July 2004                  back

The Finn Brothers, Martin Sexton & Angela McCluskey : July 30th Central Park Summerstage

    This was a hot and humid evening but as near as I could tell nobody cared one bit. When music is this good, it helps you transcend the mere physical. Angela McCluskey started things off and immediately impressed the crowd with her strong voice and catchy pop tunes. With a really good voice that occasionally reminds you of a cartoon character, not unlike Macy Gray, and a left of center fashion sense, you could vaguely consider her as the Scottish Cyndi Lauper. Her single, It's Been Done, has been getting airplay on WFUV. It's a catchy pop tune which slips into a subdued Reggae beat at the chorus. It's the type of song you wake up humming.

  Martin Sexton was up next and anyone who knows me also knows how highly I regard him. But for those who don't know me, let me clarify. Simply put, if you have one guitar and one person on a stage, there is no one in the world, in any genre of music, that is more talented, more impressive or more entertaining than Martin Sexton. If you're not familiar with him but are curious, Black Sheep or Live Wide Open are the albums to start with. His voice defies imagining and his very funky guitar work in his live shows is quite amazing. (although his CD's don't show off his guitar skills as much) He's completely eclectic, roaming between country, pop, soul, gospel, jazz and blues to name only a few. 

 My only negative observation is that he's not a prolific writer. His last album of original material was in 2000, and last night's set included only one song written since then. It seems his career is in a holding pattern. He needs to write, co-write or commission some new material if he wants to move ahead and remain relevant.  He did do his famous cover of Prince's Purple Rain which the audience loved and sang along with.

The Finn Brothers, Neil and Tim,  might be better known from the bands Split Enz (I Got You) and Crowded House (Don't Dream It's Over, Something So Strong...). These were all big hits that you would probably recognize if you heard them. With beautiful melodies and great harmonies, I've always referred to Crowded House as the Beatles Down Under. This show included songs from both bands and their solo careers, along with selections from their forthcoming album Everyone is Here. Some crowd favorites, and mine, were It's Only Natural, Weather With You, There Goes God and I Got You. I also very much liked the new material and look forward to the album which comes out in August.

I always run into people I know at Martin Sexton shows. I was hanging out with Ken, the guy who bought my spare ticket, (Judy doesn't do humid) and talking to Sexton fan Collette and her guy friend from New Zealand, whose a Finn Brothers fan, and thinking to myself how unusual that I don't see anybody I know. Then, a tap on my shoulder and there is Kevin and Sherri along with Dave from Kansas City! I had introduced Dave to Marty's music several years ago and then he and wife Christie moved to Kansas City. Before moving, they brought Kevin and Sherri to a Marty show and Judy and I have been seeing them ever since. Dave needed to come to NYC for business and arranged for it to be this day so he could take in a Marty show! (And you thought I was a big fan) I also ran into Rita Houston from WFUV and had a nice chat with her. She agreed with me that this was an amazing triple bill.

 

My WBGO DJ Appearance : July 26th at WBGO Newark NJ

WBGO is probably the best jazz and blues station in the world. As a Public station, they rely on member donations to pay their way. At this years fund drive, they offered an opportunity to guest host the Blues Hour with Michael Bourne. I couldn't resist. I made the pledge and it was worth every penny! I got the chance to share some of my favorite artists with many thousands of people which is much more efficient than my usual approach of one person at a time.  My sets were decided by picking artists that I've seen live This Year!  Here is my list:

Taj Mahal - You Rascal You

Charlie Musselwhite - Alicia

The Holmes Brothers - Concrete Jungle

 

Lyle Lovett w/Francine Reed - What Do You Do

Ollabelle - John the Revelator

Cassandra Wilson - Death Letter

 

Martin Sexton - Can't Stop Thinking About You

Van Morrison - Whinin' Boy Moan

Angelique Kidjo - Summertime

 

Los Lobos w/Mavis Staples - Someday

Vance Gilbert - Hard to Love

Taj Mahal - Think

 

Mavis Staples : July 22nd at Castle Clinton

Early on during this show, Mavis told the story of her dad, Pops Staples, who as a younger man was in a band that had six members but they never seemed able to get more than three together for rehearsals. One day he came home from another non-rehearsal, sat all his kids down and taught them a song with his $7 guitar with missing strings. That Sunday they sang the song in church and made such an impression that they got called back for three encores. Of course, they only knew that one song, so they sang it three times. When they got home Pops said "I've got to teach you some more songs" and the rest is history. (54 years of history)

Mavis then proceeded to perform the song, a funky gospel version of Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The set also included I'll Take You There, Respect Yourself and she covered The Band's The Weight. You know all these songs, they're all staples of the American songbook. :-)

She also performed two songs from her forthcoming CD, Have a Little Faith. Besides the title cut, she did a song called God is not Sleeping which was so beautiful that it gave me goose bumps. After the show I was talking to music lover Candice (not the Candice from 4th of July) who said she wanted to buy the CD just for that song. I think I agree.

 

  The Neville Brothers : July 21st at Rockefeller Park ( Cyril, Aaron, Art and Charles)

So often when I mention the Neville Brothers to the general public, I get that "it sounds familiar" look from people. When I go on to say that Aaron Neville is that big muscular black guy who sometimes sings with Linda Ronstadt, I then see the spark  of recognition. The Neville Brothers are one of my favorite bands. They play Gospel, Soul, Funk, Jazz, R&B and Blues and manage to bring a little Mardi Gras to all of it.

This year I had already seen three outstanding performances of Sam Cooke's A Change is Gonna Come.  Raul Midon, Jeffrey Gaines and Amos Lee all did themselves proud, but at this show I heard the definitive version. If there is such a thing as a perfect song, this is it (as is Gershwin's Summertime).  As long as Aaron Neville is alive, it'll be his.

They played lots of other familiar songs including Tell It Like It Is, The Temptation's Ball of Confusion, Bill Withers' Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone, Rivers of Babylon, and a beautiful instrumental version of Besame Mucho.

With nine musicians on stage and up to six people singing at any given time, they make a joyous sound. They were so good that a fifteen minute rain break did not reduce the size of the crowd at all. We were wet, but we were happy!

Concert for Kerry : July 20th at The Living Room

                             Moby                                                                            David Poe                  

On the night that the news reported Linda Rondstadt was booed out of a Las Vegas casino for saying Michael Moore was an American patriot, I was at a show where I'm sure she would have received a much different reaction.

You've probably all heard of the Concert for Kerry at Radio City Music Hall where some of the celebrities were reported to have gone a little over the top with their comments about "Dubya". Of course, this show had a slightly lower level of celebrity and isn't likely to be on Entertainment Tonight anyway. I wasn't at the Radio City show but my impression is that this show may have been less vicious and more fun.

Shappy the Poet got the most laughs with his poem  "I hate all wars, except Star Wars". In it he said that George Bush might be as evil as Darth Vader, but he doesn't look as cool. It was very clever and he had the audience in stitches. His other poem, "This poem is level orange", was equally entertaining.

Each artist did two or three songs and most put in a word or two as to why they supported Kerry, or didn't like Bush, and almost all were amusing.  Moby, who sponsored the show, spoke about how he's gotten to know John Kerry fairly well and how much he admires him and then played Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" with most of the audience singing along.

David Poe, who organized this event and is one of my favorite singer songwriters,  popped up several times during the evening. His music is very eclectic with catchy pop tunes with dark lyrics to cha cha's and jazzy lounge music.

Duncan Sheik was also very impressive.  He's a young rock and roller not unlike John Mayer.  His three song set included two songs from his recent CD which sounds like it's worth checking out. He also came back and performed some tunes with David Poe. They both looked like they were having as much fun as the audience. David said they're forming a band together which could be very interesting (unless he was kidding).  

I also enjoyed Rachel Loshack who sang and played bass and whose songs vaguely reminded me of Kate Bush.  Tara Angel reminded me of a young Marianne Faithful and Katell Keineg who had a beautiful and strong voice. Unfortunately, I didn't stay till the end because it was getting late on a work night and I missed a few artists including Joseph Arthur who I had been curious to see. His backup vocal with Tara Angel was not a big enough taste.

I  shared a table with Chris and Vanessa. Chris is a Texas republican who's had a change of heart. He's also a big Duncan Sheik fan and I have to admit that I was not but I've had a change of heart on that matter. It was a fun night. I bet Linda Ronstadt wishes she had been there.

 

 Charlie Musselwhite - North Mississippi All Stars - Amos Lee : July 17th at Central Park Summerstage

In a recent interview, Charlie Musselwhite said that as a child he heard all types of music in his house but that when he started to play music, on guitar and harmonica, he was naturally drawn to the blues. That natural attraction eventually led him to play blues harp with an assortment of blues legends including Big Joe Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker and many others.  Charlie's first solo album, Stand Back, may have been the first blues album which targeted a mostly white rock and roll audience.

Over the years his solo work has included Gospel, Tex-Mex, Country, Delta and Chicago blues, Jazz and Rock & Roll  and anything else that interested him. This show had Charlie singing and playing harmonica on a wide variety of blues tunes including some from Sanctuary, his very recent release. He and his band sounded great and you could really sense how much the crowd was enjoying him. 

 The North Mississippi All Stars are a southern roots rock jam band. If you know what that means then I don't need to say anything else except that they're good. If you don't know what it means, then imagine a blues-based southern rock band who do more playing than singing (The Allman Brothers would be a well known comparison).  They did some great jamming and seemed to have a younger fan base. The band consists of Luther and Cody Dickerson on guitars and drums, Chris Chew on bass and sometimes Dwayne Burnside on guitars.

 I was very impressed with singer songwriter Amos Lee. His songs were funky, folkie and bluesy but his beautiful voice was always soulful. His band was excellent, especially Nate Skiles on guitars, mandolin, horns and backup vocals.

The audience received Amos very warmly, a good trick when they've come to see other artists. He did some songs from his forthcoming CD on Blue Note and finished with an impressive version of Sam Cooke's Change is Gonna Come. He'll be spending the rest of the summer opening for Norah Jones and when I spoke to him after the set he said he'd be at The Living Room in August. I told him we'll be at the Living Room this week for a Kerry benefit concert featuring Duncan Sheik and David Poe, and he said David Poe was his favorite singer songwriter. I'll likely go see this guy again.

I sat with Frank from Georgia and his college age daughter who is in the city to take dance classes for the summer. He's a long time blues and soul music fan who, as a youngster, hung out at a studio in Augusta where he met Muddy Waters, Lightening Hopkins, Little Stevie Wonder and many others.  They seemed to enjoy the day as much as I did.

 

 Ricky Fante : July 15th at Joe's Pub

I left Shemekia Copeland's show, jumped on the subway and was delivered to Joe's Pub in plenty of time for this show. I have one word to describe his performance but I need to say the word more than once. The word is Wow! Wow! Wow!  To paraphrase a famous quote from the seventies "I have seen the future of soul music and it's the past"! His songs hark back to the Motown/Stax heyday of the sixties.    Co-written with Jesse Harris, of Norah Jones fame, the songs and his voice can easily remind you of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson, Al Green and all the other great soul singers of that period. Not to mention his outstanding band with two horns, guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and a beautiful and incredibly talented backup singer. Any of the above mentioned legends would be proud to perform in front of this band.

Ricky Fante (pronounced Fon-Tay) is a 25 year old singer from Washington D. C. He has the voice, the look, the stage presence, the songs, the band, and apparently the industry backing, to explode into the public's music consciousness.  With a good number of "industry" people at this show and already several TV appearances, I believe you'll be hearing about this guy very soon (if you haven't already).  His just-released debut album Rewind is out this week and will immediately be put on my best of 2004 list.

I stood at the bar for this show and chatted with Eddie the bartender who introduced me to new British bartender, Jill.  Her favorite show in the three weeks she's been here was The Strawbs.  She had never heard of them which isn't surprising since they were never particularly big and that was before she was born. Judy and I used their song "The Winter Long" as our wedding song 24 years ago. I had thought about attending that show and now regret that I didn't. Eddie said his favorite recent show was soul singer, Betty  LeVette (maybe next time).  Our favorite waiter, Marcus, also came over and said hello and sent his regards to Judy.

Between songs, I was talking with music lover, Joe, who heard Ricky for the first time on TV the night before and immediately booked a reservation for this show. He also attended the Dixie Hummingbirds last week and is planning on the Neville Brothers next week. He and I agreed that the show was a little too loud and most definitely too short even by Joe's Pub standards. It was barely 45 minutes.  But at least it was 45 minutes of heaven.

p.s.  I spotted Jesse Harris in the audience and was told Lenny Kravitz and Wilson Pickett were also there.

 

Shemekia Copeland Blues Band : July 15th at Wagner Park

I took exactly one picture before my batteries went dead and the above picture is it. Not bad for one try!

Shemekia Copeland is the daughter of blues guitarist Johnny Clyde Copeland who, when she was fifteen, began taking her on the road to open up shows for him.  It wasn't long before people were coming to see her as much as him.  In 1997, at age eighteen, she released her first album, Turn The Heat Up, on Alligator Records and has since released two more. Her most recent, Talking To Strangers, was produced by Dr. John with whom she is touring this summer. With a handful of W. C. Handy awards (best contemporary blues album, best blues album, best female blues vocalist...) and a Grammy nomination, she's become one of the most respected voices in contemporary blues.

After a week of heavy rain, the sun was shining and the wind blowing, a perfect evening for some free blues.  Shemekia even quipped that it was so chilly on stage with the wind blowing that she hoped nothing was showing through her shirt, a perfect segue for her next song Turn The Heat Up.

She included songs from all three albums including I Should've Come Home Last Night, Married To the Blues, Wild Wild Woman plus the Obie Wright song I Don't Know Why. She has an amazing voice and really belts out her songs. (She's been compared to Koko Taylor and Etta James among others) Her band consisted of guitar, bass, drums and keyboards, and were also very impressive. The Shemekia Copeland Blues Band is the real deal.  

 

Dixie Hummingbirds (circa 1940's) : July 7th Rockefeller Park

The Dixie Hummingbirds were formed in the 1920's when gospel great James B. Davis, then 12 years old, and his church singing friends took their act on the road. The lead singer of the band today is Ira Tucker Sr. who joined the group in 1938 at 13 years old and who, at almost eighty years old, can still sing beautifully. They entered into main stream awareness when they received a standing ovation at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival and again when they sang backup on Paul Simon's "Loves Me Like a Rock" in 1973.

You can hear the roots of doo-wop harmonies in some of their songs. With guitar, bass, drums and Garth Hudson of "The Band" on keyboards, they sang a collection of their greatest gospel hits including I've Been Born Again, Christian Automobile, Bedside of a Neighbor, Loves Me Like a Rock and the crowd favorite Jesus Would Never Vote For Bush. (OK, I made that one up).  Levon Helm of the Band was also scheduled to appear but was unable due to a reported illness.

There was a nice turnout and the dark threatening clouds never rained a drop. Maybe the Hummingbirds put in a word with the boss.

 

   Lyle Lovett (Calexico opening) : July 4 at Battery Park

I'm always intrigued by the fact that almost everyone knows Lyle Lovett as that guy with the wild hair who married Julia Roberts, but very few people can name a single song that he's recorded. That's too bad. Because I think he's one of the most talented and versatile artists performing these days. That overwhelming majority who know him only as Julia Robert's ex-husband are also vaguely aware that he's a country singer. That is only partially true because he's equally adept performing blues, gospel, Texas swing and folk tunes. He has been known to tour with his large band (16+) and do mostly blues and swing tunes.

For this show he had approximately nine musicians on stage and did a decidedly country set with songs like "That's Right (Your Not From Texas)" and the Steven Fromholz song "Bears". Towards the end of the show, he brought out a gospel choir and finished the set with two gospel songs before coming back for an encore and performing the beautiful ballad "Nobody Knows Me" followed by his foot stompin' and hand clappin' gospel song "Church". (Earlier he had performed a ballad with piano that was somewhat jazzy and so beautiful that it gave me goose bumps. I don't know the name of the song, but I assure you I will find out.) For me, this is as good as it gets.

With all the cross breeding of musical genres, it's been getting more difficult as of late to categorize musicians. The closest I can get to describing opening act Calexico, is to say they're a psychedelic Mexican country rock band from Tempe Arizona. But maybe what matters more is that they were very talented and enjoyable. What a treat to have an opening act that you know you'll go see again because they were so impressive. The songs were instantly accessible and had catchy melodies with rock and Latin rhythms. The two trumpet players were particularly impressive. The band did mostly original material and a great cover of "Alone Again Or" from the 60's San Francisco band The Love Group.

While waiting on line to enter the park I struck up a conversation with Candice, a recent transplant from New Orleans and big time music lover. No doubt she'll find this web site useful and I suspect we'll cross paths at other shows.  I also ran into fellow concerteer Louis, who said he saw me last week at Aimee Mann and who I'm sure I'll be seeing at many shows this summer. This was another of the many free shows offered in NYC during summertime and one of the most comfortable days of the year. I like that combo.