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Yisrael Campbell: Circumsize Him (Part One)

Yisrael Campbell: Circumsize Him (Part One)

By Andrew Singer

Ultra-Orthodox Jews.  You see them all around New York City.  Walking around with their black hats, black coats, beards and peyot (curly sidelocks of hair by their ears).  You may often wonder what they’re like as people.  Yisrael Campbell is not one of them, but he’s the closest most people outside the fold will get to meeting one.

“You can tell I’m not Ultra-Orthodox because I’m wearing a blue button-up shirt and not a white one.” He comes across as very warm and friendly, loving coffee as well as the chance to share his journey from being a drug-addicted Catholic to an Orthodox Jew, which he happens to do currently in his wildly successful Off Broadway one-man show Circumsize Me.  City Scoops had the chance to ask him additional questions about his life experiences and the performance world in general in a multi-part interview.

City Scoops: When looking for a deeper religious experience, why not become a more devout Catholic or switch to a different religious?  Why choose Judaism in particular?

Yisrael Campbell: Christianity didn’t speak to me.  That could’ve been because it was the religion of my childhood, and it was given to me by people who weren’t particularly happy with being Catholic either.

When I met Judaism, I met it as an adult, and I met it from a lot of people who were strong proponents of it.  Then again, I had met numerous Christians in my 20s; a mix of Catholics, Lutherans and other branches.  I was not impressed with their version of confession.  Sometimes they didn’t even speak with a priest; they simply said it in their prayers alone.

One of the things I liked so much about Judaism was the idea that G-d didn’t want to forgive my sins until I had spoken to the person I’d harmed here on Earth.  That seemed a much better way to work things out.  I may not understand all tenets of Christian theology, but after several attempts to make Christianity my spiritual practice, it just never ultimately spoke to me.  Whereas Judaism did, and my connection with it grew and grew.  It’s not a perfect system either by any stretch, but it works for me.

Another facet I enjoy is how the Talmud (the written-down oral law) contains a mix of contradictions.  It presents both sides of opinions about various matters, and it doesn’t label either the majority or the minority statements as right or wrong.  I find in general that Christianity tends to have a more strict sense of right and wrong, where you either got it, or you didn’t.  I like how in Judaism, it’s up to you personally to read both sides and decide for yourself.  I find that to be much more true to life.

That definitely ties into your own name Yisrael (”One Who Wrestles With G-d”).  Even if G-d himself states something, you still might disagree with it.  Tell us how that relates to the original title of the show, “It’s Not in Heaven”.

That’s a quote from the bible (”Lo Ba’Shamayim He”).  In the Gemara (part of the Talmud containing rabbinical commentaries and analysis), there’s this argument between one rabbi and a bunch of other rabbis.  None of the rabbis will say that this one rabbi’s right, even though he performs a series of greater and greater miracles to prove his point.

Finally, a voice comes out from heaven and says, “He’s right!” but even then, the rabbis won’t concede, stating that they are the ones on earth with the Torah, and it’s not up to those in heaven to tell them what to think.  Arguing with G-d is so not Christian but very Jewish.

I think it’s a great story, but telling it in the middle of my show would make everybody’s eyes glaze over, and then they definitely would want to literally circumsize me.  But it’s a very important theme of the show.

Why did you go through three conversions?  Why not just immediately become Orthodox (instead of becoming Reform and Conservative first)?  Or even just stick with being Reform?

When I first started, I had no idea that I was doing Reform / Conservative / Orthodox.  I met a group of people, and I thought I was converting to “Judaism”.  It was only after the first conversion that I started to flesh out that this was a reform conversion and not everyone accepted it.  And I realized that as Reform Jews, we didn’t even do all of the activities that everybody else was doing.  Some of the prayers we did weren’t the whole prayers.

A lot of it was in English, I imagine.

And then it was a natural progression.  I was in a couple of situations where Orthodox people told me that I wasn’t Jewish.  So when I wanted to put on tefillin (arm bindings worn during prayer), I realized I needed to take more steps, so I went to the Conservative synagogue.  They were welcoming, but then they did kind of guide me to do a beit din (a rabinnical court of Judaism), which I hadn’t yet done.

I’m not sure it would’ve worked out the same if I’d gone straight to the Orthodox.  The idea on a theological, philosophical level is that you pull the convert closer with their right hand, which is your stronger hand…

And then they push you away with their left hand.

Which is your weaker hand.  So the idea is that the pull is stronger toward and weaker against, but in my experience, it appears to be that more people either push you away with both hands or at least push you away with the right hand.

In retrospect, I’m kind of glad that by the time I started meeting that heavy resistance, I already considered myself a Jew on several levels.  I had already built up a level of Jewish experience.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this interview, coming soon!

Circumsize Me is performed weekly from Wednesday through Sunday at Bleeker Street Theater on 45 Bleeker St in NoHo.  The show is currently running at present through May 16.  Purchase Tickets.

All photos by Carol Rosegg.

Andrew Singer performs all over the NYC as comedic rapper “soce, the elemental wizard.” He has toured Europe and the U.S., and been featured on numerous media outlets, including MTV, VH1, Here TV, Logo, The Source, Out, Howard Stern and Sirius Shade 45.  His music is available on iTunes, and you can catch him performing at a weekly stand-up comedy show with Abbi Crutchfield called Positively Awesome.

Posted on 12 Feb 2010 at 7:20am
A Weekend of Arts and Leisure

A Weekend of Arts and Leisure

By Andrew Singer

The New York Times Arts & Leisure Weekend is approaching quickly.  For a mere $30,  you get to dive into the minds of all your favorite performers, authors and all sorts of engaging personalities.  Intelligent hosts offer insightful commentary on each person’s career, as well as a chance for audience q&a.  I had the pleasure of covering this event last year, and I can’t wait to see many talks again this year.  Here are some of my highlights from 2009’s event:

Kathy Bates

I enjoyed all talks, but Kathy Bates was by far my favorite.  Throughout the discussion, they played clips from four of her movies:  “Misery”, “Primary Colors”, “About Schmidt” and “Reservation Road”.  In each role, she inhabits a wide variety of characters, sometimes lonely, sometimes loving but always powerful.  She stated that she was of course delighted with the success of “Misery” as one of the first horror films to win mainstream awards, yet she was relieved to be cast in other roles afterwards, so as not to have that as her one single legacy.  She sunk into her parts not only through research and method but also through the visceral experience of putting on her costumes and taking in the set design.

She originally attended Southern Methodist University in Texas in order to become and engineer like her father, but broke away into the drama department after discovering that theater was her true love.  Many in the audience praised her wealth of live theater work, especially her Tony Award-winning role in “’night Mother”. Kathy stated that the only way to be a true success is to get as much acting experience and working together with ensembles as possible.  When asked about the rise of instant celebrities on reality shows, she answered, “Fame is fleeting.  Your craft will last forever.”

Keith Olbermann

America’s second angriest man took a surprisingly lenient view on lame duck President George W. Bush, a man he had recently told to “Shut.  The Hell.  Up”, much to the dismay of his network.  Olbermann paralleled his own experience of running his college radio station, back when he was 18, claiming that he was so excited to become the leader that when he finally sat down at his desk, he realized he had no idea what to do and now simply had to struggle to get through each day.  He stated that he had recently seen Bush call play-by-play on a baseball game, and by the way Bush’s eyes let up as he spoke, he could tell that was what Bush was really meant to do.

Lewis Black

America’s angriest man won over the audience by cursing up a storm.  He said that his fierce passion originated from his mother, and that yes, he could be found yelling left and right off-set as well, whether at the TV, the newspaper or himself for losing something in his own apartment.  In addition to standup and acting, he has written some books and over 40 plays, although he said that many of his plays were created very quickly, and he has a hard time getting people to come to his plays if he himself does not appear in them.  In response to the question that EVERY comedian gets asked today (“Will you still be able to be funny now that W is no longer in office?”), he said there are still plenty of other assholes in the world who will face his wrath.  Even of Obama, Black said, “Yeah, he’s full of that hope shit.”

Salman Rushdie

Each one of Rushdie’s books is a densely-packed, well-researched epic that can take up to 10 years to create.  After enough preparation, once he begins his work, he finds that the characters begin speaking to him and telling him what they should do next on the page.  His creations take a life of their own, pushing him into the frantic final drafts, where he’ll spend up to 20 hours a day working and isn’t very fun to be around until the book is finally completed.  As a regular inhabitant of Bombay (which he refuses to call Mumbai), London and New York City, when asked to describe home, he said that he’s happy wherever he is and feels no kinship to one particular location.  He said that he had always disagreed with the ending to The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy begs to leave a wonderful land of enchantment in order to return to the dull, literally black-and-white land of Kansas.

The View

All five current ladies of The View were present:  Barbara Walters, Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, Sherri Shephard and Elisabeth Hasselbeck.  Of the talks I attended, this one got the most consistent laughter from the audience, although I personally found the humor to be quite broad.  The ladies talked about the camaraderie they shared both on and off the set and how they didn’t let differences of opinion get in the way of their friendship.  The View has been a very successful daytime show for over a decade now.  When networks tried to create a similar show with five men, it only lasted a few years before being cut.

The 2010 Weekend of Arts and Leisure will include talks by Jimmy Fallon, Liev Schreiber, Alan Cumming, Natalie Portman, Angela Lansbury and many more.

January 7 – 10, 2010 at the Times Center on 242 W 41 St, between 7th and 8th Aves.

Purchase tickets.

Andrew Singer performs all over the NYC as comedic rapper “soce, the elemental wizard.” He has toured Europe and the U.S., and been featured on numerous media outlets, including MTV, VH1, Here TV, Logo, The Source, Out, Howard Stern and Sirius Shade 45.  His music is available on iTunes.

Posted on 04 Jan 2010 at 6:13pm

Fela! – a musical that’s actually good

By Jennifer DeMeritt

By Jennifer DeMeritt

Depending on your opinion of the genre, you might think a musical is a lousy tribute for an artist as charismatic, influential, and flat-out funky as Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Nigerian political activist and father of Afrobeat. Me? I’ve always hated musicals, which typically seem like boring songs in service of a boring story for a leg-gnawer of a show (a leg-gnawer being a performance so painful that, like an animal in a fur trap, I would chew my own limbs off to escape).

But the musical “Fela!,” in spite of that cheesy exclamation point, is an intelligent and electrifying theatrical experience, as befits the man who inspired it. For starters, the music of “Fela!” is the music of Fela: His original ass-shaking compositions make this the best score you’ll hear on Broadway this year, or any year. Since much of his music was politically motivated, it’s the perfect vehicle for the story of his struggles against the government of Nigeria. And it embodies the story of his experimentation with jazz, funk, and African drumming to create Afrobeat, the hybrid that made Fela an international star in the 1970s.

All the music in “Fela!” is played by Antibalas, a first-rate Afrobeat band that’s been burning up the scene in Brooklyn for years. Their performance alone—with driving rhythms and blistering horn solos—is an event worth celebrating. Add in the dancing by Bill T. Jones’s dance company, with their powerful legs and epic posteriors (one wonders if there’s really that much booty shaking in Nigeria), and “Fela!” gratifies the eyes as fully as the ears. And then there is the character of Fela himself, played by the dynamic Sahr Ngaujah. Where did they find this guy? He sings, he dances, he speechifies, and he looks fantastic in tight pants. I’ve heard some whispering about whether Ngaujah actually plays his saxophone during solos or mimes it, but seriously, who cares? That man is doing plenty already. He’s on stage for almost the entire show, and he commands our attention for all of that time.

Still, the music and dancing in “Fela!”—no matter how captivating—can’t do all the heavy lifting of narrative, and the writers did some cherry picking when they chose which facts to include and which to leave out. Fela was a complicated man, and the version on stage is defanged. When I saw the beta version of the show Off Broadway last year, Fela’s egomania and self-indulgence were on display, especially in a long, hazy sequence in the second act that showed the man reclining with his beloved reefer and soliloquizing like only a pothead can. In the new Broadway version, which has been tightened up (hurrah!) and slightly sanitized (boo), we still see a little wacky tobacky, but not enough to tarnish the character’s heroic luster.

He also gets a free pass on polygamy. This isn’t surprising considering the challenges of reaching a mainstream audience with anything remotely controversial. But imagine if the controversy were celebrated instead of minimized. For some of Fela’s diehard fans his, ahem, alternative lifestyle is a selling point—to wit, the legions of pussy-whipped pseudo-intellectual fanboys who say “And he had 27 wives!” while panting with awe in spite of, or because of, their own kowtowing to feminist pieties. But hey, Fela loved his mother, and that’s all we need to know, right? Well, maybe.

Fela’s mother, Funmilayo, a feminist activist in a time and place where that was immensely challenging, is portrayed as his polestar, and her tragic death at the hands of government heavies gives the show much of its dramatic ballast. The dream sequence (yes, a dream sequence; shut up, you’ll love it) where Fela visits her in the spirit world makes for a stunning convergence of dance, music, and stagecraft—an all-encompassing spectacle that melts your mind and pierces your heart.

Since it opened a few weeks ago, “Fela!” has received uniformly great reviews, with the notable exception of the Village Voice, which ripped the show for its factual omissions. The Voice’s rigor is commendable, as is their reluctance to mindlessly genuflect before the New Hot Thing; but it’s a sad sign of what sourpusses they’ve become that they so grudgingly acknowledge the show’s beauty and power.

Less a biography of this icon than a joyous riff on his life and music, “Fela!” delivers a caliber of pure entertainment rarely presented on Broadway, or anywhere else. Go see it.

Posted on 16 Dec 2009 at 8:14pm
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at B.B. King's

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at B.B. King’s

By Gwen Orel

“Are they still around?”

That was the response I got from at least three people when I told them I was seeing Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.  It was always said with real enthusiasm and longing.

YES, they’re still around, and they’ve just released Speed of Life, their first CD in five years– and it’s very very good.   You can come to it fresh, without knowing any of their hit songs from the 60s and later, or you can come to it with appreciation for how the so-called “jug band” (pop bluegrass, more like) has continued to grow in musicality and strength.   The core group of Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter and John McEuen are together  again (there has been some mobility over the years, and originally, Jackson Browne was in the band) and sound great.

A lot of tribute bands play at B.B. King’s, but despite a few cracks about the past from multi-musicianist John MCEuen, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band honored the past without living in it.  So they’ve been around since 1966 and have hugely influenced younger commercial bluegrass pop rock players– who cares about that when watching McEuen go from fiddle to banjo to dobro, or  Jimmie Fadden play drums and harmonica at once?  Jeff Hanna’s singing is as strong as ever, and his low-key, friendly vibe to the audience has real warmth and Bob Carpenter’s keyboards decorate and fill out the music.  Sure, bearded McEuen has a kind of hippie look if you squint– although he kind of reminded me of one of my grad school profs in the theatre department (I know, same difference).

The crowd at B.B. King’s included a lot of Boomers and middle-aged types but also had a fair amount of younger folk, including two tables of shrieking what-sounded-like sorority girls and their boy toys, who shouted out requests, sang out of key, and in a truly surreal moment yelled “he’s sitting on my tits” in the middle of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

But here’s the thing.  Their tight harmonies, strong musicianship, and kind of laidback version of sizzle feels really good right now.  Soothing, yet challenging and provoking too. The new CD is full of strong songs, a few of which they played tonight.

Jeff Hanna does most of the talking, and he was confident, relaxed and sure (later I asked him who the screaming folks were and he hadn’t heard them, saying he wears earplugs in his ears.  That explains the zen above-it-all posture I guess!).  One of the first songs they did was “The Resurrection,” from the new CD.  It’s a song about a town struggling to survive, but its refrain “dreams die hard around here,” particularly when combined with Fadden’s harmonica, sounds just a little Springsteen-esque to this Jersey girl (and that’s a good thing).

I appreciated that they played, as Hanna put it, “songs  from the catalogue” as well as newer songs.   Overall, the non-hit songs from the catalogue pleased me the most and seemed to showcase their chops the best.  ”Dance Little Jean,” a hit in 1983, is a little sentimental in a country vein, but McEuen’s banjo on a number Hanna says they learned from “a little rootsy band called the Grateful Dead,”  also originally a jug band, “Some Dark Hollar,” had a nice bite.  On the new CD is a great track called “Jimmy Martin,” but instead of that, the band played a cut from their first “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” album, recorded in 1971- a song that “bluegrass king” Jimmy Martin loved, McEuen explained, called “My Walkin’ Shoes.”  His picking on this track was really outstanding.  I love that this band never belts as the number gets more exciting– the close harmonies and relaxed delivery don’t take away from the excitement but contain it.  This number was a real knockout.  The “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” albums brought together the best of bluegrass and old-timey musicians, including Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and Mother Maybelle Carter.  It was recorded in Nashville, and they credit it as the song that got them out of Long Beach, California– funny to think of California as a place that grew these musicians, but hey, banjo virtuoso Alison Brown (founder and co-president of Compass Records) also grew up in California, though originally from Connecticut.  You don’t have to be a front-porch picker to play.

NGDB’s version of the Beatles’ “Get Back” was a nice punchline to the banjo jokes the band was throwing around.   The title song to the new CD, “The Speed of Life,” written by Gary Scruggs (Earl’s son), expresses a wistful quality about looking at life as it hurtles by.  Carpenter’s keyboards sounded particularly nice on this track.  Fadden’s hit 1987 song “Workin’ Man (Nowhere to Go)” was greeted with more shrieks.  A few weeks ago I wrote about Andy Irvine’s tribute to Woody Guthrie, “Never Tire of the Road.”  Fadden alludes to him too, with lyrics that  say he’s “Singing a song about Woody Guthrie– this land is your land, it ain’t my land– I’m a working man, nowhere to go.”  I know it was the Reagan era, but that’s a bit dark for Woody.  Song is tuneful though.

“Mr. Bojangles,” which Hanna described as “the tune that got us out of Long Beach– our band started in ‘66, 1866,” sounded really great (this was a real Dorian Gray moment for Hanna, where I just looked at him going really?  you were singing this forty years ago?  Huh).  Jeff Hanna’s “Bless the Broeken Road,” a love song recorded by Rascal Flats, was performed with just Bob Carpenter singing, Fadden on harmonica and Hanna on guitar.  The simplicity of this arrangement of a song about finding love at last really sent home the song’s beauty and power.

McEuen then returned and riffed, alone on stage, making banjo jokes.  Speaking of banjo, in East Durham, up in the Catskills, this weekend (Oct. 9-12) it’s Banjo Burke Festival– a weekend of Irish music, workshops and concerts honoring the late Joe “Banjo” Burke.  Check it out.  Also speaking of banjo and fiddle, I’d love to see McEuen (now resident in New York) join at one of the NY Irish sessions.  He’s played with Mary Black, so maybe it’s not out of the question…he was telling me after the concert how Irish musicians don’t jam, they play the same tune (but they vary the ornaments, I said).  of course, these days, lots and lots of Irish trad musicians play old-timey and bluegrass too.

But I digress.  His solo was a familiar song in fact–he got the crowd to shout the words of the Beverly Hillbillys (the song is “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” if you want to be all technical about it).  ”You don’t know the words to the National anthem, but you know that,” he said.  True.  I remember singing the Gilligan’s Island themesong around the campfire.  These are American folksongs, after all. The transition to the hit “Fishing in the Dark” was clever:  it went from Fadden’s solo harmonica train number, to Hanna joining in, before becoming the 1987 pop song about seeing Jamaica in a neon sign.  Enthusiastic shrieks were heard again.   While it’s a nice song,  I think I may have heard it once too many times in waiting rooms to appreciate it now, and at this point Hanna’s egging on the crowd to clap began to tilt into the cheesy.

But all came right again with their final number “Bayou Jubilee,” with McEuen wailing on the fiddle, and their encore, consisting of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” interrupted by the Band’s “The Weight” and concluding with the old gospel hymn again, was outstanding.

NGDB really straddle the line between pop music and bluegrass and maybe fans in both worlds don’t get them enough.  That’s a mistake.  They’ve come back around.  If you missed them before, don’t miss them now.  John McEuen is playing City Winery on Nov. 16th– he’s a New Yorker now.

Posted on 07 Oct 2009 at 6:19am
Groovaloo: The Hip-Hop Sensation

Groovaloo: The Hip-Hop Sensation

By Pearl Chen

So You Think You Can Dance. Dancing with the Stars. America’s Best Dance Crew. Dance is enjoying an unprecedented spotlight in the mainstream consciousness right now, and there’s no better time for  freestyle hip-hop group Groovaloo to take their personal story onto the stage. Fresh from a previous appearance in Los Angeles,  this production is hip-hop theater with a unique blend of spoken word poetry, true-to-life narratives, and, of course, jaw-dropping choreography. I could go ahead and say that this show made me want to get up and dance, but I honestly had quite the opposite reaction: Watching these superhuman, acrobatic, pop-lock moves onstage, all I could do was sit firmly in my seat, agape, knowing there was no way I’d ever be able to dance like these amazing people.

