Soul of the Blues Springs Into Fall

After an August break, Soul of the Blues at Cornelia Street Café returned last night with an opening set from up-and-coming Long Island based acoustic blues musician Phil Minnisale (who also appeared back in May), a kick-butt central feature by the great Canadian roots- and bluesman Michael Pickett, and a closing set from local r&b/jazz singer Leslie Casey and her highly skilled, tight band.

Soul of the Blues Logo with Text

Casey’s also on the bill next Friday at Biscuit BBQ, where she’s opening for the sensational Anthony Robustelli. Come on down and request her special, funky-fresh version of “Round Midnight” – you won’t be sorry.

It’s a mighty shame there aren’t more (and better-paying) opportunities in New York City for touring blues musicians like Michael Pickett. Besides Terra Blues in the Village, there’s practically no place that presents a steady diet of blues, and one venue isn’t nearly enough to cater to the touring talent, not to mention the appetite for live blues in the city. One problem is, that appetite is pretty scattered. It’s a feedback loop – it became so expensive to run a club that a lot of places closed down, so people stopped going out to see blues, so people got used to not seeing live blues in NYC, so even fewer places wanted to book it, so now here we are with only a handful of fans and a modest batch of tourists coming out to see even a show that features a serious blues eminence like Pickett (and for a mere $10 cover and $7 minimum at that!). The place should be jam packed every fourth Wednesday, not just on the weekend shows during our summertime Soul of the Blues Festivals.

So if you like blues and soul music, spread the word and come down.

Music DVD Review: Roger Hodgson – Take the Long Way Home: Live in Montreal

Have you seen the annoying TV commercial where that hideously peppy girl checks her cell phone and sees that her very first paycheck has cleared? If I’ve ever pitied a fictional character, it’s that poor boyfriend of hers as she snaps his neck in her heedlessly peppy embrace.

Roger Hodgson‘s new (and first) concert DVD puts me in mind of that commercial. Not because his songs are unusually happy-sounding, although many of them are, especially some of the hits he wrote with Supertramp. No, it’s because the band’s Breakfast in America was the first album I ever bought with money I’d earned, as opposed to gift or allowance money. That’s not something a guy forgets, even if it doesn’t make him kick his legs and leap into the air like Mary Tyler Moore on PCP.

For those of you only casually familiar with Supertramp, Roger Hodgson was the one with the really high voice. He wrote and sang the majority of the band’s hits as they sold 60 million records worldwide. (For those of you not familiar with Supertramp at all, you can stop reading right here – this DVD will not interest you, and your life has little meaning anyway.)

Many of those hits are included on this set, recorded at a recent Montreal concert with a smiling Hodgson presiding like a beneficent god of peace over an audience of awed middle-agers. (To be fair, some of them have brought their kids, who seem to be enjoying the music too.) Playing keyboards and twelve-string guitar, accompanied only by a sax player (and possibly with the subtle assistance of a Mac laptop, but it’s hard to tell), he comes pretty close to evoking not just the emotional energy but also the spectacular arrangements that made Supertramp one of the biggest bands of the late 1970s.

An reviewer called this a “feel-good” concert in the way certain movies are “feel-good” movies, and I’d have to agree. An artist at the top of his game, an adoring audience, and excellent video and sound editing add up to a concert DVD that should please even picky Supertramp (and Hodgson) fans. Hodgson’s unmistakable voice seems, if anything, to have strengthened since the early days, without losing any of its stratospheric range.

The concert includes most of the best-known songs associated with Supertramp’s glory days: “Take the Long Way Home,” “Sister Moonshine,” “Dreamer,” “Two of Us,” and “Give a Little Bit” (which you youngsters may know from a Gap commercial of a few years ago, or the Red Cross tsuanami relief campaign, or maybe the Goo Goo Dolls cover. And here’s Hodgson doing it with Ringo’s All-Stars in 2000. The list goes on.) Don’t worry, he doesn’t leave out “Breakfast in America” and “The Logical Song.”

Hodgson also does several songs from his solo efforts, including “Lovers in the Wind” and “Love is a Thousand Times.” Yes, there’s a lot of love in these songs, and a whole carnival of it in the concert hall. Man, do they love him in Canada!

Fans will probably think of a song or two they wish he’d done. He doesn’t do two of my favorites, “Lady” and “Babaji.” But this is a concert DVD, not a greatest hits collection (or a “Sobel’s favorites” collection, for that matter).

There are a few short clips from a different concert in an entirely different format: with a full orchestra and full band. Bits from “Even in the Quietest Moments” and “Fool’s Overture” are notable. Many dinosaur rock acts have tried out the orchestral thing, from the Moody Blues to Metallica, with varying success. Supertramp’s music was pretty heavily – and very carefully – orchestrated, so these pieces work well and one wishes they were complete songs.

The extras also include some fan interview footage and a little more soundcheck and backstage action than necessary. The latter show Hodgson to be an exacting musical director, but generous and appreciative when greeting fans and friends. More interesting are the two short interviews, where he discusses his creative process, how he “was always a solo artist within a band,” the sound of the twelve-string guitar, and a little about his charity work. The details about how and when he wrote some of the biggest hits will interest fans. “My songs are as alive for me today as the day I wrote them,” he says. That’s got to be a key attribute for any popular artist who wants to maintain a career over decades, and you can tell from the performances here that he means it when he says it.

Technically, the concert is smoothly recorded and edited, the sound is high quality, and the authoring is fine. Having already gone double platinum in Canada, this DVD should please American fans just as much. Total running time: 140 minutes. Audio options: Dolby Digital Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS Surround Sound.

2007 New York Innovative Theatre Awards

The New York Innovative Theatre (NYIT) Awards were presented last night at a semi-star-studded event. It was my first time attending the awards and I was quite impressed with the sheer size and grandness of the show. When you think “Off-Off-Broadway” you think theaters that seat fewer than 100, presenting plays with extremely low budgets, so being at FIT’s huge Haft Auditorium – filled almost to capacity – was quite a change.

Production numbers, big-screen video feeds, and beautiful dresses lit up the stage. Julie Halston was the funniest awards show host I’ve seen in some time – which isn’t saying much, actually, so I’ll put it this way: Julie Halston was seriously funny. (Photo credit: Marc Goldberg for the New York Innovative Theatre Awards)

Julie Halston

I was pleased to see that f-ckplays got some nominations, as did Brian Linden for his portrayal of Sparkish in The Country Wife, which also got nods, not surprisingly, for costume and set design.

“Off-Off-Broadway” isn’t the best-defined term in the world. You can draw the line between Off- and Off-Off- based on theater size, budget, or other factors. It would be nice to see a list of every production that NYIT considered eligible. I wouldn’t want to be the person tasked with maintaining such a list, though. The NYC small-theater scene is big and seems to sprawl everywhere. The Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, for example – which received a Stewardship Award, presented by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn – serves almost 400 theater companies, more than half of which count as Off-Off-Broadway. But in any case, judging from the energy and attendance at the awards show last night, the scene is clearly thriving.

Here is the complete list of nominees and winners.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Sam Baker, Peter Himmelman

Sam Baker, Pretty World

When Sam Baker was in his early thirties, a terrorist bomb blew up the train he was riding in Peru. Eight died in the attack. Among many other injuries, Baker lost all hearing in one ear and partial hearing in the other. Because of this disability, his gravelly, blurred singing sounds very odd, even disturbing at first. But a couple of songs into his marvelous new CD you begin to appreciate the contrast between the ragged, pained sound of his voice and the bright arc of his talent.

The songs are so simply structured they seem naked, and the spare poetry of the lyrics quietly chafes your sensibility until you have to spin back and listen again. Baker sings of the American fringe: a prostitute, an orphan, a gambler, an oilman's ne'er-do-well son, "a woman who puts things in boxes." Using spindly folk idioms and few but choice words, Baker brings his characters to life like the best of Springsteen's creations, or like those of a short story writer such as Raymond Carver.

A few of the songs paint pictures rather than tells tales, but again sparely, with an almost haiku-like feel. In "Sweetly Undone," a man appreciates his lover: "I watch you at the pool / Slowly undress / Spread your towel on St. Augustine / Lay down and rest / Lay down and rest / Lay down in the sun / Lay down with your top / Sweetly undone." The power of the image is found not so much in the visual presence of the woman, but in its incantatory evocation by the poet. One can almost see his feelings as he describes her.

In "Days" the narrator draws a brief picture of women "laughing in the kitchen / Content with the house / Content with the family, / The candles, food, friends / The music / These December days / The shortest of the year / How beautiful they are." But then he goes on to describe "baking bread / Fresh coffee / And for tonight cold Mexican beer…" With just those two extra words, "for tonight," Baker suddenly widens the perspective: this isn't an unending life of domestic happiness but a frozen moment, with the unspoken implication that tomorrow might bring something quite different, maybe something terrible.

If this sounds more like a poetry review than a music review, that's not an accident. There is definitely sweetness in the music, if not in the singing. But without those pinpoint words, the music wouldn't be much more than pretty guitars backing a strange, honking voice singing wayward, halting melodies. If you like Townes Van Zandt and Gillian Welch and John Prine you'll probably like Sam Baker. There, I said it.

Hear some tracks from Pretty World at Sam Baker's Myspace page.

Peter Himmelman, The Pigeons Couldn't Sleep

Veteran rocker Peter Himmelman's latest CD is a concoction of drawling rock, blues, and folk with dark lyrics and a substantial nod to reggae. The ominous title track mixes Chicago blues guitar, reggae bass and keyboards, and vocals that sound like Bob Dylan on a good day. The song is about a relationship gone to hell: "I held out for the best, but then your letter came / I held it in my hand and I nearly died from shame." Why shame? He doesn't say, but we don't need the particulars – it's all in the song's dusky groove.

"Winning Team" is the CD's standout track. Himmelman threads a ska dance beat and Stones-like rock guitar under a catchy, shout-along tune: "I'm a bird-watching fool, my binoculars are clean / But just once I'd like to be on the winning team." Delicious stuff.

Other times the sound reminds one of grim Nick Cave or Lou Reed material, of David Bowie, of Delbert McClinton's blue-eyed soul, or even of Tom Waits, but Himmelman has his very own varieties of the styles he works in: not just smoky gloom but also dry, folksy Americana ("The Ship of Last Hope"), rueful piano balladry ("17 Minutes To 1"), gravelly blues ("Save a Little Honey"), and horn-fed soul musings ("There Comes a Time"), all fed by strong songwriting and smart lyrical phrasings and hooks. "It sure sounded like a good idea at the time." "There comes a time to mend your ways, and that time is now." "I'm never short on distractions, how about you?" Some songs are more memorable than others, and I found myself losing interest during some of the slower ones. But overall I liked the CD quite a lot.

Also included, at least in this early pressing, is a DVD with an hourlong video documentary about Himmelman, including archival footage of his early days with the band Sussman Lawrence (guys he still plays with). "When I was a young man my dreams were all about fame and hair. Now I don't have much of either," he narrates. "But I've got no regrets. I followed my dreams, and they led me here."

Here is really here and there and everywhere: a club tour with his old bandmates, another with an energetic young Israeli band, and some solo acoustic gigs. He talks a little about being an observant Jew and having turned down appearances on the Tonight Show and an opening slot for Rod Stewart because he won't play on the Sabbath. Judaism is about "trying to extract the miraculous from the mundane," he says, and that fits right in with the rest of his philosophy. "What passes for rebellion in rock and roll puts me to sleep," he says. "I was always searching for something far more frightening." Right on, Peter – being a Jew can definitely be frightening. (I'm not saying that's exactly what he meant, of course. But it resonates.)

Despite a perpetual sad mien, Himmelman is funny as sh*t – clowning on stage, making up songs as he goes along, taking a whole audience outside to continue a concert, with acoustic guitars, in a parking lot. Actually, his sad-clown countenance probably makes his antics more funny, and his musical impression of a pompous "rock god" makes Spinal Tap seem tame.

The DVD contains just the documentary, no extras – it itself is the extra. Professionally produced, it sounds and looks and flows very nicely. Don't watch it expecting extended stage performances – is has (with the exception of the rock god improv) only clips. They do give a good feel for the flavor of his songs and his performances, but it might have been nice to see one or two whole songs. Essentially, though, it's a character study in the form of a small road movie, and music aside, Himmelman is a fun character to spend an hour with. Students of rock music and pop culture will also learn a thing or two about life as a professional troubadour. (Himmelman actually supports himself by composing the scores for TV shows such as Judging Amy and Bones.) I found the film very amusing, and modestly enlightening, even though prior to this I had only a vague awareness of Himmelman's music.

Hear MP3s from the new CD here.

Theater Review (NYC): Virtuosa: Clara Schumann in Words and Music

“Remember: art above all.”

That was the credo in Clara Wieck’s childhood home, as her tyrannical father ruthlessly prepared his prodigy daughter for a career as a star concert pianist. (“No dolls for a budding virtuosa.”) Her marriage to and musical partnership with the brilliant but mentally ill composer and critic Robert Schumann, her lifelong friendship with Johannes Brahms, Clara’s own (now increasingly respected) compositions, and her perseverance in an exhausting, independent concert career through her many years of widow- and single-motherhood have made her both a romantic figure and a proto-feminist heroine.

Recent decades have seen growing recognition of Clara Schumann’s importance to musical history beyond her roles as interpreter and muse for two of the 19th century’s most important (male) composers. Clara literally takes center stage in Virtuosa, Diane Seymour’s excellent new play with music.

Katrina Ferguson, whose warm yet brittle intensity reminded me a little of Cherry Jones, gives a bravura portrayal of the pianist-composer from girlhood through the first 50 years of her long career. (Born in 1819, Schumann played her last public concert in 1891.) Ferguson’s riveting interpretation encompasses the gamut of human emotion and experience. She and director Bruce Roach have chosen a big, declamatory acting style that works perfectly for the demanding role, which calls for Ferguson, all by herself, to both dramatize and provide the exposition for an entire life story that features outsized (though historical) characters.

Ferguson is Clara most of the time, but she speaks as her father, and Robert Schumann, and Brahms, as needed. Even more impressively, she conjures them even in dramatic scenes where she is just Clara: protecting a less musically gifted sibling from an angry Herr Wieck; excitedly leading Schumann and Brahms on a hike through the countryside; reacting with careful sensitivity to an unexpected marriage proposal; and, most touchingly, paying a heartrending visit to an incapacitated Robert at the asylum where his increasing lunacy has forced her to send him. (His symptoms are now thought to have been caused by syphillis and mercury poisoning.)

Ferguson’s self-conscious, captivating, highly enjoyable performance is paired with live music by concert pianist Allison Brewster Franzetti. Dressed just like Acting Clara, Pianist Clara sits onstage at a grand piano, playing, at appropriate times in the text, works by both Schumanns as well as Brahms and Chopin. Some pieces are presented as at a concert; others function as a musical score. The acoustics in the boxy 45th Street Theatre were not ideal for piano music, especially the dense, arpeggiated tone clusters found in many of these Romantic works. But the composers’ passion and Franzetti’s interpretive skill both shone through. Especially powerful were selections from Robert Schumann’s Papillons Op. 2 and Carnaval Op. 9, and Brahms’s Scherzo Op. 4.

Seymour’s script smoothly incorporates diary entries along with dramatized scenes, as well as two simple conceits: Clara tranquilly recollecting her life, and the pianist addressing adoring audiences all over Europe. It all adds up to a gaudy, shamelessly theatrical work, hence a bit old-fashioned, but a compelling and crowd-pleasing way to tell this classic story: romantic, elevated, and true. “Art above all” – art, the great distiller of life.

Virtuosa was presented as part of the 2007 New York Musical Theatre Festival. (Performances 9/19 and 9/20 only.)

Music Review: Fats Domino Greatest Hits: Walking To New Orleans

Why yet another Fats Domino greatest hits release? Why do record labels keep putting out repackaged versions of the same original recordings? Fats Domino – 50 Greatest Hits appeared in 1999. Fats Domino Jukebox (20 songs) followed in 2002. Now here’s Fats Domino Greatest Hits: Walking To New Orleans, with 30 songs on one CD.

The obvious reason, of course, is that the owner of the recordings – in this case, Capitol Records – wants to keep making money from them. Many superfans and completists will buy a new release even if they’ve got all the tracks elsewhere, while others, who may just now be looking for a greatest-hits set for the first time, will be more attracted to a fresh package even if the material itself is half a century old. But there’s another reason, though it might not be one the label has in mind. Sales aside, a new collection of old songs can generate new artistic and cultural interest in a worthy artist. And when that artist is as essential, and as enjoyable, as Fats Domino, that can only be a good thing.

The new release has as good a selection as most fans could hope for, within the time limits of a single CD, and it’s a very good introduction to Fats for those who don’t know him. Since Domino had more than 30 hits, old-timers might wish one or another had been included that wasn’t, but all the biggies are here, from his breakout boogie “The Fat Man” to his colossal hit “Ain’t That a Shame,” from “Blue Monday” to “My Blue Heaven” to his definitive cover of “Blueberry Hill” (the version Richie Cunningham was always singing on Happy Days), and from “Bo Weevil” and “I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday” to “I’m Walkin'” and, of course, “Walking To New Orleans.”

Fats Domino with Elvis Presley

Bill Dahl’s very good liner notes draw heavily from Rick Coleman’s groundbreaking biography Blue Monday, which vividly recounts Domino’s long and eventful life, right up through his dramatic rescue from his flooded home town during Hurricane Katrina. The book established the star’s importance to the history of race relations in mid-20th century America as well as to the development of modern rock and pop, and I need not go into that here. Truth is, Fats’s music, which dominated the charts during the 1950s, is just as enjoyable today. Its happy simplicity and its indomitable beat just won’t get old.

Ain’t that a shame: the new incarnation of WCBS-FM, the venerable New York oldies station, has redefined “oldies” as hits from the 60s, 70s and 80s rather than the 50s and 60s the way it used to be. Since I was born in the 60s, and came of age musically in the 70s, that station, and a similar one in Boston, were the places I learned Fats’s songs and got “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Blueberry Hill” sewn permanently into my own skin. (A painless procedure, I assure you.) People listening to the new CBS won’t get any Fats with their Rod Stewart and their Mamas and the Papas.

Fortunately, they can get this new CD. The price is great and the recordings sound as good as 50-year-old singles can be made to sound on a modern CD. (The very oldest tracks sound a bit worn, but I’m sure that’s because of the limitations of the source media.) On most tracks Domino’s vocals jump out like he just sang them yesterday. His iconic piano triplets chug up your spine, and Herbert Hardesty’s classic sax lines surge out warm and rich. Capitol’s Ron McMaster deserves kudos for a great mastering job. If you’re looking for a single, high quality, more-or-less definitive Fats Domino hits collection, for a very nice price, this is definitely your best bet.

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God Really Did Create Adam and Steve

God did, in fact, create Adam and Steve. I know because I saw them in person.

This Rosh Hashanah, for the second year in a row, I went to a High Holy Days service given by CBST, an independent, Reconstructionist-inspired Jewish congregation that was especially created by and for the LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) community.

“But Jon, you’re not gay.”

“Lucky for me, neither is my girlfriend. Your point?”

Since CBST must, by definition, have an open and welcoming philosophy, it has grown to attract many straight Jews who are disaffected with the sometimes intolerant, often subtly unwelcoming attitudes of the more longstanding branches of Judaism, but who still want to maintain a tie to their religious tradition – to be out Jews, as it were.

“But Jon, you don’t believe in God.”

“Never have, never will. Your point?”

CBST, at least at its huge High Holy Days services held at Town Hall and the Javits Center in New York City, welcomes agnostics and nonbelievers. The impish Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum is a delightful cut-up, and the music is, so to speak, divine. The whole thing is radically different from the hideously bland, only glancingly Jewish Reform synagogue I grew up attending. (“Hardly distinguishable from church,” my mother used to complain.) At CBST you can sing prayers and psalms in major keys! Major keys! Mother of Samuel, do these people even know they’re Jewish?

However, just like Reform and Conservative services, CBST events include a segment in which a lay member begs the crowd for money to keep the congregation going. At my old synagogue this affair was always frightfully painful for both the beggar and the beggees, but not at CBST.

Last night the aforementioned Adam (Berger) and Steve (Frank), a committed and now married couple, did the solicitation. In the process they told the funny and touching story of the genesis of their relationship, how they came to join CBST, and what it meant to them. There they were in the flesh, the very Adam and Steve who so frighten the small-minded mushheads of the religious right – friendly, happy, to all appearances in love, and about as unthreatening as a down comforter in the wintertime.

“But Jon – you’re such a romantic, iconoclastic loner with your hair blowing in the wind that rolls over the heath like a sigh. What are you doing at Town Hall — and at the Javits Center next week for Yom Kippur — with a bunch of observant Jews?”

“Heck if I know. Your point?”

Actually, I do know: I go because my girlfriend goes, but I’m glad to. If there were no other reason, the music really is beautiful. Funnily enough, while waiting for the service to begin I was flipping through a “magazine” Michelle Shocked sent me. It’s merely an elaborate promotion for her new live CD and some reissues, but in it she writes about being inspired to get religion by attending gospel services. “If you follow the trail from rock ’n’ roll, it always leads you back to the blues, sweet soul music and finally to the churches and gospel music,” Shocked writes.

In some way that I don’t understand, tracing the roots of the music she loved brought her to the point of “living by the Good Book.” That’s just going backwards, as far as I’m concerned, but it does attest to the power and importance of music.

Sometimes, even a CBST service feels like going backwards in spite of all the social maturity, liberal attitudes, and major keys. (Spotted in the crowd: Democracy Now‘s Amy Goodman.) A formative superstition still lurks in the heart of the temple. Without it, the title and first paragraph of this article would make no sense. They do not, in fact, make sense. Nobody but Adam and Steve’s parents actually “created” Adam and Steve. Nobody “created” Lucy, or the oceans, or the Earth or the Sun or the cosmos.

But people do create things, and as human creations go, CBST is a pretty nice place to hang your yarmulke.

Theater Review (NYC): A New Television Arrives, Finally by Kevin Mandel

It’s pretty hard to imagine a more difficult role for an actor to play… than a television.

Television can contain everything and give us the whole universe. Voracious and all-encompassing, it conveys not only every kind of information, but every kind of experience – or at least audiovisual representations, which, for many experiences, are the only versions we’ll ever have. So – though I admit I’ve never had occasion to think about this before – it’s pretty hard to imagine a more difficult role for an actor to play… than a television.

A New Television Arrives, Finally demands a tour de force performance from its central figure, Television, and it got one from Emmy winner Tom Pelphrey last night. (On alternate nights, British actor Victor Villar-Hauser assumes the role instead.) Taking an absurd premise to stratospheric heights of excess, it is also the sort of work that defies standard critical rhetoric. That won’t stop me from wholeheartedly recommending this powerful, innovative play.

Playwright Kevin Mandel cites as inspirations David Rabe’s Hurlyburly – presumably for its characters’ attempts to find meaning in lives that seem empty – and Ionesco (shorthand for the Theater of the Absurd), an obvious source given the play’s loopy premise. But when he references Shakespeare, he’s not just paying the default homage to the Bard that all English-language playwrights can safely pay. Mandel’s theme may be an existential (what he calls “spiritual”) crisis, but his language is what gives the play its force, and he has created the perfect outlet for his roaring cyclone of words in the character of Television.

Played by Pelphrey with gargantuan presence and jaw-dropping chops, Television turns up at a small apartment where Man (played, last night, by the listed understudy, Ari Vigoda) lolls about nursing a supposed stomach flu that’s been keeping him home from work. Really, of course, it’s an existential affliction manifesting as depression, and as it turns out, his fiancee, Woman (Kate Russell), is sharing the crisis, but dealing with it by storming about and cursing the world rather than withdrawing from it.

The two clearly love one another on some level. But, unable to connect physically, they come alive only when the fascinating, maddening, inspiring, hurtful, demagogic, and, eventually, violently psychotic Television engages them. Spewing metaphysics-steeped information about science, sports, eroticism, nature, business, history, politics, personality, war, and most of all, Nonsense (you can hear the capital “N”), the red-suited Joker evokes enthusiasm and hope, first in Man, and then, expressed more desperately, in Woman. Like a crazed prophet, he captivates and provokes them with surrealistic tales of political groups who “champion the benefits of Nonsense” or embrace an anti-ambition platform; of desolation shattered by the approach of a “Love Armageddon”; of child abuse, rape, raw eroticism. (A couple of a certain age walked out of the theater at this point. Whether the whole scene turned them off, or just the gloating repetition of the word “vagina,” was unclear.)

A New Television Arrives, Finally
Kate Russell as Woman, Tom Pelphrey as Television and Ari Vigoda as Man. Photos courtesy of DARR Publicity/David Gibbs.

Then he torments them with insults and picks at their wounds: “You ghosts,” he hollers, you “pathetic, trembling, ghastly cowards.” Egos crushed, they open up to him in a bizarre sort of new-age acting exercise, and finally succeed in physically connecting.

But the next morning…

No, you’ll have to see the play to find out whether things actually wrap up that neatly in the end. And unless you can’t handle the word “vagina,” see it you should. Though a bit overlong, it’s funny, a little dangerous, and blessed with glorious language. Pelphrey gives a ravishing performance. (I may try to see it again, on one of Villar-Hauser’s nights.) Russell is quietly real and, when called for, bitterly explosive as Woman; Vigoda (officially the understudy) is droll and touching as Man; and together the pair make a humble, scurrying sort of magic as they’re bullied, seduced, and, at least seemingly, elevated by the cataclysm called Television – that all-knowing, godlike entity who rules the living rooms, the rooms where we live, in the homes of all but the most contrary of us.

Written by Kevin Mandel, directed by Kevin Kittle. Get tickets online or call (800) 838-3006. Through September 30 at Theatre 54 in New York.

Theater Review (NYC): You May Go Now by Bekah Brunstetter

Bekah Brunstetter’s play To Nineveh was honored with a New York Innovative Theater award last year, and she is one of the many talented brains responsible for the recent f*ckplays extravaganza. Her new full-length drama, You May Go Now, is getting a bang-up staging this month at the 45th Street Theatre.

A work of psychological suspense fed by humor and fantasy, darkly and fluidly directed by Geordie Broadwater, the new play fascinates but sometimes confuses. Dottie is raising her teenage daughter Betty to be an avatar of the perfect 1950s housewife. Yet right away something’s clearly cockeyed: the time, apparently, is actually the Great Depression. And there’s a peculiar lesbian/child abuse thing going on (which never quite gels). Then, suddenly, Dottie is kicking Betty out of the house on her eighteenth birthday. All Betty has are a couple of suitcases, an accumulation of Stepford-worthy housewife training (“Speak in a low, soothing voice. Don’t ask him questions about his actions, or question his judgment or integrity”), and a final brittle word of advice:

“You will get off the bus and go to some sort of dining establishment and make eyes. Someone will find you.”

It’s like a horror movie: violent shoving, a snowstorm, desperate, monstrous banging on the door, and finally, silence – peace and quiet for Dottie, who has transformed before our eyes from tyrannically passive-aggressive mom to psychotic monster à la Stephen King’s Annie Wilkes.

In a beautifully crafted transition, suddenly it’s the present day – or is it the 70s? (Again, the time cues confuse.) In any case, the agile Ginger Eckert, who plays Dottie, is suddenly a modern woman who sits around the house trying to write a novel and can’t find her way around the kitchen. So, she’s now playing the grown-up Betty, a generation later – right? Or not. And why does her depressed husband Robert (Ben Vershbow) keep making funny, absurd entrances? And why does Betty come back the very next day, and why isn’t Dottie upset about it?

Melinda Helfrich and Ginger Eckert. Photo by Rachel Roberts.

Act II resolves some, though not all, of the mysteries. The play’s fault is that while it tells a deliciously meaty story, the bones of the plot could use some propping up or some further organization. In spite of that, it is effectively suspenseful. The sound design subtly sets the moods, and the lighting is brilliantly designed, especially during a late scene where Betty stays up all night reading a revelatory PowerPoint presentation on a ghostly-glowing Mac laptop, brought by Philip, a mysterious stranger Betty meets at the bus stop (Justin Blanchard, in a whisperingly intense performance). The changing colors on the screen light Betty’s face, and finally the sunrise shows redly through the kitchen window, lighting up long-hidden truths.

The production has many positives, but Melinda Helfrich’s funny, touching, and superbly focussed portrayal of Betty is its single greatest asset. The rest of the cast does have fine moments, and Eckert has much more: her adroit handling of what is, in all but actual fact, a dual role, is worthy of note. When Robert, devastated by bad medical news, proposes adopting a child, Dottie’s passive-aggressive refusal – mostly silent – is a marvel to behold. But Helfrich lights up the stage every moment she’s on it. Flitting about, hiding in the shadows like a small child, lighting up at Philip’s appearance, defending her mother from a perceived threat (who is Philip, anyway?), she’s a small revelation.

Upstairs at the 45th Street Theatre, through Sept. 29. Tickets at Theatermania or call (212) 352-3101 or, outside NYC, call toll-free (866) 811-4111.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Harris, Foster, Sea Dragons, The States

Corey Harris, Zion Crossroads

Perhaps more than any other artist, Corey Harris has mastered and synthesized the several traditions of African Diaspora music. A roots-music archeologist as much as he is a singer-songwriter and guitarist, Harris always reveals something fundamental about the music even as he puts his own wide-awake stamp on it, whether it’s blues, soul, Afropop or reggae.

Harris’s first Telarc release is a big change from Daily Bread, which came out on Rounder Records two years ago. That album ranged across several styles and traditions, and consisted mostly of humanistic or personal songs. Zion Crossroads on the other hand is almost pure reggae, and highly political. On both counts it’s an exciting set of music.

For an artist writing such socially aware songs, a sense of playfulness is important, to counterbalance the grim state of the world he’s describing and engaging. Harris brings just enough merriment to his writing and recording. Lively beats and melodies animate serious subject matter in “No Peace for the Wicked” (with guest vocals by Ranking Joe), “Keep Your Culture,” and “Afrique (Chez Moi)” – the last sung in fractured French.

High spirits give way to heavier hearts in songs like “Heathen Rage”: “Jah made us to live in a free world/Babylon take it and make it a he world/Leave out the mothers, daughters, and the females/Leave out the blacks and they left out the browns/Make them to build up your cities and towns/Steal their religion and turn them into clowns.” But injustice does not make the songs plod or sound bitter. To my non-African ears, Harris gets the reggae language and lilt down perfectly: “trodding inna Zion/children got to ride on/just like a conquering lion/true true African.” The CD is a worthy addition both to Corey Harris’s discography and to the reggae tradition.

Listen at Myspace and download a free track at the Telarc website.

Jack Foster III, Tame Until Hungry

“There’s no mythology in pain.” From the first lyric on Jack Foster III’s new CD, we can tell we’re not in for everyday prog-rock bombast. These thirteen complex, richly orchestrated songs, sung assuredly in Foster’s thick baritone and stretched high with grand harmonies, mine the varied terrains of hard rock, acoustic music, and melodic progressive rock. At the same time, they’re firmly layered in the deeper tradition of plain old song.

There is even a sense – a modest one – of a lighter touch than that wielded by many progressive-minded artists. “Civilized Dog” swings close to rootsiness, and “One Dark Angel” with its mellow harmonies even flirts with the heartland before devolving into a powerful sax solo (by David Hipshman).

Some of the songs on the second half of the CD get a little preachy, or prosaic. But almost always they’re rescued by a rave-up, a shredfest (though always musical), or a power-funk jam that lifts the song back to the heights of Foster’s best. And the musicianship is masterful throughout, with Foster’s brilliant guitar work joined by Trent Gardner’s keyboards and Robert Berry’s bass and drums. Both are top-notch musicians and veteran producers who’ve worked with big-name acts like Magellan, ELP, Dream Theater and Yes, and both are impeccably good.

Each song is fully imagined, like a well-written fantasy story. Yet, as promised in that initial lyric, they are not weighed down with mythology. This is grown-up, solidly original rock for thinking people.

Sea Dragons, Sea Dragons (EP)

Session guitarist and renaissance man Darryl Thurston formed the Sea Dragons to showcase his sparkly pop songwriting, which is based in the (mostly) happy-go-lucky sounds of the 60s and 70s. Think of the Rolling Stones without the pseudo-Satanic side, with a little George Harrison and bubblegum psychedelia thrown into the pot. “Sweet Delilah” is an obvious but irrestible pop nugget driven by an insistent tambourine, while “Come September” cheerfully evokes the Byrds with biting guitar blasts and close harmonies. “Stop Draggin’ Me Down” could be a lost hit by somebody like Three Dog Night circa 1970, while “Drown” evokes T. Rex. The EP’s introspective moment comes in the pretty love song “Fall Into You.” Each song tickles the pop funnybone in a slightly different way.

Listen at their website or their Myspace page, or purchase at CD Baby.

The States, The Path of Least Resistance

The States have a talent for interesting arrangements, multicolored three-dimensional guitar melodies, and vividly descriptive lyrics. “I spent days drawing up the plan. It was perfect, perfect. You can build where you don’t belong if you’re cautious, cautious,” sings Chris Snyder in “The Architect.” Unfortunately Snyder’s outstanding guitar work outshines his vocals. There are smart, creative minds in this band, excellent musicianship, and lots of parts to like. But pedestrian singing, and reliance on a manufactured sonic bravado that screams “corporate rock,” too often weaken the effect. It doesn’t help that the CD opens with its most derivative (and annoying) song, as if some unsmiling corporate overlord said, “Do one like this so it will sound like everyone else and you can get it on MTV.”

Hear some tracks here.

Kudos for Hugos

Back in the 1970s, as I avidly read my precious paperback copies of the Isaac Asimov-edited Hugo Award Winners (Volume 1, Volume 2, ad adstra infinitum), I naturally imagined that someday I’d be a great science fiction writer with no dandruff. But I had a much more powerful and urgent dream: that I’d grow up and play in a country-rock band alongside a recipient of a Hugo Award in the Best Professional Editor (Long Form) category. Now, at last, my lifelong dream has come true!

Patrick in Japan

Patrick Nielsen Hayden has won this year’s Hugo for editing some books that were apparently really good. Reading them would be the neighborly thing to do. I must get around to that. However, I’m sure Patrick’s having written “Invisible Hand” for Whisperado must have also had something to do with the award.

Congratulations to Patrick!

Indie Round-Up, Live Edition: Second Dan, Gandalf Murphy, Irion Redux

Live from New York, it's Indie Round-Up! This week I'm taking a break from reviewing CDs to talk about some recent shows. First up: Second Dan, Tuesday night at Mercury Lounge. Led by Australian import Dan Rosen, whose Down Under vocals and bad-ass-Hebrew looks make for some notable charisma, the band played an energetic and enthusiastically received set mostly taken from their upcoming CD, Bringing Down Goliath. Lead guitarist Adam Lerner called on the U2 and Radiohead playbooks for evocative guitar sheen, and wild-man drummer Sonny Ratcliff provided the important role of second visual focal point (something a lot of bands could use).

With the faint, edgy raggedness of a band that's been rehearsing but not touring, the band wrung everything they could out of their most infectious rockers, "You Make We Want To" and "Running Out of Feelings." The brooding "Forget to Remember" was another highlight. And the band showed its political side in a couple of songs, including the punked-up, socially conscious "The Elephant Fell To Earth." Pumped up, skilled, and most of all, charging out of the gate with excellent songwriting, this New York City band stands out in the crowded League of Alternative Rock Gentlemen.

Next up: Johnny Irion, whose intriguing new CD I reviewed last week. His short, solo opening set at Joe's Pub last night proved that his best songs hold up well when stripped of the CD's artful arrangements. "Short Leash" was a strong opener, and "She Cast Fire" – though it didn't quite work as the sing-along he wanted it to be – brought back pleasant memories of grooving to CSNY. Other moments in the set evoked thoughts of the Allman Brothers, Donovan, and Jeff Buckley. In fact, the phrase "Jeff Buckley, but with songs," came to mind at one point. Like Buckley and many worthies before him, Irion mixes blue-eyed soul into his gentle hominess.

The evening's headliner was a band I've wanted to catch for years but never managed to until now, Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams. Though they live just north of the Big Apple, they rarely play here in the city.

In the late 1990s when all of us musician-types were first putting up websites, the Slambovians had the coolest band website in the world. It wasn't just some pages of information – it took you through a whole experience, like a dreamy game. (The current website is much more utilitarian, though still entertaining and creatively imagined.)

Their music is also entertaining and creatively imagined. But now I understand that you have to see them live to get the full impact. Songwriter and lead singer Joziah Longo has an incantatory presence that's 70% tongue in cheek and 30% sho'nuff spiritual. Like a benevolent wizard (think a less hyperactive Ian Anderson), he's the center of a huge, dark, invigorating storm of sound. During the gravely titanic "Sunday in the Rain," off the band's latest release, Flapjacks from the Sky, Longo used his reedy baritone first to glow like Neil Diamond, then to slice like James Hetfield.

The hilariously clever intro to the cool Americana love song "I Wish" mashed up a Johnny Cash hit with one by The Who. But the song itself, characteristically for the band, uses simple, common chord changes and plainspoken, intelligibly sung lyrics to create full-hearted, generous, but never aimless tours of the magical mystical musical cosmos.

Instrumental unison parts, subtly slipped into the arrangements, rap with the sung melodies and help build the simply structured tunes into major works. The songs are funny, deep, psychedelic, lyrical, and rootsy, and they don't need great length to make their statements. This is a band that earns its Floyd, Who, Beatles and Cash quotes.

Tink Lloyd played the theremin and accordion simultaneously on the inspiring title track. Lead guitarist Sharkey McEwen played something I've never seen before: lead slide mandolin. Drummer Tony Zuzulo's overhand style made his kit a churning perpetual motion machine. But if I had to pick the supreme moments from the set, they were those in which the content of the song fused completely with the band's expert collective musicianship. One such was the gorgeous waltz "Sullivan Lane," an ode to childhood imagination: "She wasn't one of the misscripted lovers/That moved with the others/She didn't know why/They would make fun of the way she would druther/Just float up and hover between earth and sky." Them's fightin' writin'.

A new song called "Tink" returned to the theme of love, as did "In Her Own World," which has a dancing classic-rock melody. Then came the other crest of the set, the long, mind-blowing "Talkin' to the Buddha," a slow-motion hurricane you want to run straight into. That's a pretty good description of the whole set, actually. Here's hoping the hoary winds of time blow Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams back my town soon, and to yours.

The band's website and CD Baby page only have very short bits, but you can listen to some full tracks at their Myspace page. They're on the festival circuit, playing upcoming dates in the Northeast and in California. Catch these Slambovian ambassadors if you can.