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Folk Legend Peggy Seeger: Ballad Of The Righteous Woman

By Robert Burke Warren

When folk legend Peggy Seeger graces Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington on Tuesday, March 18, she’ll be playing and singing as she’s done for more than 60 years, but she’ll also be on a mission to restore dignity to female characters in song. Seeger is billing this appearance as an interactive musical lecture entitled “A Feminist View of the Image of Women in Anglo-American Traditional Songs.” Before each number, she’ll offer critical insight into women’s roles in old folk songs, and she’ll compare these songs to contemporary pieces in which women are portrayed with more empathy, hope and depth.

Seeger, the daughter of Ruth Crawford Seeger and half sister to the recently departed Pete, is a folk singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and activist who has made 23 solo recordings and participated in more than 100 others. Her career spans more than six decades of performing, travel and songwriting. Her appearance next week is a special event to benefit the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers and WBCR-LP (Berkshire Community Radio).

From her home in Oxford, England, Seeger tells Rural Intelligence how her husband, playwright-actor-songwriter-activist Ewan MacColl (he wrote “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” for her) sparked her feminism. “It was 1969,” she says, “and Ewan had written the script for a stage show, and he said, ‘Peggy, write a song about women.’ And this rather complicated song, ‘Gonna Be An Engineer,’ just popped out of my head. I never wanted to be an engineer, but it sang well. The song took off and became a feminist anthem. I didn’t know anything about feminism, but I suddenly found myself at these feminist do’s, and when I finished they said, ‘Sing something else,’ and I didn’t have anything except bland songs in which women were unclaimed property, or being sent away because they nagged their husbands, or they were complaining single mothers with babies in their arms.”

Ewan and Peggy, 1977

Seeger realized many of the timeless tunes she knew portrayed women as a disempowered gender. In the following decades, as she and MacColl raised a family in England, the couple concentrated on using music to affect social change, with Seeger’s focus falling ever more on women’s issues. “I started to catalog songs,” she says. “I built up categories, and I still sing them, but I always say something before: these are historical pieces, with women singing about their position in society.”

At the Hevreh, armed with a variety of instruments — banjo, guitar, concertina — Seeger will perform age-old songs in which women are chattel and/or victims of male sexual desire; she’ll offer mother-in-law-as-laughingstock songs, and “fallen woman” ballads in which women who try to escape their condition suffer. To offset the narrow perspective of the public domain material, Seeger says, “I’ll play tunes featuring all kinds of subjects that these folk songs do not cover at all. There’s ‘A Stitch In Time,’ by Mike Waterson, about a battered wife who sews her husband into a bed and batters him. And in one of my own songs, a woman goes off and becomes a sailor, and the ship captain falls in love with her and they live happily ever after.”

Seeger has high hopes for the lecture. “I want people to look at the role of women in all the songs we listen to,” she says. “The language that we use when we refer to sex. Women are often portrayed as objects, clotheshorses, as a gender that things happen to rather than one that makes things happen.”

While Seeger’s engagement is woman-centered, she emphasizes her desire for a desegregated audience. “The lecture is for men and women,” she says. “We don’t thank men for coming, it’s their job to come. Men are in this bind as well as women.”

Peggy Seeger
A Feminist View of the Image of Women in Anglo-American Traditional Songs
Tuesday, March 18, 4 p.m.
Hevreh of Southern Berkshire
270 State Road, Great Barrington, MA
$10.00; $5.00 for students


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Posted by Lisa Green on 03/10/14 at 10:56 AM • Permalink

Darlingside Rising: Indie Folk Quartet Brings Harmony to Pittsfield

By Robert Burke Warren

When Rural Intelligence last spoke to Massachusetts-based indie folk band Darlingside, they were upstarts who’d charmed noted producer Nate Kunkel (Maroon 5, James Taylor) into flying from L.A. to produce their debut CD, Pilot Machines, and were thrilled to be opening for The Grand Slambovians at Infinity Hall. Barely a year later, they’ve streamlined and upgraded; now a drummerless quartet – down from a quintet – Darlingside offers a more austere sound and, after a very successful tour with singer-songwriter Heather Maloney, they’ve inked a deal with Maloney’s label, Signature Sounds. Today, RI catches multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Auyon Mukharji, in the studio with his cohorts, putting finishing touches on a soon-to-be-released EP featuring both Darlingside and Maloney, and prepping for a (Maloney-less) gig Friday, Jan. 24 at 8 p.m. at the Garage in Pittsfield. This is an ascending band you want to catch in a small space while you still can.

“Things are getting pretty crazy,” Mukharji says. “We’ve got a lot of great things happening, so we’re assembling a team. We toured as Heather’s band and co-headliner last year, and seeing how well she and her label and booking agents worked together was really instructive. We got to play NPR in Rochester, articles were coming out and we didn’t have to email anyone. It was great.”

Darlingside, who met and formed out of cover bands and a cappella groups at Williams College in 2009, could host a seminar in how to build a career for a successful, touring, merchandise-producing indie band. “In the beginning, we received some good advice,” Mukharji says. “We were told, ‘you don’t want to outsource anything until it becomes too much for you, because no one’s going to care as much as you.’ As much as you can build it yourself, that’s a great thing, because you’re in complete control.”

Still, after amassing an ardent following in the Northeast, self-releasing a breathtaking, award-winning video for Pilot Machines“The Ancestor” and wowing the press, the writing was on the wall (and the email load was too great). Time to move up to the next level, where Beirut, Fleet Foxes, and Arcade Fire, all bands to whom Darlingside is compared, await.

“It’s an exciting time for us,” Mukharji says. “Getting a team together is part of the equation of capitalizing on everything.”

Another harbinger of bigger things ahead began as a suggestion from New York Times blogger and music tastemaker Val Haller. Last November, Haller, who recently released an app designed to keep busy folks apprised of new music, hosted a house concert featuring Darlingside-Maloney. As they were packing up, Haller suggested they cover Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” but arrange it like the Crosby-Stills-Nash version, with four-part harmonies. Within days, they did, with violin, banjo, bass and guitars. They filmed their haunting-yet-hopeful performance in one take, incorporating lush, layered vocals around one microphone, old school and authoritative. Upon receiving the stunning video (below), Haller made it the centerpiece of a December New York Times post. Many laudatory comments ensued, and the much-shared clip is pushing 10,000 views on YouTube. Sometime in late spring, the Darlingside-Maloney rendition of the classic paean to the hippie dream, which showcases the band’s impressive vocal prowess and musical versatility – not to mention Maloney’s soaring chops – will be on the forthcoming CD.

But that’s all to come. For now, the quartet brings its original brand of multi-genre songcraft to Pittsfield, where attendees will experience uncommonly tight multi-voiced singing, acoustic pop sensibility, and an exciting live show. “The gig at the Garage is our first time working with the Berkshire Theatre Group, and we’re all looking forward to it,” Mukharji says.

Join the club.

The Garage at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Colonial Theatre
Friday, January 24 at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $15 Advance, $18 Day of Show

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Posted by Lisa Green on 01/14/14 at 08:20 PM • Permalink

Bettye LaVette: Powerhouse Song Interpreter Goes Soul Deep

By Robert Burke Warren

Legendary R & B vocalist Bettye LaVette, a 52-year veteran of the concert stage, wants to set the record straight about her reputation as a superlative song interpreter; when she appears at Helsinki Hudson on Saturday, January 11, she will not “inhabit” her material.

“I don’t inhabit the songs,” she says, laughing. “The songs inhabit me!”

LaVette considers her unusually emotive power a mixed blessing. While it has brought her worldwide fame, the ability to go deep, which makes for riveting performances, takes a toll. “I’ve tried to think about something else when I’m singing,” she says, “but I can’t. It makes me so damn mad. I have no control over it. For some reason I go somewhere else. Sometimes I want to be able to sing it really sad and not be sad, but I have to get sad for that moment. It makes me absolutely angry.”

LaVette’s been angry a lot in her 67 years, and justifiably so. Her 2012 memoir, A Woman Like Me, recently optioned by Alicia Keyes for a possible biopic, is a harrowing tale of ultimate triumph over a dizzying string of disappointments and hard luck, interspersed with just enough tantalizing tidbits of success to keep our heroine inching ever forward. LaVette’s remarkable story includes albums recorded for Motown and Atlantic, among other labels, a six-year stint in the late 70s Broadway hit Bubbling Brown Sugar, and family life (she’s now a grandmother), but it also features recurrent poverty and dashed hopes (plus very juicy gossip on her fellow Motown artists Diana Ross and “Little” Stevie Wonder). It is certainly the only memoir to open with a pimp dangling the protagonist by her feet from the 20th floor of a Manhattan apartment building, and ending with that same protagonist singing “A Change Is Gonna Come” at a president’s inauguration (Barack Obama’s, of course).

“It’s just what happened to me,” LaVatte says. “I don’t think of it as inspirational. But I do hope someone can look at my story and be both inspired and forewarned about several things, how things can go.”

Her career turned around when ANTI- Records, home of Tom Waits, Eddie Izzard, Neko Case, and a slew of similarly hip artists, released her acclaimed 2005 album I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, produced by Grammy-winning producer Joe Henry, and featuring tunes penned by Fiona Apple, Dolly Parton and Aimee Mann, among other noted women songwriters. Broader exposure ensued, and this brazenly original song stylist, capable of investing material with new light and gravitas, finally got her due.

“People began looking at me contemporarily and not nostalgically,” LaVette says. “It was great to not be a revival-type thing. ANTI- looked at me as new.” Her 2006 ANTI- album, The Scene of the Crime, co-produced by LaVette and recorded with Drive-By Truckers at historic FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, garnered a Grammy nomination and continued the upward trajectory that carries on today. While she once scrounged for gigs, LaVette now routinely tours the world.

Attendees to LaVette’s Helsinki Hudson performance can expect a wide array of musical styles; she’s recorded disco, country, pop, soul, rock and roll, R & B, blues and Tin Pan Alley classics. She can slay an Elton John song, then turn on a dime and deliver a haunting rendition of the classic “Cry Me A River” or Sinead O’Connor’s spare “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” or her grooving original “Hustlin’In the Motor City,” the theme to the new AMC series Low Winter Sun.

“I don’t think in genres,” she says, “because I know when I sing it, I don’t have to change it, I know I’m not gonna sound like Loretta Lynn or anybody else when I sing. I’m gonna sound like Bettye LaVette. When I love a great melody, I can’t let it go.”

Helsinki Hudson audiences, no doubt, will feel the same about Bettye LaVette.

