Live Chamber Music: Christopheren Nomura at Southern Oregon University

April 27, 2015

By Don Heckman

Ashland, Oregon. Chamber Music Concerts topped off their 2014-2015 season Friday night with a rare and memorable treat. It wasn’t a climactic closing event filled with choral high notes and trumpet fanfares. In fact, there were only two performers on stage at SOU’s Music Recital Hall: baritone Christopheren Nomura and pianist Daniel Lockert.

And that’s all that was needed. Nomura’s program was a fairly typical set of music for a vocal recital: Schubert’s The Wanderer’s Night, Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Ravel’s Don Quichotte a Dulcinee and songs from 20th century composers Richard Hundley and William Bolcom.

Nomura sang each exquisitely, accompanied with complete understanding by Lockert. Blessed with a magnificent voice, which he used with intimate musical understanding, he reached into the unique qualities of each song, from the lyricism of Schubert, the darkness of the Mahler and the colorful musical palette of Ravel to the two contemporary songs.

Christopheren Nomura

But Nomura had much more to offer, as well. He introduced each work with a narrative that was informative, communicative and often whimsical. A veteran of the opera stage, he expressed himself in music and dialogue with an engaging, even entertaining, quality that perfectly underscored and supported his interpretations.

The result was a performance calling up the best pleasures of chamber music at its finest, an ideal closing for the Chamber Music Concerts 2014-2015 season. And, as Nomura concluded with a delightful Gershwin encore, the final response from this listener (and perhaps many others) was the hopeful wish that Nomura would return for the 2015-2016 season as well.

( If, that is, he can find an open spot in the Broadway show he’s scheduled to do in the fall season. If not, we’ll have another good reason to spend some time in the city that never sleeps.)


Live Music and a Lot More: MY DAY AT THE NAMM SHOW

January 28, 2015

By Mike Finkelstein

Anaheim, CA.  For anyone who appreciates music, the NAMM show is a scene you simply must make once in your life, maybe more. NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) convenes twice annually, once in the winter at the Anaheim Convention Center and once in the summer, in Nashville. It has become more than a convention, and is now a four day event attended by thousands, with awards given to distinguished artists and manufacturers, concerts all day outdoors on a huge stage, celebrity signings, ongoing celebrity jams, intriguing food trucks, plenty of free stuff, and a whole lot of entertaining people to watch.

I was struck by how many people appeared to be dressed in their rock star costumes. These folks must look like they are on or near a stage every day. The multi-color hair and bizarre tats and piercings are a long-term proposition, a commitment. Of course, that’s rock and roll and we do love it. There were even people in costumes running around simply to provide photo ops, but that felt schticky, a little like Hollywood and Highland.

NAMM floor is a busy place, man!

Entry to NAMM is exclusive. Everyone who gets in must apply for and receive a badge to get through the doors. Physically getting to those doors isn’t so easy, either, as parking is at a premium. I had to park about a mile away from the site, and hoof it in. But it was a gorgeous day and I was with many other like-minded souls so it was cool…and free. Inside the convention center, vendors build a four story musical city, a multi-tiered grid of all conceivable music gear. And sometimes getting from one side of an aisle to the other is not unlike jaywalking in New York City. One must be alert as there are throngs of folks in constant motion on the NAMM floor.

Since so many manufacturers are represented under one roof, you can explore any curiosity on the spot, at the source. This worked out well for me. I cruised into the plush-carpeted Rickenbacker display, giddily strummed several of the shiny guitars, and inquired as to how pros actually deal with restringing their (in)famous 12-strings. These beautiful beasts are a well-known source of aggravation because the whole guitar must be unstrung and laboriously restrung even when one only string is a problem. But I was let in on the masking tape and long nose pliers solution to make things more efficient. Still, the ultra inconvenient “R” tailpiece will endure, as its design is classic and a part of an enduring image. Of course, the equally cool Ricky basses, have a much more string friendly design and will also stay the same.

The Rickenbacker 12 String

Before going to the NAMM show I wasn’t aware that guitar straps actually come in sizes like shirts do. So within a short exchange of dialogue I had learned about strap sizing. I also learned that there are several names for the extension adjustment strap on a leather guitar strap (“tongue” was the best that I heard), that they are sold separately, and can extend a strap by as much as 12 inches. The big idea was that huge vendors only carry some of many things. There is more variety available if one goes straight to the manufacturer, online or in person, than if one goes to a big distributor.

I had a feeling there would be some pleasant surprises nestled into the NAMM grid. Would you believe that somebody developed a product that allows you to actually be heard playing air drums? Yes, a special high-speed camera program gauges your movements, anticipating which drums you are reaching for and attaches sound. Voila, you can be heard. It was uncanny to watch, like some sort of illusion.

Fenders at NAMM. Surf all day, record all night… sounds like a plan!

One thing about the NAMM show, it borders on a muted din most of the time. There are so many displays where you can pick up an instrument to play and whether it was pianos, trumpets, or drums, there were usually a good dozen artists and regular folks just bashing away ecstatically. It’s a great way to make that much noise. The drum neighborhood at the end of the day was particularly lively. Big jam sessions up and down the block at every booth.

Perhaps the coolest thing about the NAMM show is that there are small concerts going on all the time in the booths. And a lot of these gigs are phenomenal. Sometimes it’s one person playing over a pre-recorded backing track. Other times it’s a whole ensemble.

Albert Lee bringing it at Music Man

These jams can get crowded but wow, if you have a good spot you’re in for a treat. I got lucky three times. Albert Lee was tearing it up at Music Man, and then I happened over to Godin guitars where Jose Roberto Hernandez and his friends were doing a sublime job of it. Beautiful guitar work from Hernandez, violin, acoustic bass guitar, and three hand percussionists made for some amazing, layered, poly-rhythmic music. Words won’t do it justice. On the other hand, I really couldn’t get a view of John Popper at Fender or of Doug Wimbash at Burgera.

All star jam in honor of Slash with Skunk Baxter, Richie Sambora, and Orianthi.

The best jam I saw was by far at the Mark Bass booth. If you can believe it, about thirty of us got to watch as guitarist Frank Gambale and six string bass ace Alain Caron strutted their chops and soared into the stratosphere together. The grin on our faces, and on theirs, was ear to ear. One person in the crowd actually had to steady the keyboard from falling off the corner of the amp it was perched upon. It was that casual, and yet that good.

Up on the third floor the heavy hitters of guitar set up shop with lavish booths and lots of decor. This would be Fender, Gibson, ESP, Schecter, and Paul Reed Smith. ESP in particular, had some sculpted guitars that looked as impressive as they were close to unplayable for more than an encore…or a photo session. Paul Reed Smith exhibited some wild inlay work, too.

Elaborate inlay work at Paul Reed Smith

Gibson had a whole table of headphones and Les Pauls to play privately, much like you would see in the Apple store. They seemed to be pushing their self-tuning guitar heads, but hey, the one I played just got confused and like in some silly sci-fi movie, the tuning heads spun about, taking the guitar nowhere close to being tuned. Hmm…

Gibson allowed us to plug in and play loud distorted guitar ...to ourselves.

Gibson allowed us to plug in and play loud distorted guitar …to ourselves.

At the big name booths I saw a whole lotta desks in sound-proof offices for making deals. People were here to deal and there was plenty of that going on. You literally couldn’t walk across the Martin Guitar booth without an obstacle course of office furniture. And interestingly enough, when I played one of their $6000 guitars, there was so much general commotion that I could scarcely hear what I was playing. It happens.

At six o’clock the lights dimmed as I was being serenaded with Norteno music and learning about Bajo Sextos and Bajo Quintos. That was a great little session. The show was over and it was time for most of us to trudge to our cars, while in the banquet rooms the VIP’s were just warming up for a night of music and awards. Just another day at the NAMM show. I was happily drained on the way home.

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Photos by Mike Finkelstein. 

To read more posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

 


Picks of the Weekend in Los Angeles: Nov. 6 – 9

November 6, 2014

By Don Heckman

Steve Tyrell

Steve Tyrell

– Nov. 6 – 9. (Thurs. – Sun.) Steve Tyrell. Add an amiable Texas twang to a jaunty sense of swing and a convincing way with a lyric, and that still doesn’t add up to the magic that happens when Tyrell digs into the Great American Songbook. Catalina Bar & Grill. http://www.catalinajazzclub.com (323) 466-2210.

Lani Hall and Herb Alpert

Lani Hall and Herb Alpert

– Nov. 6. (Thurs.) Herb Alpert and Lani Hall. The veteran jazz trumpeter/painter/sculptor and his vocally superb wife are back again at their home base – Alpert’s jazz friendly, elegant Bel Air club. They’ll no doubt be working over material for their current touring. And that’ll be a musically captivating gift for anyone who can squeeze into what will no doubt be a full house crowd. But it’ll be worth the effort. Click HERE to read a review of the dynamic duo’s most recent appearance at.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

– Nov. 6. (Thurs.) David Ornette Cherry. He’s the son of trumpeter Don Cherry, who worked frequently with free jazz icon Ornette Coleman– thus David Ornette Cherry’s middle name. A keyboard player with his own unique approach to contemporary improvisation, he’s an imaginative jazz artist who deserves a hearing on his own right. The Blue Whale.  (213) 620-0908.

Los Lobos

Los Lobos

– Nov. 8. (Sat.) Los Lobos and Los Lonely Boys. The mutiple Grammy-winning group from Los Angeles are one of the popworld’s most eclectic ensembles. Blending everything from Latin pop and Chicano rock to TexMex and Americana their music has a fascinating body-moving appeal. Opening the bill, Texas’ Los Lonely Boys follow a similar musical path. Valley Performing Arts Center.  (818) 677-8800.

– Nov. 8. (Sat.) Dimitri Matheny Quartet. Matheny’s warm, engaging flugelhorn playing has thoroughly established him as one of the most emotionally expressive improvisers of his generation. He performs with the sterling backing of Joe Bagg, piano, Pat Senatore, bass, Dick Weller, drums. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

Johnny Mathis

Johnny Mathis

– Nov. 8. (Sat.) Johnny Mathis. He doesn’t show up often any more in the Southland, so don’t miss this opportunity to hear the hit-maker of the ‘6os and 70s up close in action. Segerstrom Center for the Arts.  (714) 556-2787.

– Nov. 8. (Sat.) The New West Symphony. Marcelo Lehninger conducts the gifted players of the NWS in Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, and the Dvorak Concerto in B minor for cello and orchestra, featuring cellist Lynn Harrell. The Cavli Theatre at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. (805) 449-2100.

HIGHLIGHT EVENT: SATURDAY AND SUNDAY NOVEMBER 8 & 9

The 2014 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition and All-Star Gala Concert

Thelonious Monk

The annual jazz competitions produced by the Thelonious Monk Institute are among the most celebrated jazz events of the year. And the 2014 installment is no exception. This year’s competition again showcases a talented, ambitious group of young players. The semi-finalists will first meet at U.C.L.A.’s Schoenberg Hall on Saturday, Nov. 8. (The semi-final event is free and open to the public.)

The three finalists will then perform in the Competition’s Gala event on Sunday, Nov. 9 at Dolby Hall. The distinguished panel of judges for both stages of the competition includes trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire, Terence Blanchard, Randy Brecker, Roy Hargrove, Quincy Jones and Arturo Sandoval.

Following the finalists’ performances and the selection of this year’s winner, an All-Star Gala concert will feature Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Terri Lyne Carrington, Ron Carter, Vinnie Colaiuta, Jimmy Heath, Marcus Miller, Dianne Reeves and others.

In another highlight of the Gala, the Institute will present its prestigious Founders Award to President Bill Clinton.

The Thelonious Monk Institute 2014 International Jazz Trumpet Competition  (310) 206-9700.


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.


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