NRBQ Best Band Ever

(Photo of Terry Adams by Robert Tobey)

Let me say right off that NRBQ is my favorite band. When I was a radio deejay on WRSI, I would back-sell their songs by saying either, “That was NRBQ, best band ever” or “NRBQ, the only band better than The Beatles.” Those hyperbolic catch-phrases were mostly intended to alert people to the brilliance of NRBQ, but on some level I believe those words. You have to stand for something in this life.

Saturday night, two days after Thanksgiving, NRBQ played the Academy of Music in Northampton, which had about half of its 800 seats filled. It was nice to see the Q play such a classy venue, but it wasn’t really the right place to see them. For one thing the show was dry- no beer, no wine. The Academy has a yearly limit on their one-day liquor permits they can obtain and for some reason they chose not to get one for NRBQ, who have often been referred to as “the best bar band in America.”

For their part, NRBQ put on a wonderful, many-splendored two-hour show. Terry Adams, the keyboard player and band-leader, served up a colorful cocktail of new songs, old favorites and oddball adventures: “Animal Life,” “Rain at the Drive-in,” “April Showers.” 32 songs in all. It was much like the good old days even though this fourth incarnation of NRBQ, features only one original member- Terry, who is 70. The new guys are a lot younger but actually not that new. Guitarist and singer Scott Ligon, age 48, has been playing with Adams for eleven years, bassist Casey McDonough has been in the band since 2011 and drummer John Perrin since 2015.

In any case, this current NRBQ carries on the glorious rock ‘n’ roll tradition of their beloved predecessors and it was heart-warming to hear Terry give shout-outs to “former members of the band.” Before playing Al Anderson’s “Help Me Somebody,” Steve Ferguson’s “Ain’t it Alright,” and Joey Spampinato’s “Mona,” Terry acknowledged his old band-mates. This small gesture was important to longtime fans because there were some disgruntled feelings in 2011 when Terry revitalized NRBQ without Joey. It is a complicated story, but in the long run, life is too short and the new band sounds great, so why quibble and squabble? Ain’t it alright?

What wasn’t alright at the Academy was the band-audience disconnect. The theater crowd just sat in their seats when the band was ripping into songs like the rave-up “Flat Foot Flewzy.” That’s not how you do NRBQ. You should be on your feet bopping to the music. I remember seeing the current NRBQ outside at Mass MoCA’s Solid Sound Festival in 2015 and the crowd started moving and grooving as one. The music had so much lift, so much rock ‘n’ roll spirit and heart that people started dancing in spite of themselves.

Equally problematic at the Academy, the stage lighting made it difficult for Terry Adams to see and interact with the crowd. Part of the dynamic at an NRBQ show is the mock-confrontational way Terry engages with the audience. In the middle of a song, as the guitarist is taking a solo, Terry will get up from his keyboards and walk out to the front of the stage and playfully taunt the audience, as the music roars on behind him. Hands on hips he will peer around, daring you, challenging you, looking to see what you brought to the party. Terry breaks the fourth wall and reminds the crowd that they are all in this together. He also breaks any assumption that the band is just here to please the audience. NRBQ is not your music monkey. They do not come to town to merely delight you by playing the hits. This is a different game, a different band.

Towards the end of the Academy show, NRBQ fired up “Rocket #9”, the angular Sun Ra chant. Terry walked over to play on his new toy, a seven-foot, fire-engine-red calliope topped with gleaming golden whistles of varying lengths. Originally calliopes were made out of train whistles and Terry’s instrument had that same 19thcentury carousel sound. The song itself was an avant-garde affair with lots of empty space and sudden stabbing bits, shards of music floating through dark space, challenging the audience and their pre-conceptions of musical entertainment.

When “Rocket #9” thankfully ended, Terry immediately launched into Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” on the calliope. After all the weird dissonance of “Rocket #9” the Stevie song sounded newly minted. It was like a miraculous gift of melody and warmth. Bassist Casey McDonough sang the song beautifully. Earlier Casey took the lead on a glowing version of the Beach Boys “Wouldn’t it Be Nice,” that he had sung as part of Brian Wilson’s band on the Pet Soundstour in 2017.

After playing their biggest hit, “Ridin in My Car,” NRBQ left the stage to a standing ovation. When they returned the houselights came up and they encored with the rollicking “12 Bar Blues.” Now the audience was up dancing and it felt like a proper Q show. Guitarist Scott Ligon fired off one fabulous guitar run after another and the band and the crowd were together, united in rhythm. As the audience continued to sing the count-along chorus, “1, 2, 3, 4…” the band walked off.

I have always considered Terry Adams to be one of the artistic geniuses of the modern world, like a Picasso or Chaplin. His piano playing alone is beyond compare in its breadth and virtuosity. No one has ever fused rock and roll and jazz to such an astounding degree. And all along he has been the leader of arguably the best band ever. At the same time Terry is a marvelous comedian who combines theatrical piano-playing (Chico), blonde physicality (Harpo) and irreverent commentary (Groucho). Talking about the people gathered outside at the newly opened pot store in Northampton, Terry said, “It looked like the depression, people waiting in soup lines. And now the police are helping you get it.”

After the Academy show, I had a new, wild, idea that Terry acts like the Hindu deities. When you watch him take a solo he seems to be constantly creating and destroying like Brahma and Shiva. In the course of a solo he might create and destroy ten new songs based on the original song. And when I looked up the Hindu triumvirate online, I realized that Terry is also like Vishnu, the Preserver. He has preserved the life-affirming feel of rock ‘n’ roll, the real Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis swingin’ stomp that is tricky to pull off. And going further back Terry has kept Tin Pan Alley songs alive by giving them a swashbuckling kick: “Peanut Vendor,” “Music Goes Round and Round,” “Accentuate the Positive.” It’s like what Terry Adams and NRBQ called their comeback album in 2011- Keep This Love Goin’. That’s what they’re doing. That’s what they’ve always been doing.

Postscript:

Opening act Frank Manzi and his band of Lux Deluxxe guys sounded great with a strong set of Manzi originals like “Better Days,” and “Just to Hear You Breathe.” Other highlights from the NRBQ set included “Little Floater,” “Howard Johnson’s Got His Ho-Jo Working,” (with saxophonist Klem Klimek on lead vocals,) “Paris,” “I Want You Bad,” “Boozoo and Leona” (what a bridge by Terry!), “Get a Grip,” “Peanut Vendor,” “Why Do These Things Have to Be” (Terry solo piano) “Waitin’ on My Sweetie Pie”, and “Rock Around the Clock” (with drummer John Perrin playing hot guitar.)

Here’s a video of the current NRBQ playing in 2015 at Mass MoCA as part of the Solid Sound Festival. This excerpt of “Music Goes Round and Round” includes a killer piano solo by Terry Adams.

 

Rock ‘n’ Roll Diary: Hawks & Reed

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(Photo by Julian Parker-Burns)

By Johnny Memphis

The doors of the club are locked. This is not good. I peer in past the posters in the floor-to-ceiling windows hoping to see a soundman moving around, but it’s just chairs and tables, bar and stage. The booking agent had emailed me that load-in was 4:30 to 5:00 and it is now 4:45. You can’t load-in if no one lets you in. We pile amps and instruments outside the front door as a few sketchy dudes tack along the sidewalks of Greenfield. It is a hot and humid Friday afternoon. May 4, 2018.

The Johnny Memphis Band has a mixed history with this venue. The first time we played here in April of 2015, a big crowd filled the dance floor. Attendance was boosted by a favorable preview by Sheryl Hunter in the Greenfield Recorderabout our recently released debut CD. Plus it helped that Greenfield people knew the name “Johnny Memphis” because I worked for many years in town as a deejay. But five months later we returned to the venue and no one came out to see the show. Maybe four people. It was painful for all concerned.

When we played our first show here, the venue was called the Arts Block Café. It was owned by Ed Wierzbowski, who had transformed a beautiful, old, four-story brick building into an appealing performance space with lots of potential. Ed was a visionary but unconventional businessman, who didn’t return emails and eventually went bankrupt. The place was bought by my periodontist, Steven Goldsher, who played Pat Metheny CDs in his office while fixing my gums. In 2017 Goldsher renamed the venue Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in honor of a 19thcentury clothing store that had been at that address. Now the venue was being run by his sons- Jeremy and Ben Goldsher.

Just before 5:00, Jeremy pulls up in his pick-up truck and apologizes for running late. When the Goldshers bought the building I met with Jeremy and his dad to discuss their ideas. There was even some thought at that point that I might be their talent booker. Still no sign of the sound-man, but Jeremy tells us it will be Brian Bender, an ace trombone player who played on my radio show years ago. Jeremy says Brian always runs late, not to worry. “Just at the point where people wonder where he is, Brian shows up.”

I have been worried about this gig all week. The venue has not been focused on promoting us because they have big reggae shows coming up with The Wailers and Third World. Plus, I did not do a great job on my end getting the word out via facebook, email and posters. I have been concentrating on getting our new backyard, music studio up and running. In fact, we rehearsed in the new studio for the first time on Tuesday.

Increasing my concern about attendance, the listing in the Valley Advocate said that The Winterpills and The Fawns were playing Friday, May 4th at Hawks & Reed but made no mention of us. What?! Indeed, those two fine Northampton bands were playing that night in the fourth floor space of Hawks & Reed, which was news to me until I read it in the paper. This is a train-wreck. Anybody, who was considering coming to see us, would certainly be thrown off track. The final dispiriting blow came yesterday, the day before the gig, when I got a desperate email from the club saying no one had bought an advance ticket and could I make a last-ditch promo push. I did not sleep well last night.

Kate Lorenz and the Constellations are the opening act and it is a tonic to see Kate when she shows up for sound-check. In her jean jacket and big sunglasses, Kate is cool and fun, upbeat and down-home. She is a pre-school teacher who was part of Rusty Belle with her brother Matt, aka Suitcase Junket. Kate and I played together in a band that backed up the kids in the Sunderland Elementary School Music Night program when I was teaching at Frontier. She sets out her merch on a little table, including a vinyl record of her new album. I am envious of the vinyl. I put out my merch in my father’s old leather briefcase with little hope of making a sale. I’ve got good stuff- our two CDs, my book about the Green River Festival and Carolina blue “wabi sabi baby” tee shirts- but nobody is buying. Maybe I should just sell the merch online.

Eventually Brian the soundman shows up and I invite him to join us onstage at the finale- a tribute to the late Charles Neville. Brian says he has his trombone in his car and would be happy to play. After wrangling some pesky feedback, he does our sound check using a laptop, which is the new, improved way to set the sound. The monitors sound crisp and clear, which is so helpful when you are singing. In general, the Goldshers have done a really good job fixing up this main performance space on the first floor. There are new sound absorption panels on the brick wall behind the stage, a circular metal sculpture of a hawk in reeds and a swell bar in the adjoining room. The place is looking good.

Kate goes on at 7:00 and we go on at 8:00, so after sound-check we have time to get a bite. Mesa Verde is mucho crowded so we go to Plan B- pick up pizza from Magpie. Friday night is always pizza night at home, so this fits right into my culinary schedule. We head back to Hawks and Reed to have a beer and wait for the pizza, when Jason Smith, our drummer, says, “I want to take advantage of being in the big city and go over to Seymour for a beer.” Genius idea. Seymour is a hip, cozy bar right across the common.

Once we are ensconced in Seymour, I share my worries with Jason and Katherine First, our fiddler. It’s not just this gig. It’s the whole idea of starting a rock and roll quintet when you are 60. We are a good band with no audience. Not surprisingly, our friends and and contemporaries have no interest in leaving their comfortable homes and their Netflix to venture out to see what the hell we are up to. We also lack the right regular venue, a home base. My goal is to find a cool place with good sound and a full bar near Florence where we could flourish and grow an audience.

As the sun goes down, Greenfield is glowing with golden light and I am buzzed on one glass of potent Brick and Feathers IPA. Sometimes I think I should live in this town. I pick up a thin-crust, wood-fired, pepperoni and mushroom pizza from Magpie and bring it to the spacious green-room on the second floor of Hawks & Reed overlooking the common. Kate Lorenz and her band have already started and there is a decent crowd. Thank god for that. Kate is sounding good. Soulful originals and a great cover of “Do Right Woman.” I chat in the adjoining bar with my friends Charlie Braun and Phoebe Sheldon. This week I have been out at Charlie’s studio in Westhampton recording an audio book written by Phoebe based on her great-great grandfather’s amazing Civil War diaries. On Wednesday I helped Phoebe at a book-reading event by projecting Civil War photos as she read from the book. This event took place next to the waterfall in the Old Mill building in Hatfield where the Valley Advocate offices used to be.

When Kate’s band finishes their set I talk with a long-time WRSI fan who fondly remembers the poem I wrote for the station’s 20thanniversary. I always liked that poem but I am amazed that anyone else even remembers it. Our band takes the stage and tunes up quickly. I am playing an Eastman mandolin with Dave Pinkerton on a hollow-body electric Gibson guitar, Katherine First on a handmade fiddle from Stamell Strings, Paul Hartshorne on a Fender Precision electric bass and Jason playing his vintage Ludwig drum-kit. We start as usual with “Murphy Bed.” “Got some beer and I got some wine, got some vodka too/ Loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese, we could make fondue.” Looking through the fridge and cupboard in the first lines of the song is like taking inventory of our repertoire to see what songs we might play. At the end of “Murphy Bed” we launch into a medley of fiddle tunes featuring Katherine and get the audience clapping along. This looks like it’s actually going to be a fun gig.

I have a few performance goals for this gig. First, I am trying to lower the microphone so that it does not block the crowd’s view of my mouth. I recently went to see Amy Helm at the Parlor Room and I did not like how the mike blocked my view of her singing. It seemed crazy that the audience couldn’t see the central, most expressive part of the lead-singer’s face. My second goal is to bunch songs together so that we don’t stop the momentum by talking after every song. That is working well, except for when the humid weather is making our strings go out and we have to stop to retune. Thirdly, I am drinking more water so I don’t dehydrate like I did at the Luthier’s Co-op show a couple of weeks ago when my hand started to cramp up. Beer is not water.

“Shang-a-lang, shang-a-lang, shang-a-lang, shang-a-la-ang.” I get the audience singing the background vocals to “Buddy” while snapping their fingers. I love playing this song in Greenfield because it is all about the legendary Oldies Show my friend Buddy Rubbish hosted right up the street on Memory Lane. Buddy loved Louis Prima so we follow with “Angelina” (“I eat antipasto twice, just because she is so nice”) which segues dramatically into our version of “The Tarantella.” When we played “The Tarantella” at Bread Euphoria in February I sprained my knee doing an Italian jig, so I am careful not to get too carried away by the trance-like powers of that song.

