Sunday, May 15, 2011

The King of Blues

April 26th 2011
Two years ago at Gilreins in Worcester, I learned about the blues.  Dont get me wrong, it's not like I didn't know the blues existed. But "live and up close" to someone who seems to have lived the blues, well that's a different story. That was the night I heard Ricky "King" Russell.

Since then, I've heard a lot of blues, catching some well known blues artists, learning about some others, hearing some newcomers----at concerts, festivals, dive bars, jam sessions, whenever I can.  I am now an official fan, partly becuase the songs are just so danceable. Partly because the songs are so raw and unpretentious.   You simply can't play the blues without letting yourself go.  At least not well.

During the last two years, I've been able to catch Russell only a few times, since he seems to play closer to his south shore digs or in venues that require a road trip on my part.  The last time I heard him was last summer at Parker Wheeler's Sunday night Blues Party at The Grog in Newburyport. A great venue and with Michelle Wilson, a stellar event. 

This week, Russell was playing at Smokin' Joe's in Brighton. Casual atmosphere, no dance floor, and despite lots of competition with the Bruin's game at the bar, the place was rockin' and Ricky was at his peak once again.  The man just doesn't seem to work that hard to be a consummate blues artist.  His voice, his guitar and many of his original songs like Crawling Over Broken Glass, Uptown Woman and Basic Black, are iconic blues songs.  His title "the king" is well-deserved.

The band consisted of two horn  players: Doc Chanonhouse on trumpet, Scotty Shetler on tenor sax and those two, playing off each other, elevating the overall experience for those of us crowding the small room.  Bob Worthington on bass and Danny Banks on drums - two musicians that seem to play with Russell much of the time; again two talented musicians.. Danny was 16 the first time I saw him play with Russell ; now he's 18, playing with  well-known local musicians as well as his own band and starting at Berklee in the fall. There were several illlustrious crooners in the house that night that later stepped in, including  Racky Thomas and Lydia Warren. Although I've danced to the Racky Thomas Swing Band, I'd never heard Warren and she was "on fire"  and clearly knew how to find her way around a guitar.  At one point, Russell joined here for a duet.

A news flash for other blues fans inclined to travel south, now that the weather is warming up: According to Russell, there is a new blues venue in Hyannis, House of Bud. Check it out and if you want to make it really worth the trip, make sure you visit when "the king" is performing.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Front & Center at Chan's: Junior Watson

4/2/11  Arriving at Chan's after the first set, our lateness was punished by a sub-standard seat assignment in a dark corner with nearly zero visibility of the stage. Frustrated but not deterred, my companion and I managed to elbow our way to an upgrade for the second set--front and center seats directly in front of the stage. I am still not sure how that happened in such a crowded room, but it did. In all my years of listening to live music in a concert setting, I've never been quite so close to musicians. 

Matthew Stubbs, who had been  playing lead guitar during the first set, stepped aside to play bass, making room for Junior Watson, legendary Canned Heat guitar player. Watson was accompanied by the talent of Sax Gordon on the tenor saxophone. 

I was so close, I could read the set list and reach out and touch the neck of Watson's copper-colored mother-of-pearl Harmony Stratotone guitar; and I was 6 inches from the open end of Gordon's sax. I was privy to on-stage-only exchanges like "I'll give you a cue" or "It starts on a five."  During one energetic song, Watson's pick went flying right to my feet. I nonchalantly handed it back. For the first two songs, I just starred, looking from one to the other as they astounded me with their skill and ability to read off of each other.
Soon into the set, Watson asked if there were any hippies in the audience, gaining immediate rapport with several of the over-fifty set. From there, he proceeded to share some very intimate and compelling stories that spanned his 40 years of sex, drugs and rock and roll.  All this was punctuated by some very skilled guitar-playing, perfectly acompanied by the other musicians.  I have heard Gordon several times but I have never heard him play quite so passionately, without holding back and perfectly complimenting Watson's intense riffs.
Up close, I was only able to focus on one musician at a time and unable to take in the full sound of the entire band.  I started to feel too close for comfort.  Toward the end of the set, I moved a few seats back and found my personal feng shui, where I was able to more fully enjoy the concert, listening to tunes such as "One Night with You," and "The Pleasure's All Mine."   It was great show and the crowd responded with a standing-o and were rewarded with a fine medley, led by Watson. The band found their space immediately; it took me a little longer.

