Season of the Son: Teddy Thompson Closes Out 2013 at Helsinki Hudson
By Robert Burke Warren
In a career spanning almost a decade-and-a-half, Teddy Thompson, the only child of folk icons Richard and Linda Thompson (pictured below in earlier days), has worn several hats; he’s been a sideman for Rosanne Cash and Rufus Wainwright, an acclaimed recording artist in his own right, a heralded journeyman performer, and a producer. He is a busy man. Yet, when RI catches up with him to discuss his upcoming December 20th solo show at Helsinki Hudson, he’s donned yet another chapeau: bass player.
“I can’t play at all,” he says in his soft London accent. (This will be the first example of frequent, amusing self-deprecation.) “I thought it would be easy, but it’s not.” Thompson, a Manhattanite, is sequestered in a New York City studio, putting finishing touches on what he calls “a family album,” featuring both his father and mother – a rarity to have them together – plus his half-siblings. All contributors are relatives, with Teddy producing. “There are no session players,” he says. Unlike the densely arranged, string-laden pop of his last album, 2011’s lush Bella, the as-yet-untitled disc will be pared down, mostly because, Thompson says, “no one in the family plays a classical instrument. Thank God. It’s quite a relief, because strings are too complicated for me to fathom right now. It’ll be very homemade-sounding, although everyone sounds frighteningly accomplished. It’s scary.”
When presented with the fantasy of a Thompson Family Travelling Show, a caravan tour in which the Thompsons – all noted performers, save reclusive mum Linda – drive from town to town like old time showfolk, Teddy laughs and says, “You’re way off. That’ll never happen. We probably won’t play live at all.”
Well. Working in an austere setting is good prep for the upcoming Helsinki Hudson date, which will be solo acoustic. It’s Thompson’s second gig at the venue. “It’s great,” he says of both the club and the town. “It’s a cultural oasis up there. And I haven’t been on the road much in 2013. We booked these shows (Helsinki and several others) because I’ve forgotten how to play a bit. I must keep these things moving, keep the machinery oiled.”
The machinery is, in fact, plenty oiled. Although he didn’t record an original CD in 2013, Thompson appeared on tributes to Nick Drake, Kate McGarrigle, and Paul McCartney. On the live front, attendees to his recent performances at Woodstock’s Bearsville Theater, and Albany’s The Egg, walked away wowed. And then there’s his NYC trio Poundcake, begun around the time he was working on Bella. The trio – drums, stand-up bass, and Teddy – performs originals, but also delves deep into the pre-1960 canon of early rock and pop, covering Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, and the Everly Brothers, among others, to rapturous audiences. “Poundcake was a relief,” Thompson says. “To just play stuff, and not have to think about making it right, not looking at every little detail. It’s nice to have something that’s very free and loose. Bella was heavily produced, and I’ve reached my limit with that stuff. I yearn to do something quite opposite, which is where the family album and Poundcake came from; doing something live and simple.”
Performing his original material solo acoustic holds a particular allure for Thompson. “Playing solo gives you a lot of freedom,” he says. “I’m trying to get to a place where I’m relaxed in the same way I am as when I’m playing other people’s songs, when I’m playing 50s covers with my friends. You’re in a place that’s very loose. There’s a magical spot you want to get to, that’s as free as when you’re messing around playing somebody else’s music. There’s a nexus in there where you’re relaxed and focused, it’s an ideal performance state we’re all looking for.”
In addition to material from his four albums of original songs, Thompson is likely to present some classic country from his country covers CD Upfront and Down Low. “My voice sounds quite country,” he says, accepting the oddity of an Englishman sounding, on occasion, like a Nashvillian. “That’s just the way it is. It’s always in me. It’s all the same, anyway – country is English, Scottish and Irish folk music with banjos and fiddles.”
And… holiday songs? The 20th is the last day of autumn, the day before the Winter Solstice. “I’ll have to do a couple of Christmas songs,” he says, resigned. “It’s gotta be done.”
With the Thompson family album and another original CD slated for 2014, Teddy Thompson is looking at a busy year ahead. The December 20th Helsinki Hudson show will be his last gig of 2013, and no matter which version of Teddy you prefer, he will be in fine, celebratory form in Hudson.
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The Queen of Arts: Kim Taylor Joins the President’s Committee
By Nichole Dupont
When President Obama calls, Kim Taylor answers. The Lenox resident and longtime trustee and employee (some 30 years) of the Boston Symphony has just been appointed to the president’s committee on the Arts and Humanities. Taylor joins a powerhouse gang that includes actor Sarah Jessica Parker, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, and actors Kerry Washington and Forest Whitaker. Herself a singer, actress, and writer (and the wife of beloved American singer James Taylor), Mrs. Taylor says that she is excited about bringing the arts culture of the Berkshires to Washington.
“It’s fun to contemplate the possibilities,” she says. “I’ve spent all my life working in some way in the arts – the last 30 years with the BSO and Tanglewood and the last 10 years with Berkshire Theatre Group. Anything I can do to raise the visibility, to raise the flag so to speak, about what’s going on in the Berkshires, I will. I’m not shy about that sort of thing.”
The committee was conceived in 1982 under the auspices of President Regan, and oversees the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, acting as an advisory board to address the nation’s cultural issues (and heroes) and to push for arts education. While the PCAH isn’t the Department of Homeland Security, Taylor understands intrinsically the need to carry out the heady mission of arts.
“The arts are vital to our society,” she says. “If you start with our community in the Berkshires – hearing what Jane Fitzpatrick has done with the Norman Rockwell Museum. And Tanglewood and the Colonial. One day I was driving with a friend, coming from The Clark and passed by so many arts institutions. It was profound. When I think of how these places have contributed to my children’s development and how arts is a huge economic factor in the Berkshires – it’s truly the fabric of our lives. It’s the highest achievement of our society to be surrounded by this culture.”
Of course, Taylor has a soft spot for classical music, which she plans on bringing to the forefront of the arts conversation at the White House.
“We all speak from our own lens. I think kids should at least be familiar with the idiom of classical music at a young age,” she says adamantly. “It’s a universe unto itself. Just think of what John Williams has done for movies and for exposing young people to this music. It’s so much better because of him and composers like him.”
While Taylor will push for the importance of arias and concertos and putting cellos in the hands of eager first graders, she is also planning on using the Berkshires to lure some Washington stakeholders from their desks to show off the cultural stars in hill country. Not the least of which will be the First Lady herself, who is the committee’s honorary chairman.
“The First Lady came to the Berkshires last year and fell in love with the area. I’m hoping to bring her back here,” she says. “I’m sure she won’t need much convincing.”
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“First Flight” at Shakespeare & Co: Berkshires Duo Takes Off
By Robert Burke Warren
We live in a noisy, often dissonant age. Harmony is all too rare, so when we happen upon it, we’re captivated, especially if it emanates from the up-and-coming Tyringham, MA, duo (and devoted couple) Oakes & Smith. They’re bringing that sweet sound to Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre in Lenox, MA, where they’ll be celebrating the release of their debut CD First Flight, on Saturday, November 23rd, at 8 p.m. Like Richard and Linda Thompson, Ian & Sylvia, or current sensation The Civil Wars, Oakes & Smith’s combined voices offer a unique tonal blend, greater than the sum of its parts, showcased perfectly in their heartfelt, acoustic-based material. (Video for their single “Being Broken” HERE.)
Since meeting four years ago, guitarist-vocalist Robert Oakes and vocalist-visual artist Katherine Smith have been working toward this moment, performing anywhere and everywhere they could, honing their distinctive brand of melodic, lyrical folk. They’ve played bars, festivals, concert halls, and street corners, most often as a have-guitar-will-travel duo. Need an act to appear unplugged and un-miked at the Guthrie Center? Check. Require musical accompaniment in a “yoga for love” class? No problem.
Although the duo format is most common for Oakes & Smith, the release party for the impressively fleshed-out First Flight will be a rare full-band show, in a proper listening room with a stage, lights, a backstage… the works. “We wanted to create an event,” says Oakes. “We wanted it to feel like a show. The Bernstein Theatre is in the round, and seats about two hundred people. It’s intimate. And Shakespeare & Company is presenting It’s A Wonderful Life as a vintage radio show in December, so the stage will be set for that. The set will look like an old-timey studio.”
Old timey suits the duo, especially Katherine Smith, who comes from a family steeped in choral church music. While most twenty-somethings’ first musical memories comprise TV, pop CDs, and/or the radio, Smith recalls singing harmony with her parents and extended family in a group of mostly adults called Mass Production. This background gives her a rich, resonant vocal presence, confident and assured against Oakes burnished baritone. Still, she’d not considered making a stab at singing professionally until she met Oakes, a journeyman rocker looking for artwork for his 2009 solo CD, Heart Broken Open.
“I was working on my album, and Kate and I started to brainstorm ideas for a video,” says Oakes. “She drew up beautiful sketches, then we started singing together, and it was a revelation. It was like ‘whoa.’ When the chemistry between two voices works, it’s profound. It was so exciting for me. I hadn’t been performing a lot, I just was recording. But when we made this discovery, it was a rebirth. All I wanted to do was perform with Kate as much as possible.”
After wowing the room at a 2010 performance workshop conducted by famed singer-songwriter-keyboardist Joy Askew (Joe Jackson, Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson), Oakes & Smith was born. “Joy said, ‘You guys have something special,’” Oakes recalls.
Like many acts, both established and new, Oakes & Smith launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund First Flight. By producing a brief, entertaining video, and offering rewards like signed CDs, prints of Smith’s artwork, and a house concert at which they will also cook the donor dinner, they succeeded in raising a little over six grand. (Note: In a Kickstarter campaign, acts must raise their desired amount in a specified time, or they get nothing.) “It was nervewracking,” says Oakes. “Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing platform, and we had six weeks to raise six grand. We really put it out there, really made a case and, toward the end, people started to respond. In the last week we tripled the amount of money we raised. My high school class even started a Facebook page to help raise funds. The final hours of the campaign were like New Year’s Eve. But we got what we needed. It was incredible, very heart-warming.”
Oakes sees Kickstarter as part of the new paradigm between indie artists and fans: “Kickstarter gives people an opportunity to be a part of the process, and allows the funding of more things than the traditional model, which included gatekeepers who decided what got done and what didn’t. Now, if you believe in an idea enough, and can make a good case for it, you can get what you need in advance.”
After such an outpouring of support, Oakes & Smith are eager to give back as good as they got, starting at the Bernstein Theatre.
Oakes & Smith
Saturday, November 23, 8 p.m.
Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre
70 Kimble Street
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Dramatic, Ecstatic Klezmatics Bring Danceable Joy to the Mahaiwe
By Robert Burke Warren
When trumpeter-composer Frank London formed the Klezmatics in the East Village in 1986, he and his bandmates sought to revitalize and update klezmer music, the Yiddish folk/American jazz amalgam popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the band’s first gigs, the mix of young and old faces in the crowds showed them they were on the right track; elders lovingly recalled the once-dominant Lower East Side Yiddish culture, forgotten as many post World War II immigrant Jews assimilated into American culture. Meanwhile, youngsters tapped into an imperiled heritage, all while everyone got sweaty. Twenty-seven years on, the Klezmatics boast ten CDs, an international touring schedule, bookings on The Late Show with David Letterman and A Prairie Home Companion, stages and studios shared with famed violinist Itzhak Perlman, and a Grammy for their 2006 CD Wonder Wheel. So… mazel tov, already. But they’re hardly finished. Fresh from stints in Sweden and Vienna, the renowned live act brings their “wild, mystical, provocative, reflective and ecstatically danceable” tunes to the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Saturday, November 16 at 8 p.m., presented by the Yiddish Book Center as part of “Yidstock: The Festival of New Yiddish Music.” It’ll be a stop on an ever-changing, revelatory journey. (Photo above: Joshua Kessler.)
