Photo by Julietta Cervantes


By Howard Fishman

April 26, 2018

I loved “St. Elsewhere” when I was a kid growing up in West Hartford, CT. Every Wednesday night, without fail, I would tune in to Channel 30 at 10pm, and watch the show. “Elsewhere” had a true ensemble cast that worked together to draw subtleties of humor, sensitivity and depth out of their finely-drawn characters and from the smart scripts that stretched plotlines out over entire seasons (rare in those days). Like its stylistic cousin “Hill Street Blues,” “Elsewhere” was a moody, downbeat soap opera; death and heartbreak were ever-present. There was something meta about it too, before that word came into common parlance and practice; as far as ratings went, it was a failing show, always in danger of being cancelled, set in a failing hospital, always in danger of being shut down. A melancholy air infused the show, an underdog sensibility that made one root for both the characters and the series itself. Every time it was renewed for another season my early-adolescent soul rejoiced. When the show finally did reach its end, after six seasons, I was broken up about it. It had only been five years since the finale of “M*A*S*H” and here I was saying goodbye to what felt to me like another surrogate family (interestingly enough, another bunch of doctors).

The cast was a mix of veterans (led by Ed Flanders, Norman Lloyd, Christina Pickles, David Birney, and William Daniels) and young then-unknowns (Ed Begley, Jr., Mark Harmon, Howie Mandel, David Morse, and Denzel Washington). Their characters seemed to really communicate with one another, to truly inhabit the make-believe world they’d been cast in. I was unexpectedly reminded of this when the curtain came down on the current revival of “The Iceman Cometh” (now at the Jacobs Theater on Broadway) and I looked at my program for the first time to learn that the actor who had so uncomfortably and unconvincingly portrayed Denzel Washington’s foil in the show had been none other than his erstwhile “Elsewhere” cast member, David Morse.

How could this be? These two fine actors had established a rapport over six long seasons of that show, more than three decades ago. They shared a rich, nuanced history. “Elsewhere” may have finally lost its terminal battle against a popular mandate for more light-hearted entertainment, but it had been a noble fight, fought with gusto and lost with dignity. These guys had spent years giving something they cared about all that they had. Of course, Washington’s career had burst forth after “Elsewhere” in glittering Hollywood style, while Morse’s has been less visible, mostly spent playing character roles like his sad-eyed, quiet George Washington in “John Adams,” but this bit of casting for “Iceman” would seem to have been, on paper, an inspired choice: the former cast-mates reunited once again in another ensemble piece with no less than life and death as its subject, this time pitted against one another as Larry Slade and Theodore (“Hickey”) Hickman, two old friends meeting up again for the last time.

Before delving into the particulars of Morse’s performance, it should be noted that playing Larry Slade is no easy assignment for any performer. Even seasoned O’Neill actor Brian Dennehy seemed to struggle with the role in Robert Falls’ majestic revival at BAM, three seasons ago. While it’s a fact that whomever is cast as Hickey has always received top billing (owing, perhaps, to Jason Robards’s early, career-making turn in Jose Quintero’s landmark 1956 mounting at Circle in The Square -- a production that effectively gave the Off-Broadway movement its first teeth), the case can and has been made that Larry Slade is the more demanding of the two roles, and that it is he, and not Hickey, who is really the protagonist of the piece. Larry is simultaneously the audience’s guide and the playwright’s mouthpiece. He is the one who espouses O’Neill’s most philosophical views, asks his most existential questions, states (and restates) his main themes. Larry is concertmaster here, first chair violin. He has, by far, the most dialogue of any of the eighteen main characters. Aside from Rocky (the bartender whose job it is to oversee the establishment in which the play takes place), and the somnolent Hugo (a drunk who spends much of the play in a barely-conscious stupor), Larry is the only character who remains present for the play’s action throughout. He is the only character who is witness to the entirety of the proceedings, which -- even in this trimmed version -- still clocks in just shy of four hours.

