Concert Review: A Tribe Called Red


Artist: A Tribe Called Red
Opener: YVNG PAVL and DJ Big Bear of CLLCTV BOSTON
Venue: The Sinclair, Cambridge, MA
Date: 18 March 2017

It’s been a long time since I posted a concert review because it’s been a long time since I’ve been to a concert.  But I couldn’t miss A Tribe Called Red, one of my favorite musical acts to emerge in recent years.  The three DJs based in Ottawa, Ontario mix electronic music with First Nations’ chants and drums in a style called Electric Pow Wow.  Their music is danceable but lyrically is politically and socially charged with messages from contemporary native communities.

The opening act featured YVNG PAVL and DJ Big Bear of CLLCTV Boston who spun an eclectic mix of dance tracks that got people moving on the floor.  The two DJs worked together at a small soundboard often crossing one another’s hands in a surprisingly intimate manner.  CLLCTV is definitely something I’ll be checking out in the future.

DJ NDN,  Bear Witness, and 2oolman took the stage around 10 pm with a simple set-up on one long table.  Projected behind them were repeating clips of movies, cartoons, and perhaps performances on tv variety shows depicting clichéd and stereotypical Native American images in a way of reappropriation of the “Hollywood Indian.” Unlike A Tribe Called Red albums where the musical tracks are distinct pieces, in the live performance they ran as one long and highly infectious dance mix.  Periodically a pair of dancers would come on stage, received enthusiastically by the audience, performing a mix of native dances and breakdancing. Their clothing similarly mixed traditional native dress with African-American hip hop styles.

 

The set seemed to be over soon after it begun, but checking the time I realized that nearly two hours had passed.  I long wished to travel to Ottawa to experience the Electronic Pow Wow, but I’m glad that for one night it came closer to home.  It was definitely a performance worth seeing.

A side note, this is the first time I attended a concert at The Sinclair.  It’s an intimate venue, but while small it didn’t feel crushingly crowded despite a sizeable crowd.  There’s a large standing room only space on the floor in front of the stage with a smaller mezzanine with balconies on the sides.  Looking at the list of upcoming performances it looks like The Sinclair has taken over the dearly departed T.T. the Bear’s role of offering famed but not superstar performers from a diversity of genres a place to play in Cambridge.

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The Christmas Revels: An Acadian-Cajun Celebration of the Winter Solstice


 

It’s not Christmas until I’ve partaken of the Christmas Revels which I enjoyed at a Monday matinée with my family at Sanders Theater.  This is the 15th Christmas Revels production I’ve seen including one in Washington in 1995 and the rest in Cambridge from 2001-2006 and 2009 to present.  This years celebration of Acadian/Cajun music, culture, and history is among the best.  As an added bonus, the fire alarm went off near the end of intermission and we got to see everyone evacuate and the Cambridge Fire Department arrive.  My son hadn’t finished his hot chocolate so he was happy for the extended intermission.

Most Revels productions tell a story, but this one has a strong narrative of the French settlers of Acadie in Canada who make the land arable, how they become stuck in the middle of the wars between the French and British, and their exile and resettlement in Louisiana. Such a heavy history does not always fit into the joyousness of Revels, and the scenes of their villages being burned and the Acadians forced to pack up and leave are giving appropriate gravitas. It’s such a Revels tradition to have the “villagers” on stage smiling and warmly interacting, that when during a mournful song the entire cast looks absently into space with somber looks on their faces it is a powerful moment.

But lest you think it’s all sad, there was plenty of joyous celebration.  Here are some of my favorite moments:

  • the large tree on the set, central to the themes of rootedness in the story, but also used to project images relevant to the performance
  • the Revels also have unbelievably talented children in lead roles, and 12-year-old Lola May Williamson may be the best yet.  I even saw her take the time to lift the spirits of a younger child who couldn’t help yawning during the performance.
  • “Le Depart Du Canada (The Leaving of Canada)” feature the long march of villagers leaving Acadia, diagonally across the stage.  I’m pretty sure the cast circled around at least twice to make the line appear even longer.
  • “La Valse Cadienne de Noël” or the Cajun Christmas waltz
  • the part where we threw plush chickens around the audience
  • The Mummer’s Play featuring David Coffin as a caustic alligator
  • It would seem that the character of the doctor in a Cajun mummer’s play would be obvious, but I was totally taken by surprise by the appearance of “Dr. John” (played by Steve Barkhimer) and perhaps the greatest tonal shift in Revels history as he launched into a performance of “Right Place, Wrong Time” followed by the Dixie Cups singing “Iko Iko”
  • The all-women sword dance

The run of the 2016 Revels has ended but you can get yourself the album Valse de Noël and even audition for the 2017 Revels!

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Photopost: Fiddler on the Farm


Yesterday we prepared for St. Patrick’s Day at Powisset Farm in Dover with performances in the barn by the Whyte School of Irish Step Dancing and fiddle tunes in the Cape Breton style by Claire Pettit of the band The Cottars.  It was a lovely setting, especially since the seats were set up in the kitchen where a cat rested on top of the oven.  After the show, we strolled around the meadows, the hayfields, and vernal pools.

Performance Review: Christmas at Pirates Voyage


While planning our trip to Myrtle Beach I was aware that my mother-in-law had reserved tickets for a “pirate show” but hadn’t really considered it much until I looked up directions to the dinner theater and saw the following description:

A 4-course BBQ feast is served while pirates perform battle sequences to music by Dolly Parton.

I suddenly realized that I was getting myself into something that could be awfully good or awfully bad.  Most likely a combination of both.  It would be AWESININE!

And if that description wasn’t mind-blowing enough, we ended up seeing the Christmas version of Pirates Voyage, in which pirate Capt. Scrooge learns the real meaning of Christmas. And then there’s a Nativity play.

This is very much the type of kitsch that requires turning off the higher function of the brain and enjoying the spectacle.  For while the crass nature of the consumerism surrounding this whole venture, not to mention the idea of pirates finding inspiration in the Christ child, is a big turn-off, I do love spectacle. I determined that with Pirates Voyage the parts are far better than the whole.  So I shall break down the parts for you.

Upon arriving and having pirate ushers escort us to take the inevitable photograph in front of a green screen and then into the gift shop.  Adjacent to the shop was a large beer hall-like space with a dozen long wooden tables and people gathered singing along with Christmas carols re-written with pirate lyrics.  I thought once the group ahead of us finished up singing that we would move into this space for the show.  Instead, after a couple of carols, everyone – both those in the large beer hall and others gathered in the gift shop – were invited to move into another venue for the main show.

As large as the pre-show area is, it pales compared to the main dinner theatre where two crescent-shaped tiers of stadium seating surround an enormous pool of water with a full-sized ships hull at each end and a floating barge-cum-stage in the middle.  Our seats were at long tables that alternated with walking space for the large crew of pirate servers.  The food was brought to us piecemeal as the pirate wait staff walked down the aisle with a basket of bread, a bucket of corn on the cob, a vat of soup, etc.  I did not have high expectations for food prepared for the masses but it was quite palatable, and I was pleased that they even made a decent pasta dish as a vegetarian alternative.

The show began with teams of scarlet and blue-and-yellow macaws flying low over the audience.  We were informed that one ship was for the emerald pirates and we were part of the emerald crew while the other ship was for the crimson pirates who sat opposite us.  All the pirates were excited to celebrate Christmas except for one: Capt. Scrooge. A rather awkward pirate adaptation of Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” served as a framing device for spectacular performances of acrobatics, juggling, diving, and other surprises, including:

Review continues after the photographs.

 

  • Dancing, swinging on ropes, and for lack of a better term “pole dancing” but on very high poles.
  • Juggling.
  • High diving.
  • Jumping off of a big swing.
  • A sea lion performing tricks. My nephew told my daughter “That was a very talented sea lion.”
  • A really spectacular competition of pirates jumping on trampolines seemingly defying gravity.
  • A somewhat freaky toy land dream sequence, but also beautiful sequences of neon-lit dancers suspended by long pieces of clothe (there’s probably a term for this too).
  • A fire juggler who eventually set the barge and the entire lagoon on fire.  I may have been looking for the fire exit during this part.
  • And of course, the Nativity play.  I missed much of this while taking my son to the restroom, but returned in time to see the Magi riding live camels across a pontoon bridge to pay veneration to baby Jesus on the pirate barge.

Once the real meaning of Christmas converted Capt. Scrooge to join in the revelry, the show turned into a series of competitions between the crimson and emerald crews.  Some of them actually brought audience members down to participate which was a lot of fun.  There was a race to chase live geese, a race for live dogs to retrieve balls from the lagoon, and a race in which boats full of live children were pulled along by ropes by their parents.  BIG SPOILER: At the end the angel returns and says both sides win, which was a disappointment for my son, but lead into a singing, dancing, banner-waving, cannon-firing, mermaid-opening-treasure-chests grand finale.

As we’re reminded throughout, this is a Dolly Parton production, but if you expected pirates singing “Jolene” you’ll be disappointed (I feel that they missed a brilliant opportunity to reinterpret “Islands in the Stream).  I don’t know what a typical show is like, but for the Christmas version most of the music is traditional Christmas songs, sometimes with piratical lyrics, sometimes played straight.  Original tunes for the show seem to be most serviceable tunes about pirates celebrating Christmas to accompany the dance and acrobatics.  It was fine, but nothing memorable.

And so, I confess, I enjoyed this show.  If I have any concerns its about whether all the performing animals are treated humanely.  For that matter, I hope all these human performers doing daring tricks are given good salaries and health benefits.  Otherwise, if you’re in Myrtle Beach and looking for a heaping plate of cheese with a huge side of kitsch, Pirates Voyage is your thing.  And if you don’t think you’ll enjoy Pirates Voyage, you’re almost certainly correct.

The Christmas Revels: A Welsh Celebration of the Winter Solstice


It’s warm and overcast out, and looking to only get warmer as the week goes.  We’re more likely to have a wet Christmas than a white Christmas, but I know the holiday is coming soon.  Today my family and I celebrated the solstice with a matinée of The Christmas Revels.  This is our (mostly) annual tradition going back to 2001.  The Revels this year is set in Wales, a land of beautiful singing traditions, poetry, and mythology.  I’ve never been to Wales but this show gave me a nostalgic longing for the place.

It should be noted that while Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones are famed Welsh singers, their was music was not represented in the show.  There were familiar tunes for the sing-a-longs – “Cwm Rhondda” and “Hydrofol” – which as song leader David Coffin pointed out, “you know these songs just not with these words.”  The familiar Christmas carol “Deck the Hall” was also sung by a choir of children, but in the original Welsh.  The children – who were excellent as always – also performed scenes from Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales.

There’s a beautiful scene near the end of Part 1 where Coffin sings “Daffydd y Garregg Wen (David of the White Rock)” accompanied by Haley Hewitt, while Emma Crane Jaster performing as the legendary bard Taliesen.  Jaster is lit from below and moves her arms like a harpist, casting large shadows on the roll-top desk ceiling of Sanders Theatre.  My daughter imitated the gesture, waving her arms by her own imaginary harp.  (And I was right in my memory that Taliesen is also the name of Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate in Wisconsin). Other highlights include a group of rugby supporter singing a rousing victory song, some fine clogging, and a retelling of “Froggy Went A-Courtin'” with the children.

No matter where in the world the Revels is set, there are the Revel’s traditions.  There was a rowdy morris dance and “The Lord of the Dance” where we all spill out into the lobby singing and dancing (I can never get enough of doing that), there’s the haunting Abbots Bromley Horn Dance and there’s the mummer’s play, this year with the Red Dragon playing the role of the hero vanquishing the White Dragon of England for the Welsh.   We sing rounds, we shout “Welcome Yule!,”  we finish on “The Sussex Mummers’ Carol,” I weep.  Tradition.

I was entranced as – for me – the Revels never fail to please.  My kids were more antsy.  Welsh-language songs make no sense, and my son said even the English was hard to follow.  My daughter wanted to see a dragon and had to wait a looooong time for a four-year-old, but I think the dragon’s eventual arrival satisfied.  They soldiered through and I think they enjoyed themselves, although they wanted cookies too.

Performances continue through December 27, so get your tickets and go if you haven’t already.

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Photopost: JP Music Festival 


The fifth annual JP Music Festival took place at Pinebank Field on September 13. Too my shame, I missed the first four festivals, but I took the kids to a few hours on Saturday afternoon. Sadly, the kids weren’t too interested. My son was completely bored, my daughter was having fun but mostly because she enjoyed tackling me. We did get ice cream from the JP Licks tent and the kids enjoyed a bunch o’bacon from The Bacon Truck.

The performances are impressively organized with acts coming on to stage with very little break in-between. If you didn’t like what you heard, just wait a few minutes and someone else would be on stage. In the short three hours we were there I must’ve seen 8 different acts ranging from jazz to punk to Afro-Latin percussion to dance. Highlights for me include Junko Ogawa‘s song about a caterpillar, the punk saxophone of Fur Purse, and the young dancers of the Tony Williams Ballet Youth Ensemble pretty much stole the show.

The food trucks are a yummy part of the festival.
Junko Ogawa takes the mic.
This photo would be much better if you could see the shiny silver pants of the lead vocalist of Fur Purse.
Festival art honors the albino squirrel of Jamaica Pond.
Tony Williams dancers.
More dancing in the grass

The 44th Annual Christmas Revels


The Christmas Revels at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge are annual family tradition.  My first Revels experience was in Washington in 1996.  After moving to the Boston area, the Cambridge Revels were an annual event from 2001-2006.  We missed the show in 2007 due to a newborn, and in 2008 due to a blizzard, but have been regular attendees since 2009 (that same year I actually sang in the chorus!).  So, I calculate that I’ve seen 13 different Christmas Revels performances.  Each year is delightful and surprising in its own way.*

This year’s Revels is set in Victorian England, with music halls and the Crystal Palace playing center stage.  The first act shows two teams of buskers competing on the streets of a Northern England town as the Crystal Palace manager Harry Colcord and composer Arthur Sullivan seek an alternate performer after a cancellation.  In the usual Revels’ way, everything comes together as the buskers join forces to create a performance of music, tricks, and a “panto” of Cinderella.  The second act is treated as a command performance at the Crystal Palace (complete with life-size wooden cutouts of the royal family in the mezzanine).

Highlights of the show:

  • comic busking performances by Marge Dunn, Billy Meleady, Mark Jaster, and Sabrina Selma Mandell
  • singing a round of “Row the Boat, Whittington”
  • David Coffin’s solos on “It Was My Father’s Custom” and on the melodic “Christmas Bells at Sea”
  • the sing-a-long and acting out of “When Father Papered the Parlour”
  • the “Panto” of Cinderella, which while not a true Panto (oh no it isn’t!), we did get to shout “Don’t touch Billy’s eggs” several times
  • And of course, the Revels traditions of “Lord of the Dance” (and dancing out into the lobby), “Dona Nobis Pacem,” “The Shortest Day,” and “Sussex Mummers’ Carol.”  Unfortunately, the “Abbots Bromley Horn Dance” was conspicuously absence in this year’s performance.

There are five more performances from December 26-28, so if you’re in or near Cambridge, get a ticket and go!

* I also recently discovered that the Revels website has a list detailing the theme of every performance from 1971 to present.  Now I need to discover time travel technology so I can go back in time and see each and every one.

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Performance Review: Sesame Street Live – “Elmo Makes Music”


My daughter Kay & I took in the performance of Sesame Street Live – “Elmo Makes Music” at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre on April 12 at 5:30.  I am a long time devotee of Sesame Street.  Kay is very fond of Elmo.  It was a match made in heaven.

The basic story is that a new music teacher named Jenny moves to Sesame Street.  Since the truck with her instruments has not yet arrived, the Sesame Street Muppets seek to surprise her by making their own instruments.  A good as premise as any for a series of musical set pieces.  Despite the title, the show is not all Elmo, but an ensemble piece where each of the Muppets gets to perform in pairs and groups.

While there’s some original music for the show, they also do a good job of incorporating songs from the tv show’s 40+ year repertoire (even dusting off some of those late 1970s Sesame Street disco numbers).  Classic songs include “People In Your Neighborhood,” “C is for Cookie,” and “Sing.”  They also include some popular songs like “Rockin’ Robin,” “The Alphabet Song,” and “The Hustle.”  My favorite part was the denouement where the Muppets show off all their homemade instruments in a variation of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music.”  (“Telly is going to add some triangle/All the squares go home!”)

I can’t find the name of the woman who played Jenny, but she brought a lot of enthusiasm and strong singing voice to the show.  She also looked tiny next to these giant Muppets, a reversal of the tv show where Muppets are generally smaller than humans.  Kudos as well to those dancers in fuzzy Muppet costumes for some impressive choreography.  The “All Feets Can Dance” number was particularly memorable.

Speaking of dancing, Kay danced for pretty much the entire show.  So I’d say that the two-year-old demographic enjoyed the show as well.  The only thing that rubbed me wrong was during the intermission when a vendor brought a massive number of balloons to sell in the orchestra.  Not only did they have this clear display of conspicuous consumption, but they didn’t even bring balloons to sell to those of us in the cheap seats in the balcony.  So I had to listen to “I want a balloon” for a long time.

Concert Review: Wayne Potash & The Music Fun Band


Artist: Wayne Potash & The Music Fun Band
Venue: Club Passim, Cambridge, MA
Date: 1 February 2014

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Wayne Potash wears his trademark fish hat as he plays with his band.

Yesterday morning we took our children Peter & Kay to a family concert at the famed Club Passim listening room in Harvard Square.  It was a special occasion as Passim is a place I’ve seen dozens of folk music artists perform (I was even a volunteer there for many shows in the late 90’s/early 00’s).  It was also special because Wayne is a familiar face who played at Peter’s preschool and at birthday parties and special events.  Surprisingly, Wayne genuinely remembered Peter from his preschool days.  Peter once brought in his ukulele to jam with Wayne.

It was great to see Wayne with a full band as opposed to just playing on his own as it added a new dynamic.  The banjoist Paul Sedgwick was particularly charming as he gave out hints to the kids to guess what the next song would be about.  Wayne’s teenage son also performed on keyboards.

The first song “Clap Your Hands” and the entire show were dedicated to the memory of Pete Seeger, appropriately as Wayne Potash is from the Guthrie/Seeger school of children’s folk music.  The band also recognized the upcoming holiday on February 2nd with a song about a Groundhog.  Some old favorites like “I Like Trucks,” “Juba,” and “Shy Shark” were fun to sing along with.  The song “Allis Chalmers” about an old tractor from Wayne’s childhood farm in Pennsylvania was a pleasant new discovery.

The only thing that marred the performance was an unfortunate incident when a dancing child knocked over one of the bands’ amps, but fortunately, no one was hurt.  With participation by singing, dancing, and jumping at such a premium, it might be better if Club Passim would move the tables out of the way to clear up more open space for the kids.  On the other hand they do need to have the room ready for lunchtime at Veggie Planet, so I can understand why they didn’t do that.

We did stay for lunch and got to speak with Wayne some more.  It’s a great thing about folk music and venues like Passim that the artists are so approachable and that everyone can be involved in some way. It’s a nice part of the folk tradition to pass on to our children.

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Kay takes her folk music very seriously.
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Peter watches and sings along.
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Kay lets it be known that she likes to eat pancakes for breakfast.

Set List (Songs I remember being performed in this show, in alphabetical order)

Allis Chalmers
B-I-G
Bold Beaver
Clap Your Hands
Groundhog
I Like Trucks
Juba
Lobster Dance
Pancakes for Breakfast
Penguins Attention
Shy Shark
Stripes

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The 43rd Annual Christmas Revels


This afternoon, my wife, son, and good family friend Craig took in the  performance of The Christmas Revels at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge. The annual pageant of music, dance, storytelling, and drama focused this year on the pilgrimage along the Camino de Compostela in the Spanish region of Galicia.  As a Celtic culture, the Galicians have their own version of the bagpipe called the gaita which featured prominently. Any piece featuring gaita and drums was a highlight for me.  The largest drum resonated throughout the house.

The story of this Revels follows Everyman (portrayed by Jay O’Callahan) on his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella and onwards to the End of the Earth in Finisterre.  Elements of Don Quixote are woven into the story as Everyman is knighted and joined on his journey by squire Sancho (Billy Meleady, who starred in last year’s show) and the tavern keeper Angélica (the delightful Angélica Aragón).

Usually the theme of a Revels’ performance is an excuse to tie together song and dance numbers, but this story of a pilgrimage actually maintains a pretty continuous narrative built around set pieces along the Camino, in a tavern, at a monastery, at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and finally at Finisterre.  The sets and lighting are really remarkable in adapting the stage for the different places along the journey.

Highlights of the show include:

  • the talent and hard work of the Revels’ children whose performance more than ever is fully-integrated into the show.
  • the charming line dance when the pilgrims are greeted by the monks to the tune of “Alborada de Ourense.”
  • O’Callahan telling the story of “The Singing Sack.”
  • sing-a-long with choreography to “Fum, Fum, Fum.”
  • puppetry and lights to enact the Galacian version of the posadas ritual.
  • an amazing bit of stagecraft where a giant censer is swung like a pendulum over the performers on the stage (based on the Botafumeiro at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
  • Jaime Jaffe’s solo performance of “Ondas Do Mar De Vigo.”
  • a mummers play featuring a mustachioed dragon who performed the hammiest death throes.

There were some disappointments.  Jay O’Callahan was hard to understand and I’m not sure if he was mumbling or mic’ed improperly.  Sitting in balcony center meant it took a long time to get downstairs to participate in “The Lord of the Dance.”  It ended just as we reached the lobby.  While I would not rank this among my all time favorite Revels’ performances, it was still delightful and I recommend seeing it if you have the chance. There are four more performances before the show closes on December 27th, so get your tickets now!

The Boston Globe has a more-detailed review for your perusal.

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Concert Review: The Dismemberment Plan


Saturday, November 2, 2013 at Paradise Rock Club in Boston

Opening act: Yellow Ostrich

Headline act: The Dismemberment Plan

On a rare night out for an aging dad, I took in the concert performance of indie/post-punk band (with a healthy dose of R&B and funk) from Washington, D.C., The Dismemberment Plan.  They’re touring to support their first album in a dozen years Uncanney Valley which comes after a long separation of the band.  I was acquainted with the lead vocalist Travis Morrison when we both were in college.*  I say this not to brag of my brush with celebrity, but because without this small connection I would not have heard of The Dismemberment Plan and my life would be less rich as the result.  The remainder of the quartet is Eric Axelson (bass), Jason Caddell (guitar), and Joe Easley (drums).

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The Dismemberment Plan had a friendly, knowledgeable audience for their Boston show.  Early on, Morrison bantered that they’d always gotten a good reception going all the way back to their first show in 1847 when the only person in the audience was Herman Melville.  The literary joke got a good response from the audience, and seemed appropriate given that The Dismemberment Plan are a literary band.  Their lyrics often tell a story and the music emphasizes the natural rhythm of the spoken word.  A good example is the crowd pleaser “You Are Invited,” a song about a magical invitation in which the words of the invitation are sung as the chorus, at first gently but later in a rave-up leading to a guitar solo.  It was a great experience to see and hear the dynamics of this song live.

The band were tight in their performance and it was clear that Morrison was enjoying himself as he smiled throughout the concert.  The band continued their good relations with the crowd, inviting a couple of men onstage to model their t-shirts as a lead-in to “The Dismemberment Plan Get Rich.”  In the encore, audience members were invited to dance onstage during “The Ice of Boston” (a Dismemberment Plan tradition).  I had the opportunity to access the stage myself, but having performed onstage in Boston elsewhere I left the space open for someone else.  Morrison forced one particularly obnoxious fan to stay on stage and dance for the finale.

This was an intense concert and if you have a chance to see The Dismemberment Plan live, take it.

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Set list:

  • Living In Song
  • Gyroscope
  • Ellen and Ben
  • Mexico City Christmas
  • You Are Invited
  • Girl O’Clock
  • No One’s Saying Nothing
  • The City
  • Time Bomb
  • Invisible
  • The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich
  • Spider in the Snow
  • Go and Get It
  • Do the Standing Still
  • What Do You Want Me to Say?

Encore:

  • Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer
  • The Face of the Earth
  • The Ice of Boston
  • OK, Joke’s Over (w/ a brief interpolation of Lorde’s “Royals”)

Travis & I were both DJ’s at the college radio station WCWM.  One semester he was the host of the popular Quiz Kid game show that lead into my world music show.  He said he liked my show, which made me feel good since he was cool and I was not.  OK, now I’m bragging.

The 42nd Annual Christmas Revels


It would not be Christmas without the Christmas Revels at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge.  This year my wife, son and I joined by our friends Abby, Kim, & Sid took in the Winter Solstice performance on the evening of December 21st.  The show was delightful as always with the subject being near and dear to my heart, the music of Irish emigrants as they sail the new world.

The show was a more restrained and simple performance than a typical Revels keeping to the theme of the cast being impoverished immigrants aboard a ship and not having much to celebrate with.  After the opening number, lines and gangways were removed from the sides of the stage and notably no cast members went down the steps into “the ocean” except during a storytelling sequence.  These restraints did nothing to detract from the beauty of the song, dance, and stories performed.

Highlights of the show for me included:

  • Bill Meleady’s colorful telling of The Soul Cages, the exception to the restraint on the performance where the visuals of the story come to life in vivid detail.  I enjoyed the dancing crustaceans especially as well as Steve Barkhimer’s portrayal of the merrow Coomara.
  • “The Wexford Lullaby” gorgeously performed by Mary Casey along with Jamie Jaffe as a duet and later as a quartet.
  • The dramatic “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” swelling as the audience joins the chorus.
  • “The Lord of the Dance” is always a highlight and was cleverly worked into the show as being the English ship crews’ contribution to the shipboard celebration.
  • The show had several sets of traditional Irish music by The Rattling Brogues and step dance by O’Shea-Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance that livened up the proceedings greatly.
  • If there was one minor disappointment is that the show ends with the immigrants seeing The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.  The show is set aboard the Cunard steamship RMS Carpathia and since Cunard had a western terminus in Boston (there’s still an office building marked “CUNARD” on State Street) it would have been a nice local connection to have the ship dock here instead of New York.

A traditional element of the Revels – “The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance” – was not included in the program but as this was the Winter Solstice, the audience was treated to a special rendition of Abbots Bromley after the curtain call.  I’d actually guessed that Abbots Bromley was the surprise we’d been promised before the show, but it was still a thrill when the first haunting notes of the recorder came out and the audience reacted with joy.

This was another great Revels and I believe all the shows were sold out.  If you missed this year’s Revels, make sure to get your tickets early for next year’s show which I promise will be just as great.

[youtube http://youtu.be/_tfCs4A1BPQ]

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The 41st Annual Christmas Revels


This afternoon my family and I took in the annual performance of The Christmas Revels at Sanders Theater in Cambridge.  The Revels is a family tradition and this marks the tenth Christmas Revels production I’ve attended (including a Washington Revels performance in 1995 and performing as a cast member in the 2009 Christmas Revels).  This was also my four-year-old son’s second Christmas Revels and my five-week-old daughter’s first Revels ever.  Peter showed exemplary behavior and was deeply engaged by the performance while Kay amazed me by actually appearing to watch the show at times when she wasn’t feeding or napping.

The Revels impress me each year by crafting a show around a theme with consistent narrative that logically incorporates music and dance from various traditions.  This year’s production is set in a French fishing village on the Mediterranean that is hosting an annual feast that draws pilgrims from near and wide.  Thus we are able to enjoy traditional music from France and other parts of Europe as well as traveling performers from the East playing Arabic music.  The Sharq Trio steal the show with sets in both acts of Arabic singing, dance and percussion.      The trio seemed to mesmerize my infant daughter at the very least.  Salome Sandoval also lends her stunning voice as a soloist.

The center of the performance is three members of the Guild of Fools – Soleil (Timothy Sawyer), Etoile (Sabrina Selma Mandell), and Eclaire de Lune (Mark Jaster) – performing the annual pageant. Amid the music and revelry there is the lurking presence of the skeletal Boney (Linnea Coffin) who seems to be just out of sight of the villagers on stage, but very frightening to at least one four-year-old boy in the audience.  At a key moment in the first act, Boney and her skeleton crew seize the light from the world plunging the holiday performance into darkness.  The fools thus are given the quest of finding their namesake light sources – the moon, the stars, and the sun – which they do with plenty of song and dance and a nativity play along the way.  The Revels crew deserve a lot of credit for the stage design featuring multiple layers of scaffolding for the performers and a Ship of Fools upon which the featured trio sail to fish for the reflection of the moon.  The costuming is also brilliant, especially Soleil, Etoile, and Eclaire de Lune’s outfits for the concluding mummer’s play.  And the makeup helped make Boney and the other skeletons the scariest things I’ve ever seen in a Revels’ production.

The final performance is Thursday December 29th at 1 pm, so get tickets and go see the show if you can.  If you’re reading this after the fact, make sure to check out The Revels’ website for future events.

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Concert Review: Neko Case


Neko Case at Wilbur Theatre, Boston, MA on 3 Febuary 2011

Opening act: Lost in the Trees

I had a rare boy night out last Thursday and took in a performance of one of my favorite vocalists Neko Case famed for her solo career, work with The New Pornographers, and knowledge of NECCO Wafers.  While I’m feeling that I’m getting too old to to go to concerts I was cheered to see an elderly couple standing front and center by the stage as well as many others who looked my age or older.

The opening act was a large group of North Carolina youngsters who had a Decemberist-ic/art school band vibe with a moody Thom Yorke-type on vocals and guitar, a string trio, and a tuba among other instruments.  I was fond of the spunky and befeathered young woman stage left who played numerous instruments including a french horn, a drum, a xylophone, autoharp, and accordion as well as adding ethereal vocals.  Their processing on to the stage with a large dinosaur puppet and streamers added an extra level of pretension that they really didn’t need.  I wanted to like this band – they are talented musicians and put a lot of spirit in their performance – but I just don’t think they’re my thing.

Neko Case took the stage with a kind of just-rolled-out-of bed look and spent much of the show trying to tuck up her long hair.  I wish I had a hair band through on the stage.  She played with a large band of her own although she could have easily stepped out alone and sung a cappella for all I cared.  I’ve noted in an earlier review of the poor quality of the amplification at the Wilbur Theatre and this night it felt like the amplifiers were standing between me and hearing Neko Case’s voice although she was but 20 or so feet away.  Nevertheless, it was an entertaining show featuring many of Case’s best songs and a great rapport with her band and the crowd.

On a previous visit to Boston, Case threatened violence at an audience member who threw a blunt object at the band, but there was no such unpleasantness at this show.   Instead when an audience member shouted “Too much guitar!” (perhaps hoping to hear more of Ms. Case’s voice), Case responded “Don’t let the dudes know that, they won’t want to kiss you.”  Accompanying vocalist Kelly Hogan added both harmonies and witty repartee with some funny stories about performing in a medieval church and imagining the dead buried in the crypt below requesting “more lute!” Another adoring fan proclaimed love for Case and wanted to have her babies.  Neko responded, “If I had a baby, it would come out addicted to meth. And pregnant.”

Case and her band played nearly two-dozen songs including at least a four-song encore.  I know that because I ducked out to get my coat near the end of the third encore and heard another song playing as I walked down Kneeland Street and discovered I was passing the stage door.  I stood and listened for a while and then noticed two vans parked right in front of me with Vermont plates.  So I knew where to stand if I wanted to be a groupie, but instead I walked to the T station to go home to bed.

Here is most of the set list as I wrote it down during the show.  I missed a few songs, so if you were there please help me fill in the blanks:

  1. Things That Scare Me
  2. Maybe Sparrow
  3. Fever
  4. People Got a Lot of Nerve
  5. The Pharaohs
  6. Middle Cyclone
  7. Hold On, Hold On
  8. Margaret Vs. Pauline
  9. Prison Girls
  10. I ‘m An Animal
  11. Dirty Knife
  12. I Wish I Was The Moon
  13. Red Tide
  14. Polar Nettles
  15. The Tigers Have Spoken (?)
  16. Don’t Forget Me
  17. That Teenage Feeling
  18. This Tornado Loves You

Encores:

  1. Vengeance is Sleeping
  2. Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth
  3. John Saw That Number
  4. (don’t know, but it sounded good from the street)

Related Links:

Concert Review: Alastair Moock


Today my family & I attended a special performance by singer/songwriter/folk troubadour Alastair Moock at the Children’s Music Center of Jamaica Plain.  Moock, himself a father of four-year-old twins, entertained both his young audience and their parents with selections from his album A Cow Says Moock, some new songs, and some timeless children’s classics.

I have some of Moock’s albums and from his gravelly voice I imagined he would be a grizzly, gruff-looking type, not the clean-cut man we saw before this.  His voice is still pretty incredible though with a lot of expression.  He an easy manner performing for the children and did some clever tricks like singing “The Alphabet Song” backwards.  He was very receptive to his audience whether it be the boy who asked him to play a song on the banjo next or my own son’s insistence that there be a kitty cat on the bus saying “meow, meow, meow!”  Moock’s original songs are folk ditties with clever word play.  Highlights include a song about “Belly Buttons” set to a Latin beat and a song about “Spaghetti in My Shoe” that name checks various forms of pasta and footware and then is repeated as Ramones-style rave-up.

The audience was up and dancing for the most part.  My son chose to quietly contemplate the music but sang along with the familiar standards like “Old McDonald’s Farm,” “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad,” “The Wheels on the Bus,” “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” and “You Are My Sunshine.”  Moock fit a lot of music and a lot fun into a one-hour show.

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The 40th Anniversary Christmas Revels


Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I’m a big fan of Revels and their annual Christmas Revels performances at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge.  I was excited and honored to attend the dress rehearsal performance of this year’s 40th anniversary production of the Christmas Revels on Thursday, December 16th.  Had I better journalistic standards I would have used this scoop to get my review up before the show opened on Friday night, but at least at this point there are still eleven more shows to go.

This year’s Christmas Revels returns to a familiar setting, Haddon Hall, an English manor house that was the scene of the first and many subsequent Revels performances.  This time the show is set in the 1920s and the 10th Duke of Rutland with his wife and children are making one last visit to the long abandoned house before it is demolished to make way for a motorway.  I never before realized that Haddon Hall is a real place and the characters in these Revels are based upon real people who in fact saved and renovated Haddon Hall in the 1920s.   The story told in the Revels performance of course is a beautiful fiction but one that contains deeper moral truths about family, ritual, and place.

In the performance, the spirits of the Duke of Rutland’s ancestors emerge from the walls to celebrate the solstice.  This gives the chorus and instrumentalists the very enjoyable opportunity to perform music and stories from various eras – medieval, Renaissance, and Victorian – a Revels’ clip-show of sorts.  While building on the historic traditions of England, the show also builds on Revels traditions of the past 40 years.  Sanders Theatre is very much our Haddon Hall for the families and friends of the Revels who come each year.

I’ll try not to give too much away, but here are some of the highlights of the show (don’t read if you want to be completely surprised):

  • The emergence of the spirits in white shrouds to the “Cries of London” is eerie and creepy in a beautiful way.  When the chorus makes it on stage and remove the shrouds so that there costumes are visible for the first time is a big wow moment for me.
  • The children’s chorus is excellent as always and seem to be more integrated into performing with the adult chorus, especially on the lovely piece “On Christmas Night.”
  • All the actors put in a great performance, particularly Tim Sawyer as the Duke and Emma Jaster as a mute jester.
  • Harriet Bridges plays the Duchess and also provides a soaring soprano for pieces like “Down in Yon Forest.”
  • The traditional mummers play of St. George in the Dragon is always entertaining and the brand new dragon (part costume/part puppetry) really steals the show.
  • A sing-a-long of “Let’s All Go Down the Strand” is joyful and exuberant, and as David Coffin noted they really do make it fit into the show.
  • The real showstopper for me is the chorus’ performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s “There Shall A Star From Jacob Come Forth.”  The intertwining of voices and the Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble is breathtaking.

I’ll be returning to Sanders Theatre on December 26th to catch a Revels’ matinée with my wife, son, and mother.  In the meantime, if you live anywhere near Cambridge and want to celebrate the holidays, go see this show!

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Concert Review: The Greater New Bedford Summerfest


July 3, 2010
The Greater New Bedford Summerfest at New Bedford Whaling National Park in New Bedford, MA

Peter Mulvey displaying some guitar mastery on "Black Rabbit."

Summerfest is a great weekend-long event in which the historic district of this storied whaling town is turned into one big folk music and arts festival.  The breadth of folk music spans contemporary folk music and more traditional and international styles.  The festival draws some great headliners and  yet the tickets are only $15/day or $20/weekend.  Despite only my positive feelings for the festival this is only the second time I’ve attended and the last time was ten years ago.  I need to make this a more regular tradition.

I attended the festival with my mother, wife and toddler son and we all had a great time.  We attended the following three performances:

  • Peter Mulvey at the Custom House Stage – the singer/songwriter is one of our all-time favorites and his set included fine guitar work, inspired lyrics, and even impressive readings of letters he wrote for his nieces and nephews.
  • The Irish Session at the Busker Stage – a big change from the large Custom House tent, this “stage” was just a small tent set-up on a street corner for local musicians.  Peter got up to dance around a street sign and  a little girl his age joined him.  This was the highlight of the festival for me.
  • Rosin Up Your Bow: great fiddlers (Jeremy Kittel, Guy Fletcher, Doug Lamey, Jake Armerding, & Ruairidh MacMillan) at the Centre Street Stage –  This stage was set on a charming hillside and cobblestone street surrounded by historic buildings.  What a place to listen to traditional fiddle tunes and watch Peter run about.
Peter improvises to the jigs and reels of the Irish Session.

In addition to the music we enjoyed a pizza supper at Pizans New York Style Pizza and Peter climbed on whaling tools in a small park.  It’s a great event where we could all enjoy the music and feel safe with Peter running about in the streets.  As noted above I need to attend this festival again and also need to visit and explore historic New Bedford even when there’s not a festival going on.

New England maritime charm on Centre St.

Concert Review: They Might Be Giants


May 23, 2010 at 12 noon
They Might Be Giants at The Regent Theatre in Arlington, MA

One of the many great images from Chris Devers' photostream on Flickr.

This is a long overview review for a fun and special concert which doubled as a benefit for Boston By Foot.  Family connections were involved as Giant John Flansbergh is son of Boston By Foot founder and president Polly Flansburgh.  Family connections were involved for me as well as I brought my son to this Family Concert for his first rock and roll show.  I actually saw TMBG as my second rock concert ever way back in 1991.  I was 18, so Peter is way ahead of me going to concerts at 2 and 1/2.  I thought Peter might be at the young end of the attendees even at a family concert, but in reality 6 years seemed to be the upper limit of the children’s age range and there were many toddlers and even infants.

Musically, a TMBG family concert is not all too different from the shows that they play for adults.  I like that they didn’t tone down the concert experience which included guitar and drum solos, screeching feedback, flashing lights and effects.  Some elements were specially targeted at the kids like confetti cannons that almost stole the show and a couple of songs performed by the two Johns as sock puppets called The Avatars of They.

The playlist came mostly from the bands excellent children’s albums No!, Here Comes the ABC’s, Here Comes the 123’s, and Here Comes Science.  Favorites included “Seven Days of the Week (I Never Go To Work),” “High Five,” and “I’m a Paleontologist.” They also played some songs off their “grown-up” recordings such as “Particle Man” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” which blended seamlessly into the set. It’s interesting that the song “Older” can sound like a grim reminder of mortality for adults or a song about growing up for the kids.  It was a fun show and everybody got and boogied along with the music, or if they weren’t able to stand yet had a parent pick them up to dance.

Set List (via This Might Be a Wiki)

* Hot Dog! intro (On PA)
* Fibber Island
* Meet The Elements
* Bed Bed Bed
* I Never Go To Work
* Clap Your Hands
* Kids Go!
* One Dozen Monkeys
* Eight Hundred And Thirteen Mile Car Trip
* High Five!
* Why Does The Sun Shine? (Katharine Hepburn/Jazz Hands version)
* Pirate Girls Nine
* The Famous Polka
* Boston by foot rap
* Roy G. Biv (false start)
* Roy G. Biv
* Free Ride
* What Is A Shooting Star? (performed by The Avatars Of They)
* In The Middle, In The Middle, In The Middle (performed by The Avatars Of They)
* Free Ride
* I Am A Paleontologist
* Older
* Particle Man
* Graveyard
* Doctor Worm
* Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

Encore:

* Alphabet Of Nations

Concert Review: Boston Symphony Orchestra – Ligeti, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky


On Saturday night, I enjoyed my first performance at Symphony Hall by the Boston Symphony Orchestra accompanied by my mother.  Assistant Conductor Julian Kuerti lead the orchestra on three lovely pieces by Eastern European composers:

Marc-André Hamelin performed on the piano for Shostakovich’s concerto and I really enjoyed Thomas Rolfs‘ trumpet on the same work.  I tend to be drawn to the timpani though, like Holden Caulfield, I like a good kettle drum player.

I can’t begin to make an informed review of a classical music performance, so here are some assorted reflections:

  • Our seats were in the third row of the 1st balcony, dead center.  I can’t imagine a more preferable place to sit at Symphony Hall.
  • The acoustics really are good.  I felt like I had violins all around my head.
  • Trying to find some commonalities among the composers I conjured up that two were Russian and one was Romanian.  Two lived in 20th Century and one in the 19th.  Two lived through World War II and the Iron Curtain and one under the tsar.  All incorporate some folk and traditional music motifs in their compositions.
  • I haven’t seen many symphonic conductors, but Kuerti is the first one I’ve ever seen raises his arm so far back that he strokes his shoulder blades.  It was like he was lashing himself on every upstroke.
  • Hamelin finished of the Allegro con brio movement of Piano Concerto No. 1 with some very animated hand gestures that reminded me of the piano player in a carnival shooting gallery.
  • The part of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 with the Chinese gong made me laugh allowed because it was so delightfully unexpected (although I should have noted that a gong on the stage would eventually be used).  It reminded me of a George Plimpton story where he participates with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  He is given the gong because “he can’t mess it up” but hits it so enthusiastically that even the conductor notices.  I looked it up and the piece Plimpton played gong on was indeed Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2.
  • I need to take advantage of the <40 = $20 program again within the next three-and-half years.

Previously: Tour of Symphony Hall

Concert Review: Yo La Tengo


It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a rock concert, especially on my own, but I couldn’t miss seeing Yo La Tengo.  So I took a Dad’s night out to the Wilbur Theatre on Sept. 16th where New Jersey’s finest band entertained a crowd of with a large number young hipsters and colleges students.  Nerd chic was in full effect as many in the audience wore checked shirts, argyle sweaters, and even neckties!  I just had to have faith that the roof of the Wilbur Theatre was structurally sound.  I didn’t feel out of place though because there were plenty of middle-aged music geeks like myself in the crowd as well.

Wilbur Theatre is a classic-style playhouse where all the seats on the orchestra level  have been removed and sectioned off by gates into different standing room only pens.  My ticket allowed me to go all the way up front and found a spot by the stage all the way to the left.  On my way in I was surprised to see three Japanese men all with extraordinarily long hair playing screaming blues rock.  They are Yura Yura Teikoku and Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan would tell us letter that this was only their third American city after New York and Burlington.  There psychedelic music was pretty good although I did start to tire of the languid, dreamy guitar solos.  I  could see Kaplan and Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew watching from the wings and drummer Georgia Hubley actually came out to the audience to talk with people she knew.  I refrained from throwing myself down before here and shouting “I’m not worthy!”

Yo La Tengo is one of my favorite bands partly because they are so eclectic.  They are equally adept in folksy songs as they are in power pop and can range between ethereal pieces and noisy machine music.  Similarly, all members of the band can take lead vocals and play multiple instruments.  I guess this versatility can be a turn off as well.  After leading off with “From A Motel 6,” Yo La Tengo launched into a least 8 minutes of reverb, feedback and screeching guitars over a monotonously repeated drum & bass line.   Kaplan stepped into a land where only he, his guitar and amp existed.  It was almost as if Yo La Tengo wanted to test the devotion of the audience.  Later they’d win the crowd over with catchier numbers like “Sugarcube” but lose them again on the finale, an extended version of the Beach Boys “Little Honda” which broke down into another feedback/noise/screech fest.  I actually saw as many people heading for the doors as there were calling for an encore, which I’ve never seen happen at a concert.

But I get ahead of myself, and whatever other may think, I loved every minute of this show.  Highlights for me included seeing McNew – a burly man with a big mop of hair and a surprisingly sweet voice – singing “Stockholm Syndrome.”   Kaplan’s guitar went out of tune on the last verse and he commented that since Wilbur Theatre is usually a comedy club that people might think he was doing comic tuning.  He insisted that they do the last verse again.  Afterwards McNew suggested facetiously that they do it yet again causing much confusion to the roadie bringing new instruments on stage.

For a couple of songs, Yo La Tengo was joined by a string octet of local musicians who accompanied the band on newly composed arrangements by a friend of the band whose name I missed.  The song “Here to Fall” from Yo La Tengo’s new album Popular Songs sounded particularly good with the string accompaniment.  Two of the violinists rejoined the band for the noise part of “Little Honda” with one of them getting down by an amplifier to get distortion from the violin!  Even if it was not a crowd-pleaser, I thought that was worth the price of admission.  The other new song I recognized “Periodically Double or Triple” was a great funky organ piece that you can dance to.

I’ll have to confess that I didn’t recognize a number of songs played, presumably from their newest album which despite that fact that I ordered it in a special package with my tickets didn’t arrive until today and I’ve been unable to find a setlist on the internet.  Also from my perch by the stage my view of the Hubley’s drumming was blocked by a synthesizer and despite being next to an ear-shredding loudspeaker her vocals were inaudible.  Actually the mix on all the vocals was pretty bad. I’m glad she came forward to sing and play acoustic guitar on a couple of songs.  But these are minor quibbles for what was a fantastic show.  I’ve seen Yo La Tengo twice before (once when they were accompanying Jean Painleve’s nature films on their Sounds of Science tour) and thought this was the best of the bunch.  Not bad for a band that’s been around 25 years.

Related links:

  • Acidgalore – the majority of this post is griping about an MBTA shutdown on the night of the show but there is some commentary about the show in the final paragraphs.
  • Boston.com – James Reed of the Boston Globe reviews the show and it’s obvious that he’s a fan.
  • On A Friday – photos from the show including many images of Kaplan going crazy with his guitar.
  • Clicky Music Blog – a photo album from the show.
  • bsearles on flickr – even more photos from the show.
  • NPR Music – a full concert by Yo La Tengo in Washington on September 17th.  Despite being just one day after the Boston show, the set list is almost completely different.  You’ve got to love a band that keeps it fresh.  I also love that NPR considers McNew the “new guy” even though he’s been with the band for 17 years.

Previously: