September 2006               back

Dar Williams, Vance Gilbert, Lucy Kaplansky & Susan Werner: Sept 30th at Pollak Auditorium, West Long Branch, NJ

I normally would have been away this weekend; but when I saw that these four artists were going to be on the same stage, it was one of those shows I couldn't miss. Individually, each ranks between extremely good and extraordinary as songwriters, singers and musicians as well as that mysterious quality of stage presence. Over the last 10 years I've seen them at least half a dozen times each in assorted incarnations.

This show was part of the "Writers In The Raw" series at the Jersey shore which takes singer/songwriters and puts them on stage together to discuss and play their music in a casual unplugged setting. I've been to a number of "writers in the round" type shows and always enjoy the spontaneous, once in a lifetime, nature of them.

One thing that puzzled me from the moment I heard about this show was that Dar Williams was being advertised as the headliner who would play a solo set after the other three did their "in the round" set.  My first reaction was to think that this is like having the Traveling Wilburys open for Tom Petty. First of all, Tom Petty is a Traveling Wilbury and secondly, would he ever have wanted Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynn and Roy Orbison opening for him? I suspect not.

Lucy, Vance and Susan have been Dar's contemporaries from day one, she was even in the trio Cry Cry Cry with Lucy, and I would think it would actually feel awkward for her to be singled out from that group.  Even allowing for the fact that she probably has a little more name recognition and maybe has sold more CD's, the fun of a show like this is the chance to play, sing harmonies or exchange stories with talented artists that you don't normally play with or sometimes have never even met.  In the end, Dar was like the kid who wasn't allowed to play with the other kids and missed all the fun. That thought was reinforced in my mind when she opened her set with "The Babysitter", which is sung from the perspective of a little girl.

The show was hosted by music writer Robert Santelli who recently released a Bruce Springsteen book called "Greetings From E Street".  He asked the artists about the autobiographical nature of writing, where or how they write, what was their favorite cover tune and to play one of their most recent works. They subsequently in turn would play a tune related to the particular topic and talk a little about how it connected to the topic. When opportunity or inspiration presented itself the others would jump in with vocal harmonies or a few licks on guitar or piano.

The discussion aspect of the evening was often amusing, insightful or fascinating, which I love, but occasionally was long winded and tended to slow the momentum. That had no effect on the numerous amazing musical moments, but did keep the show from ever having the sense of hitting it's stride.

Over the course of the evening Vance contributed impressive performances of  "Unfamiliar Moon", the title cut from his 2004 release and "Ten Thousand Moons" from the same CD, as well as his cover tune called "Courage" from a Brazilian artist, which was the only time he didn't reach me in the show. He also added the lion's share of the hysterical comedy.

When the topic drifted from autobiographical to emotional insight, Lucy sang "Ten Year Night", a beautiful and slightly graphic love song to her husband which includes the story of how they met and how she still feels. That might have been the emotional highlight of the night except for the fact that when the category went to new material she sang a song written three months ago on a plane to visit her dying father. She also contributed "Manhattan Moon" and her cover tune was a beautiful version of Bryan Ferry's "More Than This", which included a charming story of how she came to sing on Bryan Ferry's most recent CD.

Susan Werner played her tunes on piano and only played guitar when accompanying the others. She sang the title cut from her great 2004 release "I Can't Be New" which is a collection of original songs written in the style of great American songbook composers like Cole Porter. That CD is on my list of favorites for that year. When asked if she had any "place specific" tunes, the Chicago native went into a jazzy and catchy tune called "I'll Take Chicago". Her cover tune was a beautiful version of "Never My Love", from the 60's band The Association, which she sang after telling Lucy that she had considered doing a cover of "More Than This" until she "googled" it and discovered that Lucy had already covered it. Her new tune was built around the idea that there must be something more after the last kiss and had a similar sensibility to the song Lucy wrote for her dad.  It provided an incredible one/two punch of emotion near the end of the set.

Dar Williams did finally join the others briefly to perform a song from The Nields with Lucy and also a partially completed song called "I Never Took", a heartbreaking song about a lover who goes back to his previous love.  In what was one of the funniest parts of the show, Vance, with Susan on piano, completed the song for her turning it into a song about shoplifting.

 Her solo set was very entertaining and included the songs "February", "Teen For God" and "The Christians and The Pagans" among others, as well as a comment about Pennsylvania politician Rick Santorum being a nut job, which got the biggest audience laugh of the night, but nothing in her set swayed me away from my initial inclination that it probably was not a good idea to mix an "in the round" set with a solo set.  Still, if these four amazing artists played together again, I would be there regardless of the format.

Note: I wasn't able to take photos at this show so I used Lucy and Vance pictures from the last time I saw them and borrowed Susan and Dar head shots from their websites.

 

Cassandra Wilson: Sept 20th at Town Hall

This was a good week. First I got to see Lyle Lovett, a favorite of mine who's mostly known as a country singer but who does gospel, Texas swing, Blues and much more. Then I got to see Cassandra Wilson, another favorite who's a jazz singer who mostly ignores the standard jazz repertoire. You won't find much Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer in her catalog. Instead you'll find her source material is from the Delta and Chicago blues of Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters, as well as contemporary rock, pop and folk tunes from the likes of Sting, Neil Young, U-2 and Bob Dylan, as well as original material. For some jazz enthusiasts this creates a sense of consternation, but for me it's just another reason why she's one of my favorites.

Her new CD "Thunderbird" was produced by T-Bone Burnett (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou) and is certainly her most pop effort to date; and although there's a sense of swing in all her work, on this CD it's the least noticeable.

She and her six-piece band presented a good deal of the new work including my favorites of the show Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Easy Rider" and Willie Dixon's "I Want To Be Loved", along with an original tune "Go To Mexico"  which was so pop and funky that it was one of the few times at a Cassandra Wilson show that I felt the urge to get up and dance. I think she said that she wrote the song for Lou Dobbs, which I'll have to look into because my sister used to work for him.

She also did Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time", which is always a crowd favorite, and which I've heard her describe in the past as "destined to become a contemporary standard". Her version is considerably slower and reworked, but the melody and phrasing are so familiar that it can't be rendered unrecognizable. Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen" should also have been familiar to most.

With her deep sultry voice, unusual arrangements, great band and fascinating song selections, she never fails to impress or surprise. If you're not familiar with her work, you should put it on your "to do" list.

 

Lyle Lovett and His Large Band: Sept 18th at McCarter Theater

I think Lyle Lovett is one of the most under appreciated talents in the music business today. Almost everyone I speak to knows two things about him, that he's the unusual looking fellow who was married to Julia Roberts and that he's a country singer.

Well, one out of two ain't bad. He was married to Julia Roberts and although he did make his first splash in country music with his 1986 self-titled debut, he has since become so eclectic that most of his country fans have long ago deserted him. What's unfortunate for them is that I think that Lyle Lovett shows what country music can be. If you've ever considered the commonality among all the popular music genres, a Lyle Lovett concert connects the dots.

This show opened with Lyle on acoustic guitar performing a quiet ballad called "Don't Cry a Tear" accompanied by John Hagen on cello. He then brought out mandolin player Jeff White, but before doing the second song, Lyle went into a five minute comedy routine that had the crowd in stitches. He talked about the trips his family took when he was a child to places he had heard of on the local weather report. He's always added a little self-deprecating humor to his shows, but this was the funniest I'd ever seen him.

During the third tune "This Traveling Around" the rest of his large band came out one by one and gradually joined in. When all thirteen musicians were on stage, Lyle left and they did a swing jam with a series of short solos. Among these great musicians were Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel on bass and drums who've played with Crosby and Nash, Jackson Browne and  James Taylor, to name just a few.

Lyle came back and joined his Large Band with his four back up singers, including the fabulous Francine Reed, and they performed a bluesy gospel tune "I Will Rise Up" that was so moving that I had one of those musical moments that I live for. After the song I leaned over to Judy and said "we haven't even been here half an hour and we've already heard gospel, blues, jazz, swing, country and folk music. But Lyle was just getting started.

Throughout the two and a half hour show he performed many fan favorites including "Penguins", "You're Not From Texas", "My Baby Don't Tolerate", "Since The Last Time", "I've Been To Memphis" and a duet with Francine called "What Do You Do". He also let Francine sing lead vocals on two rousing blues tunes " A Little Sugar In My Bowl" and a 1924 Ida Cox tune "Wild Women Don't Get The Blues".  

In the middle of the show he excused the large band and did a couple of bluegrass tunes with the fiddle, mandolin and bass players. He added that he only pretends to play bluegrass music but that these guys are the real deal. He was very convincing.

Lyle writes wry and witty lyrics and beautiful melodies, has a soothing voice, great sense of humor and surrounds himself with great musicians. Enough reasons to enjoy him. But he also has a charming stage presence and is a real southern gentleman. He's so gracious with his band members, often mentioning their names and accomplishments and so appreciative for the opportunity to play with them that you get a sense of sincerity that's very heart warming.

At another show recently a guy told me he wasn't into Lyle Lovett and I said " Then I bet you've never seen him live".

 

Cheap Trick: Sept 16th at Nomahegan Park (Fab Faux one of the openers) 

You probably remember Cheap Trick from their string of hits in the late 70's and early 80's which included "Surrender", "I Want You To Want Me" and "Dream Police" among others. They actually became mega stars in Japan with their first three albums going platinum there before breaking big here with their fourth release "Live At Budokan", which was a live show recorded in Japan. They've continued to release new material over the years but their last hit was a 1988 power ballad called "The Flame".  It remains to be seen if their new CD "Rockford" has any impact. This isn't a band I would normally buy tickets to see, but they were playing at a free show 15 minutes from my house so I thought "Why not?"

Lead singer Robin Zander isn't as pretty as he used to be, but he can still really sing rock and roll and guitarist Rick Nielsen, who always reminded me of Huntz Hall from the Bowery Boys, was very impressive on guitar (If you're under 45, disregard the Huntz Hall reference).

Tom Petersen on bass and Bun E. Carlos on drums rounded out the band and I have to admit it was a really good rock show that mixed the familiar hits with material from the new CD, keeping the audience engaged throughout. I'm not ready to pay to see them again, but I would see them again for free and even though it might not sound like it, that's a compliment.

  The Fab Faux are a Beatle cover band comprised of members of the David Letterman and Conan O'Brien bands. They recreate the music beautifully and when they manage to reproduce the vocals at the same level, it's very impressive indeed. When they don't quite get the vocals right they sound like a good bar band doing Beatle covers. But it's fun either way.

My favorites of the day were "And Your Bird Can Sing" from Revolver, "Nowhere Man" from Rubber Soul and "Oh Darling" from Abbey Road. They touched on many of the other Beatle albums with songs like "Anytime At All" and "Dear Prudence" among others. This was an enjoyable set.

There were others acts during the day including Southside Johnny singing with La Bamba and the Hubcaps, but I missed them because I went home to eat. It was so muddy from downpours the day and night before, that I heard a half dozen well deserved references to Woodstock. I think this is going to become an annual event in Cranford. I hope it does.

    

  Richard Bona: Sept 6th at Joe's Pub  

Recently, two different people asked me if Angelique Kidjo was famous after hearing her on one of the compilation CD's that I'm always handing out. It's an interesting question because she draws large crowds at shows all around the world and has collaborated with the likes of Santana and Peter Gabriel, but among the general public in this country she is not a household word. I guess you could say she's famous in certain circles. Those would include musicians, people in her homeland of Benin and anyone who follows world music at all, especially in parts of Europe (as well as quite a few people in Brooklyn where she now resides). 

Richard Bona has a similar circumstance. Born into a musical family, he grew up in Minta, Cameroon and spent some time in Paris, as did Angelique, before coming to live in New York about ten years ago. He's a singer/songwriter and multi instrumentalist best known as a virtuoso bass player. A quick glance at the musicians he has worked with easily establishes his stature as a musician. It includes Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Paul Simon, Harry Connick Jr. and Bobby McFerrin, to name a few. Now that I think of it, it also includes Angelique Kidjo. But despite working with such musical luminaries and releasing four of his own CD's, he's also only famous in certain circles. That's too bad, because he's an extraordinary talent. 

Because he writes, sings, plays bass and has one foot in jazz, he's been described as the "African Sting". It's easy to understand the comparison although nothing I heard at this performance brought Sting to mind. What I did hear was jazz, bossa nova, funk, afro-beat and African folk music played by an international band which included two horns, keyboard, guitar, drums, percussion and bass, with players from Cuba, Argentina, Colombia, The Netherlands, Brooklyn, New England and Cameroon. Each added his own spice to the mix.

Richard's got a beautiful "clear as a bell" falsetto that sometimes brought Bobby McFerrin to mind, and one of their funky jams included some of Stevie Wonder's "I Wish". At other times I felt like I could have been in a Latin dance hall with the horns blaring and the percussionists banging out Latin rhythms. That they so easily navigated the various styles was very impressive but the jaw dropping moment of the evening came with Richard performing solo.

After letting his percussionists have about a two minute jam, Richard came out and sang a traditional folk song from Cameroon. Performing solo a cappella, his voice was so pure that it was mesmerizing. After a few minutes the keyboard player gave him a single note and he continued to sing but now into a tape loop microphone. With a tape loop you can step on a pedal and it will play back what you just sang or played so you can accompany yourself.

So we heard two Richards, then three, then four with each additional loop becoming richer, more intricate and more beautiful. By the time he finished, maybe eight or nine loops, there was one man standing on stage singing but sounding like the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mombazo. It was one of the most amazing vocal performances I've ever seen and I think the crowd who erupted at the finish would agree. I live for those moments.

Judy was in social overdrive so besides seeing a great show, we also had some really nice conversations with some other music lovers while waiting in line and also while at our table. Needless to say, they all had heard of Richard Bona and Angelique Kidjo and had attended many of the same concerts as me this year including Angelique Kidjo, Lura, Daby Toure and Amadou and Mariam among others. Like I said, these artists are famous in certain circles and one of those circles is mine.

Richard's new release is called "Tiki" and has guest appearances by John Legend and Susheela Raman who you may have read about here in the past. It's worth a listen.