FEBRUARY 2008 (back)
Steve Winwood/Eric Clapton: Feb 26th Madison Square Garden
I often go to a show and then can't wait to write about it because I want the world to know about some new amazing talent that just knocked my socks off. But what can I tell you about these two guys that you don't already know? Instead, I'll tell you the story of how Eric and Steve's decision to reunite after almost 40 years ultimately saved a woman's life. It a true story about destiny or luck, depending on your viewpoint, and it's what stayed with me from this evening even more than the great show.
I can't say that I never go to concerts at The Garden but, except for last year's Bruce Springsteen show, the last time before that was Elton John and John Lennon in 1974. I also can't say that I never take the train to the city, but I'd estimate that I take the train once or twice every 10 years. We were attending this show with our dear friends, Robin and Joey, who live in south Jersey and I had originally suggested that they drive to our house so we could drive in together. But with rush hour traffic and all, it was much easier for them to just catch the local train in Princeton. So, a new plan was hatched.
They would catch the 6:05 in Princeton and call us to let us know which car they were in. We would meet them at our local station in Iselin, catch the 6:31 and then ride in together. A good plan which left us plenty of time to get Chinese and get to the station. But a half hour earlier than expected, Joey called and said there had been no traffic and they arrived at their station in time for the earlier train and would be in the second car. We still had time to make it, but we had to hustle.
We double timed it over to the station and arrived with 10 minutes to spare just as an Amtrak train was pulling in. We planted ourselves near the front of the platform and did what people do when waiting for a train. Within a few moments I heard a commotion and looked up to see a woman struggling to free herself from the train door which had closed on her. She was reaching with one hand for the emergency button and trying to pry the door with her other. She was neither strong enough nor tall enough to do either.
I immediately moved to help but as I took my first step, the train began to depart. Talk about an adrenaline rush! I rushed forward, as did a gentleman standing next to me, and the two of us ripped her out of the door like a sack of potatoes (I don't know if either of us could have done it alone and I was by far the bigger guy). She fell to the platform and I looked up to see the train, and the door she was stuck in, sail into the sunset past the barricade at the end of the platform which most likely would have killed her.
I often make the case that we shape our own destiny by the choices we make with free will. If our time of death is pre-determined, then why quit drinking, quit smoking, lose weight or practice safe sex. But I have to admit it took an awful lot of unlikely circumstances, like a 40 year reunion, no rush hour traffic in Princeton and going to a place I never go in a way I never do, to name a few, to put me in that spot at that time. At this point, I can't be sure if the whole reunion wasn't the result of a butterfly in the Amazon flapping its wings.
I found out a couple of days later during the post incident investigation, that the woman, except for some soreness, was otherwise doing fine. Oh, and I went to a concert.
For those of you who've ignored 40 years of popular music, Steve Winwood was in The Spencer Davis Group, Traffic and Blind Faith and has had an extensive solo career. Eric Clapton was in John Mayall's Blues Breakers, The Yardbirds, Cream and Blind Faith, among others, and has had an even more visible solo career. These are some of the most important bands, and two of the most important artists in the history of popular music. Icons both.
The idea of a pseudo Blind Faith reunion (bassist Rich Grech is dead and drummer Ginger Baker and Clapton are estranged) was fascinating to me. Their lone album is one of my all time favorites. This show featured a handful of songs from the album, including Had To Cry Today, which opened the album and the show, Can't Find My Way Back Home and Presence Of The Lord. The set also included a wide assortment of songs from both careers (Forever Man, Cocaine, Dear Mr. Fantasy, Glad...) and Hendrix covers Little Wing, Voodoo Chile and Them Changes which was written by Buddy Miles who died this past week. They also covered Buddy Holly's Well Alright, which is also on the Blind Faith album, and Ray Charles' Georgia On My Mind which Winwood performed solo after Clapton's solo acoustic version of Ramblin' on My Mind. (Glad video)
In the end they played great, sang as good as ever, which is to say Winwood sang great and Clapton was good, and it was all a satisfying experience. I was reminded, however, why I shy away from arena concerts as the vocals were somewhat muddy and there was basically no verbal interaction between the artists and the audience or each other for that matter, although they certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves. I know I did.
Estelle w/special guest John Legend: Feb 21st at Joe's Pub
I first heard of U.K. Hip Hop/Soul singer Estelle about three weeks before this show when a friend familiar with my music addiction suggested that I look into her. I went home that night and pulled up some youtube videos and was very impressed. Her blend of hip hop, soul, reggae, pop and rock was very reminiscent of Lauren Hill with some hints of Tina Turner as well. That led me to her website where I discovered that she had just been signed by John Legend ,who was touting her as a potential breakthrough artist of 2008. The very next day I got an e-mail from Joe's Pub announcing that they'd just booked her.
You may have noticed that I was at Carnegie Hall earlier this day to see Bobby McFerrin, but I had a strong feeling that this would be a one time opportunity and in the not too distant future, Estelle would be playing large venues or arenas, so I did a double header, and I'm glad I did.
Her first CD in the U.K. brought her some notoriety there, but she's still a virtual unknown here. Her new release, Shine, with guest appearances by Kanye West, Marc Ronson and John Legend, among others, is sure to change all that.
This one hour set featured mostly songs from the new CD including Wait a Minute, Magnificent, American Boy..., and an appearance by John Legend to sing a duet on a song called You Are. Her band, which included one male and one female back up singer, was truly impressive. If this is the first time that you've heard of this artist, I'm reasonably certain that it won't be the last. (Legend Duet)
Bobby McFerrin w/Edgar Meyer: Feb 21st at Carnegie Hall
This show was supposed to also feature Alison Krauss on vocals and violin but she came down with the flu that afternoon and had to cancel. For those who don't know, Alison Krauss is one of country and bluegrass music's most respected artists who teamed up last year with Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin for the most surprising collaboration in recent memory.
I'm looking forward to seeing Alison and Robert in May, but this was an equally intriguing match as Bobby McFerrin is one of the most versatile jazz vocalists on the planet. The show also featured Edgar Meyer, one of the world's most versatile and sought after bass players, with support from Ron Block on guitar, banjo and vocals and 16 year old Sierra Hull on mandolin and vocals.
Bobby came out first and did a couple of his vocal excursions, he's probably the world's foremost improvisational vocalist, before being joined by Edgar and singing wordless harmonies with Edgar's bass musings. I think you had to be there, but take my word, it was fascinating. (Bobby solo)
The other players came out and young Sierra Hull took over Alison's vocal responsibilities actually sounding somewhat like a young Alison Krauss. They did a few songs with Bobby and then a few without and I'm assuming it was the same set they had planned with Alison, some country and bluegrass standards and finishing with the 60's song Baby, Now That I've Found You which was made famous first by The Foundations and then many years later by Alison's cover. (The Foundations also did "Build Me Up, Buttercup") (Alison sings "Now That I've Found You)
As disappointed as I was that Alison cancelled, I have to admit that there wasn't a moment of the show where I wasn't completely engaged. Bobby McFerrin and Edgar Meyer are national treasures and their supporting cast were most impressive.
Tina Dico: Feb 19th at The Living Room
In April, Tina Dico will be releasing her second CD in the States, called Count To Ten, and she'll be playing Joe's Pub in May. So imagine my surprise, and delight, when I saw that she was also playing this free show at the intimate Living Room which holds about 60 or 80 people.
I should add that in Denmark she plays with a full band in sold out arenas so the Danes, which made up a good portion of this audience, were probably even more delighted than me.
She writes good lyrics and memorable melodies with great hooks, has a great voice, is a fine guitarist and plays some piano as well. This show was dominated by songs from the new release including You Know Better, Cruel To The Sensitive Kind, On The Run, Sacre Coeur and the title cut. She also slipped in a few tunes from her previous release, In The Red, including Warm Sand and Room With a View. (Count To Ten)
I first heard Tina last year on David Dye's show, from WXPN in Philadelphia, and immediately went out and bought In The Red, which instantly became a favorite for both me and Judy. We subsequently saw last year's Joe's Pub show, which we absolutely loved, and will most likely see her again in May. You can also see her at the intimate Joe's Pub in May or you could fly to Denmark, sit at the top of an arena and watch her with binoculars. Seems like a no-brainer.
Somi: Feb 17th at Joe's Pub
Somi was born in Illinois to East African parents (Rwanda, Uganda) and raised mostly in the United States although she has also lived in several African countries. She's often described as a "citizen of the world" which is certainly reflected in her music. She's essentially a jazz singer and songwriter but African folk, neo soul, bossa nova and blues have also worked their way into her CD's and live sets. This set included a few tunes from previous CD's, some selections from her recent CD, Red Soil In My Eyes, some new material and a Bob Marley cover.
