|I am a pretty standard Midwestern former scholar of literature turned academic administrator once Rock N Roll Craft Show organizer lifelong potter aspiring ballerina committed food blogger now public defender who writes about alternative pedagogy, James Joyce, various forms of injustice, vegetarian menu options, New York, the Fourth Amendment, and, well, now, music too. I don’t like "verbose," and I’ll probably get my feelings hurt with "controltalker," so let’s just leave it as, "I have words." Check them out. See what you think. If you don’t like these, there’s a really good chance there will be more later.|
Concert review and set list: Norah Jones, whoever she is to us, crept in and got us to come away with her, at Peabody Opera House, Monday, October 15
The only true voyage of discovery…would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another… to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is. –Marcel Proust, “Remembrance of Things Past”
That’s not to say she didn’t have dissenters — if the alternating shouts of “No more rock!” and “Rock on!” indicate anything, it’s that Ms. Jones draws a diverse, if not polarized fan base. This is no doubt due to the wildly variant aesthetics of her five albums. And true to our own respective aesthetic appreciation, we audience members clapped at various points as if opposing factions voting with some sort of applause-o-meter: “Let me hear it if you love ‘Come Away With Me’!” then “Show your love for ‘Not Too Late’!” and so on.
Indeed, Jones has a varied musical history, first earning five Grammys for her “contemporary adult jazz” piano singing on “Come Away With Me,” then “Feels Like Home” presented a sharp turn west with a much more country sound. But those that caught up with this divergence loved every pluck and twang and relished the discovery of the Dolly Parton and Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits we never knew she had in her. Jones’ first album of mostly self-authored songs, “Not Too Late” — this time shifting more blues — was again a success. Jazz, blues, country — what can’t she do?
Enter “The Fall.” Her first “breakup album,” “The Fall” was the first not to reach No. 1, garnering middling to ambivalent reviews peppered with words like “inoffensive” and “scarcely unoriginal,” suggesting this turn to rock was perhaps too sharp for fans to keep up. Or maybe too dull. But I would argue the problem with “TF” was not that she has no boyfriend; I would argue the problem was that it has no ghosts. OK, she’s got her dog, so she’s not totally alone, but still something was missing. “The Fall” has no history.
And I think her 2012 “Little Broken Hearts” suffers the same lack. This album’s turn to pop is no surprise (what’s left? classical?), various reviewers’ descriptors like “crackerjack” and “bubble gum” are, at least to me, apt. Norah said that “nobody can tell you you’re wrong for writing a song about how you feel — even if you don’t really feel that way.” I disagree; if it didn’t happen, then it’s not honest. “LBH” falls flat for that same lack of history. Yet some think it’s her best; they say you can hear the same old Norah but this time it’s new! It’s original! It’s her! It’s no wonder that the audience at the Peabody was at odds last night.
Here’s the thing: Norah is phenomenal. She has a voice that won’t quit and that has the most amazing range of earthiness and soul and clarity and fullness. I get it, jazz standards may not be as fulfilling as penning this year’s hottest song, and though pretty, a Hoagy Carmichael song is nevertheless “old, really old,” as Norah put it. Many may not relate. And an artist wants to be relevant.
But here’s the other thing: Norah doesn’t just sound pretty; she has the ability to re-cast something old into the most beautiful of new molds. There are plenty of Natalie Coles and Diana Kralls; there are even more pop stars, and surely even more female singers with a good set of lungs. And though I wouldn’t call her a pop sensation, I also argue that Norah Jones is no mere two-bit jazz karaoke crooner. There’s something special about her. She does not parrot, she illuminates; she’s not a soothsayer, but a conduit.
Maybe you fell in love with the Glen Hansard busking on a street corner in Dublin, wearing a bedraggled broken coat, strumming on a well-worn, hole-y, broken guitar, wailing about his miserable broken heart.
Or maybe you fell in love with the broken-guitar slinging, broken-heart crooning, broken-coat donning characters Hansard has played on the big screen (“Once,” 2007; “The Commitments,” 1991). Or maybe you are one of the few who joined the Glen Hansard love affair from the now-broken Frames or Swell Season days. Regardless, those broken bits are all Glen Hansard, one and the same.
His 2012 release “Rhythm and Repose” at first listen, or even after several solid tries, sounds, well, a bit broken. Without his co-star, Markéta Irglová, or even the backup harmonizers the “Commitmentettes,” Glen Hansard sounds alone. “Alone” in all connotations — both lonely and lacking. Indeed, the lyrics of his entire repertoire seem to center on loneliness, sadness, heartbreak — “this gift is waiting to be found.” Ouch.
