January 2005                       back

  Martin Sexton (w/Jill Sobule ) : Jan 29 at Irving Plaza

In August of 1996, Judy and I were out to dinner with our friend, Rex Fowler, who is the lead singer and songwriter for Aztec Two-Step.  In the course of conversation, he asked "Have you heard of Martin Sexton yet?"  I had just recently been hearing some of Martin's songs on WFUV and had already made a mental note to look into him more deeply.  Rex said "You absolutely must go see this guy if he's playing anywhere within a hundred miles.  I just saw him at a music festival and I've never seen anything like it.  He got a standing ovation after his first song!"

As luck would have it, Marty was playing at The Bottom Line two weeks later as part of a "Required Listening" show where four "up and coming" artists each play a 25-minute set. The day after our dinner with Rex, I ran out and bought The Black Sheep CD and tickets for Required Listening.

Marty opened his set that night with "Can't Stop Thinking About You" which had already become my favorite on the CD.  To say I was mesmerized is an understatement.  I had never heard anything like it.  I think joyful astonishment would describe it better.  Over the next three years we saw him about two dozen more times and actually got friendly with him from seeing so many shows in small venues.

In recent years we've seen him much less frequently for a variety of reasons including the fact that we generally don't go to standing venues like Irving Plaza where he often plays now.  I went to this show because I was able to volunteer to work the merchandise table and therefore had:  a) a seat and b) free tickets.

Working the merchandise table is a different kind of experience. You're at the concert, but you're never able to achieve the musical nirvana that comes from focusing completely on the music.  What you are able to do is meet lots of people who have themselves discovered this still somewhat obscure secret called Martin Sexton.  I chatted with dozens of fans, including several I knew from previous concerts, worked with Keith and Jane who came down from Vermont for the show (did Rex say 100 miles?) and had what I would describe as a really fun evening.

This show consisted of the usual suspects of familiar Sexton tunes and covers of Purple Rain, A Day In The Life and The Thrill is Gone.  Jill Sobule opened the show and also did her familiar material and covered All The Young Dudes.  Later she jumped up with Marty to sing Love Keep Us Together. I've seen her many times and always enjoyed her. You can see more details about her in some of my recent reviews of her shows and more about Marty in my July review from the Central Park show.  

I had brief but nice chats with Marty before and after the show.  He sent his regards to Judy who didn't feel well and stayed home at the last minute.  I also had a longer conversation with Jill about various things including how much she loves HBO on Sunday night.  Deadwood, Six Feet Under and Carnivale are among her favorite shows.  She made herself very accessible to her fans before and after her set and seemed to really enjoy socializing with her fans.  

 

Michelle Shocked (w/ Raul Midon ) : Jan 10th at Joe's Pub

There are a lot of ways you could describe Michelle Shocked. You could call her an eclectic singer songwriter or an eccentric character, a political and social activist (some would add radical) or folk music's Michael Moore. One thing you could never call her is ordinary.

At the start of her set she announced that she's been working on a new CD. Then she added "did I say one CD, I mean two...  no three... or is it four... actually it's five CD's. She swore us to secrecy and told us she's working on five CD's in five different genres including Texas Swing, American Roots, Blues, Tejano and Gospel, all allegedly due out this spring. (Fortunately, I had a lime wedge in my mouth at the time of swearing in, and therefore am exempt from the obligation of the oath).

She played solo acoustic, with occasional help from Jason Novak on harmonica, and did songs from what is apparently her favorite of the five, the American Roots project. Those were followed by a few from the Tejano project. For her encore she did some of her familiar tunes including Anchorage and Prodigal Daughter.

Although there were some wonderful moments, musically this was not one of her finer nights. She seemed tentative and unfocused at times. Maybe even self conscious. Several times she stopped songs in the middle and said "this doesn't work so well without the band" and moved on to other things. She told lots of stories, some very amusing, and talked about how many times she heard "shut up and sing" during the shows leading up to the election. (I had the thought that it's possible some of the people yelling may have actually agreed with her politics. She does ramble on at times). She said in Colorado, fifty people walked out when she made a derogatory joke about Bush. It went over much better in Manhattan.

At the end of her set she said "Please don't judge me too harshly, I don't really have an act right now. They asked me to come do some of my new material and I said OK." She seemed so sincere that I decided not to judge her by this show.

You may be curious as to why I referred to her as a character or a radical. When Mercury Records refused to promote her albums, but would not allow her to go to another record company, she got out of her contract by filing an artists rights suit claiming violation of the 13th amendment which prohibits slavery.  And if you go to her web site, you'll find a picture of her in front of the White House wearing a Burka (Muslim fundamentalist garb for women) made from an American flag and holding a sign that reads "Shock and Horror." These two facts alone qualify her for the title "not your ordinary girl from East Texas."

