Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Wanda Jackson Charms the Crowd at Central Park

About ten years ago, when Wanda Jackson played New York, she’d be at the Continental. It’s still there just north of St. Mark’s Place, now doing business as a tourist bar. Back then it was a punk club about the same size as Cake Shop. Last night the “queen of rockabilly” played Central Park Summerstage, something of a return to the big grange halls and stadiums that she and her boyfriend at the time, Elvis, used to play fifty-five years ago. That’s probably due to the fact that Jack White recently looked her up and gave her up-and-down career a new boost just as he did with Loretta Lynn. Jackson played some of those songs last night with her excellent, surprisingly hard-rocking Nashville band the Hi-Dollars and showed off a considerably lower but still animated version of the droll, quirky voice that made her a genuine star in the rockabilly and then the country world.

As a performer, Jackson is a humble, genuinely nice lady: it’s impossible not to like her. After one song had ended, still holding the mic, she looked over at her pianist. “That turnaround was awesome. Really lovely,” she told him. She’s in her seventies now, and as the show went on, it was clear that singing over the loud, sometimes almost punked-out band behind her was leaving her winded. So she told stories between songs, to catch her breath – and admitted to why she was doing it. She still has the ring Elvis gave her when the two started dating, and coyly told the crowd that her two children had squabbled over who was to inherit it. Jackson decided instead to will it to her firstborn grandchild, who “Can’t wait til I croak – I’m kidding, of course.”

And the two-guitar band rocked: their version of Chuck Berry’s Carol wasn’t as good as the Dead Boys, or the Brooklyn What, but it was pretty close. They made their way through a handful of Elvis songs including a surprisingly artful, nuanced version of Like a Baby, Jackson playing up the snide, sarcastic ending for all it was worth. She expressed some hesitation about playing country music at a New York show, but the crowd loved it. She pulled off several blue yodels and made it look easy, and if anybody was weirded out by her late 50s hit Fujiyama Mama – which openly references death in Japan via nuclear holocaust – they didn’t show it. Rhythm guitarist Heath Haynes (the same guy who devastated batters with his changeup during a stint as a promising righthander in the Montreal Expos system?) took over the leads on a biting version of Shakin’ All Over, as he did on a later number that sounded almost exactly like it.

There were other moments like that during the show. As the night wore on and Jackson wore down, so did the crowd, many of whom had already sat through the generic if energetic opening act, retro singer Imelda May and her band. When Jackson explained her religious reawakening in the mid-70s, the audience was less than enthusiastic – but within a minute she had pretty much everybody singing gospel. Finally, after almost an hour onstage, they launched into the cult favorite Let’s Have a Party and wrapped it up in a blaze of guitars. For the encores, Jackson invited May back to join her on a couple of numbers, including a brief reprise of that song. Most of the audience, a heartwarming mix of demographics, was still there.

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July 28, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Album of the Day 6/24/11

The Lucid Culture office is closed since the core crew here is on the road. What kind of crazy stuff will they come up with in the next few days? Stay tuned. In the meantime, every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #585:

Loretta Lynn – Greatest Hits

As we’ve put together this list, one aspect that’s frustrated us is how hard it’s been to find country albums that are solid all the way through: there’s always a dud, an obligatory halfhearted country gospel tune, a favor to a friend of the producer that always takes the album down a notch or two. As a result, we’ve had to go to the well for greatest-hits collections like this one, a 1968 compilation that’s a solidly good representation of the fearless country siren and songwriter (who wrote her own stuff, and insisted on playing it instead of songs that had been selected for her, paving the way for dozens of other self-directed women artists) during her peak years as a honkytonk singer. It’s got her first big hit, Don’t Come Home A ‘Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind); the rustic Blue Kentucky Girl (redone famously by Emmylou Harris); the accusatory Before I’m Over You, and You Ain’t Woman Enough. The real stunners here are Dear Uncle Sam, a plaintive Vietnam-era antiwar number imploring the Johnson administration to end the war, and Success, the much more subtle, equally sad number, now a country classic, powerfully underscoring the fact that money doesn’t equal happiness. Here’s a random torrent.

June 23, 2011 Posted by | country music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The International Songwriting Competition – Worth It or Not?

Today is ripoff day. A ripoff differentiates itself from a scam by not being downright illegal. The $25K grand prize for the International Songwriting Competition may or may not exist, the latter case which would vault it into the former category. The promoters of the competition claim that the judges include Tom Waits, Kings of Leon, Loretta Lynn, Black Francis, McCoy Tyner and Toots Hibbert, but even if that’s true, and those luminaries voted en bloc, they’d still be outnumbered many times over by a crew of schlockmeisters from the soon-to-be-defunct major labels. Ultimately, contests like these boil down to a glorified lottery. What chance does a musician’s hard-earned $25 entry fee stand? A look at last year’s winners provides the answer – and the organizers’ decision to make this information public may turn out to be the marketing disaster that shuts them down for good.

The grand prize winner was a generic trip-hop song. The production is laughably obsolete – the drum machine shuffle was over by 1996, something you would expect judges ostensibly the caliber of Messrs. Waits, Hibbert et al. to be aware of. Perhaps far more telling is that the song’s writers, fortysomething pop singer Kate Miller-Heidke and her husband Keir Nuttall already had a gold album and a major label deal in Australia when they entered the contest. Is this contest simply a lower-budget version of the Grammies, a major label circle jerk with zero acknowledgment of what the listening public might prefer? In other words, considering its association with the major labels, is the deck stacked against artists who don’t fit the cookie-cutter corporate mold?

The song that won in the rock category, by Kristopher Roe of the Ataris was even worse, an even more cliched emo-pop song. “The only thing that matters is following your heart, and eventually you’ll get it right,” Roe strains, affecting an intensity of emotion that his band’s third-rate Good Charlotte imitation reaches for halfheartedly before giving up. “Being grown up isn’t half as fun as growing up,” Roe asserts, a tautology for the comfortable upper middleclass children he envisions as a customer base. In case you’re not familiar with the band, they achieved some recent notoriety by recording an earnest Green Day style cover of a Don Henley song. The ersatz emotion recurs with the second-place winner, Quebecois emo-pop band Tailor Made Fable’s A Case of Mistaken Identity. At least the third-place winner, Irish band Chrome Horse’s Reflections of a Madman shows  some passion, even if the verse is a blatant ripoff of the Ventures’ Egyptian Reggae.

A look through the rest of the winners didn’t turn up much of anything worthwhile either. The second-place winner in the World Music category wasn’t remotely exotic: Leni Stern’s 1,000 Stars is a vapid semi-acoustic pop song in the style of the grand prize winner. Americana winner Kevin Meisel’s Cruising for Paradise is a third-rate Jimmy Buffett pop number with a little mandolin overdubbed to give it that down-home Americana flavor. Jazz winners the LeBoeuf Bros. Quartet’s Code Word at least shows some promise, even if it it’s not exactly edgy. And in case cutting-edge lyrics are your thing, for a laugh, here are the winners in the Lyrics-Only category.

In case you haven’t figured all this out by now, the winners here may actually be the best of what the judges had to work with. Consider – would your favorite cool band be caught dead entering a generic corporate talent search like this one? Imagine for a minute a first-class group like the French Exit at Emergenza. They’d clear the room in seconds flat.

September 18, 2009 Posted by | Culture, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 108 Comments

Jan Bell and Jolie Holland Live at Union Pool, Brooklyn NY 4/16/08

Pity the act who has to follow Jan Bell. Put aside any preconceptions you may have of sad-eyed ladies of the luxury highrises singing in an affected faux-Southern drawl at places like the Living Room: Bell is not one of them. She’s a true original, someone who seems to be right on the brink of something big. She reminded tonight how she got there, with uncommonly good original songwriting, smart guitar playing, a confidently swaying stage presence and a voice like hard cider, rustic and bittersweet but packing a knockout punch. Not bad for a “Yorkshire lass,” as the British expat bills herself. Imagine Kasey Chambers if she’d spent her teenage years hanging out after hours in bars with Loretta Lynn and her 1960s band instead of hunting kangaroos in the Australian outback with her dad, and you get a picture of what Bell is about. She got the chatty crowd to shut up, more or less, for the better part of forty minutes (a less impressive feat than it may seem, since a considerable portion of the sold-out house had come out for her and left after she finished). Accompanied only by Luminescent Orchestrii violinist Rina Fand (who proved as brilliant at vocal harmonies as she is at gypsy music), Bell ran through several numbers from her latest cd Songs for Love Drunk Sinners (which is an IMA finalist for best alt-country album of the year). The high point of the set was her big audience hit Leaving Town, a haunting, fast Texas shuffle that wouldn’t be out of place on a Patricia Vonne album. “They’re watching over you,” she cautioned at the end, all the more reason to leave. Although Bell’s strongest suit is dark minor keys, she also held up her end on a small handful of slow, melancholy waltz numbers. Fand’s violin work was amazing: from start to finish, she stuck with blues, eschewing any traditional country fiddle licks. Although she often went for the jugular, she didn’t waste a note all night. They closed with a fetching, evocative love song for New York.

“Thank you for putting up with my incompetence,” Jolie Holland told the audience, and there was considerable sarcasm in that because she’s perfectly competent at what she does, Tom Waits-style, alternately bluesy or country-inflected ballads. Completely self-aware, she turns any deficiency in her performance – forgetting lyrics, having to stop songs and start them over because she crunched a chord or forgot the tune – into an opportunity to make frequently laugh-out-loud funny repartee with the audience. “You know, I know the guy who invented the teleprompter,” she told the crowd, out of the blue. “He’s a bum on Haight Street.”

After playing an audience request, Old Fashioned Morphine, her popular tribute to the drug set to an oldtime, minor-key gospel tune, she explained how that song and the one that followed came about. As it happened, she’d had a dream that she was William Burroughs’ girlfriend, waking up next to him in bed and wondering what the hell she was doing there. When she suggested that they take a walk together, he growled, “Don’t treat me like an old man.” She then explained how she’d told a Lawrence, Kansas audience that story and that during the show, somehow, word had gotten back to Burroughs’ longtime boyfriend, who then came down to the show, introduced himself as Burroughs’ “wife,” and then kissed Holland on the lips. Then, a couple of years later, she was offered a part in a musical, which turned out to be the role of – you guessed it – William Burrough’s wife.

Holland was bedeviled by the sound, which had suddenly gone haywire after being impressively crystal-clear for Bell. She brought up her twin sister Sam Parton of the Be Good Tanyas, who contributed charming, spot-on harmonies just like she does in her own band. But ultimately, Holland got schooled by the New Yorkers. What she does is stylized: Billie Holiday did it, Rickie Lee Jones does it and they’re perfectly valid artists, as Holland is. But she didn’t vary her vocal delivery all night. When she invited up a bunch of A-list Brooklyn types to close the show with an obviously under-rehearsed set of country harmony tunes, the crowd finally started getting impatient and it fell to blues guitarslinger Mamie Minch to take charge. “Hush, now,” she cautioned and it was clear she meant business. Along with Parton and Bell, they brought up a couple of guys including another mean blues artist, Will Scott, whose distinctive baritone would have been a terrific addition to the mix had it been audible. Not to be jingoistic or disrespectful to Holland – who’s no dummy and makes excellent albums – but the story of the night here was the hometown acts.

April 17, 2008 Posted by | blues music, concert, country music, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment