Up, Up And Away (High As A Kite On Music)

As I barrel down the highway that before year’s end will bring me to the road marker labeled The Big 7-0, assuming that I don’t kick off before then, I mean it when I say that I consider myself a fortunate guy. I’ve got a couple of biggies to worry about — who doesn’t? But for the most part I’m rolling along pretty nicely, doing most of the sorts of things that gave me a bang years ago, and still getting a bang from them. Such as palling around with my wife Sandy and with other pals; poking around in the great outdoors and in cities that have zing and depth; downing good foods and beers in taverns and restaurants.

And listening to music, which I’ve left for last to give it the space it deserves. And that’s because music sometimes takes me to realms — excellent realms — that otherwise I wouldn’t be setting foot in. Music, like nothing else, can get me high as a kite. Well, pot can get me high as a kite too, but I haven’t smoked any in, what? . . . 30 years? It’s a habit I dropped that maybe, to tell you the truth, I’d be interested in picking up again. But that’s another story.

It’s not as if listening to music always is a transporting experience for me, though. At home I usually am struggling with a Sudoku puzzle or thrashing through the Web as tunes play on the stereo, so the musical vibes sink in only partially. And in the car I make a modest effort to keep my eyes on the road, even if a great song is trying to liberate me.

Nor does music always lift me to the skies at concerts. A week and a half ago, for example, Sandy and I went with friends to see Peter Mulvey, a solid singer-songwriter who put his palette of emotions on display in a small space in Philadelphia. I dug him, but I remained Earthbound. Here’s why:

Volume. I need a lot of volume for liftoff to occur, and the Mulvey concert, consisting of  Peter and his acoustic guitar, was merely in the middle of the decibel scale. And, usually, there’s got to be strong drumming. And, usually, long and soaring solos from an electric guitar, though their counterparts from a piano or saxophone also might do the trick.

Hallelujah! High volume, crashing drum strokes and gorgeous guitar work soon came my way, because Sandy and I headed to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania 15 hours after the conclusion of the Mulvey show. There, in an arts center built on the grounds of the defunct Bethlehem Steel Corporation, day three of the three-day Blast Furnace Blues Festival was marching on. We stayed for five hours, catching three acts and gazing at the rusting Bethlehem blast furnaces through the music room’s huge windows, before taking to the roads once again.

The Lee Boys, Victor Wainwright, Ana Popovic . . . I wasn’t familiar with any of them before arriving in Bethlehem. If you like rip-roaring music, then these guys probably are for you. They all bring the noise, and then some, with skill and soul. And they all tour a lot, so they might show up in your corner of the world.

None of the acts plays straight-blues-all-the-way by any means, though their underpinnings are heavily molded from the blues. The Lee Boys mostly serve up gospel tunes, though you might have a hard time recognizing them as such, heavily wrapped in funky R&B drapery as they are. Victor Wainwright is a sweet-toned shouter who can put a little gravel in his voice, a suspendered showman who loves feeling close to his audience almost as much as he loves to pound out red hot boogie woogie licks on his keyboard. And Ana Popovic is, at heart, a rock and roller. She sings well, but it’s her string work that you go to see her for — she’s an electric guitar goddess.

Sandy and I took seats 25 feet from the stage. The place was mobbed. The audience was pumped. And when The Lee Boys, the first group we saw that day, tore into their opening number I tipped my hat to the guy twisting and sliding the sound board’s dials. He had the music pouring out loud, really loud, but not so utterly powerfully that my ears ever felt like they were in danger. I was bopping with the beats, pounding the heel of my left foot up and down like a piston. And then the magic carpet rides began when Roosevelt Collier slid into the first of his lengthy, involved pedal steel guitar solos. Dreamy at times, growling at others, stuttering and whooshing, his electric journey rushed inside me. Closing my eyes I became lost in the sounds, bouncing my head back and forth gently, uncontrollably, as they swept me along, swept me upward, seduced me. When his solos reached their ends in each Lee Boys tune, it took me a few moments to decompress.

I’m not sure why the same didn’t happen during Victor’s set. He and his band were on fire, and Pat Harrington, the electric guitarist, tore into his instrument like a demon. But for reasons unknown, my eyes remained open throughout the wild ride. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t groove madly. I did, but I didn’t levitate.

But I floated and communed once again when Ana and her gang took the stage. Ana’s electric guitar solos saw to that. This girl can play. Pulling on the guitar strings almost maniacally, she had them snarling, moaning, pleading, testifying. Ana took me to regions even loftier than those where Roosevelt Collier had wafted me. Amen.

Yeah, music can be a temporary cure for what ails us. Me, I love rising into the clouds, feeling gravity and neuroses slip away. Whenever it happens I’m grateful. And amazed that my body is able to latch onto and meld with invisible good vibrations. One of these days maybe I’ll figure out how to transfer some of what I feel when afloat into my regular daily regimen. Whatever, this I do believe: Get your kicks while you can, kids, because you never know when the final curtain will descend.

Here now are videos from the Blast Furnace Blues Festival:

 

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin)

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Guys With The Same Initials: Terell Stafford, Thomas Shields And Thomas Sully

The Philadelphia Museum Of Art is loaded, duh, with works by famous folks. Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Manet, Cassatt, O’Keefe, etc., etc. The other day at the museum I walked past creations by all of them with barely a second glance, not to mention a first glance. Instead, on a goofy mission I spent a bit of time looking at objects produced by the hands and minds of Thomas Shields and Thomas Sully, names that ring a bell with just about nobody. That’s all I wanted to see before settling down with my wife Sandy in the museum’s Great Hall for an evening jazz concert led by the very a-ok trumpeter Terell Stafford.

Here’s why I did what I did: “Does the museum have anything on display by people with the same initials as tonight’s bandleader?” I wondered at home a few hours before Sandy and I headed museumward. “If it does, that’s what I’ll look at before the show.” Had any PMA visitor ever had the same sort of game plan as this? Yeah, right. Why did I come up with this idea? Uh, our orb is awash with cockeyed people.

PMA has a searchable online database. I scoured it. There were 33 artists whose first names and surnames began, respectively, with T and S. Of them, only three had works on display in the galleries (in other words, not in storage), according to the database. But one of those works, by a guy named Thomas Stretch, was the inner mechanism of an old grandfather clock. Stretch hadn’t designed the parts of the clock that anyone cared about. Namely, its cabinet or face. I’d have to disassemble the clock to see the gears et al that Stretch had fashioned, and I had a feeling that the museum’s guards, let alone its CEO, wouldn’t approve. Ergo, I scratched Stretch’s name off my list and, at the museum, went to check out what Shields and Sully were all about.

img_1013img_1031A silver sugar bowl. From the 1770s. Made in Philadelphia. That’s the Shields piece I looked at and admired. It’s beautiful. Shields was a well-known Philadelphia silversmith in his time and obviously damn good. If he were alive today I’d buy one just like it from him. It would look a whole lot better sitting next to Sandy’s and my Mr. Coffee machine than the bowl we’re currently scooping out of.

img_1016-2And Sully? Long ago he was a successful Philadelphia portrait painter. A few of his oils were on display at PMA. Mostly I looked at the one he did in 1833 of Thomas Cadwalader, a lawyer, landholder and military general. Man, Thomas looks great in this picture. Can you believe it, though? He was in his early 50s when Sully put him on canvas yet looks to be . . . what? . . . 35 at most? His skin glows with dewy freshness. His sun-lightened locks are enviably tousled. Bummer: TC might appear to hold the key to eternal youthfulness, but he lasted only eight more years before saying goodbye to Planet Earth.

Okay, show time was approaching. Back I went to a cocktail table in the Great Hall where Sandy sat. We have been to many dozens of jazz concerts at this venue since discovering the museum’s Friday night music series in 2002, one year after it launched. But we don’t go anywhere near as often as we used to, because you have to arrive at least an hour early to nab a decent seat. Which is a pain that we got tired of enduring. The show’s first set began right on time (5:45 PM), a miracle in the music world, and ended exactly one hour later. Being kind of anal, I admired those examples of precision and efficiency. And I also admired the limited amount of between-song patter that Terell Stafford engaged in. Out of the 60 minutes that he and his mates were on stage, sounds came out of their instruments for about 55 of them.

img_1028But what I admired above all was the quality of the music that the Stafford quintet produced. They played with a whole lot of heart and soul. They were into it. You could tell by watching Terell arching his back, his knees pushing forward — all in the name of generating thrust — when he ripped hard and fleet notes from his horn during certain solos. And by watching pianist Bruce Barth’s noggin bopping side to side, front to back, when he reached the heady parts of his improvisations. And by watching Stafford and tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield smiling big smiles and nodding their heads in lockstep as they watched drummer Billy Williams unload a wham-bam solo near the end of the set’s first song (Hocus Pocus).

img_1567Hocus Pocus, composed by the late, fantastic and Philadelphia-born trumpet player, Lee Morgan, began with Stafford and Warfield pouring out the tune’s careening, irresistible melody with panache. After which Terell took the tune’s first solo, Barth pounding out heavy chords behind him. Cutting loose, TS spent mucho time in his instrument’s high register. Next to grab the solo spotlight was Warfield. He began studiously, exploring and probing, and when he found the door he was looking for the hot notes began to fly. A few minutes later Barth’s turn arrived. His left hand struck broad, loud chords while his right danced exuberantly. Throughout the tune the band was tight and relentless. Hard to believe that the upright bass player, Drew Gaunce, was a last minute fill-in for the gig. He, to my amateur ears, was rock solid all night.

Speaking of Lee Morgan, I realized after the fact that he composed four of the set’s five numbers. And that the remaining tune (Candy) was a song that he covered on his 1958 album of the same name. And I also was late to learn that the songs that TS and company played comprise the first five tracks on Brotherlee Love, the fine Morgan-honoring album that Stafford released last year. Of the four Stafford compadres appearing with TS at the museum, two of them (Barth and Warfield) played on that album. If you click right here you’ll hear Hocus Pocus as it appears on Brotherlee Love. And if you click here you’ll catch the Brotherlee Love version of Candy. On the album, Candy is performed by a trio, sax and drums sitting it out. At the museum the Candy personnel shrank even further. And the performance was lovely, a languid and captivating two-person discussion between Stafford and Barth.

I’d be remiss not to mention that Terell Stafford is known to jazz musicians and jazz fans in many places on the globe. Ditto for Barth and Warfield and Williams. And that TS, BB and TW also have long histories as jazz educators (all three teach at Philadelphia’s Temple University, for example). As for Gaunce, well, he’s in the wee stages of his career, so we’ll find out where the winds and his talents take him. After the first set ended, those winds carried me and Sandy out of the museum to a nearby tavern. There, we chowed down on good pub grub and drank good beer (me) and wine (her) before motoring home to the burbs.

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Mann Oh Mann: Richard Thompson And Bonnie Raitt In Concert

Philadelphia’s Mann Center For The Performing Arts is a great outdoor concert venue that can be a bitch getting to and leaving from, depending on where you live and what mode of transport you opt to use. The Mann, built into a hilly section of enormous public parklands, is decently accessible for those who reside not too far from it and who visit using foot power or public transit. Not so for just about everyone else. That’s because just about everyone else drives. For them, the traffic jams they usually run into and the post-concert nightmare of trying to exit the parking areas at the same time as thousands of their fellow citizens . . . oy frigging vey, to say the least. In the early 1990s, an incredibly awful Mann traffic experience sent my now-wife Sandy’s and my blood pressures to Guinness World Records levels. And, amid the type of shouting matches in the car that would have made us stars on The Jerry Springer Show, nearly caused us to divorce one another, even though we weren’t even married yet! Shell-shocked, we stayed away from The Mann for eons after that memorable night. Until a week and a half ago, that is, when we learned about a pleasant method of Manning-it, and took in a terrific show.

In Philly, we boarded the bus at 12th and Market Streets.
In Philly, we boarded the bus at 12th and Market Streets.

The concert-in-question’s headliner was Bonnie Raitt. The opening act was Richard Thompson. Double bills as strong as this one are not everyday events. Sandy and I were there with our great pals Cindy and Gene. The two couples ended up sitting in different sections of The Mann, but arrived at the scene in the same vehicle. Turns out that SEPTA, the Philadelphia region’s transit authority, runs a dedicated bus on Mann concert nights. Sandy and I never knew about this till Cindy clued us in. And thus we took a train from our home in the burbs to central Philadelphia and hopped on the special bus soon after arriving in the city. Several stops later, Cindy and Gene, Philadelphia residents, hopped aboard too. Mannward we headed. Calmly.

