Live Music: Chris Botti and Chris Isaak at the Hollywood Bowl

July 14, 2014

By Don Heckman

There were two guys named Chris on stage at the Hollywood Bowl Friday and Saturday nights. Despite their identical first names, their styles traced to very different genres. And despite those different sources, they both offered performances rich in musicality and compelling entertainment.

Friday evening opened with the first Chris – jazz trumpeter Chris Botti — backed by his own group and the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of Bramwell Tovey.

Chris Botti

Chris Botti

Although Botti was often identified with the smooth jazz style in his early years, he has always been a player whose music was filled with the authority of jazz authenticity. Over the past two decades his ever-curious, inventive imagination has taken him to jazz settings reaching from performances with full symphonic orchestras, to straight ahead mainstream jazz, and explorations reaching the outer limits of free improvisations.

Much of that territory was explored in his gripping performance at the Bowl.

Botti began with a warm tribute to Miles Davis, applying his trademark, warm tone to a composition long associated with Davis – Rodrigo’s Concierto De Aranjuez. To Botti’s credit, he made the piece’s lush Spanish melodies his own. He was equally expressive with Davis’ “Flamenco sketches.

And when he added some familiar standards – “When I Fall In Love” and “The Very Thought of You” – he once again emphasized his embracingly warm sound and expressive tone to every melodic phrase.

Botti also showcased his skills as a leader, urging the members of his band – pianist Geoff Keezer, guitarist Ben Butler, bassist Richie Goods and drummer Billy Kilson – into their own far-reaching skills. Add to that the mesmerizing violin playing of guest artist Caroline Campbell on the Grammy-nominateed “Emmanuel,” as well as George Komsky’s soaring vocal rendering on “Time To Say Goodbye,” and the stunning versatility of singer Sy Smith.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Botti’s easygoing communication with his audience. Strolling the stage, offering occasional interchanges with his listeners, he added a quality of warm connectivity too rarely seen in jazz performances.

Chris Isaak

One could also say the same about the other Chris on the program – rocker, singer/songriter, actor and talk show host Chris Isaak. Completely at home on the broad Bowl stage, Isaak moved into an even wider arena, moving across the narrow platform intersecting the box seats, then demanding a spotlight as he moved into the audience itself, singing, shaking hands with listeners, welcoming them throughout his set into an environment as comfortable as his living room.

Thirty years after he made his first recording, Silvertone, Isaak still maintains a dedicated audience. And his set embraced many of the high points of his twelve album discography. Add to that the numerous songs and musical themes he’s created for television and films.

His entertaining program encompassed memorable selections from all those sources. Among them: what is perhaps his best known song, “Wicked Game.” Add to that “Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing” from the Kubrick film, Eyes Wide Shut and a string of a dozen or so somewhat less familiar, but equally compelling songs.

Strongly supported by his comfortable ease with his enthusiastic audience, and buoyed by his solid back up band, the lead guitar work of Hershel Yatovitz and lush timbres of the Los Angeles Phil, Isaak presented a program reaching far beyond his rock roots.

The program closed with yet another highlight: Chris Botti and Chris Isaak performing together in a brief set blending their disparate but amiable skills in tunes reaching from “Besame Mucho” to “Love Me Tender.” Call it the appropriate climax for a two-Chris performance to remember.


Picks of the Weekend: December 13 – 15

December 12, 2013

By Don Heckman

 Los Angeles

Mike Stern

Mike Stern

- Dec. 13 – 15. (Fri. – Sun.) Mike Stern Quartet. Guitarist Stern moves convincingly across jazz styles with ease. And he’s backed by a band – featuring Randy Brecker, Anthony Jackson and Dave Weckl – that is equally versatile – and swinging. Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

- Dec. 13 – 15. (Fri. – Sun) “Christmas with Gustavo.” The Los Angeles Philharmonic plays the Nutcracker Suite (complete), under the celebratory baton of Musical Director Gustavo Dudamel. Disney Hall.  (323) 850-2000.

- Dec. 13. (Fri.) Don Menza Quartet. Saxophonist Menza is high on the list of first call players, regardless of style. This time out, she steps into his own musical spotlight. Vibrato. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

- Dec. 13. (Fri.) The Oak Ridge Boys. Christmas Time’s A Comin’” with the iconic country group presenting their own warm and fuzzy Christmas celebration. Valley Performing Arts Center (818) 677-8800

April Williams

April Williams

- Dec. 15. (Sun.) The Ron Jones Influence Jazz Orchestra and April Williams. “It’s A Big Band Holiday.” Christmas music in a big jazz band setting, with Ron Jones 21 piece big band, featuring holiday classics sung by tuneful April Williams. Vitello’s. (818) 769-0905.

San Francisco

Sheila E.

Sheila E.

- Dec. 13 & 14. (Fri. & Sat.) Sheila E. Birthday Celebration. Singer/percussionist Sheila Escovedo is a compelling performer who is as musically gripping as she is entertaining. Yoshi’s San Francisco.  (415) 655-5600.

Chicago

- Dec. 13 – 15. (Fri. – Sun.) The Fred Hersch Trio. Pianist Hersch’s playing recalls the engaging aspects of the jazz piano trio style that reaches back to Bill Evans. The Jazz Showcase. (312) 360-0234.

 New York City

Fourplay

- Dec. 13 – 15. (Fri. – Sun) Fourplay. With Bob James, keyboards, Chuck Loeb, guitar, Harvey Mason, drums, Nathan East, bass, Fourplay continues to maintain its well-deserved reputation as a world class contemporary jazz ensemble. The Blue Note. (212) 475-8592.

 Copenhagen

- Dec. 15. (Sun.) Love & Peace. The Music of Horace Parlan. Bop piano stylist Parlan has had medical problems intruding on his playing in recent years. But his music is being keep alive in Copenhagen by the American/Danish ensemble of Bob Rockwell, tenor saxophone and Doug Raney, guitar, from the U.S. and Jesper Lundgaard, bass, Henrik Gunde, piano and Aage Tanggaard, drums, from Denmark. Jazzhus Montmartre. +45 31 72 34 94.

 Tokyo

Roberta Flack

Roberta Flack

- Dec. 14 & 15. (Sat. & Sun.) Roberta Flack. Singer/songwriter Flack may be in her mature years, but she’s still singing with the vitality of a gifted young artist. Hopefully she’ll include “Killing Me Softly” and ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in her program. The Blue Note Tokyo.+81 3-5485-0088.


Live Music: Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby at Royce Hall

October 22, 2013

By Mike Finkelstein

Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby brought their bluegrass collaboration to a CAP UCLA concert at Royce Hall on Friday night, playing to a very appreciative if not overflowing crowd. Backed by the amazing six-piece Kentucky Thunder bluegrass band, Skaggs and Hornsby took on music ranging from Bill Monroe to Rick James.

At first notice the pairing of Hornsby and Skaggs seems a little odd, a pop figure and a country/bluegrass guy teaming up. But upon further inspection we see that Skaggs is from rural Kentucky and Hornsby from Virginia. Their common geography indicates why both of these guys grew up with a huge love and respect for bluegrass music. Bluegrass originated in that region of the country under the influence of one Bill Monroe. Skaggs and Hornsby both soaked it up from the beginning. While Skaggs took a path true to his roots as a bluegrass musician, Hornsby branched out into jazz, blues, and rock ‘n roll while maintaining his love for bluegrass. Their trains crossed in 2000 while they were recording a tribute album of Bill Monroe’s music, Darlin’ Cory.

Ricky Scaggs and Bruce Hornsby

Ricky Scaggs and Bruce Hornsby

Most folks west of the Mississippi would first know of Bruce Hornsby through his enormous popularity as a solo artist in the late 1980’s as well as his work with the Grateful Dead family, Don Henley, and Spike Lee. He is a remarkably versatile pianist and he hails from Virginia, where many musical styles coexist and cross-pollinate, he incorporated everything he liked the sound of into his style.

Ricky Skaggs is a bona fide country music and bluegrass icon in his own right. He has played with luminaries ranging from Bill Monroe to Dave Brubeck to Brian Setzer, and has dozens upon dozens of hit singles and industry awards. Skaggs has a tremendous, yet charismatically down to earth onstage presence. But the bottom line is that he can plain burn it up on the mandolin.

Hornsby and Scaggs with Kentucky p

Scaggs and Hornsby playing with Kentucky Storm

It’s not surprising that these two top-shelf players with gregarious musical instincts and unlimited ability would pool their talents. It’s also not surprising that they would enlist a group of top shelf players to flesh things out. Their presentation was a warm night of concise but winsome story-telling and impressive musicianship. As the show progressed we became more and more impressed with the musicianship of fiddler Andy Leftwich, multi instrumentalist (banjo and dobro) Justin Moses, and flat-picking monster guitarist, Cody Kilby. Several times, Kilby’s high speed runs summoned up an image of sparks between the strings and the frets.

Most of all on Friday, stompin’ bluegrass was only the departure point. With the instrumentation and song selection, the evening evolved into much more than that. For an eight-piece ensemble playing a style of music that often moves at a fast pace it was curious indeed that there was no percussion onstage , save for the piano.

Ricky Scaggs

Ricky Scaggs

There were, however, a whole lotta strings up there. Not by accident, the picked attack of 4 guitars, banjo, fiddle and the thump of one bass cleanly suggested snares and toms. As he sang, Skaggs would vamp his strings quickly to clarify the skipping snare effect. This is the sort of detail that an old pro like Skaggs throws in routinely to pick the arrangement up a notch or two and it’s simple beauty.

Bluegrass music has always delivered the goods for showcasing hot pickers of banjoes, mandolins, and guitars alike. On Friday there were 3 guitars (at times 4), a mandolin, a banjo, a fiddle, a bass, and a piano. To the left there was the rhythm section consisting of two rhythm guitars, and bass. To the right were the soloists on fiddle, guitar, and banjo. And holding court at center stage we had Skaggs on mandolin and Hornsby seated behind the grand piano. From this area came the stories and the cues.

Hornsby’s piano was the game changer and the agent of change for this group. Presenting musical avenues like an octopus at center stage, Hornsby served up a banquet table of atmosphere and harmony for the guys to work with above and underneath him. While the Kentucky Thunder feature ace players, Hornsby’s clever and somewhat jazzy meanderings opened up the sound and drove the group at a refreshingly different angle on the standards and covers they played.

Bruce Hornsby

Bruce Hornsby

While still instantly recognizable, Rick James’ “Superfreak,” was given a very entertaining bluegrass makeover. The treatment featured a twangier bounce to the bottom end riff and the tasty stringed interplay above.

If we didn’t realize it then, we certainly know now that Hornsby’s mega hit from the 80’s, “The Way It Is,” has a superb set of chord changes for everyone to stretch out over, and melodically so. The jam went on for several very satisfying minutes and could have even gone longer without losing steam.

There were also moments of haunting Celtic inspired harmony in songs like “Darlin’ Cory,” as well as light lyrical playfulness in “The Dreaded Spoon,” ( a wistful Hornsby tune about going to the Dairy Queen with his dad as a kid).

On “Columbus Stockade,” a pretty standard bluegrass piece, bassist Scott Mulvahill was allowed a solo spot to shine in the style of jazz bassist Charlie Haden. The ease with which this band weaved the juxtaposed styles together was nothing short of great.

It must be noted, too, that Royce Hall is beautifully suited for the sound of a large acoustic ensemble. The ambience in the place was remarkable Friday, with the soft acoustic sounds so powerfully layered and so neatly mixed that we could easily focus in on the different instruments. The sound was crisp enough to actually hear fingers vigorously pounding the fingerboard. In addition to the clear sound, the music itself swelled and contracted for a fine sense of dynamics. It turned out to be a most impressive musical tapestry that Skaggs, Hornsby and the Kentucky Thunder weave. Play on, gents!

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To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.


Live Music: Americanarama with Bob Dylan, My Morning Jacket, Wilco and Ryan Bingham at the Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre

August 13, 2013

By Mike Finkelstein

Denver, Colorado. I caught the Americanarama tour in Englewood, CO while on a road trip last week.   I’m not so sure that the bands on the tour ( My Morning Jacket, Wilco, Bob Dylan and Ryan Bingham) are truly representative of the burgeoning Americana genre.   But if you get a chance to see Wilco and My Morning Jacket on the same bill, you should definitely make plans to get there no matter what it’s being called.  To see them open for Bob Dylan, yes, even better, go for it.

Because the Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre is in the middle of a large business park in the Denver suburbs, the show had to begin at 5 o’clock.   At that time the mile high sun was shining full bore.   Five and a half hours later the show rolled through the finish line as Dylan closed his set.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is obviously one of the most compelling personalities there has ever been in American popular music.   And you could certainly make the case that he was one of the first Americana artists ever, as he has always fused blues, folk, rock ‘n’ roll, and country into his own uniquely American blend of music.

Dylan, however, has never made it too easy on his fans in terms of playing live.  He is famous for muttering his lyrics, changing the basic feel of his most popular songs from their recorded form, and challenging his audience to actually recognize the songs he’s playing.   None of this changed Wednesday. Much of the new material he chose is sharp and charged, but it’s also gruff…and hence, all the more difficult to decipher.   Even the old songs were so unrecognizable that singing along with “Tangled Up in Blue,” or “Desolation Row” just wasn’t going to be possible.

The presentation seemed to be compelling for reasons that had little to do with Dylan, himself.   Onstage the whole band, in matching white coats and black slacks, was lit like they were playing in a dark, shoe-box-shaped lounge.   This stage setup was a clever one.  There were old time spotlights propped up on tall stands and others were suspended above the band, casting shadows everywhere and making the band appear rather distant.   A huge pyramidal glass-enclosed torch, like the ones we see in outdoor restaurants, was there to quite effectively suggest flickering candles.  A curved curtain behind the backline was lit to mimic crushed velvet or cobbles to develop the intimate nightclub vibe.

Oddly enough, Dylan himself didn’t even pick up a guitar (!), just singing with his hand on his hip and occasionally sitting down to pound the piano or leaning into the mic for a harmonica solo.   His limitations as a harmonica player do stand out when they aren’t contrasted with his guitar strumming.  While the band included a fine bunch of players, they didn’t make much of an effort to project what they were doing to an audience of thousands, leaving that to Bob, who assumed the position of front man.  But he didn’t say one word to the crowd he was headlining for.  And throughout the set, people who had come to see Wilco and My Morning Jacket did start peeling out into the Colorado night.

Wilco came on stage while the sun was still blasting ¾ of the audience.   I had been cowering in the shadows of the seats closer to the stage…yes, I snuck up to stay in the shade…but I took my place in the sun for Wilco.   Half way through their set, the reliable Colorado afternoon weather kicked in and showered us for about ten or fifteen glorious minutes.   There is nothing more refreshing than summer rain on your scalp! Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy called the ensuing double rainbow, “Stupid,” …just before he suggested they would come back again to play beneath a “full on double rainbow.”

Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy

Tweedy and company put on a fine, if streamlined, show.   They took us into and developed several different grooves, from ambling folk/rock like “Hansdhake Drugs” to blistering rock riffs and other more country-focused tunes like “Hesitating Beauty,” and “Jesus, Etc.”  They blended styles with an ease and balance that put them near the very top of this new genre.   Wilco are a band who have been doing it a long time and that’s why they sound as polished and dynamic as they do.  Nels Cline’s Fender Jazzmaster had a warm distorted bite that allowed his quick flurries to stand out above the mix.  This is key for a lead guitar tone when the rest of the mix includes two other guitars and keyboards.  And it’s always a welcome detail when the bass lines are as engaging as John Stirratt’s were coming from deep in the pocket.

Wilco had a lot of different motions in their sound from song to song.   Keeping all of this as balanced live as they did on songs like “Muzzle of Bees,” and “Solitaire” really is a delicate art and they didn’t let the seams show onstage.  They also lay down a slow introspective vibe with a soft touch on songs like “Misunderstood.”   At any moment Wilco like to turn on a dime and lurch from soft to heavy.  The dynamics of expansion and contraction in a well-written song are what get a band like Wilco over the rainbow on stage regularly.

My Morning Jacket hit the stage in blinding, blistering sunshine.  It’s definitely a bit of a handicap for any band to have to engage the crowd while they both cope with the ongoing distraction of bright, hot sunshine.  I snuck into the shady seats and totally dug their set.  Most impressive was the fact that lead guitarist Carl Broemel was multi-instrumental, switching off between several gorgeous Gretsch guitars, pedal steel guitar and soprano sax.   There was another sax on the opposite side of the stage that wasn’t played but MMJ’s versatility is a fine thing.   Like Wilco, they also love to blend acoustic and electric guitars together live.

My Morning Jacket

My Morning Jacket

Being near the beginning of a long bill, MMJ had time constraints that reined them in a bit, but it was obvious that they could have run with it and glided way up there in the updraft if they’d had the time.   They are a band that has been known to play for four hours at a time and stretching out is something they do beautifully. My Morning Jacket were certainly the most psychedelic sounding act on the bill, using a lot of delay on their guitars and reverb on the vocals to create some extra atmosphere.  Tunes like “First Light” rocked hard, but there was plenty of room for them to soar when they opened it out.  Others like “The Way That He Sings,” caught a super pretty vibe with the right blend of guitars, tempo, vocal harmony, and Mellotron.  This was the sort of song that sounds so good on first listen you feel you must have heard it before.  Isn’t that one of the biggest payoffs for a songwriter?

When a tour of several big-time, basically headlining acts with growing career arcs of their own join together for a tour like this, beautiful new bonds can be established between them.  Everyone’s catalogue is established for the fans, and jamming and guest appearances in each other’s sets should be an added bonus for the bands and the audience.  There was a lot of this going on with Bingham, My Morning Jacket and Wilco and that was a lot of fun to see.   John Oates (Hall and Oates!?!) joined MMJ for an extended version of the Rolling Stones’ “Waiting on a Friend” and Ryan Bingham joined all of them for a rocking version of “Baby, Don’t Do It.”  Similarly, several of the guys in MMJ and Bingham again came on to join Wilco in a cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.

It was a long show, well worth enduring the time constraints and bright sunlight.  But I’m still not sure why they ever decided to put a nice concert facility like the Fiddler’s Green smack dab in the middle of a business park.   I suppose it goes to show that the guys with the money don’t always know what they’re doing with it.

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To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.


Live Music: Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett at the Hollywood Bowl

August 11, 2013

By Don Heckman

An extraordinarily well-planned performance at the Hollywood Bowl Friday night opened with a delightful appearance by Lyle Lovett and his Large Band.  Lovett’s far-ranging career has reached from acting to music, with a variety of stops in between.

Lyle Lovett

Lyle Lovett

But heard in a wide open, Hollywood Bowl setting, driven by the jazz  rhythms and crisp arrangements of his Large Band, the appealing essence of his music was crisp and clear.

Each of Lovett’s numerous musical characteristics — from his stellar songwriting to the settings he’s chosen, to the sardonic, between-songs remarks – were at the heart of his vividly alive performance. Listening to – and immensely enjoying – every moment of Lovett’s set triggered the desire to hear this too rarely heard artist in action again, at every opportunity.

The evening’s headliner, Willie Nelson, brought a similarly appealing program of songs to the Bowl.

Examples of well-established pop and rock artist turning to the pleasures of the Great American Songbook for new material for expression haven’t exactly been uncommon in recent  years.  (Think Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney and others.)

But they were preceded as long ago as the late-‘70s by Nelson’s Stardust, a platinum album that hit the charts in genres reaching from country music to pop.

At the Bowl on Friday, a highly enthusiastic packed house audience had the singular opportunity to hear Nelson perform a program of songs from the entire album, assisted by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, conducted by David Campbell.

Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson

It would be hard to ask for a better brief collection of classic songs than Nelson chose for the album – and for this performance.  Some had special meaning.  “Georgia On My Mind,” for example, is a song already favored by both country and r&b artists.  “September Song,” with its poetic references to the time between “May and December” was a perfect vehicle of expression for the 80 year old Nelson.

Other tunes – the poignant “Moonlight in Vermont,” followed by “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “Someone To Watch Over Me” provided lush orchestral settings for Nelson’s sometimes gravelly, always deeply interpretive vocals.

And when he concluded the Stardust part of the program, Nelson added another entertaining group of his own songs, including such familiar items as “Crazy” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”  And climaxing with a Nelson tune whimsically – but perhaps pointedly – titled “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”

Nelson sang in such a charming manner that the combination of his unique vocal timbres with a collection of such familiar, much-loved songs should have resulted in a memorable evening of music.  And to some extent, it did, largely because of the superb orchestral backing, arranged by Campbell.

The only problem in the Nelson set was largely created by his own interpretive ambitions.  Presumably eager to approach the lyrics in a poetically expressive manner, he often jumped quickly to the end of a phrase.  Occasionally the technique produced the pointed lyric results he was seeking.  More often, however, it positioned a song’s melody in an inaccurate relationship to its harmonic progression.

That said, there’s no argument with Nelson’s overall performance, nor with the charismatic qualities he brought to his unique view of the Great American Songbook.


Live Music: Steve Martin, the Steep Canyon Rangers, the Preservation Jazz Band and Madeleine Peyroux at the Hollywood Bowl,

August 9, 2013

 By Don Heckman

l

Madeleine Peyroux

When singer Madeleine Peyroux opened Wednesday night’s jazz show at the Hollywood Bowl there was at least a mild sense of actual jazz in the air. Peyroux has had considerable success in the jazz world, even though she has ranged across different genres with varying degrees of success.

A far more powerful jazz vibe followed with the arrival of the Preservation Jazz Band, with its deep roots in traditional New Orleans jazz and an impressive ability to mix dynamic jazz rhythms with engaging jazz vocals.

So far, so good, creating an authentic link to the music one expects to hear in the Bowl’s Wednesday night jazz shows.

But the climactic set of the night made it very clear that the real orientation of the Wednesday series is broader than jazz, and perhaps best viewed as a far-ranging evening of American music in many forms.

Steve Martin, Edie Brickell and the Steep Canyon Raiders

Steve Martin and Banjos

Steve Martin and Banjos

Which only partially describes what happened when Steve Martin, Edie Brickell and the North Carolina- based Steep Canyon Rangers. Martin, of course, has had a hugely successful career as a comedian, actor and TV star. But his occasional appearances over the years as a banjoist gradually made it clear that he was a serious musician as well. And improving with each banjo-playing performance.

It was no surprise that Martin sprinkled his performing passages with numerous examples of his whimsical, and often bizarre humor. And given the audience’s ebullient responses, it was easy to sense that many had been drawn to this Bowl program by Martin’s presence rather than the potential to hear some prime jazz.

Still, there was no faulting the empathic musical interaction between Martin and the Rangers, with the frequent addition of Brickell’s soaring vocals. And, listening to the irresistible rhythmic swing of the blue grass rhythms and the imaginative melody-making,something that possessed qualities very close to jazz began to seem present in the air.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Preservation Hall Jazz Band

The jazz heads in the crowd may have hoped for a more predictable mainstream jazz event, with more performance time for the inimitable Preservation Band.  But what they experienced was even more fascinating, as Martin, the Rangers and the Preservation Hall musicians presented a consistently compelling presentation of the musical dialect – via improvisation and rhythmic propulsion – that is the common expressive language of so much American music. Call it a fascinating evening of musical Americana at its best.

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Preservation Hall Band photo by Bonnie Perkinson

All other photos by Faith Frenz


Live Music: Tony Bennett at the Hollywood Bowl

August 4, 2013

By Don Heckman

Any night one hears Tony Bennett in action is a night to remember.  And his performance Friday night at the Hollywood Bowl was no exception, made even more memorable by the fact that it was taking place the day before his 87th birthday.

Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett

Hearing mature artists in performance at the Bowl is not unusual.  But hearing an artist approaching 90, in complete mastery of his skills, doesn’t happen often.  And Bennett’s performance, lasting nearly an hour and a half, singing more than two dozen hits – most of them tracing to his extraordinary, multi-Grammy winning career – was an event for the memory books of the packed house, enthusiastic audience.

In fact the songs, as always in a Bennett performance, were the heart of the program.  No distractions, no complicated stage settings, no orchestra.  Only Bennett, backed superbly by the sterling accompaniment of pianist/music director Lee Musiker, guitarist Gray Sargent, bassist Marshall Wood and drummer Harold Jones, singing a collection of great song classics magnificently.

Tony Bennett with Lee Musiker, Gray Sargent, Marshall Wood and Harold Jones

Tony Bennett with Lee Musiker, Gray Sargent, Marshall Wood and Harold Jones

Bennett, like Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat “King” Cole and others, came to maturity as a musical artist at a time when popular music meant the classics – from Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, Kern and other song-writing giants – of the Great American Songbook.

But the key aspect of any Bennett appearance, including this one, traces to his remarkable ability to combine the warmth and intimacy of his rich, baritone voice with his utterly convincing musical storytelling.  Whether he was singing upbeat songs such as “Watch What Happens” and “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” or darker musical tales such as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” or “Who Can I Turn To,” Bennett displayed his masterful capacity to reach into the deepest heart of a song.  And that quality was present whether he was singing such unlikely tunes as Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” or such familiar Bennett hits as “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” or “The Good Life.”

Tony and Antonia Bennett with bassist Marshall Wood

Tony and Antonia Bennett with bassist Marshall Wood and a birthday cake

The musical pleasures of the evening wound up with anther familiar song,  “Happy Birthday,” offered by the audience in an all-join-in interpretation led by Bennett’s daughter, Antonia Bennett.  A jazz oriented singer in her own right, she had thoroughly revealed her excellent musical legacy by opening the evening with her versions of Songbook classics ranging from “Too Marvelous” to “From This Moment On.”

Call the evening a memorable performance by a veteran musical artist still very much at the peak of his powers.  Whatever elixir – or vitamins — Tony Bennett is taking these days should be made universally available.

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Photos by Faith Frenz.


Live Country Music: Brantley Gilbert, Jack Ingram and Rachel Farley at the Greek Theatre

July 22, 2013

By Mike Finkelstein

On a perfect Friday evening, KKGO radio hosted a triple bill bonanza showcasing the new sound of country music at the Greek Theatre.  What transpired was lovingly devoured by one of the most enthusiastic and attractive crowds you could hope to see.  It was beautiful. The bands rocked and the crowd rolled all night long.  They played like pros, looked current, sported any image they wanted to, and delivered their tunes with conviction and energy.  Still, the curious thing about this big event country show was that it looked and sounded so very much like a classic southern rock show.

Brantley Gilbert and his band were top billed and delivered a high-energy set of, let’s face it, southern rock.   Their sound was driven by 3 snarling guitars, huge bottom end bass sound, and hard-hitting drums.   The crunch and punch in their sound would have to have been inspired by the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchett, or the Outlaws.    Lynyrd Skynyrd is a worthy model to base a southern rock sound on.  But, seriously, LS may have been country personalities, but they were not a country band.

Gilbert’s band had such a curious assortment of looks going on that one had to wonder if it was just an accident.   Bassist Jonathan Waggoner and lead guitarist Jess Franklin both had hippie length hair and beards, looking like vintage 70’s musicians (think Allman Brothers Band, 1970).  Drummer Ben Sims had a gigantic striped Mohawk.   Gilbert himself wore a black ball cap very low, so that it pretty much covered his eyes to make him look a bit sinister.  Cowboy hats and Nudie suits are not required under this tent.

Brantley Gilbert

Brantley Gilbert

Brantley Gilbert hails from Georgia and he let us know several times that he is one proud redneck.    He sang with a throaty twang about brawlin’ in “Take It Outside,” partying out in the woods in “My Kind of Party,” taking the law into his own hands in “Read Me My Rights,” running moonshine in “Hell on Wheels,” crazy love in “My Kind of Crazy,”   and old fashioned county pride in “Country Must Be Country Wide.”

Jack Ingram and his Beat-Up Ford Band (as in a Ford pickup truck) were second billed and played a winsome set of straight ahead boogie styled southern rock.  They too, owed much of how they do what they do to bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band.  Ingram’s sound featured a generous amount of walking bass and his two lead guitarists often split themselves into slide and unison lead lines a la the Allman Brothers.  In the end, there wasn’t anywhere close to the amount of improvisation and straight blues in the arrangement to continue the comparison with the Allmans.   There weren’t a whole lot of rock guitar licks here that we haven’t heard before.  And they were definitely not country sounding guitar licks, just straight-ahead rock all the way.  But they were played with panache and to be sure the presentation rocked.

Jack Ingram

Jack Ingram

Ingram is forty-two years old and performed in a black t-shirt that said “Kristofferson,” in a nod to classic country singer and songwriter Kris Kristofferson.  His approach onstage is earnest, appealing, down to earth, and positive.  A recurring lyrical theme from him concerned the inevitability of things going wrong in life and how one must “Keep on Keepin’ On.”  He also humbly told us the story of how it felt to go from playing s#$&hole bars in Dallas to having a #1 record, “Wherever You Are,” on the country charts.  He was clearly blown away by his improbable turn of good fortune.  Gotta like this guy, as he doesn’t take himself too seriously and he is clearly all about writing the best music he can.

It’s fun, and rather unavoidable now, to consider what the term country actually refers to.   We all know labels can be non-descriptive, limiting, or even pointless.  But the point of labeling something is to let other folks know what they’re getting.   Country music has, from the beginning, suggested that we will likely hear a sparse, snare-based drumbeat, with very clear, clean guitars, often pedal steel guitars, and words that are entirely audible.   Style wise, cowboy hats and western wear in one form or another are part of the package, too.  Styles and fashion change like everything does, but classic country music by the likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings or even Red Sovine is unmistakable for its sound.   Lyrically country music has always been the place to find great story telling in a song and innumerable descriptive tales of woe and heartache.

Friday’s show satisfied the audience big time, but in the name of perspective, it really didn’t sound like country music.   It owed most of its sound to southern rock and AC/DC.   The old-school, cornerstone country artists may get lip service from the new country gang but little to none of that was musically apparent on Saturday.  Not that it matters.  Clearly the audience identifies with country style and attitude.   The girl sitting next to me mentioned that the new country music is more wholesome and likable than what rock has become.    I get it, too – many rock ‘n rollers are so over the top in image and their crazy lifestyles that it turns a lot of people off.    In the rock arena we have old rockers still touring and young rockers who come across as too extreme and too dysfunctional to want to listen to.  It doesn’t speak to young people like it used to.

During the 90’s many people must have begun wondering, “Can we just rock without all the distraction? “ How about we just rebuild classic rock from the ground up and then call it something else?  If we build it the people will come.

The new country is simply classic rock, cleaned up quite a bit, and marketed squarely to young people as “country.” But the name “country” has been taken for years because it refers to something much different, and to market rock ‘n roll music as country music is not unlike the emperor’s new clothes.   Face it folks, it’s still rock ‘n roll, and we still like it.   But it’s really southern rock played by country folks.

Rachel Farley

Rachel Farley

When you have an audience full of hot young women in boots and miniskirts singing along with the music, they have bought in.  So, the young men will surely follow and your prospects are very good.  Thirty years ago, young ladies were doing the same thing…at an Aerosmith or Cheap Trick show.   It’s all good, just call it what it is.

Rachel Farley opened the show to a good reception with an upbeat set of, yes, southern-sounding rock (although hers was the only one of the three to use keyboards). Was it really any wonder that her lead guitarist stuck the guitar solo of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” into her last number?   No, not at all.  Farley is only eighteen, and an energetic performer who can deliver the power vocals… so the future looks mighty bright for her.

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To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.


Live Music (and More): Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion at the Greek Theatre

June 11, 2013

By Mike Finkelstein

On Friday night Garrison Keillor and the cast of A Prairie Home Companion descended upon the Greek Theater ostensibly to record the latest installment of their delightfully entertaining radio show for public radio.    It was a beautiful evening as the sun started to set over Griffith Park.   You couldn’t imagine a more intimate feeling in a gathering of thousands.

As I headed to my seat, there seemed to be some commotion in front of me…and this was because Keillor had made his entrance by sauntering up in song from the stage and arriving all the way at the top of the theatre to savor the view.

