January, 2010:

Susan Werner at The First Unitarian Society of Westchester

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We must have been living under a rock for a very long time, because Susan Werner is exactly the kind of singer/songwriter that we love, and Lois is particularly good at finding them.

On September 20th, 2009 we saw Red Molly at Joe’s Pub and they closed the show with an a cappella version of May I Suggest. We were blown away by the song and the performance. Lois looked it up when we got home and found that it was written by Susan Werner. Even since then, we have been looking for an opportunity to see Susan perform. The opportunity finally came, much closer to home than we expected.

The First Unitarian Society of Westchester holds a monthly music series called Common Ground Coffeehouse. Last night they featured Susan Werner. It’s about a 20-minute drive from our house. The show was sold out. I estimate there were roughly 150 people there, packed into a large rectangular room (like a super-sized living room), with no stage, just a carved out front area with a grand piano and two speakers mounted from the ceiling on either side of the room.

First, the mechanics. Susan Werner performed roughly 70% of the songs on an acoustic guitar (she switched between two different ones) and the other 30% on the grand piano. She’s an excellent guitarist and an even better piano player.

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She has a superb voice, terrific range and power. She even sang one verse of one song as Louis Armstrong, and she nailed his voice! 🙂

Susan has a commanding presence (I can’t say on stage because there was none). 😉 She is warm, engaging, funny, moving, in control. The audience was one of the best we’ve ever been a part of. You could have heard a pin drop (well, probably not, because the room was carpeted, but you get my point). 😉

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I strongly suspect that they are this respectful for all artists, but Susan commanded and earned the respect, for sure. We’ll be attending other shows in their series, I’m sure, just for the enjoyment of being able to experience a live performance in total peace!

Now for the artistic side of the equation. May I Suggest is a stunning song. Thankfully, it’s but one of many brilliant songs that Susan has written. Susan was introduced by our host for the evening (I think his name was Carter, apologies if I am wrong). He explained that Common Ground hosts a wide variety of music: Folk, Jazz, Blues, Country, etc., and for the first time, we were likely to hear all of them on the same night.

He was right! Seriously! It would be a mistake to pigeonhole Susan into a particular genre. Lois described her (to me) as the Joan Baez of our generation. I don’t disagree, but her musical styles and lyrical subject matter are much more far ranging than Joan’s.

She opened the show with a series of songs she refers to as Agnostic Gospel. I suspect that all but the most fundamentalist religious people would find the songs respectful, even though they raise lots of questions. They’re certainly spiritual, and searching rather than dismissive.

She then switched to the piano and took us in an entirely different direction, Show tunes! She led with Chicago Anyday, an ode to Chicago. After that one song, she returned to the guitar so I assumed the Show tunes part was over. I was wrong. She did an exceptional job of playing two more Show tune style songs on the guitar (I told you, she’s excellent on the guitar).

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There was a 20-minute intermission, and then Susan returned for another amazing set. The second set had a few more piano numbers, including May I Suggest. Lois cried, as did the woman to my right. A friend of hers turned to her and said “I knew that song would get to you!”, so it apparently was the first time she’d heard the song.

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She also sang Barbed Wire Boys that made Lois cry. Susan’s songs are hardly one-dimensional in the lyrics (I hope I’ve already conveyed that the music is highly varied as well). She can tell a story, an anthem, convey a concept, share an emotion, etc. Some are serious enough to make you cry, others are hysterical, and the crowd laughed heartily (simultaneously) quite a number of times (during songs as well as some of Susan’s between-song banter).

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She closed the show with three brand-new songs. All were incredible, and we look forward to getting recorded versions of them ASAP.

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When she was done, the audience gave her an extended standing ovation. She wasn’t going to be able to get out of the building without coming back for an encore, so she did the smart thing. She sang a cover of Wouldn’t It Be Lovely. If you didn’t know the lyrics (is there anyone who doesn’t?), you would never recognize that it was the same song. It was beautiful, but Susan made it her own!

She left to another standing ovation. We headed to the merch table and bought two CDs. Lois was second on line to get them signed. The woman ahead of Lois went to get a Sharpie for Susan, and it took her a while to find one, so Lois got to chat with Susan for an extended period, without being a hog, since Susan couldn’t sign yet. When the woman returned, Susan signed her CD first, then both of ours, and we headed home, floating from a perfect evening.

New York Sings for Haiti

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On most days even compassionate people go about their lives in a near bubble-like existence. The problems of the rest of the world aren’t one’s first thought. Unfortunately, it often takes a tragedy to break us out of that routine and remind us that we are dramatically more alike than we are different, us fragile humans.

The explosion of text messages sent to raise money after the earthquake in Haiti proved that if you make it easy to give, many people will happily do so, even if it isn’t the most prudent thing for them to do.

There are many ways to give. As important as direct monetary donations are, raising awareness is also crucial as the ever-widening circle of giving, volunteering and compassion have a chance to work their way deeper into our lives.

Many artists live more obvious compassionate lives, creating art as an outlet for deep-seated emotions. They also have fans, which makes raising awareness a little easier for them than for ordinary folk.

Many musicians participated in many benefit concerts (some televised globally) over the past week. I applaud all of those efforts. For the bigger acts, pulling off these last-minute mega-shows is difficult, I’m sure, but the machinery that surrounds them is geared toward doing that kind of work, and money is never an obstacle.

In the incredible vibrant indie music scene in NYC, the story of last night’s benefit concert is inspiring in showing what can be accomplished with compassion, and a crazy amount of effort (and let’s not forget talent as well!).

Alex Berger is a very talented singer/songwriter who is visiting from the UK. He was staying at a friend’s apartment for a week, the extraordinary photographer Ric Agudelo (an incredible person, who we were lucky to meet as a result of this benefit).

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After spending the evening at Rockwood Music Hall enjoying some music, they were both heartbroken to hear about the earthquake in Haiti. Sitting on Ric’s couch at 1am they decided that they had to try and do something. Ric said that they should get cracking first thing in the morning. Alex said let’s send out some emails right now, and so it began.

Alex was able to get commitments from over a dozen of NYC’s most amazing musicians. Ric was able to secure one of the finest places to see a show in NYC, City Winery. Ric and others then went into overdrive to pull all of the logistics together (a daunting task!) and Alex worked with the musicians to create a show that the audience will never forget.

Giving/sacrifice comes in many flavors. Quite a number of the musicians who agreed instantly to participate did so knowing that they would have to change prior commitments on a moment’s notice. A large group of them postponed a writers retreat. Alex Wong flew cross-country just for the show. Many other similar stories.

As active as we are in attending shows in NY so are many other music lovers. We’ve had the pleasure and the privilege of meeting a few other passionate fans as a result of another example of these artists giving whenever they can.

Shannon Black is a cancer survivor. She is a wonderful person in all respects and is inspirational in many ways, including that she runs in the NYC Marathon each year, raising money for Livestrong in the process. We met Shannon (and her husband and fellow music-lover Jason) at their Livestrong fundraiser, where again, Alex Berger arranged for 11 musicians to perform and donate their time and talent.

Half way through the show last night, Shannon came up to me and gave me a hand-written note, asking me if I would mind including it in my blog. Not only don’t I mind, I’m honored to share it with the rest of you:

Hadar,

When you blog about this magical night, could you say something for me?

Not only have we been brought together for a great cause, but in witnessing these musicians making themselves so vulnerable, I have been called/pressed/pulled to that which my life was meant for!

I got a second chance, so I needed this, tonight!

In a nutshell, in witnessing their “magic”, I have been called to that which “God meant for me to do!”

Last thing before getting on with the show. While most musicians rehearse before their shows, the challenge in preparing for last night’s show was monumental. There was a house band (a group of amazing musicians) that played with most of the acts. They had practically no time to learn tons of material, and, of course, they nailed it all!

The house band consisted of: Tony Maceli (who also coordinated the entire show including running the rehearsals!), Chris Kuffner, Marika Hughes, Kevin Rice, Adam Christgau, Melissa Tong, Ward Williams and a number of other people whose names I didn’t catch, sorry!

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While the show was sold out (no surprise), in addition to the money raised from ticket sales, there was a raffle (including two high-end guitars, donated by Martin and Gibson, which were signed by all of the performers!). The show was streamed live for those that couldn’t make it and there were opportunities throughout the stream to donate.

If I understand correctly, as soon as possible, they will release a CD and DVD of the show as well, having additional opportunities to raise more funds for this very worthy cause.

Typically, I go into great detail about each act in the shows we attend (often, each individual performer in each band). If I did that now, I’d be publishing this blog late next week, and the purpose of this post, and of last night, wasn’t to critique the performance, but to revel in the kindness and generosity of all involved, performers and audience alike.

The music ranged from soft a capella (the always blissful Rewind by The Paper Raincoat) to hard rock by both The Bongos and Harper Blynn. Everything in between as well, including Jazz, Pop, Folk, Country.

Most performed two or three numbers, with a few last-minute guests coming on for only a single song. One example of the latter was a Nashville-based singer/songwriter, Sara Jean Kelly who drove up, sang one song, and made us take note of her talent! One other person not listed was an Israeli singer/songwriter. I thought they announced her as Tal, but perhaps it was Tula. I apologize if I linked to the wrong person there. Thanks to a comment from Rebecca, I now know I was wrong in that last sentence. The singer was Paula Valstein.