Raitt and Thompson are pushing 70 and, judging from the crowd at The Mann, don’t exactly have a huge fan base among Generations X and Y. Despite this, they can sell plenty of tickets. Between them they stimulated about 6,000 bodies to lay down dough for seats the other night. As opening acts are prone to do, Richard played first. I’ll come back to him soon, but have decided to say a few things now about Bonnie Raitt.

IMG_1540For two hours Bonnie was on stage with her backing band of four (drummer, electric bassist, keyboardist and electric guitarist/mandolin player), a well-oiled and flexible machine. She was wonderful. Bonnie’s music goes down easy and brings together currents of the blues, singer-songwriter, rock, gospel and folk music streams. She is famed for her electric slide guitar work, but to me, to tell you the truth, she seemed not a guitar slinger. And she didn’t emphasize her songwriting efforts. Though she has written or co-written a decent number of songs during  her 48-or-so-year career, she hauled out only two of them (What You’re Doin’ To Me and The Comin’ Round Is Going Through, both from her new album Dig In Deep ) for her 20-song set. What she had going for her, more than anything, was her voice. Warm and natural, Bonnie’s pipes drew the crowd into each song’s lyrics. And, without strain, she belted out whatever needed to be belted out whenever the occasion arose. I held on tight when I knew that high and powerful notes were a-comin’, expecting to be swept up into the clouds. And that’s what happened. Her voice may have burnished oh so slightly since her younger days, but basically Bonnie sings as well as she ever has. Which is saying something.

Take John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery, for instance. This song about a beat-down elderly woman began with only Bonnie and her acoustic guitar. She sang majestically, probing Prine’s chilling narrative. Halfway through the tune the rest of the group entered. Ricky Fataar’s cymbal and high-hat work was simple and quiet and appropriate. George Marinelli’s mandolin solo was sweet. Goosebumps, I think, swelled throughout The Mann, whose audience jumped into a standing O, the evening’s second, at Angel’s end. You will find a recent live version of the song by clicking here.

I have a feeling that most people have heard of Bonnie Raitt, and that far, far fewer know about Richard Thompson, though his abilities are extraordinary and his career long (he was a founder of the British folk-rock band Fairport Convention in 1967). Me, I believe that RT is one of the greatest musical talents among us. What a singer. What a songwriter. What a guitar player. In a fair and just world he’d be a megastar. Poor guy, he has to settle for truckloads of praise instead of ocean liner loads, and for making a really nice living instead of raking in countless millions. Life’s tough.

This is probably the worst photo ever of Richard Thompson, who is on the left.
This is probably the worst photo ever of Richard Thompson, who is on the left. Mea culpa.

Well, if I ran The Mann, BR would have opened for RT, not the other way around. Forty-five minutes of him and his band (Taras Prodaniuk on electric bass, Michael Jerome on drums) weren’t enough. Sandy and I have seen Richard in performance a number of times, and he hasn’t lost a beat. His steely, deep voice cut like a knife at The Mann. His electric guitar playing snarled, jabbed and tunneled into realms so dense he left me in disbelief. During some RT solos, Sandy said she thought I was going to give myself whiplash, what with my head pivoting and swiveling so much. Such as on his piercing song If Love Whispers Your Name, during which he went atomic on his guitar (click here for a version of this tune from three years ago, and note that RT’s long, amazing guitar solo begins at about the 3:20 mark).

Back to Bonnie. She is more than a Richard Thompson supporter. She said to the audience that he is one of her heroes, and brought him onstage in the middle of her set for two songs. In case you were wondering, the guy has a delicate side that adroitly examines life’s heartbreaks and mysteries in some of his quieter compositions, such as 1952 Vincent Black Lightning and Dimming Of The Day. To be sure, Dimming Of The Day is a remarkable creation. When in the correct hands it will stun you. Which is what occurred when Bonnie and Richard, each working an acoustic guitar, intertwined their voices in a heavenly manner and, totally deservedly, received the evening’s first standing O when Dimming’s final notes slipped into the air. A beautiful version, from some years ago, of Bonnie and Richard performing Dimming Of The Day exists on YouTube. By clicking here you will see what I mean.

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