DECEMBER 2006                   back

James Hunter: December 30th at BB Kings Blues Club

If this is the first time you've heard of James Hunter, then let me assure you that it won't be the last. You can hardly pick up a music magazine or newspaper without seeing glowing comparisons to Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and other R&B singers from that period. This 40-something retro soul singer has been a busy boy in England for the last twenty years but until this year he was virtually unknown in this country (Van Morrison described him as England's best kept secret).  His first U.S. release, People Gonna Talk, was just nominated for a best blues  Grammy and is most likely going to make his name a household word over here. The CD, which is actually his third, consists of fourteen original songs recorded in an analog studio, and written in the style of fifties and early sixties soul music.

Playing electric guitar and backed by tenor and baritone saxes, upright bass, keyboard and drums, he performed a collection of songs from the new release including the Ska influenced title cut People Gonna Talk, the gentle ballad Mollena which is actually a slow cha-cha, his stab at country music called I'll Walk Away and the completely infectious and danceable tunes 'Till Your Fool Comes Home and Watch and Chain.  James actually seemed disappointed that there was no dancing due to tables covering the dance floor. He tried to encourage a dance revolution but except for a few brave souls the audience kept their seats.

He also performed a number of covers from the golden soul era including James Brown's Out Of Sight and the popular standard The Very Thought Of You which was recorded by dozens of artists but is probably most associated with Nat King Cole. Great covers of the 5 Royals and Jackie Wilson helped add to his credibility with this material.

His cover of James Brown was particularly impressive. His new CD is very smooth, generating the Sam Cooke comparisons but his live performance can be very funky and gritty making James Brown comparisons equally appropriate.

 News of James Brown's death this week led me to listen to his "Live At The Apollo, 1962" album. The thought crossed my mind during Hunter's set that this exact set could have opened for James Brown back in 1962 and it would not have seemed out of place. Except maybe for all the white people! (video clip)


East Village Opera Company: December 20th at Joe's Pub

Every December New York City fills up with a wide assortment of holiday shows some of which, like the Radio City Christmas Show or NYCB's Nutcracker, go on to be embraced as part of holiday tradition.  One show which was well on the way to becoming one of those traditions was the Downtown Messiah, which for six years running was becoming more popular each year, even being broadcast on WFUV, until it met its untimely demise when The Bottom Line closed its doors very shortly after the 2003 performance.

The Downtown Messiah took Handel's Messiah and performed it with a Greenwich Village twist. The 18 member choir performed the Choral parts in traditional fashion but the individual songs were performed by an assortment of artists in their individual styles giving us a soulful and funky Rejoice Greatly, Good Tidings To Zion as a folk waltz and Why Do Nations So Furiously Rage as country blues and so on. 

About the same time that the short but brilliant run of the Downtown Messiah was coming to an end, musician and arranger Peter Kiesewalter combined forces with singer Tyley Ross to form the East Village Opera Company. Using a similar concept they took some of the world's favorite arias and traditional songs and gave them a contemporary twist combining aspects of a chamber orchestra and rock band with a "Verdi meets Queen" end result.  In 2005 they added vocalist AnnMarie Milazzo, which enabled them to include some of opera's favorite duets and gave the troupe better balance.

It would be easy to imagine this project as a novelty or maybe campy except for the fact the these are two of the finest vocalists you're likely to hear in popular music and Peter Kiesewalter and his entourage are serious musicians who easily navigate the terrain between classical, jazz, gospel, blues, country and pop. Even as they performed a funky jazzy rap version of Climb Every Mountain from The Sound Of Music, it was completely enjoyable on a musical level while being amusing in concept. Peter handled the lead vocal for that one and afterwards Tyley joked about Peter's obsession with The Sound Of Music saying that every record in Peter's collection is a copy of The Sound Of Music - at least I think he was joking.

It's true, Climb Every Mountain is not from an opera. This was E.V.O.C.'s Holiday show and included an assortment of songs which could be loosely described as having holiday themes or sentiments. Tyley Ross's version of O Holy Night, sung half in English and half in French, was both beautiful and moving and the only familiar Christmas carol in the show. Handel's Messiah was again well represented with Tyley and AnnMarie doing a beautiful duet on How Beautiful Are The Feet and guest vocalist Victoria Cave joining them for If God Be For Us, as well as Tyley's powerful performance of The Trumpet Shall Sound.

The last time I saw The Downtown Messiah, which was its final performance, it was at the then recently reopened Winter Garden Atrium which had been closed since being damaged in the 9/11 attacks. At that show Richard Barone sang The Trumpet Shall Sound and became visibly shaken when he had to sing "The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised" while looking into the void that was once the World Trade Center. As talented as Richard is he has nowhere near the vocal ability of Tyley Ross, but I'll never hear that song again without thinking of that moment in the Winter Garden.

