Thursday, October 29, 2009

Rey Fresco and Matt the Electrician at the Living Room 10/27/09

Harps come up a lot when talking about rock and roll. In the mid-‘60s Bob Dylan brought the harp to the masses. The harp was soon adopted from everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Stevie Wonder. Currently, younger groups like Wilco to My Morning Jacket are bringing the harp mantle to a new generation. This isn’t surprising – pick a harp in the right key and there are no bum notes!

If you haven’t already figured it out, this is the mouth harp we’re talking about, the harmonica. When writing about rock music, the clarification hardly needs to be made. No rock band features an actual harp!

No rock band except Rey Fresco, that is. “Features” is the right word too, for this is no mere press-baiting novelty. This SoCal reggae-rock quartet performs the mean feat of putting harpist Xocoyotzin Moraza front and center. It wasn’t long into Rey Fresco’s funky set at Manhattan’s Living Room Tuesday night before you wondere
d why more bands don’t feature harps.

Part of the reason may be that harpists as skilled as Moraza are hard to come by. The all-wood 36-string instruments he plays come handmade from his father, with custom strings capable of handling Moraza’s flying fingers as they leap the instrument’s five octaves. Though when he plays chords it veers a little close to the steel drum, Moraza generally takes on the role most bands would give a lead guitarist.

With his unusual instrument it’s safe to say Moraza was the focus of much of the small crowd’s attention, but lead singer Roger Keiaho refused to let himself get upstaged. Keiaho’s soulful yelp pierced through the pretty melodies, giving the smooth vibes a set of balls solely lacking from most music that comes within ten feet of reggae. By the time the band closed with a cover of Compay Segundo’s “Chan Chan,” they had accomplished the most impressive feat at all: making the harp seem a perfectly normal rock instruments.

Austin’s Matt the Electrician stripped away the surfer-party vibe, his loner woodsman beard drawing instant attention as he quietly sang songs inspired by family members. “That was for my son,” he said after finishing “Animal Boy.” “All parents know that when you give one child something you have to give the other something of exactly equal value. So this one’s for my daughter.”

His daughter may have gotten the short shrift in the end – the first tune was longer –but hopefully she forgave pop. It’s not every dad who can open a set with two tunes played on a ukulele-banjo. Novelty Instrument Night at the Living Room came to a close when he picked up an acoustic guitar, his main axe, but his note-perfect whistling solos kept the unusual in the fore.

While Matt avoided the covers which have garnered him some recognition (he has an excellent new one of Journey’s “Faithfully”), his quirky originals about his cat and Japan kept the small crowd’s attention as he warbled and whistled his way through winsome songs. “Divided By” of his new Animal Boy sounded like a less-sarcastic Randy Newman and “Osaka in the Rain” made him seem an ideal candidate for Lost in Translation II. Matt’s career as an electrician may be behind him, but Matt the Musician is just picking up speed.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Patti Smith's "A Salute to Robert Frank" 10/17/09

Robert Frank’s The Americans ushered in a new era for photography, focusing on the daily trials and triumphs of everyday people. He took 28,000 snapshots in his two-year trip across the United States in the mid-‘50s, selecting just 83 for the final book. Each shot invokes a uniquely American loneliness, whites and blacks separate in stature but equal in isolation. In the book’s introduction, Jack Kerouac wrote, “Anybody doesnt like these pitchers dont like potry, see?”

Decades later, art buffs worldwide do see. In September, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened an exhibition of original prints of all 83 photos, arranged in the same meticulously thought-out order just in the book. To help honor the occasion, Patti Smith and her daughter Jesse organized “A Salute to Robert
Frank, Artist and Friend.”

Patti Smith first collaborated with Frank when he directed the video for her 1996 single “Summer Cannibals.” As the evening progressed she shared many amusing anecdotes about the quiet shuffling man. She described humbly showing him her own photographs and the elation she felt when he told her, “I see what you’re doing.” “When Robert says that,” she asked aloud, “Who the fuck cares what anyone else thinks?”

