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.

Made you look: Slim hollers 'Nam Songbook
photo: Cary Conover
Made you look: Slim hollers 'Nam Songbook

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


Musings of a Saddle Creekdipper

Rilo Kiley's diminutive singer, Jenny Lewis, looks like Strawberry Shortcake on the Sunset Strip, but when she opens her mouth she's transformed into Loretta Lynn for the lurking class. On a sold-out Sunday night at the Knitting Factory, Lewis led her L.A. quartet through a glorious set of sun-kissed kiss-offs that paid tribute to the emotional and professional constipation of “the overpaid, the underworked, and the uninsured”—in other words, exactly the types expected to be seen drinking three-plus Rheingolds on a school night.

The band's ouvre dives and rambles from the carnival to the carnal, often in the same verse. While guitarist Blake Sennet wanly wandered his way through a few vocal turns, the show belonged to multi-instrumentalist Lewis, who sang about being a better daughter while cussing like 50 Cent stubbing his toe, and alternately purred and roared about "not going back" to the assholes that got her here in the first place. (Indeed, it would be disingenuous—if not downright dissing the ingenue—to say that half of the fun was being surrounded by typically meaty indieboys shouting, "You fucking rock!" to a frontwoman.

Brightened by Bright Eyes and the rest of his Omaha cronies, Rilo Kiley's brilliant 2002 sophomore release, The Execution of All Things, was a sparkling model of grassroots community building—an ethic realized live when every other band on Saddle Creek emerged near the end of the set (including Conor Oberst, evidently on furlough from his New Dylan™ responsibilities) to shout along in joyful noise. "Let's talk about all of our friends who lost the war," Lewis sang, "and all the novels that have yet to be written about them." And on this night, it was possible to hear hope in her frustration. —Andy Greenwald


Godspeed You Soft Pink Emperors

There wasn't a moment to get one's bearings once the Hidden Cameras took stage for their U.S. debut Wednesday night at Fez. Here was a shambolic congregation of nine to 12 scruffy Canadians making rickety-rackety symphonic pop and twitching together in non-corresponding rhythms, while barely discernible video projections heightened the hectic fringe lunacy of the whole scene. And this was before the Speedo- and mask-sporting go-go dancers hit the stage . . . and hit on nearly everybody in the audience excoriating them to flaunt the Fez's cabaret laws. Simply remaining seated and not joining the chaos of this sensory-overloaded moment seemed like penance. By the end, those who stayed were pogoing in the aisles with the Holy Ghost on their faces.

The name Joel Gibb has given the sound of his Toronto-based army of lovers is “gay church folk music”—which, depending on how liberally you ascribe the metaphor of worship, is not too far off. Like Belle & Sebastian if they had cojones—or at least a greater affinity for the muscular strains of Flying Nun (Chills, Clean)—the Cameras' catchy snapshots are pop creations of arranged precision, stallion tempos and homemade free-for-all. The bubblegum crowd hooked on these commandments won't be betrayed by a single track on the group's upcoming The Smell of Our Own (Rough Trade).

Yet the Cameras' greatness has as much to do with the idiosyncrasies of Gibb's vision as with its Magnetic Archies appeal. The overwhelmed reaction of the mixed Fez audience made it apparent that the inclusive nature of his gay indie-pop utopia shines through. This doesn't, however, occur at the expense of its radical strains—the show included both of Smell's paeans to golden showers, and "Ban Marriage," possibly the finest anti-vow stomp ever written. And those who can't appreciate the self-assurance of such a grand, catchy scope can just continue praying to their own false idols. —Piotr Orlov


I Ain’t the Way You Found Me

The trick to Hall & Oates's method of modern pop is in their nearly claustrophobic aural space—about the size of a Porsche interior, complete with bitchin' LED readout. With tightly wound, looped hooks, they made their craft work like Krautrock, then added falsettos and harmony, exploring the same dialectic as, say, Yaz: blue-eyed adventurousness pitted against mechanical groove. After Entertainment Weekly declared their new album, Do It for Love (self-released, DIY-style!), better than Fischerspooner's debut, my mind reeled with indie-cred strategies they could implement. Might they join the ranks of Neil Diamond and the Carpenters in transcending (gulp!) wild commercial success to attain recognition as underrated geniuses? Rest assured, though Saturday's show at the Beacon Theatre found Hall & Oates playing to enraptured housewives from Long Island. So much for cult status.

Hall's elastic tenor still sounds fantastic (and props to Oates—as Pharmacists guitarist Drew O'Doherty points out, H&O backup vocals are mixed louder than the leads), and his restlessness with melody lines marks him as an entertainer who refuses to go through the motions. They delved into deep tracks ("this is a Big Bam Boom song"), honored Billy Paul, and stretched out arrangements like they were waiting for Eddie Hazel to show up. During an instrumental coda to "Say It Isn't So" (H&O fans Spoon lifted that song's opening for Girls Can Tell), T-Bone Wolk threw his bass behind his head and performed a patient, lyrical solo. Still, here's an interesting conundrum for minimalist geniuses with a yen for improvisation (Darryl Hall is "one of the greatest ad-libbers of all time," according to Death Cab for Cutie singer Ben Gibbard): How does a group stay interested in songs whose greatest virtues are streamlined hooks and rhythmic repetition? "Do what you want/Be who you are," their song goes, and their forward-looking dedication to the new songs won them ovations, but when they marred the proto-Neptunes classic "I Can't Go for That" with a flute solo, I had to sing back: No can do. —Sean Howe

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