In leui of my own video from this night, here's a clip of Watson's performance from another night. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Great Tribute...and a Great Night: The Yoko Miwa Trio

I wasn't planning on going to the Yoko Miwa concert that would mark March as Women's History Month, paying tribute to the great jazz vocalist, Sheila Jordan.  But it was destiny---I stopped working at my computer and listened to her music and her story as WICN's Joe Zupan interviewed her.  As I listened to  one of her songs, I thought, "This is why I like Jazz. It's comforting and familiar and full of surprises and can bring you to places you've never been."  So I changed my mind and went. 

Once everyone had found a seat in the packed Regatta Bar, we were treated to an introduction by the diva herself, Ms. Jordan, coming to us via flat screen TV, adding that she was "thrilled to be talking to us and honored" to be the subject of this tribute. The two women are clearly members of the "mutual admiration society."  After looking around at the crowd of fans that had come to hear this talented pianist, Miwa started by talking most affectionately about Jordan.  Throughout the concert, she paused to share story after story about Jordan, including a suggestion that the two may be collaborating at some point in the future..

The first song opened up with a hauntingly beautiful voice piped in through the speakers, soon joined by Miwa on the piano in perfect harmony. Soon, the band is in full swing right out of the gate, on the first song.  Pretty impressive.

This petite, pretty Japanese woman looked so delicate as she entered the room and speaks so softly when she shares her stories, smiling demurely.  But when she sits down at the piano, you realize she is no pushover.  Her strength and agility pour through every song. She has full command of the instrument and her passion for playing is not hidden.

Miwa shared her inspiration for one of my favorites songs, Sorrow-full Moon. In Japan, she tells us, when you see a big, beautiful full moon, rather than seeing "the man in the moon," they see "two bunny rabbits with hammers, making moshi." (everyone laughs). On one day, however, this moon looked to her like a very sad moon and became the inspiration for this haunting melody.  Maybe I detected a little nostalgia for the home that she'd left 30 years ago. 

The audience was engaged and relieved to love this musician whose charming manner gave her an instant connection with the audience.  At one point, she stopped mid-song to confirm with the audience that the Brazilian song she was playing, Qua Qua Qua translated to  "The Sound of Laughter." (One bold man confirmed this).  Miwa also paid homage to several other female musicians as she played Dancing in the DarkGirl Talk and other jazz standards.

The acoustic bass, played by Greg Loughman and the drums, played by Scott Goulding, nicely complimented Miwa's energetic and passionate piano style and it's no surprise.  This talented trio have played together for 10 years, an anomoly for a band, any band.

So that is why I like Jazz. It's comforting and familiar and full of surprises and can bring you to places you've never been. For those of us "first-timers" hearing this piano virtuoso, I'm sure we'd all agree: It's such a pleasure when you go to a concert not exactly knowing what to expect and you get an expereince that just leaves you saying "wow."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Joel LaRue Smith Trio: Thank You, Saint Agnes!

Five pm is a strange time for a concert but I wanted to hear this band since I liked the CD and I liked the artist.  When I arrived, a woman said "I hope it's not just us."  I remember what my musician sister once said to me and I repeated it to the woman:  "If they don't get a crowd, it's a paid rehersal for them" and its a private concert for us. Still, it's so much better for performer and audience both when there is a supportive crowd environment.  And by the time the Joel LaRue Smith trio started playing there was a crowd---and an energetic one at that.

