(back) AUGUST 2008
Patti Smith Band, The Knitters, Haden Family & Friends and Blues Review: August 24th at Lincoln Center Out of Doors
There's an anecdote I like to tell about my cousins from North Carolina who sometimes ask me when I'm going to leave the northern rat race and move down there where life is slower. I always give the same answer which is that Judy (my wife) says that we can live wherever I want.... as long as it's within 1 hour of Manhattan! Of course, I feel the same way which should be easily understood with one glance at my summer activities. An overwhelming majority of the shows I attended this summer were free to one and all, and this Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival, and particularly this lineup, epitomized the diversity of talent that performs in New York, which I believe is unparalleled in the universe.
This portion of the day's events (earlier in the day Pete Seeger was featured) began with a collection of old time blues men with names like Boo Hanks, Alabama Slim and Dr. G. B. Burt each performing a tune or two. They're part of the Music Maker Blues Review which raises money and awareness to promote and support artists who've made "the blues" their life.
The Knitters are a side project for John Doe, Exene Cervenka and DJ Bonebraker of the punk rock band "X", roots rock guitarist Dave Alvin of The Blasters and bassist Johnny Ray Bartel from blues rock band The Red Devils. They've released two CD's, twenty years apart, of country flavored roots music, but my favorite moments from the set were their cover of Born To Be Wild and the X tune Burning House of Love. (X video)
I was surprised to discover that jazz bassist Charlie Haden got his start as a little boy singing on his parents country and western radio show. He's about to return to those roots with the release of Rambling Boy, a collection of country songs featuring his family and friends who include Roseanne Cash, Vince Gill, Bruce Hornsby and Elvis Costello, among others. This set featured a "who's who" of country and bluegrass musicians including, but not limited to, Sam Bush (mandolin), Jerry Douglas (dobro), Jim Mills (banjo) and Dan Tyminski, who's probably now best known as George Clooney's voice in the "Oh, Brother..." movie.
The vocals duties were carried mostly by various combinations of Charlie's triplet daughters, Petra, Rachel and Tanya, with his son Josh and wife Ruth Cameron each taking one vocal spin as well. Ruth's performance of Down By The Salley Gardens, possibly the most beautiful song of the day, was somewhat disappointing but the kids did a nice job.
Patti Smith is a rock and roll innovator, musical icon and member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who was one of the driving forces behind the punk rock movement. It's time to stop confusing her with Patty Smythe (Scandal) who had a couple of MTV pop/rock hits (Goodbye to You, The Warrior) in the 80's.
"Smith" performed fan favorites like Redondo Beach and Because The Night, which she co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen, as well as Ghost Dance which is one of my favorites. (Because the Night)
Her cover of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit featured Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas from the previous set, which brings me back to my "New York" theme. It's possible that the forces of the universe could bring all these artists together on one stage at a festival or tribute show in another part of the country, but it wouldn't be at the end of three weeks of shows as varied as these, and it wouldn't be free. I love my cousins but I could never live in a place where a majority of the people thought that voting for someone like Jesse Helms was a good idea.
Toshi Reagon & Big Lovely w/Bernice Johnson Reagon plus David Dorfman Dance: Aug 21st Lincoln Center Out of Doors
About ten years ago I went to Central Park where Dar Williams was headlining a show with Toshi Reagon and Big Lovely opening. As I approached Rumsey Field, I heard some great music with beautiful harmonies and wondered who they were playing over the speakers. It turned out to be the sound check for Toshi Reagon and Big Lovely and I've been a fan ever since. I remember commenting at the end of that show that the solo acoustic Dar Williams should never have opened for such a dynamic group because her performance paled in comparison. (Toshi video)
Toshi and her group play an acoustic and electric gumbo of gospel, blues, folk and rock, often with social or political comment as well as a little bit of humor. They perform mostly original material along with some covers and traditional songs. Her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, is the founder of female African American gospel a cappella group Sweet Honey In The Rock. She recently retired from that group and often appears with Toshi and her band which I believe somehow brings them to another level. It's always a pleasure to see this troupe. (Sweet Honey video)
The David Dorfman Dance Company has been a New York based modern dance company since 1985 and has won eight New York "Bessie" awards. This performance, Underground, was inspired by a documentary of the 60's radical group The Weathermen, and asks questions like "Is violence ever justified" and "Does anything you do ever make a difference"? It's actually dance theater with spoken word and video projections along with dancing.