The set is running long so I cut out “Old New York Hotel” and “Somebody Stole My Kielbasa” and go right into the double guitar segment where I play bass. I am still trying to find the perfect tempo for “Truck Eating Bridge,” one of our oldest songs, but we are getting close to the right groove with Paul starting it up on guitar. “Never Been to Memphis” is sounding good with two guitars and someday we are going to play that song and it is going to blow everyone away, just like someday I am going to go to Memphis. We are starting to get some people dancing. I see teacher-friends from Frontier in the crowd.

At the end of the show we dedicate “Mardi Gras Mambo” to the late saxophonist Charles Neville who lived in Huntington for the last twenty years. You never met a more fully realized human being. What a beautiful man. The soundman Brian Bender bounds on stage to play trombone and we get Kate Lorenz to come on stage to sing with us. I have been singing “Mardi Gras Mambo” for so long it is like a favorite pair of blue jeans. We always find the right groove on this song. Paul is now playing sax and he and Brian’s trombone sound fantastic together. Now you’re talking! The dance-floor is filled with people having a ball. Paul harmonizes on the verse with me. “Down in New Orleans where the blues was born, it takes a cool cat to blow a horn.” That is Charles Neville in a nutshell.

We play “Mardi Gras Mambo” to a fare-thee-well and I figure that is the end of the show but Greenfield stalwart Michael Pattavina is on the dance-floor yelling in his Boston accent, “One mo-ah, Jawnny, one mo-ah!” On the fly I go with “You Left the Water Running” for an encore. Brian the trombonist raises his eyebrows at me like, “Should I play on this one?” I nod a definite yes. We wring every last ounce of fun out of this old Dan Penn soul tune and the crowd is right with us, dancing up a storm. Solos for everyone, a cappella, you name it. Jason the drummer is playing his ass off. I look over at Dave the guitar player and we end it just like we planned, going to the E minor one last time and then put it down nice and smooth on the runway. Check the overhead compartment for any personal belongings.

That’s the show. Time to say goodbye and pack it up. Before we leave I go over to Jeremy the club manager to see how we did. Tickets were $10 and we got 46 paying customers. Considering how worried I was about this gig, I am pleased. Outside the wind and rain is slapping the night around. I pack up the Prius and head south on 91 back to Florence. When I get home I steer my car down the driveway right up to the new studio. I look in the window of the studio and see my 17 year-old son Chris with six friends, three boys and three girls. Now I have something new to worry about.

 

 

 

No One is Like Jonathan

I really shouldn’t even be posting this on the internet. According to Jonathan Richman, I should be telling you about his show face-to-face, instead of having my words pop up on some cold screen where you can’t even tell what my tone of voice is and where I can correct run-on sentences and make my ideas sound polished, but lacking in the awkward graceful immediacy of a live human.

As soon as Jonathan Richman, 66, hopped up on stage last night at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke he launched into “Take Me to the Plaza” a humorous, but sincere ramble about how he likes to get his news on the street, from people holding coffee cups, not from TV and newspapers and the internet. “People come up to me want to show me the band they’re in, some video on their iPhone and I don’t want to see some little TV screen with tinny sound. I want to go and see their band in person.” The overflow audience laughed and applauded nervously, like sinners in church, considering their own secret desires to take a photo of the legendary Jonathan. Jonathan himself has no cell phone, no email, no TV.  He conducts media interviews by snail mail.

So the first habit the audience had to toss out the window was our digital pre-occupation. Consequently, more people were present and dancing instead of tapping their phones. The second habit to go was the expectation of a normal show. This concert would prove to be more of a performance-piece, conjuring-act about how to be attuned to love and wonder, than any kind of crowd-pleasing rendering of favorite songs. Jonathan is an artist and he plays what he feels like playing, not what the audience came to hear. For a man so full of sentiment, he is leery of nostalgia. In the same way, his romantic tendencies are cut with a nasal, Natick accent and smeary guitar-work.

Jonathan strummed a nylon-string acoustic into a microphone accompanied by Tommy Larkins on a drum-kit hit lightly with bundled-rod sticks. Over the years Jonathan has figured out this is the best way for him to play live- just a duo, not loud, yet rockin,’ like they were jamming in your kitchen. Bare-bones as they were, they gave every song a groove and a hook. The sound in the room was pin-drop perfect.

To keep it interesting, at any moment, in any song, Jonathan might walk out in front of the mikes to the edge of the stage and play unamplified. Then he would stop strumming altogether and start dancing exuberantly with maracas. Jonathan seemed really happy with the big crowd and the whole scene. He got the audience singing and clapping at the slightest instigation. Making eye contact with everyone, at the end of songs he would put his hands over his heart with genuine appreciation.

As magical as he was, Jonathan’s repertoire was spotty, like his albums. He is so charismatic and groovy he can make overly simplistic ditties sparkle, including ones in French, Italian, Spanish and Ojibwe, but why not play some bonafide classics like “New England” or God knows, “Roadrunner,” a beloved, essential rocker which Jonathan has not played live since 1973! In 2017, a third attempt was introduced in the state legislature to make “Roadrunner” the official song of Massachusetts. Jonathan is not interested. At Gateway City Arts he played only half of the haunting “The Fenway” and a mere 30 seconds of the magnificent “Summer Feeling.” Tantalizing.

We were treated to the instrumental “Egyptian Reggae” (recently featured on the Baby Driver soundtrack) and the passionate “No One Was like Vermeer.” You could easily write an answer song called “No One Is Like Jonathan.” The most energetic song of the night was a full-on version of “Dancing in a Lesbian Bar” with Jonathan conducting the audience sing-along. Towards the end of the show Jonathan got deep into reflective mode with songs in praise of vulnerability like “Surrender,” and “Not so Much to Love as to Be Loved.” The song “When We Refuse to Suffer” really got to me. Sometimes Jonathan is the wise fool who opens your heart with a handmade message. “When we refuse to suffer/ When we refuse to feel/ We suffer more/ It’s like air conditioning when we should be out in the summertime.”

After the show my 17 year-old son Chris was blown away. “I had no idea it would be like that,” he said. How could you? There is no one like Jonathan. We drove home in time to catch the second half of the Celtics-Warriors game. Final score- Boston 92- Golden State 88.

Here is “No One Was Like Vermeer” by Jonathan Richman from the album Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild, 2008.

 

Have You Seen Tommy Emmanuel?

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I remember flipping through the channels one night just a few years ago and I landed on PBS where they were broadcasting a Tommy Emmanuel live concert. I dropped the remote and picked it up off the floor along with my jaw. Holy mother of Jimi Hendrix! This Australian bloke was the most entertaining and charming acoustic guitar player I’d ever seen. How could I have not known about him? I am a diehard music lover and former deejay and music director at WRSI radio (which evolved into 939 The River) where we were always on the lookout for insanely talented people like this. I did have some vague memory of the name “Tommy Emmanuel” and the fact that he had played the Calvin Theater in Northampton not too long ago, but that was it. Maybe it was an Australian under-the-radar phenomenon.

After some research I came up with a theory. Tommy Emmanuel was a mere virtuoso who became a bonafide genius when he started to focus on recording and performing live, solo and acoustic around 2005. Listening to his albums recorded in the studio is pleasant but not exciting, one step away from dentist office music. Whereas when he plays live, the music crackles with seat-of-your-pants energy and audience rapport. When I went back and started listening to his catalogue of albums online I realized that I had heard one of the highly varnished studio recordings back in the ‘90s and that’s what had thrown me off his trail.

As to playing solo, Tommy (let’s call him Tommy, not Mr. Emmanuel) is such a wizard fingerpicker that a band is extraneous. When he really gets flying, the audience enjoys the delicious cognitive dissonance that the visual evidence of one performer on stage is being contradicted by the complexity of the music being produced. Somehow all this music is being played in real time, by one person, without loops. On top of all that, Tommy is such a physically engaging presence and likeable fellow. He sways to the music, smiles at the fun of it all and tells stories in a friendly, down-under drawl.

And there is no need for an electric. I have never seen anybody be more creative with an acoustic guitar than Tommy Emmanuel. He explores every inch of the guitar. He plays it quiet and loud, slow and fast, sweet and dirty. He uses flamenco flurries, jazz harmonies, and bluesy bends. His piece de resistance arrives late in the set when he uses the acoustic guitar as a drum. He beats on the upper body of the guitar with his left hand and uses a drummer’s brush in his right to swipe at the head of his vocal mike. Then he drops the brush and starts to whomp up some amazing polyrhythms on the guitar body with both hands, occasionally flecking the strings past the nut in a whirlwind of motion.

Last night Tommy Emmanuel played the Academy of Music in Northampton and I took my 16 year-old son Chris and three members of his indie-rock band, Court Etiquette. These youngsters were vastly outnumbered by the gray-haired PBS audience that filled the venue. Joe Robinson opened the show with tasty set of songs featuring his virtuoso guitar playing. The 25 year-old, black-hatted Robinson came off as essentially Tommy Emmanuel, Jr., which I mean as a compliment. Like his mentor, Robinson was devilishly dexterous, a gifted composer and Australian. He sang an original about “Adelaide” and played wicked solos over looped guitar riffs. Robinson even had a party trick of playing two guitars at once, with an electric sitting on top of his acoustic. Very Tommy.

After intermission the master strolled out on stage. As good as Joe Robinson was you could tell the difference. When Tommy Emmanuel started playing the music was a little deeper, more spacious and sure. Tommy was so in love with the music and the guitar, that you could not resist. Among the myriad highlights of his set were the flamenco inflected “El Vaquero” and a gorgeous new instrumental called “Never Too Late.” “ I was staying with our friends in Boston and in their kitchen they had a sign that said ‘It’s never too late…to have a happy ending,” said the 61 year-old Tommy who mentioned he is the father of a two-year old. “And it’s never too late to have a baby, “ quipped Tommy.

“Anybody out there like the Rolling Stones?” asked Tommy. “Here’s my Beatles medley,” said the cheeky Aussie. Thought the show he alternated tender ballads with finger-busting numbers like “Guitar Boogie” and his show-stopping drum-on-the-guitar bit. The simplest guitar song all night was his version of “Hurt,” the Nine Inch Nails song, that Tommy sang with a heartfelt simplicity. Near the end he brought out Joe Robinson for some beautiful duets on tunes like the country classic “Windy and Warm.” The only fly in the ointment all night was the over-the-top coconut-scented stage smoke and the laser light show that occasionally shone right in the audience’s eyeballs like we were being interrogated.

All in all, it was a wonderful night at the Academy of Music. My son and his buddies were blown away. I kept thinking of Harry Houdini and all the amazing acts who have played at the Academy over the years. Tommy would have fit right in with Houdini.

Here’s a bit of Tommy Emmanuel’s “Beatles Medley” as performed at the Academy of Music in Northampton on March 5, 2017.

Never Too Much

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March 2, 2016

By Johnny Memphis

Academy of Music

When I entered the vestibule of the Academy of Music, Humphrey Bogart was standing in the corner. Bogart was dressed in a white tuxedo jacket like he was waiting for Ingrid Bergman to show up at his Casablanca café. Bogart was frozen, not because someone just opened the wooden double doors, but because he is a mannequin who serves as a suave totem for the 125 year-old Northampton theatre.

For many years after the Academy stopped showing movies, Bogie was bored and lonely in the lobby, but now the theatre is back in the game. Signature Sounds in Northampton is booking shows there as well as Dan Smalls Presents from Ithaca, who have John Sanders as a talent buyer and partner. Sanders knows the area well since he lived here and worked for the Iron Horse Entertainment Group for many years. Thursday night Dan Smalls presented Lone Bellow at the Academy, Friday and Saturday night it was the Signature Sounds Backporch Festival featuring Los Lobos, Peter Rowan and many more. Sunday it was the Arts Council’s Really Big Gong Show featuring a dancing goat and a woman who walked on Champagne bottles. It was quite a weekend for the Academy. The place was bustling and soon to sport a spiffy, redesigned Pulaski Park on its arm. Humphrey looked pleased.

Roy Sludge Trio

 Friday night the Roy Sludge Trio performed a honky-tonk happy hour show at the Parlor Room as part of the Backporch Festival. Sludge is a rockabilly retro-naut from Boston with a clear, deep voice and a resume dotted with Beantown bonafides like Barrence Whitfield, The Spurs and the Tarbox Ramblers. With the bespectacled Mr. Sludge on acoustic guitar, Jimmy Scopa on electric guitar and Johnny Sciascia on stand-up bass the band had that early-Elvis, Sun Records sound on originals like “Too Drunk to Truck.” When you’ve got a hot lead guitarist and somebody thumping the dog-house bass like Sciascia (from Eilen Jewell’s band) you don’t have to have a drummer. Steady strumming the acoustic guitar gives that swish-tish backbeat of the brushes on a snare.

The Suitcase Junket

From the Parlor Room it was a brisk stroll up Masonic Street to the Academy of Music where Los Lobos was headlining the big Friday night show of the Backporch Festival. Opening the concert was The Suitcase Junket, aka Matt Lorenz, a Hampshire grad with a Rollie Fingers mustache who plays an electrified crappy guitar while sitting on a beat-up suitcase that doubles as a bass-drum and uses foot-pedals to hit household objects like a circular saw-blade with a baby’s shoe. He is a very talented singer, song-writer and slide guitarist whose piece de resistance is the soloing he delivers with buzzing, beautiful throat-whistling, like a bee circling a flower.

Los Lobos

Expectations were high for the Los Lobos show and why not. This group of friends from East L.A. has been one of the best American bands for more than 40 years. I saw them on their first national tour in 1983 at the Rusty Nail roadhouse in Sunderland. Since then, they have played memorable local shows at Pearl Street Nightclub, the Calvin Theater, Celebrate Holyoke, the Pines Theater and the Green River Festival, but this was their first time at the Academy of Music.

When Los Lobos walked out on stage there was someone missing: Cesar Rosas, the goateed man in the sunglasses who sings, writes and plays rugged, left-handed guitar. That left David Hidalgo as the lone front-man. Late in the show Hidalgo answered the persistent “Where’s Cesar?” cries from the audience by saying enigmatically, “He missed the boat.” I later learned that the official reason was a “bad back.”

Los Lobos did arrive with guitarist/songwriter Louis Perez, bassist Conrad Lozano, sax/keyboards guy Steve Berlin, drummer Enrique Gonzalez, plus the peerless Hidalgo on guitar and lead vocals. The band played essentially acoustic instruments aside from Lozano’s electric bass and Berlin’s keyboard. Without Rosas the load fell on the gray-haired Hidalgo to carry the show and he was not 100 percent himself, mumbling something about a sore throat as the show began.

The concert opened with the obscure “Everybody Loves a Train” from the Colossal Head album. This would not be a greatest hits show. Los Lobos shows never are. This is a band that followed up their number-one, 1987 hit single “La Bamba” by releasing a Spanish language album of traditional Mexican music. Like Frank Sinatra, Los Lobos does it their way. Artistic integrity is admirable, but it sure would have been nice to hear some of their classics.

The band took a while to get rolling, which may have something to do with the fact they did no sound check whatsoever. Midway through things started to click on songs like “Saint Behind the Glass” and the show peaked with a great, extended version of “The Neighborhood,” as Hidalgo got the audience clapping and singing the refrain, “Thank you, Lord, for another day/ Help my brother along the way/ And please, bring peace to the neighborhood.” For the encore the near–capacity crowd was on their feet as Los Lobos launched into “Not Fade Away” the Buddy Holly song with the Bo Diddley beat that was popularized by the Grateful Dead. This segued into the Dead’s “Bertha,” a Los Lobos staple that included the amazed Suitcase Junket on vocals.

After the show, Los Lobos partied into the night, back-stage at the Academy. This old theater has a warren of narrow staircases and dressing rooms in the wings. It feels like you are inside a wooden submarine. Downstairs there is a communal space underneath the stage where Los Lobos held court, drinking beer and shucking oysters until they were kicked out for fear of going past midnight, Academy over-time, the witching hour.

Northampton Record Fair

 Saturday afternoon I stopped by the Northampton Record Fair at Union Station, because you can never have too much music. It was a scene. Vendors lined the outer hall of the former train depot as sun poured in the windows. The glorious main room with its curving yellow brick walls and twenty-foot ceilings was jammed with table after table of record crates and customers of all ages. DJ Bongohead spun new wave cumbia as people flipped through plastic-sleeved recordings of yesteryear. I went looking for Peter Rowan albums since I knew I was going to introduce him that night at the Academy. I found a goofy “Peter Rowan and the Wild Stallions” Italian import LP from ’82, a little-known, perhaps best-forgotten chapter of his colorful career.

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Then I located a mint copy of the classic Old and In the Way vinyl album from 1975, which featured Rowan on lead vocals on guitar along with other luminaries like Jerry Garcia on banjo and David Grisman on mandolin. This was the album that introduced me and millions to bluegrass. As I was contemplating the band caricature on the front cover, the record-seller man plopped a copy of Earth Opera’s first album in front of me. Earth Opera was a psychedelic Boston band that Rowan started with Grisman in 1967. Even though the first song on the album was the intriguing “The Red Sox Are Winning” I bought the Old and In the Way record instead. When I got home, I discovered that I already owned it. Oh well, you can never have too much music.

Peter Rowan and Mandolin Orange

 Saturday night I was almost too late to the Academy to introduce Peter Rowan. This would have been the second year in a row I had done that. Last year I was too late to introduce Barnstar, because I thought the show started at 8:00 instead of the actual time, 7:00. The Friday night show starts at 8, why not Saturday? Luckily, this year I realized my mistake on the way to the show, raced down Route 9, found a parking spot and sprinted in the side entrance to discover that I had fifteen minutes to spare. I was almost early. As I enjoyed the graceful duets of opening act Mandolin Orange from the wings, Backporch impresario Jim Olsen informed me that Peter Rowan was suffering from a terrible sore throat. I introduced the bluegrass legend to the near sell-out crowd and sure enough Rowan could barely talk, much less sing. Somehow he soldiered on in a hoarse whisper, but it was hard to watch and so I ducked out the side door.

Bamboo Steamers

 At this point I considered my Northampton nightlife options. I decided to check out the Bamboo Steamers at The Basement, which proved to be a wise move. No cover, no pretense, just a bunch of locals in a tiny, dark club knocking the stuffing out of their own garage pop nuggets like “Shadows on My Heart” and “Miss You Like an Eyeball.” Led by songwriter Don Singleman, the Bamboo Steamers are a potent, catchy cocktail of Ventures surf guitar, warped vocals a la Robert Smith (The Cure) with a Them-era Van Morrison vibe. Their rhythm section alone (Jimmy Gibbs driving the bass and Frank Marsh cracking the drums) should get a lifetime achievement award for meritorious rocking. When it came time to pass the hat I volunteered for the job and most of the Basement denizens were happy to fork over some dosh for the pleasure of hearing a band this good, this close.

Steep Canyon Rangers

 The Basement was a bit loud for my eardrums, so I headed back to the Academy to hear a taste of the Steep Canyon Rangers, the final act of the Bluegrass night at the Backporch Festival. The Steepsters are rising stars of the bluegrass circuit who got a huge boost when they hooked up with comedian Steve Martin to be his backing band on record and in concert. These guys are polished pros, for better and for worse. Instead of gathering around a single microphone, they have custom ear implants for monitors, which is not very Bill Monroe. The music was tuneful and tasty and performed superbly, but the songs did not ring my cowbell.

Suitcase Junket (again)

 Sunday morning I interviewed Suitcase Junket at the Parlor Room as part of the live broadcast of the Backporch radio show on 939 The River. Suitcase was really good at the Academy but his performance was even better in the cozy Parlor Room. Here is part of the interview as I remember it.

Me: “Singing ‘Bertha’ with Los Lobos at the Academy must have been amazing. How did that come about?”

Suitcase: “I was coming up the stairs from the basement hospitality and they were coming offstage before the encore. They asked me to do sing a song with them. They said, “How about ‘What’s Goin’ On’?” (pause for laughter) I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ Then they offered ‘Bertha’ which was one of the first songs I ever learned.”

Me: “I saw you and David Hidalgo conferring onstage and then at one point you both laughed. What was that?”

Suitcase: “He said I should sing the last verse. I said, ‘How does it go?’ He said, ‘I’m not sure.’ I said, ‘Just give me three key words.’ We worked it out.”

Twisted Pine

 Twisted Pine followed Suitcase Junket at the Parlor Room with a sterling set of songs. It was the best music I heard all weekend. This surprised me because I saw this young bluegrass quintet from Berklee College of Music last year and I was expecting mere Berklee virtuosity. This band has evolved from covering bluegrass classics to performing organic originals that were fresh and personal. It helped immeasurably that the sound was perfectly clear and balanced. The Sunday morning scene in the Parlor Room was so fine, one old guy in the audience came up to me and said, “I could give up church for this.”

 The Really Big (Gong) Show

The only proper way to end this wild weekend of music was with the Really Big (Gong) Show at the Academy of Music, which is part of the Northampton Arts Council’s Four Sundays in February series at the Academy. “Gong” is in parentheses because the Arts Council got a cease and desist order from the Gong Show owners. They were gonged by the gong show, which is something to tell your grandchildren. For many years this community variety show was called the Really Big Show in honor of Ed Sullivan and I was the first person to portray Ed. At this year’s show I was in the balcony helping to launch balloons over the railing during the “Gene, Gene the Dancing Machine” sequence featuring Steve Martin. (Steve Martin from the Young at Heart Chorus, that is.) Steve Westfield, the devil-may-care host of this year’s show reminded me of my show biz demotion, saying, “You’ve gone from being Ed Sullivan to a guy tossing balloons from the balcony.” Hey, I’m happy to throw balloons.

Here is 40 seconds of Suitcase Junket performing live on the radio Sunday morning, February 28, 2016 from the Parlor Room in Northampton, Massachusetts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Color Me Beige

Pictured: Merrit Andrews and his son Steve Westfield at Luthier’s Co-op.

(photo by Dave Madeloni)

By Johnny Memphis

“Everybody pick a key!” yelled Steve Westfield out of the blue. It was the big rock ending of the last song of Saturday night’s Beige show at Luthier’s Co-op in Easthampton. Westfield jumped in the air with his electric guitar and when he landed each member of Beige played a random chord. It didn’t sound too bad. Maybe some of the eight-piece band unwittingly picked the same or related chords. “Pick another key!” yelled Westfield, who jumped up in the air again like a rock star and landed with a wacky sounding splat. There were a lot of colors in that group-improv dis-chord, especially for a band named Beige. Then Westfield started jumping up and down and the band synchronized a thump with every time he landed, as best they could. Westfield didn’t make it easy with his arrhythmic, spastic intervals, sometimes pausing for absurd amounts of time, until he finally shuddered to a stop. We think. One more. Just this last one. Really, this is it. I mean it this time. Okay. Splunk. “Now, drum solo!”

It’s not like Beige rehearsed the ending. I know because I used to play bass in Beige. Beige plays out four times a year (“quarterly” as Westfield lies to put it) and rehearses scantily. Arrangements exist but are subject to change. Westfield likes some organization mixed with heaping portions of spontaneity and surprise. Born Steve Andrews in Westfield, MA his first claim to fame was the infamous Pajama Slave Dancers. In 1985 the dean of rock critics Robert Christgau from the Village Voice reviewed their album Cheap is Real and wrote, “the magnificent ‘I Want to Make Love to You’ is on a level with Spinal Tap itself.” How about them Big Apples? If you liked the albums you should have seen the live show- comedic, thunderous, mock-rock performance art orchestrated by Westfield, the calm, straight-faced mischief-maker, a bent Bing Crosby with a Strat. “Problems with Sects.” “Bare Naked in Bed with You.” “Train Wreck on Prom Night.”

I have known Steve Westfield since the mid 1980s from shows at Sheehan’s Café in Northampton and the Zone in Springfield where he was the ringleader of a local music scene that included acts like Raymond and the Circle (“Oh, those chariots of fire”) and the disco-garage band called Check, Please! I played bass in Check, Please! so when Steve and his family moved from Westfield to my home town of Florence I happily joined his new ska project called Beige. As soon as I joined, I knew I didn’t have the mental space to be in Beige, but Steve is so much fun I stayed for a year. When I finally quit the band I suggested Steve replace me with his son, Stephen who is a great young bassist. Perfect. And you never really leave one of Steve’s band, as you can see by the Beige personnel at Luthier’s, thickly settled by refugees from the Slow Band, another Westfield project.

Luthier’s is a long, cool nightclub set in a music store on the east end of Cottage Street in Easthampton. Banjos and fiddles hang on the walls and on Saturday night winter coats were strewn over amplifiers waiting to be fixed. On stage, the band in various shades of beige featured the Andrews father/son team on guitar and bass, Kevin French on drums, Stiv French (no relation) on keyboards/sampler and a killer horn section with baritone sax (Tom Mahnken,), tenor sax (Dave Trenholm,) and trombone (Mark Turcotte,) plus a great vibes player (Bob Richards) who gave the ska some Mexican-marimba cilantro-seasoning . The audience was a mixture of teenagers and old friends, curiosity seekers and old folks. The teens came to see the previous act, Court Etiquette, a rockin’ band of Northampton High kids that included Steve’s daughter Mary on vocals and keyboards and my son Chris on drums. Steve’s dad and step-mother, Merrit and Joyce, were sitting at a table right in front of the stage. In the middle of one song Steve walked off the stage and stood on their little table while playing guitar. Steve then took off his guitar and put the strap over Merrit’s shoulders and had his dad take a solo. To no one’s surprise Merrit was a rock and roll maniac with chops at least as demented as those of Steve, who gleefully pounded the guitar effects box he held over his head while his dad shredded.

Steve is amazing with audiences. He engages with them and their expectations. As one friend said last year after seeing Westfield hosting the Really Big Gong Show at the Academy of Music, “You just feel better when Steve is on stage.” Saturday night Steve got the crowd singing along with his tender “Kissing Game.” The song’s big moment came when Steve brought the volume way down and sang the hook, “You take my clothes off for me, I’ll take your clothes off for you.” Steve divided the crowd in half and had the two sides compete to see who could sing it best. The band dropped out completely and it was just a bunch of people in a bar in Easthampton singing, “You take my clothes off for me, I’ll take your clothes off for you” to each other. “Now let’s see who can sing it the quietest,” said Westfield. “Whisper it.” “Hmm. That was kinda loud,” he complained.

A month ago Steve Westfield performed as Santa Claus on stage with Lord Elvis at the Flo Ho Ho yuletide shindig in the Florence VFW Ballroom. Lord Elvis is an Elvis Presley tribute act performed by the legendary local vocalist Lord Russ. As Lord Elvis, Russ sang live to a pre-recorded backing track and at Flo Ho Ho he sang so well you almost thought he was lip-synching. Santa Steve came on stage to give Elvis a gift (a box of chocolates) and then stuck around to play air keyboards for the last song, the melodramatic “If I Can Dream” from the ‘68 Comeback Special. As the song built in drama, so too, Santa Steve. He turned around and “played” the keyboards behind his back, then started rocking side to side with his beard swinging to and fro. In a frenzy he started rocking the whole keyboard stand and a plastic cup of beer went flying. At the majestic ending Santa’s hat fell off and he collapsed exhausted, face down over the keyboards as Elvis said, “Thank you, thank you very much. You have been a beautiful audience.” All you could see of Santa was a huge mound of white hair and beard covering the keys.

Here is Lord Elvis and Santa Steve Westfield at Flo Ho Ho performing “If I Can Dream.” The video was shot by Dann Vazquez.

 

 

 

Aretha Lives!

Did you see the look on Carole King’s face when Aretha Franklin came out and sat down at the piano to sing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors last month? Carole looked like she was going to jump out of her ball-gown. Honorees always look surprised and delighted when a famous person pays them tribute, but this was on a whole ‘nother level. For one thing, Carole is not a bull-shitter. After her album Tapestry exploded she moved to a remote town in Idaho and became a rancher and environmentalist. She is not from Hollyweird.

At the Kennedy Center Carole King was genuinely blown away for several possible reasons. Number one, Aretha showed up. You never know with the Queen of Soul. Aretha is the diva of divas. She gets her nose out of joint at the slightest provocation. But there she was, walking out on stage. Carole threw kisses to Aretha. Aretha threw them back. Clive Davis in the audience looked like he was going to cry. Davis is the record company honcho who has guided Aretha’s recording career since 1980. He knows Aretha’s genius and difficulty.

