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.
Bluesman Albert Cummings Rocks the (happy) House, Wyld Blu Opens
Each concert venue reopening in this second plague year brings its own particular joy – a general feeling of relief and reunion, but spiced with its own particular atmosphere and energy.
At Music Haven in Schenectady’s Central Park Sunday night, it was diversity, dancing and an almost dizzying uplift of shared exultation. We were together again, in a well-loved place. I met folks I hadn’t seen since the last show there, two summers ago.
Before Wyld Blu started the music, impresario Mona Golub started the feeling. She issued a happy welcome, thanked the series sponsors, encouraged raffle-ticket buying and announced this was her birthday party. Also mine, but I digress. Her father Neil interrupted in the best possible way, presenting her a bouquet and birthday wishes, there at the mic – but the show was a gift to all of us.
Shrugging off some opening-night nerves, Wyld Blu set the table with a feast of mostly mid-tempo shuffles. They played blues as good time tunes, revved to blow away bad times with rocking riffs.
The quartet twice represented our region at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis and was Blues Artist of the Year at the 2019 Eddy Awards (when I won as Music Journalist of the Year, but I digress). So they hit the stage with growing confidence in their original tunes, sturdy songs welded together of familiar elements in western boogie, big-city R&B and crunchy power glide grooves.
Alana Wyld sang center stage in tall boots, wyld (excuse me) hair and fuzzy scarf behind a guitar she kept busy with spiky solos and supportive chording under Rick Surrano’s harp honks and wails. Longtime drummer Phil Nestor locked on the one with (new) bassist Mike Persico. “Set Me Free” peaked their 45-minute opener, simmering from an easy amble, slower than most of their tunes and with a good Wyld guitar solo. But then an upshift into their more customary shuffle tempo brought an even better one.
By his second song, sweat gleamed in the V of headliner Cummings’s western shirt, and he sang without words as if the feel out-ran his lyrics. While Wyld Blu played things fairly short to introduce as many original songs as possible, Cummings put the stretch on.
Looking like a beefier Woody Harrelson under a black stingy-brim, he took his tunes to the gym and worked them hard. Like Wyld Blu, he built his songs of time-tested materials. And he declared his intentions right up front, in the blistering blast of “I’ve Got Feelings Too.” Like the essential paradox that singing the blues makes you feel less blue, this statement of vulnerability was as much muscle as misery. And his solo speared into outer space, past the half moon peaking through the clouds.
Cummings also made moves to engage the (very big) crowd. He rewarded an impromptu singalong in his opening number with a second solo that soared higher than the first, gas on the fire.
“Barrel-House Blues” rolled and rolled, stretching so fast and far it seemed to cause doubt for a minute. “You guys OK with this?” he asked. Again, he took spark from his fans’ applause, climbing behind the wheel of “500 Miles” to drive and drive, singing of a hoped-for reunion.
Drummer Warren Grant really revved here, coiling on his stool like a cobra, grinning in incandescent glee that powered shoulder-high snare shots. Bassist Scott Sutherland played less flashy all night, maybe one note for every five, or fifty, Cummings blasted into the night; but they were the right notes. Son Zak recognized before I did when Cummings solo drifted out of his lane like an over-excited trucker into Peter Frampton’s “Do You Feel Like I Do.” Cummings explained he’d been recording at Frampton’s Nashville studio.
For all the happy anticipation of “500 Miles” and the jokey moment of “Feel,” Cummings sang most often of betrayal, of love shaken by disillusionment.
Things got fierce in “Cry Me a River” and “Up Your Sleeve.” In these (and other) tunes, Cummings steered closest to the aggressive open-road Texas styles of Freddie King (the “Texas Cannonball”), Stevie Ray Vaughan (whose debut album was “Texas Flood”) and ZZ Top (self-styled “Lil’ Ol’ Band from Texas”). Cummings clearly likes those hot-pavement highways and this helped carry everybody with him.
Cummings hailed Glenville-based blues journalism giant Don Wilcock (first editor I ever wrote for, but I digress), crediting him for early career support and encouragement. Check Don’s review of the show on http://www.nippertown.com.
As usual, mega-fan Steve Nover was among the first to filter up front through the crowd to dance among the photographers clustered below the stage. Soon others joined in, alone, in pairs and clusters. By the time Cummings closed with the obvious but compelling declaration “Blues Make Me Feel So Good,” folks filled the space between stage and seats.
He sent us home hoping he’d given us “something to take home that you can keep.” This seemed to work just fine as happy people picked up chairs and remnants of picnics and headed home through the cool dark.
Liraz Charhi, who performs as Liraz, continues the Music Haven concert series on Sunday, Aug. 22. The Iranian (by way of Israel) singer-actress combines the musics of both homelands on two albums; “Zan” (Persian for “women”) is the latest. On these projects she collaborated with Iranian musicians clandestinely, as they are barred from working with Israelis. The Palestinian instrumentalist Firas Zreik, now based in Brooklyn, opens. He plays the many-stringed harp- or dulcimer-like kanun.
They’re all dads: trombonist/leader Ben O’Shea, pianist David Gleason, saxophonists Brian Patneaude (tenor) and Dave Fisk (tenor and alto), bassist Mike Lawrence; and drummer Andy Hearn.
Their Dadtet band name signifies parenthood more than any oblique reference to Louis “Pops” Armstrong. It serves instead as a convenient, collective marquee label for these established area jazz cats. A prior name, the Ben O’Shea Quintet, confused a woman who came to a gig expecting an Irish St. Patrick’s Day vibe.
However, she stayed for most of that gig, just as everybody stayed for the Dadtet’s Jazz on Jay show Thursday under a pounding sun. And they did play “Summertime,” a song Satchmo famously recorded with Ella Fitzgerald.
Four of the dads – O’Shea, Gleason, Patneaude and Fisk – played regularly with Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble before it went on hiatus during the plague. In Pray’s 17-piece crew, all adopted workmanlike personas. Thursday, however, O’Shea flexed his funny bone at times in a relaxed and self-deprecating way.
This gave the noontime gig a cool, easy feel; not because it was too hot to play fast or hard but because the guys shared the confident flair of walking through the tunes together, swinging everything.
Meanwhile, fans arriving for the show fled the sun’s hot glare for the shady side of Jay Street.
The Dadtet’s slow, dramatic early-set take on this classic featured strong solos by Fisk, whose statement of the familiar melody launched from a higher register than usual; Gleason, with an energetic rhythmic authority, and Patneaude running the changes with his typical grace and aplomb. O’Shea modestly soloed last, and with clarity and drive, before Fisk took the tune back to the head.
“Summertime” followed “Filthy McNasty,” one of the great song titles and first song by or about Horace Silver in the Dadtet’s mostly upbeat, hard-bop-inspired set. O’Shea took the lead here in a mid-tempo swing mood that built like a storm surge to crest then signal short swapping riffs that set each player in turn against Hearn’s drums. Unshielded by the tent over the rest of the Dadtet, Hearn was rescued from the sun by Jazz on Jay chief Betsy Sandberg or one of her volunteers, holding a beach umbrella over the otherwise melting percussionist.
“Ladybird” kept things breezy; another swing-time stroll where Patneaude especially shone but Lawrence also made the most of his first solo of the day; again, solos flowed before riff-swaps stacked up brisk and brash short cameos.
After “Summertime” came “In Walked Horace” by J.J. Johnson – O’Shea made sure to let us know the composer was also an eminent trombonist – where Fisk’s alto led the way but section playing sparkled, too. This brought smiles all around, on the bandstand as much as in the crowd.
(Saxophonist/trumpeter) Benny Carter’s “A Walking Thing” started almost like a reprise of “Summertime” in its sassy stroll beat that soon picked up heft as the soloists ganged up on it. This felt too short since it swung with such charm, especially when Gleason ping-pong’ed playfully with the horns.
Gleason intro’ed “What Is This Thing Called Love” as a brash bossa blast, but O’Shea gave this chestnut its biggest push and highest polish and the all-in resolution really rocked the place.
Then came blues-time in the well-paired “Blues in the Closet” of (bassist) Oscar Pettiford, then “Mo’ Bettah Blues” by (another bassist) Bill Lee for his son Spike’s film. In “Closet,” a walking bass line summoned first drums and piano then the horns, into a powerful swing-bus that picked up everybody. Patneaude was brilliant here, conducting a two-part conversation with himself. Slower and steady, “Mo’” mellowed things out in slow-drag fashion; low-pressure, maybe; but not low-energy.
They closed with (pianist) Horace Silver’s shimmering, simmering “Nutville,” a mid-tempo swing number like the earlier songs in the set. All the horns got good solos, then welded together in a brassy farewell.
