Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Scoring Second Encores from Pete Rowan

Late May has seen three solid bluegrass shows at B.B. King's. Last Friday, the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience was there. Tonight, David Bromberg is playing. And last night, the mighty Peter Rowan was in town.

First off, the turnout was pitiful. Hello New York? Is anybody home? I know that it is the Tuesday after Memorial Day weekend, but this is Peter Rowan -- a music legend, a great songwriter and a fabulous entertainer! I've seen him probably 10 times in my life and have never been disappointed. And I was not disappointed last night either, but I expected the club to be full, and it was barely half-full when I got there and maybe 2/3 full at showtime. Well, y'all missed out.

King Wilkie opened up the show. These guys burst out on the scene five or six years ago. From Charlottesville, Virginia (but now from New York apparently), they were one of a set of bands that I called the "new traditionalists" in bluegrass -- they played hard-driving bluegrass music. Named after Bill Monroe's horse, these guys could tear it up: Scruggs-style banjo, ripping fiddle leads, sweet harmonies. They had it.

Then they released an album called Low Country Suite last summer. Uh-oh. You know how I feel about bluegrass bands doing "suites." And yeah, sorry, I'm afraid that I didn't think the disc lived up to the band's potential. At a minimum, it was not what I expected out of these guys. At a maximum, it was just an OK album. So I didn't know what to expect of their set last night.

Apparently, I should also have been questioning who was in the band. This was not the tight bluegrass unit that I had seen perform at the Sheriff Sessions a few years ago nor the band that performed on their first Rebel CD Broke nor even the ensemble on the Low Country Suite disc. There was a bassist, a mandolinist, a guitarist and Dennis Lichtman on fiddle. (Dennis Lichtman has been up on the Moonshine Show with Astrograss, and I had no idea that he was playing with King Wilkie these days.) Note that there was no banjo.

The vibe was a kind of old-time blues and hokum sound -- a sound that has become increasingly popular of late with groups like The Wiyos and the Second Fiddles around New York. The second song of their set was the old classic "Sal's Got a Meatskin." The band performed songs from Low Country Suite: "Angeline" and "Ms. Peabody" stand out in my memory. The harmonies were pretty nice, and Dennis Lichtman did some nice switching from fiddle to mandolin to clarinet.

Ultimately, however, the drive of the old King Wilkie band wasn't there, and the crowd's applause was polite but short after each song. As I've noted recently (here and here), B.B. King's tends to eat up bands that are not sufficiently high energy or a sufficiently large presence. So maybe that is what happened to these guys. Or maybe they are still trying to figure out what their vision for the band is. At any rate, the set was fine, but the band failed to really impress the way that the King Wilkie unit was doing when they first started touring nationally.

The advertising for the show had said "Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band" with no indication of who that included. So I was pretty damn stoked when Jody Stecher walked out behind Pete Rowan carrying a mandolin. I've never seen Jody live, although I greatly respect him as a musician, love his song "Going Up on the Mountain" and often talk about his role in New York's bluegrass scene in the early 1960s (when he was listening to WKCR's bluegrass show -- Bluegrass Special, hosted by Pete Wernick -- from out in Brooklyn). So this was going to be a treat! And he did not at all disappoint: throughout the night, his instrumental work was hot, and his singing was at top level, better than it sounds on some of his recordings, I daresay.

The other members of the band were Keith Little on banjo and the mighty Mike Bub on bass. Man, the folks at B.B. King's missed out -- if they had said that the band was going to include these guys, I bet that the house would have been a little fuller. Pete Rowan with Jody Stecher, Keith Little and Mike Bub. That's bluegrass!

And indeed it was bluegrass. They opened up with "Roll On, Buddy" and smacked us with two other songs in a row before taking a break. Then we got a solid Pete Rowan set: "Walls of Time" (with the requisite story about the Bluegrass Breakdown, Bill Monroe's bus, living up to its name, etc.), "Land of the Navajo" and "Panama Red" all right in a row! Other highlights from the set were "Wisdom Girl" and "Blue, Dharma Blues." Keith Little sang a solid version of "Little Maggie," and Jody Stecher sang lead on the Carter Family's Western song "Away Out on the Old Saint Sabbath." Rowan wrapped the set up with the reggae-inflected "Fetch Wood, Carry Water" and then shortest version of "Midnight Moonlight" that I've ever heard.

Obviously, we called the band back for an encore. They brought some firepower up on stage with them: David Bromberg had been sitting in the audience all night, and so he came up on stage with mandolinist Bobby Tangrea and some hotshot young fiddler who just blew the roof off the place. This ensemble sang the Memphis Jug Band's "Stealin', Stealin'" with David Bromberg singing some of the verses and taking a solo and then "Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms" with hot mandolin licks from Jody Stecher and Bobby Tangrea -- playing separately and together. And this kid on the fiddle -- I wish I knew his name and will try and find out in an hour when I go to see the David Bromberg show -- he was laying down these great solos, full of energy and point perfect. He was truly amazing.

So on the list of things that I dislike is the pro-forma encore (where the band just comes out to play an encore because bands are supposed to play an encore, regardless of the level of crowd enthusiasm). On the list of things that I love is the real encore. Since we had had the pro-forma encore, it was time to get a real encore.

We were clapping loudly. I was screaming, "More! More!" at the top of my lungs (and the table of guys who had gone through four buckets of Coronas were doing the same). But nonetheless, the sound man brought up the house music and the house lights -- the death knell of real encore requests! The guy named Dan sitting at my table said, "Good try, Matt." But oh no, my friends, we persevered. We did not stop the clapping or the yelling. And it worked! Out came the band!

And the second encore was worth all the effort and more. He opened with a subdued song called "Skyscraper," which sounds like it could be either a Woody Guthrie kids song or else a September 11th memorial: "Skyscraper, skyscraper, / There's a hole in your sky. / Skyscraper, skyscraper, / Let me rest in your shadow, / Rest in your shadow before I die." (The song was written before September 11th, according to this interview.) And then they launched into "Wild Horses," which is such a great song and which they did so perfectly. And then -- bam! -- they closed the set with the brilliant political rant "Choppin' Down the Trees for Jesus" with David Bromberg taking these super bluesy solos -- his touch is insanely gentle: he pushes the strings exactly the right way, and it is truly amazing to watch. And then Bromberg and Stecher started trading fours on guitar and mandolin. It was brilliant -- an amazing conclusion to an amazing set of three songs.

UPDATE: Actually, I have seen Jody Stecher perform before. I saw him maybe five or six years ago at the Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival performing with his group Perfect Stangers.

UPDATE 2: The kid on fiddle was Nate Grower. Last night (Wednesday), he played with the Angel Band (which includes David Bromberg -- see here) but did not (sadly) play with the David Bromberg Quartet, where Jeff Wisor held forth. Although he took one really sweet solo and got a couple of other looks, he did not get to show off his stuff last night the same way that he did during the Rowan encores. But keep your eyes and ears open for this guy!

Some Punch and then Deciphering Classic 80's Hits at 80 MPH

The Punch Brothers at the Birchmere

On Friday night, I was down in Alexandria, Virginia, checking out a show at one of the classic American music venues, The Birchmere. Ben and I and some friends of his were there to see the Punch Brothers, the band formerly known as Chris Thile and the Tensions Mountain Boys and sometimes known as the How to Grow a Band. They are touring in support of their recent CD Punch, the centerpiece of which is a four-movement composition for string quintet (i.e. bluegrass band) called "The Blind Leaving the Blind."

I have spoken Chris Thile's praises before on this blog and have had the pleasure of seeing this band perform live in WKCR's studios and at the Jenkins House Concert series.

The Punch Brothers are some fine pickers: Chris "Critter" Eldridge on guitar, Noam Pikelny on banjo, Gabe Witcher on fiddle and Greg Garrison on bass (with Chris on mandolin, of course). And to a certain extent, that's why I'm not crazy about the suite from Punch. "The Blind Leaving the Blind" is a relatively well-conceived composition that asks the ensemble to get a set of discordant phrases, tempo changes and entrances and exits right. The band has it memorized and performs it crisply and cleanly. My problem is that the band is held back by its strictures and without a really clear reason. These are guys who can improvise in a most impressive fashion, slipping into modal and jazz scales within any given fiddle tune and turning it into something new and exciting. And for me, that is jaw-dropping. The suite is a decent piece of music, but I sort of have to scratch my head and say, "OK, but why?" That is, why not leave it to the classical composers?

Let it be said, however, that my opinion was distinctly the minority opinion at The Birchmere last Friday. The Punch Brothers performed the suite in two halves, and at the conclusion of the second half, a significant portion of the crowd rose to its feet for a standing ovation. The reception was beyond warm. Chris Thile said, "All right, all right. We would like to announce that we will be starting a residency at the Birchmere in 2009. We'll be playing here every night." And the people with whom I was seated with definitely enthusiastic about the suite. But I thought that the band really hit its stride on material from the How to Grow a Woman from the Ground CD (e.g. Gillian Welch's "Wayside (Back in Time)" and The Strokes' "Heart in a Cage") and when they whipped out Bill Monroe's "Molly and Tenbrooks" as part of the encore -- hot solos all around on that one! They also gave us a really nice treatment of Norman Blake's "Green Light on the Southern."

The crowd gave these guys a thoroughly positive review, and the place was packed. They had a lot of fun on stage -- Noam Pikelny's dry humor was particularly appreciated -- and in general, these guys are well worth checking out.

Rediscovering Toto's Africa

So on Saturday, the day after the concert, Ben and I hit the road out of D.C. in the early afternoon, stopped for lunch in historic Havre de Grace, Maryland -- that's pronounced HAVE-er duh GRACE, y'all -- and then took that right turn off of I-95 onto U.S. 40 heading east to Atlantic City.

First off, U.S. 40 is an awesome highway. It stretches all the way to San Francisco, and we were only traveling a small portion of it on Saturday, but it felt like we got a big slice of America: Western apparel stores, pit-cooked barbecues, a winery, a topless bar, etc. We didn't stop anywhere, but I'm definitely ready to go back when I have some more time and get some of that 'cue!

We hit Atlantic City in the evening. I lost some money on the slots. Ben won some money at the blackjack table. After a couple of hours, we left.

Now, Ben did all the driving on Saturday -- Washington, D.C., to New York via Atlantic City -- so after our midnight dinner stop at the Crystal Diner in Tom's River, New Jersey, we needed to pick the right music to supercharge him for the final leg of the journey. Therefore, we selected Essential Hits of the 1980s on my iPod.

And we grooved along to R.E.O. Speedwagon and Starship. And then we hit the motherlode: Toto's Africa.

Released in 1982 on their breakthrough Toto IV record, "Africa" is Toto's only number one hit. Personally, I think it is a rather brilliantly composed song. It a brilliant riff. It has great multi-rhythms that complement each other. It has some sweet singing. It has build on the chorus that resolves into a sparser verse, and then there is additional build at the end through repetition of the key line of the chorus.

But what exactly is that key line of the chorus?

(If you need a refresher, you can take a listen here on YouTube. (Prepare yourself, however, for a couple of serious racial tropes in the video.))

When I was growing up, I always thought that it was "I'll catch the waves down in Africa" or maybe "I'll catch some rays down in Africa." But driving up I-95 at 1:00 a.m. on Saturday, I became convinced that it was "I'll get Lorraine down in Africa" or "I'll kiss Lorraine down in Africa." (Ben quickly took this and made it slightly more scandalous.) But who was Lorraine? She didn't seem to be mentioned anywhere else in the song. My friend David later revealed that he always thought it was "I saw charades down in Africa."

The actual lyric, according to several of the lyrics sites on the Internet is "I bless the rains down in Africa." What the heck does that mean? And how does it fit in with the rest of the song? I really rather preferred speculating about Lorraine.

(Misheard lyrics are called "mondegreens," a term coined by Sylvia Wright in Harper's in 1954 (or so says the Wikipedia entry). My favorite mondegreen of all time is from Billy Bragg's version of Leon Rosselson's great song "World Turned Upside Down." The opening lyric is "In 1649, to St. George's Hill, / A ragged band they called the Diggers came to do the people's will." The misheard lyric is "a reggae band they called the Diggers.")

The other lyric in "Africa" to which attention must be called is the completely aryhthmic "Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti" -- the poor singer has to make that work in 4/4! Come on! The guy deserves some major props for that.

Now that you have thought a bit about the song and refreshed your memory, check out Andy McKee's amazing solo guitar version.

And now to continue your early 80's flashback, you'll want to check out the video for Men at Work's "Down Under." The vegemite sandwich across the counter! Oh yes!

Hours of entertainment, folks...

Sunday, May 25, 2008

More on Utah Phillips

To add some of my personal memories to what Jess and Ellen have posted already, Utah Phillips was a character with whom I grew up. I'm not sure when I first saw him. It was presumably at the Old Songs Festival, and I was probably three years old. I have a sense of his name being mentioned around the house in conjunction with folk festivals, concerts and my father's radio show. He was a semi-mythical character whose name I definitely knew -- I recall my father, when I was very young, referring to "otter water" with regards to bodily functions: the term is taken from "Moose Turd Pie," the signature Bruce Phillips story.

My first concrete Utah Phillips memory comes from when I was maybe seven years old, and my father had taken me to the (UPDATED) Carriage House at the University of Bridgeport (not the Carriage Barn in New Canaan, Connecticut, as I previously reported). I was the only kid in sight, and this loud and brash man with a big, white beard was up on stage telling stories and singing songs. This was Utah, of course. And this was fine and good for the most part until Utah launched into a story that involved the phrase, "Kids are assh*les!" What?! My ears perked up. What did the huge man on stage just say? My heart quickened. Uh-oh. Where was I? I was the only kid there. And if kids were assh*les, what was going to happen to me? Was I going to be attacked? What had I done? The fear was a little intense.

But no one seemed to pay me much notice. I stayed on my guard, waiting to hear more anti-kid talk from stage and waiting to be run out of the place. By the end of the concert, I think that my heart rate had returned to normal, but the memory was firmly implanted in my head.

In its entirely, Utah's soliloquy is something to the effect of "Kids are assh*oles. But they're their own assh*les! When you grow up, you have to be someone else's assh*le." (Repeating this to a friend once, she replied, "Charming...") It is, of course, a tribute to the freedom and independence of childhood, as opposed to the strictures of the wage-labor system of capitalism. Try and explain that to a seven year old, however!

Well, I forgave Utah enough such that I was willing to pay tribute to him on the radio during WKCR's annual Country Music Festival in my sophomore year of college (February 1999). I had programmed a segment on U. Utah Phillips and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Now, these guys are folk singers, not country singers, although Utah's first "hit" song was one recorded by Flatt & Scruggs in the 1950s, "Rock Salt and Nails," and certainly his songs of trains and hobos echo much of the country music repertoire. (I played "Rock Salt and Nails" this morning on The Moonshine Show as part of a small tribute.) But here I was, a young Turk trying to pass them off as country music artists during the Country Festival. And the calls started coming in -- mostly in response to Jack Elliott, I have to say -- "Who are these guys? Why did you choose to play them?" That was the general tone. The one that I remember most came in response to my playing Rambling Jack's version of "Buffalo Skinners." I answered the phone to hear an angry old white man yelling, "What is this?! I want to hear Gene Autry singing this song! Not one of your friends from college!" Before I could explain to him that Jack Elliott was a good number of years older than me and therefore not a friend from college, he had hung up on me. I sank into the chair, asking myself, "Who am I kidding anyway? This isn't what people want to hear. Why am I trying to force my tastes on them?"

But then in the next set, the tone of the callers changed. "When are you going to play 'Moose Turd Pie'?" "Where can I get a recording of that story? I've never heard of this guy before. Utah? His name is really Utah?" People were responding to the music. The positive call that I most clearly remember was a listener describing seeing Utah Phillips at the 14th Street YMCA in the late 1960s or early 1970s and thanking me for bringing back all the memories of that concert from 30 years earlier.

I last saw Utah in March 2007. He was playing at the Sounding Board in Hartford, Connecticut. It was quite clear by that time already that Utah might not make another swing out East -- I mean, we had said that before when the heart troubles first really surged up, and here he was, so who knew what actually might happen -- so my father and I were going to go this show. And I gathered Kate (who I once had forced to listen to nearly the entire three-CD Utah Phillips box set during a D.C.-to-New York car ride), Sandro and Simon (who was the most eager to go) to see the show with us. Utah did not disappoint. He was in fine form with jokes, stories and songs. A lot of the material was nearly word-for-word what can be found on various recordings, and that made me realize how much of an art his entertaining was -- how he had developed and perfected these stories over the years, trying out different jokes, different little wordplays and so on. He was sometimes disappointed in his own playing or in needing to take a pause to catch his breath. But we all knew that we were seeing a great, a living American legend, and the five of us stepped out of that show glad that we had made the trip from New York and New Haven, glad that we had been able to see Utah for what we knew then might be -- and indeed turned out to be -- the last time.

As Simon wrote when I passed the news along to him, let's all hope that Utah actually gets some of that pie in the sky.

UPDATE: My mother wants credit for using the phrase "otter water" around the house. I'm sorry, Mom, but I just don't remember it that way. What can I say?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Two posts about Utah

So Ellen and I were obviously both thinking about Utah Phillips today. I had checked to see if she'd posted about him before I began my post. She had not, but then it took me a little while to get mine up, and by the time I'd posted, hers was up too. I think I'll leave mine up anyway since we had some different things to say.

I hardly ever get to see Ellen anymore, but we are sometimes on the same wavelength. And clearly in agreement about this loss.

U. Utah Phillips Dies at 73

I got a call this morning from Red House Records president Eric Peltoniemi, saying he heard that U. Utah Phillips died last night in his sleep. A legendary folksinger, storyteller, Korean War vet, labor organizer and poet of the rails, Utah blessed us with countless stories, songs and performances that were filled with humor and humanity. Utah had heart disease and had been unwell for awhile. We at Red House had been planning a CD project to assist him with his medical bills. This album, recorded by his dear friend Rosalie Sorrels, is still planned for release in July, but I'm unsure what organization will be the beneficiary of the project now that we have lost our dear friend.

For some moving words from Utah himself, read a letter he wrote on May 14, 2008 here.

Utah Phillips 1935-2008

After a long and valiant struggle with heart problems, Bruce U. Utah Phillips has left us. He was 73. I got an email this morning from my friend Mitch Podolak of Winnipeg (founder of the Winnipeg Folk Festival). Mitch was a longtime supporter of Utah's and had kept me and many others informed of his condition for quite a few years.

There is a lovely letter posted on the KVMR website, something Utah wrote to his friends, family and fans last week. KVMR is Utah's hometown community radio station in Nevada City, CA. They've also posted an obituary.

I never knew Utah personally, and I admit that I first heard him on the albums he did with Ani DiFranco, which I think did bring him to the attention of a younger audience. Some years later I drove five hours from Missoula to Billings to see him perform on a lawn at Montana State University. I wasn't sure why it was important, but I just had a feeling that it was a rare opportunity I shouldn't pass up. He performed with his old friend Mark Ross of Butte, MT. They bantered back and forth in a way only old friends can. They told stories and sang songs about the struggles of the country's working class, about revolutionaries, soapbox preachers, and railroad tramps. He already has heart problems then, but he was determined to keep touring as long as he could.

He was a rare character in the folk music and activist communities, really a national treasure, and this is a big loss for all of us.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Carl Creighton Back at the Living Room

Carl Creighton (about whom I had nice things to say here) will be back at the Living Room on Friday, June 6th for an 8:00 p.m. show. Sadly, I will be in Ecuador and missing the show, but I really like this young man and so commend him to our New York readership.

Stravinsky Lives

Over on the classical music side of things -- classical music is acoustic music, right? -- Alex Ross has a nice review of Miller Theatre's Stravinsky Festival in the most recent issue of The New Yorker. Although I did not attend any of the festival, I offer a salute to my old boss George Steel for his innovative and adventurous programming.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Another Minnesotan in New York? John Elliott at Banjo Jim's

At some point, my friend Marie had told me that I needed to check out John Elliott at Banjo Jim's. And so for last Friday night, I had written down in my calendar "John Elliott at Banjo Jim's." I really had no idea what this meant, however, until Marie (who has graciously shared her apartment with me for the last two-and-a-half weeks) said, "So are you coming to see John Elliott on Friday?" And I said, "Oh, is that why that's in my calendar? Hmmm... We'll see how the night shakes out." Well, the night shook out such that -- after a promotional party related to the theme song from the documentary Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? (which is performed by FolkFoot) and some spicy dinner at Seoul Garden in Little Korea -- I wound up down at a packed Banjo Jim's.

John Elliott took the stage with a guitar and his friend Eli Bolin on piano. (Eli was there to play his own songs, but he joined in on nearly all of John Elliott's songs, adding some nice piano fills to John's guitar.) The presence of numerous members of John's family from Minnesota was one of the reasons why Banjo Jim's was packed. They would sometimes hoot and holler, such as when a song was played for Uncle Tim.

John Elliott gets described as "post-seinfeld, post-9/11 eyebrow rock." Huh? Maybe that can be captured in these lyrics from "The Score":

When last we spoke, I made a terrible joke.
You laughed, but you knew it was a terrible joke.
There was a time not that long ago when all of my jokes were good ones.

So maybe I lost it in the back of that truck
Or that night we swam naked in the lake and we stuck to each other
And we clutched and we kissed and we knew we could make it.

I know what the score is.
I know what war is.
People lose in a war.
It's all happened before.
People lose in a war.
It's all happened before.

