Archive for September, 2006

Music DVD Reviews: Delbert McClinton, Live from Austin TX and John Hiatt, Live From Austin TX

Friday, September 29th, 2006

Delbert McClinton is one of those singers who make everything look easy. His buttery voice seems to issue from his smiling lips and fill a concert hall with no effort. He’s followed up his initial push – courtesy of John Belushi and Saturday Night Live – and his 1980 top ten hit “Givin’ It Up For Your Love” with an indefatigable touring career, interpreting great blues, soul, R&B and lounge tunes all over the universe and becoming a noted songwriter as well.

This DVD, issued by McClinton’s label, New West, captures a 1982 Austin City Limits performance by Delbert and a tight nine-piece band. The outfits and haircuts are amusingly dated, the rather stodgy camera work a little less amusingly so – but then, they shot things more simply in those days. ACL was (and is) essentially “just” a TV show. The deep, crystalline sound of the original recording process is the main thing.

The price is modest, so the lack of extras shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for fans, but it is a little disappointing, especially since McClinton has remained very active in the new century, with a new CD and an important part in an upcoming documentary.

Highlights include a funky “Shaky Ground,” a sweet and slow “Jealous Kind,” the Texas swing of “Lipstick, Powder and Paint,” and of course “Givin’ It Up.” Casual or new fans will be interested in McClinton’s treatment of “Take Me to the River,” “Turn On Your Love Light,” and the Otis Redding chestnut “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember.”

Moving from a smooth-as-a-baby master of interpretation to a stage-awkward and unabashedly goofy songwriting genius: the altogether more rough-hewn John Hiatt hit the ACL stage eleven years later. (Note for theme junkies: if you haven’t heard McClinton’s version of Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith In Me”, one of the most beautiful songs ever written, you really ought to.) Anyway, for Hiatt in 1993 theACL set is lit, and the concert shot, more artfully, while Hiatt’s soul patch and bassist Davey Faragher’s swinging dreads confirm that we’ve pushed ahead into the grunge era of the nineties.

Well before this time, however, Hiatt had succeeded in amalgamating his country, blues and rock strains into a pure, timeless form of songwriting that works anywhere and anywhen. One welcome aspect of this concert is its inclusion of a batch of excellent songs Hiatt hasn’t been performing lately. It’s great to have rocking live versions of “Buffalo River Home,” “When You Hold Me Tight,” “Angel,” “Something Wild,” and “Straight Outta Time,” all from the Perfectly Good Guitar album, which had just been released, and none of which appear on the excellent live CD Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan? which came out the following year with the same band.

Have no fear, though: you also get the better-known “Memphis in the Meantime,” “Have a Little Faith In Me,” “Thing Called Love” (which Bonnie Raitt made famous), “Tennessee Plates” and “Slow Turning.” The only thing I thought could have been better was Hiatt’s solo rendition of “Icy Blue Heart,” which opens the concert. Some of the song’s aching beauty is lost at the speedy tempo he gives it here.

Faragher, who handles most of the backing vocals, was and is one of the best bass players working. Here he locks perfectly with drummer Michael Urbano, his former Cracker batterymate, while Michael Ward (from School of Fish), handles lead and rhythm guitar with guts and gusto, unimpeded by his giant grunge-shorts (or are they man-capris?). Hiatt’s own guitar playing, like his singing, seems lifted straight out of the dirt of ages.

As with the McClinton disc, there are no extras. These are pure concert videos, remixed and remastered. However, since the shows were originally edited down to fit the ACL half-hour format, the discs in the series contain much previously unreleased material. (I also have the Richard Thompson disc, which I’ll write about in a future column.)

