Archive for the Music Category

Leonard Cohen, Boston, 30 May 2009

Posted in Music on June 5, 2009 by jkiparsky

Another review, this one of a show that is probably the best concert I’ve ever seen and is possibly the best concert that I ever will see. Yes, I’ve jumped on the bandwagon – but it’s true, baby.
Unfortunately, this is not the best writing I’ve ever done. My apologies, I blame it on the deadline.

The piece was written for Boston Music Spotlight, original article is located behind this link

Leonard Cohen, the Bard of the Beaten, appeared in Boston on Saturday night in a new guise: the Zen Sinatra. With a nine-piece backing band, a sunny disposition, and a really sharp suit, Cohen took an extended tour through his catalog, revisiting hits and introducing lesser-known pieces, and demonstrating that the man known for his somber and cynical ballads of the seamy side of life and his subdued delivery has another side. The Cohen we saw on stage on Saturday was the consummate showman, and apparently delighted to be on the stage singing his songs of gloom and desperation.

He certainly had every cause to be happy on that stage. A man long felt to eptiomize the range of moods running south of dour, recently hit with very severe and very public financial setbacks, and until recently more known in the popular mind for the esteem in which his songs were held than the songs themselves or his performances of them, he is suddenly the single most stunning performer on concert hall stages, and he knows it. The critical reaction to his current tour has gone beyond overwhelming – it is, as near as I can tell, unanimous. This is, according to people who listen to music rock music professionally, just about the best thing that ever happened.

I can go along with that. This was not simply a great concert by a great performer, and it was certainly not a victory lap by the reknowned and fading hero. I’ve been to those concerts, and they have their place. This was not simply a great concert, because it was not simply a concert. It was a production which put poetry at its core, surrounded that poetry with music, and put the whole thing forth with a conscious and deliberate air of theater.

There was certainly a concert in all of this. Cohen is touring with an excellent band, under the direction of his bassist Roscoe Beck, and featuring Spanish guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Javier Mas and reedman Dino Soldo as well as keyboardist Neil Larsen. Dividing the most prominent parts among them, these three create the musical drapery that swirls around Cohen’s lyrics, always staying close around him but never obscuring him. While Cohen’s melodies have never been the foremost attraction of his music, Beck’s arrangements tended to shore up these melodies, with the help of the backing vocals of Sharon Robinson and Charley and Hattie Webb, who were by turns Cohen’s Greek chorus and his Raylettes, providing both harmonic and dramatic support to the songs. Always alive to implications, Cohen seemed to enjoy shifting the roles of the singers throughout the concert, sometimes turning to them as if addressing a muse, sometimes ceding the spotlight to them – so they could sing his lyrics, to him. He played with them, teased them, and made them do tricks. This, of course, was all part of the theater of the thing.

And theater it was. As a dramatic presentation, it was little different from the more ordinary kind. A cast of characters occupied a stage and acted their parts to realize the auteur’s vision, that being (one hopes) to direct the audience’s attention to some commonly noted areas of the human experience and reveal them in new forms. The band, as supporting cast, knew their marks, and hit them, not as a sort of rote exercise, but as precisely as characters in a play, and the drama they created, in music and in their physical presence, focused the audience’s attention on the soliloquy at center stage. The leading man displayed a marvelous physicality as he delivered his lines – even standing stock still, he was a distinct presence, until he chose to disappear into the shadows and allow another player to step into the light. And when he sank to his knees to deliver a lyric, or augmented a verse with an outstretched hand, there was a majesty in the economy of his movement that outstripped the frantic jogging of a Mick Jagger or a Bruce Springsteen. As good as they are, they can’t play in this league. Other performers demonstrate energy. Leonard Cohen, tonight, was a paragon of grace. Not only the grace of a Sinatra, with the perfectly timed delivery that gets the songs across exactly as they should be, but also the grace of a monk, of someone who can speak simply and directly of love or of anything else in a manner that seems, if not perfectly accurate or perfectly complete, perfectly true. In the end, I was left with a sense that I understood the songs and the singer in a way that I hadn’t managed to before, and possibly that I understood the people around me a little more as well.

And this is the sensation, I think, that so many people have responded to after attending one of Cohen’s performances in the last year: the sense of a deeper connection, a spiritual one if you like, to the songs and to the world. It’s common enough to be blown away by a concert; Cohen’s aim seems to be more one of bringing together than of scattering.

But I suppose I should mention, since I know some will want to know: yes, he played “Suzanne” and “Who By Fire” and “Hallelujah” and “Chelsea Hotel” and “Bird on a Wire” and probably every other song you were wanting to hear, and you can hear them on YouTube.

Steve Earle, Boston, May 29 2009

Posted in Music on June 5, 2009 by jkiparsky

One of the things I haven’t had much opportunity in writing reviews was to write a bad review. There’s a reason for this: I choose the concerts I go to, and I don’t generally choose to go to a concert I’m not going to like. Unfortunately, sometimes musicians can let you down. I’ve liked Steve Earle for a long time, and I like his writing. Hearing him talk from the stage reminded me of talking to my friend Steve Stafford back home – they have some similar views and some similar ways of expressing them, and you’ve got about as much chance of getting a word in with Steve Stafford in his kitchen as you do with Steve Earle on stage. Unfortunately, his concert was a fairly amateurish affair, and while that might be good enough for some people, I think the listener has a right to ask for a little more from a musician. In any case, here’s what I wrote about the concert -you can see it in itsnative habitat or just read it below.

Steve Earle, Berklee Performance Center, 29 May 2009
One of the first things I knew about Townes Van Zandt was what Steve Earle said about him. The quote has probably become a paraphrase in my mind, but as I recall, he called Townes Van Zandt “the best damn songwriter there is, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Over time, I learned more about Van Zandt’s songs, and Earle’s got a point. But the thing that strikes me about it only now is that, years later, the image of Steve Earle standing on Bob Dylan’s coffee table (and, of course, Dylan falling back before this righteous angel come to correct his arrogant self-regard) still comes to mind when I think of Van Zandt, as much as the image of rain falling on a conga drum or a lonely cowboy dying slowly in a hotel in Cleveland. This tells you something about Steve Earle: the man knows how to make an image that sticks.

For many listeners, Earle is still tied to his 1988 hit, “Copperhead Road”, which certainly has its share of persistent images. Surprisingly for a pop-country hit, the song holds up for much more than its catchy melody and hard-rock hooks. Covering the lives and untimely deaths of three generations of an Appalachian family in about four minutes, with guitar breaks, the song could be a capsule summary of a Faulkner novel, had that worthy writer been around for the return of the Vietnam veterans to an America unready to receive them. Certainly the song calls to mind Faulkner’s dictum: the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.

Fast forward a few years, and Earle’s career has come to a screeching halt largely due to his practice of a peculiarly Western form of acupuncture. Fortunately, Earle ultimately returned to music and has enjoyed a rather successful career since, developing a reputation as a strong songwriter and an outspoken political activist. For his most recent album, Earle turned to the music of his friend and mentor, Townes Van Zandt, recording a selection of fifteen of that writer’s songs, and so when he took the stage at the Berklee Performance Center on Friday night, it was with a mix of his own and Van Zandt’s material. From the start, it was clear that this mix was working nicely. While Earle and Van Zandt have little in common as songwriters, their songs play well together. The format of the concert was fairly loose – one or two of Steve’s songs, one or two from Townes, and so on, with stories about the songs and about Van Zandt and about anything else that came to mind in between.

As the night went along, Earle occasionally ventured into politics, speaking concisely and sensibly on his concerns. While I expect I’d have some points of argument with him, I think we’d agree on the broadest points, and I certainly appreciated the clarity with which he expressed a well-considered view. Those views were not stridently represented in his songs, thankfully. Some songs, like “City Of Immigrants” come close to strident, but (as in the case of “Copperhead Road”) they are redeemed by a telling image that returns the song to the land of the human from the allegorical Empyrean. For the most part, though, Earle is a very human writer, and his songs tend to tell human stories, as do those of Van Zandt.

So we had a fine songwriter with an ability to connect with his audience, singing his own songs and those of one of the best writers ever, in a nice room with a friendly crowd. So much to like, and I tried to enjoy it. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I did, entirely. While there were moments where the songs came through nicely, Earle’s delivery was very uneven. His enunciation ranged from sloppy to atrocious, with whole lines disappearing into a sort of consonant-free mush, and his dynamic range came mostly in shades of loud. For a song like “Valentine’s Day” or “Hometown Blues”, the lack of subtlety was deadly, and a night of music all at top volume is not easy to listen to.

The poor enunciation, it must be said, was not a concern for the die-hard fans who made up the bulk of the audience. They were far more taken by the sheer energy of his delivery and the political sentiments which, as it happened, aligned nicely with their own. For the fan, this lack of subtlety was a sign of commitment, to the song and to the cause, and was a thing to be celebrated. Unfortunately, for those who are not yet fans, it was a barrier between them and the songs. This is especially unfortunate, because Earle was up on that stage with material from two very fine songwriters, and by taking his die-hard fan base for granted, he didn’t serve himself or his mentor well.

Pogues – House Of Blues – Boston

Posted in Music on April 5, 2009 by jkiparsky

The Pogues
House Of Blues
Boston, MA 3/20/09

(originally appeared on Boston Music Spotlight)

When a punk band performs its old material to an audience consisting largely of people who were still in diapers or not yet born when that material was recorded, one must immediately suspect that nostalgia is at play. In the case of the Pogues, however, I suspect something else might be going on.

The Pogues’ period as a really vital punk-folk band is a very small part of their overall history as a band. The band formed in 1982, and by 1989 they’d recorded their seminal albums and kicked out a place for themselves in musical history. A few years later, they’d recorded one final album with founding singer Shane McGowan and kicked him out as well. Had they stopped playing after the release of Peace and Love in 1989, they would still be the founders and source for the trad/punk blend now carried on by bands like the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. The last twenty years of the Pogues have consisted more or less of breakups, re-formations, and touring on the strength of those first albums, with very little of note added to the band’s repertoire or sound. Since 2001, the band has been touring with the lineup that became definitive after the departure of Cait O’Riordan following the recording of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, and this is the band that came to the House of Blues on Friday night.

The setlist was no surprise: starting with “Streams of Whiskey” and “If I Should Fall From Grace With God”, the band uncorked a nice long set of material drawn almost entirely from their first four albums, all of which was played quite well, sticking close to the original recordings for the arrangements. McGowan’s voice has not improved over the years – he still does more to suggest the melody than to actually produce it, and his enunciation is dodgy at best – but he delivered the songs with the air of a half-mad poet, sometimes slightly surprised at what he’d come up with and pleased by his own work, sometimes in full possession of – or fully possessed by – the song, as on a fierce reading of “Turkish Song of the Damned”. Between verses, he stood quite still, listening, and it seemed that mostly it was the music he was hearing. His between-song banter was, as ever, an incomprehensible garble out of which one could extract a speck of sense, but the half-smile on his face made me wonder if he wasn’t having us on a bit. Hard to say, really, as with the best poets and drunkards and madmen. When he tottered off the stage to let the band play an instrumental, he was clutching a bottle of white wine, but it never looked like it had been hard-used when he returned. It was unfortunate, however, that he got some of his biggest cheers of the night when he took a slug from the bottle. It’s one thing to celebrate an alcoholic for his poetry, it’s exceedingly poor taste to cheer a poet for his alcoholism.

And his poetry is really the reason this band is still playing in 2009. Hearing him, and watching him, it was easy to remember that this is one of the finest poets of the punk era, and there is something in him which is worth hearing, apart from and despite his commitment to a life of alcoholism. This is a man who can put his own poems against those of Ewan MacColl, one of the finest lyricists of the working class, and come out standing, a test that not many would want to face, and few would survive. Hearing MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town” and MacGowan’s “Sally MacLennane” played almost back to back made this comparison explicit: after this concert, one could believe (and many do!) that both songs were written by the same man. On later albums, MacGowan’s slurred delivery fails to conceal a broad and literate mind, able to get the kids to pogo while he name-checks Coleridge and Jean Genet, and to get them to stop pogoing for a song that does in two minutes something that takes a French director an hour and a half, and that most short story writers today can’t manage at all.

It’s a pity that this literary brilliance was largely lost on an audience which seemed more interested in having been there than in being there, but the band didn’t seem to mind too much. The cool professionalism that they brought to the songs – all of which must be thoroughly burned into their synapses by now – did not mean boredom on their part, it meant they had attention to spare for having fun, each in their own way. Spider Stacy, the band’s tin whistle player, was old-school about it, stepping up to play his parts with a fierce determination and stepping back to wait the next blast, beating time with his whistle, the very picture of a punk rock tin whistle player. James Fearnley, on the other hand, never stood still for a moment. Unfettered by microphones and wires, he was all over the stage with his accordion, running back and forth in front of the monitor lines and leaping off the drum risers with an impressive disregard for the condition of his fifty-five year old knees. Fearnley and guitarist Phil Chevron came out vying for the title of “best-dressed Pogue”, but Fearnley ceded the competition early on, by ripping the knees out of his trousers on one of those flying leaps. Chevron showed more concern for his threads (a particularly natty grey suit, and a sharp pair of shoes in the bargain), and limited his physical exertions to stepping over the monitors periodically to stir up the crowd, and some occasional goofy dance steps.

So, was this a nostalgia show? Watching the audience, I think there are some who came for the good old days, either the ones they miss or the ones they missed out on. I hope that they got what they wanted, and a glimpse of something more, but I imagine they felt the thing to be a bit hollow – a bunch of old guys on stage, playing at being young. But there were others – including, I suspect, some members of the band – who came to pay respect to a great poet and a great band. What they got was more than they had the right to expect: they got a great show.

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.

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.