Here are the artists in the order that they appeared. Many appeared on stage with other artists, and of course, the incredible house band supported most of them (a few had their own bands, and I apologize for not doing my normally thorough job of naming every one of them!).

Martin Rivas (still recuperating from foot surgery, came up with his crutches!)

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The Bongos (I believe that they were originally slated to headline City Winery that night. Incredibly generous of them to give up that kind of spotlight and share the stage with everyone else!)

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The Wellspring (a newly formed duet, last night was their public debut I think. Supported by Alex Berger, ambeR Rubarth and Wes Hutchinson.)

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Nate Campany (supported by many of the other performers)

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Rosi Golan (our first time seeing her, amazing!)

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Will Knox

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Ed Romanoff

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Sara Jean Kelly

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Tula Paula Valstein (now corrected, thanks again Rebecca!)

Tula

Wes Hutchinson (supported by his band, Reel by Reel)

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amber Rubarth (supported by Threeds, Ed Romanoff, Ari Hest and Tony Maceli playing trumpet)

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Threeds

Ian Axel (ahhhhhhhhhhhh, supported by Chad Vaccarino)

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Alex Berger (fabulous, topped off by Love, supported by ambeR and Vienna Teng. Tony Maceli played a wonderful trumpet)

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Joey Ryan (supported by Vienna Teng and Dave Eggar)

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Greg Holden (supported by Ian Axel, Joey Ryan and ambeR)

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Harper Blynn

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Vienna Teng (supported by Alex Wong and Kevin Rice. Actually, Vienna opened with an a capella number with roughly 10 people on stage, including many of the evening’s performers!)

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The Spring Standards (new discovery for me. They’re great. I was particularly impressed with Heather’s voice!)

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Ari Hest (with his own band. First time we got to see him perform in a lead role. Marvelous voice!)

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The Paper Raincoat closed the show. Unbelievably fitting for us, because every single connection that we have with the local music scene in NYC emanated from our discovery of them when they opened for Colin Hay in April 2009. It’s amazing that our journey is so short, and yet so rich, all thanks to ambeR Rubarth and Alex Wong.

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Of course, they were magical (they always are).

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To top everything off, most of the artists came back on stage for a fittingly named finale: Help is on the Way, a song by Alex Wong’s former group, The Animators. There were roughly 30 people on stage singing their hearts out. Elizabeth Ziman of Elizabeth and the Catapult joined Vienna at the piano for the finale.

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The show ended at exactly 1am, five solid hours of incredible spirit and music.

That said, last night really wasn’t about the music, as much as we all may have loved it. It’s about seeing what can be accomplished, in a very short time, by people who are motivated to do something selfless for others. It was wonderful to be the tiniest part of that effort.

Thank you to everyone involved in putting on the show and raising the money, and special thanks for Alex Berger and Ric Agudelo!

ambeR Rubarth, Ian Axel, Greg Holden and Joey Ryan at Tin Angel

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ambeR Rubarth is very good about disseminating information about upcoming shows once they’re set. When she tweeted a couple of months ago that she would be appearing in Philadelphia at Tin Angel with Ian Axel, Greg Holden and Joey Ryan on January 22nd, 2010, we grabbed tickets.

A month later ambeR announced that she, Greg and Joey would be performing on three consecutive weeks at Rockwood Music Hall in a January Residency. Rockwood is way more convenient, and we though we’d get to see them at least once. Amazingly, we couldn’t contort ourselves enough to make any of those shows, including the last one this past Thursday when Ian Axel guest starred as well.

No worries, we were set for last night, and had been to Tin Angel once before and knew we liked the place.

The gang of four had a bit of trouble with their GPS so we were actually seated right next to the stage as they scrambled in (about 25 minutes before show time). They did their sound checks and disappeared into the green room to catch their breaths for a few minutes.

Only six minutes late (7:36pm), they came back on stage and announced that they would be playing the show in the round, taking turns doing songs. We have grown particularly fond of that format from all of the CMA Songwriters shows that we attend at Joe’s Pub.

Greg Holden kicked it off with Joey Ryan doing a song we really love. They debuted the song on YouTube and I can’t tell you how many times we’ve listened to it, but it’s dozens (we sing it out loud in the car a lot).

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After that the order was Ian Axel, ambeR Rubarth, Joey Ryan and back to Greg again, etc. Each of them knows all of the music of the others so well, that there was quite a bit of support during most songs (harmonies, Ian playing piano for the others and the others playing guitar for Ian). They all sing harmony beautifully.

We’ve seen a number of our favorite keyboard players on real pianos and on electronic keyboards. While a good electronic keyboard and a good sound system can sound nearly identical to a top piano, the obvious difference is that the electronic keyboard can mimic other instruments, or create a more synthesized sound in general.