One of the most striking things about this show, conceived and created by choreographer and Groovaloo leader Bradley “Shooz” Rapier and director Danny Cistone, is that the stories we see unfold onstage are true and performed by some of the very people who lived through them. The 14 dancers, who have toured with the likes of Madonna and Janet Jackson or been in movies like Step Up-3D, take turns telling us how they got into dance and how joining Groovaloo, a troupe Rapier started years ago among a community of freestylers, changed their lives. Their backgrounds are all different — we have a former medical student (Rapier) and ballerina in the mix, for instance — but all have found salvation through dance. For them, dance is a way of life, a passion that can’t be squelched, and a medium through which they’ve learned much about the world and themselves. The show demonstrates how joyful it is to pursue something you love, even if you don’t always know it’s the right thing to do. From the program notes by Rapier: “There are moments in your life when you simply have to trust and continue to move forward when you have absolutely nothing prepared or seemingly nothing to offer. That’s Groovaloo.”

And boy do they groove. From the very first beat that pulsated across the stage, this show gave off a primal energy that it sustained through multiple, rousing group numbers and scintillating solos. We see killer breakdancing, with b-boys and b-girls crawling across the floor  like spiders, spinning indefinitely on their heads, bouncing around like yo-yos, somersaulting through the air, or twisting vortex-like with their heads just inches from the ground. We see masked dancers (Jabbawockweez moment!) crank and “operate” a female robot with all the stunning isolations of pop-lock masters. And we see a clever hospital routine, in which a patient pumps back to life to pulsing heartbeats reminiscent of the ones that started off the show.

Much of the choreography and music, surprisingly, was very old-school hip-hop. If you’re looking for a Wade Robson mind-blower or even the R&B-infused style of Shane Sparks, you’re not exactly going to find it here. (Only one routine — the thumpin’ all-girls number led by Teresa “Ragdoll” Espinosa — brought a true contemporary, gritty, clubbin’ vibe to the show.) Instead, you’ll witness a freestyle culture that has roots stretching decades back, and even if it may not be anything you haven’t see before (particularly if you’re a fan of SYTYCD or ABDC), you still might find yourself involuntarily bopping along to some of the funky Motown beats. One of my favorites is the segment by Steve “Boogieman” Stanton, as he takes us back to his childhood in drug-infested Detroit. Instead of doing crack like his peers, “through dance, I had a voice,” he says amid a routine of slick, smooth hip-hop against a soul-heavy soundtrack. They definitely put the “groove” in “Groovaloo.”

Another surprise: For a show that at first looks like it would be full of an in-your-face, “Wasssupp?” kind of hip-hop swagger, it actually turned out to be rather moody and emo in overall tone. This is largely due to the spoken word poetry by Charlie “Vzion” Schmidt that runs throughout the show, narrating and transitioning between each story. The result is that every scene feels more like a poetic meditation than a straight-on dance battle, and sometimes it works, while other times it doesn’t.  I’d trade in fancy metaphors about dance for more dancing any day.

There is one super inspirational moment — involving Boogieman –  that I won’t spoil here, except to say that it’s worth being patient for. It comes near the end and seems like it’ll drag the 90-minute, intermissionless show on for much longer than it should, but it pays off nicely (and quickly). Most of all,  it’s completely convincing. Looking back on the story it told, I am more impressed than ever by these dancers and the struggles they’ve overcome. They are the true embodiment of their message: “Life is a dance, so dance beautifully.”


Groovaloo was at the Joyce Theater (175 8th Ave. at 19th St.)  from Sept.15-27, 2009. Now running at the Union Square Theater through 1/3/10.

National tour begins Jan. 10, 2010.

Posted on 19 Sep 2009 at 9:03pm
Don't Miss:  Irish legend Andy Irvine with rising star Irish guitarist John Doyle at the Irish Arts Center, Sept. 9-13

Don’t Miss: Irish legend Andy Irvine with rising star Irish guitarist John Doyle at the Irish Arts Center, Sept. 9-13

By Gwen Orel

Next week brings a musical event that is special on a lot of levels– great artists working together and performing, concerts you don’t want to miss, and an example of an arts organization really fostering the tradition and art that it presents.

The Irish Arts Center’s program “Masters in Collaboration” brings together two masters at what they do, in residence, collaborating for a week.  There are no strings, no promises the artists have to make to write or do anything new, no encumbrances.  This organization, on west 51st between 10th and 11th, is one of my favorites– they produce excellent theatre, have terrific music classes, and overall are one of the real treasures of New York organizations, with the open-minded and forward-looking guidance of Executive Director Aidan Connolly.   Irvine and Doyle will perform together– three full concerts, 9/11, 9/12, and 9/13, with an interview on Wednesday, 9/9, midway through their process.  The interview will be moderated by Mick Moloney, who came up with the idea for Masters in Collaboration, which debuted last year with songwriters Paul Brady and Sarah Suskind.  That program was meant to be a one-off but it did so well that it’s evolved into an ongoing series.  Rumor has it that we might hear some Moloney songs at some of the concerts, too.  Mick Moloney, one of New York’s treasures, a folklorist, singer and prof at NYU (who spends a great deal of time in Thailand these days working on humanitarian projects, and whose own CD “If It Weren’t for the Irish and the Jews” launches this month, to be performed by Mick at Symphony Space in October).

Theatre companies and writers have had residencies for years, many with no strings (see the article I wrote on playwright residencies for the New York Times here) but it’s rare in roots and Celtic music to give artists time to work together with that work together being the point– not the byproduct.

This year’s collaboration brings together two Irish singer-songwriters and guitar players so good they literally raise goosebumps.  Even if you don’t think you like Irish music, I dare you not to like Andy Irvine or John Doyle.  If you like acoustic songs and guitar at all, you will like this.  And of course, if you already like Irish music, you will adore this.  It is the type of event that back when I lived in Alabama I would make heroic efforts to see.  I d flew to New York to see Johnny and Phil Cunningham play together at Symphony Space (I had the tickets before I had the job in Alabama, and I was going with a group of Rovers, who are diehard Silly Wizard fan; you can join the Rover discussion group here).  It’s just unmissable.

More on the artists:

I’m way, way too excited about the visit of ANDY IRVINE .  I haven’t seen him play since 2004, when he played at the late-great club Satalla with his band Mozaik, a band that mixes Irish, Eastern European and old-timey sounds.  I reviewed it for, and you can read that review here (check out Jigtime in future for podcasts and Celtic blogs from me in addition to the New York stories I post here).  Irvine was one of the founding members of Planxty, and Planxty were one of the first Irish bands I ever heard.  My brother Stephen brought his records home from Cornell when he graduated, including his Scottish and Irish records (he also brought them home from the Philadelphia Folk Festival when he went to Penn law school; different versions of this story exist).  One of them was Planxty’s “After the Break.”  It’s still one of my all-time favorites, with its mixture of upbeat melodies and yearning lyrics.  Irvine’s earlier band was Sweeny’s Men, and he has also played with Patrick Street, and Paul Brady.  Irvine was one of the people who helped introduce the bouzouki to Irish music in the 70s, and his influence as a singer-songwriter is profound.  His playing is intricate and delicate, and his singing gentle and nuanced, without ever being fey– his voice manages to be both light and deep. I love his interpretation of traditional songs– “Roger O’Hehir,” a song about a rascally highwayman who seems sort of lovable as sung by Irvine, is irresistible (it’s on the Planxty album “The Woman I Loved So Well”)– and his original songs as well.  His 1991 CD “Rude Awakening” got me through my first semester of grad school– it’s a CD whose songs are portraits, mostly of heroes, with one or two anti-heroes.  ”The Whole Damn Thing,” about a difficult, drunk, defiant Sinclair Lewis, particularly helped:

But maybe he said, “hey call me Red,

Cause no one can tell what Fortune brings

Fame in all its glory may be waiting in the wings

And you’ll never know the feeling if you never have the fling

And one moment of success is worth the whole damn thing.”

That really made me feel better about not understanding semiotics.

Come to think of it, “Never Tire of the Road,” a song Irvine wrote about Woody Guthrie, helped me through the dissertation phase– Irvine has recorded it three times, on “Rude Awakening,” “Rain on the Roof” and Mozaik’s “Live from the Powerhouse.”  The most version is by far the best, I’d say, with the old-timey instrumental “Pony Boy” before it and the inclusion of the refrain “all of you fascists bound to lose, you’re bound to lose, you fascists bound to lose.”  The energy of the instrumentals underneath the defiant lyrics, sung with Irvine’s mixture of passion and quiet, is really stirring.   Irvine is working on a new CD already, and we’re sure to hear some of the songs that will be on it.

JOHN DOYLE is far too busy– so in demand is he as a guitar player (he’s probably the best in Irish music going, period) that the opportunity to hear his own songs is limited, though he’s released two very highly thought of solo CDs, in addition to the CDs he’s made with champion fiddler Liz Carroll (”Double Play” was one of my picks for top Irish CDs of the year for Time Out’s the Volume; read it here).  Carroll and Doyle played for Obama at the White House this St. Patrick’s Day, too.

I first encountered Doyle at the Swannanoa Gathering in the summer of 2003.  This music camp held at Swannanoa College in Ashville, North Carolina, has different music intensive weeks, and Doyle taught at Celtic week.  I was learning harp at the time.  Sadly, the harp is in the case.  For years– I’m focusing on fiddle now, but maybe I’ll take out the harp this year.  There were CD tables set out where you could buy the CDs of the starry teacher roster (I wanted to write “counselors,” it feels sort of like camp, but with whiskey) and John Doyle’s guitar was featured on so many of them, with stickers that said “featuring John Doyle,” that people began peeling them off and wearing them. He works as a producer, so between that and his rhythmic, instantly recognizable guitar he appears on an awful lot of Irish musicians’ CDs.  For the past year he’s been touring with Joan Baez, acting as her musical director.  Doyle is a founding member of Solas.  His original instrumentals fit seamlessly into traditional tunes, and his guitar jig (I think it’s a jig) “the glad eye” has already been covered by the hot young group Guidewires.

Like Irvine, Doyle’s voice has a natural gentleness to it– where Irvine has a twinkly sense of humor, Doyle’s has a current of melancholy aching throughout. The blend of their voices together promises to be very special. I love Doyle’s version of the sad American song “Pretty Saro,” on his CD “Evening Comes Early,” and the fast, upbeat yet morbid ghost song “Captain Glenn,” on the CD “Wayward Son.”   Both of those are traditional, arranged by Doyle, but I’m looking forward to hearing some of the original songs he has not yet recorded.  There is one I particularly love, whose name I don’t know, with roses in it, that I’d love to hear again.

Tickets for this event are available at the Irish Arts Center and at, or 212-868-4444.  Irish Arts Center is at 533 West 51st street, between 10th and 11th Avenues.


Gwen Orel writes about all kinds of culture for all kinds of press, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Time Out New York, the New York Press, Back Stage, American Theatre, the Village Voice, the L Magazine, the Forward, Tablet and others.  Celtic Music owns her.

Posted on 08 Sep 2009 at 2:48am
Q&A with Fiddling Groundbreaker Mark O'Connor

Q&A with Fiddling Groundbreaker Mark O’Connor

By Gwen Orel

Mark O’Connor is a force in the fiddle world.  He knows it.  Not too many musicians will look you in the face and describe the “timeless pieces” they’ve written–but his works, including “Appalachian Journey” (with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer) and “Folk Mass” really are timeless.  It’s not hubris when you’ve got the chops to back it up.  When I mentioned casually to people I knew that I was interviewing Mark O’Connor, I heard, “oh, I love his country records” and “I’ve seen him on PBS” and just “oooooh.”  These responses were from a picture framer, my accountant, and a guitar player.  Of course, my fiddle-playing friends were enthusiastic–and had their own questions to relate.

He’s a two-time Grammy award winner; he has his own label–OMAC records (a combination of his and his mother’s name, MacDonald)–and in the nineties, was named Musician of the Year by the Country Music Association six times (1991-1996).  He bridges musical worlds–that’s his mission in life–studying as a boy first with the great Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson, and then with the ground-breaking French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli.  He plays a kind of Texas Swing-gypsy jazz-classical-bluegrass-old timey style that he calls “American Classical music,” and this fall will release his new Method book of instruction that solidifies an approach to learning that uses the many sounds that pervade American strings.  Some of the people he’s performed with are Rosanne Cash, Ida Kavafian, Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg… for starters.

O’Connor is also a leader in the world of fiddle camps.  Fiddle camp? Yes–every summer adult and youth players can find various “weeks” to attend to increase their skills in their chosen genre.  The Swannanoa Gathering has Celtic Week, Fiddle Week, and Old-Timey Week (and other weeks not for fiddlers),the  Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia, at Davis and Elkins College also has Irish Week, Bluegrass Week and Swing Week, and then, at the Catskills Irish Arts Week, there are fiddle classes galore.

What makes O’Connor’s String Camp unique is that it is multi-disciplinary, by design.  He’s been running these String Camps in Tennessee and in California for years, but 2009 marked the first time he brought the camp to his current residence, New York City.  From July 27-31, 270 string players–mostly, but not all, fiddlers–descended on the Society for Ethical Culture, taking three classes a day, attending evening concerts by students and teachers (who included such greats as bluegrass fiddler Darol Anger and old-timey banjo/guitar/fiddler Bruce Molsky), and an interview series run by O’Connor with guests including Roberta Guaspari, founder of the Opus 118 Harlem School of Music (and subject of the film Music of the Heart), and Alex Miller, General Manager and Senior Vice President of Sony Masterworks. Interviews and concerts were free and open to the public.

I caught up with O’Connor on the second day of the camp.  I was a little early, so sat on a bench for a few minutes, chatting with two middle-aged women who were attending the camp (I could tell by the “Mark O’Connor String Camp” tags they wore).

“There were only about seven people at the Indian class this morning,” one said, explaining how the classes work (a class taught by Mysore Manjunath called “Unique Playing Techniques in Indian Music”), “but Tracy Silverman’s “Blue Strings” was packed.”

Students self-select as either “intermediate” or “advanced” and every day decide which classes in their level to attend.  Each slot has about five selections.  It’s an incredible smorgasbord of offerings and incredibly appealing.  I had just returned from Catskills Irish Arts Week myself, and was thinking longingly about investigating bluegrass and/or swing someday.  At O’Connor’s weeks, you don’t have to choose.  The logistics sound complicated, but it has a spirit of freedom that seems in keeping with someone who champions a quintessentially American sound.


So what took you so long to bring the camp here?

I’ve been running these camps for sixteen years.  It’s taken me five years to bring this here.  My first journey away from the hills of Tennessee was to bring it to my then-home of San Diego and try to interface what I experienced with my camp there into a more urban environment, namely a campus.  There were a lot of people saying oh you can’t do that, or now that you’ve done that, you can’t do that on a campus–when we were able to do it on a campus and people loved that, then I’d get the same runaround trying to bring it to the Big Apple–it probably won’t work here, it sounds like something that’s very specialized in Tennessee… then I finally moved here four years ago.  I had an artistic agenda in my move here.  I wanted to meet string players to play in my groups, to compose my string quartets, my first symphony, and to bring my string camp to Manhattan.  Four years, almost to the month, the camp is here.

There are a lot of camps with isolated weeks.

I wanted my camp to put forward a different model.  I wanted to create a cross-pollinating environment.

It was very different when I was growing up–there wasn’t this respect for the old-time string culture. I wanted to create a Utopian String Universe, something that would be like a real democracy, artistically. I took my cues from my heroes–Benny Thomasson and Stéphane Grappelli were great cross-pollinators.  They set the tone for me to take the paths I did.

It sounds great, but how do you keep it all together when everyone chooses what they’d like to do?

Say you set a rule and make people sign up in advance, well, a lot of people don’t know that they would like to sign up for that class until you create the environment and create the culture.  Once they are created then people might change their minds. The whole idea about the camp is to change minds.  It’s not just to learn further your expertise.  It’s actually to break down barriers and overcome hurdles.  If people signed up for one track or teacher in advance, the entire week my staff and I would be bombarded with people saying “I made a mistake.”  It would be a week full of negativity and no.

What kinds of people come to the camp?

This year the youngest is 8.  We have students, literally, from 8 to 80.

When did you start playing music?

I was 11 when I started the fiddle.  I started playing the guitar at 5.

Do you still play the guitar?

No.  I studied with Benny for three years, and with Stéphane from 17-18.  In between, I studied music theory, voice.  I had a period where I didn’t play as much.  I wanted to play the violin because I saw it as the window to my soul.  I could communicate through it.  It had such directness.  I wanted to make people feel the music, whether it was happy or sad.

When did you start writing music?

I was 13.  A little girl asked me that today!  One my very first pieces, called “Mark’s waltz,” was recorded for a thirty-year retrospective.

When  I knew I was going to interview you, I asked some fiddler friends what they would want to ask you!  So here are some of the questions.  What’s your practice regime like?

I practice about 45 minutes to an hour a day.  There are two or three things I play routinely–a ragtime étude that I wrote–then caprices for technique, finger strength.  I spend most of the day creating music and writing.  When I have a concert coming, I spend a couple of days in prep.  Most of my own pieces I know so well.

Here’s another from a fiddler.  Did you ever get discouraged when you were learning?

When I was young, yes, a few times.  I was considered a child prodigy.  To make that transition from “freak show” to adult is hard for any child musician, and it was for me too.  There were some years in my early 20s when I wondered if I wanted music as a career.

I was scrambling, and wondered if emotionally I could handle my talent. I thought it might be better to get a normal job.  In music you lay it all out–you have very little privacy.

As a composer it’s natural for me to be private.  I have to spend time in a cocoon.  If your deadline is in two weeks, you can’t go out and party with friends.  As a performer, you’re so public.

What kept you going?

I think the answer is you have to look for a break, and you have to be ready to receive it.

You have to put yourself in a position to succeed if the opportunity comes along. When I look back at my career, there were a series of those opportunities that came and I was able to snag them.  I know friends who had opportunities that they missed–through overconfidence, thinking it will come again, some of them.

I got a letter from Chet Atkins when I was 18–he wanted me to come to Nashville and play guitar.  I didn’t even know if I liked country music.  I liked jazz.  He asked me what I’d like to do–I said “be on television.”  He arranged that!  That was my first break in Nashville.  (You can read more about this in an interview O’Connor did with Tom Redmond of here.) The ability to see outside your immediate circle is so important.  You have to seize the moment, give yourself a chance, be ready.

What do you love most about being a musician?

Fiddle culture has really changed.  There’s probably no danger in traditional music dying out, but when I was a kid that was not the case. Fiddle contests were held to perpetuate old-time fiddling.  There were almost no kids playing–I had a huge burden laid on me by older players.

I felt I was responsible for perpetuating fiddling, and getting more young people involved.  They pressured my mother too, “he could do so much for our community.”Now look what I’m doing forty years later–the string camp perpetuates the idea of old-time music.  I love that I can contribute to that.

What do you like the least?

It’s a fickle community in terms of keeping your career afloat.  If you don’t do a recording in three or four years, it’s as if you’ve fallen off the face of the earth.  If I did not perform, people would ask “where are you?”  The constant feeling of letting people down if I don’t do enough. There are not enough hours in the day to keep up with the people I perform with and play with.  I put on three camps this year, but I feel like it’s not enough.

Are you from a musical family?

No.  I’m the one that developed the interest.  It took me three years to beg mother and dad to play the fiddle, I begged from age 8 on.  I heard Itzhak Perlman on PBS.

What are you listening to now?

In New York, I go to see music live.  There was a show of Vivaldi at Carnegie Hall that I really enjoyed.  You can go see music live every night here, people that don’t live here don’t have that opportunity. Even in San Diego, a town with three million people, there were times that I might not have a musical act to see for weeks at a time.  I have a stack of CDs from colleagues that reach to the ceiling that I haven’t listened to yet.  For me, music is research, study, something I’m critiquing for a friend.

What do you do to unwind?

I watch Comedy Central–I like Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report.

That’s only one hour.

I work all day and night. I couldn’t have done this in my 20s, I didn’t have the brain or emotional capacity.  I’ve matured.  I feel like there’s a lot behind me.  I feel a sense of urgency that I didn’t have when I was 25, except, how was I going to pay for dinner.

What are you excited about right now?

My new method book–I’ve introduced a new method to 40 teachers this week (Teacher training was one of the tracks at the String Camp).  I’ve had the idea for the last fifteen years, to create a sequence of American traditional tunes.

It’s how to learn to play the violin in an American style. I felt compelled.  I see all the things not being done–like, why isn’t there a fiddle concerto–20 years ago I wrote one.  I asked, why isn’t there cross-disciplinary training?  So I created this method.  There’s a Russian school, a German school, a French school–this is for the American school.

Gwen Orel writes about music, theatre and culture for many outlets.  She is a slave to Celtic music.

Posted on 04 Aug 2009 at 11:00pm
Inner Monologue:  The Multi-tasked Critic in the basement, in the park, soaking up a slow drag on Tin Pan Alley (on Broadway) and passing for adolescent in the  east village:  four plays, four days

Inner Monologue: The Multi-tasked Critic in the basement, in the park, soaking up a slow drag on Tin Pan Alley (on Broadway) and passing for adolescent in the east village: four plays, four days

By Gwen Orel

Posted on 14 Jul 2009 at 7:13pm
Q&A with bass-playing band mistress Missy Raines

Q&A with bass-playing band mistress Missy Raines

By Gwen Orel

How many BASS PLAYERS become bandleaders?  And how many of those are women?


On July 1,  Missy Raines, of Missy Raines and the New Hip, played Madison Square Park, as part of the Madison Square Park Conservancy summer concert series.  She opened for Claire Lynch, a terrific bluegrass player with a sweet Dolly Parton-like voice, whose band she used to be in.

Missy Raines’ debut CD as a bandleader,  Inside Out (released in February)  is on repeat on my ipod.

Her double bass, taking center stage, really brings out the rhythm and groove in every track.  Pretty much ever trad and folk and roots musician claims to have jazz influences in one way or another– but you can really hear it with Raines.  This really is “newgrass,” for those who don’t even think they like the genre.  For one thing there’s her instrumental line-up– not a banjo to be seen– and a drummer!  Dobro, bass, guitar, mandolin and drums– yes, the emphasis sure is on rhythm.  Her music has a groovy, jazzy, lunch-on-the-patio vibe.

Another real strength of the CD is Raines’ husky, soulful singing.  She sang harmony for years with Lynch, and she toured with Lynch’s guitar player Jim Hurst and sang with him– but here her vocal skills really land.  It’s just the kind of vocal sound that goes with the instruments– the CD really is seamless.  ”Basket of Singing Birds” really sparkled live, but I love the song “Magnolia” even more– both are by songwriter Ed Snodderly, but Raines’ somehow sly delivery gives them an edgy grace.

I’d never seen them play– last night was their first New York gig, outside of APAP  (Assocaition of Performing Arts Presenters) showcases — so she said this was the first time she’d performed for “real” people.  I was at APAP this year, but I know what she means– those showcases  are a cross between backers’ audition and house concert.  

The weather held– somehow Missy knew it would, she told me on the phone– and the groove was phenomenal.  Earlybirds like me and my friend Kelly Glover (fresh back from LA where she was working at Law & Order) were soon joined by those wandering in from the park, those looking over from the Shake Shack line, and people lingering on the corner of 23rd and Madison.  

The International Bluegrass Music Association has called Missy the best bassist player EVER.. If you hear some David Grisman, you’re right— Raines cites him as an influence— then she also cites rocker Joe Jackson.  The sound rests in between bluegrass and jazz.  Even the CD title is a tribute to Miles Davis, and his 1950 album “Birth of the Cool” (it’s also referencing Raines’ actual new hip; she had hip replacement surgery in 2005).

The New Hip are composed of Ethan Ballinger on guitar, Michael Witcher on guitar and vocals.  The band played “Victory Is Yours,” an original number off of Ballinger’s CD Wish Upon a Falling Star, and as soon as I get it, I promise to review it here– it had techno elements and was very interesting indeed!), Robert Crawford on drums (yes!!! drums!!)  and Dominick Leslie on mandolin .  It’s a slightly different line-up from the CD– Dillon Hodges is not there and Crawford and Leslie are– but what hasn’t changed is that her backup band are all virtuoso twenty-smething men (and some really, really look like boys!)   Raines is a forty-something trad-jazz musician, leading a band of young male pluckers ranging in age from 19 to early thirties.  All of her band are rising virtuoso–, 21-year old Ballinger uses mandolin in a jazzy feel and got raves from, 27-year old Witcher has played with Sean and Sara Watkin, Dolly Parton, and Tony Rice, and Leslie, who grimaces as he plays and jerks around, is about to enter the Berklee School of Music– and will still tour.   I chatted with Missy after the show.

Did you know what instruments you wanted and then you found the players?

Totally.I knew I wanted drums, because I wanted to explore all the options we’d have with drums.  I knew I wanted dobro, because I just love the instrument.  I didn’t want banjo, because I knew the music we were going after wouldn’t best fit that.  Mandolin is absolutely essential to this kind of music partly because of the connection I feel deeply to Bill Monroe to and David Grisman and Sam Bush.

How long has the idea for the band been brewing?

Jim Hurst (guitar player with Claire Lynch) and I started a duo back in 1998.  We sat down and did a five year plan and a ten year plan about what we wanted to do as a duo.   One of the things on my wish list at that time was to start a band. It was during a stint with Claire Lynch in 2004 that I really got focused on this band.

How would you describe your music?

I’ve always been really interested in the contrast of acoustic instruments playing jazz music.  One of the biggest things that changed my life was hearing David Grisman back in the ’70s and Tony Rice playing jazz-influenced music.    But, I always wanted to play with a drummer. It is unusual in bluegrass—I don’t really think we’re playing bluegrass.  We have elements of bluegrass and we come from bluegrass but I’m hoping we’re a shoot off of a tree.  There’s so many great bands out there right now that are coming out of bluegrass—people like The Greencards and The Duhks (editor’s note:  The Duhks play Madison Square Park this Wednesday, July 8th ) are taking an acoustic venue and stretching it out a little bit.  To me it stems back to one my big heroes, Bill Monroe; he truly was the first innovator within bluegrass.  He came in and took what everyone considered hillbilly music at the time and jazzed it up a little bit.  He experimented with a lot of different things… early recordings will just demonstrate that.  He had a lot of soul in his music.  

To me, it’s funny when traditionalists kind of think oh, we have to keep bluegrass a certain thing.  I think that bluegrass by definition is about growth and about exploration. 

How did you happen to choose the bass?

That was complete happenstance—my father did play the bass, although my parents were enthusiasts, not musicians.   He actually made a washtub bass for himself and then he got an actual bass.  So the bass was in the house, and I picked it up, and the rest is history.

Were there people that didn’t take you seriously as a girl bass player?

If it was there I blotted it out.  Sure, there were a few things here and there.  There are jobs I know I didn’t get because I was a girl. I didn’t get any of that at home or from those closest to me, so I thought they were the oddballs.

Did you take lessons, or did you teach yourself to play?

That’s an interesting term– who does really teach themselves.  I didn’t have any regular formal lessons, I watched a lot of people, I may have taken literally one or two lessons in my life, but mostly you watch people and play, play, play.  I jammed for days and days and days when I was a young kid.  I started into playing the bass when I was 12 years old. I played guitar and piano before that.  Once I started playing bass, that was it, I didn’t want to play anything else.

What was it about the bass that appealed to you so much?

The support aspect—I love making music with people.  Playing something and searching for that groove.  And the groove happens when people are playing together with each other and listening to each other and playing off each other and if you’re lucky you find the groove. 

Do you have a favorite song on the CD?

That would be hard—there’s a tune on there that I wrote for my dad which is a pretty personal favorite, The Ides of March.  

Oh yes, that’s beautiful, and haunting.  Did I read somewhere that “stop, drop and wiggle” is written for your cat?

He was the inspiration, Kitty Boy.  We just lost him, from kidney failure.  He was 16, I wanted him 16 more years.    He was very vocal, he was very personable, he’d come right up to you and introduce himself, he was like, how are you? His favorite thing to do was running in front of you, meowing, and he would just literally drop, he’d do this kind of wiggle thing and move all of his feet like this.  He’d do that constantly, and it would be dangerous because you’d fall over!

Do you mostly get inspiration from people and furry people that are close to you?

It could be anything.  We’re very much an instrumental band as well as a vocal band… music that I’ve been affected by is instrumental music that evokes emotion in me.   I want to create music that evokes emotion in someone else.  I don’t have to dictate what that emotion is, that’s the beauty of it.  It could be anything.

How does it feel to be the only girl in a band of boys?

Sometimes I’m ready to scream out for some estrogen! I have traveled with guys in my life but there’s been some women in the bands from time to time.  They’re definitely mostly younger; I find it incredibly energetic. I love their energy cause I love challenge and I love the contrast of my life next to theirs.

What’s in your next five-year plan?

Make a couple more records and write a lot more music.  I have spent a lot of time to get momentum going, get record contract which we did, from Compass, create a band with chemistry, which we have—now we can sit back and just start writing.


Listen to Raines’ tune for Kitty Boy here:


Cool, no?


Gwen Orel writes about music, theatre, film and culture for a variety of folks, including the Wall Street Journal, the Jewish Daily Forward, Time Out New York, Back Stage and others.

Posted on 06 Jul 2009 at 7:57pm
Downloaded: YouTube Celebrity Showcase

Downloaded: YouTube Celebrity Showcase

By Pearl Chen

I heart YouTube. Hours and hours of my life have been spent blissfully and unconsciously clicking away on this website, the destination for many unexpected video discoveries, karaoke sing-alongs, and trips down memory lane. When I don’t know where to start though, that’s when I turn to my trusty YouTube celebrities — larger-than-life personalities on the web whose videos have garnered hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of page views. Go to their channel, and you’re guaranteed to leave with a lighter mood.

My favorite people online include HappySlip — a funny, Filipino-American gal named Christine Gambito who has made a chameleonic art of imitating her heavily accented family members – and Kevjumba, a cute Chinese-American dude called Kevin Wu who makes hilarity out of seemingly mundane high school (and now college) life. Don’t believe me? Watch this bizarrely endearing video about his elbow zit (yes, elbow zit), a clip that has garnered 617,000 page views and counting.

When I heard that both HappySlip and Kevjumba, along with a host of other Youtube celebrities with cult followings (such as the Obama impersonator and “Chocolate Rain” singer), were coming to New York and staging a live musical/comedy showcase on June 3, 2009, I was there faster than you could say “buffering.” Presented by Digital Content Partners, “Downloaded” was a chance to see these people, who have a combined 400 million page views on YouTube, outside of a little box on my laptop. Would they be as charming live as they are online?

The minute I stepped onto the floor of the Highline Ballroom in Chelsea, I knew I was in for a very, very young, tech-savvy night. The standing-room only concert floor was scattered with kids in high school or college, each sporting digital cameras or camera phones that lit up the dark like fireflies. Onstage, a DJ kept the atmosphere pumped up with all the latest hip-hop, techno, pop tracks — with an occasional throwback to some old-school hits. A giant screen on the wall played the live streaming video of this event being broadcasted to the world — but ironically froze up repeatedly when it tried to play some YouTube videos. So much for being tech-savvy.

Host Kevjumba burst onto the stage to wild cheers and asked everyone, “How many of you spend more time on the Internet than you do on TV?” Every single hand shot up. Yup, we were so past Generation Y. At a self-proclaimed “6 feet,” Kevjumba did appear taller than most everyone that night — something we could’ve never learned in a video. His signature mannerisms/tones of voice were all instantly recognizable and likable, and the crowds adored him. He didn’t come prepared with any kind of monologue or set though, as some hosts do, and that was disappointing. But he stayed onstage longer than any of the performers.

By far the most entertaining of these performers was Iman “Alphacat” Crosson, the man behind Barack Obama parodies “Single Ladies” and “Whatever You Like.” This guy was the real deal. He exploded onto the stage first with the hysterically choreographed “Single Ladies” and ended the night with “Blame It,” a defense of Obama’s three months in office, fused with his outrageously funny hip-hop/pop style and unmistakably commander-in-chief voice. The man was pure energy. I wished he had time to do some extended talking impersonations too.

Later, Tay Zonday sang a funky remix that started off with his viral-video song “Chocolate Rain,” which then morphed into a few other numbers — all done in that freakishly rich bass of a voice. He talks like that too.

Acoustic singers Kina Grannis (the Michelle Branch of YouTube) and David Choi (a Jason Mraz/John Mayer-channeler backed by Wong Fu productions) each brought us sweet, mellow ballads before teaming up later in the show for an aww-shucks duet.

And Christine Gambito, aka HappySlip, turned in one of the most gracious appearances of the night. She did a short comedy routine that was mostly a rehash of things we’ve seen on her channel — like the origins of her HappySlip name — before doing what she does best: classic impersonations of her aunt, mother, father, and cousin with that golden accent. Those grade-grubbing, child-comparing relatives she portrayed were such a dead-ringer for the stereotypical Asian parent, something that the heavily Asian audience could undoubtedly relate to. At the end of her set, at the request of audience members, Christine threw both of her slippers into the crowd.

The most boring parts of the show included the Olde English “sketch comedy” trio — I say “comedy” with hesitation because nothing about their randomly hatched-together set was particularly funny. You know a group’s in trouble when the live chat feeds streaming in over on the giant screen (”Get them off the stage!”) are more amusing than the jokes under the spotlight.

Then there was a makeup demonstration by YouTube’s queen of beauty Michelle Phan, an ill-conceived segment that was impossible to really see or hear clearly and had poor Kevjumba awkwardly making up things (including some semi-mean jokes) to fill the time. I’m a huge fan of this kid, but I have to say improv isn’t his strong suit. I think I like him a little more online.

The last performer of the night turned out to be a real tease. We waited 40 minutes for Esmee Denters in the dark, with only the heroic DJ keeping the show on its last string, before she finally made her way onstage (no apology or explanation given). Denters, a YouTube mega popstar who has appeared on Oprah and recently signed with a label to produce her first album, was talented without question. But no amount of Mariah Carey-like vocal runs was really worth waiting nearly three hours on our feet to see.

Overall, Downloaded was a mish-mash of talent and expectations. Just about everyone onstage had some kind of talent that is worthy of being celebrated/followed. But for some of them, their act is probably best kept primarily online, where they can truly work their magic. There is something about the quirkiness and intimacy of a cleverly edited YouTube video that doesn’t quite get translated live. And that’s perfectly fine… because as Christine says, “There is a whole other audience on the web.” In the age of YouTube, you don’t have to be a mainstream actor or musician to be a star.

Posted on 09 Jun 2009 at 4:24pm