play them as a unit. And Lunasa proved to be worth the trip downtown for sure.

At this show, I noticed a distinct switch from the traditional thank you of Irish bands--"T'anks very much!" The new line seems to be "T'anks a million!" I daresay that it has replaced "T'anks very much."

A Melange of Fiddle Music in Branford, Connecticut

Last Saturday--yes, I'm a week behind again and I am just back from The Saw Doctors' show in Times Square, which was awesome, awesome, awesome, so that's what I really want to blog about, but I also want to maintain some sort of order--I traveled up to Connecticut to see my parents and to attend a concert put on by the Branford Folk Music Society.

The featured act on Saturday night was Notorious, a duo consisting of Eden MacAdam-Somer on violin and Larry Unger on guitar, steel guitar and banjo. Larry Unger's name pops up frequently in the contra dance, old-time and bluegrass worlds, and I am sure that I have seen him with various contra dance bands at festivals, so I was intrigued enough to see what this band was all about.

Well, the band was mostly about Eden MacAdam-Somer, who is a simply wonderful fiddler who studied violin at the University of Houston and Rice University and now lives in Boston. Larry Unger played mostly a supporting role, although he was an essential part of the performance, providing solid back-up and taking a good number of breaks. For whatever reason, the crowd was not in the habit on Saturday night of applauding for instrumental breaks, so Larry did not get as much recognition as he might have.

The pair opened with some solo fiddle tunes, and then the guitar kicked in as Eden began to sing some lyrics to "Greasy Coat." On the second set of tunes, Eden busted out some flat-foot clogging moves. Two numbers into the set, and this young woman had played fiddle, sang and clogged. They weren't holding anything back! So I thought it was going to mostly be an old-time set, and the trend continued with "Working on the New Railroad," a song that Eden learned as part of a bluegrass band in Boston and that the group Crooked Still recorded on their most recent CD. That was followed by the medley of "Old Aunt Jenny with a Nightcap On" and another tune.

The old-time mountain tune trend was broken with a little but of gypsy jazz, although it was an original tune by Larry Unger called "The Ice Storm," but it might as well have been Stephane Grappelli; it was a wonderfully composed tune. This went into a jazzy torch song called "All Night Long," followed by the Yiddish vaudeville song "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen." A Jewish wedding song that sets text from the Song of Songs and "The Romanian Train Song"--which, in all honesty, sounded quite a bit like "Train 45" to my ear--closed up the first set.

At the end of intermission, Eden's grandfather, who had come up from New York City--and you thought I was the only one who would travel to Branford, Connecticut, in search of folk music--with her grandmother and uncle commandeered the microphone to announce, "You may have heard of Itzhak Perlman. Well, Eden can do everything that Itzhak Perlman can do, and there are some things that Eden can do that Itzkak Perlman can't do!" Eden stepped in, following this bold statement, and described the time when she was eight years old and saw Itzhak Perlman at Carnegie Hall and fell asleep in such a way that her mother was sure she was going to plummet over the balcony edge.

Eden began the second set with a Norwegian fiddle tune--some shades of Bruce Molsky (one of the true masters of old-time music) here--called "The Devil's Tune," which she compared to the sarabande from J.S. Bach's Cello Suite No. 1, which she then played. Pretty cool for a folk concert, huh?

Larry busted out a beautiful steel guitar to play a call-and-response tune called "I'm on My Way." This was followed by the "East Texas Rag" learned from a Lomax Collection recording. They played a few original tunes followed by a Transylvanian klezmer tune, which led several members of the crowd to dance around the edges of the hall. And they ended the set with the Romani national anthem, "Gelem Gelem," which precipitated some Romanian slap-dancing in the aisle by a couple of fifty-year-old women and involved some extended violin technique.

The encore kicked off with a jazzy song about suicide called "I'm Ready for the River." The fifty-year-old women who had been dancing in the aisle had reseated themselves in front of me and proceeded to engage in a form of seated moshing that I have never before witnessed in my many years of going to both folk concerts and punk shows. They banged into each other with increasing aggressiveness and flailing arms while remaining firmly seated in their chairs. I wish I had a photograph.

Thanks in no small part to the enthusiasm of these women, we were treated to a second encore, the "Rodeo Clown Rag."

My father had played the Notorious CD on his radio show, Profiles in Folk, the previous night, and I had not been that impressed. The sound of just violin and guitar is a little sparse on a CD, but live, Larry Unger and Eden MacAdam-Somer demonstrated themselves to be musicians and entertainers of the highest caliber. I hope that we'll see more of these guys. They would go over terrifically at Old Songs or Champlain Valley.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

St. Patrick's Day Weekend in New York

I'll be checking out three shows this weekend, and I hope to be able to post summaries of them at some point.

Tonight, I'm headed down to the Highline Ballroom to see Lunasa and Karan Casey. To the best of my recollection, I've never seen Lunasa, so I am excited to check out this leading Irish band. Karan Casey I have seen a few times before, and my reviews would be somewhat uneven. She usually has some fine musicians playing with her though.

Tomorrow night, I will visit the Nokia Theatre in Times Square for the first time to hear the Saw Doctors. The first time I saw these guys a few years ago at the Fairfield County Irish Festival, they just knocked my socks off. And I had never seen so many thirtysomethings with toddlers on their shoulders shouting out the lyrics to rock songs. While crashing at my friend Ben's place in D.C. for a few weeks, their song "Bless Me Father" became our anthem; that summer, we also saw them in a co-bill with Great Big Sea at Wolf Trap. Ben is coming up from D.C., and we are very much looking forward to this show.

And then on Monday night, Ben will still be in town when we head over to B.B. King's to check out the ultimate New York Irish band, Black 47. I first saw them 10 years ago at an Irish festival that Guinness sponsored on the Lower East Side; we also spent New Year's Eve with them back in December 2004 (during which concert my girlfriend stood in the rear corner of the room with her fingers in her ears). They have been popping up a lot on my iPod--"Big Fellah" is a terrific song to start running to--and so I am most excited about this show.

It's one non-stop funky ceili here in New York.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Art of Narrative Songwriting: Chuck Brodsky at the Good Coffeehouse

The Friday before last--delayed blog posting here, it's true--I found myself out in Brooklyn on a snowy/rainy night at the Good Coffeehouse at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture. The Good Coffeehouse has been an operation there for 33 years! And for a good number of years now, local bluegrass star James Reams and his partner Tina Aridas have been in charge of the booking. They always put together a nice season with a few special and surprising treats over the course of the year. I have not gotten out there nearly as often as I might have liked.

On the day in question, I was there to see Chuck Brodsky. My memories of past Chuck Brodksy performances are pretty hazy. If I have seen him before--and I think that I have--it most likely was at a festival, and he sort of flickered before my eyes. Certainly, I know some of his songs, and I definitely know some of the stories behind the songs. So whether that is from having seen him before, having heard him interviewed on the radio, having listened to his CDs or just pure cultural osmosis, I cannot tell you. But there was a fair amount of familiarity in seeing him live.

The crowd was small. When I got there, it was essentially non-existent--New Yorkers dislike rain and snow; we're like cats. By the time that Chuck started his set, however, there was a quorum, and based on the number of people who came up to him after the concert and wanted to know more about particular songs or to figure out which CD to buy or to talk politics with him, it was an enthusiastic audience even if a small one.

What struck me most during the show was how great a narrative songwriter Chuck Brodsky is. My favorite songs tend to be narrative in form: I like a song that tells a story. Whether that is a Cowboy Western like Tom Russsll's "The Sky Above, The Mud Below" or a gypsy love song like Richard Thompson's "Beeswing," I like following the arc of the story from verse to verse. (Being narrative is not my end-all, be-all requirement for a song, of course. To use the same two examples, Tom Russell's "Box of Visions" is a charming little collection of simple images without a story behind them, and Richard Thompson's "Turning of the Tide" is a powerful character portrait without an extended story.) During the first set, in particular, Chuck just hit us with one song after another, where you hung on to each verse, each word, looking to see how the story was going to develop.

The first of these songs was "Bill & Annie," which recounts a story that Chuck heard from a man selling peaches out of the back of his truck in which that man finds his true love on the day of his wedding--and she's not his wife--and makes the hard decision to stay with the woman that he has married rather than run away with the woman he knows that he truly loves.

Then we got the Chuck Brodsky classic "Dock Ellis's No-No" about the time that Pittsburgh Pirate Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter while tripping on acid. Another sports-related song from later in the evening was Chuck's tale of being at a famous Philadelphia Eagles game in 1968 where the fans pelted Santa Claus with snowballs.

We heard the tale of a woman--now Chuck's wife--who gave a flute to a poor little girl so that she could continue her flute lessons and a song called "Lily's Braids" about a family cutting off and hiding a girl's braids before the family was taken away to a concentration camp. (Chuck said that he was working on a CD full of songs about the holocaust.)

From the category of songs about music, we heard a song about Chuck's great-grandfather imagined from a photograph in which the old man holds a fiddle in small-town Russia and also a song about the man who blows kisses at the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Canso, Nova Scotia.

From the growing-up genre, we got a song about Chuck playing ping-pong with his father after dinner, learning how that game evolved over time with their relationship, and a song about what it is like to be Jewish at Christmas time.

And that was all in the first half of the concert!

In the second set, Chuck sang a song called "Keep the Backyard Lookin' Good" about throwing people who throw all of their garbage into their backyard. (He lives near Asheville, North Carolina, where this is apparently not an unknown practice.) This was followed by the song that he wrote for the movie Radio about a developmentally disabled man adopted by a high school football coach. "The 9:30 Pint" was about an Irish publican who opens up his establishment at 9:30 every morning because there are people looking for a drink even then, while "The Boys in the Backroom" was about political corruption in North Carolina. (Chuck says that he likes it in North Carolina! What would he write if he didn't like it?)

As you can tell by the descriptions, these are not simple songs about unrequited love or drinking lots of beer. These are complex and compelling songs, and my hats off to Chuck Brodsky for his skill and artistry.

I concluded the night by confirming with Chuck a story that I tell about his photograph up on the wall above the bar at the Postcrypt. And yes, it's true: he drew in the beard on the photo with a marker. Maybe someday he'll write the song about that!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Special Interest Groups for Gorka

Despite what y'all might think, I am still alive and have not let the Minnesota winter get me down...I've been so busy working, performing and traveling that I have not had a moment to add my additions to Matt's February 9th post of John Gorka campaign slogans. Because many Americans are issues voters, I thought it was important to offer some Gorka-penned slogans that speak to a variety of special interest groups:

- Party Animals for Gorka: "I want to have a party tonight"
- Loners for Gorka: "I will always be lonely"
- New Jerseyans for Gorka: "I'm from New Jersey"
- Pessimists for Gorka: "I don't expect too much"
- Hank Williams Fans for Gorka: "I'm having a Hank Senior moment"
- Seniors for Gorka: "I'm having a Hank Senior moment"
- Coffee Drinkers for Gorka: "I pray to you St. Caffeine"
- Meteorologiests for Gorka: "There's a chance of rain today"
- Blue States for Gorka: "I'm in a bluer state"
- Mathematicians for Gorka: "There's addidtion and subtraction but division overall"
- Nature Boys for Gorka: "When I grow up I want to be a tree"
- Penny Pinchers for Gorka: "I see a penny and pick it up"
- Baseball Fans for Gorka: "I want to hear the crack of a baseball bat"

Okay that's probably enough for now...All I have to say is if Gorka got all these demographics to vote for him, he'd be our next President.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

More Songs for Pluto?

New York's Astrograss was on The Moonshine Show with me this morning to talk about their CD release party next Sunday at Joe's Pub for their new children's CD Let Me Stay Up All Night. (As a point of interest, lead singer Jordan Shapiro--who formerly was a member of the Frank Zappa tribute band Project Object--is, like Ellen and me, an alumnus of Amity Regional High School.) One of the songs that they played was called "Who Says Pluto's Not a Planet?" which was written and sung by bassist Tim Kiah (who is also the namesake member of the not-recently-seen-in-action Nurse Kaya String Quartet). Of course, I was reminded of Anthony DaCosta's "Poor, Poor Pluto" (which is mentioned in this post). So are there other musical laments for Pluto out there of which people are aware?

NYT: Roots Music in New York

The New York Times did a nice piece on roots music in New York on Friday, focusing in particular on Michael Daves and his connection with Chris Thile. As in the past--see my letter from 2003--the Times opted not to mention WKCR.