Hickey, the “star” of the show, does not even enter until nearly an hour into the performance, at the very end of the first act. He arrives on a mission to relieve his old friends of their illusions, their “pipe dreams” about tomorrow that they individually cling to (i.e. tomorrow I’ll quit drinking; tomorrow I’ll go looking for a new job; tomorrow I’ll reclaim my former glory). Because of a self-imposed time constraint, Hickey moves quickly and appears sporadically, coming and going, until he finally delivers his epic, confessional monologue in Act Four. But it is Larry who watches the whole unfold; it is through Larry’s eyes that reality begins to twist and fragment in Acts Three and Four as O’Neill’s theatrical language somehow manages to seamlessly transition from easy naturalism to outright expressionism; it is Larry whose character undergoes the only real transformation when the play is through. As he says in his final speech “I’m the only real convert... Hickey made here!”  As the final, awful moments of “Iceman” play out, the teeming ensemble of bums and drunks snap back into place, reclaiming the exact, pathetic identities they’d inhabited at the top of the play. Despite the moral reckoning prompted by Hickey’s visit, by the end it is as if nothing whatever had happened to them (making one of Hickey’s final lines “It was a waste of time, my coming here” really hurt; it’s a shame that Washington threw that line away in the performance I saw).

Larry is O’Neill’s beloved “Old Foolosopher:” the cynical barfly who says he just wants to be left alone but who privately gets great pleasure out of being surrounded by his fellow bums -- a collection of eccentric characters referred to by one of their own lot as a “who’s who of dipsomania.” In turn, Larry is the object of affection to all. The bartenders love him, the hookers dote on him, his fellow bums admire him and his sage words of drunken wisdom. If Harry Hope’s seedy saloon was transported to 1970’s Los Angeles, Larry would be Charles Bukowski.

So, if this is Larry Slade’s play, and I think I’ve just talked myself into being willing to defend that position, what can be made of David Morse’s portrayal? In the performance I saw, Morse’s Larry starts and ends the play, bizarrely, as an outsider.  It is impossible to believe that his Larry is a part of this crew, much less the soulful center of it. In dress, appearance, and bearing, Morse seems to be channeling the late Robert Ryan’s take on the character as seen in John Frankenheimer’s magnificent 1973 film adaptation. Ryan was seriously ill with cancer during shooting, adding an extra layer of pathos to a deeply felt, superb performance that would turn out to be his final role (Frederick March is equally stellar in the film, as is everyone else in the ensemble, with the glaring exception of a grotesquely miscast Lee Marvin as Hickey). Ryan owned the role. But though Morse may possess a passing physical likeness to him in this production, the similarities stop there. Instead, Morse seems uncomfortable from the get-go, his hands constantly shoved deep into his pockets as though mechanically feeling around for a lost set of keys. He seems to take no joy in ribbing his fellow inmates at the bar; in fact, it seems as though he is acting in a different play altogether. His Larry seems to be nothing so much as an older version of Albee’s Peter at the zoo.. He seems disengaged, flat, strangely affected, and -- sad to say -- lacking in either warmth or charisma.

I don’t want to beat up on David Morse, who has proved himself again and again  in other roles. Perhaps the odd choices for Larry’s personality and bearing were not made by him. Morse’s cause is certainly not helped by the fact that he is often stationed at the extreme left or right of the action, most likely to emphasize his self-stated position of being “in the grandstand,” watching the proceedings from a objective standpoint. But the effect is confusing, and seems ultimately wrong-headed, as does the production’s curious sound design. Early in Act One--as Larry introduces his sleeping friends to the young interloper Parrot, taking care to flesh out the backstory for each-- the strains of an old Gilded Age parlor song are heard being ponderously plunked out on a piano. But where is the music coming from? There is an upright piano onstage, but no one is playing it. Oh, it’s underscoring -- the cinematic kind, awash in the sort of ghostly reverb used to cue an audience to understand that we’re in flashback mode. But while the drama is indeed set in the distant past (1912, to be precise), “The Iceman Cometh” is decidedly not a memory play. Larry Slade is not Tom Wingfield, wistfully gazing back at people and events that once shaped his consciousness. Inarguably, the exposition O’Neill gives to Larry in the early going of the piece can be rough sledding for both actor and audience, but the decision to try to lift the proceedings with this kind of musical sentimentality feels like an act of desperation, as though the production somehow does not trust O’Neill’s iron-clad dramaturgy to hold its own.

Good things can be said about the production: it certainly moves briskly, and director George C. Wolfe has a deft touch with regard to bringing out O’Neill’s comedy. This may come as a surprise to those less familiar with the play, but there is a lot in “Iceman” that is very funny, and this production makes the most of it. In fact, if one were to judge the play purely on the basis of the audience’s reaction during the performance I saw, one might well think it a silly comedy -- more “Cheers” than “The Lower Depths.”  Much of the rest of the cast acquit themselves well, especially Bill Irwin’s Mosher and Michael Potts’ Joe Mott, the latter receiving a well-deserved ovation for his speech that calls out the underlying racist atmosphere in Harry Hope’s saloon -- an issue that, happily, does not seem at all confused by the casting of Washington as Hickey.

