Archive for March, 2009

Cracking the Times

Posted in General on March 22, 2009 by jkiparsky

I suppose I would be more convincing in saying how excited I am to have finally cracked the New York Times’ Letters page, if it hadn’t happened two weeks ago. But yes, it’s true: On March 4, 2009, I had a letter published in the New York Times. I’m afraid it’s a bit anti-climactic, though. After all of my carefully-written ripostes to the Bush clique, my skewerings of John Yoo, my explorations of deeper implications in various book reviews, what is it that makes the grade? Sixty words on soup stock. Well, I guess it’s not what you write, it’s what you write that nobody else cared enough to write.

The Chieftains, Boston, March 13 2009

Posted in Music on March 22, 2009 by jkiparsky

Below is the review I wrote of the Chieftains at Symphony Hall last week.Once again, it was written for Boston Music Spotlight, another of the great shows I’ve been to writing for them.

I was concerned here (as usual) with discussing not just the concert – concerts at this level are generally a stellar entertainment – but the cultural context of the band’s performance. What is it that they’re doing, and what is it that the audience is turning out for? If I seem to be dissing the band, I hope that you’ll believe that isn’t the case. I mean more to understand how it is that what they do works in the culture as a whole. That, as well as a certain honesty, requires that I address certain aspects of the performance that seem to me more present for entertainment than for any respect of the tradition that they come out of. Of course, that’s an odd notion, since their tradition is one they invented. An odd conundrum, really.

The Chieftains

Symphony Hall, Boston, March 13, 2009

Paddy Moloney and the Chieftains could be said to have had a major part in inventing what we now call “Celtic music.” Almost fifty years ago, the group was formed to perform the music of Ireland and they have done so without a break ever since, bringing traditional Irish music to audiences around the world. Along the way, they have recorded soundtracks, tribute albums, albums of weddings and Christmas music, and the cross-genre blockbusters with a tremendous array of guests. In the process, they have worked in the strands of other genres, Western Classical harmony, synthesizers, and other elements that turn a traditional music into “Celtic music.” They have thus managed to straddle a fuzzy line, acting both as practitioners of traditional music and as canny, crowd-pleasing entertainers dispensing a marketing gimmick.

That the members of the band are all excellent musicians in the Irish tradition is undeniable. The group’s youngest and most recent member, Matt Molloy – not quite 65, he joined the band in 1979, before many of their more recent fans were born – is both one of the best flute players and one of the best musicians in Irish music, and has played in some of the key Irish groups of the last half-century and recorded some fine albums on his own as well. Sean Keane (who is sitting out this tour, unfortunately) is an excellent fiddler, whose solo playing is sadly under-represented on recordings. Kevin Conneff, the group’s bodhan player, is also a fine singer. And of course, Paddy Moloney is one of the best-known living exponents of the uillean pipes.

It is also hard to deny that the group knows how to entertain, and that they take that role seriously as well. Since their 1995 smash album Long Black Veil – with performances by, among others, Sting, Sinead O’Connor, and the Rolling Stones – they have been recording albums featuring rock, pop, and country acts as well as more traditional Irish albums and collaborations with musicians from Canada and Galicia. These collaborations have revealed Moloney’s knack for pop music, which, oddly enough, was evident at Symphony Hall on Friday night when Moloney, Molloy, and Coneff were joined by a few dozen of their closest friends for an intriguing mix of traditional music and variety-show extravaganza.

Moloney is clearly aware that there are two competing impulses which he must contend with in a performance. His audience includes both the “pure-drop traditional” crowd, who would prefer to hear the four full members of the band playing traditional tunes, with an occasional song, and the larger and more lucrative “rest of the world” who prefer Celtic music to the Irish stuff. In addition, there is his very real interest in musical traditions beyond the Free State and the Wee North, traditions which do not have a natural constituency in either audience. He deals with all of this in perhaps the only way possible: leaping from branch to branch, giving each group what it wants just long enough to keep them happy, bridging the gap as best he can between the groups. And, well aware that audiences today require over-stimulation, he adds in some dancers every so often and marches guests on and off the stage to keep things moving. Above all, he keeps the pace up, so nobody ever has a chance to get bored.

The band, of course, played excellently. On tour, the full members of the band are joined by Canadian fiddler and dancer Jon Pilatzke, harpist and keyboardist Triona Marshall, and Jeff White and Deanie Richardson of Nashville. White and Richardson (guitar and fiddle) seemed to be mostly there for the American numbers, and while they held their own in the Irish tunes, their playing seemed rather stiff and forced all night. Pilatzke, however, played quite well considering he’s a Canadian, and Marshall’s solo turn on two harp pieces by O’Carolan showed that she’s listened to the late Derek Bell, the former harpist for the band. And there were moments of brilliance: Molloy’s playing of the great air “Easter Snowe” was stunning, and Conneff’s singing of “The Flower of Magherally” was in the finest tradition of singing, clean and simple, “telling the song” in the old style. Unfortunately, the distractions of the production tended to overwhelm the brilliance. Marching a pipe band on the stage is a great piece of showmanship, as is good dancing or a guest singer, but when these things are coming and going on every number, it becomes difficult to focus on the music.

I suppose, though, that Moloney is very with-it for a seventy year old bagpipe player. ADHD is the disorder of the day, and it seems that audiences today want the over-stimulation and the channel-surfer’s pacing that he gives to a concert. If he were to play to the traditionalists, I imagine he’d never have left Dublin. And if he’d never left Dublin, the tradition probably wouldn’t look anything like it does today.

Vance Gilbert @ Passim

Posted in Music on March 12, 2009 by jkiparsky

Vance Gilbert, Passim, March 6 2009

Some singer-songwriters seem ashamed of the idea of ‘entertaining’ a crowd. They want to move you, perhaps inform you or stir you to action, or impress you, but entertaining you is not on their agenda. They even seem to consciously avoid entertaining, hiding behind a mumble or a downcast gaze. They best they can do to engage the audience is to do “one with a chorus that you all can sing.”

Vance Gilbert is a singer-songwriter who brings the entertainment. He has an impressive number of songs in his book (and a number of impressive songs, which is even more important), a great skill with the guitar, which is deployed to support and not to distract from the songs, and a remarkable singing voice. More than this, he has a stage presence that won’t quit, a knack for impressions, and a comedian’s sense of timing that turns the typical songwriter’s introduction – “Um, I wrote this song about, um, a girl I like, and, um, yeah, here it is” – into a full-blown standup routine. While some songwriters tell you about their day, Gilbert tells you about his colonoscopy. Some songwriters might mention that they wrote this next song about their dog – Gilbert has three minutes on the dog, and they’re three funny minutes. Some songwriters ask the crowd how it, as a whole, is doing. Gilbert asks the guy mid-way back how he’s doing, and turns the interaction into another bit. Vance Gilbert is two shows in one – as he says, this is the best value for your entertainment dollar.

While his stage presence is very much centered on his humor, Gilbert the songwriter isn’t a comedian. He’s a serious wordsmith who obviously considers writing to be his craft, and works at it as an artisan. His most recent record, Up On Rockfield is built on an intriguing conceit: he has assembled a set of songs written in the voices of a number of other writers. This makes a fascinating followup to his previous record, which was a collection of songs actually written by other writers. Between the two, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Vance Gilbert’s life is more or less centered on great songwriting, on enjoying it, understanding it, and trying to do it. And on the last count, he succeeds with an admirable frequency.

As a writer, Gilbert hits the mark most squarely when he simply tells a story. A song called “Leaving Avon” came out of nowhere towards the end of his set and boxed my ears with a simple melody and a gripping lyric. Gilbert drops you into the story with a great line : “I’m leaving Avon forever/And it’s through no choice of mine”. Obviously part of that is not quite true, obviously there’s a story behind it, but the song tells you more about the town than about the woman in that town who jumps at the phone when it rings, or about the child, mentioned in passing, with a twinkle in her eye. “I swear she might be mine” was never so ambiguous a line. But when the song is done, you know as much of the story as you could possibly know, and it’s all done by the sidelong mention, not by brute force. There aren’t a lot of songwriters who make such an effective use of the unreliable narrator, a technique more commonly exercised in the better grades of literary fiction. “Up On Rockville” plays the same game of indirect telling, engaging the listener – I almost said the reader – in a process of deriving understanding by inference. By bringing the listener into the contruction of the meaning of the song, Gilbert sharpens his emotional impacts and gives some of his songs an added punch. A line like

You knew it was no overdose
You took just what you needed
‘A job well done just once’ you said
‘Should never be repeated’

is pretty direct, and hits hard. Another line from the same song,

“I don’t think of you at all
This ain’t about your laugh
Or how you’d throw your head back freely
When you gave most of you to me”

is sharp, and cuts deep. It’s nice to hear someone who knows the difference and can use both.

But as an entertainer, Gilbert is not about cutting his audience into emotional ribbons; he holds back the heavy stuff and sets it up with lighter fare, his own and others’. “Goodbye Pluto” is a tenderly written melody addressing, yes, the ball of ice formerly known as a planet. It’s not a wrenching number, and it’s not meant to be – it’s a slightly silly number that might get stuck in your head but won’t change your life. He has radio-ready pop songs and soul and gospel numbers, and plenty of covers, because he knows that you’re here to be entertained, and it’s not about what Vance wrote, it’s about what Vance can sing to make you have fun.

An inspired rendition of “God Bless the Child” was sung as if it were a duet between Billie Holliday and Louis Armstrong, with Armstrong singing and blowing both straight- and plunger-muted solos. Incidentally, it also revealed the depth of Gilbert’s understanding of the jazz idiom, but that wasn’t the point – the point was that it was great fun to hear, and when it got the biggest applause of the night, Gilbert didn’t seem to mind at all. It’s not about Vance. Other covers also went over well: a version of “Castles Made of Sand” that allowed Gilbert to show off his throat-singing chops, and a take on Dave Carter’s inexplicably popular “Gentle Arms of Eden”. As much as I loved the man and still love his songs, this one is his most literal and message-oriented, which is to say his most pedestrian and least interesting. Also, I never could get behind the chorus. Something about the words “Rock me, Goddess…” makes me think of pagan folkies throwing up devil horns, and that image pretty much wrecks the song for me. I must say, in fairness, that I seem to be the only person who feels this way, and the crowd appreciated both the evocation of a great and departed writer and the song itself. And more important, that Gilbert sang the song as well as I’ve heard it done, slowing it down and giving it a little swing, which tamed the sing-song quality of the melody.

This ability to find the best in a song, whether his own or someone else’s, and to make a convincing delivery of anything he sings, is Gilbert’s secret weapon, and it gets him through some of the unfortunate weaknesses in some of his writing. Gilbert’s own writing occasionally falls flat, and when it does it’s most often from a retreat to vagueness. This is most common on songs that he identifies as would-be hits: a Unitarian gospel number that evokes “some great thing”, but not any thing in particular, or a song that declares that “It’ll never be enough” but never quite gets around to what it might be, or what it might not be sufficient to achieve. This is the flip side of allowing the listener to construe the songs: you still have to give them the material with which to construe. If you leave the song too open, you end up with a simple declaration that a feeling exists, without actually conveying that feeling to the audience. Which, as it happens, is a pretty good recipe for a radio hit, proving that Gilbert’s instincts as an entertainer are pretty sound.