Throughout, the soloists cooked quotes into the songs, as both spice and ingredients. The Dadtet not only knew the tunes in this 90-minute set inside out, they also knew how to distill, deconstruct and decant them into new containers.
The usual suspects showed up on Jay Street and had a fine time. That natty dude in black from shiny shoes to fedora set aside the Bible he’d been studying, tracing the words with his finger, to crouch before the band to shoot some video. A wiry woman of a certain age took over the dance floor all by herself in “In Walked Horace.” She had the moves and, like the band, she had the confidence, holding all eyes until she waved herself off as the crowd applauded.
Jazz on Jay continues Thursday, Aug. 19 with the precocious (college student) saxophonist Henry Fernandez and his Quartet.
Files of marching mist-men, wraiths robed in fog, stalked the valleys of the Green Mountains as I drove to Brattleboro Saturday. They seemed spooky, spectral; until I decided they were the ghosts of the plague, leaving town, and unease turned to relief.
I was going to see NRBQ for the first time in way too long, so driving through the rain on roads twisty-slick as a wet corkscrew was part of a happy pilgrimage.
Brattleboro’s Stone Church is just that, a former Unitarian church minimally modified by adding a bar, sound and lights. Its website merchandise page offers the usual shirts, caps and mugs, but also face-masks and rolling papers.
My brother Jim Hoke suggested I see the sound check; a guest on hundreds of NRBQ shows and a dozen albums, he knows. The crew, led by longtime stage manager John Krucke, had set up amps, mics and monitors. Saxophonist/singer/accordionist Klem Klimek fitted a reed to his alto and greeted me as casually if I’d been there the previous night for the ‘Q’s first show in 15 months. Next came bassist/singer Casey McDonough, a Chicagoan like guitarist Scott Ligon and drummer John Perrin. McDonough said, “It’s wonderful!” to play together again. “I can’t believe it’s happening!” Ligon and I shared our relief at being back together again at a gig. “It’s good to BE,” he said. Pianist/co-founder-leader Terry Adams came in, hugged me, called me Brother Mike, then tended to piano and clavinet.
“At sound check, they’re musicians,” Jim had said. “In the show, they’re performers, and there’s a difference.” I saw that as Klimek squeezed out a vaguely Latin accordion riff. The guys listened, not for very long, and fell into a tune that wasn’t there minutes before. They quickly had it, so they stopped. Klimek called it “Mexican Puck Dance.” Puck is his dog. I think he wants people hearing him call it to think he’s yelling something else.
The sound-check version was fresher and more fun than the version in the show, but I digress.
Downstairs in the dressing room, we could hear fans filing into the Church as we talked of the plague. Everybody stayed busy. Klimek played with bands and singers on Cape Cod. Ligon and McDonough finished a Flat Five (their other band) album in Chicago. Adams lovingly compiled the last recorded work of founding ‘Q guitarist Steve Ferguson. But Adams also said the isolation felt productive only to a point. “I couldn’t see anybody, I didn’t see anybody!”
Back upstairs, I was surprised to see many fans and staff wearing masks, although Vermont has highest vaccination rate of any state. But, this was The Stone Church’s first show in more than a year. Then, gradually, many masks came off, and I recognized fans from decades of ‘Q shows across New England.
From the first beat, it was clear the guys had been practicing.
They started with a perfect choice; “Do You Feel It?” Did we ever! Everybody loved them, felt 14 again and got happy. The ‘Q was in a great mood so it had that feedback loop thing where a happy crowd inspires a happy band and vice versa, until you think the whole building would levitate. It felt like an adrenaline tornado in a funhouse.
Folks eased into dancing, doing the Writhe, the White Youth, the Octopus, the Hippie With A Touch of Arthritis, the Frat-house Drunk, the Peyote Temple, the Tennis Elbow, the Magic-Mushroom Monster Mash.