My personal comparisons were two. The first was to teenage folk sensation Anthony da Costa (see my blog entry about him). John seemed to approach the microphone with a similar aggressiveness, and his tongue-in-cheekness also echoed Anthony's. (However, since Marie had suggested that Anthony da Costa might show up to be part of the show, I have to admit that this impression is probably influenced by that idea. Maybe I just wanted to see Anthony da Costa.) The second was to Glen Hansard from The Frames (and, more famously perhaps, the movie Once). Glen Hansard's signature technique is dynamic build. He may start a song in a whisper, but you can also rest assured that it is going to peak in a scream at some point (before perhaps fading back down to a whisper and then up again). John Elliott seemed to have the same technique working -- lots of build in his songs such that he would reach the point where he was just yelling the chorus into the microphone (but not in a bad way). It worked for him and made for an engaging show. This was particularly evident on "She Shoots to Kill" (which you can find on his MySpace page).

Two other winners from his set were "Disneyland" about a relationship in Los Angeles (where John lived for a long time, although he now lives in his car apparently) and "Feet to the Fire" (which you can hear (sort of) in a YouTube video capturing a performance from last November that features -- are you ready? -- Anthony da Costa; you'll also come to understand what I mean about "dynamic build" if you check it out) also about California, although it includes a good New York verse:

I don't love you, New York City --
You're too cocky, New York City --
We do not agree.

But I admit it, New York City --
When they hit you, New York City --
Something broke and tore inside of me.

End of summer, New York City --
End of something, New York City --
New York City, we were having fun.

So I get it New York City --
Yes, I get it, New York City --
New York City, you are number one.

(If the live version is to painful to listen to, check out this one instead. The "dynamic build" is still present even though it's not live.)

Eli Bolin had a couple of nice songs right at the top of his set -- if you had told me that "Hey! Emily?" was an Elvis Costello song when he was playing it, I totally would have believed it. (You can listen to that one here.) As the night progressed, his vocal volume became a little overpowering and detracted from the songs. And as noted above, his accompaniment was solid on John's tunes.

Bruce Cockburn at the Iron Horse Music Hall

Last Thursday, I hopped a train from New York to Connecticut and (after having a lovely breakfast with my parents) met up with my friend Simon, who drove us up to Northampton, Massachusetts ("where the coffee is strong and so are the women"). We wandered around town for a while, checking out the photography of Leonard Nimoy at the R. Michelson Gallery on Main Street and shuffling through the many bins of used CDs at Dynamite Records (the "longest-running independent record store in Western Massachusetts" -- wow...), where I walked away with a Mike Bloomfield compilation CD. Eventually, Sandro emerged from a final exam of some sort, and we went to the Dirty Truth to imbibe some fine brews and consume local delicacies such as a reuben with beets (me) and macaroni and cheese with kielbasa (Simon).

After a couple of pints -- Sandro limited himself to one, since he would need to spend the post-concert portion of the evening studying for a statistics exam (on factor analysis and logistic regression, for the curious) the following day -- we staggered over to the Iron Horse Music Hall, one of the legendary American folk venues, which Sandro is lucky enough to live within walking distance of these days.

We were there to see Bruce Cockburn. The show was the second of a 10-night swing through the Northeast -- the first also at the Iron Horse -- during which Bruce was recording a new live CD -- solo (as compared to 1977's Circles In The Stream, 1990's Live and 1998's EP-format You Pay Your Money and You Take Your Chances). We were excited to be there. We decided to split a Wicked Wally, which involves a huge brownie and a lot of ice cream. I was worried that I might ruin the live album with a bout of vomiting over the second-floor balcony, but luckily, this did not happen.

The opening act was Canadian singer-songwriter Catharine MacLellan, introduced as being from Halifax and apparently raised on Prince Edward Island. Her set was fine but not terribly exciting. Mostly I will remember Sandro's quotation of a friend of his in response to repeated songs about/dedicated to her young daughter: "You reproduced? Great. Congratulations on being able to do something that every other living organism can do." (Rough, huh? Bet you'll be using it soon.) There was a song "about planting potatoes next to cute boys," but I remember the description -- as some sort of Andrew Wyeth painting in my head -- but not so much the song itself. Likewise her song "Something Gold," which she introduced by saying, "This song is about how my religious views differ from those of my family. It's also about getting divorced, which I haven't done yet... But I plan to do soon." (Nice.)

Bruce Cockburn took the stage with six or seven guitars around him and a set of effects pedals at his feet. The most amazing thing to me about the show was how he sounded like a full band all by himself, although I guess this is not so difficult to do with all of the reverb and echo that he was adding on to his acoustic guitar. But he is a master self-producer in this regard: I never found the technology distracting, simply impressive. And his playing is not to be underrated: he uses great fingerpicking patterns and arpeggios.

The set looked like this:

  • "World of Wonders"

  • "Last Night of the World"

  • "See You Tomorrow" - with an introductory story about being asked in college to help run guns to Cuba but not feeling entirely up to the task

  • "Night Train"

  • "Lovers in a Dangerous Time" - with an introductory story about a guy who used to hit on women by introducing himself as "Sir William of the Long Nights" -- "It never worked..." -- he played this classic beautifully

  • "Life Short Call Now"

  • "Beautiful Creatures"

  • "Wait No More" - he switched to a steel guitar for this number, which produced an annoying buzz unfortunately

  • "Let the Bad Air Out" - on 12-string guitar

  • "Put It in Your Heart" - terrific on the 12-string

  • At this point, we were chastised briefly for our requests -- mine was "Pacing the Cage." Bruce said, "You guys have started the incoherent hollering of titles early tonight." Nontheless, he then hit us with three hits in a row:

  • "The Trouble with Normal" - I clapped very early and alone on this one, so if you buy the live record and there is one lonely set of hands clapping at the beginning of this track, you know who it is

  • "Wondering Where the Lions Are"

  • "If a Tree Falls"

  • "Mystery"

  • ENCORE: An instrumental where the effects pedals built the guitar up to towering wall-of-sound proportions

  • "Pacing the Cage" - woo!

  • "How I Spent My Fall Vacation" - nice closer

We headed out of the Iron Horse well satisfied. Sandro left to go study statistical models for use with dichotomous variables. Simon plugged my iPod into his car stereo and put it on shuffle, and I drove him and me back to southern Connecticut.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The New New Riverside Cafe

After enjoying a lovely warm afternoon planting herbs (yes, legal ones) and cleaning out my flower beds, I drove over to the West Bank of Minneapolis last night to the new Acadia Cafe. Now located at the corner of Cedar & Riverside, it is at the site of the old New Riverside Cafe. I started this then, listening to Moses Murray and Lightnin' Joe Peterson play (I couldn't finish because the Wi-Fi connection was so weak)....

Now the original Acadia was located just south of downtown in my old neighborhood of Steven's Square, which when I lived there, was in dire need of a place like the Acadia. It was a nice neighborhood coffee shop, serving tasty sandwiches and a very wide selection of tap and bottled beer. Adjoining the shop, there was a little theater, where they presented music (all original songs--partly due to spurring local creativity but mostly because they don't pay their ASCAP/BMI fees), comedy and theater. Although the sound was sometimes funky, the room had a nice cozy listening room vibe, and I enjoyed performing and seeing shows there. And there was always plenty of parking.

A couple months ago the Acadia Cafe moved to the happening West Bank, which is home to the KFAI studios and a wide selection of bars and music venues like 400 Bar, the Cedar Cultural Center, Nomad World Pub, the Triple Rock Social Club and the legendary but now defunct Viking Bar (which Matt will remember from one of his trips out to Minneapolis). I have mixed feelings about this move.

On the one hand, it's great to have them living next to hip venues in a neighborhood with lots of walk-by traffic. It's on the light rail line, in the backyard of Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota and in the nexus of my musical life. It's also great to see a music venue back in the exact space where the New Riverside Cafe brought West Bank legends to the stage (i.e. Spider John Koerner, Dakota Dave Hull, Peter Ostroushko). The interior looks and feels nice with red walls, good lighting, a long bar and plenty of booths and tables. Situated on the block's corner, it has windows the whole length of the cafe, allowing the performers to do their own advertising. This brings us to an interesting change in the new revised Acadia...the stage is in the room with the cafe, not it in its own little theater. This works fine for musical acts, as they can pack in more people and possibly get the accidental audience member who just came in for a beer or to catch up on their work (like the blog that they've been woefully remiss in posting to!). I'm not sure what it does to the other kinds of acts the Acadia used to present--poetry, comedy, theater. From what I can tell, they're focusing on the music, which kind of bums me out since there are plenty of bars and coffee shops in town that bring in music but very few small spaces in the Twin Cities that present this other kind of performance art.

When the new Acadia first opened and I was peering into the windows to scope out the new space, I was worried about the tall ceilings, hard floors and odd shape of the room, fearing it would hurt the sound, especially for acoustic artists. But I was pleasantly surprised when I was there for my friend Jaspar Lepak's CD release concert at the end of April. It was packed that night and yet I could hear everything quite well, even in the back of the room. I opened the show, and I can say that the sound on stage was as good as off, way better than at the old theater. Maybe that was a fluke, though, since last night was not such a happy sound situation...I guess the jury's out as to whether the new revised Acadia's sound has been improved.

Other problems include limited parking, a cover required in the evenings (even if you're just coming for a drink), spotty service and worst of all, no espresso machine. And when I asked for a regular coffee, their carafe was out so they had to get another pot of drip going. Not a happy situation...what is a coffee shop without real coffee?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Phil Schaap Profile in The New Yorker

David Remnick profiles long-time WKCR jazz DJ Phil Schaap in the current issue of The New Yorker. It is substantial but quite worth the read, and it does a nice job of capturing the Phil that generations of WKCR DJs have known, loved, fought with and, most importantly, learned from. (In fact, the article's main failure is not situating Phil a bit more in the WKCR world, in terms of the knowledge and radio style that he has passed along to all of us who have interacted with him. Numerous patter patterns and phrasings that I use are things that I have taken from Phil. And I hope that I also have absorbed some of his attention to musical and discographical detail.)

Two quick (and minor) points from my end:

In the many years that I’ve been listening, I’ve rarely heard it end precisely as scheduled. Generations of Columbia d.j.s whose programs followed Schaap’s have learned to stand clutching an album of the early Baroque or nineteenth-century Austrian yodelling and wait patiently for the final chorus of “I’ll Always Love You Just the Same.”

Having hosted Monday Morning Classical for a few years, I certainly can attest to the truth of this. You can plan on your classical show not starting before 9:45. In recent months, however, as I have become a more loyal Birdflight listener, I have actually turned to being disappointed when the classical programming does start -- even though much of it is quite wonderful. I'm just not done learning about Bird yet.

In 1979, Schaap was at the center of a Miles Davis festival at a time when Davis was a near-recluse living off Riverside Drive. Davis started calling the station, dozens and dozens of calls—“mad, foul, strange calls,” Schaap recalled. Davis’s inimitable voice, low and sandpapery, was unnerving for Schaap. But then one day—“Friday, July 6, 1979”—his tone changed, and for nearly three hours the two men went over the details of “Agharta,” one of his later albums. Finally, after Schaap had clarified every spelling, every detail, Davis said, “You got it? Good. Now forget it. Play ‘Sketches of Spain’! Right now!”

This Miles Davis story has become one of my favorites over the past year, and I frequently will quote the punchline to unsuspecting friends in my vicinity or just to myself.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Take Two Thiles, One Tam Lin and Call Me in the Morning

It has been a big music week for me, which has translated into a not so big blogging week. One can either go to the concerts or write about them, it seems, but finding time to do both is difficult. (At least, that's what Ellen tells me.)

Saturday: Another Fine Night at the Jenkins

The week began last Saturday. In the afternoon, I went with some friends to see the Yankees play the Mariners. It was pretty damn cold, and I was bundled up. I suspect that it was colder for the kid behind me who was wearing a pair of shorts. In the photo here, Makiko and I are dancing to "Y-M-C-A" in an effort to stay warm, while David watches non-plussed. (Yes, I'm wearing a hat, a sweatshirt and a fleece -- it was cold!)

That evening, Makiko and her friend Daniel (who took the photo) and I ended up at the Jenkins House Concert Series (see previous descriptions here and here) along with some other friends. The evening opened up with a set of three waltzes performed by Chris Thile and Cassie Jenkins (on the first and third). They opened with a lovely rendition of Bill Monroe's "Cry, Cry Darling." Chris then introduced the gigue from J.S. Bach's Solo Violin Partita No. 2, which the crowd greeted with much enthusiasm, such that Chris said, "You're excited, but it's supposed to be on a fiddle... And this is a mandolin. And I've already had a scotch and a Coke. ... Yeah, I know how to go to a house concert." But he played it beautifully, of course, and Makiko was impressed with the way that he had translated what would be bowed notes on the violin to picked notes on the mandolin. Sandy Jenkins reported later that he had first learned the piece on violin. Cassie rejoined Chris for a duet rendition of Radiohead's "The Tourist." What a lovely start to a concert!

The main attraction, however, was a group called New Old Stock: Wes Corbett on banjo, Simon Chrisman on hammered dulcimer (with electric damping pedal), Tristan Clarridge on cello and Tashina Clarridge on fiddle. Tristan Clarridge is probably the most visible member of the group. He plays with Darol Anger's Republic of Strings and recently has replaced Rushad Eggleston as the cellist in Crooked Still. He also is the youngest person to ever win the Grand National Fiddle Championships.

The band played all instrumentals. They tended to have a newgrass groove, and at first blush, they reminded me a bit of the Boulder Acoustic Society, a group that appeared on the Moonshine Show a few years ago, and then I began to hear a lot of Nickel Creek in them -- not sure if Chris Thile would agree or not. The hammered dulcimer really served as the anchor on a lot of the tunes, although Tristan's cello groove was also quite present. I enjoyed Wes's banjo playing a lot -- on "Tunnels," a song that he wrote about riding on the Boston T, he and Tashina kicked it off with the same melodic line being played on both fiddle and banjo. Tashina occasionally would be sufficiently moved by her brother's cello playing to give a shout of "Yeah!" which was pretty cool as well.

Tashina was playing -- for the entire concert, I believe, but I might be wrong -- a five-string fiddle, although I can't say that I noticed a marked difference in sound. She opened up a bit on a polska by a Swedish band -- and the audience was taught that a polska is not a polka. Tristan switched over to fiddle several times, and so we got twin fiddles on a tune written for banjo player Chris Pandolfi and guitarist Chris Eldridge called "Panda and Critter." (Eldridge plays with Thile in Punch Brothers; the banjo player from that group, Noam "Pickles" Pikelny, was present for this evening's concert, too.) That tune also featured some particularly percussive hammered dulcimer playing.

The half-time show was the New Lost Faculty Ramblers, the Jenkins House Concert Series House Band, led by dobro-swinger Bob Hipkens and featuring the fair Kate Mulvihill on harmony vocals, who played Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," Guy Clark's "Sis Draper," the Wailin' Jennys' "Swallow" and the Louvin Brothers' "Cash on the Barrelhead."

Sunday: Postcrypt Folk Festival

Back when I booked the Postcrypt, this was something that we talked about doing but never got done. (Columbia's sometimes-annual folk festival used to be called the Furnald Folk Festival actually, and if you ask Phil Schaap, he will tell you that he and I performed together at the most recent edition of the Furnald Folk Festival, which lasted for about seven minutes in May 2001 -- long enough for the two of us to do a capella renditions of "Pretty Boy Floyd" and "Maybelline." I've got photos that my mom took.) So kudos to the current crop of Postcrypt volunteers who got it done and put on an afternoon folk festival complete with reasonably priced veggie burgers.

I really only paid attention to the set by the Desperation String Band, a group of friends who will be on The Moonshine Show two weeks from now and three-quarters of whom were at the Jenkins House Concert the previous evening.

Monday: A Singer-Songwriter Named After a Maidenhead-Stealing Young Man Held Captive By Fairies

Hmmm... Despite having heard the Fairport Convention version at least 100 times in my life, I had no idea that the plotline of the ballad Tam Lin would be encapsulated in the sentence above. I always thought that Tam Lin was a fairy. But apparently not. Wow. What a useful bit of research that was.

Anywho. Tam Lin is also the stage name of singer-songwriter Paul Weinfield. My friend Abigail had met him through his day job as an instructor in Columbia University's Contemporary Civilization class, and she asked if I would be interested in going to see him perform down at Kenny's Castaways.

Having checked out Tam Lin's website in advance, I knew not to actually expect any traditional folk music. (I did not get to ask him whether he knows his eponymous ballad or not and, if so, what version.) What I got instead was a guy with a pretty sweet voice and a couple of songwriting tricks up his sleeve. His songs were rooted in a kind of mystical Leonard Cohen world with passing images of various women from the songwriter's past flashing up in one way or another.

He played a number of songs from his most recent CD, In the Twilight. The title track is a nicely done modern murder ballad in which the narrator kills his lover's wife only to find himself trapped by the fact that she might point an incriminating finger at him. The repeat comes around: "In the twilight / When your mind plays tricks on you." (Although the plot is fairly different, it reminded me a bit of John Wesley Harding's song "Sussex Ghost Story": "After I had killed my wife / And by the jury been acquitted, / I resolved to change my life / And try to lead a life less wicked.")

I was most struck by a lyric in a song that does not appear to be on either Tam Lin album and that I would guess is called "Queen of Sheba":

She said you can come inside me
Just know you'll come alone
For my kingdom has no borders,
But no man can sit upon its throne.

That was hardcore Leonard Cohen, I thought. He then segued into the Rolling Stones' "Waiting on a Friend." (Abigail had to tell me that it was a Stones' song. Eek.)

Tam Lin closed his set with a rocker called "A Solider Called Uriah," which is on the new CD and mixes biblical imagery and scenes from the Iraq War. It was an excellent closer and a memorable tune. (You can catch it on his MySpace page.)

Kevin So, who I used to book at the Postcrypt and have not seen in three or four years, was on the bill, but there was another band in between, and the hour was getting late...

Tuesday: Chris Thile and Michael Daves Rock the Rockwood

On Tuesday, I met up for the first time in years with Jayne Chu. We had had an awesome dinner in Chinatown and were drinking some Peroni in NoLiTa, when I said, "Um, we should go see these guys play some bluegrass..." Since Jayne had not been to a ridiculously white event in some time, she was game, and we walked over through the Lower East Side, arriving at a packed Rockwood Music Hall. It was packed for a reason: these guys are awesome. Individually, they are terrific, and when they get up on stage together, they just push each other to new extremes. (Jayne's ear was working a bit better than mine is capable of working: "Oh! I love it when he hits that high D," she said with regard to Chris's solos.) Readers know Chris Thile either from elsewhere on this blog (e.g. earlier in this post) or the band Nickel Creek. Micheal Daves is a great bluegrass guitarist with a foghorn of a voice who moved to New York four or five years ago and became an instant fixture on the scene, showing up at all the jam sessions and taking on a ton of students and just making lots of music.

They kicked off with Sam and Kirk McGhee's "Blue Night," a great bluegrass opener in any context. Then "Rabbit in a Log" before an Ira Louvin tune to slow things down. They they asked for fiddle tune requests, and I piped up with "June Apple," which became the second tune in a medley with "Boston Boy." Jimmy Martin's "Twenty-Twenty Vision" was next, followed by a ridiculously hot version of "Little Girl of Mine in Tennessee." Chris totally jammed out on "Darlin' Corey," making use of scales that they have yet to invent names for.

Chris introduced Michael: "He comes by it honestly -- he comes from Georgia. ... I come from Southern California." The New York response came from the crowd: "It's still the South!"

For the second fiddle tune request, I yelled out "Arkansas Traveler." (I'm greedy; I know.) But someone else had yelled out "Ootpik Waltz," which they decided to try with Chris saying, "We don't really know it, so when we figure out that we really don't know it, we'll just launch into 'Arkansas Traveler.'" But that moment never came. Instead they played a simply beautiful version of the "Ootpik Waltz" and never got around to the old standby -- but no worries.

They traded wicked melodic phrases on the Jim and Jesse number "Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes," gave us the old favorite "Rain and Snow" and then rocked through a medley of "Billy in the Lowground" and "Back Up and Push," which was super hot. They ended the set with what Michael Daves described as "the only bluegrass song that I know about New York City -- it's pretty sad, as a bluegrass song about New York City would have to be," "Loneliness and Desperation."

They couldn't really leave the stage because the place was so packed. The soundman just shrugged. And Chris and Michael launched into a ripfire "Molly and Tenbrooks" to send us out onto the New York City streets in style.

Great show. 'Nuff said.

Wednesday: Paul Curreri at the Living Room

With a very strong recommendation from Tim Mitchell, I headed down to the Living Room, handed over some money at the door (which is unusual at the Living Room) and settled in to hear the music of Paul Curreri, which to the best of my knowledge, I had never heard before. The room was full, and I was sitting next to a couple at whose wedding he had sung.

The nicest surprise of the evening came before Paul played a note. I looked over and saw Erin McKeown, who, like Kevin So, who I mentioned above, I used to book at the Postcrypt but haven't seen in ages and ages and ages. So, after asking the folks next to me if it was indeed Erin, I did the totally annoying thing. I walked over plopped myself down right in front of her and looked expectantly. She said, "Give me some help here, man." And I said, "We're underneath a church; it's a coffeehouse." She said, "The Postcrypt!" Then she paused, and she -- and I didn't expect this -- said, "Is it ... Matt?" I gave her a high-five. That was impressive! Go Erin!

Paul Curreri's opening number was terrific. The lyrics were very impressionistic and didn't really stick with me. (My complaint -- perhaps that of a philistine -- was that I didn't really walk away from the show with a hummable tune.) But the guitar playing was terrific. Paul was playing these little melodic circles and varying the dynamics perfectly. It was a really amazing accompaniment, adding a defining aura to the song.

Most of his accompaniment reminded me of Dave Van Ronk -- Paul's voice is much smoother, and the playing is a bit less forcibly rhythmic, but the fingerstyle blues that he used to underly a lot of his songs was very much in the early-60s, "I learned this from John Hurt" style that permeated Greenwich Village.

My favorite tune was "Keep Your Master's Voice In Your Mouth," which namechecked a handful of musicians and artists and produced my favorite line of the night: "Bill Evans gave New Jersey Lydian scales." Asked to explain that line -- and why I liked it so much -- I couldn't really, but like jazz, I just dig it, man.

He covered "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" with a jaunty beat, which was kind of neat, and he segued out of one of his songs into Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'," which was way neat.

It was a good set of music. I didn't walk away with my life changed, but I wouldn't mind hearing a bit more.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Jumping Video

Former WKCR Country Music DJ Blythe Sheldon is pointing people to this video by the band Goldfrapp.

One commentator on YouTube describes it as a "pale imitation of Bobby Van in the movie, Small Town Girl from the early 1950's." I can neither confirm nor deny that, but for the past several minutes, I found watching this video much more enjoyable than grading problem sets.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Homecoming: Suzanne Vega and Friends at the Postcrypt

For five years now, Suzanne Vega has played an evening at the Postcrypt, the tiny coffeehouse located under St. Paul's Chapel on the campus of Columbia University, with a few friends in tow. For her, it is a homecoming, since when she was a Barnard undergraduate (Class of 1981), honing her chops down at Jack Hardy's Monday night Songwriters' Circle, the Postcrypt was one of the venues where she was performing. For the audience, it is a chance to see a great songwriter performing in a venue that seats only 30 people (according to the fire marshal) and makes no use of microphones or amplification.

Tim Robinson has always been one of the other two songwriters performing in the round with Suzanne. In the past, Bob Hillman and Jack Hardy have rounded out the trio, but on Friday night, it was Richard Julian, another longtime mainstay on the downtown New York circuit (from the Fast Folk Cafe to the Living Room). (Richard Julian also appears on both Postcrypt recordings.)

Shows start at 9:00 p.m. at the Postcrypt, so with my friend Alex and her friends Natasha and Marty, we pulled in around 8:20 to make sure that we could get a seat. My acquaintance Tim (mentioned here as a guitarist who plays at various Irish sessions around town), who had worked on the road for Suzanne Vega at one point in his life, was in the house with a few friends. New York fiddler Bill Christophersen would wander in toward the end of the first set and ask me who the performers were -- he was just stopping by. The crowd never became overwhelming, as it has been in year's past -- people were sitting on the floor, but the atmosphere was very chill (except for the fact that it was about 110 degrees, and we all kept shedding layers of clothing -- chill except for that).

The three performers played in the round with Richard Julian kicking things off, Suzanne Vega playing second and Tim Robinson playing third. Some of the following song titles are more than approximate.

  • RJ: "Please Rene, Not Now"

  • SV: "Gypsy"

  • TR: "Helena's Radio"

  • RJ: "Brooklyn in the Morning"

  • SV: "Angel's Doorway" - about a cop from Queens named Angel who worked at Ground Zero

  • TR: A song that mentioned Staten Island to complete the tour of three of the four outer boroughs

  • RJ: 'This is a little ditty about corporate hegemony -- the feel good hit of 2008.' -- "Syndicated"

  • SV: 'I feel like I should do something in a major key, and I have very few of those.' -- "I'll Never Be Your Maggie Mae" -- Suzanne forgot the lyrics to one of the verses, and my friend Alex was there to set her straight and get her back on track!

  • TR: A song about Lilly from the town of Owl's Head with the scene-defining lyrics "In the time of carburetors / Before God had shaved the beard."

  • RJ: "Photograph" with the lyric "I prefer a memory to a photograph."

  • SV: "Ludlow Street" -- Tim Robinson asked about the time period in which the song is set; Suzanne said, 'The 80s were the party time, and the 90s were the rehab time.' Tim Robinson asked said that he wasn't aware of any rehab facilities on Ludlow Street and then caught himself and said, 'Clearly I'm joking about something that's not funny,' and Richard Julian cleared the air with the perfectly timed, 'Man, that happens to me all the time...'

  • TR: Circus-themed song about a woman named Dianne with the rather brilliant lyric "Silver emulsions are a flash in the pan."

  • Set Break

  • RJ: "The Tide Rolled In"

  • SV: "Rock in This Pocket" -- from the perspective of David (versus Goliath)

  • TR: A song about Neal Cassidy, which concludes with an audience member accidentally breaking a beer bottle, leading to a discussion between Richard and Suzanne about whether that was more reminiscent of a gig that they did in Cleveland or one in Milwaukee

  • RJ: "Man in the Hole" -- a bleak parable song

  • SV: "The Queen and the Soldier" -- another bleak parable song

  • TR: "The Rest Happened" with the lyric "Can you look back loving now? / That's the test."

  • RJ: "Do It Again" -- a new song with background singing opportunities for the crowd

  • SV: "As You Are Now" -- first time performed in public

  • TR: "Saint Jerome in the Wilderness Staring at His Hat" -- one of Tim's best, this one follows a group of characters who escape from a Renaissance painting and go wandering through the streets of Sao Paolo; Richard Julian suggested a bossa nova beat

  • RJ: "You Can't Go Back" with lyric "Life is a dream that comes in between your birthday and your heart attack."

  • SV: "Marlene on the Wall" -- such a great song

  • TR: "Louis Zukofsky Died in His Sleep"

  • And then, because it could end no other way:

  • SV: "Tom's Diner"

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Spring & Festivals Return to St. Paul

After many ridiculously late snow and ice storms that I find it painful to talk about, spring seems to have returned to Minnesota, at least for a little while. Right now I'm writing from the J & S Bean Factory on Hamline Avenue in St. Paul, where my banjo playing alter ego just played a set for a nice crowd of folks from the Midway neighborhood and beyond. And now I'm listening to the fabulous Eliza Blue play as part of the Hamline Avenue Folk Festival. Just back from a crazy cross-country tour with local Twin Citizens Loudray and "Sneaky" Pete Bauer, Eliza has a strong voice and some killer instrumental skills as a guitarist, fiddler and yes, banjo player. As I'm writing this, she is singing one of my new favorite songs "Sword and Shield." Earlier this afternoon I hosted a songwriting forum as part of this festival, and I talked with Eliza about this tune, and she said she wrote it as an anthem to herself--a sort of self-help therapy. I'll tell you that this song is therapy for all of us--an amazingly soulful song with serious clawhammer banjo drive. Check out her CD Screen Doors and Back Doors, and you'll be treated to a nice rootsy collection of tunes. See her live, though, and you'll fall in love.

Behind the shop where I'm writing, there is another stage of great locals, hootin' and hollerin' and eating pulled pork sandwiches. The sun is out, making us believe that spring might actually be here to stay. We're all crossing our fingers...