There is something painfully exquisite about two former lovers lamenting their mutual lost love for one another in the most beautiful of harmonies (of course we’re all thinking of the achingly, lovely harmonizing of Hansard and Irglova — “you call, then I’ll come running.” But when one of those lovers keeps crooning, maintaining that lament, while his partner has not just moved on, but also ceased all such lamenting over that same lost love, that is more painful than exquisite: “When your mind’s made up, there’s no point trying to change it.”
And “Rhythm and Repose” has a touch of that painfulness: no one harmonizing and no one filling the void of that broken heart that is the subject of nearly every song on the album. That guy can hold a high note, for sure, but he can also keep up a broken heart far longer than anyone I’ve met.
On Tuesday night at the Pageant, however, Glen Hansard filled that void of someone or something missing. True, he lamented and mewled over his broken heart. Yes, he created a palpable sadness that made me mourn lost lovers that ordinarily wouldn’t warrant even a second thought. But the single, lonely, aching crooner was not alone last night.
Between the crowd joining in (at times from the sheer compulsion to throw our harmonizing hats into the mutual-lament ring, and at other times from Hansard instructing us to chime in — “you melodize there, there, there” or “just remember – long enough / strong enough” — and his 10-piece backup orchestra (complete with former Levon Helm bandmates), Hansard was a solid, complete, dare I say fulfilled, entity. His melodies crescendoed in the most — yes painfully — exquisite of ways, his street-smart humor a la Grafton Street infused some needed levity, and his two hours and 20 minutes of music-making left absolutely no holes.
With this mix of elements, there was no void, there was no lack. On this night in St. Louis there was nothing broken.
Glen Hansard took the stage at 9:15 p.m. and played a 20-plus song set (it was impossible to keep track, with many songs devolving into several-part medleys), including singing original music from old and new albums plus the two most famous duets from “Once.” He covered not just Levon Helm and his self-proclaimed idol Bob Dylan, but also a bit of Otis Redding, a touch of Chuck Berry and even a moment of Willy Wonka. He bantered, he danced, he pounded the no-longer hole-y guitar, he laughed, he charmed, he fucking rocked it.
Still I wonder whether Glen Hansard — solo man/solo artist — can sustain. But I also believe that given the right accompaniment — whether that is a lover, an orchestra, a group of back-up singers, a hit Broadway spinoff, or even the Band — the Glen Hansard cohort will continue to reverberate — musically and emotionally.
And if it all works out, you might just see me or hear from me . . . We can do anything. . . Where your heart is strong.
Concert review and set list: Ingrid Michaelson had us in the ‘Palm of [Her] Hand’ at the Pageant, Monday, July 16
It’s not fair to compare two musicians merely because they both happen to be female singer-songwriters and both happen to wear big, dark glasses and both seem riddled with angst and both have odd four-part names (Fiona Apple McAfee Maggart / Ingrid Ellen Egbert Michaelson); and it’s definitely not fair to compare them simply because they played in succession in the same town (Saturday then Monday).
So let me not go on and on, on a long tangent about how I unfairly expected any female singer-songwriter act that followed the mind-blowing Fiona Apple show a few days prior to pale in comparison — no matter how much I love the latter performer’s albums; and please let’s don’t even address how I unfairly presumed that though similar, Ingrid Michaelson or any other lady singer couldn’t compete with her “extraordinary machine” predecessor. Because it would not just be unfair, but also it would be wrong.
Ingrid Michaelson is no lesser-than, no follow-up, no Monday-night-at-the-Pageant to Fiona’s Saturday-night-at-the-Peabody (well, that last one is true, but only in a very factual sense). Perhaps she’s no “extraordinary machine,” but she’s also no “Shadowboxer”; and Ingrid is most definitely not a mere “ghost / haunting these walls” of all who played before her. On the contrary: Ingrid Michaelson proved at the Pageant last night that her feet have indeed found “the solid ground” and her “tongue has finally [FOUND] its sound.”
But just for kicks, since we’ve already dipped our toe into the comparison pond, I can’t help but wonder what if Fiona Apple did not slip into semi-consciousness when she performed, and did not leave her eyes unfocused, blind to the surrounding stimuli, and did not retreat into hibernation only to emerge once a decade? Instead, what if she left on those big, severe glasses, faced the world and all of its disappointment and heartbreak with clear sight, then called her girlfriends, had a good cry, and just started singing?
