Somerville Theatre, Somerville, MA 11/10/15
I have appreciated Jonathan Richman since the beginning of his career with The Modern Lovers, but sorry to say I hadn’t paid much attention for many years now. Then he comes “home” and we are blown away and completely enchanted. What a soul he has – not afraid to bare it with his singing, songwriting, and dancing antics – all charming, whimsical, fun, and heartfelt. The songs stand on the strength of Richman’s off-the-wall observational skills, backed by his pure ’50s rock ’n’ roll rhythms. His music is clear, simple, engaging, and honest and, in the final analysis, that’s exactly what music is supposed to do. To Jonathan’s credit, that’s what he’s done since The Modern Lovers days, and that’s what he says he’ll do “until it stops being fun.” Let’s hope it stays this pleasurable for a long, long time.
I really can’t give a song-by-song review because I don’t know his current repertoire, but he blends his tunes quite effectively. His active, beautiful mind seems to be making it up on the spot and he’s clever enough to weave in some familiar songs: “I Was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar,” “French Style,” “Not So Much to Be Loved As to Love,” “Old World,” “No One was Like Vermeer” which all seem like he’s got a deeper commentary to make. (No! – he did not do “Roadrunner”.) Sometimes he changes languages and moods, or steps away from the mic to get closer to the audience. His partner, drummer Tommy Larkins, is his perfect foil – a motionless, stone-faced subtle percussionist. The entire concert offers jewel after jewel, full of affection, hope, and contemplation. The last song, his third encore, “As My Mother Lay Lying” hits us like a sledge hammer – it’s the first time we’ve heard it. Having experienced a similar situation, it makes us misty. We thank Jonathan for writing it, including it, and offering this final comment: “I want to end with a song of grace.” It’s beautiful. I could go on and on because I feel like I’ve newly discovered an older but improved treasure. We love his sincere heart and enjoy his smart, silly, love-struck, genuine and original approach. Thanks, Jonathan! (Harry C. Tuniese)
Me & Thee Coffeehouse, Marblehead, MA
(Disclaimer: Frank Zappa once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. In other words: you just have to be there. That said, dear reader, I will do my best to transport your eyes and ears with my humble prose. )
From the moment singer-songwriter-librettist (her folk opera Hadestown is Broadway-bound next spring) Anais Mitchell steps onto the Me & Thee stage on this unseasonably warm November evening, there is a supernatural vibration radiating through the beloved pews. We all have that sense that this is going to be one of those shows.
Mitchell kicks off what promises to be a memorable evening with an endearing story about how she accidentally packed the guitar her two-year-old daughter Ramona broke. Happily, local singer-songwriter Jim Trick has saves the night and kindly loans Mitchell one of his beautiful acoustic guitars.
Her first song in this set is a haunting a capella sea shanty, a tribute to Marblehead, a sea-faring town where scholars agree the American Navy was born. The diminutive Vermont-based Mitchell possesses one of the sweetest, most distinctive voices in modern folk. It’s an arrestingly pure and otherworldly voice, delicate but strong, innocent but not childlike. Her tone is clear and high, with a disarmingly tender, prayerful quality at times and when she hits the right note on tragic ballads like “The Shepherd,” well, anyone whose eyes were not full of tears has a heart of stone.
Mitchell follows up this hushed ode with the rousing and passionate “Now You Know” from her 2014 release xoa. The next two songs—“Wedding Song” and “Why We Build The Wall”—from her 2010 multicharacter masterpiece Hadestown, a modern retelling of the Orpheus myth set in post-apocalyptic Depression-era America. With a spring 2016 off-Broadway debut of this folk opera—“I’m ten years in on this,” she tells the audience—Mitchell has come full circle in a sense as it was staged and performed right here at the Me & Thee in 2011. She shares with us what it was like having folk royalty like Greg Brown, he of the legendary rumbling baritone, sing the latter on the studio recording with chilling lyrics like “How does the wall keep us free? / The wall keeps out the enemy / And we build the wall to keep us free.”
After the sunless, post-apocalyptic doom of Hadestown, Mitchell performs a winsome tune called “Clyde Waters” from her 2013 Child Ballad collection she recorded with Jefferson Hamer which tells the story of star-crossed lovers Willie and Margaret and their Medea-like mothers who, displeased at their children’s choice of partners, set about to destroy their children’s love—and end up destroying their children in the process. The set wraps up with “Old-Fashioned Hat” from 2007’s The Brightness, a tune she confides that she wrote about the man she married.
After the break, we are treated to another a cappella folk song in Arabic about a rooster’s cry which she tells us she learned as a student while traveling in Egypt. After this beguiling tune, Mitchell performs several selections from her 2012 release Young Man In America, a concept album which she tells us was loosely inspired by her writer father Don Mitchell’s stories. In fact, she explains, the album cover shows her father’s face at 30, the same age she was when the album was recorded. One song, “Tailor,” was inspire, she explains, after she watched the film There Will Be Blood, an ode to 19th Century American oil greed.
Mitchell is earthy and full of fun, sharing anecdotes about her life in music and off the road and inviting the audience to sing along with her at times. She has a poised yet relaxed presence and is not too proud to admit that she has forgotten the lines to a song that an audience member requests as happened (briefly) with “Dyin Day.” Before performing a rootsy-bluesy number, she wryly admits that she wrote it hoping that a “certain red-headed country blues singer with the initials BR” would record it. And it’s not hard to imagine Bonnie Raitt rocking out on this sultry barn burner.
She closes this stellar evening with the tour de force song from Hadestown “Way Down Hadestown” which has everyone standing, clapping and singing the refrain “Way down Hadestown, way down under the ground.” For the encore Mitchell and opener John Gallagher, Jr. dueted on Dylan’s swingy “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” No one wants to let Anais go and we all stomp our feet for just one more song but the houselights inevitably switch on. Another great night of music at the Me & Thee. (Linda Werbner)
Me & Thee Coffeehouse, Marblehead, MA
After a cool set of duet harmonies by the New York-based The Sea The Sea, Heather Maloney is welcomed with cheers and lots of people feedback. It’s her third time at Me & Thee and this friendly, fiery Western Mass-based artist has developed a robust following. She tells us that she’s been on the road – a 40 city tour. She’s travelled 11,000 miles and this is the first show back in her home state. She’s feelin’ the love and honors it by starting with a love song, “Night Stand Draw.” It has a wonderful melody that has a pointed octave jump that displays Heather playfulness with her music. While on the road someone asked her what touring was like. Her immediate answer was, “It sucks…” followed by, “… it’s amazing.” “The opposite truths,” she deduces. Then we are treated to a lovely Joni Mitchell-esque “Woodstock” and Heather tells the tale of her last time at Me & Thee when she played with Darlingside and the magic between them lead to coverage in the New York Times and help from Graham Nash. Brennan Leeds (of Couch Jackets) joins her on stage and they appear to be a good fit. Both young, slim, and talented. He could be the child of Andy Warhol and John Denver (if that was possible)… she’s a beauty who reminded me of Audrey Hepburn the first time I saw her perform. Bennan is quite entertaining telling the story of a tall naked man knocking on his hotel door during the tour. The two do a great job of talking to the audience, roping in new fans. Heather shares how she thought one of the lines in The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” was “whisper la phone” – that’s how “this bird had flown” translated. The two harmonize excellently together and then they start getting heavy with the beats – Brennan has a Roland sampling pad to belt and Heather has one of foot thumpers that sounds like a bass drum. She also adds a little distortion to her acoustic – and it reminds me of when Bob Dylan showed up with an electric guitar at a folk festival. The rockin’ out is fun but it downplays the wonderful lyrics that Heather regularly leans on. The audience loves it, and that’s what counts. “1855” is conjured up from an old photo – and Heather holds it up to today’s selfie generation and the fact that there’s too much information out there; she doesn’t really want to know what a past third grade classmate is having for dinner right now. “People from 1885 would think we were WIERD,” she concludes. Their last song used to be her a cappella foot stomper – Brennan has added guitar washes and loops to it. In it Heather is expressive with her hands – especially when she vocally bends or slurs a note. It’s like her hand is dancing to the melody. When it’s all over the entire audience jumps to their feet to plea for one more song. Heather happily flies back to the stage, admitting how it’s her goal is to empty her tank for every show, and thankfully states, “You have filled us up.” She continues with the first song she wrote, “Turn Yourself Around,” and we all sing along. After the show the line at her merch table is so long that I don’t get to say goodnight, but I’m sure I’ll see her again. I’m filled up with music and happy again! (T Max)
BRUCE BEARS TRIO
The Beehive, The South End, Boston, MA
This is a cool place to see a band. It’s a throwback nightclub with a big bar off to the side, little round tables with white tablecloths and lit candles, and a small stage in back. By throwback I mean that this is an upper scale dinner bar similar to the ones I used to see in black and white Humphrey Bogart movies like Casablanca. Tonight’s piano player, in living color, is Bruce Bears from The Duke Robillard Band. Joining him on upright bass is well known r&b four-stringer Jesse Williams, and pounding the skins is another member of Duke’s band, Mark Texeira. The trio is here every Sunday with a different guest each week. Tonight vocalist Mari Rosa is sitting in. Her repertoire is mainly Brazilian jazz, standards, and some originals which is a bit different than the usual blues/soul/jazz/r&b singers I generally encounter. They run though tunes by Mose Allison, Donny Hathaway, and Gene Harris. I really love their cover of a nice tune by Brazilian jazz/bossa nova/Latin jazz/samba star Antonio Carlos Jobim, when Mari comes up and starts swinging. My two favorite original compositions are Bear’s “Second Date” and Williams’ “Gulfstream” because there are a lot of complex and really enjoyable runs that I don’t expect from a threesome. They create great atmosphere and are a very cool band. I’ll see you here next Sunday night. (A.J. Wachtel)
Me and Thee Coffeehouse, Marblehead, MA
Without Me & Thee’s super talent buyer (Kathy Sands-Boehmer) at the show, to gain entrance I had to go though Anthony Silva—the man responsible for starting Me & Thee 45 years ago. You might know him better as the afternoon voice on WBZ, but he’s retired now and lending a helping hand again to Me & Thee. He’s got a wonderful spirit and believes that this venue is much more than a church in Marblehead.
The pews are packed tonight and I can feel the excitement in the air. Host Tony Toledo supplies a rousing introduction for the five-piece acoustic band, Occidental Gypsy, and it takes only a few seconds to realize that these young men have achieved greatness in the mastering this sizzling Django Reinhardt-inspired, jazz/gypsy fusion. They are swift, confident, playful, and full of dynamics in their performance. They have, not one, but two guitarists who can play this speedy, complicated Django style. Jeremy Frentz is one of their quick-fingered guitarist and he can also swing a tune vocally, and does so for about half of the tunes. The rest are instrumentals that zip by with the energy of two trains passing in opposite directions. Brett Feldman is the other amazing guitarist – he also handles the majority of the stage banter, creating a friendly and lively relationship with the audience. Another wow factor in the group is the award winning fiddler, Eli Bishop, who also hold the Guinness World Book record for fastest hand clapper – I kid you not – we even get a demonstration. Laying the groundwork for the trio-extraordinaire are bassist Jeff Feldman (Brett’s brother) and drummer Erick Cifuentes, who both exhibit high-end smooth technical skills.
Their opener, “It Don’t Mean A Thing”… “if it ain’t got that swing,” is a super fast jazzy bouncer that sets the bar for what the audience can expect from the band’s musical agility, especially in the guitar and fiddle solos. They morph right into “Occidental Stomp” displaying their creative spirit. Erick the drummer switches from brushes to light sticks for “Douce Ambiance.” His touch is so sensitive on his small, but nice sounding, kit that not many percussionists could approach his skill level. Brett leads us to believe that the next song was originally titled “Massachusetts” but it had too many syllables for the melody… Jeffery proceeds to croon Ray Charles’ classic “Georgia.” They play what they call their Bar Mitzvah song – “Paper Moon” and in it violinist Eli plays some unison melodies – that means playing the same note on two different strings — on a fiddle that is not easy. They remind us that their debut CD, Over Here, is for sale and I’m kind of shocked that that that is their only release – surely they’ve been around forever to obtain this kind of tightness and stage comfortability. Brett dedicates “Betty’s Bossa” to a passed-on friend who was a bit all over the place, and so the band throws everything into the song, including a drum solo and a snappy ending. They go into a debate about the arrangement of “Sweet Sue” and it ends up sounding like a skit from the Smother’s Brothers (their joke, not mine). The final song of the first set is “Gypsy Blues” about an evil gypsy woman who went through each and every member of the band, except for Jeff on bass, who was just lucky. Before the break Brett convinces us that they have saved their best songs for the second set, and all I can think is, “Is that possible?” You’ll have to go see them to review those songs for yourself. Believe me, it is worth anything you have to pay. (T Max)