Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Christmas in Bethlehem

If there’s any community in the United States that can claim the vast legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach, it’s in Pennsylvania Dutch country. The city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with its rustic Moravian stone architecture and vestiges of decades as a rust belt mainstay, sits about two hours outside of New York. Comparable in size to Cleveland, it’s home to one of this country’s most popular annual Bach festivals. Last night in the comfortably lit confines of the city’s First Presbyterian Church, its good burghers had come out to hear the Bach Choir and Festival Orchestra of Bethlehem perform the first three parts of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio for the first time in ten years.

An unselfconscious joy and optimism radiated from the stage to the crowd: neither ensemble nor audience were the least bit blase. Nor should they have been. The Christmas Oratorio doesn’t have the stormy gusts and restless intensity of, say, Bach’s St. John Passion; this late-career epic is a sleekly detailed, confidently interwoven celebration of the triumph of the human spirit, Teutonic 18th century style. That’s exactly how this group delivered it, letting their enthusiasm shine through its endless series of interchanges without getting carried away. It was calm excitement, an eye-opening time capsule, not just to the the era when this music was created, but to a less virtual time in American history when performances like these were just as much about the fabric of a region as about spectacle. “Try to imagine being in Leipzig in 1734 and hearing this music for the very first time,” conductor Greg Funfgeld entreated the sold-out house, although he might just as well have been talking about 1901, when an earlier version of this same group – America’s oldest Bach choir – performed this suite in its entirety for the first time.

Soloists were strong and distinctly individual. Soprano Ellen McAteer got the most out of her brief time in the spotlight with a calmly steely precision. Countertenor Daniel Taylor got the most of anyone and made his challenging flights up into the clouds look easy. Tenor Isaiah Bell confidently channeled the music’s optimism, as did bass-baritone David Newman, whose unassuming smile and irrepressible good cheer were contagious.

The orchestra displayed a calm cohesion amid the swirl, bringing Bach’s breathtakingly inventive voicings and textures into crystalline focus: the old organist just couldn’t resist pairing, say, cello and bassoon for a spot-on facsimile of a krummhorn organ stop. Ingenious echo effects, fusillades of call-and-response pinballing through the choir, elegant pairings of voices and solo instruments, pensively waltzing interludes and a couple of mighty swells just short of bursting with contentment combined to evoke shepherds and angels and an anxious mother-to-be all awaiting one expectant moment, the mystical as vividly personal. To reinforce that, after the Bach was finally done, there was a singalong of three carols – in German, for authenticity’s sake, many of the concertgoers joining in. For New Yorkers and other residents in the northeast who didn’t have the good fortune to catch a ride out for this performance, the concert was recorded and will be broadcast in its entirety on WWFM on Christmas day at 8 PM.

The Bach Choir of Bethlehem’s next concert is February 28 at 3 PM as part of a festival of youth choirs at the arts center at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, They’re also performing the St. John Passion on March 20 at 4 PM at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem at 2344 Center St.

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December 14, 2015 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Transcending the Gloom Outside of St. Ignatius Loyola

Wednesday night the Choir and Orchestra of St. Ignatius Loyola rescued an otherwise gloomy and dismal evening with warmth and epic grandeur at their sonically superb home base, via an animated performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 97 and then Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. Music Director K. Scott Warren had a jaunty confidence on the podium, conducting the Haydn through its many dynamic shifts between instrumental voices, with lively, conversational counterpoint. From its precise cantabile opening, to a surprising and welcome gravitas in the second movement, the swaying dance of the third and a long series of clever, practically conspiratorial exchanges as it wound out, Warren and the ensemble spotlighted all the most entertaining moments. It’s not a heavy piece of music –  it made for a well-received contrast with the storm gusting outside.

Like his Requiem, Mozart’s Mass in C Minor is unfinished. It may or may not have been performed in his lifetime. It has far more to do with operatic flair than gothic gravitas: watching the choir pulsing through its waves and cadenzas, it was easy to imagine a group from Mozart’s day reveling in how much fun church had become with this composer writing the score! Was this a vehicle for the talented choirgirl who would become his wife? Quite possibly. And she had to be talented because the lead soprano role is brutally challenging, but Martha Guth embraced the hair-raising demands of its roller-coaster dips and swells and meticulous ornamentation and left the audience stunned.

Soprano Marguerite Krull also brought a sparkling clarity to her parts, often paired off with New York Polyphony‘s Stephen Caldicott Wilson and his far more stern, measured tenor (and impressive low range as well). Wilson’s choirmate Christopher Dylan Herbert was required to do less, but added an extra layer of heft in the final sections. Because Mozart never finished the mass, Warren had to choose from many versions fleshed out by others, over the centuries; settling on a 20th century version by Mozart’s fellow Austrian Helmut Eder was respectful of the original in limiting its scope to the parts of the score finished by the composer himself. Joy, and passion, and lustrous timbres from the top to the bottom of what the human voice is capable of delivering, abounded throughout the group’s dynamic and rousing interpretation. The next concert here is a fascinating program of original arrangements by organist David Enlow on Nov 2 at 3 PM; the Choir and Orchestra return on Nov 30 at 3 with a celebration of Advent.

October 24, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Happy Change of Pace from Stile Antico

It’s that time of year again, which means it must be time for a new album from Stile Antico. This time around, the hottest act in Renaissance polyphony give us Passion and Resurrection: Music Inspired By Holy Week. As one would expect, it’s a happier, considerably more optimistic, less gothic collection than their previous efforts. The conductorless British choral ensemble explore a richly resonant mix of short and longer works, nothing remotely as epic as their practically 24-minute version of John Sheppard’s Media Vita from 2010, but there are still fireworks here amidst the otherworldly glimmer and gleam.

The centerpiece, and longest work here, is a recent commission, John McCabe’s Woefully Arrayed. A review of their concert in New York this past April here called it “tense to the breaking point with sustained close harmonies versus rhythmic bursts, the darkest and most stunning moment of the night. Quasi-operatic outrage gave way at the end to organlike atonalities so richly atmospheric and perfectly executed that it seemed for a moment that the church’s mighty organ had actually taken over.” The recorded version needs to be turned up much louder than usual to deliver that effect, but it’s there.

The rest of the album has the balance of rich lows blending with angelic highs that defines this group’s work. There’s a roughly six-centuries older version of Woefully Arrayed – by William Cornysh – that opens it, considerably modern for its time. The closing piece, Tomas Crecquillon’s Congratulamimi Mihi, displays an even greater sophistication for its time with its dizzying polyrhythms. In between, there’s an absolutely gorgeous, dynamically rich version of Thomas Tallis’ iconic, anthemic O Sacrum Convivium, an intense miniature work (if such grand-scale music can be called miniature) by William Byrd and lush, variously paced pieces by a pan-European cast of fifteenth and sixteenth-century composers including Orlando Gibbons, Orlando de Lassus, Cristobal de Morales, Tomas Luis de Victoria, John Taverner, Francisco Guerrero, Jean Lheritier and Tomas Crecquillon. It’s out now from Harmonia Mundi.

November 18, 2012 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Otherworldly Album and Upcoming Concert from Stile Antico

Pioneering Renaissance choir Stile Antico return to New York this coming Saturday, April 21 for an 8 PM concert put on by the Miller Theatre folks at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, 145 W 46th St. As of this writing, tix are still available via the Miller Theatre box office (Broadway and 116th St., and online). In case you might wonder how a choir singing five-hundred-year-old motets could possibly be pioneering, you haven’t heard Stile Antico. The self-directed twelve-voice group (they perform without a conductor, in the style of a string quartet) has made a career out of resurrecting obscure and underrated choral works from the 17th century and before then; their concerts are exhilarating. With their blend of male and female voices, they have a gyroscopic sonic balance, an absolutely necessity considering the dizzying and occasionally herculean demands of the music they sing. On their latest album Tune Thy Musicke to Thy Hart: Tudor & Jacobean Music for Private Devotion (out now on Harmonia Mundi), they’re joined on several tracks by noted early music viol ensemble Fretwork.

Thematically, it’s a bit of a change from the towering (and sometimes harrowing) compositions they’ve mined during the early part of their career (although their Advent and Christmas-themed album Puer Natus Est foreshadowed this turn in a somewhat sunnier direction). The works here tend to be shorter and often less ornate – which can mean quieter, and on a couple of occasions, a showcase for individual group voices as the harmonies literally make their rounds. In the case where the choir isn’t going full steam, the sonics are sometimes fleshed out by gentle yet stately string arrangements, along with a small handful of instrumental preludes. The beauty of the performance transcends any specific religious association (although it’s nice to be able to understand the words without having to dig out that old Latin dictionary). A lineup of well-rembered composers is represented – Thomas Tallis, John Dowland and William Byrd, among others – but as usual, the gems here are the rarest ones. The modernity and outright, awestruck dissonances in John Amner’s A Stranger Here are literally centuries ahead of their time; Robert Ramsey’s How Are the Mighty Fallen works a potently quiet, apprehensive counterpoint that threatens to break out into fullscale angst but never does. And Giovanni Croce’s From Profound Centre of My Heart would make a great pop anthem. Throughout the album, the low/high contrasts are characteristically vivid when they’re not so seamless that it seems like one single polyphonic voice is creating these otherworldly sonics, aided by the rich natural reverb of the church where they were recorded. Historically, much of this repertoire has been neglected in favor of better-known works from the church music canon; this is a richly enjoyable and valuable endeavor from two rightfully acclaimed ensembles.

April 17, 2012 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 4/19/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #651:

Mahalia Jackson – Come to Jesus

On Xmas, we gave you a Muslim, so right around Passover, we’re giving you a Christian. That probably means we’ll give you a Jew for Ramadan. Mahalia Jackson predated the album era, our excuse to give you this fine four-cd box set of perhaps the greatest woman to ever sing gospel. There’s one glaring absence here: Swing Low Sweet Chariot, otherwise this is as good an approximation of her career as there is. Some songs are solo vocal with piano; some with organ; some with a choir; some with all of the above, dating from the 30s through the 70s. It’s a mix of spirituals and 20th century gospel. Much of this foreshadows soul music and even funk. Highlights: Gonna Move On Up a Little Higher; Just Over the Hill; Go Tell It on the Mountain; How I Got Over; City Called Heaven; His Eye Is on the Sparrow; In the Upper Room; On My Way to Canaan; Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen; and a titanic version of Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho. Here’s a random torrent via one of our favorite blogs, africangospelchurch.

April 19, 2011 Posted by | gospel music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Dolly Parton – Letter to Heaven

We strive for counterintuitivity: bet you never thought you’d see a Dolly Parton album here, let alone a country gospel record! Letter to Heaven is a reissue, most of its tracks recorded over a three-day span in 1970 and released on her Golden Streets of Glory album in 1971, included in its entirety here along with an outtake and a small handful of subsequent singles, some hits, some not. This is as pop as country ever got back then and yet it’s more country than most anything coming out of Nashville these days. As was the case back then, on many of these songs, by the time the last chorus rolls around, the only things left in the mix are vocals, orchestra and drums. But the changes, and the voice are pure country gospel: Carrie Underwood, eat your Philistine heart out. As with any Dolly Parton recording, she’s the star, although an allstar cast of Nashville studio veterans including pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, the late pedal steel player Pete Drake and guitarist Chip Young all get to contribute memorably, if only for a bar or two at a time.

The test of spiritual music is how well it resonates outside the choir, and if there’s anyone capable of transcending that limitation, it’s Dolly Parton. You hear that brittle vibrato and you don’t realize what an explosive upper register she has – it’s amazing how little that voice has aged. Plaintive, longing and above all, humble, she probably had no idea how well this album would withstand the test of time – or maybe she did. She was a first-class songwriter in an age when women were not exactly encouraged (other than by Owen Bradley) to write their own material, and unsurprisingly it’s her own songs here that stand up the strongest. The best song on the album is, perhaps expectedly, the previously unreleased track, Would You Know Him If You Saw Him. Pretty and jangly with guitar and organ, it has Parton gently yet pointedly reminding us not to turn away from those in need: a test could be involved – or just the opportunity to do a mitzvah and feel good about it. Robbins gets to add some marvelous barrelhouse piano on Master’s Hand, which switches in a split second from a retelling of the story of the Flood to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednago. Church is fun for this crew! The country gospel classic Wings of a Dove gets mariachi horns; Comin For to Carry Me Home, a country shuffle reworking of Swing Low Sweet Chariot gets a remarkable bounce courtesy of an uncredited bass player (they just ran ’em in and ran ’em out in those days – how little times have changed!). Daddy Was An Old Time Preacher Man, a duet with longtime harmony partner (and civil defendant) Porter Wagoner has a Johnny Cash feel to it. And the title track runs from schmaltzy to creepy in seconds flat – the little girl misses her dead mom, so she gets hit by a bus. Ostensibly the two are happy together again. By the time the last track, The Seeker (a #2 country hit in 1975) comes up, it’s striking how fast things have changed – the dirt has been scrubbed out of it and exchanged for a swamp-pop bass groove.

