JULY 2005                       back

Lila Downs-Maria del Mar Bonet-Las Ondas Marteles : July 31st at Central Park Summerstage  

After cutting my lawn and working in my garden on this sunny summer Sunday, I briefly considered staying home in my air conditioning and missing this show. What a mistake that would have been! This show was so satisfying in so many ways that it's hard to know where to begin so I'll start with the headliner.

Lila Downs is so beautiful, so personable and so talented that it's simply a joy to watch her perform. Born of a Scottish-American father and Mixtec-Indian mother, who was a singer in Mexico City, Lila grew up in both Minnesota and Oaxaca, Mexico and brings both worlds to her music.

If you've seen the movie Frida, with Salma Hayek, then you've already heard some of her Mexican folk music, but she brings many more influences to her live performance.  Rockin' blues, jazz, reggae and rap were sprinkled between various traditional forms. (My friend Louis astutely noted that she's not likely to have a future in rap. True, but she gave it a fun try). 

The set began with her strolling and then dancing out in front of her seven piece international band while banging a barrel drum which was hung from her neck. When she reached the microphone and began to sing, I was mesmerized. For the next 90 minutes I could barely take my eyes off the stage. Most of the band members were multi-instrumentalists at various times playing any combination of horns, keyboards, accordion, percussion, various guitars and guitar-like instruments, violin, and harp among others. The harp was featured quite prominently which was a rare treat. At one point it reminded me of Jackson Browne's Linda Paloma.  

Speaking of Linda Paloma, one reviewer, Michael Stone of Roots World,  described Lila as "having the chops of Linda Ronstadt, the sassiness and inventive range of Sarah Vaughn and the sweetness of Tish Hinojosa". The L.A. Times described her as "Edith Piaf singing in Spanish". Both are good descriptions. She also sings in English and several Native American languages including Mayan and Mixtec.  I believe she'll be performing at Le Jazz Au Bar in the fall.  If I'm not there, call the hospitals.

 Maria del Mar Bonet has been described as the voice of Mediterranean song. You would be hard pressed to find a person from Spain who is not familiar with her. Her music has elements from Greece, Italy, Northern Africa and Catalan folk music. Born on the island of Majorca, she was actually censored under the Franco regime. (You know how sensitive those fascists are, they hate when people would rather listen to someone other than them).  Her voice was beautiful and her band, including two great nylon stringed guitarists, at times reminded me of The Gipsy Kings.

After the set I went and found my Spanish speaking friend, Mabelle, to ask her what Maria was talking about between songs. She wasn't able to help much because Maria was speaking Catalonian or Castillian or some other not quite Spanish language, but she said one song was dedicated to Bruce Springsteen for his efforts on behalf of peace and social issues. I don't know what else she was talking about but she had a beautiful voice and great presence. Another enjoyable set.

Opening act, Las Ondas Marteles, was a pleasant surprise. When French brothers Nicolas (vocals) and Sebastian (guitar & vocals) Martel found that they had independently developed a love for the Cuban bolero, or Latin torch song, they began working out some songs together and eventually added friend Sarah Murcia on backing vocals and bass.

The melodies and harmonies were beautiful and Nicolas' voice was very warm and romantic. They also had a sense of humor. Sebastian would introduce the songs in Spanish and Nicolas would translate into English. Someone from the audience yelled something and Sebastian replied "Si, senor".  Nicolas leaned forward into the microphone and in his low sexy whisper translated "Yes sir". Everyone laughed. He also translated  lyrics before singing some songs. One went " I know I no longer have a place in your heart, but don't feel bad for me, I feel nothing for you either". His deep voice and delivery made most of what he said very amusing.

They also played a cassette tape of their friend, Cuban poet Miguel Angel Ruiz, singing  some words he had written a cappella. He died a few years ago and they've worked several of his songs into their performance. They just wanted us to hear his voice, it was very touching. I would go see this group again. It was a treat to see three diverse acts and enjoy them all. Glad I didn't stay in my air conditioning.

   

Daby Toure : July 20th Madison Square Park

I'm very excited about this talented new artist. I've been listening to his CD Diam almost daily for the last few months. His songs are rhythmic and beautifully melodic blending the sounds of his homeland Mauritania with western pop influences. On the CD he plays almost all the instruments but for this show he was backed by drums, bass and a percussionist. The band, from Venezuela, Martinique and India, was excellent and the live performance more than lived up to my expectations.

More than just a talented writer, singer and musician, he has the personality that makes the show fun. He managed to coerce much of the somewhat reluctant crowd to move closer, sing along and dance. All those who did no doubt had the best time. Some of his sing-alongs were slightly more challenging than usual and he didn't hesitate to kid us if we did poorly. Of course, he was right and so we tried harder. In the end it was great fun.

This short tour is his first in the United States but I spoke with him briefly before the show and he said his new agent is setting up a significant tour for next year. There is no doubt that I'll be at one of those shows. Listen to Diam and you'll understand why.

 

New York Philharmonic : July 19th Central Park Lorin Maazel, Conductor / Lynn Harrell, Cello

This popular concert series draws people by the many tens of thousands. I had a great time eating and drinking under the stars with several of my friends but unfortunately the good time didn't include hearing great music. Not that the music wasn't necessarily great, it was the hearing part that was the problem. Next time I'll know to set up camp directly in front of some speakers and bring a wiffle-ball bat for people who insist on talking LOUDLY and incessantly while great artists are performing. 

This was an all Dvorak program consisting of Carnivale, Cello Concerto in B minor, and Symphony No. 9 in E minor, aka "From The New World". All beautiful pieces that I've heard in my home countless times. The Cello Concerto is one of Judy's all time favorite pieces. It would have been nice to hear such great works. Oh well, there's always next time. At least I got to see the fireworks!

 

  Femi Kuti (opening act Brazilian Girls) : July 17th at Central Park Summerstage

Femi Kuti is the son of Fela Kuti, the most famous and controversial musician in Nigerian history. Fela was a pioneer of Afrobeat music, a big band sound which blended American funk with African rhythms. He was also arrested numerous times by the Nigerian government for constantly singing about their corruption. He made himself an easy target with his lifestyle of pot smoking, polygamy (he once married 27 dancers at one of his shows) and performing in his underwear. Quite a character!

Femi got one of his big breaks filling in for his dad when he was incarcerated for two years in the mid-80's. When Fela returned, Femi went off and started his own big band adding soul, hip-hop and dance music to the Afrobeat and began building his own musical legacy. He's continued his father's tradition of exposing government corruption, but with a more modest lifestyle and a slightly less abrasive approach he seems better able to co-exist with the government. At least he hasn't been arrested yet.

Femi writes, sings, plays sax and keyboard, and is backed by lots of horns, percussion, bass, guitar and three gyrating back-up singers. Despite being the hottest stickiest day of the year and getting drenched in a downpour during the opening act, his big band sound had the whole place moving. This was a great show and I'd go see them again in an Afro beat. 

He also had his young son come out and play some really good sax with the band. Apparently the legacy won't end with Femi.

Opening act, Brazilian Girls, is a techno pop dance band which is neither Brazilian nor female except for the female lead singer. Singing in French and English and incorporating assorted world beats, they had much of the crowd dancing and smoking weed with their encouragement. For some reason I got very hungry during their set. Their music isn't the type that usually interests me but their set was kind of fun and their fans loved it.

 

  Son Volt : July 14th South Street Seaport

Jay Farrar is the founding member and driving force behind the alternative country rock band Son Volt. If I had to give a point of reference with a band that most people were aware of, the closest I could come would be R.E.M. In fact Peter Buck of R.E.M. produced an album with Jay's earlier band Uncle Tupelo.

He's a rocker with country and folk influences whose lyrics are often compared to Woody Guthrie. His stories of the American experience tell of the heartache, struggle and disappointment but with a slant of hope for the future. In fact, the new CD is called Okemah and The Melody Riot which is a nod to Okemah Oklahoma, home of Woody Guthrie.

This was one of the most well attended shows I've seen at South Street Seaport. Son Volt, and Jay Farrar in particular, has quite a large following. I've never actually been a big fan but was very familiar with their music from hearing it often on WFUV. I was aware of their extensive following and thought I'd see for myself what all the fuss was about.  I sorry to report that they still have not won me over.

Maybe I would need to sit quietly with the lyrics, or maybe it's because Wednesday night I saw such an exciting 12 piece reggae band, but I was never drawn in to the music. Some good music, some great guitar work but nothing to make me rush out to see them again.  However, I don't think that will stop anyone else that was there.

Opening act Dr. Dog is a Philadelphia band which was part jam band and part power pop band. They did an enjoyable set of original rock tunes which was well received by the audience.

That audience included Darren DeVivo from WFUV and singer songwriter Ann Heaton, both of whom I chatted with briefly, and fellow concerteers Bill King and Louis who I'll no doubt  be seeing often this summer.   

Bob Marley's Wailers : July 13th at Rockefeller Park

If rap music has been an outlet for pimps, gangsters and much of what is wrong with the world, then reggae music is rap's counterpoint being for peace, love, freedom, equality, spirituality, fun and what the world can be for those who embrace the positive.

Bob Marley died of cancer at age 36 in 1981, but as I listened to the Wailers, I felt his spirit as if he were standing right next to me. At one point I got goose bumps thinking of what he stood for and what an incredible body of work he left us.

The group, many of whom go back to Marley's days, played some of their newer material but also played almost all of the big hits that audiences wait for. For those who might not know, they include Is This Love, I Shot The Sheriff, Stir It Up, Buffalo Soldier, Exodus, Jamming, and Redemption Song to name a few.

The band of 12 was awe inspiring with horns, keyboard, bass, assorted guitars, drums, percussion and fantastic backup singers. It was a joyous sound that had most of the audience dancing and singing.

In these days of dangerous fundamentalists of the Muslim and Christian persuasion, manipulative governments, poverty and violence, it was heartening to be reminded that the world is filled with people who embrace what's good in the world. Maybe, somehow, everything's going to be alright.

 

Blind Boys Of Alabama-Citizen Cope-The Royal Wylds : July 10th at Central Park Summerstage   

As the Blind Boys of Alabama took the stage, I heard a guy near me comment "They're really blind"! An overwhelming number of people in the audience were here to see Citizen Cope and likely had no idea who the Blind Boys were, but I was pleasantly surprised when about 85% of the audience stayed for the Blind Boys after Cope's set.  None who stayed were disappointed.

The Blind Boys formed in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind and have been singing gospel music almost 70 years now. They spent their career in relative obscurity until about 15 years ago when they were "discovered" and began working with the likes of Lou Reed, Solomon Burke and Peter Gabriel. Only three old timers are left, the group has been supplemented with several younger musicians, but the sound they make is as impressive as ever. Throughout the set they had this crowd of mostly young white kids clapping, dancing and testifying.

The set included rockin' gospel versions of Norman Greenbaum's Spirit in the Sky, Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready and a clever juxtaposition using the music from House of the Rising Sun and the words from Amazing Grace, along with some other songs from their new CD Atom Bomb.

    Citizen Cope's The Clarence Greenwood Recordings is on my list of Favorite CD's for 2004. Backed by two keyboards, bass and drums, his music is a fusion of classic blues with hip-hop influences. The music has a slow funky infectious groove that, although it has obvious contemporary influences, brings to my mind a vision of a raft drifting down the Mississippi.  His lyrics have a folkie quality telling stories of characters who inhabit the fringes of society.

The set included most of the songs from the Greenwood Recordings and some tunes from his previous CD, plus a very cool version of Bob Marley's Is This Love. The audience sang along with many of the tunes until Cope finally let them sing the first two verses of Pablo Picasso ("The woman that I love is forty feet tall") without him. Almost everyone knew the words. There was drinking, dancing, singing and lots of sweaty young folks with very little clothing. Something for everyone!

The opening act was a New York rock group called The Royal Wylds who did a good set of mostly original rock tunes that harkened back to the 60's. They also covered a song by Arthur Lee's Luv Group. It made for an overall enjoyable day to hear three completely different schools of music represented so well.

 

Graham Parker : July 7 at South Street Seaport

In the mid to late 70's, when disco was positioned to take over the world, a rock and roll insurgency made what could have been its last stand and turned the tide to take its rightful place in the forefront of popular music. Some of the leaders of that revolution were The Ramones, The Talking Heads and Bruce Springsteen along with three angry young Brits: Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Graham Parker.

Graham had a string of FM hits which included Local Girls, Heat Treatment, Passion Is No Ordinary Word, Hold Back The Night and Temporary Beauty, and has released over two dozen albums in the last 30 years, but is probably the least known of the aforementioned artists. His fan base may be slightly less in number but certainly not in enthusiasm.

For this free show, he alternated between acoustic and electric guitar and was accompanied by Mike Gent, guitarist of The Figgs, on electric guitar and backup vocals. He performed a substantial number of tunes from his new release Songs Of No Consequence, along with some old favorites like Local Girls, Passion Is No Ordinary Word and White Honey and a few covers including The Grateful Dead's Sugaree and a reggae version of Van Morrison's Have I Told You Lately That I Love You.

Black skies all day had me considering staying home, Vienna Teng was rained out last night, but I thought Graham Parker was worth the chance.  In the end, the rain held off for the duration, I ran into several of my concert going friends, including John Platt of WFUV who hosted the show, and I saw a great show. Ka-Ching!