Saturday, April 16, 2011

April 10, 2011 Susan Werner, Vance Gilbert & Peter Yarrow

I’ve been a fan of Peter, Paul and Mary since my teenage years when my friends and I used to travel into the city to Gerde’s Folk City and sneak into Westbury Music Fair to hear the three sing. And when Mary died it was a great loss. I was so excited when I learned that Peter Yarrow was coming to Long Island to perform at the The Patchogue Folk Festival, along with Susan Werner and Vance Gilbert.

Susan Werner was wonderful. She sang spirited numbers from her new release Kicking the Bee Hive. Her version of the Our Father deserves its place as a promo to every hypocritical religious preacher who claims to speak for God. Why is Heaven so Small points out so clearly how many people of faith are on the wrong side of God when they condemn us to certain damnation in hell for not being one of the elect. Her wonderful new song Manhattan Kansas, which she played on the piano, is about love and loss and the birth of child showed her willingness to be vulnerable and deeply personal. Her range of playing, her musicianship, her passion for social and political issues, her honesty and her willingness to wear her heart on her sleeve will keep Susan Werner on the stage for years to come.

Vance Gilbert deserves a larger audience. His verbal legerdemain and his sense of humor immediately grabs the audience. The rich timbre of his voice on songs like Unfamiliar Moon, and Lie to Me will always remain powerful and poignant. He knows how to tug at your heart strings. Yet with a simple acoustic guitar he can shift into the Jimi Hendrix song, Castles Made of Sand and make it seem as if Jimi were on the stage. His new songs such as Old Man’s Advice effortlessly blends humor and poignancy, the pain of the racial divide with the undivided love of a son giving voice to his father. Goodbye Pluto may be the haunting story of Vance Gilbert himself searching for the recognition that he deserves while he swirls around the sun and the earth that now relegates him to a non-planetary misunderstood status. No one can hold a note, or reach such majestic musical heights as Vance Gilbert. Just listen to his rendition of Rainy Night in Georgia to know what I mean. People talk about Mariah Carey as if she were the new diva with her five octave range. But Vance is the male equivalent who can do all that and better, without all of the unnecessary theatrics. He connects with his audience. He knows how to talk to us. He knows how to sing with passion and honesty. He makes anyone who loves music a believer.

Peter Yarrow started out with great promise. His new song Don’t Laugh at me resonated strongly with the audience. I thought, “How wonderful is it that this man, this legend is still creating wonderful songs and still traveling the world advocating for peace and justice.” But then the concert deteriorated into one long depressing monologue. He reminded us of and then disregarded Mary Travers' advice not talk incessantly on stage.  While it was appropriate to inform us of the plight of “bullied” and ignored
 children, he seemed to forget that this was a concert and not a lecture hall and that he was preaching to the choir. Just when the audience thought that the lecturing was over, he brought the house lights up, brought his laptop on stage and forced us to listen to his web site where artists from around the world in every language performed this song.  The experience was sheer torture. I felt bullied. By the time he sang his powerfully moving song The Great Mandala, I didn’t care anymore. Instead of being moved, I was angry. Even Puff the Magic Dragon was turned into yet another object lesson in our collective callousness toward children and in Yarrow’s endless and tireless effort to correct this tragic wrong. All I could think was “Shut up, please.” Shockingly, Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind was yet another example of Yarrow’s endless need for interruptions and intrusions. And I felt sorry for Vance and Susan who were compelled to sing along like school children who had never heard of Bob Dylan. It was a sad coda to what should have been a wonderful evening. Fortunately, I have wonderful memories of Peter, Paul and Mary at rallies during the sixties and the seventies. Fortunately, Susan Werner and Vance Gilbert were on hand in Patchogue to brighten up the evening.

April 6, 2011 Ben Carroll & Tom Chapin

Ben Carroll was surprisingly soulful and lyrical. There was sincerity and passion in his songs and in his singing. I did hear Stevie Wonder in his cadence and phrasing, and not James Taylor as some suggest, but instead a touch of Aaron Neville. Ben Carroll is a soul singer which is badly needed during this time when music is often mechanical and driven by a rhythm machine. He held the audience in his hands with his engaging style and could easily have led us out of our seats and into the aisles clapping our hands as if we were all part of a Baptist revival with his final number. He is an artist deserving recognition and with a little help from his friends hopefully he will get it.

Tom Chapin, who I've seen three times, brings the kind of optimism and enthusiasm that really harkens back to the Weavers and the Kingston Trio. Everything in me wants to resist his music having grown up on the darkness of Bob Dylan and the sarcasm of Dick Farina and the political rants of Phil Oches. Yet, he draws me in and the next thing I know I'm singing along and smiling my way out of my post apocalyptic depressive funk. We need people like Tom Chapin who brings so much confidence and enthusiasm to his songs that you want to believe. You know that below the surface, he's hoping to draw us into a better world so that the world can be better, not because he's wearing rose colored glasses. He knows what's out there. But just his sheer stage presence, all 6'6" of it, is going to drag us to the promised land or die trying just so that it can become a reality.

January 6, 2011 Putnam Smith & Jennings

Last night, Putnam Smith initially dazzled with his explosive banjo style. I found the songs interesting for the first half of his set, especially because he chose such mundane topics to sing about, yet elevated the ordinary to a higher plain. But he never did much with his voice and so missed opportunities to take us further or to hit the emotional core that his banjo playing worked to make up for. His guitar and mandolin should have been left at home. The guitar playing was adequate, the mandolin even less so. But by the second half I had lost interest in the songs. They never went far enough. The banjo is a hard instrument to make interesting for sustained periods and Putnam reached his limit. He did have an engaging stage presence and a personality that will make him a darling of house concerts.

Jennings had a beautiful smile and a lovely endearing presence. Her piano playing was limited at best. Her style never varied both on the keyboard and vocally. While she has the potential to become a break out performer, each song very quickly faded into the next until they were inseparable and unmemorable which is a shame since she has the capacity to connect with her audience. Even when she was singing about her mother, the lyrics where lost in her singing style. While she expressed her gratitude to the audience for remaining so attentive, we were in fact struggling to remain focused. She’s got a great range and could make much better use of it through variety of songs. Afterwards, I listened to her CD and was so glad she left the band at home. At the concert I found her percussionist to be overpowering, on the CDs I found the band techno and distracting. I would have liked to hear her solo. But she should learn that variety is the spice of concert life when it comes to play lists. While she heralds from Nashville, she looked New Orleans Mardi Gras to me.

November 5, 2010 Nini and Ben & Air Traffic Controller

Wednesday’s show at Acoustic Long Island was non-stop entertainment. Nini and Ben had driving sound that kept the audience moving. Nini had a wonderful voice, filled with passion and intensity. The band was excellent. The peddle steel guitar, I thought might overwhelm the audience, but was tasteful. The percussionist was talented. I thought that the base player rounded things out even though she hid behind the band. Ben, the song writer, remained the shyest front man yet. Personally, after a while the songs all blended into each and I was hoping for more variety. But Nini had a mixture of Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris in her voice. Of course, when I checked out the inside of the album cover I wished I were young again. When you compare their performance to their album, the group really remained true to what they set out to do in the studio. I’m not sure if it’s folk-rock or country without the twang, but Nini had a palpable stage presence and professionalism. They set up, they played, they left.

Don’t base Air Traffic Controller on their CD that pales by comparison to their live act.  Dave Munro acts as if he’s already made it. He’s got that sense of showmanship and artistry that you can’t ignore. His keyboardist is really the genius behind the music. The group much in the vein of Frank Zappa was completely scripted which works as performance, but never allows those breakout moments. The addition of the string quartet was amazing in the Electric Light Orchestra tradition. Considering that there was no base player or percussionist, they were really tightly wound. I think that the audience was blown away and amazed, but Nini, by comparison, actually got the audience to tap their feet and dance to the music. Dave’s songs were quirky, almost like some of the Beatles numbers with his version of George Martin in the keyboardist making it all happen. Don’t Tell Me What to Do was too derivative, but Bad Axe was actually my favorite song. This Road I enjoyed but on the CD I found it so so. It loses what he created for us at Deepwells in the live performance. So see Air Traffic Controller live and in living color.

October 18 Caroline Doctorow

At the Huntington Folk Music Society Caroline Doctorow performed in their Hard Rock Café.  Sadly, her performance was substandard. I had never realized how little effort she makes to connect with her audience, to sing with any passion, or to enunciate beyond a sultry whisper. The sad thing about her is that she actually has a sweet voice. With the right direction she could make better use of it. Her bass player and lead guitarist are accomplished, she has a wonderful repertoire of standards. Lately she’s been singing Mimi and Dick Farina songs, but ultimately as a performer she’s boring. To reduce Dick Farina to a monotone is quite an accomplishment. Her famous father E.L. might account for her initial claim to fame, but at this point, whatever loyal following she has, apparently enough to keep her on the circuit, can’t include me in that number.

October 17, 2010 The Strawbs

The Strawbs played at the University Café’s sold out crowd. Very quickly it was clear that the sound quality was terrible. For a group whose lyrics are the centerpiece of their performance, the audio became lost in the instrumentation. The audience was sadly disappointment. Criticism ranged from how unnecessarily loud the music was for such a small venue, to the lack of mixing from the sound man. While the band seemed happy with the mixing and the sound, the audience became frustrated and annoyed. The Strawbs had surrendered to high-tech noise.

October 7, 2010 Huck & Kat Mulvaney

Huck should change his name back to Jay. There is only one Huck and that's Huck Finn. He held his guitar as if it were a machine gun. His style was rhythmical, consistently upbeat and enjoyable. He potentially has a terrific voice, but often mumbled rather than used his full range. He was entertaining, full of sweat and grit, but seemed trapped in his style of playing.  He should be careful not to insult his audience who fortunately for him remained thick skinned and reserved even when he was not.

Kat Mulvaney reminded me of Rachel Griffin. If you closed your eyes, the two were one and the same, right down to her religious sensibilities and sexual adventurousness. However, her songs were sophisticated and didn't drift into bubblegum and flowery lyrics as Rachel sometimes does. She was an exceptional guitarist and her a capella number showed the full range of her voice and her courage as a performer. Unlike Huck, who sweated profusely, she remained surprisingly cool. Berklee seems to be teaching a particular musical style and voicing that becomes more apparent with each listening to yet another Berklee grad.

April 9, 2010 Stephanie Nilles & Michael Miller

Stephanie Nilles performed at Deepwells for the second time. She was mesmerizing, fascinating, energetic and entertaining. She has such eccentric qualities and such enormous talent that it is a shame if no one comes along to bridle her and hone that talent into something equally distinctive but controlled. As it stands, I missed ninety percent of her lyrics which is a sad, considering that they were clearly original, often political, and sometimes funny. To say that not one song was memorable, but instead to say that the performance was memorable means to my mind that she missed the mark and hopefully one day will hit the bull’s eye.

Michael Miller was a sad disappointment in every respect. Every song deteriorated into a series of endless repetitions that turned into water torture. His guitar playing was so basic and elementary that initially I thought he was tuning his guitar, not playing the lead intro to a song that allegedly made its way into a failed movie. No surprise there. It seemed as if he had mastered all of the Beatles cord changes without their genius or originality. If this were a Smithtown Elementary School recital, he would have stood out as a star, but at Deepwells he disappeared into a black hole. No wonder he had to give his “million cellar” CDs away.

January 7, 2010 Newland and Miller, Chris Ayer

Newland and Miller, who have graced the open mikes, returned to Deepwells to ring in the New Year. With their Seal and Croft like harmonies they sang of love and loss, a disappointment. They bring with them a kind of purity of heart and soul that pervades each song and calls on the audience to listen to their higher selves even when they’re singing about darker subjects.

Chris Ayer returned to Acoustic Long Island for the third time after traveling throughout the UK. Like a young wine that gets better each time, he brought with him a kind of energy and spirit that makes you appreciate what real talent is and why he is an Acoustic Long Island favorite. His guitar playing—a clear fluid use of jazz chords and alternative tunings; his song lyrics—complex, rich and intelligent; and his singing—cool, clear and in perfect pitch—all blend together in a masterful mix. Chris sang three songs from his first album—We are Birds, Evaporate and Confidant—each promises to become a classic when Chris finally connects with a larger audience. A Star Fish in the Front Yard and ROY G BIV both promise to be right up there in the Chris Ayer pantheon.

November 5, 2009 Jann Klose and Dan Mills

Jann Klose and Dan Mills came to Acoustic Long Island for the end of the fall concert series. Jann Klose, who now hails from the Bronx, must practice his set while the elevated train is passing overheard. The louder he screamed, the less I heard. It was only in his final number that he suddenly turned lyrical and showed some self-control reigning in a voice in need of de-amplification.

Dan Mills, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise. He had a winning smile and a winning style that immediately endeared him to the audience. His first three solo songs were his strongest and he used them to connect to the audience. His three bandmates joined him for the rest of the show with a chemistry and affection that was palpable. While they deferred to Dan Mills as songwriter, lyricist, lead guitarists and singer, their own artistry only added to his genuineness and heartfelt sincerity. There was something almost preternaturally clean and decent about all of them. They’d be fun to spend the day with and a reason to join “Mommy and Me.”

October 8, 2009 Princess Peapod and David Ray

Princess Peapod and David Ray came to Deepwells on the fourth anniversary of Acoustic Long Island. Princess Peapod, the singing husband and wife duo, Michele Frimmer and Dave Cook, performed an upbeat ethereal brand of folk music that was at times new age, always optimistic, sometimes nostalgic, but always grounded in the celebratory roots of folk music. Princess Peapod, who danced and cavorted around the stage, sang with the purity of one who is channeling the goodness of life. Prince Henpecked offered subtle harmonies as he riffed on his guitar in various finger picking styles and rhythms that added texture and fullness to their goodness and life homespun music.

David Ray captured the down and dirty, often gritty side of life in a performance that was often electrifying as he turned his guitar into a complex rhythm machine with his dynamic finger picking magic. His songs, fraught with double entendres, word plays, complex imagery and brash humor, focused on the women of the night who just like his music are both frightening and alluring. His voice, that was a blend of Tom Waits and Toby Walker, was bold and unabashed in his portrayals of the seedy side of life where nothing is clear, everything is tentative and people are living on the edge. Oh yeah. No wonder the audience cheered and jumped to their feet. The night was musical journey between heaven and hell. And the audience chose hell and “Just a little dynamite.”

September 10, 2009 Lara Herscovitch and Reed Waddle

Lara Herscovitch and Reed Waddle came to Deepwells for the kick off of Acoustic Long Island’s fall and winter series. Lara Herscovitch had a beautiful voice. She opened and ended her set with a powerful and stirring number that went through a range of emotions, the final number masterfully incorporating The Star Spangled Banner into the fabric of the song. Her songs demonstrated her strong commitment to social causes. They were at times personal, and sometimes funny, such as the Blah, Blah, Blah song—a mock love song. While the majority of her compositions did not hold up to the promise contained in her first number, she shows strong promise as an artist.

Reed Waddle was a complete surprise, who captured the wow factor. With a boyish face and an unassuming personality and with a head that rocked expressively back and forth like a metronome, he quickly proved himself to be a talented guitarist and songwriter. He played his guitar with the expressiveness usually found on a piano, incorporating a jazz style and phrasing not that different from Ari Hest, but possibly better. He used a scat style and a mellow silky voice that moved as effortlessly as his guitar playing through his songs. Even his use of the harmonica with each note being picked out with uncanny skill, and his distinctive voicing, at one point trumpet like, turned him into a one man band. It was a night to remember and another Dave Dircks great find.

August 27, 2009 Ari Hest

In the last concert of the summer series, Ari Hest came to Deepwells. In the typical hyperbolic style that symbolizes the Acoustic Long Island audience, Mr. Hest received a standing ovation that, while too soon in his career to be deserved, said more about the lure of Acoustic Long Island for young artists who flock to St. James to perform and who get a glimpse of what life could be like for them one day if only. Ari Hest, a surprisingly self-assured young artist, with a sense of humor, deft skills on the guitar, a voice with a rich timbre and range that effectively carried throughout each song, is an up and coming talent ready to burst on the music scene. Unlike other artists who are vying for a lucrative record contract and widespread exposure, he has turned his back on the industry in order to find his own road to public acclaim. His use of jazz chords, his clear crisp three finger picking and his rich voice that while comfortable in the lower octaves also soared into the higher ranges, all contributed to a memorable performance. His songs were inventive, varied, at times humorous, and demonstrated his good fortune in growing up in a musical family.  He will carry that tradition and wear that mantle proudly

August 20, 2009 Christian Cuff

Christian Cuff came to Deepwells on a hot muggy night that probably violated all the health department rules regarding the heat safety index. Still, the audience remained steadfast throughout the show as the sweat streamed in torrents from Christian Cuff’s face. His music was high powered and energetic. He moved and cavorted around the narrow stage charging the mike and punctuating the air with his unique brand of music  blending jazz and folk. He wore his heart on his sleeve, each song a story about love and loss and disappointment fueled by an angry bitterness that captured a life and love driven by passion and desire. Between numbers he would slip into self-deprecating humor that connected with his audience. His band, a standup bass player and a sit down cellist added a haunting resonance to his music. The cellist who looked as if he had stepped off the set of Dr. Zhivago with his Lenin hat and wire rim glasses was a talent unto himself. He closed out the night with a haunting edgy cello piece that not only showed off his gift on the cello, but Christian Cuff’s willingness to turn the show over to him. Considering that most musicians usher their band off the stage to give the audience a solo performance designed to highlight themselves, this was a brave and generous gesture by Cuff.

August 13, 2009 Jacqueline Stem

Jacqueline Stem arrived at Deepwells as a confused lost soul. What is Acoustic Long Island? Who is Dave Dircks? Why am I here? The past and present tense were equally elusive for Ms. Stem. Initially she appeared endearing and enigmatic as she struggled to speak to the audience in a cadence that was unfamiliar and halting. Eventually her manner became tiresome and off-putting. Her songs were intelligently written and revealed a person who was very different from the lost soul she presented to her audience. Two songs in particular, one about identity and our desire to be something other than we are, and another about things that will eventually happen, reveal an embryonic talent beneath that confused public persona. Sadly, all her songs melded into one long song with each song more or less a continuation of the one that preceded it.

August 5, 2009 Edie Carey

Edie Carey performed at Acoustic Long Island. If you closed your eyes, her speaking voice was that of Lucy Kaplansky and her singing voice that of Dar Williams with its lilting tone rising and falling in a sweet cadence. However, her songs were a hundred percent her own—original, warm, and sincere. The audience felt not only her love of music and the life of a musician “in the indie underground” as she put it, but a sincerity that came through every song. Each song was a love letter to someone about something that mattered. While no particular song had that wow factor that everyone dreams of, her songs were the expression of life given over to contemplation and reflection. One of her songs dealt with 9/11 as part of the timeline continuum of life. Ironically, Lucy Kaplansky has written a song about 9/11, but Lucy’s is pedantic and overreaches while Edy Carey’s song is subtle and profound.  

July 30, 2009 Will Knox

Will Knox brought his music to Deepwells last night. There was a driving metronomic syncopation to his music, each word clearly enunciated and each pause skillfully used for dramatic effect. Dave Dircks compared them to the Moody Blues, but Fairport Convention sans Sandy Denny was more evident. The songs were rich and layered, focusing on such themes as the rich heritage of immigrants coming to America, the majesty and terror of first visiting the megalopolis, New York City, loves labor lost, and mankind’s final record imprinted in the dust on the moon. His drummer, his base player and violinist added texture to each song. The violinist, in particular, imbued each song with a melancholic soulfulness that was haunting and doleful. Sometimes, I thought, lighten up, but we do live in dark times.

July 23, 2009 Jen Kearney and the Lost Onion

Jen Kearney and the Lost Onion gave an energetic spirited performance that lifted people out of their seats and dancing in the aisles. Her songs were strongly influenced by Stevie Wonder who came through in every note and cadence, but without Wonders’ ability to reach you emotionally and spiritually. Kearney’s songs were complex, intricate and layered, yet she might as well have been singing “Blah, Blah, Blah,” to gain the same effect. Maybe she and the band could comprehend her lyrics, but not one word was intelligible to me. Her guitarist, rather than compliment her, drowned her out with his exciting and inventive licks as his hands moving effortlessly up and down the neck of his cigar box guitar. I’d go to see her again, but only if she were playing opposite Derrick Trucks who might really make her shine.

May 7, 2009. Colin McGrath & Chris Trapper

Kudos to the Dircks Brothers and Billy Alexander. You guys pulled in an energetic crowd once again. Colin McGrath started out with great promise with that Simon and Garfunkel knock off and the wonderful harmonies. But then the songs faded until St. Anthony's Return. I thought that his sideman with the James Taylor voice might be interesting once he develops a repertoire of his own songs.

Chris Trapper surprised me. His songs are multilayered, have a sense of humor (like Randy Newman/Jimmy Buffett), have a lot of energy, and an air of "truthiness" about them.  I can see why his songs might end up on the sound track of a movie or why people want to sing along.

July 9, 2009 Leslie Mendelson

Leslie Mendelson gave a wonderful at Acoustic Long Island. She remained cool, calm, and relaxed and didn’t break a sweat under the hot lights and the blistering summer heat even with that Prussian Jacket on. Her songs had heart and soul and resonated with true emotion. I thought the song Rest of London will remain apart of her pantheon of songs for a lifetime. Even her Melanie song Brand new roller skates, was a perfect fit for her, considering that I was never a Melanie fan. (Melanie was always a woman in search of a last name). Leslie’s song about Coney Island did lean heavily on Billy Joel. Leslie was a classy act, warm, endearing and soulful. Where else, but Acoustic Long Island could create this kind of venue for her?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Welcome to the "By the Bell" Blog

I've been attending concerts around Long Island for most of my adult life. Like all of you sitting in the audience, I have my opinions regarding the artists and their performances. The wonderful thing about Long Island is that we get to hear the best of the best, artists who have made it in the industry, and new upcoming artists who are struggling to gain recognition. It is these up and coming artists in search of an audience who I'll tend to focus on in these blogs. Hope you enjoy it!