And when I wonder something like that, I can’t help but think that she would be something like Ingrid Michaelson — still phenomenally talented and possessing the same remarkable ability to capture one’s attention and emotion, and, yet…
Forgive me, Ingrid, for even briefly entertaining this exercise in dialectics, because as I said, on a very fundamental level, it’s not fair and it’s not right. But forgive me, too, because the comparisons are just too uncanny and I can’t let go of that belief that this exploration will lead to some interesting nugget of truth! As you shrieked last night, dear Ingrid: “Who wears glasses here? MY PEOPLE! I must live here with you and ‘not see’ as God intended!” Indeed — what if we all lived with our glasses ON?
I don’t have the answer to that question. But here’s what I do know about Ingrid Michaelson: she’s got a powerful, beautiful voice. She can work a crowd as good as any Vegas headliner with her silly anecdotes and impromptu sing-alongs and dramatic arm flair. And she’s pretty freaking normal.
Of the 21 songs she sang last night (including two duets with husband and opener Greg Laswell and Rhianna and Bon Iver covers), all of them were about love: she’s so “into you, into you, into you,” or “oh boy… you got me,” or “just hold onto me, I’ll hold onto you,” or “you ask me to dance and then walk away,” or you and me and us and we, etcetera and so on. When she jokes (mostly about Lady Gaga), there are lines about being “just me and me,” but in her set last night (and truly, in all of her songs) – she’s just “talking about nothing, oh, we’re talking about us.”
Normal, yes. Love songs are standard fodder for any lady-singer’s repertoire. But boring? Not for a second. Pedestrian? Absolutely not.
Concert review and set list: Fiona Apple, laid bare and exposed at Peabody Opera House (with Blake Mills), Saturday, July 14
He with his naked soul shall pierce into the other naked souls… – Plato, “Gorgias”
Removing her glasses because they “make her nauseous,” Fiona Apple took the stage at Peabody Opera House on Saturday night, barefaced and vulnerable in her blindness, and proved she meant it when she said, “Now…I just know that you have to go out and be yourself and go out and be honest…. I don’t have to do anything fake…. I don’t have to worry about hiding anything that’s myself.”
Indeed: “What I am is what I am / ‘Cause I does what I does.” And she did, on this July night, what she does — a full 90 minutes of songs from each of her four albums, plus a show-stopping cover of Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” for the encore, complete with a full orchestra of sounds, body convulsions and, in true Fiona-fashion, the rawest expression of human emotion.
Yes, “I just wanna feel everything,” she warbled to us. “Heaven help me for the way I am.”
Tip-toeing around stage, at once oblivious to the world with her eyes unfocused, a smile playing at the corner of her mouth, utterly consumed with her own thoughts and emotions, Fiona was nevertheless fully connected, as if she were a medium channeling a collective unconscious of all that came — or felt — before her: “My heart’s made of parts of all that’s around me / And that’s why the devil just can’t get around me.”
That seems to be the crux of what makes her so fascinating — though almost childlike when singing, twirling her skirt like a little girl, it is that contrast of innocence with such deep pathos that mesmerizes. Nothing last night warranted “fierce” or “crazy,” as some inaptly dub her, and she was certainly not deserving of any such derision as “ridiculous.” Fiona Apple was lovely in her genuineness, magnetic in her unabashed vulnerability, and other-worldly in her ability to summon in us such feelings of heartbreak, loneliness, despondency, fear, and rage, to name just a few of the myriad emotions she invoked last night.
This spring, she opened a show in New York with the statement: “I will give you everything I can possibly give you.” The same was true in St. Louis, where Fiona exhibited full physical and emotional abandon, giving us everything she had and everything she could muster. She thinks with her body and talks with her body, each movement playing a note and each emotion driving the music — each quiver of her head, each twitch of her shoulder, each stomp of her foot is another pin striking a tooth of the music box’s comb. She even collapsed onto the floor at the end of the show.
It’s got to be tough to be so honest; maybe that explains her long periods of hiatus, maybe her breaks are all about self-preservation; perhaps a soul so naked must retreat and repair itself before submitting to the world again. “Oh Honey I’ve gone away / Honey I’ve gone away / Honey, I’ve gone away”… “I let the beast in too soon, I don’t know how to live / Without my hand on his throat; I fight him always & still.” Or maybe it isn’t the world’s emotion that beats her down. Maybe she’s her own worst enemy — “myself, I can’t deceive.” “Every single night’s a fight with my brain,” she roared; “don’t let me ruin me / I may need a chaperone.”
Of course, an unexamined life is one not worth living; by facing such truth, some would argue, we find real freedom: “It’s time the truth was out / And then we can do anything we want.” And truly, hers was no facile sincerity, but some sort of soothsaying — I don’t know for sure, but whatever it is she’s divining, it’s damn good.
Older, wiser and full of more raw emotion (if that’s possible) than when she appeared on scene a mere 19-year-old “Sullen Girl,” Fiona Apple’s 2012 reemergence with “The Idler Wheel…” is ablaze with as much soul as ever, and those of us peppering the audience last night were fortunate to experience her “sitting singing again, singing again, singing again,” to witness her once again “blooming within.”
Concert review and set list: Laura Gibson, radiant and unfurled, at the Gramophone, Saturday, March 10
I’m sorry to all of you who missed the massive performance of Laura Gibson at the Gramophone last night. And by “all of you,” I mean quite literally all of you (minus the 30-or-so of us that had the phenomenal fortune to hear her play).
And by “massive,” I mean that quite literally as well — do not be fooled by the fact that her too-quiet performance at 2008′s SXSW inspired NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concerts” (apparently after being drowned out by “the din of a yappy crowd,” the two NPR music reporters present requested she give a private do-over at their office in D.C. three weeks later, just so they could hear her).
I may have a personal aversion to all-things, as I call them, “tippy-toed” (for example, the sugary cuteness of monikers like “friendlies,” “autumn song-singers,” “accidental stumble-uponers,” and, the too too cute “snowbunnies,” as she addresses her blog-readers), but do not be fooled by her elven preciousness: Laura Gibson and her accompanying musicians radiate a sound and an energy with an orchestral power that is truly worthy of a concert hall. Yes, massive.
I will not bore you by listing my musical pedigree, as I don’t have one, having abandoned my own musical training years ago (perhaps it was the trauma from the sudden and unexpected death of the nun who endeavored to teach my third-grade self how to play the piano, just minutes before my lesson, or perhaps I was just, well, unequipped); but in my pedestrian characterization, I would describe Laura Gibson’s voice as deep, unique and edgy; metallic, but not tinny; range-capable and fully rounded out with a touch of the bluesy — something I think all good lady singers need.
Even if her voice was more common or less hauntingly lovely (which is not the case), her band mates would surely make up for any dearth of richness. Her pianist / horn player John Whaley has the ability to grow tiny blips into ascending towers of sound (complete with the most beautiful trumpet notes weaving insistently in and out of the songs, rising over and winding through the many layers of instrumentation and vocals).
And her drummer is unique as well, exploiting his bass drum and swelling the crash cymbal to the outer limits of the venue. And rather than continue with the perhaps ill-informed accolades, I will merely assure you the same is true for the rest of the group. I cannot imagine a solo Laura Gibson’s nuanced vocalizing getting lost anywhere, even amid the din of a yappy SXSW crowd, but with these musicians surrounding her, there was no missing the ample talent last night… well, unless you weren’t there! (Then again, with the expansive sounds of Laura and her mates, there might not have been room for you!) But I am sorry if you missed it.
Concert review and set list: Kathryn Calder at Cicero’s — haunting but not fully possessed, Tuesday, December 13
In spite of myself, I paused for a moment, feeling a bit star struck, and tried to think of something clever to say (without awkwardly blurting out that I loved her work and creepily squeezing her shoulder, as I once did to Peter Sarsgaard upon a chance encounter at the Clayton Starbucks), but the best I could muster was, “Hey, you’re Kathryn! I’m Meghan! I’m reviewing the show!” and then kept on my path, after she politely shook my hand. But it would appear that my starstruck-ness was for naught when, at the venue door, after Darryl the door guy suspiciously grilled me about whether I was truly “on the list” or not (despite recognizing me from my ’90s table-waiting days), it was she, not he, that ushered me in, popping up from behind, saying, “Oh are you Meghan McGlynn? Yes, you are on the list.” I guess we were already acquainted!
Indeed — it would seem that Kathryn Calder is not the fill in, the backup, or the afterthought here, as she is often accused of when compared to Neko Case from the New Pornographers; in fact, according to her band mate and drummer Marek Tyler, she not only acts as manager when touring, but actually runs the entire show, including loading the tour bus, booking the venues, and, to his great admiration, leading rehearsals a mere 17 hours after completing the European leg of a tour. Impressive! Right?
The truth is, I never felt she was secondary. I was always more drawn to Kathryn than Neko, no matter how much I love and respect Neko; and, in the three times I saw NP, Neko wasn’t present and it was Kathryn hitting those most memorable crystalline high notes, and Kathryn who stood, front and center, demanding attention with her voice and loveliness and musical ability, and of course, it is Kathryn leading the vocals on “Adventures in Solitude,” one of my favorites.
There’s no doubt that Kathryn’s got the power to pull off a solo album and concert, and if the tales I heard are truthful, she’s got the determination to make sure it comes to fruition. But something seemed missing from her NP days last night; she seemed, well, tired. Touring is difficult, of course, and from my short chat with Marek, who explained at length how hard Kathryn works, and also from my short pre-show chat with Kathryn herself, who declined my offer of a drink, noting that she was responsible for driving the bus to Springfield post-show, I couldn’t help but wonder why she was managing and why she wasn’t just being a rock star. She’s got a music producer husband and a famous musician uncle, not to mention her own very successful career with NP, and though I know nothing of such things, I couldn’t help but wonder why she did not avail herself of those resources and just sit back and make music happen?
Concert review and setlist: Lucinda Williams occupies St. Louis at the Pageant, Wednesday, October 12
Last night at the Pageant Lucinda Williams apologized for “testifying” after a several minute tirade about how “we’re living in dangerous times” because “they don’t want to help the working” and “they don’t want to help the middle class” and “they are trying to disenfranchise the democrats.”
But that brief foray into the status of our current political climate was the least of her attestations. When she sang, “The whole wide world is falling apart / The whole wide world’s gonna break apart,” she wasn’t talking about the economy. Rather, Lucinda bore witness to something much more fundamental, more universal.
Last night Williams held her audience captive preaching about heartbreak — “Blood spilled out from the hole in [her] heart / Over the strings of [her] guitar.” “I have suffered and I’ve cried myself to sleep,” she announced. “Livin’ is full of misery and pain,” she declared.
That wasn’t the end of her proclamation, however. Lucinda was not simply going to sit “alone in the corner chair” — no, she was not going to let us stand at a cool distance, watching from behind a barricade. “Don’t make me sit all alone and cry,” she insisted. Being there required sharing in that suffering. Lucinda called for each one of us to “climb all the way inside / [her] tragedy.” A true egalitarian, she demanded involvement, inclusiveness.
And together we stood, among lost lovers, missed opportunities, failed attempts, every individual feeling deeply his or her own “raw and exposed … shattered nerves.” Together we listened, all there “to help each other ease the pain.”
As if her demonstration achieved its aims, there was no unequal distribution of suffering among fans last night. “Something” indeed was “happening here.” But it wasn’t sad or painful; rather, there was beauty in the “ugly truth”; love in the suffering, a quiet peace amid the rage. Maybe the point was that she’s “been shot and didn’t fall down.” Whatever the animus, we were all there feeling that contradiction of being “blessed by the prisoner / Who knew how to be free… / By the little innocent baby / Who taught us the truth.” We stood as individuals, but together, not alone. In spite of the suffering, “[We'll] live on… and [we'll] be strong.”
Concert review: ‘Meet me, meet me, meet the perfect me’ in St. Louie, Louie. Deerhoof at the Luminary, Monday, September 26
Despite a history of fits and starts, and although once described as “discordant,” “chaotic,” and even “unpredictable,” last night at the Luminary, Deerhoof did not for a single moment want for a united front or lack audience appreciation.
Deerhoof showed “St. Louis-ians” what 17 years does to a band — tightly choreographed roving chorus-line footwork, perfectly synchronous guitar- and bass-finger picking and precision maneuvers punctuating the sounds: beep beep (tip toes), screech (finger point), bang bang (turn left, high kick). In fact, all four musicians seemed to be following the lead of some invisible maestro.
Then again, perhaps that conductor wasn’t so invisible — the 70 minutes of rocking out were dominated by the ethereal interludes of Satomi Matsuzaki’s chirping lullaby falsetto: “Basket Ball! Basket! Ball!,” “seagulls!,” and “Hollywood!” Giving credence to the Wikipedia telling of Deerhoof history that her 1996 arrival on the scene helped gel Greg Saunier’s prior musical expressions, Matsuzaki opened the show warbling, “ME to the rescue!” And mid-show, when Saunier paused to chat with the audience, it was her tap-tap-tap on the mic that snapped him back to attention. Yes, it seemed that Matsuzaki was making the trains of this rock railroad run on time.
Well, at least that’s what it seemed like to me. As with any work of abstract art, I suppose Deerhoof’s meaning of the message is in the eye of the beholder. My impression aside, universally, fans tend to classify Deerhoof as cacophony and chaos. Band bios suggest such expansive musical influences as “rock and roll of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, garage rock, post-rock, modern classical composition, pop, noise, and improvisation,” and album reviews identify such wildly varied thematic interpretations as “time travel, sports, smuggling, and Noah’s Ark” or “love and war, apples, and the atom bomb.” The band members have been quoted as saying that even they never know what type of sound they are going to create or what’s coming next. If that’s the case, then surely our personal interpretations are just a few of infinite possibilities.