January 2006                back

Toshi and Bernice Johnson Reagon : January 29th at Joe's Pub

I think it was about 1998 when I heard that Toshi Reagon and Big Lovely would be opening for Dar Williams in an afternoon show in Central Park. I had heard Toshi on WFUV and was interested in seeing her live act, and opening for Dar seemed like a good double bill. Judy and I decided that rather than go inside Rumsey Field, we would sit outside under the trees, where the sound is great, and picnic on a blanket with our afghan hound, Tanny.  A beautiful day and beautiful memory.

When we arrived at that show I noticed that whatever they were playing over the speakers sounded amazing and I wondered who it was. Then I realized it was a sound check for Toshi and Big Lovely (Big Lovely is usually two or three vocalists plus guitar bass and drums). They sounded so good that I thought it was a CD. That set of folk, rock, blues and reggae had such great music, harmonies and energy that at the end of the afternoon I concluded that Dar Williams should never let them open for her again. Nothing against Dar, who's a talented singer/songwriter, but there was no way for her to compete with that level of excitement.

I've seen Toshi several times since then but the last few times were as a guest artist with Lizz Wright and The Blood On The Tracks Project, or performing solo. This was the first time I've seen her with Big Lovely in quite a while but this show was so good that I don't think it will be as long until next time.

This was the third night of her birthday anniversary show and was billed as an evening of sacred music. Her special guest was her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, a founding member of "Sweet Honey In The Rock", a world famous a cappella gospel group. They performed a few songs from Toshi's recent CD "Have You Heard", including the title track, a little bit of her older material, one of her Mom's songs called "Be Still" and some Gospel songs. The material included folk, gospel, rock, soul and blues, as is typical of a Toshi show, with "sacred" referring to the content of the songs more than a genre of music. They even had Judith Casselberry do one of her songs which slowly wound down over a long stretch almost putting me into a trance. It was very effective and a high point in an evening that was essentially all high points.

 Judith Casselberry and Stephanie McKay of Big Lovely

The four female voices, all pictured, harmonized so beautifully that it took me to another place. As soon as they began to sing the first song of the evening, my friend Joseph leaned over and said "I love this music"! I had to agree. He had seen Toshi and commented on how much he liked her voice when she showed up as a guest of Lizz Wright, so when WFUV offered tickets on their member line, I jumped right on them.  

 I should add that the balance of the band includes "Chicken" Burke on drums, Fred Cash on bass and Adam Widoff on electric guitar. All excellent musicians. Also, Toshi handed out some reverse birthday presents including a book, a bottle of wine and a Pete Seeger CD. I didn't realize that Pete Seeger's wife, Toshi Seeger, was Toshi Reagon's godmother and namesake. She also promised to one day do a show of all Bernice Johnson Reagon songs. Whatever she does next, I think I'll make a point to be there.


Globalfest : January 21 & 22 @ Joe's Pub and The Public Theatre


      Daby Toure                                     Niyaz                                              Lura     

This was my third year in a row attending Globalfest, an eclectic collection of music from around the world, and for the third year in a row it will be one of my favorite shows of the year. Presented by The World Music Institute, World Music/CRASHarts, and The Public Theatre with support from The Cultural Services of the French Embassy, it's a massive undertaking presenting 13 acts from around the world performing on three stages. This year it was expanded to two nights giving people a chance to see more of the acts. The only problem for me is that some of the acts I saw on night one were so good that I wanted to see them again on night two! 

Heading that list was Lura, a singer from Portugal and the Cape Verde Islands off West Africa, depending on your source. Blending influences from both places, her melodic ballads were stunningly beautiful and her rhythmic up tempo numbers were completely infectious. She had by far the purist voice of any of the singers I heard. Some of the songs were reminiscent of Cesaria Evora, the musical icon from Sao Vicente in the Cape Verde Islands, although Lura's influences come more from her island of Santiago. Her amazing stage presence and style both vaguely reminded me of African singer Angelique Kidjo and Haitian singer Emeline Michel, both former participants of Globalfest, both favorites of mine and both reviewed on this site several times. Lura may be about to join them as another favorite of mine.

The above paragraph was written after the first evening, but after the second night some additional comments are necessary. As amazing a coincidence as this may seem, Angelique Kidjo and Emeline Michel were both at the performance on night two! I had short but sweet conversations with both and was amused by my own prescience. There is no longer any doubt about whether Lura will become one of my favorites, it's a done deal.

Daby Toure is originally from Mauritania in northwest Africa and now works out of Paris. His CD "Diam" was one of my favorites from last year. Backed by bass and drums, he's a beautiful guitarist and sings original songs that blend western pop music with the music of West Africa. His songs can be catchy or haunting or both. He had the crowd dancing, clapping, singing and generally having a great time. At the expense of time for certain other bands, I had no choice but to see his set again on night two.