Format: DVD Stereo / DTS
Video: Good
Sound: Very Good
Extras: None

McCain Torture Act Passes Senate

Friday, September 29th, 2006

So, I’m working on an article for Blogcritics, see, and man, it’s gonna be great. It’s about some people who make indie music and how they go about promoting it, but it’s got stuff about me in it too, which is always a big plus, right? Plus it’s part travelogue, ’cause I just took a music-related trip to Nashville, and it refers to technology too – it’s kind of all over the place, and man, it’s gonna be one heck of an article.

Problem is, I can’t finish it. I also can’t get to the pile of music CDs and concert DVDs I have lined up ready to be reviewed. All because of what’s going on in that Greatest Dismal Swamp of All, Washington DC, where this country has just formally become a Fascist state.

That’s not hyperbole, folks. Fascism is as Fascism does. At Digby’s blog, Tristero has spelled out what I’d been thinking all along – that Fascism is a matter of quality, not quantity. It doesn’t matter that the tyrannical powers George W. Bush is granting himself, with the blessing of Congress, aren’t being used routinely against the average John or Jane Q. Public. It’s the powers themselves that matter.

My powers of concentration are weakened. I can’t focus on stuff I normally enjoy, or on my work. I can’t look forward with pleasure to the rare free evening ahead of me tonight, or to a party I’m invited to tomorrow, or to my band’s gig on Sunday.

Instead, I’m swatting at chiggers of moral despair, pests that make up an overwhelming swarm: abuse of signing statements, impeachable wiretapping offenses, a spineless opposition, and now John McCain’s (and some Democrats’!) acceptance of a sham compromise that makes the final link in the chain: suspension of habeus corpus.

An election is looming, in which the Democrats can take control of the House and, conceivably, the Senate. The necessity of making this change must be apparent to anyone who cares about the Constitution. It’s the Constitution that made America a great nation in the past, and it could do so again. But even if they manage to win, will Reid and Pelosi suddenly grow spines?

Only if – to mix a metaphor – we hold their feet to the fire. Maybe some of us will have to give up some of our good-timey gallivanting in order to do this. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Sept. 14 2006 – Special All-Blues Edition

Thursday, September 14th, 2006

First up this week is Abbie Gardner, who, after I talked about her in an earlier column, was kind enough to send me her CDs. Then I survey some of the best bands on the Long Island, NY blues circuit. Thanks go to the Downstate New York Blues Association for introducing me to some of these bands, as well as helping to create the scene where they can develop and thrive.

Abbie Gardner, Honey On My Grave

Abbie Gardner‘s new roots-blues release is as rich and sweet as the honey in the title. Her dobro and guitar playing is assured, her voice naturally gorgeous, and her singing a completely organic-sounding synthesis of dusky blues, jazzy sexiness, and vibrato-free folk tones. The mostly self-penned songs range in style from the sly country-blues of the title track and the simple folk beauty of “One Love” to the bluegrassy “Ohio” and the bawdy novelty of “Caffeine.”

“Sweet Georgia Pines” is pretty – it’s hard to imagine Gardner doing anything that isn’t – but a little too self-consciously homespun for my taste, while “Dreams” is a bit syrupy. But those aren’t major flaws. Her bluesy versions of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Hit the Road Jack” hark back to her jazz background. Finally, if the duet with Pat Wictor on the traditional “You Got to Move” were any more elemental, it would be just a bunch of hydrogen atoms.

Abbie Gardner

Abbie Gardner (Photo by Tim Benko)

Gardner, who is also a member of the Americana trio Red Molly, recently took third place at the Rocky Mountain Folk Festival Song Contest, and those mountains are pretty high, so I guess third place is excellent. In any case, this CD – engineered and mixed by the redoubtable Mic Rains – wins a place in my iTunes library.

Available, with extended clips, at CD Baby.

Breakaway, Live at The Viking

For some cookin’ Chicago-style blues, you can’t go wrong with Breakaway, one of Long Island’s premiere blues outfits. The two-guitar attack by co-leads Lou Carrollo and Howie Haber, along with sophisticated songwriting, make Breakaway stand out. Guitar fireworks burn up the stage in the long jams “Down the Line” and “The Bottle,” while the duo’s writing skill is on generous display in the slower, more emotional songs like “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Get Out and Love Somebody.” And don’t miss the wailing piano solo from guest Tommy Keys on the crawlin’ “Gambling Man on a Killin’ Floor.” While not a replacement for a live show, this CD is a good taste of Breakaway’s powerful kind of blues.

Available at their website and at CD Baby.

The Dog House Blues Band, Self-Titled

As a native Long Islander, I love to see when a great original band develops out of the Island’s tired classic-rock cover band scene. I use the term “original” for the Dog House Blues Band not because they do their own songs, but because of their creative approach to putting together their sets. Fueling their excellent musicianship and good-time energy is a knack for finding wonderful obscure blues songs which they arrange tightly and inventively and make their own. These, combined with a smattering of more familiar blues and blues-rock covers, make Dog House more deserving of the term “original” than many bands that write their own material.

Their new, cleanly produced studio album (not yet available online) shows the band having just as much fun with Willie Dixon’s “When the Lights Go Out” as with the Beatles’ “Oh Darling.” If you’re in the area and looking to have a great time with a live band, it would be hard to do much better.

Joe Vicino & the Smokedaddys, Shine

The latest, relatively mellow CD from Joe Vicino & The Smokedaddys follows the Eric Clapton tradition, with a lot of lyrical writing and a smaller amount of rockin’ blues. Guitarist and singer Vicino, who writes the material, shows his sensitive side in songs like the title track, as well as in instrumentals like “Josephine” and “Before You Close Your Eyes,” dolling them up with the silvery, almost pastoral, yet intricate guitar solos at which he excels. His trio rolls out rocking Chicago and Southern electric blues like “You Got It Going On” and “Texas Bound,” while just as comfortably slowing down for numbers rooted in country blues like the Robert Johnson-inspired “Squeezetoy” (with guest Kerry Kearney on slide guitar) and the swampy “Delta Town.” “Black Cloud Blues” has a Stevie Ray Vaughn smoothness, while “Scofflaw Blues” shows off Vicino’s slide mastery.

Theater Review: Broken Hands

Monday, September 11th, 2006

The New York International Fringe Festival, in its tenth season this summer, included over 200 productions by companies from all over the world. Moby Pomerance’s new play Broken Hands was the only one to win two major festival awards, and deservedly so. It’s back for an extended run through Sept. 21. Catch it while you can.

The longish one-act play concerns two brothers trying to get by in London’s East End during in the 1950s, when England was still in the grip of postwar economic hardship. Mick is a mentally challenged boxer who, managed by his brother George, earns enough to keep the pair alive. When one of George’s schemes crosses Scratch, the boss of the boxing racket – played with delicious sliminess by Tom Souhrada – Mick is left at the mercy of Scratch and his gang. It’s a noirish thriller that grabs you by the emotional jugular and doesn’t let go for a second.

Anchoring the excellent cast is Cory Grant, who won the Fringe 2006 Outstanding Actor Award for his portrayal of Mick. Although the role resonates with notable fictional naïfs of the past, from Frankenstein’s monster and Of Mice and Men‘s Lenny to “Mountain” Rivera and Arnie Grape, Grant’s fierce performance – confused, halting, enraged – is its own wonderful animal. Eric Miller’s George embodies the linked love and frustration that claw at the soul of a family member forced into a caretaker’s role; Constance Zaytoun is convincing in what could have been a too-clichéd moll-with-a-heart-of-gold role; and Chuck Bradley brings a wide-eyed, fearful optimism to the scrappy young caretaker Scratch assigns to Mick.

Broken Hands

The fine ensemble work from this excellent cast owes quite a bit to Marc Weitz’s sharp direction and to Pomerance’s electric script, which earned the play the Fringe 2006 Outstanding Playwriting Award. The fast-moving plot, shifting time frames and Cockney accents require close attention, so come wide awake. But do catch this play if you can – it’s a prime example of the top-notch affordable theater New York City offers.

The FringeNYC Encore Series presents a limited number of performances of Broken Hands through Sept. 21 at the Lion Theatre in the Theatre Row Complex, 410 W. 42 St., NYC. Tickets are $18. Call 212-279-4200 or visit Ticket Central online.

Music Review: Ted Nash & Still Evolved at the Rubin Museum of Art

Saturday, September 9th, 2006

New York’s Rubin Museum of Art is a magnificent new institution occupying the former Barney’s, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. They’ve preserved the store’s majestic central staircase and turned the four-plus floors that wind around it into galleries dedicated to Himalayan art – mostly religious iconography from the region’s Buddhist, Hindu, and ancient Bon traditions.

Unbeknownst to your humble correspondent – who works in an office just a few blocks from the museum – its creators had also built a spacious basement performance space with bell-clear acoustics. Last night I attended the first in the museum’s all-acoustic jazz series. Because it’s co-sponsored by the new Jazz Museum in Harlem (which doesn’t have its own space yet), the concerts are collectively called “Harlem in the Himalayas.” Yes, it’s in the basement, not on top of a mountain – but at least the ceiling is high. And the sound is warm and clear. Tenor saxophonist and flautist Ted Nash, with Frank Kimbrough on piano and the indomitable Rufus Reid on bass, played two short but sparkling sets completely un-amplified – no amps, no mics, no speakers whatsoever.

Except for the musicians being on a high stage – and thanks partly to the tables interspersed among the rows of comfortable chairs – it felt like an intimate club, but without the clattering of glasses and interruptions from the wait staff. (There is no wait staff. Drinks and snacks can be bought at the spiffy new bar upstairs and brought down.)

Highlights of Nash’s sets included Andrew Hill‘s “Tripping.” Reid had played on the original recording, and Nash and Kimbrough joked about how they knew the song better than the bassist. A lovely, spacious rendition of Kimbrough’s ballad “Joie de Vivre” made a fitting tribute to the late saxophone great Dewey Redman, who died last month. Kimbrough had recently been in Redman’s band and you could feel the warmth in his playing. A hilarious romp through Thelonious Monk’s “Green Chimneys” closed the first set.

Jazz, perhaps more than any other kind of music, can be appreciated in a multitude of ways, maybe because it’s simultaneously visceral and cerebral. Its improvisatory nature, its roots in rhythmic forms like the blues and New Orleans march music, and its tendency to mimic the sounds of the human voice and body – the popularity of the saxophone in jazz is no accident – all appeal to the gut. At the same time, its intellectual and exploratory qualities engage the frontal lobe. In the audience, some laugh at the musical jokes, others don’t. Some sit meditatively through a hummable song while others sway and tap to the beat. Some respond to more demanding pieces, like some of Nash’s and Kimbrough’s modernistic, rhythmically intricate compositions, by listening attentively as if at a classical concert, appreciating every note; others continue to sway as if there were a danceable beat, letting the music wash over them. Even a modestly musical ear appreciates how musicians like Nash and Kimbrough fit common jazz tropes into complex new structures (or nonstructures), like a painter dotting human figures into a fantastic or abstract landscape.

The trio left the world of jazz entirely for one piece, “Kanha’s Trail,” a musical meditation to one of the museum’s most impressive statues. Pictures of items from the collection were projected on a screen above the musicians as they played. Reid drew a remarkable, deep harmonic from his bow which served as the drone under Nash’s fluttery flute melodies and the zithery sweeps Kimbrough took directly off the piano strings.

Kanha

Kanha, an Indian Adept

These days it’s not hard to see jazz inexpensively in New York, but it would be hard to find a better setting for it than this. This coming Friday, catch clarinetist Ken Peplowski (of Benny Goodman’s last band). On October 6, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and his band perform a new accompaniment to D.W. Griffith’s epic 1916 film Intolerance – that should be quite an event. The Friday jazz series then resumes on October 20 and runs most Fridays through the end of the year and into next, with performances by Anat Cohen, Christian McBride, electric guitarist Russell Malone, Uri Caine, and many others.

Check the full schedule. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door, and include museum admission. The museum is open late on Fridays, so you can take in the exhibits either before or after the show.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Sept. 7 2006 – Broonzy, Shimabukuro, DiJoseph

Thursday, September 7th, 2006

Big Bill Broonzy, Amsterdam Live Concerts 1953

Big Bill Broonzy, like Robert Johnson, played but also transcended the blues. Like Mississippi John Hurt, Broonzy – also a Mississippi native, born in 1901 (or possibly 1893, or possibly 1898, but I favor the 1901 theory) – constructed his acoustic concerts out of blues, folk songs, and spirituals. Broonzy had been a pioneer of electric blues, but, finding that his white audiences in the 1950s wanted to hear him play in the old folk styles, he obliged. His spirited, earthy guitar playing, the range of his big voice, and the sheer breadth of his material have insured his place in history as one of the all-time great men of the blues. But few, if any, live Broonzy recordings sound as good as this one, which makes it not just a necessity for completists but strongly recommended for any blues fan.

Broonzy found his most welcoming audiences at that time in Europe. In early 1953, at the top of his game, he played a series of concerts in Holland, two of which were recorded by Louis van Gasteren, who later became a noted filmmaker. The recordings have been known about for decades but never released until now, in this handsomely packaged two-CD box that includes a 48-page booklet loaded with interesting photos, reproduced documents, detailed liner notes, and a new essay by van Gasteren on how the recordings came to be made. Though Broonzy’s busy recording career lasted for three decades, a newly available recording of such high sound quality is most welcome.

“If you want to play the blues,” Big Bill tells his appreciative Amsterdam audience, “the first thing to do is go to a real music teacher and learn the right way first…then after you leave him, then do everything wrong from what he told you to do, and then you’re playing the blues.” The CDs capture the storytelling, joking, and informative song introductions that characterized these informal shows. Broonzy’s preamble to Bessie Smith’s “Back-Water Blues” is heart-stopping in the context of the Katrina recovery. Poor people got the worst of the disastrous Mississippi River floods of the 1920s, with some starving to death waiting to be rescued, and little has changed. Also, the great North Sea Flood of 1953, in which over 1800 Dutch lost their lives, had occurred only days before these concerts. No doubt about it, Big Bill had his callused fingers on the pulse of what life was all about. “‘John Henry,’” he says, “that’s what they call an ‘American folk song’…in Mississippi, where I came from, we call it a work song. [But],” he assures the crowd, “I love to play it, don’t worry about a thing.”

A few songs appear twice, a few others in fragmentary form. There’s a lot of talking from Bill and a bit of appreciation from an actor named Otto Sturman. So don’t expect two hours of pure music. Instead, what you get are big chunks of the way Broonzy’s concerts really went down. They’re well worth the price of admission.

Jake Shimabukuro, Gently Weeps

Uke master Jake Shimabukuro – “one ukelele-playing mofo,” as Blogcritics Fearless Leader puts it – has a new solo album out and it’s a fine one. Eschewing the portentious arrangements he is sometimes prone to, Jake gives us twelve tracks of the uke, the whole uke and nothing but the uke, plus five accompanied but homey “bonus” tracks. He plays many of his own compositions, a few standards from the pop and classical canon, and what has become his signature cover tune, George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” With this small, four-stringed, two-octave instrument Shimabukuro rocks, croons, and soars with a sound that’s as lush as his technique is astounding. When he wails on “Grandma’s Groove” and “Blue Roses Falling” you keep expecting the instrument to shatter, while “Gently Weeps,” “Ave Maria” and “Heartbreak/Dragon” are delicately beautiful. Selections like the Japanese folk song “Sakura” and the jazz standard “Misty” further demonstrate the well-roundedness of his musicianship.

As an introduction to this artist, and to what can be done on the humble ukelele, this CD would be a fine choice. It should also be more to the liking of American roots and world music fans than some of Jake’s more heavily produced, Europop-influenced recordings.

Stephen DiJoseph, Hypnotized

Stephen DiJoseph does many things musical – Celtic, electronic, New Age, instrumental. His latest CD shows him to be a talented singer-songwriter as well. He has a hip but restrained sensibility somewhat akin to that of Sufjan Stevens, while his watery sneer and faintly eerie harmonies bring to mind classic Tom Petty or the power-pop of George Usher. Strains of acoustic folk-rock, Beckish modernism, soft-pedal soul, and drum-n-bass coalesce into a poetic and accessible collection of songs with an original flavor.

Most of the best songs, like “Sunlight,” “Flyin’”, the sax-spiced “Breakaway,” and a cleverly re-imagined “Nights In White Satin” cluster towards the beginning of the disc; it loses some steam halfway through as the writing gets a bit lazy, although “It’s No Mystery” is subtly powerful. DiJoseph’s sure feel for the sound he wants never wanes, however, and even in the less happening sections the music keeps you swaying. At its best, it’s nourishing food for the musical soul.

Available with extended clips at CD Baby.

OUT AND ABOUT: Your still-intrepid reviewer took the music of his band Whisperado on a mini-tour to the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York the other weekend. You can read about these delightful happenings at Whisperado’s Myspace blog.

CD Review: Sam Moore, Overnight Sensational

Friday, September 1st, 2006

Perhaps it’s only right that Sam Moore, known almost universally as one-half of soul music’s most famous duo, Sam and Dave, should burst back onto the scene with an album of collaborations. But unlike some “tribute” collections in which a gaggle of guest stars work with a legend, this one hangs together very well.

Moore, always one of soul’s greatest tenor voices, sounds as good as ever. The years seem to have cost him little if any range, and his 70-year-old pipes haven’t lost their physical and emotional power. The song choices are generally inspired. And Randy Jackson’s production must get some of the credit for the artistic success of this project too. This is a Sam Moore album, not a bunch of forced-sounding duets. Abetted by guests from Wynonna and Springsteen to Bon Jovi and Fantasia, Moore and Jackson bring gospel-flavored joyfulness to songs both old (like the Aretha Franklin chestnut “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” written by the man who signed Sam and Dave, Ahmet Ertegun) and modern (“If I Had No Loot”). The sound is bouncy and smooth yet not unduly slick. It’s old-school soul at its best, with a universally appealing brightness.

The key is that you could listen to this CD without the liner notes and not be distracted by the different voices that join Sam’s. (“Say, I guess that is Springsteen on “Better To Have and Not Need”! Is that Sam, or Steve Winwood, singing the high part on Paul Carrack’s “Ain’t No Love”?) It’s as if the most soulful songwriters from various walks of musical life were magically deposited right where they belong. Even Sting, whose distinctive yelp sometimes sticks out too much in duets, sounds all right in the old Ray Charles tune “None Of Us Are Free,” and Mariah Carey and Vince Gill team up for some exquisite backing vocals on what may be my favorite track of all, Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe.”

Which brings us to the late Billy Preston, who contributed one of his very last performances here, singing his own composition “You Are So Beautiful” along with Sam in a rendition that stands up well next to – although nothing can replace – Joe Cocker’s definitive classic. With Eric Clapton contributing a guitar solo, Robert Randolph on pedal steel, and Billy himself on piano, Preston and Moore wring every drop of emotion out of this simple and beautiful song. Preston’s voice sounds angelic, almost ghostly. It’s a fitting close to a truly fine, and in fact downright inspiring, set of music.