Song by song, it went like this:
“Do You Feel It?” A great greeting-invitation-affirmation. And, yeah, we did
“This Flat Tire” Wry ‘Q whimsy, with big lift-off in Ligon’s guitar solo
“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” Terrific vocal from McDonough on this Beach Boys classic; he sang it on a Brian Wilson tour
“Call of the Wild” Adams sang this seduction tune, plaintively but proudly
“Flat Foot Flewzy” Adams starred here, too, but with a blistering piano break, first tune that hit that irresistible caffeinated rockabilly groove
“This Love is True” Then it was sweet time; Ligon crooning the vocal and Adams’ octave piano runs on the coda the essence of swing
“Let’s Keep This Love Going” Cruising upbeat with the same sentiment, this also had the same strengths vocally and instrumentally
“Moonlight Serenade” Adams recounted his parents’ anniversary-vows renewal to intro this mellow Glenn Miller slow-dance serenade, then etched a Valentine of a piano solo
“Can’t Wait to Kiss You” An upbeat love-song, Ligon strong at the mic
“Leavin’ It All Up To You” Harmony vocals lit up this vintage country hesitation waltz
“That’s Neat That’s Nice” Two heart-pumping Perrin drum breaks and Klimek’s tenor solo bounced this upbeat rocker behind Adams’ vocal
“Hobbies” An oblique melody, and plenty strange
Jim Hoke put it this way: “…The tune of it – especially those first five ‘ah’s – are in a different key than…the instruments… It’s very hard to sing. I’ve never figured it out and would have a hard time singing it even if I knew what the notes are…You could refer to that tune as being poly-tonal, from a different neighborhood….”
“Turn Turn Turn” Yeah, the Byrds’ classic, with three-part harmony and Ligon echoing that familiar chiming guitar sound
After a break, they came back upstairs to happy cheers and did this:
“Shaggy Dog” Perrin strapped on a guitar and sang this upbeat rocker, and pretty well, while Ligon jumped on the drum kit
“Rain at the Drive-In” A teen-romance recollection with right-now sweetness
“Mouthwaterin’” Klimek’s tenor sax starred in this rollicking instrumental
“Don’t Ever Change” This began a very pretty run of three love songs
“Things to You” McDonough sang at his sincere, plainspoken best in this original ‘Q masterpiece; their simplest melody ever, and most simply beautiful
“All I Have to Do is Dream” The Everly Brothers’ timeless love-as-salvation tune; this is the B-side of the new NRBQ single – yes, a single! – “I’m Not Here”
“Howard Johnson’s Got His Ho-Jo Working” McDonough at the mic again in this careening, joyful romp
Then came an instrumental I didn’t recognize, built on the same chords as “Ho-Jo”
“Never is a Long Long Time” This love song in turn had the same momentum as the instrumental just before
“Yes I Have a Banana” McDonough sang this deceptively straight, turning “Yes, I Have No Bananas” inside out
“A Smile and A Ribbon In My Hair” Adams sang this with just the right antique swing
“Don’t Talk About My Music” Ligon howled this warning with fiery rock and roll defiance
“You Got Me Goin’” Klimek sang powerhouse lead here
“The Great State of Texas” Wow. The saddest waltz, ever. Ligon took over the stage to sing this alone at the piano, a surprise punch-line lament written by his brother Chris and heard on a Flat Five album
“Honey Hush” How amazing that Ligon could recover from “Texas” to rub righteous rock and roll mojo all over this classic, a chestnut stretched by an energetic Adams piano romp, Klimek’s tenor blast and Ligon’s stun-strum guitar blitz
“Ain’t it Alright” Ligon also lit up this rockabilly romp with fast-spinning wheels and loud exhaust
“I Want You Bad” Like the love-song trio in the first set, this overdrive run built momentum song to song. This had standout fast-clatter drumming, an insistent vocal from Ligon and the same deep-groove energy as the previous two high-octane tunes – a dynamite set-closer.
By-now-crazed fans seemed to know the dressing room was directly downstairs; everybody stomped on the floor, hard, in time, for an encore.
They came back and Adams led off “Magnet” with a big piano intro, like Chopin getting the blues, then McDonough sang it strong. They let us down easy with “Be My Love” – yeah, the dramatic 50s ballad; all intimate, cozy.
Then Adams announced, “That was our last song” and they headed off. But the crowd went intensely bat-shit, boo-ing or laughing. So the guys stopped to confer at the edge of the stage. After a few minutes, Adams announced, “We talked it over, and yeah – that was our last song” and they resumed their march off-stage.
But then they stopped, turned around, grabbed up their instruments and did “Next Stop Brattleboro” with super-tasty Adams piano.
The pained “Playing With My Heart,” “Chicken Hearted” with its rueful “I should have been honest” refrain, and the touching paean to fidelity “Boozoo and Leona” built as beautifully as the two previous three-song suites.