One show highlight was a new song called Changing Inspiration which she dedicated to her Valentine, Barack Obama. I also loved the cover of Bob Marley's Wait In Vain which she turned into a slow soulful torch song which I found very moving. (Waiting In Vain)
Somi has been compared to several great jazz vocalists but the one that she sometimes brought to my mind was Dianne Reeves. As she wandered between assorted genres and styles, it was always evident that she's a great jazz vocalist. Her band included two backup singers, cello, percussion and two acoustic guitarists including Brandon Ross who plays with numerous people including one of my favorites, Cassandra Wilson.
This was a good show and Somi is an artist that I suspect I will be seeing again. One added note: While sitting at the bar I met a composer and jazz pianist from Martinique named Jimmy Felvia whose music you can hear at his myspace page. I gave it a listen and was very impressed. Check it out. www.myspace.com/jimmyfelvia
David Poe: Feb 15th at Joe's Pub
When you attend a David Poe show, you can be certain that between the death, destruction and broken hearts of his lyrics, you'll have more laughs than a barrel of monkeys. I use that expression because at one point in the show, David broke a guitar string and to fill the time an audience member jumped up on stage and told a joke about a gorilla and a Jack Russell terrier. You're not likely to see that at a David Byrne concert.
Wearing a 3-piece suit, he alternately sipped champagne and scotch while joking and telling stories, which created a relaxed "Rat Pack" vibe where things like that are more likely to happen. Rather than be annoyed, David could barely start the next song for laughing so hard.
Perhaps I've overemphasized the dark side of his lyrics. He does write some love songs like the song Wilderness which opened the show and begins with the lyrics "Dead evergreen still whispering. The warmer birds already flown. Wet with rain". Or from the same song "If the trees are the lungs of the world, the city is her cigarette". Yes, I know, those seem dark as well but the song goes on to describe it's subject "You are clean, quiet as snow, darker than a forest. You are my wilderness". It is exactly these contrasts that make him such an intriguing artist.
Two musical high points in the show were The Drifter and If It Gives You Joy. He brought out friends Reni Laine and Caitlin Canty to sing backup vocals on The Drifter. It's always been one of my favorite David Poe songs but the beautiful harmonies from the girls made this the best version I've heard. After the set I told David to sign them up. Reni even played a little trombone solo.
If It Gives You Joy was joyful both sonically and lyrically. Playing his acoustic guitar and backed by a drum machine and piano, he gleefully and repeatedly wailed the refrain "If it gives you joy, you don't have to explain it" throughout the jazzy rock anthem. It's a great song to end a show. (If It Gives You Joy)
One last note: David is currently working on a project with a collection of music and film types to produce a series of political viral videos dealing with issues rather than specific candidates. The directors of Jesus Camp, Supersize Me and Deliver Us From Evil are just a few of the people involved. For more info go to: www.myspace.com/theuscampaign
Marc Cohn: Feb 14th at South Orange Performing Arts Center
I just reviewed Marc in November, which should be a clue as to how I feel about his music, so you can get the whole "back-story" by going back to that review. This was Valentine's Day and since Marc is also one of Judy's favorites, this was the perfect destination for us. Early in the show someone yelled out "How does Elizabeth feel about this"? (Marc is married to WABC news correspondent Elizabeth Vargas). Marc answered "Oh, she's pissed". He laughed and added that he had gotten permission months ago.
He performed a somewhat different set list than the November show including a song I've never heard before called The Things We've Handed Down, a very sentimental song which he wrote to his unborn child about 17 years ago. He then invited that child, 16-1/2 year old Max, up on stage to plays drums on a cover of Van Morrison's Crazy Love. It was all warm and fuzzy and a really nice touch for the holiday.
But don't think he didn't also rock the house at times. His version of Paper Walls from 1993's The Rainy Season featured Shane Fontayne wailing away on guitar and Marc and Shane's acoustic guitar work on The Calling from his new CD was a highlight of the evening. (The Calling)
He said that every time he doesn't do True Companion, he gets letters of complaint from disappointed fans telling him to do a reality check. (It's an extremely popular wedding song). He then proceeded to perform the song and forgot the words. Did anyone say Freud? And, of course, he doesn't get out of the building without doing Walking In Memphis.
This beautiful seated venue had great sound and the crowd was very attentive, making the show a little more intimate than the Highline show in November. After the show, we had a nice conversation with drummer Joe Bonadio, who we are acquainted with from his work with Martin Sexton and Heather Eatman. In case anyone needs a truly talented creative drummer, his schedule is wide open after two more gigs with Marc.
Joe Henry: Feb 7th The Allen Room (Jazz at Lincoln Center)
It's possible, even likely, that you've never heard of Joe Henry despite the fact that he's produced CD's for Solomon Burke, Teddy Thompson, Ani DiFranco, Betty Lavette and Aimee Mann; released 10 CD's of his own, collaborated with Robert Hunter of The Grateful Dead and, along with Louden Wainwright, scored the Katherine Heigl movie Knocked Up. He also co-wrote Don't Tell Me, which was a big hit for Madonna and who happens to be his sister-in-law.
But you don't really need to know any of that. What you do need to know is that his recent release, Civilians, is by far my favorite CD of 2007 and might be my favorite CD of the new millennium. I'm not being hyperbolic. I've listened to the CD every day for the last several months with no end in sight.
This show was part of the American Songbook series and featured most of the songs from that CD (Civil War, Time Is a Lion, Scare Me To Death...), three songs from Tiny Voices (Sold, Flag and This Afternoon) and a few older fan favorites like Trampoline and Stop. (Trampoline video)
Joe played guitar and was backed by a great band which included the amazing drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist Davis Piltch and special guests jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and for a couple of songs jazz clarinetist Don Byron. Joe's songwriting has often been compared to Tom Waits and Bob Dylan but these two jazz musicians helped to emphasize his jazz side.
I believe that the nature of the series prompted Joe to give background information on several of the songs. He said that he wrote God Only Knows with Mavis Staples in mind and when he played it for her she said "That's fine, Joe Henry, what else do you have". I don't know if she'll reconsider some day, but the prayer-like tune is my favorite on the CD and was one of the highlights of the show. Mehldau, who early in the set seemed uncomfortable with some bad notes and riffs that didn't always work for me, emotionally moved me with his playing on this one.
Before playing Stop, which Madonna co-wrote and recorded as Don't Tell Me, he said they agreed to each do whatever they liked with the song. He added that he recorded it as a tango and she recorded it as a big hit. He went on to say that he doesn't know why he didn't think of that. I couldn't find a video of Joe doing Stop, but here's a cover by another of my favorites Lizz Wright: (Lizz Wright "Stop")
Before performing two politically charged songs, he said he was concerned about the political themes that were surfacing while writing the new CD because that's not what he does. His wife assured him that his lyrics are so obtuse that no one will know what he's writing about anyway, so he should go ahead, which he did.
One of the songs was Our Country which is the most poignant song on the new CD. It tells the story of overhearing baseball great Willie Mays and his wife lamenting the fading of the American dream while shopping in a Home Depot. In the song he's almost sure it's Willie Mays. It's a very powerful commentary on the state of affairs.
I should add that, like Dylan and Waits, Joe Henry has a voice that could be considered an acquired taste. I love it and think it's perfectly suited for the material, but if you find it slightly "off-putting", just give it a chance. The lyrics will pull you in and the melodies and arrangements will soothe you.
Teddy Thompson: Feb 5th Apple Store
Teddy, son of British folk/rock icons Richard and Linda Thompson, released two commercially ignored but critically praised CD's of original singer/songwriter material before last years Up Front and Down Low which was mostly covers of well known, and some lesser known, country tunes.
That might seem like an odd choice for a British boy until you hear the songs and realize he sounds as legitimately country as the artists he covers. This 45 minute set was a free show which featured those country tunes and included She Thinks I Still Care (George Jones), My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers (Merle Haggard), Change Of Heart (Boudleaux Bryant) and a beautiful duet with Jenni Muldaur (Marias daughter) on the Everly Brother's Don't Ask Me To Be Friends.
I happened by chance to be standing next to Jim Lauderdale who's written songs for The Dixie Chicks and Patti Loveless, among others, and I said "He doesn't sound British". Jim raised his eyebrow and nodded. (The international sign for "you got that right"). Jim was playing the second set but I was unable to stay.