Music

Resistance Hymns

The thing I'll always remember about the February 15, 2003, anti-war demonstration, apart from playpenned masses and cops riding horses into stroller-pushing parents, is the cold, clear moment when 83-year-old Pete Seeger cut through the rhetoric, plucked the perfect flower from an infinite musical bouquet, and sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." While Yip Harburg's masterpiece isn't in The Vietnam Songbook, it well could be, so the unannounced Seeger naturally joined the electric group who revived the 144-song anthology of rabble-rousing ditties Saturday at Joe's Pub, alongside protest singer Barbara Dane, who compiled the book in 1969 with husband Irwin Silber.

Musicians Kim Rancourt and Don Fleming, producers of this nostalgic, often galvanizing evening, lured Dane from Berkeley. Dane's version of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (Yip again) evoked Anita O'Day reviving Brecht—although I would have preferred her own "I Hate the Capitalist System." Other performers worked outside the canon as well. Dean Wareham moaned "No Train to Stockholm," an anti-war ode by former Dane producer Lee Hazelwood, and Lenny Kaye gave Dylan's "Masters of War" a harsh electric halo.

The band—Curtis Eller, Barry Reynolds, Stephan Smith, Dan Zanes, Jim O'Rourke, and drummer David Licht—swung hard with Jenni Muldaur, Bev Grant, Thurston Moore, and Matt Jones. But solo performances scraped closest to the bone. Seeger played "Take It From Dr. King," an optimistic post-9-11 tune, and Tuli Kupferberg brought it all back home with "Kill for Peace," recorded on The Fugs' Second Album . The déjà vu was enhanced by Joe Bangert and Watermelon Slim, Vietnam veterans who seemed equally stoked and flummoxed to have to do it all over again. —Richard Gehr


Dakar Star

At 9:15 Grammy night, there were 41 customers in the room and Raam Daan was setting up: guitar, bass, three keyboards, three kinds of drum. SOB's worked the bar as a predominantly Senegalese crowd continued to stroll in. It was nearly eleven before the band launched a rock instrumental, conceptually "Maggot Brain" only less fonky. But when Thione Seckcame on in his subdued gray suit, looking 10 years younger than the pushing-50 an original Orchestra Baobab vocalist must be, his first two notes blew every gripe away.

As you learn the first time you go gaga for Youssou N'Dour's warmup guy, there are many spectacular voices in West Africa. Muezzin-griot culture is pervasive. In Dakar, it's said, Seck's rates behind only N'Dour's: not quite a tenor but decisively high-end, only this high-end has tremendous body, its strength clarity rather than purity. Directing his eyes slightly to the left, never once removing the mic from its stand or placing his right foot forward, Seck sang for over two hours in a version of mbalax that afforded much call-and-response and minimal solo room. Every song was taken at a fast mid-tempo, with two keybs providing a tonal bed and a third doing horns, organ, balafon, something like electric harpsichord, or the melted cheese Africans adore. Every song featured a skinny, speedy dancer collecting the offering and climaxed with a strapping young sabar drummer going nuts. The tunes grew more striking, but with Seck's 26 albums terra incognita and his renowned lyrics over this anglophone's head, the cross-cultural excitement was formal, yet no less bracing for that—a rare chance to immerse in a gorgeous species of beats-up-front and a voice the Judeo-Christian tradition lacks the resources to match. Robert Christgau


Virtual Broadway?

Attend a musical on Friday, and instead of an orchestra you may find a computer. With contract negotiations stalled, many producers, including Margo Lion (Hairspray), Baz Luhrmann (La Bohème), and Disney are prepared to use virtual replacements for striking musicians. Actors were required to rehearse with machines last week.

As a professional musician (and union member, though not involved in negotiations), I have a stake here, but so does the average theatergoer. Virtual orchestras are programmed with samples and fed a score, which is played back through speakers representing instruments. Though marketed as a "stand alone" instrument that can follow conductor tempos, the Music Arts Technology system backing up Radio City's 2002 Christmas show was fired during production for erratic timing. "The sounds were unrealistic—it couldn't adjust to tempos that developed over the run," said one show technician.

The five-year contract between the League of American Theaters and Producers and the Musicians' Union Local 802 expired Sunday, parties at an impasse over "minimums." Since 1963, each contract has cut the number of musicians required in Broadway theaters. Jed Bernstein, League president, calls minimums "archaic featherbedding," though musicians say they cost only 6.1 percent of ticket price. While large orchestras are hired for cast albums and reviewed runs, cores can be as small as nine amplified members. "Special situation" status can be granted by a committee. Thirteen shows have enjoyed it since 1993. Mamma Mia, for example, has nine musicians playing in a theater with a 24 minimum. Last weekend, producers proposed reducing minimums at large theaters from 26 to 7. Composers John Kander (Chicago) and Cy Coleman (Barnum, Fosse, City of Angels) signed a letter saying eliminating minimums "will take away our means of expression in exchange for increased profits." Saturday, musicians voted 96 percent to authorize a strike. The new deadline is midnight Thursday. Meanwhile, musicians will work without a contract. —Louise Dubin

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