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 www.thelinda.org/event/willie-nile-5/

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 www.caffelena.org

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. 

Postscript:

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. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b03zb49y.

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.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NEJeNuF8gb8I’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: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/02/the-return-of-basil-twists-underwater-puppet-show

Re-reading it, I think, again, that I should pay the $20 to see it. https://vimeo.com/ondemand/symphoniefantastique.

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!”

Negative

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

LIVE REVIEW

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.

THE SET LIST

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

Stony Ground

If I Could Live my Live Again

Persuasion

Turning of the Tide

The Ghost of You Walks

Beeswing

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

Fortress

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 www.nippertown.com – 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.

This Place

Returning to my wife Ellie’s family farmstead always feels like a pilgrimage. 

It’s beautiful, to any eye; but singularly precious in how our family sees it.

The 1797 house sits in a hollow among rolling ridges, home to dairy farms, wild turkeys, prosperous weekending city folk and commuters to busier places, and to folks working hard out on the edge. It is home to far more cattle than people.

Coppery waters, streaked with silver, flow through it, racing or wandering to the Mohawk. Its roads, now, are in full flow also, with roaring trucks large and small carrying silage and cut corn from fields stripped to stubs, revealing wooded hills the tall stalks masked all summer. 

The farms here are growing, consolidating, like every business. 

As the bigger ones get bigger, some smaller, faded ones find new life and energy in the busy hands of Amish families. They hang laundry on long lines from homes grown younger through repairs and paint, long deferred. They work wide fields with horse teams; their teenage boys race the roads in stripped down sulkies. They auction fruits, flowers and vegetables in a vast wide-roofed building where restaurateurs feed their menus, bidding quietly as a barker amplifies his offers in staccato shouts.

Ellie and I married on the lawn before that house, so did her brother Mark; her sister Trish married in the ca. 1835 church down the road; Nick Brignola’s jazz quartet played the reception, in the barn. Our daughter Pisie married in the same church, just before the plague changed everything.

One of the comforts of being here is the sense that some things have not changed much at all.

Farming has become more technological, though probably no less back-breaking. A retired teacher tutors the children of workers in a home that was old before they came here and the farm where they work grew to more than 1,000 cows.

My in-laws – maybe the greatest ever in that much maligned function – lie under a stone engraved with their names and dates, on a now-wooded hill overlooking the house.

Our son Zak watched the early-in-every-visit ritual when my father-in-law invited, “Would you have a scotch?” I would, and we would then enjoy the best conversation of that visit. Zak learned to drink scotch just for that, seeking that feeling of sitting down together and talking.

And we do.

The Nowadaga Creek runs behind the house, behind the barn. And last week, I placed there some ashes of my late and very great friend Greg Haymes. When his wife Sara gave me a slim, black paper packet of him, I knew there was only one place for him.

In this place. 

Walking around the block takes nearly an hour

No, this isn’t the church of our two family weddings; Sir William Johnson built this one three years before our family farmstead

This Place

Jazz on Jay No. 14: Joshua Nelson Quartet, Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021

The music warmed up more than the weather Thursday as young alto saxophonist Joshua Nelson delivered a confident, crowd-pleasing straight-head show; not that there was anything wrong with the sunny afternoon, either.

The former Schenectady resident brought downstate band-mates, but happily greeted family, friends and mentors from the tented bandstand. 

In his first number, from his debut EP, Nelson displayed a pleasing tone but soon went from mild to wild. Throughout his 90-minute set, he resourcefully explored even the most mellow tunes to discover and express their excitement. Studying with saxophonists Brian Patneaude and Ralph Lalama, he emerged from SUNY Schenectady and SUNY Purchase with the full package as composer/arranger, soloist and accompanist and leader. His talent also confirmed how well the Jazz on Jay youth movement is working.

Nelson used repetition and scales to build tension in tunes from his “Live” EP and an album under construction. But his strongest playing Thursday – both most lyrical and most outside – came in the classic “Body and Soul.” 

First, however, imaginative originals earned applause on his solos and everybody’s, plus crisp old-friends unison playing. Like Nelson, pianist Jack Redsecker warmed into full flight in their opening number, and got to show off more than bassist Ronald Gardner and drummer Joshua Simpson. All were solid, at least; but the powerful way Simpson made a big sound from a small kit was a treat of invention and strength.

After the mid-tempo “Cadence” cruised in waltz-time, Gardner’s Latin ostinato built into “5/13” (the date Nelson wrote it), an early high point. Fiery piano fed directly into Nelson’s own solo, as if he came out of the elevator on the top floor, then kept climbing. 