Dolly Parton’s latest initiative is typical: it’s called “Dolly Helps Nashville,” a campaign to aid survivors of the recent floods there. Details at her site at the link above. Bless her heart.

May 26, 2010 Posted by | country music, gospel music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Rev. Billy and the Life After Shopping Gospel Choir at Highline Ballroom, NYC 4/18/10

Residents of Iceland aren’t the only people in the western world waking up to see their hometowns drenched in a sinister coat of dust: go to West Virginia, where Massey Energy blasts the tops off mountains to get the coal inside (it’s cheaper than going undergound to get it). Having led the fight against the Disneyfication of New York and pushed back a Walmart invasion of Gotham, Rev. Billy has turned his focus on the fight to preserve the mountaintop ecosystem of Appalachia, currently threatened by stripmining. The Reverend, his titanic 25-piece gospel choir and first-rate band make their point with a mixture of old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone preaching, a lot of good jokes and a mammoth sound. Sunday afternoon at Highline Ballroom choir director James Solomon Benn led the group onto the stage as pianist Rick Ulfik, bassist Nathan Stevens and drummer Eric Johnson pulsed along on an expertly ecstatic, shuffling gospel groove and then launched into a hymn to the joys of New York neighborhood life. “My imagination is not for sale! My neighborhood is not for sale!” went part of the refrain, a triumphant tribute to the successful fight to keep Walmart from moving in and destroying every small business in New York as it has everywhere else.

Like the Clash, their songs are catchy, and they all have a message. “Standing up for public space!” a soaring, funky, in-your-face minor-key number declared. “There’s a mountain in my lobby, at JP Morgan Chase!” a bearded member of the choir announced (it’s their current theme song – where most of the other big banks bailed out of financing stripmining after the 2008 stock market crash, JP Morgan Chase jumped right in). The group’s polyphony is imaginative and exciting, to say the least – when you have 25 voices shifting in sections, it’s impossible not to pay attention, and this group works that to the fullest extent possible. A latin gospel number featuring the potent, powerful voices of Sr. Laura Newman and another member of the choir, Jessica, was “dedicated to raising a child right – I mean left,” winked Rev. Billy, a swipe at conspicuously consumptive yuppie parenting. A trio came out of the choir and led the voices in a sad, plaintive country waltz spiced with banjo and ukelele: “There’s a cancer in the promised land.”

Newman took center stage again with a joyous, rousingly optimistic original gospel number she’d written: “Your children will climb back to the sky,” the chorus declared with a defiant optimism. Rev. Billy and guest speaker Bo Webb also provided plenty of information on the nefarious deeds of Massey Energy (they clearcut and then burn tons of valuable West Virginia hardwood rather than recycling or even trying to sell it!), energizing the crowd with a Christian existentialist activist message as grounded in philosophy as it is in real life (Rev. Billy AKA Bill Talen has a deep resume in serious theatre, in addition to being “jailed over 50 times” as his website gleefully proclaims). “The reason why Earth First scares people is that we always think of Earth as the Other,” he explained. But it was here first – and will be here long after we will if we can’t put a stop to the processes feeding global warming (the band did a song about that too and it was as arresting as the rest of the set). At the end, after two solid hours of insight and amazing harmonies, the choir left the way they came in, through the audience, singing as they went. Rev. Billy makes the Highline his home when he’s not building little mountains in the lobbies of Chase banks – watch this space for future concerts.

April 23, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Russell Saint John Sings Hall Johnson’s Spirituals in NYC 2/25/10

Hall Johnson, baritone singer Russell Saint John told the crowd last night at Merkin Hall, was a pretty amazing guy. World-renowned as a choirmaster and vocal coach in the 1930s onward (he taught Marian Anderson, among others), he learned piano from his sister at age eight, taught himself violin and viola after seeing Frederick Douglass’ grandson play a recital, and seems to have been a musicologist from a very early age. His arrangements of the spirituals he grew up with as the son of an AME minister bear a considerable resemblance to his contemporary, George Gershwin, which may seem ironic but actually further validates Gershwin as being true to the source of his inspiration. Because what Johnson was going for, in establishing, cataloguing and transcribing an African-American spiritual canon, was authenticity. He saw spirituals as an individual expression, and as high art: he had no use for “barbershop harmony,” as Saint John explained. Backed by Broadway United Church of Christ organist/pianist Douglas Drake’s smartly understated interpretations of Johnson’s remarkably terse, Romantically-tinged piano arrangements, Saint John – featured soloist in the choir at the Bronx’s Fordham United Methodist Church – gave the songs a stylistically diverse, emotionally varied, vibrato-laden treatment which obviously drew deeply on his operatic training and experience.

