Summer daze in a heat haze… wander down the aisles of a few shows, set in seats or concrete or marble, to marvel at the way a bit of air can be rescuplted (a tip of the hat to Tom Waits’ acceptance speech at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies: “Singing is just doing fun stuff with air”) and the treasures of the past which only became so with the value of proximity to greatness.
Part of New England, New York, east New Iarsey and Long Iland. (ca. 1702-1707)
Like the New York Public Library has an exhibition on until 2012 entitled: “Celebrating 100 Years”. You’d expect books, and they are there, but an astonishing variety of them in ways you would not expect—such as 2,300 BCE cuneiform tablets that keep records of account long after the sheep and olive oil jars have ceased to have value. The Gutenberg Bible you’d know, of course, if you saw the 1966 movie “You’re A Big Boy Now” starring Peter Kastner as a post-modern Holden Caulfield who’s father’s claim to fame was getting one of them between the lions. But how about the innocuous collection of stories “Thirty Years” by John P. Marquand, a standard bound volume, that actually contained, written in pencil on its last folio sheets, a draft version of Ernest Hemingway’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech? You can feel the immediacy of the man in just that impulse: decides he needs to collect a few thoughts, grabs a handy book and a pencil, and begins to compose.
But there’s also dime novels and pornography! I am told they make a buy once every 10 years, in order just to chronicle; but can you imagine the schedule? “Oh, I see its time to acquire some smut. Volunteers?” The arcana also includes Malcolm X’s briefcase, Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, and one of Kerouac’s butcher rolls of scrollwork. There’s so much to see that touches on the word, and image, and both, that you wonder that you don’t spend more time reading.
So much to do, so little time…
Yet Summer is the time to get out and about and experience the joys of dining al fresco and attending concerts the same way. At “Celebrate Brooklyn” the early monster of the season was June 16’s “Hal Willner’s Freedom Riders Project” in Prospect
Park. Outside of it being a weather-perfect evening, the master Totalist (a term loosely ascribed to those singular curators of art who manage to encompass an historical and cultural worldview while still making corking good entertainment) had assembled a line up marked by a diversity that is as hard to encompass as the scope of the early Civil Rights movement. So, in justice to the whole, let us do the briefest of thumbnails before the whole enchilada. What one would expect would be a lot of folk songs and constant attempts from the stage to exhort a lackadaisical crowd into ill-considered sing-a-longs. That was the barest minimum. What we forget is that this was a movement of East Coast intellectuals, college students and local African-American churches, and when you put that together, you get a dreamy mix of jazz and gospel, protest songs and march chants, and spirituals both accapella and instrumental.
PARTS LIST (in order of appearance):
1. “Haitian Fight Song’ (Charles Mingus) – The treasure of any Willner mashup is putting Charles’ son Eric onstage, and here he does a field holler accompaniment to the fine band, led by Steven Bernstein, which could raise hackles on your spine, or recall the Mothers of Invention’s Roy Estrada’s operatic pachuco aria of “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually-Aroused Gas Mask”.
2. So, after we start in the field, why not stay there? “Stand Fast, Old Mule” is another of Mingus pere which gets oomphed by Mingus fils, with a chorus backing straight out of the amen corner.
3. After Eric’s exit, the quintet remain to do “Gallow’s Pole” which some may know from the Led Zeppelin cover, but means an entirely different thing when a old English ballad is sung in the South, now north.
4. That they continue into “Why Don’t We Sit Under The Apple Tree” you will have to hand to Hal, for finding the perfect redemption for the previous number’s reference to a hanging tree.
5. Catherine Russell (?) steps out from the chorus to bring it on home with the band backing on “Motherless Child” which breaks all over the place into the kind of Salvation Army temperance brass blat we’ve come to know as much from New Orleans’ funerals.
6. This sets up the first solo interlude as Geri Allen solos on grand piano with a tune that I didn’t ID but sounded awfully good to watch clouds by.
