February, 2010:

Victoria Lavington Fundraiser at Christopher Street Coffeehouse

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Almost two years ago, I discovered a duo named Sweet Bitters. Since then, we’ve seen them perform a number of times and have become friendly with both Sharon Goldman and Nina Schmir (also known as Nina Soka).

For many years (at least nine I believe), Sharon has been a member of a female songwriters group affectionately known as Chicks with Dip, more formally known as Maggie’s Music Salon. One of the members of that group is Victoria Lavington.

Victoria is currently undergoing a battle with breast cancer. The Chicks decided to put on a benefit concert for her, and when Sharon announced it on Facebook and Twitter, Lois and I decided to support Victoria and attend.

Sharon Goldman was MC for the night (she also performed a solo) and was marvelous throughout the evening.

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There were two featured performers announced in advance, Red Molly and Natalia Zukerman. One of the members of Red Molly, Carolann Solebello, is also a member of Chicks with Dip. We are huge Red Molly fans (Sharon told me I would love their music the first night I met her, and she was spot on!).

I had heard Natalia’s name a few times, but took particular note earlier this month when she headlined the same bill with The Paper Raincoat (one of our favorites!) up in Massachusetts.

The Christopher Street Coffeehouse is located in St. John’s Lutheran Church at 81 Christopher Street. They highlight singer songwriters on a regular basis, so it was the perfect choice (in so many ways) for this gathering.

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Attendees were encouraged to purchase tickets in advance on Victoria’s site. While there was a suggested donation per ticket, we chose to pay more. I don’t say that to aggrandize ourselves but rather to encourage those of you who can help others to do so in whatever amount you can, not just the minimum that is socially acceptable.

There were excellent refreshments and lots of merchandise (notably many CDs, all of Red Molly’s, Natalia’s new one, Maggie’s Music Salon and Victoria’s). Everything purchased at the show was donated, so 100% of the proceeds went to Victoria’s cancer fighting effort!

Let’s repeat that, because it’s awesome! Not only did Red Molly and Natalia Zukerman donate their time and talent, causing attendance to be larger than it otherwise might have been, but they donated their merch (lots of it!). Further, they didn’t put a price on the merch. Donate what you want/can, and take what you want!

We bought the two Red Molly CDs that we didn’t own already (one was brand new). We bought Natalia’s new CD and Victoria’s as well. Red Molly and Natalia were kind enough to sign our CDs. 🙂

Natalia Zukerman totally captivated us. We’ve added her to the list of people that we will go out of our way to see perform. Simply wonderful. Her voice, music, musicianship, extraordinary spirit and her command of the audience.

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Red Molly are nearly indescribable. In the cab on the way home I was thinking that the three of them control their voices perfectly, individually and blended together. The subtlety of their volume shifts and the tightness of their stops and starts are amazing. Just as I’m thinking this, Lois turns to me and says “Can you believe the discipline that Red Molly has in everything they do, in particular their voices?” 🙂

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All of the Chicks were wonderful too. They performed Victoria Lavington songs. Victoria writes extremely complex songs, so my hat is off to the Chicks both for attempting these compositions and for pulling them off lovingly and beautifully!

Apologies for the quality of a number of these photos. The lighting was just strange enough that the shots were mostly too dark or too washed out. At least you’ll get a sense of the evening…

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Here are scans of the front and back of the program so you can see what was performed and by whom. Click on any photo in this post to see a larger version:

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Susan Lavington (Victoria’s sister) flew up from Washington for the event. She was scheduled to be the opening speaker, but her flight was canceled. Thankfully, she caught another and was only a little late. She gave her wonderful speech right after intermission.

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When the performance was over, Sharon introduced Victoria. Victoria gave one of the more moving speeches I’ve heard. Knowing that she was surrounded by friends and loved ones, and knowing that everyone was there to rally around her, with her and for her, she didn’t hold back anything in telling her story.

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When she was done, she performed one of her songs for us. Apparently she hasn’t performed in public since roughly 2004. She had a chemotherapy session that day and apologized in advance that it would likely affect her vocal chords (it affects all the cells in your body!).

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No apologies necessary! Sharon and others had described Victoria’s voice as angelic. Even on the day of a chemotherapy session, that was still true. She also picks the guitar well, making for a very moving performance. When she was done, she got a very long and well-deserved standing ovation.

To top the night off, all of the Chicks, plus Red Molly and Natalia, joined Victoria for an a capella version of another of Victoria’s numbers.

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The entire evening was filmed and a DVD will be produced. They were available for pre-order last night for $10. I assume that when they’re ready, they will be available for purchase on Victoria’s site. Please visit there regularly and do yourself a favor and buy a copy of the DVD. Not only will you experience some amazing music, but you will capture Victoria’s speech for yourself, forever. Whenever you need a bit of inspiration, watch it again!

Some of you might avoid these kinds of events for fear that they are downers with a lot of milling about averting your eyes. This is our second such event (the last one was a Livestrong fundraiser for Shannon Black) that I covered in this post.

If you have a chance to attend/participate in the future, go! It’s a celebration. It’s a room full of love. It’s people showing their humanity, the fragility of it embodied in the person needing the help and the wonder of compassion and love in those who rally around them.

That this event happened to be held in a church made it all the more reverent, though the Livestrong fundraiser was in a bar, and I can tell you that it was a spectacular evening for all of the same reasons!

If you have some extra money laying around, and these days, who doesn’t?, 😉 please visit Victoria’s site and donate, even though you missed last night’s wonderful show!

Vienna Teng, Alex Wong and Glen Phillips at Workplay

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This post is a day late because we didn’t complete the trifecta and follow Vienna Teng and Alex Wong to Louisiana. Instead, we kept our word and drove home from Birmingham, AL, a trip that took a day and a half of driving.

On Thursday, we drove from Atlanta to Birmingham to catch Vienna and Alex (along with Glen Phillips) for the second night in a row, this time at Workplay. In addition to not wanting to miss another opportunity to see Vienna and Alex, we really wanted to introduce David and Rebecca to their music, and David told me that Workplay was a great venue. He was right, Workplay is highly recommended!

I don’t know whether the artists that we surprise in strange places like being surprised (or care either way). All I know is that we amuse ourselves and get a kick out of showing up in unexpected places to see our favorite performers. For a second night in a row, our surprise was sprung earlier than expected. While we were sitting in the bar area waiting for the doors to open, Alex Wong wandered out to get something, and we were busted. 🙂

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Workplay is a much smaller venue than Variety Playhouse (at least on the Theater side, which is where this show was held). This alone would have made the experience different from the night before. Of course, road warrior artists find other ways to keep each night fresh.

There were a few substitutions from the previous night’s set list. Even for songs that were repeated (thankfully, because we promise not to tire of hearing them if Vienna promises to keep performing them!), different ones were introduced with stories than from the night before, and in one case, a totally different story was told (consistent with the night before).

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Vienna and Alex were a little more chatty (and funny) early on as well, which is always welcome. Glen joined them for one number, playing guitar but not singing. He didn’t join them in Atlanta.

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They played for 70 minutes with no encore. This was a few minutes longer than the night before, including the encore. They created a new set of fans, including David and Rebecca. The guy who sat in front of me became a fan as well (he was there to see Glen). He bought Inland Territory after the show and Vienna and Alex signed it for him. 🙂

Lois asked me to include the following thoughts from her (consider it a guest blog):

Vienna Teng is the epitome of grace and generosity. She’s a brilliant songwriter who paints the human condition via her great and diverse musical creations. Being in her presence is humbling and inspiring.

Her voice is pure and strong. Her lyrics capture deep emotions, often making you joyful and even toe-tapping to her strong rhythms and playful themes.

You’d imagine there were triplets on that stage as she effortlessly gives us her takes on life with classical – folk – jazz – country (and more) overtones in her songs. It’s extraordinary to hear her go from ‘Augustine’ to ‘Stray Italian Greyhound’ to ‘Grandmother’s Song’ and realize it’s the same Vienna writing and performing vastly different numbers.

She’s a hero to many – and it’s clear to Hadar and I why this is so: She is to us as well. We’ll continue crisscrossing the country to keep up with her. 🙂

We saw her twice on our recent journey south with the also-incomparable Alex Wong. Individually they amaze. Together they create sheer musical bliss for their audiences! We are grateful they do what they do – and that they share their magic with the rest of us!

Glen Phillips also mixed up his set a bit and changed his banter as well. He told a few stories he hadn’t the night before. He continues to impress me as a solo performer, and the audience once again was way more familiar with his songs than we are/were (though we’re starting to catch up).

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In Atlanta, Vienna joined Glen for one song and then again for his encore. In Birmingham, Vienna joined Glen for three consecutive songs during his set, and Glen performed his encore solo.

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We had a fantastic time and hung around to say hi after the show even though we were exhausted.

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Here is the set list reconstructed from memory (now two days late), and not presented in order (other than the opening and closing numbers). I am sure that I left out a few songs, and I apologize for that. I guess I was too busy enjoying the show to note each number:

  • Whatever You Want
  • Gravity
  • The Tower
  • Harbor
  • Stray Italian Greyhound
  • In the Creases (Alex sang lead and played the guitar beautifully. He also dedicated the song to two audience members who traveled far to see them. I assume he meant us!) 🙂
  • 1 Br / 1 Ba (1 Bedroom / 1 Bath)
  • The Last Snowfall (Vienna had trouble with the buttons on the looping machine, and she started the song three times. I love that she’s a pro, and didn’t just muddle through it, wanting to give the crowd the best experience. She did! Bravo!)
  • Augustine
  • No Gringo
  • Antebellum
  • Grandmother Song

Just to repeat, I’m sure about the above, but I likely dropped a few inadvertently.

We’re so happy to be home it’s hard to describe. That said, there’s no way that coming home two days earlier and missing these two shows would have been worth it. If only we were going on the Cayamo Cruise starting tomorrow, we could try and get our fill of Vienna and Alex (unsuccessfully, of course!)… 🙂

Vienna Teng, Alex Wong and Glen Phillips at Variety Playhouse

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We are huge fans of Vienna Teng and Alex Wong. I’ve written about them together and separately many times. You can read the original one about the two of them together here.

We were in Florida visiting my folks for the past few days and heading back to NY yesterday. When planning the trip, we noticed that Vienna and Alex were a week behind us (we were in Birmingham before FL, and got there by driving through Atlanta, and they were playing those two cities on consecutive nights).

In making our plans, we decided to surprise them, and give ourselves a huge gift in the process, and make a wide detour in returning to NY, going through Atlanta instead of up I95. If you read the post linked to above, then you’ll realize that this behavior is consistent with my announcement that we are officially stalking Vienna (we were already stalking Alex Wong and The Paper Raincoat!). 🙂

The surprise didn’t last long, as Alex spotted us from the lobby while we were waiting outside for the doors to open. He took a photo of us through the box office window.

We had never been to Variety Playhouse before. While it’s an old place, that could stand some refurbishing, it’s a fantastic place to see a show (meaning, while the look could be refreshed, everything else is top-notch!). The sound system was excellent and everyone who works there was as nice as you could hope for. It’s a huge place as well. Kudos to Vienna, Alex and Glen for filling as many seats as they did on a frigid Wednesday.

In addition to being a large crowd, it was one of the best audiences we’ve been part of as well, which is quite unusual in a place this big. Pin-drop quiet during the songs, crazy loud and long applause between songs. Singing when we’re instructed to, laughing when appropriate, etc. Glen Phillips has a very large following (more on him later), and I believe that a lot of his fans are now squarely Vienna and Alex fans too, and vice versa.

Vienna and Alex played a mesmerizing one-hour set (they came out at 8:20pm). After singing Homecoming (one of the many songs we constantly sing out loud in our car) Vienna gave us a shout-out, mentioning that she was disoriented seeing us, and thinking she wasn’t where she thought she was. 🙂

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She performed many of our favorites, including The Last Snowfall, Antebellum, Harbor, Whatever You Want, Grandmother Song, etc. (I could tell you every song, because we also snagged the hand-written set list, on a napkin, but that’s beside the point).

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Like I mentioned above, I’m sure that a fair number of people were there for Glen Phillips, but I can assure you, that the roar was deafening for Vienna and Alex after each song, so people weren’t killing time waiting for the main act to come out.

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It’s unusual for an opening act (how can one consider Vienna and Alex to be an opening act?) to get an encore. But, the clapping didn’t slow down even after they were off stage for a full minute, so they came back out and did a one-song encore, a Radiohead cover.

It was well worth our detour to get to see them perform at this wonderful venue.

After a 20-minute intermission, Glen Phillips came out. We’ve seen Glen only once before, at City Winery, as part of WPA (Works Progress Administration), in a show that we went to see because Vienna and Alex were on the same bill that night as well. Here is my post about that show.

After that show, when I mentioned to a number of friends of mine that we saw Glen Phillips, I was surprised that every single one of them knew who he was. We obviously were living under a rock while he was making headlines. Ironically, we know the other two members of WPA very well.

Last night was Glen solo, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. As I mentioned in the previous post, he has a great voice (even more obvious when he’s alone on stage) and his guitar playing is tasty, making him a compelling solo performer.

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Since I don’t know his music, I can’t be sure how many of the songs were his, or were covers. Clearly, they are well known either way (just not to me), because people were clapping the second they heard three notes of lead-in guitar, on most songs. Giving him credit for most of them, the lyrics are often complex and interesting.

He too played for an hour, inviting Vienna to play a duet with him on one number. When he was roused back on stage for an encore, he came back out with Vienna and they closed the show together.

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We hung around afterward to say hello to all three (it was our first time meeting Glen). We also purchased Vienna’s DVD (one of the only items of hers we didn’t own), as well as another copy of Inland Territory (a stunning CD) and two copies of The Paper Raincoat CD to give as gifts.

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The three of them are playing in Birmingham, AL tonight at Workplay. If you’re in the neighborhood, and you don’t go to see them, shame on you!

Update: At the request of a commenter in another post about Vienna and Alex, I am posting the Set List for this show:

  1. Whatever You Want
  2. Gravity
  3. Antebellum
  4. No Gringo
  5. Homecoming
  6. In the Creases (listed but not played!)
  7. The Last Snowfall
  8. The Tower
  9. Stray Italian Greyhound
  10. Augustine
  11. I Don’t Feel So Well (I really don’t recall this being played…)
  12. Harbor
  13. Grandmother Song
  14. Idioteque (Radiohead cover from Kid A, played as an encore)