About Those Uncollected Stories

My albums have thirteen songs on them.  This was a coincidence at first -- I didn’t realize that the first couple were sequenced that way until it was pointed out to me -- but it long ago became apparent in other, unrelated ways, that the number thirteen had some mysterious significance in my life. So, when it came time to sequence my third record, I didn’t mess around --  it got thirteen songs, just like its predecessors, and just like every recording I’ve made since.  I happen to like continuity and I just might be superstitious.

This current collection only exists because I’ve stuck with the thirteen track formula. If, for example, I record  twenty songs for a new album, and maybe fifteen of them warrant release, two of those fifteen end up getting cut, as a matter of course. An unexpected bonus about continuing to put out albums this way is that there are now more than enough of these lonely orphans lying around to make up an album of their very own.

Here are thirteen of them. Annotated session information and liner notes below.

1. Luck (outtake from Look At All This!)

2. Letter One (outtake from Do What I Want)

3. I’ll Fly Away (outtake from Better Get Right)

4. When It Rains (Recorded live in Portland, ME)

5. Soon (outtake from I Like You A Lot)

6. Time Will Destroy (outtake from unreleased album, 2003)

7. The Zoo (outtake from No Further Instructions)

8. Fields of Meat (outtake from Look At All This!)

9. Home (Mountain Road) (outtake from Look At All This!)

10. Baseball (outtake from The World Will Be Different)

11. Soul of A Man (outtake from Better Get Right)

12. The Prisoner’s Song (outtake from Look At All This!)

13. One For The Road (Recorded live in Durham, NC)

An Annotated Guide:

Recording "Look At All This!," Photo by David Sykes

Track One: LUCK

One of several outtakes from the Look At All This! sessions. Whereas my first three albums all featured a band that had already played countless gigs together, the group was assembled for the purposes of making this album was playing together for the first time as the tapes were rolling.

Photo by David Sykes

Mazz Swift and Ian Riggs had both been part of my live band for a year or so, but Jordan (Guy) Perlson and Michael Daves had each just moved to town, and were brand new to the fold. It didn’t take long for the new group to find its groove -- this track is one of the very first things we laid down.

Michael Daves and Jordan Perlson, Photo by David SykesPersonnel:

Michael Daves: Electric Guitar

Howard Fishman: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar

Jordan Perlson: Drums

Ian Riggs: Upright Bass

Mazz Swift: Violin

Recorded at: 23 E.10th Street, NYC, December 2004

Engineer: David Sykes

Track 2. LETTER ONE

Photo by Anders Goldfarb

A song from “we are destroyed,”  and a melody that reappears throughout the narrative, each time with a new set of lyrics -- a device that allows the character of Eliza to keep a sort of diary of her emotional state as she travels west with The Donner Party. It’s a conceit; though she’s ostensibly writing letters home to a lover who has spurned her, the audience knows that she’s in uncharted wilderness, and that the letters will never reach their recipient.

CD Release show for DO WHAT I WANT, April 2002

This track is an outtake from Do What I Want, an album we recorded in downtown Manhattan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, smoke and stench still wafting through the air.  We used the same studio we’d recorded I Like You A Lot in the year before, and we were the same band, but whereas that album had been essentially a live-to-tape, all-acoustic affair, we were now exploring a new sonic palette and when it came to choosing songs for the final album sequence, this track felt like it didn’t belong -- it somehow seemed like a leftover from the band’s previous incarnation.

Personnel:

Russell Farhang: Violin

Howard Fishman: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar

Jonathan Flaugher: Upright Bass

Erik Jekabson: Trumpet

Recorded at Sorcerer Sound, NYC, October 2001

Engineer: Tim Conklin

Track Three: I’LL FLY AWAY

(Traditional)

Photo by Kaity Volpe

This was always a strong contender for inclusion on Better Get Right, but at the time it somehow felt redundant at the time to have it appear along with "Down By The Riverside." Don't ask me why.

Essentially a “live” track in the studio, this recording features an exceptionally soulful, greasy solo from Roland “King” Barber during the breakdown section.

Photo by Ed Bobrow

Personnel:

Roland Barber: Second trombone solo, vocals

Etienne Charles: Trumpet,  first ensemble solo, vocals

Jose Davila: Sousaphone

Howard Fishman: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar

Andrae Murchison: Trombone, first ensemble solo, vocals

Jordan Perlson: Drums

Engineer: Dana Leong

Recorded at Life After Dark Studios, Harlem, NYC, December 2008

Track Four: WHEN IT RAINS (Live)

Photo by Jason Woodruff

A song that I’ve been performing in concert for some years now,, but one that has somehow never made it onto an album.  A couple of different studio outtakes exist from The World Will Be Different sessions, but there was something about the insouciance of this live version from Portland, Maine that trumped them.

We were joined this night by the great Allen Lowe on tenor, whose fat, swinging tone perfectly fits the old-fashioned feel of the song.

Songwriters will sometimes say of a tune that it simply wrote itself. This was one of those songs for me.

Personnel:

Howard Fishman: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar

Allen Lowe: Tenor Saxophone

Nathan Peck: Upright Bass

Mazz Swift: Violin

Recorded live in concert at One Longfellow Square, Portland, ME., December 4, 2010

Track Five: SOON

(Ira Gershwin/George Gershwin)

Photo by Pierre Jelenc

The only song recorded for I Like You A Lot that was not included on the album, this was a one-off, recorded very late in the evening -- a song we’d played a few times together in concert, but never with piano, and never with this sort of feel. It had been a while since we'd done it, and I wasn't so sharp on the lyric, singing the beginning of second verse at the top instead of the proper one ("Soon/My dear you'll never be lonely/Soon/ You'll find I live for you only").

Photo by Nicolas Hill

This has always been one of my favorite standards. Once, when I was a teenager, my grandmother Minna Bromberg and I were watching a documentary about the Gershwins, and someone played a rendition of “Soon.” In the second measure of the song, when “blue” notes tug at the melody and harmony (“the lonely nights will be ended”) I remember her saying “that’s a Jewish melody.”

Personnel:

Russell Farhang: Violin

Howard Fishman: Vocals, Piano

Jonathan Flaugher: Upright Bass

Erik Jekabson: Trumpet

Engineer: Tim Conklin

Recorded at Sorcerer Sound, NYC, September 12, 2000

Track Six:TIME WILL DESTROY

In the late summer of 2003, what we were still calling The Howard Fishman Quartet decamped to Telefunken Studios on Talcott Mountain in Connecticut to record what was supposed to be the follow up to Do What I Want.  It was a strange and confusing time. Erik had left the group to move to California, and though Russell and Jon were still on hand, within just a few months both of them would be gone as well.

Photo by Anders GoldfarbAfter touring and promoting the previous two records, playing hundreds of shows together up and down the East Coast, we’d hit a bit of burnout. As usual, I brought a batch of new songs to the sessions, but this time something was different. For one thing, the studio set-up proved to be a challenge; for the first time, we were unable to make eye contact with one another while tracking. Worse, the arrangements of the songs, rather than taking shape organically, felt formulaic and flat. There was creative dissension. There were bad vibes. The magic was gone.

Although some nice things from those sessions survive (including a late night set of standards with just Jon and me on upright bass and guitar), the album was shelved and most of the songs were rewritten and re-recorded the following year with an entirely different band for the record that would become Look At All This!

“Time Will Destroy,” a scrap, seems a fitting representation of where the band was at the time.

The silver lining that seemed impossible to imagine back then is that Russell, Jon, Erik and I would reunite years later, and have continued to perform and record together whenever the stars align.

Personnel:

Russell Farhang: Violin

Howard Fishman: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar

Jonathan Flaugher: Upright Bass

Engineer: Chip Karpells

Recorded at Telefunken Studios, Simsbury, CT, August 2003

Track Seven: THE ZOO

Photo by Jim McLaughlin

This recording comes from an all-night session with Jon and Jordan -- a marathon that began in the early evening, concluded after sunrise, and featured numerous takes of something like two dozen different songs (none of which these guys had ever heard before).  I think we recorded almost all of the basic tracks for The World Will Be Different that night, several from No Further Instructions, and a handful of oddities that simply didn’t or wouldn’t fit on either of those albums.  This is one of those latter, sort of a companion piece to “Garbage” from NFI, before it became apparent that most of the songs on that album seemed to be about Romania. 

Personnel:

Jim Campilongo: Lead Electric Guitar

Howard Fishman: Electric Guitar

Jon Flaugher: Electric Bass

Jordan Perlson: Drums

Engineer: Alan Camlet

Recorded at Hoboken Recorders, NJ, 2009

Track Eight: FIELDS OF MEAT

Photo by David SykesThe meat seeds for this song were planted on a long car ride with Ian Riggs, as we made our way from Brooklyn to a tour stop in Camden, Maine.  Ian has a keen appreciation for the random and the absurd, one of the reasons we’ve always gotten along so well.  

We were talking about the idea of “meat” as something that gets bought and sold -- an abstract word that many people take for granted but is in fact a polite way of describing the flesh of a murdered animal that has been prepared for human consumption.  How soon, we wondered, will humanity be giving polite names to every living thing on earth, as it all gets repurposed for our use and disposal?  

Ironically, the lyric that would give the album Look At All This! its name comes from a song that doesn’t even formally appear on the album. “Fields of Meat” wound up being a hidden track, neither sequenced nor credited, and appearing after a few minutes of silence following the end of the album’s final song, “Pictures.”

I fought for this track to be on the album proper, but this was the first time I’d used an outside producer for one of my records, and I lost the fight.

I always thought that this song deserved to have a track of its own, not least because without a credit in the hidden track, some listeners over the years have told me that they hear me saying "Fields of Me" ("Mountains of me, etc.) -- interesting, but incorrect.

Personnel:

Michael Daves: Electric Guitar

Howard Fishman: Vocals, Piano

Jordan Perlson: Drums

Ian Riggs: Upright Bass

Recorded at: 23 E.10th Street, NYC, December 2004

Engineer: David Sykes

Track Nine: HOME (MOUNTAIN ROAD)

"Night Hills," oil on canvas, HF 2008While composing songs for the ill-fated travelers in “we are destroyed,” I imagined instances in which they must have keenly felt the effects of their self-imposed geographical dislocation, and felt a yearning for the familiarity of home (and all the feelings that can be conjured by that word).

Although this song’s lyrics would later be rewritten and retitled as “Where Do We Go From Here?,” the version here has the original words, inspired by memories of being in my childhood home on a cool summer evening -- an electric fan in the window, crickets chirping outside, the occasional soft whoosh of a vehicle passing by, but otherwise all darkness and safety, the excitement and promise of tomorrow just on the other side of cozy, restful sleep.

Personnel:

Michael Daves: Lap Steel Guitar

Howard Fishman: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar

Ian Riggs: Upright Bass

Recorded at: 23 E.10th Street, NYC, December 2004

Engineer: David Sykes

Track Ten: BASEBALL

"Resonate," by Sean Patrick Gallagher

A song that is sometimes much longer in performance. A number of lyrics were expurgated for this recording (including some thoughts about Andy Petitte and Alex Rodriguez).  

People that don’t know me well often tell me that I’m quiet, and sometimes ask what I’m thinking about. This is what I’m thinking about.

Personnel:

Howard Fishman: Acoustic Guitar, Vocals, Fender Rhodes

Bill Malchow: Accordion

Jordan Perlson: Drums

Engineer: Alan Camlet

Recorded at Hoboken Recorders, NJ, 2009

Track Eleven: SOUL OF A MAN

(Traditional)

The Biting Fish live at Dizzy's, Jazz@Lincoln Center, 2008, photo by Kathleen Scully

A song originally recorded in 1930 by the great Blind Willie Johnson, this is another essentially live track -- another one-off,  from the end of the very first day of tracking for what would become the album Better Get Right.  The band had never heard the song before the tape was rolling, but that didn’t matter.  I just asked them to listen, and to play what they felt. This is what happened.

Personnel:

Roland Barber: Second trombone solo

Etienne Charles: Trumpet

Jose Davila: Sousaphone

Howard Fishman: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar

Andrae Murchison: . Trombone, first trombone solo

Jordan Perlson: Drums

Engineer: Dana Leong

Recorded at Life After Dark Studios, Harlem, NYC, December 2008

Track Twelve: PRISONER'S SONG

(Traditional)

Another “palate cleanser,” recorded between takes of other things we were working on for the Look at All This! album.  I’ve always loved Vernon Dalhart’s 1924 recording of this song, which I first heard in New Orleans, at Butch Trivette’s house,  when I lived there in the early 90’s.  Michael Daves was noodling around on a banjo, and used it for this one and only take -- according to him, his first recording ever on the instrument.

Personnel:

Michael Daves: Banjo

Howard Fishman: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar

Ian Riggs: Upright Bass

Recorded at: 23 E.10th Street, NYC, December 2004

Engineer: David Sykes

Track Thirteen: ONE FOR THE ROAD (ONE FOR MY BABY)

(B. Dylan)

Photo by Anders Goldfarb

Choosing just thirteen songs for my live “Basement Tapes” album, culled from our three-night stand at Joe’s Pub in New York City wasn’t easy, given the dozens and dozens of songs we tackled of the complete, peculiar, underground (and now, finally available) recordings made by Bob Dylan and The Band in 1967. This rendition of “One For The Road” actually comes from a different three-night stand of this music, at Duke Performances in North Carolina.

Spontaneity, surprise and irreverence are such a part of this music for me -- I like to think this performance captures a little of all of those things.

Personnel:

Howard Fishman: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar

Jordan Perlson: Drums

Ian Riggs: Electric Bass, vocals

S. Stephen Stevenson: Trumpet, vocals

Roland Satterwhite: Violin, vocals

Recorded live at Duke University, Durham, NC, 2008

Heroic Odets

 

En route to The Theatre at St. Clements on West 46th Street in Manhattan last night, I mentioned to a friend that I wasn't sure I'd ever seen a truly great production of a Clifford Odets play, and that I'd never seen a revival of the relatively obscure one we were about to see -- Rocket To The Moon. I'm happy to report that both facts changed immediately as the lights came up on Harry Feiner's inspired set, and The Peccadillo Theater Company began its soulful, stirring staging of this neglected 1938 piece.


So often, in remounts of Odets, it can seem like the performers are acting in different plays; this actor thinks he’s in a 1930’s gangster movie, that actress thinks she’s Mae West on the vaudeville circuit, etc. More often than not, the proceedings are a total disaster, the performers and the material seemingly at odds with one another and both falling flat on their faces, hard. The result, in my experience, is never pretty, and often much worse than that.

Such is not the case here. The Peccadillo’s production is a delicately masterful ensemble endeavor. While there are stellar individual performances throughtout (as well as a couple of curious casting choices), it would be unfair to single out any one actor. The entire cast gives absolutely everything they have to the whole, and because of this, the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Every actor is fully invested in the material, and the material pays back in dividends.  This is Odets the way Odets was meant to be.

A sort of ugly-duckling relative to O’Neill, Williams and Miller, Odets sits uncomfortably in the pantheon of great American playwrights, and praise for him (when it's even given) generally comes saddled with qualifications like “problematic,” “early promise,” “unrealized potential,” and “Hollywood sellout.” His language and his characters can be extreme; it could never be said of a single page of Odets dialogue that the words are dull or lifeless. If anything, they can seem to have too much life. They bubble over --  with enthusiasm, with slang, with aphorisms, with jokes, with philosophy, with nerve, with joie de vivre. Play it too hard, the whole thing explodes in wince-worthy cliches. Play it too soft, and it falls apart -- the actors simply get crushed under the weight of exposed plot and dated speech.

Somehow, The Peccadillo company and director Dan Wackerman have achieved a perfect balance. The pace feels musical, which makes sense and is something of a revelation. It is fortissimo and furious when called for, soft and legate at others (given this rare and welcome sensitivity, it’s a bit surprising that the sound design by David Thomas includes a jarringly anachronistic between-scenes soundtrack; this is a minor quibble).  

The cast finds the ridiculous, and they make it natural.  They find the outsized emotions, and run straight into them --  the way we all can do when faced with crisis.  The people in the plays of Odets are almost always people in crisis. This doesn’t make them lunatics, or buffoons, as they are so often (wrongly) portrayed. Sure, they’re a little neurotic; so are we.  Sure, words come out of their mouths that they immediately regret; they come out of our mouths too.  Yes, they can be grandiose, obnoxious, sentimental, irrational. So can we. These are not characters peopling a museum devoted to a clumsy, bygone era. They’re us -- imperfect, striving for understanding, desperate for love, dissatisfied, trying to make sense of the world, alive.

Wackerman and his actors do not condescend to Odets.  There are no tongues in cheeks here.  The company believes in the material, and so we do too.  They jump into the fire, and we follow them.  The approach here is one of humility, dignity, and respect, and it's moving and effective to watch.  The play is given the treatment it asks for, and we are all enriched for it -- audience, company, and playwright.

Bravo to The Peccadillo.  This is a production that deserves a much longer and more prominent run than the limited engagement it’s just begun. See it while you can.

 

Yusuf/ Cat Stevens and The Sound of Surrender

Early in the Yusuf/ Cat Stevens concert in Boston a couple of weeks ago, while he waited for a stagehand to bring him a guitar between songs , someone near the front of the stage shouted something to the 66 year-old performer. “I’m really happy to be here!,” came the spontaneous, ernest reply. It did not sound like ersatz showbiz banter; it sounded humble, childlike even, as if he himself were surprised by the emotion. It sounded like surrender.

The crowd, in response, rose to its feet en masse, producing a sound that was more than just a cheer, more than just thunderous applause.  It was an embrace.  It was a moment -- an acknowledgement by artist and audience alike: Cat Stevens, someone who for all intents and purposes had ceased to exist over three decades ago, was back.

 

For a long time, it has been hard to love the man once known (and now known again) as Cat Stevens.  In the years since he formally retired from the popular music world in 1978, his name has popped up in the media from time to time. He would be quoted, or seen in a video clip interview, and it was difficult to accept the visage of the person he now presented himself as -- hard to reconcile this cold, humorless, unhappy and severe-looking man with the joyful, understanding, goofy/wise songwriter whose music we’d known and loved.  For a long time, the man now known as Yusuf Islam completely disowned his artistic output as Cat Stevens, a confusing, dispiriting slap in the face to those of us it once meant so much to.

 


The man he now was was running Islamic schools for children, spreading the word of Allah, being a spokesperson for Islam.   After a while, he began making some children’s albums, but he wasn’t playing the guitar, and the music was not for us. In interviews, he sounded defensive and removed. Some remarks attributed to him seemed to be in line with some of the more distasteful prejudices of modern-day conservative Islam.

Then, in 2006, came  An Other Cup, his first album of commercial music in 28 years. He’d dropped his adopted last name of Islam, and was now calling himself, simply, “Yusuf.” Something had shifted, certainly. How welcome it was to hear that voice with that guitar again, after all these years. Still, the album’s opening track “Midday (Avoid City After Dark)” set a tone of unease, paranoia and judgment that never really lifted. Elsewhere on the recording, there was a revisit a much earlier composition “I Think I See The Light,” and an interesting (if forced-sounding)  reworking of a section of his “Foreigner Suite”  ("Heaven/Where True Love Goes”), but the bulk of the album felt earthbound.  Nowhere was there the joie de vivre that inhabited his best work.  2009’s follow-up, Roadsinger, sounded fresher, but still unconvincing. Which was it -- was he wary of us, or we him? There seemed to be skepticism and distrust on both sides.

Some live performances began to pop up here and there online. He was steadfast about not playing any old Cat Stevens material save for a select few songs that he could justify in the context of his religious path -- songs like “The Wind” and “Peace Train.”  He had collaborated on a musical called “Moonshadow” that featured actors singing some of his old songs and was having a run in Australia. It proved a critical and financial flop.

I paid attention to all of this because, although I did not grow up listening to Cat Stevens per se, his music became the soundtrack to my adolescence when I watched Harold and Maude for the first time, and everything changed.  

I went out and got a guitar. I listened to Cat Stevens music obsessively, played and sang his songs with friends, hunted down all of his albums. While it was clear that he’d lost his way artistically on later albums like Numbers and Izitso, the earlier, classic albums that he’s still known for (Mona Bone Jakon through Foreigner) were full of treasures that could be mined again and again. Indelible melodies, beautiful production, emotionally committed performances and, most of all, a gentle wisdom, a repudiation of the status quo, a sense that we were not alone. Here was someone who was trying to make sense of life too; he may not have had the answers, but he was looking for them, and we were encouraged to join him. Here was a friend.


Of course, I quickly learned that Cat Stevens had already ceased to be. My adolescent soul despaired knowing that there would be no more Cat Stevens albums, no more Cat Stevens concerts. The man who had become a hero to me no longer existed.

In time, his music too would fade from my consciousness. As I grew and matured, so did my musical tastes and sensibilities. I might reach for a Cat Stevens album on rare occasions to remind myself of something that once meant so much to me, sometimes surprised that a song or album held up as strongly as it did, but his music was no longer a living thing for me.  I did pay attention when he came out of retirement with the two Yusuf albums, and listened to each of them a handful of times with attendant hopes and (it seemed) inevitable disappointment.  It was hard to get excited about his music now. The voice was the same, but the spirit was changed, different, unwelcoming.

Nevertheless, when it was announced that he was going to perform in America for the first time in 38 years, I put my misgivings aside and became a teenager again, queueing up for tickets on the phone the morning that they went on sale.  I did not listen to the new album Tell ‘Em I’m Gone, nor did I look for any news about the kinds of shows he’d been playing of late.  I simply drove up to Boston to see my old hero, expectations dimmed to almost nothing.  I imagined I would see Yusuf Islam, delivering a respectful program of his latter-day music, with perhaps one or two old favorites thrown in as crowd appeasement.  I wasn’t going for Yusuf Islam. I was going to pay homage to the singer that had once meant so much to me, for the chance to simply be in the same room with him for the first and what I figured would be the last time.


* * *
 
I’m still trying to come to grips with what it was like to be at that concert in Boston.  What happened there was more than just a good concert given by a group of well-rehearsed, talented musicians backing a pop icon on a comeback tour, though it was partly that.  It was more than just a nostalgic trip down memory lane, as a sold-out crowd sang along to songs that many (including myself) never expected to hear played live again, though it was that too.  Without resorting to hyperbole, being there, for me, was an unexpected catharsis, something like seeing a ghost.

I didn’t know, until I got there, that he was now billing himself with the ungainly but revealing name of Yusuf/ Cat Stevens. Was he now acknowledging his former self? This was a surprise, the first of many that the evening would hold.

The once and future Cat Stevens walked on to a tremendous ovation (no surprise there) and launched into a solo performance of “The Wind.” Okay, in some way, that was what we’d come for and here he’d already given it to us.  All the latter-day Yusuf stuff would follow, we’d give him some hearty applause at the encore, and that would be that -- or so I thought.

What was this though?  He was wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket -- not the austere, devotional garb he’d worn in the (admittedly not so recent) appearances I’d seen him do online. And the stage set -- it was elaborate, whimsical, evocative of the old Cat whose tastes sometimes crossed the line into outright silliness. Most significantly, though, he himself seemed engaged, connected, and -- hardest to believe -- lighthearted.

“Here Comes My Baby” and “The First Cut Is The Deepest” followed, two very early pop hits, secular love songs. Woah, he’s doing that material?  What’s going on here?  

“Thinking ‘Bout You” followed, a more recent song of love and devotion, but it was buoyed by an energy and commitment that sustained the freshness of what had come before, and served as a bridge to the first real shock of the night, as the singer made his way to a piano at the side of the stage and, unaccompanied, launched into the opening strains of “Sitting,” as the crowd seemed to collectively gasp before erupting into joyous, grateful cheers.

Here he was again. Cat Stevens. Questioning, seeking, proudly admitting that he did not have the answers but that he was on his way to find them.  Our companion, our friend, had returned.

It was the first of what would be many goosebump moments in the generous, two part concert. He followed it with “Last love Song” from 1978’s obscure (and mostly pretty bad) Back to Earth, the mere fact that he was exploring and reclaiming obscurities from his back catalog speaking volumes.

By the time he’d reached the end of the first set, closing it with "If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out", the message was clear -- something had happened. He was giving us back the songs he’d taken away so many years ago. He was, after all this time, validating their worth again, and with it, our love for them.  After insisting for so many years, as Yusuf Islam,  that there was only one way, only one truth, one law, one path, he’d relented. He was giving us permission, again, to do and think and live how we wanted. And he seemed genuinely happy saying and singing it. I’m not above admitting that I wiped tears from my eyes. As I looked around, I saw that I was not alone.
 

 The second set held even more surprises, as song after song from the old oeuvre was brought back to life. “Oh Very Young,” “Sad Lisa,” “Miles From Nowhere” (I have my freedom/ I can make my own rules/ Oh yeah, the ones that I choose”).  They were presented, for the most part, as set pieces, with hardly any improvisation at all, but it didn’t matter. Old faithful Alun Davies was there on lead acoustic guitar, as he has been since 1970. Matt Sweeney was a welcome addition on electric guitar, adding a pinch of verve and danger to the mix, but if old concert footage is any indication, Cat Stevens was never one for taking too many risks onstage musically, choosing instead to eschew spontaneity in deference to the arrangements on his studio recordings.  

It was inspiring to hear him still tinkering with that beautiful failure “Foreigner Suite,” still trying to get it right. Old classics like “Where Do The Children Play?” and “Trouble”  brought with them a great sadness; confronted with the simplicity, the naivete even, of the sentiments in these gentle lyrics, it was impossible not to think of how the world has changed and darkened since these songs were written and last performed. Even “Moonshadow,” that lullaby of Buddhist acceptance, carried with it the sting of longing for less dire times.  

 * * *
 
Being at this concert, hearing these songs again, sung with conviction by this man, was like being allowed to spend a night in one’s childhood home, with everything back the way that it was from some pre-existential, innocent moment -- with even one’s family members frozen in time the way that they were decades ago. For me, it was eerie, spooky, unsettling, like Emily’s trip back from the dead in Our Town.

At the end of each of these old songs, there was that same sustained applause that followed his aside, early in the show, about how happy he was to be here.  It’s a sound I keep coming back to when I think about the experience of being at this concert, a sound unlike any I think I have ever heard.  It had mass. It was an entity, a palpable force, as though the emotion behind every voice and every pair of hands could be heard. There was a sort of desperate celebration to it. It was the sound of reconciliation, of gratitude, of redemption.

Yusuf/ Cat Stevens may never tour again (though I hope that’s not true), may never sing these songs again (also probably not true -- I've since learned that he's been doing them for some time now), but on this tour and on this night, he made something truly magical happen: he brought back someone we loved from the dead, a phantom from another time, and with that act offered tacit acknowledgement that we’re so much better together than we are apart.   It would be wrong to call the concert a triumph, because the man that Yusuf/ Cat Stevens has become is clearly too humble to aspire to triumphing.  Instead, it felt  something like a miracle.

 

 






Crawling Inside A Song And Shutting The Door

 


 

On the eve of the release of one of the most bootlegged of bootleg recordings ever made (Bob Dylan and The Band’s complete Basement Tapes)  I happened across another, much less-well known, perhaps totally obscure Bob Dylan bootleg recording -- an outtake from the soundtrack to an execrable film called Hearts of Fire, a star vehicle gone wrong for a burned-out, lost in the weeds mid-80's era Dylan, who later admitted that he was drunk most of shoot.

The film soundtrack featured exactly two new, and entirely throwaway, Bob Dylan songs -- “Night After Night” and  “Had A Dream About You Baby,  But the song, or rather, the performance that I’ve been listening to, is not a Dylan song at all, but a cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Old Five And Dimer.” It’s a skull-rattling gem. 

According to a website called alldylan.com, Dylan went into a London studio over two days in August, 1986 to record music for the soundtrack. His band for the sessions included the likes of Eric Clapton and Ron Wood. On the first day, Dylan put the band to work on five takes of John Hiatt’s “The Usual,” one take of something called “Ride This Train,” which sounds like a mess of a half-formed original song that he quickly abandoned, before launching into five takes of “Had A Dream About You Baby.”

Then comes the solo take of "Old Five and Dimers" and, for three minutes and twelve seconds, Dylan delivers a performance that digs down and scrapes every bit of nuance to be had in a song that isn’t even his.  It’s an astonishing bit of theater, and better by far than any acting he did onscreen for “Hearts of Fire.”

The “old five and dimer” who narrates the song is, on the surface, about the furthest thing in the wolrd from rock icon Bob Dylan.  He’s a nobody, a guy that’s knocked around through mostly hard times, a Cadillac buyer who knows that “good times and fast bucks are too far and too few between.”  Yet, even during Dylan’s mid-80’s nadir, when he seemed to be artistically and spritually bankrupt, he was still Bob Dylan -- a household name, a man who’d sold millions of records and put an indelible stamp on American popular music and culture. He was still someone who performed in sports arenas, who’d engendered a following of rabid acolytes who followed and examined his every move.

Yet, listening to this recoding, you would never know any of that. In fact, the singer in this recording sounds like the oldest, most five-and-dimerist, broken down singer you’d ever want to hear sing this song. The performance sounds authentic. It sounds real. At the end, he cries “An Old-Five and Dimer is all I intended to be!” the phrase positively drowning in weary, stubborn, hardcrabble, painful pride. 

 Really Bob?  All you ever wanted was to be an anonymous, unknown, everyman kind of guy? That’s what you wanted, when you hitched a ride to New York City to seek fame and fortune and your place in the history books?  To hear this recording, it’s almost believable.

So where in the world does Dylan get the nerve to imbue this song with the sort of raw conviction that he does?  How does he do it?   He gets inside the song. He plays the part. It’s theater.  

  Of course there is a lie behind the performance. One could even say that Dylan's not being authentic here.  But he is.  He’s using an example of something he knows little about (being a unknown failure) to express something about the way he feels right now that is beyond the scope of the language of his experience.  It’s the same as when we feel so good that we say we feel like a million bucks. Or we feel like a King. Or we feel like we’re on top of the world -- even when we don’t really know what those things are actually like. We have a feeling that transcends our ability to capture it in words. so we reach for a metaphor to express it. 

Isn’t that what all great, well-told stories do?  They get at something that we feel but don’t know what to do with, because the feeling is so real.  A good artist is brave enough, or lucky enough, to be able to do that with some regularity. A great artist, like Bob Dylan, can do it across a career that spans decades. It’s why we revere them so much, follow them, wait to see what they’re going to share with us next, because we never know when the muse will visit and allow him to imbue some song -- his or someone else’s -- with that kind of feeling that raises the hair on the back of our necks.These kinds of performances bring us closer to our own unplumbed, complicated feelings. They make us feel less alone.

And then, we can’t get the song, or the performance out of our heads. We want to share it. We want to tell everyone we know about it.  So, check it out, and see what you think.  And while you’re at it, listen to the one other keeper from these sessions, “To Fall In Love”, an unfinished original that sounds like it could have been part of those Basement Tapes that we're all listening to this week.

 

Beware Facebook

 

Like a lot of us who use Facebook, I have a personal page and a page for my business, where I can connect with people who are interested in what I do professionally.  On the professional page (in my case, a "fan" page) I make announcements about upcoming concerts, recordings, new projects, post photos and music, interact with fans, etc. 

For a month now, I have been unable to access my professional page, and Facebook has not respoded to any of the dozens of help tickets that I have created about this issue.  There seems to be no one there at Facebook.  This is the second time this year that this has happened -- the first time, about a week went by and then, without explanation, my admin account was available again, appearing just as mysteriously as it had vanished. 

This time, the situation is more serious, as I have a tour coming up and presenters who would like to interface with me and my fans via Facebook.  Not having access to my page is having a real impact on my business. As you can see from the screenshot above, Facebook knows that I run this page -- they just won't allow me access to it.

I have posted about this on my personal page, and had people respond with similar horror stories, some saying that they had lost access to their pages permanently, and with it, years and years of original content created for, or posted to, their page.

This is intolerable.  Facebook is not a small company. Facebook should have tech support and be able to fix this kind of thing.

Maybe if enough of us make noise about this issue, they will pay attention.  Would you please consider reposting this on your social media?

Thanks for your help!

#FacebookFail

 

UPDATE 10/24/14: The page has been restored. No explanation, no feedback from tech support, just a mysterious resolution (for now?). Be on guard, FB users!

 

Mr. Roland Barber

 

Photo by R. Barber/ J.Wiggan

 

Roland Barber is not only one of the most accomplished musicians I know of on his chosen instrument(s), but he's also one of the more exceptional human beings that I've had the honor to work with over the years -- a gentleman and a scholar, a listener, a thoughtful, soulful, deeply spiritual individual.

Like a good number of musicians I have met in NYC and come to work with in my band, I was led to Roland by that great connector Kevin Louis, who suggested I give Roland a try on a little New England tour we had coming up.  When it comes to matching me up with musicians who fit well with my music, Kevin has never once suggested anyone who's been less than stellar, and Roland was that -- stellar, from the very first gig we did together at the now-defunct Church House Concert Series in Haddam, CT. 

Although we were performing as a full-on brass band, with trumpet (Mr. Louis himself), trombone, tuba and drums, on the bandstand that night I quickly sensed something about Roland's playing -- a subtlety and a sensitivity -- that I was eager to shine a ight on.  Putting him on the spot a bit, I told our audience that Roland and I were going to play a duet or two on a couple of old standards, and spontaneously launched into renditions of two chestnuts that I've been performing for about as long as I've been performing -- When I Grow Too Old To Dream, and I'm Confessin' in an attempt to feature Roland's skills. My gamble was rewarded, and if you follow those two links, they'll take you to recordings I've just posted of that very performances, the beginning of what would be a long musical partnership with Roland -- a special moment caught for posterity.

 

Photo by Kathleen Scully

Since that time, Roland has played hundreds of concerts with me. He can blow the roof off the joint anytime he wants, and then play so quietly that you can literally hear the audience holding its collective breath. Sometimes he will pull out his trusty conch shell, and take a solo on that, as he did in this performance at Joe's Pub in NYC with me a few years ago in a concert that also featured Skye Steele on violin, Jon Flaugher on bass and Mark McLean on drums:

I was also thrilled to play a small role in the emergence of Roland Barber the vocalist, his voice yet another powerful asset in what seems to be his virtually limitless range of talents. On brass band gigs, I was sometimes able to coax him out of his modesty and shyness into singing an old traditional like "Comin' Round The Mountain," but it wasn't until he honored me with a version of my song "Want You To Be Mine" (at yet another outing at Joe's Pub in NYC) that I feel like Roland the singer really blossomed. This clip also features Mazz Swift on violin, Marika Hughes on cello, Mark McLean on drums, and Nathan Peck on bass. Have a look:

 

In addition to performing on my albums Better Get Right and No Further Instructions, Roland played an invaluable role behind the scenes in the mixing of those two records, offering penetrating and thoughtful insight as a particpant in that process, weighing in on what was working and what wasn't until we arrived at  results that I'd like to think we're both pretty proud of. Roland's attention to detail, and his keen understanding of the things that make music work are deep, and spring from a finely-developed ear for hearing truth in music rather than just a series of notes.

Roland is also a natural born teacher. Time and again, he's provided me (and, doubtless, countless others) with guidance, insight and wisdom that belie his years.  He's caused me to question fundamental elemets of what I do and why I do it, and -- like any great mentor -- has inspired me to do better, to always try to reach beyond my limitations.

* * *

Although Roland has since relocated his native Tennessee, he still tours with me when he's available to do so (here's a video of him performing with me in Estonia last summer), and I was lucky enough to be able to see and perform with him in his hometown of Nashville a few weeks ago when we were invited to do a showcase set at this year's Americana Music Association Festival. While the audience turnout for our show was pretty dismal (see page 2 of Craig Havighurst's roundup review here), the trip for me was salvaged by the opportunity to spend some quality time hanging out with Roland, and to meet his wonderful family. 

After our performance, Roland's Dad came up and offered his hand to me, telling me how much he admired my music and how he felt that Roland's rendition of "Want You To Be Mine" was faithful to the original even as he thought Roland put his own stamp on it (I agreed).  He couldn't have been kinder.  Roland's Mother was similarly effusive, and wouldn't let me leave the venue without giving me a big hug. "My Mother would never forgive me," she said, "if I didn't give you a proper Nashville greeting." 

I got to meet and spend time with Roland's girlfriend Micah, and the three of us spent the better part of an afternoon at their favorite gelato spot unpacking what this term "Americana Music" might be all about, how my music might fit into it, and the Nashville music scene in general -- a revealing conversation for me, as this was really my first exposure to this town.

The highlight may have been the brief visit we made to Roland's grandmother, Mrs. Zephyr Selby, who'd just celebrated her 91st birthday. Although she hadn't physically been feeling well of late, her mind, heart and spirit were as open and present as a young girl's.  I got the same sense from her that I did from Roalnd's parents, and it was plain to see where Roland gets the qualities that make him such a special person: presence, humility, generosity, warmth, spirituality, humor, and grace.

It is my pleasure and my honor to have Mr. Roland Barber as a collabortaor, a teacher, and a friend. You can check out some of his own music right here.

Photo by Ed Bobrow

Skye Steele

Photo by Jim McLaughlin

Skye Steele is a marvel of a musician and one of my favorite human beings.

Skye first started performing with me in 2003, when the second iteration of my quartet disbanded and I was basically holding a series of live auditions for new band members at low-key gigs around town.  I remember Skye's first show with me, during a short-lived residency at The Slipper Room on the Lower East Side in NYC.  I think i probably handed him a copy of what was then my most current release -- DO WHAT I WANT -- a day or two before the gig. Or maybe even that same morning.  He came to the gig having done his homework, knowing all the violin lines and arranagments and bringing his own, unique stylings and energy to each of them. 

I was also introduced that day to one of my favorite things about Skye -- his candor.  I don't remember the exact words he used, but he said something to me along these lines: "You know, I have to tell you that I get asked to learn a lot of music and I play with a lot of bands, and most of the time I listen to the CD or demo or whatever and I think 'this is total garbage.'  So, I was really surprised when I listenied to your album and thought 'wow, I actually like this.'"

Among the scores of musicians I've had the pleasure of working with over the years, Skye may have one of the most unique musical voices that I know.  In his improvisations, he attacks (or caresses) a song sideways, often in unexpected and destabilizing ways.  And yet, his motivation is never to draw attention to himself, to detract from the integrity of the tune. Rather, he works with the band to turn things inside out, often opening the song up to new possibilities, or exposing previously unknown qualities or elements inherent within it.

Listen to the studio recording of "Maramures" from NO FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.  The song begins plaintively, gently lilting, seeking to evoke the pastoral beauty of the Northern province of Romania.  Then, at just under a minute and a half into the tune, just as the track is dangerously close to crossing over into easy-listening land, Skye's violin comes in, twisting the landscape in exactly the right way, giving the song teeth, cutting right into its heart in a way that's beautiful and breathtaking.  It's almost as though the camera, which had been doing a sweeping overview shot of the landscape, suddenly pans way in to a close up of the smallest detail -- a fly buzzing around a cow's face; a child jumping for joy in a river strewn with garbage; a farmer's face at the end of a long day in the fields. 

Skye's playing gives us all of this, no small feat.  Few musicians care enough about the music they're playing to engage in this way.  I don't know many players more creative than Skye Steele. 

In addition to his many skills as a performer, Skye is an exceptional human, bringing care and consciousness to how he leads his life.  He's a vegetarian.  He's a politcal activist.  He's passionate about being environmentally conscious, and about helping others.  It's an honor not only to have him as an associate and a collabortaor, but also as a friend.

Skye does a lot more than just make music with me and other bandleaders.  He's a composer and songwriter in his own right, and is getting ready to release a new album.  Read more about it, and him, right here.

Hotchkiss Thoughts

I had the wonderful good fortune to be invited to spend a week at The Hotchkiss School as their guest Artist in Residence this semester, and -- let me tell you -- it was an experience I will not soon forget.

My time there was profoundly meaningful, primarily because of how immersive it was.  I was engaged on so many different levels of interaction, in mind, body and spirit. 

On an intellectual level, I got to share my passion for the plays of Eugene O'Neill, as I worked with students looking at both his lesser-known early experimental work, and his late, last plays. 

In an American Literature class, we read through the Prologue of the great god brown, that fascinating, unhinged yowl of an angry young man from O'Neill's early prime.  We talked about the use of masks on stage, about hyper realism and expressionism, and about the power of the imagination -- how some plays can, perhaps, really only be performed on a stage (as opposed to being adapted to film, for example, which we would look at in a subsequent Film Studies class in which we read a scene from Long Day's Journey Into Night, followed by a screening from the classic film adaptation by Sidney Lumet).

In a double session with two combined Humanities classes, students and I used Greil Marcus's text The Old, Weird America as a launching pad for a wide-ranging discussion that touched on the subjects of violence in American music and culture (using recordings of songs by the banjo player/singer Dock Boggs and Bob Dylan as two examples); the changing role that music has played in our society in modern times; the merits (or otherwise) of contemporary recording techniques like Auto-tune; the value of authenticity;  and the similarities and discrepancies between old American murder ballads and contemporary Hip Hop and Gangsta Rap.

* * *

A hands-on workshop with students who are writing original music and/or honing their instrumental skills in the music department found us working on a full-band arrangement for one student's original song (utilizing piano, electric and acoustic guitars, upright bass, drums, saxophone and backup vocals), and then backing up another student singer as she led us through a soulful, jazzy arrangement of "Georgia on My Mind," complete with improvised solos from members of the student band. 

  * * *

 In several theater classes, and in another Humanities class that was engaged in making "Monument Projects," I talked with students about my Donner Party project "we are destroyed," discussing and showing examples of ways to interpret history, atypical ways to incorporate music and poetry into theater, and getting into the philosophy and idealism/hubris behind Westward Expansion in America.  Some of the kids read portions of my oratorio out loud in class (a thrill for me), and I played them some of the songs I wrote for the piece, like "Do What I Want" and "In Another Life."

I also had the opportunity to visit an acting class, where I talked about some of the craft and understanding of performance I've been able to glean as a working artist over the last decade and a half.

In two Musical Theater classes, students and I had lively discussions debating the merits of the contemporary musical theater form itself.  We had fun playing around with some of the songs that they knew or were working on as singers, as I accompanied them on guitar while they sang standards like "Fever" and "Crazy" -- some of them experimenting with vocal improvisation and tempo for the first time.

* * *

In a Documentary Film class, I shared my experience of what has gone into creating a documentary theater project about Connie Converse.  Here we talked about what elements are important in telling a nonfiction story, delved into what makes for a powerful narrative, and looked at similarities between Connie's mysterious story and Rodriguez from Searching For Sugar Man.

The poet and teacher Susan Kinsolving brought me in to her Creative Writing class to talk about the creative process, and what it means to be a working creative artist.  One of the students wanted to know whether my song Mary Ann was based on a real person, which led to a discussion about the power of imagination and how we can transmute specific real-life experiences into (hopefully) more universal art.

And I was fortunate enough to be able to be a fly on the wall for Mike Musillami's "Right Brain Logic" rehearsal, a massive ensemble of student instrumentalists working on one of Mike's original composition that employed changing meters and keys, and elements of conduction (conducted improvisation) that was really something to behold.  These are some advanced kids (and teachers)!

Finally, to cap it all off, my band came up from the city at the end of the week, and we gave a concert in Hotchkiss's beautiful Elfers Hall, for students, faculty and the general public. 

Photo by David Thompson

The show was a benefit for a local no-kill animal shelter, The Little Guild of St. Francis. Hearing my friend and sousaphone player Kenny Bentley in that hall hold forth on a song like "Pretty Polly" was quite an experience.

Photo by Carole Cohen

* * *

And if all this weren't enough, in between classes I got to play tennis matches with several of the varsity and junior varsity team members (in an ongoing game called "Crush The Artist in Residence"), took a hike out to the Hotchkiss Farm with faculty and students (where I was given an opportunity to swing an axe on the wood chopping block), and took my meals daily in the Hotchkiss Dining Hall, where much of the food is locally-sourced and organic, where there are vegetarian options a-plenty, and where compost is collected from finished plates and trays. This is a very hip institution, as far as sustainability and eco-awareness goes.

In fact, this is a very hip institution, period.  The community I felt there, and the warm embrace I was given by students, faculty and their families, made it difficult to leave.  The academics and creativity invigorated my mind.  The beautiful grounds, athletic facilities and sports engaged my body.  The sense of connection and mindfulness on display everywhere lifted my spirit.

Thank you, Hotchkiss. I'm deeply grateful for the experience.

A Valentine for Connie Converse

Have you ever just wanted to quit? Have you ever been so worn down by the unkind and the uncaring people in your particular sphere of work that you just decided that it wasn’t worth it any longer?  Have you ever reached a saturation point of disappointment and smashed hopes and dreams and fantasized about just giving up on the thing or things you’re most passionate about because you just couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay the price required to keep those dreams alive any longer? Have you ever just had enough?

 

Connie Converse (1924-?) decided she’d had enough.  After spending the best years of her life trying to make it as a songwriter and composer in New York City, she quit.  She turned her back on the music managers and agents and record producers who rejected her, over and over and over again, over the course of her fifteen sum odd years living in Manhattan.  And she turned her back on her music -- the beautiful, haunting, ingenious, intensely personal music that she finally became convinced no one wanted to hear.

 

Connie spent the next portion of her life in Ann Arbor, Michigan working in academia, a time sadly devoid of almost any personal creative output. She made a mark for herself in the academic world, but she also sank into depression, alcoholism and mental illness.  In 1974, she left again, this time for good.  One day she simply drove away, leaving notes behind to friends and family that she needed to go and make a fresh start somewhere else. She’s never been heard from again.

