APRIL 2006          back

  Lila Downs  : April 26th at The Bowery Ballroom (w/Charanga Cakewalk opening)

Lila (pronounced "Leela") Downs has her feet planted firmly in both Mexican and American culture and her show reflects that. She sings in both Spanish and English, and sometimes in Native American languages like Mayan or Mixtec, and between songs speaks in both languages sometimes translating and sometimes not.

Her music brings traditional Mexican sounds and blends them with folk, reggae, rap and soul influences which are decidedly not Mexican.  With a voice that can hit Minnie Ripperton highs and Marlene Dietrich lows and a muti-talented band, the end result is a wild ride full of surprises. One surprise was a psychedelic reggae version of La Cucaracha with dancing cockroaches projected on a screen behind the musicians.

At one point she sang a soulful ballad in English that would have made Anita Baker proud and then a little later picked up an acoustic guitar and again in English sang a beautiful folk song. This is a talented young woman.

If you saw the movie Frida with Salma Hayek, then you've already seen Lila perform. She's the singer at the wedding and at a party. This was the second time I've seen her perform live and both times she's knocked my socks off. And it doesn't hurt that she's as beautiful as she is talented. It's likely that I'll try to see her as often as I am able. 

Charanga Cakewalk

We've been listening to the new CD from Charanga Cakewalk almost non-stop recently. I believe it's the third CD for the group created by Michael Ramos who has played keyboards, accordion and trumpet for some really big names in music like John Mellencamp and Paul Simon.

Michael is from Austin Texas and, like Lila Downs, takes traditional Mexican or Latino styles and adds other influences. Michael is more of a musician than singer but did a good job on vocals regardless. The CD has several female guest artists including Lila on two songs, Patty Griffin, Becca Rodriguez and Martha Gonzales from the band Quetzal. I'm not sure but I think Martha is the beautiful singer/percussionist in his band for this show (I'll look into that). Whoever she is, she had an impressive voice.

Do you know this girl?

Besides two guitars and percussion, and Michael on various instruments and vocals, they also had a drum machine giving the music a very contemporary feel. (The drummer and harpist in the picture were borrowed for a brief time from Lila's band).  I haven't heard the previous Charanga releases but this set and the new CD were so good that I will likely back track and see what I missed.

 

Bruce Springsteen : April 25th at Convention Center (For Good Morning America)

  Greetings from Asbury Park 6:00AM

When I heard that free tickets were being made available for Bruce Springsteen, who was performing two songs on Good Morning America, I knew I would be able to get someone to go even if it did mean getting up at 4:30 AM. If my brother had said yes any faster, he would have been behind me. (???)

Bruce was going on TV to promote his new CD "We Shall Overcome - The Seeger Sessions" which was being released on this day. He performed "Jacob's Ladder" and "Oh, Mary, Don't You Cry No More" on TV, but we also heard "When The Saints Go Marching In" and "Old Dan Tucker" plus a rehearsal of the first two songs.

These traditional songs are often associated with folk icon Pete Seeger but Bruce put his own spin on all of them. With a 17 piece band which included 4 horns, 2 fiddles, banjo, accordion, piano, drums, bass, acoustic guitars and lots of vocals, this six song set was a revelation!

Without a hint of rock and roll to be found, Bruce embraced gospel, bluegrass and New Orleans jazz, often in the same tune, to give us an inspiring and unexpected treat. I hadn't planned on buying the CD or seeing this tour but his set changed those plans.

As it turned out, I was on TV twice and on my way home my dad called me and said he saw me twice and that he loved those songs! Then Judy called me and said she also saw me on TV and she loved those songs! She went out that morning and bought one for us and one for my dad. I just put it on my favorites for 2006.

Bruce was funny too. He came out just after 7:00AM and said "This is awful, I must really want to sell CD's". Just before going on the air, they brought him two red cups to gargle some mouthwash. He said "One for drinking and one for spitting.... Maybe they should've given me a red and a blue".

Any of his fans who only like rock and roll might actually hate this CD, but in the category of an established artist going in a completely different direction, I put this CD on the same level as Paul Simon's "Graceland". This will be a classic. 

 

Martin Sexton : April 21st at The Cutting Room 

In my long concert going career, there are certain moments that I’ll never forget for as long as I live. John Lennon coming on stage to sing with Elton John, Graham Nash announcing “President Nixon has resigned” and the first time I heard Jeffrey Gaines sing “In Your Eyes” are just a few. 

I have a long list of those moments from Martin Sexton concerts. The first time I saw him was August 1996 and the first song he did was “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You”. I still remember thinking that I had never heard anything like it in my life. About a year later he blew the roof off of McCarter Theatre at Princeton University with a Pink Floyd medley of “Welcome to the Machine/Wish You Were Here”.  Absolutely unbelievable! 

He hasn’t released an album of new material since 2000’s "Wonder Bar", so there haven’t been as many unforgettable moments the last few years although you’d still be hard pressed to find a more talented performer out there today. 

This show began with Marty doing a series of covers including Jimi Hendrix, Billy Preston, The Beatles, Pink Floyd and John Hiatt. I’d never seen him do that before and that might have had interesting possibilities except that, with the exception of Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me”, most of the songs were uninspired.  Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” was rushed and fell so short of the Princeton performance that it was particularly disappointing.   

Eventually Marty was joined on stage by Assembly of Dust, a “Grateful Dead like” band, for one of the highlights of this show, a kick ass version of “Woodstock” done Crosby Stills and Nash style with great harmonies and electric guitar. Then they mangled Black Sheep and did a few others before Marty had to leave and head to a gig in North Carolina. I stayed for a few more songs with Assembly of Dust and then headed out.  

The performances of “Woodstock” and the “Have a Little Faith in Me” were reminiscent of the good old days when you could practically count on a religious experience at a Marty show. The talent is there, and I suspect many great shows in the future, but I think his career needs a change of direction if it's going to realize its potential. 

 

Petronio Dance Company : April 20th at The Joyce Theatre

I wasn’t particularly familiar with this modern dance company but when I saw that this program included two works to the music of Rufus Wainwright and a third piece to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring, I thought “this might be my cup of tea”.

The first piece, Bud Suite, used four songs “Oh, What A World”, “Vibrate”, “This Love Affair” and "Agnus Dei” from Wainwright’s two most recent CD’s.  The latter three are very slow beautiful songs which incorporate some classical influences in their composition. I’ve often said that if "Vibrate" was sung in Italian, people would think it was an aria from an opera.

It was great hearing those songs on the theatre's sound system, but the choreography was so frantic that it seemed completely disconnected from the music. It never really reached me.

In the second piece, Bloom, Rufus set three poems from Walt Whitman (Unseen Buds & One’s-Self  I Sing) and Emily Dickenson (Hope is the Thing With Feathers) to an original score. His prerecorded music was accompanied by a live performance from the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, a 30-person troupe conducted by Francisco J. Nunez.  The kids and the final section of his piece were very enjoyable. Again the choreography failed to reach me at all.

The final piece, The Rite Part, was performed to the music of Igor Stravinsky and Mitchell Lager. The Rite of Spring is one of my favorite pieces of music and seemed much more suited for this company. Maybe there is more there than I was able to gather in this one outing. Sometimes it takes time to become familiar with the “vocabulary” of a dance company that you’ve never seen before, but it’s not likely that I’ll be rushing out to see this company again.

                             

  Calexico : April 18th at Virgin Megastore

If I had to describe Calexico in one sentence, I’d say they’re an alt-country, indie rock, 50’s jazz, Tex-Mex, Gypsy, mariachi surf band who dabble in spaghetti western soundtracks. Not that they ever constrain themselves to just that!

I first saw them a few years ago when they opened for Lyle Lovett in Battery Park. I was very impressed and made a mental note to try to catch them again. This free 45-minute "after work" set at Virgin Megastore seemed a perfect opportunity, but when I arrived I started thinking “maybe I should’ve just gone home and had a good hot meal”. Those thoughts disappeared the moment they started playing.

They’ve been doing radio and “in store” performances for about a week in support of their new CD “Garden Ruin” and this set represented 2/3 of Calexico, with drummer and co-founder John Convertino and bassist Volker Zander not in attendance.

Regardless of the missing members, this was an impressive show. With Joey Burns on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Paul Neihaus on electric guitar, Martin Wenk on trumpet, guitar and shakers, Jacob Valenzuela on trumpets and shakers and everyone contributing backing vocals, they managed to make a really big sound. In fact, every time those two trumpets kicked in, people on the street would stop in their tracks and look into the store. I think it’s those trumpets that most make their sound unlike any other band out there today.

They performed a few songs from the new CD along with some old favorites including their cover of “Alone Again Or” by Arthur Lee’s Luv Group, which has gotten some airplay on public radio. Really beautiful! It’s likely I’ll see this group again. Hopefully with the full band. They'll be in Central Park at Summerstage with The Frames later this summer.

 

(Losers Joe McGinty and Chris Anderson)

The Loser's Lounge tribute to The Highwaymen : April 14th at Joe's Pub

I've reviewed the Loser's many times before but for the uninitiated, here's a quick explanation. About three or four times a year the Kustard Kings, led by Joe McGinty, invite up to two dozen artists, from a long and ever growing list of downtown performers, to perform one song with the band in a tribute show to an artist or group who generally have lots of familiar songs, i.e. The Bee Gees, Kinks, Beach Boys, David Bowie, Carol King, Mamas and Papas....

The series has endured over a dozen years because of the attention to detail in recreating the music and especially the vocal arrangements. The performances can range from the sublime to the ridiculous but the admiration for the original artists is never in doubt.

The Highwaymen was a side project for four of country music's best songwriters, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. In order to keep the music authentic, the Kustard Kings brought in pedal steel guitarist Jon Graboff, who has worked with Willie Nelson, to be a temporary loser.

This show had a particularly high percentage of excellent performances. Lianne Smith practically channeled Patsy Cline singing Willie Nelson's "Crazy" and Connie Petruk did a moving version of Willie's "Always on My Mind". The amazing job by Connie and Chris Anderson on backing vocals made everyone sound better all evening. Johnny Cash was also well represented with Joe Hurley's "Folsom Prison Blues", Julian Maile's "Cry Cry Cry", and Sam Brisbee's "I Walk The Line", to name a few.

The Loser's did right by Kris Kristofferson with David Driver's "Help Me Make It Through The Night", Mary Lee Kortes singing  "Me & Bobbie McGee"  and "Why Me, Lord" performed by legitimate country singer Mary McBride.  And Victoria Liedtke's "Luckenbach, Texas" and Erik Paparozzi's "The Only Daddy That'll Walk The Line" would have made Waylon Jennings proud.

There is always room for some "shtick" or experimentation at the Loser's Lounge. Flaming Fire's version of "Whiskey River" was like country music filtered through The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Night Of The Living Dead. I don't think country music fans would appreciate it. The always amusing Nick Danger, one of the founders of the Losers, was very entertaining with his frantic gyrations during "Blame It On The Stones.

Joe McGinty hinted that there might be more country music in the Loser's future. Considering how much fun this show was, I'll second that motion.

 

Beth Orton : April 11th at Webster Hall

British singer songwriter Beth Orton received her first attention in this country about 10 years ago touring with the Lillith Fair. Early in her career she loaned her vocals to dance oriented bands like the Chemical Brothers before combining those dance rhythms with her acoustic folk tunes and releasing two critically praised CD's Trailer Park and Central Reservation which spawned the pseudo hits She Cries Your Name and Stolen Car.

It's been almost 10 years since the Lillith Fair and while many of its participants have since moved into the "whatever happened to" category, Beth has just released a highly acclaimed new CD called Comfort Of Strangers, and if the enthusiastic packed house at Webster Hall is any indication, it's possible that she's just now hitting her full stride.

She performed numerous songs from the new CD along with some old favorites and, except for a few solo acoustic songs, was backed by drums, piano, guitar and bass. Towards the end of the evening she also brought out opening act Willy Mason with Nina Violet, on acoustic guitar and violin, to join the band. Willy and Nina had done an enjoyable opening set of original country/folk tunes with some Merle Haggard and Hank Williams thrown in for good measure. Nina's violin and vocal harmonies, not to mention some amazing whistling, made their set particularly interesting.

Beth has an emotive voice which occasionally reminds me of '60's pop icon Melanie. Casually drifting back and forth between up tempo catchy tunes and slower ballads the set never got dull. I enjoyed the old, the new, the rockers and the ballads. When she left the stage the first time, I was shocked at how much time had passed. That's always a good sign.

Some side bars: I attended this show thanks to my friend and fellow WFUV member, Mabelle, who got comps from the station and offered me her extra freebie. While standing on line, we got into a nice conversation with a woman named Mary who, it turned out, was the mother of Jeff Buckley.  She's in town to organize some tribute concerts for next year, the 10th anniversary of his untimely death. I'll try to keep on top of those developments. 

 

April 5th at Studio 54

 Written in 1928 by German dramatist Bertolt Brecht with composer Kurt Weill, The Threepenny Opera was not intended to be simple entertainment. It's world of whores, beggars and criminals, with a jazzy score and few memorable tunes, is more designed to challenge the audiences preconceptions of what theatre should be.

There have been numerous films and theatrical productions of the show but this production still managed to have a few surprises. The first was Ana Gasteyer who plays Mrs. Peachum. She is no doubt best known for portraying Martha Stewart on Saturday Night Live, but when she opened her mouth to sing she had a big time Broadway voice!

An even bigger surprise was the part of Lucy Brown being played by Brian Charles Rooney who had such a pure soprano voice that when he started to sing I glanced around the stage to see who was really singing.

It was great fun hearing Cyndi Lauper in her Broadway debut as Pirate Jenny sing "Mack The Knife", and the part of Macheath (Mack The Knife) could not have been better cast than Alan Cumming, who's own Broadway debut was playing the equally decadent character of the Emcee in Cabaret.

Jim Dale, probably best known as the lead in Barnum, played Mr. Peachum and was amazingly light on his feet considering he's 69 years old.

There were two reasons that I was curious to see this show. One was the Broadway debut of Cyndi Lauper and the other was the Broadway debut of Nellie McKay (Mc-eye), a singer songwriter with a strange and humorous stage persona who I've seen in concert several times. She portrayed Polly Peachum and, I didn't notice it until Judy mentioned it, her manner of speaking was reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn. Both were impressive, as was the entire cast.

This isn't a show for everybody, despite being around almost 80 years, the only familiar songs are "Mack The Knife", which everybody knows from Bobby Darin, and "Pirate Jenny" which some people know from a Judy Collins recording, but the show is funny and thought provoking and so brilliantly cast that this production might be the one to see.

One note for the sensitive: This show contains lots of foul language, homo-erotic insinuations and when I say that Lucy exposes her true nature, you can take that literally.

One added note, we arrived at the theatre almost simultaneously with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson who also attended this show.