NYC Dueling Pianos

NYC Dueling Pianos

By Pearl Chen

Fans of rock ‘n’ roll will find themselves in good company at NYC Dueling Pianos. Located at the Ha! Comedy Club in Times Square, the high-octane, interactive show features two talented pianists (along with a saxophonist and drummer) who take requests from the audience and lead drinking crowds into uninhibited group karaoke.

Expect a lot of Billy Joel, Beatles, and Elton John. On the night that my friend and I attended, we heard classic tunes like “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and “Benny and the Jets.” But we also got a smattering of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “That Thing You Do,” and, in the words of one of the musicians, “cheesy 80s one-hit-wonders.”

Each table comes with sheets for song requests that you can fill out and drop onstage at anytime during the show.  The more you tip the musicians, the better the chances of hearing your song played (the most persuasive requests were around $20). If you don’t like a request, you can axe it with a bigger tip. For instance, an $11 bid for Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” was cut short mid-song by a $13 request for CeeLo Green’s “F*** you.” The crowd went nuts. It was the best choice of the night.

Regardless of how inebriated you get (there is a one-drink minimum), you’d be hard-pressed to not join in at least one song by the end of the evening. While the pianists never actually “duel” with each other, they are good at creating “contests” within the audience, such as drinking games to “Roxanne” and a shouting match to “Sweet Caroline.”

The venue hosts lots of bachelorette and birthday parties, but ladies be warned that the musicians seem to have a vendetta against “chick songs.” Leave the Britney and the Christina at home because you’re only going to hear half-assed versions performed (if at all). When it comes to drunkin’ group karaoke, these dudes definitely like to keep it old-school.


Posted on 25 Mar 2011 at 10:56pm
Everyday I Write the Check

Everyday I Write the Check

By John Marshall

A Special Engagement Featuring Elvis Costello
Complimentary Event
Open to Citi credit card and Citibank Mastercard customers only
SIR Stage37
New York City
December 16, 2010

You won’t take my love for tender
You can put your money where your mouth is
But you’re so unsure
I could be a miser or a big spender
But you might get much more than you bargained for

- “Love for Tender,” Get Happy!! (1980)

Everybody got more than they bargained for at this once-in-a-recession event featuring a solo concert by one of rock’s biggest iconoclasts, performed for an audience composed entirely of credit-card holders.

As someone who hasn’t had a credit card since Elvis released Spike in 1989, I went as a Citicard member’s guest, joining the only audience in history whose common denominators were “Less Than Zero” and 0% Intro APR.

The hip, cavernous space had a small stage, surrounded on three sides by seating for 500. Tables and couches lent the evening an intimate, downtown feel rather than an impersonal, corporate one. If this was a waste of bailout funds, it was the best I’ve seen.

Some on-line message boards lamented that EC was performing for a bank and wouldn’t “bite the hand that feeds me,” as he sang in 1978’s “Radio Radio.” However, it was hard to focus on any bites other than the ones everyone was taking out of the nonstop hors d’oeuvres. Plus, the food and drink, like Citibank’s Online Payment Program, were free.

For a bank-sponsored event, there was no hint of anything even vaguely financial-related. Although the excellent opening act, The Blue Vipers of Brooklyn, did mine classics from past economic eras (“Stardust” – the Depression, “Ragg Mopp” – post-WWII expansion).

Money talks and it’s persuasive

- “Possession,” Get Happy!!

Nothing was more persuasive than Elvis when he took the stage promptly at 8 p.m., with nothing but an acoustic guitar. Wearing his usual suit and trademark hat, he quickly strode to the microphone and delivered the iconic opening line of “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”: “Oh I used to be disgusted / Now I try to be amused.”

The cardmembers went over their limit.

Citibank may own the economy, but EC owned the room. He spat out the song like it was 1977, but it didn’t feel nostalgic. It felt urgent and current. I last saw him 28 years ago at the Pier in the Dr. Pepper concerts. He was so angry he kicked over an amp. He didn’t kick over an amp now, but he still kicked it. In other words, his aim was still true.

Then he took it down a notch, if you can call doing a poignant, heartfelt “Veronica” taking it down. He said, “This next song is one I hate.” That got a big laugh. “I mean, I used to hate it until my friend Ron Sexsmith showed me how to sing it.” Then he did a simple yet moving rendition of “Everyday I Write the Book.” That was Part I.

Part II was the Interview Section, with DJ and MTV/VH-1 VJ Matt Pinfield.

Matt asked which musicians Elvis liked and he said how much he loved the Attractions and how thrilled he was to play with the drummer who played for Little Richard and The Flintstones and Mission Impossible themes.

They discussed EC’s collaborations with Paul McCartney, particularly “That Day Is Done,” about the death of Elvis’s grandmother. Elvis said Paul came up with the title phrase as well as how to craft it into a melody that everyone would sing. “I realized he was doing the same thing he did with ‘Let It Be.”

After some more exchanges,  Matt left the stage and Part III began.

First, Elvis went into Blue Vipers territory with the upbeat, 1920’s-style “A Slow Drag with Josephine,” from this year’s National Ransom, the only new song he did and a real crowd-pleaser.

Then he picked up a massive, Bill Haley-style electric guitar and started strumming some extremely distorted, twanging, minor chords in a lilting reggae rhythm. At first I thought it was “Goon Squad” from Armed Forces but it turned out to be “Watching the Detectives.” More ominous than I’d ever heard it. Elvis seemed to be listening to it as much as playing it, as if he had never heard it before. Maybe in this form, he hadn’t.

There had been shouts all night for “Green Shirt.” I always loved the song but it struck me as an odd one to shout for. Nobody shouted for “Pump It Up” or “Accidents Will Happen.” Whether he meant to do it all along or was responding to the requests, that’s what he did next.

Like “Detective,” this was also mining a darker emotion. I couldn’t help but think that the lyrics now applied to Julian Assange: “I never said I was a stool pigeon / I never said I was a diplomat / Everybody is under suspicion / But you don’t want to hear about that.”

Then he picked up a different guitar and ripped into raucous, acoustic power chords. In the interview he had talked about “Peace, Love and Understanding” and how Nick Lowe had written it as a bit of a joke in the early 70’s – a slightly tongue-in-cheek peace-and-love number.

Elvis, who was always known for his clever wordplay and arch delivery, never saw the song that way and always did it completely straight. Which is how he did it now. Like a one-man Who, he shredded the guitar and tore the roof off the place, to the point where it would take the combined credit ratings of the entire audience to pay for a new one.

Then the event, like America’s days as a creditor nation, was over.

We were left thinking: what is so funny about peace, love and understanding? Or for that matter, Elvis, music and banking?

Posted on 17 Dec 2010 at 7:25pm
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Yoko Ono: Live Peace in Brooklyn 2010

Yoko Ono: Live Peace in Brooklyn 2010

By John Marshall

We Are Plastic Ono Band

BAM Howard Gilman Opera House

February 16, 2010

Yoko Ono was accused of splitting up the Beatles, but at the Brooklyn Academy of Music she brought together an incredible array of disparate musicians, playing in styles ranging from 1920’s jazz to 1960’s blues to 2010 techno to undefinable sounds that show she is still, at the age of 77, ahead of her time.

By all rights this should have been on television (and judging from the cameras and the trucks parked outside, it may well be, somewhere); it was packaged not as a complete overview of Yoko’s career, but as something of a greatest hits combined with tributes.

Before the show, in the lobby were some of Yoko’s most famous art installations, including the film “Bottoms,” the “Sky,” “Dream,” War Is Over!” and “Imagine Peace” banners, and my favorite, “Apple,” which simply is an apple on a stand (it was one of the pieces that attracted John to Yoko at London’s Indica Gallery in 1966).

Inside the theater, pre-show animation (by Jordan Galland) showed a drawing (by Sean) with birds flying out of her mouth, while bird sounds were played.

A short opening film by Jenny Golden and Sean again (he did everything; even designing the program) showed Yoko highlights, including “Cut Piece,” where audience members cut off pieces of her clothing, her peace activities with John and even the photo she took of his bloody glasses that caused an uproar when she used it for an album cover in 1981.

Her work has always been direct, in-your-face and positive; some of it is totally out there and some is as mainstream as you can get (well, as mainstream as SHE can get).  At this show, she hit the extremes as well as the middle, but pulled no punches.  Although the evening was focused on her, it was really a celebration of collaboration, often among family members.  Accordingly, the person who held the show together was (who else?) Sean Lennon.

As musical director, he assembled the musicians, suggested songs, played a number of instruments and introduced the acts.  It was inspiring to see how his choices showcased his mom’s work; it was moving to hear her say that he “made her feel better.”

Act One consisted of Yoko fronting a Plastic Ono Band consisting of Sean, Yuka Honda, Keigo Oyamada, Shimmy Hirotaka Shimizu, Yuko Araki, Michael Leonhart and Erik Friedlander.  They did songs from her latest album, 2009’s “Between My Head and the Sky,” as well as classics such as “Walking On Thin Ice” (the last record John played on), “Mind Train” and “It Happened.”

Although tiny, Yoko is such a commanding presence and her voice so powerful, even though she was more than twice the age of the musicians accompanying her, they were trying to keep up with HER.  And she was wilder than anyone else in the show.

The Scissor Sisters kicked off the second half with a thrilling “The Sun is Down,” an infectious synth number from “Between My Head and the Sky.”  Next came “What a Bastard the World Is,” a sweet sounding 1973 ballad with fuck-you lyrics aimed at a “pig” who did her wrong (we can only guess who she meant) belted out by Justin Bond, who perfectly captured the song’s hurt, anger and sorrow.

George Ween and Sean did a touching acoustic version of “Oh Yoko,” followed by the very electric “Mulberry,” which featured Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore accompanying Yoko’s trademark wailing with feedback-drenched cacophony.  In back of them on the big screen flies cavorted over a naked woman’s body in Yoko and John’s 1970 film “Fly.”  The performance was passionate, ominous and oddly beautiful. Or beautifully odd.

This was followed by a dip into the sounds of almost a hundred years ago, as the Plastic Ono Band became a Prohibition-era dance orchestra.  Bette Midler slinked onstage, said, “Hi, boys” to the band, and purred her way through “Yes, I’m Your Angel” from “Double Fantasy.”  It was funny, sexy and when it was done, Sean told us that Bette had arranged the song herself.

The curtain came down and Sean announced that a father and son who hadn’t played as a guitar duo before would perform.  Then Paul Simon and Harper Simon sang achingly poignant renditions of Yoko’s “Silverhorse” and John’s “Hold On,” blending the tunes and their voices perfectly.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, the curtain went up and without intro, the stage shook with the opening bars of the Beatles/Plastic Ono Band/Dirty Mac classic “Yer Blues.”  Together for the first time in 37 years were original Plastic Ono Band members Yoko, Eric Clapton and Klaus Voorman, with Sean doing his dad’s vocals and guitar part.  Never have the lines “Yes, I’m lonely / Wanna die” sounded so joyous and full of life.

Clapton was amazing – not because he played so well, which I expected – but because he looked less like a rock star and more like an old hippie who was happy just to jam.  He didn’t even play lead for most of the song – he played rhythm behind Sean.  Voorman (who designed the Beatles’ “Revolver” cover, played at The Concert for Bangla Desh, and produced Trio’s “Da Da Da,” among other accomplishments) held down the bottom with what was probably his first public bass playing in years. And Yoko was in her own universe, wailing away.  They were all so relaxed, intense and not giving a shit, all at the same time.  It was real raw, fucked up rock and roll.  John Lennon definitely would have been pleased.

Then they blasted their way through Yoko’s “Death of Samantha” and “Don’t Worry Kyoko” (a great “avant blues” from “Live Peace in Toronto 1969″).  I could have listened to them all night, but then everyone came back onstage for the finale, a roof-shaking “Give Peace a Chance” with new lyrics by Yoko referencing current events.

In the film at the beginning, the 1969 Yoko tells an interviewer, “There is no time for negative thoughts.  We’re gonna make it, you know.  We’re gonna make it.”  41 years later at BAM, her relentless positivity and limit-stretching creativity exceeded even the expectations of her fans, who kept shouting out how much they loved her, finally erupting in a spontaneous rendition of that old avant garde stand-by, “Happy Birthday.”

“I’ve come to expect unexpected things,” said Yoko, giggling.  “And that’s one of them.”

Yoko’s Imagine Peace website

Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band: Between My Head and the Sky

Posted on 17 Feb 2010 at 9:43am

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
Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Bob's)

Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Bob’s)

By John Marshall

Bob Dylan and His Band

United Palace Theatre

New York City

November 19, 2009

Gonna change my way of thinking

Make myself a different set of rules

Gonna change my way of thinking

Make myself a different set of rules

Gonna put my best foot forward

And stop being influenced by fools

Bob Dylan kicked off the final night of his three-night stand (and the last show of his current tour) at the United Palace Theatre with “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” a lean, mean, blast of religion & blues from 1979’s Slow Train Coming.  It was a raucous, joyous opener (and perfect for a theatre that was home to Reverend Ike for 40 years).  Standing behind his piano, imposing in a black suit and wide-brimmed hat, Dylan punched out the lyrics with the clarity and passion of a preacher.

Then came a bright, chugging “The Man in Me” and the tone was set for the evening.  Everything was upbeat – even “Desolation Row” – and the show was heavier on his amazing new material than it was on classics.  There was no “Blowin’ in the Wind,” no “Mr. Tambourine Man,” no “Tangled Up in Blue.”  Instead, there were new warhorses, including “Thunder On the Mountain,” “Ain’t Talkin’” and “When the Deal Goes Down” from 2006’s Modern Times, “High Water (for Charley Patton)” from 2001’s Love and Theft, “Cold Irons Bound” from 1997’s Time Out of Mind and three from 2009’s Together Through Life, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” “My Wife’s Hometown” and “Jolene.”

He did “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower,” but they weren’t nearly as poignant as his ode to current economic woes, “Workingman’s Blues #2,” from Modern Times. Through incessant touring and a steady release of CD’s for the past 12 years – and a refusal to play his old stuff the way it sounds on the records – Dylan has created not just another new Dylan persona, but an entirely new sound.  Whereas the press (and some of the audience) is hell-bent on keeping him in the 60’s, he has become a new artist, one who pays respect to his own past but is not mired in it, the way most of his peers who still perform live are (see interview below).

Stylistically, Dylan’s music now is more 1940’s and Western Swing than rock (one of the best numbers tonight was “When the Deal Goes Down,” maybe the first time I’ve seen a house rocked by a waltz).  But sonically and emotionally, he’s still pure rock and roll.  You can’t understand the lyrics unless you know them, and even then he doesn’t make it easy.  He changes the meter and the phrasing, sometimes mumbling and croaking his way through some of the best songs ever written.  This is partly due the limitations of his voice and partly because he’s more interested in the overall sound. He’s a solo performer, but he’s also part of his band, which is as much the point of the live show as he is.

Although the show was perhaps even better than the other 12 or 13 times I’ve seen him, this time the spokesman of his generation was playing to a generation that couldn’t stop speaking (or texting). I couldn’t help but notice during “Ain’t Talkin’” that the people in front of me and in back of me were doing exactly that.  When Dylan sang, in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is,” he could have been singing to half the twenty-somethings in my section.

Still, even the talkers couldn’t dampen spirits.  It was a thrilling show from beginning to end and his band is the best band he’s ever played with (including The Band, Tom Petty and the Dead).  The only thing that could have topped it would have been “Must Be Santa,” Dylan’s current single from Christmas in the Heart, which he didn’t play.

Also a thrill was the opening act – Dion!  It was great to see him in a non-rock and roll revival show.  The 70-year-old Teenager in Love blew the roof off the place (I realized how much Springsteen owes to his sound), blazing his way through “Runaround Sue,” “The Wanderer” and other hits.

Dylan closed out his tour proving yet again that when it comes to music, he has not only always put his best foot forward, he has never been influenced by fools.


Set List

1. Gonna Change My Way of Thinking

2. The Man in Me (Bob center stage)

3. Beyond Here Lies Nothin’

4. Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine

5. My Wife’s Hometown (Bob on guitar)

6. Desolation Row

7. High Water (for Charley Patton) (Bob center stage)

8. When the Deal Goes Down

9. Cold Irons Bound (Bob center stage)

10. Workingman’s Blues #2

11. Highway 61 Revisited

12. Ain’t Talkin’

13. Thunder on the Mountain

14. Ballad of a Thin Man


15. Like a Rolling Stone

16. Jolene

17. All Along the Watchtower



“Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” – Live in Los Angeles, October 2009

“Must Be Santa” video


Excerpt from Huffington Post Dylan Interview by rock critic and MTV producer Bill Flanagan, April 15, 2009

Bill Flanagan: A lot of the acts from your generation seem to be trading on nostalgia. They play the same songs the same way for the last 30 years. Why haven’t you ever done that?

Bob Dylan: I couldn’t if I tried. Those guys you are talking about all had conspicuous hits. They started out anti-establishment and now they are in charge of the world. Celebratory songs. Music for the grand dinner party. Mainstream stuff that played into the culture on a pervasive level. My stuff is different from those guys. It’s more desperate. Daltrey, Townshend, McCartney, the Beach Boys, Elton, Billy Joel. They made perfect records, so they have to play them perfectly … exactly the way people remember them. My records were never perfect. So there is no point in trying to duplicate them. Anyway, I’m no mainstream artist.

BF: Then what kind of artist are you?

BD: I’m not sure, Byronesque maybe. Look, when I started out, mainstream culture was Sinatra, Perry Como, Andy Williams, Sound of Music. There was no fitting into it then and of course, there’s no fitting into it now. Some of my songs have crossed over but they were all done by other singers.

BF: Have you ever tried to fit in?

BD: Well, no, not really. I’m coming out of the folk music tradition and that’s the vernacular and archetypal aesthetic that I’ve experienced. Those are the dynamics of it. I couldn’t have written songs for the Brill Building if I tried. Whatever passes for pop music, I couldn’t do it then and I can’t do it now.

BF: Does that mean you create outsider art? Do you think of yourself as a cult figure?

BD: A cult figure, that’s got religious connotations. It sounds cliquish and clannish. People have different emotional levels. Especially when you’re young. Back then I guess most of my influences could be thought of as eccentric. Mass media had no overwhelming reach so I was drawn to the traveling performers passing through. The side show performers – bluegrass singers, the black cowboy with chaps and a lariat doing rope tricks. Miss Europe, Quasimodo, the Bearded Lady, the half-man half-woman, the deformed and the bent, Atlas the Dwarf, the fire-eaters, the teachers and preachers, the blues singers. I remember it like it was yesterday. I got close to some of these people. I learned about dignity from them. Freedom too. Civil rights, human rights. How to stay within yourself. Most others were into the rides like the tilt-a-whirl and the rollercoaster. To me that was the nightmare. All the giddiness. The artificiality of it. The sledge hammer of life. It didn’t make sense or seem real. The stuff off the main road was where force of reality was. At least it struck me that way. When I left home those feelings didn’t change.

BF: But you’ve sold over a hundred million records.

BD: Yeah I know. It’s a mystery to me too.

Posted on 20 Nov 2009 at 9:05pm
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
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
Matt Doyle @ Joe's Pub

Matt Doyle @ Joe’s Pub

By Pearl Chen

“Me, I’m like a pussy cat.” This isn’t a line that every male actor can say with a straight face, but Matt Doyle did it so hilariously in Spring Awakening that it became arguably the most memorable quote of the entire musical. Back then, he played the manipulative Hanschen, trying to seduce his classmate Ernst in conservative 19th-century Germany with all the moves of, well, a cool cat. When Spring Awakening closed in January, the loss of Matt’s performance was one of the things I mourned the most.

Last Thursday, Aug. 27, 2009, Matt was back for an encore solo concert at Joe’s Pub — a night of rock, R&B, and soul. This time, he was no Hanschen. He was not Melchior, the lead role he understudied to hunky perfection in Spring Awakening. And he was not any persona he’s had on Gossip Girl. He was simply himself — relaxed, humorous, and unquestionably born to sing.

The 10 songs in his set included “Crush” by Gavin De Graw, “These Arms of Mine” by Sam Cooke, and “How Glory Goes” by Floyd Collins. Matt showed off his range in “Where Do I Go Now” from the musical Hair and let loose with some gruff, rock vocals in “Lovin’ You.” You could tell that each noted reverberated through his body. His voice was crisp, unpretentious, and above all soulful in a way that went beyond the limits of what he could do in a Broadway show.

Two of the stand-outs that night included “First of July” and, to my complete delight, “Left Behind,” a song sung during a funeral in Spring Awakening. He said the first time he sang it he cried (”I cry at everything. I was watching puppy videos on Youtube and teared up,” he said to much laugher). But who could blame him? It truly is hard to keep a dry eye for this soul-crushing ballad, which Matt sang with delicate, controlled falsettos and moving grace.

Several former Spring Awakening cast members joined Matt onstage for duets as well. Lilli Cooper (Martha) sang a bluesy, jazzy rendition of “Bring It on Home to Me” with him, and Alice Lee (ensemble; u/s Wendla & Ilse) collaborated in a tender, vulnerable performance of “Falling Slowly” from the movie Once. The best harmonies, though, happened in “Golden Train,” the duet with Blake Daniel, who played Ernst in that seduction scene. Referring to their onstage kiss, Matt admitted that he once made the mistake of eating garlic right before they went on, much to his costar’s dismay. “I knew what he ate,” Blake deadpanned.

Joe’s Pub was an intimate space for a concert of this nature, with candlelit dinner tables and a live band. I do highly recommend making a dinner reservation though, as the standing-room tickets really don’t amount to much more than being cramped in very tight spaces by the bar (especially if an event is sold out, like this was). Unlike venues such as the Highline Ballroom, where there is actually space for people to stand, you need to be able to sit down if you want to fully enjoy an evening at Joe’s Pub.

Matt graciously closed out his set with a classic — “Change Is Gonna Come,” an appropriate encore for this versatile actor and singer. We were a long way from Hanschen and the pussy cat that night, and it’ll be exciting to see where the road leads from here.


Matt Doyle will next appear in Bye Bye Birdie, opening this fall.

Posted on 03 Sep 2009 at 1:18am
Does Al Stewart think we're too stupid for historical folk rock?  (catch him at the Rubin's Naked Soul Series, 8/21)

Does Al Stewart think we’re too stupid for historical folk rock? (catch him at the Rubin’s Naked Soul Series, 8/21)

By Gwen Orel

Al Stewart—yes, the “Year of the Cat” dude, as someone asked me (watch him perform it here)—speaks fast and uses his own lyrics for illustration. Now a resident of California, he began his career in swinging London—his press bio explains how he knew Yoko Ono until she found someone “with a bigger tape recorder”—as well as Andy Summers, Paul Simon, Ian Anderson. He has been writing storytelling, evocative lyrics for more than forty years. Sparks of Ancient Light came out in 2008, and this September, he’ll be releasing a new live CD.

And that’s the tip of the iceberg—as he explained to me, despite his emphasis on lyrics, he writes the music first, and most of the songs have several sets of lyrics to them. If we’re lucky, he might find the alternate lyrics to “Year of the Cat” and sing them—one version of it was about British comedian Tony Hancock.

He’s touring right now and plays New York city tonight, 8/21, at the Rubin museum’s Naked Soul series at 7 p.m.—completely acoustic.   Details of his tour are below.

His intelligent, often yearning and moody lyrics conjured in my mind an image of a sweet troubador—but his cleverness has barbs. His assumptions about the South (he used the phrase “the great unwashed” at one point), the differences between American and English tastes, and his own unqiueness—would be hilariously irritating if he himself weren’t so funny. And when he says “Sleepwalking,” a song from Sparks of Ancient Light that references a swindler from the “east 60s” and Florida, was not about Bernie Madoff but just prescient—it’s hard to disagree.

This summer is the 40-year anniversary of Woodstock, and there is (as there always is, let’s face it) a lot of nostalgia for the 60s floating about.  What does it mean for you?

I didn’t think Woodstock was as important as everyone else seems to think. Woodstock was a lot of noise in the field. In retrospect it was not very revolutionary nor in line with what interested me. Joni Mitchell watched it on television. Leonard Cohen was doing whatever he did; he wasn’t there. It was people playing guitars mouthing inanities and rolling around in the mud. It had very little to do with what I’m interested in.

I was part of the London folk scene.  America got all our rock bands, but none of our folk singers…it’s a strange thing… Bert Jansch didn’t translate at all.  He should have been a major figure on the American folk scene.  Richard Thompson… would probably not go on Jay Leno.  Americans did very well in England, but English folk singers didn’t do as well correspondingly.  It’s probably true that there’s a bigger folk reception in England in general.

Do you still see yourself as a folk musician?

I never did really. I came out of rock and roll. There’s a subtle word play there. I didn’t say I was a folk singer… I said I came out of the English folk scene. What was nice about that scene was that it was a very big tent. It included people who were unaccompanied singing, Norfolk farm hands, the Incredible String Band, psychedelic music… the English folk scene encompassed all of that and more. I’m a lyricist really. I puddle about and play guitar and sing; I’m basically a lyric writer.

Do you write poetry too?

I do but don’t bother to read it. I’m obsessed with the nonsense poets… more in the style of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. I’m not sure that goes over well here.

You seem to have some issues with Americans and their tastes.

I live in L.A. and like it. In terms of what’s accepted, some things just don’t translate. In America you have this huge monolithic thing called Country and Western, which is completely unintelligible to me. It has no meaning whatsoever in England. Country and Western it’s so big it’s blotted out what singer-songwriters do… it’s similar and yet the subjects are different. Country singers do story songs, which is what I do. Mine might be on the Russian front and World War II, theirs might be set in the local bar. It’s hard for singer-songwriters to prevail. American singer-songwriters do better in the Northeast.

I did a Southern tour; everyone told me not to. I thought there must be some people who read books in the South. I went all these places—Greenville… the Carolinas…deep in the South, Civil War turf. I sang a series of songs about American presidential history. I got absolutely nobody, and played to rows of empty seats. Although if I’d worn a hat and played a country song….

When I knew I was going to interview you, I got two kinds of responses: enthusiasm and excitement from people in their late 40s and older (my brother’s been emailing me with thoughts, questions fotr the interview and links, for days) and “the Year of the Cat dude!”  Do you have different fan sets?

Yes. I call them the fans and the tourists. The tourists are the ones who heard “Year of the Cat” and made out in the back of a show to it. They know it as well as they know “Ring My Bell” or “Kung Fu Fighting” or “Disco Duck.” None of these people come to my shows; they’re just dimly aware of “Year of the Cat.”

People who come to the shows are people who know all of the songs. They don’t even want to hear “Year of the Cat.” “Roads to Moscow” is what they ask for—that’s a different thing.

So does that mean you won’t play “Year of the Cat?”

I probably will, but it’s candy fluff. It wasn’t even my favorite album.

What is your favorite album?

Past Present and Future is a much better album, it’s better written. What I do and what I’ve always done are these historical songs. I thought forty years ago, I looked around, if you look at the history of all the artistic endeavors of the human race, most of them, history is a dominant feature. Literature, movies— like The Titanic—all the greatest paintings are historical, sculpture, art—in ever form of art that I could find, the dominent content was historical. I thought if I applied to popular music, I would be Elvis Presley.

Now I have to admit defeat.

I chose the only medium that I could where history was not the dominant factor, and in fact something people didn’t want to hear about. There’s a crazed hardcore who like me think that historical songs are the bees knees. It’s a tiny minority—I expected it to be a huge majority. It would have changed my life if I’d been right. I thought it was a slam dunk.

I thought after “Roads to Moscow” all these historical songs would be in the top ten, but I can’t even get them played on the radio. You talk to a disc jockey and say “I’ve written a song about the fall of Constantinople” and their eyes glaze over.

If I made a movie about the fall of Constantinople and put stupid Brad Pitt in it, it would be a hit. It’s only in popular music that it’s not taken off. This means one of two things, either I am right except I’m ahead of my time, and somebody will do this in fifty years time and they will be the next Elvis, or I’m completely wrong, or, there’s a third possibility, I’m right but just not doing it well enough. At this point I’ll accept any of those possibilities. The premise made so much sense to me, but something in the execution didn’t follow through. I don’t even think it has to do with the population base.

You hit bottlenecks where you have to funnel through the media. I think there is an audience outside of the basic, everyday human concerns that will look at a larger picture of how we got here and why. It’s a hard sell, an impossible sell in Alabama.

For me, the songs that become my favorite songs have a lot of emotion in them that I can relate to.  They don’t have to be personal songs, but they have to have an emotion in them that I can latch onto.  That’s what I require.

That’s what everybody requires. That I think is the problem. I tend to… not erase emotion in songs, but it’s an entirely overdone thing. The saber-toothed tiger was a very emotional creature; it was also stupid and died out. I would prefer something to be cleverer, less aggressive… I like my music like that. I understand that Metallica are terrific at what they do but it’s not what I want to listen to.

Is there no middle ground between you and Metallica?

Oh, sure there is. I’m fairly broad-minded in my tastes.

For example, on your latest CD I like the song “Football Hero,”  but I don’t care about the person in the song or about football, but I can relate to the emotion and the frustration.

I don’t care about football either, in fact I’m astonished I wrote that song because I care zero about football.

That is my response to most story songs in general.  The story can be really fascinating but if I can’t find a way to apply it to some emotion that I have or will have, I probably won’t listen to it very often.

I think that you’re in the majority. I don’t think it affects me in that way. I’m always looking at cross-connections that are under the surface. There is an emotion, I’m not denying the emotion, but there has to be an intellectuality at work as well as the emotion. If I read a book about Rupert Brooke for example, he’s a poet, it’s emotional because he dies in 1915 on his way to the Dardanelles campaign, OK, we know he’s going to die, we know he’s having an unrequited with Violet Asquith at the time, so you’re set up for an emotional payoff on that. But when I put them into my song “Somewhere in England 1915″ the song is not about them, they’re merely transient characters wandering through one verse, they’re used as the set up for the mood of the song, and not for the emotional payoff.

If I was writing the song for you, I wouldn’t go anywhere else in the song, I’d just concentrate on Rupert Brooke and Violet Asquith and make it as emotional as all get go. But to me that’s not terribly interesting. Does that make any sense to you?

I’m not sure I see the distinction between emotion and mood.  There are—not many, I agree with you—but there are some songs that are story based or historically based that have been successful.

“American Pie,” for example, lots of people love that who weren’t alive when Buddy Holly died, but you get the feeling of yearning in it, the mood of it comes across.

I don’t think it should be completely unemotional, I just don’t think it should be tawdry. Some emotions are terribly cheap, and what you’re doing is manipulating an audience in a way. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen any Charles Bronson movies—you know the baddie is going to get shot in the end, you sit there for 90 minutes—you’re just being manipulated. What I’m trying to do is write non-manipulative songs. If there’s an emotional pull, it should come from the gravitas of the situation, rather than some false juggling going on on the part of the writer.

Would you say that your earlier songs were more personal?

My first four albums were just love songs, they’re neither here nor there, I was just trying to learn the trade.

What accounted for the evolution?

