Saturday, April 11, 2009

I Ride for Paul

I know a lot of people who really enjoy riding bicycles. I'm not one of them. Given the choice, I will choose to go for a run over a bicycle ride any day of the week. I know, you probably think I'm nuts. Maybe I am. When I run, I can zone out. I can be in the moment, and my mind can wander to all sorts of interesting places. I don't get that on a bicycle. There's too much to pay attention to. Too much that distracts me. The helmet. The funny cleat shoes. Changing gears. Watching out for pot holes and other road hazards. Not to mention watching out for cars. It's all too distracting.

But every spring I put in enough bicycle "seat time" training to participate in the 100-kilometer Ride the Vineyard bike ride to raise funds for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. This year's ride is on Saturday, May 2, 2009.

I ride for my friend Paul, and for thousands like him who are fighting MS every day of their lives. Imagine unpredictably having blurred vision, or losing your sense of balance, your ability to use your hands to grip everyday objects, or your ability to walk. Or worse. Paul has taught me what true courage is, and how to face adversity head on and with high spirits and thankfulness for every day. He is my inspiration, and I think of him often during long runs and bike rides.

The funds I raise will be used by the National MS Society to support research as well as programs to help address the needs of people living with MS, which remains an incurable disease today. Would you please consider sponsoring me via a tax-deductible donation? My goal this year is to raise $2000, and you can help by donating via my pledge page. Any amount will help. Thanks!

Please visit to make a pledge.

Paul and me at the Cape Code Canal, June 2004
Paul and me at the Cape Code Canal, June 2004

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Concert Report: Vance Gilbert @ Tupelo Music Hall

The music keeps on coming, and on Friday night, April 3rd, Patti and I were back at Tupelo's Table 3 for one of the most gifted performers on the singer-songwriter circuit, Vance Gilbert. Where the heck was everyone else? Tupelo was nearly empty, with only about sixty tickets sold (capacity is just over 200). We've seen Vance fill the place before, so what gives? Competition from other shows? I know that the Cowboy Junkies were in Newburyport, and Susan Werner was back at Club Passim. Even still, I would have expected over a hundred people, not sixty.

Vance Gilbert at Tupelo Music Hall, April 3, 2009

Vance is so multi-talented. He can write a song that will make you cry. He's got guitar chops. He's got a voice to die for. He's got command of the stage. And he's got some serious funnies (now there's an oxymoron, eh?). The man could easily be a stand up comic, and he's worked with some of the best stand ups in the business in days gone by, including George Carlin and Bill Cosby. He puts all this to good use in his concerts.

The core of his current show is a handful of songs from his newest album, Up On Rockfield. This is a concept album in which Vance writes songs as inspired by other artists. Some of these are clearly "as if written by" efforts, while others are more "as inspired by." And others are just plain whacky.

Goodbye Pluto, an ode to the former planet, falls squarely in the whacky side; it is written as an inspirational combination of Shawn Colvin and Raffi! Old Man's Advice is written as if by Tom Waits. The line "never look for Friday's kiss with Thursday's broken heart" is clearly straight out of the Tom Waits inspiration book. Welcome to Lovetown combines John Hiatt and Prince! By far the most "as if written by" song is Judge's House, which was written as if it were an outtake from Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska album. Close your eyes and listen to the lyrics, and you can absolutely imagine that Bruce wrote this song during the Nebraska period:

It's 3:00 in the morning
On this side of town
A lonely dog barking
Is the only other sound
I'm sitting in my car
Outside this judge's house
Ten years to the day he brought
His gavel down
Ten years ago
But I recall it
Like it was yesterday
A man remembers when you take
Ten years of his life away

Vance Gilbert at Tupelo Music Hall, April 3, 2009

Round Midnight featured Vance channeling first Billie Holiday, then Louis Armstrong — both trumpet and vocals. Responding to a giggling child in the audience, Vance added both the Cookie Monster and Elmo to the vocal impersonations. It's likely that neither of those two Sesame Street characters ever sang the classic Thelonious Monk song before, nor shared a single song with Billie Holiday and Louie Armstrong! Vance had great fun with the giggling child, both during and after the song. It's likely she will remember the night for a long time.

Vance closed with an off microphone, acappella version of King of Rome, a not-infrequent closing song for Vance and clear crowd favorite. Vance has a powerful voice, and King of Rome is a perfect showcase:

In the West End of Derby lives a working man
He says "I can't fly but me pigeons can
And when I set them free
It's just like part of me
Gets lifted up on shining wings"

I was hoping to find a YouTube version of Vance singing King of Rome, but didn't have any luck. But here's a video of Vance singing Unfamiliar Moon from 2006 that nicely illustrates his songwriting, his vocals, and his guitar playing:

The opening act was twenty-year old Berklee College of Music student Emily Elbert.

Emily Elbert at Tupelo Music Hall, April 3, 2009

She did a nice set of her own songs, and considering she's just a sophomore in college, she clearly has one heck of a career ahead of her. You can easily find videos of her doing her own tunes on YouTube, but I was most impressed with her closing cover of Paul McCartney's Oh! Darling, and so I'll leave you with a YouTube video of Emily singing that song:

Vance Gilbert
Tupelo Music Hall, Londonderry, NH
Friday, April 3, 2009
It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference (Todd Rundgren)
Taking It All To Tennessee
Castles Made of Sand (Jimi Hendrix)
Goodbye Pluto
Unfamiliar Moon
Old Man's Advice
Welcome to Lovetown
I'm So Tired of Being Alone (Al Green)
Judge's House
Save the Last Dance for Me (Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman)
Round Midnight (Thelonious Monk)
Some Great Thing
Encore: King of Rome (David Sudbury)
Opening act, Emily Elbert:
In the Summertime
Caught Up In Your Love
Silent Time
Thinking Hybrid Redirected
Easy to Love
Do Without
You Put the Good in Goodbye
Oh! Darling (Lennon/McCartney)

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Concert Report: Susan Werner @ Club Passim

Patti and I caught the first night of Susan Werner's two night stint at Club Passim this past Thursday, April 2. Susan is on a CD-release tour for her new project, Classics (more on this in a bit). This tour has Susan in a trio format, with Julia Biber on cello, and Trina Hamlin on vocals, harmonica, and a variety of percussive instruments.

Susan Werner at Club Passim, April 2, 2009

The first portion of Susan's nearly two-hour set focused not on the new CD, but rather her previous project, The Gospel Truth. Notice how I say "project", as each of Susan's last three releases have been exactly that — projects with clearly identifiable themes. Susan variously describes The Gospel Truth as "agnostic gospel", "protest gospel", "music for the spiritually ambivalent", and "music from the religious left." Those are all apt descriptions of what to me is an innovative, honest, and profound body of music.

To be sure, The Gospel Truth denounces the hypocrisy of the religous right ("i know you'd damn me if you could, but my friend that's simply not your call"), and pokes particular fun at the catholic church ("and please allow for women in the catholic priesthood, and remind the pope he could have been a girl"), but it also quiets us with its moments of profound meaning, as in Did Trouble Me:

when i closed my eyes so i would not see
my lord did trouble me
when i let things stand that should not be
my lord did trouble me
when i held my head too high too proud
my lord did trouble me
when i raised my voice too little too loud
my lord did trouble me

After a half dozen Gospel Truth songs, Susan moved to the keyboards and songs from her 2004 project, I Can't Be New. That project consists of original Werner compositions in the style of the Great American Songbook, or as Susan puts it, songs written as if she were "Cole Porter's smart mouthed little sister." She performed "Give Me Chicago", her rousing ode to her adopted home town with its long list of praises for the windy city. I noticed that the verse mentioning Studs Terkel is gone, as Studs passed away last October. But a new verse has been added, ending in "music and drama, Barack Obama" in honor of the new president. We also got the plot-twisting romance, I Can't Be New, and the humorous self-effacing Movie of My Life.

The clear highlight of the mid-section of the set was Time Between Trains, which is now more than ten years old and was the only song of the night from Susan's earlier work. Trina Hamlin's harmonica playing takes this allegory about the interlude between relationships to a new level. Trina gets an extended harmonica solo during Time Between Trainsthat simply brings the house down.