And what of Washington, the reason that this production exists in the first place, and the reason that most will see it? He is excellent, probably the most likeable, charming Hickey ever seen (and that includes Robards, who brought more than a touch of menace and darkness to a the role that will always be his). Even when Hickey is at his most gratingly self-righteous, Washington is impossible to dislike. He is simply a delight to watch, and when he finally delivers his confession in the final act, he does so seated downstage center, breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to us, spinning his tale with bravura storytelling technique, casting us under his spell. The audience eats it up. This is what they came for.

Sadly, the promise and potential to be mined in the reuniting of the former “Elsewhere” stars for this production bears no fruit. When Washington leaves the room for the last time, he takes with him all of the air in this production.The play’s real punch that is the remainder of the action -- and indeed, O’Neill’s very thesis, his scathing indictment of latter-day humanity-- lands not as the knockout blow of a heavyweight champ, but rather as the harmless swat of a featherweight, a neat little ribbon to tie up an otherwise pleasantly diverting evening at the theater. The end of “The Iceman Cometh” should send us careening down into O’Neill’s bottomless, spiritual void, what should be an exhilarating, harrowing, plunge. Instead, we’re left safely peering in from the outside, safe, satisfied, unscathed.

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.



As anyone who knows me well will tell you, I get excited by food.

I spend at least as much time thinking about it -- ethically, nutritionally, aesthetically, culturally -- as I do eating it.  So, why not write about it?  I've been writing here about other non-musical passions for years now (film, theater, books, comics), so indulge me if you may -- I'm going to try writing about food.  I have absolutely no qualifications for same, other than the fact that I love it, I eat out at least once a day in one of the greatest food cities in the world, and I travel a lot for work (which offers even more opportunities for amazing and unusual food experiences than I have here in NYC).  So, let's start with...



 I've wandered past VANDAAG any number of times since it opened last summer, admired what I could see through the large plate glass windows, thought about the day's menu, with its uncomfortable (for me) mix of creativity and delicious-sounding combinations of fresh, local ingredients combined with a puzzling preponderance of dead animals in almost every dish.  I've always passed by.  Sam Sifton's review in The Times last fall did nothing to change my mind. (Truth be told, although he constantly evoked my ire with his constant near-fetishization of said dead animal flesh, I tried never to miss one of Mr. Sifton's columns and miss his food writing dearly).

Last month, I walked by once again, but something was different. It was daytime, just about noon on a Saturday. The sun was flowing into the restaurant's welcoming interior, and the menu featured brunch, with a number of appetizing, unusual, and vegetarian-friendly items.  Even though I was en route to Momofuku Noodle Bar, my at the time go-to food destination in the East Village (that's since changed, more on that another time), something made me deicde to give Vandaag a shot.

I was immediately glad I did.  While I don't have much of a vocabulary when it comes to interior design (see Sifton's review, linked above, for a good description), suffice it to say that the place certainly has an elegant, Scandanavian feeling to it -- clean, austere, simple, airy, a lot of light and wood.  It reminded me of many of the restaurants I ate in when I was lucky enough to visited Stockholm a few years back.  There's nothing fussy here, nothing cute, nothing smacking of anything remotely like the "speakeasy" vibe that's currently played-out everywhere (it seems) in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Neatly laid out on the bar were the sections of the day's New York Times (including the Sunday supplements).  What a fabulous, underrated service that is to customers who, like me, enjoy the ritual of dining alone on a regular basis as a kind of public solitude.  I eagerly borrowed a couple of sections for my table, and sat down with the menu.


I ordered and ate two things, both astoundingly well-prepared and delicious.  The smoked mackerel scramble was, essentially, what it sounds like, with a few beautiful touches -- accompanying the fluffy scrambled eggs (at least three, I would guess) and the tasty bits of smoked fish were a couple of dollops of yogurt, onions, green peppercorns and fresh dill. This was all served in its own skillet, with a giant piece of the house's hot, toasted, buttered, "Red Ale Bread" -- perhaps the best piece of toast I've ever had, outside of the garlic toast at Tequila Bar in Uzhgorod, Ukraine.

I also ordered the Hete Bliksem, or "Hot Lightning," just because it looked so extraordinary on the menu.  While I am a 99% of the time pescatarian -- and even then, only if the fish is wild, and only once in a while, so let's call it a 75% of the time vegetarian -- I will make exceptions every once in a while if the dead animal being served is an essential part of a dish that I want to try, and if said dead animal is local and free range.  VANDAAG's "Hot Lightning" is described as crisp fingerling potatoes with bacon, apple and stroop syrup.  A dash of hot pepper makes it hot, and the syrup makes it sweet.  It sounded like something fantastic that I had to try on this Saturday early afternoon to accompany my smoked mackerel, and I wanted to honor the chef by ordering it as envisioned which, in this case, meant eating a little bit of bacon. I went for it, and I have to say that the dish is indeed extraordinary and worth getting, but next time I will not feel the slightest compunction about asking them to hold the bacon; while the intensity of the hot pepper and sweet syrup complement the crisp potatoes in an exotic, unexpected way, they completely overwhelm the flavor of the pork, rendering it into little tasteless bits of chewy flesh added for -- what, exactly?  Texture? I don't think so.  More likely to appease the foodie masses who happen to be in love with all things pork at this moment (see: bacon vodka, bacon chocolate, bacon ice cream, ad nauseum indeed).


* * *

I've been back to VANDAAG several times since, and have continued to sample the menu (it changes daily), including the excellent seasonal pickle pot; the outlandishly good roasted chestnut soup (my friend and musical cohort Russell Farhang correctly compared the taste of it to fallen leaves on a chilly, sunny autumn afternoon); the decadent French Toast with pine, cranberry and stroop syrup; and the roasted sunchoke omelet (the only near-miss for me, but that may be simply because I'm neither an omelet guy or an artichoke guy; so why did I order it? I don't know).  I couldn't help but feel that the Stroop Wafel, a small, thin caramel-filled treat, would be even better served warm.

The service is always excellent, and the experience being there in the daytime is just delightful.  I do wish that they'd opt for better music, but I'm aware that this is a disease most eating establishments have -- they simply don't know how to leave a patron's ears alone.  If I'm with someone, I want to talk quietly between bites.  If I'm alone, I want to read.  Either way, I do not need nor want any thumping music, thank you.

I have yet to dine at VANDAAG in the evening, but it's absolutely become one of my favorite daytime places to eat in the East Village. If you're in the neighborhood, stop in. I might just see you there!



"I'm Just a Kid From Brooklyn"



Okay, let me get the fanboy immediate reactions out of the way first:

The Cosmic Cube!  Bucky Barnes! The Red Skull! Zola! The Howling Commandos! Doctor Erskine! The original shield and helmet! Cap on a motorcycle, packing a gun! References to the 1940s serial! Whoa!!


I've only been waiting for this movie for most of my life, ever since my Dad bought me my first-ever comic book, the treasury edition-sized "Captain America's Bicentennial Battles."  Although I would go on to become a more generalized comic book geek (though heavily Marvel-skewed), Captain America was always my favorite, my hero, the one I most wanted to be. 

Like the kid shown at the end of the new movie I, too, ran around clasping a metal garbage can-top as my shield, pretrending to be the shield-slinger himself.  I enlisted childhood friends to assume the role of the ill-fated Bucky Barnes (obsessed as I was, even then, with back-stories and tragedy) as we prowled the neighborhood, looking for supervillains.  In wintertime, I traded in the garbage pail top for one of those disc-shaped sleds known as flying saucers, and pratciced hurling it around at trees and posts, stand-ins for the Nazis and evildoers in my imagination.  I made my friends call me "Cap."

Why? What was it about Captain America that thrilled me?  Phil Satlof, bass player for the late Tuscadero and one of my oldest friends (we met in kindergarden) asked me that question a few weeks ago in the midst of the pre-release hype for the new movie.  "Why Captain America?", he wondered. "What was it about that jingoistic crap that you were so into?"

It was a good question, and I ruminated on it a bit while watching the film.  It's not that I am Mr. Patriot.  I have a lot of problems with the state of our country today, and the way we do things here.  If you've heard "The Farmer's Song" from "No Further Instructions," you know where I'm coming from.