Of course, the ambulance siren that distracted from the music screamed past on State Street during the quiet ballad “If You Love Something Enough,” but the band kept its momentum anyway. In Nelson’s solo we could hear the syllables of the title, as if sung as lyrics, and feel its emotion in the melody. 

Things climbed after that. Redsecker’s jaunty unaccompanied piano intro invited the band into a breezy mid-tempo tune where Nelson’s solo repeated riffs to get to the heart of things; it elevated from happy to joyful. Then Nelson played alone to introduce “Sunday” with a jagged cadence that resolved through cascading scales into a charming waltz.

Then came “Body and Soul,” slow and sweet from Redsecker’s stately piano intro to Nelson going all Charlie Parker to get deep into this classic.

His own mid-tempo “Portraits of a Smile” brought a strong finish including Simpson pumping at his funkiest at the drums and Nelson again building up and easing off in the shape of a pyramid.

Impresario/host Betsy Sandberg and fan Karen Ciancetta took turns shading Simpson from the sun as it migrated around to splash into the rear of the tent over the players. But the guy gave lots of heat and light himself in an upbeat, fun set.

Jazz on Jay concludes Thursday, Sept. 23 with tenor saxophonist Awan Rashad’s Quartet.

Jazz on Jay No. 11- Claire Daly Quartet

“Funk in the Deep Freeze” was a wishful thinking song title Thursday as baritone saxophonist Clalre Daly led three local heroes at Jazz on Jay, an over-heated endurance contest the band only narrowly won.

Playing baritone sax with any fluency at all takes as much lung power as it does arm strength to tote one. Filling that imposing heavy horn is hard work even in good weather. In the 90-degree heat and swampy humidity on Jay Street Thursday, the band had to take a break 40 minutes in “to dry off,” said the black-clad Daly, and they shortened their scheduled 90 minute set a bit. 

A 1980 Berklee grad, Daly fashions her playing and makes her song choices in a respectful way that reflects a love for 1950s hard-bop, pop, R&B and show tunes. She recorded a full album of Motown covers in 2016 and has guest-played with jazz traditionalists including George Garzone and Giacomo Gates but also with the eclectic bluesman Taj Mahal. 

Her opener “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” and a name-that-tune challenge later,“Secret Love,” reached back to 1950s show-tunes. The locally-based band assembled for this show – pianist Wayne Hawkins, bassist Pete Toigo, drummer Michael Benedict – know that stuff inside out and started playing here in the big shadow of our own baritone sax giant Nick Brignola.

They were ready for this, in other words; so things fit and flowed.

Mostly, they launched from a straight-on statement of the melody, then Daly’s baritone or Hawkins’s piano soloed first in a round-robin journey before Daly brought things back home. In Monk’s “Let’s Cool One” – Daley dubbed this “a good idea” – a jagged odd-time intro flowed into a groove everybody rode. While “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” found Daly reaching into her upper register, she went the other way into authoritative low-down runs “Let’s Cool One.” After Hawkins soloed and Benedict and Toigo swapped fours, Daly re-stated the main melody. 

In Garzone’s raffish “Chooch” – Daly said she was tending bar in Boston’s Michael’s Pub the night Garzone introduced it there – respect didn’t immediately translate into expression. Early on, she seemed uncertain as to what she wanted to do with it. In short order, she found her direction and soon everybody was cooking on the same recipe.

Hawkins was especially sharp in “Secret Love,” crisp in a Latin arrangement with Benedict’s cymbals moving things along toward Daly’s high-register arpeggios at the recap.

Daly cited the multi-reeds-at-once fireworks of Rahsaan Roland Kirk as a leading light. She introduced Kirk’s wandering “Theme for the Eulipions” with exposed solo-sax runs before the band came into this space-bossa with her and helped it sing.

“Funk in the Deep Freeze” strolled easy into happy bebop, running through stop-and-go cadences before a spiky return to where they started.

Only one full-slow ballad eased things: the venerable “I Want to Talk About You” – built, Daly said, by Billy Eckstine on the “Misty” chords. Wherever it came from, it felt sweet, though maybe too short.

Hawkins varied the tone, attack and decay of his notes throughout, shaping the feel. While Benedict’s band features bassist Mike Lawrence, he and Toigo were rock-solid Thursday in straight-ahead tunes, reconstructed show tunes and the hard-bop energy everybody on the bandstand likes – and easily sold to the subdued, overheated crowd.

The Jazz on Jay series of free noontime shows continues Thursday, Sept. 2 with guitarist Joe Finn and his Quartet.