‘Music’ Posts

Music Review: Jason & the Scorchers – Halcyon Times

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Music Review: Jason & the Scorchers – Halcyon TimesJason & the Scorchers don't have to look back; they've been the genuine article since the early 1980's, and have the Americana Music Association's Lifetime Achievement Award to prove it. Opening with a half-crazed two-step about a "moonshine guy in a six-pack world," their new disc – their first of new material since 1996, hard to believe as that may be – barrels through the glorious clichés of country-rock like they weren't clichés at all.

Backed by a crack new rhythm section, founding Scorchers Jason Ringenberg and Warner E. Hodges pile layer upon layer of American dreams and nightmares. The wonderful "Beat on the Mountain" speaks of striking miners: "I beat on the mountain/but the mountain don't say a thing." "Mona Lee" hollers like an army of Chuck Berrys, and the band's sense of humor shines in "Fear Not Gear Rot" with its exaggerated freight-train twang and playful lyrics. "Mother of Greed" tangily evokes the immigrant experience and its resonance in later generations.

A spirit of fun and celebration runs through the record despite the presence of such serious themes, even in the epic "Land of the Free" with its portentous beat and clanging guitars and Vietnam War tale. Propped up by killer guitar licks, it's a mini-symphony of rock and roll goodness.

The atmospheric "Twang Town Blues" evokes busted dreams and Music City viciousness, while "Days of Wine and Roses" feels a little like countrified Springsteen meets the Byrds, with a steely midtempo beat and hard-pulled guitar strings. In the hard-driving southern rock number "Better Than This" a superb hook tops off a ropy chromatic guitar riff; if it had come out in the late 1970's the song would be a classic rock hit today. "It gets good but it don't get better than this." So true.

Dan Baird provides guest vocals on the stripped-down country number "When Did It Get So Easy (To Lie to Me)." Hard to say just how or when it got that way – where the magic comes from, that is – but Jason & the Scorchers make everything sound easy on this scorcher of a disc, even making a good go of youthfully snotty country-punk in the final track.

Here's a video of the band performing "Mona Lee" live.

Music Review: Boston Early Music Festival Concert—”The Golden Age of the Viola da Gamba and the Lute”

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

The Boston Early Music Festival has been bringing distinguished performers of early music to Boston audiences for two decades. It also presents Baroque operas, exhibitions, and a well-regarded concert series at the Morgan Library in New York.

A highlight of BEMF's 20th anniversary season was Friday night's concert at the First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, by viola da gamba player Vittorio Ghielmi and lutenist Luca Pianca. The duo have played together for over ten years, and their familiarity with each other and their repertoire makes their playing together quite special; each is a masterful musician on his own, but together they seem to breathe as one organism.

It was a formal event, compared to many of the more freewheeling early music concerts I see in New York, more like a classical chamber music recital than a foot-stomping affair—this despite the relative youth of the audience. (In New York my wife and I, in our forties, are often just about the youngest people there; not so in Cambridge.) Nevertheless Mssrs. Ghielmi and Pianca played with a youthful, if somewhat restrained, brio.

Titled "The Golden Age of the Viola da Gamba and the Lute," the concert traced in more or less chronological order some of the best of the repertoire for these two instruments together and separately, a repertoire which went further into the 18th century than I knew. It opened with probably the most familiar selections, a set of "picture" pieces by French composer Marin Marais. Many people were introduced to this composer and his uncannily beautiful gamba music when Gérard Depardieu played Marais in the 1991 film Tous Les Matins Du Monde (All the Mornings of the World) with its extremely popular soundtrack. Mr. Ghielmi's fancy fretwork on the viol during "La Saillie du Caffeé" ("The Issue of the Coffee") impressed, as did the duo's sensitive, limpid rendering of the famous "Rêveuse" (dreamer); in their take, the spaces meant as much as the notes.

Mr. Pianca then played a set of three very old pieces by Jacques Gallot, opening with "The Comet." He introduced this imagistic chaconne by demonstrating how the composer depicts the fuzzy tail of the comet, then its bright fiery head, by means of an initial dissonant chord, with modern-sounding intervals, moving in increments towards a simple major triad. The set closed with a lovely, dense little "Gigue."

The chronology resumed with four duo pieces by Antoine Forqueray, representing "Le Diable" in opposition to Marais's "L'Ange." In the head-spinning "La Girouette" ("The Wind Vane") Mr. Ghielmi's left hand darted about the fretboard like a spider; in "Le Carillon du Passy" ("The Bells of Passy") ringing bass notes from the viol helped evoke the bells.

The second half of the concert opened with "Partita for Lute" by Silvius Leopold Weiss, an exact contemporary of J. S. Bach whom the latter is said to have admired; it was easy to see why, though one might wonder how closely Mr. Pianca's conversational expressiveness resembled 18th century performance style. The emotional precision of this music, conveyed here to maximum advantage by the celestial tones of Mr. Pianca's lute work, indeed suggests some of the genius of Bach. The somber "Sarabanda" made a beautiful focal point.

Mr. Ghielmi's turn consisted of two manuscript pieces for solo gamba by Carl Friedrich Abel. These had a highly improvisational quality, and Mr. Ghielmi took the rhythms so loosely, especially in the Adagio, as to make time signature seem almost irrelevant; at the center of that piece, harmony too seemed unneeded, as a long swelling single note swayed into a dissonant flatted-second "chord" in a long moment of hushed emotion.

Finally, a Sonata by Andreas Lidl had an early classical flavor, with straightforward themes and development, cantabile and Haydn-like (Lidl was at the Esterházy court with Haydn prior to settling in London). The age of the gamba and the lute was coming to a close, but it overlapped with the early classical age. Exactly what do we mean by "early music?" Pre-Mozart and Haydn? Does this work by Lidl count even though it's in a classical "sonata" form, simply because it's written for "old-fashioned" instruments? Probably not. What defines "early" rock and roll, one might just as well ask—is it the use of the acoustic bass? The short haircuts? Such definitions must be to some degree arbitrary, as this accomplished duo demonstrated in this fine program.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Delta Moon, Backyard Tire Fire, Patty Cronheim

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Delta Moon, Hellbound Train

"You'll never get to heaven on a hellbound train," singer Tom Gray croaks in this CD's opening number, whose rather obvious message blossoms into a pungent cautionary tale. Delta Moon churns out a thick blend of Chicago slide-guitar blues and Southern soul-rock, and Mark Johnson plays a mean slide guitar, but it's the pair's focused songwriting that makes this disc a keeper. "Are you lonely for me, babe, like I'm lonely for you?" sighs the character in "Lonely" – "I hold onto something, a drink or a girl / 'Cause I feel like I'm falling off the edge of the world."

The music is as emotional as it is economical and tough, with time-worn themes – stories about jailbirds, drifters, and dashed hopes – couched in powerful and sometimes poetic imagery. At the same time it's possible to enjoy this music with your reptile brain, which, if it's anything like mine, will dig the slouching beats and growling guitars.

The band nods to rootsy blues with a reverent acoustic cover of Fred McDowell's classic "You Got To Move," while "Stuck in Carolina" gets stuck in its jerky one-chord groove for a full five minutes and works just fine, thanks in part to a nifty sax solo by guest Kenyon Carter. "Ain't No Train" is another chunky lo-fi jam, compacted into three and a half growling minutes, with the guitar evoking soul-music horn riffs, and "Ghost in My Guitar" is that rarity, a song about playing music which – mostly because of its a haunting chorus – doesn't make you want to skip to the next track to find something less self-indulgent or self-referential. Humility found in surprising places – like in that song's message about the mysteries of inspiration – is one of the strains in Delta Moon's music that lofts it above and beyond the basic blues.

Backyard Tire Fire, Good To Be

It's all about the irony, folks. But wait – I mean that in a good way. From the title of the opening rocker, "Road Song # 39," you might get a whiff of it, but just listening to the track you'd probably expect a collection of Southern rock. But no. Indeed, no. "Ready Or Not," with its insistent beat, octave-doubled vocals, and synthesizers actually calls to mind the unfairly maligned Steve Miller Band of the '70s, and things get quirkier from there, self-aware but generous to the listener, as opposed to self-absorbed. "Learning to Swim" smells like geek spirit, and "Brandy" – well, I'll just call it marimba pop and leave it at that. "Estelle" layers the band's off-kilter observations on top of underlying verse changes that echo the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down." And this disc doesn't. The songs lie at a happy confluence of riffy rock-and-roll and what-was-that?

Patty Cronheim, Days Like These

Lots of folks sing jazz. Lots of singers write songs. But not lots of jazz singers write songs. Most singers, from the best of the best to the pedestrian and mediocre, content themselves with interpreting standards and "jazzifying" the occasional pop tune. Patty Cronheim takes a different route on her new disc, writing the majority of the material and in the process creating the sorts of songs that sound like "standards" that somehow slipped under the radar for the past 60 or 70 years.

With able help from a group of wonderful musicians, and the arranging skills of her pianist Aaron Weiman and others, she's put together a very satisfying set with a timeless sound. Ms. Cronheim isn't a spectacularly adventurous singer, but she has a very warm, expressive voice, a nice melodic sense, and a distinct rhythmic feel.

In two of her covers she and her collaborators get a little more playful: the gently funky "Summertime," and the strange and oddly satisfying "Superstition" with its chattery horns. On the original tunes she covers the basics from the jazz playbook – straight jazz and bebop, Latin jazz beats, blues, a 4/4 ballad and one in 6/8 time, a bit of funk – you can play the game of "what was she thinking of when she wrote this ("Christmas Time Is Here?" "'Round Midnight?" Am I way off base?) And a couple of the songs towards the end of the disc feel less inspired than the best compositions. But with melodies and lyrics that fit her cozy voice like a blanket (or vice versa), a thoroughly developed and artfully deployed jazz vocabulary, and only one track with any scatting, Patty Cronheim has delivered a winner that's earned a place on my jazz shelf.

In My Long-Haired Frank Zappa Phase

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

From the late 1980’s, I think… Yes, that’s me on the bass.

Music Review: Ray Wylie Hubbard – A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkenment (Hint: There is no C)

Friday, February 5th, 2010

Ray Wylie Hubbard may have been busying himself with the movies – his first screenplay has been filmed and is slated for release, starring Dwight Yoakam and Kris Kristofferson – but he hasn't neglected his present fans.

The strange title of his new album reflects the strangeness of his imaginative world.  "A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkenment (Hint: There is no C)" – the song, as well as the album named for it – has a slightly lighter, speedier touch than some of Ray Wylie's other recent efforts, but that's all relative. The tidal flow, the elemental bluesy guitar, the sliding, the growling, the mythic, apocalyptic imagery all remain.

The upper register of Ray Wylie's baritone has been pretty much gone for a while now. He uses the hoarseness to roughen up the message of snarly songs like the slow blues "Wasp's Nest." Somewhere in the back of my mind I'm still waiting for a return to the form of Crusades of the Restless Knights, with its quicker tempos, joyful mandolins, and gospel shine. But I can roll with what he's doing here too, even though his recorded music now rarely reflects the humor of his live shows.

It does reflect the rawness of his sensibility. Seldom will you hear such a baldly expressed equivalence between music and sex as in "Pots and Pans" – "Baby's got a tambourine, she shakes it in my face," he snarls, and it gets more and more visceral, devolving into lascivious yet somehow ghostly moaning, as if ancient demigods above some heavenly firmament are mating. That's right – demigods mating. I said it. Meanwhile, on Earth, crows continue to appear from album to album – death birds. In "Tornado Ripe" the crow, for once, is a harbinger of an actual disaster – the "cloud's grown a tail."

Listen to some of the slow blues songs with only half your attention, and you might suspect lazy songwriting. The forms are so tried and true they verge on cliché. But listen closely and a distinctive, road-tested, gasoline-fueled tone is always present. And just when you think things have slowed to a crawl, true gospel rears up with "Whoop and Holler." Ray Wylie has always worked at the crossroads of pagan fatalism and triumphant Christian eschatology. Much of his power comes from that uncomfortable mix, and you have to listen to what the songs are really about to get the full effect.

The two-minute squawk "Every Day is the Day of the Dead" goes down sour and tangy like a sharp-dressed salad. But in "Black Wings" he exhorts, "Fly away on them ol' wings / Black as they may be," re-imagining the death bird as a more heavenly conveyance. It's another slow blues, though, and we're grateful for the major-key anthem which follows it, "Loose" – "We're all gonna bust loose one of these days…We ain't ever gonna break loose of these rock and roll ways." In Ray Wylie's world, breaking loose of these rock and roll ways is the last thing we ever want to do.