Last night highlighted a much more significant difference between the two. Greg was about to play one of his songs and Ian was set to accompany him on the piano (electronic variety). Greg turned to Ian and apologized, telling him that he was going to play it one fret down from where they normally do.

I’m sure that there are piano players out there who can transpose a piece in their heads, and nail it. It’s not something I would want to even consider. Ian just smiled and said “No problem!”. He made one tiny adjustment on the keyboards, and transposed electronically, while being able to play in the key he was familiar with. Do that on a real piano! 🙂

They performed four songs each and one all together at the end, making a total of 17 numbers (a superb set, lasting just under 110 minutes!). Song selection was wonderful all around. Now that I’m thinking about it, they might have played five each, for a total of 21, but I wouldn’t swear to it (at least not in court).

Each of them has wonderful stage presence. Greg got the audience to sing along on two of his numbers (including Bar on A, the last one that all four of them did together). Ian felt that he was rambling in introducing a song and said “Perhaps I shouldn’t talk.” The crowd resoundingly implored him to keep talking! 🙂

Here they all are singing Bar on A:

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ambeR asked for one request, got three separate responses (In the Creases from Lois, Rough Cut and Novacaine). All three choices are awesome, and Lois withdrew her request and ambeR played Rough Cut (one of two songs she played using Ian’s keyboards, which makes me more confident that they played five songs each).

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Ian knocked us out as he has from the first time we saw him. For his third number he played his current sensation, the title cut from his new CD called This is the New Year. You can lift your spirit by watching this YouTube video of This is the New Year. It has over 39,000 views already (Lois swears she doesn’t account for more than 1,000 of them) 😉 though she has sent the link to everyone she knows, and all of these views are just in one month!

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Greg Holden sang the part that Chad Vaccarino normally sings. Greg did a fantastic job, but I admit that my ears are attuned to hearing Chad’s voice in that spot, and it took me a few seconds to adjust.

Our friend @HappyBee3 saw the show the night before in Rockwood and told us that she was moved to tears when Ian sang Say Something. Last night he performed it too, on the ukulele (like he did the night before), but ambeR, Greg and Joey all sang harmony with him. The song is moving enough, but with 4-part harmony, all the more!

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After Ian sang Gone (another moving song), Lois was nearly in tears (notice the trend from the night before?). Then Amber took to Ian’s keyboards and performed a song we hadn’t heard her play live before, and Lois achieved real tears. They all joked that Joey better pick a more up-beat song. He asked whether a song about cancer would qualify? In other words, lots of deeply emotional lyrics last night.

Joey Ryan is the only one that we hadn’t seen perform (he’s based in L.A.). He has a really beautiful voice, with an extraordinary range for a guy. He sings in the lower registers when it’s his song (for the most part), but he hits incredibly high notes, very cleanly, when he harmonizes with Greg and ambeR.

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Joey plays the guitar beautifully, finger picking a storm. He writes complex lyrics that I’ll have to listen to a number of times until they’re ingrained. Toward that end, we bought both Joey’s brand new EP, Kenter Canyon and his previous full-length CD, With its Roots Above and its Branches Below. I’m listening now while typing this. Lovely! 🙂

We already own Greg Holden’s CD and EP, and Ian’s EP and CD, and ambeR’s CD/EP and The Paper Raincoat EP/CD as well. 🙂

Lois picked up a second Ian Axel T-Shirt last night. She was wearing her green one and bought a purple one.

While all four have great stage presence and are all pretty funny, I have to give a shout out to Joey for being the driest of them. He delivers his wit so soft-spokenly, so understated, expressionless (most times), that you might be tempted to think he was being serious. Don’t fall for it! He’s just flat out clever, funny and quick!

We didn’t worry whether it would be worth the long round-trip drive. What we couldn’t be sure of was how great this particular show would be. It was excellent in every respect.

All four of them were on for each of their songs, all four meshed together perfectly. The venue is intimate. The sound was perfect, with one notable exception. For a good part of the evening, they couldn’t get the feedback from ambeR’s guitar pickups to stop. It wasn’t that distracting for us, but ambeR was a trooper for plowing through it!

The audience was exceptional as well. They knew these artists well even though none are from Philly, were quiet during the songs but really loud and long in their applause after each number. They also lined up at the merch table afterward to buy stuff and say hi. It felt good to be part of it. Thanks Philly fans, you too made the drive worthwhile!

But wait, there’s more!

The drive down was spectacular. We were bathed in a stunning and seemingly never-ending sunset.

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We ate dinner at Serrano, the excellent restaurant below Tin Angel. If you have a dinner reservation, they hold a table for you at Tin Angel above. The food and service at Serrano is so good (both times we were there) that we wouldn’t consider going to Tin Angel without dining at Serrano first.

Lucky for us, we’ll see all four of theses wonderful musicians this Monday night (Jan 25th) at City Winery, where they are part of a spectacular lineup of indie artists who are putting on a benefit to raise money for Haiti.

Vienna Teng at Rockwood Music Hall

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We’ve been up later than normal this past week, including one 2am night. It was all great, but at our age, it takes its toll. 😉 We were looking forward to vegging this weekend so we headed to the house on Thursday evening with the intention of not emerging from our cocoon for as much as a week.

The best laid plans…

I follow many musicians on Twitter. Early yesterday afternoon Vienna Teng (@viennateng) tweeted that the act scheduled for 7pm at Rockwood Music Hall had to cancel, and they asked her to fill in on short notice. Lois was out for a few hours with a friend so I had to wait until 4pm to see whether she was up to it. She was.

We left at 5:20pm which should have had us at Rockwood by 6:10. We experienced the worst NYC traffic in a few years and got there at 6:55pm. We made it and got seats before Vienna took the stage. Whew.

I’ve written really long posts about Vienna twice before, here and here, and I encourage those of you who are unfamiliar with this brilliant woman to read them.

Aside from a few surprise special guests who joined Vienna, last night was more pure Vienna, on the most intimate stage we’ve seen her, with a grand piano but no Alex Wong with his incredible percussion and myriad other instruments.

Vienna’s voice is extraordinary and her piano playing is mesmerizing. Put it together with her brilliant songwriting and she really needs nothing and no one else on stage to captivate the audience.

ViennaTengPiano

Of course, if you’ve seen her, or if you’ve read either of my previous posts, you know that she’s also a master of effectively using electronics (looping and synthesizing) live on stage, which she did wonderfully last night, to create the sound of five people.

In addition to being an amazing performer, she is also the epitome of grace. During one of her songs, someone’s cell phone went off. The woman let it ring in her bag until it went to voicemail (in other words, a long time). Then it rang again (during the same song).

This time, the woman retrieved it and walked to the door to answer it. Vienna joked (mid-song) that it wouldn’t have been so bad if the ringtone was in the right key! When she finished the song, she played the exact ringtone on her piano (in the correct key, of course), as a finishing flourish. A very nice, funny and classy touch.

There’s a reason most places still find it necessary to remind people to silence their devices…

Vienna asked for requests and Lois was first to answer with Homecoming (which Vienna didn’t play at City Winery). Vienna played it perfectly. Thanks! 🙂

One of the people we’ve been wanting to see live was Ari Hest. He joined Vienna for two songs last night. The first was a song that must be pretty new (I think it’s Ari’s song), because he wrote the lyrics on his hand so he wouldn’t forget them.

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What was visually cool was that he brought up one of the table candles on stage to illuminate his hand to read the lyrics. He held the candle the entire song, and the effect was wonderful. So was the song, by the way. Ari has a really good voice, and we look forward to catching one of his shows ASAP.

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Ari also joined Vienna at the piano where he harmonized (looping and all) on The Last Snowfall (a song we simply can’t get enough of).

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Vienna then invited Paul Freeman to the stage. She sang Antebellum (another amazing and very powerful song with stunning piano accompaniment), and Paul sang the Alex Wong part (Alex co-wrote the song with Vienna). Paul has an excellent voice, and he did a very nice job.

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Vienna then invited up another of our favorite musicians/people, Alex Berger. In a surprise move, she relinquished the piano and turned it over to Alex. Vienna took center stage to sing. Last Monday we attended Alex Berger’s show at The Living Room as did Vienna. Alex sang an old Jazz favorite, and it inspired Vienna to want to break one out as well.

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She chose A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (fitting, since Alex is a Brit). She had just pressed it into duty so it wasn’t a shock that she lost the lyrics for a second 2/3’s of the way into the song. That gave Alex the opportunity to sing a bit as well (always welcome!), to get her back on track.

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Vienna finished up the show with her rousing Grandmother Song. Awesome (as always).

We returned to the house immediately after the show. Was it worth driving 145 minutes (round trip) for a 45-minute set? Are you kidding? Did you really have to ask? YES, it was more than worth it. 🙂

Alex Berger and The Bowmans at Living Room

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We weren’t scheduled to be in NYC last night. When we ran into Alex Berger on Saturday night at City Winery and he mentioned that he was playing on Monday at The Living Room. That was all we needed to hear to rearrange our schedule and stay in the city a few extra days.

Alex is a wonderful singer/songwriter with excellent piano skills. He is primarily a master of Jazz/Blues/Ragtime styles, though he’s by no means boxed in there.

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Listening to Alex sing and play causes me to instantly transport to a simpler time and place. My body completely relaxes and I’m lost in the journey. He’s a crooner for those of you old enough to know the term. 🙂

We’ll have to see if he can continue to write such lovely songs if his love-life stops throwing material at him. 😉

We’ve seen Alex a few times before, but he still managed to surprise us last night. One one number, he brought up the incredible Adam Levy to play the guitar while Alex sang (no piano). It’s a song they co-wrote last year. You can see a black and white YouTube video of them playing this song.

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Sitting (and not playing) on the right in that video is the wonderful bass player Tony Maceli. Last night, Tony accompanied Alex throughout the set, including joining Alex and Adam on this number. Adam took an incredible guitar solo (accompanied by Tony), and Tony took a wonderful bass solo with Adam supplying the rhythm.

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But, that’s not the surprise. Surprise! What was new was Alex picking up Adam’s guitar (before Adam came on stage) and Alex did a song we’d seen him play before on the piano, but this time he did it on the guitar. He did a very nice job, and I look forward to him arranging guitar parts for existing and future songs as well!

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The other major surprise (for a very different reason), was getting see the amazing Adam Christgau on drums. I’ve written about Adam many times, as he’s the primary drummer for The Paper Raincoat, ambeR Rubarth, Ian Axel, Greg Holden, Alex Berger and many others who we haven’t had the pleasure of seeing live yet (he’s one busy guy!).

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From seeing Adam’s tweets over the weekend, I knew he was very sick. Still, he played a show (perhaps two!) on Sunday night. But another artist that he plays with, Jenny Owen Youngs tweeted yesterday that she was off to Maine for a week of songwriting with a bunch of people, including Adam! So, I was sure he was not going to be there last night.

It turns out that Adam is joining them this coming weekend, and even though he was still incredibly sick, he was as good as he always is, adding to our enjoyment of Alex’s set. Adam, you should have stayed in bed for your sake, but for ours, we thank you for dragging yourself out! 🙂

Alex’s set last night was made possible through an invitation by The Bowmans for Alex to open for them. The Bowmans have a residency this month at The Living Room, performing on three consecutive Monday nights at 9pm, beginning last night. We decided to stay to hear them as well.

The Bowmans are (beautiful) identical twin sisters from Iowa, who now make their home in Brooklyn (as so many excellent indie artists do). While they indeed look alike, I would bet serious money that I could tell them apart even if they went out of their way to fool me. There, I’ve laid down the gauntlet! 😉

They both have exceptional voices, with a lot of range, clarity and power. Their harmonies are anything but vanilla, and the sound is often hauntingly beautiful. Sarah accompanies them on the guitar on every song (except for one a capella number). Sarah is also the primary songwriter (at least for last night’s set).

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Claire said that she wrote the a capella number that they performed. She also played the glockenspiel on one or two numbers, and used a shaker a few times. She had two tambourines, and played one or both to excellent effect.

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As beautiful as their sound is, it also felt pretty dark throughout the set. There is a brooding, angst-ridden quality. If you’re in the mood to delve into those dark places (lyrics or music), then The Bowmans may be exactly what you’re looking for.

We had a lovely evening out and are very glad we changed our plans. If we were younger, we would have wandered a few blocks over to Rockwood Music Hall to catch Ari Hest and Rosi Golan, neither of whom we’ve had the pleasure of seeing live yet. A number of the people who attended Alex Berger and The Bowmans did just that.

Vienna Teng and Alex Wong at City Winery

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I decided to label this post Vienna Teng and Alex Wong at City Winery because we specifically went to see them. They were part of a lineup in one of many Showcase performances during the 4-day APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenters) Conference.

I’ll cover everyone who appeared on stage, which will make this another very long post. I’ll summarize all of the performances first and then get more detailed.

Third in the lineup, but first in our hearts (before and after the show) were Vienna Teng and Alex Wong. They were extraordinary in every respect.

Closing the show was WPA (Works Progress Administration). They were completely engaging, played the longest set of the night, and were the only ones permitted to return for an encore. They are all wonderful musicians.

Jeff Daniels was the MC for the evening, but a musical one at that. He picked his acoustic guitar with fury and purpose, sang wonderfully, and kept everyone laughing (through his songs and stories) every second he was on stage. He opened the show, and came on between every act.

Grant Lee Phillips rounded out the lineup, appearing after Jeff’s opening numbers. He has an excellent voice, plays the guitar really well and was accompanied by a piano/midi player, creating quite a full sound. There was a lot to enjoy about his performance, but it didn’t entrance me.

Excruciating details to follow. If you found this space because you searched for your particular favorite artist, just skip down appropriately. I’ll cover them in the same order I summarized them above.

A month ago we saw Vienna and Alex for the first time at Joe’s Pub. I covered that show in this very long post. While the character of the show last night was very different, every word I wrote in the Joe’s Pub post still applies, and our awe of both Vienna and Alex (independently!) continues to grow.

A brief recap of their respective strengths:

Vienna has an angelic voice which she can modulate over a large range. In addition to hitting high and low notes, she modulates ferocity, singing in a near whisper at times and belting it out at others.

She writes songs that move you both lyrically and musically. Armed with those attack vectors, one or both will be sure to knock you down and keep you riveted throughout her performance.

She is unreal on the piano. We couldn’t imagine a world without her voice and lyrics, except that when she’s only playing the piano, one can easily forget that there’s more to appreciate and explore.

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She’s also easy on the eyes, so there’s no need to scan the room to keep your visual interest either. 😉

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Alex is talented on so many levels it’s hard to capture in a “brief recap” of his strengths. At the core (for me) is his spiritual connection with the music, which he captures and conveys to the audiences in whatever instrument he happens to be playing (and he plays so many, it’s mind-boggling).

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We discovered Vienna through our love of Alex’s other project, The Paper Raincoat. In The Paper Raincoat, Alex plays a variety of instruments but leaves the drumming to the amazing Adam Christgau.  While Alex plays a number of instruments in support of Vienna, he’s mostly a percussionist, adding depth and coloring the mood of Vienna’s masterpieces.

Alex sings well, mostly in haunting harmonies with Vienna, but occasionally some leads as well.

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The above recaps their generic strengths all of which they exhibited at last night’s show. They put together a great one-hour set with a wide range of styles (nailing the concept of a Showcase).

They produce a sound that is unimaginably big for only two people. I described one of the techniques that they use in my last post, looping their voices and instruments to create layers and self-harmonies. They took it to another level last night.

When they played The Last Snowfall (the first cut from their current CD, Inland Territory), Alex took over the piano duties and Vienna just sang. I put just sang in italics because Vienna looped her voice multiple times. At the end of the song, she was singing four part harmony. I am not kidding. It was stunningly beautiful.

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I think I took her aback when I joked after the show that I was expecting five or six part harmony. Not everyone immediately gets my sense of humor. 😉

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Similarly, Alex often loops the drum sounds. While it certainly sounds like multiple drummers (in perfect unison), it’s actually much more interesting than just multiple drummers (a sound I love, used by The Allman Brothers and The Grateful Dead for example). Alex achieves the feel of echoes in a completely seamless manner.

Expecting this kind of technical pyrotechnics in a studio is one thing. Experiencing performers doing this live on stage, in real-time, with zero margin for error, is astounding. I’ve seen a few people use looping techniques on stage (all to good effect), but none that raise it to a very art form like Vienna and Alex. Bravo!

Once again Vienna closed the set with the electrifying Grandmother Song (also on the Inland Territory CD). This is the only other number that she didn’t play the piano on. If I need to give more detail than the word electrifying, you need to break out your dictionary and help yourself a bit. 🙂

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If we only saw their one-hour set, we would have been completely satisfied at the value we received for our ticket price and our night out!

The couple who sat next to us are big fans of Vienna and Alex (so we know they have good taste in music) 😉 and they were telling us how great WPA are, so I was pumped up to see them perform.

There are three core members of WPA and others slide in and out at various times. It’s theoretically a side project for all of them, but it seems to be a stable one, with a potentially long future.

In the center is Glen Phillips, former lead singer of Toad the Wet Sprocket. Good voice, great stage presence, good guitar playing (one of the few people who occasionally finger picks on an electric guitar).

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On the left is Luke Bulla on the fiddle and vocals. We’ve seen Luke twice before, both times with the Jerry Douglas band. Luke also plays with Lyle Lovett! He is a major talent on the fiddle and he showed it off a number of times last night. He has a good voice too, singing lead and harmonizing with the others. Luke also played one number on the guitar, which he wrote.

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On the right is Sean Watkins on acoustic guitar and vocals. I’ve never seen Sean perform before, but I am very familiar with him. He was 1/3 of Nickel Creek, one of my favorite groups (I own all of their CDs). Sean is an excellent flat picker and has a really good and distinctive voice. Even though the rest of the sound is not Nickel Creek like (due to the absence of the mind-boggling Chris Thile on Mandolin), whenever Sean was singing lead and taking the lead on the guitar, I could hear his Nickel Creek roots, and I loved every second of it.

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The three of them trade off singing lead and in all cases harmonize together beautifully, in pairs and all three together.

Backing them up last night was a very good bassist, Sebastian Steinberg and on the drums, Jerry Roe. The two of them supported Glen, Luke and Sean very well, keeping the beat lively and interesting.

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Clearly they are all excellent musicians who sing well. We also happen to like that general sound (a blend of Bluegrass and Rock). What particularly tickled me is their lyrical irreverence. Many of the songs that they sing are flat out funny. They are having a great time on stage, and it’s infectious.

One example (of many) is a song that Sean sings about loving a girl who didn’t return his affection. He later finds out she’s a lesbian. He laments:

Everyone’s a little queer, why couldn’t you be a little straight?

Update: Check the comment from Alex Wong who corrects me and points out that the above-mentioned song is by Weezer, called Pink Triangle!

They closed the encore with an upbeat version (nice Bluegrass kick) of Bob Dylan’s You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Sean sung lead and played a wicked guitar throughout). It was an awesome way to end an awesome night out.

Jeff Daniels (yes, the famous actor) was perfect as MC. He plays the guitar in a hard-charging fingers-flying blues-style picking way. He sings remarkably well. But, crushing that is the fact that he’s hysterical and natural on the stage.

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He played two numbers each of the three times he was on stage, effectively having a nice full set for himself as well, even though it was spaced out. All of the songs were funny. One was spoken (a long, wildly entertaining true story about a family vacation). Even the spoken one felt like a song, because Jeff was picking madly the entire time (how he didn’t lose his concentration on either the story or the guitar is beyond me!), which created a beat to the story.

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He was also very kind to us before the show. Lois asked if she could take his picture (we were there early enough to catch the tail end of his sound check). Not only did he immediately say yes, but he suggested that she get in the picture and that I take it. Then, while Lois and I both started to stand up, he said “Don’t move, I can just as easily bend!”, and indeed he did. 🙂

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I have no doubt that we would both jump at the chance to see Jeff perform again. No other acts need to be on the bill!

After Jeff opened the show, Grant Lee Phillips came out. He was accompanied by Jamie Edwards on the piano and midi (sorry, I couldn’t find a good individual link for Jamie). Jamie did an excellent job of complementing Grant’s excellent guitar play, creating a rich sound between them. He also sang a bit of harmony.

Grant has a good voice, and I liked the sound/feel of his music. Unfortunately, that’s where it ended for me. I found myself drifting and unable to concentrate on his lyrics (so I’m not saying they aren’t good, I just don’t know, they didn’t rope me in). Each of the songs felt a bit too long as well. Again, for songs that I love, longer is better, so something was a tad off for me.

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In between songs, Grant had my full attention. He’s very quick and very funny. Any tiny mishap on stage was immediately turned into an opportunity to entertain the crowd with his wit. I was very impressed with his stage presence.

In total, this was a very long show, lasting 220 minutes! Give me more Showcases, please! 🙂

Not to be lost in all of the above is that City Winery is absolutely gorgeous. The second we walked in the door we were drawn to look at every nook and cranny of this brilliantly designed space.

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Dinner is meant to be semi-tapas style, or in general, shared. Everything we sampled was excellent, so theoretically, no problem. The one potential problem (that we avoided) is that the tables for four are quite small. If another couple was also sharing at the same time, it would have been unpleasant at best, and impossible at worst. Because we’re always super early, we finished eating long before the other couple was seated, and they got to eat without worrying about us either.

This is a real winery, not just in name. In addition to serving excellent wines (I thoroughly enjoyed my glass of Petite Syrah), they also make their own! This is a place we will be attending many more times, no doubt!

One small-world story to top off the night. For a few months, we had targeted a different show for last night. We have never seen Del McCoury and he was scheduled to play at BB King last night. I can’t explain why I didn’t grab tickets right away, but I didn’t.

A month ago I heard about mandolin phenom Sarah Jarosz. Then I found out she was opening for Del McCoury. To top it off, so was Marty Stuart. My excitement for this show was almost uncontainable. Still, I didn’t buy tickets. Why? I had no idea at the time, but I know now that I wasn’t meant to.

A week later I received an alert that Vienna Teng and Alex Wong were playing at City Winery that same night. Believe it or not, my mind failed to make the connection that it was the same night. I asked Lois and she instantly said “Grab tickets!”. I did.

Literally five minutes later, I turned to her and said “Uh oh, that was the same night that we were planning on seeing Del, Sarah and Marty!”. When I saw her flinch, I thought I should see if I could find someone to take the City Winery tickets off our hands, and still get the tickets for the BB King show. Lois said no, we love Vienna and Alex, let’s just keep things the way they are.

Obviously, we’ll never know how much we would have loved that show, but we know how much we loved the one we were obviously destined to see. 🙂

Update: Oops. I left out the small world part of the above story. Luke Bulla introduced a song that he sang last night as one he has been singing since he was a kid. It was a Del McCoury song. He never mentioned that Del was playing two miles north in Times Square at that exact moment. Perhaps he didn’t even know.