“When I first started playing klezmer,” Frank London says from his East Village apartment, “the audience would include old people talking about the old days in New York or Europe. Now, middle-aged people talk about their parents playing our music when they were young. That’s a real transformation.”
London sees the Klezmatics’ continued success in several lights. “We’ve not only presented old music in a new way, we’ve found aspects of our cultural heritage that aren’t so widely known. From the very beginning, we’ve had an integral relationship with archives and research, trying to find new old sources, new old music. There’s a researcher in each of us. In fact, [Klezmatics singer-guitarist-pianist-accordionist] Lorin Sklamberg has worked for years as a sound archivist at YIVO, the Yiddish Institute for Research.”
For those who wonder how the Klezmatics went about updating klezmer, which, in its original form, is very old-world, London says, “We put forth a consistent and coherent political and aesthetic Yiddish/klezmer music that embraces our political values—supporting gay rights, workers’ rights, human rights, universal religious and spiritual values expressed through particular art forms. We eschew the aspects of Yiddish/Jewish culture that are nostalgic, tacky, kitschy, nationalistic and misogynistic. We’ve shown a way for people to embrace Yiddish culture on their own terms, as a living, breathing part of our world and its political and aesthetic landscape.”
This approach provides the Klezmatics a particularly broad range of gig possibilities. In a given year, they’ll play festivals in Europe, rock clubs in the U.S., schools, theaters, cultural centers, private functions, and museums.
London is still buzzing from a recent engagement at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland. The Klezmatics created musical accompaniment for Letters To Afar, a YIVO-sponsored video installation by Hungarian artist Péter Forgács. “American Polish Jews went back to visit their families in Poland in the 20s and 30s,” London says. “The exhibit is largely their home movies, that’s the raw material; it’s found footage. And of course, we’re a dance band, but Forgács wanted ambient, minimalist, unchanging music. It forced us to re-look at how we approach stuff, get a fresh look at things. It’s an extraordinary exhibition.”
London says they may play a bit of that at the Mahaiwe. They’ll certainly dip into their extensive back catalog, packed with traditional tunes evoking Ashkenazi weddings, horas, dances with Roma around fires in the old country, as well as more modern fare, featuring Woody Guthrie lyrics given to them by Nora Guthrie (the entirety of Wonder Wheel), plus… who knows? As-yet-unheard material, certainly, the fruits of recent discoveries in the archives of the New York Public Library, where London and Co. were granted unprecedented access. “It’s yet another treasure trove of Yiddish material,” London says, still excited after all these years. “It’s great. We’re looking through scores of operettas, Yiddish theater pieces from the teens, ‘20s, and ‘30s. We’ve found sources of tunes we know, so it’s an affirmation.”
After a quarter century, does any specific gig stand out in London’s memory? “Not really,” he says, laughing. “Although there was the show in Massachusetts where we met Nora Guthrie, or the one we where we met Holly Near and the Weavers’ Ronnie Gilbert, or when we were the first Jewish band to play in post-communist Hungary… or our last concert in Vienna. That was as stunning as any we’ve done. That transformation of sound into energy always works. It’s a rediscovery every time if done right, a re-transmission of the material, and people experience it anew.”
Saturday, November 16, 8 p.m.
The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
14 Castle Street
Great Barrington, MA
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Songbird Returns to the Valley: Allison Moorer Graces Helsinki Hudson
By Robert Burke Warren
When this writer last saw Grammy-and-Oscar-nominated singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, she lit up a 2011 Midnight Ramble at Levon Helm’s barn, an act she intends to repeat at Helsinki Hudson on Friday, November 15 at 9 p.m.. Back at that Ramble, Hurricane Irene had just ravaged the region, leaving many without power for days on end. Among those deprived of electricity were Moorer and her family – multi-Grammy-winning singer-songwriter husband Steve Earle, and their toddler, John Henry. They were living out of a tour bus parked in front of their Woodstock, NY, home. Moorer’s acclaimed eighth CD Crows had been released the previous year, and country superstar Miranda Lambert had chosen her song “Oklahoma Sky” as the closing cut on Lambert’s soon-to-be-hit 2011 album Four The Record. But Moorer wasn’t thinking about any of that. This longtime troubadour had left the kid with a nanny, and was eager to hit the boards and rock the barn with her soaring alto, and genre-bending repertoire, which she did. At one point, the redheaded siren literally brought Earle to his knees.
Since then, life’s been topsy-turvy for Moorer. She’s gone from the highways and byways to spending most of her time in an Upper West Side Manhattan apartment with John Henry (she and Earle are separated). But she’s not complaining; she’s happy to be a hands-on, fulltime mom, with days more packed than ever. Yet, her muse hasn’t gone anywhere. On the contrary. “I’ve been writing a ton in the past few years,” she says. “I’m looking forward to playing some new songs and getting an album out in 2014. These new ones are among the countriest, and best, I’ve ever written.”
This signals a return to her deep southern roots, to the days when the songs of classic Grand Ol’ Opry mainstays like Loretta Lynn, George Jones, and Merle Haggard filled the Monroeville, Alabama home Moorer shared with big sister, fellow singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne, and their parents. Moorer says she wanted to “be the next Tammy Wynette.” (It could still happen.) Idyllic musical memories notwithstanding, the sisters’ world was forever changed when their father shot and killed their mother, then himself, in 1986. Despite this trauma, both sisters moved to Nashville, and while neither became superstars, they’ve each walked tall in the hallowed halls of Music City, wowed legions of fans, and carved out niches in what is increasingly referred to as “Americana Music.” Moorer, in fact, hit the ground running with co-write “A Soft Place to Fall,” her Oscar-nominated debut single, used in The Horse Whisperer. She sang it at the 1998 Academy Awards. “I just tried not to think about the billion people watching,” she says.
Moorer released several CDs over the years, but until the lovely cut “Easy In The Summertime,” the emotional centerpiece of the spare, Bobbie Gentry-esque Crows, she hadn’t delved much into her fraught childhood. (Lynne, on the other hand, has frequently performed John Lennon’s harrowing “Mother” onstage.) Touchingly, “Easy In the Summertime” is an act of will, focusing on sweeter aspects of the sisters’ past. That song in particular signals an increasing artistic confidence, sure to be in evidence at Helsinki Hudson, where Moorer will perform solo on both piano and guitar.
“The upside of solo performing is I feel really able to connect with an audience,” she says. “And I really miss performing on a regular basis. I last toured solo in 2009, when I was pregnant.” Motherhood has forced a change in her writing habits, but Moorer’s doesn’t mind. “John Henry is now three-and-a-half,” she says, “so I am very busy with that, and still trying to be a working songwriter and artist. I’m more efficient due to the time constraints. And I have more to write about, and that’s always a good thing.”
Since moving with Earle to Manhattan in the mid-aughts, Moorer has fallen in love with the city. But, more than ever, she knows the ephemeral nature of such things. “New York City is a marvelous place,” she says. “But I do feel like a fish out of water here. I’m a country girl. I truly never thought I would live here, and don’t imagine I always will, but for now I’m enjoying it and feel lucky to have a ‘New York City part’ of my story to tell.”
That story is to be continued in both word and song at Helsinki Hudson on Friday, November 15th.
Friday, November 15th, 9 p.m.