Mostly though, her musings on Frank came through recitation and song. On the poetry side, Jesse Smith selected a broad spectrum of material from the well known (Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing”) to the obscure (Patti Smith’s own “combe”). Throughout, the images of old-time America echoed the photos. The first onstage words, in fact, were Smith’s herself, coming from a personal notebook written in April 1971. Printed in the a
dvertisements leading up to the show and the bulletin during, it framed the event around the point where Smith and Frank meet.

I keep trying to figure out what it means to be American. When I look in myself I see Abyssinia, nineteenth-century France, but I can’t recognize what makes me American. I think about Robert Frank’s photographs—broke down jukeboxes in Gallup, New Mexico, swaying hips and spurs, ponytails and syphilitic cowpokes, hash slingers, the glowing black tarp of US 285 and the Hoboken stars and stripes.

I think about a red, white and blue rag
I wrap around my head.
Maybe it’s nothing material; maybe it’s just being free.

Freedom is a waterfall, is pacing linoleum till dawn,
the right to write the wrong words.
And I done plenty of that...

Smith tackled her own American history with poems about her birthplace of Chicago (Carl Sandburg’s “Mag”) and her adopted home of New York (an excerpt from E.B. White’s “Here Is New York”). She never veered into the self-indulgent though, interspersing all her selections with messages from Robert, who had been forced to abandon his planned appearance. Before reading a section of William S. Burroughs’ The Western Lands, she commented that this was the piece Frank requested she read at the event. She shrugged her shoulders as she said it, saying she wasn’t sure why he chose it. The connections between the words and images didn’t need to be clear though; the feeling tied the two in a way specificity never could.

The songs Smith chose to perform veered away f
rom her own material. She only performed four original songs (“Trampin’,” “Beneath the Southern Cross,” “Ghost Dance” and “People Have the Power”), instead imagining what Frank might have heard coming over the AM as he drove across the country in the mid-‘50s. She has never publicly performed before many of these songs before, and may never again.

The first cover came halfway through the evening with Smith’s take on “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” Originally written in 1934 for Roy Rogers’ band the Sons of the Pioneers, singer Kate Smith had a hit with the tune in the ‘50s. The tune evoked a wide-open America, the sort of James Dean lone-ranger imagery both terribly beautiful and terribly sad. “I’ll keep rolling along / Deep in my heart is a song,” Smith slowly sang. “Here on the range I belong / Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.”

“The Wayward Wind” continued the home-on-the-range vibe. Gogi Grant had a number-one hit with the tune in 1956. As on most of the songs, Smith was accompanied by Jesse on piano, Michael Campbell on xylophone and her longtime comp
atriot Lenny Kaye on guitar. The latter two came together for a cowboy solo before Kaye took center stage (figuratively) on a cover of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.”

Patti sat cross-legged on the wooden stage while Kaye plucked the childlike folk melody with Jesse and Campbell accompanying. “High up above my eyes could clear
ly see / The Statue of Liberty / Sailing away to sea / And I dreamed I was crying,” he sang at the end of the song. Then, with a few nods of his head he masterfully segued into a bare-bones rhythm over which Smith projected Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” a poem about Lady Liberty herself.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.
After the night’s only rock and roll moment (a “Power to the People” sing-along), Smith opened the encore by reading Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl.” “Holy! Holy! Holy!” she chanted. “The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!” As one “holy” built to another, the cascade of images ushered in the evening’s most powerful moment. Like a good rock singer, Smith built the poem to a shouted crescendo before winding it down with the one final line: “Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul! “

It would have been a powerful way to end the night, but Smith had one more cover to get out of her system. The foursome on stage took on the Everly Brothers with a grinning “Bye Bye Love.” If Frank did in fact hear that song as he drove across the country, he couldn’t have smiled wider than the crowd at the Met. He couldn’t have smiled wider than Patti Smith.

Reading: notebook, April 1971
Reading: Events of ’55 and ’56 [Jesse Smith on piano]
Song: “Trampin’” [Jesse on piano]
Reading: “I Hear America Singing,” by Walt Whitman [Jesse on piano, Michael Campbell on xylophone]
Reading: “A Blessing,” by James Wright
Reading: “combe,” by Patti Smith [Jesse on piano, Campbell on xylophone]
Song: “Beneath the Southern Cross”
Reading: Excerpt from Here Is New York, by E.B. White
Reading: Excerpt from The Western Lands, by William S. Burroughs
Song: “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” (Kate Smith cover) [Jesse on piano, Campbell on xylophone, Lenny Kaye on guitar]
Recitation: “Mag,” by Carl Sandburg
Song: “The Wayward Wind” (Gogi Grant cover) [Jesse on piano, Campbell on xylophone, Kaye on guitar]
Song: “An American Tune” (Paul Simon cover) [Kaye on vocals and guitar, Jesse on piano, Campbell on xylophone]
Reading: “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus
Song: “Ghost Dance” [Jesse on piano, Campbell on guitar, Kaye on guitar]
Song: “People Have the Power” [Jesse on piano, Campbell on guitar, Kaye on guitar]
Reading: “Footnote to Howl,” by Allen Ginsberg
Song: “Bye Bye Love” (Everly Brothers cover) [Jesse on piano, Campbell on guitar, Kaye on guitar]

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Gaslight Anthem at the Brooklyn Bowl 10/16/09

The three B’s of the Jersey shore: beer, bowling and Bruce Springsteen.

Add in a fourth B – Brooklyn – and you’ve got the ingredients of Friday night’s Gaslight Anthem show. The up-and-coming punk revivalists played a packed set at the Brooklyn Bowl while lager flowed, pins tumbled, and hipsters said the hell with ironic distance, crowd surfing, fist pumping, and uninhibitedly yelling along.

Oregon’s Broadway Calls kicked things off with a fast-paced set that largely provided mood music for a crowd busy checking out the merch, watching the Yankees game and getting pleasantly buzzed. The Bowl is right next-door to the Brooklyn Brewery, so instead of cheap plastic cups of Bud Light, hearty pints of Brooklyn Lager circulated freely (often becoming broken glass covering the dance floor).

Jesse Malin of Queens pushed the throttle one gear higher, touring behind his 2008 covers album On Your Sleeve. Sadly, he ignored many of the disc’s best tracks, including Tom Waits and the Hold Steady tunes, instead focusing on his back catalogue of original material. The sideways paper-boy cap came off a bit pretty-boy Joe Strummer, but the Mick Jagger swagger of his step screamed rock and roll authenticity. A tight three-piece band pounded out the riffs behind him, culminating in the first Bruce reference of the night when he closed with “Broken Radio,” his 2007 Boss duet. You can catch the video here, but the slow-burn arrangement of the record pales next to the guitar attack it becomes live.

The angry woodsman gutter-punk of Murder By Death finally drew the majority of attendees to the stage as mutton-chopped Adam Turla yelped out his Johnny Cash baritone over songs about whiskey, low-down women, and the devil. The set focused largely on the quartet’s latest Red of Tooth and Claw, kicking off with the steel-driving “Ball & Chain” and rapping up forty-five minutes later with the Inglorious Basterds-approved “Comin’ Home.” Cellist Sarah Balliet added extra grit and grind on the low end.

“We are the last of the jukebox Romeos,” the Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon sang halfway through their set. I couldn’t put it any better. These four New Jersey boys wear their hearts and influences on their sleeves, singing the sort of unashamed rock and roll you didn’t think anyone made anymore. Within the set’s first three songs – “High Lonesome,” “Casanova, Baby!” and “Old White Lincoln” – they’d already quoted Springsteen four times, Tom Waits twice, with some Wilson Pickett, Gary “U.S.” Bonds and Tom Petty in for good measure.

The music came just as unabashedly referential as the lyrics, focusing largely on material from the band’s 2008 break-through The ’59 Sound. With no time for slow songs, Fallon led the boys through one high-energy basher after the next, hitting crowd favorites like “Great Expectations,” “The Backseat” and the title track with the passion of a band with a lot to prove. This is what it must have felt like seeing an early ‘70s Springsteen show at the Stone Pony.

A generous helping of covers kept the throw-back vibe running strong, with everything from Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” weaving in and out of the originals. Whether shouting out Gainesville buddies’ Hot Water Music with a “Trusty Chords” cover or remembering a favorite childhood soundtrack with Pearl Jam’s “State of Love and Trust,” these rockers used the old songs to claim their place up there with the legends. It won’t be long before these bands start covering their songs.

A New Yorker might well wonder how this would go over with a Williamsburg crowd. Brooklyn has the reputation of a bunch of cooler-than-thou hipsters standing around at concerts, arms folded, trying to out-scene each other. The Gaslight Anthem weren’t having any of that. Circle pits moshed, bottles smashed, and fights broke out on the packed floor while a crowd seemingly starved of good rock and roll tried to out-yell each other.

The show did have one heckler, but Fallon shut him down with curt humor. “You like pizza?” he exclaimed in response to some inane shout. “I like pizza too! We should hang out all the time!!!” Needless to say, he was promptly accused of being gay from said audience member, which just provided more fodder for him. “I don’t see that as an insult,” Fallon protested. “Hey Alex,” he called to his bassist, “you’re looking handsome tonight! Apparently I’m gay. So…whaddya say?
Interested?” More than just the girls there would have taken him up on the offer.

Almost two hours after they began, the Southside Johnny-aping “Say I Won’t (Recognize)” closed things out in epic fashion. Again, Fallon summed up the mood better than any reviewer could. “We’re having a party,” he sang. “Everybody’s swinging. Tonight won’t you come down out of your tower, don’t make me dance alone!”

He needn’t have worried.

High Lonesome
Casanova, Baby!
Old White Lincoln
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
Wherefore Are Though, Elvis?
The ’59 Sound
Film Noir
We Came to Dance
Miles Davis & The Cool
The Patient Ferris Wheel
Stand By Me (Ben E. King cover) / I’da Called You Woody, Joe
Angry Johnny and the Radio / Straight to Hell (The Clash cover)
Great Expectations
State of Love and Trust (Pearl Jam cover)
The Backseat
* * *
Blue Jeans & White T-Shirts
Trusty Chords (Hot Water Music cover)
Meet Me By the River's Edge
Say I Won’t (Recognize)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Giants Stadium 10/9

“Bring on your wrecking ball,” Bruce Springsteen sang at the beginning of his Friday concert. He wasn’t being metaphoric; when they raze Giants Stadium in January, one imagines there will be quite a few wrecking balls on the scene.

To commemorate its demise, Springsteen brought the E Street Band for five final concerts. “Now my home is here in the M
eadowlands,” he sang to rapturous applause in opener “Wrecking Ball,” “where mosquitoes grow big as airplanes / Here where the blood is spilled / The arena’s filled / And Giants play the game.”

Springsteen composed the song especially for these performances, but just as “Working on a Dream” survived debuting last fall for the Obama campaign, it’s hard to imagine this is the last time we will hear this one. The rare topical song with broader appeal, a few lyric revisions are all that stand in the way of it becoming a barn-storming E Street regular. Springsteen started singing alone on stage, a single spotlight silhouetting his electric guitar, when the chorus hit the band blasted in as if it were a Darkness on the Edge of Town classic. With the “woah-woah-woah” sing-alongs and holler-til-your-throat-breaks chorus, this reviewer was reminded of “Badlands,” not coincidentally the night’s second tune.

Giants Stadium may have as much importance in music history as the Newark Airport, but for Springsteen it looms large. E Street has run through the concrete behemoth dozens of times since 1985, most recently at a s
old-out ten-night stand in 2003 and a quickie three-nighter last summer. Plus the guy lives about twenty minutes from East Rutherford, so affection by proximity helps connect him with thousands of Jersey fans.

Though the bizarre rumors circling the crowd before showtime (appearances by Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton proved popular) came to nothing, the E Street B
and found a more fitting way to celebrate and remember: by playing Born in the U.S.A., the album that started it all, from beginning to end. Though this multi-multi-platinum disc shows its age more than some other Springsteen classics, the cheeseball sound of “Glory Days” and “Dancing in the Dark” got 50,000 rocking like it was 1985 all over again, dated synth sounds be damned.

It helps that the songs themselves haven’t aged a bit. As always, “No Surrender” gets fists pounding, “I’m On Fire” gets couples snuggling, and “Bobby Jean” gets tears streaming. Guitar wiz Nils Lofgren unleashed a whirling dervish of a solo on “Cover Me” and Clarence Clemons defied his age (67) by blowing album-perfect sax solos throughout. The album’ only real live rarity, “Downbound Train,” delivered the real emotional wallop though when fans sang every word as if the pain of tough circumstances and arbitrary layoffs were not soon forgotten.

Try as they might though, the audience rarel
y succeeded in outperforming the band. The absence of recently deceased organist Dan Federici hung over the proceedings (Springsteen dedicated “My Hometown” to his memory) but off-the-bench replacement Charlie Giordano handled every boardwalk swirl and accordion flourish with deft ease.

The rest of the band have lived on E Street far longer than Giordano though, and they showed their collective comfort with off-the-cuff performances like a second-time-ever take on the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time” to satisfy an impromptu fan request. Returning to the fold after recent absences was Springsteen’s wife Patti Scialfa, performing an intimate duet with Springsteen on romantic endurance song “Tougher Than the Rest.”

Also keeping it in the family was Jay Weinberg, son of Max, manning the drum kit for “Born to Run.” It was a relatively easy night for Jay – this summer he has frequently taken over the whole show when his dad’s Tonight Show obligations kept him away.

Even E Street offspring couldn’t keep pace with Bruce though, who tore through the three-and-a-half-hour set with the energy of a hungry twenty-something determined to prove himself to his family, his home and the world. After a lengthy meander through the crowd during “Hungry Heart,” he decided the quickest way back to the stage was on top of the fans. This sixty-year old crowd-surfed his way stageward, gesturing the band to keep playing as he made his airborne journey. The only face to rival his joy the entire night was the middle aged man holding the “Bald men can dance too” sign when Springsteen brought him onstage to jitterbug (and dirty dance) during “Dancing in the Dark.”

“You’re only how old you feel,” the saying goes. Proble
m is, most of us feel pretty much like our age. Springsteen doesn’t just defy age though, he beats it into submission with a guitar windmill, knee slide, and mic-stand dangle. When he bounced around singing the “You Sexy Thing” lyrics to concert staple “Raise Your Hand,” he grinned like a teenage prankster getting away with a good one. When he tore into “Kitty’s Back” intro, he wailed on his guitar like it was the only thing holding him back from the boring-old-guy ledge.

Still, after three-plus hours even the most hopped-up warhorse needs to wind down. The new Celtic-punk “American Land” brought the band to the stage lip for intros and bows, but Bruce decided they had time for one more and launched into the Tom Waits song “Jersey Girl.” While setlist-watchers at home questioned closing Giants Stadium with a slow song, everyone in attendance sung along with such passion it made “Born to Run” look like a bathroom break. Waits wrote the song about his own wife Kathleen Brenner, but Friday night the girl in question was the stadium itself, given one last grateful pat on the back before New Jersey headed off into the just-started drizzle.


Wrecking Ball


Spirit in the Night

Outlaw Pete

Hungry Heart

Working on a Dream

Born in the U.S.A.

Cover Me

Darlington County

Working on the Highway

Downbound Train

I'm on Fire

No Surrender

Bobby Jean

I'm Goin' Down
Glory Days

Dancing in the Dark

My Hometown

Tougher Than the Rest

The Promised Land

Last to Die

Long Walk Home

The Rising

Born to Run
* * *

Raise Your Hand

The Last Time

Waitin' on a Sunny Day

Seven Nights to Rock

Kitty's Back

American Land

Jersey Girl