Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Sara Tavares - SOB's, New York City, 6/27/06

Sara Tavares played New York at SOB's (Sound of Brazil) as part of a rare stateside mini tour to promote her new album, Balancê, her third album overall but her first to receive a U.S. release. Tavares is from Portugal and I might never have had the pleasure had not a good friend run across her singing at a club in Lisbon, Portugal some years ago while on vacation there. Music lovers find their way to music all different ways; the person sitting next to me at SOB's became aware of Tavares by seeing her on a program of world music videos on Link TV which is carried on DirecTV (channel 375) and Dish Network (channel 9410).

Tavares' music is hard to label exactly, with a background that includes gospel, funk, and soul as her website describes it, mixing African rhythms into contemporary pop songs. Tavares on her latest album has written all the songs, played many of the instruments and has come up with a beautifully written and great sounding record. In America music like this is likely to get lumped into the "world music" category, but this work has so much more to offer than what that label implies. Tavares is a singer-songwriter of the first order, who has many more musical threads in her weave than your average singer-songwriter.

Tavares opened the show with a tune that consisted only of voice and tapping on her guitar, quickly wowing the audience with the depth and beauty of her voice. Most of her lyrics are in Portugese, but the songs are no less enjoyable for those who don't speak the language. Her second song which she explained was about Lisbon, had drums and bass accompanying her voice and acoustic guitar. It was quickly apparent that Tavares is a great singer with a very strong sense of melody. At this point she said "I call the music that I do, lullabies for adult people" which is an apt description.

She played a song whose Portugese title means "Summer Rain" which was very rhythmic, very melodic, and all her band members sang backup. In addition to the talents already mentioned, Tavares also proved during her 75 minute set to also be a great player of the acoustic guitar. The title track of her album Balancê was rich with rhythm and melody, nice and long in its live version, and a great set ender.

The crowd was a diverse cultural mix and while it was hard to tell to what degree they were familiar with Tavares' music going in, all were thoroughly won over by this excellent performance. Tavares music is unlikely to be heard on the radio here in the states, but she is a great talent and her music is well worth seeking out. Balancê is readily available now at Amazon.com. Remember to click on each photo to enlarge. All photos © W.Kates, 2006.

Sara Tavares - Balancê (2006)

Malika Zarra opened the show with a lovely set of Moroccan flavored jazz, with the vocals at times sounding reminiscent of Flora Purim's work with Return to Forever. Zarra was born in Morocco, grew up in France, and now calls New York home.

Her website describes her music: "Her first album On the Ebony Road blends her rich and divers worlds, mixing Moroccan roots music, Berber, Gnawa, Pop and rhythms with jazz. It is an explosive work fusing orient and occident in English, French and Arabic."

There weren't many lyrics in English but the music sounded jazzy and joyous nonetheless. She proved to be a great choice to share the bill with Sara Tavares and the crowd responded in kind. Remember to click on each photo to enlarge. All photos © W.Kates, 2006.

Malika Zarra - On the Ebony Road (2006)

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Lelia Broussard - Steel City Coffeehouse, Phoenixville, PA, 6/24/06

Lelia Broussard brought her acoustic show to the Steel City Coffeehouse in Phoenixville, performing on acoustic guitar with some tasty accompaniment by Jef Lee Johnson on electric guitar. As great as her music is when fully produced (see Lil-Yah review), it sounds equally amazing performed in these simpler arrangements, which is ultimately a testament to the quality of the songwriting, and to her remarkable talent as a performer.

Jef is perhaps the only guitarist that I have seen in recent memory who plays using no pedals or electronics; Jef brings his guitar and the amp you see him sitting on, and he just plugs in and plays. And boy does he ever play. He takes songs that are already great to start with and makes them even better with his fine guitar work.

She opened with "I'll Be", "Happy People" and "All I Do", all from the Lil-Yah album. Then she played a new song, "I Like You in Mine" which debuted recently in demo form on her MySpace page, she described recording it with Jef in his basement studio, and that it is to be included on the soon to be released, reconfigured for national distribution version of Lil-Yah. After a nice "Broke Down and Blue" from Louisiana Soul, Lelia invited Kuf Knotz to join her onstage for a special live rendition of "That Boy Remix".

Kufie made the trip to Phoenixville just to do the one song with Lelia and the effort was well appreciated by the sell-out audience at Steel City. "That Boy" is a great song on its own, but the duet vocal on the remix just makes it even better; it was a real treat to hear the remix done live. Lelia's team has been trying to do a live recording recently, and there was a video camera shooting tonight's show; here's hoping that they got good results this time, the performance was definitely a keeper.

"He Makes Me Smile" sounded great in the simplified arrangement which left room for an absolutely superb jazzy solo by Jef. After some discussion of boyfriends wanting to know if certain songs were about them, Lelia tossed off nice excerpts of "You're So Vain" and "That Don't Impress Me Much" followed by another new tune called "Comin' Around" also destined for the reconfigured CD. She played a nice cover version of Tracey Chapman's "Give Me One Reason" that featured another beautiful guitar solo by Jef. After a bit of live name-that-tune for a t-shirt giveaway, she ended her set with a barn-burning version of "Rise" demonstrating some of her amazing vocal power; she also mentioned that "Rise" will be featured on the MTV television series The Hills next season. The crowd brought her back for an encore (she might as well get used to this already) of Bill Withers' "Use Me" and then closed with a killer version of the blues classic "Stormy Monday" complete with another gorgeous Jef guitar solo. I sure hope that camera crew got it all down, it was another totally great performance by Lelia.

Along with the new songs due to appear on the reconfigured Lil-Yah CD, she fielded some requests for the two songs being dropped from the CD, saying that she wasn't allowed to do them now. The reconfigured CD drops the two cover songs and will consist of all original compositions by Lelia. I'm guessing that with the video camera rolling, it's likely that the setlist was intended to be consistent with the new version. She talked about playing in-store concerts at Wal-Mart stores this summer as an opening act. Surely new artists need to find audiences wherever and whenever possible on the way up, but this would seem to be so far beneath her talent that it's ridiculous. Let's hope that the Lelia brain trust knows what they're doing and that Lelia is able to come out of it with a record contract that affords her some semblance of artistic control. Remember to click on each photo to enlarge. All photos © W.Kates, 2006.

As she did at her last appearance at Milkboy Coffee, Lelia invited The Animators to open for her, and while the reasons for this may not have been so obvious at Milkboy, the Animators were really great tonight and totally engaged the crowd with a good dose of humor and well written songs, well played and well sung with lots of great stories. Audiences rarely give an opening act the time of day, but these guys were so good that they had the audience totally in their power within the first song or two.

Just as it seemed that they were sounding about ten times better than they did at Milkboy, Alex Wong mentioned that he had left his voice and his health behind in Brooklyn when they came to play the Milkboy show; tonight he and Devon Copley were both in great voice and had a good sound system working for them too. The Animators pigeonhole as a power-pop indie group from Brooklyn; they sometimes perform with full band instrumentation but the writing core of the group is Alex and Devon.

They are touring behind their latest CD, How We Fight. Their set was all excellent, but a couple of highlights were a gospel tune and a song called "A Girl Like You" which they explained was composed in a Nashville hotel room after hearing some other group introduce a song as "our Al Green song" and deciding that they too needed to have an Al Green song. This gem is currently available on their EP, The Chamber Sessions.

Both the audience and the Animators owe Lelia a debt of gratitude for continuing to book them to play with her and sharing the joy. Remember to click on each photo to enlarge. All photos © W.Kates, 2006.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Lelia Broussard - Lil-Yah (Leliasmusic.com, 2005)

Lil-Yah, the first full length CD by Louisiana native and current Philadelphia resident, Lelia Broussard, is such an amazingly excellent debut that I am constantly thankful to have found this extraordinarily talented singer-songwriter at the outset of her career. We find new artists and new music all kinds of crazy ways, and in this case it was the happenstance of a post on the WXPN message board during last fall's 885 countdown by Mary Broussard, Lelia's mom and manager or "momager" as Lelia sometimes refers to her, that led me to Lelia's website. I've got some great things to say about this record, so to illustrate I would suggest opening another browser on your computer and go to Lelia's MySpace page and listen to the three or four songs posted there or go to her website for samples of all the songs while you read the following.

Self-released last November, Lil-Yah is eleven tracks of pure soul/pop perfection. These tunes run a gamut of styles and influences that includes 70's soul, Philly soul, jazz, blues, acoustic singer-songwriter, pop, and hip-hop, all mixed and filtered through Lelia's Lousiana sensibility into a personal style of pop music that is uniquely her own. While her voice and guitar work is equally accomplished and appealing, while the arrangements, performances by her excellent band, and the production on this record is as good as you could ever hope to hear, the single most amazing element in this whole project is the quality of the songwriting.

Let's start with the last track on the record, a cover of "I Can't Make You Love Me." Bonnie Raitt's version has become a modern standard, and Lelia takes this great song and does a superb version with a beautifully simple arrangement of piano, organ and percussion, and wrings every bit of soulfulness out of every line. It's a stellar performance, and a cover that both respects and surpasses the original, and yet as great as this track is, the rest of the record is even better.

Nine of the remaining ten songs were written by Lelia, and here is where her greatest asset is revealed. "All I Do" starts the record with an uptempo romp that is so hook-laden that you could hear it a hundred times and not tire of it; this is not just supposition, when you go to her website you are greeted with this song every time. The acoustic and electric guitars combine with the bass and drums to propel the song while the organ and the vocal offer a slice of pure joy for all of three minutes and thirty-one seconds.

"That Boy" is a fully evolved pop song that perfectly captures the teenage dynamic of a relationship gone wrong. When the chorus kicks in with "but I'm standin' on the corner, really hopin' that 'cha don't, that 'cha don't see me oh baby, don't let me, don't let me, don't let me, no don't let me talk to that boy, I don't wanna talk to that boy, said even if I try, even if I choke up, still say no-no-no-no-no-no-no" the songwriting, the performance and the production combines to create a killer track that one could imagine Destiny's Child would love to record, and one that if released as a single would totally leave the entire realm of commercial pop music in the dust.

As if that weren't enough, "That Boy Remix" shows up as track six, taking an already great tune and improving it further with a rap by Kuf Knotz that turns the song into a dialogue between the singer and Knotz as the subject boy. When Lelia sings "I'm standin' on the corner, really hopin' that 'cha don't, that 'cha don't see me" Knotz answers back "I'm lookin' right at you" and "I see you." The song takes off from there with such a creative and well written rap, so perfectly enmeshed with the song that it can't help but open the minds of those who think they don't like rap. This tune adorned Lelia's MySpace page for a good long time and is another one that sounds better and better even after hundreds of plays.

"He Makes Me Smile" is one of the sweetest love songs you'll ever hear, another stellar performance by Lelia and her band with great arrangement and production. Her live peformance of this song with nothing but her acoustic and Jef Lee Johnson's electric guitars suggests that the beautiful harmonica by Howard Levy might be superfluous, but it adds to the overall joy of the tune. Another gem.

It's almost impossible to single out best songs when they're all as good as they are on this CD, but the artistic centerpiece of this record would have to be "Rise" in which Lelia serves notice to the world that she's going to be huge and that she's going to do it on her terms: "They want to tell me who I should be, everybody wants to tell me what is best for me, you should play more rock, more pop, more R and B, what do they really care, what do they care about me, but I gotta be free, I gotta be I, I gotta be me, well I'm gonna rise..." Wonderful production touches abound, including a nice soulful inflection when she sings "R and B" followed by a nifty guitar line to match. When she gets to the chorus, "I'm gonna rise" the full band kicks into crescendo mode, nicely amplifying the message of the song musically. This is a young artist's musical manifesto, an awesome piece of work.

"Livin' It Up" incorporates blues, jazz, and some New Orleans musical influences into a concoction that also references her recent residence, "Philadelphia, you brought me some hard times, but I made it through, I made it through, and I'm living it up." Once again the arrangement and production are just perfect for the song. "Happy People" is another good example of how Lelia effectively mixes the genres and comes out with a super appealing tune with a joyful and intensely soulful vocal performance. One could go on and on and also say similar things about "I'll Be" and "Somebody to You."

Which brings us to the next to last song on the record and the only other one she didn't write, that being "Business of Love," co-written by Philadephia neighbor and longtime tunesmith Phil Roy. This is an organ based bluesy jazz tune that artfully plays off Lelia's youthfulness with lines like "I'm just a baby in this business of love." This is a masterful piece of songwriting, matched only by a dazzling performance by Lelia, her band and the ideal production that characterizes this entire record.

Perfect albums are a delight and a rarity in this world, and Lil-Yah is all that. Based on the arrangements and the overall sound of this record, one could not overstate the contribution of producer Glenn Barratt, all the backing musicians on the record, and the seemingly world class studio, Morningstar Studios located right here in the Philadelphia suburb of Spring House, PA. The credits show that in addition to writing, singing, and playing guitar, Lelia was intimately involved in the recording process as co-producer, and co-arranger with Barratt, and even did some additional mixing.

Word is that this album is to be reconfigured soon for national release with a some new songs added, some songs remixed and some songs dropped including "Business of Love." What plans the Lelia brain trust may have for "Business of Love" are unknown, but this tune is such a treat that I would encourage anyone reading this to go immediately to Lelia's website and order the original release of Lil-Yah while you still can, and if she comes anywhere near your town this summer, whether it be playing Wal-Mart stores or elsewhere, go see her. Talent this huge won't be playing small venues for very long. Photos are © Lelia Broussard from her press kit.