If you imagine the exotic evocative wails and chants that many associate with Middle Eastern music, over a slow, sexy electronic dance groove, you get the idea of L.A. based Niyaz. Iranian vocalist Azam Ali, who was raised in India, translated the lyrics of each Persian spiritual and folk song before beautifully singing them. She was backed by Iranian born musician Loga Ramin Torkian playing guitar, Middle Eastern lutes and an electric version of a 14th century bowed lute called a guitarviol. The band also included an oud, tabla and a keyboard/programmer. The combination of traditional music and instruments with beautiful vocals and contemporary rhythm formed a bridge between east and west and old and new making the songs easily accessible to anyone. As I looked around the mostly mesmerized room I didn't see anyone who was a different color, different religion or spoke a different language than me. I only saw people just like me, people who are deeply moved by music. Sometimes music puts strange thoughts in my head. It's probably needless to say but I slipped in for more on day two.

Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys are a Cajun band from New Orleans. Playing acoustic guitar, bass, fiddle, drums and accordion, along with their beautiful three part harmonies in Cajun French, this was a surprisingly satisfying set. Surprising because I think of Cajun music as something to hear in a bar or at a picnic while drinking beer and dancing, but their performance was concert caliber.

One intriguing surprise was Roxane Butterfly's Worldbeats who combined jazzy North African sounding music composed by Graham Haynes, a flamenco/tap dance fusion, spoken word and projected images. It probably wouldn't be for everybody but I found it bold and engaging.  

Jaun Carmona of France is an exceptional Gypsy flamenco guitarist who was accompanied by two guitars, violin and three percussionist/clappers, one who occasionally danced and one who occasionally sang. A very stimulating set that wowed the audience.

  Senegalese hip-hop group Daara J sing and rap an African hip-hop that fuses soul, pop and reggae into the mix with the social commentary which is part of the griot, or storytelling, tradition. They sang and harmonized beautifully but, and you can call me old fashioned, I would have liked if they had a band. All the music came from their deejay and it was way too loud.

Also loud was Balkan Beat Box, an Israeli band who do for the music of North Africa and Eastern Europe what The Beastie Boys did for rock, they turn it into irresistible club music. It was fun and energetic but, unlike Darra J, they had no good singers. If the two groups combined forces, they'd be the greatest party band of all time.

Frank London's Klezmer Brass All Stars opened the festival and brought out a marching drum troupe and a female Hasidic vocal group for what was an energetic kick start for the festival.

There were a few acts that, for various reasons, didn't get a fair share of my attention. Las Ondas Marteles is a French group that does Cuban Boleros. I saw them in the summer and loved them. You can see a detailed review of them by surfing back to summertime. I did poke my head into the room to briefly enjoy them for a few minutes.

Keren Ann is also from France and is quite successful there although she's just beginning to make inroads here. She's a singer/songwriter who I've heard perform live on WFUV and am familiar with her music, so didn't feel compelled to stay for all of her set (she had a late set and I was tired...that's a long story).  She played electric guitar and was backed by keyboard and trumpet. Maybe it's because I'm seeing "Threepenny Opera" in the near future, but I was struck by the Kurt Weill sensibility to some of her material.  DJ Delores from Brazil was on after Keren Ann but I was in bed by then.

I also caught a very short segment of Russian art-rock band Auktyon. I didn't hear enough for a fair evaluation as I was anxious not to miss Lura and had to go, but what I heard vaguely reminded me of the song "One Step Beyond" by Madness.

For the third year in a row I arrived at Globalfest not completely sure of what would happen and each time I left with expanded musical horizons. The sense of discovery is what makes the event so special for me. It's highly likely that I'll be seeing several of these acts again in the future. Or at least, as Azam Ali of Niyaz said to me at the end of the evening, "God willing".


A Touch of the Poet (w/Gabriel Byrne) : Jan 18th Studio 54

America's first great playwright, Eugene O'Neill, has an impressive resume which includes "The Iceman Cometh", "Long Day's Journey Into Night", and "A Moon For The Misbegotten" among others. "A Touch Of The Poet" is one of his lesser known and not often produced shows. There is probably a reason for that.

The two amusing memories of the evening have nothing to do with the play. Our friends Robin and Denise were at "Spamalot" this same evening and called us several times during the evening to tell us about their escapades at dinner, including using their wiley female ways to charm themselves a table at Carmine's despite a two hour wait. After the shows we touched base again and compared notes. They loved their show. We didn't.

The other notable moment of the evening was seeing Natasha Richardson outside the theatre smoking a cigarette as we were leaving. I wanted to say hello but Judy persuaded me otherwise. I wasn't going to slap the cigarette out of her mouth and tell her to quit smoking, I was going to tell her we loved her in "Anna Christie" and "Streetcar" and have followed her career closely since "Suddenly Last Summer". Judy said Natasha and Liam were no doubt friends of Gabriel Byrne and how would I feel telling her that we're leaving at intermission because the play is boring. Good point! 

I am a big fan of Byrne's film work (Miller's Crossing, The Usual Suspects, The Man In the Iron Mask...) but a good actor in a not so good play isn't enough to hold my attention. We have three other shows with our subscription including "Pajama Game" with Harry Connick Jr. and "Threepenny Opera" with Alan Cumming, Cyndi Lauper, Jim Dale and Nellie McKay.  I suspect they might be more "my cup of tea". 


Chocolate Genius     Michelle Shocked     Nebraska Project : January 14th at The Winter Garden Atrium           

This free show was the opening event for the 2006 New York Guitar Festival. Considering all the media attention and a crowd that had the Winter Garden bursting at the seams, I'd say that this is a festival that, after seven years, has finally arrived. The next few weeks will feature over twenty concerts, films and lectures all centered on guitar and guitar-like instruments from multiple music genres. More info at www.newyorkguitarfestival.com

This show featured Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska album performed in sequence by an impressive list of artists. Bruce recorded the album in his house on a four track recorder and after going into the studio to add all the band parts he realized that it worked better in it's simple original form. He eventually released his "demo tape" as the Nebraska album.

The album is a look at the dark, dreary and disconnected side of the American experience with the final song, "Reason To Believe", the only glimmer of hope on the whole CD (and even that is open to interpretation).

The performers included Michelle Shocked (Nebraska), Jesse Harris (Atlantic City), The National (Mansion on the Hill), Chocolate Genius Inc. (Johnny 99), Martha Wainwright with Marc Ribot (Highway Patrolman), Dan Zanes with Vernon Reid (State Trooper), Laura Cantrell (Used Cars), Otis Taylor (Open All Night), Mark Eitzel (My Father's House), and Kevin Kinney with Lenny Kaye (Reason To Believe). Some instrumental interludes were also performed by a number of artists including festival founder David Spelman and an interesting performance by Harry Manx on a twenty string instrument from India called a mohan veena.

To my great disappointment I had to leave shortly after intermission and assume, judging from the first half,  that I missed some excellent performances. I could kick myself because I  found out after the fact that Bruce showed up for the encore, performing Woody Guthrie's "Oklahoma Hills" with the entire cast. (Believe me, I had considered that a possibility and would have stayed if able). I also discovered that "Born in the USA" and "I'm On Fire" were added to the list.

The Michelle Shocked version of "Nebraska" backed by Rich Armstrong's haunting trumpet and Marc Anthony Thompson's (aka Chocolate Genius Inc) version of "Johnny 99" were two high points of the first half although all the performances were intriguing in their own way.

John Platt of WFUV did quick interviews of each artist after their performance filling in all the down time between performances. I spoke with him briefly and there is a chance the show will be broadcast on WFUV sometime in the future.


Dion : Jan 9th at Joe's Pub

You know times have changed when half the people you tell that you're going to a Dion concert say "Celine"? After telling them I was seeing the guy who did Teenager in Love, The Wanderer, Runaround Sue and Abraham Martin & John, almost everyone knew who I was talking about.


But this was not an oldies concert. Wait, I take that back. This was an oldies concert. Really old.  Dion has just released Bronx In Blue, a CD of acoustic blues songs some of which go back to the 1920's, and this show was the CD release party with him playing these blues classics solo or accompanied by an acoustic slide guitarist.


The CD and the show included Robert Johnson's Crossroads, Blind Willie McTell's Statesboro Blues, and Jimmy Reed's Baby What You Want Me To Do, all done in their original acoustic blues style with almost no hint of Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers or Elvis Presley all of whom recorded much better known versions of the songs (Although Elvis didn't stray as far as the others).  He did slip in a few originals including Abraham, Martin & John, and a very cool blues version of The Wanderer.


The show included lots of amusing stories about his youth and encounters with Howling Wolf, Lightening Hopkins and others. One story was about being at a Ricky Nelson birthday party where Fats Domino was playing Blue Heaven on piano. Dion played a couple verses of the song and added that he went up to Fats after the song and tried to have a conversation but with Dion's thick Bronx accent and Fat's thick Cajun accent, they couldn't understand each other and that was the last time they spoke. Very funny!


I was lucky to be at this show as only a handful of tickets were made available to the public. The audience was mostly record company people and radio personalities. I chatted briefly with Pete Fornatale, Dennis Elsas and Darren DeVivo from WFUV and also spotted Tommy James (of Shondells fame) in the audience. This was a fun show, although I wouldn't describe it as musically exciting, and it was a treat to be able to see one of the early icons of rock and roll.