Folk Legend Peggy Seeger: Ballad Of The Righteous Woman
By Robert Burke Warren
When folk legend Peggy Seeger graces Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington on Tuesday, March 18, she’ll be playing and singing as she’s done for more than 60 years, but she’ll also be on a mission to restore dignity to female characters in song. Seeger is billing this appearance as an interactive musical lecture entitled “A Feminist View of the Image of Women in Anglo-American Traditional Songs.” Before each number, she’ll offer critical insight into women’s roles in old folk songs, and she’ll compare these songs to contemporary pieces in which women are portrayed with more empathy, hope and depth.
Seeger, the daughter of Ruth Crawford Seeger and half sister to the recently departed Pete, is a folk singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and activist who has made 23 solo recordings and participated in more than 100 others. Her career spans more than six decades of performing, travel and songwriting. Her appearance next week is a special event to benefit the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers and WBCR-LP (Berkshire Community Radio).
From her home in Oxford, England, Seeger tells Rural Intelligence how her husband, playwright-actor-songwriter-activist Ewan MacColl (he wrote “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” for her) sparked her feminism. “It was 1969,” she says, “and Ewan had written the script for a stage show, and he said, ‘Peggy, write a song about women.’ And this rather complicated song, ‘Gonna Be An Engineer,’ just popped out of my head. I never wanted to be an engineer, but it sang well. The song took off and became a feminist anthem. I didn’t know anything about feminism, but I suddenly found myself at these feminist do’s, and when I finished they said, ‘Sing something else,’ and I didn’t have anything except bland songs in which women were unclaimed property, or being sent away because they nagged their husbands, or they were complaining single mothers with babies in their arms.”
Ewan and Peggy, 1977
Seeger realized many of the timeless tunes she knew portrayed women as a disempowered gender. In the following decades, as she and MacColl raised a family in England, the couple concentrated on using music to affect social change, with Seeger’s focus falling ever more on women’s issues. “I started to catalog songs,” she says. “I built up categories, and I still sing them, but I always say something before: these are historical pieces, with women singing about their position in society.”
At the Hevreh, armed with a variety of instruments — banjo, guitar, concertina — Seeger will perform age-old songs in which women are chattel and/or victims of male sexual desire; she’ll offer mother-in-law-as-laughingstock songs, and “fallen woman” ballads in which women who try to escape their condition suffer. To offset the narrow perspective of the public domain material, Seeger says, “I’ll play tunes featuring all kinds of subjects that these folk songs do not cover at all. There’s ‘A Stitch In Time,’ by Mike Waterson, about a battered wife who sews her husband into a bed and batters him. And in one of my own songs, a woman goes off and becomes a sailor, and the ship captain falls in love with her and they live happily ever after.”
Seeger has high hopes for the lecture. “I want people to look at the role of women in all the songs we listen to,” she says. “The language that we use when we refer to sex. Women are often portrayed as objects, clotheshorses, as a gender that things happen to rather than one that makes things happen.”
While Seeger’s engagement is woman-centered, she emphasizes her desire for a desegregated audience. “The lecture is for men and women,” she says. “We don’t thank men for coming, it’s their job to come. Men are in this bind as well as women.”
A Feminist View of the Image of Women in Anglo-American Traditional Songs
Tuesday, March 18, 4 p.m.
Hevreh of Southern Berkshire
270 State Road, Great Barrington, MA
$10.00; $5.00 for students
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Darlingside Rising: Indie Folk Quartet Brings Harmony to Pittsfield
By Robert Burke Warren
When Rural Intelligence last spoke to Massachusetts-based indie folk band Darlingside, they were upstarts who’d charmed noted producer Nate Kunkel (Maroon 5, James Taylor) into flying from L.A. to produce their debut CD, Pilot Machines, and were thrilled to be opening for The Grand Slambovians at Infinity Hall. Barely a year later, they’ve streamlined and upgraded; now a drummerless quartet – down from a quintet – Darlingside offers a more austere sound and, after a very successful tour with singer-songwriter Heather Maloney, they’ve inked a deal with Maloney’s label, Signature Sounds. Today, RI catches multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Auyon Mukharji, in the studio with his cohorts, putting finishing touches on a soon-to-be-released EP featuring both Darlingside and Maloney, and prepping for a (Maloney-less) gig Friday, Jan. 24 at 8 p.m. at the Garage in Pittsfield. This is an ascending band you want to catch in a small space while you still can.
“Things are getting pretty crazy,” Mukharji says. “We’ve got a lot of great things happening, so we’re assembling a team. We toured as Heather’s band and co-headliner last year, and seeing how well she and her label and booking agents worked together was really instructive. We got to play NPR in Rochester, articles were coming out and we didn’t have to email anyone. It was great.”
Darlingside, who met and formed out of cover bands and a cappella groups at Williams College in 2009, could host a seminar in how to build a career for a successful, touring, merchandise-producing indie band. “In the beginning, we received some good advice,” Mukharji says. “We were told, ‘you don’t want to outsource anything until it becomes too much for you, because no one’s going to care as much as you.’ As much as you can build it yourself, that’s a great thing, because you’re in complete control.”
Still, after amassing an ardent following in the Northeast, self-releasing a breathtaking, award-winning video for Pilot Machines’ “The Ancestor” and wowing the press, the writing was on the wall (and the email load was too great). Time to move up to the next level, where Beirut, Fleet Foxes, and Arcade Fire, all bands to whom Darlingside is compared, await.
“It’s an exciting time for us,” Mukharji says. “Getting a team together is part of the equation of capitalizing on everything.”
Another harbinger of bigger things ahead began as a suggestion from New York Times blogger and music tastemaker Val Haller. Last November, Haller, who recently released an app designed to keep busy folks apprised of new music, hosted a house concert featuring Darlingside-Maloney. As they were packing up, Haller suggested they cover Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” but arrange it like the Crosby-Stills-Nash version, with four-part harmonies. Within days, they did, with violin, banjo, bass and guitars. They filmed their haunting-yet-hopeful performance in one take, incorporating lush, layered vocals around one microphone, old school and authoritative. Upon receiving the stunning video (below), Haller made it the centerpiece of a December New York Times post. Many laudatory comments ensued, and the much-shared clip is pushing 10,000 views on YouTube. Sometime in late spring, the Darlingside-Maloney rendition of the classic paean to the hippie dream, which showcases the band’s impressive vocal prowess and musical versatility – not to mention Maloney’s soaring chops – will be on the forthcoming CD.
But that’s all to come. For now, the quartet brings its original brand of multi-genre songcraft to Pittsfield, where attendees will experience uncommonly tight multi-voiced singing, acoustic pop sensibility, and an exciting live show. “The gig at the Garage is our first time working with the Berkshire Theatre Group, and we’re all looking forward to it,” Mukharji says.
Join the club.
The Garage at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Colonial Theatre
Friday, January 24 at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $15 Advance, $18 Day of Show
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Bettye LaVette: Powerhouse Song Interpreter Goes Soul Deep
By Robert Burke Warren
Legendary R & B vocalist Bettye LaVette, a 52-year veteran of the concert stage, wants to set the record straight about her reputation as a superlative song interpreter; when she appears at Helsinki Hudson on Saturday, January 11, she will not “inhabit” her material.
“I don’t inhabit the songs,” she says, laughing. “The songs inhabit me!”
LaVette considers her unusually emotive power a mixed blessing. While it has brought her worldwide fame, the ability to go deep, which makes for riveting performances, takes a toll. “I’ve tried to think about something else when I’m singing,” she says, “but I can’t. It makes me so damn mad. I have no control over it. For some reason I go somewhere else. Sometimes I want to be able to sing it really sad and not be sad, but I have to get sad for that moment. It makes me absolutely angry.”
LaVette’s been angry a lot in her 67 years, and justifiably so. Her 2012 memoir, A Woman Like Me, recently optioned by Alicia Keyes for a possible biopic, is a harrowing tale of ultimate triumph over a dizzying string of disappointments and hard luck, interspersed with just enough tantalizing tidbits of success to keep our heroine inching ever forward. LaVette’s remarkable story includes albums recorded for Motown and Atlantic, among other labels, a six-year stint in the late 70s Broadway hit Bubbling Brown Sugar, and family life (she’s now a grandmother), but it also features recurrent poverty and dashed hopes (plus very juicy gossip on her fellow Motown artists Diana Ross and “Little” Stevie Wonder). It is certainly the only memoir to open with a pimp dangling the protagonist by her feet from the 20th floor of a Manhattan apartment building, and ending with that same protagonist singing “A Change Is Gonna Come” at a president’s inauguration (Barack Obama’s, of course).
“It’s just what happened to me,” LaVatte says. “I don’t think of it as inspirational. But I do hope someone can look at my story and be both inspired and forewarned about several things, how things can go.”
Her career turned around when ANTI- Records, home of Tom Waits, Eddie Izzard, Neko Case, and a slew of similarly hip artists, released her acclaimed 2005 album I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, produced by Grammy-winning producer Joe Henry, and featuring tunes penned by Fiona Apple, Dolly Parton and Aimee Mann, among other noted women songwriters. Broader exposure ensued, and this brazenly original song stylist, capable of investing material with new light and gravitas, finally got her due.
“People began looking at me contemporarily and not nostalgically,” LaVette says. “It was great to not be a revival-type thing. ANTI- looked at me as new.” Her 2006 ANTI- album, The Scene of the Crime, co-produced by LaVette and recorded with Drive-By Truckers at historic FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, garnered a Grammy nomination and continued the upward trajectory that carries on today. While she once scrounged for gigs, LaVette now routinely tours the world.
Attendees to LaVette’s Helsinki Hudson performance can expect a wide array of musical styles; she’s recorded disco, country, pop, soul, rock and roll, R & B, blues and Tin Pan Alley classics. She can slay an Elton John song, then turn on a dime and deliver a haunting rendition of the classic “Cry Me A River” or Sinead O’Connor’s spare “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” or her grooving original “Hustlin’In the Motor City,” the theme to the new AMC series Low Winter Sun.
“I don’t think in genres,” she says, “because I know when I sing it, I don’t have to change it, I know I’m not gonna sound like Loretta Lynn or anybody else when I sing. I’m gonna sound like Bettye LaVette. When I love a great melody, I can’t let it go.”
Helsinki Hudson audiences, no doubt, will feel the same about Bettye LaVette.
Saturday, January 11th, 9 PM
405 Columbia Street
Hudson, New York 12534
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Pizzarelli Parlor: John Pizzarelli Brings the Family to the Mahaiwe
By Robert Burke Warren
Singer, guitarist, and showman extraordinaire John Pizzarelli plans to say good-bye to 2013 with even more class than usual. The Grammy nominee, who plays close to 150 dates a year, routinely leaves audiences smoldering with his quartet, drawing on a wide array of everything from Duke Ellington, to the American Songbook, to jazzed-up renditions of pop tunes. But for his engagement at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Saturday, December 28th, at 8 PM, he’s shooting higher, and calling in the big guns. Appearing alongside him will be legendary jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, i.e. his dad, and actress-chanteuse Jessica Molaskey, i.e. his wife and co-host of Pizzarelli’s acclaimed syndicated broadcast Radio Deluxe. Molaskey, an artistic force in her own right, is fresh from the cast of Carrie Underwood’s live network presentation of The Sound of Music, and, like all members of this dazzlingly musical family, she’s eager to see the year out in style.
RI caught up with Pizzarelli as he was heading up a mountain, en route to Knoxville, Tennessee, for a gig. He’s looking forward to performing with his father and spouse (and brother, Martin Pizzarelli, on double bass) as well as a new drummer and keyboardist. (Longtime pianist Ray Kennedy, a leading light of jazz, has contracted MS and could use your help HERE.) Regarding Molaskey, he confirms that their delightful, dulcet-toned rapport is as natural as it sounds on Radio Deluxe. Married for 15 years (they recently renewed their vows) they bring a sweet-to-piquant George n’ Gracie or Bogie & Bacall to the airwaves and the stage, offering one another affection, appreciation, exasperation, and gentle ribbing in equal doses. In the live shows, their dynamic intensifies as they walk the improv tightrope, engaging audiences with their couple-speak, until they bring the house down with stunning chops, reminding everyone how unusual they are after all.
“There’s so much going on in what I do with Jessica,” Pizzarelli says, laughing. “Little moments happen. She’s really looking forward to this show.”
Pizzarelli’s eager, too, and not just because he’ll be in his home-away-from-home, i.e. the spotlight; on the contrary, appearing with Molaskey and Bucky allows Pizzarelli to slide into sideman mode, as he’s done with James Taylor, Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra, and Rosemary Clooney, among others. As a noted front man, he may appear to easily assume leadership, but Pizzarelli admits: “It’s fun to do different things on these family gigs. I get to play a little rhythm guitar, play more solos, sit back a little and let them be the focus.”
And when 87-year-old jazz guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli is the focus, all is well in the world. A former sideman with Benny Goodman, Les Paul, and Stephane Grappelli, and a one-time member of The Tonight Show band, Bucky Pizzarelli is the real deal, and sharp as a tack. “He’s the oldest guy on the bandstand,” John Pizzarelli says, “but when he plays, he’s the youngest guy in the room.” As paterfamilias of the Pizzarellis, Bucky got the whole ball rolling when he invited his young son, John, who’d been rockin’ a six string since age six, to join him onstage in 1980. In the decades since, John Pizzarelli has never stopped touring, recording, and slyly introducing pop fans to jazz and jazz fans to pop, a la his idol, Nat “King” Cole. (Many consider Pizzarelli’s 1994 Cole tribute, Dear Mr. Cole, to be the best of his many albums.)
Pizzarelli has been active throughout the recent cultural sea change that includes MP3’s, YouTube, and smartphones, all of which impact performers of any vintage or genre. How has the digital age affected him? “The only thing that’s changed is people want to take pictures all the time,” he says, with a rare hint of annoyance. “The live performance aspect has changed. Like [Pizzarelli’s good friend] Pat Metheny used to love to sit in with bands and play off the cuff. But people always want to video everything, so he doesn’t anymore.” And when Pizzarelli and Molaskey recently performed their annual stint at the tony Café Carlyle in Manhattan, a patron ignored a “no photos” request and held up his iPhone with the light on during the performance. “He still thought it was OK,” Pizzarelli says.
But it was a very good 2013, despite the clueless smartphone addicts. After memorable gigs in Napa Valley, L.A., and Europe (where his teenage daughter, Madeline, got to meet The Who) Pizzarelli is excited to return to the Mahaiwe, which, at 108 years in operation, is one of the oldest surviving theaters in the country. “It’s a throwback,” he says enthusiastically. “Such a sweet little theater, a great team. Lots of folks will be up for the holidays. We’re all really looking forward to it.”
Come join the coolest family in town. Fancy attire encouraged. Smartphones, not so much.
John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey with Special Guest Bucky Pizzarelli
Saturday, December 28th at 8 p.m.
Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
14 Castle St.
Great Barrington, MA
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Season of the Son: Teddy Thompson Closes Out 2013 at Helsinki Hudson
By Robert Burke Warren
In a career spanning almost a decade-and-a-half, Teddy Thompson, the only son of folk icons Richard and Linda Thompson (pictured below in earlier days), has worn several hats; he’s been a sideman for Rosanne Cash and Rufus Wainwright, an acclaimed recording artist in his own right, a heralded journeyman performer, and a producer. He is a busy man. Yet, when RI catches up with him to discuss his upcoming December 20th solo show at Helsinki Hudson, he’s donned yet another chapeau: bass player.
“I can’t play at all,” he says in his soft London accent. (This will be the first example of frequent, amusing self-deprecation.) “I thought it would be easy, but it’s not.” Thompson, a Manhattanite, is sequestered in a New York City studio, putting finishing touches on what he calls “a family album,” featuring both his father and mother – a rarity to have them together – plus his siblings. All contributors are relatives, with Teddy producing. “There are no session players,” he says. Unlike the densely arranged, string-laden pop of his last album, 2011’s lush Bella, the as-yet-untitled disc will be pared down, mostly because, Thompson says, “no one in the family plays a classical instrument. Thank God. It’s quite a relief, because strings are too complicated for me to fathom right now. It’ll be very homemade-sounding, although everyone sounds frighteningly accomplished. It’s scary.”
When presented with the fantasy of a Thompson Family Travelling Show, a caravan tour in which the Thompsons – all noted performers, save reclusive mum Linda – drive from town to town like old time showfolk, Teddy laughs and says, “You’re way off. That’ll never happen. We probably won’t play live at all.”
Well. Working in an austere setting is good prep for the upcoming Helsinki Hudson date, which will be solo acoustic. It’s Thompson’s second gig at the venue. “It’s great,” he says of both the club and the town. “It’s a cultural oasis up there. And I haven’t been on the road much in 2013. We booked these shows (Helsinki and several others) because I’ve forgotten how to play a bit. I must keep these things moving, keep the machinery oiled.”
The machinery is, in fact, plenty oiled. Although he didn’t record an original CD in 2013, Thompson appeared on tributes to Nick Drake, Kate McGarrigle, and Paul McCartney. On the live front, attendees to his recent performances at Woodstock’s Bearsville Theater, and Albany’s The Egg, walked away wowed. And then there’s his NYC trio Poundcake, begun around the time he was working on Bella. The trio – drums, stand-up bass, and Teddy – performs originals, but also delves deep into the pre-1960 canon of early rock and pop, covering Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, and the Everly Brothers, among others, to rapturous audiences. “Poundcake was a relief,” Thompson says. “To just play stuff, and not have to think about making it right, not looking at every little detail. It’s nice to have something that’s very free and loose. Bella was heavily produced, and I’ve reached my limit with that stuff. I yearn to do something quite opposite, which is where the family album and Poundcake came from; doing something live and simple.”
Performing his original material solo acoustic holds a particular allure for Thompson. “Playing solo gives you a lot of freedom,” he says. “I’m trying to get to a place where I’m relaxed in the same way I am as when I’m playing other people’s songs, when I’m playing 50s covers with my friends. You’re in a place that’s very loose. There’s a magical spot you want to get to, that’s as free as when you’re messing around playing somebody else’s music. There’s a nexus in there where you’re relaxed and focused, it’s an ideal performance state we’re all looking for.”
In addition to material from his four albums of original songs, Thompson is likely to present some classic country from his country covers CD Upfront and Down Low. “My voice sounds quite country,” he says, accepting the oddity of an Englishman sounding, on occasion, like a Nashvillian. “That’s just the way it is. It’s always in me. It’s all the same, anyway – country is English, Scottish and Irish folk music with banjos and fiddles.”
And… holiday songs? The 20th is the last day of autumn, the day before the Winter Solstice. “I’ll have to do a couple of Christmas songs,” he says, resigned. “It’s gotta be done.”
With the Thompson family album and another original CD slated for 2014, Teddy Thompson is looking at a busy year ahead. The December 20th Helsinki Hudson show will be his last gig of 2013, and no matter which version of Teddy you prefer, he will be in fine, celebratory form in Hudson.