Some other notable moments from the show were AnnMarie's cover of David Byrne's (Talking Heads) This Must Be The Place and AnnMarie and Victoria's duet of Jane Siberry's Calling All Angels. Tyley also added Maria, Mari and Panis Angelicus from EVOC's first CD and Peter, with his brother Tobi on penny whistle, did a beautiful instrumental of Killen's Air.

I don't know if this show will become an annual event, but if they do it again next year I would not miss it by choice. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.  (video clip)


Corinne Bailey Rae: December 15th at The Housing Works Used Book Cafe

I had December 15th marked on my calendar for the last three months. Not because of this show but because Raul Malo, who's one of my favorite male vocalists, was performing in Montclair, New Jersey. Several weeks ago I was checking the web site for the Used Book Cafe and saw that Corinne had been booked for that same date. I sat staring at my computer for several minutes not knowing what to do, but eventually decided that it's likely I'll be able to see Raul Malo in small venues many times in the future, but it's highly unlikely that Corinne, with her meteoric rise this year, will be playing tiny venues again. This week's three Grammy nominations set that conclusion in stone. 

The Housing Works Book Cafe, at 126 Crosby Street in Soho, donates all their revenues to housing, medical and legal needs of New York City's AIDS victims. That's why Corinne, and artists even bigger like Lyle Lovett or John Mayer, donate their time to play a venue which only holds maybe 80 or 100 people. It also why it just feels good to be there knowing every book or cup of coffee sold goes to helping people in need.

This show confirmed the feeling I had a few months ago when I saw her at Webster Hall that her voice is bigger and more powerful in concert than what you hear on her CD. Backed by two singers, guitar and keyboard, she performed songs from her debut CD including her two best known tunes Like A Star and Put Your Records On,  plus Butterfly and the beautiful soulful torch song Till It Happens To You along with a few others. She also did a beautiful job covering Stevie Wonder's Creepin' which was the first time they performed it in concert.

In the middle of the short set there was a ten or fifteen minute question and answer period with host Alan Light and the audience each asking a few questions. She talked about her Grammy nominations, her hit single and about coming to America but the most charming moment came when she was asked about the first time she heard one of her songs on the radio. As she told the story of calling as many friends and family as she could in three minutes to tell them to quickly turn on the radio, you could see that she was reliving the excitement of the moment in her head. It was almost like being there at the moment an artist has realized their dream. She also said she'll be touring the USA again in the spring so I suggest you put that on your list of things to do.

The opening act was Brooklyn singer songwriter Kevin Devine who is most commonly  compared to Conor Oberst aka Bright Eyes. Kevin also opened the Webster Hall show where it was difficult to appreciate him. That venue was too large and the crowd too impatient to see Corrine for him to have a fair chance. This was an entirely different experience. He opened with a few slow folkie songs that made me realize that he's pretty good with words and then played a good old heartfelt energetic protest song called The Burning City Smoke which won me over completely. A great singer he's not, but sometimes that's not a requirement when you have something important to say. He also brought out singer Carey Brandenburg, no relation to me, who added some beautiful country harmonies on a few tunes. I had also not realized how beautiful her voice was at the Webster Hall show. His recent CD release is called Put Your Ghost To Rest and might be worth a listen.

Kevin talked about losing a brother to AIDS and how gratifying it was for him to be able to use what he loves to do to honor the memory of his brother by performing in this venue. He added that if anyone buys his CD, half the money will go to Housing Works and the other half to Capitol Records. Everyone had a good laugh at that one.

This was a very satisfying show on many levels. This was most likely not the last time that I'll see these artists or the last time I'll be at the Used Book Cafe. In fact, I'll probably be there next month for Vienna Teng. (video clip)


Vinicius Cantauria & Marc Ribot: December 8th at Joe's Pub

Brazilian singer, songwriter, percussionist and guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria merges traditional bossa nova music with  contemporary influences keeping it vibrant, alive and relevant in the new millennium. His repertoire includes classics from  Gilberto Gil and Antonio Carlos Jobim as well as original songs. His songs So Voce and Lua E Estralla were big hits in Brazil, and certain international circles, for Fabio Jr and Caetano Veloso, and his 1996 CD, Sol Na Cara, has been his biggest international success. He's collaborated with progressive artists including David Byrne, Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno and been percussionist and sometimes singer with Bill Frissell's Intercontinental Quartet and with Brazilian superstar Caetano Veloso.

New Yorker (born in Newark, NJ) Marc Ribot (pronounced REE-Bo) might be the most famous guitarist that you've never heard of.  He's played on numerous albums by Elvis Costello and Tom Waits, spent several years as part of John Lurie's Lounge Lizards, an innovative downtown jazz ensemble,  worked with Medeski Martin and Wood, Don Byron, The Jazz Passengers and T-Bone Burnett and that just barely scratches the surface. He's also scored films and played on film sound tracks including the recent Johnny Cash bio-pic Walk The Line.

Whether it's jazz, blues, Americana, Cuban, Brazilian, R&B or rock and roll, this guitarist is always in demand. I most recently saw him backing Chocolate Genius with MeShell N'Degeocello at The Housing Works Used Book Cafe and accompanying Tom Waits at The Katrina Benefit Show at Radio City Music Hall. If you go to a fair amount of concerts, you may have already seen him perform and don't even realize it. You've almost certainly heard his studio work.

For this show the two artists used assorted combinations of acoustic nylon string guitars and electric guitars and blew through an enjoyable set of mostly very laid back Brazilin or neo-Brazilian tunes (some Cuban sounds were heard as well). Vinicius supplied the rhythms and vocals with Marc adding most of the guitar pyrotechnics. At one point Vinicius started to play some lead guitar and then looked at Marc, laughed and said "oh no". The room had a good laugh.

Sometimes with bossa nova the songs are presented in such a laid back fashion, think Girl From Ipanema, that you can barely call it singing.  I don't think Vinicius will ever be remembered for his singing but his songwriting, musicianship and innovative approach to music have already made their mark.

After the set, Vinicius and I established that he speaks very little English and I speak even less Brazilian Portuguese so I gave him the thumbs up and said "good job" and he answered "Obrigado" (thank you), one of the four words I understand. Enough said.


Vienna Teng: December 1st Monmouth Academy of Musical Arts

When I first saw that Vienna Teng would be performing in Morganville,  New Jersey, which is about twenty five minutes from my house, my first thought was "What's down there?" Opened in January of 2006, the academy's co-founder, Joe Orlando,  said during the introductions that he wanted the academy to be a place where music could live as well as be taught and so was born their performance series.

This was my fourth time seeing Vienna in the last two and a half years. Some other artists who hold that distinction during that same time period are Bruce Springsteen,  Jeffrey Gaines, Ollabelle, Raul Midon, Angelique Kidjo, Lizz Wright and the Garth Fagan Dance Company to name a few. When an artist gets on my "A-list", sometimes I can't get enough.

Vienna describes her music as chamber folk. Her music is steeped in the tradition of singer/songwriters like Tori Amos, but often infused with elements of string quartets, horns that bring Miles Davis to mind or an accordion that puts you in a French cafe, bringing it to new realms.

Vienna performed solo on a grand piano and played several songs from her recent CD Dreaming Through The Noise, a few songs from her first two CD's and even some covers.  From the new CD, she played the uncharacteristically upbeat City Hall, about the joyful ride to city hall to get married, Nothing Without You which I've described before as beautifully sad (Joe Orlando accompanied her on upright bass for that one), and the completely dark, depressing and hypnotic Pontchartrain.

She explained that Blue Caravan, also from the new CD, began to form as she waited for her friend with a blue Dodge Caravan to pick her up.  As she waited, she began to sing a short refrain encouraging her friend to hurry up and then realized she had a nice little melody going. She added that Blue Caravan sounded more romantic than blue mini-van. The show was almost like a songwriting master class with Vienna giving lots of background on the genesis of the various songs. I love when artists do that, and I think she really went the extra mile for the students.

From her previous CD, Warm Strangers, she performed Harbor, My Medea and the hidden track Green Island, which is a traditional Taiwanese folk song that she sang a cappella except for the camera shutters which accompanied her (My only complaint of the evening was some questionable camera etiquette).  She also  asked the students to count how many different meters she squeezed into Harbor. She'd be a great teacher but I think she's destined to perform.

From her first CD, Waking Hours, she performed the inspirational Soon Love Soon, and gave the audience two parts to sing which at times sounded glorious. It helps when the room is sprinkled with voice students. The show actually opened with four of the students each performing a popular song (Tori Amos, Coldplay...).   It seemed an appropriate way to open the concert for this venue. The students did a nice job and inspired Vienna to add a couple of covers to her set including Bridge Over Troubled Waters.  An unexpected treat.

Vienna will be in New York again on January 20th at the Bowery Ballroom with Ollabelle, who I've reviewed here numerous times, extraordinary guitarist Kaki King and alt country group Hem (think young Judy Collins meets Wilco). A great lineup. I'll also keep my eye on the Monmouth Academy schedule which currently shows classical guitarist Xuefei Yang on February 4th. There is something energizing about listening to live music with young music students. You can't get that vibe just anywhere. (video clip)