Also, I was there, in one of four press seats for reviewers that night. And the show was way better than I’d dared hope. In fact, I got the review assignment in part because none of the other Gazette music writers wanted to go.
We all thought they were done. And we were wrong, in a big way.
And as magnetic, powerful and totally commanding – in short, magnificent – as the Stones were that night, the 13-piece (!) Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra was even better, earlier that same week, playing Brown’s Brewing Company’s Revolution Hall in Troy.
Just couldn’t let the entire Jazz on Jazz season blur past without catching some sounds, so I hied myself to where Jay Street t’s onto State on September 18 for the Tarik Shah Trio, last in the regular free street jazz series. Had such a cool time, I then re-hied myself back for the three-band Jazz Appreciation Month concert there a week later.
Shorn of the dreads he sported at Jazz at the Spring with guitarist in pre-plague days (early February), bassist Shah, guitarist Luke Franco and drummer Matt Niedbalski balanced standards with originals to inviting effect.
Warm day, warm music.
They’d already started when I arrived, a bit late from an appointment and being distracted by the Open Door Bookshop window. So I may have missed something, but I felt grateful to catch the hearty funk of “Sunday’ Hardship Blues” – a family-mentoring tale where Shah clearly led, there on Jay Street, while his compadres kept up, held their own and pushed their own ideas into Shah’s original. In Quincy Jones’s “Quintessence” (no, not the late, great New Scotland Avenue bistro), Shah swapped his acoustic bass for an electric four-string and ganged up on the beat all by himself with a hard-hitting right thumb.
In the Duke’s “Caravan,” Franco’s guitar punched the rhythm, especially when Shah laid out and Franco and Niedbalski went A-versus-B before Shah joined in to swap fours with everybody, then slapped a feedback coda on the whole sly and syncopated thing. More syncopation popped in Mal Waldron’ “Soul Eyes” and the band hung with the groove into the theme from “Black Orpheus” – a thrilling bossa-funk foray with Franco’s guitar swinging the melody while Shah and Niedbalski hit an exuberant double-time clip.
“We’re gonna swing some,” Shah announced at their closing number, cueing up “My Shining Hour” to take us home. Warmed up from the first notes I saw, they hit top cruising altitude here.
Shah’s crew gauged the audience well, noting that lawn-chaired fans (all masked) at times barely outnumbered folks passing through, toting lunches from Jay Street eateries back to offices across State. The trio didn’t challenge, but they didn’t condescend, either. It was jazz for real, and for real fans.
Postponed from April, the official Jazz Appreciation Month, sponsors the Schenectady-Amsterdam Musical Union, Local 85-133 and the Music Performance Trust Fund patiently brought back this three-band freebie last Thursday (September 24) when the world felt safer.
Noisier, too, let’s note here. Sirens screamed, Harley hogs rapped their pipes, drivers honked horns. The three bands – the Dylan Canterbury Quintet, the Patti Melita Quintet and Cliff Brucker & New Circle – had to fight through way too much distraction. But they did it.
Paying tribute to a single artist can feel confining, monochromatic. Trumpeter-leader Canterbury’s ingenious arrangements and first-class playing by everybody highlighted the variety and verve of Thad Jones’s compositions which comprised the entire setlist. They played with an easy, mellow swagger; bluesy in “61st and Richard,” Latin-dancey in “Bossa Nova Ova, and even when they went dissonant, everything had swing. Canterbury and valve trombonist Tyler Giroux usually harmonized to state the theme, then one yielded for the other to solo, then they swapped roles. Pianist Wayne Hawkins, bassist Lou Smaldone and drummer Graeme Francis played ferocious or sensitive in support and ambushing their own solo spots with gusto. They balanced jaunty up-tunes – “Fingers,” a hot-rod welded onto the frame of “I Got Rhythm” took my breath away, and theirs – with the mature sweetness of “Consummation” – best ballad all day.
Patti Melita aimed her ageless voice and the solid, unassuming ease of her quintet at charming standards, appropriately noting they were playing on “On The Sunny Side of the Street” early on. Tenor saxophonist Jim Corigliano always took the first solo, echoing Melita’s elegance but adding fast-moving decoration at times, too. Keyboardist Peg Delaney played organ and vibes effects in “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “Let There Be Love,” but mostly relied on regular piano tones. Bassist Bill Delaney and drummer Tim Coakley linked tight in both their crisp phrasing and droll asides, having fun, giving fun to the music.
Extra credit to these local heroes for honoring one of our most heroic giants, the late, great Lee Shaw, closing with Shaw’s syncopated bossa nova “My Holiday” that felt festive and fine.
Leading a stripped-down version of the Full Circle band he’s led on two albums and several years of shows, drummer Cliff Brucker closed Thursday. His New Circle trio – keyboardist Pete Levin and guitarist Chad McLoughlin – went all bebop in an agile, imaginative set reaching into jazz history and the future with equal aplomb.
Sound engineer Rob Aronstein, an ace keyboardist in his own right, mixed both front of house and stage monitors by himself, with problems marring only the early part of New Circle’s set. Backing off from the kinetic energy of their zippy opener, they soothed big time in Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” McLoughlin caressing the melody until Brucker engaged the guys in brisk riff swaps.
Levin made mighty organ sounds, listening closely and beautifully to his bandmates. He shared every idea, climbed aboard every melody and was always right on the money rhythmically, most spectacularly in “Afro Blue.” After early hesitancy, they found their way into Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo” and their usual confidence, McLoughlin etching fast scales across this familiar structure and reclaiming the head after bouncy, feisty, short riffing. “Just Friends” found McLoughlin at his best – Brucker and Levin, too; a melodic bop hymn of energy and tenderness.
As coda of a very strange summer, with music moving online and into strange places or going away altogether, both these jazz events on Jay Street felt fun and welcome, despite distractions. Both pointed the way, we can only hope, to quality jazz by familiar faces in familiar places.
One death lost to this plague, any death, is one too many.
But it’s hitting musicians especially hard, stealing both lives and livelihoods with the hiatus on live concerts.
The list is too sad to recite here; it doesn’t stop with John Prine. Now another singular talent has gone. Frederick “Toots” Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals died Friday in Kingston, Jamaica, at 77.
While he arguably named the rock-steady Caribbean style he helped invent in the early 1960s with “Do the Reggay,” the singer also reached past his island style to Memphis soul. Raised by strict Seventh Day Adventist parents, he learned to harmonize in church and ever after packed a preacher’s moral force in a voice with the sonic kick of Otis Redding.
With fellow Maytals singers Jerry Matthias and Raleigh Gordon and a deep-grooving band, Toots scored hit after hit in reggae’s early to mid-70s heyday: “Six and Seven Books.” “65-46 That’s My Number,” “Monkey Man,” “Pomp and Pride” and more. The trio was then reggae’s dominant format: the original Wailers, the Heptones, the Wailin’ Souls, Culture, Black Uhuru, the Mighty Diamonds, the Meditations, the Paragons, Justin Hines and the Dominos. Soon, white British musicians including the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and the Clash adopted Caribbean syncopation and liberation politics, spurring reggae’s popularity. However, like the earlier appropriation of rocking Chicago blues, they arguably seldom matched the joyful bounce of its beat or the fervor of its message as practiced by its founding Jamaican giants.
The loudest version of any Toots hit I ever heard was in Buffalo’s Rich Stadium where the Stones boomed Toots biggest hit, “Pressure Drop,” in its 1981 tour pre-show music. But Toots’ own performance at UAlbany’s MayFest the following June stands out as a commanding peak of exuberant mastery. The inimitable reggae DJ Sir Walford grabbed my arm before the show and tugged me aboard Toots’ tourbus for an interview that was really a reunion of old friends.
Nobody expressed or gave more joy onstage than Toots, despite challenges including a 1967 prison sentence for marijuana possession and cancelling a 2013 tour after being struck onstage by a thrown bottle.
Ellie and I played his “Sweet and Dandy” at our June 1977 wedding, a time when I seldom listened to anything but reggae for fun. Toots’ albums “Funky Kingston,” “In the Dark,” “Reggae Got Soul” and “Toots in Memphis” are still in heavy rotation, and I was just discovering his comeback album “Got to Be Tough.”
This one hits hard, like a pressure drop to the heart.
I heard it first. It woke me – a wavering high hiss with a low hum like a culmination or intensifying of the hiss.
Right on time, I thought, looking at the clock as I got up and headed to the bathroom. Hurricane Isaias was forecast to pass over Chincoteague and Assateague islands on Virginia’s eastern shore around 8 a.m. The power quit half an hour later, the hiss and the hum rose in waves of roar.
Between the balcony of our second floor rented apartment and the Assateague lighthouse a mile east, white chop scalloped three bands of water and combed two stretches of marsh; brilliant green in yesterday’s sunlight, they were vanishing under water racing right to left, south to north. A gull walked on the dock below; where we’d waved at crabbers the past two afternoons it was empty of people now. I saw the bird tense its body as gust-hiss rose, tuck its wings tighter and spread its feet to stay upright. Other gulls rode the fast-moving water; some seemed to fight it, but only by flying low on frantic wings could they move through the roar.
A brown rectangle ten or fifteen feet long zipped into view on the nearest race of water, an upside-down skiff, barnacled and bobbing, vanishing faster to the north than its motor could ever have pushed it.
Ellie told me the hum was from the metal legs of the balcony table Zak and I had inverted onto its top the night before when we brought the chairs inside and stacked them behind the sliding glass doors. When I held my camera against the glass to steady it for a shot, the tall panes throbbed with the wind, which clawed the screen loose from its frame.
The far channel nearest the lighthouse sprouted tall clouds of flying wet, like snow drifting in a blizzard. Then clouds rose over the nearest waters over waves scalloped in curves from bank to bank, as if the land were hanging onto the water, slowing it at the edges.
Waves slopped over the dock, three feet off the water at high tide, as dark brown weed-clumps drifted past, torn from the shallows. The chaotic sky lightened here and there, sometimes brightening to clear-day cloud white then switching off.
From across the table, Zak offered to scramble me some eggs. He elaborated, “I can scramble the eggs, but I can’t cook them for you.”
Lunch, and everything else, was improvised, cold; and I had to wait a day for my coffee.
We shared gratitude that Ellie’s niece Maggie had set her wedding for Friday, not that tempestuous hurricane Tuesday.
Then, more gratitude as the winds waned. They tore white, then blue, holes in the gray veil-wall of tumult overhead.
As we watched the sky clear, a hummingbird flew up from below, hovered in mid-air to and swiveled its head from me to Zak and back: was it drawn to the red in the Sundazed Records logo on my T-shirt?
The tide turned, rolling in a fast ebb north to south, left to right. Standing waves formed as remnants of surge fought the tide. A brave surfer could have ridden them, until the wind carried him to Maine. Two guys ventured onto the dock below and crossed to the edge, tugging crab traps out of the water, hand over hand on taut lines. A girl of about eight returned a little later, looked at the small sea turtle we pointed out to her and again tugged the crab trap up to study its residents.
I wondered about the crabs’ experience of all this; crammed into rectangular wire prisons as the water went wild around them. Like us, in the dark rented apartment above.
* * * * * *
The power was off all day; lunch was peanut butter and jelly, dinner a salad heaped with tuna. Downed trees lined the roads to Trish and Stacy’s house a mile and a half away; we found the power was back on there. As the world dried from battered grasses to wild skies where winds still ripped and rolled the clouds, the surfers in our crew impatiently checked the Assateague National Seashore website: Is the beach open? No, came the disappointing answer: downed electrical wires were sparking, arcing on the road. We got busy in Trish and Stacy’s yard, taking saws and long-handled clippers to a downed 30-foot cedar in Trish and Stacy’s yard. We swept pine cones and needles into fragrant heaps we toted to the woods. The cedar had considerately, fortunately fallen along Patty and Craig’s fence and pergola next door, touching neither. When Zak and Alex severed its multiple trunks, the root-ball sprang eagerly back into the ground, looking as if nothing had happened except its tree had vanished.
A shed near our apartment had collapsed in a heap of joists, cracked framing and bent walls, and tree limbs lined the roads and heaped on lawns.
Everybody learned at once when the electric lines downed on the beach road were cleared the next day. The usual parade began, compressed and intensified. Golf carts, SUV’s and motorcycles piloted by browned guys with surfboards in one hand, throttles in the other, jammed the road. Bicycles single-filed alongside, some competently ridden, but many barely in control of riders who hadn’t been on two wheels this century.
Beachgoers mostly distanced themselves, and many wore masks trudging past to where they set up tents, dropped and opened coolers and settled in for the day.
More Mennonites in long dresses and bonnets pilgrimaged in this beach parade than Black people, a reminder that Blacks were exiled from the islands in the 1950s to Horntown (formerly, openly, N*****rtown), a mainland enclave near the Wallops Island NASA base.
Up and down Chincoteague, Isaias had shredded and blown entirely away some trump signs from lawns: a message from aggrieved nature? Was she a Democrat?
Hey! Hurricane!- c’mon back and finish the job!
* * * * * *
We’ve beach-vacationed in Chincoteague since Zak, now 39, was two; thanks to the hospitality of Trish and Bill who’ve opened their homes to us even when they’re away.
We’ve attended weddings of their three children nearby, two on the island itself including Ellie’s niece Maggie earlier this month on the “beverage dock” in Little Oyster Bay behind Trish and Bill’s place.
This celebration for 30 was scaled down from a giant blow-out originally planned for 350: wedding ceremony in the Island cinema, reception in the community center where Maggie’s brother Max’s reception brought us all together two summers ago.
Ellie and Zak and I got tested for the plague before committing to the trip to Maggie’s fandango. We got virus-clean results, we packed the car.
We missed daughter Pisie and son in law Tony who joined us in Chincoteague by ZOOM, busy with full time jobs in Kentucky and preparations to move to Nashville.
At the wedding, we were masked, we were distant, we were relieved when the weather turned way nicer than the forecast. Food was from Maggie and husband Alex’s favorite Mexican food truck, bountiful as it was delicious; we took leftover guacamole, chips and relish home to Schenectady. There were touching toasts, and rope tricks by the father of the bride. Raised in Tucson and proudly cowboy-hatted, he found in recent genealogical research that his family originally landed nearby from England before moving west.
We’ve seen the island and town change over time: the fishing culture has waned, with growing boutique-izing and condo-conversion of the place – symbolized by the replacing of the town’s quaint drawbridge entry by a multi-lane high-speed causeway. Many of the tiny houses remain, though, that were barged across the channel to Chincoteague when the feds took Assateague Island for wildlife refuge and national seashore in a land grab many locals still curse.
These photos are from a week-long visit when I steered away from shooting views I’ve photographed many times, since the days of film.
I first heard of Chincoteague in the early 1970s from Schenectady friend Lee Bowden, a film-maker who grew up there but escaped into hippie-pacifism from its strictures and social hangovers. Drafted in ‘Nam time, he won conscientious objector status and did medical research at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
On a steamy summer evening that his friends here still recall with awe, Lee shocked them by insisting they all leave, forthwith, for Chincoteague since its famous festival “Pony-Penning” was the next day.
They boarded what Lee delighted in describing as a “softly-sprung highway cruiser” and drove all night. On arrival, his mom made crab-cakes for everybody.
Everything is strange about Pony-Penning. Surf cowboys ride into marshy pastures on Assateague Island, round up its famed herd of wild ponies and herd them (swimming) across the channel to Chincoteague where the volunteer fire department auctions colts off to whomever. Before common sense vetting began, clueless buyers would shove ponies into station wagons and drive hundreds of miles back to wherever, blissfully ignorant of what a wild animal might need in a car or a suburb in New Jersey or Michigan.
A century ago, Chincoteague fisherfolk and merchants found secession inconvenient for business and therefore ignored it, continuing to ship oysters, clams and crabs on ice to Philadelphia and New York. Sidestepping the Civil War, they didn’t lack for strife, though. A “religious” cult, the “Sanctified Band,” took root there, outraging the more mainstream “christians” with polygamy and otherwise objectionable ways. A 1970s Playboy article praising Assateague as a nude beach brought an angry echo of this town-wide shit-fit. Back then, there was blood: gunfire complications. In fact, Lee, that same Chincoteaguer (“‘Teaguer” for short)-turned-Schenectadian lost his grandfather in the town’s religious war, shot dead while sleeping in an upstairs apartment – like Legs Diamond was, in a Dove Street Albany apartment William Kennedy owns as his in-town place.
I once went with Kennedy’s son Brendan, a work colleague on my last PR gig, to “see my parents” in Averill Park, a village above the Hudson’s east bank, after a video shoot. He shot, I directed. We found the elder Kennedy (past 90 and still a pistol of lucidity) in a funk, struggling to write a talk for 20 journalism students at the University at Albany where his MacArthur Fellowship spawned the New York State Writers Institute. Now, THAT’S a writer: somebody who can agonize over any assignment. Brendan and I cheered him up pretty easily, just by asking about the authors whose books filled floor to ceiling shelves in his study. I asked about Peter Matthiessen, an early Writers Institute speaker whom I phone interviewed before his visit and met at his reading. I pulled out Matthiessen’s novel “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” about colliding forces in a South American jungle: tribal, commercial, corrupt government and religious. It has about the best account of the psychedelic experience I’ve ever read, plus other virtues. Bill jumped quickly from the book to the film, a pretty OK adaption that includes a slow dolly shot toward the spectacular sight of Daryl Hanna nude on a riverbank, and a raffish portrayal by Tom Waits of a mercenary pilot. Waits also acted in Kennedy’s own “Ironweed” adaptation which is full of friends of mine. But I digress.
Once Lee was in Chincoteague when we also were. He showed us around and took us to the fishing harbor to meet his cousin Ernie who built his boat, the 40-foot Barbara B, in his backyard. The Barbara B replaces one that sank under him. He swam to a buoy and clung tight in a gale so strong that he – raised on the water and operator of sure sea legs – vomited nonstop for hours until rescued by the Coast Guard. One season, he did so well by selling sharks’ fins to Manhattan restaurants for soup that he bought his wife (the Barbara B) a Jaguar sedan on eBay. Lee is 6’3″ and not thin, but Ernie is 6’8″ and burly and hug-swung Lee around like a stuffed toy.
When I went back to the fishing harbor after the hurricane, I found the Barbara B winched out on shore, growing rust stains and for sale.
‘Teaguers speak a twangy drawl unlike any accent I’ve heard elsewhere, and a tweaked vocabulary. Folks who arrived after the War for States Rights (which, as noted, they ignored) are “Come-here people,” and the unit of weight for buying produce is pronounced something like “powhng.” Any water-craft is a scow and every lawn and driveway has one parked in it. Pickups outnumber all other wheeled conveyances on the island about five to one.
Chincoteague has one brew-pub but no other bars outside of restaurants, a gaudy plastic water-park, a reggae-themed food-court called Woody’s (I sent a T-shirt promoting the place to my old friend Judge Woody Smith [Ret.] in Albuquerque), two ice-cream shops. We still miss the late lamented Muller’s but still have the T-shirts; ‘Teaguers ruefully nod or hang their heads when they spot us wearing ‘em. There are three churches, a funeral home, two vegetable stands and some shops vending T-shirts and souvenirs (one’s sign read “SOUVINIERS”) to visitors.
Those who visit the sun-blasted grassy edges of the road to the beach on Assateague, bringing big beer coolers but no shade, and fish for crabs with chicken necks on strings are called “chicken-neckers.” Neckers never go to the beach.
Surfers, nudists willing to walk half-way to Maryland to doff their kits, picnickers, kite flyers, sand-diggers and molders, squinting readers, skin-bakers with insufficient sunscreen and parasailers all do.
In awarding management of the Cohoes Music Hall to Playhouse Stage Company/Park Playhouse through an RFP process, the City seems to be punishing success while repeating missteps of the past.
We’re seeing the same bad movie, again.
Over the past several years, Holly Brown and her team operated the Hall so effectively that Times Union readers honored it as Best Small Live-Music Venue of the Capital Region in 2019.
As music reviewer for Schenectady’s Gazette Newspapers, I appreciate the Hall’s high quality programming including particularly impressive shows I saw there by Alejandro Escovedo, Rodney Crowell with Joe Robinson, John Medeski’s Mad Skillet and Terrance Simien and his Zydeco Experience. Many, many more first-class artists have played the Hall in a busy schedule with consistently high performance and production quality.
The Hall wasn’t broke: Why “fix” it?
Over time, the Hall has survived a roller-coaster ride of hopeful ambition, investment and achievement followed by depressing let-downs that eroded its momentum, energy and support.
After decades of dormancy and neglect, the Hall welcomed the Eighth Step for a time, presenting quality national and regional folk artists.
Then, the city evicted the Eighth Step in favor of a theater company, C&R Productions, which imploded and withdrew.
After another dormant period, regional promoters Greg Bell (of Guthrie Bell Productions) and Sal Prizio (then of the Massry Center at the College of St. Rose, now with Proctors Collaborative) promoted a variety of popular music events in the Hall.
But these competent, creditable promoters were soon ousted, like the Eighth Step, followed by another dormant period.
See; the same bad movie.
When the City hired Holly Brown, formerly at Albany’s Palace Theatre, a true renaissance began at the Hall.
A busy concert schedule brought in top talent, which brought in crowds and revenue, both for the venue and for neighborhood hospitality businesses through dinner-and-show promotions. Moreover, Brown and her team oversaw improvements to lighting and audio systems that enhance the audience experience.
The Hall was busy, on a roll.
Granted, I write my concerns without having reviewed the management proposals from which the city chose that of Playhouse Stage Company/Park Playhouse. And this is not to denigrate that organization, which has for 30-plus years presented quality musical theater in Washington Park’s Lakehouse Theater and in the Hall, seemingly in effective cooperation with Brown’s management team, Similarly, impresario Mona Golub’s Second Wind Productions cooperated with Park Playhouse to present its varied musical offerings in Washington Park on nights when Park Playhouse was dark.
I question the City’s choice due to admiration for the presentation quality and quantity Brown and her team had built in the Hall.
I also doubt specifically that Playhouse Stage Company/Park Playhouse has expertise in varied bookings and presentations equivalent to the skills she brought to the Hall.
The pending management change will likely narrow the artistic spectrum of performances in the Cohoes Music Hall, at the expense of the quality musical fare of the past several years, and fans of that fare.
The Cohoes Music Hall isn’t broken; I urge the City not to “fix” it.
The Legendary Characters Play Freedom Park Quarantune Streaming Series Tonight, July 25
From leading the Out of Control Rhythm & Blues Band Blues Band and Out of the Blues in the 80s and 90s, Rick Siciliano now plays what the drummer-singer cheerfully calls the “silver-haired circuit” with the Legendary Characters, a trio that entertains in nursing homes and rehab facilities.
An expended Legendary Characters crew plays the Freedom Park Quarantune Series tonight (July 25) from Scotia, though locations don’t mean much in these plague times when live music comes to us via streaming.
Siciliano hadn’t made music in public for a decade and had retired from his photography and video business, Digital Imaging Technologies; but he hesitated when a former bandmate invited him to play again.
Then he remembered his 96-year-old mother’s complaint about the entertainment in her nursing home. “Most of them stink,” he recalled her saying. He realized, “Old people, they know good stuff. They deserve good music and to have a good time.”
Delivering good times was the blueprint for the Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band, formed in 1982 as house band for parties of the ski club by that name. (Skiing comes back, keep reading.) Gregarious, a natural host and catalyst, Siciliano has long mixed fun with; well, everything. A leading commercial photographer, he answered the phone saying “Studio” as if there were no other; and his Albany Street workplace-residence hosted legendary Halloween parties and other gatherings.
His Out of Control Rhythm & Blues band became a leading cover band delivering R&B, soul and rock good times in bars and private parties. When he left that big band in 1994, he built another, the eight-piece Out of the Blues crew, a similar party juggernaut. By 2003, he disbanded it, tired of handling the band’s business including booking shows and being “band shrink.”
An avid outdoorsperson, he became a ski instructor then, a member since 2003 of the Professional Ski Instructors of America.
So was John Hall, leader, singer and main songwriter of Orleans. Hall started teaching in Catskills resorts between that pop-rock band’s hit-making days and a seat in Congress. One day during class, Orleans’ “You’re Still the One” played over the instruction-slope sound system. “That’s me,” said Hall. His class wouldn’t believe him until he sang along, as their jaws dropped. But I digress.
After Siciliano sold Digital Imaging Technologies in 2010, he became bus aide to special needs students in the Scotia-Glenville system. Then keyboardist John Dross, once Siciliano’s bandmate in Out of the Blues, asked him to play in a new small community band in libraries, nursing and rehab facilities. They sounded good to Siciliano who remembered his mom’s complaint and resolved to deliver something better than the solo acts dominating that “silver-haired circuit” where gigs might pay “15 bucks and a tuna sandwich.”
Originally a quartet of Dross playing guitar and keyboards, Siciliano singing and playing drums, keyboardist David Gerhan and accordionist Ralph Brooks, the band continued as a trio after Dross died of cancer. They’d been playing once or twice a month until “I got the fever and wanted to start playing more,” said Siciliano. He took over the bookings as the band updated its repertoire, dropping its swing-era tunes to concentrate on 50s and 60s rock, and became the Legendary Characters.
“When Elvis hit, I was 10 or 11, but the people we play for now, they’re older,” said Siciliano, now 70, sometimes the youngest person at a show. “They were out partying when Elvis came out.” He said, “We heard from the directors of these facilities that people like rock and roll, so we hop it up, we come in and get them going, we get them up and dancing.” Pointing out a spry woman who kept bringing her fellow residents to their feet at one gig, a staffer challenged Siciliano to guess her age. Late 70s, maybe 80, he guessed. The woman was 90 and a sparkplug.
“They’re old, not dead,” said Siciliano. “They appreciate good stuff” – the stuff he grew up on, the stuff his silver-haired listeners partied to, decades ago. “The people we play for, they all say to us, ‘This was part of our life, and we enjoy this.’”
The Legendary Characters play 1950s and 60s jukebox classics by Elvis and other 50s pioneers, also harmony classics by the Everly Brothers and other groups, plus vintage country fare including twangers by Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Ricky Nelson and Conway Twitty.
They also take their “Legendary” moniker seriously.
“We give people historical perspective,” said Siciliano. “We tell them the history, so before we play ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ we tell the history of why he wrote it and how he wrote it.” He said, “We talk about Buddy Holly dying when he was just 22, then we do a Buddy Holly song.” They reach through the songs to the stories, the legends. “We enjoy it, and they enjoy it,” said Siciliano. “It’s like being out at a club for us.”
Siciliano said return gigs allow the band to get to know the audience. “They look forward to us coming in, because we have more energy than just a solo act.”
The Legendary Characters were on target to play 100 shows this year, but cancellations began with a St. Patrick’s Day show as the pandemic shut down live music. Siciliano said he’s grateful that the facilities where they play are “staying with the guidelines to care for their people.” But he added, “We hope it opens up for outdoor things.”
Meanwhile, such virtual streaming performances as the Freedom Park Quarantune Series brought a new way to bring artists and audiences together. Like the Out of Control Rhythm & Blues Band and Out of the Blues, the Legendary Characters have played Freedom Park in the Scotia venue’s 43 years, explained Siciliano, a board member.
For the July 25 streaming show, the Legendary Characters added guest players and taped at Turf Tavern a few weeks ago. In addition to Siciliano, drums and vocals; Gerhan, keyboards; and Brooks, accordion; the expanded lineup includes Bob Maslyn, bass; Gary Herba, sax; and Ralph Spillenger, guitar. Maslyn and Herba played with Siciliano in previous bands while Spillenger, a longtime restaurateur (the Bijou, the Bayou Café, Jillian’s, NaNola and others) played with the Students.
The Legendary Characters recorded 14 songs in their hour-long taping (versus the 90 minutes typical of actual live shows). Their show streams tonight (Saturday, July 25) at 7 p.m. and will be available thereafter, at https://freedomparkscotia.com.
The first live music I’ve heard since early March was karaoke at a birthday party yesterday in Carolina’s yard. The barbecue smelled great, the talk sounded happy, but the best part for me was the singing.
It was all in Caribbean Espanol, it was pretty loud and it was very up and down. But, from the brash guy with the agile and on-the-money baritone to the shy woman with the pitchy alto who took a while to find herself in the song, everybody who was coaxed to the mic – or jokingly shoved away from it – sang with the same passion and total investment in the music.
That’s the thing I most value in performance, from seeing the greats in the venues we can’t go to now to a neighbor’s party.
That passion and pleasure in the singing made it great fun to hear voices in the air, voices full of personality, voices in the clear, voices in the happy here and now.
Big ups to brother Jim Hoke for his traditional jazz arrangement of Janis Ian’s “Better Times Will Come.”
Traditional jazz* was the first music Jim and I fell in love with, growing up in Guilderland. I remember that Pee Wee Hunt album he holds up in the video as a real ear-opener – first 33-1/3 rpm album we ever saw. There’s SO much to love here, from the overall feeling of sheer exuberance, with bouncy street parade momentum, to such details as the jaunty uplift in all the horn parts and the off-beats on the snare near the end. He arranged and played everything.
The video knocks me out, too, filmed at Jim’s Nashville place where I visited in January, before The Plague. Check the zoom-in on the neck of the D-18 our nephew Jared decorated with Jim’s name, on his gig making guitars at Martin in Nazareth, PA; and a jazz portrait of Louis Armstrong – betcha he’s grinning at THIS one! – with Jim’s face cleverly inserted by his wonderfully talented wife Lisa Haddad and her friend Eva Sochorova.
Hit this, and be delighted:
This music is ”Dixieland” everywhere but in New Orleans whose musical geniuses invented it; there, it’s “traditional jazz” – Hunt’s album title notwithstanding.
When friend and fellow Mountain Music Club member Dan from coastal Massachusetts recently sent a link to The Guardian newspaper’s Patti Smith profile, the powerful poet-singer came into sharper focus than that background awareness her 1970s work earned.It’s a good overview, in the U.K. paper’s ongoing series recommending entry points into recording artists’ work.
I came late to that party, but the admiration of others, particularly musician friends brought me back to her like the Guardian story. Link, below.
One musician fan, New Yorker City kid Tom Dimopoulos, led a highly theatrical 1980s punk band here called bx721, after its post office box. He told me about seeing her early on, in lower Manhattan. Coming up out of the subway into the light of daybreak on his way home, uplifted by her show, he felt inspired to believe more strongly in himself and his possibilities than he ever imagined. That feeling has powered his art ever since. bx721 was a hoot, fronted by Jack Nemier who wore an electric suit – conventional office garb glittering with hundreds of tiny Christmas tree lights. Dimopoulos now lives in Saratoga Springs, works mainly as a scribe and shows up often at the same concerts I do.
Another musician/Patti Smith fan is Michael Eck, sometime music writer, former publicist and now marketing writer for the Oregon musical instrument crafters Two Old Hippies. He revered her and once got to play a show with her. More than the late great Greg Haymes, more than I, Eck was a tough crowd when writing about music for the Times Union. After seeing Billy Ray Cyrus in his “Achy-Breaky Heart Days,” Eck wrote, “I bet Billy Ray Cyrus voted for the fat Elvis stamp” – best lead I ever saw on a concert review. He said Patti’s close-up presence empowered him in much the way Tom D. describes.
Michael Stipe (ex-R.E.M.) is another fan. He turned up, surprising the audience, at her show last year in New York’s Webster Hall. Stipe told Ethan Kaplan of a Smith fan site that he discovered Smith at 15 when her “Horses” album hit him hard. The album, he said, “tore my limbs off and put them back on in a whole different order. I was like ‘Shit, yeah, oh my god!’ then I threw up.”
Now, that’s a fan.
As Rolling Stone reported in January, Stipe also has objected to trump using R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” as his rallies and that he once told trump off for talking during Smith’s set at a late-90s benefit at Joe’s Pub in New York. Stipe told him to “shut up” and trump left instead. But I digress.
I’ve seen a handful of Smith shows, most notably at MASSMoCA in N. Adams, Mass., early in that venue’s history; and at Jazz Fest in New Orleans. MASSMoCA was really lucky, or discerning, setting the stage for Wilco’s Solid Sound and FreshGrass festivals. Their first-ever show was by Los Lobos. I wrote in the Gazette that, “Los Lobos played the first-ever concert at MASS MoCA on Memorial Day weekend in 1999, masterfully christening a performance space that shouldn’t work half as well as it does. They played in a (13-sided) courtyard surrounded by brick and glass walls that I expected to echo the music in all directions, a cacophonous blur.”
Smith’s show there a year later confirmed the place worked for music. Her setlist:
Beneath the Southern Cross
Boy Cried Wolf
Lo and Beholden
Don’t Say Nothing
Because the Night
Pissing in a River
Be My Baby
Glitter in Their Eyes
Pissing in a River
Be My Baby
As for Patti Smith at Jazz Fest, I love seeing stuff happen there that’s outside the New Orleans tradition or sound, and watching it work anyway; including Richard Thompson and, surprisingly, Tower of Power. Both debuted there in 2008, my first Jazz Fest; I saw Smith play there in 2013.
However, I missed a mid-70s Smith concert at Union College Memorial Chapel. Michael Patnode (class of 1977), reported in a college mag, “Another concert we booked was Patti Smith, whose appeal we thought was more confined to the New York City area. A large number of black-clad audience members appeared on campus, showing us there was a hunger in the area for a diverse range of programming.”
I like the moral force of Smith’s shows. I’ve always liked the band, too. Maybe the most New York ensemble this side of the Ramones, Willie Nile borrowed some of her guys for his first albums and tours. She has that thing I admire most. When she steps onstage, you know in your soul that she means it. And she somehow gives other artists (Stipe, Dimopoulos, Eck) permission to mean it, too.
In this, I see her as a sort of lesser Bob Dylan – professional poet, amateur rocker, masterly persona, towering inspiration – until they welded those parts together so tightly we can’t see the seams any more. Dylan may be better – or, was – at the creative component of myth-making, but she became his equal in self-promotion.
I haven’t kept up with her records since the earliest ones. When I get them in the mail, I put them on the listen-shelf for later and sometimes take years to retrieve and listen to them. Maybe she deserves more immediate attention, as Stephen, host of the Mountain Music Club, has suggested.
Though I’ve enjoyed her books “Just Kids” and “M Train” maybe more than her later albums, when I grabbed some recently she opened my ears again.
I started at the beginning and leaped forward with “Patti Smith Horses/Horses – Legacy Edition.” This two-CD set stands her original 1975 album alongside a 2005 live show of the whole album in London’s Royal Festival Hall – to thrilling effect.
The original has the home-made fervor that made punk so exhilarating, inspired amateurs blowing past rules of composition, arranging and performance they hadn’t taken time to learn yet.
The live versions, 30 years later, retain all that adrenaline, plus assurance. We hear obvious differences in craft. Her voice has thickened some but still soars and she whips it just as hard. The band plays better but respects the original arrangements.
Both versions of her first songs stand tall with undiminished conviction, a now-weathered but still defiant optimism. The originals rise from the lower Manhattan CBGBs funk-frantic fog on the effortless faith and impatience of youth. The later live ones carry something harder and smoother, polished by effort and endurance, stoic and earned over time.
If the deluxe two-CD decades-apart “Horses” testifies to her enduring relevance; so do “Trampin’” (2004) and “Twelve” (2007) – in effect another two-fer. “Trampin’” is originals, “Twelve” is covers; both made with guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, with her from the first; plus bassist Tony Shanahan. (Original bassist Ivan Kral [1975-78; “Horses,” “Radio Ethiopia,” “Easter” and “Wave”] died in February. Guitarist Tom Verlaine [Television] and bassist Flea [Red Hot Chili Peppers] guest on the live “Horses” 2005 tracks. Guitarist Oliver Ray joined the Patti Smith Group on “Trampin’”. But we digress.)
Here, let me yield to Robert Christgau – greatest record reviewer in print.
Trampin’ “No, she hasn’t regained her sense of humor, but aren’t you fast losing yours? ‘I’m no Sufi but I’ll give it a whirl’ makes light enough of the mystic path her political obsessions follow. And if sometimes her hymns vague out like ‘Trespasses’ or over-generalize like ‘Jubilee,’ the boho reminisce of ‘In My Blakean Year’ represents where she’s coming from, the sweet solemnity of ‘Gandhi’ and ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ sings the sacred, and the amateur-Arabist rant-and-release of ‘Radio Baghdad’ speaks poetry to power. It won’t prevail. But it’s a comfort. B+”
The stand out “Trampin’” songs for me have a lighter touch than the machine-shop rockers: the guitar chiming “Cartwheels,” the relaxed stroll of “Gandhi” and “Trespasses,” the cozy atmospherics of “Peaceable Kingdom.” “Radio Baghdad” gives both, a Cowboy Junkies intro to a punchy build echoing “The Other One,” down to a recited lament, then a re-rant, then back to Cowboy Junkies’ tree-lined Toronto. The title track maps a pilgrimage to hard-won peace.
Twelve “Three decades after Smith made the transition from poet to rock & roller, we still don’t think of her as a singer, exactly — more a reciter who can carry a tune, kind of. So a covers album showcasing her interpretive gifts is a questionable vehicle. And like most such albums — there are dozens by now — it’s somewhat hit-or-miss. But when Smith hits, it isn’t just a bull’s-eye — the arrow splits the apple and then brings down the bad guy hiding behind the tree. It takes a poet to extract the lyricism of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced?’ from its guitaristics and an avant-gardist to validate a middlebrow tour de force like Paul Simon’s ‘The Boy in the Bubble.’ And though other winners are more obvious, you’ll be convinced that this woman felt ‘Gimme Shelter’ very deeply — and many years later, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ too.”
OK, these are can’t-miss tunes, time-tested by a billion radio plays; but that doesn’t mean every cover will work. These do, for the same reason the 2005 live “Horses” tunes are good as the 1975 originals. She means it, in an act-her-age way. That’s more important and powerful than how she pans her voice left to right in the same cheap-trick-but-it-works way that Hendrix does in “Are You Experienced?” – great guitar noise, too – оr sings a mix of pinched pop staccato and poet’s flow in “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” against Kaye’s Jerry Garcia-like curls and swirls. We might quibble with her mannered, too-on-the-nose Neil-isms on “Helpless,” but she can do Mick all day long on “Gimme Shelter” and even gets the soul bounce of “Pastime Paradise” – love Shanahan’s James Jamerson bass-isms there, too.
She knows just what to do with these songs she loves as much as those who made them, and those of us who wore out our vinyl originals.
We’ve talked mostly about the sound of her music, but what about the sense of it, the message and meaning?
Four words: “Power to the people!”
Patti Smith is still a punk, a poet, a provocateur. She still feels like coming into the sunlight from the subway – or up from troubles, from confusion, from doubt.