Thursday, December 15, 2011

“Celtic Angels at Christmas” (Newvideo)/”Celtic Crossroads: World Fusion” (DPTV)

It’s that time of year, when I make my seasonal-music DVD recommendation for last-minute shoppers, perhaps looking for something special for the somewhat older member of the family. (Of course, you may feel free to buy it for yourself as well.). Last year, it was Andy Williams, this year it’s a marvelous collection of smooth Celtic Christmas music from the heavily Scottish island of Cape Breton, off the coast of Nova Scotia in the Maritime region of eastern Canada.

The Celtic Angels are not so much a “band”, as they are an ensemble of six women (including four from Nova Scotia, one from Prince Edward Island, and one from and island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland),. who perform solo and in small groupings, never all six at one time. The Angels perform on harp and fiddle as well as vocals, and are backed by a handful of (male) musicians on guitars and keyboards. The mood is very placid and peaceful, even on uptempo tunes, the performances polished to a very fine sheen. Even so, there is a lot of the Celtic tradition and of the earth in these moving renditions of centuries-old songs.

The tunes in this American release of a Canadian television special include several tunes that will be familiar to everyone - “Ave Maria” played by fiddler Gillian Boucher, “O Holy Night” by Kendra MacGillivray, ”The Holly and the Ivy” sung by Patricia Murray, and a bilingual (English and Gaelic) interpretation of “Silent Night”. “Winter Wonderland” is notable for the graceful step-dancing of Sabra MacGillivray and a few talented children, while Boucher ends the program by combining “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” with an Irish jig.

But rather than simply perform the old popular favorites, the Angels also delve into the traditional folk repertoire. Cape Breton singer Stephanie Hardy opens the proceedings with “The Holly Bears & Berry”. Murray gives us the beloved Irish “Wexford Carol”, while Hardy travels south to Appalachia for an uncharacteristically perky reading of John Jacob Niles’ “I Wonder As I Wonder”. There are spirited fiddle tunes both by the MacGillivrays and by Gillian Boucher. But the finest selections of all may be the Gaelic hymns sung in the old tongue by the classic Scottish singer Maggie MacInnes (daughter of the acclaimed traditional singer Flora MacNeil), to her own accompaniment on the clarsach (Celtic harp).

There’s hardly a misstep to be found in any of the arrangements. The production is an ode to the effectiveness of simplicity - nothing fancy, nothing extraneous, hardly anything in the way of sets or visual hooks, nothing to detract from the music itself. There are short spoken introductions to put the songs into a context, but these are helpful rather than intrusive.

At only 48 minutes, the performance is rather short, no doubt a length dictated by the absence of commercials, which would have stretched this to fit an hour-long t.v. time-slot. (The commercials are far from missed!) But the 48 minutes are jam-packed with fine music, lovingly performed. I notice Amazon is selling this for less than $12, so the short length seems reasonable enough. A very nice addition to the growing catalog of Christmas music on DVD.
The DVD by Celtic Crossroads is not a seasonal disc by any means, but would doubtless make a greatly appreciated gift for the Irish-music lover on your gift list. Where the Celtic Angels aim for serenity, the 9-member Celtic Crossroads touring ensemble (seven musicians/singers playing over twenty instruments, plus two dancers) heads in the direction of visceral excitement. Both groups do a fine job of representing Celtic traditions (Irish in the case of Crossroads); the choice will depend on which mood you’re in at the moment.

The performers on this PBS special are all young in years (most look to be in their 20’s), but with a solid awareness of traditional Irish music and the history behind it. But they also like to add contemporary elements into the mix. For the most part, the ensemble sound has audible origins in the small group; of neo-traditionalists who popularized the old dance, air, and ballad repertoire during the 1970’s, bands such as De Danann, Planxty, and the Bothy Band. Like those iconic bands, Celtic Crossroads features the “classic” melodic instruments, such as fiddles, uillean pipes, wooden flute, tenor banjo, and accordion, adding a Celtic harp to conjure up comparisons to the Chieftains. But - also like the neo-traditional bands just mentioned, they add strong, rock-tinged accompaniment on acoustic guitar, bouzoukee, mandolin, and mandola, instruments rarely encountered in more rigorous performances by the hardest-core traditionalists.

They also essay some strictly contemporary songs - Andy Briggs’ “Last of the Great Whales”, Americana songwriter Steve Earle’s “Galway Girl” (which, to be sure, sounds as Irish as an Americana song possibly can), and - the most radical choice of all, “U2’s “With Or Without You”. But before you get to thinking they’ve jumped the shark with that last selection, I quickly point out that it’s given a lush, lyric-ballad treatment built around Celtic harp and flute (plus folk-style vocal). Viewers of all ages - and the live-concert audience skews toward gray - should be able to easily tolerate, even enjoy it. The title of the concert, “World Fusion”, is a reference to the fact that the group also performs some distinctly non-Irish pieces, such as Italian composer Vittorio Monti’s famous violin piece, “Czardas”, written in the style of Hungarian gypsy music; a medley of US fiddle favorites, “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and “Orange Blossom Special”; and a piece curiously entitled “Cajun Blues”, which doesn’t sound especially Cajun to me, perhaps because it’s played on the tenor banjo. These non-Irish pieces are played with a showier, virtuosity-for-virtuosity’s sake abandon, less controlled than the pieces from their own tradition, but are entertaining as showpieces nonetheless. (When I say “their own tradition”, let me not overlook the fact that there’s an American and a Norwegian in the line-up.)

What separates Celtic Crossroads from other neo-traditional bands is the excellence of the dancing. Dancers Marcus Donnelly (who shows his agility on an old “brush dance” or “broom dance”, in which he dances with and around a broom) and Charlene Morrison are championship caliber, thus helping to make the Celtic Crossroads show a “complete package”. The singing is fine, the musicianship is intelligent - as a former bodhran player, I particularly appreciate Diarmid Hurley’s skill and inventiveness on the goat-frame drum - the arrangements true to their roots. It’s the “real deal”, for sure, but it’s a contemporary version of the real deal, not a preserved museum piece.

The concert itself lasts about 80 minutes. There is also a bonus feature in which the producers of the entourage talk bout the background of the show and its participants. Newcomers to Irish music, in particular, may learn quite a bit, while I found it held considerable interest throughout its 23-minute length. The sponsor of the concert and disc, Tourism Ireland, has appended three short promotional travelog segments plus a few seconds of several other promotional more clips, presented in such an ingratiating manner that one almost forgets one is looking at a commercial.

Relevant websites are and

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

“Afro-Latino Music” (Facets/ArtMattan Productions; 2 DVD’s)

The first thing that needs to be pointed out is that “Afro-Latino Music” is not an overview of the entire subject of Afro-Latino music, nor does it claim to be. It would doubtless take many, many more than 2 DVD’s to do justice to a topic that broad. What this is, however, is a set of two discs comprising two very fine films on very specific topics within the overall category of Afro-Latino (specifically Afro-South American) music, one on a Colombian phenomenon originally known as Terapia Criolla, but now more often referred to as champeta, the other on the Peruvian percussionist Chocolate Algendones.

The first film, “Sons Of Bemkos” - the title refers to an African King who was forced into slavery in Colombia; he escaped and founded the “first free town in America”, Palenque, in and near which much of the film was shot - looks at a couple aspects of African-rooted music located along the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Thus, the marimba-based music known as currulao is not covered, since that genre is centered on the Pacific coast of Colombia. In both cases, however, we are confronted with a musical tradition that is very deeply rooted in Africa, owing relatively little to the Spanish colonists of Colombia.

Interestingly, this description fits not only the traditional music of the area, but its contemporary pop form as well, about which more below. The traditional village music has a very deep African flavor. We see workers in the fields singing work songs to pass the time. A group of professional mourners known as “Happy Ambulances” help a corpse on its way by singing, dancing, and drumming over it, as part of a ritual based on the spirit religion known as lumbalu. (A warning for the squeamish - the actual corpse is on-screen for an extended period.) Small ensembles are shown consisting entirely of voices backed by percussion instruments - drums, scrapers, maracas, claves, and the giant bass thumb piano known as the marimbula. These scenes of a local music little known to the outside would alone justify multiple viewings of this film.

But the filmmakers have another surprise up their sleeve. For many years, the popular sounds of this area long included merengue, salsa, and the whole gamut of Afro-Caribbean styles. However, in a phenomenon not known (by me, at least) to have occurred elsewhere in Afro-Latino musical circles, the musicians of the nearest large city, Cartagena, began to alter their music under the influence of recordings of soukous and other African dance music imported from the Congo. Similarly, the local music known as bullerengue also began to be combined with mbaqanga music from South Africa. The musicians of the area re-Africanized their popular music to such an extent that someone hearing this music - Terapia Criolla (“Creole Therapy”) or champeta - for the first time, watching people dance to it as it booms from the speakers of a mobile sound system, might well question which continent’s music one is hearing.

The film introduces us to the Caribbean Stars, who claim to have been the first to play terapia. The band toured internationally at one time, but feels most comfortable around Palenque. We also see the beginnings of the commercial exploitation of champeta, as record companies attempt to operate as inexpensively as possible by bringing into the studios raw talent off the streets to sing about the everyday life of poor people, to the beat of Congolese rhythms.

We also see excerpts from the San Basilio Festival, a patronal festival held every June 12, a 3-day reunion of Palenqueans past and present. We see Cuban -influenced music played for a Roman Catholic church service, as well as a procession with a small version of the ubiquitous Latin American brass band. It makes for a fascinating contrast to the lumbalu and champeta scenes, and is every bit as authentic.

“Sons of Bemkos” has an English narration, with subtitles for the interviews, which are in Spanish. The running time is 52 minutes.

The second film, “Hands Of God”, focuses on a specific musician, a musical icon in his own country but little-known to Americans, percussionist Julio “Chocolate” Algendones (1937-2004; some sources say 1934). But it also serves to introduce Americans to a musical scene most of us either only recently became aware of or have yet to discover - that of Afro-Peruvian music. Those of us of a certain age have become so used to the “Andean ensembles” playing huaynos on instruments such as the quena, zampona, and charango that we’ve come to think of them as representing ALL of Peruvian music. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Jazz fans have begun to discover Afro-Peruvian rhythms such as the festejo and lando, thanks in part to singer Susana Baca. And it would appear from this film that Afro-Peruvian rhythms and jazz have a close and comfortable relationship in Peru as well, judging from Chocolate’s performances with the combo Peru Jazz and in back of the singing of a number of guest artists in this film, such as Jose “Chaqueta” Piaggio and Pepita Garcia Miro. Chocolate was skilled and sensitive to easily travel between the worlds of tradition and contemporary music.