Then Aretha went over to sit at the piano and Carole had to cover her gaping mouth with her hand because she was so astonished. Aretha was going to sing and play the piano! This was a very good sign. When Aretha plays the piano she digs deeper into the music. This is one big reason why her classic Atlantic records immediately surpassed her earlier Columbia albums. It is also one reason why Tapestry is so good. Carole and Aretha both accompany themselves sublimely. They have that in common. And just listen to that commanding piano intro by Aretha at the Kennedy Center. Game on! It was reminiscent of the moment in 1967 when she showed up at Muscle Shoals Recording Studio in Alabama and sat down at the piano to record her first song for Atlantic.

Songwriter Dan Penn talks about that moment in 1967 in Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick. “I knew about Aretha way before she got there. Rick [Rick Hall, the studio owner] contacted me about the session, but he didn’t know who in hell was coming in. I said, ‘Who you got?’ He said, ‘Aretha Franklin.’ I said, ‘Boy, you better get your damn shoes on. You getting someone who can sing.’ Even the Memphis guys didn’t really know who in the hell she was. I said, ‘Man, this woman gonna knock you out.’ They’re all going, ‘Big deal!’ When she came in there and sit down at the piano and hit that first chord, everybody was just like little bees buzzing around the queen. You could tell by the way she hit the piano the gig was up. It was ‘Let’s get down to serious business.’”

Aretha Franklin is 73 now (the exact same age as Carole King) and not surprisingly her voice has gotten raspy with age and has lost some of the top end. At the Kennedy Center it did not matter. Aretha’s voice was weathered, but on the money and rising to the occasion. She loves the big-time spotlight and a chance to show the world again, why she is still the Queen. When she sang “Amazing Grace” for Pope Francis this year it was as though she was granting him an audience. In the Kennedy Center audience Michelle was rapt, Barack teary. Aretha is a huge supporter of the Democratic Party and Obama in particular.

Pacing the song expertly, Aretha was measured at first, taking her time, like a dowser looking for a wellspring of soul. By the second verse she was finding it, rearing back with inspired cries, building momentum. After the second chorus, Aretha stood up from the piano and made her way down to the front of the stage. Going into the last chorus, Aretha was hitting the high notes and holding them, shaking them, squeezing them, wringing them. “I feel like, I feel like, Oh-ohhh, Oh-ohhh.” As she slipped one arm out of her fur overcoat, her singing went to another level and the audience spontaneously jumped to their feet. She threw the overcoat to the floor. It was Aretha the way we remember her, singing her butt off, big and beautiful, revealing her self as we revel in her amazing soulfulness. At the end Aretha was in the throes of the music crying out, “A woman! A woman! A woman!” I’ll say.

There is a superb biography of Aretha Franklin called Respect by David Ritz published in 2014. In 2013 Ritz saw Aretha demonstrate her undiminished power at a show in Newark. In the middle of a lackluster show she suddenly got inspired while singing B.B. King’s “Sweet Sixteen.” “Early in this traditional twelve bar blues, she caught the Holy Ghost. She performed the miracle that only the greatest of R&B artists can realize- the union of the sacred and the secular, the marriage of heaven and earth- as she broke into a little church dance, not caring that her bra straps were slipping and her gown askew.”

The Kennedy Center Honors occurred on December 6, 2015 and were broadcast on December 29, 2015. This clip is introduced by Chilina Kennedy from the musical Beautiful in character as Carole King.

 

Everything is Music

By Johnny Memphis

Here’s a poem by the Persian poet Rumi called “Where Everything is Music.”

Don’t worry about saving these songs! And if one of our instruments breaks, it doesn’t matter.

We have fallen into the place where everything is music.

The strumming and the flute notes rise into the atmosphere, 

and even if the whole world’s harp should burn up,

there will still be hidden instruments playing.

So the candle flickers and goes out. We have a piece of flint, and a spark.

This singing art is sea foam.

The graceful movements come from a pearl somewhere on the ocean floor.

Poems reach up like spindrift and the edge of driftwood along the beach, wanting!

They derive from a slow and powerful root that we can’t see.

Stop the words now.

Open the window in the center of your chest, and let the spirits fly in and out.

This poem was included in Saturday’s bar mitzvah service for my young friend Benjamin DeLaCour. Benjamin was born in 2002 in Northampton, Massachusetts and Rumi, the Persian poet and Sufi mystic, was born in 1207 in Vaksh, Tajikstan, 300 miles north of Kabul. The poem blew me away like spindrift (“sea spray blown from waves during a gale,” says Merriam-Webster.) Later in the bar mitzvah, Benjamin spoke about his Tikkun Olam to help Bedouin villages. As part of a bar or bat mitzvah, young Jews often choose a community service project to do “tikkun olam,” translated as “repair of the world.” Benjamin chose to raise money for Bedouin villages in Israel and the West Bank that are struggling to stay on their ancestral lands in defiance of the Israeli government. To help their cause, Benjamin and his father Ned will do a 50-mile fund-raising bike ride and Benjamin will also facilitate letters to Congress from the rest of us. We can’t count on Benjamin to do all the tikkun olam.

In the evening the bar mitzvah continued at the Look Park Garden House where we gathered on the dance floor and the lights were dimmed for the blessing of the challah bread. “Come in closer,” said Rabbi Riqi. Benjamin held a big Havdalah candle that was lit to symbolize the sacredness of the Sabbath. As we sang the blessing, the rabbi invited us to see the reflection of the candlelight in our fingernails, or better yet, look into our neighbor’s eyes for the glimmer. Looking for candlelight in someone’s eyes is a lovely assignment. Spices were passed around, challah was sampled, fruit of the vine was sipped.

As soon as the candle was doused in a big glass of wine, the klezmer quartet kicked in. The crowd was already on the dance floor, already in a loving, communal spirit, all ready to move. There was no need to tell people to start dancing. People just started to shimmy as soon as Klezamir launched into the rousing party-starter “Simen Tov U’Mazel Tov,” translated as “Good Sign and Good Luck.” (The band told me later they prefer this tune to the more obvious choice of “Hava Nagila.”) Before you knew it there was a nucleus of swing-your-partner dancers arm-in-arm, and then a giant mushrooming spiral of hand-linking, latch-on-to-the-next-person line dancing, with everyone outside the circle clapping for joy and encouragement, liable to be swept up into the dancing themselves. The music surged, caught fire and burned brighter and brisker, the clarinet scolding and rejoicing. Benjamin was lifted up in a chair and raised above the crowd. The men holding him up gave him a bumpy ride, as if to say “You are a man now, you can handle it, plus your tribe will support you and be there for you on the rocky path of life.” The song went on and on, for 10, 20, 30, 40 minutes, who knows how long, too long to count. It could still be going on. It is the endless song of endless love. Time is irrelevant. Centuries disappear. We are still clapping. Everything is music.

After the dance I talked to Joe Blumenthal the bass player for Klezamir. Speaking about playing at Jewish celebrations he said, “We used to get 15-20 of these a year but now we only get 5 or 6. Nowadays they just want deejays.”

The next morning outside our front door there was a cardboard, virtual reality viewer that was delivered along with the Sunday New York Times. If you followed all the instructions and inserted your smartphone into the viewer, you could watch a video and see any part of the scene in all 360 degrees by turning your head from side to side or up and down. The first video in the scroll to download was “The Displaced” about three kids, who are among the 60 million people currently displaced by war. One kid was from the Ukraine, one from the Sudan and one from Syria. In the Sudan video, refugees stood in a field as food was dropped from an airplane. As a viewer, when you heard the sound of the airplanes coming, you could pan up to the sky and see the plane go by and the big bags of food that were dropping like bombs.

This new virtual reality technology was amazing because the person viewing could choose which direction to look at the scene. There was more immersion with the story of displaced children, more connection to ways in which the world needs repair. Yet this virtual reality box was depressing at the same time. It was sad to see my kids, 13 and 15, trying it out. With the viewer over their eyes, they couldn’t see the real world around them. They were encased in technology. They wouldn’t be able to see the reflection of the candlelight in their neighbor’s eyes.

Music Link

Here’s a song called “Lupita” by the great klezmer band Klezperanto who were playing up the road at the Arts Block in Greenfield the same night as the bar mitzvah. Klezperanto is led by the clarinetist Ilene Stahl who lives in Greenfield.

Stevie Wonder in Hartford

By Johnny Memphis

About two hours into his over-stuffed, at-times-glorious “Songs in the Key of Life Performance” concert at the Hartford XL Center, Stevie Wonder broke away from his 34-piece orchestra and started to play solo, tapping his fingers on a small stringed instrument that looked like a rectangular dulcimer. The instrument is called a harpejji (invented in 2007) and it sounds like a cross between an acoustic guitar and a keyboard. Stevie has been playing the harpejji for three years and he has got it down. In Hartford, even more than when he played keyboards or harmonica, Stevie was in the happy zone on harpejji, totally focused, making exquisite music, familiar but fresh. It is Stevie’s new toy and he was smiling, and waving his head from side to side when he played it.

When Stevie was a baby his father, gave him bongos that Stevie played constantly in the crib, according to Mark Ribowsky’s candid 2010 biography Signed, Sealed and Delivered, The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder. Stevie’s father Calvin Judkins was a nasty piece of work who pimped Stevie’s mother Lula Mae on the streets of Saginaw and Detroit until she finally got rid of him. At least his father gave Stevie some drums, which piqued Stevie’s unquenchable curiosity about all things musical. “I got the thirst for wanting to know. ‘What is that? What is it made of? I know how it sounds, but how does it look? Can I touch it?” Stevie said in an interview with Billboard magazine.

When Stevie was toiling as a teenager in the Motown hit factory he used a clavinet on “Shoo-Bee-Doo-Bee-Doo-Ba-Day” in 1968, making him the first pop musician to use this hybrid electric keyboard that sounded like a mutated electric guitar. The springy, clangy sound of the clavinet became a key part of Stevie’s sonic vocabulary, and he later utilized it to devastating effects on songs like “Superstition.” When Stevie turned 21 and took over total production of his records, he discovered the capabilities of synthesizers, which helped create the magnificent aural soundscapes of his genius records of the early to mid ‘70s. His childhood friend John Glover said, “Stevie was looking for ways to make the beat sexy, not necessarily by what the lyrics would say but the sound, what the sound would say. It was like what he said later in ‘Sir Duke’- ‘You can feel it all over.’” In the end, like Duke Ellington, the whole band became Stevie’s instrument.

In order to do justice to the re-creation of the “Songs in the Key of Life” album, Stevie brought a band to Hartford that was more than twice the size of Duke Ellington’s. Joining Stevie on stage was a six-piece horn section, eight back-up singers, an eight-person rhythm section, an extra harmonica whiz, and a ten-piece string section with a sexy female conductor who could really dance. All the women in the band were knock-outs because as Stevie said in Hartford, “The blind gotta have fine.” You get the impression that Stevie is quite the ladies’ man, which is corroborated by Ribowsky’s biography.

The concert began with the album’s first cut, “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” featuring the string section and Stevie’s opening lines, “Good morn or evening friends, Here’s your friendly announcer, I have serious news to pass on, to everybody.” Dressed in a black dashiki choir robe with white piping, Stevie was in great voice and the string section taut. This was an auspicious beginning but unfortunately, it was followed by “Have a Talk with God,” which is when I have seriously bad news to pass on to everybody. Somebody needed to Have a Talk with the Soundman. When the band kicked in, the bass was too loud. I mean WAY TOO LOUD. SO MUCH BASS IT OVERSHADOWED EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE BAND. MY PANTS WERE VIBRATING. What is the point of bringing Stevie Wonder and 32 other world-class musicians to town if you are going to bury their music with too much bass? Eye, eye, eye.

The first set peaked early with the back-to-back, dancing-in-the-aisle hits “Sir Duke” and “I Wish.” There was nowhere to go but down from there and we did. Hampered by the bad sound, we slogged through the many tuneful, but overlong and ultimately boring songs that fill out the album. When you are playing in a sports arena (16,000 seats, mostly filled) it is better to stick to the hits. The extended album cuts that transport listeners in their living rooms don’t translate in a big barn. The second set began well with Stevie announcing that his daughter Aisha was due to give birth to Stevie’s second grandchild later in the month. “Just don’t call me Grand-dad,” quipped Stevie, 65, who then launched into the song he wrote when Aisha was born, “Isn’t She Lovely.” For the first time all evening Stevie got out his chromatic harmonica, which he played with relentless virtuosity over the coda. This man may be the most expressive harmonica player ever, as well as our planet’s best soul singer.

Along with dutifully working his way through Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie had some fun and went off script. He improvised a melodic line that the string section learned on the fly. He whipped up a Parisian double harmonica melody that evolved into a blues jam with saxophonists running to get their instruments. In the encore Stevie became DJ Tick Tick Boom and spun modern day hits like “Can’t Feel My Face” before stringing together a medley of his own that included a rocking “Living for the City,” a surprisingly moving “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and the final coup-de-grace, “Superstition.” Throughout the night Stevie repeated his theme of love and unity saying, “All lives matter, of course,” and remarked on how distressed he was by all the terrible news that comes our way. “I’m glad I’m blind so I don’t have to see that stuff.”

In the end the concert was sprawling like the album, exhaustive and exhausting with wonderful moments. Before the encore began Stevie asked the audience rhetorically, “Do you want to go home?” While my interior voice was saying, “Well, yeah, Stevie, actually, I would be glad to wrap it up,” my external voice was shouting, “No!!!” I feel equally ambivalent about the concert as a whole. The show was too long, at times boring, but also fantastic. And late in the show, when Stevie slid over to his new instrument, the harpejji, time stopped. It was like hearing the music of his mind. He got a groove going and started into Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” and then switched to a heart-breakingly beautiful “People Get Ready.” When a man has this much talent he doesn’t need a giant band. He doesn’t need a massive album to recreate. All he needs is a good song. The older black dude sitting behind me said, “That’s my song, there.” Mine, too.

Postscript: Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life Performance” show at the Harford XL Center (formerly the Civic Center) on October 11, 2015 was the fifth stop in a twenty-city North American tour that will culminate with a show at Madison Square Garden on November 24, 2015. Here are some of the other songs that Stevie included in the four shows prior to Hartford: Take the A Train (Duke Ellington,) Imagine (John Lennon,) Waiting in Vain (Bob Marley,) Boogie on Reggae Woman, Don’t You Worry Bout a Thing, Uptown Funk (Bruno Mars,) Family Reunion (O’Jays,) Besame Mucho, Hold On (En Vogue.) Milord (Edith Piaf,) Night Time is the Right Time (Ray Charles,) Who’s Lovin’ You (The Miracles,) Michelle (The Beatles,) Tequila (The Champs.)