A Prairie Home Companion is a unique slice of radio entertainment these days.  The show’s format is a throwback to old time radio variety shows.   It relies on the engaging voices of its host and cast to bring cleverly worded scripts to warm life.  True to the old radio tradition, listeners can’t help but let their imagination run with it to concoct their own vision of what they hear.   That’s a lost art in these times of nonstop video gratification. But the sound of it was vintage radio, even with the modern references.   How would it be with no need to imagine the proceedings?  I’m happy to say the results were thoroughly entertaining.

The Cast of A Prairie Home Companion

The rear of the stage had, naturally, a life size façade of a narrow two-story Minnesota prairie style house, as well as the logos of several of the mock sponsors of the show.    The 7-piece Shoe band, led by pianist Rich Dworsky and guitarist Pat Donohue, sat in several layers in front of the house.  Whether they were featured or setting up the atmosphere with background music, their blend of jazz, folk, and boogie was a perfect fit with the rest of the program.

To the side of the stage we had the fascinating table of gizmos and knick-knacks that Fred Farrell uses for sound effects.   His crop duster impression was perfection, as were his one-man cocktail party, flushing toilets, breaking branches (Styrofoam plate) and flapping wings.  Next to Farrell stood Tim Russell and Sue Scott.

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor

At center stage there was Garrison Keillor, moving the whole thing along so very smoothly.  The guests for the night included Martin Sheen reading scripted characters, Lily Tomlin reading scripts and making conversation, Paula Poundstone doing standup and also reading scripts and conversing.

It’s fun to watch actors and comedy artists do something formatted like reading a radio script as you can see their personalities leap forth while they read.  Ah, the lost art of simply reading aloud with panache.   Lily Tomlin got to deliver the line, conversationally, “What is reality but a collective hunch?” and Tim Russell got on a roll with his impressions of George W. Bush, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Tom Brokaw, and even Henry Kissinger.

The musical guests included semi-regular PHC members, the singing sisters Jearlynn and Jevetta Steele.   They gave the music a gospel feel when they sang, very up beat and just as joyous.  Colin Hay, formerly of Men at Work, performed solo.  He is an engaging storyteller, a man with different guitar for each song, and he has a big, rich voice.  It’s been a while since I’ve heard “Overkill,” but I remembered how good the lyrics were when I first heard them.

Between the skits, monologues, musical numbers, and mock ads, one becomes aware that there is a prodigious amount of material and coordination that goes into putting these shows together on a weekly basis.   Whoa!   In one monologue Keillor told us about the descent into LAX and filled us in on fine details of places like Whittier, Southgate, and who is buried in the Inglewood Cemetery.  Speeches like this take a fair amount of research every week.

There was so much beautiful rhyme woven into the night’s dialogue.   It was also there in the lyrics of the songs, the ads, and even in a touching poem that Keillor wrote for a neighbor’s cat (“they are God’s beauty”).   Well, the show was sponsored by P.O.E.M (the Professional Organization of English Majors).

"The Adventures of Guy Noir"

“The Adventures of Guy Noir”

No PHC show would be complete without an episode of Guy Noir, private eye.  This installment featured erudite flirtations between Keillor and Tomlin, plenty of alliteration, and an amusing dissection of the lyrics to doo wop songs like “Who Put The Bomp,” and “Who Wrote The Book Of Love.”   The actors were clearly enjoying the humor in the written words and riffing a bit with it, too.

During this two and a half hours show there were a whole lot of ideas touched upon.  Many times we noticed how little time it took to get a pretty deep observation about people over to the audience.  Near the end of the show Keilor told us about the time he was asked to give the commencement speech at his high school.  He went on to describe how he didn’t speak about the lifelong bonds that we make with people from our youth (that they are our tribe), but about instead about success.   It turned into a heartfelt reminiscence of his youth — and then the principal mentioned how hard it is to get a good graduation speaker.

But I’m guessing Garrison Keillor actually gave a great speech at Lake Wobegon High School.

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Photos courtesy of the Prairie Home Companion.

To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.


Photo Review: Sally Kellerman at Vitello’s

June 8, 2013

Studio City, CA. Sally Kellerman is such a musically dynamic performer that it almost doesn’t matter what she’s singing.  Whether it’s the Great American Songbook, the blues, a country tune or a rock classic, she brings it vividly to life.

On Wednesday night at Vitello’s, backed by the Andy Langham trio, she sang a program of songs reaching easily across various genres.  And we decided to try something a little different: a set of photos illustrating Sally in action, bringing a panorama of rich emotions to a far-ranging set of songs.

 Photos by Bonnie Perkinson.

“I Feel Good”

“Say It Isn’t So”

"I Believe the Lies of Handsome Men"

“I Believe the Lies of Handsome Men”

"A Spooky Boy Like You"

“A Spooky Boy Like You”

"Damn Your Eyes"

“Damn Your Eyes”

"Breaking Up Is Hard To Do"

“Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”

“How Sweet It Is.”

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