7. Rosanne Cash comes up with John Leventhal on guitar to continue the folk roots with “Wayfaring Stranger”, but also gets that Sally Army band backing again.
8. She finishes her bit with Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” which reminds you that, yes indeed, there was also a bit of Top 40 in those days that could handle some content.
9. Eric returns with his tribute to the era’s not-so-passive resistance advocates and the late Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”…albeit, by his own admission, it had to be read rather than recited from memory, and with glasses on. So there’s even funk too.
10. Tao Seeger, of Pete’s clan, gets to get the old school transport feel going with “Come on over to the front of the bus (I’ll be riding up there)” which is catchy AND easy enough to follow along from the cheap seats. (Which are all the seats. And which did.)
11. To follow up on that, Toshi Reagon brings up the gospel group to try to rouse the rebels, and somewhat succeeds with “Buses are comin’ better get you ready, oh yeah”, “Freedom comin’ and it won’t be long” and the epitome of the age in a nutshell: “Which Side Are You On?” Perhaps a bit preachy and overlong in her bringing in women’s oppression as an equal issue (especially on the last number, which she equated with a need for a renewed protest movement, good luck soldier-woman) but that had to be there or it wouldn’t bring the care.
12. Now the moment that most hipsters and old rockers in the crowd were waiting for, the Athenian warrior, Lou Reed, take the stage…very slowly, showing his age and recent infirmity. But once he gets going, on Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”, and the Blood Sweat & Tears-type arrangement of the band begins churning, Lou just turns toward the sound and lets it lift him to close the first set.
13. To come back with Geri Allen doing “Wade in the Water” recalls the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s hit with that number, reminding of a time when even jazz could have a popular hit. But this comes on like thunder and lightning with a call-&-response to the bass on “god’s gonna trouble the water” in keyboard ripples and wave-like surges. Brilliant ivory.
The notes get a little garbled after this. It was getting dark, very. Someone, who may be Jason Walker(?) does “Gimme Little Time To Pray” with sax accompaniment. This is what we call a tour-deforce: it is half jazz-aria, half-glossolia/melisma and wholly aether regions where scatting can include a quote from “The Magic Flute”! Todd Rundgren shows up, and if you think he’s a sore thumb, not much more than Marshall Crenshaw in a gospel tent. (And Todd goes back with Hal to his first mashup, a Nino Rota tribute, so they guy has chops and props.) There’s a tape of Leroi Jones’ famous “I, Too” poem, “I’ve been ‘buked and I’ve been scorned” by Catherine Russell (?), reminding us that these two terms have been applied to people in ways we will never understand today. And much the same as Tao coming back to do one of Pete’s favorite, Hang Down your Weary Head and Cry” which makes one wonder at how much the long, lonesome road” still moves us so. Lou comes back for a personal elegy to aging, Eric sings “Ain’t Gonna Study War No more”…”’CAUSE WE’RE TOO DAMNED GOOD AT IT!” From here on is indecipherable. Also inexpressible.
This also, more or less, covers the Bang On A Can Marathon, on June 19, and not always for the best. The World Financial Center has many things one may applaud—architecture, location, dining, palm trees—but acoustics isn’t one of them. The sad fact is, unless you are in first twenty rows, and what you are listening to does not have a fragile sonic envelope (i.e.: anything not LOUD), and the crowd obliges by being so quiet you could hear a pin drop, you are going to miss a lot. So, on a scale of 1 to 10 (from mismatch to perfect match) the late Fausto Romitelli’s “An Index of Metals” was a big loser (unlike last year’s ovation-hit “Professor Bad Trip”, as in LSD-induced psychosis) as the soft patches of vocalisation could barely carry to the first rows seated on the marble staircase. (And at one hour, not just cold and hard but hemorrhoid-inducing.) In between would be Phillip Glass’ “Music in Similar Motion”, benefiting from his oeuvre overlapping arpeggios and runs with the BOAC All-Stars. At the peak, coincidentally enough, is “The Ascension” Glenn Branca’s 1979 opus and the first masterpiece of his guitar ensemble’s true wall-of-sound. (Poignant aside: last time he was here was to perform “Hallucination City”…but on the other part…over the West Side Highway…in the plaza of the World Trade Center.)
Yet, again, it’s a freebie, and you can’t cry too much when you’re getting the cream of the city without curdling costs. And that brings up another event of peerage without compare, being “Rufus Wainwright Goes To The Opera!” on a rather delightful Tuesday evening of the 28th. As it was just a last minute stop by after the first third was over, my friend and I found him in the middle of an excerpt from his own opus “Prima Donna” doing “Les feux d’artifice” at the piano, solo, elegantly attired in tux coat, bowtie and…shorts and sandals, far as I could see. While always a bit too Lincoln Center queenly for my friend’s taste (musically, although he would not say the same of Anthony & the Johnsons), even he had to enjoy the Roofer’s selections performed by other vocalists, including Bizet and Wagner. And being that his following is the sort of crowd that would say “SHHHH!” to a pin, and that the entire rotunda was so packed I expected to see monkeys in the palms, every nuance communicated well throughout the expanse. (Tho’ our appreciation appreciated more likely due to us lucky enough to grab a couple seats down front as quick as they were vacated.) And, in deference to the adoring throng, he stepped out of his role as superstar to do a couple of his “pop” originals. Prefacing with “I love this city…Because it’s the kind of place that NEEDS two opera companies,” before launching into “Who Are You New York?” After a famous Massenet number and “Carmen” “Seguidilla” (even moreso), he capped his appearance with “(My phone’s on) Vibrate (For you)” that would’ve brought the house down, had it already not been by that airdrome iron dome. And, while it took me back to days tromping around Doylestown campaigning for our present President, my friend had to quibble that maybe he held onto that note a tad too long. Pish and tosh.
Beyond the given fare, the pickings were neither slim nor standard. A June 25th stop by the Exchange Restaurant (can’t call it Soho and too far north for Tribeca; just what is Vandam and Charleston?) found the Awa Odori Dance Festival in full swing. There may have been enough “Save Japan” events for most of us by now to have reached a saturation point, but this was another sort entirely. And that being the emphasis on the title dance festival, held on Shikoku Island (one of the big ones down South of Kyushu) every year. As mi espousa mousa explained, “Most Japanese dances and songs are sad. This dance is simple and fun.” One reason for that is the costumes. Some of the boys and girls wear these shoes that are like toe-mocaisins and blue/white pants/tunic combos. Then there are the gals in the robes with the reed-mesh hats that look like shark fins. And the shamisen player really knows how to whack that catgut with his ice-scraper. Suffice it to say, with a silent auction, regional food specialities and an open bar, no one was suffering from anything but surfeit.
But back to the dance, it really IS sort of like bhangra beat, with frame drums making it wobble and the twang making it wiggle, and then there’s all these crouch-step bounces with these fishy hand-gestures…I mean, what's not to like?
Then, to walk home through Washington Square Park, you immediately notice why the renovations took so long of the east side. A new raised stage has been emplaced that is now occupied by a dance troupe. However much the regular denizen and habitué of WSP may be used to impromptu musical and comedic throwdowns on the Plaza, dancers have had a bit more of a problem when it came to reserving enough space to move in. Not anymore. And, while it is well-known that the dancer’s half-life is less than that of a professional athlete’s and with about one-zillionth less the compensation (to say nothing of the medical coverage), one may expect pretty girls in leotards and diaphanous frocks—one doesn’t also expect aged crones and house-muffins as well.
This was a tribute to all ages of women and so, inasmuch as you have two generations up there, the passing of the baton, the mirroring of motions, all attendant mother-daughter trophes were visible and optionable for interpretation. What lasts overall is the timelessness of this place, swirling twirling bodies with the fountain spray and the campagnille of the Judson Church as backdrop, and the setting Summer sun.
You could lose your time in a lot worse ways.