Friday, December 6, 2013

Concert Review: Robyn Hitchcock at the Varsity Theater

Robyn Hitchcock in front of the marquee at the Varsity Theater, September 8, 2013. (Photo by Mark Taylor.)

Robyn Hitchcock on stage at the Varsity Theater, September 8, 2013. (Photo by Pondie Taylor.)
In September, the night after I saw Tom Rush, I went to see Robyn Hitchcock at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis. I’ve seen Robyn several times before, at the Varsity, at the Dakota, and on “Wits.” Like last year’s show at the Dakota, this was a solo show. Robyn put on a wonderful show, as always. But the real highlight for me was before the show. I was eating dinner at the Loring Pasta Bar with my wife and my Mom, just down the block from the Varsity. We were sitting outside, as it was a lovely evening. I looked up and who was walking down the street towards me? Robyn Hitchcock! I said hi to him, shook hands with him and told him we were about to see his concert. Robyn said that we had to make sure we saw Eugene Mirman, the comedian who was opening for him, because “Without Eugene the show won’t make sense.” We also ran into Robyn on our way from the restaurant to the Varsity, and I was standing next to Robyn as he took a picture of the Varsity’s marquee. “Not often you get to see your name up in lights” Robyn said to me. I stupidly didn’t think to get my picture taken with Robyn, unfortunately. But it was pretty cool to have a couple of moments with Robyn before the show.

The Varsity was a fantastic place to see Robyn. I hadn’t been in the Varsity since they remodeled it, and it’s better than ever. It was very comfortable; we had our own table, so it was like seeing Robyn at a jazz club. But honestly, this wasn’t my favorite Robyn show I’ve seen. I’m a pretty hardcore Robyn fan, but there were a lot of songs I didn’t recognize. I was like, “What album is this one from?” Of course, Robyn doesn’t have many “hits” like other artists do, so he has more freedom to dig deeply into his back catalogue. There were also too many songs that sounded too similar to each other, I needed a little more variety. I was also a little disappointed that Robyn didn’t play anything from this year’s “Love From London” album, as I think it’s a fantastic collection of songs. (I reviewed the album, in painstaking detail, here.) But that being said, there were many lovely moments, like “The Wreck of the Arthur Lee,” which is a great Hitchcock song. And Robyn did play “Museum of Sex,” which is one of my personal favorites of his. Honestly, I love the “Ole! Tarantula” album so much that I’d love to hear Robyn play all of those songs. Robyn also did a lovely version of the hypnotic “Queen Elvis,” which was a request from a very inebriated female fan. After “Queen Elvis” is when the songs started sounding too similar for me. I also got to hear Robyn sing “My Wife and My Dead Wife,” which I’ve never heard him sing before. In an interview with “Time” magazine from earlier this year, Robyn said: “I would love to never play ‘Balloon Man’ or ‘My Wife and My Dead Wife’ again.” Huh. Robyn closed his set with two great songs from “Ole! Tarantula”: “Adventure Rocket Ship” and “Ole! Tarantula.” As usual, Robyn’s guitar playing was excellent throughout the show, although he told fewer stories during the concert than he has in the past. For the encore, he sang three covers, my favorite being The Kinks’ “Fancy.” Robyn then closed with “I’m Only You,” complete with the amazing guitar playing that always highlights his live versions of this song. 

After Robyn was done, he and Eugene came back out and bantered for about 15-20 minutes, telling funny stories and making each other laugh. Robyn was very funny, as was Eugene, and Robyn brought back a story he had told at the “Wits” taping earlier this year about things invading from Canada. I’ve always thought that Robyn Hitchcock would make an excellent stand-up comic, and this encore was the closest he’ll probably come to that. It’s always fun to see Robyn, and it’s obvious that he likes the Twin Cities a lot, since he’s come here three times in the last 12 months. This show was a little odd because he didn’t play anything from “Love From London,” and there wasn’t even a merch table to buy any of his CD’s! He must really like it here. 

Set list:

The Abyss
I Got the Hots
The Wreck of the Arthur Lee
Museum of Sex
Queen Elvis
Serpent at the Gates of Wisdom
Wax Doll
Cynthia Mask
She Doesn’t Exist
Sometimes A Blonde
My Wife and My Dead Wife
Adventure Rocket Ship
Ole! Tarantula
Born In Time (Bob Dylan)
Tower Song (Townes Van Zandt)
Fancy (The Kinks)
I’m Only You
Robyn and Eugene talk

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Concert Review: Tom Rush at the Cedar Cultural Center

Tom Rush

Me, Tom Rush, and my Mom, September 7, 2013.
Back in September, my Mom and I saw Tom Rush at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. My Mom is a huge fan of Tom Rush-she has many of his albums from the 1960’s. This is the 3rd time that I’ve seen Tom Rush with my Mom, and he puts on a great show every time. Rush is a relaxed, easygoing performer. He has a mellow baritone voice and he’s an excellent guitar player. He is also very funny and witty on stage, spinning yarns from his 50 years in the music business.
Tom Rush first came to prominence as part of the folk boom of the 1960’s. He recorded several albums for Elektra Records, before switching labels to Columbia in the 1970’s. Rush’s most famous album is 1968’s “The Circle Game,” which featured songs by young songwriters like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Jackson Browne, as well as Rush’s most famous song, the self-penned “No Regrets.” 

Rush is equally adept at singing folk or blues songs, and he also enjoys singing humorous songs like his concert opener, “Making the Best of a Bad Situation.” Rush performed this concert solo, just like the other times I’ve seen him, with just his guitar for accompaniment. But when you’re as good a guitar player as he is, no other accompaniment is needed. Rush’s voice is adept at coloring the emotions of a song, whether it’s good humor or painful memories. Rush’s version of “The Remember Song,” a humorous song about losing one’s memory as one ages, has become a surprise hit on YouTube, with over 6 million views. One of my favorite songs was the old blues song, “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” on which Rush used his ring as the slide on the guitar. Another great song was Rush’s mellow version of “Drift Away,” which was a hit for Dobie Gray. Just before the end of the first half of the concert, “Spider” John Koerner joined Rush on stage and sang “Rattlesnake.” Koerner and Rush have been friends since the 1960’s, and Koerner is a legend in the Twin Cities folk and blues scene. As usual, the highlight of the first half of the concert was the closing song, “Panama Limited,” which is an old Bukka White song. Rush does amazing things on the guitar during “Panama Limited,” as he imitates train whistles, and the sound of a train speeding up and slowing down. It’s amazing, and always leaves me breathless. 

The second half of the concert featured more great songs and more fantastic guitar work on tunes like “Ladies Loves Outlaws,” and the humorous John Prine song “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian.” Rush sang a brand new song, the lovely “How Can She Dance Like That?” As usual, Rush’s last song before the encores was “No Regrets,” with the instrumental “Rockport Sunday.” Rush said of “No Regrets,” “I’ve written better songs, but that’s the one that sticks with people.” And it’s been covered by many, many people, from the Walker Brothers, who had a British hit single with it in the 1970’s, to U2, who have incorporated the song into their concerts. For the encore, Rush sang his version of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” It was a great and fiery version of the song, although it’s a song quite at odds with Rush’s image. (I highly doubt the gentle Mr. Rush uses a “cobra snake for a necktie.”) 

Seeing Tom Rush at the Cedar is always an enjoyable evening full of fine singing and terrific guitar playing. Rush also talks to fans and signs autographs during intermission, and he’s just as nice off stage as he seems on stage.

Set list:
Making the Best of a Bad Situation
Fall Into the Night
Woody Guthrie song-Dust Bowl Blues?
Urge for Going
The Remember Song
Baby, Please Don’t Go
Fish Story Song
Drift Away-Dobie Gray song
Rattlesnake-with Spider John Koerner
Panama Limited
Ladies Love Outlaws
What I Know
New song-How Can She Dance Like That?
Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian
Merrimack County
No Regrets/Rockport Sunday
A Child’s Song
Who Do You Love?/Bo Diddley

Concert Review: Jack Jones at the Dakota Jazz Club

Some of my 1960's Jack Jones albums. (Photo by Mark Taylor.)

Jack Jones at the Dakota, October 23, 2013. (Photo by Mark Taylor.)
Me and Jack Jones, October 23, 2013. (Photo by Pondie Taylor.)
In October, one of my favorite singers of all time, Jack Jones, came to the Dakota Jazz Club. I’ve been a fan of Jack Jones’s singing since I was in high school in the mid 1990’s and I was discovering great singers like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Bobby Darin. My Dad was a big Jack Jones fan during Jones’s heyday in the 1960’s, and he had a lot of Jones’s albums. I started playing them and was immediately struck by what a beautiful voice Jack Jones has. Jones was in his 20’s when he made his classic albums for Kapp Records, and his voice had a wonderfully pure tone. Jones’s voice most reminds me of Vic Damone’s. During the 1960’s Jones scored a number of Top 40 singles with songs like “Wives and Lovers,” “The Race Is On,” and “The Impossible Dream.” His most successful album was “The Impossible Dream,” which made the Top Ten in 1966. But few of Jones’s albums from the 1960’s have been re-issued on CD, and I think he’s very underrated among the great male vocalists. 

I’ve wanted to see Jack Jones in concert for a long, long time, but he’s never come to the Twin Cities. To see him in a small room like the Dakota was a real treat. The concert was a family affair, as I went with both my parents and my wife. It was a wonderful show, as Jack Jones showed that he still has a wonderful voice and a charming stage presence at the age of 75. Jones still looks super handsome, with his full head of grey hair. Jones opened with jazzy versions of “A Song For You,” and “Gypsies, Jugglers, and Clowns.” Jones showed that he has a good sense of humor about himself, as he said with a laugh “I’m one of two people to ever sing ‘Gypsies, Jugglers, and Clowns.’” It’s obvious that Jones has superb control over his voice, you can tell from watching him sing that he knows exactly where to hold the microphone, and how to sing every phrase to get the effect he wants from it. Jones sang lovely versions of “Without A Song,” and the Cole Porter tune most closely associated with Frank Sinatra, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Jones was only accompanied by a bass player and a piano player, which gave the evening a very intimate and jazzy feel. I love hearing great singers with small groups, so it was wonderful to hear Jack Jones this way. Jones sang a beautiful version of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” that took my breath away. One of the highlights of the evening was Jones’s lovely version of his hit “Lollipops and Roses.” Jones brought so much emotion to the lyrics, it was a different reading from the hit he recorded as a young man, but still wonderful. Jones also sang his biggest hit, the hopelessly sexist “Wives and Lovers.” Jones humorously introduced the song, saying that the lyrics were dated, but that “It’s my hit, so I can sing it.” The lyrics of “Wives and Lovers” begin: “Hey, little girl/comb your hair, fix your makeup/soon he will open the door/don’t think because/there’s a ring on your finger/you needn’t try anymore.” Jones joked, “Can you imagine me singing that to Gloria Steinem?”(Jones later wrote new lyrics for a feminist version of the song that starts “Hey, little boy/cap your teeth, get a hairpiece.”) Jones also sang one of his most well-known songs, the theme from “The Love Boat,” which was heard by many millions of TV viewers in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Jones sent himself up by impersonating a fog horn during the song. Jones sang Michel Legrand’s wonderful song “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” One of Jones’s favorites among his own albums is his 1971 album “Jack Jones Sings Michel Legrand.” 

One of the highlights of the concert was Jones performing several songs from the musical “Man of La Mancha.” I know that Jones has acted the lead role in “Man of La Mancha,” and it would be a treat to see him in it after hearing just a few songs during the concert. Jones did an amazing job with “The Impossible Dream,” the signature song from “Man of La Mancha.” I love the way Jack Jones sang “The Impossible Dream” in 1966, and I love the way he sings it now. Jones closed the concert with a medley of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and “From a Distance.” Although that may sound cheesy, it worked very well and was quite emotional. 

After the show, Jones signed autographs for fans. He’s a very nice guy who really likes talking to his fans. My Dad was able to get “Where Love Has Gone,” his favorite Jack Jones LP’s from the 60’s signed by Jack, so that was pretty cool. If you’re a fan of great male vocalists, do yourself a favor and check out Jack Jones, because he’s still one of the best.

Concert Review: Allen Toussaint at the Dakota Jazz Club

Allen Toussaint, "Songbook," 2013.

Me, my wife Pondie, and the wonderful Allen Toussaint, November 9, 2013.
Last month my wife and I saw Allen Toussaint at the Dakota. It was the third time I’ve seen Toussaint at the Dakota, and he has put on a great show every time. I reviewed his 2009 show with his band  here. His 2011 show was a solo show, as was the one last month. Toussaint is a wonderful performer to see solo, as his piano playing is the perfect accompaniment to his legendary songs.

Toussaint is a great piano player, and his voice is warm and inviting. At the age of 75, he hasn’t lost a step. He opened the show with a medley of famous instrumentals he wrote, including “Java,” which was a big hit for fellow Crescent City resident Al Hirt, and “Whipped Cream,” which was the theme to “The Dating Game,” and was a big hit for Herb Alpert. Toussaint introduced himself to the crowd, saying, “I’m not so full of myself that I think you all know who I am. I’m Allen Toussaint.” He’s a really humble guy, and seemed genuinely thrilled that people would show up to see him perform. The Dakota was much more crowded than when I saw him in 2009, and both shows were sold out. Toussaint is a musicians’ musician who doesn’t have a huge media profile, but for those music fans in the know, Toussaint’s fingerprints are all over popular music. In addition to writing numerous hit songs for New Orleans artists like “Mother-In-Law,” “Workin’ in the Coal Mine,” and “Fortune Teller,” he wrote arrangements for The Band for their live album “Rock of Ages,” he played the piano on some songs on Paul McCartney’s “Venus and Mars” album, and he made an excellent album with Elvis Costello “The River In Reverse.” Toussaint also has a new live album called “Songbook,” which is full of great live versions of his greatest hits.

In addition to a medley of his famous instrumentals, Toussaint also performed a medley of his New Orleans hits “A Certain Girl,” “Mother-In-Law,” “Workin’ in the Coal Mine,” “Fortune Teller,” and “Lipstick Traces.” Toussaint also sang lovely versions of “It’s Raining” and “Brickyard Blues,” two more hits he wrote for other people. It’s always fun to hear a great songwriter like Toussaint sing their own songs, even though other people had the hits with them. I think the only songs that Toussaint sang that were covers were “St. James Infirmary” and Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.” (Toussaint invited the audience to sing along “City of New Orleans,” saying, “All white people know this song.”) 

One of the highlights of the show was the last song, “Southern Nights,” which was a big hit for Glen Campbell. Toussaint plays the song much slower than Campbell’s version, and he plays the melody of the song as he speaks about the childhood memories that inspired the song. When I saw Toussaint in 2011, his version of “Southern Nights” was about 15 minutes long, and simply mesmerizing. Toussaint apologized that he didn’t have enough time to tell us the whole story, so it wasn’t quite 15 minutes long, but it was still magical. 

It was a wonderful concert, and afterwards Toussaint signed autographs for people. He was very generous with his time, and of course, super nice to everyone. He’s a true gentleman. I told him that I’ve seen him 3 times, and he said he was glad I kept coming back. Any concert of Allen Toussaint’s is a treat not to be missed. As always, he was impeccably dressed, wearing a blue-purple suit, with a matching pocket square, of course.