Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Meklit Hadero Enchants the Crowd at the Skirball Center

In her interview here a couple of weeks ago, eclectic chanteuse Meklit Hadero affirmed her interest in cross-pollination, not only musically, but across cultural boundaries. At her show last Sunday at the Skirball Center at NYU (where she’s currently artist-in-residence), she reaffirmed her dedication to both goals. It takes nerve to open a show a-cappella, but Hadero pulled it off without breaking a sweat. There are plenty of women with beautiful voices out there, few who deserve comparison to Nina Simone and Hadero is one of them. Part oldschool soul, part jazz, part Ethiopian folk, her music defies category because it’s so different from anything else out there. Occasionally singing in Amharic, she charmed the audience with a jaunty proto-Afrobeat theme that translated loosely as “I like your Afro;” another, like a vocal counterpart to Hamza Al Din’s Water Wheel, celebrated bucolic Ethiopian farm life, in many ways unchanged from how it’s been for millennia.

Much of Hadero’s music is quiet, but it’s also unusually earthy and rhythm-oriented. She likes low tonalities, and it showed, with four incisive, sometimes sly bass solos from Keith Witty. Hadero also plays acoustic guitar more as a rhythm instrument, like her vocals, quiet and determined and steady. It’s always a treat to hear trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, who contributed characteristically spacious yet almost minimalistically jewelled lines, both with and without a mute. As she frequently does, Hadero put down her guitar and backed by just trumpet, bass and drums, ran through a mix of pensive yet warm material from her most recent album On a Day Like This…, including a jazzy, swinging version of the popular title track, the vividly sunny, funky Soleil Soleil – written after “forty days of rain,” Hadero told the crowd – as well as some unreleased material, including the unselfconsciously wry yet torchy Mixed Message Men that she used to close the show on a high note.

Other material took on a lush atmospheric vibe – “Like sleeping in the sun on a feather bed,” Hadero smiled – enhanced by some luscious arrangements for two-cello string quartet featuring both Analissa Martinez and Jennifer de Vore along with Tarrah Reynolds on violin and Eva Gerard on viola. It was the perfect vehicle for Hadero’s unselfconsciously warm delivery. Some singers work hard to engage the audience: with a jaunty blue note springing out of a velvety, hushed phrase, Hadero lets them come to her. She’s got an ongoing residency on Wednesdays at 4 PM this month at the Lincoln Center Atrium, where she’s engaging some eclectic artists (including members of ecstatically fun Ethiopian groove unit Debo Band on the 27th) in both music and conversation along with Q&A from the audience.

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April 11, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, rock music, soul music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dina Rudeen’s Common Splendor is Uncommonly Splendid

Dina Rudeen is the missing link between Neko Case and Eartha Kitt. The way she slides up to a high note and then nails it triumphantly will give you shivers. Her songs draw you in, make you listen: they aren’t wordy or packed with innumerable chord changes, but they pack a wallop. With just a short verse and a catchy tune, Rudeen will paint a picture and then embellish it while the initial impact is still sinking in. Musically, she reaches back to the magical moment in the late 60s and early 70s when soul music collided with psychedelic rock; lyrically, she uses the metaphorically loaded, witty vernacular of the blues as a foundation for her own terse, literate style. Some of the songs on her new album The Common Splendor sound like what Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks could have been if he’d had a good band behind him; the rest runs the gamut from lush, nocturnal oldschool soul ballads, to jaunty, upbeat, Americana rock. Behind Rudeen’s nuanced vocals, Gary Langol plays keyboards and stringed instruments along with Tim Bright on electric guitars, Tim Luntzel on bass, Konrad Meissner on drums, Jordan MacLean on trumpet, the ubiquitously good Doug Wieselman on baritone sax and clarinet, Lawrence Zoernig on cello, bells and bowls, Smoota’s Dave Smith on trombone, Lars Jacobsen on tenor sax and Jake Engel of Lenny Molotov’s band on blues harp. The arrangements are exquisite, with tersely interwoven guitar and keyboard lines, and horn charts that punch in and then disappear, only to jump back in on a crescendo. This also happens to be the best-produced album of the year: it sounds like a vinyl record.

The opening track, Hittin’ the Town is a sly, ultimately triumphant tune about conquering inner demons, driven by a defiant horn chart over a vintage 50s Howlin Wolf shuffle beat:

I hit a dry spell
I hit a low note
I hit the deck
But missed the boat
I hit the top, cracked the jewel in my crown
When it hit me like a ton of bricks that’s when I hit the ground
But now I’m just hitting the town

The second cut, Steady the Plow slinks along on a low key gospel/blues shuffle, Rudeen’s sultry contralto contrasting with layers of reverberating lapsteel, piano and dobro moving through the mix – psychedelic Americana, 2011 style. Safe with Me, a southern soul tune, wouldn’t have been out of place in the Bettye Swann songbook circa 1967. The lush, gorgeously bittersweet, Rachelle Garniez-esque Yvette eulogizes a teenage party pal who died before her time, maybe because she pushed herself a little too hard (Rudeen doesn’t say, an example of how the ellipses here speak as loudly as the words). Hold Up the Night succinctly captures the “beautiful, unfolding sight” of a gritty wee hours street scene; Blue Bird, a bucolic tribute to the original songbird – or one of them – has more of Langol’s sweet steel work. And Prodigal One, another requiem, vividly memorializes a crazy neighborhood character who finally got on the Night Train and took it express all the way to the end.

Not everything here is quiet and pensive. There’s also some upbeat retro rock here, including the sultry Cadillac of Love and a couple of rockabilly numbers: Repeat Offender, with its Sun Records noir vibe, and Gray Pompadour, a tribute to an old guy who just won’t quit. There’s also the unselfconsciously joyous closing singalong, On My Way Back Home, namechecking a characteristically eclectic list of influences: Bowie, Elvis, the Grateful Dead, among others. Count this among one of the best releases of 2011 in any style of music. Watch this space for upcoming NYC live dates.

April 6, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

MotherMoon Turns Down the Lights

Don’t let MotherMoon frontwoman Ashley Selett’s vocal resemblance to Norah Jones scare you off – their new album Writing in the Sky is hardly elevator music. Selett’s torchy yet nuanced, soul-infused delivery understates the dark intensity of her songwriting. The songs here are remarkably intelligently and counterintuitively assembled: dynamics rise and fall, tempos shift in a split second, go doublespeed and then back again. Selett’s a terrific wordsmith as well. Pensive, brooding and metaphorically charged, her lyrics don’t shy away from the dark side.

The album opens with a pleasant, accessible, guitar-and-organ rock tune with clever psychedelic touches that contrast with the beaten-down anguish of the lyrics:

Although we fall down to the ground
Maybe it’s not what we wanted
Maybe the sun maybe the time
Was too unwarranted
…I guess just bring the hearse
In the heat of the night

The album’s second cut (essentially its title track) is a fragmentary, brooding Cat Power-ish minimalist number with a catchy chorus: “Why’s everybody looking at me like sadness is faux pas?” Selett wants to know. A simple soul guitar riff carries the captivating Quicker Quitter – it’s hard to tell if Selett is being cynical, or offering a warning to get out before everything falls apart.

Spilt Blood couples a 1920s-style hot swing tune to a fast swaying rock arrangement – here Selett reaches back for a post-Billie Holiday delivery more than she does anywhere else, delivering her vivid, imagistic, wounded lyric with a depleted, affectless weariness. The album winds up with a new wave rock tune with woozy, oscillating Dr. Dre synth. It’s an auspicious debut that leaves you wanting more. Selett’s current band includes brilliant Americana guitarist Myles Turney along with Joseph Colmenero on bass and Joel Arnow on percussion. MotherMoon play the cd release show for this one at Spike Hill on August 6 at 11 PM.

July 31, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Dina Dean at Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 11/8/07

A riveting performance by one of the best bands in town. Dina Dean’s backing unit was the story tonight. Their supple, subtle rhythm section features Botanica’s bassist (playing upright) and a drummer who didn’t waste a single brushstroke. Dean’s piano player was equally minimal and incisive, with a warm, gospel-inflected style, also doubling on lapsteel on the set’s last few numbers. Her lead guitarist embellished the material with style and substance, impressing with some particularly tasteful slide work on one of the songs. It’s always a treat to see a band having as good a time onstage as these guys did, quietly and efficiently: they’re the perfect vehicle for Dean’s richly melodic, slow-to-midtempo blend of 60s rock, old-school soul, gospel and country. And where was this terrific band playing tonight? Not at the horrid Living Room, at least: they were at the Rockwood. Nothing against the space: it’s a great place for listening. But it’s tiny. This band should have been headlining the Beacon or the Town Hall.

As a songwriter (although NOT as a singer), Dean most closely resembles the Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan, a rocker with an effortless fluency in pretty much every style of American roots music. Her lyrics are steeped in history, full of double entendres, clever puns and allusions. This is headphone music, and the sound in the room was thankfully up to its usual high standard so Dean’s casual, soulful alto could cut through over the band. They opened with The Same Grace, a song from her excellent recent ep, driven by gospel piano, and followed with another cut, the gorgeous, 60s throwback Radio Song with its catchy chorus: “She stays up, up, up all night.” The next song was a towering ballad, the Ma Rainey tribute Down in the Dust, chronicling the turbulent life of the legendary singer who found herself out in the cold “when jazz blew the fuse on the blues.” After that, they did a new one, a slow, pensive ballad that sounded like the great lost cut from Blood on the Tracks.

Introducing a rockabilly-tinged number about Billy Lee Riley, Dean explained how Sun Records had to choose between promoting Great Balls of Fire or Riley’s classic My Gal Is Red Hot. With a limited promotion budget, they chose the former and the rest is history. The song crescendoed nicely into a bluesy chorus. The next tune was the highlight of the night, a gorgeously vivid soul/jazz lament that wouldn’t be out of place in the Gil Scott-Heron catalog, pondering where New York’s own soul has gone. After that they did an impressively upbeat piano-driven jump blues song, and the slow, thoughtful ballad Walk Through the Rain, with the piano player switching to lapsteel.

This wasn’t a perfect show: intros and outros were tentative – the band still seems to be getting a handle on some of the songs – and there were guitar and lapsteel tuning issues toward the end of the set. Although that’s to be expected when a band brings their instruments in out of the cold on a night like this. Still, it’s a safe bet this was the best show you could have seen anywhere in New York tonight. Dean’s always been a decent songwriter, but in the months since she put this band together she’s become a must-see. Now’s your chance. Before she headlines the Beacon or the Town Hall.

November 9, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Dina Dean – 4 Songs

Her auspicious but all-too-brief debut. Always leave them wanting more, the saying goes and it’s never been more true here. Dina Dean is a lefthanded guitarist and in that tradition, she uses a lot of interesting, uniquely incisive licks and chordlets. She’s also a hell of a lyricist, a terrific storyteller with a fondness for weirdos and the down-and-out. And a hell of a singer with an alto delivery capable of minute yet very powerful subtleties. When she gets loud, which isn’t often, you know something’s up. These songs are all midtempo rock but draw deeply on classic 60s soul with a tinge of country here and there.

The album begins with Radio Song, a vivid late-night portrait of a neighborhood character who hangs out in the park with her radio amidst a whole lot of chaos

She’s counting down the top 10 from ‘65
When she should be counting sheep
Warming up some cold coffee
As she wonders why –
She can’t fall asleep

And then the chorus kicks in, driven by echoey Fender Rhodes piano, spiced with guitar and harmonica. The next track, Same Grace is a gospel-inflected tribute to street musicians everywhere:

Rivers rolling down your face
With an accent I could hardly trace
Singing about that Same Grace
That’s kept you here

Some of Them Days, with its swinging beat and soaring steel guitar has a warm, evocative summery feel. The cd’s final track Down in the Dust is a richly imagistic chronicle of an ancient dancer from the 1930s looking back on her trials and travails:

The queen madame of the minstrel
In my own travelin’ show
In the days of Silent Cal
And that no count Jim Crow
I was living high on the hog
In my ruby studded shoes
And went back to a hollow log
When jazz blew the fuse on the blues

Four songs, five bagels. Toasted with butter at some all-night joint. This cd is available for a ridiculously low price at shows.

June 5, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments