Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ana Popovic Burns Some Frets in Italy

What’s most striking about Serbian guitarist Ana Popovic’s new DVD An Evening at Trasimento Lake: Live from the Heart of Italy is that by the time the concert is halfway done, she hasn’t wasted any notes. That someone who plays as many of those notes, with as much abandon, would choose them so unpredictably and interestingly is pretty amazing.

From the brief interview included in the DVD’s bonus material, Popovic doesn’t like to be pinned down to one particular style. Here, it’s mostly blues and funk, but there’s also a jazzy piano ballad and a couple of catchy upbeat rock songs that sound like the early Police. She’s a star on the European concert circuit, and her big youtube hit U Complete Me (included in a particularly epic, organ-fueled version here) has won her an American fan base as well. Culled from two nights at a blues festival in an old castle in Perugia, it’s a studio-quality recording featuring her European touring band: Ronald Jonker on bass; Michele Papadia on keys; Andrew Thomas on drums; Cristiano Arcelli on tenor sax; Riccardo Giulietti on trumpet; Sandra LaVille on harmony vocals and Stephane Avellaneda on percussion. Stevie Ray Vaughan (in “on” mode, meaning the mature, drug-free SRV), is the obvious influence, guitarwise; vocally, Popovic goes for a sardonic/sarcastic style that reaches for a southern soul vibe: Jean Knight, maybe? But this is about the guitar, not the singing. All the way through the songs, there are gnats, or some kind of insect swarming the stage – an exasperated Jonker swats mightily at one at 19:50 into it – but the band don’t let the swarm stop them.

The first song, Wrong Woman (as in, “you’re messing with the wrong woman”) is a funk song. Papadia pitches in with a wink and grin on the lower registers of the clavinova, Sly Stone style, a feel that will recur again as Popovic snarls and burns through the passing tones, relentlessly yet judiciously. It’s counterintuitive, to say the least, and it’s breathtaking. Then she does the same with Is This Everything There Is, a rock song with more than a slight resemblance to Message in a Bottle.

Unlike a lot of other lead guitar stars, she’s proves not afraid of the lower registers on a growling version of the slide boogie blues How’d You Learn to Shake It Like That (lyrics are not usually her strong suit). The brisk soul shuffle Nothing Personal introduces the horns, with a tight, vicious guitar solo paired off against Papadia’s gritty clavinova again.

Shadow After Dark has Popovic blending Andy Summers spaciousness with David Gilmour rage, then they hit a plateau of sorts with another funk song and the most trad moment here, the bouncy blues Let Me Love You Babe. Popovic takes a break on the torchy piano ballad Doubt Everyone But Me, tosses off a pointless acoustic pop song but then regroups with a couple of strong, riff-driven numbers featuring swirling organ and more terse, incisive guitar fills. They bring it up all the way with a brisk, reworked version of The Fever, Popovic taking it to redline with casually vicious precision. The DVD ends with the night’s one semi-political number, Hold On, another funk song. Taken as a whole, much of this is a rare treat for guitar fans. Unfortunately, whoever did the cinematography must not be a guitarist: all too frequently, the camera cuts away from Popovic right as she’s about to do something exquisite. Did someone not tell him/her, it’s the fingers on the fretboard, not the picking, that every player wants to see? And the bonus acoustic tracks are strangely pastiched together and don’t add much of anything other than proving Popovic just effortlessly fast and impactful at open-tuned delta blues as she is with electric styles. It’s out now on Artist Exclusive.

December 8, 2010 Posted by | blues music, funk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Couldn’t Stand the Weather Revisited

A cynic might say that Stevie Ray Vaughan played pretty well for a cokehead. To be fair, an awful lot of players were doing that stuff back during his 80s heyday. Twenty years after his death in a helicopter crash, Vaughan still owns a cult audience, all of whom will want the new double-cd reissue of his wildly popular Couldn’t Stand the Weather album, originally released in 1984. To those not in the Stevie Ray cult, Vaughan is a somewhat lesser figure. Some see him as little more than a generational reference, the one blues musician that the metalheads of the 80s listened to. Another camp views him as a selfish, self-indulgent player, a cautionary tale on wheels for other guitarists. A more balanced view sees him as a talented if erratic soloist who’d finally overcome his demons and achieved true greatness, only to be cut down at the peak of his career. Which encompassed three distinct periods: his early years, trying to establish himself and usually overdoing it in the process; his cocaine period during the early 80s, where he’d sound like a genius one minute and a buffoon the next; and his later, sober years, where he backed off the incessant volleys of notes, chose his spots more judiciously and in so doing refined his sound to embody genuine soul amidst the barrage of sound.

This album was his second, his first to go platinum, from the coke years. Even so, it holds up well – when he’s on, he’s exhilarating, and when he’s not it’s more because he’s trying to sound like someone else (usually Hendrix, whom he never could come close to emulating), not because he’s wired to the point where he’s off his game. The blistering clusters of notes in Scuttle Buttin’ (the reworked version of Lonnie Mack’s Chicken Feed), the understated funk of the title track and the almost shocking intensity of his version of The Things I Used to Do are no less exhilarating today than when they came out. This new repackage also includes several cuts originally included on his late-career collection The Sky Is Crying, as well as two unreleased tracks: a furiously intense version of that Elmore James classic, and a raw but equally blistering romp through the swinging blues Boot Hill (also known as Look on Yonder Wall). Also included is a complete live show from the Spectrum in Montreal on August 17, 1984.

The show is a Wolfgang’s Vault type of deal – it’s pretty good, to the point that it makes you wonder why it’s never been released until now. It follows a definite trajectory, an early peak, a calculated dip and then an upswing with many genuinely transcendent moments. The way he builds a solo on The Things I Used to Do, alternating sustained, anguished bends with maniacal chord-chopping and sizzling flights down the blues scale is a clinic in imagination and good taste. His eerie, Jeff Beck-style winds and bends on the upper registers on Tin Pan Alley, and his unaffectedly pretty Chuck Berry-isms on Love Struck Baby remind how versatile he could be. And on the eight-and-a-half-minute version of Texas Flood, he builds a fire-and-brimstone crescendo, judiciously adding a tinge of distortion to his usually clean-as-a-whistle tone, continuing to wail up and down on his chords even as the last verse kicks in – and then keeps going almost all the way to the turnaround! His bandmates hold it all together. Tommy Shannon was always a better bass player than anyone ever gave him credit for, his casually simmering chordal work on Texas Flood and his jazzy walks on the utterly joyous version of the instrumental Stang’s Swang give Vaughan a perfect stepping-off point, and drummer Chris Layton holds a steady, straight-up rock beat, keeping Vaughan from jumping the rails. Admittedly, there are an awful lot of notes here, but so many of them are exquisite.

August 12, 2010 Posted by | blues music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

CD Review: Kelly Richey – Carry the Light

Admired by her fellow musicians and blues fans around the world, singer/guitarist Kelly Richey and her band live on the road, playing a punishing schedule throughout mostly the midwest and south. Like a lot of great blues guitarists, this immaculately produced studio cd only hints at the intensity she can generate onstage, although her playing here is supremely tasteful. She gets a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan comparisons, but her style is considerably more terse than his ever was, a lot closer to the more thoughtful side of both Freddie King and Jimi Hendrix (think Little Wing and Castles Made of Sand). Richey also happens to be a terrific singer, a song stylist with the same kind of subtle command and inflections as late-period Chrissie Hynde. This latest cd is more of a rock album – the blues here tend to have more of a modern feel. But that’s ok. Like any other style of music that’s still being played, the blues are bound to evolve. Richey manages to carry the torch, doing justice to her influences while putting her own unique stamp on it.

 

The cd opens with Leave the Blues Behind, a fast soul song in a Robert Cray vein with terse chorus-box guitar, beautifully modulated vocals and an equally terse, tasteful solo. The following cut, I Want You is not a Dylan cover – it’s darkly creeping late 60s/early 70s style riff-rock a la Cries from the Midnight Circus by the Pretty Things with a tasteful Freddie King-inflected solo. What in the World reminds of a cross between gentle, pensive Hendrix and vintage Tracy Chapman. After Carry the Light – a Texas boogie with some sly Billy Gibbons-style guitar – there’s Angela’s Song with its gospel-fueled southern soul groove.

 

With its layers of guitar sustain and vocal harmonies, Jericho Road is a slowly swaying, sunbaked minor-key haunter building to an impressively big, whirling outro. The next track, Run Like Hell isn’t a Floyd cover: it’s a return to late 60s style riff-rock. When All Is Said and Done starts out something of a Little Wing ripoff, growing more stately and anthemic with its atmospheric, David Gilmour-esque layers of guitar. The cd ends with a couple of boozy, Led Zep inflected riff-rockers and then another big ballad, Time for a Change, equal parts Henrix and Allmans with some of the most beautiful vocals on the album. Fans of the current crop of blues guitar hotshots – Johnny Lang, Mike Welch and the rest won’t be disappointed. Or if you like the idea of John Mayer but can’t stand the Lite FM sound of his albums – or if you like Bonnie Raitt in concert but can’t stand the Lite FM sound of her albums either – this is for you. Or sneak this into the mix at a Clapton fan’s barbecue and watch the jaws drop: “Who’s that playing guitar? Oh, that’s her. She’s good!”

March 11, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Bobby Radcliff Live at Lucille’s Bar and Grill, NYC 2/23/08

The joke was on the crowd tonight. There was a long line of New Jersey tourists upstairs waiting to pay $60 to get into the larger adjacent B.B. King’s to see a Journey cover band. The whole lot of them, obviously impatient to get out of the cold, could have gotten into the smaller space and seen Bobby Radcliff and they all would have been $60 richer. And would have had a far better time. Saturday night in New York City at a popular, spacious nightclub, and who’s playing the main stage? A Journey cover band. Just think about that for a second.

To steal a phrase from LJ Murphy, in case you don’t know what the blues is, it is the kind of music that has nothing to do with Eric Clapton. In case you don’t know Bobby Radcliff, he’s one of the world’s most exciting blues guitarists. The Washington, DC native, tonight looking something like Chewbacca the Wookie from Star Wars in a three-piece suit, has always had sensational chops, but in recent years he’s really come into his own. B.B. King is the obvious influence, but Radcliff has brought a multitude of other styles into his playing, from Muddy Waters to funk, and they’re all good. Although he still plays an awful lot of notes, like a funkier, more minor-key or jazz-inclined Stevie Ray Vaughan, he’s finally discovered space, making all those scales and riffs and licks actually count for something. Tonight he was accompanied by what seemed to be a pickup rhythm section, the drummer pushing everything along by playing just ahead of the beat. The bass player was using all kinds of unorthodox voicings for what were clearly pretty standard lines. Instead of staying in position and just playing the notes as they went up the scale and up the strings, he’d move further up his A or D strings, sometimes sliding to the notes, actually a very effective device. A closer look revealed why: his G string was missing. For awhile it was hard to resist the temptation to call out from the audience and ask how that happened. On second thought, it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do: losing one’s G string can be traumatic, something that isn’t easily discussed in front of a crowd.

Radcliff alternated originals with covers. To his immense credit, it was sometimes hard to tell which was which. Although his vocals were miked too low in the mix for his audience repartee to be audible to all but those at the tables closest to the stage, he was in a gregarious mood tonight, revealing how Lovesick Blues wasn’t written by Muddy Waters, but was actually a Memphis Minnie tune (blues fans are obsessive like that). Radcliff’s version was uniquely his own, although he added some low vibrato on his E string, mimicking Muddy’s ominous tonalities. His version of Muddy’s Honeybee was rich with vibrato as well.

He did a couple of ominous, hypnotic numbers that evoked Howlin Wolf’s Smokestack Lightning as well as something that sounded like a dead ringer for Otis Rush’s Lonely Man, right down to the fast boogie break on the chorus, but with different lyrics. Radcliff sang with a drawl, but a casually unaffected one, making it clear that he doesn’t take his blues vocal cues from Robert Plant. Guitarwise, he used pretty much every trick in the book: lightning-fast chord-chopping and tremolo-picking, sizzling sixteenth-note runs, long sustained notes and elaborate jazz chords, all with just a touch of natural distortion from his gorgeous Gibson Les Paul. At the end of the set he did an utterly macabre instrumental cover of Memphis, of all songs, and this was as effective as it was bizarre. Don’t let the fact that he’s white scare you away: the guy can flat-out play, as he reaffirmed tonight. He’s back here on March 15 at 8.

February 25, 2008 Posted by | blues music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment