2009 Articles

by Tim Van Schmidt

Bruce Springsteen, Super Bowl broadcast, February 1, 2009.

This article is a sign of the times. Just about as I am posting this piece on the Internet, tickets are going on sale for an upcoming April 10 Denver show by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Now normally, I would be in the fray trying to snag some tickets. I’ve seen Springsteen and company many times and know that it would be a good value. But no, not this year. This year I really cannot justify buying the tickets- I just can’t afford them.

It isn’t that the ticket prices are out of line- they’re actually kind of reasonable for a big time show- in the $50-100 range. But it’s my own problem. I don’t really have even an extra $50 to throw into anything but daily survival. That’s why I find myself being content to write about what I got for free- which was yesterday’s Super Bowl half-time performance by Springsteen.

What I saw was a lot of crowd-rousing fun- more fun, I dare say, than what was going on during the first half of the game between the Steelers and the Cardinals. My reaction was- this is why they need rock and roll for the Super Bowl- because when the big teams are struggling against each other on the field, rock and roll can just kick in and go for broke. It gives some of the same thrill of a break-through football play, but without all the waiting and tension. That is, it gives the same thing if the performer is right.

Springsteen was certainly up to the task last night, immediately slapping hands with the fans surrounding the Super Bowl stage, as well as directly cajoling the television viewing audience into feeling a part of the moment. But it wasn’t just Springsteen that was working, it was the massive E Street Band as well that kept everything thoroughly active. This is part of Springsteen’s strength- not only is he a dedicated performer, but so are the cast of characters in his band. By surrounding himself with vivid band mates, Springsteen is always surrounded by an upbeat crowd.

But then again, at the Super Bowl, the crowd in general seemed upbeat and ready to rock. The arena roared when Springsteen asked “Is there anybody alive out there?” as he continually worked the fans within his reach and did a nice stage slide right into one of the cameras.

Oh, yeah, Springsteen and band played music too. They started out with the funky “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out,” quickly shifted gears into “Born to Run,” brought out a huge choir to support a rousing taste of Springsteen’s new anthem “Working on a Dream,” then finished off with some straight rock and roll fun- “Glory Days” complete with changed lyrics just for the Super Bowl. It was all delivered with a devil-may-care passion and intensity, if not exact musicianship.

But, really, it was the PERSONALITY that was on stage for the Super Bowl that was the most important thing. The whole short set opened with Springsteen’s famous back-to-back pose with saxophonist Clarence Clemons, an iconic image that has come to be as much a part of the proceedings as the music. Springsteen and guitarist Steve Van Zandt had a little sassy banter towards the end of the set- about how it was time to go, but they were having so much fun they thought they’d stick around and play some more- a fake referee appearing to throw a flag for delay of game. The corniness of it all still works wonders and the half-time performance by Springsteen and company was buoyant and uplifting, thanks to some familiar music, but mostly because these old friends were still out there mugging around.

That is what makes a Springsteen show so great live- is the feeling that everyone’s in this one big rock and roll gang and there’s comfort in numbers. At a real show, the audience becomes part of the gang, playing along with the antics on stage- and rocking to the familiar tunes as well. It’s a feeling that makes for warm memories, which makes Springsteen’s shows a return destination time and time again. Last night’s Super Bowl show gave a pretty good taste of that and the marketing genius of having blocks of show tickets go on sale the day after the Super Bowl should work wonders for sales. A lot of people will want to feel the camaraderie of a Springsteen show again- or get a lot more of what they picked up from the Super Bowl spot.

But for me, the point is that I HAVE to be happy with seeing the same Super Bowl show millions of others saw. I have to pass on the real thing- Springsteen’s mastery of the stage and the full blast of the band and the momentum and the general riot of rock and roll- the stuff that can’t be projected by a television set. I’m thankful I got a taste of it, somehow over the mass media, but the tickets to really ride that train in April will just slip out of my hands. Meanwhile, I’ve got bills to pay.

Etown w/ Joan Osborne, Bruce Cockburn, Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, February 18, 2009.

Style, power, grit and soulful glory. They’re all present when Joan Osborne is singing on stage and her appearance last night at the Lincoln Center during a taping of radio program Etown was no exception. Not a full show by Osborne- her set was part of a bigger program taping that also included solo sets by Bruce Cockburn. Still, she mustered plenty of what makes her one of the jewels of adult contemporary music- that great, strong husky voice and the confidence to wield it any way she wants to.

Last night, Osborne wasn’t even playing with her own band. Although accompanied by Keith Cotton on keyboards and vocals from her band, the rest of the ensemble was made up of host Nick Forster and the E-tones band. This is where the editing comes in- this two hour event will be edited down to a one hour show, so the radio audience won’t ever know about a false start, for instance, during one of Osborne’s tunes. Osborne took advantage of the situation to do her own re-do of one of the tunes- and I don’t think anyone was complaining about getting to hear her again. Considering the circumstances, Osborne delivered plenty with ease, underscoring her natural talent.

On this occasion, Osborne featured a big chunk of her recent Womanly Hips album “Little Wild One,” including the title song, “Hallelujah in the City,” “Sweeter Than the Rest” and “Cathedrals” but also included a strong reading of old favorite “St Theressa” Osborne also handled herself well during the sit down interview portion with Forster, very poised and relaxed for a woman who had just sung her lungs out moments before. She seems to be a class act all the way around.

There was also plenty of grit in Cockburn’s performance too. Cockburn was celebrating his upcoming release on True North Records- a double live CD, “Slice O Life,” his first solo live recording and his 30th album- by digging in and delivering challenging words and strong guitar work. This included versions of tunes such as “Pacing the Cage” and “If a Tree Falls,” which featured something no other audience will see when Cockburn tours in April- back-up by Helen and Nick Forster. The set also included an instrumental tune that fully showcased Cockburn’s strong, even aggressive guitar style. Editing will probably play a part here- it will be interesting to see if all of Cockburn’s songs are used.

The evening also included the presentation of Etown’s E-Chievement Award to Global Explorers co-founders David Shurna and Julie Ivker Dubin. The organization, based in Fort Collins, matches young people with travel experiences to foster “better global citizens.” Shurna and Dubin were nominated by a listener and Shurna accepted the award for the pair.

But I’m sorry, all else paled when Joan Osborne was on the stage- even as part of the easygoing finale with Cockburn and the Forsters and the E-tones on the tune “How Sweet It Is.” Any show that features her is worth checking out and the radio audience is in for a treat on that score alone. Better yet, go see this lady live. Thanks to Etown I got to.

Miro Quartet w/ Claude Sim, Griffin Concert Hall, Fort Collins, February 19, 2009.

Think of a group of quilters, sitting around a creation-in-the-making, patiently adding their parts to a colorful whole when thinking of the Miro Quartet. But much tighter, much more intense than a quilters circle, the Miro Quartet makes music together that recalls many different kinds of cloth. What is the same is the care, skill and creative talent these four musicians apply to the task at hand.

So maybe in the case of their opening piece, “Quartet in G Major, Op. 77, No. 1, “Lobkowitz,” the Miro Quartet, featuring Daniel Ching and Sandy Yamamoto on violin, John Largess on viola and Joshua Gindele on cello, weren’t making a quilt, they were making lace. The steady flow of the music suggested the crafters hand, the warm sense of melody suggesting stylish patterns that, linked together, turn a table covering into a masterpiece. The musicians were smooth and fluid as a unit, their parts fused together in one unified sound- a certain group-wide lightness of touch.

Maybe the next piece, “Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters”” by Janacek, could have been a quilt. It was so much more lively with changing dynamics, shifting moods and challenging rhythmic changes- so much more testy than the Haydn music. This cloth felt a little rough, thicker, but Miro maintained their light touch throughout, fully bringing out the texture and color of the score.

After intermission the Miro Quartet became a quintet with the addition of special guest Claude Sim. It was explained than Sim, a CSU music school faculty member, had been schoolmates with members of the quartet, and the five musicians sat down to perform Mozart’s “Viola Quintet in G minor, K. 516.” In this case, Sim joined Miro in making silk- not lace or a quilt. The light-footed forward progress of the music recalled the Haydn piece earlier in the evening, but the whole sound package here seemed much more refined- smoother and tight like silk. That Sim could sit down with Miro and blend completely into their smooth communicative style is impressive indeed, another craftsman joining the circle.

Elton John, University of Wyoming Arena-Auditorium, Laramie, Wyoming, April 3, 2009.

Life is precious. That’s what was driven home loudly and clearly when Elton John performed at the University of Wyoming in Laramie on April 3. When I say “driven home,” I mean it literally. The drive home to Fort Collins from Laramie after the concert was life-threatening due to a voracious Spring blizzard that ripped across Southern Wyoming and Northern Colorado that night. It was a white-knuckle trip with snow blowing straight into the windshield and covering the icy highway. Thanks to the reassuring presence of on-duty snow plow operators and the patience of my friend at the wheel to drive ten miles an hour at times, we made it home safe and alive. It was a big relief to pull up in front of our house.

The trip home was so intense, that a pedestrian concert experience could have easily been quickly forgotten. But John’s show in Laramie was hardly pedestrian and the theme that life is precious was particularly strong during the concert and not just on the drive home.

John’s solo concert was a benefit for the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an organization formed in memory of murdered Laramie resident Matthew Shepard, a victim of a hate crime against gays. This was a return engagement for John in Laramie, who appeared in concert to benefit the Foundation nearly ten years ago.

That was the last time I had seen Elton John perform- at the Matthew Shepard Foundation benefit in Laramie in 1999. That was also a solo show and I remember it was a masterful performance in itself, full of energy, spirit and determination to support the cause. This time- in 2009- it took a little getting used to listening to the changes in John’s voice. Now, there seems to be quite a bit of gravel in the mix, his vocal range limited and scratchy at times and some of the songs particularly early in the show were questionably suited to his abilities. But the fact that John rose in between nearly every song to go drink some water might indicate there was some physical discomfort going on, and by the end of the show, his voice seemed to be warmed up and much truer. John’s show gained its ultimate strength, then, not through his vocals, but through his dominance of the piano and the basic texture of some of the material itself.

But before getting to showmanship part of the evening, John took some time at the beginning of the set to talk about the issues at hand. He told the crowd that he kept a photo of Matthew Shepard in his kitchen and that seeing it every day reminded him of the importance of working toward social change. He praised the inspirational work of the Matthew Shepard Foundation and pledged to spend more time performing to benefit the organization. Above all, he promised to “Never, ever forget” what happened to Matthew Shepard and what it means to gay people and other people in general.

To match the gravity of his brief talk with the audience, John included a three-song mini set dedicated to Matthew Shepard later in the show, including the somber “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word” and the gentle “Candle in the Wind.” But it was “American Triangle,” a song that John introduced as “Matthew’s song,” written by him and lyricist Bernie Taupin in reaction to Shepard’s story, that truly touched the heart. The lonely, mournful sound of the song and its strong words and images- “I’ve seen a scarecrow wrapped in wire/left to die on a high ridge fence/It’s a cold, cold wind/It’s a cold wind blowing, Wyoming”- was riveting. This went way beyond showmanship and became a true moment of emotional release. At the conclusion of the piece, John said he rarely plays the song because it touches him so much- but on this occasion he “had to.”

To be sure, John easily put on his showman hat and entertained the crowd with plenty of hits. That included more ebullient tunes like “Crocodile Rock,” which allowed the crowd to happily sing along, “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Honky Cat,” which was an early highlight in the show thanks to John’s strong honky tonk piano style. Lighter pieces like “Your Song,” “Daniel” and “Tiny Dancer” all received rousing ovations. And the strongest tune of the night was “Rocket Man,” complete with additional vocal effects that made the sound bigger and more dynamic.

But more impressive than the more established hits during the concert were some of the other song choices John included like “Ticking” from the “Caribou” album and “Ballad of the Boy in the Red Shoes” from “Songs from the West Coast.” John also took some time for instrumental excursions on the piano that traveled plenty far away from the vocal material. These songs helped underscore that John is not just a hit maker, but a distinctive musician with flavorful chord changes and the ability to seriously get inside Taupin’s introspective lyrics.

Other emotional  highlights during the concert included “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatter,” “Levon,” and an inspiring version of “Border Song” that seemed to pick up a little extra meaning at  this event with the words “He’s my brother/Let us live in peace.”  “Take Me to the Pilot,” one of John’s earliest hits, showed plenty of rock and roll grit and “Sixty Years On” was dark and heavy.

When John returned for an encore- after playing for well over two hours- he announced to the crowd that the event had raised $550,000 for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. But more than money, this was an exceptional evening with a major artist who wasn’t afraid to show many sides of his art- from the happy sing-along songs to those that dive straight into complex emotions. John reminded, in this particular way, that indeed life is precious. Especially when a blizzard is blowing wildly outside, this is one thing that can help keep us going.

Fort Collins Music Experiment, Fort Collins venues, April 10-11, 2009.

I gave up my ticket to see the sold-out Bruce Springsteen show in Denver in order to see a couple of dozen local bands. Man, did I get the better end of the bargain. The opportunity that made me rethink my plan to see Springsteen was the Fort Collins Music Experiment, a two-day feast of local and regional bands of all stripes organized by the Fort Collins Musician’s Association. The festival, held at a wide variety of venues strewn throughout Fort Collins, wasn’t about big stars, big hits or big money. Rather, the Fort Collins Music Experiment was about the best of contemporary music making- fresh talent and unbridled energy presented to excited, supportive audiences with in-your-face passion. At times during the FOCOMX, you just couldn’t get a better rock and roll jolt, no matter how famous the band is.

During the FOCOMX, held in Fort Collins on April 10-11, I managed to see 27 different performers- that’s not even one third of the bands on the schedule. I made it to all the venues except one and I didn’t miss seeing Springsteen one bit. That’s because everywhere I went during the festival, I was greeted by compelling performances illustrating just how creative and dedicated to personal expression Northern Colorado musicians are. From harsh hardcore to gentle folksiness, exotic world sounds to gut punching rock, blinding bluegrass picking to challenging artsy stuff- it was all there during the FOCOMX.

The highlights of my experience at FOCOMX were plentiful. My favorite band overall was the Tanukis- performing at Surfside 7- their sophisticated, yet just a little crazy European-influenced art music stops me in my tracks. But the most fun I had at the festival, above and beyond the art of it, was seeing Umlaut for the first time at Road 34. These characters had just the right tongue-in-cheek attitude, lots of volume, great costumes and extra points for projecting the words to their nutty songs to make for a very satisfying encounter indeed. Johnny Hickman’s set at Hodi’s Half Note, with the Piggies rocking out behind him, was a quintessential club experience- blazing musicianship mixed with an upbeat stage presence and a turned on crowd.

But more, I got to see a whole new bunch of performers- from a wide variety of genres. I’m glad I got to experience the fresh rock energy of What About Pluto? and the Don’ts and Be Carefuls at Hodi’s and Common Anomaly at the Aggie Theatre. Fierce Bad Rabbit, out at Swing Station in LaPorte, and Stella Luce, at Avogadro’s Number, joined the Tanukis as some of the most challenging of the art bands at FOCOMX- all using stringed instruments. I only caught a little bit of Maxwell Hughes’ instrumental music at the Alley Cat, but I liked what I heard. 20XIII got right in the face of the crowd at the Ramskellar at CSU, demonstrating raw power and charisma. Bluegrass fusion bands like Glovetrucker at Avo’s and Good Gravy at Hodi’s also impressed and HOSS just plain kicked butt at Hodi’s.

Of course, it was also fun to catch up with other area favorites. Tuatha’s set at Everyday Joe’s was deep and exotic, including some cool projected graphics above the stage. Otem Rellik’s sound mix always challenges the ear and Glass Ceiling continues to churn out an irresistible rock. My favorite venue was the Stonehouse Grille- probably because it was a new discovery for me.

The result of FOCOMX: I went to places I had never been to before- and spots I hadn’t been to for a long time. I saw performers I had never heard of, ones I’d heard of but had never seen and old favorites doing new things. I came out of it with a very healthy respect for the level of talent and musicianship that converged on these two nights- it’s almost overwhelming, especially for the size of our city.  Added to that is a certain satisfaction that when a group of musicians decide to get together in Fort Collins and rock, they don’t fool around about it- they rock in every genre imaginable. Forget Bruce Springsteen- make mine FOCOMX!!

Leonard Cohen, Red Rocks, Morrison, June 4, 2009.

Faith. Let’s start with that.

The Leonard Cohen concert at Red Rocks on June 4 went a long way toward restoring my faith in the concert setting as a source of personal inspiration. I’ve become used to so much loud, brash rock and roll pounding up the hillside, pulsing with more adrenalin than art, that an event geared a completely different direction was refreshing and rejuvenating. If I can see any more concerts like Cohen’s Red Rocks show again- a very stirring and satisfying experience- I wouldn’t want to pass it up- it was so sublime.

That was the first thing that struck me when I arrived at Red Rocks- there wasn’t any music booming out of the speakers to pump people up. All you could hear was the murmur of patrons talking among themselves, patiently waiting for the event to begin. The relative quiet was striking indeed, especially once the concert began. I was astonished to note that the majority of people were sitting and listening- not stone faced, mind you, but intent on HEARING the music, a novel idea in most big concert situations. Sure, there were some annoying talkers and yellers in the crowd, but they were relatively few and isolated. The rest of the audience exhibited a kind of concentration on the music that helped restore my faith in people- you can take some of them out in public to hear music and they can act civilly to each other.

It should be said that the concert on June 4 was a postponed date. The original concert was scheduled for June 2, but excessive rain and abnormally low temperatures prompted the postponement. The crowd that did show up on June 4 was significantly thinned out from those who had tickets for the original scheduled date. So much so, that ushers in the upper third of the amphitheatre invited patrons to move down closer- kind of an unprecedented offer at Red Rocks. The crowd filled in the seats below and roughly half the venue was full when Cohen took the stage. This restored my faith that it is possible to see a major music event without having people jammed up against you, yelling in your ear.

On this night, the weather cooperated and it was a fine, beautiful Colorado night, the wind picking up only towards the end of the show- certainly sweetening the deal already made great by being able to see a rare concert date with Cohen. The calm air and the rocks themselves served to accentuate the finely crafted, deliberate music being played on the stage. As stated, most concerts project with a kind of sonic aggression aimed at overpowering the audience. Cohen’s music, however, was too cool and collected for that and my faith in Red Rocks as a world-class venue was restored as nearly every word and every note was clear and balanced- something that can hardly be discerned at higher volume- and what wasn’t perfect about the venue that night was evidently made up for by Cohen, his band and his technicians. It was gorgeous sound.

But more than just the sound, the band was fulfilling some gorgeous arrangements of a huge swath of Cohen’s best material.  From the warm, mellow sound of Neil Larsen at the Hammond organ to the impressive woodwind diversity of Dino Soldo;  Bob Metzger’s tasteful guitar work to Rafael Bernardo Gayol’s tasteful drums and percussion support; from the exciting Spanish stylings of Javier Mas on guitar, banduria and more to the beautiful mix of supporting vocals by Cohen’s songwriting collaborator Sharon Robinson and Charley Webb and Hattie Webb, every part was in place, every note deliberate, yet performed with vigor and meaning.  All of this was under the musical direction of bassist Roscoe Beck who bobbed enthusiastically behind Cohen throughout the evening at Red Rocks. This ensemble should be remembered as one of the finest touring bands of our time, restoring my faith that there are still musicians out there who can not only play their instruments well, but can also blend their playing into that of others to make MUSIC.

But above and beyond the exceptional conditions and skilled musicianship, the Cohen concert was a rich experience because being able to just sit back and listen and take in the words of the songs was a bonus pleasure. And that’s where it got deep, too. Cohen’s lyrics are poetry in disguise and as they rolled up the amphitheatre, some lines would catch in the ear and linger until another one did the same thing. Enjoying Cohen’s performance didn’t necessarily depend on any one song to succeed, but offered a constant flow of language that brimmed over with alluring images and clever turns of phrase. The songs were full of gritty darkness, even horror, but also tenderness and beauty- as well as some very dry humor. Towards the end of the show I fantasized that Cohen was actually a painter and each song was a painting- something you had to look at and study in both detail and a bigger view, prompting the desire to hear all of it again.  Presented with such interesting pieces of art, my faith was restored in song form for supplying poignant words and memorable melodies that have continued to give pause, however vaguely, long after the concert.

Watching Cohen perform on stage was also a particular pleasure. He began most tunes by kneeling down low to the stage, bringing himself up slowly. He didn’t particularly move around the stage a lot, but when he did move, it seemed motivated by the drama in the material, accentuating it ever so gracefully. His voice was deep and resonant, made strong by his current touring effort. I liked his gentle between song patter and how he kept referring to the audience as “my friends.” Even better, I liked how whenever he left the stage, he broke into a big, loping skip. He had every reason to be happy, musically anyway, because this performance, this tour was not just a revival of his work, but a refinement and even an artistic realization of it. At 74 years old, Cohen seems to be enjoying a peak point in his career and that restores my faith in growing older.

So what was so great about the Cohen concert? All sorts of elements, but the biggest benefit from the event was that it strengthened my faith in general. I’m a little bit stronger person than I was before the show- and good art should be able to do that. Cohen presented some great art at Red Rocks and I came away feeling better, somehow more ready to face the future. So this ends up being about the future, not about an event that is over. Thanks to Cohen and band, I am looking ahead with a little bit more soul than I had before and there’s a new faith I can claim in music, poetry and joining together with others to share a good time.

Rickie Lee Jones, Chautauqua Auditorium, Boulder, June 9, 2009.

You can blame Leonard Cohen for this review. After just having seen one of the finest touring bands currently on the circuit- Cohen and his 9 member ensemble at Red Rocks- it’s hard to return back to earth. Earth, in this case, was Rickie Lee Jones’ performance at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder last night. I can’t say it was a bad show by any means, but on the other hand, it was a far cry away from the quality Cohen’s unit is presenting.

This complaint comes after witnessing the musical power that can be achieved when musicians are completely in synch with each other- as was Cohen’s band at Red Rocks. In stark contrast was the tentative sound of Jones and her four-piece accompanying band, which included bassist Rob Wasserman. At Chautauqua, this unit did not really seem to have a handle on the material or each other.

Indeed, Jones directed the group often during the show, making big motions to signal the end of tunes, physically pleading with her hands at points to try to inspire the musicians- who may or may not have been watching- to fill in, even telling one of them not to quit in the middle of a song. The impression this gave was that Jones and current company are pretty green as a group. This was underscored by occasionally sour harmony vocals, those hesitant song endings and instrumental parts that didn’t particularly mesh.

The good news was, however, that Jones seemed to be in pretty good shape herself. Her voice was strong and characteristically emotive and her vocals and own playing on guitar and piano put some swing into things. Jones’ rehab rap was wild and irreverent and there were also some moments of beauty and ease. She even strapped on an electric guitar and rocked with authority for a few tunes. This all might prompt a suggestion that the band should have stayed behind and practiced some more and a solo show might have been more effective. Jones’ cool vocal talents, her keyed in instrumental work and her strong stage presence prevailed at Chautauqua and offered enough musical action to bring the half-capacity crowd to its feet. Jones returned and waved to the crowd, but did not play an encore.

Fortunately, the evening also included a strong set by opener Alejandro Escovedo, playing in a duo format with David Pulkingham. Unlike Jones and her band, Escovedo and Pulkingham seemed to know exactly where they were going with Escovedo’s original, hook-filled acoustic rock. From dark chords and rough, loud arrangements to some rousing refrains and an intense mix of fleet guitar work, Escovedo began the night with vigor. So, between Jones’ strong personal showing- her band tagging along somewhere behind- and Escovedo’s shot of energy, the evening succeeded well enough. Still, it’s hard to touch the rocky ground after seeing Leonard Cohen.

Wallflowers, Lincoln Center, Fort Collins, July 17, 2009.

A little rock and roll chaos was a good thing last night for a rare mid-summer pop concert at the Lincoln Center with the Wallflowers and front man Jakob Dylan. Up on one of the sides on the orchestra level, a small group of dancers got to their feet and cheered Dylan and band on through every song. Their wild and crazy attitude even piqued Dylan’s interest and he encouraged the rabble. As the evening progressed, many people in the audience got up and went over to join the dancer group until there must have been some 50 people gathered together, singing and dancing along. Others in the audience formed their own party areas elsewhere in the hall and the usually calm and collected Lincoln Center was rocking.

There was good reason for the hoopla. The Wallflowers, with plenty enough hits in their pockets to carry a full show, have just released a retrospective album titled “Collected 1996-2005,” and are currently touring to revive Wallflowers-mania. The touring band places Dylan and bandmates Greg Richling and Fred Eltringham with longtime additional guitarist Stuart Mathis and keyboardist Bill Appleberry. The sound that they create is unique- mixing flavorful singer-songwriter sensibilities with solid rock grooves, spiced with that great mellow organ sound and lots of, yes, guitar solos (something sorely missing in a lot of music these days). As a touring group, they have that professional bent that keeps an eye on the momentum of the show- when they get to the end of a tune, they seem to know exactly where they want to go next and don’t waste any time getting there. This all works wonders on a crowd ready for a little rock and roll chaos.

The place where the “rock and roll chaos” was not welcome, however, was in the sound department. I hope that the engineers on duty weren’t local people because this may hurt a little- whoever was at the controls at the Lincoln Center for the Wallflowers had a tin ear. The vocals were lost under a wall of instrumental volume. Fortunately, Dylan’s thin, raspy vocal style was able to cut through the sound at times, so you occasionally got a sense of the lyrics. But for the most part, it was more of a guessing game in terms of words and inflection- not exactly the kind of service you would expect for a band whose sound depends at least a little on hearing what’s going on with the vocals.

Opening band Vedera, from Kansas City, fared even worse. The sound mix could be described as just plain awful for their set, which was too bad because the young female vocalist fronting the group seemed to be pretty talented- emoting in a strong, dynamic Cranberries-type way. But buried underneath a terrible balance of over amped instruments, again, it was a lot of guesswork on the part of the audience to appreciate her skills.

Still, it was a treat to be able to drive across town and get a little professional level rock and roll, no matter if the sound was crystal clear or not. Of course, songs such as “One Headlight” and “6th Avenue Heartache” are plenty strong enough to withstand some rough mixing and the crowd responded with enthusiasm. Forget enthusiasm, many were just taking the opportunity to fully rock out- and that is a healthy thing. It would be nice to see more of that at the Lincoln Center.

Papa Mali w/ Bill Kreutzman, Hodi’s Half Note, Fort Collins, August 4, 2009.

This has been a rather fallow year for me as far as live music events are concerned. There’s just been too much life going on otherwise that has taken top priority. However, I’m very glad I made it down to Hodi’s Half Note on August 4 for the Papa Mali/Bill Kreutzman show- it was everything you could ask for in a club date.

First of all, despite the relatively impressive pedigree of the musicians- a core member of the Grateful Dead and a progressive Louisiana roots guitarist- the venue was not particularly crowded. Crowded enough to be a happening, but thin enough to avoid being packed in tight with no room to move. And in the end, being able to move was the optimal way to enjoy this unit’s music.

Next, I very much enjoyed the use of a second stage in the small venue to showcase local talent along with these national-level heavies. That is, the funky jazz sounds of a group called the Nu Classics, who have been hosting a funk and jazz jam at Hodi’s on Mondays. The Nu Classics started the evening off on the little stage to the front of the club with some no nonsense jazz jamming- crisp, sharp and synched in. The beauty of the band starting things off on a separate stage meant the lag time between the opening set and the headliners was cut deliciously short- a lesson other venues might benefit from. Once the music got going, those painful breaks in between sets were practically non-existent. This included another set by the Nu Classics in between Papa Mali and Kreutzman’s sets. It provided smooth transitions and more bang for the buck for the patrons, the Nu Classics, featuring two saxes in the second set, wailing for all they were worth.

Being in a small club for this, of course, meant that everybody had real close proximity to the stage and that made the hot jamming hotter when it’s right in your face. And the band did jam, whirling off into instrumental excursions that didn’t really have to go anywhere in particular to be effective. The focus here was on Papa Mali, whose thin yet guttural vocals served the songs well and whose guitar explorations took the proceedings to very cool places. However, Kreutzman’s playing was just as strong and distinctive displaying that certain looseness of swing, yet solid centering on the general beat that underscored the Dead’s music so well.

Rounding things out on stage with Papa Mali and Kreutzman was bassist Reed Mathis, of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, and a keyboardist. Mathis added plenty to the bottom of the music and took the spotlight with a dramatic duet with Kreutzman. The keyboardist also wailed on harmonica and jumped into the crowd with a trombone at one point.

The group played a lot of familiar Dead material- opening with “Mister Charlie” and including great tunes like “He’s Gone,” “I Know You Rider” and “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” The crowd sang happily along. But it was refreshing to hear this music without someone trying to sound like Jerry Garcia in the process. Papa Mali put his own original stamp on the music- with a rougher, edgier sound- that nonetheless fit in fine with the songs. His voice was in the same ballpark as Garcia’s tone wise, but never seemed to imitate. Mathis reached some of the resounding depths original Dead bassist Phil Lesh often plumbed, but mostly stayed nimble and active, the keyboardist also finding ways to veer from the original keyboard parts, perhaps making them fuller and stronger sounding. That Kreutzman anchored things with his original playing style somehow took these new parts and helped make them an authentic extension of the Dead tunes. It was satisfying to get to hear some Dead music that wasn’t, well, dead.

So I got something old- some real connection to warm, familiar Dead music- and something new- some fresh arrangements and even riveting live jamming- out of this particular show. I even forgot to be cool and got some dancing in. Added to this was a display of Kreutzman’s art- colorful and imaginative computer- generated pieces- right in the middle of the venue, making down time in this event practically nonexistent. It was a great release, which is what it’s all about anyhow I suppose, so it was a successful night out. Thanks Hodi’s- and thanks Papa Mali and Bill Kreutzman for filling in your schedule with a visit to Fort Collins!

Bohemian Nights at NewWestFest, Downtown Fort Collins, August 14-16, 2009.

The NewWestFest is giving me nightmares. More specifically, the great free music festival that goes with NewWestFest, Bohemian Nights, is giving me nightmares. This has become an annual event in Fort Collins that has become so well defined and refined, so well done, it’s frightening to think of what life would be like without it. Here’s my dreadful vision: the streets would be silent, the people’s spirits dampened.

OK, maybe life itself wouldn’t stop, but things would be a lot duller in Fort Collins without Bohemian Nights.

What’s so great about Bohemian Nights? Well, I guess you could call it the premiere party for Northern Colorado, a city festival deluxe. The NewWestFest itself is a busy and rich experience itself- with food, craft and other vendors, information booths and just about every size, shape and type of human being you may want- or even not want- to see walking the streets all around Old Town. NewWestFest has been going on a long time on its own and is well established as a good time for the whole family.

But then you add in Bohemian Nights. This is a multi-stage free music festival sponsored by the Fort Collins-based Bohemian Foundation that fits NewWestFest like a glove- using the Old Town Square stage and setting up others on Walnut, Mountain and in Library Park, to showcase live music of every variety. It’s not just any music, though; it’s Colorado music. A major feature of Bohemian Nights is that the majority of the acts are regional picks. And every one of them, on the whole, are excellent, whether a young, raging rock band, a thumping funk band, bluegrass, reggae, pounding blues or synched in jazz. It’s all great in its own way and people in Fort Collins are of a mind to get out and dig it.

There’s a lot to appreciate about Bohemian Nights, and that includes the out-of-town headliners they have been bringing in since the whole thing began in 2005. This year included Melissa Etheridge, playing a solo show, and the great, energetic LA band Ozomatli. Other years have included Taj Mahal, Los Lobos, the B52s, Bruce Hornsby and much more. That’s great and the crowds do pack Mountain Avenue for the big names- so much so, Bohemian Nights has taken to broadcasting the Saturday headliner on a screen in Library Park. The production is top notch, dealing with little bumps in the road like weather with efficiency, and the information about the bands and festival was plentiful.

Before Bohemian Nights, it should be noted, live music had already been a strong element of the NewWestFest. Local bands had played the local stages during the festival for years and the Stryker-Short Foundation had sponsored free shows on Linden Street that featured great touring bands- from Kansas and the subdudes to Dr. John, the Cowboy Junkies and Gatemouth Brown. The good times have been flowing pretty continuously at NewWestFest for a long time.

But the Bohemian Nights organization has turned all this into an art. This year’s schedule was timed so that every 15 minutes, new music was starting somewhere. Now that’s just delicious for an avid live music fan. In fact, it’s kind of like running a marathon. I managed to see about 30 of the 50 performers over the weekend and I was really hoofing it most of the time.

I saw something to admire about most of the acts I caught. But there were some stand out moments, for sure. Those included getting thoroughly rocked by High Voltage, getting uplifted by the barroom blues of Paul Soderman, even in the rain, and joining the hometown crowd at the great opening evening show by the 3 Twins and many musical friends in Old Town Square. That was pure Fort Collins fun if there ever was any.

Other highlights included Angie Stevens’ great set before Melissa Etheridge- I like her a lot and excuse me if I really preferred her set over Etheridge’s, although Melissa did just fine herself. In fact, Etheridge said some really poignant things during her set, including reminding the audience how lucky they were to have this music festival in their town. She even turned it into a little rhyme- “You will thrive, if you keep your music alive.”  Ozomatli concurred by turning in a rousing set on Sunday to close out the weekend.

I also got to become acquainted with some killer acts I had never seen before- including the rough and tumble Informants, the dynamic Filthy Children, and acoustic-based acts like Finders and Youngberg and singer Megan Burtt. I enjoyed the progressive jazz of the Aakash Mittal Quartet and the sassiness of Dressy Bessy. It was great to hear Lindsey O’Brien’s band rock and to relax to the light jazz of the Gypsy Swing Revue. Say, it seems I’m mentioning a lot of what I saw as highlights- well, there you go.

So that’s where my nightmares are coming from- after thoroughly enjoying Bohemian Nights at NewWestFest once again in 2009, I start worrying- how long can this good fortune last? Will Bohemian Nights shut down because of the bad economy or bad advice? Will the music be silenced at NewWestFest now that it’s going REALLY strong? Wake me up before that nightmare comes true. Somebody bring me some water. It’s just too horrible to think about losing a community thing as precious- and fun- as Bohemian Nights.

Monolith Festival, Red Rocks, Morrison, September 12-13, 2009.

I saw a lot of great stuff this year, the most fun being the set by the Monotonix. Before the set, these guys looked like more or less normal people. But once their show got started, they became crazy men, bashing around in and on the crowd while shoveling out a raw, hyped up punk-styled rock.

But the Monotonix weren’t the only band to leave the stage and get right in the audience. I really liked how New Jersey band Roadside Graves got into the crowd and not only performed their last song of the set, but got those around them to join in on the choruses in a mock revival style. I liked their kind of nervous but dramatic rock when they were on stage too.

The bands from Scotland- Frightened Rabbit and We Were Promised Jetpacks- were both strong and dramatically powerful too. I also saw strong bands fronted by female performers- Speakeasy Tiger and, one of my favorites of the festival, the Grates. Two other female performers also impressed- Danielle Ate the Sandwich (from my hometown of Fort Collins) and Rachel Goodrich, both of whom featured ukuleles in their set- yes, ukuleles- to underscore their quirky folk-styled songs.

Also, I enjoyed getting more familiar with groups that used computers and various electronic gear to make their music, like Beats Antique, French Horn Rebellion and Savoy. The best at that was the Glitch Mob, three guys punching at their screens and twisting knobs at a long skirted table stretched along the front of the main stage. But the most fun of the electronic oriented groups, above and beyond the music itself, was Chromeo, who combined effective lighting and stage props to underscore their upbeat dance grooves.

Of the more rock oriented bands, my favorite was Spindrift, who I thought could have been featured much later in the day and perhaps deserved a bigger audience. Spindrift also featured a tune with a little guest on stage- a young girl who wore a headdress and played a maraca, the youngest “performer” of the festival. As for hip hop, I’m generally not a big fan, but Rahzel’s set, including his human beat box angle, was energetic and fun. Of course, it was even more fun to actually give Rahzel a fist bump when I ran into him later by the back stage door.

Of the bands I have already seen, I was glad to hear Autovaughan again. I saw them during Monolith’s first year down on one of the little stages and this year they had graduated to the upper stage outside. Their music was thick and fully electric and I could see why they had been invited back. Of course, what was best of all was the set by Mars Volta, one of my favorite art rock bands of this century, who not only served up a big chunk of their white hot, roiling progressive music, but also some atmospheric experimental meandering that fit right in with Red Rocks at night, a few stars finally peeking out from the on again, off again cloud cover. The music at Monolith’s third year was just as challenging, interesting and diverse as the first year.

Buirgy-Robinson Review

A Call to Prayer
Mary Louise Buirgy and Pamela Robinson
2009 KIVA Records

Prayer is calling- in so many different voices and languages, including music. The 15 track CD release by Mary Buirgy and Pamela Robinson, “A Call to Prayer,” shows that not just one kind of music can answer back. Here acoustic, blues and New Age flavors make use of piano, guitar, sax and strings to create a musical space where there is room for both deep introspection and outspoken joy.

It all starts off in a good place with Robinson’s “Let Go Let God,” an easy tempo piece that disarms the listener, relieves stress and welcomes the sincere and purposeful music that is to follow. Then the album gets serious.

The second track, “Truth in a Whisper” by Linda Baum, is a beautifully layered production, featuring Buirgy’s rich, deep vocals supported by guitar, piano and cello, emotionally strong and full.  The musical power of “Truth in a Whisper” is later mirrored by the equally strong track number five, “Medicine Wheel” by Kate Wolf. Again Buirgy’s full-bodied vocal work treats well-crafted words with loving respect.

But that’s just one kind of “call to prayer” reflected by these recordings. The two originals by Buirgy, “As You Believe” and “Don’t Wait,” are both gospel and blues-flavored, fairly upbeat and include some good-natured sax-piano play.

On the other end of the spectrum is the beautifully spacious “How Can I Keep from Singing” by Rev. Robert Lowry- a recording that once again creates a special environment for Buirgy’s voice- and the echo of a penny whistle.

The rest of the material on the album was written by Robinson, who shares the vocal duties on most songs with Buirgy. Robinson’s best swings from a kind of country-ish acoustic tune, “Ripples,” to a truly personally revealing recording, “This is Who I’ve Come to Be,” a meditative track that puts everything else on pause- I guess, like a good prayer should.

But that’s not the end of it. The final track of “A Call to Prayer,” Robinson’s “Every Time,” revs things way back up in a revival tune that is, well, fun. So, by the end of “A Call to Prayer,” Buirgy and Robinson have explored more than just a few of the musical languages that can bring us closer to prayer, delivering deep, personal emotion as well as toe-tapping energy along the way.

The album was produced by Robinson, Buirgy and Russ Hopkins, of KIVA Records. Musicians include Dave Zekman, Liz Barnez, Jerry Palmer, David Jacoby and more. The cover painting, “World Religions,” is by S. Rebecca Shinas.