The venue was in the campus center lecture hall, complete with tiered seating and computer outlets at nearly every seat.  Joel LaRue Smith sat at the beautiful grand piano with Fernando Huergo on bass and Tiago Michelin on drums. They were ready to play.  The audience was ready to respond.

This was the first jazz performance in this room, named after its benefactor, Dr. Agnes Varis, sometimes referred to as "Saint Agnes Varis."  In response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina's displacement of over 1000 musicians and destruction of their homes and their instruments, Varis set up a fund giving these musicians numerous opportnities to play.  A long time benefactor of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton, her gift to the school resulted in what is now called the Varis Lecture Hall within the Campus Center, the location of this concert.  And Smith is here to "break in" the jazz in this lovely performance setting.

The buildup of the first song, Narrow Escape, (an original by Smith), is punctuated with a cymbal flying through the air and landing, miraculously, on beat. And somehow, this little distraction works and although the music had everyone's attention, we are now are rivoted. The band exchanges smiles amongst themselves and moves on.

During all this, I find myself caught up in the nonverbal communication among the musicians. Smith signals the drummer "Get ready to go," shaking his head up and down as he stares intently at the drummer.  Later on, he signals that it's time to close out the solo by showing three, then two then one finger.  All this while following charts and playing.  There's the "Nice going" signal of a quick smile and head shaking up and down but my favorite is the "Awesome!" signal---an even bigger smile and more head shaking. Its the "we-really-struggled-with-that-rif-during rehearsal-and-we-just NAILED IT!" signal.

Another Smith tune, El Mensajero, (The Messenger) the title derived from the the Jazz Messengers, is an upbeat and complicated rhumba with lots of "twists and turns" as Smith puts it.  He teases the audience with a threat of a "hum the tune" test afterwards. I'm glad he was only kidding.  I would have failed.

One of my favorites is a Thelonius Monk song, Straight, No Chaser, that he dedicates to his father, introducing it with "I promised my father I would play a blues." I loved it.  As they continue to move through a wonderful selection of Afro-Cuban originals and arrangements of songs by celebrated jazz greats, my foot is tapping and I know I have come to the right place.   What a great way to warm up a chilly grey afternoon. 

For more information on the band, Smith's music, or to purchase a CD, go to

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mick Reed: Urban Cowboy

I missed the CD release party in Manhattan the day before but what the hell,  I was visiting my sister and only four miles from the next stop on the tour- Theodore's in Springfield, MA. I walked through the doors and thought "What a great place!" I found Mick and the band, finishing up dinner and getting ready to play. Mick leads with vocals and guitar, accompanied by Casey Abrams (lead guitar), Chris Butler (drums),  Jaime Lamb (double bass) and Nate Trier (keyboards).

I'm a huge fan of live music. With studio recording, you get all the precision that technology allows along with multiple instruments,  and all the other benefits of multiple takes.  But I still love the raw experience of live music.  That's where I was able to see the forever-calm and laid-back presence of Mick Reed as he sings and leads the band through his original compositions with his country twang vocals.  As he lays out story after story of the sad and lonely life of a cowboy, I can detect the smile of a man who loves doing this and quite frankly, ma'am, he is perfectly happy to play to a crowded room or sit on his front porch chewing on a wad of tobacco and contemplating the wide-open range.  Even when his band takes a break, he continues to sing...he's just so laid-back, nothing frazzles this urban cowboy.

His lyrics are so visual....and then it hits me.  Of course: his day job is video producer.  He's a visual guy, he percieves the world through his eyes and his imagination.  And that's the common denominator of his songs: his lyrics paint rich and vivid images like these from a track on the new album, "A Fool at the Other" that he sings with the help of Madeliene Peyroux on the CD.

You got me staying up til the sun comes up
And there's nothing left but ashes in this coffee cup
You got me playing solitaire
'Til I pull my hair
Oh, brother...

But its more than that.  It's that he's so damn convincing, this new dad who lives in a suburb of Connecticut, who seems as much at home in the midst of city life as he seems to be on the range...or at least in this wonderfully divey wide open blues bar in the middle of Springfield, on a chilly Tuesday night with it's oversized Indian motorcycle sign overlooking the pool players and the roughly painted mural of  hallowed bluesmen.

For more information on Mick Reed and his latest CD, Goodnight, Texas, go to

Jazz Interplay: Noah Preminger

Scullers, Feb 23, 2011 -Noah Preminger
with Frank Kimbrough (piano), John Hebert (bass), Matt Wilson (drummer)

I recently had a chance to hear Noah Preminger, tenor saxophonist-composer, in his performance marking the release of his 2nd CD, Before the Rain.   Although this collection differs from his first CD, Dry Bridge Road, in that it is mostly ballads, the “creativity and passion remain extremely high" on both albums, according to Ed Enright, Downbeat.   I was certainly able that to hear that passion on this night.

The other aspect of this band that you can’t help but notice is their synergy. According to Preminger, there are things that happen between himself and Frank Kimbrough (piano) that "aren’t planned but are perfectly in sync."  And he seems to have that interplay with the other members of the band as well.
At first Preminger seemed a bit awkward on the stage in front of the audience, almost a shy can’t-look-you-in –the-eyes demeanor.  But I soon saw that this was one of the looks of a musician lost in his music, while maintaining enough control to produce some amazing range on the instrument. 
With the opening tune, the rich sound of the alto saxophone filled the room…gave me a chill right off. And I found myself lost, too, in this seemingly free-form medley that included Toy Dance, an Ornette Coleman tune.  Another Coleman tune, Street Woman, was embellished by Kimbrough’s compelling piano solo, his classical influences shining through. Preminger’s delightful interpretation of Where or When shows just how much of a “natural” this versatile musician is.
The bass player John Hebert, took a fabulous solo on the title song, Before the Rain, that was beautiful. Matt Wilson, the drummer, is clearly a favorite of the audience and after listening to his playing, I can see why.  
In Nancy with the Laughing Face, all four talented musicians are showcased with solos and the audience has a chance to witness firsthand, that magical thing that happens when musicians play off each other by sheer intuition.  Preminger, Kimbrough and (bass player) John Hebert have been playing together for nearly 4 years.  And it shows. Listen to how Preminger ends the song, how he and the others inject their own sort of voodoo into this beautiful tune. 
Interestingly, this is a song I never paid attention to until I heard Kurt Elling’s arrangement and delivery of it.  It turns out Preminger played with Elling in high school.  As an added note, I had the amazing opportunity  to attend Kurt Elling’s concert a few days later, at the same venue.  This was a good week for music.

Currently residing in New York, Preminger went to New England Conservatory of Music where he made some very important contacts including Ruth Lepson, a teacher and poet.  Preminger collaborated with Lepson, setting some of her poetry to the music.  Another former teacher from “the conservatory,” Bob Nieske, is a bass player that Preminger has played with.
Although Preminger grew up listening to a fairly eclectic group of musicians, including Joni Mitchell, Joshua  Redman, Orleans and Grateful Dead, his parents were avid Jazz enthusiasts and that clearly had an impact.  Today, Preminger cites Charlie Parker as one of the great influences on his music.  He also mentions Mun, an Icelandic band that has inspired him personally and Fred Hirsch, an “amazing piano player” says Preminger, who he will be playing with in an upcoming gig.
I, for one, will be keeping my eyes on the “up and coming” talent of Noah Preminger and his band.  For more information about Noah Preminger, go to

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Valentine's Day with Eight to the Bar

For years now, I’ve been following this band.  Even when it’s tough getting out of the house, I make a bit more of an effort when Eight to the Bar are playing.  They never disappoint the dancers and this was Valentine’s Day, after all.  Without complaints, I drove the full 45 minutes up to Leominster on a Sunday night to hear them.  When I entered, the band was swinging and the floor was filled with dancers, a smear of red:  Red hearts, red lights, red skirts and dresses twirling.  I even saw a red bowtie.
Alan and Luanne, founders of Dance2Swing, make a big night of February 14th, complete with raffles, do-it-yourself valentine’s, chocolates and pizza for all.  The place was packed.  When I arrived, there wasn’t a seat to be had in the huge room.
The band is made up of Cynthia Lyons on vocals and keyboards, Brinna Jones on vocals and percussion, Tom Whalen on guitar and vocals, Michael Corsini on bass and vocals, Shawn Meehan on drums and Collin Tilton on sax.

Based out of the Hartford area, this swing band has a huge following of dancers.  They specialize in big band songs that are particularly danceable.  And they’re been busy. “The Romper Room,” released in Aug 2010, is the band’s 11th CD.  Their songs are classic swing songs of the ‘50s as well as originals. I happened to capture “Candy man” on video, a personal favorite….

For more information on ETTB, go to


I was finally able to attend a gig of one of the bands I had written about in Worcester Magazine, The Delta Generators.  As it turned out, they were playing at a new club in Worcester---Beatniks.  I’d never been there and according to Craig Rawding, the lead singer of the band, neither had they.

When we arrived, although the band was just starting up, they came “out of the gate” with power, no start-up needed.  Within seconds, all eyes were on them and the idle conversations came to a halt.  This band had presence.   The lead vocalist, Craig Rawding, was clearly the front man but guitar-man Charlie O’Neal and his brother, Rick on bass, were very much in the limelight throughout.  And when Jeff Armstrong did his drum solos, it felt like he was the only one in the room, which filled up quickly as the drinks were poured and the tiny dance floor filled.
The Delta Generators played a perfect combination of covers like their opening song “Crossroads;” then  “One Way Out” and “I’m Goin’ Down” but included many of their own “crowd pleasers” like the title cut of their latest CD “Hard River to Row.” It was easy to see why this band was selected as one of the top five self-produced CDs by the 2011 International Blues Challenge.
At events like this, I am often torn between shooting video and just plain getting into the moment but this band was visually so exciting that every time I put the camera aside, I quickly picked it up again to capture a great moment on stage. 
This night, I was particularly fascinated by Charlie O’Neal’s playing, especially his use of the glass slide to produce some great slide-guitar sounds.  I am drawn to gifted musicians who seem to get lost in their music, unaware of the surroundings.  I hope it’s not just a dramatic flourish to entertain, not that it should matter. Maybe it’s just humility, I don’t know. I just know that I like it.
Although I’ve noticed this before, when Charlie O’Neal switched guitars, I was curious as to why.  When I asked him at the break, his simple answer was that he had different tunings for different guitars.  So, rather than taking the time to retune his  guitar, he tunes it ahead of time and has it ready and waiting for that song. This common practice for musicians seems practical and the variation certainly adds visual interest for people like me, especially when the guitars are so dramatically different looking.
After the break, things got even more exciting and even more relaxed.  The mood in this club was buoyant now that we all knew what to expect.  Rawding enjoyed the growing rapport with the crowd when he asked, “Is everybody here…” the crowd quickly roared “Yeah!!!” He laughed and said, “Hold it---I know you’re all here.  Wait ‘til I actually ask you the question…(laughing again) ”Is everyone here… having a good time?”  That funny little interaction was so typical of the night.  Lots of exuberance, fun, and lots of power-playing.  

On a personal note:
During one song, when I finally put my camcorder down to get lost in the music myself, I happened to glance around and briefly noticed someone moving along with me to the music. I smiled and, as I looked back at the band, I had a fleeting thought that this person looked a lot like my daughter who lived in New York City AND who I hadn’t seen for some time.  I turned to look at her again, thinking, “I wish she was here” and then it HIT ME.  She was….

(See if you can see my surprise unfold in this rather dark clip shot from a cell phone)

That unexpected visit plus a little bit of birthday attention from the band made for one great night.  Thank you, Delta Generators.  You ARE the band to watch…

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Romance Is In the Air

TOO HUMAN @ The Watertown Library, 2/9/2011
I don’t make it to all their gigs but nevertheless, I am a devoted fan.  Some of my interest in the husband and wife duo called Too Human may be because I know the “back stories” behind many of the songs, so personal and so easy to relate to.   I know this because I was there when my sister Ellen got her first guitar at age 5
that launched her into a nonstop interest in music, leading her to her husband and lifelong musical partner, Roger. Their passion in writing and performing hasn’t waned for a minute since then.  After a career in Los Angeles as staff songwriters for Chapel Music, they returned back East to be closer to family and jumped full swing into producing and performing their own music.
Last night, a few days before Valentine’s Day, the Watertown Library delighted the local community with a live concert by Too Human.  It had been awhile since I’ve heard them and you could do a lot worse than be entertained by this talented couple----both by the warmth, humor and synergy they generate as well as beauty and thoughtfulness of their music.  Their music touches your soul, making you laugh as you listen to the seemingly-authentic banter of the duo, arguing in the middle of “Twisted” or being caught off guard by a lyric that hits close to home--- I’ve shed a tear or two while listening to  their original music, including the very moving ballad “Crater on the Moon.” 
The subdued concert setting of the library is a little different for me this night, as I am more used to the loud and distracting environment of clubs, bars, and dance halls.  But I can see why these two accomplished songwriter/musicians prefer this type of venue. The people that attend their concerts are here because they WANT to listen to lyrics, to the music and to the heart of this creative duo whose playing is rounded out by the stellar sounds of Bryan Rizzuto on his upright bass.   Ellen plays guitar and Roger fills it out with a range of percussion instruments as well as his mouth as trombone—You’ve got to hear it to believe it!  And they both do vocals.  Ellen’s soulful, even and sometimes gritty sound is a perfect balance to Roger’s smooth crooning vocals. Together, they provide gorgeous harmonies. 
Guaranteed.  If you were with your honey last night, you would have reached for his/her hand, leaned back in your chair and closed your eyes as you listened to the band’s wonderfully romantic arrangement of “It Had to Be You” or “I’ve Got a Crush on You.”
Too Human has a particular talent of customizing their playlist to the audience and since there were some children present, another original, “Swimmies” was a fun way to involve the kids and get us all to visualize a much-needed break from snow, anticipating warmer summer days ahead.
A signature part of the Too Human act is a sing-along at the end that never fails to engage the audience—“Pennies From Heaven.” By the last chorus, this reserved audience was transformed into an animated chorus, happily waiting for their cue. 
After an enthusiastic applause, the crowd reluctantly filtered out of the room, uplifted, many of them stopping to chat with the musicians.  Thank you, friends of the Watertown Library, for sponsoring a delightful night and wonderful prequel to Valentine’s Day. 

To find out more about Too Human, go to

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Winter Wonderland

Driving up north on 1A brings back a vague memory of the Wonderland Ballroom.  In balmier weather, this could have been a nice drive were it not for the fact that we were over an hour late to see the “Legends of Rock &  Blues” concert in historic Lynn, MA.  Driving through this working class industrial town at night, I watched the white clouds of exhaust and who knows what else as it billowed out of the chimneys of the General Electric factory into the black sky.  This is the source of global warming, I thought, and why I have four feet of snow on my roof and my kitchen ceiling looks like a sieve. Thinking that I had hoped tonight would be a departure from the woes of winter, I focused back on the Lynn Auditorium, wondering what that might be like, hoping for the best.

We arrived in the middle of James Montgomery warming up his version of “You Gotta Help Me Baby” and my spirits soared.  Although I am not a big fan, he was definitely “on his game” tonight.  The acoustics and the lighting in the room were fantastic and the dramatically oversized, wood-carved stage was a perfect setting for this blues harp player and the other luminaries.  Montgomery had the benefit of a very talented lead guitar player as well as support from Brad Whitford of Aerosmith, local rocker Johnny A, and a multitude of other gifted musicians.

Then came Rick Derringer.  Although I have heard of him— “Hang on Sloopy” and “Frankenstein,” this was my first time hearing him play live.  In contrast to the previous act, Derringer just had a bass player and drummer to accompany him.  But somehow, that was enough.  It was oddly entertaining to see Derringer, who hardly moved anything but his nimble fingers over his guitar, contrasted with the theatrics of the bass player, Charlie Torres, who pranced about the stage during the performance.

Lastly, came Edgar Winter, a strikingly tall image, dressed in black from head to toe, accentuating the white glow of his pale face and white flowing hair.  No warm-up needed, this rock ‘ n’ roll/blues icon starting out “on fire” along with yet another core of talented musicians.  The lead guitar-player, Doug Rappaport, seemed to complete sentences that Winter started—literally.  Winter still has his rock ‘n’ roll chops and proceeded to display his talents not just with his scatting vocals but his significant skill on sax, keyboard and drums.  I snapped a great shot of him with his signature playing of a keyboard strapped around his neck—pretty impressive considering its size and I’m guessing it’s weight but he wields it like a toy. 
My favorite part was his duets with each of the musicians, initiating a vocal “conversation” that each of the musicians responded to with their respective instruments, showcasing the talents of all. 

Although advertised as a rock and blues concert, this event was much more of a rocker event although some blues favorites were included like “Tobacco Road” and “You Gotta Help Me Baby.”  All in all, a great event, and proof that New Englanders know how to have fun, especially in the midst of Winter.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Girl Howdy Rocks the House at Vincent's

It was kinda quiet at Vincents last night when I arrived.  To be fair, 9:30 was a little early for this local favorite hotspot. It’s a place to go after you’ve been somewhere else—dinner, another performance, or just late getting out of the house.  Vincent’s is always dependable because it's open later than most places and, more often than not, the music makes you “sit up and take notice.” I love it because it’s the place where I get to discover bands and musicians I haven’t heard before and tonight was no exception.  I really enjoyed talking to Betsy-Dawn Williams of Girl Howdy over the phone and listened online to some of the music, but didn’t really know what to expect, hearing this band live.
Well, I thought, as I entered and glanced around the bar, they certainly LOOK the part, attired in western wear and cowboy boots, “stompin’ at the bit” to get started. Not that I really know what a honky-tonk band looks like.  As I settled in, I looked around at the growing crowd.  Aside from what must have been some devoted fans that the band brought with them, the regular crowd had a look of anticipation, waiting to hear something new. This band looked different.  

I didn’t even need to warm up to them. Right out of the gate, they were a foot-stompin’ band.  Paula Bradley, piano and vocals, and Betsy Dawn, guitar and vocals, both have these great country-style twangy voices that are so different from each other, yet blend so well.  Drummer Billy Nadeau and upright bass player, Brian Rost, had a great driving sound but couldn’t get much of them on video—Just Billy’s arms flying around behind Betsy Dawn.  And then there’s Peter “Doctor Z” Zarkadas, the guitar player sitting in for steel guitar player Rose Sinclair.  His solos certainly had the “twang” and he was so in sync, it seemed like he had played with this band forever.   This is a band that knows how to have fun and this is a band that when you hear them, you just can’t help smiling.   Let alone dancing.
After one set, the late night crowd started filling up the place.  People loved the band, recognizing some old favorites like  ”Stop, Look and Listen”, “Face to the Wall,” “Don’t Worry About Me” or the band’s title track “Honky Tonk Hair” and “Eenie Meenie Miney,” a couple of originals.   I’m pretty sure the Girl Howdy newcomers experiencing this spirited performance for the first time will be following this band closely .  You can catch them at Johnny D’s in Somerville on January 29th @ 7 pm.  See you there. 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mr Ho’s Orchestrotica – Yes, Unforgettable!

The first time I heard exotica music, it was strange, only somewhat familiar and I didn’t know what to do with it or how to react to it.  It had a hypnotic beat but was a strange merging of big band, Lawrence Welk ((I’m dating myself), a little space-age but with a carribean cha-cha-cha flavor and definitely that retro ‘50s and ‘60s sound that makes some of us nostalgic.

I recently heard Brian O’Neill, the founder and leader of exotica band, Mr Ho’s Orchestrotica and the Exotica Quartet, recently interviewed on NPR and it was fascinating.  They were playing at the Cambridge YMCA January 14th and it was a CD Release show called “The Unforgettable Sounds of Esquivel”.  A film crew was documenting the event as part of a documentary on Juan Garcia Esquivel, one of the early pioneers of this music. O’Neill’s band was paying homage to this great band leader on this night. I arrived to a packed theatre, which surprised me.  I was sure that, besides a couple of other people, I was nearly the only one who heard about this sort of music. 

I wasn’t prepared for this amount of audio and visual stimulation. A 23-piece band and every possible sort of instrument you can imagine mesmerized this audience for about 90 minutes.  The front of the theatre and the stage was packed with instruments of all sorts.  Five keyboards including a beautiful, wooden xylophone about 20 feet long, percussion including timpanis, congas and other sorts of drums and percussive instruments, an accordion, pedal steel guitar, upright bass, and four talented vocalists—all on the floor area of the intimate theatre with a Leslie to propel all this. Eleven wind and brass musicians crowded the small stage.
My musical preferences are towards jazz, blues, R&B and pretty much anything with a beat. But this was all new to me. Some of the tunes were beautiful arrangements of jazz standards but with a quirky and sometimes humorous twist. Night and Day, Take the A Train,  Sentimental Journey and Dancing in the Dark were just a few on the standards I remember from this memorable evening.

The sound filled the room.  It was stunning.  It was humorous. Most notable is that every musician there was at the top of their game (It seemed like all 23 had a solo) and in total step with each other--and O'Neill was spectacular, with seemingly effortless motions as he conducted this enormous collection of talent and glided from one instrument to another.  They were having fun and never missed a beat͟, perfect precision every step of the way.  I was blown away.  Really. So I’m on the mailing list and this won’t be my last exotica experience.

The John Cate Band "on fire" at Vincent's

I don’t know if it’s just the magic of the place and my expectation that the music will not disappoint whenever I stop by one of my favorite haunts in Worcester, Vincent’s.  I can tell the second I walk through the door,  I’m going to like this band.  This was my second time hearing them and I got caught up in whatever the band and the audience was feeling͟͟͟͟ almost instantly. Everyone was cheering, moving, smiling and generally loving the music.  The musicians were caught up in the energy and enthusiasm of the moment as well. 
I spoke to John Cate briefly between songs and he was humble (pretty good for an Aries!) despite the fact that he has written over 300 songs and has been the leader of this band for 15 years accompanied by the electric guitar player, Paul Candilore.  The other players, Steve Latt on pedal steel guitar and violin was mesmerizing and  drummer Andy Plaisted and bass player Clayton Young kept things in stride.
These guys have an impressive history but this is just a blog—by definition, quick impressions.   I love that their the name of the band is John Cate and the Van Gogh Brothers, referring to John and Paul, original band members and co-producers,  “each with one good ear,” according to them.
One song was so compelling, you could tell͟͟----the band was on fire.  Literally.   Smoke started to appear behind the drummer and they had to stop. Seriously.  People loved it. 

The band has quite a following too.  In the short time I was there, I spoke to two different groups of people:  One couple had travelled from Cambridge to hear them, remarking that this was a big stage compared to another venue they’ve frequented in Cambridge, the Toad.  (Now that’s small.) The other couple said they’ve been following the band for years, attending at least 40 concerts to date.  That’s what I call devoted fans.  I'm looking forward to hearing more!