But the Afro-rooted traditions Algendones explored were not solely Peruvian. He was a master of both the congas and bongos, both associated with Caribbean music, and claims to have picked up a knowledge of the intense rhythms of santeria while on tour in Haiti. (I confess I had to do a bit of research on this point. My impression was that the Yoruba-rooted spirit religion known as santeria (or lucumi) was found in the Spanish Caribbean, specifically Cuba and Puerto Rico. Most of the sources I checked seemed to confirm that there was no santeria in Haiti. I was beginning to wonder if Algendones was confusing Cuban santeria with Fon/Ewe-rooted Haitian voodoo. Digging deeper, however, I find there are a few online sources that would seem to confirm the contention that santeria does indeed exist in Haiti.) Algendones is considered to have been the only Afrfo-Peruvian musician to utilize santeria rhythms in his music, which he did with authenticity and artistic authority.

But Chocolate’s primary instrument was the cajon, that increasingly-familiar wooden box which percussionists sit on, pounding our rhythms on the front of the instrument. Cubans sometimes claim the cajon as their own, and indeed many Cubans have mastered the deceptively simple-looking instrument. However, most sources that I’ve come across are quick to credit Peru as the true origin point of the cajon. Certainly, a concept as elemental as banging out a rhythm on a fruit crate or shipping box could well have developed independently in two different places. But at the very least, the cajon has achieved a position of prominence in Peru far beyond its role in Cuban music. It’s a treat to watch Algendones play the cajon, as he doesn’t pound on it as so many lesser drummers do, but deftly manipulates it with his powerful fingertips.

Jose “Chocolate” Algendones was such a unique percussionist, from the cross-cultural way in which he combined various rhythms into a fully-formed and unique style, to the seemingly casual ease of his complex performance technique, that we are indeed very fortunate to have this audio-visual documentation of his playing in a wide variety of contexts. There is no narration per se, but the interviews are in Spanish, with easily readable English subtitles. Running time is 54 minutes.

Both of these films are required viewing for anyone interested in African-rooted musics in South America and should have as much appeal to just plain fans as to scholars. More info may be found at

Monday, November 21, 2011

“Bryan Beller: Wednesday Night Live” (Onion Boy Records)

For those of you don’t follow contemporary instrumental music closely (alas, that would seem to include the great majority of people under 35), and may not know who Bryan Beller is, he is one monster of an electric bass player, best-known for his work with Steve Vai. This point is driven home by the audio mix of this DVD, which allows the bass lines to burrow deep inside of you, grab hold of your viscera, and refuse to let you go.

This alone might serve as recommendation enough for some of you, but the rest of the band is worth making a fuss over as well. This is one inventive quintet, not just a super bass player with four other guys. Guitarists Griff Peters and Rick Musallam (each of whom plays lead on particular types of songs), keyboardist Mike Keneally (who also picks up a guitar), and drummer Joe Travers make up the rest of this finely-honed unit. It quickly becomes clear that these are musicians who work together a lot, and have done so for quite some time. Indeed, this is not just Bryan Beller’s band, it is also Mike Keneally’s band, and the two have been known to play together at the same place on the same night.

Stylistically, I would call this jazz-rock fusion from the rock point of view, more compositional and structural than flights-of-fancy improvisational., though there’s still quite a bit of spontaneity to it. Although the band’s sound does tend to be a bit bass-centric, the other players certainly get ample opportunity to show up their prodigious chops as well as their creativity, interacting with each other with taste and a great deal of respect. The music is erudite without being pedantic or sterile, engaging the listeners’ emotions as well as the mind. It is,m after all, entertainment, not just a lesson in technique.

With the emphasis being on musicianship rather than showmanship, the camera work is crucial to keeping the viewer’s interest up throughout. We see five musicians and their equipment crowded together on a rather small stage, but the multi-camera set-up and sensitiive direction (by Dave Foster) keep it from ever becoming claustrophobic.

In addition to the top-notch main concert, the DVD is rich in bonus footage, which must double the length of the disc. There are performances featuring other editions of Beller’s band, with slight, but significant personnel changes, a jazz-flavored tune with Beller on piano, a guest appearance by saxophonist Scheila Gonzalez, videos of performances filmed at CD release parties, and other musical clips, both video and audio-only. There are also substantial interviews with.each of the current members of the quintet to help place the music in perspective. If that’s enough, Beller has supplied “very, very extended liner notes” at
(This is an instrumental musician who loves to write words as well as music, judging by the amount oif verbiage to be found on his website, )

Well worth checking out by fusion fans, prog-rockers, and just plain music lovers.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

“Stylistics Live In Norfolk 2005” and “Chi-Lites Live In Norfolk 2005” (both from San Juan Music)

These two concert DVD’s by classic 70’s soul-ballad groups seem to have been around for a few years under different titles - in both cases, “Live At The Convocation Center”, named for the Norfolk, VA venue where these performances were both filmed. Both discs, however, are deserving of reissue.

Of the two, I personally prefer the Styllstics concert, which by no means is intended to denigrate the Chi-Lites’ disc. I happened to see this line-up of the Stylistics about 10 years ago, at Shea’s in Buffalo (on the same bill with The Main Ingredient and Blue Magic), soon after Harold Eban Brown replaced the seemingly irreplaceable Russell Thompkins, Jr. as lead singer. I swear most members of the audience probably had no idea whatsoever that Thompkins was missing, Brown sounds so much like him. One look from the front of the balcony, however, told me that either Thompkins had discovered the Fountain of Youth (Brown is over twenty years younger than Thompkins), or the group had discovered an absolutely ideal new lead voice.

The group, resplendent in red suits, was already in their 50’s by 2005, aside from the then-33-year-old Brown. But if they move a little less athletically than they might have in younger years, they sound just fine. Their smooth ballad style was never really suited to a shake-’em-up-and-down stage show anyway. It’s obvious from the intro to “You’re A Big Girl Now” that they (realistically) now think of themselves less as a current group than as finely-honed purveyors of nostalgia. Indeed, there is something about the atmosphere of this concert - perhaps it’s the audience - that is oddly reminiscent of a PBS “oldies” fundraising special. (I almost hesitate to say that, because when PBS DID bring on a rival Stylistics group, it turned out to be Russell Thompkins’ Jr.’s “New Stylistics”.) The “real” Stylistics still had the skills in 2005, no doubt, but certainly the audience wanted to hear the groups’ hits of the 1970’s performed by the original group (or at least a quartet which had an unbroken continuity dating back to their Golden Era) in the original arrangements. And that’s what they get.

In any event, the Stylistics remain a living entity, not simply a group of aging singers going through the motions. They always were a group whose identity was heavily dependent on the timbre of their falsetto lead vocals. In this department, Harold Eban Brown is virtually the equivalent of Russell Thompkins, Jr. All the songs you might wish to hear at a Stylistics’ concert - both the super-hits and the lesser successes - are here, in well-executed arrangements that are essentially smaller-scale, stripped-down, but easily recognizable versions of the original Thom Bell-produced Philly Soul backing tracks. The songs tend to segue one to the other in a sort-of medley form, yet most are done at full-length, not the “and then we did” tiny snippets some “nostalgia acts” prefer.

Brown is not the most captivating front man, but hIs voice more than makes up what he may lack in charisma. I would suggest that any Stylistics fans would find this concert every bit as satisfying as I did. There is no wasted time, no frills, no bad-joke-filled attempts at humor (okay, one modest attempt), just 57 minutes of Stylistics’ sweet-soul music. That should be good enough for anyone.

Bonus features include a 4-minute ”Behind The Scenes” featurette, showing how the concert was set up, as well as a 5-1/2-minute interview segment.

The Chi-Lites’ DVD follows the same basic format, and indeed appears to have been filmed at the same package-tour concert in Norfolk.

Once again, we are treated to straightforward renditions of the group’s hits, accompanied by a solid band. The differences between the two concerts, though, are telling. For one thing, the Chi-Lites are less dependent on a single dominant personality. They require strong lead vocals by all three up-front members and, with a few jarring exceptions, they deliver. Their stage act features more razzle-dazzle than that of the Stylistics. Whereas thje latter prefer to soothe their audience, the Chi-Lites’ attempt to rouse theirs, even in a ballad medley.

The Chi-Lites charted often between 1969 and 1984, and scraped the bottom of the charts again in 1997-98. Nevertheless, the group’s hits seem by and large to have received less continued exposure through the years than the Stylistics’ songs. I may be wrong, but I’m inclined to think that, only “Oh Girl” and “Have You Seen Her (which are saved for the end of the show) may resonate with the casual listener. But songs like “Toby” and “The Coldest Days Of My Life” definitely deserve their return to the nostalgia spotlight.

Though we only see three Chi-Lites upfront, the harmonies are enhanced by a fourth vocalist, a woman who stands in the background as if she were not an official member of the established all-male lineup. But a little research reveals she is indeed an “official member”; must be a macho image thing. Sadly, most of the original Chi-Lites’ line-up (including Eugene Record) are now deceased, but Marshall Thompson and Robert “Squirrel” Lester” (since deceased as well) appear on this disc.

The bonus features mirror those of the Stylistic disc. Indeed, the backstage set-up featurette looks very much like that on the Stylistics’ DVD, understandable when you consider they were recorded at the same place at the same time. Again,. there are interview excerpts in which the group talks about their biggest hits.

Anyone with a live for sweet 70’s soul vocal groups should have a marvelous time turning back the clock and tossing out the calendar, while watching these two fine concerts.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

“Live From Tokyo” (MVD)

Contemporary Japanese popular music, if known to most Americans at all, is associated with teen-girl-sounding J-pop, boy bands, Visual Kei arena-rock/hair-metal bands, and so on. And certainly that imaged is by no means totally inaccurate, it is simply very incomplete. “Live From Tokyo” is a fascinating documentary look at the ”underground” side of modern Japanese music, featuring clips of and interviews with a lot of people you’ve never heard of, but whose musical acquaintance is well worth making.

The point is made by a number of interviewees that young Japanese people are bombarded with information and influences - aren’t we all? - which then come together in a wide variety of unexpected ways, from J-pop on one hand to various sorts of progressive/experimental sounds. The latter, rather than J-pop, are the focus of this film. The problem is that there are so many bands in a shrinking scene that no one is being financially rewarded the way they used to be. One could make the same observation about progressive music anywhere, to be sure. But at least the Japanese musicians have apparently decided that since they’re not going to become wealthy anyway, they may as well do what they want to do, in the way they want to do it. Thus, the lack of monetary enticements has made for a scene that is very healthy from a purely artistic viewpoint, resulting in fresh, new sounds far from the pop-music norm.

We get to sample a goodly number of these artists and hear a wide array of styles, most arising out of recognizable starting points, ranging from post-punk rock to jazz-rock fusions, which then head off in highly individual directions. These bands thrive on the Internet, where they have no need to wait to be “discovered”, no need to wait for a record contract. Instead, they can quickly and inexpensively disseminate their music far and wide.Thus, while the mainstream record industry continues to recycle the same few sounds over and over again, the Japanese underground bands can dare to be daring.

There’s a lot of fascinating music heard in this DVD, much of it utilizing machine-like repetition in a techno sort of way; not surprising for a country heralded for its technical know-how. There is also a considerable reliance on visuals interacting with music as an integral part of some of the stage shows shown here. It is worth noting that there is no narrator to set up contexts for the music,or to tell us what we will be hearing. This may well the ideal way to produce a film of this sort, as the viewer may experience each new band without having ready-made expectations set up before. We thus approach this music in a tabula-rasa manner, and can judge it on its own terms.

We are also given insight into the Japanese way of presenting live music. Japanese live bands are required to pay the club-owners in advance, then sell the tickets themselves. This, of course, negatively impacts many artists, as they need to attract a sizable following on a steady basis in order to simply survive. Ticket prices tend to be high - it can cost $25-$30 to go see a band no one has ever heard of. Thus, while there is no pressure to make commercial music that will sell to the masses, it is also difficult for bands to stay together long enough to reach their full artistic potential. A couple venues are profiled in some depth. However, these cannot be considered typical, as their colorful owners seem much more open than most, and less profit-motivated.

In all, this 78-minute film is an eye-opening - and generally quite ear-satisfying - glimpse at a scene most of us know nothing about, featuring many creative musicians most of us will never get a chance to hear otherwise. As such, I recommend it highly.

Monday, September 26, 2011

“B.B. King Live” (Image Entertainment)

Ten days ago, Mr. Riley B. “Blues Boy” celebrated his 86th birthday. He’s elderly, he’s infirm, but darn it, he can still sing and play the blues on his electric guitar, “Lucille”, better than most folks a third of his age. Yes, he has understandably slowed down, and he has to sit throughout the proceedings - but then, the old pre-WW2 blues singers sat down when they played anyway. Even so, this concert from the PBS “Soundstage” series, filmed in 2009, certainly serves as a prime example of the Blues Boy in his late-in-life prime.

As a matter of fact, the opener, “Everyday I Have The Blues”, finds him virtually as energetic and soulful as ever. One should not expect innovation or fresh approaches at this late date - he has long since made his most impactful contributions. But this is not simply an elderly icon going through the motions, but a compelling performer and viable entertainer who can still summon up the old fire and put on one heckuva show for his fans.

The songs are largely familiar. However, the Blind Lemon Jefferson standard, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”, was a recent addition to the B.B. King repertoire at the time of this performance, having served as the de facto title song to his 2008 CD, “One Kind Favor”. Since it is no secret that Jefferson was a seminal influence on the young Riley King - a fact he has always acknowledged - it’s quite a treat to hear him adapt the old song to his big-band-blues format. What may seem another lesser-known title, “Downhearted”, is actually a re-titling of B.B.’s classic “How Blue Can You Get”, the stop-time bridge of which is always an audience favorite.

As is the case with so many televised specials featuring performers “of a certain age”, the producers have decided to sprinkle in guest performances by younger, non-blues performers who they no doubt feel will bring their fan bases to the table, thus increasing ratings. Frankly, I find that a deplorable practice, particularly when the older performer is as famous and still highly skilled as B.B. King. He simply doesn’t need them. But the truth is, fortunately they do not cause irreparable harm to the overall quality of the program.

In fact, actor Terrence Howard may actually add to it. He informally trades verses with “B” on “I Need You So”, acquitting himself surprisingly eell as a blues balladeer somewhat on the order of King’s erstwhile touring partner, Bobby Bland. Howard (who released a CD of his own in 2008) gets to sing most of “ I Got Some Help I Don’t Need” by himself, with B.B. and the band. Howard and King display a marvelous rapport during some in-song dialogue.

Less successful is Solange Knowles (Beyonce’s younger sister) who joins B.B. for an under-developed version of his signature hit, “The Thrill Is Gone”. I’d like to hear her do this song about ten years from now, but her voice doesn’t yet have enough of a lived-in quality, and she’s weak on top. Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora (whose name King consistently mangles) tears off a few burning licks on “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother”, but B. is dissatisfied and switches to the uptempo “Let The Good Times Roll”. The two still fail to gel. The pairing works better when King reprises “the Thrill Is Gone,” this time handling the vocal chores himself, with Sambora playing an effective lead guitar.

B.B.’s band is fine throughout. They feature a full-bodied four-piece horn section that sounds like more. One does occasionally wish they were more prominent in the mix. The rhythm section cooks. B.B. and the band get into a downhome gospel groove on a rousing closer, yet another version of :”When The Saints Go Marching In”. And while I could happily live out my days without hearing that overworked song again, this group effort by B, Howard, Knowles, and Sambora is downright agreeable. It may not be the most important piece of art B.B. King has ever been involved with - “Live At The Regal” its not - but it will certainly set your toes to tapping.

In all, unless you are really turned off by the idea of B.B. King having to share the stage with guest artists (and I know for a fact some of you would be!), this is a very enjoyable hour with the Master.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

“Cuba: Island of Music” (MVD)

I confess to being somewhat ambivalent about this documentary on Cuban music from filmmaker Gary Keys (whose films on Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Dizzy Gillespie were reviewed in this blog at

First, the good news. There is a lot of very good Cuban music here in a variety of genres, both traditional and contemporary. The visuals give us a rare glimpse of Cuba as it was at the end of the 20th century. There is also something of an alternative political viewpoint espoused here, in that we are given the distinct impression that people in Cuba during the late Castro era were really pretty happy with life, by and large (despite the nay-saying of American politicians with an agenda to support). And the commentary by Cuban natives Chico O’Farrill (who died in 2001) and percussionist Candido Camero, balanced by some less thoroughly informed yet still insightful commentary by the late, great Dr. Billy Taylor tells much of the story of Cuban music when the narration fails to do so.

But there are problems. First off, it’s a little too obvious that Gary Keys made this film in the wake of the astounding success of “Buena Vista Social Club”. Whereas in the latter, Ry Cooder and his son Joachim tooled around Havana in a motorcycle with attached sidecar, Keys tools around in a vintage convertible,witnessing (much as the Cooders did) the people and the architecture of the island. In addition to that superficial, yet blatant similarity, one might be convinced that Ry Cooder and “Social Club” director Wim Wenders got the cream of the Cuban-music crop to appear in their film, leaving Keys with the leftovers. But I know through hearing CD’s that were issued in the US around this time period that there were many more first-rate musicians left that Cooder didn’t record, whom Keys also seems to have bypassed in his search. Thus, as I said in the last paragraph, this is “very good Cuban music”, but there’s an inconsistency to Keys’ selections which keep it from being a film about Great Cuban Music.

The problem lies at least in part in the film’s premise. Keys discovers Cuban music from a distance (New York), then travels to Cuba to learn more about it and to see what else he can find. This film is an honest documentation of his quest, but it probably would have worked a lot better - and contributed much further to our understanding of Cuban music at the turn of the 21st Century - if he had done more research. This would have given him a more informed idea of what he could uncover and where he could uncover it. His quest seems a bit haphazard, making accidental discoveries which - while certainly authentically Cuban, and thus representative of certain aspects of what was going on there at the time - do not strike me as the best of all available artistic treasures deserving of much-needed American exposure. What we have, in essence, is a fascinating, very personal travelogue which says, “I went to Cuba - this is what I saw, this is what I heard”. And that’s fine, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, but it isn’t necessarily the ideal way to introduce or represent the music of a nation which was culturally cut off from American music lovers over several decades.

Another problem is the lack of a coherent narrative, which would have gone far to more effectively explain to a novice listener what one is seeing/hearing. Keys’ folksy chatting from behind the wheel of a car lacks depth and explication. There is an attractive young woman who is assigned the task of providing more information, but this turns out to be more of an opportunity for the young lady to appear on-camera than a significant exposition of the important points which should be made about music in Cuba. Do I expect ethnomusicological analysis? Not necessarily, but a more knowledgable descriptive account of the musical proceedings would have been very welcome.

Despite these problems, I think there is enough of value here in terms of music and variety to recommend this disc to readers with an interest in Latino music in general, so long as you have a good idea going into it of what this film and what it isn’t.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

“David Lanz: Liverpool - Re-Imagining The Beatles: An Inside Look”

The music of pianist David Lanz has been lumped in with New Age, smooth-jazz, fusion, semi-classical, and no doubt a few other categories. However, his distinctive blend of instrumental idioms really falls into no single genre, yet hints at several. It is within that spirit of stylistic eclecticism that Lanz recorded an album of Beatles songs, “Liverpool - Re-Imagining The Beatles”, arranged in his typically atypical manner. This DVD offers insight into the artist’s creative process as well as three music videos of tracks from that CD.

Lanz tells us he purposely stayed away from the most famous Beatles songs, such as “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude”. But since there are relatively few truly “obscure” Beatles songs (aside from a handful of B-sides), the melodies will pretty much all be familiar to those listeners who were around during the 1960’s. It’s to Lanz’ credit that he makes them sound fresh all over again, and even manages to throw you off the scent on a few, so that their identity is not immediately apparent. We get to see candid footage of Lanz and his fellow musicians in the studio as they bring these magical sounds to life. His cohorts include regular Lanz collaborators Gary Stroutsos on an end-blown Chinese bamboo flute called the xiao, and ex-Kronos Quartet cellist Walter Gray, as well as the late Bread keyboardist Larry Knechtel on organ for one piece.

The interview segments include a discussion by Lanz and Stroutsos (who bears a decided resemblance to Robert DeNiro) on the impact the Beatles’ music made on them. Lanz in particular calls them “my mentors”. They also discuss the songs chosen for the album, the collaborative process, Lanz’ compositional methods (starting with the melody and developing upwards from there, rather than constructing a tune from an existing harmonic structure; for this reason, the Beatles’ songs appeal to him because of their strong melodies), and his wish not to do “cover versions” per se, but to make the songs his own. A few brief portions of the Lanz/Stroutsos discussion are used more than once on the disc, when deemed relevant.

There is also an interview with “Mythodrama” leadership guru Richard Olivier (son of the great British actor Lawrence Olivier; Richard does a voice-over on the CD) concerning the mythology of the Beatles, as well as the affect they had on audiences in both the UK and USA. Perhaps it is because I am totally unfamiliar with the Mythodrama concept, but I confess to not getting much out of this segment.

I can’t help but think this DVD would have been more effective if it had been packaged with the “Liverpool” CD in a CD/DVD combination package. Nevertheless, I would think that most Lanz followers who already own the CD will find this disc to be a welcome enhancement to their listening experience. If you’re unfamiliar with the CD, I would start with that first.

62 minutes. Both CD and DVD are available through

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

“Sonia - Who I Am” (Disappear Records)

Sonia (Rutstein) is a singer-songwriter from Baltimore who is perhaps most associated with her various performing and recording units known as “Disappear Fear”. The name was applied in the 90’s to what might be termed an electric punk-folk band, but has been used more recently as the name of the duo in which Sonia and her sister Cindy Frank sing Phil Ochs songs (check out their CD, “Get Your Phil”). (Cindy was with the earlier band as well.)

This nine-song DVD collects Sonia performances from over a 16-year period, 1994 to 2010, from the days of the earlier Disappear band to more recent solo performances. These range from straight-out live performance clips to more produced music videos. There’s quite a bit of variety, from a song sung in Hebrew and English to protest/topical songs to blues. Most of the songs are Sonia’s own compositions, though there is one Phil Ochs song (“No More Songs, filmed in 2004, not by the current duo) and one (“By My Silence”) written by fellow singer-songwriters Ellen Bukstel and Nick Annis.

Though I personally tend to prefer the solo concert clips, there’s some more “arranged” material that sounds quite nice. Visuals range from photo-collage to the John Densmore-directed video for the disc’s title song, which features a young solo dancer in a rehearsal studio. It’s gratifying to see and hear Sonia in a number of different settings over a period of years, thus giving the viewer/listener a better chance to experience the various aspects of the artist’s musical offerings.

This DVD will probably have the most immediate appeal to Sonia’s sizable fan following. But since it’s being sold on her website -
for less than the price of one of her CD’s, it should make for a most agreeable introduction to the artist’s work. You might click the link to her paintings as well. A woman of multiple talents!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

“Duke Ellington: Reminiscing In Tempo”/“Count Basie: Then As Now, Count’s The King”/“Dizzy Gillespie In Redondo” (all MVD)

The common factor here is that all three films are the work of filmmaker Gary Keys, whose work is currently undergoing a revival of interest and exposure thanks to the folks at MVD. These are but three of several Keys films recently brought to DVD by MVD.

The Ellington film combines elements of the concert-film genre with documentary. A group of Ellington’s friends, associates, and fans were gathered together for a memorial birthday party by Duke’s sister, Ruth Ellington Boatright. They share reminiscences of Ellington the man, the composer, the pianist, the collaborator. Some, such as Bobby Short, Al Hibbler (who alas was WAY past his prime), Billy Taylor, Brooks Kerr, Hiromi, and Adam Makowicz, offer musical tributes as well.

Keys intersperses this with footage of a 1968 concert done in Mexico by Ellington and his band. Though the concert is from late in Duke’s career, the music is still solid, the re-considered arrangements fresh, and the soloists (who include such Ellington stalwarts as Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, and Cootie Williams, among others) still distinctive.

The highlight of the concert is the rarely-performed “Mexican Suite”, which was never commercially recorded. (It was later expanded into the “Latin-American Suite”, which WAS recorded). The presence of this suite would alone justify purchase of this DVD by the Eliington faithful. While I personally would have preferred that the suite be presented straight, without the travelog photography Keys mixes in, the visuals are fascinating in their own right.

I should mention that a discussion of race relations in America includes a few graphic images which many may find disturbing. Otherwise, this is a very agreeable release, although I wouldn’t recommend it as someone’s first intro to Duke Ellington.

Gary Keys’ Count Basie film is similar in that it juxtaposes footage, recordings, and photos of the band with spoken reminiscences by people who knew Basie well. But whereas the Ellington footage came from a single concert, the Basie film incorporates film and television footage from the 1950’s and later. The Ellington reminiscences came from interviews of a grouping of sophisticates who were all too aware of the camera, but the roundtable discussing Basie is far less formal, displaying a great deal of camaraderie and gentle ribbing, all in good fun.

The participants in the panel include Frank Wess, Frank Foster, Joe Wilder, and Benny Powell, all long-established Basie-ites, trombonist George Lewis (who was briefly in the Basie band in the mod-1970’s; he is mostly context to listen to and learn from the old-timers), and a holdover from the Ellington film, critic Ira Gitler. Gitler is heard so little, one might speculate that his actual role may have been off-camera, feeding ideas to the participants. They talk about Basie the bandleader, the personality, and the musical force. They recall incidents involving some of their fellow classic Basie musicians, and enjoy chatting about their own experiences as members of the Basie entourage. In all, it’s a very enjoyable, one might even say invigorating discussion.

The early Kansas City days are given short shrift in the selection of film clips, though there is a small-combo version of “One O’Clock Jump” from the early 50’s, most likely the earliest fooitage seen here. There are a number of other Basie standards from the 50’s band, such as “Midgets” (with a sprightly Frank Wess flute solo), “Corner Pocket”, and a version of “Li’l Darlin’” which seems to date from the period after Frank Foster took over the band. Billie Holiday is accompanied by Basie on two songs from 1952. We also get to hear from the great singer Joe Williams on “Alright Okay You Win” and “Everyday I Have The Blues” (the latter introduced by Dionne Warwick).

A couple performances might best be termed “Basie-related” - Frank Foster playing with Dizzy Gillespie in the 1980’s, and a clip of the Billy Eckstine big band of the 1940’s, which only becomes Basie-related when we get to hear a later sample of Eckstine and Basie together. There are also three clips which illustrate Basie’s impact on Hollywood. Jerry Lewis mimes to Basie recordings on excerpts from “Cinderfella” and “The Errand Boy”, while Keys was lucky enough to be able to include the incongruous performance of “April In Paris” from “Blazing Saddles”.

Frank Foster offers a lengthy poem (split into segments) on Basie’s life and career. Indeed, Foster is shown to be a “real character”, and is very much the “star” of the panel. In all, this is very entertaining stuff, and can easily be recommended as an introduction to the post-1950 Count Basie Orchestra.

Unlike the Ellington and Basie films, Gary Keys’ Dizzy Gillespie offering is a concert film, apparently part of a t.v. series called “Jazz in America”. I’m not going to beat around the bush - this is one VERY captivating concert film, skillfully assembled.

There are only four full-length performances in this hour-long club date, filmed in 1981. (The fifth title listed, “Jazz America”, heard briefly at the end, would seem to be the series’ theme song.) Even so, it pretty much encapsulates the range of Dizzy’s long-term contributions to the well-being of jazz. Some critics have implied that Gillespie did the great bulk of the innovations one associates with his name during the mid-to-late 1940’s, and that he pretty much coasted the rest of his career - which lasted till around 1990; he died in 1993. I will not argue this point, but innovation is not the only factor that matters. In his mid-60’s, he could still blow up quite a firestorm on this disc, proof positive that he remained an imaginative improviser as well as a first-rate entertainer well into late career.

Dizzy the waggish entertainer gets the proceedings off to a congenial start by “introducing the band”, at which point the musicians shake hands, pretending as if they were meeting for the first time. It may be a standard musicians’ joke, but Diz and the band carry it off so affably, it’s funny again, no matter how often you may have seen it. The band is a top-notch one, so now it’s my turn to “introduce the band”. Alto saxist Paquito D’Rivera burns on the opener, ”Be Bop”, with such assurance, you might think he was one of the originators of the bebop style, rather than a Cuban latecomer. Ed Cherry (misidentified here as “Ed Sherry”) is a deft guitarist who can work his way through a variety of styles with aplomb. Tom Macintosh is a low-key trombonist with a fine sense of rhythmic pacing. Pianist Valerie Capers is aggressive when she needs to be, sensitive when the moment calls for it. There are two bass players, each of whom has a well-defined role. Ray Brown, on stand-up acoustic bass, was born to play with Dizzy Gillespie, while electric bassist Michael Howell, is featured on the more contemporary, funk-flavored tunes. Drummer Tom Campbell, I confess, is a new name to me, though a quick Google search reveals he has solid credentials. In any event, he easily holds his own in this august company.

The repertoire includes not only fiery bop (“Be Bop”) and cooler bop (“Birks Works”), but funk (“Kush”) as well. But the piece de resistance may be a down-and-dirty blues, identified as “Dizzy’s Made Up Blues” on the DVD carton, and “Hard Of Hearing Mama” in the film itself. Both titles are apropos. The lyrics are blissfully off-the-wall in an Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson sort of way. Macintosh’s solo could have been somewhat nastier in this context. Cherry’s solo starts out well, but he loses himself in repetition. Howell, though, pulls things back together with a blues-guitar-like bass solo, while Capers’ piano solo makes far better use of repitition and rolling blues riffs. In all, a highly entertaining performance, Cherry’s stumble notwithstanding.

Anyone other than a musical curmudgeon should find much to delight in on this disc.

Monday, August 22, 2011

“Bob Lind: Perspective” (self-released DVD)

Singer-songwriter Bob Lind is remembered today primarily for his 1966 Top 5 hit, “Elusive Butterfly”. Over a five-year period ending in 1971, he released a small, but significant body of work that was the equal of virtually any other singer-songwriter during that busy period, yet it went under-recognized at the time, and is sadly largely forgotten today. And then he disappeared.

Four decades later, we find out that not only is Bob Lind alive and musically active, he still sounds as good as he ever did, and is still writing first-rate songs that deserve to be heard by a much, much wider audience. But not only does this recently issued DVD include a number of fine live performances of songs from his recent output in the company of a small, but sensitive combo (as opposed to the lush orchestration that framed his songs back in the 60’s), there are documentary segments that go a long way towards explaining “whatever-happened-to-Bob-Lind”, and why he seemed to fall off the face of the earth for so long.

It turns out that Bob Lind had what we now call “issues”- drinking issues, drug issues, anger-management issues, self-esteem issues. His travails reached the point where nobody in the music business wanted to work with him anymore. Subsequently, he lost his enthusiasm for the music business (though not the music), so he dropped from sight and lived off his songwriting royalties. Eventually, he took a job making up wacky stories about Martians and Bigfoot for the supermarket tabloid “Weekly World News”, and began to enjoy life a bit more. He talks openly and honestly about his problems during the interview/conversation segments on this disc. And while he feels he’s in a “much different place” now, and has become virtually a different person, he confesses to still having a few demons to conquer (anger mixed with sadness), but at least he’s made it back in one piece.

The fact of the matter is, in his late 60’s, he doesn’t sound a whole lot different from the way he did in his mid-20’s, which is an achievement in itself. His voice is instantly recognizable, his new lyrics still thoughtful, richly creative, and personal, the music still polished, but now showing a wider range of influences ranging from country-rock to jazz, as well as folk. Interestingly, on the jazz-tinged pieces, he doesn’t sing in an overtly jazz-vocal style, but the melodies have a bit of a swagger and the band swings in turn. He’s a new Bob Lind, but in ways that should have no difficulty appealing to fans of the old Bob Lind; hopefully this disc should bring in some new supporters along the way as well.

The good news is that he presents current versions of a few old favorites, including “Cheryl’s Going Home” (adding a little scat to the arrangement) and “Elusive Butterfly”, which now sports a surprisingly effective Latin-inflected beat. Unlike some artists who try very hard to avoid performing their old classics, Lind is willing to accept that there are people who will come to see his cocnerts because of their love for “Butterfly”. But the better news is that the new songs are certainly well worth hearing, whether he accompanies them on guitar or piano, an instrument which adds which adds an entirely new dimension to the Bob Lind sound. Yes, his music has undergone some changes, but it is still accessible, fulfilling, and of a high quality.

Bob Lind is not an “oldies act”, nor a simple purveyor of nostaligia. He has not stood still, and there is no reason he should have stood still. He is not a relic of the past, but a viable current artist with something to say that’s well worth listening to. Welcome back, Bob Lind!

“Bob Lind - Perspective” is 93 minutes long. For more information and a sample, visit

Sunday, August 14, 2011

“The Other Side Of The Water: The Journey Of A Haitian Rara Band in Brooklyn” (Third World Newsreel)

The phenomenon known as “rara” is a highly localized one native to the country of Haiti (aside from a bit of spillover into the Dominican Republic, where it is known as “gaga”.) It is intimately connected to the Haitian spirit religion known as vodun (or “voodoo”). Voodoo as practiced in Haiti is very much unlike the sort of madcap, stick-pins-in-dolls silliness seen in Hollywood movies over the past 70 years, the first thing Americans think of when they hear the term “voodoo”. Even given that statement, rara is not so much a religious ritual (though it certainly has aspects of one), as it is a Carnival-like procession, with music, dancing, and a variety of carryings-on, combined with ceremonies at graveyards and crossroads. It is an event that takes place on a virtually daily/nightly basis along both the rural and urban thoroughfares of Haiti during Lent, escalating in the days leading up to Easter. It has a reputation for being loud, disruptive, and, er, impolite, but its religious and cultural connections have made it a vital part of Haitian identity, much to the dismay of many Haitians.

This fascinating documentary allows us a glimpse into a new setting for this old event (which is thought to date back to the Colonial era), the Haitian community in Brooklyn, NY. The Haitian-American community is one of the “hidden” ethnic treasures in the US, perhaps because many of the members of this community have done little to assimilate into American culture, while others have tried to blend in totally. The latter have become invisible, while the former tend to think of themselves as being Haitians in exile, living here only temporarily, having come to escape political oppression and poverty, even long before the earthquake of 2010. Many manifestations of Haitian culture (such as konpa music) survive in the US, even though hardly anyone outside the Haitian-American community is aware of their existence.

But this film focuses on the specific example of rara, which is not even accepted by many Haitian-Americans. It is particularly despised, even feared, by those who profess themselves to be Christians, and are convinced that any phenomenon associated with voodoo is Satanic and therefore unsafe for the community. (It should be pointed out that Satan per se, in the Judeo-Christian sense, is not a major focus of voodoo, one of many misconceptions that pervade the religion, even among Haitian non-followers.) This has made it especially difficult for the film’s main figure, Pe Yves, to establish and subsequently maintain the longest-running rara band in the United States, DJA-Rara.

The film follows the band’s history from its formation in the early 1990’s to the present, through a series of interviews with Pe Yves, as well as present and former members of the band, family members, supporters and detractors. There are also rehearsal and performance footage, short video clips of Haitian bands, radio appearances in which Pe Yves openly discusses the negative stereotypes people have of the music, and expert opinion on both cultural and Haitian political matters. Parts of the film are in the Kreyol language, with subtitles, but the rest is in English. We see rara used as an energetic source of fun at times, but it is also shown to be used as an outlet for protest. In both cases, DJA-Rara intends it to be a force of unity among the Haitian population of Brooklyn, though it doesn’t always turn out that way.

The music of Rara is very strong rhythmically, but traditionally has been comparatively simple melodically. The primary melodic instruments are bamboo “vaksin” horns and a cylindrical metal trumpet called the “konet”. (The spellings of both instruments varies, since Kreyol has traditionally been a spoken language more than a written one.) Each of these instruments plays only one note. If you want to construct a melody which has, say, two notes, you need two horns pitched differently. For a three-note melody, you need three horns, each of which plays a different pitch. This works fine for religious purposes and if your primary purpose is to make noisy entertainment while marching/dancing through the streets. But in more recent times, saxophones and trumpets have been added to the parade. Or - if you want to restrict your rara band to traditional Haitian instruments - one can add more one-note bamboo or metal horns, each with its own pitch, in order to play a full scale.

This latter concept originated in Haiti, but has been adopted by DJA-Rara, which led to pressures within the band itself, as Pe Yves felt the need to downplay the musicians’ rowdy, celebratory enthusiasms and to professionalize and modernize the band’s approach, as detailed in the film. Subsequently, DJA-Rara became the first American rara band to record a CD, in 2008. The band celebrated their 20th anniversary in 2010. However, what would normally have been cause for jubilation was greatly tempered when everyone in the band lost friends and family members in the earthquake.

We see rara music used outside of its strictly voodoo context, to entertain children at a Christmas party, to cheer on a soccer team, playing at a street fair, and for a very appreciative ethnomusicology class at Amherst College. And, in what I find to be one of the most encouraging scenes near the end of the film, we hear from one little girl who is already thinking of the day when the band members get older, and it will be up to her and her generation to take over for them, and keep the music alive. Pe Yves and DJA-Rara may have struggled through those first 20 years, but it would appear they have laid the groundwork for the continunace of the rara tradition in the United States.

Thge film is 52 minutes long. More info, as well as a few clips from the film, may be found at Third World Newsreel is at

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

“Complaints Choir” (Fine & Mellow)

Complaints. We all have things to complain about, we all make complaints. They allow us to let off steam, to deal with our problems by sharing them with sympathetic friends, to shout out our frustrations on Facebook to a world that may or may not care. Or we can write them into songs and sing our complaints away. To be sure, this is not a new concept. It’s what the entire genre of music we call “blues” is all about, catharsis through the writing and singing of our complaints arranged as song lyrics. But now, here’s a new way to sing our troubles away - through a phenomenon called the “Complaints Choir”.

This documentary DVD with three accompanying CD’s will tell you most everything you need to know about Complaints Choirs. It turns out that there are several dozen such choirs throughout the world, the majority in Europe, but quite a few in North America as well. The film follows the originators of the Complaints Choir concept as they attempt to put together new choral groups in Chicago and Singapore. Though not a “how-to” instructional video, it will show you just what you need to do to put together your own Complaints Choir, and what not to do, particularly if you live in a repressive society such as Singapore.

The Complaints Choir concept is the brainchild of Finns Tellervo Kallleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, who are featured throughout the film. Their original concept had less to do with the aesthetics side of choral singing per se, but was instead a unique form of participatory performance art. When the pair decide to open a branch of their Complaints Choir concept in a new location, they put out the word through local media of what they intend to do, and when and where the first rehearsal will be. People may read it, find it to be of potential interest and show up. The Finns never know who will show up, how many will show up, or if indeed anyone will come at all. The first meeting isn’t actually a rehearsal as such. The Finns tell people to write down their complaints, anything that may bother them enough that they feel the need to turn it into creative energy. Certain particularly interesting complaints are collected, and a song lyric is formed from the combination of several such unconnected lines and sentences. A songwriter is then called in to set them to music, and the choir then rehearses the song for public performance.

What we see in the film is the entire process from start to finish. People talking about their lives and voicing complaints, the process of those complaints becoming son g lyrics, interviews with the melody writers/accompanists, choral rehearsals, public performance. We hear what people are frustrated about, what it is they hope to gain from their participation in this art project, how the Finns react to the process they set into motion, and what the audience reaction is like. This may sound straightforward enough, but occasionally there are definite complications. Things go very wrong in Singapore, where people are strongly discouraged from expressing any sort of complaint in public. Compromises with government officials are attempted, including a self-censorship attempt that ruled out certain topics, and a rather odd situation in which the government would allow the Singaporean natives to sing, but not the foreigners temporarily residing in Singapore as “guest workers”.

The film, by director Ada Bligaard Soby, gives the viewer a real feel for the pettiness under which repressive governments operate, and how it affects the lives of the innocent amateur performers who simply wish to participate in a novel art project-cum-choral performance. It also affordsa a fascinating glimpse at a creative process which is quite a bit less formal and less traditional than a more academically-oriented process of readying a recital or choral concert. It demonstrates quite effectively that, in the long run, the Finns do not control the entire process, but simply set it up, act as referees (one likens her role to that of “party host”), then let the process carry on in its own way, at its own pace. Thus, the results will be different wherever a Complains Choir is attempted. There are also a few scenes intercut into the film of a minster who has developed a totally different way to help members of his flock eliminate complaints from their lives. These segments are interesting enough, but they are not really relevant to what the Finns are doing, and could have been edited out of the film with no great loss.

The film is 56 minutes long. DVD bonus features include a trailer, clips of other Complaints Choirs, a discussion of the Finns’ philosophy behind their concept, and excerpts of a few of their other, very different art projects (mostly involving Tellervo by herself). The 3 CD’s include full-length performances by a number of Complaints Choirs, both official and “DIY” choirs, from many areas of the world, in a highly impressive variety of musical genres. The performances may range from rank amateurism to polished semi-professionalism, but the real point of these projects is more the artistic process rather than achieving an aesthetically pleasing result.

More info may be found at

Saturday, July 23, 2011

“Wheedle’s Groove: Seattle’s Forgotten Soul Of The 1960s and ‘70’s (Cinewax)

It seems popular music is much more homogeneous in the 21st century than it was through much of the 20th. There used to be many more local/regional scenes than there are now. You used to be able to tell which records came from Memphis, or Miami, or South Texas, just to name a few of these scenes. Some of the old regional-music scenes going back over a half-century struggle to survive, but survive they do, such as swamp-pop from Southwestern Louisiana, or beach music from the Carolinas. A few of these scenes managed to achieve national prominence, even dominance, such as Motown (which often used singers from outside Detroit, but the Funk Brothers backup band who really defined Motown were largely local), San Francisco psychedelia, or New York-style doo-wop.

But then there were scenes which - important as they may have been to the locals - never attracted attention outside their area. Go-go music from Washington, D.C. comes to mind. Cleveland sure seemed like a hot rock town in the 60’s, provided you lived close to the Lake Erie shoreline, that is. And, as this documentary DVD illustrates, there was a lot of great soul music in Seattle in the 1960’s and 70’s. Seattle? Soul music? Yes, indeed. But hardly anyone outside the area, including myself, had any inkling that something special was happening there. The Pacific Northwest - Oregon/Washington/Idaho - had already spawned the Ventures, the Wailers, the Kingsmen, the Sonics, Paul Revere and the Raiders, etc, but that wasn’t specific to one city, and for that matter nearby Tacoma was more significant to that scene than Seattle was. Grunge, of course, came out of Seattle as the 80’s gave way to the 90’s, but that was hardly soul music, either, though a few Seattle rock musicians are shown in the film saying nice things about what happened before their era. Let’s face it, you just don’t think of Seattle as being a hotbed for black music of any kind.

Nonetheless, during the 1940’s in particular, Seattle was a jumping jazz town. Both Ray Charles and Quincy Jones spent important developmental years in Seattle. The producers of “Wheedle’s Groove” (the “wheedle” being the mascot of the Space Needle, used to symbolize Seattle as a whole) were fortunate enough to get Quincy Jones to give his insights on the Seattle scene as it was during and after World War II. In more recent years, Sir Mix-a-Lot (who also participates in this film) has represented Seattle on the national urban-music scene.

But our primary concern here is the golden era of soul and funk. Sadly, hardly any footage of black Seattle bands from this period exists, which would seem to bode ill for a documentary film focusing on unknown artists.. (There IS a brief clip of a group called the Majestics, who are otherwise hardly mentioned here.) But by combining old still photos, shots of record labels, a number of audio tracks of several of the relatively few 45’s recorded by Seattle soul and funk bands (not one of which will sound familiar to anyone from the “outside”), and extensive modern-day interviews with many of the significant musicians active on the scene, director Jennifer Maas has come up with a compelling and both visually and musically satisfying document of a scene that was ill-served by those people who really should have taken the time to document it while it was happening.

We get to hear excerpts of 45’s by such local stars as the Black On White Affair, Cold Bold and Together, Ron Buford with singer Ural Thomas, Patrinell Staten (whose “Little Love Affair”, became a British cult favorite decades after the fact), Cookin’ Bag, Robbie Hill’s Family Affair. All these artists may now be heard on Youtube, by the way, though without the context, discussions, and interviews provided by the film. Only one superstar emerged from the scene, one Kenneth Gorelick, known to the world as Kenny G, who has wonderful things to say in the film about the experience he gained by being a member of Cold, Bold and Together. Humorously, Kenny G credits the rainy Seattle weather with keeping him inside the house to practice. CB&T also featured keyboardist Philip Woo, who remains a known quantity on the international jazz scene to this day.

As the film describes, the scene was a healthy one for several years, with a lot of work for everyone, albeit not necessarily well-paying. There was also a lot of cooperation among musicians, which is always conducive to creativity. Local radio station KYAC was strongly supportive of the scene, not generally the case with local radio in more recent times. (Several excerpts of an interview with DJ Robert Nesbitt add very insightful comments on the scene..) The fan support was strong, also. So, while no one became rich or famous at the time, the consensus seems to be that it was a great time and place to be a musician. White and Asian musicians (such as Gorelick and Woo) were reradily accepted - if they could play - despite the influence of the Black Panther Party on the scene. The clubs, however, were more segregated. The lack of gigs in white clubs no doubt worked against the bands’ greater acceptance and financial rewards. Another factor working against the bands is that Seattle was not a media center, and the bands couldn’t afford to promote their record themselves outside the area.

Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix had to leave Seattle before even attempting to “make it”. In fact, Black on White Affair did manage to contact Quincy through his brother, but nothing came of it. Ural Thomas signed with Uni, once again with no breakthrough in the offing. Indeed, it seems the mere process of trying to break out of Seattle was the downfall of a few bands. Disagreements among members didn’t help, either, then disco nailed the lid on the coffin. The more people wanted to dance to recorded music, the less work there was for live bands. The fact that Seattle’s economy took a nosedive in the dark years between Boeing’s downturn and the birth of the high-tech industry led to hard times for music as well.

Several of the participants talk about what happened to their lives . Patrinell Staten Wright became successful in gospel music, others became teachers, musicians, and white- and blue-collar workers. The scene evaporated, but thanks to this DVD, it lives on in memory, in photos, and on those precious 45-RPM records. After a long fallow period, a CD compilation of a few of those 45’s sparked renewed interest in the Seattle soul and funk scene, which eventually set the wheels in motion for the production of this film. A number of the original Seattle soul musicians got together to play at the CD release party, sounding as fine and funky as they did 30-40 years earlier. We get to see excerpts from their modern-day concerts and recording sessions. If I have a complaint about the DVD, it’s that more performances, and at full-length, should have been included, if not in the film, in the extras. (I should mention that the recording engineer who has helped preserve these new performances is the same man who recorded
many of the originals, Kearney Barton, who also recorded the Kingsmen and the Sonics back in the day. He is also interviewed in the film.)

The point is made at the end of the film that the bands featured here are only the tip of the iceberg. A long list of many, many more is shown preceding the final credits. I’ve got my fingers crossed for a Volume 2!

There are a number of deleted scenes, interviews, performances, etc. in addition to the original 87-minute film. The movie has done deservedly very well on the Festival circuit, and is still bering shown on the big screen. But the DVD is available now from This is the good stuff!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

“Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” (First Run Features)

I’m always a bit confounded whenever music fans of my own (baby-boomer) generation, including many whom I feel should know better, fail to recognize the name “Phil Ochs” when I mention it. Certainly, I’ve given up expecting anyone under the age of 40 to have heard of him. But baby boomers? Come on, this man was (in my opinion, to be sure, but I’m far from alone) the greatest singer-songwriter to come out of the 1960’s following the emergence of Bob Dylan. It seems the enormous shadow of Dylan has long since dwarfed such once-vaunted figures as Bob Lind (whose new DVD will be reviewed soon), Eric Anderson, David Blue, Fred Neil, David Ackles, Patrick Sky, and the various Tims (Hardin, Rose, and Buckley), to such an overwhelming extent that even Tom Paxton and, yes, Phil Ochs do not have anywhere near the name recognition value that they deserve.

Nevertheless, Phil Ochs still has a considerable following, albeit a specialized one, but large enough that the theatrical release of Kenneth Bowser’s biographical documentary “Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” in 2010 was hailed as a major event among us old-folkie types. With the film’s release on DVD taking place this week, everyone can now see what all the fuss was about. This is one marvelous piece of work, a loving, skillfully-assembled, no-holds-barred portrait of a man who was misunderstood by so many people, including himself. It’s a tragic story, a tale of disillusionment, mental illness, alcoholism, dashed hopes, unfulfilled dreams, and eventual suicide, but one with a brilliant soundtrack of poetic lyrics, memorable melodies, and a one-of-a-kind voice.

Bowser has Included a wealth of interview clips, including many of the people closest to Phil Ochs - family (Phil’s famous photo archivist brother, Michael Ochs, who was one of this film’s producers; Phil’s well-known folk-music disc jockey sister and keeper of the Phil Ochs flame, Sonny Ochs; Phil’s wife and daughter), close friends (most notably Jim Glover of Jim and Jean, who was responsible for politicizing Ochs), musical associates (including early supporter Pete Seeger, Peter Yarrow, Judy Henske, Van Dyke Parks, Lincoln Mayorga, Joan Baez - who recorded the best-known version of Ochs’ song “There But For Fortune” - and on film, Dave Van Ronk), political associates (Tom Hayden, Fugs members Ed Sanders among them), record industry associates (Elektra’s Jac Holzman, A&M’s Jerry Moss) - an incredible array of people important to Phil Ochs’ life and career. The result is a well-rounded selection of opinions, reminiscences, and emotional responses, chronologically arranged. One might wish that some of the clips had been longer, but that’s because Ochs himself had such an engrossing life.

It would seem Bowser didn’t miss very much. We hear about Ochs’ upbringing by a Jewish father who came back from World War II mentally unstable and a Scottish mother who refused to hide her unhappiness. We see photos of Phil growing up conservatively in small-town 1950’s America - local readers of this blog may not be aware that some of this growing up took place in nearby Perrysburg, NY, and that Ochs played clarinet at a SUNY Fredonia summer music camp; there’s even a vintage still of Gowanda’s Hollywood Theater. We find him dropping out of Ohio State University, discovering his first great political cause in the Civil Rights movement, finding hope in the presidency of John Kennedy, having his illusions shattered by Kennedy’s assassination and America’s increasing involvement in Vietnam. We learn how Ochs was browbeaten by his songwriting role model, Bob Dylan, which did not sidetrack Ochs’ unrealistic but fervent determination to make it big in show-biz through the writing of liberally-oriented (yet hardly doctrinaire) protest songs. As times change, we see him expanding (as did Dylan, of course) into more personal, less purely folk-style songs, moving beyond acoustic guitar backdrops to a more “produced” type of recording. (However, Ochs was not interested in folk-rock, but surrounded his songs with classical and orchestral influences. The results were superb, but decidedly non-commercial.) We follow his increasing involvement with the counter-culture taking unexpected turns, leading street-theater-of-the-absurd demonstrations which celebrated the end of the Vietnam War years before it actual ended. We feel impending disaster as he fatefully becomes involved as a key member of the Yippies and serves as a catalyst in the catastrophic demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. We puzzle at his dressing up like Elvis Presley in gold lame for his career-destroying Carnegie Hall concert, which lost him the support of many of his long-term fans. A journey to third world countries leads to a meeting with nueva cancion icon Victor Jara in Chile, two years before the coup against the Allende government and Jara’s execution. His travels also take him to Africa. where Ochs is attacked and robbed in an incident in Tanzania that ruined his vocal cords. All this while, he is increasingly falling victim to bipolar disease, exacerbated by finding far too much solace for his depression in alcohol dependence. His growing combativeness begins to offend even his friends. Eventually, he falls off the deep end mentally, and announces the demise of Phil Ochs, replacing him with an obnoxious alter-ego named John Train. And then come those sad last days of 1976. To sum it up - it’s all here, it’s all examined in some depth, and it’s all put into comprehensible contexts.

We see short video clips and hear audio excerpts of many songs from every stage of Phil Ochs’ career. I find it particularly revealing to hear live performances from after the Tanzanian incident. Yes, his voice has suffered and has lost its consistency. But the voice and style are still recognizably that of Phil Ochs. I truly believe that, if he had been so inclined, he could have continued his career well past this point. But it wasn’t Phil Ochs the singer who had been mutilated, it was Phil Ochs the man.

“Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” is, then, both a celebration of and eulogy for this important 20th-century artist. It would be easy to disparage him for what he became in the 1970’s, but I prefer to remember Phil Ochs as he was in the 1960’s. This film allows for both interpretations, and each viewer may take from it the Phil Ochs they wish to recall. Highest recommendation.

The film runs 97 minutes, plus a text bio of the director, and a photo gallery.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

“Chieli Minucci & Special EFX: Live At The Java Jazz Festival” (Platinum Records)

It would not surprise me if some people were to think there are two Chieli
Minucci’s. One is a highly-regarded composer for television, winning three Emmy
Awards for his music for “The Guiding Light” and themes for other programs, as
well as special “hold” music for Verizon. The other is an eminently skilled and
highly creative jazz guitarist/composer and leader of the band Special EFX, who
had a long run of recording success in the 1980’s/90’s. Of course, they’re the
same person, who happens to have developed two very different musical

This live-concert DVD presents the second of the two Chieli Minucci’s, a very modern
jazz guitarist who himself is more than capable of changing musical identities,
ranging from Wes Montgomery-rooted mainstream guitarist
to McLaughlin/DiMeola-flavored jazz/rock/world-music fusionist, and beyond. But
don’t get the idea that he’s an imitator, as he does all manner of interesting
things to transform his influences into something solidly original. Moreover,
he’s smart enough to surround himself with four other musicians, who likewise do
new things within settings comfortable enough to be appealing to a wide range of
listeners, from smooth-jazz fans to rockers to mainstream jazz purists, and all
points throughout that wide spectrum.

The concert was filmed in 2009 at a festival in Jakarta, Indonesia, a country one
might not automatically associate with contemporary-jazz. But as the fusion band
Krakatau has long demonstrated, there are some exciting things happening in that
island nation, even though Americans seem only to hear of it when there’s a
massive natural disaster of some sort. (Side note - I seriously doubt James
Brown appeared at the 2009 Java Jazz Festival, despite what it says in the liner
notes, as James died in 2006.)

Minucci’s style is, as I’ve indicated rooted in earlier aspproaches to jazz guitar,styles,
but his rhythmic sense and textural explorations clearly mark him as a
contemporary equal of a Charlie Hunter (albeit without the latter’s independent
bass lines.) He deftly works his way from the early Miles/Chick brand of
jazz-rock, through "pre-dolphin" Winter Consort, a lovely Stevie Wonder ballad
(the only cover on the disc), Afro and Afro-Brazilian, all th way to
funk, through the course of seven tastefully arranged tracks, each of which is
of a substantial enough length (averaging around 10 minutes or so) to develop
through a number of changes and mood shifts.

Each of the members of Special EFX is a a creative force in his own right, and keeps
a cohesive groove going as a unit. Percussionist Philip Hamilton adds wordless
vocal melodies and interjections which contribute a world-music flavoring to
several tracks. Keyboardist Jay Rowe adds lovely cushions under Minucci’s
playing and solos with such joy that the listener can’t help but be caught up in
his exuberance. Drummer Lionel Cordew always seems to know what’s appropriate,
while bassist Jerry Brooks has a popping, crackling approach that enlivens the
rhythm section and intensifies his solo breaks.

Sound and picture quality are excellent. No bonus features, but there’s 75 minutes’
worth of music, with virtually no wasted time in between tunes. It's all music,
very little chat, which is an important factor when it comes to repeated
viewing. I simply can’t imagine anyone walking away unimpressed by this concert

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

“These Magnificent Miles: On The Long Road With Red Wanting Blue” (Davenport Motion Pictures)

What is the true measure of success? Stardom? Money? A record deal/book contract/movie-studio greenlighting? The satisfaction that many people appreciate your work, even though the size of their audience pales in comparison to, say, Lady Gaga’s? A loving family? Food on the table on a regular basis?

The members of indie-rock band Red Wanting Blue have enjoyed a few of those measures of success for some years. Over the course of their first fourteen years as a working unit, they had the support of family and friends, they ate and had rooves over their heads (even if it was thanks to working day jobs unrelated to their aspirations to be full-time professional musicians), and yes, they had the adoration of thousands of devoted fans over a wide geographical area. But the members of the band (hereafter referred to as RWB) were long frustrated by their failure to secure a recording contract. True, they released 8 CD’s on their own and toured nationally to great acclaim, hailed by both audiences and critics. Still, the brass ring always managed to elude them.

Goodness knows it was not for lack of trying, because - as this documentary film by producer-director Ken Davenport illustrates - the members of RWB have been bona fide road warriors, touring incessantly and gaining followers everywhere they’ve played. Goodness also knows it was not for lack of merit, as the performances shown on this DVD - featuring the distinctive,. emotion-laden baritone voice of Scott Terry - are uniformly fine. The band is tight, the songs are suitably melodic, with lyrics that often verge on the anthemic, the arrangements are accessible, yet creative. They would seem to be doing everything right. Even a recording executive who was interviewed for the film acknowledges the quality of the group. He just didn’t feel that what RWB offered could translate into major mainstream national success - yet, their faithful fan base continued to grow.

Davenport wisely lets the band tell their own story, of good times blending with hard times, of great gigs, long drives, musical satisfactions and frustrations, personnel problems and solutions, of a group of musicians in their late 20’s and early 30’s worried that time has already past them by. We see footage of the band throughout their long career, dating back to the days when OAR opened for RWB in Columbus, OH. But OAR took off, and RWB didn’t. We get interviews with family, friends, and fans, all of whom are mystified by tthe band’s lack of mainstream attention.

The film doesn’t beat you over the head - as some documentaries do - with manic shouts on the order of “You gotta love this band! You’re a fool if you don’t love this band”, because it doesn’t have to. The evidence is there, in plain sight and sound. This band should be as big as, oh, Matchbox 20 ten years ago, or Maroon 5 - what did they have that RWB lacks? Yet despite that national fan base and a trail of critical raves, no one would so much as give them a chance.

Thus,, we see them involved in the mundane tasks which they feel a recording contract would relieve them of - putting CD’s into envelopes, stuffing envelopes into boxes, hauling boxes to the post office. Tasks that a record company can hire underlings to take care of. Tasks that a 14-year veteran band with a national following should in theory not have to devote time and energy to.

Atrthe end of the movie, we learn that since the original filming, the band finally was signed to a record deal, not with SONY or Warner, but with Fanatic, whose boss saw in RWB the potential that other record execs inexplicably missed. Since that time, the band has yet to crack the upper reaches of stardom, but their time may yet be coming.

“These Magnificent Miles” - the film is named after their most recent CD - is well-filmed, intelligently edited, thoughtfully paced. But its most noteworthy accomplishment is that it features a number of full-length concert performances and scenes shot in recording studios to give the viewer a very real sense of what this band does and what level of excellence RWB has attained. In the end, you’re left rooting for the band to make it. Ken Davenport has thus done his job.

The film itself is an hour long. There is an unnecessary deleted scene, plus two music videos. Check out the films website, at

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

“John Lennon: Rare And Unseen” (MVD)/“Lennonyc” (A&E)

Could there possibly be anything left to learn about John Lennon, any scrap of film or recorded sound not yet seen and/or unavailable to the public on the dozens of other documentaries devoted to former Beatles, anything truly “rare and unseen”? Apparently so.

The MVD DVD “John Lennon: Rare and Unseen” actually collects vintage material that is, yes, rare, but which has been seen. Perhaps only once, 40+ years ago, and not throughout the whole world. In other words, so few people have seen this material (with the possible exception of the David Frost interviews, which have been unavailable up till now on DVD), the title is entirely legitimate. Since the public’s fascination with Everything Lennon continues unabated - every Fall semester, the 18-year-olds in my Freshman Liberal Arts Seminar are quick to identify the Beatles in general and Lennon in particular as one of their “favorite artists” - there would seem to be a ready-made market for both DVD’s under review here. Since the MVD disc more-or-less ends where “Lennonyc” begins (the title is short for “Lennon NYC”, chronicling John’s years in New York City and, despite the title, Los Angeles), they are not in the least incompatible. Although the A&E film (originally shown on PBS” “American Masters” series) is by far the superior product, hard-core Lennon fans will want them both.

“Rare and Unseen” (part of a series of MVD releases under that rubric) is arranged so that it traces the arc of John Lennon’s career up to the early 1970’s, going back to his teen-aged days with the Quarrymen. We meet an insecure, yet irreverent young fellow, lacking confidence, social skills, and the ability to trust people. It is easy to see the roots of the anxiety he always betrayed while addressing the press, which led him to blurt out answers - often treating seriously intended questions in a sarcastic manner - which got him into trouble on numerous occasions. A goodly amount of time is spent here examining his infamous “more popular than Jesus” remark - what he said, what people thought he meant, what he really meant, why people didn’t realize what it was he actually meant, etc. As Beatles’ press officer Tony Barrow puts it, “the words in his brain never did come out right by the time they reached his mouth.” Barrow contends that if John had written his apology in a song, it would have been brilliant, but he had a difficult time explaining his words to journalists.

Though the disc is arranged chronologically, not every major event in the Beatles’ development is addressed, nor is there any intent to do that. The subjects chosen are dependent on what rare, unseen television clips were available. So we skip over some of the Beatles’ finest, most innovative moments to get to the Bed-In for Peace, and John and Yoko’s involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement as a whole. The Beatles’ managerial difficulties (the Lee Eastman faction, i.e., Paul, vs. the Allen Klein faction); the relationship between John and Paul and what their romantic entanglements may have contributed to the break-up of the Beatles (John denies it was a factor); and John’s involvement with Yoko’s avant-garde art world are among the more prominent matters discussed.

Unfortunately, there is no narration to either tie together the various segments or to serve to transition between clips, or even to explain a bit about the nature of the programs this material came from. To be sure, narrations on a program such as this can often be less than helpful, and a back-cover blurb does supply some of the missing pieces of the puzzle. It might also have been preferable to show the originals in toto, rather than split up by added remarks, as it were. But the commentary, both from the original broadcasts (Desmond Morris’ perspectives are, as one might expect, particularly insightful) and newly-recorded (Steve Harley, ex-Cockney Rebel rock star turned BBC commentator, is quite perceptive) is quite interesting. Besides, the clips are worth seeing, from a purely historical viewpoint, as well as from the eyes of a “true fan” wanting to understand as much as one can about this enigmatic hero.

Hearing all these opinions as well as the Lennon interviews over the course of 75 minutes does give you the illusion at least of understanding this complex and often seemingly contradictory individual a bit better, though he will no doubt continue to elude us forever. There are no musical performances on the disc, but this is less about John Lennon the musician than John Lennon the man. No extras, but there’s certainly enough here to warrant a recommendation..

“Lennonyc”, which takes us inside John Lennon’s world during the 1970’s until his assassination in 1980, is about the man AND the music, with a number of live performances and studio discussions. But it’s the sections on the man that are particularly significant. We begin, not with the beginning, but near the end, with studio chatter from the “Double Fantasy” sessions and interviews with a few of the musicians from that album. We hear a playful, joking John, seemingly at ease with the process of recording after being away from it for several years. But the John Lennon who is revealed to us during the bulk of the film is far less jovial, frequently hostile, eventually becoming a nasty drunk and unproductive drug addict during his L.A. stay, where he comes off as downright unlikable. Then fatherhood changes him. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

John Lennon arrived in New York City full of hope, escaping from years of Beatlemania, and from hounding by the British press who blamed Yoko for the demise of the Beatles. His political stance also got him into trouble at home. No doubt he thought in America he would be freer to express himself, both artistically and politically. But then he finds himself aligned with Chicago Seven activist Rennie Davis, plus Yippies Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, and the full furor of the Nixon administration falls down upon Lennon’s head. Strom Thurmond convinces Washington that Lennon must be kicked out of the US. The deportation hearings drag on and on, FBI spies follow Lennon at every turn, what would have been an important tour is canceled, despite flimsy evidence that he actually posed a threat to the American way of life. But Lennon’s post-Beatles recordings with Elephant’s Memory, filled as they are with political material, controversial language, and the raw sounds of a Greenwich Village street band accompanying a man who had up until then been playing with the most famous musical ensemble in the world, also fell on uncomprehending ears, damaging his musical reputation and his commercial viability as well.

The frustrations lead to a bout of marital infidelity which led Yoko - who had literally been his constant companion up to this time - to kick him out. Lennon moves to LA, spends his time partying with Keith Moon and Harry Nilsson, two of rock’s most notorious ne’er-do-wells, clashes loudly with producer Phil Spector during the chaotic sessions for the “Rock’n’Roll” LP of oldies covers, acts crazy in public (on the club scene), and screams Yoko’s name. Significantly, a visit by Paul and Ringo found him relaxed and without animosity, but most of his three years in L.A. were pretty disastrous, and he undoubtedly saved his life by returning to NYC.

John returned to New York to straighten his life out and to work on “Walls and Bridges”. The music showed a considerable improvement. We hear John on a 1974 New York radio interview, in which he describes his continuing immigration hassles. But then, John and Yoko reconciled, around the same time that John got his green card, after a 4-1/2-year struggle. His years of faith in the American Dream having paid off, he set off on a new adventure after the birth of his son Sean. While Yoko took care of business, John became a house-husband and full-time father, roles which served to clean him up, settle his mind and body, and taught him to appreciate the more mundane aspects of life. (For example, we get a glimpse of him baking bread.)

Eventually, he realized he can be both father and musician, and set out to record “Double Fantasy,” which he conceived as an alternating showcase for himself and for Yoko. Yoko had always been a source of derision among rock fans, but David Geffen recalls that Lennon heard “Rock Lobster”, and decided the world was finally ready for her.There is a great deal of description of John’s working methods during that album by musicians Earl Slick, Andy Newmark, and Hugh McCracken, plus producer Jack Douglas and critic Robert Hilburn.

The story of Lennon’s murder is told with sirens, news footage, and Geffen’s and Yoko’s memories of how they learned of his death. It’s a story too-well-known, perhaps, to dwell on excessively here, but I found myself wanting more. What exactly I can’t tell you, just more.

Otherwise, there are very few mis-steps here. The interviews, with many people who knew and worked with John (including Elton John), are well-done, the balance of music, visuals, and information is satisfactory, and the whole production thoroughly professional, and certainly worthy of PBS standards. This is the sort of film that gives musical documentaries a good name.

115 minutes, no extras. A must-see.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

“Sondheim! The Birthday Concert” (Image Entertainment)

Stephen Sondheim has been such a dominant figure in the world of the American Musical Theater for so long, it’s hardly surprising that this concert honoring his 80th birthday (March 2010) would attract some of the finest and best-known artists who have graced the Broadway stage over the past forty or more years. After all, during that perplexing period when Broadway was overwhelmed by British (Andrew Lloyd Webber) and French (Claude-Michel Schoenberg) imports and “jukebox musicals”, in which a thin plot was written around a set of earlier hit songs, it was Stephen Sondheim who almost single-handedly kept the contemporary American-composed musical alive. Not only that, he did so by continually pushing the boundaries of what musical theater could sound like, and what it could express.

In the past few years, I’ve noticed a tendency among my American Music students to think of musical theater, past and present, as “America’s classical music”, whether referring to the innovative stylings of Michael John LaChiusa or the more populist writing of Frank Wildhorn. Certainly, in the eras of Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, Loesser, Styne, et. al., “show tunes” were considered part of the Popular Music world. It seemed part of the natural order of things that the songs which were most popular on Broadway would soon become part of America’s shared pop-music repertoire. I would venture to say that Stephen Sondheim is more responsible than any other single figure for the revised perception of musicals as being more closely aligned with the world of “art music” than with pop. He did not set out to write “hit songs” deftly inserted into plays to attract attention and sell tickets. His musicals are instead full-blown art works, sometimes operatic in scope, sometimes conceived on a smaller scale. In either case, they are works in which songs carry the story forward or comment on specific events within the whole, set to music which is distinctive, intricate, and variegated. Although many jazz and cabaret singers have been known to include a few Sondheim songs into their repertoires, the number of bona-fide hit singles Sondheim musicals have produced since he began writing both words and music is one - “Send In The Clowns”. And that song is curiously absent from this concert.

This 80th birthday concert - originally produced for the PBS showcase series, “Great Performances” - was the brainchild of producer/director Lonny Price. It was presented before a highly enthusiastic audience - including the composer himself - at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York. In addition to a variety of some of the best-known figures on Broadway figures, including Patti Lupone, Audra McDonald, Donna Murphy, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, and then-85-year-old Elaine Stritch, there are a number of other fine artists, both veterans and up-and-comers, most of whom have had some connection with Sondheim musicals. They are accompanied by no less than the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Sondheim’s long-time conductor, Paul Gemignani. Our guide to the proceedings is David Hyde Pierce (best-known as Niles on the sitcom “Frasier”, but certainly no stranger to the Broadway musical theater stage), hosting with typically Niles-ish deadpan humor. In a running gag, he pushes for multi-lingual versions of songs, and later sings “Beautiful Girls” from “Follies” in multiple languages.

Sondheim first gained fame in 1957, as Leonard Bernstein’s lyricist for “West Side Story”. The concert begins with a segment devoted to Sondheim’s career as a wordsmith, with a nicely staged ensemble version of “America” and “Something’s Coming”, sung by one of the aforementioned up-and-comers, who just happens to be the conductor’s son, Alexander Gemignani. (The material from “West Side Story” remains to this day among Sondheim’s most familiar.) Sondheim also wrote the lyrics for “Do I Hear A Waltz”, as well as one number for “Hot Spot”, written for the legendary Judy Holliday, and delivered here with humorous aplomb by 2005 Tony winner Victoria Clark.

Sondheim’s breakthrough decade of the 1970’s is well-represented by songs from “Company”, “A Little Night Music” and several each from “Follies” and “Sweeney Todd”, but none from the decidedly operatic “Pacific Overtures”. “Too Many Mornings”, sung by Audra McDonald and opera star Nathan Gunn, proves to be one of the highlights of the concert. Another highlight is a set of two songs from the 1984 play “Sunday In The Park With George”, performed by Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, two brilliant songs brilliantly performed, but which have no hit-making potential whatsoever, which is essentially the Stephen Sondheim story in a nutshell.

One of the most interesting segments presents the stars of the original productions reprising the songs they introduced to the world. Alas, John McMartin at age 80 is no longer the singer he was forty years ago in the debut of “Follies”. Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason introduced “it Takes Two” from “Into The Woods” much more recently (1987), and they still have the style and voices needed to make it work. Jim Walton, accompanying himself on piano, sings a song he never sang in the original production of “Merrily We Roll Along”, as the song was added to the score later.

Though most songs are presented with minimal staging, two members of the American Ballet Theatre dance beautifully to an instrumental theme Sondheim composed for the film “Reds”. (His songs for the movie version of “Dick Tracy” are not represented here.)

A bevy of divas in gorgeous red gowns comes onstage a final medley of Sondheim classics, though they never actually perform as a unit. Unit or not, Patti Lupone, Elaine Stritch, Donna Murphy, Audra McDonald, Bernadette Peters, and Marin Mazzie wow the crowd with dazzling performances that serve as textbook examples of how to sell theater songs to an audience. Ms. Stritch may not have the vocal range she once had, but she still has her trademark chutzpah, which she uses to deliver “I’m Still Here” from “Follies” with the power and conviction it requires.This could have well served as a finale, but producer Price had something even bigger and more dramatic in store for the celebration - a huge chorus of 287 performers from then-current Broadway productions promenading to the stage to sing “Sunday”, after which they they are joined by all the participants to sing “Happy Birthday” to the tearful composer, who comes onstage to receive a long and well-deserved ovation.

If you happened to already see this on PBS, you’ve probably already ordered your copy of the DVD. If not, I should mention that this is a well-presented document of a most memorable event. It gives due credit to a man whose impact on American musical theater will continue long into the future. If you wish to sample the music of a man who may indeed be definitively regarded as one of the great American composers whose music richly deserves the appellation “classical”, I heartily recommend this concert DVD.