Archive for February, 2010

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.

Theater Review: Forgotten by Pat Kinevane at the Irish Arts Center

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

Every now and then you see something truly unique, and Pat Kinevane's one-man show Forgotten qualifies. A blend of Irish character studies and Japanese Kabuki theater, it is a superb showcase for this exceptionally warm and generous performer. Under the firm direction of Jim Culleton, he casts an effective spell, mingling the sadness of growing old without due respect (all four characters are over 80) with joyful recollections of youth and moments of high grief.

Some segments work better than others; for one thing, the female characters come across more richly than the male. And in spite of a helpful glossary in the program, some of the references to Irish culture and language will elude typical American audiences. Too, the beauty of the Kabuki movements Mr. Kinevane uses to transition between scenes doesn't seem quite enough to explain their existence. But on the whole, this disjunction didn't bother me; the happy temptation is to always give this work the benefit of the doubt, swept up as one is in its imaginative evocations of the lives of these aged survivors.

The insistent music (by Brian Byrne) and sensitive lighting function almost as characters in themselves. So does Mr. Kinevane's heaving, shiny, nearly naked body, painted in black Japanese figures. So does his face, gradually painted into a white mask by one of the characters, the make-up obsessed Eucharia, once scullery-maid to the other female character, Dora. But the real star of the show, besides Mr. Kinevane himself, is his language; he both captures and heightens the thrum and sigh of these folks' speech, from gruff Flor to mild Dora. All live now in separate nursing homes.

Flor sees visions: "Holy Mary is under me bed. She is, under. I saw her last Monday, over there in a long white coat and a blue band on her neck. Snowey skin, and a head of the darkest hair. She was crying like a girl and kept saying she was lonely." Later, Dora recalls the preamble to her youthful affair with man married to a woman perfectly named Petra: "…he positively altered the hue of the spaces about him. Absorbed everything. A piece of chess. Soot hair. Hands unspoiled. Face, flawless. But she teased him down the path of middle age and emptiness. Expertly."

More than a play, it's poetry, and it's an immersive experience. That's no mean trick for one performer to pull off. Forgotten runs through March 7 at the Irish Arts Center in New York, and then returns to Ireland, with further international dates to be announced. For tickets please visit Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.

Theater Review: Charles L. Mee’s Fêtes de la Nuit

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Naked Goddess France in a tub, three silent Graces, and a stately tango usher us into the romantic arena of Charles Mee's Paris. To use two appropriately French-derived words, Fêtes de la Nuit is a collage of vignettes on the theme of love, but it's more visceral, and rewarding, than the typical movie of intertwined stories like Valentine's Day.

We'll call it a play for want of a better word, but it's more of a theatrical celebration, scene after scene of a richly observed and finely sketched world where romantic love is subject number one, with sex, art, and the character of a great city clustering close behind. A woman waits in a café for the love of her life; she hasn't met him yet but is saving a seat for as long as it takes. A roué leads a rapt group on a tour of the gardens of Paris and other important places in the history of his colorful love life. An art class, a fashion show, a lecture on the history of coffee – these are just a few of the show's elements, but the less stagy moments are just as affecting. Three people on a park bench grope each other sensuously until the middle one slips away, satisfied she's brought the other two together. A spurned lover tried to re-seduce her ex. A lonely man dances with his coat. Almost magically, these characters whom we only glimpse come brightly alive, exuding sorrow, angst, joy in turn. 

The large ensemble cast includes singers, dancers, and deaf actors, and is virtually without a weak link. Kim Weild's intimate yet expressive staging moves us effortlessly from café to park to catwalk to dreamscape. Of special note is the smoky score and sound design, by Brian H. Scott, but all the technical elements measure up to the high quality of the performances. With no intermission, the show goes on a touch too long. I wouldn't want to be the one to have to choose what to cut, though.

I highly recommended this show for anyone with an appreciation for life's pleasures. Only small children and people who don't like nudity on stage should stay away. It's a perfect valentine for yourself, your lover, your friends. Fêtes de la Nuit runs through Feb. 27 at the Ohio Theatre. Tickets at Brown Paper Tickets.

Photos by Jill Usdan. 1. (L-R): Catherine dies of love: Jessica Green (Catherine) and Khris Lewin (Roland). 2. (L-R): Lartigue (Babis Gousias) leads the merriment.

Woman: See Man

Friday, February 12th, 2010

Oh, the things Web research can reveal.

Woman: See Man

Theater Review: Clybourne Park

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Note: See the end of this review for a discount code for tickets to Clybourne Park.

At nearly 40, Playwrights Horizons is such an established part of New York's not-for-profit Off-Broadway pantheon that it's easy to take it for granted and forget that it has a special mission, as indicated in its very name: to foster and develop excellent new plays and playwrights. The current production of Bruce Norris's poetically written and smartly plotted Clybourne Park bodes well for the new decade – for Playwrights Horizons, at least, if not for the chances of fundamental change in race relations in America.

Two clever ideas root the play. First, Mr. Norris looks back half a century to Lorraine Hansberry's iconic A Raisin in the Sun, about an upwardly mobile black family – and depicts the other side. A white family in a lily-white, primly racist middle class neighborhood have sold their house to a black family, eliciting resistance, first euphemistic and then raw, from the community embodied by the deliciously sleazy Karl (the effective Jeremy Shamos, seen recently as the cautious priest in Creature).

Badly damaged by the death of their war-veteran son, angry and repressed Russ (Frank Wood, who won a Tony for Side Man) and Bev (the superb Christina Kirk, who did fine work in the excellent Telethon last year) are packing up and leaving the neighborhood behind, along with, they hope, their sorrows. Bev is a quintessential 1959 period piece, a liberal-minded woman who believes intellectually in the equality of the races and takes pride in her "friendship" with her black housekeeper Francine (the quietly explosive Crystal A. Dickinson), but still talks down to Francine and her husband Albert (the smoldering Damon Gupton) without being aware of it.

The play's second original conceit is setting the second act 50 years later, in the present time, with the same actors playing different roles. Now they are a batch of youngish people haggling over what initially seem like trivial details of the design of a new house. The couple who want to tear down and rebuild are white, the couple who object are black, and the ties to the story of 50 years earlier slowly materialize as this much faster paced, funnier, but ultimately equally powerful second half progresses. By the time a contractor (played by an utterly transmogrified Mr. Wood) digs up the old trunk Russ had buried in the yard and plops the baggage of the ages literally on center stage, we've seen just how the ugliness of America's never-ending racial "conversation" has transformed over the decades – transformed, but hardly died down. Aided by Pam MacKinnon's commendably transparent direction and fine performances all around, Mr. Norris has dramatized his perceptive view of these changes (and lack thereof) with wit, skill, and heart.

It would seem a little dull of me not to put Clybourne Park in a bit of contemporary perspective, given that I've recently covered two other major plays on the subject of race. David Mamet's Race is minor Mamet, effective as far as it goes, and with some very worthwhile performances; yet after chewing over its provocations, one comes away feeling that one hasn't heard anything much really new. More satisfying all-around is The Good Negro, which I saw this winter in a very good Boston production. That play, however, is constructed (and was directed) in a consciously artful manner. Clybourne Park never feels self-conscious; it deals with larger-than-life issues with compelling life-sized characters and naturalistic dialogue – the hardest kind to write.  It's a marvelous accomplishment.

Clybourne Park runs at Playwrights Horizons through March 7. See below for a discount code.

Photos by Joan Marcus. 1) L to R: Damon Gupton, Crystal A. Dickinson, Annie Parisse, Jeremy Shamos. 2) L to R: Christina Kirk, Frank Wood.


Blogcritics reader discount: Use code "CPGR"
Limit 4 tickets per order. Subject to availability.

Order by February 21 with code CPGR and tickets are only:
$40 (reg. $65) for all performances Jan 29-Feb 14
$50 (reg. $65) for all performances Feb 16-March 7
Order online at www.playwrightshorizons.org. Use code CPGR.
Or:
Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily)
Or:
Print this page and present it at the Ticket Central box office, 416 West 42nd Street (Noon-8pm daily).

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.