It was a good choice of singer and pianist, because Johnson’s scores, obviously influenced by European lieder and opera, so heavily emphasize the singer. Many of the arrangements – Wade in de Water, Witness [to My Lord] and I’m Gonter Tell God All o’My Troubles [spelling used here is Johnson’s] featured the vocals leading the piano, which would then gently, unostentatiously offer the occasional embellishment, Debussy taking a casual detour into the blues. Several of the one-chord minor-key blues numbers – the bitter chain gang song Swing Dat Hammer, for example – hark back vividly to Africa; others, like the raptly beautiful, atmospheric My Lord, What a Mornin’ and the absolutely gorgeous Let de Heb’n Light Shine on Me pulsed along on more varied changes, the first fertile seeds of musical cross-pollination on these shores.

Above all, Johnson took these songs seriously. What’s inarguable is that gospel music has great power; what’s open to interpretation is what that power might be. Gospel choirs make unbeatable party music; Johnson’s vision, it seems, was a considerably more personal one, an intimate communion rather than a communal fest. So it was no surprise that his arrangements of numbers like Keep A-Inchin’ Along held back from exploding into joyous ragtime. As is so often the case with spirituals, the subtext screamed. “There ain’t no crying over there,” Saint John reminded in Heaven Is One Beautiful Place: substitute “Africa” for “heaven” and the anguish of a captive held prisoner in an alien land is impossible to turn away from. At the end of the concert, Drake got a chance to join Saint John in taking the volume up as high as it would go, on intense, percussively chordal versions of the proto-soul song My God Is So High and a blazing encore of My Good Lord Done Been Here. At this point in the concert, there was no use in trying to hold back anymore – the spirit would not be denied.

February 26, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

CD Review: The Asylum Street Spankers – God’s Favorite Band

Things like this happen with bands who’ve been around awhile and have the good sense to record themselves in fortuitous circumstances. Back in 2006, the Asylum Street Spankers – the world’s smartest, most deliriously fun oldtimey Americana band – recorded some live performances at the Saxon Pub in their hometown of Austin. Among the songs were several traditional gospel tunes along with a handful of originals that wouldn’t be drastically out of place, musically at least, in a straight-up gospel set. It isn’t implausible to imagine the band hanging around the dressing room one night after a show after someone put these songs on a boombox, while a  joint made its way around the room. Suddenly percussionist/singer Wammo has an epiphany and turns in amazement to multi-instrumentalist/siren Christina Marrs: “Holy shit, we have a gospel album here!”

As improbable as it might seem at first thought for the Spankers to be doing a gospel album, it actually makes perfect sense when you consider how deep their knowledge of American roots music is. As sacriligeous as the band is, Marrs has an amazing set of pipes and pulls out all the stops here. Likewise, the band’s vocal harmonies are tight and inventive when they’re not being tight and absolutely period-perfect, as with their minstrel-esque version of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

An ancient-sounding  instrumental version of the Blind Willie Johnson blues Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground opens the cd and sets a rustic tone. The standards Each Day, Down by the Riverside, By and By and Wade in the Water each get a fervent, ecstatic treatment which rather than being camp reaffirms the band’s seemingly innate feel for these songs as universal expression of the human spirit that transcend any doctrinaire limitations. Then they do the same thing with a contemporary Christian song (yes, that’s what it is), the Violent Femmes’ Gordan Gano’s Jesus Walking on the Water.

But as expected it’s the originals that bring down the house. Wammo’s somewhat snide Right and Wrong has an ironclad Iraq War-era logic to go along with the stoner humor: “I ain’t got no problem with Buddha, ’cause he’s a huge Nirvana fan.” And his other song here, Volkswagen Thing reclaims a Nazi-era relic as vehicle for the divine. In case you don’t remember it, the Thing during its brief revival in the 70s was  one of the most unsafe cars ever built, a car so rear-heavy that it could pop a wheelie despite being ridiculously underpowered. Satan, on the other hand, drives his Mercedes like the pig he is – and he’s got a Hummer, too. The band closes out this raucous collection with a defiant version of Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So, a vivid reminder of where they’re really coming from for anyone who might not have been paying attention. Steampunks everywhere, not to mention fans of both traditional and secular gospel alike (the Lost Crusaders and Rev. Vince Anderson especially come to mind) will love this album. The Spankers made it to NYC a couple of times this year and they will doubtlessly be back (they recorded their sensational What? And Give Up Show Business? live cd here), watch this space for details.

November 8, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens and Burning Spear at Prospect Park Bandshell, Brooklyn NY 7/30/09

A frequently spellbinding show by two spiritually-inclined artists who don’t overstate their case. Brooklyn gospel veteran Naomi Shelton and her backing vocal trio the Gospel Queens – a recent addition to the Daptone roster – were backed by a capable four-piece band, their keyboardist sitting inscrutable behind his wraparound shades Brother Ray style. With her contralto rasp, Shelton doesn’t implore or go into a frenzy: she lets the songs speak for themselves. Likewise, the Gospel Queens – two of whom were given a turn on lead vocals and didn’t disappoint – keep the harmonies going without any ostentation. Their eleven-song set mixed scurrying vamps, warm Sam Cooke-inspired sixties-style gospel/soul and finally a funk number punctuated fluidly and soulfully by the bassist. But their best songs were ominously bluesy and minor-key: their opener, an understatedly dark version of Wade in the Water and their closing tune, the hauntingly memorable anthem What Have You Done.

Between sets, Burning Spear casually walked from the wings and addressed the crowd. Nobody seemed to notice or pay any mind: it looked as if he was presenting his guitar player with a ticket to the Grammies (Spear is a perennial nominee). Then the two went backstage again. But when the band took the stage, with a brief number sung by the rhythm guitarist and then a brief instrumental medley of hits, the crowd reaction was 180 degrees the opposite. This was a young massive, about 90% West Indian from the looks of it – awfully nice to see the youth of today in touch with the man who when all is said and done will probably rank as the greatest reggae artist of alltime. Jah Spear rewarded them with a characteristically intense, hypnotic show: now in his sixties, in his fourth decade of playing and recording, his warm, unaffected voice, casually magnetic stage presence and socially aware songwriting remain as strong as ever. Probably the most popular Jamaican artist throughout the decade of the 70s (Marley’s audience back home never matched his fan base in Babylon), Burning Spear’s songs typically build on long, trance-inducing vamps, in concert frequently going on for ten or fifteen minutes at a clip. Because this show had an early curfew, the band didn’t stretch out quite as long as they can, but it didn’t matter considering how strong the set list was – Spear has a vast back catalog, but this one was rich with gems from throughout his career. He opened with the sly boast Me Gi Dem, as in “Me gi dem what they want, yes me do.” The swaying 70s classic Old Marcus Garvey got a Tyrone Downie-style clavinet solo and then an incongruous metal solo (thankfully the only one of the night until the very end) from the lead guitarist. Slavery Days, from the classic Marcus Garvey album became an audience singalong, mostly just bass and drums behind the impassioned vocals. Burning Spear can be very funny despite himself: this time out, he was already asking the crowd, “Do you want more original reggae music?” three songs into the set.

They finally went into dub territory a bit on a long version of Jah No Dead, followed by a characteristically mesmerizing version of Driver (i.e. Jah is my driver; Jah is my rider also!). They closed the set with a soulful version of the backcountry anthem Man in the Hills, a tersely delicious take of the catchy Nyah Keith (best track on the classic 1980 Social Living album) and the only even relatively new song of the night, Jah Is Real (title track to last year’s excellent cd) which never really got off the ground as a singalong. But the first of the encores did: the scathing anthem Columbus, inarguably the most resonant deflation of the “Columbus discovered America” myth had the whole arena raising their voices to dismiss the “damn blasted liar” who happened upon Jamaica several millennia after the Arawaks did. After that, the catchy 70s hit The Sun couldn’t be anything but anticlimactic, but they ended the show on a high note with African Postman, Burning Spear relating the contents of a telegram with the message that “Now is the time that I and I and I should go home, yes Jah!” And with that the mellow posse of merrymakers departed, Jah Spear encouraging everyone to “watch your back on the way out, and on the way in.” If you weren’t there, you missed a real good one. Considering how vital he still is, it looks like he’s going to be around for a long time; watch this space for upcoming NYC dates.

July 31, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments