MAY 2009         back

Zap Mama: May 28th at Joe's Pub

I've written about Zap Mama several times before but for the uninitiated I'll re-cap. Zap Mama seems to be both a person and a group. The person is Marie Daulne who was born in The Congo, raised in Belgium and formed the African a cappella group, Zap Mama, almost twenty years ago. Since then they've continued to break every musical barrier in their path evolving into an Afropean, hip-hop, funky, reggae, Latin soul ensemble. (And I doubt if that covers it all)

This show, at the very intimate Joe's Pub, was one of three which coincided with the release of their new CD called ReCreation. The set featured several songs from that CD as well as a handful from previous releases. Most notable from the new release were the Latin flavored Hello To Mama and the soulful ballad The Way You Are which features soul sensation Bilal on the CD and, much to my delight, also featured him at this show. (Hello To Mama)

Other show highlights included Yelling Away and Bandy Bandy (Ancestry In Progress), 1000 Ways (Supermoon) and did I mention Bilal performed? Although they sound less and less African with the passing of time, I believe it's their vocal arrangements, which are deeply rooted in African music, that set them apart from other contemporary acts. (Bandy Bandy)

My amusing story for the evening is that as I sat with my friend Les between shows (double-header see below) my phone rang and a woman asked "What are you doing tonight?" and I answer "I'm at Joe's Pub, who is this?". She responds "Who's at Joe's Pub" and I say "Zap Mama, who is this?" She says "Zap Mama, are they any good?" and I answer "That's why I'm here, who is this?" and she says "look to your right". My friends Anna and Ileana were standing at the bar and Ileana had said "I wonder if Bill will be here, he loves this kind of stuff" and they looked around and there I was so they thought they'd have some fun. All I can say is great minds think alike!!!


Sharon Katz & The Peace Train w/special guest Pete Seeger : May 28th @ Joe's Pub

I've seen Sharon Katz and her ensemble before and was impressed by their high energy and great vocal arrangements, but my real reason for wanting to be at this show was because of their special guest, folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger.

The group was very active in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and so Pete Seeger was naturally an iconic and inspirational figure to them. Considering that he recently celebrated his 90th birthday, I wasn't looking for musical prowess, just the opportunity to see a historical figure in person.

After Sharon & The Peace Train did a handful of their material, Pete came out and led a sing-along of Turn Turn Turn while playing acoustic guitar. I am now among the countless people who can say they've sung with Pete Seeger. He followed that with a song on banjo but the highlight of his time on stage was the telling the history of the song The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

I did not know this, but it turns out that Pete discovered the song among some African records that someone at Decca Records in NYC was about to throw in the garbage. Pete recorded the song with the "aweemaway" chant, which was his mispronunciation of the actual African words, and told the record executives not to worry about royalties because nobody would ever hear the song. That was before the doo-wop band The Tokens added their own lyrics and had one of the biggest hits in popular music history. In the end, the writer did get about 25% of his royalties but years later his family was properly compensated when Disney used the song and were going to be sued by the family.

Pete left the stage and the group performed the song the African way, no Tokens lyrics, and a few other tunes before wrapping up with their signature song Peace Train, which was their funkiest and most fun song of the set. 


  Vance Gilbert: May 27th at Music on Main Street (Woodbridge, NJ)

I finished off the five concert series in Woodbridge with an act that was most likely the least known (even though he did a two year tour as opening act for George Carlin) but also most likely to knock people's socks off. I'll give just three examples of how well it went.

After the show several people said this show was the best of the five, my friend Chilly called me the next day and said Vance might be the best singer he's ever heard and added that if I book him again he'll come and bring six people and my wife's cousin texted to ask me to let them know the next time Vance is in the area because they need to see him again a. s. a. p.

He opened with a cover of Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come and, as near as I could tell, sealed the deal with the crowd right then and there. And just to be sure, his third selection was a brilliant cover of Castles Made of Sand by Jimi Hendrix. The vocals and guitar work, as well as the 60 second note he hums while playing some intricate guitar riffs at the end of the song, put the Hendrix tune into some "other worldly" realm.

From his original material the highlight had to be Unfamiliar Moon, a song which gives Vance the opportunity to show the range and power of his voice but with a beautiful and memorable melody. (Unfamiliar Moon)

Anyone familiar with Vance knows that humor is a big part of his show. With the exception of a segment about a medical procedure, which went on a little too long and didn't quite work, he had the audience laughing so hard that they were crying for most of the evening. After busting our chops about having the series on a Wednesday he added that it's a good thing that the Lost series on TV has concluded, otherwise we'd be seeing a cardboard cutout of him and listening to recorded music. He added that Big Cardboard Negro would be a good name for his next CD. And on and on it went. It seems that Vance's brain, not unlike comedian Robin Williams,  just never stops working. I suspect that I'll be looking to bring him back to Woodbridge in the not too distant future.


Lucy Kaplansky: May 20th @ Music On main Street (Woodbridge, NJ)

This was the fourth show in a series of five that I booked working with the people of Town Hall in Woodbridge. Lucy was certainly the lesser known of all the previous acts, but that didn't stop several people from telling me that this was their favorite of the shows they had seen.

She played both guitar and piano and performed a mix of originals, great covers and told stories of her life and family which made the show seem very intimate. Some of the covers included Let It Be and Hallelujah on piano and By Way Of Sorrow, Somewhere Out There and Angel of Montgomery on guitar. Normally I'd tell you whose songs they were, but for some reason I'm feeling that if you don't know, then you should look it up. These are all great songs of which every music lover should be aware. (Somewhere Out There)

Her original material included Scorpion, Ten Year Night, The Red Thread and other fan favorites. She also performed a swing tune written by her dad called Song About Pi. Her dad was a well known mathematician who also wrote songs and this was very clever and catchy. (Scorpion)

The show was filled with personal stories, like bringing her 6 year old daughter to the science museum and unexpectedly finding her fathers picture hanging in the math exhibit. (Lucy's dad died just a few years ago) It was the personal stories, some touching and some hysterical, that set her show apart from the others.  


Graham Parker: May 13th at Music On Main Street (Woodbridge,NJ)

Show #3 of the new music series in Woodbridge was certainly the most recognizable name of the lot. Graham Parker burst on the scene in the late seventies, about the same time as Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, and like those two has continued to create and perform ever since. He's been on Letterman and Leno and had a number of hits on MTV and commercial radio including Local Girls, Passion is No Ordinary Word, Heat Treatment and Temporary Beauty, among others. (Love Gets You Twisted)

This was a solo performance where he used both his Gibson acoustic and Fender electric guitars, mixing newer or less familiar tunes with all the above mentioned hits and more. He drew extensively from Squeezing Out Sparks, his most popular release, as well as a few from his first release Howlin' Wind.

  He tends to have a sharp wit and was very amusing except that he did venture very close to losing the audience a number of times with topics like "rude Americans". Using the example "Hi, I'm Tad. What do you do?" he managed to redeem himself  with the quip "We'd never ask that question in England, I don't even know what my father did".  

Judging from the comments I received after the show, I'd say the Graham Parker crowd was thrilled to be able to see him live and local for only $20, and I was thrilled to fill the church to capacity for the first time.


Marc Cohn Photograph Marc Cohn: May 11th at SOPAC

There's a good story about how I got to be in the front row at this show. My yearly membership at 90.7 WFUV came due the week before this show. During their fund drive I usually wait for them to make a special offer, usually concert tickets, before renewing my membership. (That's how I saw Angelique Kidjo for the first time)

So when they offered front row tickets at this South Orange venue, which is 25 minutes from my house, I jumped on them. And I would have lived happily ever after except for one thing. About 45 minutes after I renewed my membership, they offered tickets to an "invitation only" show at The Highline Ballroom, one of my favorite venues, for Yusuf Islam. Uhh, Cat Stevens! I could never say that I was disappointed to see Marc Cohn from the front row or otherwise, he's one of my all-time favorites, but I can see Marc Cohn fairly often, and have, and I can't say when I'll have a chance to see Cat Stevens again. The last chance was over 30 years ago. All things considered I'd have gladly caught Marc next time around, but life is hard and I was forced to see Marc Cohn from the front row in a beautiful venue. Bummer? I don't think so!

This set was Marc and Shane Fontayne, his long time guitarist, doing a variety of Cohn tunes including Silver Thunderbird, Walking in Memphis and Olana, as well as a rearranged acoustic guitar version of his popular wedding song True Companion, an arrangement he says some people hate but I thought it was beautiful. Maybe even a show highlight. Another highlight was Marc and Shane on acoustic guitars doing The Calling. Here's the song from another show: (The Calling)

The show also including Marc answering questions, put in a bucket by the audience before the show, which mostly revealed that the audience is as interested in his wife, Elizabeth Vargas from WABC News, as they are in him. He was, of course charming and amusing. Yusuf who? 


Jeffrey Gaines: May 6th at Music on Main Street (Woodbridge, NJ)

This was the second of a five concert series in Woodbridge which I helped put together with some people in town hall. Jeffrey Gaines has made two splashes in the music industry, first with his original tune, Hero In Me, which got lots of air time on college, public and independent radio stations back in the early nineties, and then 10 years later having a commercial hit with his solo acoustic cover of Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes.

I think he's one of the great underappreciated voices in popular music. His set included assorted selections from various CD's and included Hero In Me, Headmaster's Of Mine, I Know a Man, Simple Prayer and To Be Free, to name a few. Two big surprises were that he didn't do In Your Eyes but instead performed a slowed down version of Fleetwood Mac's Over My Head. The very recognizable song was less so with Jeffrey's slow sensitive treatment which took all the pop out of it. One of the highlights of the show. (Hero in Me)

Several people who had not seen Jeffrey in many years commented that they didn't remember him being so funny. The evening was peppered with comments about ninja cameramen (the show was filmed for the township cable access channel) and how he enjoyed the access to power when talking about meeting our mayor. The first time I saw Jeffrey (1992) he barely said a word between songs so I think it's safe to say that he and his act have grown dramatically since then and I've witnessed it step by step.

Several other people who had never seen Jeffrey before asked where they'd be able to see him again. I think that says it all.