Well, I wrote love songs. Once you’ve done it, you’ve done it. Everyone else has done it. One was 18 minutes long! I did it, enough! My personal credo is play like Eddie Cochran, write like Barbara Tuchman

I always want to write about something no one else has written about. It’s the first requirement of a song to me. If someone has written about the ceiling in my hotel room, I won’t do it. Secondly, I want to use some language in every song that’s not in every other song. There are 87,000 words in the English language, use them.

No one uses antidisestablishmentarianism in a song, and they should.

Have you?

No, I may do, I’ve used pterodactyls and cormorants and amenuenses and all kinds of things.

Imagine you’re a pop singer and you open your front door and all the words ever in the English language are gathered on the lawn outside your door. Big vocal ones right at the front called “love” and “baby” and “ooh” and “you” and “I” and these are the big loud ones standing right in front of your face saying “pick me, pick me, pick me.” And antidisestablishmentarianism is this tiny little furry creature about 300 yards away, right at the back of the crowd, and in a squeaky little voice is saying “please pick me…”

You know what I mean?

You’re very silly.

Most pop singers just look at the ones at the front, and they’re very smartly dressed, and they’re hip, and they’ve got all the right hairstyles, and they say “sure you can join my group,” and they say to this little brown mouse at the back, “no we’re not having any part of you,” and they slam the door.


That is how it works in the English language. These words need people to love them too, and I’m their person.

So with your attention to words, is it safe to say you write the lyrics first?

No, I don’t! I should do, shouldn’t I… but for very good reason, too…When a blues artist makes a record, say, they lay down the backing track… then the guitar player comes in, and plays 6-8-10 different solos and they take the best one. This is the art of improv.

What I do, I make the backing piece, then start improvising the lyrics. On “Year of the Cat” I recorded all the music before I even wrote a word of it. I took home all these backing tracks and sat around with them. I’d already spent all the money from the record companies and had not one damn word written. Then it’s what do all these things suggest to me. I wrote many different sets of lyrics.

This is me being a blues guitar player. “Elvis at the Wheel”   ended up being about Elvis Presley. It’s based on a true event in his life. Prior to that it was about the cinema on Hampstead Heath. Prior to that it was a nonsense poem experimenting with being about someone going to a foreign country.

All of the songs on Sparks of Ancient Light had different lyrics apart from “Shah of Shahs.” All the others underwent radical rewrites.

I could go out in an alternate universe go out and play the tunes that everyone knows with completely different lyrics.

Oh I hope you will.

But normally I pick the best ones… the reason I don’t pick the others is that they’re not very good.

So you don’t go in saying I know I want to write a song about Elvis seeing the face of Stalin, you don’t know that ahead of time?

I don’t know what I’m going to write. Some of them read better than they sing. I learned that you can write lyrics that look awfully good on paper but when you sing don’t scan very well, don’t fit the music. I’ve discarded some sets of lyrics that I liked a lot but were hard to sing. I’m a wordslinger, it’s what you do— this is my improv. Right now I could take “Year of the Cat” and turn it into a song about turnips if I wanted to.

I hope you will.

I could do. I also write parodies of my own songs and those of others. “Roads to Moscow,” a song I get asked for the most, it’s set in World War II, and very loosely based on a book by Solzhenitsyn , I wrote a parody called “Roads to Adelaide.” I sing it in a major key; it becomes totally ridiculous. It went”

They crossed over the border, the hour before dawn,

moving in lines through the day

most of our sheep are destroyed on the ground where they lay…

It completely cracked me up. You mentioned “American Pie,” I rewrote that into a nineteenth century history song called it “Ukranian Pie.” Amazingly, the Russian word for old peasant that is “musikh” and I couldn’t resist “the day the musikh died.” So I began with

Bye Bye Miss Ukranian Pie

Took my kettle to the shtetl but the shtetl was dry

Those bad old Cossacks drinking vodka and rye

Singing this will be the day that you die

Have you read the book of Lvov, and do you have faith in Romanov…

Do you get asked “what does this or that lyric mean,” and when you do, how do you respond?

People do ask, but in the same way, I don’t know what  Dylan’s “Desolation Row” means…I know all the words…

Selling postcards at the hanging

Painting the passports brown

The beauty parlor’s full of sailors, the circus is in town

I don’t know what Dylan means by this but I get the general picture of what he’s saying.

What are you listening to?  What’s on your ipod?

I don’t have an ipod. But Joanna Newsom, she’s the best, by a long way, I don’t think there’s anyone close. There are always up and coming people. Laura Marling is interesting. Elbow just won album of the year in England. But you know what, I listen to pop too, I like the Veronicas, what can I tell you.

So “Sleepwalking” references “talk among the moneymen in Miami Beach.”  Is it a coincidence?

It wasn’t a coincidence. I think I’m prescient. It’s a song about a Madoff character that I wrote before Madoff. Every now and then these things happen. They fall into place. If you look at my song “On the Border,” largely set in Zimbabwe, it prophesies the decline and fall. Except it was written 36 years ago but it all came true. I did it hypothetically. Madoff came along and obliged me by turning it all into reality.

But you wouldn’t have written it after the fact?

That would be too obvious. I’m trying to write about things that are off the beaten track.

It’s like when I was doing American presidents, I wouldn’t write about Lincoln or Washington, the obvious people, it would be like writing about Napoleon. I would never do that. I would write about Chester Arthur. I like lifting rocks and looking at the dark places of history.

I’m always writing about human beings, using historical backgrounds. Actually what I’m doing is theater. When you look at my historical songs, it’s like the backdrop, the real action is taking place in front of the background. “Constantinople” is about the last seven thousand people who are left defending the Byzantine Empire long after it’s past its sell-by date. What are they doing there? It was a hundred years have gone by since the Byzantine Empire should have been erased from planet.

And there is a relevance to modern day history because As soon as any empire goes from offense to defense, their days are numbered. It’s happened in every single case from the Ancient Greeks to the Romans to I suppose the present day, which I suppose means we should be in Afghanistan, because if we were here building walls it would all be over.

How does it look for America?

America’s still on the offense, very much so…Read the news! I don’t see any particular decline and fall in am military power. There is an enormous exchange of international wealth going on under the surface. America may not… ever have 20% of all the money in the world again. Major changes are economic, but what that will mean in the next 20 or 30 years, I don’t know. One of the most fascinating things that could save America is that… there’s incalculable wealth to be had in arctic circle. Only 5 countries have any claim to the Arctic Circle, two of which are tiny powers, Denmark, Norway… one a medium power, Canada, and then Russia and the USA.


If that happens, it would probably be too obvious for Stewart to write about.  But if historical songs include the history of the future, we might see a song about America in the Arctic circle sometime soon.


Gwen Orel writes about theater and music for many publications.  Celtic music owns her, but they timeshare with folk, roots and world.


Al Stewart’s tour details:

FRI            8/21/09            New York, NY       Rubin Museum of Art / Naked Soul Music Series

SAT            8/22/09            Norfolk, CT           Infinity Hall

SUN            8/23/09            Saratoga Springs, NY   Caffe Lena

FRI            10/30/09 & SAT 10/31/09            Steelville, MO           Wildwood Springs Lodge

SUN            11/1/09            Kansas City, MO                  ?Knuckleheads Saloon

THU            11/5/09            Decatur, GA?Eddie’s Attic

FRI            11/6/09            York, SC?Sylvia Theatre

SAT            11/7/09            Holly Springs, NC                 Holly Springs Cultural Center

FRI            12/18/09            Denver, CO                          L2 Arts & Culture Center

SAT            12/19/09            Berkeley, CA                        Freight & Salvage??? 2010

THU            2/4/2010            Hillsboro, OR            ?Walter’s Art Center

SAT            2/6/2010            Bremerton, WA?          Admiral Theatre

THU            3/4/2010            Newberry, SC             Newberry Opera House

SAT            3/6/2010            Chatham, NJ             Sanctuary Concerts

Posted on 21 Aug 2009 at 6:09am
Catch up with American troubador John Gorka at the Rubin, 8/7

Catch up with American troubador John Gorka at the Rubin, 8/7

By Gwen Orel

The first time I heard “Chance of Rain,” on John Gorka’s 2006 CD, Writing in the Margins, I thought, “that’s pretty, I’ll play it again.”  The second time I felt its yearning melody pull at me.  As I kept playing it, first I felt a lump in my throat and by the end of the day just hearing its chords would send me off into a crying jag– one that I really needed.

“Forget pursuit of happiness

a little break is all I ask

each day is an act of faith

cause living things are never safe…”

You can watch Gorka sing it here.

Somehow these lyrics hit me harder than any on-the-nose words about death, loss, regret could have.  Such is the power of a really terrific American folksong.  

Gorka is associated with “The New Folk Movement,” and first began recording in the 80s.  He’s admired by Nanci Griffith, who sings with him on Writing in the Margins, (as do Lucy Kaplansy and Alice Peacock)  as well as Suzanne Vega, Christine Lavine, Shawn Colvin.   Mary Chapin Carpenter, Maura O’Connell and Mary Black have recorded his songs.  These observations and stories are often pensive, but occasionally upbeat and swingy too.

Friday, August 7, Gorka appears in NYC at the Rubin Museum as part of the series Naked Soul. This acoustic series in an intimate space always includes the artist choosing works from the Himalayan art museum to accompany their text.   For a storyteller like Gorka, that should be very interesting indeed.It’s the music– naked.  Admission always includes entrance to the galleries and a tour after.   There’s a bar upstairs and you can bring your drinks in with you.  I love going to the Rubin.

Gorka’s new CD So Dark You See comes out in September, and he will be playing songs from it tomorrow night.  I’ve heard a few tracks already and it’s a return to traditional folk music– he was with Windham Hill, the “new age” acoustic label, for awhile– now he’s back with Red House Records, and the music reflects that return.  He sings the Scottish poet Robert Burns’ “Ae Fond Kiss” in a country-folk style, and also includes two instrumental tunes– the first time Gorka has ever shown off his musical chops this way. “I Think of You” by Utah Phillips is introduced by the folk legend himself .  ”Ignorance and Privilege” is a catchy, yet rueful look at how being born into safety and security is also being born into ignorance.

This is a songwriter whose artist site includes his family pierogi recipe on the front page… with a comment that “the dough is the tricky part for me.”  Sure, there is CD info and bio and press stuff-  but his family recipe and a random list of Top Ten from 2007 are at the front (although it’s a list with 36 things in it).  That’s real honesty– and it shows in the music, too.


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

Posted on 06 Aug 2009 at 8:18pm