The Music Biz And I

A typical concert scene at beautiful Pastorius Park.
A typical concert scene at beautiful Pastorius Park.

On a recent morning, the day’s threatening skies put me in mind of the music business mini-career that I enjoyed till not long ago. It was with the Pastorius Park Free Summer Concerts Series, in Philadelphia’s lovely and small townish Chestnut Hill neighborhood. For seven summers, the first two as a general helper and the following five as a co-organizer, I was part of a fine endeavor. My run ended in July 2014 with that summer’s final concert. Bad weather, or the prediction thereof, were among the reasons that I decided to step down. With rain a possibility for many concert evenings, I and another co-organizer often would find ourselves phoning back and forth hours before showtime, agonizing over whether or not to move the music indoors to our rain location, a school auditorium a mile from the park. It usually was a tricky matter. Sometimes we opted for inside and the rains never came. At least twice we stayed at bucolic Pastorius Park and downpours cancelled or prematurely ended the night’s entertainment. My constitution wasn’t strong enough to laugh along with the rain gods. Weather aside, though, the Pastorius Park segment of my life was terrific overall.

In 2008, knowing that I was approaching the end of my 30+ year tenure on the payroll of Pennsylvania government, I was looking around for a part-time activity that involved my main interest. Music. For 40 years I had been quite the music junkie, listening to albums and radio at home for hours on end, taking in shows at a wide variety of venues in the Philadelphia area and beyond. It had recently dawned on me that the next phase of my life might be pretty awesome if I could become more than an audience member by getting inside the music scene  But how would it be possible to find entry? I knew nobody in the biz and had never worked in music in any capacity whatsoever. Plus, I was not too far away from Medicare age. I figured that my chances weren’t overly bright. And then, to my delight and astonishment, a door opened.

Now, the music venture I became involved with wasn’t exactly Columbia Records or Live Nation Entertainment. The Pastorius Park series is low key and homey, which was fine with me. It runs under the gentle aegis of Chestnut Hill Community Association, an agency that aims for its community’s betterment. Volunteers are central to the series because the modest Pastorius budget has room for payments to musicians and audio crew, but not much more. As first a helper and later an organizer, I fell into the unpaid pool. That was fine with me too. I was more than happy just to be part of the process.

I went to my first Pastorius Park concert in summer 2007. On stage was Scythian, a rocking Celtic group that drove the crowd wild. This was before the notion of working in the music biz had crossed my mind. The next year, though, trying to figure out where my musical dreams possibly might come partially true, I dialed Chestnut Hill Community Association and was put in touch with one of the Pastorius Park organizers, Janine. She welcomed my offer to help. Next thing I knew I was at a planning meeting for 2008’s season. And a few months after that I was at the concerts themselves, setting up tables and chairs, helping to unload and load audio equipment, collecting concert donations from the audiences during intermissions. My energy seemed to swell on concert dates. I was having a wonderful time. The door had opened.

The door opened even more in early 2010 when one of the organizers, the fellow who scheduled and booked the acts, no longer had the time to continue his duties. He and Janine asked me to replace him. Me? Book acts? Negotiate contracts? Those for me were uncharted waters. Gulp, gulp. I said OK, I’ll do my best. And I was on my way. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my new position was close to being my dream job. There I was, a music lover given the keys from out of the blue to curate a small but well-regarded music series.

I had fun working with my organizing partners, Janine for the first two years and Julie for the next three, and with the other volunteers. I enjoyed chatting with the musicians before and after the shows. And I had a major blast scheduling each summer’s string of seven Wednesday evening concerts. In 2010 I reached past the Philadelphia area to hire two acts from afar, including, incredibly, Graham Parker. His solo show packed the park maybe tighter than ever before or since. But for the next four years I decided to stick entirely with artists from the Philadelphia region’s highly fertile musical ground. I liked the idea of supporting its progeny.

If I hadn’t known it before, one thing became very apparent to me during my days as an organizer. To wit, there are an astonishing number of excellent musical acts based in the Greater Philadelphia area, and many of the little-known local performers are as good or better than many who make big noise in the mass marketplace. Success is a matter of luck, timing, backing, perseverance, who knows what. A few of the Philadelphia region’s performers whom I booked for Pastorius Park had found some degree of national and worldwide acclaim, folks such as singer-songwriters Jeffrey Gaines and Mutlu, and Celtic music greats RUNA. But the rest were talented bands on the lower rungs of success’s ladder. Some of them put on performances as enchanting as you’d ever hope to see.

Cheers Elephant and some young fans at Pastorius Park in July 2011. Photo by Kevin Kennedy
Cheers Elephant and some young fans at Pastorius Park in July 2011.
Photo by Kevin Kennedy

For instance: I’ve never been to a show like the one in 2011 involving Cheers Elephant, a pop psychedelic rock outfit with loud guitars and a free-as-a-bird and charismatic lead singer, Derek Krzywicki. Cheers Elephant’s music was magic to the ears of many youngsters who had come to the park with their parents. During the band’s second set, played under darkening skies, many kids aged five to 15 left the grassy seating areas and, seemingly magnetized by Elephant’s electric energy, made their way to, indeed onto the stage, which sat beneath a grove of tall trees. Bouncing and shimmying to the band’s powerful and catchy beats, they covered the stage, pushed the musicians onward and upward, in fact had the musicians mesmerized. The scene was surreal and transfixing.

Venissa Santi and her band at Pastorius Park in July 2014.
Venissa Santi and her band at Pastorius Park in July 2014.

And in 2014, Venissa Santi brought her Cuban-flavored jazz esthetic to the park. I’d hired Venissa once before for Pastorius Park, and had also seen her perform at another concert series. Last year, though, she and her band rose to a level I hadn’t known was in their command. Early in Santi’s first set my mind was captured. The music was complex yet malleable, expanding and contracting like strong bands of rubber. Venissa’s intimate and pitch-perfect vocals intertwined with the chordal onrushes of Tom Lawton’s piano, the now-I’m-here-now-I’m-there notes from Madison Rast’s bass, and the melodic assymetrical patterns of Francois Zayas’s drums. This, I thought, was music parallel to that of Miles Davis’s famed 1960s quintet. Was I imagining things? I don’t think so. Did others in the audience hear the music as I did? I can’t say for certain. But judging from their tremendous applause I’d guess yes.

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Raul Malo Alone On Stage

New Hope Winery. The concert took place inside the Event Center.
New Hope Winery. The concert took place inside the Event Center.

I don’t much enjoy the artsy and touristy central section of New Hope, Pennsylvania. Haven’t been there in several years. The crowds, the traffic, the bad news parking situation. Who needs it?  But I have been to New Hope’s fringes a bunch of times last year and this year, as I mentioned in my article about Kim Richey. The New Hope Winery lies a couple of miles south of the “I’m not going there” zone, and that’s where my wife Sandy and I have become semi-regulars.

Pre-showtime.
Before showtime.

Behind the winery’s gift shop is a roomy building dubbed the Event Center. On its small stage the winery presents a nice variety of musicians year-round. On Thursday evening, June 18, Raul Malo, lead singer of The Mavericks, stepped into the spotlight. Malo is on tour with The Mavericks but took a short solo side trip to New Hope, where he had played the previous evening too. The next day he’d be back rocking and rolling with his band in Rochester, New York. But in New Hope the audience got a full dose of his contemplative side. He picked up his acoustic guitar at 8:10 PM, and for the next 100 minutes had the audience, me and Sandy included, in the palms of his hands.

Raul Malo has been a pretty big name for the last 25 years. His voice is the reason why. It’s a rich tenor, wide-ranging, and moves nimbly in upper registers where others may fear to tread. In New Hope Malo brought the volume and assured passion at appropriate times, but largely kept things reined in. The point is that he has wonderful vocal taste and great control. His singing is a thing of beauty.

Raul Malo in action.
Raul Malo in action.

I’d seen Raul on television, heard him perform on the radio, but New Hope was my first live visitation with him. He sang 17 songs, ten of which he wrote or co-wrote. I was smitten from the git go, but in a million years wouldn’t have guessed his choice for show opener. Picking his guitar slowly and easily, he quietly sang not one of his own numbers, but Summer Wind, the tune made famous by Frank Sinatra in 1966. Raul did the song proud.

Summer Wind is a lament about lost love. All 16 songs that followed, self-penned and not, also were about love in one way or another. Love in bloom, love desired, love remembered. Raul covered all bases. I never thought I’d hear a version of Harvest Moon, a gorgeous and pure love song, to rival that of its author, Neil Young. But Raul came close, singing with restrained emotion, hitting the high notes with clarity. He did excellent work on his own Born To Be Blue, and Lucky One, the Roy Orbison-like operatic qualities of his voice emerging on those two numbers.

The most stunning moments arrived late in the show. (Call Me) When You Get To Heaven gave me goose bumps. Raul wrote this song for The Mavericks’ In Time album. From my seat 15 feet from stage left, I took it as a song about a breakup, a relationship not meant to succeed on planet Earth but destined to flower in a better place, maybe one of the mind. Raul sang slowly, mournfully. He drew out the song for many minutes. When introducing the tune, he had asked the audience to join in towards the end. They did. And that’s where the goose bumps came in. Though surely some males were part of the choir, somehow I heard only female tones. As Raul fingered the refrain’s chords over and over, angelic sweet voices rose throughout the room. Call me when you get to heaven . . . Call me when you get to heaven. It was just so beautiful.

Raul Malo from a different angle.
Raul Malo from a different angle.

During that number I realized who Raul reminds me of. José Feliciano. Like Feliciano, Malo possesses both fervor and quiet strength, and the ability to be in-the-moment. None of this was lost on the near-capacity crowd seated at the room’s red tablecloth-covered cocktail tables. They went wild with claps and yells between songs. But when Raul sang, they were seriously silent and attentive. Raul loved them back. Happy, laughing and joking around during the interludes, he especially made the night for a lady celebrating her birthday at the show. She was a super fan, it turns out, saying that this was the 80th time she had seen Raul perform. To honor her, he sang Can’t Help Falling In Love, the Elvis hit from 1961. And then he threw out two of his best and funniest lines of the evening. I hadn’t planned to use any profanity in this blog, though I curse aplenty in my non-blogging life. But I’m going to repeat verbatim what Raul Malo said after the final guitar strums of Can’t Help faded away. “That ought to buy me some karma points. Now I can go back to being a shit.”

A worthy side note about choice. The night that Sandy and I were in Malo pastures, two other splendid musical events were available not far away in the Philadelphia suburbs: The Richard Thompson Electric Trio and Graham Parker And The Rumour, great bands that must have brought down their respective houses. For discriminating music fans of any age, June 18 presented one of those uncommon convergences when deciding where to pay one’s money was a tough call.