I typically write about dance from an emotional perspective rather than a technical one. My feelings about this piece were ironically summed up best at an amusing point in the performance when the dancers enthusiastically shouted "I am apathetic". That's not to say that it was either good or bad, just that it failed to reach me. I've read other reviews of Underground that were strongly positive, but it was simply not my cup of tea. (Dorfman video)
Mahmoud Ahmed & Alemayehu Eshete w/ Either/Orchestra and Getatchew Mekurya w/ The Ex: Aug 20th at Lincoln Center
Mahmoud Ahmed and Getatchew Mekurya (both pictured above) are musical icons in Ethiopia who've achieved some level of international exposure and Alemayehu Eshete is sometimes described as the Ethiopian James Brown. Still, in this country unless you're Ethiopian or a very serious world music aficionado, it's unlikely that you're familiar with these artists. I myself was not familiar with their work, but two of my reliable sources told me not to miss this show and that was the best advice I received this summer.
The Either/Orchestra is a ten piece jazz ensemble from Massachusetts led by sax player Russ Gershon who, in recent years, has developed a deep affection and appreciation for Ethiopian music. Their embracing of this music has led to them being invited to play Ethiopia's biggest music festival and collaborating with a variety of Ethiopia's biggest musical personalities.
Alemayehu Eshete was first to be backed by the Eithers, performing a set that was jazzy and funky making the comparisons to James Brown seem very obvious at times. There were one or two moments when I half anticipated hearing him shout "please, please, please". Other times the vocal style seemed as much Indian as African, but with the great backing band the entire set was compelling and I enjoyed it completely.
Mahmoud Ahmed took the stage in white garb with an orange sash and immediately established an aura of charisma. From what I gathered from speaking with several of the many Ethiopians at the show, he's one of the most popular singers in their country, and now I know why. I could barely divert my eyes from his performance.
With hints of the desert, Arabic influences, jazz and blues, the audience was completely captivated. In fact, I got the feeling that the band, the singer and the audience were all inspiring each other as the level of excitement continued to rise through the set for all involved. One of my friends said she couldn't remember the last time she witnessed such a joyous audience. Here's a studio version of the haunting Era Mela Mela which he performed at this show : (Era Mela Mela)
Getatchew Mekurya performs some of Ethiopia's most popular songs as sax instrumentals and The Ex are an avant-garde punk rock band from the Netherlands. Despite not speaking the same language, somehow they've managed to collaborate in the studio and tour together with great results. Here's a great video from a recent performance of a tune which they also performed at this show: (live Chicago video)
The Ahn Trio & East Village Opera Company: Aug14th Lincoln Center Out of Doors
It was an unlikely event for this show to even happen. The forecast was for severe thunderstorms and I arrived in the city during a torrential downpour with dark skies in every direction. But as is the nature of thunderstorms, the rain passed and a patch of blue could be spied on the horizon within an hour of show time.
And so it was amusingly appropriate when the Ahn Trio (sisters Lucia, Angella and Maria) altered their program to open with Riders on the Storm by The Doors, which gives you a hint of what they're all about. The classically trained piano trio recognize no musical boundaries and are as likely to play David Bowie or Pat Metheny as Maurice Ravel or Antonin Dvorak.
This show consisted of contemporary pieces either composed or arranged specifically for them, including Dies Irie, Magic Hour and Backstep all from their long time friend and collaborator, Jamaican composer Kenji Bunch.
They also performed the USA premier of Pat Metheny's Yu Ryung, as well as his arrangement of David Bowie's This Is Not America. It was during these songs that the rain began to fall again and up went the umbrellas. As I sat listening to the music and rain, while watching the performance thru a gap in the sea of umbrellas, the thought crossed my mind that there was no other place I'd rather have been. The sound of rain on the umbrellas was a soothing accompaniment to the beautiful music. As near as I could tell, nobody left the show at that point.
After a 30 minute intermission, where heavy rain did thin the crowd a bit, The East Village Opera Company opened their set with The Ride, which filters Wagner's The Ride of the Valkyries through the prism of Led Zeppelin. (EVOC promo)
E.V.O.C. charter member Peter Kieswalter has been quoted as saying that they like to combine the pomposity of opera with the pomposity of rock, which sounds like a formula for novelty. But what is most novel about the group is how well they make it work. This is due in large part to Keiswalter's clever arrangements, but even more so to the impressive vocals of Tyley Ross and AnnMarie Milazzo.
Neither are opera singers, but Ross is very easily compared to Freddie Mercury, and Milazzo, if it's possible, might be even better. Some opera buffs may not like the contemporary treatment of their sacred cows, but the strength, beauty and emotion of these vocal performances cannot be denied.
Their new release, Old School, was just released this week but they admitted they're not yet completely familiar with the new material and so only performed a few pieces from it.
Tyley Ross singing Puccini's Nessum Dorma, from Turandot, is always a crowd favorite, and I'm particularly fond of Puccini's O Mio Babbino Caro which Ross sings while AnnMarie sings a soulful bridge of original lyrics in English, in tribute to Marvin Gaye. For me, it's their most effective fusion of old and new.
I don't think a single person in the small crowd of brave souls who stayed till the end, would say that it wasn't worth it. We all got wet, but we all saw a great show. (promo)
Tribute to Joel Dorn: Aug 13th Lincoln Center Out of Doors (pictured Roberta Flack)
Joel Dorn was a jazz and R&B producer who died suddenly 8 months ago at the age of 65. Over the years he had worked with artists Roberta Flack, Dr. John, Mose Allsion, The Neville Brothers, Bette Midler and Jane Monheit, to name just a few.
This show was about remembering a man, too soon gone, with songs from artists who worked with him, and stories from friends, family and collaborators. Adam Dorn (aka Mocean Worker) hosted the evening and got a little choked up right at the start talking about his dad. There were other emotional moments as well, but at the end it was more a celebration of a life than anything else.
Mocean Worker and his band, who were the house band tonight, opened with a funky number followed by two songs from Roberta Flack. Joel Dorn won two Grammy awards with Roberta for First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and Killing Me Softly. She's in her 70's now, and her voice isn't what it used to be, but while performing First Time, it wasn't difficult to recall one of the finest vocal performances in popular music history.
Some other old timers included Mississippi jazz and blues icon Mose Allison, in his 80's now, gospel a cappella group The Persuasions, who might be following me because no matter where I go lately they seem to be there, and New Orleans musical icon Dr. John. I actually had to leave before Dr. John's performance and heard from a friend that his version of April Showers was a show highlight.
70's funk band, Black Heat, reunited to play their one hit from the three albums they released. Although lesser known, they've often been compared to War, Mandrill and KC and the Sunshine Band. Their performance was one of my favorites.
Among the younger set were jazz singer Jane Monheit who sang Somewhere Over The Rainbow, and Leslie Mendelson, a young pop and soul singer whose debut CD is about to be released and who'll be the last artist discovered by Joel Dorn. I'm guessing her CD release will be bittersweet, just like this show.
All Points West Festival: Aug 10th in Jersey City, NJ (Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, Trey Anastasio, Cat Power, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Amadou and Mariam, Grace Potter......)
Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals were my favorite act of the day, delivering socially relevant songs like My Own Two Hands, Excuse Me Mister and Diamonds On The Inside, that passionately rocked the crowd. My first time seeing them and hopefully not my last. (video)
Rodrigo y Gabriela, from Mexico City, play original songs (Diablo Rojo) and heavy metal covers (Metallica's Orion) as acoustic instrumentals. They have to be seen to be believed. Amazing! It rained pretty hard during their set and I didn't see anybody run for cover. (my video)
Cat Power is an indie singer songwriter whose music can be dark and droning. I was surprised how often her songs reminded me of Pink Floyd, including her cover of Creedence Clearwater's Fortunate Son. (video)
I missed most of the set of the young blues rockers Grace Potter and the Nocturnals which I regret because what I heard was very impressive. It looks like I have another item on my "things to do" list. (video)
Ben Jelen is a young pop rocker with "Johnny Depp" good looks and a really good voice. When he rocked, I was impressed. Some of his ballads were a little too pop for me, but he's definitely got talent. (my video)
Amadou and Mariam were another one of my favorites. I don't know how many in the young crowd even knew who the blind couple from Mali were, but their music was received enthusiastically with dancing and jumping. (promo)
I saw a little bit of Trey Anastasio and then skipped out on Jack Johnson. Nothing personal, it was a long day and at that point Jack might have been a little too mellow for me. Maybe another day.
Bill Withers tribute: Aug 10th at Prospect Park (pictured daughter Cora Withers)
This month's theme is short and sweet reviews because I can barely keep up with all the free shows. Some highlights of this tribute to one of our great songwriters were Jim James (My Morning Jacket) Ain't No Sunshine, Bill Withers himself singing Grandma's Hands with Cornell Dupree on guitar, Nona Hendryx (LaBelle) Lovely Day and Sandra St. Victor who rose the roof with her funky version of Use Me Up.
Other notable performances were Angelique Kidjo, Cory Glover (Living Color), The Swell Season, bluesman James Blood Ulmer and a cappella group The Persuasions. Eric Mingus rocked the house with Better Off Dead and most of the cast contributed to the finale of Lean On Me.
Shows like this can offer some uneven moments, as did this one, but the highlights, especially seeing Bill Withers, made this worthwhile. This show was filmed as part of a documentary about Bill Withers. See stillbillthemovie.com
Lila Downs: Aug 8th at Prospect Park
I'm so crazy busy with summer concerts that all I can say about this one is that Lila Downs is one of my favorite artists in any genre. She's beautiful, her voice is beautiful, her band is great and her music covers a wide swath of styles from traditional Mexican music to blues to psychedelic rock. If the singing, dancing, colorful garb and great music isn't enough, she also exudes a joy that's infectious. I love her shows which is evident in all my previous reviews of her. (my video)
She's just released a new CD, Shake Away, with songs in both English and Spanish and several guest appearances including Raul Midon and Mercedes Sosa. Talented harpist Edmar Castaneda joined her band for this show. You've either read about him here several times before, or you should do so now. A great talent. For more details on Lila, see my reviews from January and August 2007, April 2006 or July 2005. Like I said, I love her shows!
Soledad Barrio & Noche Flamenco: Aug 7th at Damrosch Park (pictured: Stephane Wrembel Trio opened)
The history of flamenco is shrouded in mystery and legend due to the fact that for many hundreds of years it lived in the domain of gypsies and peasants of Spain and was not respected by cultured people. That began to change about 140 years ago when people started to pay to see the best flamenco artists perform in small cafes.
When you say "flamenco" there are very few people who can't quickly visualize the clapping hands, stomping feet and percussive guitars associated with the form, and yet, you're still more likely to attend a performance with many dozens of people rather than thousands. This show was an exception to that rule as Damrosch Park was bursting at the seams with people trying to enjoy the show.
This could be partially due to the glowing review recently written in The Times by Alistair Macaulay who listed Soledad Barrio in the #1 spot of his 10 favorite performances from his first year in New York, or maybe because this was opening night for the impressive Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival. This year's lineup was orchestrated by new Director of Public Performing, Bill Bragin, formerly of Joe's Pub, and is one of the most eclectic and anticipated lineups in the festival history.
Despite a murky history, it's generally agreed that flamenco tradition has been shaped over time by Arabic, Islamic, Gypsy, Sephardic and Southern Spanish influences and more recently by Cuban and Brazilian. The images in the public's collective memory are accurate but the power and emotion of the form needs to be experienced live.
Soledad captivated the audience as did the entire troupe. The guitar playing and dancing were powerful and emotional. The Arabic singing style is an acquired taste and was met with both howls of approval and rolled eyes, but there was no denying the power of it. If you attended this performance you may or may not have become a fan of flamenco, but I think you would at least have gained a better understanding of it's appeal for others.
Guitarist Stephane Wrembel opened with a set of Gypsy jazz. Turning familiar tunes like The Anniversary Song (Oh, how we danced...) into jazzy jams he invoked both the memory of Django Reinhardt and contemporary artists like Jimi Hendrix. It was a fun set even if at times the drum and bass overpowered the guitar. All things considered, it was a great start to this year's Out of Doors Festival. He did this one too: (video)
African Guitar Festival: Aug 3rd Prospect Park Brooklyn (Habib Koite, Oliver Mtuzudzi, Daby Toure...)
This season of Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park has had as diverse and exciting lineup that you could ever hope for. Due to a number of variables, amazingly, this was my first trip to the series this season. I missed Isaac Hayes, Salif Keita, Philip Glass, Joan Osborne and Mark Morris Dance, to name a few. But, I picked a great show to break the ice and I'll be making up for lost time this week with Lila Downs and the tribute to Bill Withers.
Daby Toure is originally from Mauritania and currently resides in Paris. I've seen him several times before and have been impressed each time. His African rhythms and pop sensibility combine his beautiful voice and equally beautiful guitar playing into catchy melodic songs that stay with you long after the fact. A great energetic set. Have a listen: (my video)
Habib Koite is another artist that I've seen a number of times who has become one of my favorite artists of any genre. Bonnie Raitt mentions his name in the same breath as Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn when talking about guitar greats. His guitar playing is impressive, his voice soothing and his melodies haunting. I met him last year at a Lura concert at Joe's Pub and he gave me a copy of his new release, Afriki, which was one of my favorite CD's of the year. He and his band, Bamada, are from Mali, a country with rich musical traditions. I often tell people that I love African music and I get the sense that they're not completely clear what African music sounds like. I suspect that if they watched these videos, they'd say they too love African music. Go ahead, make my day: (my video)
Oliver Mtukudzi and his band Black Spirits are the biggest musical act in Zimbabwe, and judging from this show, they have quite a few fans in New York as well. The crowd sang and danced enthusiastically thru the entire set. His music is rooted in the hypnotic rhythms of the mbira (thumb piano) but fuses pop and other assorted African influences as well. I've read that his lyrics can be socially or politically relevant but I can't comment on that, I can only say that his music made me feel good! (my video)
I only caught a little bit of bassist Yossi Fine with Malian kora player Balla Tounkara, but I loved their sound. The kora is a 21 string instrument which at times can sound like a harp. Very beautiful.