back                                                                         MARCH 2010

Simon Shaheen: March 27th at Wm. Patterson University Shea Center

Palestinian Simon Shaheen is world renowned as both composer and virtuoso musician of the violin and oud, the traditional Arab stringed instrument in the photo above. His music is a fusion of traditional Arab styles and western elements, particularly jazz.

Shaheen fronts two groups, Qantara, who've toured with Sting and appeared on the Grammy's with him, and The Oriental Music Ensemble with whom he appeared at this show. It was my understanding that Qantara leans a little more west but this show with the Oriental Music Ensemble had plenty of western style jazz and danceable rhythms. Very listenable to Western ears. He's such a virtuoso on both instruments that I can't imagine any fan of guitar players not being able to appreciate his performance on the oud. (Listen)

It didn't matter whether he was playing oud of violin, he was equally captivating on both. He was backed by upright bass, flutes, guitar and percussion all of whom took their opportunities for some solo demonstrations as is the tradition in jazz. All were very impressive.

Simon set up the songs with brief explanations before performing, mostly in English and occasionally in Arabic and English. As an educator and ambassador of Arab culture he couldn't help but slip in some comments like "You never win anything except with education" which only served to raise his stature with me. I left satisfied and impressed.

Angelique Kidjo: March 26th at Town Hall

Angelique is still not a household word in this country, but she's getting there. One her last album she welcomed Peter Gabriel, Santana and Josh Groban (to name just a few) as guests and her soon to be released Oyo boasts appearances from Bono and John Legend.

This show featured most of the songs from the new release and a handful of her reliable "get the crowd on their feet" tunes including Afrika, Batonga and Tumba. As is typical at her shows she had the crowd singing and dancing in the aisles, took her cordless mic for a singing stroll thru the theater and brought 40 audience members up on stage to sing and dance with her up there. An exhilarating experience for the participants as well as the onlookers.

The new CD is a tribute to her musical influences and included in the show were Curtis Mayfield's Move On Up, James Brown's Cold Sweat and Santana's Samba Pa Ti, which was one of several highlights for me, all sung mostly in her native language. Simply beautiful!

Some others from the new release were Atcha Houn, a traditional song which Angelique said was the first song she ever performed on a stage (at 6 years old) and which began her addition to singing, Petite Fluer a beautiful ballad in French, and the Mariam Makeba standard Malaika. (Malaika)

Backed by guitar, bass, drums and the amazing Mino Cinelu on percussion, this was a somewhat stripped down ensemble compared to other shows of hers I've seen but you would not have noticed from listening.


Under The Elephant: March 19 @ Webster Hall

I first saw Ben Jelen (pronounced Yellin) at the All Points West Festival in Jersey City about a year and a half ago. I liked his songs, his voice and especially his stage presence and thought that he could go places, so I decided to keep him on my radar.  After a period of inactivity I discovered that he was in a new band, called Under The Elephant, which he had formed with his friend Josh McMillan, and they apparently were in the studio because they also had no gigs posted.

I lurked on their myspace page until I saw this show posted and decided on the spot to check them out. I was very impressed that Jelen, with his formidable stage presence, was able to completely assimilate into a band. The lion's share of lead vocals went to McMillan, who is himself a force to be reckoned with, with Jelen providing keyboards and lots of backing vocals with the occasional lead. (UTE live)

The end result is pretty dynamic. Their songs are an eclectic mix of catchy pop, driving rock and soul tunes with hints of funk and gospel sprinkled about. With backing vocals from Tina Mathieu and Elizabeth McMillan, the vocal arrangements, not fully appreciated in a room with marginal sound, were still one of the highlights of the set.  The group rounds out with the Esposito brothers on bass and drums and new guitarist Jimmy Stull.

 They're at Sullivan Hall in NYC on April 6th and their debut CD is in the works. I'm curious to hear it, this collective is dripping with potential. 


Sweet Electra: March 11 @ Webster Hall Studio

Sweet Electra is a well established electronic indie pop band in Mexico who've recently moved to NYC after being well received here on several earlier visits. It's interesting that the logo on their new release When We Abandoned Earth is "Se" because their music brings to mind Si*Se, another electronica pop rock band fronted by a beautiful charismatic Latina woman with a good voice.

At the heart of Sweet Electra is Giovanni Escalera on guitar and programming and Nardiz Cooke on vocals. Their new material is laid back "other worldly" danceable pop rock with barely a hint of their Latin roots. They were backed by bass, drums and violin for this short set which was very enjoyable except that the vocals were way too deep in the mix. Nardiz has a good voice which in my opinion needs to be out front for the best effect.

The biggest surprise for me was their cover of There Is a Light That Never Goes Out from The Smiths, one of my favorite bands. Here's a look at their performance of I Am from the new release: (video)


Joe Henry: Feb 8th @ The Blue Note

Joe Henry is best known as a Grammy award winning producer who's worked with Allen Toussaint, Solomon Burke, Mose Alison and Ani DiFranco to name just a few. But it's his own work that has consistently amazed me to the point where I can't name another artist that I'd prefer to see in concert. His 2007 release, Civilians, still gets a listen in my house several times a week.

He was backed by the usual suspects, David Piltch on upright bass and the amazing Jay Bellerose on drums as well as a handful of guest artists who popped up on stage at various points. The guests included respected jazz man Don Byron on sax and clarinet, Aaron Parks on piano and Joe's 19 year old son Levon, who was very impressive on sax. Levon is currently a freshman at The New School but his dad wasn't doing him a favor, he's a serious musician with a great sense of melody who deserved to be on stage.

This set featured mostly songs from his new release, Blood From Stars, with a handful of previous favorites sprinkled throughout. Some of the fan favorites were Stop (Scar), Sold (Tiny Voices) and the title cuts from Civilians and Trampoline. Of the new material I really loved the bluesy New Orleans sounding The Man I Keep Hid as well as Suit On a Frame and Death To The Storm. His songs are sometimes jazzy, bluesy or rootsy and often all of the above, but they're always moody. It's that calm relaxed hypnotic mood that always draws me in. (Trampoline)

At one point he joked that he had recorded Stop as a tango but Madonna recorded it as a hit and he lamented as to why he didn't think of that. Very amusing. He also introduced a friend and current collaborator who was in the audience, Harry Belafonte! After the set, Judy told Harry that she felt honored just to be in same room with him. He took her hand, smiled and said "Thank you for saying that". It was a great evening, I wish we had stayed for the second show. I got home and looked on the internet to see if he was anywhere in the area where I could see him again. How far is Virginia?