 

Connie Converse’s music has since been discovered and embraced by legions of fans around the world. Recordings that she made while living in New York in her prime were released a few years ago on an album called “How Sad, How Lovely.” And now, an entirely different corpus of piano art songs have come to light, and have been recorded by the young artists Charlotte Mundy and Christopher Goddard. A new album --“Connie’s Piano Songs” -- will be released on Valentine’s Day, with a CD release show to follow on Feb. 17 in NYC.

 

The music industry people who told Connie Converse that no one would be interested in her songs are gone.  The record industry people who told her that her music wasn’t commercial enough are gone.  The producers and agents who condescended to her, the experts, they’re all gone. No one remembers them. No one cares who they were. They are forgotten.

 

Connie Converse’s music lives on, inspiring a new generation of listeners, revealing more and deeper shades of beauty and meaning as the years go by.  Her music will continue to live on, as long as there are people with open ears, open minds, and open hearts.

 

Come hear Connie’s Piano Songs live and breathe for the first time ever on February 17th at Le Poisson Rouge.  Come and celebrate the genius of this singular woman.

 

Tickets are here.

 


Connie's Piano Songs

 

On Febrauary 14, 2014 the world will finally get to hear Connie Converse's art songs for voice and piano for the first time, a half-century after their completion.  The songs were left behind in manuscript form at the time of her disappearance in 1974, and never recorded until now.

Connie's Piano Songs features the recording debuts of soprano Charlotte Mundy and pianist Christopher Goddard. The world premiere concert/CD release show will take place on February 17, 2014 at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC. Tickets are on sale now.

Those of you who have followed the progress of "A Star Has Burnt My Eye," my music-theater-documentatry piece about Connie Converse, may be especially interested in learning more about this music.  I wrote a fairly extensive essay about her for the album's liner notes -- you can read it here.

It feels appropriate to release this new CD on Valentine's Day. Producing it was a labor of love for me. I hope you'll join me in celebrating, at long last, the release of this beautiful music.

 

A New Year

I didn't think about it unitl I thought about it, but 2013 was an extraordinary year for me and my music, if only for the number of different projects I had the opportunity to work on and present. 

Some highlights:

* My Biting Fish Brass Band toured Europe for the first time, playing to big crowds in Estonia and Finland. Here's a clip of our headlining gig on the Mainstage at Augustibluus Fest in Happsalu.

Onstage in Estonia * No Further Instructions was programmed at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, and at the Jewish Museum in NYC. Both concerts featured my 11-piece "Romanian Orchestra," and Mike Benanav reading from his book and showing his photos from our trip abroad.

 

The Orchestra after the Jewish Museum show

* "A Star Has Burnt My Eye," my music-theater-documentary piece about Connie Converse, continued its development, with workshop performances at the Rattlestick Theater and Joe's Pub in NYC. Director Sarah Hughes (Elevator Repair Service) has joined the team as Director of the project.

 

At Joe's Pub

* My Basement Tapes Project hit the road again this fall, presented by Mercyhurst Institute in Erie, PA.

Mazz, Bean, Me, Scott and Nathan, backstage in Erie

* I produced Connie's Piano Songs, the first-ever recordings of Connie Converse's art songs, featuring the recording debuts of soprano Charlotte Mundy and pianist Christopher Goddard (Release date: 2/14/14).

Connie Converse

* Peculiar Works Project in NYC commissioned me to compose a score for their multimedia theater piece MANNA-HATA, most of it performed in the show entirely acapella by the large cast in the gigantic, mostly-abandoned spaces inside the Penn Station Post Office.

* Howard Fishman Quartet was a recurring feature in Cynthia Von Buhler's Speakeasy Dollhouse in NYC.

HFQ

* And non project-specific, regular old Howard Fishman tour dates in 2013 included stops in Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Upstate NY, New Orleans, Estonia, Latvia and, of course, NYC and Brooklyn.

 

 

I'm generally not one for gazing into the rearview mirror, but sometimes it can be useful to track progress and, more importantly, to express gratitude -- to the presenters who made these things happen; to my unbelievable circle of collaborators/musicians who help make my ideas manifest so beautifully; to you for showing up and showing interest in the various things I do; and to the universe for continuing to allow me opportunities to pursue and explore my various interests and passions.

Thank you. Looking forward to seeing you in 2014.

Photo by Carole Cohen

Mazz Swift

Playing a festival in Bowling Green, Ohio. Photo by Bianca Garza

Violinist and vocalist Mazz Swift is one of the most dynamic, fearless, and fun musicians I've ever performed with.  We first met ten years ago, at the now-defunct MAKOR in NYC. In a story she frequently likes to tell, Mazz was already a fan of my music, having picked up a copy of my first album at the als-defunct bookstore cafe THE READ in Williamsburg. She came to my MAKOR show to hear the quartet, and introduced herself to me after the show, dropping a mention that she played violin. Little did she know that Russell Farhang had left the band fairly recently, and I was scrambling to try to fill his shoes with a series of fiddling fill-ins.  I asked Mazz for her number, and suggested we get together and play sometime.

It was a fortuitous meeting.  I subsequently went to hear her perform with her then-musical partner Brad Hammonds at a little Irish bar in Murray Hill, and was impressed by the energy and focus of her improvisations, and the clean, vibrant tone she coaxed from her instrument.  At a subsequent get-togther at her apartment in Hell's Kitchen, it took me all of five minutes to know that I could make music with this person.  Some people just feel music the same way, ot at least in individual ways that complement and bolster the other, and that was the case with Mazz and me.  I hired her for a gig, and we haven't looked back since. Here she is in a nice live clip of the band from a few years ago playing in Brooklyn:

Mazz is featured on a number of my albums, including LOOK AT ALL THIS! (where her backup vocals raise the roofbeams on "Best Is Yet To Come"), PERFORMS BOB DYLAN & THE BAND'S "BASEMENT TAPES" (which includes her gorgeous lead vocal on "I Shall Be Released"), THE WORLD WILL BE DIFFERENT (that's her furious, impassioned violin solo on "A Ghost"), and NO FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS (where she outdoes herself on second vocals on "Set Me Free" and leads the string quartet for almost all of the album).

Performing at BAM in Brooklyn, photo by Carole Cohen

Like most of the musicians who I'm lucky enough to have perform with me, Mazz is much more than a sideperson. She fronts a project of her own called MazzMuse, and is currently in the process of recording two new albums. You can read more about it here.

It's a thrill to make music with Mazz. I look forward to every gig that we do together, and I'm always inspired by the musical dialogue we engage in onstage. I love Mazz's passion, her humor, and her absolute presence when we're making music. Recently we played some duo shows together in New Orleans, which opened up some entirely new sonic possibilities and landscapes for us.  It's a pleasure and an honor to call Mazz a part of my musical family. Here's one more look at her incredible talent, from her performance at Joe's Pub in NYC performing my song "Good Times" better than I ever could:

 

Stephanie Griffin

Sometimes when I'm trying to do too many things at once, I forget what day it is. And sometimes, I can even forget what week it is.

Not long ago I received an email blast about one of Stephanie Griffin's upcoming concerts, a duo recital with pianist Cheryl Seltzer at the Kaufman Music Center (where I performed my original score for Buster Keaton's The Frozen North as part of the New York Guitar Festival). 

Because I'd never heard Stephanie perform in duo format, and because the program looked musically adventurous (including the World Premiere of Ukrainian composer Valentin Bibik's "Sonata No. 3 for Viola and Piano"), I marked it on my calendar just in case I ended up having a window of time that night.

Last Wednesday, I made my way to the recital hall at Kaufman, getting there just a few minutes past the start time of the program because of a stalled subway train. I ran in, breathless, only to find...the music in progress, and exactly one other person in the audience! Well dang!, I thought to myself, it's just getting harder and harder to get people out to attend concerts, isn't it?

I'm glad I was wrong. As it turned out, I'd arrived exactly one week early. This was the duo's rehearsal session with their musical director, and I was not only gifted with an invitation to stay, but alos encouraged to engage in dialogue with the artists between pieces, a wonderfully intimate and unexpectedly provocative way to engage with the stunning music being made that night.

PHOTO BY HIROYUKI ITO

And stunning it was -- all of it -- though I have to say that the Bibik sonata was the most astonishing of all for me. I've recently had the honor of having Stephanie perform with me as part of my No Further Instructions ensemble, and I've heard her play with her terrific Momenta Quartet here in the city, but hearing her and Cheryl tear into the mad passion of Bibik's startling piece was a hair-raising revelation.

The good news is, if you live in or near the city, you have a chance to catch this recital on the RIGHT date, this Wednesday, May 8 at Kaufman. All the info is here.

 Photo by Jim McLaughlin

PS  I'll be performing No Further Instructions again this November, at The Jewish Museum in NYC (the photo above is from the recent show at Skidmore college-- more photos of that one here). With any luck, Stephanie's performance schedule will allow here to join me again.  But if you're around and available this Wednesday, do go and hear her and Cheryl at Kaufman. You'll be happy that you did!

Marika Hughes

MARIKA HUGHES is a phenomenal cellist, singer, composer, and all-around singular human being. Whether I'm out hearing her perform, having the honor of her sharing the stage with me, or just bumping into her somewhere all of a sudden, she never fails to bring a smile to my face. Marika is bursting with good energy and is such positive spirit -- qualities that can't help but shine through in her musical performances.

 

 

I've had the good fortune to have Marika's playing grace three of my recordings: NO FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS (that's her beautiful solo on "Your Voice"), THE WORLD WILL BE DIFFERENT (occupying the cello chair in the string quartet that's featured on most of this album) and BETTER GET RIGHT (where she sings and blows another gorgeous solo on "We Shall Not Be Moved").

Marika is currently in residency on Tuesday nights at BARBES in Brooklyn, playing with her fine, fine band BOTTOM HEAVY (a group that includes another excellent, too-infrequent collabortaor of mine, drummer Tony Mason).  I had the pleasure of hearing them againthere  a couple of weeks ago, and boy was it good. Tasty and grooving and full of joie de vivre. This is as good a time as you can have anywhere in New York on a Tuesday night.

Go see Marika and her band. Go tonight, if you can. You won't be disappointed.

Enough Is Enough Is Enough Is Enough

The Wooster Group and Richard Maxwell's New York City Players recently joined forces to produce something called "EARLY PLAYS," which finished its run today at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. 

No spectacular brilliant explosion ensued. In fact, there wasn't a spark of life to be felt . Instead, the production resounded with a dull, clanking thud, as these two once-proud, now-dead hulks-- individually adrift, nearly run aground, their respective cargoes empty -- clanged into one another, their paths crossing, it would seem, not out of any great vision but simply out of shared,  jaw-dropping inertia.

 

Is this the same Wooster Group that once put on shows that felt like the wildest, smartest, most original live performance anywhere?  Is this the same Richard Maxwell who once jabbed a bracing and welcome finger into the eye of Serious Theater?

The answer is yes, I think. They're still the same, and that's the problem, so much so that they've become entirely irrelevant, veering past the point of self-parody into simple irrelevance.  The joy is gone, the thrill, the adventure, the fun.  Instead, we're left with by-the-numbers brands, as stultifying and insulting to our humanity and intelligence as a Gap or Duane Reade.  You can now go to a Wooster Group or Richard Maxwell piece and know exactly what you're going to get, the same way, every single time. 

Both the Woosters and Maxwell have their gimmicks, their bags of tricks, their aesthetics, and boy oh boy,  are they tired.  Maxwell should not be allowed to direct other people's plays and piss all over them with his tired directive that his actors must speak their lines flat, without inflection or conviction.  I have news for Mr. Maxwell -- the fact that no one likes what he does as a director (except, apparently, a few critics and the grant awarders) does not make him some sort of misunderstood genius.  That people regularly walk out of his productions (as more than half the house did, nightly, when his adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IV played at BAM a few years back), does not mean he's ahead of his time.  It means that what he's doing is crap. The schtick is interesting or funny or only mildly-irritating for a few minutes, but to be asked to sit and listen to Shakespeare or O'Neill read this way for an entire evening is beyond the pale.  What if an orchestra took a Brahms or Beethoven sonata, and played the entire piece intentionally out of tune, without dynamics or feeling? And not once, but in concert after concert? Who would sit for that?  Who wouldn't ask for for their money back? Why aren't people throwing rotten fruit at the stage?

I remember the first time I went to see The Wooster Group as a fresh-faced college kid twenty years ago.  I remember the palpable, scorching charisma and uncanny presence of Kate Valk, Willem Dafoe, et al -- none of them seeming quite human -- like we were watching some Bizarro species from a parallel universe, and man was it fun . I remember the razor-sharp precision of the actors' movements, the "we've got a secret and we're not going to share it" feeling of the way they spoke, the expressions on their faces, the mystery of how they were able to make everything that happened in their performances seem simultaneously insouciant and effortless and also intensely choreographed and unfathomably intentional.  How do they do that? What IS this?  This is the greatest thing I've ever seen! They were marionettes, they were a cult, they were so outside that they made us hate the very idea of inside. We wanted to join them. We wanted to be them.  Being at a Wooster Group performance was like watching our dreams played out in front of us. And just like the experience of dreaming, we could neither explain nor actively participate in the narrative.  We were simply along for the ride and we didn't want to wake up.

 

Now...now. The same techniques are there in the performances, The same weirdness, the same jerky-cool mannerisms, but the life has been completely drained out.  EARLY PLAYS is not directed by Elizabeth  LeCompte, but I'll go ahead and lump in other recent Wooster productions with my heartache.  Watching a couple of the Wooster stalwarts here doing their same old same old is like watching a pair of once-unhittable baseball pitching aces still relying on their fastballs, as hitter after hitter takes them out of the park.  They've got to make adjustments, they've got to reinvent themselves, or they're finished.  Insisting on remaining power pitchers when a new younger, stronger, smarter crop of batters has come up is not a pretty spectacle.

* * *

It seems almost beside the point that EARLY PLAYS is based on four early plays by Eugene O'Neill. It doesn't matter. O'Neill's voice is not heard here, and one wonders whether the poster for the show doesn't, in some way, acknowledge this, the orange band with the names of the perpetrators of this particular crime pasted smack over O'Neill's mouth, as if to announce the show's sadistic intent to squash and nullify the playwright's own words.

 

* * *

This is a production of unrelenting fatuousness.  There is no generosity of spirit here, no art, no life.  Nothing is being communicated, except perhaps the unwholesome, revolting notion that the practitioners involved are somehow more clever or more smart than we are. They're not.  The artist's task is to be the seer, not the seen -- to lead us, boldly, into the unknown; to communicate and commiserate with us about what's out there -- to interpret it for us, to wrestle with it for us, to lift us up, collectively, through this struggle.  To reveal us to ourselves.

No such thing happens here. It's all about them -- the performers, the director, the Wooster Group/Richard Maxwell brands -- and nothing about us.  Can we be blamed for turning away in disgust and disappointment?  We are not present in the proceedings -- in fact, we're not even taken into account. We can't recognize anything of ourselves in here because there IS nothing of ourselves to be seen or heard.  It's all about them, like being locked in a room with some blowhard who's so self-absorbed he doesn't even notice that he's talking twice as loud as anyone else in the room, that he's spilling his drink on you and projecting spittle into your face as he goes on in the obnoxious monolgue that HE thinks of as conversation, not noticing that people are inching away and looking at him with increasing incredulity.  Jesus, you think, what's wrong with this guy?, as you fantasize about the day -- hopefully soon -- when someone just rears back and gives him a good right hook.