Captain America was my hero for a number of reasons.  It wasn't just his beginnings as a scrawny kid who was always getting picked on (a ubiquitous ingredient in origin stories throughout comics, see: Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Tony Stark, Donald Blake, Matt Murdock, ad infinitum).  I liked that he really didn't have super powers, relying instead on his intelligence, dexterity and physical training. He was kind of like the Marvel version of Batman in this way, without the psychosis or the weird gimmicks.

I liked that he was one of the few Marvel carry-overs from The Golden Age, and that he was once again (at the time) being written and drawn by one of his creators, nearly forty years after his first appearance. Bob Kane had long since left Batman, Siegel and Schuster were decades removed from Superman, but the great Jack "King" Kirby was once again at the helm of Captain America, and that lent the comic real authenticity to me.

I liked that he had some pathos to his story, carrying with him the survivor's guilt of having outlived his sidekick Bucky and also the confusion and mild shizophrenia that came from being asleep for twenty years -- a man out of time.

Most of all, though, I think I liked that Captain America had real dignity -- a sort of unassailable, old world, old fashioned fairness about him, perhaps owing to his membership in an earlier generation.  He had the respect of his peers. He was a natural leader.  He wasn't a loudmouth or a show-off, never sought praise or glory, just did his job, did it well, and left the spotlight to others. If he were a baseball player, he'd be Lou Gehrig.

In the new movie, his alter ego Steve Rogers is asked why he's so willing to undertake the great risks involved in the Captain America experiment.  "I hate bullies," he says. 'Nuff said...that's Captain America, in a nutshell.  He battled unfairness, without the aid of supernatural powers (i.e. Superman, Spider Man) or campy gadgetry (Batman, Iron Man).  If one were smart enough, skilled enough, honest enough, and dedicated enough, it always seemed possible that one could grow up to be Captain America. And when, in the new movie, he says "I'm just a kid from Brooklyn," the words resonated with that part of me that still believes that to be true.

* * *

Are there flaws in the film? Sure.  Chris Evans doesn't radiate the gravitas needed for the part (here's hoping he grows into it as the franchise continues).  The Red Skull bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Jim Carey's The Mask, and is -- alas --  not much more frightening.  In terms of the story arc of the film, it feels too heavily-weighted on the origin tale; Captain America has barely even gotten into action, it seems, before he's caught in the accident that will put him on ice and effectively end his Golden Age career (and, so, the film).  And if you're going to go so far as to give us Bucky (again, Bucky -- hooray!), couldn't you have at least put him in costume for a scene or two?

Still, these are minor quibbles. Captain America is hugely rewarding for longtime fans like me.  It just gets so many things right, from the muted color palatte to the steampunk costume elements, to the fealty to so much of the original comic book continuity (even improving on the latter in at least one instance -- the revisionist costume origin is an inspired stroke of genius).  I mean, c'mon -- the last wide-release attempt at a live action Captain America movie was the 1979 made for TV movie with the transparent shield and the CHIPs-style motorcycle helmet, an attempt so ill-conceived I think I cried when it aired. Next to that, the new movie is Citizen freaking Kane.

* * *

So there, I've officially outed myself as a comic book freak (and you don't know the half of it). Maybe I'll write and record a superhero song cycle one of these days. And, hey Marvel -- if Bono and the Edge are busy and you need a composer for the Captain America musical -- I'm your guy.

The Redemptive Power of Ben Senterfit

Somewhere in the world right at this moment, someone is making great art in front of a select, intimate group of people...someone who deserves more fame, more money, more recognition, but who volunteers his/her time and talent in the face of the immediate unavailability of any one (or all) of these things to be our surrogate on some collective, heroic journey.

On Sunday night, I sat in a small, dark, hot room (The Stone) watching and listening as Ben Senterfit led his fearless quintet through a soulful set of music that was by turns meditative, chaotic, gritty, muscular and prayer-like.  Like all great art, it had a destabilizing effect on my consciousness, calling into question basic assumptions I have about the way I live my life, the choices I make, the beliefs I have, the aesthetics I'm attached to. 

Just as painters push paint around a canvas and dancers move their forms across a stage, great musicians  move feeling; watching this band, tonight, was like watching trees get struck by lightning.  Each member of the group opened himself up as a conduit to the forces of the moment, and transmitted them via sound and emotion through their instruments and back to us.  It was thrilling.

In upending my own assumptions about things, the music also had the power to fill in those newly-vacated spaces with new inspiration, new ideas, new possibilities.  Real art does this.  It makes us look inward, clears out the cobwebs, and gives us back the greatest gift of all: our true selves, revealed, the selves that we can easily let get covered up by unnecessary layers of thought-garbage. Real art cleans us out.

* * *

The band was one unit, an organic machine, working together toward a common goal of truth and (sometimes ugly) beauty.  In addition to double-threat Ben Senterfit's sax and guitar (both played with grace and conviction), there was Jacob Sanders' baritone sax, Kailin Young's violin, and the relentlessly grooving rhythm section of Jarad Astin (organ) and Matt Crane (drums). 

* * *

All of this, for $10. Ten bucks. The price of one drink in any number of NYC establishments.  And how many people were there, besides me?  About a dozen.

How many people in New York City went to see the Yankees and Mets play that day at their respective stadiums? I looked it up: 88,652. 

Twelve people went to hear Ben Senterfit tonight at The Stone. Twelve.  I'm not saying that baseball can't be a fulfilling activity, or that live music somehow has more intrinsic merit.  I love baseball. I follow it closely.  It brings me great pleasure and diversion.

What I am saying is: something is askew here, and maybe it says something about the state of the American psyche.  Imagine a world in which eighty-eight thousand people in NYC went out every night to hear live music.  Or half of that? Or a quarter of that?  What about a world where ten percent of the people who go to sit in the stands to watch millionaires compete against one another on a ballfield instead went to a live performance?  And imagine if half of those people, say 4,000 or so, or half of a half of those people, say 2,000, or even half of a half of a half of those people, say 1,000, felt as inspired as I did after hearing Ben Senterfit at The Stone?  What if 1,000 people every single night felt their assumptions and beliefs shaken, were forced to consider new perspectives, felt humbled by the beauty that art can bring, felt more in touch with themselves and the rest of humanity than they did before they walked in the door?

Of course, that's assuming a lot. It requires every show to be as good as the one I saw. It requires every band to be as talented and fearless.  It requires those 1,000 people to even know where and when the good shows are happening.  Is every live show great? No. Is every baseball game great? No.  Seems to me the odds do not favor either. I'd like to think you're as likely to see a great performance just as often as you're likely to see a great ballgame. Which is to say, once in a while.  Sometimes.  They don't happen every night, but they're what you hope for, and they're why you come back.  When they happen, it makes sitting through the mediocre ones -- and even the bad ones -- well worth it.

I was a fan of live performance long before I became performer myself, and it is the audience member and fan in me that urges you to do yourself a favor and make it a practice to go and put yourself in a space with people who are making art right in front of you.  It doesn't matter whether it's a jazz band, a dance group, an orchestra, a theater company, or what have you .  Go be there and support people like Ben Senterfit, and places like The Stone.

And bring a friend.  Bring ten friends.  Make it an outing the same way you would if you were going to a ballgame.  Have a meal together beforehand, or after.  You may go in thinking you're doing something for the artists by simply being there (and you are), but you may leave knowing that you did something even greater for yourself.


Check out Ben's Community Music Space up in the Hudson Valley...our man is doing the right thing.

Two Things You Should See Right Now

People often ask me where I draw my musical inspiration from, and I sometimes draw a blank. Reason being: most of the things that inspire me are not music.  Theater, film, art, literature, history, religion, thought...these are the things that really move me the most.

For me, there are few things worse than being stuck in the audience at a bad piece of theater, but the converse is also true: when theater is really effective, no other art form can touch it for the visceral, exciting, startling feeling it inspires. This week I had the opportunity to see The Goodman Theatre's production of O'Neill's DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, as good and imaginative a production as I've seen on Broadway in a long time.  Today I read that the show is closing early (May 24) because of bad box office receipts, mainly due to getting shut out of the Tonys (a travesty).  Even if there are some casting issues, I still urge you to go see it before it's gone forever.


In the musical realm (although there was a good deal of theater in this too), I had another opportunity to see Leonard Cohen perform last night in Waterbury, CT.  I caught him for the first time last October in Obernberg, Germany, but Leonard and the show have only gotten better in the intervening months.  He's absolutely at the top of his game: totally present, giving, and fully cognizant of his tremendous power at this late stage of his career/life.  He's in NYC this weekend, then has a few more dates in North America before he heads back to Europe. Amazingly, there are still seats left at many of the shows. Really, if you can, do yourself a favor and go and see Leonard Cohen. You'll never forget the experience.