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Great Concert Yields New Obsession: Josh Ritter in Williamsburg

Once upon a time, Josh Ritter was an Oberlin College undergraduate that Ellen was pushing on venues across the country, and I was a coffeehouse manager willing to pay a whopping $45 for him to play a set at the fabled Postcrypt Coffeehouse. He sat down on the creaky wooden stage in the basement of St. Paul's Chapel for a few sets of music in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I remember one of those nights that Josh played at the Postcrypt where Howard Emerson, who was also on the bill that night, came up to me and said, "The strings are just falling off that kid's guitar. They've been on there for months. They're ready to pop any second now. I offered him a spare set." I also remember many of the women involved with the Postcrypt being particularly excited when Josh Ritter was coming to play.

Well, these days, Josh Ritter has added a couple of zeros onto the type of fees that he can charge, probably does not have to go very long between restringings of his guitar and certainly is driving women wild in venues much bigger than the basement of St. Paul's Chapel.

He recently passed through town to play two nights at the Music Hall of Williamsburg; the second night was added because of popular demand. (And for the record, the crowd was surprisingly male-dominated.) I had only heard that he would be appearing in Brooklyn a couple of days before the show, and by that point, both shows were sold out. My friend Caroline -- who I know through Ellen, and they go way back -- called me up on Saturday afternoon and said, "Hey, I have an extra ticket to see Josh Ritter." I said, "I'm there. So there. No question."

Prior to Monday night, I had most recently seen Josh play at the South Street Seaport in the summer of 2006. That show had been amazing. And what was kind of great about it was that it was difficult to say why it had been amazing. I thought his voice that night was a bit out-of-shape. I thought that the band fell out of the pocket quite a bit. And I thought that the banter was inane. But I walked away from the tall masted ships of South Street Seaport feeling like I had just seen one of the best shows of the year. Josh played with such energy and enthusiasm, and the crowd ate it up, and a very positive feedback loop was born.

That same year, Stephen King, in his Entertainment Weekly column, had offered up Josh's album The Animal Years as the best CD of the year and possibly the best of the past five years. And it is a great disc, which I listened to quite a bit in 2007 (including during a two-month period in Indonesia where it was a real staple of my musical diet). But I had not seen Josh live since the South Street Seaport show.

He has only gotten better. The show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg was terrific from start to finish. (I'll describe the venue and the opening act below.) It was a perfectly orchestrated show with some more of that yummy positive feedback stuff going on.

I did not keep a setlist from the start of the show, but after I heard "Wolves," my favorite song from The Animal Years, I tried to do my best. That was the third song of the set, and to start on a negative note, it not played quite as well as on the album. Specifically, the galloping drum beat that propels the song along was missing, and the piano riff that defines the melodic background also was missing. It was a stripped-down-for-the-worse version, I'm sad to say, but it was good enough to get me to turn the corner and be fully into the show.

Josh was simply masterful with the crowd. Two songs after "Wolves," he started a really quiet song, and the whole crowd zoomed in on him and was totally in the moment with him. And then he revved the dynamic back up in the other direction, busting into "Hello Starling." And then he whisked back in the intimate direction with a piano and guitar version of "Here at the Right Time."

And then, after an inspiring discussion of how Brooklynites needed to reclaim the borough from New York City -- "There's only a few bridges... If we all just left here together tonight... We could go to the Williamsburg Bridge, and we would seal it off. And then we would go to that next bridge, the one before the Brooklyn Bridge, and just seal that one off, too. ... And then the Brooklyn Bridge... And we would turn Brooklyn into an anarcho-agrarian society... It's a Monday..." -- he asked that the stage lights be turned off -- "No, turn those ones off, too. ... Yes, these ones right here." -- such that he was standing alone with an acoustic guitar surrounded by total darkness on stage. I don't remember what the song was -- to my ears, it sounded like (believe it or not) a Tom Russell song -- but the moment was just perfect: a whole crowd full of people swaying silently with their eyes trained on a spot on the pitch dark stage where we knew there was a lone troubadour singing his song.

And then the lights came up; the band rushed back on stage; and they launched into the grooving "Rumors" with its chorus of "So you're gonna have to show me / How that / Dance is done, / The one where somebody leaves someone. / Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh." And that was followed by the poptastic "Right Moves" and then the purposefully jerky "Real Long Distance" with its pounding piano percussion. (Sam Kassirer, who also produced the most recent Josh Ritter album (The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter) was solid on piano all night, even considering my complaint above about "Wolves.") "Real Long Distance" had been kicked off by Josh introducing drummer Dave Hingerty, saying "He is a doctor of divinity in 19 different religions, and he will now lead us in an ecumenical prayer!"

On "California," Josh invited bassist Zack Hickman over to the microphone with him to engage in some luscious (and reverb-assisted) Byrds-style harmonies that were totally appropriate for the tune. And then they launched into the song that has become my total obsession since the show: "Empty Hearts." What a great song: a simple, repetitive chorus that the entire crowd was singing along with. It was awesome, simply awesome. And then they wrapped up the regular set with "Kathleen," which also had the crowd singing along for its duration.

The encore opened up with the Dr. Strangelove-esque "The Temptation of Adam," introduced as "a song about a girl I knew in the armed services." It was quiet and sparse, and the crowd was deep into it again. And then the band kicked into "Lillian, Egypt" to rock out the night, complete with juggling -- yes, juggling.

I left completely satisfied and only slightly minded the terrible two-hour subway ride back to Morningside Heights. I think I listened to "Empty Hearts" three or four times on that subway ride. Check it out here.

On the Venue

So the Music Hall of Williamsburg... Have you ever been to the Bowery Ballroom? Then you have been to the Music Hall of Williamsburg. It's ridiculous! At the Bowery Ballroom, you walk down a set of stairs and find yourself in a U-shaped bar. After you walk around the U-shaped bar, you go up a flight of stairs and enter a large room with a wooden floor. There is a balcony area with a bar and a bunch of small tables. At the Music Hall of Williamsburg, you don't walk down stairs to get in, but when you do enter the venue, you encounter a U-shaped bar, and then after you walk around the U-shaped bar, you go up a flight of stairs to get to...

On the Opening Band

Ultimately I walked away from the concert on Monday obsessed with Josh Ritter, but the opening act, Langhorne Slim, is not to be underrated.

Opening acts often come out, play their songs and leave the stage. They do not banter. They do not aim to win over the crowd. They do not try to impress. And they often succeed: they don't leave an impression.

Langhorne Slim came out ready to play, ready to entertain and ready to impress. Dressed in bright white pants and wearing a gentlemanly hat, he was all over the stage, jumping up on the drum riser, getting down low to pound away on his guitar and jumping into the microphone to shout out the lyrics. Joined by upright bassist Paul Defiglia, who took some really nice solos, and drummer Malachi DeLorenzo, who was rivaling the mighty Travis Harrison for the Most Intensely Curious Facial Expressions While Drumming Award, this was a good set of music.

In the end, the Josh Ritter tour de force has erased the Langhorne Slim songs from my mind. But if someone asked me to check out another Langhorne Slim show, I think I would head on over.

More on Steve's Material from the Joe Val Festival

One intrepid Sound of Blackbirds reader clicked on Steve Ide's link mentioned below ( and then clicked on the "Blue Highway" link and found herself treated to a video recording of the terrific Shawn Lane song "Where Did the Morning Go?" Who knew that there was video, too?

Here's a direct link. But I'm already on to the Steep Canyon Rangers singing "I Can't Sit Down," a great a capella number that they took from J.E. Mainer.

Some more kudos in Steve's direction!

The intrepid reader also suggests checking out Blue Highway singing "Wondrous Love" at Merlefest in this video.