Looking for the familiar set-list format? (They don’t use one: Adams calls the show song by song or sometimes just starts playing a tune without cueing the boys. But I digress.) Here you go:
“Be My Love”
“Next Stop Brattleboro”
“Playin’ With My Heart”
“Boozo and Leona”
NRBQ plays Friday, Aug. 27 at the Bearsville Theater outside Woodstock.
Before the plague, NRBQ was matchless musical fun. No other band was as agile, as magical; so playfully capable of tugging any tune, any style, from a bottomless top hat of inspiration and boisterous, bouncy zip. And no other band so visibly, so credibly, meant every note and nuance, played from and directly to the soul.
Now, the plague is receding; no fateful robed wraiths came in sight as I drove in the wet dark from Brattleboro to my friends’ home in Northampton. There, good company and a nice bourbon awaited, my first overnight visit in more than a year.
And NRBQ is still that band. There may be no more hopeful sign of the world waking up, and maybe none could ever sound as good.
The Quinton Cain Quartet charged through the door of live, free outdoor jazz at Jazz on Jay Thursday, June 17; a door Azzaam Hameed and friends kicked open on June 10.
While Hameed’s quartet honored venerable touchstones (not tombstones…) of soul, funk and modal jazz, Cain and crew went modern, groovin’ high with plenty of crunch and glide.
Nobody had a problem when wind blew the charts off their stands: The interactive band linked and locked, listened and glistened. It was sunny. It was sweet. It had altitude and attitude and an easy bravado they rode to seque and sweep from one tune to another.
They didn’t stop for nearly half an hour at the start, as fans toted lawn chairs and just-bought lunches into the busy, at times bristly, sound-scape. “Retrogression” eased from slow to faster, and stranger, as guitarist Luke Franco tossed the ball to trombonist Joe Giordano whose wordless vocals mystery’ed up the tune and they eased into Giordano’s “A.P.V.” Cain’s drums drove the bus, and everybody, while Tarik Shah’s always-on-the-move muscular bass built a head of steam from which solos would burst and billow.
Cain’s slower, sweeter “Pollen Colored Fantasy” blurred impressionistic, pretty and plush. But then they stripped down and beefed up in a mid-funk romp. Giorgano was the star here. While he took bold, brassy risks early, he settled into the pocket, giving the chords a work-out but staying on the map. As Giordano settled in, Franco began to play more outside, body-rocking to the beat, comping big and soloing way over there. Cain’s splashy cymbals flew like spray off a breaking wave as Shah again proved the band’s Most Valuable Player: Hearing a particularly tasty guitar lick, he immediately echoed it, repeated then built it.
This second medley climaxed, that’s the right word, with the late, great trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s “Roy Allan,” a tribute and a trip; gracious and graceful.
Then Cain and crew reached back into his own songbook for “As the Sun Sets” and “Transience and Transcendence,” again linking songs and again without seams. Giordano grabbed the spotlight here, finding the “Woody Woodpecker” theme in a mountains-and-valleys solo; later in the tune, repetitions evolved into Coltrane-y oscillations. In “Sun,” the guys took turns going double-time as everybody else held the beat steady, a great attention-grabbing trick.
When they upshifted from “Sun” into “Transience and Transendence,” Giordano again sparkled, though Franco and Shah got their own tasty pieces of the pie. Happy in the driver’s seat, Cain drove strong, taking the crowd home in a mood as sunny as a Trombone Shorty funk-as-fun number.
Jazz on Jay continues Thursday, June 24 with saxophonist Matty Stecks & The 518.
The David Byrne/Spike Lee film “American Utopia” (HBO) offers a brilliant, highly caffeinated jolt of hope when we really need one.
Lee mostly gets it right visually; and Byrne has changed up the production only slightly since its Palace Theatre presentation in September 2018 awed me with its choreographed and detailed, perfectionist precision, righteous polemical power and joyous musical punch.
However, the world has become distinctly more dire since then, so Byrne’s message has grown more necessary and vital. Just as sound, lyrics aside, Byrne and his constantly moving 11-piece band offer compelling arguments for immigrant assimilation, for vital multiculturalism, the defeat of racism and exploitation and the focused power of close cooperation.
It’s a band of moving parts, barefoot members in matching gray suits, as if the Big Suit Byrne wears in “Stop Making Sense” has diffused into a hive-mind organism that breathes and moves as one.
Layer on lyrics of strong, if sometimes oblique, persuasion, and the thing packs an irresistible message.
To explain how sweet-hard this hit me, let me cite the home-video back-story at our place that perfectly prepared me for it.
First came an Aaron Sorkin double-header:
The reconstituted cast of “The West Wing” (NBC 1999-2006) performs on a nearly bare stage the “Hartsfield’s Landing” episode. It shows a frightening collision between the crucial necessity of intelligent governance (imagine!) and the possibilities for further disaster or positive change that electoral politics present in our own terrifying fork-in-the-road time. This reunion event benefited “When We All Vote” and urged that we do.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” recalls events in an America as divided as now. Though things seemed somehow less frightening then – a time of federal dirty tricks against progressives – its echoes in our own time feel heartbreaking.
Similarly, the non-Sorkin “A Family Thing” (scripted in part by Billy Bob Thornton) argues for racial harmony across agonizing, generations-deep hard secrets of kinship and acceptance.
Looking back further, and more directly at the stage, I recalled the intelligence and buzz of Talking Heads shows at UAlbany’s Page Hall, Albany’s Palace Theatre and Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where Byrne also led his horn-powered 10 Car Pile-Up; then Byrne band shows at The Egg. After the SPAC Big Suit show, I got to speak with Byrne backstage where he answered every question I asked, in paragraphs, but with an at first disconcerting delay.. He paused so long that I thought at first he hadn’t heard me or had simply spaced out. No, this was a very deliberate thoughtfulness that felt, finally, like the deepest sort of courtesy.
So, I was really ready for the David and Spike show to lift me up.
Like Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” film of the Big Suit tour (whose fantastic SPAC show was delayed by a would-be jumper on the Dolly Parton Northway bridge over the Mohawk) the new “American Utopia” production gangs up gradually on the viewer/listener.
The band grows from stark, cryptic, quiet small-scale musings. Byrne sits alone at a table and speaks, then rises to speak some more. Like Hamlet contemplating Yorick’s skull, he muses on a pink model of a brain, as music seeps into the shimmery silver three-walled space around him. It’s serene as a library at first, then alive with sound and motion, evolving in shrewdly paced stages. Singers and players congregate around him, always in motion since their instruments – the drum set is split among five mobile percussionists – connect wirelessly to unseen amps. The effect is of fluid grace, a moving gang of growing sound. Early on, Lee places the camera overhead in the lighting grid as bodies below go all geometric in an ever-shifting human landscape and the music itself swells. Later, Byrne remarks to both crowd and camera that looking at humans is more interesting than looking at a bag of potato chips or, by extension, any product.
David Byrne, and brain, and the first inklings of the band growing behind him at Albany’s Palace Theatre in September 2018. Michael Hochanadel photo
Tunes jukebox together from both the newish, fairly straight-ahead rock album that gives the production its name and from the electric funk of the augmented mid-80s Big Suit era Talking Heads. When a song from this bygone, boomer-fond era emerges, the crowd goes happily bonkers.
In a show with a previous band at The Egg the evening after Barack Obama was elected president, Byrne told us, “Now everything changes.” More would and should have changed; but Byrne’s current hope for change in “American Utopia” is hard-won, but real – and not naive at all. It is comprehensive and quietly fierce. (Check out his Reasons to be Cheerful: https://reasonstobecheerful.world/.)
In its honed confidence, its slick packaging, its nonstop action, the music packs unarguable urgency, culminating in Janelle Monae’s angry-compassionate “Hell You Talmbout” (Byrne asked her permission) that climaxes in a litany of mourning slain Black people. This perfectly follows “Burning Down the House,” thematically and musically. After each victim’s face appears projected behind the band, Byrne and band command “Say his (or her) name!”
Yes, say their names. And hail the names of David Byrne and Spike Lee for expressing the vivid mixture of daily dismay and battered hope that anyone with a functioning brain and moral sense must feel in these troubled and troubling days.
Thanks, gentlemen; and the men and women you assembled on the stage to dazzle us on our screens.
This story first appeared in Nippertown, my first story there in months, and I’m pleased to be back, again. Let me explain. The late, great Greg Haymes (“Sergeant Blotto” in Albany rock-comedy band Blotto) and his partner in life and creativity Sara Ayers published Nippertown for a decade until Greg passed last year. I wrote and photographed stories there when they didn’t fit the Gazette style or format and felt proud doing so: It was the hippest, best-curated view of music and other arts in the Albany area. It retains that mantle since Sara handed the keys to publisher Jim Gilbert late last year. A big shout-out to Jim for opening this door.
I miss the stairs, and much else about Caffe Lena – but we don’t have to miss the music entirely.
Blues great Mississippi John Hurt was playing there, first time I climbed those stairs; and blues were on the menu when I went up the virtual stairs Wednesday as the Mark Emanation duo (with guitarist Tom Dolan) played to three cameras in a house empty but for host Sarah Craig, stage tech Ian Hamelin and camera-video/broadcast sound tech Joel Moss.
The venerable (60 years) Saratoga Springs coffeehouse presents live music nearly every night in its Stay Home Sessions, both live streams and archived shows; plus instructional sessions.
Accessing Wednesday’s show was easy via Youtube at www.caffelena.org, Choosing what virtual show to watch via Mac from my Schenectady home-office desk, less so. Shows streaming Wednesday included the peripatetic Erin Harkes from hereabouts, also Nashvillians I’ve met while visiting my brother Jim Hoke there: Joe Pisapia at my cellist-nephew Austin Hoke’s poker-dinner parties, John England leading the hardest-hitting hard country band on the neon-splashed lower Broadway bar strip from Roberts Western Wear. But I digress.
The blues seemed right for me Wednesday, though, in memory of both Mississippi John Hurt from my first Caffe visit and Emanation’s long association with Ernie Williams, whose ghost climbed the stairs with him and Dolan.
Emanation, hereafter MA, started by placing himself in the Caffe’s history, citing past shows there including benefits that burnish the bluesman’s long reputation with Williams, Folding Sky, current crew Soul Sky and almost uncounted others.
MA and TD have made music together since their early teens in Watervliet schools; and it showed Wednesday. At their best, they flowed smooth and easy. Handoffs and endings sometimes felt ragged, though, yet that seemed OK in these days when practicing seems problematic. They know what their best stuff is, so after warming up on two songs with more generic than specific messages, they hit an early peak by getting sadly real in “Watervliet Waltz.” Here they mourned change as loss, noting globalism as a zero-sum game our Rust-Belt towns are losing.
The production was sharp, MA’s vocals and both guitars coming through clear. Three cameras caught the action (though both played seated), pivoting on the beat to catch TD’s solo in “What Am I Gonna Do,” then right back to MA for his break, for example. MA aimed his voice south in songs set there including the plaintive post-Katrina “Rain Keep Fallin’ Down,” pleading “Can we make it” in words that seem sadly apt today. Mourning marked the next number, too: “He Don’t Live Here Any More,” dedicated to departed fellow bluesman Tom Healey; but in this number and others with local settings, MA sang in a distinctly northeastern, Springsteen-echoing, Rust-Belt howl.
The mood shifted to anger in CSN&Y’s “Ohio,” intro’ed with MA’s recollection of protests announced in placards inserted in newspapers he delivered as an 8thgrader appalled by the Kent State National Guard murders. They nailed it, and held their mood of modulated outrage through “I Remember Bobby Sands” about the Irish hunger-strike hero. While TD riffed most of the hot solos – his break in “”Frozen” might have melted a glacier – MA’s coda in “Ohio” and fiery lead in “”Sands” sparkled just as bright. So did his slide solo driving the stoic shuffle “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Working Day.”
Late in the show, they riffled back through the Ernie Williams songbook, MA explaining how he and his band mates transmuted Williams’ road-trip stories and recollections into songs they’d write for their elder-leader to sing. MA’s humility in noting they’d had to grow into those songs spotlighted in powerful poignancy how the blues flow from generation to generation.
Their best songs followed me down the Caffe’s virtual stairs as they wound down, reaped the applause from their audience of three; so did CSN&Y’s “Ohio,” written in a time as troubled as our own. I remembered, too, how Graham Nash told me in an interview how proud he was of “Ohio” – although it followed and eclipsed his own idyllic “Teach Your Children Well.” Nash recalled “Ohio” pushed “Teach” off the singles chart, but suggested it deserved to, that its message was that important.
We don’t know what important angry, compassionate or even funny messages our singers will sing about these times. But we can expect to hear many of them at the top of the stairs of Caffe Lena.
Live chat and a virtual tip jar to support the performers and the Caffe are available during streams.