Old Crow, New Song: Old Crow Medicine Show at MASS MoCA
By Robert Burke Warren
Like a longtime married couple who’ve survived everything from overfamiliarity to substance abuse to trial separation, Nashville-based Old Crow Medicine Show deserves a standing ovation just for showing up at MASS MoCA on Tuesday, May 28. Attendees will keep the applause coming, however, from opening song to encore, as the sextet, formed in 1998, still deliver their rollicking, punky string band material with uncommon passion. “A band can’t be around for fifteen years without some changes,” says multi-instrumentalist Christopher “Critter” Fuqua. “Shakeups, ups and downs, that’s the nature of the beast. It’s pretty unusual when you think about it. It’s a marriage.”
Fuqua knows whereof he speaks. After bonding in an elementary school production of The Red Badge of Courage, he founded OCMS in Ithaca, NY, with childhood friend Ketch Secor, Old Crow’s dynamic leader and frontman. Unlike most youngsters, they unplugged, infusing old time, hardscrabble acoustic music with the dervish energy of their beloved punk and metal records. With a boost from the O Brother Where Art Thou? phenomenon, they rose quickly from city sidewalks to the festival circuit to A Prairie Home Companion and the Grand Ole Opry, introducing many twenty-somethings to Americana. A good time, for sure, but the pace and the attendant chaos took their toll. After writing, recording, and touring nonstop, Fuqua left the band in 2007 to get sober and, he says, to save his life. As his mates soldiered on, Fuqua rehabbed, cooled his jets, and attended college, working toward an English degree. In 2011, the band went on an indefinite hiatus, but returned late last year with the lauded Carry Me Back, welcoming Fuqua (who’d sorely missed making music) back to the fold with open arms.
How has sobriety affected time spent in a band famous for blistering live shows, not to mention many a song celebrating, uh, drinking? How’s the “new” Critter Fuqua faring?
“I’m a more authentic me because I’m sober,” Fuqua says. “There’s a new spirit in the band. Everything feels real fresh. Ketch and I recently realized we’ve played music over 20 years together. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Old Crow Medicine Show has enjoyed an uptick in popularity these last couple of years, due in part to the recent “New Acoustic Wave”; hot, banjo-toting bands like Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, and the Avett Brothers cite OCMS as an influence. In an increasingly digital age, why the current fascination with back porch-friendly fare?
“Americans in particular always fetishize the ‘authentic.’” Fuqua says. “People want to have something that roots them. A lot of Americans feel unrooted. A banjo and a fiddle and acoustic guitar roots them in some way.”
Another reason for Old Crow’s continued upward trajectory is the tunes. In addition to revivifying old traditions and tackling well-worn chestnuts, the men in Old Crow Medicine Show write canon-worthy songs. Their biggest hit, “Wagon Wheel” — on which Secor shares writing credit with Bob Dylan — is certified platinum, has been viewed more than 17 million times on YouTube, and exists now in the campfire singalong firmament alongside “Free Bird,” ”Friend of the Devil,” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” During his sabbatical, Fuqua says he met fellow college students who knew and loved the tune, but had no knowledge of Old Crow Medicine Show.
On Carry Me Back, they do it again with “Levi,” a powerful, mournful-yet-celebratory soldier’s tune both old timey and contemporary, about a real-life American Army sergeant and fan of Old Crow Medicine Show who was killed in action in Iraq. Not only has Levi’s family expressed appreciation, but vets frequently attend OCMS shows, helping the band raise the roof.
“Seems like just about every show we meet a veteran,” Fuqua says. “War has always been a theme in our writing, and soldiers like our music. It hits home, it touches a facet of American life that feels so separate for them. There’s a part of America that’s not at war, and there’s a part that is. Some people have sons and daughters over there, and some just have a sticker that says, ‘Support our Troops.’
“Sometimes people think protest songs and folk songs are in the past, but they need to realize I can have my own voice and I can write about my brother in Afghanistan and have it be real. Doesn’t have to be dated, it can be right now. Unfortunately war is almost a force of nature. It’s always here.”
Speaking of forces of nature, some you can experience at will and some you cannot. The righteous Old Crow Medicine Show is one of the former, a reminder of the power of music to hold things together, against the odds.
Tuesday, May 28, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $35 advance/ $40 door
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Dancing the Myth: From Isis to Isadora
By Robert Burke Warren
This Mother’s Day weekend, two deeply devoted dance organizations combine their resources, offering audiences a chance to celebrate life, love, beauty, and the feminine energy that brought us all here. Kaatsbaan International Dance Center in Tivoli hosts the Isadora Duncan International Institute Dancers’ From Isis to Isadora on Saturday, May 11 and Sunday, May 12, honoring the vision of the “matriarch of modern dance,” Isadora Duncan. (Photo montage and rare video here, picture of her above.) With the estimable Jeanne Bresciani at the helm, the IDII carries on the work, in Duncan’s own words, of creating a “luminous manifestation of the soul,” and Kaatsbaan, a 153-acre historic site nestled on verdant farmland formerly owned by the Roosevelts, is a thriving dance mecca, with a Metropolitan Opera-sized stage, yet only 180 seats.
Doyenne of dance Bresciani is directly linked to Isadora Duncan, and overflows with enthusiasm when discussing her art, and the upcoming performance, which will include 23 dancers. “I was taught by Isadora’s adopted daughter (and IDII co-founder) Maria Theresa Duncan herself,” she says. “She was passionate, radiant; she danced ‘til she was 90 years old. She was called the last dancing “Isadorable.” She’s a woman who, in a particular year, danced a Carnegie Hall solo concert, had a baby that summer, then another baby that December. A real woman.”
The fearless, revolutionary Duncan could not have chosen a more fitting apostle than Bresciani to carry her vision into the 21st century. Duncan’s style was — and is — rooted not only in movement, but also in philosophy, particularly the philosophy of the Greeks. True to that, Dr. Bresciani (she’s a Ph.D and an MA), who cataloged the self-taught Duncan’s extensive library, infuses performances (and conversation) with allusions to Rilke, Sappho, Rumi, Jung, Plato, and Da Vinci, among others, all of whom sought, like Duncan, to illuminate the soul.
“From Isis to Isadora,” Bresciani says, “draws inspiration from myth. Everything I do comes from myth. Mythos is the glue that holds the culture together.” The Isis myth, one of the great “mother goddess” myths of the ages, particularly inspires Bresciani as a potent, timeless story for modern-day audiences, who come to performances from an increasingly fractured world. In the Isis myth, the goddess restores her husband/brother Osiris, who has been dismembered by the jealous god Set and strewn about Egypt, so that they may produce Horus, the “last god,” the god of the sky. “We’re such a fragmented people,” Bresciani says. “We need the myth of Isis, where she’s gathering the parts of the beloved Isis and Osiris together, creating, forging the last god, without whom there would be no progeny, no divine race of beings. We must gather the fragments of the great creation of the eternal material that never dies, never goes away. That’s why I do the work I do, and why I do it the way I do it, rather than just teaching steps. You add Shakespeare to it, you add Ovid and Dante, and we have a world that never dies.”
The program “also includes a waltz of someone who is getting the energy of the ancient world and doesn’t know where it’s coming from, and drops out of the ballet and finds something freer and looser; then we have the Olympian, a depiction of twelve tiny little sketches of the ancient Olympic events; we have In Her Garden, a paean to nature and beauty and freedom, then Roses From the South, an Isadora dance set to a famous Strauss waltz.” The barefoot dances include all the trademark Duncan elements: fluid movement, skipping, flowing scarves (of course), and exuberant, faun-like leaps.
How do audience members new to Isadora Duncan’s style react after an IDII performance? Says Bresciani: “People say, ‘It’s what I always dreamed dance was but never saw before on a stage.’ It’s the dance ‘the people’ love. It’s not necessarily the dance of the intellectual, it’s not edgy, it doesn’t break things apart, it doesn’t deconstruct things, it doesn’t leave you hanging. Isadora was always about the triumph of the human spirit. Something is resolved in beauty… you’re never left thwarted or undone. I may die onstage, but it’s a triumphant, ecstatic death. It is for a purpose, for a reason, everything is endowed with a passionate cause; there is nothing gratuitous. There is no movement that doesn’t have a meaning.”
For anyone tired of chaos — and who isn’t? — From Isis to Isadora, at idyllic, rustic-yet-state-of-the-art Kaatsbaan, offers a reprieve like a mother’s warm embrace, the enduring vision of a modern-day goddess.
From Isis to Isadora: The Ancient and Eternal Ideal in Art
Saturday, May 11, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, May 12, 2:30 p.m.
Adults, $30; children, $10
120 Broadway, Tivoli, NY
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Siren Song: Arum Rae at Infinity Hall
Want your dreams to come true? Change your password. Last year, singer-songwriter-guitarist Arum Rae Valkonen — Arum Rae to her fans — changed all of hers (since changed again, hackers) to “DreamsComeTrue2012,” and enjoyed her most amazing year ever, with chart-topping national recognition, record deal, cash windfall, and a coveted spot opening for Willie Nelson at Austin City Limits’ prestigious Moody Theater. Still riding that life-changing wave, Arum Rae — whose current EP “Waving Wild” is available for free HERE — brings her blend of raucous blues, modern rock, and troubadour chops to Infinity Hall on Sunday, May 5, for a post-brunch set at 12:30 p.m. While her style incorporates multiple influences, folks will walk away stunned most of all by her voice, comparing her to Norah Jones, Amy Winehouse, PJ Harvey, “a female Jack White,” and a kind of punk rock siren with R&B flava. All will agree she’s a star.
Arum Rae’s been working the low side of the road for a decade, bouncing from her mother’s home in rural Virginia, to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, to Savannah, Georgia, and finally to Austin. Along the way, she’s self-released a 2004 eponymous debut (and several follow-ups, one under the moniker White Dress), sung backup on hip-hop recordings, driven ten hours to open mic nights, written several albums’ worth of material, and finally drawn the attention of pros — now peers — like the Civil Wars and Gary Clark, Jr., both of whom invited her to tour and, with the Civil Wars, to collaborate.
The tipping point of 2012, in fact, was her song “If I Didn’t Know Better” — co-written with the Civil Wars’ John Paul White. Hit ABC series Nashville used it in an episode — sung by stars Sam Palladio and Clare Bowen (Gunnar and Scarlett) — and this propelled Arum from debt-ridden, under-the-radar indie to buzz-worthy hitmaker, a shift that, while dreamed about for years, initially stunned her. Arum says, “I went to see the Civil Wars play at the Austin City Limits festival last year and (Civil Wars’ chanteuse) Joy (Williams) gives me a hug and she’s like, ‘Congratulations! Your song’s number 16 on Billboard!’ I was like ‘WHAT?’” She laughs down the line, a smoky, blues-belter’s chuckle. “I didn’t even know what that meant! I walked away and got on my iPhone, Googling.”
Of the song’s success, she says, “It definitely allowed me to move to the East Village and waste a bunch of money and find out I didn’t want to live there. I’m a country girl. But most important, it’s let me re-invest in myself financially and feel like a normal human being. When you work for your art all the time, you’re always behind on paying for everything. I got to pay off bills. And it made me feel a bit more official, something to stand on that was not just an idea in your bedroom of what you want to be and do. “
If a high school teacher hadn’t encouraged wayward teen Arum Rae to audition for Berklee, the fledgling singer’s own “bedroom idea” might never have materialized. To her surprise, she nabbed a voice scholarship at the esteemed music school. “Having to do jazz and classical theory,” she says, “and writing in the styles of Bach and Gershwin, gave me the tools to be a songwriter.” Interestingly, however, Arum Rae focused on business. “I just thought having an artist performance degree is a joke,” she says. “As a performer you have to gain your voice by performing. The business thing is very intriguing, and I really love people, and I love working with people, striking deals. It’s fun.”
One of the deals she recently struck was with superstar producer Mike Elizondo (Alanis Morrisette, Fiona Apple, Maroon 5, Dr. Dre, 50 Cent). The material they’ve recorded in L.A. awaits release in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, Arum Rae is keeping to the modus operandi that got her where she is: staying on the road, honing her material, writing, and performing with a hungry, skilled rhythm section who watch as their boss, like a mythical siren, slays with song. —Robert Burke Warren
Infinity Music Hall
Sunday, May 5, 12:30 p.m.
20 Greenwoods Road West
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The Incredible, Flexible Tom Chapin
“It’s hard for people to know what to make of me,” singer-songwriter and stalwart folkie Tom Chapin says with a laugh, alluding to his remarkably varied five-decade career as a troubadour for adults, a multi-Grammy-winning children’s entertainer, Emmy and Peabody-winning television personality, and tireless activist. If Chapin confuses people, however, it’s only prior to captivating them with a charisma that is equal parts homey and intense. He commands whatever stage he alights upon, connecting with the room, employing a hard-won expertise any entertainer of any age would admire. Chapin brings that considerable bundle of talent to the Towne Crier on Saturday, April 27, returning to the Pawling club for the first time since 1996.
“The great thing about playing a folk club like the Towne Crier,” he says, “is I can do the whole canon. The show will be a ‘grown-up’ show, where I’ll play my songs and some of my brother’s, like ‘Cat’s In The Cradle,’ and ‘Taxi,’ but my ‘grown-up’ shows are kid-friendly, too. We’ll see who comes, and tune it from there.” In other words, for once, you can bring the kids. But be advised: they are just as likely to walk away singing “Go Away Sarah Palin,” or his dark, sexy folk chestnut “Once When I Was Young,” as Chapin’s irresistible — and adult-friendly — kids’ songs like “Puppy At the Pound,” and “Two Kinds of Seagulls.” “A great song,” Chapin says, “if it really works, it works across the board.”
Chapin comes from a remarkable musical family. His father Jim was a renowned jazz drummer whose seminal Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer Vol. 1 — simply called “The Chapin Book” by the cognoscenti — is still in print. While Pop Chapin was out touring, his sons Tom, Harry, and Steve heard the Weavers’ seismic 1958 album “The Weavers at Carnegie Hall,” which inspired what Chapin only half-jokingly calls “the folk scare of the 60s.” Emboldened by acts like Peter, Paul & Mary, The Kingston Trio, and the Weavers’ own Pete Seeger (who quit the Weavers after the group licensed a song to a cigarette ad) the Chapins formed the Chapin Brothers. This act launched Harry’s tragically short-lived career as one of the pre-eminent singer-songwriters of the 1970s, and set Tom on the twisting, turning ribbon of highway he still travels. His daughters Lily and Abigail (below) have followed in his footsteps.
Tom Chapin began touring when TV was still a three-channel affair. With infinitely more distractions available nowadays, has the quality of the audience attention span changed? “No,” Chapin says. “For those who come, no. The hardest thing is to get bodies there. There’s so much on the tube, so much streaming. But with kids or anybody else, when you get ‘em in a room, it’s a very magical thing. As I get older I realize more how rare it is to perform live. Your job is to tell stories, and to lead. Your weapons are the words and music, and the real weapon is the music with words, which touches people in a way nothing else quite does. We’re pretty inured to words, to people talking at us, but there’s a power in song that never ceases to amaze me. People walk away feeling like they’ve connected with something. It’s a remarkable gig.”
If it’s a Tom Chapin gig, yes, it is remarkable. If you go, be sure to check out the merch table. Two of Chapin’s more recent CDs are characteristically diverse and excellent. Broadsides, his sharp-witted 2008 collaboration with cabaret writer John Forster, includes the viral anti-No Child Left Behind anthem “Not On The Test,” while brand new The Incredible Flexible You, written with hit maker Phil Galdston (1990s totem “Save The Best For Last” is partially his), focuses on helping kids with social skills, kids who, Chapin says, are “more apt to be playing with an iPad than playing with their friends.”
In the unlikely event an iPad is in the house at the Towne Crier, it’ll probably be taking a picture or a video of a man with an old machine called a guitar, a device dependent not on batteries, but on human energy, and thus, much, much more powerful. —Robert Burke Warren
The Towne Crier Cafe
Saturday, April 27, 7:30 p.m.
130 Route 22,
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Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau: A Fine Bromance at the Mahaiwe
Perhaps it’s the macchiato. Singer/mandolinist and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Chris Thile (at left), a musician for whom adjectives “tireless” and “extraordinary” spring to mind, drinks at least one a day. Rural Intelligence catches the thirty-two-year old in his East Village apartment, fresh off a yearlong world tour with his genre-defying band Punch Brothers. Resting? No. Among other things, he’s prepping for a duo performance with acclaimed jazz pianist Brad Mehldau (at right) on April 13, at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. “Days are packed with all the stuff I’m dying to do, but haven’t had time to do,” he says, disarmingly affable. “I make myself a macchiato in the morning and get to work.” One imagines bedazzled neighbors catching mandolin strains of Bach, Bill Monroe, and… the Cars? Yes, the Cars. Wafting up the fire escape. Also Radiohead, the Beatles and the White Stripes, all coaxed from an absurdly limited instrument.
“I love to be a part of a completely non-segregated music community,” Thile says. Indeed, not long after debuting as a bluegrass wunderkind (first album at 13), Thile boldly took his humble mandolin where no mandolin had gone before. His pop-conscious, “progressive bluegrass” teen trio Nickel Creek brought him international attention, and before long, he was collaborating with Bela Fleck, Dolly Parton (reported to have deflowered him on tour), fellow MacArthur genius, bassist extraordinaire and mentor Edgar Meyer, and cello great Yo-Yo Ma.
Speaking of Yo-Yo Ma, RI asks for confirmation of a rumor: Does the celebrated cellist really possess a repertoire of truly filthy jokes? Thile laughs. “I don’t know that there’s a musician with a beautiful musical soul who doesn’t also have a repertoire of absolutely awful jokes. That’s all I’ll say.”
On Brad Mehldau, he is much more expansive, and, as when he speaks of music in general, effusive: “Brad came to an early Punch Brothers show at Bowery Ballroom (in NYC). Thank God no one told me he was coming — I’m a huge fan. When we met, I almost started hyperventilating. In my teens, I’d freaked out at his Art of the Trio Volume 4; I didn’t know improvisation could be that explosive, and yet with that kind of structural integrity. He was essentially composing beautifully at breakneck speed. After I heard that record, he became my gold standard for improvisational prowess.”
In addition to gaining inspiration from Mehldau’s improv skills, Thile also used the pianist’s genre-busting approach as a career-building template. (Mehldau’s recordings span Beatles chestnuts to Monk tunes to Soundgarden power ballad “Black Hole Sun.”) Now, both are accomplished composers and avid interpreters of multiple canons, confounding purists with impish glee. And, like adrenaline junkies, Thile and Mehldau share a compulsion to create on the spot, catching lightning in a bottle before a live audience. True, their wildly dissimilar instruments almost never share performance space, but Thile, ever ripe for a challenge, finds this emboldening. He laughs (again) when explaining the disparity between piano and mandolin: “The piano is one of the most brilliantly designed instruments in the world,” he says, “and the mandolin is one of the least. But for all the mandolin’s faults, it’s a very clear and precise instrument. It’s all about precision and clarity. Brad’s playing is also very clear and precise. That’s a fun thing. Brad, with his sensitivity, understands the mandolin’s limitations, and we both fill in the blanks, but also give it some space. I’m amazed at how he solves the problems of collaborating with a mandolinist.”
The duo’s first performance was unrehearsed and, as befits each musician’s penchant for border crossing, consisted of a Punch Brothers song and variations on tunes by Radiohead and Elliot Smith. Someone captured it all on YouTube, which is fine with Thile. “It was electrifying for me,” he says.
“I don’t think of Brad as a jazz musician,” he continues. “I think of him as a great musician. He and I share a similar approach to music; the various good musics of the world are a helluva lot more similar than they are different. The differences that matter are differences in approach, a nuts and bolts approach — how are you gonna put the material that’s available to all of us together? Those are the differences that we’re interested in.”
Thile and Mehldau excel at figuring out how to navigate those differences in such a way that jazz aficionados discover pop, while popsters discover bluegrass, and rockers discover classical, and no pleasure gets labeled “guilty.” If ever there was a time to shamelessly bridge arbitrarily placed gaps, this is it. —Robert Burke Warren
Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau
Saturday, April 13, at 8 p.m.
Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
14 Castle St.
Great Barrington, MA 01230
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Todd Snider: Not So Little Rascal
Onstage and in conversation, acclaimed singer-songwriter-raconteur Todd Snider talks freely about potentially depressing subject matter like past incarcerations, poverty, and his ongoing struggles with addiction. Nevertheless, audiences tend to walk away from his shows feeling better than when they arrived. Because Snider, who hits the Helsinki Hudson stage for a solo acoustic set on Saturday, March 30, is funny, likely the funniest troubadour you will ever witness. Whether it’s his singalong waltz “Conservative Christian Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White American Males,” or his acerbic anti-war anthem “Bring ‘Em Home,” he infuses his material with a hot toddy of warm humor. A kind of profane, libertine, hippie Will Rogers, Snider conveys, above all else, tenderness, even in hopelessness.
If you don’t go for the songs, you’ll get your money’s worth with the patter alone. The wolfishly handsome Snider is as renowned for his between-song hijinks as his acclaimed, genre-busting albums, which regularly end up on Rolling Stone’s year-end “Best Of” lists. All in all, after nearly two decades of making music and incessant touring, his show is the epitome of charming, barely controlled chaos, and his admirers are many.
Not that he cares about those admirers. When asked how longtime fans have received his brazenly drunken, electric 2012 masterwork Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, he says, “I wouldn’t know. I really only have random access to people and their opinions of the art I do, and as a whole, in my experience, the opinions of others are so different, there’s nothing really to be gained by listening to them. There just isn’t a scoreboard. I should also add that I don’t give any thought to gaining or losing fans. From the outside, this job looks like a popularity contest, but from the inside it’s anything but that.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, his sexy indifference to praise, the man is a songwriter’s songwriter, the onetime acolyte of John Prine, who mentored Snider back in the nineties. Over the years, Snider’s received accolades from Jimmy Buffett, Kris Kristofferson, and Jerry Jeff “Mr. Bojangles” Walker, for whom Snider crafted a ragged-but-right tribute album, Time As We Know It. It was Walker who inspired a barely-out-of-his-teens Snider to put aside his rocker dreams and go folkie, at least until the soul-broken romp Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables.
One of the highlights of Agnostic Hymns, which Snider will almost certainly perform in Hudson (especially if you holler a request), is “New Yorker Banker.” This raw, rocking first-person narrative sprang from a conversation with his admirer Rahm Emmanuel (yes, that Rahm Emmanuel) about a group of Arkansas teachers hoodwinked by infamous hedge fund manager John Paulson. Paulson placed their retirement funds in a bond designed to fail, which he bet against. The refrain: “Good thing happen to bad people.”
Although “New York Banker” and best-revenge-song-ever “Too Soon To Tell” (“Wish I could show you how you hurt me in a way that wouldn’t hurt you, too”) convey righteous anger, Snider says he doesn’t believe there is such a thing.
“It’s my opinion that anger is just a mask or the makeup we use to cover sadness and fear,” he says. “Our culture considers sadness and fear to be signs of weakness, and anger to be a sign of strength. I think this is why when people feel sad or afraid, they act angry. To me, the courageous thing is to embrace and complete and release the feelings of fear and sadness, thus creating no need for anger, which isn’t even real.”
Have any victims of “New York Banker”-style malfeasance approached him with appreciation? “No,” he says. “Mike Tyson reached out to me, though. I wrote a song about him being taken advantage of, too.”
Snider’s not all revenge and loss, though. Another gem from Agnostic Hymns is “Brenda,” on which he breaks new ground in the realm of the love song by penning a tribute to the lasting relationship between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. (“Brenda” is Richards’ nickname for Jagger.) “Not long ago she almost lost him, a lesser man might’ve been dead, “ Snider sings, alluding to Richards’ 2006 fall from a coconut tree, “But just when she thought he might be giving up, he was back up in business instead.”
Todd Snider’s back in business, too. See him while he continues to beat the odds. —Robert Burke Warren
405 Columbia Street
Saturday, March 30, 2013, 9 p.m.
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The Bacon Brothers Sizzle
Acclaimed actor Kevin Bacon and his big brother, renowned film and TV composer Michael, do not care what gets you to Infinity Hall when they return as the Bacon Brothers on Monday, March 25. (The performance will be filmed for CPTV.) “If people come out because they want to see what color socks Kevin has on,” Michael says, “we’re fine with that. Because generally they leave knowing that we’re very committed to a live show and we’re committed to entertaining people as best we can.”
“If you’re asking people to pay to come out and see a show,” Kevin says, “you better not be a joke.”
Coming up on eighteen years, six CDs, and forty gigs annually, the Bacon Brothers are no joke. Kevin’s a versatile guitarist/vocalist and snake-hipped front man, while multi-instrumentalist Michael’s credentials include touring the country in the 1970s, releasing major label solo albums, and even playing the Isle of Wight festival (“in front of 250,000 cranky hippies”). As Kevin, nine years younger, rose to icon status, even becoming a parlor game, Michael’s music was appearing in commercials, series, and specials. In 2010, in fact, he garnered an Emmy for the HBO documentary Teddy: In His Own Words.
It’s no surprise that the Bacons’ childhood home was a hotbed of music and art. Their dad, famed urban planner Edmund Bacon (his esteemed Design of Cities is still in print and he made it onto the cover of Time at the moment of its publication), and liberal activist mom encouraged artistic endeavors over academics. Natural born ham Kevin — the youngest of six — apparently needed little persuasion. At age ten, he threw his hat in the ring with a self-penned lyric entitled “All the World Looks Lonely,” which his big brother set to music. A partnership was born. Michael bought Kevin a guitar and tried to turn his little brother “into the next Michael Jackson,” but Kevin’s success on stage and screen intervened, and plans to join the Everlys, the Bellamys, and the Gallaghers as a brother act were scuttled. However, the Bacons never stopped writing songs together. In 1994, a friend heard a demo, booked them into a Philadelphia club, and people liked what they heard. What began as an acoustic duo one-off evolved into a tight-knit touring and recording band delivering what the New Yorker describes as “sharply executed rock that has a blue-collar, rootsy edge.”
Will they play “All the World Looks Lonely” at Infinity Hall? They both laugh. In other words: hell, no. What they will perform are selections from their catalog. “It is a catalog now,” Kevin says, with some wonderment. Are there any tunes they never tire of? Again, the Bacons laugh. Says Kevin, “There’s songs we can put in the set and we know people are gonna like it, something easily accessible, crowd pleasers. But that doesn’t mean we don’t get tired of playing them. Part of what we do for our own mental health is to change the set up. We’re always thinking of it as a moving organism. We can investigate something we haven’t played before. It wakes us up, and makes us start listening to each other and gets us more focused. It’s a really good thing for the band.”
Another way they keep things fresh is by inviting fans to collaborate. The official video for their Philly soul nugget “Go My Way (The iPod Song)” features charmingly lo-fi, crowd-sourced footage of fans dancing at home, in parking lots, and at the car wash, spliced in with a longjohns-clad Kevin drinking coffee and singing. For the current tour, Michael came up with the idea of inviting fans to contribute lyrics to an unfinished hard luck anthem entitled “Tape It Up.” Fans can listen to the demo and email lyrics (you can do so HERE) and the Bacons choose the best ones and insert them into the song.
“The fun thing about ‘Tape It Up’ is it’s different every night,” Michael says. “I give my brother credit for being very restless. He gets bored with stuff. So we’re always trying to come up with something new. It’s a challenge, but it’s been fun for us.”
Therein lies one of the reasons to check these guys out. Neither Michael nor Kevin need to perform as the Bacon Brothers, but every gig is a challenge, and people who see challenges as fun are always a good bet. —Robert Burke Warren
The Bacon Brothers
Infinity Music Hall
Monday, March 25, 8 p.m.
20 Greenwoods Road West
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Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fame: Mary Gauthier at Towne Crier
What do Boy George, country music superstar (and co-host of The Voice) Blake Shelton, and R & B/gospel artist Candi Staton have in common? These disparate artists have each recorded the songs of restaurateur/chef/Americana troubadour Mary Gauthier (pronounced go-SHAY — it’s Cajun). Touring behind acclaimed new CD Live at Blue Rock, Gauthier brings those distinctive, powerful songs, plus a passel of fascinating stories, to the Towne Crier on Friday, March 8, at 8:30 p.m. If you fancy a fresh take on the journeyman archetype, plus some soulful tunes, head over to 130 Route 22 in Pawling. Gauthier will appreciate your efforts, and will tell you so, either in person or via Twitter.
“I like people,” she says in a Louisiana drawl both worldly-wise (she’s 50) and childlike (she’s having a ball). She and her Canadian band (and well-worth-catching opening act) Scott Nolan and Joanna Miller (below) are motoring north from Philly on I-78, looking for coffee — although she sounds plenty caffeinated. “I enjoy interactions. I like being accessible. I love social media. Isn’t it great? I like having ways to see how shows are landing, how the work is landing, how folks are receiving it. Twitter is an international ongoing conversation with a lot of people.”
She’s got a lot to talk — and sing — about, much of it documented in her “It Gets Better” video, in which she advises young LGBT kids to hang in there like she did, then performs her autobiographical “Drag Queens in Limousines.” Indeed, had erstwhile suicidal teen Gauthier checked out, she’d have missed the chance to be one of the only openly gay performers (aside from kd lang) invited to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, and she’d have missed those songwriting benedictions from Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. Not to mention having Boy George cover “Mercy Now,” arguably her most popular song. “It just came through me,” she says. “A gift from God.”
Evidently, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s assertion, “There are no second acts in American lives,” was quite wrong. In her twenties and early thirties, Baton Rouge-bred Gauthier was a successful, insured, ass-kickin’ chef/restaurateur in Boston, yet she struggled with alcoholism. After getting sober, she channeled her unmedicated, open-flame intensity into tunesmithery, writing her first song at thirty-five. She made up for lost time, apprenticing with professional songwriter/producer Crit Harmon (“Mercy Now” and Blake Shelton hit “I Drink” are fruits of this union) and self-releasing her rough-hewn CDs. She eventually sold her interest in Boston’s popular Dixie Kitchen (they did not last long without her), put her trust in the muse, and moved to Nashville.
Live at Blue Rock, her ninth CD, brings that ongoing journey, and the willful iconoclast in the midst of it, into sharp focus. Buoyed by Mike Meadow’s subtle percussion and (Duhks co-founder) Tania Elizabeth’s avenging angel fiddle, Gauthier offers up some of her best-loved material, from a harrowing desertion ballad “Blood Is Blood” to the rousing, carnival-of-souls “Wheel Inside the Wheel” (covered by Jimmy Buffett). She rides the sound waves like a master, hypnotically reciting some songs, wailing others, conjuring an energy feedback loop between herself and a rapt audience. Like Johnny Cash’s Live at Folsom Prison album, and Merle Haggard’s classic “Okie From Muskogee” single, this is country music as participatory experience, not slick, cookie cutter pap. It’s riveting.
When asked when she knew it was time to do a live release, she says, “When I fired my manager. He kept saying ‘no one’s interested in live records.’ I think he’s wrong. I had to let him go. I’ve been twelve years on the road, I’m a journeyman, I’ve done my 10,000 hours, I want a live record, I think it’s time to capture it, fans have been asking for it for years, so I’m gonna do it.”
Over the course of our chat, Scott Nolan and Joanna Miller procure coffee for Gauthier, despite her apprehension about veering off the highway into the swamps of New Jersey. It’s a rare instance of our heroine taking no for an answer, and this does not quite fit the narrative. But, as she sips into her cell phone, she laughs and says, “I feel so taken care of. It’s really great traveling with folks. I’ve been traveling alone a long time and it’s really nice traveling with people.” —Robert Burke Warren
with Scott Nolan and Joanna Miller
Friday, March 8, 8:30 PM
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Ecstatic Truth Gumbo: Howard Fishman Quartet at Hudson Opera House
Singer-songwriter-bandleader Howard Fishman knows how to rock a venue — any venue. Since 1999, his unique folk-jazz-Americana has left its mark on New Orleans street corners, Lincoln Center, Manhattan’s tony Algonquin Oak Room, the French TV show Le Petit Journal, and countless clubs and halls. On Saturday, March 2, at 8 p.m., Fishman adds the Hudson Opera House to this esteemed list. The historic landmark, built in 1855, is one of the oldest surviving theaters in the country. In addition to the myriad of sounds his quartet will offer, Fishman’s storytelling panache will certainly resonate, commingling with the ghosts of fervent orators Henry Ward Beecher and Susan B. Anthony, who raised the rafters of the Hudson Opera House in bygone days.
Fishman, whose Facebook page labels him a “Seeker of Ecstatic Truth and Self-Employed Artist,” is aiming for a similarly enlivening experience. “I take seriously my role not only as an entertainer,” he says, “but as the facilitator of an experience that has (spiritual) potential. I want to connect — with the musicians I’m performing with, with the audience, with myself. It’s what I’m after. To me, it’s a form of religion.”
To connect to Hudson audiences, Fishman will draw from his impressive catalog of ten CDs, which range from introspective singer-songwriter fare to herky-jerky funk to gypsy jazz to the American Songbook. What he’s most excited about, however, is a mini-set of material penned by his new obsession: 1950s outsider artist Connie Converse, a Mount Holyoke star student who dropped out to become a self-taught songwriter in Manhattan, was subsequently ignored, and disappeared in 1974.
“I could talk for hours about her,” Fishman says. “She wrote amazing music in total obscurity in the 50s. Her tapes were just recently discovered and put out on CD. When I first heard her songs, I said, ‘This is a hoax. There’s no way this music was written in the 50s. There’s no frame of reference for it.’ But it sounds familiar somehow. I’ve created a multimedia show about her (‘A Star Has Burnt My Eye: The Strange Case of Connie Converse’), my connection to her, why she’s important, and how I relate to her as a fellow DIY person not embraced by the mainstream. Our music doesn’t conform to terms most people use to describe music. I’m really looking forward to playing her songs.”
Fishman describes Converse’s material as, “an odd combination of American vernacular music… I can hear Hoagy Carmichael, the Carter Family, but there are also strains of art music forms and atonal stuff, and structurally all the songs are very eccentric; harmonically they’re strange but melodically they’re very simple, emotionally intimate.”
When informed he’s also describing his own music, he laughs. Yet, those same qualities — fierce individuality, embrace of varying, earthy music, damn-the-torpedoes riskiness, and underlying passion — have garnered Fishman much acclaim; The New York Times’ Stephen Holden has said, “Howard Fishman transcends time and idiom,” while illustrator Al Hirschfeld once quipped, “Best jazz I’ve heard since the 20s!” This kind of attention nets him interesting gigs, like a recent opportunity to score the obscure Buster Keaton film Frozen North with what he calls “folk punk.”
Fishman’s audiences have increased alongside the mounting accolades, drawn by his powerful commitment to showmanship and an increasingly rich repertoire of both original and sourced material. Longtime fans, befuddled by endless options in their daily lives, appreciate his “chef’s choice” approach, happy with anything he serves up, whether it’s a multi-media extravaganza, a New Orleans-style brass band, or, as is the case at Hudson Opera House, a streamlined quartet of electric guitar, violin, double bass, and trombone. Whatever this Seeker of Ecstatic Truth chooses to play, you can bet the spirit will rise from the Hudson Opera House floorboards once again, and the joint will rock. —Robert Burke Warren
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Deee-Lucius: A Cult Fave Comes to the Berkshires
When Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig sing together in their Brooklyn-based band Lucius, they create a third being, an ethereal presence greater than the sum of its parts, a voice haunting, playful, yearning, and sexy. Depending on the song, that voice can conjure kohl-eyed, bee-hived 1960s girl groups, Cocteau Twins otherworldliness, or high lonesome Americana. Lucius brings this eclectic, rousing omnipop, delivered with old-school theatrical style, to The Log at Williams College on Saturday, February 23, at 8 p.m. (NOTE: This performance has just sold out. A wait list is available, but if you can’t get in you’ll have a chance to seem them in June at MASS MoCA’s Solid Sound Festival.)
Rural Intelligence caught up with the singing-songwriting front women via cellphone, while they were in a Philadelphia restaurant, flush from a sold-out night at the club Milkboy. Wolfe and Laissig, with cohorts Danny Molad, Peter Lalish, and Andrew Burri, were preparing to jump into their tour van, named “Tim,” to barnstorm another town en route to Berkshire County. The gals scamper outside to discuss Lucius’ acclaimed eponymous EP, their viral NPR Tiny Desk Concert, and fans chiming in on the choruses during shows. Like the Lucius stage act, in which neither woman ever sings solo, they conduct themselves as one, finishing each other’s sentences, keeping to a well-honed story, and laughing easily. The following quotes are attributed to “they” because, as with the Lucius listening experience, tweezing the two women apart, especially via AT&T, is nigh impossible.
They met as voice majors at Boston’s Berklee College of Music in 2005, soon developing a writing partnership. When I ask about previous musical exploits, they say, haltingly, “Lucius is our baby… our first and only.” Yet, as in music, the pauses are as telling as the notes.The official bio is pithy and mysterious, presenting the delicious, economical notion that they burst fully formed like twin Athenas from the head of Zeus into the hipsterdom of Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. Ensconced with eight musician roommates in a haunted Victorian house, they wrote much of their EP, conceived a visual style of big hair bows, pencil skirts, and ruby lips, and attracted top-drawer producer Tony Berg (Beck, Aimee Mann). In short order, they beguiled everyone from The New York Times to Seventeen. End of beginning of story. The mighty Google, however, reveals not only a 2009 incarnation of the band and an out-of-print debut CD, but also Jess Wolfe’s impressive audition for season nine of American Idol. (She got a “Golden Ticket” to LA.) A-ha.
All of the above helps explain Wolfe’s and Laissig’s vocal, instrumental, and performing chops, beyond the ken of the usual indie act. Nothing, however, explains the drama of their combined voices. “We sound completely different when we sing separately,” they say, “but when we sing together it sounds like a distinct entity.” The seamlessness is both sonically and visually mesmerizing. “We always sing together, and we’ve grown familiar with each other’s voices and intuitions.” Even in the studio, like Simon & Garfunkel before them, they sing in tandem into one microphone.
And they are showfolk, moving with rock n’ roll grace before a crackerjack band of guys sporting bow ties, matching white shirts, ample facial hair, and suspenders, neighbors who “just showed up” when “everything fell into place.” Curvy Wolfe and willowy Laissig deck themselves out in striking, conspicuously identical, self-altered clothes, vintage or off-the-rack from H & M. They invoke the Shangri-La’s one minute — especially in their top-notch video for “Turn It Around” — and reverb-drenched 80s balladry the next, then slide-guitar filled, futuro-roots-rock.
Although Wolfe and Laissig leapfrog stylistically, the through-line in Lucius’ oeuvre is hooks. Increasingly, audiences are singing along. “It’s awesome,” the gals say. “Onstage, we look at each other with a smile in our eyes. It’s an incredible feeling.” When I ask if recent song placements in Grey’s Anatomy and MTV’s Catfish bring folks out, they say yes, but nothing compares, exposure-wise, to the Tiny Desk Concert. In this unamplified bravura performance amid NPR’s Bob Boilen’s office clutter, they employed Boilen’s niece’s toys as percussion instruments, and lit up the room with megawatt charisma and tantalizing “who are these women?” mystery. As Lucius ascends, that mystery may fall away, but the songs and the style will carry these ambitious ladies through. See them in a small place while you can. —Robert Burke Warren
The Solid Sound Festival
MASS MoCA, North Adams
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Covering Duncan: Sheik At Infinity Hall
If you prefer your love odes on the bittersweet side, Duncan Sheik is your man, and his upcoming Valentine’s Day show at Infinity Hall is just the ticket for you and your date — or just you and a fantasy one. “I’ve written a lot of songs that are romantically themed,” says the singer-songwriter and Tony-winning composer of rock musical phenomenon Spring Awakening. “Although it’s mostly doomed romance,” he laughs. “I like there to be a twist in the lyric, not have it be so on the nose.” At the suggestion of an all-gloomy-ballads evening for heartbroken divorcees, he laughs again, even harder. He is a jolly man, a Buddhist with a wicked sense of humor, taking time out from helping his mother buy a 1911 Steinway piano to talk to Rural Intelligence about his remarkable, still unfolding career. What might fans expect on February 14, when he treads the boards of the esteemed Norfolk, CT, venue for the first time?
Sheik will be fronting what he half-jokingly calls his “power trio.” In addition to dipping into his extensive back catalog of smart pop, of which 1996 megahit “Barely Breathing” (55 weeks on the charts!) is but one exalted example, Sheik promises “theater things.” He’s referring not only to Spring Awakening, but also his gorgeous concept album Whisper House (click title for stunning video) and Alice By Heart, his adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written with librettist/lyricist Steven Sater, coauthor of Spring Awakening and other musical theater projects; perhaps he’ll even essay “Die Yuppie Scum” from the all-synthesizer score to the upcoming musical version of American Psycho. (So romantic!)
He promises covers drawn from his excellent 2011 disc Covers 80’s. On this critically lauded, largely acoustic album, Sheik celebrates his anglophile fanboy tendencies by revivifying MTV-era tunes from Ole Blighty, replacing dated production baggage with spare arrangements. With loving care and nary a drum machine, he offers up a stirring, string-drenched version of Depeche Mode’s “Stripped.” Covers 80’s also features campfire singalong-y renditions of The Blue Nile’s “Stay,” Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You Make It,” and Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost In You.”
Although “Barely Breathing” was one of the biggest hits of the 90s, Sheik’s heart clearly belongs to the Me Decade. “My musical upbringing was David Sylvian, Cocteau Twins, Talk Talk; I remember going to see The Cure in 1985 in Washington D.C., and I don’t remember hearing a word of what Robert Smith said, but they were just so fucking cool, I was like, ‘OK, I’m in.’”
Thanks to his success as a Broadway and film composer, Sheik says, he’s still able to make albums. “I had a big hit, but between ’98 and 2006 — those were tough years for me; the music business transformed in such a radical way, and I didn’t know if I could keep being a songwriter who makes records. Luckily, Spring Awakening allowed me to remain a recording artist. Frankly, I feel if I’m on earth to do anything, it’s to write songs and move people in some fashion with that work.”
To that end, Infinity Hall attendees will hear tunes from a forthcoming Duncan Sheik album. “I’ll play some brand, brand new material, unreleased. My audience, God love ‘em, they’ve heard me play my old songs too many times. They’d like to hear some new material.” Among the fresh songs is timely “Lay Down Your Weapons,” which Sheik says he’ll soon offer as a free download. “I played that on tour in Texas and had to explain that it’s a metaphor, but it’s also in response to the craziness that’s going on. I’ve spent a lot of time in Asia and Europe, where the idea of a normal citizen owning a gun is anathema.”
Few performers can claim such a diverse audience as Sheik’s; Spring Awakening brings in modern-day high schoolers, his heavily-80’s-influenced catalog hooks the 40-somethings, and theater geeks turn out to see one of their own. They all fascinate him. “I’ve realized,” he says, with yet another laugh, “because of social media, there’s no rhyme or reason to my fan base, no particular aesthetic about them at all, it’s a completely eccentric, eclectic group. I can’t figure it out. I’m not in with the cool kids, but I love it. Once in a while you’ll have somebody who looks like they might go to a Grizzly Bear concert, but because I had a Top 40 hit out of the box, the Pitchfork crowd never gives me any love. But I’ve got everybody else. So I run with it.” —Robert Burke Warren
Infinity Music Hall
Thursday, February 14 @ 8 p.m.
20 Greenwoods Road West
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Habitat for Harmony
Photos of Melissa Auf Der Maur by George Folk; Tommy Stinsom by Steven Cohen for Spinner; Meshell Ndegeocello, courtesy of www.meshell.com; Rapustina by James Jackson
When three internationally acclaimed, world-traveled rock star bassists and a cellist picked the same ten-by-five block town — Hudson, NY— as the place to finally put down roots and join a community, you know something’s afoot. When civic love inspires them to join forces to make life better for the least fortunate in their neighborhood, attention must be paid.
Thus it is with Home Bass: 4 Strings, 4 Hearts for Habitat, a concert/cabaret event on January 27, 2013, at Helsinki Hudson. Hosted by comely rock goddess Melissa Auf der Maur (Hole/Smashing Pumpkins), with multi-Grammy nominee Meshell Ndegeocello, “personification of rock n’ roll” Tommy Stinson (The Replacements/Guns ‘N’ Roses), and beguiling cello maven Melora Creager (Rasputina), Home Bass will honor and benefit Habitat for Humanity’s Columbia County chapter and its innovative Columbia Passive Townhouses, which offer affordable, sensible housing for low-income families. (Passive Townhouses reduce their owners’ energy consumption and costs by 90%.)
“Hudson is the first place I feel at home,” says Auf der Maur, a Montreal native. Prior to moving to Hudson in 2008, she’d never spent more than one year as an adult in a single place. Now she plans to raise her fourteen-month-old daughter in Hudson. “Hudson made me fall in love with this country and all its possibilities,” she says.
Locals already know flame-haired Auf der Maur, also a noted photographer, as creative director for the multi-purpose venue Basilica Hudson (left), recent hot spot for concerts, film screenings, art installations, and the Ramp Fest. The former 19th century glue factory, which Auf der Maur and her filmmaker husband Tony Stone took over in 2011, ushered a new chapter into her life: “The Basilica is an opportunity for me to offer the community something, and also grow as an artist and a mother.” The success of the Basilica’s mission as a locus for inclusive, public good caught the attention of Columbia Habitat. They invited Auf der Maur to join the board. Although she’d supported environmental and social causes in Quebec, the confluence of nesting, motherhood, and board membership fired her up, revealing her roots as the daughter of the late Nick Auf der Maur, outspoken Canadian writer and politician.
“In the civilized world you wouldn’t think housing was such a crisis,” she says. “Even though Hudson’s economy has boomed in the last ten years, some people are trapped in the cycle of federally subsidized housing, which is corrupt. They’re not benefitting from the development. I felt it was my duty to find out who these families were, and see how I could help. Being a mother, you want to pave a way of progress for your child. Habitat for Humanity is helping these families get ahead.”
Home Bass is the brainchild of Helsinki co-owner Marc Schafler, who previously booked the participants as solo acts. He recognized “strong community spirit” in all of them (both Stinson and Ndegeocello are noted activists). “Tommy’s a cool cat, a real sweetheart,” he says, “and any opportunity to get Meshell into the club… she’s phenomenal.” When he heard Auf der Maur had joined Columbia Habitat, a flashpot went off in his head. His nutty dream of a “bass player fest” grew wings.
“Columbia Habitat is right in line with Helsinki’s mission statement,” he says, “which is ‘to create a shared community of people who have found a home and refuge.’ This event is a wonderful antidote to feeling overwhelmed by what you can’t do in the world. Helping like this is something you can do.” Helsinki Hudson, in fact, sits between two Columbia Habitat buildings, a tangible reminder of goodwill made manifest. “I can look out my window and see the fruits of their labors.”
“When Melissa contacted me, I said, ‘I’m in!,” says Stinson, a Minneapolis native, who moved to Hudson with his wife and young daughter, after spending fifteen years in Los Angeles and a brief period outside Philadelphia. “I’ve been wanting to hook up and do something with all these bass players for a while. Meshell lives right down the street from me. It’s a great vibrant community.” Stinson hints that he may be debuting his brand-new country band, Cowboys & the Campfire, at the Home Bass concert. “I never thought I’d get into country,” says the Guns n’ Roses bassist, “but Hudson has broadened my musical palette.”
Auf der Maur is noncommittal about what else attendees can expect from this once-in-a-lifetime convergence of four-string legends. She hinted at selections from Joy Division, Nancy Sinatra, and maybe even twin-bass anthem “Kill Your Television” by 90s rockers Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. Although she shot down the suggestion of Spinal Tap’s triple bass ode “Big Bottom,” rest assured: both the bottom and the heart at Home Bass will be very, very big. —Robert Burke Warren and Holly George Warren(0) Comments
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The Grand Slambovians and Darlingside: The Twain Shall Meet
Americana road warriors The Grand Slambovians (left) and string-band pop upstarts Darlingside (right) are excited to share the bill at the esteemed Norfolk, CT venue Infinity Hall, in part because each band reveres the other, but also because of Mark Twain. Legend has it the Bard of American Letters appeared on the same stage in the Gay Nineties (the century before last’s Gay Nineties), when the icon undertook speaking tours to pay off debts, and the building was a combination theater, saloon, and barbershop known as the Norfolk Opera House.
“You’re kidding!” says Slambovians’ frontman, guitarist, and main songwriter Joziah Longo from his home in Cold Spring, NY. Although his band is a favorite at Infinity Hall, he’s only just learned that Twain tread the one-hundred-twenty-year-old floorboards. “That’ll give a certain traction to the evening,” he says.
“Oh my goodness,” laughs Auyon Mukharji, violinist/mandolinist/singer for Massachusetts-and-Maine-based Darlingside. “We can say Mark Twain opened for us.”
One can only wonder what the erstwhile Samuel Clemens would make of these two acts, but one thing’s for sure: he’d recognize most of the instruments they wield. The Grand Slambovians, entering their fifteenth year as the self-professed “Hillbilly Pink Floyd,” rely heavily on acoustic guitar, mandolin, and accordion to create “melodic avant folk.” This mix, honed over the course of countless tours, numerous “Grand Slambovian Extra-Terrestrial Hillbilly Pirate Balls,” and four studio CDs, has earned the quartet a reputation as a must-see rock and roll circus.
Similarly, Darlingside showcases a unique blend of cello, violin, mandolin, electric bass, guitar, drums, and lush, beguiling five-part harmonies reminiscent of everything from choral music to the Beach Boys to vocal jazz. Riding atop it all is the one-two punch of bassist David Senft’s pure rock tenor and guitarist Don Mitchell’s edgy croon, each singing plaintive, exuberant songs of the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons variety. In addition to quickly developing an ardent following at east coast colleges and clubs, Darlingside’s homemade EP nabbed them L.A. producer Nathaniel Kunkel (Sting, Maroon 5, Crosby/Nash). Impressed, Kunkel flew east and turned their Massachusetts home into a studio, capturing the band’s essence on their well received 2012 debut CD Pilot Machines. A video of Pilot Machines’ gorgeous ballad “The Ancestor” recently garnered a “staff pick” on Vimeo.
For both groups, however, the deepest desire is to hit the stage and dazzle the people. In an ever-more synthetic, sample-and-Autotune-driven age, both The Grand Slambovians and Darlingside are old-school showfolk. “What we’re most proud of is our live show,” says Mukharji, who earned a Watson fellowship to study mandolin and lute in Turkey, Brazil, and Ireland, after which he opted for a rock band over a career in medicine. “We’re five really close friends from school and we still really like each other, which is remarkable considering how much time we spend together.”
Not surprisingly, both bands move lots of merch, mostly at shows, when fans both new and old simply must have a tangible souvenir of a transcendent experience. In addition to the usual CDs and DVDs, the Slambovians offer coffee and artisanal chocolate, while Darlingside, despite coming of age in the download era, takes pride in the self-designed, visually appealing Pilot Machines. “We spent a lot of time putting it together,” says Mukharji.
The Grand Slambovians and Darlingside first crossed paths at the recent Middletown, CT “Midnight on Main” New Year’s Eve event, and a mutual admiration society was born. “Darlingside’s very visual,” says the flamboyant Longo, whose glammy stage attire rivals Captain Jack Sparrow on some nights, top-hatted Marc Bolan on others. “And I really want to bring some new blood in.” Although the Slambovians rarely use opening acts, they enthusiastically agreed to a double bill.
Infinity Hall’s entertainment director Jack Forchette, onetime counsel to Janis Joplin, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Grateful Dead, is thrilled that “organic” acts like the Grand Slambovians (“They’re tremendous,” he says) and Darlingside (“I love to give young bands a shot”) are still packing them in. For him, it’s vindication. Undeterred by the rising number of couch potatoes, he took over Infinity Hall in 2008, intent on creating a dream venue for both artists and live music fans. Judging from recent bookings like Tori Amos, Keb’ Mo, Cowboy Junkies, and Wilson Phillips, all of which are part of the PBS series Infinity Hall Live, he has succeeded.
So don’t be surprised if, while enjoying top-notch troubadours The Grand Slambovians and Darlingside at this august venue, you catch sight of a handlebar-mustachioed ghost, bobbing his head and drawling, “Rumors of the death of live music are greatly exaggerated.”— Robert Burke Warren
Danglingside and The Grand Slambovians
January 12 @ 8 p.m.
Infinity Music Hall & Bistro
20 Greenwoods Road West
Norfolk, CT 06058
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A Rhinebeck Rocker’s Christmas
Grammy and Golden Globe-nominated singer-songwriter-guitarist Marshall Crenshaw, whose songs have been covered by Bette Midler, Ronnie Spector, and Top 40 hitmakers the Gin Blossoms, is digging through the “Christmas Section” of his massive LP collection. The record aficionado, who shares his wide-ranging assortment of music on New York City’s WFUV radio show, The Bottomless Pit (Saturdays at 10 p.m.), is searching for one of his favorite Yuletide albums.
“Let’s see,” he says. “Phil Spector… Jim Nabors…”
Jim Nabors? Gomer Pyle recorded a Christmas album?
But that’s not the gem. “Ah, here it is!” the Rhinebeck resident says. “ ‘A Toast to Christmas With the Singing Glasses’ by Gloria Parker, as featured in Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose. She fills crystal glasses with water and plays them with her fingertips, kind of like an organ. The record’s from the 80s, and it’s got a really cheesy drum machine on it. I hate those things, but I love this record. I always play this one. Gets me in the spirit.”
Crenshaw’s got a lot to celebrate this season. After a career that began with portraying John Lennon in a tour of Beatlemania, followed by 13 acclaimed albums on seven different labels through more than thirty years, interspersed with acting (Buddy Holly in La Bamba) and writing a book (Hollywood Rock), Crenshaw decided to pioneer an innovative method of getting his new, self-produced I Don’t See You Laughing Now to fans. First off, it’s a vinyl record, a 45 RPM, three-song EP, available as part of a subscription service funded entirely by fans via a wildly successful 2012 Kickstarter campaign. (He raised $33,000, way above his target.) For $24.25, Crenshaw himself will mail subscribers the handsomely packaged (readable liner notes!) I Don’t See You Laughing Now EP, plus a download code; two more three-song EPs will be delivered over the course of 2013. Crenshaw couldn’t be happier about eliminating the record company middleman. Like Santa and his elves, he and his two kids pack up the merchandise in their Rhinebeck home, not far from where the whole family recently took part in the Sinterklaas Festival. “I love the parade,” says Crenshaw of the homespun, thrillingly spooky celebration. “It’s a worthy thing. Rhinebeck is like Mayberry.”
When the Crenshaws decorated their tree this year, they actually drank eggnog, cracked walnuts and listened to LPs as a family, old school-style. “I got a buzz from that,” he says. But the Crenshaws’ taste is not the usual, overplayed fare. “When I heard the Drifters’ ‘White Christmas’ on Rhythm & Blues Christmas,” Crenshaw says, “it set me on a path to find interesting Christmas music, like Jimmy Smith’s Christmas 64.”
From another ardent record collector, Crenshaw discovered a bawdy classic. “I really like ‘Hang Your Balls On the Christmas Tree’ by Kay Martin and her Body Guards.’” Almost NSFW, but not quite.
“My favorite Christmas song of all time, one of the few that still grabs me emotionally, is the Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York.’ Whenever I hear that song, it puts me in a Christmas frame of mind. That’s the one. I can do without most of them, but that’s pretty beautiful.”
What about Yuletide movies?
“A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim — I think that’s really the best one. I can’t believe it’s not on TV every year. And I saw It’s A Wonderful Life for the first time when I was in Beatlemania in 1979. A guy in the show was one of the first people I knew with a VCR, and he’d taped a bad print off a TV station at 3 a.m. It was still obscure, a cult item. There was a time when you had to seek that thing out.”
“I’ve got a dark sense of humor, so I really like the Christmas with the Lettermans, David Letterman’s early 80s satire of those schmaltzy Christmas specials we all remember if we’re Baby Boomers. Those are worth watching.”
And with that, Marshall Crenshaw says, “Be well,” and he’s back to prepping for some shows to promote I Don’t See You Laughing Now, and to pulling more underrated, should-be classics from his “Christmas Records” shelf to share with family, friends, and fans. —Robert Burke Warren(0) Comments
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Not Just a Fluke: Sheffield Shop Perfects the Ukulele
The Stradivari family has the violin. The Gibsons have the guitar. For the Webb family in Sheffield, while the family business has yet to hit the 20-year mark, it seems they have cornered the fast-growing ukulele market, which is beginning to enjoy celebrity status thanks to the likes of Bette Midler and William H. Macy (seen here strumming away on Oprah). The Magic Fluke Company, founded in 1999 by husband and wife team Dale and Phyllis Webb, is dedicated to perfecting the most humble of string instruments. Named after the fluke, the company’s slightly larger, 15-fret signature redesign of the traditional ukulele, it’s no fluke that the company is the largest national manufacturer of the endearing instrument (competing with companies in China and Taiwan), producing at least 100 ukuleles per week, 5,000 per year, with nearly 20 percent of this number flying out of The Magic Fluke’s timber frame headquarters during the holiday season alone.
The wheels began to turn in the mid 1990s when Phyllis’s brother “Jumpin” Jim Beloff, who at the time worked in sales for Billboard Music, discovered a vintage Martin ukulele at a Pasadena flea market, only to discover that there were very few songbooks to help him on his quest to master the instrument. Beloff took matters into his own hands and wrote instructional books for ukulele novices. Once that hurdle was conquered, that’s when he approached his sister and her husband, a composites engineer “looking for an out,” about fiddling around with creating an everybody-friendly ukulele.
“It was a fun project at the time,” Dale said while overseeing the quiet production floor. “There was very little uke activity going on at the time. So we developed some prototypes and took them to the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) trade show in Anaheim. We came back with so many orders, it was surreal. We haven’t missed a trade show since. The growth has been constant.”
The sleek design of the company’s flukes and fleas (the fluke’s more compact little brother) begins with the compact (and inadvertently cute) molded body made of an acoustically hospitable composite material. The hardwood sound board, which is available in solid colors with enticing names like Bubblegum Pink and Poiple as well as laser cut designs such as Tiki and Atomic, is topped by a solid maple (or walnut) neck and a laminate birch top. The instruments come into the shop as veritable puzzle pieces. It is the crew at The Magic Fluke Co. who give the little beauties their visual charm as well as their bright, cheery tone. And for as simple as the manufacturing process seems, Dale is clear that a lot of thought went into sourcing these humble harmony-makers.
“The parts are picked and sourced as locally as possible,” he says. “The injection molding is done in Connecticut, and a lot of the wood comes from the family property. Everything is U.S.A. Made.”
Ironically, the biggest market for flukes and fleas is Asia, specifically South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, and Singapore, where YouTubing one’s ukulele skills is a somewhat popular practice. And young voyeurs are not the only ones smitten with the high strung instrument that was a childhood first for music legends like Johnny Winter, Don Henley, and Tony Visconti. Rocker Eddie Vedder released “Ukulele Songs” in May 2011, a haunting collection of low-toned lullabies made sweet by the uke’s plucky, pure chords. In fact, the Webbs got to tag along with Jumpin’ Jim when he was invited backstage after one of Vedder’s shows for the uke tour. In that moment, it was the big wave sound rock star who bared his humility.
“It was amazing to see how excited Eddie was to met my brother,” Phyllis says. “He seemed to really believe in what Jim had done, and in the instrument itself.”
The Magic Fluke has also enjoyed the limelight with Bette Midler. The custom-designed pink pineapple flea adorned with pink and clear Swarovski crystals, which nearly cleared $9,000 in a Julien’s auction, was used by the Broadway baby during her two year stint (2008-2010) performing “The Showgirl Must Go On” at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas.
Closer to home, The Magic Fluke Co. has encouraged a surge of eager students of all ages who have adopted the simplicity and portability of flukes and fleas. Local musician Rob Sanzone, who also constructs ukuleles at the shop, has formed the Berkshire Ukelele Band (BUB), which is open to players of all ages and skill levels, and meets every Tuesday night at the Berkshire South Regional Community Center. He says that he sees anywhere from 35 to 40 players a week during the winter months, and that the band has begun to perform at smaller venues such as community suppers and area music fundraisers. To Phyllis, this kind of involvement is exactly what the ukulele is supposed to inspire.
“It really creates community,” she says. “It takes people off the computers and brings families together. It’s easy to bring along while camping and traveling. In fact, we shipped one out to a fellow who was going to South America for a year but couldn’t lug his guitar down there. The ukulele brings music anywhere, for anyone.” —Nichole Dupont
The Magic Fluke Company
292 South Main Street
Sheffield, MA 01257
Open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
There will be a special open house on Saturday, Dec. 8 and Dec. 15, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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Simone Felice’s Happy Days
It’s been eight months of traversing the globe for musician Simone Felice, all in support of his eponymous, moody folk debut album. Even so, the singer-songwriter-author and Catskills resident says he’ll approach his December 7 performance at Helsinki Hudson, the first of two back in home territory, “like it’s my last night on Earth.” (The second show will be at the historic Infinity Hall in Norfolk on December 27.)
He’s not mincing words. Felice is one lucky man. The 36-year-old has danced with death not just once, but twice. After a brain aneurysm at age 12 rendered him clinically deceased for several minutes, he made a miraculous recovery, growing to manhood in Palenville, NY, and, understandably, burning the candle at both ends. In his early twenties he published two novellas and a volume of poetry, creating a stir at Manhattan’s Nuyorican Poets Café. In 2006, he and brothers, Ian and James, formed the celebrated, rollicking roots-rock quintet The Felice Brothers, touring the world and tearing up stages at large musical gatherings such as Bonnaroo , Mountain Jam, and the Newport Folk Festival. Perhaps owing to his early brush with death, Simone’s own compositions remain some of The Felice Brothers’ darkest, yet celebratory songs. He left amicably in 2009, released two CDs as half of The Duke & The King, and, in 2010, Felice almost died again from a congenital heart ailment.
“I have a mechanical valve in my heart,” he explains. After emergency surgery, he got what he calls a “carbon replacement” for his aorta. “I can hear it ticking even now as we speak. Always reminding me I’m here on shore leave.” He laughs. “Our last hour’s not revealed. So I try to be thankful every day.” Within two weeks of his operation, he was back onstage with his brothers at Pete Seeger’s annual Clearwater Festival in Croton Point, NY. The next month his daughter, Pearl, was born. Soon thereafter, he began work on Simone Felice.
To capture the rough-hewn sounds in his head, Felice recorded in his barn attic, a church, and the rural Greene County school auditorium where he spent his “juvenile delinquent” years. For opening track “Hey Bobby Ray,” he brought in Catskill High School’s all-girl choir the Trebleaires, casting them as a “ghost chorus” offering hope to the song’s doomed protagonist. As with his shadow-inspired Felice Brothers material, he offers glimpses of the “other side” alongside a shimmering thread of optimism. Other Simone Felice guests include current neo-folk superstars Mumford & Sons – with whom he toured this year – and his faithful brothers.
Felice says he’ll bring his core band of violinist-vocalist Simi Stone and upright bassist John Luther to Helsinki Hudson, and, as this is something of a hometown gig, “special guests” are likely to appear. “Hudson was one of the first towns my brothers and I started busking in,” Felice says, relaxing after raking leaves with Pearl. “That’s how The Felice Brothers started out. We played in the streets of Hudson, then we took the train to New York City, played in the subway. This is my first time headlining in Hudson, so it’s like a full circle from where I started out.”
He’s amazed at the revitalization of the town. “In the 80s, when I was in school, you wouldn’t ever go to Hudson, because there was a stabbing or a shooting almost every day. It was like Bed Stuy.”
The December 7 and 27 gigs will be “a bookend” to a remarkable year for Felice; in addition to his debut album, his first novel, Black Jesus, was published (“Lyrical, spare, and resonant.” says Publishers Weekly). When asked to name a highlight of 2012, he cites his participation in Mumford & Sons’ “Gentlemen of the Road” summer festival in Portland, Maine: “They asked me to come up and sing The Band’s “The Weight” in front of 15,000 people. After that, I was feeling really high from the music and I went and jumped in the ocean by myself. I looked at the moon and I felt like, ‘Life is all right.’ Every day I pinch myself and say ‘Wow, this is how I make a living and take care of my baby. I get to live my dream and be a poet and a songwriter.’ I couldn’t ask for more than that. It’s a real blessing.” —Robert Burke Warren and Holly George-WarrenComments
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Cool Brit Gets Blown Around by the Winds of America
Longtime rock music fans may remember England’s whiskey voiced Graham Parker and his group, the Rumour—an ensemble equally adept at Motown-ish rave-ups, reggae, and Dylanesque folk rock — for their 1979 hit album, Squeezing Out Sparks, which yielded the catchy soul-pop single “Local Girls.” Now a Hudson Valley resident, Parker has continued to release albums over the years, either solo or with the Saratoga Springs-based band, The Figgs. But in 2011, he reached out to his former band mates in the Rumour to record together for the first time in 31 years. Coincidentally, one of Parker’s biggest fans, director/writer/producer Judd Apatow just happened to contact the singer-songwriter around the same time. Would he be interested in acting in his new movie, This Is 40, starring Paul Rudd? So after finishing Three Chords Good at Hurley, New York’s Dreamland Studio last summer, Parker and the Rumour reconvened in Hollywood. And now they are kicking off the Three Chords Good/This Is 40 tour back in home territory, barnstorming the Bardavon in Poughkeepsie on November 25.
As it has been for many recently, storms seem to be a leitmotif in Parker’s recent life. But it can also be heard in his recent musical output. One of the best songs on the brilliant new album, “Stop Cryin’ About the Rain,” was inspired by Tropical Storm Irene. Last year, Parker had to flee the tempest via limo to fly to L.A. to appear in This Is 40. “I called the driver and said, ‘Meet me on the other side of the downed tree,’” Parker recalls. While doing press for Three Chords Good in October, he lost phone and Internet service due to Superstorm Sandy, sending him to a café with power and WiFi to conduct business. Two days later, after a radio show in Virginia, the gas shortage stranded him in Paramus, New Jersey. Which was definitely a nadir of sorts.
But the show must go on, and Parker is looking forward to a show more than usual. Playing again with pub-rock veterans the Rumour has been energizing. “We spent most of the time laughing at the weirdness of it all, after a gap of over 30 years,” he says. “Somehow we also recorded thirteen songs in nine days. Still don’t know how.” Parker and the Rumour will also be featured on This Is 40‘s soundtrack album, coming from Capitol Records in December.
Three Chords Good recalls Parker’s seminal 1976 debut LP, Howlin’ Wind, which first launched the singer-songwriter as a punk update on the whole “angry young man” tradition. As punk flamed and pub rock waned, Graham Parker & the Rumour took the best of both worlds, emerging as England’s Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, the kind of act no one wanted to follow. After five studio LPs and five riveting live releases, Parker and the band split in 1980.
With as much energy as those albums, Three Chords Good also draws on Parker’s troubadour years, with an acoustic guitar and an aching vulnerability creeping into the proceedings. The Rumour, all of whom have kept busy over the years (bassist Andrew Bodnar moonlights as a librarian), keep everything chugging along with a loose confidence and effortless bonhomie, recalling The Band at its most cohesive. Particularly striking is the lyrical grace of soulful new single “Long Emotional Ride.” “I never took one word of advice, never in my whole life,” Parker sings over a smooth groove. “But now I want to hear what other people say, whether it’s wrong or it’s right.”
When asked by Rolling Stone why he cast Graham Parker in This Is 40, Apatow said, “We needed someone who’s amazing – but also struggling to sell records. On top of that, we needed someone who has a great sense of humor. And Graham has been very funny as an actor – as I somehow knew he would be – and when he plays, he’s better than ever.”
Although he’s notoriously self-effacing, Parker agrees with that assessment. “We’re better musicians now,” he says. “The tour will not be so much like a runaway train.” But it will be rocking, rest assured: “It’s safe to say the lads and I are excited about having a bash onstage again.” – Robert Burke Warren and Holly George-Warren
Graham Parker & the Rumour
Three Chords Good/This Is 40 Tour
35 Market Street, Poughkeepsie, NY
Sunday November 25th, 7 p.m.
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Music: Here Comes Trouble
If you want something done right, do it yourself. And if you can’t do it yourself, get your Talmudic sisters to help you. This seems to be the motto held by the many women who appear in the scrolls of the Torah. Matriarchs, seductresses, prophets, and mothers line up one by one in fearsome succession to challenge the laws and men, who would have otherwise cast them away into the obscure corners of apocryphal writings. Not a chance, if Alicia Jo Rabins has anything to say about it (actually she has a lot to say about it). The Brooklyn-based poet/singer/songwriter/violinist has given voice to the powerful women of old with her innovative Girls In Trouble ongoing art-rock song cycle (and full band), which pays homage to the dark stories of Biblical women and their struggles. Rabins is bringing Girls In Trouble to Great Barrington, this Saturday, October 27, at Hevreh. And while her subject matter may seem a bit sectatrian for iconocalstic Berkshire audiences, Rabins promises that there is a kernel of wisdom in her music for everyone – Kosher and non-, old and young, Jew and Gentile, intellectual and musical.
“When we play rock clubs I often let the songs be mythical stories without specifying the source material,” she says. “It’s always nice when we play synagogues because (since I do have a Masters in Jewish Studies and a lot of years studying and teaching texts) I can really talk about the Torah texts, which is always nice.”
Rabins wasn’t always a scholar. In fact, her origins as a musician reach back to the violin, which she picked up at the age of three. Several years and many Bach concertos later, she packed her bags for Jerusalem where she dove into studying the Torah and Kabbalah and found herself enmeshed in the tales of the women within them. After two years, Rabins returned to the states and made a leap of faith and spirituality, combining the stories now burned in her brain with her second love, fiddle music, a love she nurtured just a few short miles away in Northampton, where she was a founding member of The Mammals, that beloved string band that often pays a visit to Becket’s Dream Away Lodge, where she and her husband, Girls In Trouble bassist Aaron Hartman, were married, a ceremony she describes as “divine.”
Naturally, divinity is front-and-center in Rabins’ music. Light fiddle plucking combines with her lilting vocals to create a playlist of lullabies. Yet, while the songs themselves are musically pleasant, the subject matter is heavy with heartbreak, danger, and Biblical-age politics. The group’s latest release, Half You Half Me (JDub Records, 2011), includes “DNA”, a song about wronged sisters Leah and Rachel of the book of Genesis. The lyrics—“Some sisters stay home and some sisters leave/Some sisters get what the other one needs/Some sisters blossom and some sisters bleed” – are set to joyous string sounds and a vibrant percussion and Rabins’ crystalline voice (reminiscent of The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan). This intense, religiously-laden mix is exactly the kind of show Arlene Schiff, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires (the event’s co-sponsor), is always on the lookout for to bring to the region’s diverse audience.
“I decided to bring Girls In Trouble to the Berkshires because Alicia offers a unique, musical insight into the women of the Torah, and after listening to her music online I thought she would be a draw,” she says. “Shimon Ben Shir Group is the group who performed at Hevreh last year. The purpose of these concerts is to offer the community an opportunity to experience the wide variety of Jewish music and those who create it.”
After her show at Hevreh, Rabins is leaving Girls In Trouble behind, at least for a little while, to pursue a more modern subject. Beginning next month, she will hit the road with A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff, a one-woman rock opera/“musical essay” that “traces a year of obsession with Bernie Madoff to investigate the intersection of mysticism and finance, the inevitability of cycles, and the true meaning of wealth.” While the chasm between the childless Chana and the fraudulent stockbroker appears too wide and chronologically deep to cross, Rabins insists that there is a message in everything, especially if set to music.
“Well, I think a lot of being an artist is synthesizing worlds. But I also don’t feel like there’s much difference between music and spirituality, really,” she says. “So many people find or express their spirituality through music. They’re both intangible things about being alive, which are deeply human and impossible to put into words. To me they feel quite close.” —Nichole Dupont
Co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, Hevreh, and Congregation Ahavath Sholom(0) Comments
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Compagnie Käfig Thrills at Jacob’s Pillow
Photos by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow
What do you get when you cross a choreographer from Lyon trained in the circus and martial arts and experienced in hip hop with a group of street dancers who arose from the favelas of Rio De Janeiro? If the choreographer in question is Mourad Merzouki, artistic director of Compagnie Käfig, you get an evening of exhilarating, energetic, appealing, and clever dance that grabs your attention and holds it throughout a stunning display of what the body can do – particularly these eleven muscular, male bodies from Brazil.
If you have ever dismissed hip hop as lesser form of dance, undeserving of the concert hall stage, this is the program that will change your mind. Yes, there are the pyrotechnic handsprings, flips, inversions, arm balances, and headspins, along with the rhythmic popping, locking, and intensity that you expect from the genre. But these anticipated moves are presented within a context of sophisticated, surprising choreographic structure and winning warmth and humor in both of the evening’s two works. Lighting design by Yoann Tivoli; musical arrangements by AS’N; and stage design by Merzouki and Benjamin Lebreton also deserve recognition and plaudits for enhancing the performance.
The first piece, Correria, opens on a dark stage with a spotlight on three dancers on their backs, legs spinning in the air. The work is an exploration of running, and when other dancers circle the three in spotlight, they run like real people, not like dancers, with power and conviction. Throughout the piece the dancers run across the stage, run in place, run in space (held aloft in clever partnering), and run to the beat of other dancers lying on their stomachs and thumping out a rhythm in unison with their hands on the stage, or stomping it out with their feet – in one section, with extra feet, as a group of dancers use footed clubs to visually multiply their legs and astound the audience with their doubly fancy footwork.
The score aptly signals mood shifts and new vignettes, reaching its peak in one segment in which a single spotlit dancer busts his moves to a bit of opera overlaid with Brazilian beats. The piece ends with one of the more impishly charismatic dancers smiling slyly at the audience while he runs the fingers of one hand across the back of his other hand, a perfect tightly focused conclusion to a big dance.
Agwa begins on a stage set with cups stacked, seemingly at random – some low stacks, some high – which are then scattered as the dancers burst into movement. Then the magic occurs. As one dancer performs a solo, the others crawl across the floor in a line, magically gathering up the scattered cups while leaving behind 11 neat lines of cups, like some human landscape-grooming machine.
Then come multiple sequences of astounding movement in and around these arranged cups, with a tension arising from the ability of the dancers to control their swivels, flips, somersaults, and airborne barrel rolls without knocking a single cup out of its precise position. (This tension is all the more surprising since the audience knows the cups are plastic, not glass, yet we still hold our breath with every daredevil move.) In each row there is a cup of water, with a dramatic segment involving pouring the water from cup to cup. In the end, the dancers do get a much-deserved drink, but only after virtuosic displays of strength, surprising synchronization, and the loosest hips I’ve ever seen on the Pillow stage.
Receiving what may be the most enthusiastic applause – never mind a spontaneous standing ovation – that ever broke out at Jacob’s Pillow, the dancers of Compagnie Käfig could not stop dancing, giving round after round of curtain calls and solo displays of their individual skills. How refreshing to be able to sit back and simply enjoy dancers reveling in the rhythm and their physical prowess. It was a smart, engaging program that posed no intellectual, analytical demands on viewers, a crowd pleaser that never condescended or trespassed into the realm of vapid entertainment. —Bess Hochstein
Compagnie Käfig at Jacob’s Pillow
Ted Shawn Theatre
August 15 – 19 2012
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Trey McIntyre Project: Power and Grace
Photos courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow
In 2008, after 18 years of making dances for ballet companies across the globe, Trey McIntyre formed his own company, which debuted at Jacob’s Pillow to instant acclaim. His reputation has grown over the years, and the Trey McIntyre Project filled the Ted Shawn Theatre to capacity this week. While many choreographers are working in the idiom of contemporary ballet, none is doing it quite like McIntrye.
In a three-dance program, audiences witnessed dancers who move with balletic grace, but also with uncommon power. All have the requisite lightness of being, but they are also more grounded than ethereal; just check out their thighs, which have a circumference reminiscent of speed-skater Eric Heiden. While the dancers share McIntyre’s movement vocabulary, and fully embody it in their performances, all retain their individuality, in terms of both looks and onstage personality; their uniqueness shines through, with charm and charisma.
There’s something distinctly American about the program, perhaps due to the company’s heartland base of Boise, Idaho (McIntyre hails from Wichita, Kansa) and the musical choices that drive the dances. The evening began with Leatherwing Bat, which McIntyre premiered at the Pillow in his aforementioned company debut, and it would be hard not to like such a humorous piece set to songs of Peter, Paul and Mary, harking back to a time that McIntyre himself is too young to have experienced first-hand. Not so the older members of the audience, some of whom couldn’t stop themselves from singing along. Fortunately the dance is so delightful that it easily overcomes the minor annoyance of inconsiderate viewers. The smart, inventive choreography, performed with precision and gusto, raises it above a mere exercise in nostalgia. It concludes, of course, with Puff The Magic Dragon (enacted by the towering John Michael Schert, a dancer built in McIntyre’s own image) who affectingly backs up into darkness (slips into his cave) as the song comes to an end.
The third piece, the world premiere of Ladies and Gentle Men, is, like Leatherwing Bat, a comic dance inspired by nostalgic music, this time the late-baby-boomer era Free to Be… You and Me. This album, book, and television special, dating back to the 1970s bloom of feminism, right around the birth of Ms. Magazine, features Marlo Thomas and other icons of the age such as Alan Alda, Diana Ross, Mel Brooks, Michael Jackson, and football player Rosey Grier (famously singing It’s All Right to Cry).
McIntyre uses this historical artifact as a springboard for an all-too literal exploration of gender roles, including one mimed segment when a guy gets beat up for being a little too unlike a stereotypical guy. The three male dancers wear suits and the women wear jewel-toned dresses – designed by Andrea Lauer as if pulled from the Mad Men wardrobe – until the end, when all break out of their roles, finally, metaphorically, shedding their societal constraints to reveal multicolored, widly-patterened leotards — representing their true personalities — underneath. Despite the facile “story,” the movement is inventive and engaging, and the dance is well intentioned in its skewering of gender restrictions and yearning for gender equality. Here we are, 40 years after the release of Free to Be… You and Me, and we still face the same issues; Ladies and Gentle Men brings a new appreciation of Free to Be… as the progenitor of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way.
The second dance, a short piece called, for reasons not as literal as the titles of the two comic works that flank it, Bad Winter, is a masterpiece. This two-part work begins with Chanel DaSilva in the spotlight, in white tails over a gray top and boy shorts, doing a modified version of the old soft shoe to an old-timey recording of the depression-era classic tune, Pennies from Heaven. The mood shifts as two sad, beautiful songs by The Cinematic Orchestra – That Home and To Build a Home, set the tone for an achingly gorgeous and moving duet performed by Travis Walker and Lauren Edson (sylph-like, you can see from her fragile-looking body that she is not a member of McIntyre’s troupe) that evokes the feeling of a deep-rooted love affair that is fading. The dancers begin apart, they embrace and turn their backs on each other, cling and push each other away. Combined with the music, this portrait of longing and despair is a stunning, impressive work that leaves an indelible impression, like a sad dream from which you awake with tears in your eyes. —Bess Hochstein
Trey McIntyre Project at Jacob’s Pillow
Ted Shawn Theatre, August 8 - 12