Taj Weekes – PARIAH IN TRANSIT in review

by Michael Kuelker

From the Caribbean island of St. Lucia comes a package marked “reggae music 501(c)3.” It looks deceptively like a compact disc but it’s really a set of boxes one inside the other inside the other, each opening up to a facet of reggae culture.

Pariah in Transit is the new live album by singer/guitarist/bandleader Taj Weekes, who is directing the proceeds from the project to a registered humanitarian organization, They Often Cry Outreach, which he founded in 2007. TOCO promotes health and sports among disadvantaged youth among its many projects in a wide range of community building efforts.

Weekes, by the way, will be returning to St. Louis on June 15 for a concert at 2720.

I’ve listened closely to the artist’s three studio albums and to his band on three occasions (@La Onda and 2720). As a songwriter he is, I think, among reggae’s finest, a penetrating poet who is averse to easy rhyme, platitude and simple didacticism. And his band – remarkably cohesive, tight like a sunburned forehead.

Still, I am not automatically turned on by live albums. Even when it’s artists who are really good live, Marley, the Clash or Howlin’ Wolf, whomever, my go-to selections wind up being an artist’s studio recordings (and usually early or mid-career). Live albums are souvenirs, documents of a time, faithful to a sound (usually), wonderful to behold (sometimes), but in my collection only occasionally at the ‘igher ights. This disc by Weekes definitely skews to the high end of the live album spectrum.

Concise and compelling intro to the artist, Pariah in Transit is crisply recorded sans overdub, a lesson in band dynamics and tasteful restraint, the music coming like good reggae should, light like a feather and heavy as lead.

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Taj Weekes @ 2720 [photo by Michael Kuelker

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Cabaret Capsule: Amy Willard Top: Back to Then

Amy Willard Top

I’m not a big fan of the “This is My Life” school of cabaret that ties everything back to the performer’s biography.  That’s not an artistic judgment, just a personal preference; some very good cabaret acts have come out of that approach.

Amy Willard Top’s cabaret debut “Back to Then” (performed at The Kranzberg Center on April 19 and 20, 2013)  was definitely autobiographical, charting her course from musical theatre professional in New York and on the cruise line circuit to St. Louis mom.  The fact that, my personal preferences not withstanding, I found it mostly quite entertaining and engaging is an indication of what a good job Ms. Willard Top, music director Greg Schweizer, and director Tim Schall did here.

The song selection was nicely varied, including both old and new numbers from the Great American Songbook and the musical stage as well as some pop standards.  Mr. Schweizer’s arrangements fit like a glove and some of them (his jazzy “But Not for Me” comes immediately to mind) shed interesting new light on familiar material.  Pacing and the overall emotional arc of the evening were quite satisfying.

The show did, in short, what a cabaret show should do: provide a showcase for the performer’s talents and present that performer in the most flattering possible light.  Ms. Willard Top came across as a charming performer with a good sense of theatre and a clear, focused voice.

On the technical side, the lighting made good use of the Kranzberg’s limited space and the sound mix was very clean.

Were there some things I would have done differently?  Probably, but most of them are more personal preferences than artistic decisions.  The bottom line is that Back to Before was a very solid cabaret debut by a skilled musical theatre performer.  Whether she goes on to do more cabaret or not, she can take some justifiable pride in this one.