Archive for February, 2009

Three Girls and their Buddy, Orpheum Theater, Boston

Posted in Music on February 27, 2009 by jkiparsky

And finally, in this slew of recent reviews, we have Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, and Shawn Colvin, sans Buddy Miller (get well, Buddy!) at the Orpheum Theater on February 22 at the Orpheum in Boston.

Here’s what I wrote for Boston Music Spotlight:

If you’re into songs, one of the finest ways to spend an evening is with a few songwriters, passing a guitar (or two) and a bottle of wine (or two) around the room. Everyone sings a song or two, they might put in a harmony or maybe quietly tap out some percussion on a wine glass, or they just listen. You talk about the songs a little, maybe one reminds you of another, and maybe someone sings that one. Maybe you sing something you made, maybe you something you got from someone, it doesn’t matter. It’s about songs. The “Three Girls and Their Buddy” tour was as close as most of us will get to spending that sort of night hanging out with Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, and Shawn Colvin, except there was no wine and they did all of the singing.

The “Buddy” of the tour’s title was to have been Buddy Miller, the great Nashville session player (Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Steve Earle, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, etc., etc.) who was unfortunately sidelined by a heart attack on Thursday. I’m happy to say he’s expected to recover in good order, but he’s going to be off the stage for a little while. While his presence would have been welcome, his absence did no harm at all. The “three girls” managed quite nicely, which will surprise nobody who’s heard them. In fact, the change in lineup might have helped to shake things up, forcing some new thinking about setlists and song choices. As it came off, there were no set lists in evidence, and the choices were interesting ones. The three singers performed in what’s sometimes called an “in the round” format, each taking her turn singing a song, with the others either playing a bit of percussion or singing on the chorus.

These three women are all in the top ranks of American singers and song-makers, and the opportunity to hear them in such an open and interactive format was a rare treat. It’s worth spending a moment taking note of what they chose to sing. After a pleasantly sappy rendition of “To Know Him is to Love Him” (dedicated to Mr. Miller), each sang a fairly safe and commercially sensible song. Harris sang the title track of her 2000 album, Red Dirt Girl, Griffin sang a song from her forthcoming gospel album, and Colvin sang what is perhaps her best-known song, “Shotgun Down the Avalanche”. This was about the end of the obvious choices. Each sang, at some point in the night, a cover song, each played something new, and each spent a little time in her back catalog. Mostly they seemed to be following the inspiration of the moment, playing what came to mind. Some of the songs they had clearly played together before, and others were clearly out of the blue. Harris, known for most of her career as an interpreter of other peoples’ songs, stayed almost exclusively to her own compositions, aside from Merle Haggard’s “Kern River”. She came across with some wonderful lines – one in particular stuck with me: “silk was all I had between me and your skin/Like Waterloo, I lost that too”. The combination of sensuality and loss is ideally suited to Harris’s singing, at once exultant and wounded.

To follow this, a collaboration between Harris and Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Griffin came up with a song by the unknown great Tom T. Hall. “I Flew Over Our House Today” is a perfect too-tough-to-cry lost love ballad, and Griffin was able to pull it off, with a conversational tone that only occasionally let slip a crack of emotion. Griffin is a stellar singer, reminiscent of Harris in her tone but using more vocal elaboration than Harris ever does, which works for her in a way it wouldn’t work for Harris. Unfortunately, aside from the Hall cover, she never seemed to fit into the feel of the evening. An unreleased song she sang called “Little God” was really quite a good piece of writing, but it felt too brassy in a night of quiet songs which took their power from their gentle touch. She did very well singing “Love Throw a Line”, from her Impossible Dream album, and gave it a good and funky feel – assisted by Harris and Colvin on shaker and tambourine – but even then it felt a little like she’d turned up at the wrong party.

While Colvin has always struck me as a fairly safe songwriter, staying well within a comfortable zone of vague love wrapped in allusion and metaphor, she did mesh well with Harris. She sang a verse on Harris’ “Love and Happiness” and later sang Gram Parson’s “Hickory Wind”, which of course Harris has some claim on. On her own songs, which are admittedly well-crafted and effective, she sang with the most studied manner of the three, staying close to the song where Griffin ornamented every repeated phrase and Harris adjusted her phrasing to rework songs on the spot, bringing out new aspects of the lyric by subtle shifts of emphasis.

This difference in singing style ran parallel to differences in writing technique. Colvin tends to use metaphor to soft-focus a song, and she likes to cut away at the moment of impact. Griffin, on the other hand, tends to write big, and she’s not shy about letting her metaphor run: “Love Throw a Line” begins with a tidal wave, a breakdown in the middle of nowhere, and before you know it we’ve got lions in the coliseum, motherless children, and rivers of blood running into valleys. Colvin, on the other hand, buries love in “a mountain of new-fallen snow”. And Harris? Harris sings simply, without elaboration or ornament, but directly and without hiding her meaning. Her best lyrical moments are when she strips away the metaphor to a single concrete image or a straightforward story.

In the end, though, all three are in fact great singers and writers, and there’s no sense in dwelling on the differences between them. They certainly didn’t, they were just hanging out, singing songs together with no need for wine.

Gipsy Kings at the House of Blues

Posted in Music on February 27, 2009 by jkiparsky

So I’m writing about all kinds of great music for months on end, which means I’ve got free tickets to all kinds of great shows, and what does she want to go with me to hear? The Gipsy Kings. Okay, I can dig it, they’re a lot of fun, but man, if I had to choose between the Gipsy Kings and Emmylou Harris, I know where I’d be. Fortunately, I didn’t have to choose. Here’s my review from Boston Music Spotlight:

Although the Gipsy Kings have not had much of a presence on the American scene in recent years, they had no trouble filling the new House of Blues on Friday night. One of the most successful world music acts in history, this band of brothers knows what their audience wants, and they know how to deliver it. What that audience wants is an infectious blend of flamenco guitars and vocals with a pop rhythm section and song structures, on the model of the Kings’ 1989 hit “Bamboleo”. They want Nicolas Reyes’ husky baritone singing about love and dancing, and Tonino Baliardo’s clean, precise guitar work, with Latin percussion and synth stings. Since their self-titled 1989 album, the Gipsy Kings have toured the world on this formula, and they scored a hit with the capacity crowd in Boston.

The band’s sound is built on three elements, of which the most pervasive is the rhumba rhythm of the backing guitars. This is convenient for an American audience who might find it awkward to adapt to new rhythms for different songs. By keeping it simple, the band makes the music accessible and danceable. In a room with no seating to speak of, this danceability was put to good use in some pockets of the central pit, where a combination of urban grind, half-remembered salsa, and hippie twirl was evident in an amiable crowd. On top of this wall of rhumba are layers of Baliardo’s guitar work – a style based solidly in his father’s flamenco with melodic and harmonic ideas pulled in from jazz and pop guitarists – and Reyes’ vocals, similarly based in flamenco tradition and amended with more recent influences. These are supplemented by a solid rhythm section of bass, drums, percussion, and keyboards who fleshed out the six-guitar sound without distracting from it – mostly.

The most recognizable element of this mix is Reyes’ voice, familiar to countless Americans from songs like “Bamboleo”, “Bem Bem Maria”, and “A Mi Manera”. This voice is an exuberant vehicle for the uptempo numbers that are the band’s specialty, and tones down nicely for a slower feature like “Un Amor”. The mannerisms of traditional flamenco are all there, the smoky growl and the Moorish flourish, and the hits are delivered, for better or for worse, as hits: note-perfect renditions of the song, with a few modifications for twenty years of wear and tear on the vocal chords. The band certainly plays the songs with as much energy as ever, but such rote delivery is noticeable in a music rooted in improvisation. This was particularly striking on “Un Amor” which had a completely new accompaniment, almost Sinatra-esque in flavor, but no discernible change in its melody. Fortunately, between the hits were other songs – whether newer, or from some of their many albums that I’ve missed over the years – which were less familiar, and sounded fresher to my ears. Surprisingly to me (never having heard the band live before) a good number of these were sung by other Reyes brothers. Canut Reyes was particularly notable, setting down his guitar to sing several songs in a style that seemed more free and loose than his brother’s. Nicolas, too, seemed to relax a little on those numbers, cheerfully joining the guitar line to pound out the rhumba rhythm. Canut also changed up the rhythm somewhat, singing a Tejano-styled piece, “Cafe”, which shifted from the rhumba to the heavy two-four border beat.

Among the vocal numbers were a healthy set of instrumental numbers, composed and led by guitarist Tonino Baliardo. Baliardo is familiar with but not bound by the flamenco tradition, and has a good sense of harmonic creativity. Unfortunately, he chose to share some of the solo time with a ham-handed keyboard player with a penchant for unleashing his full bag of tricks every time the spotlight landed on him. The crowd seemed to enjoy his trick of winding up every solo as though it were the climax of his career, but Baliardo looked a little bored by it, and I know I was as well.

Purists will tell you that the Gipsy Kings do not play “real flamenco”. The purists are correct. Real flamenco is improvised collaboration between a singer, a guitarist, and a dancer. The result is a gripping and emotional spectacle that plumbs the depths of the human spirit, and unfortunately leaves most Americans bored stiff. The Gipsy Kings have abstracted some of the best elements from that tradition and added some others, turning the dancing over to the audience, and making it into a party, and that can’t be a bad thing.

Unfortunately, the House of Blues as a venue is not quite ready for prime time. Run by one of the biggest promoters of concerts in the country and having a slew of other venues to draw management staff from, the newest venue in Boston still couldn’t get the doors open on time. When I arrived at the concert site half an hour after the doors were scheduled to open, I was horrified to find a line running the length of Lansdowne Street. Only ten minutes before showtime, the line started to move in fits and starts, and eventually everyone was able to get through the doors. If chain venues are supposed to bring a higher standard of efficiency and expertise to the business of rock and roll, something went horribly wrong here. Between this and the $4 coat check (and with no seats, it’s hold your coat or check it) you might want to wait until the weather warms up to check this place out. While the space is nice, they’ll probably need until May or June to get their act together, and by that time you won’t need to bring a coat.

Kris Delmhorst at Passim

Posted in Music on February 27, 2009 by jkiparsky

Another concert review. I heard of Kris Delmhorst years ago from friends on the east coast, but wasn’t really knocked out by her until I heard Songs for a Hurricane – a really stellar album. Since then, I’ve tried to keep up with what she’s doing, and she keeps doing good stuff.
I got to hear her play for the first time in a number of years recently at Club Passim. Here’s what I wrote for BMS:

Long-time local favorite Kris Delmhorst played a relaxed set at Club Passim on Thursday night, opening with a quick tour through her recent album Shotgun Singer and then moving through a selection of material mostly from her more recent albums.

She started out by noting that the venue is one she’s very familiar with. “I feel very much at home here – sometimes dangerously so” is what she said, and while I think we were in no danger, she did seem quite at ease with a crowd that has been with her, in some cases, for her whole career.

It wasn’t just because of the crowd that she felt comfortable, though. In the years since she began touring seriously as a national act, Delmhorst has learned some things about performance, and has learned how to inhabit her songs, partly because she has learned to write songs that she can comfortably inhabit. She has discovered her way of doing things, and she has discovered that doing things her way gets a better response than trying to give the audience what she thinks it wants. Now, she approaches the performance from an emotional center that is entirely hers, and she brings the audience to her. This is a lesson that many songwriters could benefit greatly from.

After beginning with a song so new that she called it unfinished (it was a little reminiscent of “One Monkey” from Gillian Welch’s Soul Journey), Delmhorst devoted the first portion of her set to songs from Shotgun Singer, playing about half of the songs from that record before moving on to older material. The contrast between the new and older material is striking. Since she hit her stride on 2003′ Songs for a Hurricane, Delmhorst has shown herself an excellent singer and lyricist, but on the songs from her new album she shows a marked evolution in her melodic writing. The melodies on the album have begun to reach into new territory, one closer to Richard Rogers (although without Larry Hart’s urbane cynicism). While not complicated or especially daring, they are haunting and Delmhorst knows how to give them a twist here and there to keep your attention. This, combined with a slinky phrasing and a well-developed sense of dynamics give the impression of the old standards, and one can easily imagine Chet Baker or Stan Getz wanting to take a crack at a song like “Blue Adeline” or “1,000 Reasons”.

Lyrically, she’s hitting some good notes as well, although there were a few clinkers here and there. “To the Wire” felt like a return to a less practiced period in her writing, with unfortunately shoehorned rhymes (“Don’t know why this doesn’t fit/I try and try still I can’t make it”) and cliches (“Are you the dance or the dancer”), but this stood out as a marked contrast to the overall high standard she’s set for herself. She hits high marks on all levels: her individual lines are well-made for singing (notice the assonance running through this verse of “Birds of Belfast”: “The field grew wild all that buzzing summer/We dozed a while, woke a little younger/Hung your clothes, waited on the weather/Thorn and rose twine and grow together”) and the images hang together in generally consistent and coherent metaphors (as in “Hurricane” or “Firefly”).

But more than this, the emotional resonance of the whole rings true. The technical skills of constructing a verse that is phonologically and semantically cohesive are necessary, but not sufficient to writing a great song. They are the tools that a writer uses to produce the moments when a well chosen word completes a well crafted image on a perfect note, and the listener’s pysche rings like a bell. But in order for that moment to happen, a writer needs to have something to communicate with that word, that image, and that note, and it needs to be something that is real to her and just as real to the listener. This requires an honesty and a willingness to plumb depths that the rest of us are unwilling to look into; this is why we pay songwriters to do it for us.

On the recent as well as the older material, the simpler setting of a solo performance allowed the songs’ strengths to come through more directly than the more elaborately constructed renditions of the albums. Where the album version of “Blue Adeline” is awash in harmony vocals, piano, and violin, the unadorned electric guitar accompaniment Delmhorst played at Passim allowed the melody to be heard unencumbered, and the slower tempo of songs like “Hurricane” and “Bobby Lee” (both from Songs for a Hurricane) suited them nicely. “Hurricane” is played at a moderate rock pace on the record, and its chorus bursts the song open. As played in performance, the song is a slow burn and the chorus brings the storm clouds in, but the rain remains a threat. Stripped to a simple guitar accompaniment, “Bobby Lee” rests more than ever on the directness of the lyric, and that directness bore the weight admirably. Rather than trying to come to where the audience is, Delmhorst sings quietly to draw them in to her.

The show was not entirely given over to moody introspection, as you might imagine from reading this far. There was a lot of laughter as well, and lighter material, but most of it was the sort of thing you had to be there for. A tongue in cheek cover of an Air Supply song dedicated to the soundman on his birthday (“Matt, you’re every woman in the world to me”) was an occasion of much merriment, and there was plenty of good-natured back-and-forth between the stage and the crowd. But what stays with you at the end of the night – the thing you go looking for – is the stuff that gets under your skin. And that’s something that Kris Delmhorst is very good at.

Review: Andrew Bird, Orpheum Theater, Boston, MA

Posted in Music on February 6, 2009 by jkiparsky

This was an interesting show. I don’t usually find myself in massive adore-a-thons, but there were a lot of young things getting their adore on for the ever-so-skinny Andrew Bird at the Orpheum. I’m still not sure what to make of what he’s doing, but here’s what I made of it for the Spotlight:

Andrew Bird, Orpheum Theater, Boston, MA 30 January 2009
For an encore on Friday night, Andrew Bird used his looping pedals to whip up a few catchy bars of plucked violin (with a little whistling for good measure) to serve as a bed for his song “Why?”. Just the man and his violin, and his virtual violin, and his virtual violin, singing a happy little song about an infuriating lover – this was a blues, although not one that you’d hear in the clubs in Chicago. The lyrics were more Stephin Merritt than Willie Dixon, and the solos were more akin to Pagnini than to Buddy Guy, but it was a blues all the same. The lyrics, on the theme of “god damn you for being so easy-going”, were great, and delivered with a theatrical flair, and the violin breaks used the inherent tension he’d built into his backing loops to great effect. Having blown us all away with this feat of solo showmanship, he whistled his band back to the stage and delivered a crashing rock and roll number, full of raw-energy violin playing, and then bid us all good night. As an encore should be, it was a summary of the night, giving us one more trip through the highlights of the show. In the movies, it would have been run as the preview, but rock and roll is smarter than that, and saves the recap for the end.

Bird played the Orpheum with a small band – guitar, bass, and drummer/loop sculptor Martin Dosh – in support of his new album, Noble Beast. To judge by the turnout and the response, this could be his breakout album, which tells you a thing or two about what it takes to make a hit these days.

Bird seems to have two rules guiding his performance: If it’s hard, make it look easy; if it’s easy, make it look hard. When he sauntered out on stage in a hoodie and commenced to pluck on his violin, it was with a nonchalant air, as though this were the simplest sort of warmup exercise imaginable. This air of ease and simplicity was maintained as he built up layers of sound, and then began to play bowed lines over the loops. The result sounded a little like a lost Schubert quartet, although played with more hip detachment than Romantic passion.

This solo section was sort of an amuse bouche; the main course arrived without delay. Stripping off his hoodie to reveal a stylish dark suit, Bird was joined by the band. The sartorial transition was matched by a sonic one, from hip classicism to hip electronic-fueled rock and roll. Bird’s songs are mostly simple rock numbers with looped introductions and violin solos; setting up each of these relatively straightforward pieces with intricate violin and whistling introductions gives them an air of complexity that is perhaps undeserved – but this might be what it takes to get hipsters to listen to simple rock and roll.

Simple rock and roll, though, was mostly what we heard – good stuff, too, at least in the music. It would have been interesting to hear the lyrics, but for most of the night, the words were completely buried in the mix. Not a problem, though, since for Bird the lyrics seem to be just another part of the performance, one more sound for him to bring to the mix. Certainly a show focussing on lines like “The young in the larva stage orchestrating plays/Investments of translucent alabaster” would be a different sort of show from the one we heard. Instead, the lyrics became more collections of consonants and vowels than assemblages of meanings or images, without much more semantic content than the violin solos.

Stripping out the lyrical element of the concert leaves a big hole to fill, and Bird stepped into that space with his performance as “Andrew Bird”, turning his role as violinist and bandleader into a sort of theatrical performance. The stage on which this performance is set is simple and distinctive, with huge organic-looking speaker cones at center stage and to either side. These look something like immense orchids, and something like props from a David Cronenberg film. These are basically the start and finish of the set decoration, if one discounts Bird himself, who seems to have found his share of admirers in the audience.

With his guitarist and bassist hardly moving from their assigned places through the night, he was the center of attention. Constantly in motion, he went from violin to guitar to glockenspiel and back, at some points holding his violin in one hand and tapping one the glockenspiel with the other while singing, his guitar slung over his back. From the point of view of efficiency, it was a little dubious – he had a perfectly good guitarist behind him who could have relieved him of most of the guitar duties, and a drummer to his right armed with banks of sampling equipment and keyboards, who could presumably have come up with a bit of glockenspiel now and again – but from the point of view of stagecraft, it was ideal. A whirl of energy, Bird was acting something betwen the mad scientist in his lab and the stage magician, pulling a series of progressively odder rabbits from his hat. And he made it look easy.

Review: Brian Webb at Club Passim

Posted in Music on February 6, 2009 by jkiparsky

They keep sending me to concerts, I keep writing about them. Go figure.

This one gets a bit of setup. One of my favorite singers in the world is also one of my favorite people in the world, Claire Bard. Some years ago, she was contacted by channels which are obscure to me even now, and asked to come out to play an opening set for a fellow that she’d never heard of. Well, a gig’s a gig, and off she goes, and I come along for moral support. She plays her set, it’s a good set, and then we’re pleasantly surprised to find that the mystery songwriter is quite good. Guy called Brian Webb, from Boston. I got his record, it was good, too. So fast forward a few years, and I start doing this reviewing business, and looking at the upcoming shows I see: Brian Webb. Okay, let’s go and have a look and see how this guy’s doing. And here’s what I wrote about it. Originally appeared on Boston Music Spotlight, your site for all things Boston, music-related, and spotlightish.

Brian Webb – Club Passim, 31 January 2009

Songwriter and singer Brian Webb came to Boston a number of years ago and, like many songwriters, spent years in the subways and then in the coffee shops and bars honing his songs and his performance skills. In that time he developed an eager audience for his songs, a mix of amiable confessions of fallibility and paeans to the higher nature of humanity. This audience came out to fill Club Passim, the legendary Cambridge folk music room, on Saturday night for a loose and genial set of songs.

Webb is comfortable with his audience, and he should be. For someone who plays twice a year in Boston, he has an amazingly tight crowd. Someone asked him for a song he’d played before about his grandmother. It was still unfinished, but he sang it, filling in the gaps with stories that set up the parts he’d written, making an amazingly intimate reading of a song in progress. The chorus, as I took it down, went like this:

“It was all so good /Papa played the fiddle / So good / Oh, remind me, at the top of your lungs, / from the bottom of your heart, the sungs that you sung, /when you were a child / and arms opened wide / between shadows and doubts /Love carried you in, love carried you out.”

The lyrics are intricate, and the melody that goes with them is not at all simple or obvious, and the song had been played in public once before, six months ago. Pretty much everyone in the room had been there, and remembered it, and sang it – a tight crowd, indeed. So it’s no wonder that Webb felt comfortable letting it be a loose night. Accompanied by the multi-talented fiddler Dylan Dean, he played a satisfying set of mostly new material, insterspersed with digressions about Ultimate Fighting (he’s a fan), his forthcoming new release (a child due in March) and anything else that came to mind. When it came to playing what might be called his “hit”, “Tobias”, the intro to the song was longer than the song itself, and never felt too long.

Webb’s songwriting is solid, in an Indigo Girls mode: straightforward metaphors and true stories set to good tunes, confessional without the air of pretension that taints the similarly confessional mode of most of his songwriting generation. Years ago, the great songwriter Dave Carter observed that a great song must be at once personal and universal, that it must come from within the writer and resonate within the listener. Webb sems to have the knack of this sort of writing. His songs come out of his own arguments, his own relationships, and they echo our own. This can lead at times to a platitudinous touch in his lyrics, which can sound like a transcription from a therapy session, but his observations are original and good, so he can be forgiven for writing them in a quotable style. A line like “patience comes slow, but change comes slower” would go nicely on an inspirational poster in a third grade classroom, but what matters is that it fits the moment in the song he’s put it in, so it’s hard to fault his writing on that score.

Those looking to hear Brian Webb will have to keep their eyes open. His web site has not been updated in two years, so it’s not a great source of concert information, but if you keep your eyes on Passim’s schedule (a good idea for anyone interested in hearing good songwriters) you’ll probably see his name in about six months. And perhaps you’ll hear an update on Ultimate Fighting, or on his kid. And you’ll probably hear the latest version of the song about his grandmother. I bet you’ll pick up the chorus, too – it’s not hard.