Nellie has a sense of humour.

October 7, 2012

Nellie McKay is a fantastic performer.  I saw her last night in Montclair, NJ, where she did more or less the same sets as when I saw her at a free concert in NYC over the summer.  This time, however, she was alone onstage (without her marvelous jazz band) and I was in the second row in a small venue.  In this setting, her fabulous piano skill was highlighted with high-energy playing and inventiveness.  As always, her singing is great.

She prefaced “Why am I so Black and Blue?” by recalling that as a child she wondered if she’d be a better pianist if she were blind:  She played it with her eyes closed for a while just to try it, and turned it from a bluesy lament into jazz romp.  In her version of South Pacific’s “Wonderful Guy,” she kept the sunny, optimistic tone in her vocals, but transformed the tune into a slightly jangling dissonance with the singing, providing an ironic undermining of the words.  That sort of multiple point of view in a single song comes up a lot in her shows.

When Nellie picks up her ukulele, she can be marvelously dreamy with Jobim’s Meditation, or rockin’ (yes, with a uke!) with the Beatles’ “I’m So Tired.”  But when she does one of her signature songs, “Feminists Don’t Have Sense of Humour” she deploys the full range of her sharp, and a little bit weird, intelligence.  She smiles and adopts the pose of a grown-up Shirley Temple, signing sweetly the anti-feminist clichés of…who?  Men?  She’s the one signing it like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.  The voices of men appear in the lyrics as raspy, vulgar interjections – Yeah, honey.  Take it off! – and she flirts with them, lifting her skirt and cooing.  Just who is speaking here?  Fodder for meta-textual feminist theorizing abounds, but just go see her instead. [She concluded the song with the announcement, “I’m Anne Romney, and we work for a living.”]

My favorite song of hers is “I Want to Get Married,” a beautiful, soulful tune with lyrics expressing a woman’s complete nullity without a man to serve and please – I want to get marriedthat’s why I was born.   If you believe she feels that way, you’re on a different planet, but the very funny thing about it is that the song could have been sung in the 1950s, perhaps in a film with her beloved Doris Day, without a single change.  And she sings it with real sadness, longing and tenderness.  Her mastery of tone is tremendous…I can only think of Flaubert.

Rodriguez, Detroit Sugar Man

September 4, 2012

Before I left to go to the Detroit area for the Labor Day weekend, I read a review [tepid] of a new novel, Say Nice Things About Detroit.  Well, the city has one hell of a FREE jazz festival over the holiday weekend, and I heard some excellent music there.  The whole thing is presided over by the weird Minoru Yamasaki building (he designed the original WTC in NYC) seen in the background of the photo on the left, below.  This band, Papo Vazquez and his Pirates Troubadours was wild, with their Afro-Puerto Rican Modern Jazz blend.

Detroit Jazz Festival

The cultural high point of my stay was seeing the movie, Searching for Sugar Man.

Sixto Rodriguez was a folk-rock singer and songwriter in the late 1960s:  he put out two albums, but they were flops.  The people who knew him are in awe of his talent, and mystified as to why he never caught on.  But he did catch on in South Africa during its anti-apartheid period, and his records were wildly popular.  He never knew anything about it, and after his brush with the music industry, went back to ordinary life.

Rumor had it that he had died in spectacular fashion, an on-stage suicide.  Two South African fans decide to get the real story, and they find to their amazement, that he is alive and well, living in Detroit.  (Right near where I was that weekend, in fact.)  He is incredulous at their tales of his South African super-stardom, “You’re bigger than Elvis there!” but he agrees to go on tour.  He sells out stadiums.

This movie is weirdly enchanting in many ways: The tale of a man returning from the dead;  the fan-turned-detective’s thrill; a fairytale of  a man ignored finally getting recognition for his work; perhaps another sorry tale of the music industry stealing from an artist, but that’s not completely clear; and the man himself.  This last bit is what fascinated me the most.

Rodriguez is an very unusual man:  that come through clearly.  He is deeply non-materialistic.  When his fame falls upon him, he is totally uninterested in the perks, the limos, the hotel suites, the papparazzi.  He is unfazed by the cheering throngs, serenely responding with joy to their love of his music.  That’s what he’s about – his art, his poetry, his music.  He seems like a Buddha-type.  When the detective-fans finally meet him (they are in a daze of disbelief that this is happening) he is living in a completely rundown apartment in Detroit, making his living, as he has for years, working as an hourly interior demolition worker.  (He also earned a degree in Philosophy, and raised three daughters.) It reminded me of Alexander the Great finally meeting his hero, Diogenes, whom he found living in a tub.

His music is really good, though I prefer it more or less acoustic-solo, rather than with the string arrangements.  Why didn’t he make it?  He’s clearly not the type who would stress and strive to do the things one must do to make it in the business – that has to be part of the story.  He’s touring now, though.

Jazz Night Out!

November 27, 2011

Photo: Walter Nieves

Last night, I caught the first set of Brazilian jazz at The Zinc Bar where my friend, Monika Olivera, fills in for the usual bossa nova singer.  She was backed by a marvelous four-piece combo, including a fellow who played sax and flute:  all Brazilian standards and her own beautiful compositions.  Lots of Jobim, of course, and when she wasn’t singing sad, it was high-energy non-stop!  The picture above says it all.

If you are in NYC, check out her page to see when you can catch a show with her, and you won’t regret it!  Having her sing at my house for a milestone birthday party was a high point for me:  the only way to salve the pain of realizing how old I’m getting by thinking back to it is to have her do it again

Phil Spector Resurrected…*

August 28, 2009

This song (Se telefonado)  may be the quintessence of European pop music, but for American Pop, I’d go with this one:

Ronnie of The Ronettes was married to Phil Spector at the time he was making this and other songs hits with his “Wall of Sound” style.  Now he’s in jail for murder, not likely to rise yet again.

*I been Phil Spectored, resurrected.
I been Lou Adlered, Barry Sadlered.
Well, I paid all the dues I want to pay.
And I learned the truth from Lenny Bruce,
And all my wealth won’t buy me health,
So I smoke a pint of tea a day.

Paul Simon

Myers-Briggs Dionysian

June 30, 2009

michaelMyers-Briggs tests categorize individuals according to categories of personality types.  When I think of people like Michael Jackson, I recall the cateogory type of Dionysian, or Dionysian Perfectionist I think it was.  It says a lot about people like him.

I have never been a big fan of Jackson’s music, but his dancing, especially that performance at the Grammy’s long ago, made a big impression on me.  The MB typology indicates a person who is consumed with a desire to create and present, or perform, his creation.  He or she will work tirelessly to get it just right, every detail, always looking for a way to do it better or with a new and more creative element.  Fred Astaire was that way.  Bob Dylan.  The great Vladimir Horowitz.  Olivier.  Artists who live for their work, and never cease to revolve in their minds what their next thing should be.

Doesn’t that describe Michael Jackson?  They are different from most of us…

Beat the Donkey

March 28, 2009

I saw these guys again last night – Cyro Baptista and his band, Beat the Donkey.  The show conveys  pure joy at the wonders of sounds, rhythm, music, and cultures of the world.  Lisette Santiago and Clay Ross did a mean guitar-theremin duel on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”

This video, older and too dark, and also spelling his name the wrong way, conveys only a little bit of the energy of their performance.

I am not crazy!!

February 21, 2009


In an earlier post, Have YOU Heard It?, I commented on the weird phenomenon of the west side IRT “humming” the opening notes of the West Side Story ballad, “There’s a Place for Us.”  In case you missed it, or thought I was nuts, the NYTimes has finally taken note of it with this story:  Under Broadway, the Subway Hums Bernstein.

Accounting for taste

December 21, 2008


No accountin’ for taste, they say.  And music, it crosses all the boundaries.  Speaks a “universal language.”

I ain’t black, I ain’t poor, I ain’t religious, and I sure as hell can’t sing or play guitar, but I sure love this record! 

The cover is by Robert Crumb.

Celebrity Dylan

August 29, 2007

I didn’t really start listening to Bob Dylan until the 80’s, so I’m not one of those people who regards him as having provided some sort of counter-culture soundtrack to my youth, but I do like him. Initially, I had no interest in this book, but when I found myself in a bookstore with time to kill, I started reading it and found it absorbing.

(I recall a colleague who said many years ago, his voice dripping with sarcasm: “My friend wants to write a biography of Dylan – something for which there is a crying need.”)

The book is not chronological-each chapter has a theme or subject, and it leaves out large portions of what most people would expect to be in such a memoir: his motorcycle accident; being booed at Newport when he “went electric”; Joan Baez; smoking grass and The Beatles, and so on. None of that here. Well, there are a few lines about when he first saw Baez perform someplace. The book is idiosyncratic and self-absorbed, like Dylan. It focuses on what he wants to think is important in his story, not what others might think.

I found the parts about his early life in Minnesota and the start of his career in NYC the most interesting. If you are a musician or a Dylan fanatic, you will probably like the long chapter on the production of the album “Oh Mercy,” his comeback record, which he describes in detail. He also writes lengthy passages about the evolution of his performing style, which may or may not convice you that you should enjoy how he sings his old songs in concert. It’s interesting as a record of how one artist grapples with the issue, though.

His obsession with Woody Guthrie, encounters with folk music purist-snobs, the evocation of the Greenwich Village folk-beat scene, vignettes of the recording business, encounter with the music of Robert Johnson – all this makes for good reading and tells a lot about how folk/pop music is made. After reading it, you realize that Dylan is what you always thought he was when you ignored the pop culture hype: he’s a strange, brilliant, driven, introverted, sharp, naive man – in some ways maybe still the raw kid he was when he came to NYC.

This brings me to my other theme – his celebrity status. He never was a celebrity the way the Brittany Spears and the like are. He rarely courted celebrity, yet he looms large over pop culture, even today. Why did so many see him as an “icon of their generation,” or some such rot. Even I, who do not, am fascinated. By what? I certainly wouldn’t want to have dinner with him!

Somehow, purposely or not, he created an image which resonated with millions of people. I suspect that in his case, it was largely because of his introversion and the ambiguity of his songs. He was saying something he thought and saw – but people took away and created what they wanted. That’s part of the art-game, but for some reason people felt empowered in some way by their image of him. Isn’t this what image making is all about?

Usually “the image” is a disparaging term, at least among highbrow intellectuals. (Are there any left?) I’m thinking of the book that is often called “seminal,” Boorstein’s “The Image.” But images have always been with us – they are just more powerful now. The disjunction between the image and the reality revealed in Chronicles is what fascinates me. He’s just a guy, a talented guy, but he’s had all this influence over people. Why? Where does “he” end and his image begin? Probably this question destroys some people in the biz…