Saturday, February 26, 2005

Kaki King, World Cafe Live, Philadelphia, 2/18/05

Kaki King played WXPN's Free-at-Noon live broadcast concert series on Friday February 18th at World Cafe Live. I managed to break away from the office for a nice mid-winter's walk across town for this highly enjoyable lunchtime concert. Having seen King play live before I was well aware of her virtuosic technique with the acoustic guitar; she picks the strings with all ten fingers, one hand in the normal position, the other high up on the neck. The overall effect is quite amazing, not unlike the sort of playing one associates with Tommy Emmanuel, Michael Hedges, and Leo Kottke.

Although her first CD is a good representation of her ability as a player, I'd have to say that the music didn't seem to be much more than a vehicle for her ample technique. Her previous concert performances more than compensated with a friendly humorous rapport with the audience combined with her frenetic attack on the guitar. This performance which featured mostly tunes from her second album Legs to Make Us Longer seemed to draw from a deeper musical well than previously and left me ready to go back to the new album for some more serious listening. Working with fellow guitar free spirit David Torn as producer, King offers an array of unusual and interesting compositions on this record.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Aqualung, Joe's Pub, NYC, 2/02/05

No relation to Jethro Tull, Matt Hales who records using the group name Aqualung, performed at Joe's Pub in the early slot (7pm), thus allowing a concert doubleheader courtesy of the fine folks at Sony who have signed Aqualung and have just released the U.S. debut cd, Strange and Beautiful, which is comprised of tracks from Aqualung's two British cds, Aqualung from 2002 and Still Life from 2003. Despite a bout with bronchitis, Aqualung performed a warmly received set that was low on volume but full of mood and well crafted songwriting. That the twenty-something crowd seems to be embracing this purveyor of soft and sensitive melodies (anyone remember the singer-songwriters of the 70's?) is a very encouraging development that was driven home even more at the next stop.

Although I'd not heard Aqualung before and was totally unfamiliar with the music, I did thoroughly enjoy the set. It reminded me quite a lot of Teitur's Joe's Pub set which I saw under very similar circumstances - not very familiar with the music but enjoyed very much the low key melodic approach that these two artists seem to have in common. Here is an excerpt from the Aqualung website tour diary entry for Joe's Pub, written by Matt's brother, Ben Hales.

"Day 12
Joe’s Pub, New York, 2 February 2005
Just once in my “career”, I’d like to do a tour and not get ill. We’ve all got it now. We’re being driven around in a van and it’s just a symphony of expectoration. Matt has King Cough, though. A whole higher order of coughing that we believe he contracted from Kofi.

Matt is regularly ill on tour too, but this is the first time it has really affected his singing. This is bad news for the radio session we are doing this afternoon at WFUV. Radio in America is a mysterious creature, far removed from cosy British radio with its national subsidy. There are actually a lot more choices in the States, (however much this is belied by the fact that whenever you turn the radio you have to listen to “Born to be wild”), and one interesting subset is the public radio station, which is funded by listener subscriptions. These seem to attract a very loyal following of people who aren’t interested in car insurance, and so I’m told, are very influential in introducing new music. We went to visit KEXP in Seattle, and we’ve been invited to play at the fundraiser for KCRW in LA in March. Along with WFUV who enjoyed a very croaky session this morning, they’ve all been playing Aqualung and all seem genuinely interested in broadcasting music they care about – it has something of the frontier spirit about it. And Height Ashbury.
That sounds like it was sponsored by the radio plugger.

Anyway, afterwards we head off to Joes Pub, which isn’t a pub but a tiny jazz bar with padded walls that is staffed by some of the most uptight people I have ever met. On the way we drop Matt off to see a doctor, who tells him he has bronchitis and that he shouldn’t fly or use his voice too much. Normally he would be delighted to have his illness vindicated so thoroughly, but unfortunately he is genuinely worried that he won’t get through the gig. Everyone has been very understanding, but it’s been gently rammed home that it’s VERY IMPORTANT TO PLAY WELL TONIGHT. We have also lost the melodica somewhere between here and Seattle. And that’s half of our act.

And did I mention that the hotel is shitty?

The gig is strange. It’s at 7pm which is alarmingly early, and there are little tables at the edge of the stage at which people are eating their dinner. The strangest thing is the absolute silence, which is broken only by the sound of people putting their cutlery down very…. carefully…
Matt’s voice is better than this morning, but it’s still noticeably ragged. Once again Foolishness rises to fill the quality gap. I can’t tell you how much we’re relying on our adorable accents.
Then our first American tour is over, and there is a giant scrum around Matt and everyone says “it’s such a shame, but you made it” and the stars dance in our eyes and I tread in a freezing puddle while I’m packing the van."

P.S. In addition to the debut cd, there is a six track ep available exclusively at iTunes that features six tracks that are not included on Strange and Beautiful. Not to make light of the man being sick, but re-reading the above it somehow struck me as funny to read that Aqualung had bronchitis; the Brits have a strong current of irony in their humour so I trust he would not be offended by this.

Aqualung's U.K. Website
Aqualung's Sony Website

Keane, Hammerstein Ballroom, NYC, 2/02/05

Even though the doors opened at 6:30pm for this show, we thankfully missed the two opening acts (although I should credit the Zutons who were booked in the second position making possible the Sony-provided tickets), but still had plenty of time after Aqualung to hop a subway uptown to the Hammerstein Ballroom for Keane's headlining set. Surveying the room while waiting for Keane I realized that I'd been in this venue before, circa 1971 when it was known as the Manhattan Ballroom, for the Grateful Dead's "first annual dance marathon." I recall that the Dead was still playing when we left at about 4am. The New Riders of the Purple Sage opened, and the show was also memorable for the Dead's tie dyed speaker covers which inspired me to do likewise; but I digress.

Although Keane had previously sold out the TLA in Philadelphia, having only really heard them on WXPN and having only seen their Tower Records in-store performance, I was totally unprepared for the scale of their success on commercial radio. It seems that the modern rock crowd has totally embraced this band, and while Dave seemed unfazed by the magnitude of the support ("their songs have hooks you could drive a truck through") I was floored nonetheless. This was a mid-size venue holding I'd guess somewhere around 5000 and it was well packed; I guess the real surprise was that these guys are rock stars. Still, it's encouraging that a mass audience is supporting a band whose stock in trade is melody, in this case, sometimes lush, always anthemic melody, replete with the aforementioned truck-sized hooks.

The show was impressive, with full big-concert sound and lighting, and as on record the sound created by only voice, keyboard and drums was remarkably full and forceful. They played all the songs from their debut cd Hopes and Fears as well as a good half dozen or so new songs plus one or two b-sides. Their earnest British good humour was in evidence in their comments between songs. Taken together with the earlier Aqualung show, I was left with a strong feeling that the popular music pendulum has taken a swing back toward the simple values of songwriting and melody, the hubbub over Bright Eyes notwithstanding.

Keane's website:

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Catching Up, Part Two - New Year's Day 2005

I always like to ring in the New Year vegetating in front of the tv, catching up on movies that I never got to see during the year just ended (you just can't beat this for closure). The holidays this year seemed a bit more hectic than usual and not just because Anna was home, so the New Year's movie watching continued all week. Here's a quick summary.

The House of Yes (1997, Mark Waters) : Anna either rented or borrowed from the library this very unsettling story in which the perky Parker Posey plays a seriously disturbed character who dresses up like Jackie Onassis and has sex with her brother. Thumbs down.

Maria Full of Grace (2004, Joshua Marston): Easily the best of the New Year's movies, this film makes its point without preaching simply by presenting the compelling story of teenager who takes a job as a drug mule, desperate for a better life for herself and her unborn baby. Bogota Columbia born Catalina Sandino Moreno makes a stunning debut as the title character.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004, Jonathan Demme): The original movie just released in 2004 on DVD was so good it hardly needed a remake, however today's audiences can certainly relate much more easily to this updated but equally well done remake. Thumbs up for both.

Jersey Girl (Kevin Smith, 2004): The whole Bennifer fiasco and the universal panning this got upon release set up drastically lowered expectations, but as a Kevin Smith completist, I just had to see it anyway. While this may never be considered in the same league as Clerks or Chasing Amy, Jennifer Lopez bites it during the first reel and Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler actually get some chemistry going and I found Jersey Girl to be enjoyable light entertainment; none of the cutting edge dialog that we're used to from Smith, but this is no dog. Thumbs marginally up.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004, Alexander Witt): Having never seen the first Resident Evil picture, I'll have to admit to renting this based on a good looking trailer and two good looking stars (Sienna Guillory and Milla Jovovich). This was unquestionably the worst of the New Year's movies. Even two hot babes kicking butt couldn't make this dreck watchable. Thumbs way down.

Elf (2003, Jon Favreau): Bev either rented this or borrowed it from the library and in spite of lame writing the casting and characters save the day, especially Bob Newhart basically playing himself as an elf. Will Ferrell is eminently likable in the title role, and Artie Lange has a great cameo as a department store Santa who gets involved in a fistfight with Ferrell. Thumbs marginally up.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004, Adam McKay): In the wake of Elf, Anna instigated this rental and I must admit that I enjoyed this as much as one could enjoy a mindless comedy. Will Ferrell rocks as seventies news anchor Ron Burgundy and first time director Adam McKay triumphs with movie that brought a smile to my face from beginning to end. I still get nostalgic for the Starland Vocal Band everytime I remember the cast's version of "Afternoon Delight." Thumbs decidedly up.

Collateral (2004, Michael Mann): One of two Oscar nominated performances in 2004 for Jamie Fox (the other for Ray), this buddy comedy/crime drama was enjoyable mostly for the verbal interplay between Jamie Fox and Tom Cruise. The car chases and crashes were totally unnecessary with this level of acting talent on board. More talk and less action might have made this a classic; still I give it thumbs up.

Open Water (2004, Chris Kentis): Every bit as scary as advertised, maybe more so, this basically one act play takes place in the ocean as a husband and wife get stranded when their scuba boat returns to port without them. You might try to spend the 79 minutes pondering whether a tour boat operator could really make such a mistake, but you can't prevent your stomach from knotting up every time something nudges one of these two while they float endlessly in the water.

TV on DVD: Thanks to J&A for interspersing the New Year's movies with DVDs of Family Guy and Arrested Development, two excellent comedy shows that I had not previously seen.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Catching Up - Christmas 2004

It's hard to believe that Christmas is already two months past, but with not enough hours in the day, I've become seriously backlogged (backblogged?) and can't move on w/2005 business till we finish with 2004. Let's think of it as getting an early start on next year. Koeeoaddi's thread on the Straight Dope message board notwithstanding, there were a few happy surprises on the Christmas music front, two of which, the Chris Isaak and the Ray Charles were new this year. The Jo Dee Messina and the Moody Blues were half price purchases on Tower's 2003 after Christmas sale which were new to me in 2004. The NBC disc was found for less than a buck on eBay and although I picked it up purely for novelty value, it turned out to be way better than it had any right to be. The only disappointment among this year's new Christmas releases was the James Taylor Hallmark CD.

It was also nice to revisit these this year:
Hamish Stuart - Let It Snow (Sulphuric, 2002)
Booker T. & the MGs - In the Christmas Spirit (Atlantic, 1966)
Jethro Tull - The Christmas Album (Fuel 2000, 2003)
Freddy Cole - I Want a Smile for Christmas (Fantasy, 1994)

The Christmas Eve playlist (for late night stuffing of stockings):
Stevie Wonder - Someday at Christmas (Motown, 1967)
Chris Rea - Driving Home for Christmas EP (Magnet Import, 1987)
Leon Redbone - Christmas Island (August, 1988)
Joe Williams - That Holiday Feelin' (Verve, 1990)

The Christmas Day playlist (in order):
Grover Washington, Jr. - Breath of Heaven (Columbia, 1997)
Herbert Von Karajan & Berlin Philharmonic - The Nutcracker Suite, Tschaikowsky (DG, 1983)
Vince Guaraldi Trio - A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy, 1986)
Liz Story - The Gift (Windham Hill, 1994)
John Boswell - Festival of the Heart (Hearts of Space, 1992)
The Carpenters - Christmas Portrait (A&M, 1984)
Marian McPartland - An NPR Jazz Christmas (NPR, 2002)
Tuck Andress - Hymns, Carols, & Songs About Snow (Windham Hill Jazz, 1991)
Dave Brubeck - A Dave Brubeck Christmas (Telarc, 1996)
Chris Botti - December (Columbia, 2002)
Tingstad & Rumbel - The Gift (Sonia Gaia, 1985)
Bullock, Petteway & White - A Midnight Clear (Dorian, 2002)

Koeeoaddi's SDMB Thread:

Jo Dee Messina - A Joyful Noise (Curb Records, 2002)

Jo Dee Messina's A Joyful Noise is just about a perfect Christmas record. Although she's a "country" artist (not that there's anything wrong with that), there's no hint of the country sound on here at all - just pop/rock arrangements featuring Messina's great voice. The songs are all well chosen, seven popular songs, then three a bit more religious (but not too much so, "O Holy Night," "Silent Night," "What Child is This"), and then an original, the title track. All the arrangements and performances are dead on. I give it a big thumbs up.

Moody Blues - December (Polydor, 2003)

My most surprising finds this year are great Christmas albums by the Moody Blues and Jo Dee Messina. I hadn't heard or bought anything new by the Moody Blues since about 1974 but I found this album called December on last year's after Christmas sale at Tower Records and it's a winner. The band looks older than dirt in the booklet but they sound as great as they ever did, the songs are mostly originals, all are good, with a few well chosen covers: Lennon's "Happy XMas (War is Over)," "White Christmas," and "In the Bleak Midwinter" - this album is a total delight.

Ray Charles - Celebrates a Gospel Christmas (Madacy, 2004)

In what is purported to be his last recorded live performance, this is not only a great Christmas album easily surpassing Ray's other Christmas CD, The Spirit of Christmas (Rhino, 1997) but this also qualifies as one of the best Ray Charles albums ever. You really can't tell from the audio that this is a recent concert performed while Ray was in declining health; on first listen I assumed that this was a re-release of a concert from twenty-some years ago - that's how good Ray sounds singing with a gospel choir.

The whole album is a joy but he really knocks it out of the park on "Oh Happy Day" which also features the Voices of Jubilation sounding great as well on this gospel classic. Ray's voice and his unique ability to combine genres as diverse as rock, jazz, soul and country, makes his vocal style a perfect fit with gospel music. It's great to hear Ray's take on "What Kind of Man is This", "The Christmas Song," "Silent Night," even "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," and an inspiring version of "America the Beautiful" to end the set.

This performance is available both on CD and somewhat expanded on DVD and also as a gift set that includes both. I haven't seen the DVD yet, although the two video tracks included as a bonus on the CD give a good preview. Ray may have been not long for this world when he did this concert but he still had it, right to the end. This is a gem, as good as it gets. R.I.P. Genius, and God bless.

Chris Isaak - Christmas (Warner Brothers, 2004)

After watching several seasons of Chris Isaak's Showtime series, I've developed a large appreciation not only for his music but for his great sense of humour, and the intelligent and friendly personalities of Chris and his band which came through the semi-scripted series loud and clear. Now comes Chris' Christmas album which is a complete treat - like comfort food for the soul at Christmas time. Even the more simplistic tunes which were James Taylor's undoing serve Isaak well as he stamps them with enough of his personal style to make these songs well worth your Christmas listen, yes even his (mercifully short yet) heartfelt acoustic go at "Auld Lang Syne."

Along with eleven old favorites we also get five new Isaak compositions, including one, "Washington Square" that has the goods to hold it's own with other great Christmas-away-from-you songs like "Merry Christmas Darling." We even get to hear Isaak sing a more than competent version of "Mele Kalikimaka."

As good as this album is, some of these songs sounded even better peformed live with band on Jimmy Kimmel's late night ABC program in a sort of parody of the Nick & Jessica Christmas Special (why do we even know who "Nick and Jessica" are?). There is also a more fully produced live performance Chris and band did for the PBS Soundstage series, also available by direct mail from PBS in an expanded DVD version (watch this space for a video review by next Christmas). Great Christmas discs make the Christmas season that much more enjoyable and that is exactly what Chris Isaak provides on Christmas.

VA - NBC Celebrity Christmas (NBC, 2001)

As noted above, I picked this up for mere pennies on eBay, purely for the novelty of it, never imagining that this would have any real musical value, when what to my wondering eyes would appear but the cream of studio session musicians backing up these tv stars, starting with that most amazing guitarist Tim Pierce on most of the tracks, with many tunes also featuring Leland Sklar on bass, Dave Koz on sax, David Spinozza on guitar, T-Bone Wolk on bass, Greg Phillinganes on Hammond B-3 organ, Jack White on drums, Bill Champlin on piano, John Molo on drums, and Everette Harp on sax. I guess we have to thank Loren Harriet and Mark Weiner, producers, for the quality of the music that might otherwise have resulted in nothing more than a vanity affair.

Sorry if I sound so surprised about all this, but I'm not even familiar with many of these shows/stars. Sean Hayes actually does a reasonable job on "The Christmas Song." Bebe Neuwirth & John Lithgow have some fun with "Baby, It's Cold Outside," and while the last thing we needed was another version of this warhorse, this time around it sounds more like fun. Who knew Katey Segal could actually sing - if you didn't know this was a celebrity project you'd maybe even buy into this version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

We know Marie Osmond is a singer but until I heard this traditional rendering of "O Holy Night" I might have wondered who would really ever want to hear her sing. "Santa Baby" is another song that no one ever need do again, but if anyone could get away with it, it would be Wendy Malick's Nina Van Horn character from Just Shoot Me. Jane French is apparently another actual singer, connected to NBC by virtue of her singing the theme song to one of their shows; her version of "The First Noel" is worth hearing again. Alex Kingston turns in a beautiful "Coventry Carol" complete with haunting sax by Everette Harp. Megan Mullally even pulls off a credible "Silent Night," no easy task.

So that's the good stuff, already wildly exceeding all expectations. Anthony Ruivivar and Jane Leeves can both keep their day jobs with the acting thing; their songs however are at least redeemed somewhat by the excellent backing musicians. There are way fewer embarassments overall than you would have thought, with only two really cringe-worthy tracks. Three characters from The West Wing singing Paul McCartney's sappy "Wonderful Christmastime" seriously falls into the joke category, although fans of the show might treasure this moment of whimsey from these folks. Which brings me to the one and only real atrocity committed in the name of Christmas on this disc, and that is Jay Leno's smarmy spoken word recitation of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." I assure you you've never heard such phony intonation and fake emotion as Jay bestows on this Christmas classic. For someone who's achieved greater career success than most mortal men using little more than his voice, I would expect something better from Jay; this is cringe factor nine.

Here's the complete tracklist:
Sean Hayes (Will & Grace) w/Dave Koz - The Christmas Song
Bebe Neuwirth & John Lithgow (Deadline & 3rd Rock From The Sun) - Baby, It's Cold Outside
Katey Sagal (Tucker) - Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Marie Osmond (Co-Founder of the Children's Miracle Network) - O Holy Night
Wendie Malick (Just Shoot Me) - Santa Baby
Anthony Ruivivar (Third Watch) - Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
Jane French (Performs theme song to NBC's Passions) - The First Noel
Jane Leeves (Frasier) - Winter Wonderland
Alex Kingston w/ Everette Harp (ER) - Coventry Carol
Martin Sheen, John Spencer & Stockard Channing (The West Wing) - Wonderful Christmastime
Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) - Silent Night
Jay Leno (The Tonight Show) - Twas The Night Before Christmas

James Taylor - A Christmas Album (Hallmark, 2004)

A beautiful cover, a great artist like JT, Christmas music, what could possibly be wrong? Well, take the song selection for starters (please!). The majority of this record is cringe-inducing, mostly due to material like "Winter Wonderland," "Santa Clause is Comin' to Town," "Go Tell It On the Mountain," "Deck the Halls" and "Auld Lang Syne" all of which are not bad songs exactly, it's just that they are way beneath his amazing talent. James' ability to take a song someone else wrote and make it totally his own is wasted on such simplistic fare.

On the other hand, there are a couple of real stinkers. "Baby It's Cold Outside" is suffering from a serious case of overexposure; not that there's anything specifically wrong with James and Natalie Cole's rendition except for the fact that it's been done too much lately by too many pairs of singers who really have no business recording this, so by now the well is basically poisoned. James and Natalie don't do themselves any favor either with their faux conversation during the fadeout. Even worse though, is "Jingle Bells" performed as a blues song in the manner of "Steamroller." Yikes - didn't producer Dave Grusin have the nerve to tell James this was a bad idea?

The only thing saving this mess is a nice version of "In the Bleak Midwinter," and a competent read of "The Christmas Song" which almost seems like an obligatory no-brainer. There are also two relatively unknown tunes which allow a little relief from the saccharine sweetness of these proceedings. I'm of the belief that James voice could ordinarily make anything sound good, however this disc suggests otherwise. That the opportunity to make a truly great Christmas record with JT has been wasted, is really the core of my disappointment with A Christmas Album.