MAY 2008             back

Alice Smith: May 22nd Highline Ballroom

I recently saw Lizz Wright at The Highline and as I was leaving I saw Mike, who manages the venue and told him that Lizz is just about my favorite vocalist on the planet at the moment. He excitedly responded "Have you seen Alice Smith"? His enthusiasm piqued my curiosity so I made a point of catching her this time.

She's one of the numerous young neo-soul singers currently out and about, but with more of a rock edge than any of the others I've heard. Her four octave voice was very impressive although it did get away from her a few times when she was doing some vocal acrobatics in the upper atmosphere. Or as Randy Jackson would say "A few pitchy moments".

She did mostly originals from her CD For Lovers Dreamers and Me, as well as a few covers like Bonnie Raitt's Have A Heart and Don't Get Me Wrong by The Pretenders. Exiting the show I received a three song CD which included the song Do I which was one of my favorites from the show.  My friend Joseph and I listened to that song 5 or 6 times in a row during the ride home. We both agreed it could be a mega hit if it got the exposure. A very powerful and emotional piece of music.

 (My video)

Opening act, Brooklyn Funk Essentials, were a pleasant surprise. The were headlining the room the next night but did a short surprise set to open this show. A great party band with old school funk which included great vocals and horns. A really fun set. See for yourself: (my video)

 

   Angelique Kidjo: May 15th at McCarter Theater  (Angelique promo)

You probably know by now that Angelique Kidjo is one of my favorite artists. I've seen her a number of times and met her on several occasions. She's often described as powerhouse, ball of energy, force of nature or other references that portray an unstoppable force. These tickets were my birthday present from friends Robin and Joey, who were seeing her for the first time, and I told them that this would probably be unlike anything they'd ever seen. After the show, Joey agreed.

I've described her musical journey in past reviews, so I'll get to the business of this show. (Feel free to get the background story from previous reviews). The show was somewhat retrospective with songs from throughout her career and surprisingly not overloaded with songs from her most recent Djin Djin.  I had actually hoped to hear Sasala and Pearls, performed on the CD with Peter Gabriel and Alicia Keys respectively, but can't go as far as to say I was disappointed because that word has no place in a review of an Angelique show. She did do a few from the new release including the title cut and her cover of The Stones Gimme Shelter.

From Black Ivory Soul, she performed Tumba and Afrika, both crowd favorites and both sing-alongs. Yes, in the hallowed halls of Princeton University, she had the entire audience standing up singing, dancing and even jumping at one point. She also invited about 40 people up on stage to dance, giving many of them solo dances with her percussionist. Some of them were fantastic, including an older gentleman who showed the kids that they're not the only ones with moves, and a young girl from Uganda who attends Princeton on scholarship and danced like she should have been part of the show.

Of course, Angelique did more than her share of dancing, which is a great part of her show, and I'm sure the musicians solo break in the middle of the show was strategically timed to give her a breather. Her international band included two guitarists, bass, drums and the most amazing percussionist you could hope to see.

She's got a powerful voice, a great band and music that fuses influences from around the world with various African styles. She also has a message of empowerment and hope which she often dispenses with humor during her shows. It's not just a concert, it's a life affirming experience. She told us that she just lost her father a few weeks ago, but that he made her promise not to cancel any shows because her message of empowerment is too important. How could you not be moved?

 

 

  Mable: May 10th at Crossroads (Garwood, NJ)

People have been telling me about Crossroads for quite some time, but even though it's only 7 miles up the road, this was my first time in the place. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should add that it wasn't some great headliner or some new exotic act that got me there.  It was one of my closest friends telling me his son's band, Mable,  had been booked. You might suspect that I'd be reluctant to criticize my friend's kid, and you'd be right, but what's also true is that for me to say they were good, they'd have to be really good. So, I'm very pleased to be able to say that just that!

Their original tunes, co-written by singer James Notaro and guitarist James Stahon, fall somewhere between The Marshall Tucker Band and The Black Crowes with hints of Leon Russell in the vocals. The set had a few covers including Ryan Adams Let It Ride, my favorite of the set, as well as The Flying Burrito Brothers Hot Burrito #2. I'm always encouraged when young artists discover great music of past generations, especially the "off the beaten path" material. The are a good number of people my age who never heard of The Flying Burrito Brothers even though they listen to many of the groups who were influenced by them.

Of their original tunes, my favorite was Is It Morning which is on their 7 song EP called Stay At Home Circus. You can hear their music on their myspace page, but here's one from this show: (Is It Morning)

I'm going to guess that we haven't heard the last of these guys.

 

Tina Dico: May 5th at Joe's Pub

 I've talked about Tina Dico a few times before, but for the uninitiated she's one of the biggest stars in Denmark, playing sold-out arenas with a full band and actually outsells Coldplay there. I've received several e-mails from Europe telling me how lucky we are in New York to see her in such intimate venues. She's been spending time recording in New York and I saw her just recently at The Living Room which is even smaller than Joe's Pub. For some reason she has not clicked here although, personally, I'm happy to continue seeing her up close and personal.

She performed solo with both acoustic and electric guitars doing mostly songs from her recent release Count To Ten including the title cut, Sacre Coeur and You Know Better and a few from her 2005 classic, In The Red, including it's title cut and Warm Sand. (Sacre Coeur)

She's a great singer, great songwriter and a fine guitarist who commands the stage. You can't take your eyes off her and it's not only because she's beautiful. I don't know how much longer she'll continue to play small venues in this country, but when the day comes that she can fill the Beacon Theater, I will have already seen her a number of times in small intimate clubs. Will You?

 

Nellie McKay: May 2nd at The Rubin Museum

In the past I've described Nellie McKay's stage persona as a cross between Doris Day and Goldie Hawn.  She was a ditsy stuttering "um, ah, well, ya see" apparently clueless beautiful young blonde who also happened to be an accomplished singer, songwriter and musician, who wrote quirky tunes like I Want To Be Married or Feminists Have No Sense Of Humor.  Of course, if Doris Day had sung I Want To Get Married, it would not have been with tongue-in-cheek. From this performance I can see her stage persona has evolved from ditsy into a completely certifiable candidate for an insane asylum. More on that later. (Nellie on The View)

This series at the beautiful Rubin Museum is called "Naked Soul" and features completely unamplified singer/songwriters. During her first two songs she played her piano a little too loudly drowning out her voice, but then she picked up her ukulele and very clearly sang the Herman's Hermit's tune Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter, which cracked-up the audience. I don't know why that was funny, maybe because it was unexpected, but it was also beautiful. From that point, her vocals were much more prominent as she gave the piano keys a lighter touch when she returned to it.

The set included assorted standards like Broadway Melody which she sang like Glinda, the good witch from the Wizard of Oz, and The Best Things In Life Are Free along with her quirky originals like David and the Feminist tune.

The hilarious insane part of her show was the between song banter where she would shoot her finger into the air and with her best stage voice, most likely developed during her stint in Three Penny Opera, made totally random declarations like "Gentlemen, I believe the meeting is going extraordinarily well"!!! Or as she flipped through a song book and declared "I had a choice, prepare for this show or go to Conway.....I choose Conway"!!

During her swamp blues song Zombie, from her recent release, she inserted comments about various political figures like John McCain who she said has a baby's head on an old body which should get the pot-head vote, or how Obama is getting bored trying to be a Kennedy because all his cool friends are gone. (Zombie)

Maybe you had to be there but it was a laugh riot. And don't get the impression that she's a novelty act. She's a talented artist whose lyrics can be clever, thought provoking, socially concious or biting and whose singing and playing are impressive. She just happens to also be funny.

 

Habib Koite: May 1st at Highline Ballroom

If you're not familiar with Habib Koite, then you haven't been paying attention. This is the fourth time I've seen him perform in the last three years and each time I've written rave reviews. I also met him last year at Joe's Pub, during a Lura concert, where he gave me his new CD, Afriki, which has only just recently been released here, and I subsequently put it on my list of favorites for 2007.

This is a great artist, a talented singer and guitarist who writes songs in the various musical styles of Mali which utilize repetitive, almost hypnotic, rhythms with beautiful melodies and harmonies. This set featured mostly songs from Afriki (see video) with a few older tunes in the mix, including his big European hit Cigarette Abana.

His English is getting better and he had a good time bantering with the audience, some of whom got up on stage and danced a few times. His band, Bamada, includes drums, percussion, bass, guitar and a wooden xylophone called a balafon, and it's safe to say that they had the room energized. 

The Highline Ballroom, along with Joe's Pub, has become one of my favorite stops in the city. It has good sound, amazingly eclectic bookings, good food, seating and mostly good sight lines. A look at their schedule will certainly offer something of interest regardless of your taste.