Cowboy Junkies Go Deep, Dark, Beautiful

They tugged us through a long, dark tunnel, but lit from time to time with love or hope, and showed us the way.

Cowboy Junkies Sunday At The Egg’s Swyer Theatre; from left, Michael Timmins, guitar; Jeff Bird, mandolin; Margo Timmins, vocals; Pete Timmins, drums; Alan Anton, bass. Michael Hochanadel cellphone photo

Cowboy Junkies singer Margo Timmins explained their roadmap Sunday at The Egg. She said she and her siblings (guitarist and main writer Michael and drummer Pete) would mourn their mother in songs from “Ghosts” (2020). “We’re a cover band,” she proclaimed, announcing they’d play selections from “Songs of the Recollection” – then would play “the songs you want to hear.”

So, somber stuff, surprises, then favorites – starting with the resurrection saga “Good Friday,” the BIG hope, right out of the box. Soft at the start, held in a somber groove with Jeff Bird’s harmonica in the creases, Margo’s voice lifted in power to belt in defiance. Next, she confessed confusion about life and death in the menacing drone of “I Don’t Get It,” again stretched by Bird’s harmonica.

Around him, and Margo, quietly rose the Canadian chamber-rock band’s understated strength: Alan Anton’s bass so sly and sparse and subtle he made Phil Lesh sound like Jaco, bridging Pete Timmins’s Ringo-simple beats with Michael Timmins’ wry rhythm guitar.

Margo then lightened the mood, sort of, noting, “Well, we’re back” but hedging her bet by noting nobody knows for how long – just as nobody knows the secrets of life and death framed in “I Don’t Get It.” 

“Sing Me a Song” acknowledged the possibility of joy, and summoned it, rocking under a wailing Bird electric mandolin solo.

Staking Margo’s cover-band claim, they slow-waltzed Waylon Jennings’s “Dreaming My Dreams With You,” proclaiming “I’d rather believe in love,” despite heartache.

Then things turned darker still; mourning their mother in the lament “Desire Lines” with an eloquent Bird lap slide solo, but then they underlined its stated intent to “celebrate life and the people we love” in a joined run through “Breathing” into “You Don’t Get to Do It Again” with its understated direction to do our best, all of it, now.

This suite surveyed loss as inevitable but somehow uplifting, in part through the sheer beauty of their sound. In “Desire Lines,” Anton’s bass probed through space like a lighthouse scanning a roiling sea, and it guided the upshift into “Breathing,” pushing the beat under Bird’s electric mandolin.

Bird’s lap slide linked beautifully with Michael’s guitar in the Rolling Stones’ slow “No Expectations,” Margo turning on her stool to watch Bird etch his solo.

Cover songs took over the second set, Neil Young’s consoling classic “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” launching a full-band run that closed with an easy shuffle through Lightning Hopkins’s blues “Shining Moon.” In between, Michael uncorked a wild wah-wah guitar solo in “My Little Basquiat,” then Bird matched his fire in “Nose Before Ear,” going far outside in an electric mandolin break that brought the first applause all night for a solo. In “Shining Moon,” Bird slipped hot harmonica runs around Margo’s skat singing.

Young’s violent “Powderfinger” opened a three-song acoustic set as Pete and Anton left the stage to Margo’s voice, Michael’s guitar and Bird’s acoustic mandolin. Margo said she’d been too young to feel fully the theme of Townes Van Zandt’s “Rake;” it’s about aging; but the now-silver-haired singer got all of this somber song on Sunday. Bird switched to harmonica in “S and their own “Something More Besides You,” another slow one – before Pete and Anton rejoined the trio for the set-closing sequence.

In “Bea’s Song,” they fatalistically warned “You can always see it coming but you can never stop it;” but then they served up their sweetest, most serene tune – a cover of Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.” It started in glorious guitar noise – and Michael later soloed here, big and beefy – that framed Margo’s echoey wordless vocal. Then the lyrics took shape and the thing rocked and soared as Bird’s electric mandolin chimes strong. 

Their own serene “Misguided Angel” closed the set, and they harvested the applause quickly, returning efficiently for Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” – written by Alan Block and Donn Hecht, but Patsy’s until Cowboy Junkies borrowed it for a slowed down, sparse rendition full of understated soul.

They rubbed the same minimalist mojo on David Bowie’s “Five Years” with a strong Margo vocal and the same strong blend of Michael’s electric guitar with Bird’s electric mandolin that carried most songs.

Despite its often-somber feel, the music seemed to lift Margo’s mood over the two set show that entranced the three-quarters-full Swyer Theatre with full-on Cowboy Junkies hypnosis. While her movements seemed contained and casual, they helped sell the songs. The compact band’s sound soothed or seethed and their lyrics faced down fickle fate and death itself. They communicated powerfully as their restraint urged a hard-earned kind of serenity. Their elegance reached out, and drew us in.

A few songs seemed to end before they finished, notably “My Little Basquiat,” leaving me wanting more. When the band stretched a song with instrumental breaks, bursting a tune’s customary tasteful containment felt exhilarating. When Margo pushed her voice from a confiding murmur to defiant yell, when the guitars burst from mellow strums to amped howls, and when the beat blasted into punk-rock romps, Cowboy Junkies brought a thrilling sort of liberation, of lift-off.

By the end, they expressed deep gratitude for the crowd’s respectful listening. In fact a Facebook post by the band said, after the show, “The best night of the tour, no doubt. Thank you Albany. You helped us remember what this is all about.”

Back atcha.

Cowboy Junkies sound engineer Dev showed off the set list (abbreviated) Michael Hochanadel cellphone photo


Good Friday 

I Don’t Get It

Sing Me a Song

Dreaming My Dreams with You (Waylon Jennings)

Desire Lines


(You Don’t Get to) Do It Again

No Expectations (Rolling Stones)

Don’t Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young)

My Little Basquiat

Nose Before Ear

Shining Moon (Lightning Hopkins)

Powderfinger (Neil Young)

Rake (Townes Van Zandt)

Something More Besides You

Bea’s Song

Sweet Jane (Velvet Underground)

Misguided Angel

Walking After Midnight (Patsy Cline)



Originally published as Jukebox for Friday, July 25, 2008 in the Daily Gazette¶

Space – the size and shape of space – has always shaped the Cowboy Junkies’ spectral sound, with space, for thought, between the notes.¶

Their cramped Toronto garage/rehearsal space encouraged them to play quietly, as did neighbors and police. Recording “The Trinity Session” in the acoustically warm space of Toronto’s Trinity Church expanded their sound to star-size in 1987, paradoxically allowing them to play in such grungy, loud spaces as Albany’s QE2. Returning to Trinity Church 20 years after their landmark album, they recently re-recorded its songs and filmed the performances for the DVD that accompanies the new “Trinity Revisited,” playing in a circular space that encloses the viewer. On Saturday, they will play in a very different space: Albany’s vast Empire State Plaza at the day-long, free-admission Plaza MusicFest.¶

“We’ll be playing some of the Trinity songs for sure,” predicted Cowboy Junkies’ guitarist and main songwriter Michael Timmins last week by phone from Toronto. The band has played those songs occasionally ever since, yet had forgotten how they sounded in the church until they returned. “Literally from the first couple of notes playing in there, it all came flooding back,” he said. “It’s an inspiring, inspiring sound,” he said, perfect to celebrate the original.¶

“We decided to invite some friends and guests (Ryan Adams, Natalie Merchant and Vic Chesnutt) and re-approach those songs 20 years later and see what energy the guests bring.” They invited artists they admired and who admired their original “Trinity Session” album. They had never met Adams, for example, but knew from interviews that he saw the album as crucial to his coming of age as a musician. Merchant was an old friend and inspiration. “When we were just starting out, (Merchant’s band) 10,000 Maniacs would come through Toronto quite a bit and we used to go see them all the time. (His singing sister) Margo would really study Natalie,” said Timmins. Touring at times with Chesnutt they found that “Vic has such a unique style and way of approaching music, so he was an obvious choice.”¶

But would it work, would the pieces fit? “We admired their work and we knew that they had respect for what we did,” Timmins said. “But we didn’t know how the three of them would fit in individually or as a group.” Trusting their mutual admiration and their experience, they barely rehearsed one night then recorded the next. “We had to push them a bit,” Timmins recalled: “We want you to step up and put a bit more of your personality in there.” He said, “They were almost too deferential at times but once we got them singing and performing, then it flowed really, really naturally and easily.”¶

Some of that natural ease stems from the expertise of film-producers Francois and Pierre Lamoureux.  “They’re musicians, too; so they understood the music,” Timmins said. “They were very aware of making sure the cameras were not part of the music. They formed us in a circle and they kept all the cameras on the outside.” This draws the viewer inside that circle, surrounded by the band. You can see how the songs formed from shared intuitive knowledge and how the players listen to, enjoy, acknowledge and play off each other. “It all comes down to listening to the other musicians and how they’re expressing themselves and trying to complement that or feel your way into it,” said Timmins; neatly describing how the band formed and found its sound.¶

Inspired by Neil Young’s proto-punk noise, then by the sparseness of bluesmen Lightin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, guitarist Timmins and bassist Alan Anton, with a similarly skeletal approach, had played together in bands since 1979, learning together. “For (drummer and brother) Peter (Timmins) and (singer and sister) Margo (Timmins), this is their first band,” said Michael Timmins. “So they developed their style around us, and the four of us in many ways really developed as a unit; that’s really and truly how we learned our instruments.” Apart from police interruptions in their rehearsal space, their quietness came from Margo. “She felt more comfortable with a quieter approach to her voice and in order for us to hear her and go with her voice, that influenced us,” said Timmins. Their sparseness came from bluesmen such as Hopkins and Hooker “who use very few notes,” as he said. “Every note they choose has personality to it.”¶

The musical personality that the original “Trinity Session” introduced to the world in 1988 is often quiet, slow and sparse, but it allowed them to give up their dayjobs (Timmins used the band’s van for courier runs) to tour rock clubs, including QE2. “That was a jam, jam-packed show,” said Timmins. “After ‘Trinity’ exploded, that was one of our first major club dates in the states where it was absolutely insanely packed.”¶

Empire State Plaza should be packed on Saturday, too, for the five-act free Plaza Music Fest, near the cozy Egg where Cowboy Junkies played their most recent local show several years ago. Some outdoor shows can feel like a Toronto church, but Timmins knows that most don’t. “Sometimes those shows are very beautiful,” he mused. “If it’s a nice night and people are sitting there quietly and they’re there to listen to music, then you can cast a certain spell.” However, he realistically acknowledged, “If it’s a certain type of crowd, we might not try and cast a spell.” He said, “We might just kind of rock out and have fun. We can push our music in a lot of different directions; there’s a lot of stuff in our repertoire that, if we need to rock out, we can rock out. We just feel the evening out.”¶

Giants don’t vanish from earth, they echo.

Watch this recollection of the late, great Greg Haymes, by his great friend Michael Eck – both dear friends and colleagues of mine.

Some parts of Eck’s reminiscence resound particularly.

We three went to the Iron Horse in Northampton together once to see Richard Thompson. I think I was the only one with a functioning, semi-dependable ride in those days; and that was one of the best musical road trips ever, because of the quality of music-crazed talk. 

And I heard that marvelous tale of the Neville Brothers’ after-party there from each of those guys, a shared tale of wonder.

So, check this out.

Wise Ass Wednesday

Word Patrol Edition

Toss them. Retire ‘em. Kick these to the curb:

“Crushing It’

“Killing It’

We all know they both mean to excel, to triumph, to win.

But they’re tired and trite. 

And, in these dumb damn days we hear way too much talk of violence. In fact, there’s way too much actual violence, not just cliched talk about it.

So, let’s retire, exile, expel, trash, reject, bury and forget “Crushing It” and “Killing It.”

Also, conventional terms of art that don’t mean what they say, let’s drop those too.

I mean “contractor” and “packing.”

We all know “contractor” actually means builder or carpenter. 

But those who build contracts are called attorneys.

They draft, negotiate and represent clients in contract work.

A builder or carpenter builds.

And we all know “packing” companies produce meat. So, let’s call them meat companies.

One-Two: Nile, Ellis

A live onstage one-two punch lands here Friday and Saturday: Willie Nile at WAMC’s The Linda Friday and Tinsley Ellis Saturday at Caffe Lena. Each powerfully represents a particular region’s unique musical flavor. Nile makes northeastern big-city rock while Ellis celebrates southern rocking blues. Both are as authentic as it gets.

In one compact package, Willie Nile is a hyper-articulate and persuasive writer and fiery, intense rocker. He’d sound antique – 1960s folk-rock fire – if he weren’t so relentlessly, refreshingly contemporary.

Willie Nile, with band, in a previous show at WAMC’s The Linda. Michael Hochanadel photo

He’s led powerful bands here since 1980, playing almost everywhere; but he particularly loves The Linda. His full-band shows shake the walls, but I also saw him play a stunning solo show there, on crutches. Once when he took the stage without an introduction to open for The Roches at Page Hall, a dazzled/curious audience member exclaimed, “Who ARE you?”

Buffalo-born, but now the soul of New York City, Nile plays solo on Friday. He’s as powerful, as rock and roll, as Hamell on Trial. Power and principle fuse in Nile’s music to advocate, arouse, seethe and soothe. A one-man manifesto of compassion and equity, nobody in recent decades has written as much and as well as this energetic and passionate dynamo of music as movement, as morality play. He’s made nine albums in the past 12 years, including the new “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” And, who else has penned a cry of outrage as deep, as desolate, as caring as “Cell phones ringing in the pockets of the dead” about our age of deadly division and hate?

Willie Nile, singing solo at WAMC’s The Linda in a previous visit. Michael Hochanadel photo

“I’m very much looking forward to playing The Linda on Friday night. It’ll be a solo show and a night of storytelling and playing all kinds of songs with some favorites and some rarities,” said Nile by email. “I rarely do solo shows so they’re always unique, different and intimate.” He promised, “I will still be rockin’ so the fire department will be notified of the possibility of the roof blowing away…Can’t wait!”

Brad Ray opens for Willie Nile on Friday at WAMC’s The Linda (339 Central Ave., Albany). 8 p.m. $25-30. 518-465-5233 ext. 158

Tinsley Ellis just released as strong an electric blues album as I’ve heard in years – “Devil May Care,” his 20th – and plays that fresh music live on Saturday at Caffe Lena.

Like Willie Nile, guitarist, singer and songwriter Ellis went way prolific during the pandemic, penning 200 new tunes since being forced off the road early in the tour for his last release, “Ice Cream in Hell.” A month after heading home, he started sharing those new tunes with fans. Ellis worked with keyboardist-producer Kevin McKendree to select the 10 best. McKendre toured in Delbert McClinton’s band for years and played in the John Oates/Jim James All Star Rock and Soul Dance Party that rocked Bonnaroo a few years back, but I digress.

Ellis and McKendree chose the tunes on “Devil May Care” very well indeed.

Tinsley Ellis. Photo provided by Alligator Records

Georgia-based Ellis rocks sunny back-road grooves that recall the Allman Brothers both in their suave assurance and the hard-wired fire of power glide guitars with punched-up keyboards. It’s strong, sweet and all of a piece with his high-conviction vocals. 

This music means it. 

And it moves with a veteran’s easy confidence, either up-tempo or laid-back. Extra credit, by the way: my musician brother Jim Hoke (also in the Oates/James All Star Rock and Soul Dance Party at Bonnaroo) plays a bunch of hot saxophone on here.

Ellis plays and sings Saturday with drummer Erik Kaszynski and bassist Andrew White at Caffe Lena (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs). 8 p.m. $45 general, $40 members, $22.50 students and children. 518-583-0022

Now, THAT’s Country

Close your eyes. Go on.

The kick drum and electric bass hit together, right in your chest. The guitars swirl in a savage spin; they kick, knit, unfurl.

It’s 1966, and the Count Five’s psychedelic-thrash classic explodes out of the radio.

No, it’s live, and it’s now – from the stage in The Egg Sunday night.

It fills your ears so powerfully, they over-rule your eyes and you can’t believe it.

That glorious noise blasts from an Opry-worthy country band, 1957-style. 

Most country-looking: guitarist Kenny Vaughan, a full-on rhinestone cowboy from sequined sky-blue stetson and gleaming white spangled suit to stiletto-toed white boots. A veritable blade of a man, he looks like a fork when he smiles. To his left rocks the only cat onstage in black, like his former boss Johnny Cash; Marty Stuart packs the charisma kick of a compact Elvis with swaggering confidence that he’ll entertain and maybe knock you on your ass. Behind him drums Harry Stinson, lean as Vaughn, and as propulsive. Far stage left, taciturn Chris Scruggs welds bass lines to drumbeats with no fuss or frills.

It’s a country band, maybe the best on the road today – but pitching curve-balls. Authentic as the Rocky Mountains, they’re deep as the Gulf of Mexico.

Sunday in The Egg’s Hart Theatre, they started with the hypnotic 1960s “Outer Limits” TV theme and pushed the limits of country music WAY out there in a slick, strong show. At times, they sounded as country as they looked; as when Vaughan harmonized with Stuart on one mic in “Ghost Train,” their actual opener. Then Stuart quipped “Thank you, and good night” into the applause, but then lit up “Tempted” in somber honky-tonk neon; another Vaughan guitar solo salting the wound. 

The singalong in “This One’s Gonna Hurt You For a Long, Long Time” never caught fire: awed audiences don’t sing that well, and Vaughan again riffed the heart and soul of the song. Stuart did get everybody clapping on the one in his new pandemic paean “Sitting Alone,” tracing a suspended life. 

Citing the weather, they declared Albany surf music capital of the world and went all sunny-twangy, but their riff force was no joke. Neither was the rueful “Matches” – first tune when Stuart and the boys grabbed up acoustic instruments but managed to sound menacing anyway. They borrowed George Jones’s “Old Old House” but paid it back with interest; a slow waltz capped with an a cappella coda. In the faster trucker saga “Tombstone Every Mile,” they stretched out, jazz-wise; as they later did in “Me and Paul.” Both “Country Music’s Got a Hold on Me” and “Hot Like That” grabbed and held, rocking hard as Vaughan’s solos – he also sang both – pulled those tunes this way and that.

Stuart proved country’s hold by reaching for familiar touchstones, including “I’ve Always Been Crazy,” “The Whiskey Ain’t Working Anymore,” with a zippy coda, and Bob Wills’s “Working Man’s Blues” in a real Opry sequence.  

Then things got both sillier and more serious, as drummer Harry Stinson came to the front with a small snaredrum strapped on.

As the band surged into another surf-rock detour with “Wipe Out,” Stinson played the famous tom tolls, on his cheeks. Stinson stayed center stage and sang Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.” And in case anybody missed its business-suited villains “some rob you with a fountain pen” accusation, he repeated it. 

Things turned serene with the Dylan/Byrds “Flow, River Flow,” and they stayed in tribute mode for Willie Nelson’s sentimental “Me and Paul.” Stuart sent the band off, becoming again the hot-rod mandolin player he first became in his teens, soloing on “Orange Blossom Special.”

He then summoned the band back on. He calls them the Fabulous Superlatives for good reason, and I’ll be surprised to hear any band, any band, play better than they did Sunday night at The Egg. The driving “Time Don’t Wait” was both warning and celebration, a terrific rocker whose reprise ended the set.

Encore time was both a rocking romp with “Psychotic Reaction” – a left field zinger that came and went via outer space – and deeply comforting in “Ready for the Times to Get Better.” Vaughn and Stuart both went riff crazy in “Psychotic,” Stuart launching its roar with harmonica, tearing into a trebly clatter with his guitar, dancing the Nervous Hair while Vaughan steered the song, with HIS guitar. Both played with great tone all night, lots of notes at times, and all in the right soulful places.

After all that uproar, “Ready for the Times to Get Better” brought things home. Stuart dedicated this Allen Reynolds tune (a late-70s hit for Crystal Gayle) to the late, great Nashville pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, who’d died that day. 

Offering pandemic-era consolation while paying tribute to a fallen elder, now that’s country. 


My Nashville musician brother Jim Hoke had told Kenny Vaughan that I’d be at the show. So afterward, I went to the stage door; when Harry Stinson peaked out, I introduced myself and asked him to let Kenny know I was there. Soon, Kenny appeared, asked, “I hear Jim Hoke’s brother is here” and looked around. I stepped up and he drew me inside and offered a nice welcome. He led me to the dressing room where everybody but Chris Scruggs was doing the meet and greet and a few fans were shyly hanging out. Kenny said, “Hey, everybody, I want to introduce this guy. He’s Mike and he’s Jim Hoke’s brother.” Appreciative, welcoming words from all around the room. As others greeted Kenny, I went over to Marty and thanked him for a hot one. “We NEEDED that!” I told him.

Postscript Two

As the coolest show to hit town for months, Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives was well covered – kinda like in the old days when we music writers were all friends and would meet up at all the cool shows: Greg Haymes, Steve Webb, Debbie Snook, Don Wilcock, Carlo Wolff, Michael Eck and me. We were a club, and helped and supported each other, even while competing to do the best job possible because we knew other sharp eyes, ears, minds and pens were aimed at the same show.

But I digress.

For now, let me suggest you check out the words and photos of others who hit The Egg last Sunday including Don Wilcock, aforementioned, and Jim Gilbert in Nippertown; and Ed Conway on his Facebook page.

Blue Rhapsody on a Gray Day

The Mountain Music Club continues, somehow.

We’ve met many dead-of-winter weekends to listen, talk about and geek out on music. For 30-plus years, we convened mainly in the far-Adirondacks home of host Stephen Horne, toting totes full of CDs and vinyl, of food and drink including Perreca’s favorites, artisan beers, and old whiskey. And we always, always, stopped at the Noonmark Diner to grab pies on the way northwest on Rt. 73. Same thing, on the way home.

The Rice Mountain Lodge, home of Stephen Horne and Kevan Moss; site of many Mountain Music Club meet-ups.

We’ve also savored the scene in Northampton where Dennis Bidwell lives and hosts us, with tasty brew-pub crawls, ethnic eats, live shows at the Academy of Music, Iron Horse or Calvin Theater and eye-popping pilgrimages to the Smith College art gallery.

But, no; not since the pandemic struck.

Our last face-to-face, or stereo-to-face, gathering was in January 2020.

As ever, we signed off with our customary closer: the late, great Allen Toussaint singing Paul Simon’s “American Tune” – a soulful send-off supreme.

So, what now?

We ZOOM some, and we phone some; but mostly we email and share online links to music and videos we think the rest of the crew will like.

Today’s email from Dennis hit that nail on the head. Here are the guy’s own words:

You know I’m an enthusiast for the BBC podcast Soul Music.  I recently listened to the podcast on Rhapsody in Blue and the genius of George Gershwin and how Rhapsody came together and how various musicians react to it.

So yesterday I found a Youtube of remarkable pianist Khatia Buniatishvili performing Rhapsody recently with the Lyon Symphony. Over the years I’ve seen/heard many performances of Rhapsody, and once tried to play* portions of it, but I’ve never experienced so enthralling a performance of Rhapsody as this one.’m done in by the opening clarinet glissando, and she takes it from there.

Wow! She does, indeed.

Before this, my favorite “Rhapsody in Blue” recording was by Gershwin himself. My 1987 vinyl combines the 1925 player piano roll Gershwin played, with Michael Tilson Thomas leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Old technology note: A player piano roll is a long paper sheet with holes punched in it, corresponding to notes a pianist plays. The player piano reads the notes from the paper and plays them.)

For passion and precision, Buniatishvili’s performance stands tall beside the composer’s own.

Born in Batumi in what was then the Soviet Socialistic Republic of Georgia, Buniatishvili proves that great music stays great, regardless of time; and that music moves from place to place and player to player, regardless of distance. 

Buniatishvili engages the piano with her entire body, heart and soul. It’s not theatrical, it’s essential; her essence expressing Gershwin’s. 

Credits pop up during the performance, explaining that behind her piano is the Orchestre National de Lyon in France. Leonard Slatkin conducts them, as the camera finds soloists in their showcase moments of Gershwin’s kaleidoscopic score.

The camera also finds Buniatishvili’s face, smiling as others carry the melody, then goes intent with concentration, sometimes holding the smile.

Also on the program, the video text announces: Aaron Copeland’s rambunctious “Billy the Kid,” and Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” a truly hallucinatory orchestral work and one of my favorites. Four performances of that are in my record shelves, and six of Symphony No. 5 of Dmitry Shostakovich, but I digress.

Some years ago, I read of a mixed media performance of the Berlioz, filmed by Basil Twist. What a great name for any creative soul, particularly this bravely eccentric one. Twist stirs scarves and tinsel through colored lights in an aquarium that his camera scans, as a pianist distills Berlioz’s score into a Gershwin-ish at times jazzy vigor.

The New Yorker saluted this Berlioz-Twist creation:

Re-reading it, I think, again, that I should pay the $20 to see it.

Meanwhile, the Khatia Buniatishvili performance of “Rhapsody in Blue” resonates through me. 

Check out her big flourish as she completes a phrase and soars her hands high over the keyboard in jubilation. It happens at 15:40** and it’s clear, gloriously clear, that she’s expressing a shared triumph, both Gershwin’s and her own.

*In a Nashville stop-over visit to my brother Jim’s place en route to my first ever Jazz Fest in New Orleans, Jim arranged a visit to RCA Studio B where great giants made rocking records. The studio manager reverently retrieved a silvery-RCA ribbon mic from a cabinet, announcing this magical machine had carried the voice of Elvis to tape. Dennis sat down at the Steinway grand piano where Floyd Cramer recorded “Last Date” – maybe the most poignant honky-tonk love song ever made.

** Any area rock and roll fan of sufficient (my) age recognizes these digits as the AM frequency of WPTR, one of two top 1960s radio stations that brought us the best tunes of the time – also, of course, the worst and most mediocre, come to that. When I spot those numbers, I automatically recall the station’s jaunty jingle: “Fifteen-forty; W-P-T-R!”


A few days ago, when the world looked like a glazed donut, I thanked my lucky stars that last winter, for the first time, I discovered that keeping an ice scraper in the house works better than trying to tug open a frozen car door to get the ice scraper inside it.

I joined my neighbors in a symphony of scratch-scratch, up and down the street.

See, in these months, everything seems to take more time and effort.

Here’s a winter-stupid example: 

Remembering that our fat bag of ice-melt was in a locked toolshed behind our garage, I blithely grabbed the key and went out to snag it and spread it everywhere. 

But, no. The lock was locked, with ice. 

So, back I went into the house to rummage around for a spray can of de-icer; then back out, to the scene of the cursing. 

Spritz-spritz. Tried the key again. But, no. 

Cursed my way back into the house – sometimes Navy vocabulary training is JUST the thing. 

Filled a saucepan with water and cranked up a burner under it. Put boots and gloves back on, again; toted the steaming pot out to the lock, slipping and sliding on the very iced-up path and trying not to fall and scald my ass. 

The lock hasp is mounted so high on the doorframe that I couldn’t see, from below, through the pot, whether I was actually managing to immerse the lock in the boiling water. Struggled with that, a while. 

Tried the key in the lock. But, no. Crescendo of cursing. 

Re-immersed the lock…I think. Tried the key again. 

Very grudging cooperation. 

A reluctant, slow, slow turning; with odd crunching noises.

Lock and key were now dripping boiling water and aromatic de-icing chemical. Toted that recalcitrant, redundant “security” system back inside, plopped it on a Gazette newspaper section to ooze and dry. 

Mitts and boots back on, again, I went back out to where I’d tugged the ice-melt bag from the shed. Picked it up – 40 pounds, slippery plastic, and my gloves were slick with the aforementioned unlocking compound. Struggled with it across the crusty tundra of our back yard, slipping and sliding – salty language having NO effect on the ice underfoot.

Then, Zak ice-melted our walkway, front steps and sloping driveway, so Ellie could get to an errand with less risk to life and limb.

She went to get a COVID test.

Results: NEGATIVE.

Live Review – Bill Charlap Trio at The Egg Swyer Theatre, Sunday, December 19, 2021

Short and sweet, that was Bill Charlap’s all-Washingtons trio Sunday at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre. Give the guys (jazz pianist Charlap with drummer Kenny Washington and bassist Peter Washington, but not related) extra points for NOT playing any Christmas tunes.
The most old-fashioned player of his (boomer) generation, the versatile Charlap played fluently in the vocabularies of his predecessors. Thunderous McCoy Tyner-ish bass chords here, dazzling-fast runs ala Oscar Peterson or even Art Tatum there; some of Duke Ellington’s elegantly restrained swing, oblique Thelonious Monk geometry, tidy Teddy Wilson circumspection, Bill Basie’s sly syncopated high-up codas.
Yet, nothing sounded borrowed or archly antique. These guys loved that music for real.
In nondescript dark suits and ties with white shirts, they started dramatically with a rambunctious jump into “What Is This Thing Called Love” before settling into an easy-chair vamp, welcoming and smooth. The happy syncopated clatter of Gerald Wiggins’s “A Fifth for Frank” flowed into a drums and piano dialog, Kenny Washington wrapping up his solo break by playing the melody. 
As musical but soft-spoken a drummer as we have today, Kenny W.  often played brushes in accompaniment, then switched to sticks, never hitting very hard and always swinging. In the understated way of quiet sparse bassists, Peter Washington always hit just the right accents. And for all his buttoned-down look and sparse song intros, Charlap played with lots of body English, exuberant physical energy pumping the up-tempo tunes, while he sank reflectively into the ballads, hardly moving except his hands.
In Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” they alternated bars in three, then four, to start, then Charlap reached for the adrenaline and raised everybody’s pulse. He used his high gear sparingly, most often to surprise, and always with taste. After “Lady,” he kept his foot on the gas into “Out of Nowhere,” then eased into a gentler swing, Kenny W. simmering down with his brushes. When Peter W. glanced a cue at Charlap to close his bass solo and invite the guys into the recap, Kenny W. was there already, shifting to sticks to accentuate the melody.
Then he led with fleet brushwork into “In the Still of the Night,” another classic that Charlap transformed by taffy-pulling the tempo. Peter W. chimed in helpfully here, revving from walk into a sprint, dynamic deluxe, before stepping back for Charlap to coda alone.
Charlap launched “Here’s That Rainy Day” solo, too; then the Washingtons kept things soft and sweet. Same thing in “April in Paris” – Charlap mapped the journey alone, then the Washington’s accessorized the ride. But where “Rainy Day” opened an umbrella of gentle, unbroken lyricism over everything, “April” wandered some before an emphatic stop and go coda.
In a medley of Monk’s “Round Midnight” into “Criss Cross,” Charlap led without seams but with lots of driving melodic intelligence as tempo shifts often hit at different points than the chord changes. 
Closing the set came two tunes Charlap didn’t announce. I think it was the cozy-then-more-expansive “The Duke” from their new “Street of Dreams” album next to last; then a faster, high-flying post-bop romp that generated heat and light. “The Duke” packed a breezy swing, but their last tune swung for the fences.
Without leaving but letting us know they were wrapping up, the trio enjoyed the standing ovation, then reached for their instruments again for “Body and Soul” – all their bluesy ballad strengths on proud display.
At 75 minutes, it felt a bit too short, though that may be just hoping for more of their beautifully articulated classic jazz. Their skills so confident, so impressive in the service of such classy expression, we didn’t want them to leave. As individuals, they quietly claimed our attention, then kept it. Kenny W. would hit a wonderful lick and my eyes would stay with him, until I might miss seeing Peter W. play a particularly tasteful bass riff. Watching him then might distract from a Charlap flourish. 
All good, though; all good.

Richard Thompson at The Egg Swyer Theatre on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021


Rejoicing to be among “human beings” once again on Sunday at The Egg’s (smaller) Swyer Theatre, the very British all-skills troubadour Richard Thompson promised “a wild evening of depressing songs.” 

As usual, he delivered that, but much more. He first wryly drenched the place in gloom; then he very gradually raised the mood through the happiest songs – new songs at that – we’ve heard from this mighty master of the macabre and the melancholy, of rancor and regret. Thompson also recalled favorite can’t-miss tunes that, along with interstellar guitar, fans greeted like old friends.

Reading excerpts from his memoir “Beeswing” allowed Thompson to cite both Percy Bysshe Shelley and Buck Owens in song intros.

As for the songs, some danced in waltz time including the new “As I Hold You” and “Tinker’s Rhapsody.”  Some moved behind titles with participles or gerunds: “Turning of the Tide,” “Walking on a Wire,” “Walking the Long Miles Home.” In fact, most songs worked like verbs; verses and choruses whose vivid feeling states moved as actions. Their plots plumbed the depths of despond or lit and lifted like sunlight. Usually they built a verse-chorus pair or two, then came a guitar solo – revved supersonic or sad beyond sad – then some more pointed words, a stunning coda.

He started on “Stony Ground,” upbeat saga of frustrated geriatric yearning. As if that weren’t regret enough, he next mused “If I Could Live My Life Again,” a new tune, devastating as his old tunes. Here he uncorked his first I-can’t-believe-it guitar solo, all desperate velocity and accelerated angst.

While the slower “Persuasion” opened the door to hope for the first time, it also slammed it again. More angst; and yet more still in “Turning of the Tide” which, like “Stony Ground,” measured time out in deep-quaffed cups of pain.

Then, in “The Ghost of You Walks,” Thompson celebrated love even in its loss, as something supernaturally enduring.

He knew just when to open the curtains and let the sun shine in, with a superbly poignant “Beeswing,” another lost love lament but redeemed by sheer beauty, a perfect package of words and wonder with his loveliest guitar phrasing. “Walking on a Wire” – yet another pained paean of endurance despite great loss – cast its mood slowly, surging through a mad scramble of guitar that brought big applause. Similarly titled but much lighter, “Walking the Long Miles Home” recalled late night treks home afoot when the Who played past the leaving of the last train. He briefly forgot the words to a verse in this nostalgic postcard from his past. 

Even the driving “Vincent Black Lightning 1952” – armed robbery, shotgun death, ignition key as love letter – used great beauty to etch great sadness, leaving us somehow happier as this twinkly-eyed pessimist always somehow manages even in tunes of doom.

Paying tribute to his late bandmate Sandy Denny (in Fairport Convention) with her song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” Thompson gave the lyric’s serene resignation its full poignant punch.

Next  he teased and got a hearty singalong in “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” cynical and dark as his father’s police work as a London detective.

To make harmony a continuing feature, he summoned the slim, young, black-dressed singer Zara Phillips to sing in the daredevil saga “Wall of Death” whose mid-slow tempo revved the tune through bravado and danger. She stayed through to the end of the 90-minute set, mainly singing on the choruses. Perhaps understandably, her singing lacked Thompson’s punch and gravity, or maybe was just under-mic’ed.

“The Fortress” next bypassed everything upbeat, menacing words and driving beat diving deep into doomed destinies. “Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman” held this dour mood. 

After that stately antique, the cautionary “Keep Your Distance,” slow and big, cast its menace in contemporary terms as Thompson referenced social distancing; but without denting its intent and meaning, to frame love as all or nothing.

Wow, then, Thompson brought the sunlight of hope, of love enduring, in “As I Hold You.” This new song pledged a permanence that nearly all the previous songs despaired of finding.

The upbeat “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” portrayed city life as neon-splashed, exciting – one of the best songs Thompson wrote and recorded with first wife-singer Linda. 

Thompson re-took the stage quickly for encores, the fan-requested upbeat “Cooksferry Queen” sang it solo with terrific energy. He left again and brought Phillips back to duet in “Tinker’s Rhapsody” – a happy new song, but not without its own bad-times echoes.

They closed with “When the Saints Rise Out of Their Graves” – an apocalyptic beware-of-judgement-day warning too scary for Mardi Gras, with an inexorable driving beat.

Thompson’s new tunes – “If I Could Live My Life Again,” “The Fortress,” “As I Hold You,” “Tinker’s Rhapsody,” “When the Saints Rise Out of their Graves” – stood tall alongside classics often decades old – “Beeswing,” “Vincent Black Lightning 1952,” “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.”

Sui generis, he’s a style unto himself, with echoes of centuries-old murder ballads and spry antique swing; and he rocked it at times but without using the blues at all as crutch or chair. Musically and emotionally generous at 72, Thompson hasn’t lost velocity or imagination at the guitar; delicate and complex as lace, dense and looming as a logjam. Playing, speaking or singing, he also hasn’t lost a whit of wit. And his voice still has its full range and punch, including the low motorcycle growl of “Vincent Black Lightning 1952,” the howl of “Cooksferry Queen,” the dour reflection of “Persuasion,” the loving, simple fervent promise of “As I Hold You.”  

Thompson beautified heartbreak as powerfully as Joni Mitchell, or Jackson Browne on a good (bad) day. 

His best songs seemed to exorcise pain, while also proclaiming it inevitable, essential to the human condition. He vanquished it through a stoic acceptance that took away its power.

Time, decried in song after song as a thief of our lives and happiness, hasn’t dimmed Thompson’s day.


(Cryptically scrawled on a green paper scrap smaller than the ticket and assiduously decoded)

Stony Ground

If I Could Live my Live Again


Turning of the Tide

The Ghost of You Walks


Walking on a Wire

Walking the Long Miles Home

Vincent Black Lightning 1952

Who Knows There the Time Goes

Down where the Drunkards Roll

Add Zara Phillips

Wall of Death


Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman

Keep Your Distance

As I Hold You

I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight

First encore, solo: Cooksferry Queen

Second encore, with Phillips: Tinker’s Rhapsody; then When the Saints Rise Out of their Graves

Check out my colleagues’ fine fine take on the show at – Laura DaPolito’s words and Jim Gilbert’s photos. How fun to hear someone’s reaction to their first Thompson show, and DaPolito absolutely got it, got him.

Sunday’s show was about my 20th, including solo shows in Northampton and New Orleans, others with bands were mostly at The Egg and often in the (larger) Hart Theatre.

For my first Thompson show – early 80s, maybe? – I drove to Northampton alone and back in freezing rain, two-plus hours each way on black-iced roads. And he was worth it.