A songwriter I know says his ultimate goal is to be able to write a successful one-chord song. When he does that, he will have "arrived." Well, Ray Wylie's got that sewn up. "Beautiful smoke whispers 'never mind,'" he sighs in "Opium." Not every such drone works equally well, and listening to parts of this disc I wonder if I might be better off on some powerful smokeable. (The closing song, "Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse," even recalls Velvet Underground's heroin-fueled viola drones.) But if the mood is melancholy, the spirit retains a persistent, alert sparkle. Ray Wylie trudges on, ever ruminating on death and glory in the dusty America of his imagination.

Music Review: Matt Morris – When Everything Breaks Open

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

Matt Morris is a strong and unusually thoughtful pop singer-songwriter who is entirely unafraid to put his heart and soul on the line, and has the talent, intelligence, and pluck to pull it off. The first song pounds out the industrial-sounding refrain: "I told you everything, I swear! / So don't you dare!" "Don't you dare leave" is what we infer the command to mean. And we don't – after this powerful intro it's hard to do anything but give Morris full attention.

He switches gear immediately with "Money," with its moody brassy introduction, jazzy guitar, and silken R&B vocals. "Money ain't the villain / It's greed that's the killer." The subtle reggae beats of the light-as-air "Love" enfold understated, vaguely angelic vocals, while the gorgeous string-fueled "Bloodline," which became a favorite ballad of mine when it appeared on Morris's earlier EP, is here in all its glory, as is "The Un-American," a concise, "Eleanor Rigby"-like polemic against capitalist excess. "Let It Go" is a piano ballad that feels like Beethoven meets "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Morris's falsetto here is little short of divine.

The lesser songs, like "Live Forever" and the James Brown-inspired jam "You Do It For Me," often still have enough pop grit to be worth a listen, though the tough-guy persona of the latter doesn't quite ring true, nor does the Coldplay-like shimmer of "Just Before the Morning." Morris does less well when he adopts derivative styles. And a couple of slow songs near the end of the disc go on too long and feel a bit like filler, despite evocative arrangements and pleasing displays of that killer falsetto.

But the longest song, the nearly eight-minute opus appropriately titled "Eternity," earns its expansiveness with a Biblical evocation of the stretch of human history and mythology. There's a wide gulf between this and the pleasant pop fluffiness of "You Do It For Me" – it feels like we've moved onto a different album, one recorded by, say, a cantor gone batty. The U2-ish bombast of "Forgiveness" works, too, aided by the religious imagery Morris calls upon more than once: "I've broken holy laws, and I wept beneath her cross / I've cried for what's been lost, and for all that I've done." Far from crying, Morris can be very proud of what he's done. Do check it out.

Cabaret Review: The Truth About Love…and the Usual Lies with Jessica Medoff and Michael Bunchman

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Like the prose poem, the art song can seem a neglected foster child. A song but not a pop song, it typically has the musical sophistication and seriousness we associate with the great traditions of classical and romantic music, but its subject matter can be frothy as well as fiery, humorous as easily as heavy. But American composers like Aaron Copland and Charles Ives are generally better known for instrumental or choral works than for their art songs, while even many classical music lovers may not know Franz Schubert's stunning song cycle Winterreisse, an important progenitor of the genre.

Soprano Jessica Medoff, the fabulous Sorceress in Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas a year ago, showcased another side of her ability in The Truth About Love…and the Usual Lies. Weaving art songs and show tunes together, she and her husband, the very talented pianist Michael Bunchman, presented a song cycle of their own on the inexhaustible subject of love. While I know a bit about art songs, something about musical theater, and even some Schubert, I cheerfully admit I didn't recognize many of the selections. Cheerfully because it made the show edifying as well as enjoyable. I wasn't familiar with Copland's settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, and here was the lovely "Heart we will forget him." I didn't know the American composer William Bolcom's witty ditty "Toothbrush Time" – here it was. Another revelation: Jason Robert Brown's "Stars and the Moon."

A highlight for me was Kurt Weill's "Surabaya Johnny," a hyper-passionate wail that can really take the measure of a singer; Ms. Medoff was all over that thing like a hungry lioness. "I Don't Care Much" from Cabaret was equally intense in a quieter way. To lighten the mood we had the very funny "Taylor the Latte Boy" together with its answer, "Taylor's Response" (sung artfully by Mr. Bunchman from the piano). The overrated Avenue Q has given us one lasting tune, the plaintively sweet "There's a Fine, Fine Line," sung by Ms. Medoff with understated sensitivity.

One remarkable thing about the show is the two performers' seamless connection; it's as if they can read each others' minds, piano and voice flowing together in perfect sympathy. This makes just about any song they perform something more than the sum of its parts. It reminded me of seeing a longstanding piano trio or string quartet, or a singing group consisting of siblings – a conductorless ensemble breathing together as if one creature. During the quietest passages the piano occasionally drowned out the voice, but this was not the performers' fault. The operatically-trained Ms. Medoff has a finely calibrated control, equally steady from pianissimo to fortissimo, and the program showed off her range without going overboard. The purpose wasn't to impress (or didn't come across that way), but to amuse and delight, and maybe introduce us to some unfamiliar but very worthwhile material. And that it did.

The duo has put together a few such cabaret cycles. If you have an opportunity to see this one, or anything else they do, grab it!

Opera Review: The Barber of Seville at the Bleecker Street Opera

Monday, December 28th, 2009

New York music fans loudly lamented the passing of the long-running Amato Opera earlier this year. Despite a reputation for uneven quality, the little family-run "opera house that could" had been an East Village institution since 1948, presenting stripped-down productions of operatic standards and charging low ticket prices while giving rising singers an opportunity to hone their craft.

Amato veterans have wasted no time rising from the ashes. Not one but two companies have emerged to wear the Amato's mantle. One, the Bleecker Street Opera, has found a home at the relatively spacious downstairs theater at 45 Bleecker Street, and I attended the second performance of its second production, Rossini's Barber of Seville, last night. The staff seemed unprepared for the full house. Everything was a little disorganized, and the show started late. The Rosina (Malena Dayen) was recovering from bronchitis. The Bartolo was a last-minute substitute who needed line cues from conductor/music director David Rosenmeyer. Mr. Rosenmeyer himself had been a late addition to the team after the unexpected departure of Paul Haas. And with all that, what did we get? Not technical perfection, it's true, but a thoroughly enjoyable and in some respects exceptional production, thanks to the cast of superb singers, the hardworking Mr. Rosenmeyer and his mini-orchestra, and a talented production team led by stage director Teresa K. Pond.

William Browning was a simply glorious Figaro, with a suave and powerful baritone, a solid yet agile stage presence, and a constant twinkle in his eye; his tremendous, antic "Largo al factotum" set a high bar. Anthony Daino brought a droll, Depardieu-esque assurance to Count Almaviva, with a sweet, sunny tenor. And Ms. Dayen, who like Mr. Rosenmeyer hails from Argentina, imbued Rosina with a fluid, coquettish energy, making her more than an equal to the scheming but good-hearted Count and the brash barber. No delicate flower was this Rosina, and I could detect little if any evidence of any lingering illness in Ms. Dayen's wonderful singing; if anything she seemed to strengthen as the evening wore on.

In a larger setting, the quality of acting in an opera like this – while important – can take a back seat. Not so in an intimate space, but the acting in this production was exceptional, as was the singers' diction. Whatever few words of Italian you may know – even if they don't go beyond "presto" and "piano" and "stanza" – you'll hear every one of them clearly.

The orchestra, though only about fifteen pieces, is a considerable step up from the tiny combos that accompanied Amato productions, and the musicians acquitted themselves very well, playing with verve and skill; the winds sparkled, and even the strings sounded generally in tune despite being so few in number.

Best of all, with a small house like this, there are virtually no bad seats, and everyone gets to feel up close and personal. It's quite different from somewhere like the Met, where everything is so fancy and grand. This is gritty opera, just the basics, but what crowd-pleasing basics they are.

The Barber of Seville plays Saturdays at 3 PM and Sundays at 7 PM through January 17. Click here for ticket information or call Telecharge at 212-239-6200.

Opera Review: Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan Opera

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

From Seven in One Blow to Snow White and now Hansel and Gretel, the Brothers Grimm have defined my December. Grandest and "Grimmest" of all is the last, presented by the Metropolitan Opera in a gorgeous English-language production by Richard Jones that originated at the Welsh National Opera and first ran at the Met in 2007.

With glorious voices, delightful acting, and Fabio Luisi conducting a fired-up Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the production boasts John Macfarlane's beautiful if somewhat modest (for the Met) sets, which carry through the central motif (food!) – from the family's humble kitchen, all in off-white, to the dark green dreamlike woods, and finally to the Witch's gingerbread house, looking like a fantasyland test kitchen.

As the title characters, Angelika Kirchschlager and Miah Persson sing in lovely colors, leading a strong cast all of whom seem to be having a wonderful time. Tenor Philip Langridge made a splash as the Witch two years ago and has clearly lost none of his enthusiasm, giving her a depth of character that easily survives the table-dancing, the funny and slightly campy costume, and the clouds of cocoa powder and face full of cake. Dwayne Croft's sturdy voice and capacity for boisterous humor make him ideal for the role of the father, and Rosalind Plowright does wonderfully sympathetic work in Act I as the harried mother, who gets impatient with her children only because she can't feed them.

Engelbert Humperdinck's score has been justly celebrated for over a century,  and Mr. Luisi strikes just the right balance of Wagnerian sublimity (Humperdinck was a Wagner protégé) and the warm angelic brilliance the tale inspired in the composer. That warmth is most pronounced in the gorgeous "Fourteen Angels" song with which the lost Hansel and Gretel sing themselves to sleep in the dark woods. The chef-angels dream sequence that follows is a scene of exquisite, wordless beauty.

Once the Witch has been roasted, the family reunited, and the Witch's gingerbread victims restored to humanity, the opera concludes with a lovely chorale proclaiming "When in need or dark despair, God will surely hear our prayer." But the religious patina is purely a matter of faith; the children have survived their ordeal solely because of their own quick thinking, Gretel's in particular. It's a fairy story, after all, a crusty old folk tale gathered by the Grimms from ancient sources, and the Christian God is a latecomer to this musical feast; perhaps he'll be seated during intermission, but only at the discretion of the management. There's much more primal business to attend to, summed up in the final image: as all celebrate their safety and momentary bounty, a leering Hansel raises a roasted Witch-limb to his mouth as the house goes dark.

Rounding out the cast, Jennifer Johnson is the Sandman and Erin Morley his sunrise counterpart the Dew Fairy.  These two fine singers in cameo roles prove that the Met can summon an embarrassment of riches even for its smallest and most family-friendly offerings. Not that anything at the Metropolitan Opera can really be called small, though; this Hansel and Gretel is serious opera, if by "serious" we mean a story with depth, world-class performances, and glorious music. A joy for all ages, it would make a fine introduction for any opera neophyte, child or adult. Hansel and Gretel runs in repertory through Jan. 2 at the Met.

Backstage at the Metropolitan Opera

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

The Metropolitan Opera, founded in 1883, moved into its snazzy Lincoln Center quarters in 1966. The Met opera facility is one of the largest in the world, seating nearly 4,000.

Designed by architect Wallace Harrison, who was also responsible for Rockefeller Center and the United Nations complex, the Met's Lincoln Center theater is one of New York City's grandest spaces, with 32 Swarovski crystal chandeliers; beautiful wood paneling, all from one titanic rosewood tree; a gold-leaf ceiling; maroon, maroon everywhere; and, for the best acoustics, no right angles anywhere. The proscenium stage measures 54 feet by 54 feet and is fully 110 feet high, allowing for larger sets than nearly anywhere else.

Not only that, multiple sets can be slid onto and off the stage for quick changes between acts and productions, while the huge space belowdecks has room to store five or six other complete productions. (Additional productions are stashed in New Jersey warehouses, ready to be called back into action when the company wishes to restage an old favorite.)

That quick-change ability makes the Met's long and busy season possible. The 2009-2010 campaign features an amazing 28 productions, including eight new ones. Unlike in regular theater, the big opera companies keep successful productions in repertory for years, sometimes decades. This year's La Bohème is the Franco Zeffirelli staging that dates back to 1981, for example. On the other hand, the much-discussed production of Janá?ek's From the House of the Dead is brand new at the Met this year. It's the new productions that make news, naturally. But it's often the old ones that bring the biggest crowds for the longest periods of time.

Like Broadway and museums, opera is recognizing the importance of the blogosphere in promoting culture and the arts. The Met took a group of web writers on a backstage tour last night, giving us a rare chance to see the nuts and bolts of the opera house, including the workshop, where sets are built and repaired. The crispy person and the chefs pictured, who are in the shop for some touch-ups, come from Hansel and Gretel, while parts and relics of productions past are everywhere, such as the Nixon in China portal leg and the unidentified heads, also pictured.

The Met, like other opera companies, knows that it must not only present operas but help create the next generation of opera fans through education and outreach if the art is to survive the 21st century. To this end they are going far beyond merely inviting bloggers backstage and mounting family-friendly productions like Hansel. The Met's HD Live in Schools programs transmits live performances directly to schools all across the country, while its Live in HD simulcasts have been drawing crowds (close to a million people in 2007) to movie theaters, where you can now also see live performances from the Gran Teatre del Liceu from Barcelona and La Scala from Milan.

Theater/Cabaret Review: ‘Tis the Season with Vickie and Nickie

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

I don't know about you-all, but I started my holiday season off just right with a trip to Don't Tell Mama for Vickie and Nickie's holiday show.

I hadn't been to the legendary cabaret spot for years and was glad to find the place still going strong. A full house turned up for real-life sisters Lisa and Lori Brigantino, who play Vickie and Nickie, two busy Midwestern moms who take to the stage to delight and entertain with humorous banter (abundant), multi-instrumental musical talents (considerable), and big ol' personalities (wickedly twisted, if all in good family-friendly fun).

Straight from "the prison circuit" and the land of lutefisk – Garrison Keillor fans will know what that is – the pair poke good-natured fun at middle-of-the-road American culture while revving up the crowd with perfectly executed vocal harmonies and musicianship (keyboards, guitar, uke, sax…). In this edition they got the balance between spoof and sincerity just right, heavy on the former, belting out Christmas favorites ranging from straight-up takes on "Feliz Navidad" and "Blue Christmas" to Springsteen and Streisand versions of classic carols, supplemented by a couple of punchy original Vickie and Nickie numbers. Amidst the holiday cheer they also worked in hilariously non-jokey versions of "Under Pressure" and that new camp classic, Beyonce's "Single Ladies," which got the audience shouting along in delight. They've discovered, and nailed, the big secret: playing things more or less straight can get more laughs than a lot of horsing around.

Undercurrents of anger and competitiveness make Vickie and Nickie both campier and realer than they'd otherwise seem, while the Brigantino sisters' high-end musical skills allow them to make the act, with its unflagging energy and common-denominator humor, look easy.

'Tis the Season with Vickie and Nickie had two performances last week at Don't Tell Mama. Visit their website for news of upcoming shows, or just hang around the local women's prison till they show up, bewigged and besparkled, spreading good old-fashioned cheer whatever the time of year.

Met Opera Ticket Giveaway

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Through Blogcritics I’m conducting a ticket giveaway to see Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan Opera. Click here for info.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Chris Schutz, Easter Monkeys, Putumayo’s Jazz, Tom White

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

Chris Schutz + Tourists, Gemini

There's a lot more to Chris Schutz's sound than the Radiohead-like thrumming bass and plaintive single-note guitar pinches of "White Lady," the opening track on his debut disc. Schutz's voice comes at you as if from a cave beneath your feet and somehow says "postmodern," but the simple fact that you're hearing a good song keeps you listening. Next comes "Spinning Wheel" with its fast pop pulse and organ-heavy wall of sound, clocking in at under 2 minutes 20 seconds, and the folky, vaguely tropical "Continental Drifter" which reads like a cross between the Drifters (title no accident?) and the Mamas and the Papas.

Other songwriting styles and beats drift through the rest of the disc: a swirl of reggae-soul, south of the border trumpets, country-western swagger, a Squeeze-like jauntiness. Slightly muted, echoey production sweeps through everything, reflecting Schutz's use of analog equipment and his 60s-influenced aesthetic. The latter is evident in titles like "Tripping the Bit" and "So High" with its not one but two deceptively simple two-chord hooks alternating with chunky, Kinks-like surprise changes and completely unexpected sax solo.

All tied together by Schutz's honeyed voice and the vintage sounds he and his band prefer, the disc closes with a contemplative acoustic number and a power ballad that sounds like Roy Orbison meeting the Beatles. Like many of the songs, they each bear an unexpected change or two. And that's what this excellent album – definitely one of the top pop debuts of the year – is all about: solid but dreamy pop that does much more than just float by.

Easter Monkeys, Splendor of Sorrow

Easter Monkeys ravaged Cleveland in the early 1980s with drug-addled, slightly psychedelic punk rock. Their album Splendor of Sorrow has been re-released, nicely remastered, and packaged with extras including live tracks and a concert DVD that will definitely please fans. Despite the bleary vocals and anything-goes sensibility, this foursome could play, and this is quite a fun listen if you're in the right mood: loose, goofy, unjaded. It may have helped, in my case, that I never heard of the band before and knew nothing about them except what's in the liner notes, which are themselves thirteen years old.

I have been to several Cleveland rock clubs, though. Even played in a few. I've seen American Splendor. And it does all make a stinky kind of sense. This rocking, jangling, funny music, of a type I don't normally listen to, has grown on me. Like mold in a damp underground club.

Various Artists, Jazz Around the World from Putumayo World Music

Ahhhh… everything's OK. Feels like it anyway.

Must be a Putumayo CD in the stereo.

This time around it's Jazz Around the World, featuring artists from all over (but especially Africa and Europe) performing or at least touching on America's classical music: jazz. Appropriately enough it starts out with Montreal's Chantal Chamberland singing "La Mer" in the original French, her husky alto preparing us for a journey through worlds of cool. Flecks of neo-soul dot the almost disturbingly unthreatening vocal and guitar stylings of Cameroon's Blick Bassy. Djelli Moussa Diawara, who hails from Guinea, applies his kora skills to a Cuban tune as part of the Kora Jazz Trio. Mexico-based group Sherele jazzes up traditional klezmer. Artists better known in the West are represented too: Hugh Masekela teams with singer Malaika and a South African chorus for "Open the Door," which crosses gospel with Afropop. (It's a bit of a stretch to call this particular number "jazz.") And fusion legend Billy Cobham appears with the Cuban group Asere.

Putumayo discs are always likable and almost always relaxing; but some of the choices on this one feel, if anything, excessively safe. Nonetheless it's certainly a pleasant listen and would make a fine stocking stuffer for most world music or jazz fans.

Tom White, Voices from Corn Mountain – Instrumental Music Featuring the Hammered Dulcimer

While Putumayo travels the world in search of music that's both exotic and pleasant to Western ears, your intrepid reviewer has to drive only a few hours north of New York City to work with producer, recording engineer, and multi-instrumentalist Tom White, who kindly gave me a copy of his recent CD. The disc is loaded with instrumental pieces featuring the hammered dulcimer, one of the many instruments of which he is a master. (Tom also plays guitar, fiddle, mandolin, tin whistle, flutes, two different banjos, concertina, and percussion, and that's just on this one CD.) The tunes are a mix of traditional Celtic dances and originals. Email Tom at wizmak at a-oh-ell dot com for information on ordering a copy of this beautiful and unusual recording.

Music at the Morris-Jumel Mansion

Monday, November 9th, 2009

Well, blow me down. For ten years they’ve been putting on concerts at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, in upper Manhattan, and no one told me until now (thanks GEMS). Apparently the oldest still-standing residence in the city, the mansion was Washington’s headquarters in 1776 and is a museum now, with period furnishings from the 18th and 19th century including some things that belonged to the Jumels themselves. My grandmother wrote a historical novel about Madame Jumel (long since out of print) but I had never visited the mansion until this past Saturday, when Elisa and I took that long ride on the #1 train to check out the museum and see a concert, held in the room where they used to have concerts two centuries ago. nyc The concert featured the Brooklyn Baroque, a marvelous trio, who performed a program called “Bach and His Contemporaries.” Baroque flutist Andrew Bolotowsky (whom I’ve seen before, I think with Muse) and baroque cellist David Bakamjian were masterful. A special treat was hearing the harpsichord so clearly. Rebecca Pechefsky plays with feeling and a sure touch, but so often in early music concerts in larger halls the harpsichord is barely audible. Not here.

Another cool thing about early music concerts: we get to be among the youngest people there. That doesn’t happen too much anymore!

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Malcolm Holcombe, Jeff Norwood, Putumayo’s España

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

Malcolm Holcombe, For the Mission Baby

Malcolm Holcombe isn't for everybody. In a minor key, his grey, gravelly voice can sound like an extended death rattle. His new CD opens with the insistent plod and slightly too-loud bass of "Bigtime Blues," with nearly unintelligible lyrics, as if Holcombe is daring you to plunge in to something dangerous. "Hannah's Tradin' Post," about an abandoned gold mining settlement, drily evokes the emptiness of a ghost town. Listening to these songs, you have to lean in to understand what's going on. This is a good thing.

On disc, you don't get the benefit of Holcombe's hyper-physical presence, his shaggy, almost violent guitar attack, or the full measure of his humor – for those, catch him live. But this CD, with its unstoppable beats, David Roe's pounding upright bass, and the sere plinking of Holcombe's 1950 Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar, is a respectable approximation.

Though his songs take traditional forms, his sound and his outlook make Holcombe a true original. His strange singing style can suggest or even verge on the abstract, but there's a canny and fully engaged songwriting sensibility underlying that effect. He can play nice and accuse at the same time: "I ain't got what I want / Never enough / But I got what I need… I ain't got what I want / You have it all." There's lyricism in the almost pastoral "Doncha Miss That Water" and humor in the jaunty "Short Street Blues": "Honey make some coffee, pack up the boxes / Pick your panties up off that floor / We ain't living on Short Street anymore."

There are themes here too – missions, a tentative sort of salvation, and "someone left behind." The waltz "Whenever I Pray" resembles "Satisfied Mind," but rather than ending the disc on that triumphant note, he closes it with a sad song about abandonment – which nevertheless allows that "there's better days ahead." "There's one who does the hurtin' / Two who feel the pain." Gravelly voice and all, this troubadour has a way with a song. If a mix of the raw and the lyrical is your kind of brew, this disc should satisfy. And go see him live if you ever have the chance.

Jeff Norwood, Awendaw

Jeff Norwood's clear tenor and spare, clean guitar sound are a little atypical for Delta blues, a style which white artists often deliver with intentional gruffness. Intriguingly, Norwood's fresh-faced sound feels more real, less studied, than the efforts of some rougher-edged bluesmen. A big part of it is the down-home sense of fun in this set of ten original songs. Instead of worriedly trying his hardest to overtake a retreating "authenticity," Norwood writes and plays what inspires and delights him, and nothing else. Just the titles suggest this sensibility: "Bad Ass Boogie," "Walking Catfish Blues," "Horny Road." "Way up past the strip malls, back to the piney woods / Find a Horny Road somewhere baby that's gonna do us both some good."

He often sings of salvation, damnation, and sex, just like an old-time blues artist, and occasionally tries too hard to be elemental ("Shake"), but hits the nail dead-on in "The Devil": "It all seems much too easy / With Satan by your side / Once he gets inside you boy you're down for sure." The blues scale was meant for lines like this and Norwood matches it up perfectly. Another top track is "Kokomo," where he lets loose with a howl, sliding his voice all over the liquid growl of his slide guitar. It's followed by "Deep and Cold," a surprisingly convincing paean to the peace found only in death; then the disc closes by rocking out with "Save My Wicked Soul." It's not that the best songs are at the end; it's that this is that rare disc that intensifies as it goes along.

Various Artists, España from Putumayo World Music

Here's an easygoing but fascinating survey of music from the many of Spain's culturally distinct regions. The selections come mostly from recent albums, some by new artists, others by elder statesmen like Peret, "the Elvis of rumba catalana," whose "Para Poder Olvidarla" is a good choice to open the disc. The song sets the tone with a typical flamenco acoustic guitar line, then flowers into an amplified jam, flowing through the decades but never losing its surefooted rhythm. Fans of the Gipsy Kings will recognize Peret as an influence on that popular French-Catalan band. Other eminences include the Galician Uxía, whose Danza Ritual features staccato, slightly sinister-sounding piano and horns; the Basque artist Xabier Lete, whose wistfully romantic "San Martin, Azken Larrosa" has a gentle jazzy flavor; and Fernando Burgos who hails from Valencia. The latest generation of Spanish musicians is represented by songs like the soulful "Lunita" by the 21st century band Calima, with its jazz-fusion flavor, and the Afropop- and reggae-influenced "Te Estás Equivocando" by Gecko Turner, who comes from the Extremadura region. Such multi-national grooves, some modern, others old, play through many of these tracks. Listening to this disc is like eating a tasty paella – lots of zesty flavors cooked into one big circular world of goodness.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Pere Ubu, Blue Mother Tupelo, Kentucky Headhunters

Monday, September 28th, 2009

A sad note to start today’s column: Scott Bar Mortiz, of Scotland Barr and The Slow Drags, has died from complications of pancreatic cancer at the age of 44. I never met him, but when someone’s music becomes a part of the soundtrack of your own life, you feel a connection; then when that person is gone — especially much too young — you feel the loss. We feel it here at the Indie Round-Up. Four songs from the band’s upcoming CD have been released, with Scott’s final recorded vocals, available for download at their website. Here’s “Rasputin and Me”:
Pere Ubu, Long Live Pere Ubu!

Pere Ubu’s music has always been theatrical, so it’s only fitting that Dave Thomas & Co. have finally created a score for the classic Absurdist play Ubu Roi, by Alfred Jarry, the play that gave the band its name. I hadn’t seen a production of Ubu Roi since college, in the early ’80s – the same time I discovered the band Pere Ubu. But despite all the time gone by, I decided to simply listen to the album without refreshing my memory of the play, to experience it the way most listeners would. And it’s a blast.



There are several different voices, and a good bit of talking, amidst the garage-y noise and grainy serio-silliness. It is a play after all — one that inspired riots back in 1896. This music won’t have you breaking store windows. But Pere Ubu’s unique sonic sensibility might just inspire you to look at the world in a slightly different way, finding color, as they do, in infinite shades of grey. And because of the storyline, listening to this album feels as much like reading as it does hearing music. No Kindle required. Or eyes, for that matter.

Blue Mother Tupelo, Heaven & Earth

Blue Mother Tupelo is husband-and-wife team Ricky and Micol Davis, Nashville-based singer-songwriters who favor a slightly fuzzed-out sound and hypnotic, often dark guitar arrangements. Even more than Ricky’s thick, Gregg Allman-ish vocal tone, that sonic sensibility places them in a half-retro, half-timeless place. Both are fine singers, but what they do with their voices in the studio is important as well; after the straight-ahead repetition of the country-rock opener, “Always Lookin’,” Micol’s distant-sounding voice on the grave title track recalls the effects Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac used to use to get that faraway, slightly scary sound. The duo’s bluesy side comes to the fore on a medley of the original one-chord drone, “Give It Away,” and an acoustic cover of Jessie Mae Hemphill’s “Hard Times,” where Micol sounds like a very early Janis Joplin, and Otha Turner and the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band jump on for the ride.

Don’t expect a lot of the typical verse-chorus-verse-bridge forms here; this is more elemental stuff. Even Micol’s “The War,” a fully realized and arranged song, doesn’t finesse anything: “Don’t forget me. I’m coming home from the war.” “Goin’ Down Midnight” has that raunchy, apocalyptic flavor the Rolling Stones did so well in their country music period; but listen to the lyrics: it’s just a “let’s party” song.

The Davises have a nice way with lyrics. “I’ve been down and my cool is gone,” they harmonize in the beautiful “Wandering Soul.” Then after the mood lightens for “Tupelo,” things cloud up again for the bluesy drone of Micol’s “Ramblin’ Train,” which stresses Rick’s strong, moody guitar work. (He also covers drums and bass and more, while Micol handles keyboards and various guests contribute banjo, violin and the like.)

Some of the tracks on the second half of the disc aren’t as strong as the excellent stuff in the first batch, song-wise, but everything sounds top-notch. Ricky’s humble singing of the Jesse Winchester cover “Biloxi” is an island of calm – until things blow up satisfyingly at the end.

The songs that work least well for me are the love songs, interestingly enough. Fortunately, happy couple though they may be, the Davises (the female half especially) seem to have a sharp edge of darkness in their musical soul, more than enough to boil up a cauldron of music that rocks down deep.

Kentucky Headhunters, The Kentucky Headhunters Live at the Agora Ballroom

I sure did love the two Kentucky Headhunters CDs I had back in the early ’90s. (Still have ’em, come to think of it.) I never got to see the band live, though, and they never released a live recording – until now. Is it country? Rock? Blues? The Headhunters’ classic Southern rock encompassed all three. From “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and “She’s About a Mover” to “Oh Lonesome Me” and their hit “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine,” with a detour to the “Crossroads,” this disc is loaded with live, tight, high-energy cuts from a 1990 concert. “Davy Crockett” was still in the future, but the Headhunters were certainly at the height of their powers as a live band. Take this one to the gym and smoke it.

Theater Review: Lizzie Borden

Monday, September 14th, 2009

After some none-too-thrilling recent experiences with new musicals, including one about a famous set of awful murders, I wondered whether Lizzie Borden would be more of the same blathering – or the refreshing energy charge its promotions seemed to promise. Thank the Lord of the Flies (or somebody), it's the latter.

Loud, dark, creepy, and lovely to look at (despite limited quarters), the show fancifully retells the story of the sensational 1892 double murder in Fall River, Massachusetts. Thirty-two-year-old Lizzie Borden was acquitted of killing her father and stepmother with a hatchet, despite circumstantial evidence against her. After the acquittal, many continued to believe in her guilt, and the nation has never forgotten the grisly tale.

The show assumes Lizzie's guilt and explores why the deeds might have gone down. Its creators – Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner, who also directs – have set the songs in heavy metal modes, but little about the score screams "genre." It's loud, but never painfully or confusingly so, and it's edgy, with some gloomy imagery, but in essence it's comprised of simply wonderful tunes, with satisfying crunch, engaging and well-crafted lyrics, and bright (okay, dark) pop hooks. Some have complex structures, most luxuriously "Questions, Questions," one of several showstoppers, in which the four characters sing different overlapping parts and spin through evocative choreography – all in 7/8 time.

As there isn't much book, the show depends almost entirely on the songs to carry the story. Fortunately the sound designer (Jamie McElhinney) keeps the levels sensible, mics the singers well, and mixes everything properly, so one seldom misses a lyric. Even more fortunately, the four-woman cast is absolutely stellar, wonderful actors with clear, powerful voices that cut through the tight band's rock bombast without trouble.

Though the historical Lizzie's homosexuality has been fairly well established by events later in her life, the show's creators have (themselves, it seems) cooked up a romance between Lizzie (a supremely confident and perfectly fetching Jenny Fellner) and her friend Alice Russell (a radiant Marie-France Arcilla). Though the relationship is speculative, the writers have made smart use of Alice's trial testimony, turning lines like "I am afraid somebody will do something" and "I saw no blood on that dress" into pointed moments and memorable songs, and deepening the meaning of the events by the added dimension of the love story. An early song between the pair ("The Soul of the White Bird") takes place in the barn, where Lizzie escapes her hellish home life to tend her beloved pigeons. Artfully lit and shadowed by lighting designer Christian DeAngelis, it is beautifully, movingly performed by Ms. Fellner and Ms. Arcilla.

There are no characters but the four women: the regally coiffed but passionate Alice; Lizzie herself; her older sister Emma Borden (a sharp and funny Lisa Birnbaum, who has a powerful alto); and the maid, Bridget (a fierce, punked-out Carrie Cimma). The choice to leave out the elder Bordens seems a little odd at first, but its wisdom quickly becomes apparent as we're plunged into the closed, claustrophobic world of the sisters' half of the divided household. Each sister, and Bridget too, has been suggested by historians and enthusiasts as the real murderer, and the show develops along conspiratorial lines, with motives coalescing. A haunting Act I number, "Shattercane and Velvet Grass," is another showstopper, with Lizzie and Bridget circling around the idea of poisoning the usurping stepmother.

Bobby Frederick Tilley II dresses the women in gorgeous costumes, some period, others punk and biker-chick, effectively melding repressive Victorian mores with the escapist, almost vampiric imagery of the darker forms of rock music. The superb band includes Mr. Hewitt, along with Christian Gibbs of the Passing Strange band (also known as the very talented singer-songwriter C. Gibbs). The musicians propel the story inexorably towards its conclusion, which is tragic in a way, in spite of the uncertainty that lingers. Indeed, there's nothing indeterminate about this Lizzie Borden – it strikes like a hammer (or an axe), and with precision. The show would require only a modest expansion in length and breadth to be worthy of a production in a much larger setting, even Broadway. (Musicals need to be pretty long these days to justify $125 ticket prices).

For now, until Oct. 17, you can catch it for just $25 at The Living Theatre. Forty whacks to anyone who misses it.

Photos by Carl Skutsch. 1) Jenny Fellner. 2) Marie-France Arcilla, Jenny Fellner, Carrie Cimma.

Kings County Blues Band Debuts “Blues Babylon”

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Here’s the first song I specifically wrote for the band. Not too shabby for a first performance, I think…

Music Review: Rachel Taylor Brown – Susan Storm’s Ugly Sister and Other Saints and Superheroes

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Rachel Taylor Brown's latest collection of offbeat chamber pop opens with a meditative, hymn-like song about St. Francis and his calling. Then "St. Fina" arrives with a relentless industrial pounding: "Did Jesus love you when you hurt / Like he hurt?" It builds to a repeated call in which the word "Jesus" evolves from the name of a savior to the expletive it's so often used as in daily life.

Brown's bald way with a lyric makes her the rare artsy songwriter whose references one is impelled to look up. Unfamiliar with St. Fina, I discovered that she was a 12th century Tuscan who died in even more gruesome fashion than most saints. (The English-language Wikipedia article on St. Fina needs a good deal of editorial help, but it's charmingly quirky: "She was one of the nicest people on earth," it plainly states, and who are we to question?)



Brown writes biographical sketches of historical and fictional characters in plain, non-ironic lyrics. It's the haunting, off-kilter music, piano-based with industrial flourishes, that makes one listen again, seeking hidden messages. This contrast distinguishes these numbers from biographical songs by rootsy songsmiths like Bruce Springsteen or Willie Nelson, or, for a more musically relevant parallel, Katell Keineg. In most such efforts the writer's perspective on the subject is never in doubt. With Brown, you have to lean in and listen hard.

Given that, she is also capable of hitting hard. "Once a Jew always a Jew," she sings in "Teresa Benedicta Also Edith Stein." "You know Jesus was too / And look what happened to him."

In a perfect world, Brown's superhero songs, which make up half the tracks, would be distributed in goodie bags at Comic-Con. In them she gives equal opportunity to cultural mainstays like Batman ("Bruce Wayne's Bastard Son") and silly sidelights ("Ambush Bug/Reduviidae"). And despite the cartoonish quality of some of these stories, by the time we've arrived at the final track for one more saint tale, "Zoe of Rome," we've had ample opportunity to get the point that saints are superheroes, and vice versa. Both possess miraculous powers and inspire devotion and hope for rescue.

Rachel Taylor Brown's plainspoken, harrowing stories don't betray much about what their author really believes.  But that's art for you.

Fakin’ It in the Sweet Calcutta Rain

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

I'm a big fat faker.

Heck, even that statement is false. I'm not fat at all!

When I read other writers' music criticism, I marvel at the number of artists and bands they refer to, often including lots of bands I've heard of but never heard, as well as bands I've never even heard of, but every one of which — if the tone of the review I'm reading is to be taken seriously — I ought to be thoroughly familiar with.

Almost all of us feel like fakers at times. At job interviews, as creative people, as professionals, on dates — we so often feel like we're making something up in order to impress someone, whether it's an audience or a potential friend, boss, or lover.

One of my personal issues is that because I was born back in 1963, a whole lot of "indie rock" passed me by. The last time I felt fully engaged with a pop-music movement was the early 90s, with the heyday of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, and my "formative" music is a good deal older than that. So when I review a new recording, the comparisons that spring to mind are older than those a younger reviewer would think of.

But while my references may be a few decades in the past, they're easy for me to come up with, and they're also (I like to think) as apt as any. Which tells me something:

Not a lot changes. There's very little truly new under the sun, especially in popular music. The ways we communicate and connect, and listen to music, have evolved some in the digital age, but the factors that make a good singer good or a memorable song memorable have stayed basically the same. And not just since the 1960s. Since at least Mozart.

So who cares if "Everything's Goin' My Way" on the new Mark Stuart CD reminds me of Leon Russell's stuff from the 60s and early 70s? No doubt it would remind you of something different, maybe something much more recent. My cultural references are just as good as your cultural references. Yours are just as good as mine. Each one of us is just as insecure as the next person. It's natural. Only the stupid are utterly confident. But we needn't be so anxious. Each of us is a fully entitled citizen of the world. As an ancient rocker once wrote:

   California sunlight, sweet Calcutta rain
   Honolulu starbright – the song remains the same.