Opening for Michelle was one of my recent favorites, Raul Midon. I've written about him so often that I won't go into details again. I'll just say he's a virtuoso guitarist and a great singer and songwriter who you will absolutely be hearing about. His new CD on Manhattan/Blue Note is due out in May. Michelle Shocked, who's a respectable finger picking guitarist, said during her first song "I know my playing seems rudimentary after Raul Midon." She was right. It might be apples and oranges, but my advice would be that if you're going to perform solo acoustic, do not let Raul Midon open for you. You will not shine as brightly.

 

Globalfest : Jan 8th at The Public Theater

                       

Rokia Traore with band                                                                   1/3 of Ollabelle 

  

For the second year in a row, I started the year with a show that I'll be hard pressed to top the rest of the year.  Globalfest is a music festival produced in conjunction with the Annual Arts Presenters Conference to give booking agents an opportunity to sample an assorted collection of acts from around the world.  With 13 acts on three stages, my only problem was deciding who to see.

I started with Paris Combo in Joe's Pub.  Led by Belle du Berry's writing and vocals, their music is an eclectic mix of gypsy, jazz, and swing music with some Latin and North African rhythms included, all of which, when added together, transports you to a French cabaret. 

Belle was charming and amusing between songs, asking the women in the audience, in her thick French accent, if there were any Prince Charming's in the room after telling the story of how Sleeping Beauty puts potentially harmful ideas into the heads of young girls.  Everyone had a good laugh.  The other band members also contribute to the writing and consist of David Lewis on horns and piano, Mano Razanajato on bass and backup vocals, Potzi on guitars and Francois Jeannin on drums (I only know this because I have one of their CD's). This was a fantastic set.

Next, I worked my way upstairs to the Anspacher Theater to see Juana Molina from Argentina. She's a highly regarded, up and coming artist who lays down electronic loops on a keyboard and then plays acoustic guitar and sings original tunes.  I don't think I can give a fair account of her performance because, with all the exotic instruments, percussion and backup singers in the house, I just wasn't in the frame of mind for something this subtle.

After two songs I worked my way up one more flight of stairs, to Martinson Hall, where Mory Kante from Guinea was finishing his set.  As I climbed the stairs I began to hear the glorious voices and percussion and quickened my pace to submerge myself into the sound.  I entered the room and 15 seconds later the set was over. I was very disappointed, but that's show biz.  According to the program, Mory is a singer, who plays kora and balafon and had global success with his dance hit Yeke Yeke in 1987. Maybe another time.

After a short setup, out came Rokia Traore with her band. The moment they began to play, I thought "here we go".  I live for moments like this. With two percussionists, two traditional African 3-stringed instruments (n'goni), a wooden xylophone (balafon), an unbelievable guitarist who sometimes played bass, and a backup singer who looked like Janet Jackson,  Rokia started singing and I went right into a trance. When she wasn't singing, or playing acoustic guitar, she and her backup singer were doing choreographed movements, which were beautiful (Sometimes the guitarist joined them). The whole thing was thrilling. Time Out London called her "Arguably the most exciting, most thrilling live African music show around"  and the Star Ledger's Jay Lustig, reviewing this show, said her singing "conveyed warmth and serenity at times and explosive joy at others." Pretty good description. (that's why he gets paid)

Next on the agenda was another trip downstairs to Anspacher Theater for the last half of Eva Ayllon's set. Eva is maybe the best known singer in Peru and has been compared to Celia Cruz and Cesaria Evora. I think the comparisons are justified. She's a great singer and does lots of sexy dancing while she performs. With two backup singers, bass, lots of percussion and a keyboard player it was difficult to remain in our seats. This was yet another performer who I would gladly see again.

And, as if all of this wasn't enough, the last set of the night was from one of my favorite bands from this past year.  Ollabelle, who you're familiar with if you've been following my adventures, play American roots music mixing traditional blues, gospel, bluegrass and country tunes with some original material.  Before the set, I had a brief conversation with keyboardist Glenn Patscha who was so pleased that American roots music was included in a World Music festival. We both agreed that America was part of the world, although just barely. I also spoke with singer Fiona McBain who told me the band is going into the studio in a few months to work on their next CD.

Some groups I was unable to see were the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, The Warsaw Village Band and The Yoshida Brothers among others. I wonder if anyone has considered making this a two day festival?