Trina Hamlin at Club Passim, April 2, 2009

Susan's delight was evident:

Trina Hamlin at Club Passim, April 2, 2009

Another highlight prior to the new stuff was Susan's somber but uplifting hymn, May I Suggest. I never tire of this song, as it makes me want to cry and smile all at the same time. Here's a good version from YouTube, for any of you who are unfamiliar with either Susan or May I Suggest. Watch it and see if it gets to you too:

Which brings us to Classics, Susan's latest project. This project consists of reinterpretations of classic songs from the 1960s and 1970s with chamber orchestra arrangements. Don't wince, it's far better than you might imagine at first. No, it's not elevator music! It's new and fresh interpretations that make these songs sound all new &mdash and newly relevant.

For this section of the set, Trina left the stage, and Julia Biber's cello playing took on a stronger focus.

Julia Biber at Club Passim, April 2, 2009

I'll admit, the first time I played the entire Classics CD it didn't grab me. I was hearing the contrast from the boldness of The Gospel Truth, and overlooking the subtle beauty of the string arrangements. But after two or three spins, I was hooked. And hearing America's Lonely People, Marvin Gaye's Mercy Mercy Me, Cat Stevens' The Wind, and Simon & Garfunkel's Hazy Shade of Winter performed live in this duet setting only solidified my feelings. All of these songs sound new again. And still so relevant.

Oh, mercy mercy me
Oh, things ain't what they used to be
No, no
Where did all the blue sky go?
Poison is the wind that blows
From the north, east, south, and sea
Oh, mercy mercy me
Oh, things ain't what they used to be
No, no

In a break after Julia's cello solo (a piece composed by German composer Paul Hindemith), Susan and Julia had the audience in stitches with their hilarious send up of classical musicians. Julia played the perfect visual impersonation of Susan's verbal descriptions of the body movements of modern cellists — the flying hair, the swooning, the angry faces. This was followed by an on-the-spot modern (discordant) improvisation called Marshmallow Peeps, a theme solicited from the audience.

Yes, it was all a big fun poke at modern classical music, but Susan noticed a women in one or the front tables who must have had some telling look on her face. Susan asked her if she was a musician, and the audience member said she was. Susan said, "Oh no, you're not a classical musician, are you?", to which we learned that yes, she was a classical pianist. Not missing a beat, Susan invited her to come up and play for us, and Susan led the audience in cheering until our audience heroine complied. The moment of truth arrived, and audience member Amy blew us away with a fine version of Chopin's Minute Waltz:

Audience member, Amy, performing the Minute Waltz

We gave Amy a thunderous applause!

Oh! One other twist to the night. Monday is Susan's birthday, so road manager Jane brought a birthday cake up to the stage at the start of the encore, and the audience sang Happy Birthday to Susan:

Susan Werner with birthday cake, Club Passim, April 2, 2009

I'll close with this seven minute compilation from one of Susan's performances at Club Passim in 2007. This is an excellent glimpse of exactly what a Susan Werner concert is like:

Susan Werner, with Trina Hamlin & Julia Biber
Club Passim, Cambridge, MA
Thursday, April 2, 2009
That's How It Happens
(Why Is Your) Heaven So Small
Our Father (The New, Revised Edition)
Sunday Mornings
Did Trouble Me
Probably Not
Give Me Chicago
I Can't Be New
Time Between Trains
Movie of My Life
May I Suggest
Lonely People (America)
Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) (Marvin Gaye)
The Wind (Cat Stevens, with Bach Suite for Cello #3 in C Major intro)
Solo by Julia Biber on Cello (Paul Hindemith)
Marshmallow Peeps (Werner/Biber improvisation)
Minute Waltz (Frederic Chopin, performed by audience member Amy)
A Hazy Shade of Winter (Simon & Garfunkel, with Vivaldi Four Seasons intro)
Happy Birthday to Susan (Traditional, sung by the audience)
Turn Turn Turn (Peter Seeger, The Byrds)
Help Somebody