Bettye LaVette
Helsinki Hudson
Saturday, January 11th, 9 PM
405 Columbia Street
Hudson, New York 12534

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Posted by Lisa Green on 01/06/14 at 03:28 PM • Permalink

Pizzarelli Parlor: John Pizzarelli Brings the Family to the Mahaiwe

By Robert Burke Warren

Singer, guitarist, and showman extraordinaire John Pizzarelli plans to say good-bye to 2013 with even more class than usual. The Grammy nominee, who plays close to 150 dates a year, routinely leaves audiences smoldering with his quartet, drawing on a wide array of everything from Duke Ellington, to the American Songbook, to jazzed-up renditions of pop tunes. But for his engagement at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Saturday, December 28th, at 8 PM, he’s shooting higher, and calling in the big guns. Appearing alongside him will be legendary jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, i.e. his dad, and actress-chanteuse Jessica Molaskey, i.e. his wife and co-host of Pizzarelli’s acclaimed syndicated broadcast Radio Deluxe. Molaskey, an artistic force in her own right, is fresh from the cast of Carrie Underwood’s live network presentation of The Sound of Music, and, like all members of this dazzlingly musical family, she’s eager to see the year out in style.

RI caught up with Pizzarelli as he was heading up a mountain, en route to Knoxville, Tennessee, for a gig. He’s looking forward to performing with his father and spouse (and brother, Martin Pizzarelli, on double bass) as well as a new drummer and keyboardist. (Longtime pianist Ray Kennedy, a leading light of jazz, has contracted MS and could use your help HERE.) Regarding Molaskey, he confirms that their delightful, dulcet-toned rapport is as natural as it sounds on Radio Deluxe. Married for 15 years (they recently renewed their vows) they bring a sweet-to-piquant George n’ Gracie or Bogie & Bacall to the airwaves and the stage, offering one another affection, appreciation, exasperation, and gentle ribbing in equal doses. In the live shows, their dynamic intensifies as they walk the improv tightrope, engaging audiences with their couple-speak, until they bring the house down with stunning chops, reminding everyone how unusual they are after all.

“There’s so much going on in what I do with Jessica,” Pizzarelli says, laughing. “Little moments happen. She’s really looking forward to this show.”

Pizzarelli’s eager, too, and not just because he’ll be in his home-away-from-home, i.e. the spotlight; on the contrary, appearing with Molaskey and Bucky allows Pizzarelli to slide into sideman mode, as he’s done with James Taylor, Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra, and Rosemary Clooney, among others. As a noted front man, he may appear to easily assume leadership, but Pizzarelli admits: “It’s fun to do different things on these family gigs. I get to play a little rhythm guitar, play more solos, sit back a little and let them be the focus.”

And when 87-year-old jazz guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli is the focus, all is well in the world. A former sideman with Benny Goodman, Les Paul, and Stephane Grappelli, and a one-time member of The Tonight Show band, Bucky Pizzarelli is the real deal, and sharp as a tack. “He’s the oldest guy on the bandstand,” John Pizzarelli says, “but when he plays, he’s the youngest guy in the room.” As paterfamilias of the Pizzarellis, Bucky got the whole ball rolling when he invited his young son, John, who’d been rockin’ a six string since age six, to join him onstage in 1980. In the decades since, John Pizzarelli has never stopped touring, recording, and slyly introducing pop fans to jazz and jazz fans to pop, a la his idol, Nat “King” Cole. (Many consider Pizzarelli’s 1994 Cole tribute, Dear Mr. Cole, to be the best of his many albums.)

Pizzarelli has been active throughout the recent cultural sea change that includes MP3’s, YouTube, and smartphones, all of which impact performers of any vintage or genre. How has the digital age affected him? “The only thing that’s changed is people want to take pictures all the time,” he says, with a rare hint of annoyance. “The live performance aspect has changed. Like [Pizzarelli’s good friend] Pat Metheny used to love to sit in with bands and play off the cuff. But people always want to video everything, so he doesn’t anymore.” And when Pizzarelli and Molaskey recently performed their annual stint at the tony Café Carlyle in Manhattan, a patron ignored a “no photos” request and held up his iPhone with the light on during the performance. “He still thought it was OK,” Pizzarelli says.

But it was a very good 2013, despite the clueless smartphone addicts. After memorable gigs in Napa Valley, L.A., and Europe (where his teenage daughter, Madeline, got to meet The Who) Pizzarelli is excited to return to the Mahaiwe, which, at 108 years in operation, is one of the oldest surviving theaters in the country. “It’s a throwback,” he says enthusiastically. “Such a sweet little theater, a great team. Lots of folks will be up for the holidays. We’re all really looking forward to it.”

Come join the coolest family in town. Fancy attire encouraged. Smartphones, not so much. 

John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey with Special Guest Bucky Pizzarelli
Saturday, December 28th at 8 p.m.
Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
14 Castle St.
Great Barrington, MA

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 12/17/13 at 08:32 AM • Permalink

Season of the Son: Teddy Thompson Closes Out 2013 at Helsinki Hudson

By Robert Burke Warren

In a career spanning almost a decade-and-a-half, Teddy Thompson, the only son of folk icons Richard and Linda Thompson (pictured below in earlier days), has worn several hats; he’s been a sideman for Rosanne Cash and Rufus Wainwright, an acclaimed recording artist in his own right, a heralded journeyman performer, and a producer. He is a busy man. Yet, when RI catches up with him to discuss his upcoming December 20th solo show at Helsinki Hudson, he’s donned yet another chapeau: bass player.

“I can’t play at all,” he says in his soft London accent. (This will be the first example of frequent, amusing self-deprecation.) “I thought it would be easy, but it’s not.” Thompson, a Manhattanite, is sequestered in a New York City studio, putting finishing touches on what he calls “a family album,” featuring both his father and mother – a rarity to have them together – plus his siblings. All contributors are relatives, with Teddy producing. “There are no session players,” he says. Unlike the densely arranged, string-laden pop of his last album, 2011’s lush Bella, the as-yet-untitled disc will be pared down, mostly because, Thompson says, “no one in the family plays a classical instrument. Thank God. It’s quite a relief, because strings are too complicated for me to fathom right now. It’ll be very homemade-sounding, although everyone sounds frighteningly accomplished. It’s scary.”

When presented with the fantasy of a Thompson Family Travelling Show, a caravan tour in which the Thompsons – all noted performers, save reclusive mum Linda – drive from town to town like old time showfolk, Teddy laughs and says, “You’re way off. That’ll never happen. We probably won’t play live at all.”

Well. Working in an austere setting is good prep for the upcoming Helsinki Hudson date, which will be solo acoustic. It’s Thompson’s second gig at the venue. “It’s great,” he says of both the club and the town. “It’s a cultural oasis up there. And I haven’t been on the road much in 2013. We booked these shows (Helsinki and several others) because I’ve forgotten how to play a bit. I must keep these things moving, keep the machinery oiled.”

The machinery is, in fact, plenty oiled. Although he didn’t record an original CD in 2013, Thompson appeared on tributes to Nick Drake, Kate McGarrigle, and Paul McCartney. On the live front, attendees to his recent performances at Woodstock’s Bearsville Theater, and Albany’s The Egg, walked away wowed. And then there’s his NYC trio Poundcake, begun around the time he was working on Bella. The trio – drums, stand-up bass, and Teddy – performs originals, but also delves deep into the pre-1960 canon of early rock and pop, covering Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, and the Everly Brothers, among others, to rapturous audiences. “Poundcake was a relief,” Thompson says. “To just play stuff, and not have to think about making it right, not looking at every little detail. It’s nice to have something that’s very free and loose. Bella was heavily produced, and I’ve reached my limit with that stuff. I yearn to do something quite opposite, which is where the family album and Poundcake came from; doing something live and simple.”

Performing his original material solo acoustic holds a particular allure for Thompson. “Playing solo gives you a lot of freedom,” he says. “I’m trying to get to a place where I’m relaxed in the same way I am as when I’m playing other people’s songs, when I’m playing 50s covers with my friends. You’re in a place that’s very loose. There’s a magical spot you want to get to, that’s as free as when you’re messing around playing somebody else’s music. There’s a nexus in there where you’re relaxed and focused, it’s an ideal performance state we’re all looking for.”

In addition to material from his four albums of original songs, Thompson is likely to present some classic country from his country covers CD Upfront and Down Low. “My voice sounds quite country,” he says, accepting the oddity of an Englishman sounding, on occasion, like a Nashvillian. “That’s just the way it is. It’s always in me. It’s all the same, anyway – country is English, Scottish and Irish folk music with banjos and fiddles.”

And… holiday songs? The 20th is the last day of autumn, the day before the Winter Solstice. “I’ll have to do a couple of Christmas songs,” he says, resigned. “It’s gotta be done.”

With the Thompson family album and another original CD slated for 2014, Teddy Thompson is looking at a busy year ahead. The December 20th Helsinki Hudson show will be his last gig of 2013, and no matter which version of Teddy you prefer, he will be in fine, celebratory form in Hudson.

Teddy Thompson
solo acoustic
Friday, December 20th, 9 p.m.
Helsinki Hudson
405 Columbia Street
Hudson, New York

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 12/10/13 at 07:54 AM • Permalink

The Queen of Arts: Kim Taylor Joins the President’s Committee

By Nichole Dupont

kim taylor tanglewood 440 When President Obama calls, Kim Taylor answers. The Lenox resident and longtime trustee and employee (some 30 years) of the Boston Symphony has just been appointed to the president’s committee on the Arts and Humanities. Taylor joins a powerhouse gang that includes actor Sarah Jessica Parker, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, and actors Kerry Washington and Forest Whitaker. Herself a singer, actress, and writer (and the wife of beloved American singer James Taylor), Mrs. Taylor says that she is excited about bringing the arts culture of the Berkshires to Washington.

“It’s fun to contemplate the possibilities,” she says. “I’ve spent all my life working in some way in the arts – the last 30 years with the BSO and Tanglewood and the last 10 years with Berkshire Theatre Group. Anything I can do to raise the visibility, to raise the flag so to speak, about what’s going on in the Berkshires, I will. I’m not shy about that sort of thing.”

The committee was conceived in 1982 under the auspices of President Regan, and oversees the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, acting as an advisory board to address the nation’s cultural issues (and heroes) and to push for arts education. While the PCAH isn’t the Department of Homeland Security, Taylor understands intrinsically the need to carry out the heady mission of arts.

Kim Taylor head shot 300“The arts are vital to our society,” she says. “If you start with our community in the Berkshires – hearing what Jane Fitzpatrick has done with the Norman Rockwell Museum. And Tanglewood and the Colonial. One day I was driving with a friend, coming from The Clark and passed by so many arts institutions. It was profound. When I think of how these places have contributed to my children’s development and how arts is a huge economic factor in the Berkshires – it’s truly the fabric of our lives. It’s the highest achievement of our society to be surrounded by this culture.”

Of course, Taylor has a soft spot for classical music, which she plans on bringing to the forefront of the arts conversation at the White House.

“We all speak from our own lens. I think kids should at least be familiar with the idiom of classical music at a young age,” she says adamantly. “It’s a universe unto itself. Just think of what John Williams has done for movies and for exposing young people to this music. It’s so much better because of him and composers like him.”

While Taylor will push for the importance of arias and concertos and putting cellos in the hands of eager first graders, she is also planning on using the Berkshires to lure some Washington stakeholders from their desks to show off the cultural stars in hill country. Not the least of which will be the First Lady herself, who is the committee’s honorary chairman.

“The First Lady came to the Berkshires last year and fell in love with the area. I’m hoping to bring her back here,” she says. “I’m sure she won’t need much convincing.”


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Posted by Nichole on 11/25/13 at 09:03 AM • Permalink

“First Flight” at Shakespeare & Co: Berkshires Duo Takes Off

By Robert Burke Warren

We live in a noisy, often dissonant age. Harmony is all too rare, so when we happen upon it, we’re captivated, especially if it emanates from the up-and-coming Tyringham, MA, duo (and devoted couple) Oakes & Smith. They’re bringing that sweet sound to Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre in Lenox, MA, where they’ll be celebrating the release of their debut CD First Flight, on Saturday, November 23rd, at 8 p.m. Like Richard and Linda Thompson, Ian & Sylvia, or current sensation The Civil Wars, Oakes & Smith’s combined voices offer a unique tonal blend, greater than the sum of its parts, showcased perfectly in their heartfelt, acoustic-based material. (Video for their single “Being Broken” HERE.)

Since meeting four years ago, guitarist-vocalist Robert Oakes and vocalist-visual artist Katherine Smith have been working toward this moment, performing anywhere and everywhere they could, honing their distinctive brand of melodic, lyrical folk. They’ve played bars, festivals, concert halls, and street corners, most often as a have-guitar-will-travel duo. Need an act to appear unplugged and un-miked at the Guthrie Center? Check. Require musical accompaniment in a “yoga for love” class? No problem.

Although the duo format is most common for Oakes & Smith, the release party for the impressively fleshed-out First Flight will be a rare full-band show, in a proper listening room with a stage, lights, a backstage… the works. “We wanted to create an event,” says Oakes. “We wanted it to feel like a show. The Bernstein Theatre is in the round, and seats about two hundred people. It’s intimate. And Shakespeare & Company is presenting It’s A Wonderful Life as a vintage radio show in December, so the stage will be set for that. The set will look like an old-timey studio.”

Old timey suits the duo, especially Katherine Smith, who comes from a family steeped in choral church music. While most twenty-somethings’ first musical memories comprise TV, pop CDs, and/or the radio, Smith recalls singing harmony with her parents and extended family in a group of mostly adults called Mass Production. This background gives her a rich, resonant vocal presence, confident and assured against Oakes burnished baritone. Still, she’d not considered making a stab at singing professionally until she met Oakes, a journeyman rocker looking for artwork for his 2009 solo CD, Heart Broken Open.

“I was working on my album, and Kate and I started to brainstorm ideas for a video,” says Oakes. “She drew up beautiful sketches, then we started singing together, and it was a revelation. It was like ‘whoa.’ When the chemistry between two voices works, it’s profound. It was so exciting for me. I hadn’t been performing a lot, I just was recording. But when we made this discovery, it was a rebirth. All I wanted to do was perform with Kate as much as possible.”

After wowing the room at a 2010 performance workshop conducted by famed singer-songwriter-keyboardist Joy Askew (Joe Jackson, Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson), Oakes & Smith was born. “Joy said, ‘You guys have something special,’” Oakes recalls.

Like many acts, both established and new, Oakes & Smith launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund First Flight. By producing a brief, entertaining video, and offering rewards like signed CDs, prints of Smith’s artwork, and a house concert at which they will also cook the donor dinner, they succeeded in raising a little over six grand. (Note: In a Kickstarter campaign, acts must raise their desired amount in a specified time, or they get nothing.) “It was nervewracking,” says Oakes. “Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing platform, and we had six weeks to raise six grand. We really put it out there, really made a case and, toward the end, people started to respond. In the last week we tripled the amount of money we raised. My high school class even started a Facebook page to help raise funds. The final hours of the campaign were like New Year’s Eve. But we got what we needed. It was incredible, very heart-warming.”

Oakes sees Kickstarter as part of the new paradigm between indie artists and fans: “Kickstarter gives people an opportunity to be a part of the process, and allows the funding of more things than the traditional model, which included gatekeepers who decided what got done and what didn’t. Now, if you believe in an idea enough, and can make a good case for it, you can get what you need in advance.”

After such an outpouring of support, Oakes & Smith are eager to give back as good as they got, starting at the Bernstein Theatre.

Oakes & Smith
CD Release
Saturday, November 23, 8 p.m.
Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre
70 Kimble Street
Lenox, MA

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 11/12/13 at 08:16 AM • Permalink

Dramatic, Ecstatic Klezmatics Bring Danceable Joy to the Mahaiwe

By Robert Burke Warren

When trumpeter-composer Frank London formed the Klezmatics in the East Village in 1986, he and his bandmates sought to revitalize and update klezmer music, the Yiddish folk/American jazz amalgam popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the band’s first gigs, the mix of young and old faces in the crowds showed them they were on the right track; elders lovingly recalled the once-dominant Lower East Side Yiddish culture, forgotten as many post World War II immigrant Jews assimilated into American culture. Meanwhile, youngsters tapped into an imperiled heritage, all while everyone got sweaty. Twenty-seven years on, the Klezmatics boast ten CDs, an international touring schedule, bookings on The Late Show with David Letterman and A Prairie Home Companion, stages and studios shared with famed violinist Itzhak Perlman, and a Grammy for their 2006 CD Wonder Wheel.  So… mazel tov, already. But they’re hardly finished. Fresh from stints in Sweden and Vienna, the renowned live act brings their “wild, mystical, provocative, reflective and ecstatically danceable” tunes to the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Saturday, November 16 at 8 p.m., presented by the Yiddish Book Center as part of “Yidstock: The Festival of New Yiddish Music.” It’ll be a stop on an ever-changing, revelatory journey. (Photo above: Joshua Kessler.)

“When I first started playing klezmer,” Frank London says from his East Village apartment, “the audience would include old people talking about the old days in New York or Europe. Now, middle-aged people talk about their parents playing our music when they were young. That’s a real transformation.”

London sees the Klezmatics’ continued success in several lights. “We’ve not only presented old music in a new way, we’ve found aspects of our cultural heritage that aren’t so widely known. From the very beginning, we’ve had an integral relationship with archives and research, trying to find new old sources, new old music. There’s a researcher in each of us. In fact, [Klezmatics singer-guitarist-pianist-accordionist] Lorin Sklamberg has worked for years as a sound archivist at YIVO, the Yiddish Institute for Research.”

For those who wonder how the Klezmatics went about updating klezmer, which, in its original form, is very old-world, London says, “We put forth a consistent and coherent political and aesthetic Yiddish/klezmer music that embraces our political values—supporting gay rights, workers’ rights, human rights, universal religious and spiritual values expressed through particular art forms. We eschew the aspects of Yiddish/Jewish culture that are nostalgic, tacky, kitschy, nationalistic and misogynistic. We’ve shown a way for people to embrace Yiddish culture on their own terms, as a living, breathing part of our world and its political and aesthetic landscape.”

This approach provides the Klezmatics a particularly broad range of gig possibilities. In a given year, they’ll play festivals in Europe, rock clubs in the U.S., schools, theaters, cultural centers, private functions, and museums.

London is still buzzing from a recent engagement at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland. The Klezmatics created musical accompaniment for Letters To Afar, a YIVO-sponsored video installation by Hungarian artist Péter Forgács. “American Polish Jews went back to visit their families in Poland in the 20s and 30s,” London says. “The exhibit is largely their home movies, that’s the raw material; it’s found footage. And of course, we’re a dance band, but Forgács wanted ambient, minimalist, unchanging music. It forced us to re-look at how we approach stuff, get a fresh look at things. It’s an extraordinary exhibition.”

London says they may play a bit of that at the Mahaiwe. They’ll certainly dip into their extensive back catalog, packed with traditional tunes evoking Ashkenazi weddings, horas, dances with Roma around fires in the old country, as well as more modern fare, featuring Woody Guthrie lyrics given to them by Nora Guthrie (the entirety of Wonder Wheel), plus… who knows? As-yet-unheard material, certainly, the fruits of recent discoveries in the archives of the New York Public Library, where London and Co. were granted unprecedented access. “It’s yet another treasure trove of Yiddish material,” London says, still excited after all these years. “It’s great. We’re looking through scores of operettas, Yiddish theater pieces from the teens, ‘20s, and ‘30s. We’ve found sources of tunes we know, so it’s an affirmation.”

After a quarter century, does any specific gig stand out in London’s memory? “Not really,” he says, laughing. “Although there was the show in Massachusetts where we met Nora Guthrie, or the one we where we met Holly Near and the Weavers’ Ronnie Gilbert, or when we were the first Jewish band to play in post-communist Hungary… or our last concert in Vienna. That was as stunning as any we’ve done. That transformation of sound into energy always works. It’s a rediscovery every time if done right, a re-transmission of the material, and people experience it anew.” 

The Klezmatics
Saturday, November 16, 8 p.m.
The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
14 Castle Street
Great Barrington, MA

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 11/04/13 at 10:38 PM • Permalink

Songbird Returns to the Valley: Allison Moorer Graces Helsinki Hudson

By Robert Burke Warren

When this writer last saw Grammy-and-Oscar-nominated singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, she lit up a 2011 Midnight Ramble at Levon Helm’s barn, an act she intends to repeat at Helsinki Hudson on Friday, November 15 at 9 p.m.. Back at that Ramble, Hurricane Irene had just ravaged the region, leaving many without power for days on end. Among those deprived of electricity were Moorer and her family – multi-Grammy-winning singer-songwriter husband Steve Earle, and their toddler, John Henry. They were living out of a tour bus parked in front of their Woodstock, NY, home. Moorer’s acclaimed eighth CD Crows had been released the previous year, and country superstar Miranda Lambert had chosen her song “Oklahoma Sky” as the closing cut on Lambert’s soon-to-be-hit 2011 album Four The Record. But Moorer wasn’t thinking about any of that. This longtime troubadour had left the kid with a nanny, and was eager to hit the boards and rock the barn with her soaring alto, and genre-bending repertoire, which she did. At one point, the redheaded siren literally brought Earle to his knees.

Since then, life’s been topsy-turvy for Moorer. She’s gone from the highways and byways to spending most of her time in an Upper West Side Manhattan apartment with John Henry (she and Earle are separated). But she’s not complaining; she’s happy to be a hands-on, fulltime mom, with days more packed than ever. Yet, her muse hasn’t gone anywhere. On the contrary. “I’ve been writing a ton in the past few years,” she says. “I’m looking forward to playing some new songs and getting an album out in 2014. These new ones are among the countriest, and best, I’ve ever written.”

This signals a return to her deep southern roots, to the days when the songs of classic Grand Ol’ Opry mainstays like Loretta Lynn, George Jones, and Merle Haggard filled the Monroeville, Alabama home Moorer shared with big sister, fellow singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne, and their parents. Moorer says she wanted to “be the next Tammy Wynette.” (It could still happen.) Idyllic musical memories notwithstanding, the sisters’ world was forever changed when their father shot and killed their mother, then himself, in 1986. Despite this trauma, both sisters moved to Nashville, and while neither became superstars, they’ve each walked tall in the hallowed halls of Music City, wowed legions of fans, and carved out niches in what is increasingly referred to as “Americana Music.” Moorer, in fact, hit the ground running with co-write “A Soft Place to Fall,” her Oscar-nominated debut single, used in The Horse Whisperer. She sang it at the 1998 Academy Awards. “I just tried not to think about the billion people watching,” she says.

Moorer released several CDs over the years, but until the lovely cut “Easy In The Summertime,” the emotional centerpiece of the spare, Bobbie Gentry-esque Crows, she hadn’t delved much into her fraught childhood. (Lynne, on the other hand, has frequently performed John Lennon’s harrowing “Mother” onstage.) Touchingly, “Easy In the Summertime” is an act of will, focusing on sweeter aspects of the sisters’ past. That song in particular signals an increasing artistic confidence, sure to be in evidence at Helsinki Hudson, where Moorer will perform solo on both piano and guitar.

“The upside of solo performing is I feel really able to connect with an audience,” she says. “And I really miss performing on a regular basis. I last toured solo in 2009, when I was pregnant.” Motherhood has forced a change in her writing habits, but Moorer’s doesn’t mind. “John Henry is now three-and-a-half,” she says, “so I am very busy with that, and still trying to be a working songwriter and artist. I’m more efficient due to the time constraints. And I have more to write about, and that’s always a good thing.”

Since moving with Earle to Manhattan in the mid-aughts, Moorer has fallen in love with the city. But, more than ever, she knows the ephemeral nature of such things. “New York City is a marvelous place,” she says. “But I do feel like a fish out of water here. I’m a country girl. I truly never thought I would live here, and don’t imagine I always will, but for now I’m enjoying it and feel lucky to have a ‘New York City part’ of my story to tell.”

That story is to be continued in both word and song at Helsinki Hudson on Friday, November 15th.

Allison Moorer
Helsinki Hudson
Friday, November 15th, 9 p.m.

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 10/28/13 at 11:47 PM • Permalink

Fellowship of the Five-String: Béla Fleck NY Banjo Summit at the Mahaiwe

By Robert Burke Warren

fleckThe ongoing saga of the banjo is uniquely American: enslaved Africans bring a deceptively humble instrument from their homeland, whites appropriate and Victorianize it, the burgeoning multi-ethnic folk culture seizes it, mid-20th-century protestors wield it, and, finally, an urban kid – Béla Fleck –hears it on the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies, and catapults it into unforeseen realms of sophisticated jazz and modern classical music. All these elements of the banjo story are part of the Béla Fleck NY Banjo Summit, the wildly successful touring show featuring Fleck alongside banjo masters of many stripes, appearing at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Sunday, October 6th at 7 p.m.

Clearly, Fleck—native New Yorker, tireless innovator, and multi-Grammy winner—is the de facto star of this event, although a humbler star you’ll never meet; he may claim Grammy nominations in more categories than any artist in history (pop, classical, country, bluegrass, jazz, world music, and spoken word), but his cardinal trait is selfless enthusiasm for his instrument.summit1  He brims with contagious eagerness for the fellowship appearing with him at the Mahaiwe, which includes his mentor, Tony Trishka, plus banjo innovators Bill Keith, Eric Weissberg (of “Dueling Banjos” fame), Noam Pikelny, Richie Stearns, and Fleck’s wife Abigail Washburn (below), who gave a much-viewed (and breathtaking) 2012 TED talk about using the banjo to improve U.S./China relations. All will appear in various configurations, with and without accompaniment from a core band.

Fleck, a road dog in various ensembles since the 70s (Newgrass Revival, Béla Fleck & the Flecktones) gets a big charge from the Banjo Summit group. abby“I love to respond to what I hear around me,” he says, noting that he’ll be taking the banjo further afield, while bluegrass stalwarts like Keith and Weissberg offer more familiar selections and styles. “When I hear any of these great players play,” Fleck says, “I partly channel their energy, and partly try to provide a contrasting viewpoint. It’s all of our jobs to be ourselves to the utmost, and everyone is distinctly different from each other.”

Prior to the tour, Fleck said he was looking forward to musical “combustion” onstage. Has that come about? “No one has gotten hurt so far!” he says. “But a lot of great music has been played, and the banjo has been well-represented, in many diverse styles..I’ll tell you one thing,” he adds conspiratorially, “when a banjo player is surrounded by his peers and heroes, he will perform at his absolute best.”

Interestingly, while Fleck executes jaw-dropping performances in the classical, jazz, and world music veins, Abigail Washburn (along with Richie Stearns) offers the more old-time, pre-bluegrass aspects of the banjo, i.e. the clawhammer style, which she mixes with a decidedly modern sensibility and award-winning songwriting. “Everyone does what they feel represents them the best,” Fleck says. “We all reference bluegrass, but Eric (Weissberg) and Bill (Keith) are closest to it.”

noam If Fleck is the king of postmodern banjo, upstart Noam Pikelny (right) is the heir apparent. After establishing himself in jam band-embraced “polyethnic cajun slamgrass” combo Leftover Salmon, Pikelny moved to Brooklyn and joined mandolin whiz Chris Thile’s progressive bluegrass band Punch Brothers, further bringing the banjo to many who either hadn’t heard it or misunderstood and/or underestimated it. “I think the banjo is in a great place right now,” says Fleck. “It’s not judged so much by its past, and it’s appreciated more than ever before. Folks like Noam show me it’s moving along very nicely.”

Fleck, however, is only getting started, and he continues to bring the banjo into uncharted territory. His most recent release, The Imposter, features original banjo pieces with symphony orchestra and string quartet accompaniment. “I wrote two very challenging pieces, the title track and ‘Night Flight Over Water.’ Both are high jumps for me.” Fleck, always looking out for his five-stringed friend, says, “I was fortunate to release The Imposter on the great classical label Deutsch Gramophone. It feels like a further emancipation of the banjo to be on a ‘serious’ label.”

The Béla Fleck NY Banjo Summit offers a chance to experience this versatile yet humble instrument in every which way possible: old timey, melancholy, jubilant, aspiring, intense, foot-stompin’, and sweet. Despite the many styles, at its core, the banjo story resonates in some way for everyone.

Béla Fleck NY Banjo Summit
The Mahaiwe, Sunday, October 6 at 7 p.m.
$30 Upper Balcony/$55 Members/$60/ $70 Preferred Seating

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 09/23/13 at 08:08 AM • Permalink

Happening on the Hudson:  Lit Lions and Pop Provocateurs at Basilica Soundscape

By Robert Burke Warren

melissa“Anything can happen here,” says Melissa Auf der Maur, former Smashing Pumpkins/Hole bassist, and rising Upstate arts maven.  “This place is a shape shifter, a beast.” She’s speaking of Basilica Hudson, the multi-purpose venue she and her filmmaker husband, Tony Stone, opened three years ago in a refurbished 19th century riverside factory in Hudson, NY. “We’re fueled by blind passion,” she says. “We host film shoots, film screenings, art installations, dance parties, fancy weddings. The Basilica is a community space, a music school for kids, and, sometimes, a dark, industrial Goth bar.” Auf der Maur is most excited about her venture’s next incarnation: Basilica Soundscape, a weekend of wide-ranging music, visual art, literature, and risk-taking on September 13th and 14th, when she and her co-conspirators will employ the factory’s versatility as never before.

briInspired by the intimate All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals in the UK, and emboldened by Soundscape curators Brandon Stosuy (at right) – of Pitchfork Media fame – and artist/manager Brian DeRan, Auf der Maur is throwing open the doors of the 1,000-person-capacity Basilica to anyone eager for a festival experience wherein they feel “part of something special.” “[World-renowned visual artist] Matthew Barney, and [punk godfather/author] Richard Hell [reading] in the same factory walls,” she says, with both fan-zeal and pride. (Hell is pictured at bottom.) “That’s not going to happen anywhere else in the world.”

barneyWhen talking to Auf der Maur, Stosuy, and DeRan, the name Matthew Barney (at left) frequently crops up, threaded into references to other Soundscape performers, like grindcore pioneers Pig Destroyer, ambient angel Julianna Barwick, and UK Cinderella story/Kanye collaborator Evian Christ. The notion of combining these disparate acts with an acclaimed visual artist/provocateur like Barney rose from Barney and Stosuy’s erstwhile downstate exploits. Stosuy, who curates Friday night, explains: “Matthew and I did these slightly anonymous things at his performance space in Long Island City. We were getting sick of standard metal shows, so we’d create a fake name for the venue, post flyers on metal message boards, and have a metal band. But there’d also be an art element – a choreographed wrestling match, or an art historian reading a dissertation. We wanted to do a show that’s not a typical show, one that had a bit more to it. That provided the initial spark. With Soundscape, though, we want to let people know what’s happening.” Friday night will also feature a hush-hush site-specific collaboration between Barney, composer Jonathan Bepler, and all the other bands on the bill.

teenDeRan, curating Saturday night, is enthused about providing a new kind of music/art experience. “Brandon and I have been in a club probably three nights a week for the past twenty years,” he says, laughing. “We’re a little over it. And we both have pretty broad tastes. I’ve curated art and music shows at the Basilica, and it’s an amazing space. It’s become a hub for so many things.” He’s particularly stoked about indie troubadour Cass McCombs, who he calls, “the most underrated songwriter of the century,” and Malang Djobateh, from Mali, one of the foremost kora players in the world. “I walked past him a million times in the Union Square subway station,” he says. DeRan has also booked retro-synth-pop duo Teengirl Fantasy (above right), two guys whose remixes of classic soul have been known to get even the most rhythmically-challenged indie rocker and/or metalhead dancing. Closing out Saturday will be dreamy pop upstarts DIIV, whose leader, Zachary Cole Smith, is a Hudson local.

hellBasilica Hudson’s far-flung locale causes no concern for the organizers. On the contrary: “I like that people are going to have to make an effort,” says Stosuy.

“Like back in the day, growing up in NJ, I’d have to hitch a ride to Trenton to see the Ramones, or take a trip to see something. I like that people in Manhattan will be driving up, taking the train, making a trek, MapQuesting. That’s part of the charm. People who are there really want to be there, they won’t be on their cell phones. [The distance] filters out a lot of things that can be annoying at a show these days, where people aren’t paying attention. It’ll be a more attentive crowd.”

Auf der Maur concurs. “Everyone has to make an effort for Basilica Soundscape to happen. There’s a new generation of people who want something special, who want something you get beyond the computer screen. There ends up being this need to get off the beaten path. Since becoming a venue, we’ve gotten so many calls from agents saying, ‘My artist really wants to play something unique and different, they don’t want to play a normal rock club gig, they want something special.’

“I’m excited to open people’s minds,” she continues. “That’s what we’re trying to do. In the 21st century, we have access to so many things; in pop culture right now, everything is blended. There’s such an interesting cross-pollination in art and music, and we want to reflect that at the Basilica. These are fascinating times.”

To see these fascinating times up close, the doors to Basilica Soundscape are wide open.

Basilica Soundscape
Presented in association with Pitchfork and Leg Up Management
September 13th and 14th
Basilica Hudson
110 South Front Street
Hudson, NY

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 09/03/13 at 09:44 AM • Permalink

Legacy Act: Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion Celebrate New CD, New Sound at Helsinki

By Robert Burke Warren

guthSome legacy-bearers follow directly in their ancestors’ footsteps, keeping to tradition, and carrying on in a predictable vein. Others, like Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, challenge expectations, a more risky prospect; she is Arlo’s daughter, he is John Steinbeck’s grandnephew, and, since 2004, they’ve risen as a largely salt-of-the Earth, homespun folk duo, much like her renowned family. But the music on the CD they’ll be celebrating at Helsinki Hudson on Saturday, September 7, will surprise some folkniks and delight rock fans. Wassaic Way, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone, diverges from their established, rootsy sound, offering a layered, textured, irresistibly tuneful batch of songs embracing the rock they’ve long harbored in their conjoined hearts. To replicate the unabashedly grand Wassaic Way sound, they’ll bring a full band (recently heard on The World Café)to Hudson.

“I was a punk rock chick,” says Guthrie. “And Johnny comes from an indie rock background. I love folk rooms, but we were folk by default. We’ve always been the youngest people at the gig. I want to play to my peers, execute something that’s bigger than the two of us. This is a call to our people!”

arloIndeed, they first stepped out as a duo with Arlo, and his followers are, of course, mostly of the Woodstock Nation. Sarah Lee and Johnny blossomed in the folk footlights, but their ears still rang with rock; he had toured extensively as an indie rock sideman, releasing an acclaimed solo CD in 2001, while Sarah Lee had been road managing her father’s traveling show and listening mostly to, she says, “heavy stuff.” When they met backstage at a Black Crowes gig, she was hanging out with the crew, talking shop. After marrying, they began making music, and Sarah Lee’s dad offered them a coveted opening slot on his tour. “It was an education,” Johnny says of those first, starkly acoustic performances. “We were pretty green, but it was a good learning experience. We messed up a lot, and Arlo let us mess up. I watched him mess up, too.”

saraThree predominantly acoustic, well-received studio releases, and two daughters followed. While all was well, the couple yearned to take their time, craft an album in a studio, using modern technology, and release it on their own terms. Like, say, Wilco. Coincidentally, Wilco had brought Sarah Lee’s granddad Woody’s songs to a new generation with 1998’s Mermaid Avenue, and Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy, now a budding producer, saw a Sarah Lee and Johnny show and loved it, inviting them to Solid Sound 2011 at MASS MoCA. When he heard the demos Johnny and Sarah Lee sent him, he called in Wilco multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, and they set about making Wassaic Way at Wilco’s Loft in Chicago. While the intensive process wasn’t always smooth, both Sarah Lee and Johnny consider it their best work by far.

Sarah Lee’s upbringing in the chaotic world of Guthrie prepared her well for working with Tweedy: “Sometimes Jeff would take a song in a completely different direction than what we wanted. Like my dad would do, he’d pull the rug out from under you. He was very crafty, like, ‘Let’s take what you really think you should do and don’t do that.’ But with creativity, sometimes you dig yourself a hole and see if you can get out. The process of these songs was like that. It was like, ‘Let’s lose these songs and see if we can get them back.’ Through that process we came up with something even better.”

cd“Every song we would attack in a songwriter workshop kind of vibe,” Johnny says. “It was really fun. Jeff was amazing, suggesting phrasing, using different words, words that sing better. He understands the mechanics of vowels.”

While Sarah Lee and Johnny are nervous about making a leap of faith with a different sounding recor—the first on their own Rte 8 Records—they’re also eager to get the songs into the world. Helsinki Hudson attendees will get lush chamber pop with “Wassaic Way,” funky guitar rock with “Not Feeling It,” Britpop with “Wherever She Is It’s Spring,” raw, Plastic Ono Band fare with “Probably Gone,” and a bit of fist-shaking Americana on “Hurricane Window.”

“The folk world has been amazingly supportive,” Sarah Lee says. “But that’s not all there is with us.”

Wassaic Way CD Release Party
Helsinki Hudson
Saturday, September 7, 7 p.m.
$15 advance, $18 day of show

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 08/27/13 at 09:54 AM • Permalink

From Bach to Bawdy, Sonnets to Sonatas, Shakespeare to Schubert: Music and More in the Berkshires

By Robert Burke Warren

new mAttendees of the 2013 Music and More Festival in New Marlborough, Massachusetts enjoy the unique experience of walking into history, both literally and figuratively; the impeccably performed chamber music, jazz, Renaissance reels, and Elizabethan poetry take place in the township’s circa 1839 Meeting House, home to the festival since its inception in 1991. The 250-capacity building, enjoying its 174th year on the New Marlborough Village Green, is remarkably preserved. While it once fell into disuse, it never crumbled, and thanks to the New Marlborough Village Association and Music and More founder and director Harold Lewin, it now thrums with song and story, a stage replacing the dais (the building was last used as a church) and a basement art gallery/post-concert reception area.

“It’s a step back in time,” says Lewin. “You really feel like you’re in a 19th century New England village. The pews still have little doors on them.”

The New Marlborough Village Association had just purchased the historic Meeting House – one of many still-standing structures designed by architect Henry A. Sykes – when Lewin, a concert pianist, met the association’s president at a party in the early 90s. “They asked me to play a concert, and I invited some friends from the New York Philharmonic, and that’s how it started, that one night. It was a lot of fun.”

daedWhat began as a one-off has grown into a thriving annual festival. “Over the years, people have been really loyal and devoted,” Lewin says. This year, Music and More offers eight varied programs through October 5th. All programs are on Saturdays at 4:30 p.m., some with pre-program talks at 3:30 (full listing below). No longer just a chamber music event, the festival now encompasses a wide array of entertainments, from Rachmaninoff to Cole Porter to renowned authors reading from their works, and more. “It’s become more multifaceted as it’s enlarged,” Lewin says. “We’ve had the opportunity to present more events. I’m particularly pleased with this year’s programs. On August 24th we’ve got the Daedalus Quartet, these young players doing Schubert and Beethoven like you’ve never heard. They’re fabulous.”

stepnerNoted violinist, director of the Aston Magna festival, and Brandeis professor Daniel Stepner is excited, too. He recently brought a Bach concert – “The Art of the Fugue” – to Music and More, and played to a full, rapturous house. On August 31st he returns with pianist Donald Berman and mezzo-soprano Deborah Rentz-Moore for an afternoon of music by iconoclastic American composer Charles Ives. Stepner has been a big Ives fan for decades, ever since his bandleader father brought home a recording of Ives’ 2nd Symphony when Stepner was ten. “There’s this incredible raspberry of dissonance on the very last chord, and I thought it was the funniest thing I ever heard,” he says, laughing.

ivesIves wrote everything from symphonies to sonatas to songs. What will Stepner and his cohorts bring to New Marlborough? “Our program emphasizes the lyric and melodic aspects of Ives,” he says, “which are really at the basis of his writing, even when he wrote more dissonant things. He wrote an incredible treasure trove of songs, and we’ll be playing a lot of those. We’ve performed them before, and people have come up to me and said ‘Wow, I’m surprised he was so lyrical, so sentimental.’ Because they associate him with his more avant garde works.”

For something completely different, Music and More will present “License My Roving Hands,” on September 7th, featuring Shakespeare and Company’s Jonathan Epstein and Renaissance band Calliope. “Jonny Epstein’s been here three times before,” Lewin says of the much-lauded actor and teacher, whose performances and workshops have made him an in-demand Shakespeare specialist. He’s played Lear, Macbeth, Richard III, and Feste, among many others in the Bard’s canon. “License My Roving Hands,” created by Epstein, features a selection of Shakespeare’s sonnets as well as performances of Chaucer’s bawdy tales, Henry VIII’s steamy letters to Anne Boleyn, and the poetry of John Donne (from which the title “License My Roving Hands” is taken). Accompanying Epstein will be Calliope, famous for its authentic replications of Renaissance music played on period instruments. Although all Music and More events are long on romance, this performance is a great date night if ever there was one.

akersFamed cabaret star Karen Akers (left, photo by Alan Mercer) classes up the joint on September 28th, with an entire program of Cole Porter songs. Akers brings jaw-dropping cred to Music and More; she’s starred on Broadway in Nine - for which she garnered a Tony nomination - and appeared in the original cast of Grand Hotel. Blessed with a voice that invites comparisons to Piaf, Streisand, and Dietrich, Akers has been making audiences swoon from the U.S. to Europe to the former Soviet Union. Her performance will be capped off by a gala wine tasting, courtesy of Domaney’s of Great Barrington.

Speaking of wine, one of the unique aspects of Music and More is the post-performance action, when you know you are definitely not in Manhattan. “After every show we have a post-concert reception for the artists in the art gallery,” Lewin explains. “The exhibits are up, and we have wine and hors d’oeuvres. Everyone joins downstairs, and people can meet the performers and see the art. It’s fantastic.”

Music and More
New Marlborough Meeting House
154 Hartsville-New Marlborough Road
New Marlborough, MA    
All performances at 4:30 p.m.
Pre-program discussion at 3:30 p.m.
August 24 The Daedalus Quartet: Schubert, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven
August 31 Shall We Gather at the River: Charles Ives Vocal and Instrumental Selections
September 7 License My Roving Hands: Letters, Lyrics, and Music from Chaucer to Donne, featuring Jonathan Epstein of Shakespeare & Co. and Renaissance band Calliope
September 21 The Apollo Trio: Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Schubert
September 28 Anything Goes!: Karen Akers Sings Cole Porter
October 5 Award-winning Authors Robert Massie, Elizabeth Graver, Elizabeth Hall Page, readings and book signings

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 08/20/13 at 08:33 AM • Permalink

Thriving On the Outskirts of Fame: Shawn Mullins Returns to Infinity Hall

By Robert Burke Warren

shawnYou cannot keep a good troubadour down. While naysayers bemoan the difficulty of convincing couch potatoes to invest in live music, a dedicated breed of singer-songwriters still grace stages in small-to-medium sized venues, connecting with appreciative audiences as if the Internet and basic cable never happened. Shawn Mullins, at Infinity Hall on Friday, August 16th at 8 p.m., is a proud member of that singer-songwriter tribe, an acolyte of masters like John Prine and Lyle Lovett, with a loyal fan base and a growing catalog of canon-worthy material. Like his road-faring brethren, Mullins peppers his repertoire with stories of madness and misadventure, heartbreak and hilarity; unlike many singer-songwriters, however, he can weigh in on one very rare challenge he overcame about fifteen years ago: stardom.

lady“I never wanted to play arenas or stadiums, except maybe when I was nine or ten and listening to Kiss,” he says. But in 1998, after a decade of eking out a living as an indie folk musician, selling acoustic-based CDs from his trunk, he achieved “overnight” fame. Mullins’ hooky “Lullaby,” a distinctive blend of drum loops, acoustic guitar, and gimlet-eyed recitation from his eighth album Soul’s Core, captured Columbia Records’ fancy. The label re-released the single, which rocketed into the Top Ten, and helped garner Soul’s Core a Grammy nomination. (“Lullaby” was also a highly rotated video, starring actress Dominique Swain, above right.) As the millennium loomed, Mullins shared stages with Britney Spears, En Vogue, Destiny’s Child, and Backstreet Boys. Meanwhile, “Lullaby” helped move over a million copies of Soul’s Core. Needless to say, Mullins’ life changed radically. But mega-success was not what he’d planned, and not without its downside. “I found myself onstage solo at the Z-100 Jingle Ball at Madison Square Garden,” he recalls, “saying, ‘What am I doing here?’”

He wasn’t there for long. With no equally huge follow-up single, the surreal world of limos and awards shows receded, much to Mullins’ eventual relief. Thanks to the previous decade of building a following in coffeehouses and acoustic clubs, he knew he had the goods, regardless of mainstream success.

mul“When I started playing in the late ‘80s,” Mullins says, “I knew my material was meant for smaller spaces. It’s perfect for me to do it that way. These days, the people that show up like ‘Lullaby,’ but it’s not really what it’s about for them, which is great. Every now and then I do a gig where most of the people only know the hit, but that’s very seldom. The real honest connection between the audience and me – that’s why I do what I do. Part of it is to get out what’s inside me, and the other part is to connect. As I get older, and my audience gets older, the connection aspect actually gets better.”

Scaling back and recording for an indie label – Vanguard – has proved very satisfying for Mullins. He re-emerged in the mid-aughts as a mainstay on the humble singer-songwriter circuit, consisting of festivals, clubs, house concerts, and old opera houses like Infinity Hall. (“I love that room,” he says. “All that soul in the walls.”) Mullins has released four studio albums and several live and “best of” collections, and even scored a couple more hits: “Beautiful Wreck” from 2006’s 9th Ward Pickin’ Parlor rose to the top of the Americana charts, and the Zac Brown Band’s “Toes,” which he co-wrote, hit number one on the country charts in 2008.

albumAlthough he hasn’t released a new CD since 2010’s acclaimed Light You Up, Mullins has been busy. He became a dad in 2009, and in-between regular touring and contributing to benefit collections, he’s been dabbling in voice-over work. His focus, however, is on being a hands-on dad to his son, Murphy. “We sing all the time,” he says, laughing.

“Fatherhood changes everything,” he says. “It’s what’s most important. It’s not that making records isn’t important for me – it is. But the writing of the songs needs to happen first. I’ll have an album out next year, but I’m not in a real big hurry. In the climate right now, I don’t need to put a record out every year or so like I used to. I used to feel more pressure.”

In other words, Mullins makes the lion’s share of his living touring, and he does well because he’s one of the best, a quadruple threat writer/singer/player/raconteur. Whether he’s delivering a haunting ballad worthy of Johnny Cash, a spoken-word gem like John Prine, or hitting the falsetto high notes in his Top Forty hit, he’s one of the reasons people still get away from their creature comforts and connect to something deeper.

Shawn Mullins with Chuck Cannon
Aug 16, 2013, 8 p.m.
Infinity Music Hall & Bistro‎
20 Greenwoods Road West
Norfolk, CT 06058
(860) 542-5531

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 08/13/13 at 05:32 PM • Permalink

Where the Wild Things Are: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Live at MASS MoCA

By Robert Burke Warren

beastsWhen Ronen Givony, director of New York City’s Wordless Music Orchestra, saw Beasts of the Southern Wild, a mythic tale of devotion and loss that was nominated for four Academy Awards this year, he knew the majestic, Cajun-inflected, occasionally edgy score belonged onstage, fleshed out by a large ensemble. Unbeknownst to him, Beasts director/co-writer and, yes, co-composer Benh Zeitlin, an erstwhile rocker, yearned to perform before an audience as he had in his teens. On Saturday, August 10, at 8:30 p.m., MASS MoCA grants each man his wish. The Wordless Music Orchestra, with Zeitlin and co-composer Dan Romer sitting in, brings the Beasts of the Southern Wild soundtrack to the venerable North Adams institution, executing the music in real time as the movie plays.

romer“It’ll be really special,” Zeitlin says. (He is pictured here to the right of Romer in a photo courtesy of BlackBook magazine.) “We’ve done one or two stripped-down shows, but this is the first time we’ve done the whole thing with a full orchestra.” Amazingly, Zeitlin and Romer composed and recorded almost the entire soundtrack in Dan Romer’s Brooklyn basement, painstakingly layering one instrument at a time, and using only a couple of other musicians. “At MASS MoCA,” he says, “we’ll have three violas and an actual celesta!” (And about twenty more musicians, including brass, woodwinds, and percussionists.)

obamaThe only other occasion when Zeitlin has heard the music played by a full orchestra was at the White House last February. When Michelle Obama, a big fan, presented the film to students from Washington D.C. and Louisiana as part of Black History Month, she invited Zeitlin, Romer, and Beasts stars Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry to the screening. “The White House military band played part of the score as we walked in,” Zeitlin says, still amazed. “Hearing someone else play it was really incredible.”

Soon after, offers to play the Beasts music started coming down the pike, and Zeitlin, a guitarist and songwriter since high school, saw an opportunity to get back onstage and realize a dream. “I started off as a musician but never got to live that life, to play music live. But playing live is one of my favorite things in the world to do. I’ve wanted to do this from my very first film. One of the things that frustrates me about film is that it’s not a live experience, so I love the idea of accompanying Beasts. Dan and I always wondered: how do we get that ephemeral, euphoric thing that happens at a concert, how do you hybridize those things?”

wordlessThe young, omnivorous Wordless Music Orchestra (performing at the Metropolitan Museum’s Temple of Dendur at right) is well-versed in taking on unusual projects, making a name for itself as the adventurous ensemble that, according to its website, “pairs artists from the sound worlds of so-called classical, electronic, and rock music.” For instance, they’ve performed Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood’s lauded orchestral work Popcorn Superhet Receiver and John Cale’s classic concept album Paris 1919. But Beasts of the Southern Wild particularly excites director Ronen Givony. Upon seeing the film, he says, “It was one of those rare experiences where you just know within the first five minutes that you’re about to encounter an extraordinary work of art. By the end of that first viewing, I was emotionally and physically spent, transported, and exhilarated. Later, I was raving about it to a friend, and it turned out that she happened to have an email address for one of the film’s producers. I wrote to him immediately, not even knowing what it was that I wanted to do, just that I had to do something. And somehow, six months later, here we are.”

MASS MoCA curator Rachel Chanoff, a champion of the film since its early days, helped put the show together. She’d seen the project in its infancy, as a story idea culled from Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious, at both the Writers Lab and then the Directors Lab at Sundance, where she also works. She’s been amazed at its trajectory. “In the early days,” she says, “I thought, ‘How are they going to turn this beautiful phantasmagoria into a film?’ To watch them do it has been astonishing. We want to honor all of that.”

In addition to the Wordless Music Orchestra, Louis Bichot, the fiddler/vocalist for Pillette, Louisiana’s Lost Bayou Ramblers, will be coming to MASS MoCA to contribute his keening voice and jubilant fiddling, both integral to the score. “There’s no way to replicate a Cajun fiddler,” Zeitlin says, laughing. “We recorded his parts in Louisiana, and he’ll be joining us onstage at MASS MoCA.

“It’s a massive operation,” Zeitlin says. “We couldn’t have pulled this off ourselves. MASS MoCA has given us a wonderful gift.”

Live Score to Beasts of the Southern Wild
Saturday, August 10, 8:30 p.m.
Courtyard C or Hunter Center
$15 advance / $19 day of

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 08/06/13 at 07:30 AM • Permalink

A Broadway Star Glistens at the Litchfield Jazz Festival

By Sarah Ellen Rindsberg

cebIt’s summertime and the living is easy. The opportunity to hear top quality jazz is also easy, thanks to the presence of the Litchfield Jazz Festival. From August 9 - 11, notes of bebop, flamenco, gospel, and a slew of other styles will fill the air with the sounds of jivey music. The headliner for the Friends of the Festival opening night gala, and sparkling introduction to the eclectic mix ahead, is Christine Ebersole, star of screen and stage. This two-time Tony award winner — for performances in 42nd Street and, most notably, Grey Gardens —  is a gifted, versatile singer and actor. When she takes the stage at the gala, Ebersole will actually be assuming one of her first roles — that of a jazz singer. When she was twenty years old, studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City (under the tutelage of Marty Henne), Ebersole began singing at several jazz clubs including Jimmie Daniels and Gypsy.

eber“Christine Ebersole has one of those instruments that is a composer’s dream. She can effortlessly shift from lyrical soprano to brassy belt, swingin’ jazz and everything in between. The perfect blend of technique and innate musicianship,” says musical theater composer Scott Frankel, who wrote her star role as “Little” Edie Beale in Grey Gardens specifically tailored to her versatility. Ebersole’s affinity for a life of song began early on. She has a recording of herself singing the chorus of “Jingle Bells” at the age of three. Her mother’s voice is heard saying, “Let Christine sing the chorus.” “It’s completely on pitch,” Ebersole says, proudly. Her first big break came while she was working as a waitress at The Lion’s Rock in Manhattan. “I went from waiting tables to Broadway, quite a humbling experience.”

This singer grew up listening to the music of Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Marian Anderson, and Joni Mitchell. Today, the selections on her iPod are “pretty wide-reaching.” They include but are not limited to:  “Amadeus,” “Porgy and Bess,” Stacey Kent, Romero Lubambo, and Tower of Power. As for Chet Baker: “He’s a big influence on me,” is Ebersole’s assessment.

weinsteinEbersole’s act in the jazz festival is a byproduct of her collaboration with the violinist Aaron Weinstein (at left, picture by Steven Sussman courtesy of LJF)). In 2009, they were both invited to perform at a private party in the south of France. Afterward, during a visit to Paris, they developed a quick repartee, still evident in their playing and clever conversation. In 2011, Weinstein came up with the idea for their current show, “Strings Attached!”  “Aaron’s idea was to use the voice as an instrument, to be compatible as instrumentation,” Ebersole says.

In choosing the songs for their repertoire, Weinstein compiled a comprehensive list of titles which he felt would fit the bill. At Ebersole’s home in New Jersey, they discussed the choices and narrowed them down to the ideal set. The process was a revelation to Ebersole, who was delighted to learn several new songs. “Aaron opened up a whole ‘nother level of music appreciation, another vista, a place I had never been to before,” she muses. 

The festival takes place in a bucolic setting on the fairgrounds in Goshen, Connecticut. Whether seated on the lawn or underneath the tent, the acoustics are heavenly. Picnickers are welcome to bring their own spread or choose from a delicious menu offered by local purveyors including Lalibela Ethiopian Cuisine and The Bistro Box. Libations from Olde Burnside Brewing Company will be on tap.

cohenA hallmark of the festival is the opportunity to hear outstanding, undiscovered voices in addition to established entities. When Diana Krall appeared in 1996, she had no following. Today, she is a superstar. “We’ve formed a reputation for introducing young musicians who then turn out to be stars in the jazz scene,” Lindsey Turner, director of public relations and marketing, notes.

Turner scouts talent at jazz clubs in New York City. After hearing pianist Emmet Cohen (above right), she invited him to play at the home of one of the festival’s board members. This musician, who placed third in the 2011 Thelonius Monk International Piano Competition, is the opening act for the gala on the evening of August 9.

chetThe genres of jazz played throughout the weekend run the gamut from the Chet Baker Project with June Bisantz (at left, courtesy of LJF) to the Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band. As Turner points out, just as all operas are not Wagnerian, jazz comes in all sorts of tones, with one or more guaranteed to please even the most discerning palate. The line-up includes: artist-in-residence Gary Smulyan (below), Gregory Porter, The Val Ramos Flamenco Ensemble, Papo Vazquez Mighty Pirates Troubadours, and the Don Braden Quartet.

garyIn addition to live music, the festival will also include live art which will incorporate a quintessential characteristic of jazz: improvisation. On Saturday, graffiti artist Ryan Christensen will create a jazz-inspired mural on the fairgrounds. Artists and artisans will also appear, displaying their wares. Works will include jazz-themed sculpture, prints, and photography. The festival’s Visual Artist-in-Residence: Danielle Mailer, daughter of Norman Mailer, will be showing her metal sculpture and paintings.

Altogether a variety of ingredients for one sassy weekend indeed.

Litchfield Jazz Festival
August 9 - 11
Goshen Fairgrounds
Goshen, CT

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 07/27/13 at 09:28 AM • Permalink

Risky Russians: Stravinsky & Company at Bard

By Robert Burke Warren

leon“We try to inform listening without guiding it,” says Bard president and resident Renaissance man Leon Botstein. Botstein’s Bard Music Festival, inaugurated in 1990, offers top-notch performances of a selected composer’s works — many conducted by Botstein — while also enticing audiences with lectures and films providing context for the music and biographical details of composers. “We talk about the politics of the period in which the piece was written,” Botstein says, “the relationship to literature, to art. Where does the piece come from in the composer’s lifetime? Why is it innovative?”

igorAugust brings the twenty-fourth annual festival — now folded into Bard’s SummerScape multi-arts event — and Botstein, the conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, is confident enough to present an artist whose work is revered yet still somewhat misunderstood and, he feels, under-appreciated: Igor Stravinsky. “He is arguably the most famous composer of the 20th century,” Botstein says, “in part because of The Rite of Spring.” Stravinsky’s most famous composition, unveiled when he was an obscure 28-year-old Russian exile in Paris, is a fiercely dramatic pageant of propulsive rhythms and defiant dissonance, buffeted by graceful lyricism; a century on, its audacity still astounds. (Botstein conducts The Rite of Spring and Stravinsky’s Firebird with his American Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, August 10, at 8 p.m.)fantasia When it debuted at the 1913 Ballet Russes in Paris, the stunned audience rioted, but they could not stop talking about this brazen affront to their unseasoned early-20th century sensibilities.  Stravinsky rode it well. He became a celebrity and remained highly influential between the two World Wars and beyond, moving from Paris to Switzerland, and eventually Los Angeles, where, thanks in part to Fantasia (which uses The Rite of Spring as the soundtrack to a dinosaur battle and subsequent extinction) he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. By the 1960s, Stravinsky himself said that people had accepted the work to the point that they now hummed it in the bathroom.

The festival will also present less renown Stravinsky compositions. Botstein says he’s looking forward most to conducting three works he’s never tackled: Le Noces (The Wedding) — “I adore it,” he says — Symphony in Three Movements, and the ballet The Card Game. “It’s not background music,” he says. “It arrests your attention. I think that’s very enjoyable. The music is unsentimental, intended to grab the audience and electrify them.”

ore5In addition to Stravinsky, Bard will present several of his contemporaries and rivals. Russia, in particular, was a hotbed of musical development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Composers strove to create a “Russian” sound, distinctive from European tonal and harmonic influences, with librettos drawn from the country’s rich folk tradition (like The Rite of Spring). Into this breach stepped Sergey Taneyev whose Greek-inspired opera Oresteia went against the grain, and has languished on the fringes of the canon ever since. For Bard’s SummerScape, Botstein will mount its first complete U.S. production.

The conductor relishes rescuing great works from obscurity, and the Oresteia in particular excites him. “Since it was first performed in the 1890s, Oresteia developed a reputation of being somehow hard to produce,” Botstein says. “But the real reason [for its obscurity] is Taneyev had the courage to write an opera on a non-Russian theme.”

taneyevNot only is it non-Russian, the theme is also a less bloodthirsty and more thoughtful take on an ancient story. For Oresteia, Taneyev sourced fifth-century B.C. tragedian Aeschylus’ trilogy Agamemnon, Choephorae, and Eumenides; This trilogy tells Aeschylus’ version of the troubled House of Atreus myth. But Aeschylus — and, thus, Taneyev — transforms a traditional cycle of revenge into, as Botstein describes it, “a play with faith in human justice. This wasn’t fashionable in autocratic Russia.” That focus on justice resonates with Botstein, who has spoken at length with Charlie Rose on the subject of healing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (He’s also weighed in on education reform on The Colbert Report.)

For Oresteia, much of the cast has come from Russia, and Botstein is thrilled with rehearsals. Both the opera and the Stravinsky-focused festival promise even more stimulation than usual. As ever, Botstein has faith this summer’s Bard events will bring audiences closer than they thought possible to these unusual and highly influential artists.

Bard SummerScape
July 25th – August 13th

Fisher Center Sosnoff Theater
July 26, and August 2, at 7 p.m.
July 28, 31, and August 4, at 3 p.m.
Tickets: $30-$90
Opera Talk, July 28, at 1 p.m. Free

Bard Music Festival
Stravinsky and His World
August 9–11 and August 16–18

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 07/23/13 at 08:52 AM • Permalink

“The Great Gatsby,” Sung Beneath the Stars

Photo courtesy of Opera Parallèle

By Robert Burke Warren
When The Great Gatsby hit bookstores in 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s peers loved it, but critical response was mixed; it sold poorly, and the definitive Jazz Age novel faded into obscurity for two decades, rising again only after WW II. Sadly, Fitzgerald, who passed away in 1940, did not live to see this turnaround, confirming, prematurely, the writer’s own line that “there are no second acts in American lives.” Composer John Harbison, by contrast, gets to enjoy the second act of his operatic interpretation of The Great Gatsby, presented in a concert version by Emmanuel Music on Thursday, July 11, at 7:30 p.m. at Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall. (A Gatsby Party will follow.) Harbison’s Gatsby, for which he also wrote the libretto, last received a full-scale production at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2002. While audiences raved, some critics did not, and Harbison, recipient of both a Pulitzer and a MacArthur grant, poured his energies into other pursuits, including his longstanding gig as a professor of music at M.I.T.

great gBut the music he composed for Gatsby, great sweeping swells of drama, with shadowy undertones and bold dissonances, has lived on. In 2012, San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle presented a streamlined mounting (pictured at top), and Harbison, intrigued, approached his tempestuous child once again. “The ensemble reduction gave me an opportunity to review the piece,” he says. “I hadn’t done that. This version Emmanuel is doing at Tangelwood gave me a chance to tighten it up. It’s hard to cut a piece, but there are other factors you have to take into account.” His new version — a full orchestration — is about twenty minutes shorter than before, two seventy-five minute acts, give or take.

ComposerHarbison (picture at right by Katrin Talbot) knows Fitzgerald himself had to edit. When composing his opera, Harbison gained access to “the Gatsby sketchbook,” which includes much of what Fitzgerald cut. “[The Great Gatsby] is boiled down from three times that many pages,” he says. “He was a very exacting, hard working writer. He worked like crazy. It took him a long time. Some of the stuff he cut out is great stuff. You come upon wonderful passages that didn’t make it in.”

Harbison is pleased with Emmanuel Music’s concert version format, which played in May to glowing reviews at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in Boston. “Staging can be distracting,” he says. “People sometimes have trouble listening when there’s other things they’re trying to watch. A concert performance has people listening differently, and that’s nice. If they know the story, they can add something to it.”

ryanConductor and Emmanuel Music artistic director Ryan Turner (at left) agrees. “I’ve always felt like this was a score that needed a concert hearing to get its due,” he says. “The music is quite stunning and breathtaking. The orchestration is so vivid, and there are so many colors and sounds and textures, which essentially are another character in the opera. There are interludes that take you out of one location and into another, not just geographically, but emotionally. [In Boston] it was exciting to see the response the audience made to this exceptional score.”

Harbison’s Gatsby echoes the composer’s feeling that the novel, and Jay Gatsby in particular, is darker than most people realize. “It’s a pretty serious story,” he says. “People tend to forget the gangster Gatsby hangs out with — Meyer Wolfsheim. Gatsby makes everything happen with gangster money.”

Turner concurs: “There’s a benign misinterpretation of the novel. There’s this appeal of the tinsel and glitter of the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties, but underneath all this tinsel, none of the characters are particularly sympathetic. It’s a tough piece dramatically and emotionally.”

“Seems like what was haunting Fitzgerald,” says Harbison, “was a premonition that this would all crash. That seemed to be part of what was driving him. In the mid 20s a lot of people didn’t feel it, but he did. The whole hectic atmosphere was heading towards something very startling. This era wasn’t going to last.”

movieWhy the resurgence of interest in Fitzgerald’s doomed dreamer, from Baz Luhrmann’s film, to Gatz, the successful, touring staged reading (eight hours long!) by theater company Elevator Repair Service? “There’s some appeal given the economic climate we’re in,” says Turner. “So much of the novel is about this idea that inherited wealth isn’t enough to satisfy, there’s got to be something more. There’s a resonance in our current culture with that idea.”

“[Gatsby revivals] seem to come at very regular intervals since the book was brought back to consciousness in 1945,” says Harbison. “Every decade or so, there’s a resurgence. People were having Gatsby parties after the Redford movie. It really never goes away. Every generation seems to need its own movie.”

Or so they think. Perhaps what they really need, and indeed now possess, is their own opera.

Harbison’s The Great Gatsby - Orchestra and Chorus of Emmanuel Music
Seiji Ozawa Hall
Thursday, July 11, 7:30 PM
Lenox, MA
Tickets: $18.00 - $53.00

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 06/30/13 at 10:17 PM • Permalink

July at Jacob’s Pillow: A Month of Beautiful Moves

By Robin Catalano

Dance aficionados, rejoice: As the Berkshire cultural season kicks into high gear, so too does the Jacob’s Pillow 2013 festival. With a variety of fresh performances on tap, July is the perfect time to sample dance that runs the gamut from accessible to avant-garde, and from an intriguing array of companies. “There is a lot of brand new work and presentations with live music,” says Pillow Executive and Artistic Director Ella Baff, as well as unusual programs from international companies, some of them making their U.S. debut. Here are our top picks for the month.

Cedar Lake Contemporary
Photo courtesy of

One of the most exciting companies currently working in the United States, the New York–based Cedar Lake is a diverse, intercontinental group whose mission to acquire and commission new works by emerging choreographers usually has extraordinary results — as in their 2009 performance at the Pillow. Cedar Lake’s utterly fearless dancers are equally at home hanging from an architectural set, chucking themselves (and each other) around with abandon, and performing a touching, same-sex pas de deux. They’ll be performing Grace Engine by Crystal Pite (artistic director of Pillow favorite Kidd Pivot), Necessity, Again by Norwegian absurdist Jo Strømgren, and several other dances.
Wednesday, July 3, through Saturday, July 6, at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, July 6, and Sunday, July 7, at 2:00 p.m.

Shantala Shivalingappa
Forget the Bollywood bastardization of traditional Indian dance: Indian-born, Paris-raised Shivalingappa’s work is deeply rooted in the rhythmic 2,000-year-old classical style Kuchipudi, which uses dance as an expression of devotion and divine beauty. Meticulous, sharp, and seemingly weightless, Shivalingappa brings joy and meaning to the tiniest inclination of the head, flick of the fingers, and pop onto relevé. Featuring live music.
Wednesday, July 3, through Saturday, July 6, at 8:15 p.m.
Saturday, July 6, and Sunday, July 7, at 2:15 p.m.

Ballet BC
bc ballet
Photo: Michael Slobodian, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance

No matter the choreographer or the work, Ballet BC (which has rebounded brilliantly after narrowly escaping bankruptcy in 2009) is always ambitious, athletic, and intensely technical. Although the three pieces on the bill — A.U.R.A. (Anarchist Unit Related to Art), Petite Cérémonie, and Aniel — were created in different time periods by different choreographers, each explores, among other themes, the humanity of the collective. The latter two, by Medhi Walerski and Ballet BC Artistic Director Emily Molnar, respectively, are also insightful and funny; no easy feat in an art form that’s frequently associated with drama. “Humor requires such a precise and accurate sense of timing,” Molnar observes. “I was not trying to be funny with, for instance, a handshake. We adopted this perspective where people are just walking sideways into a world they don’t know. . . . You just have to be fully invested in these interactions.” Safe to say, Ballet BC hits every note just right.
Wednesday, July 17, through Saturday, July 20, at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, July 20, and Sunday, July 21, at 2:00 p.m.

Tere O’Connor Dance
Photo: Julieta Cervantes; courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance

One of the more intimate and personal dances on the Pillow program this month is O’Connor’s Cover Boy, an abstract interpretation of the closeted gay experience, with its attendant feelings of isolation from the larger community and tight connections within the smaller one. The piece is filled with contrasts of emotion; sudden shifts between dance vocabularies; and O’Connor’s signature small, often poignant gestures. O’Connor, who is also a professor of dance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says, “There’s a convergence of history in the work, layers of styles of movement. Some is the realm of invention. I don’t necessarily make a value system about the styles. But I’ve included many, many references. I’m just looking for a full range of expression, of how the style of dance gets its form.”
Wednesday, July 17, through Saturday, July 20, at 8:15 p.m.
Saturday, July 20, and Sunday, July 21, at 2:15 p.m.

Photo: Gadi Dagon, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance

Founded by odd-couple collaborators Gai Behar, an underground art and rave producer, and Sharon Eyal, whom Pillow Executive and Artistic Director Ella Baff calls “probably the most talked-about choreographer in contemporary dance right now,” L-E-V is a new contemporary company out of Israel. For its U.S. premiere, the troupe offers HOUSE, an avant-garde exploration of sensuality, sexuality, and androgyny. (A shorter version was originally performed by the Batsheva Dance Company, whom Eyal danced with and choreographed for, in 2011.) The experimental style of movement is by turns sinuous, intense, alien, and mesmerizing. Not for dance newbies.
Wednesday, July 24, through Saturday, July 27, at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, July 27, and Sunday, July 28, at 2:00 p.m.

Dorrance Dance
Photo: Matthew Murphy, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance

Prodigiously talented 33-year-old tap dancer Michelle Dorrance — the winner of this year’s Jacob’s Pillow Award — has toured with some of the best-known shows in recent history, and two years ago formed her own company, Dorrance Dance, to highlight a form that’s pretty much fallen off the average person’s radar. And Dorrance does it with gusto, negotiating complex rhythms, tempo changes, dynamics, and emotional shading, all with the ever-present smile and ease of a woman out for a morning walk. Dorrance Dance’s The Blues Project is said to loosely examine the historic parallels in the development of . . . Oh, who are we kidding? The troupe is amazing, as are the live musicians. Go see them, already.
Wednesday, July 24, through Saturday, July 27, at 8:15 p.m.
Saturday, July 27, and Sunday, July 28, at 2:15 p.m.

3e étage
Photo: Steve Murez, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance

If you like your classical technique — stretched legs, pointed toes, pirouettes that go on forever, and curtain-grazing jetés — mixed with a bit of wit and modernism, 3e étage (Third Floor) is for you. An independent company comprised of some of the top dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet, 3e étage loves to thumb its nose at classical conventions, as well as indulge that singularly French penchant for mime. But make no mistake: Le Pillow Thirteen is a Pillow-commissioned, hard-core ballet suite by twenty-something choreographer/director Samuel Murez. “Sam likes to create programs that weave a story and characters together — not like a conventional narrative like Giselle, for example, but his own way that connects themes and characters we see on stage,” Baff explains. “He makes the audience feel very included.”
Wednesday, July 31, through Saturday, August 3, at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, August 3, and Sunday, August 4, at 2:00 p.m.

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 06/23/13 at 01:22 PM • Permalink

MASS MoCA Welcomes Wilco: Fans Frolic at the Solid Sound Festival 2013

mass wilco

By Robert Burke Warren and Holly George-Warren

The hills are alive. The hills of North Adams, Massachusetts, to be precise, where on the weekend of June 21–23, MASS MoCA, the largest center for contemporary art in the U.S., hosts the third Solid Sound Festival, curated by the multi-Grammy-winning sextet Wilco. Conceived by the band and MASS MoCA, this gathering is a smaller-scale alternative to mega-fests like Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, and Lollapalooza. Solid Sound 2013 features Wilco, the band’s various side projects, Yo La Tengo, Medeski Martin & Wood, Low, Lucius, Neko Case, psychedelic tropicalia band Os Mutantes, and the only scheduled U.S. performance of the recently reunited Dream Syndicate. Also, comedians Al Madrigal, Jen Kirkman, Reggie Watts, and John Hodgman bring the laughs to the comedy tent.

wilco5In contrast to the usual festival experience, Solid Sound Fests 2010 and 2011 were laid-back and intimate, somewhat like a quirky country fair. The MASS MoCA complex, an impeccably refurbished, sprawling 19th century textile mill, transforms into an “art city,” with campgrounds, local food, and plenty of room to breathe. After going on hiatus last year, Solid Sound is slightly bigger than ever, but still easily navigable, family-friendly, and interactive; in addition to checking out bands, attendees can also enjoy many “please touch” installations­ – like Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche’s hands-on “Earth Drums” exhibit ­– plus a birding walk, post-concert guided stargazing, an off-site naturalist hike, and a make-your-own musical instrument and jam session for kids. 

Solid Sound co-founder and Wilco bassist John Stirratt says the band hatched the idea for the festival while on tour. “The English have started this fantastic small festival thing,” he says. “We played Green Man in Wales, and End of the Road in Essex. They’re incredibly well curated, the food is great; they imply a slightly older audience, a little more kid-friendly, not a blockbuster situation, not Lollapalooza, where there’s a million 17 year olds. I live in Chicago, so I can go to Lollapalooza for a day, but it can be a rough hang, walking a mile between stages.”

dreamDream Syndicate front man Steve Wynn, who played the first Solid Sound with his side gig The Baseball Project, says, “You can tell it was put together by musicians to be relaxed and cool for both the audience and the performers. You don’t feel like you’re just being processed through the turnstile. Everybody is approachable, it’s very hands-on, you see all the bands hanging out during the day. It’s not so big that you have to be shuffled off by helicopter.”

mmwLike Stirratt and Wynn, John Medeski, of Medeski, Martin & Wood, is looking forward as much to witnessing and partaking as he is to playing. “A festival gives the audience the opportunity to experience music they haven’t heard before and might not have gone to see,” he says. “It’s a really good way to get a general idea of what’s going on out there. For a band performing, the best thing is the energy that can be created at a festival. Something happens when you don’t have all day to prepare, and sound check, and get everything set up just right. You’re out of the comfort zone, which we thrive on. So many things can and do go wrong, and that forces the musicians to tap into a different level of connection in order to get through the performance.”

Similarly, MASS MoCA director Joe Thompson embraces the unpredictable. He works closely with Wilco to shape a festival simpatico with the museum’s modus operandi. “We like to make new work here,” he says. “The best work we show here is made on site. Artists often arrive not quite knowing what final form that work will take. There’s that vibe in this festival.”

Stirratt agrees. “The real nature of Solid Sound is determined by the people that come,” he says. “The fans do so much. They take a real active role in celebrating it, being at ease, and having fun and making it a cool situation.”

This year, Wilco has even given fans a chance to craft a set list via emailed suggestions for Friday night’s performance, calling it the “Request Show.” For encores they’ll re-create Johnny Carson’s “Stump the Band” bit from The Tonight Show, with John Hodgman moderating. The Solid Sound website reads, “This is the first-ever all-request concert by Wilco. It may also be the last.” The same can’t be said for the Solid Sound Festival, which, clearly, has just begun.

Solid Sound Festival
June 21-23
87 Marshall Street
North Adams, MA
(413) 662-2111
Festival Pass - Adults: $149.00, kids age 7-10: $50.00
Children 6 and under are free
Single-day tickets for Friday, June 21 and Sunday, June 23 are $65
Single day tickets for Saturday, June 22 are sold out

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 06/10/13 at 09:18 AM • Permalink