October, 2011:

War Horse at the Vivian Beaumont Theater

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I didn’t particularly have an interest in seeing War Horse, even after it won the 2011 Tony Award for Best Play. We ended up seeing it last night (how that came to be, below), with extraordinary seats, in the second row.

I don’t go to the theater often enough for anyone to take my opinions to heart. When we make it out to Broadway, it’s more often for a musical than a play. Even then, often for the same musical (we’ve seen Wicked 10 times, already heave tickets for our 11th). Clearly, War Horse is a runaway winner, not just with critics/awards, but with audiences (tickets are very hard to come by).

With that out of the way, here is my opinion of the show, with no spoilers (not that there’s much to spoil to begin with).

The good:

  • The Puppetry is beyond brilliant. I like puppetry (I posted about a puppet show in Atlanta that we loved). This takes it to another level (more likely an order of magnitude).
  • Basically, it doesn’t take much suspension of disbelief to accept that you’re watching real horses on stage. This is a testament to both the puppets (and puppet makers) and to the puppeteers (3+ per horse!). The fact that you can ignore the puppeteers that you see working the horses is mind-boggling (yes, this is a continuation of the first point).
  • There is very little singing/music in the show, but what’s there is very well done.
  • Much of the acting is top notch, including a few exceptional performances (perhaps my favorite was Alyssa Bresnahan as the mother)
  • The staging is clever, in a very austere setting (more is done with less)
  • The second half (in particular the first 10-15 minutes) is filled with solid laughs. During the rest of the play, most of the laughs come from marveling at various puppets, not from clever lines.
  • The theater is beautiful and comfortable. Even though we had amazing seats, I imagine that the worst seat is pretty darn good.

The bad:

  • The story is actually trite. It’s a child’s story, drawn out in a series of ridiculous circumstances. The last scene was cringe-worthy for me (the writing and the acting).
  • The dialog is rarely engaging, bouncing back-and-forth between attempts at humor and overly serious philosophizing.
  • A small number of the actors overact so badly it’s almost laughable. Unfortunately, a few are in critical roles. I couldn’t tell whether they were poorly directed (and therefore possibly fine actors) or poorly cast. In the end, it doesn’t matter.

You can see more good than bad bullets above, and that’s ultimately how I felt about the show. I enjoyed it, and on a few levels am glad I went, but that this won the Tony Award for Best Play makes me sad to think about the state of Plays on Broadway. Perhaps there are too few to choose from to begin with.

To me, this should have won for the puppetry, in the same way that movies win Special Effects Oscars, without even being considered for Best Movie.

PlaybillTheaterReview

The cast received a standing ovation (from me too). Many of them deserved it (especially the puppeteers), so I didn’t feel silly standing. The real point is that for probably most everyone else in the theater, they were standing because they loved the show in every respect.

PlaybillCast

How we got there, which is one of the levels that I thoroughly enjoyed the show.

On July 6th, 2011, we met three young men who are attending the Mason School of Business at the College of William and Mary. They were up on a business trip and we all had dinner together followed by seeing two sets at Rockwood Music Hall. The first set (and a paragraph about the dinner) was covered in this post, which includes a photo of everyone who attended the dinner at the bottom.

One of those men is someone we’ll call John (because that’s his actual name). Winking smile John and I stayed in touch mostly through Twitter and he exchanged a few emails with Lois over the following months. John is in the Army, having served multiple tours in Iraq. In a recent email exchange, he told us that he was coming to NYC for a weekend with his wife, Alicia.

He mentioned that they were considering seeing War Horse. He has the obvious connection of being a soldier. Alicia is a horsewoman (a serious one at that), so she had independent reasons for wanting to see the show. I had a curiosity that came more from the musical side (I’ll conclude with that) so we suggested that the four of us see it together.

We also arranged to meet for dinner a few blocks away at Rosa Mexicano. Early yesterday morning we found out that in a couple of days, John will be promoted to Major. John was surprised that we knew when we congratulated him at dinner. We heard the news from our friend who introduced us back in July. We toasted his accomplishment and shared an incredible meal (well, at least mine was incredible). Smile

AliciaJohn

Both John and Alicia raved about the show afterward. I think that bringing their own perspectives to the performance made them connect more deeply with it than I did. For example, one of the things that John talked about the second the show was over was how well they captured the feeling that individual soldiers on each side experience nearly identical feelings.

Alicia being a horsewoman, explained how every nuance of a real horse’s movements was captured to perfection by the puppeteers. I’ve been around thousands of horses in my life (you don’t want to know how much time I’ve spent at the racetrack, both thoroughbred and harness), so I wholeheartedly agree.

When the show was over, we tried to catch a cab together. Given the freak October snowstorm in NYC that day, it wasn’t going to happen. We parted ways and Lois and I walked a number of blocks over to Central Park West. We ended up sharing a cab with a couple who was in town from San Diego for the weekend. They too had just seen War Horse (and loved it!). We dropped them at their hotel and continued to our apartment.

Circling back to one of my personal curiosities about War Horse. On May 23rd, I saw two sets at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2.

Mighty Kate (Katy Pfaffl) was the first one (covered second in this post). While she was on stage, War Horse was winning the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play! She had a special guest star join her to sing a duet, Matt Doyle, who is also in the show.

So, I had a personal interest in seeing each of them.

Katy is listed in the Playbill as Kate Pfaffl. She is the primary singing voice throughout the show, in a visible/background/narrator way. In other words, she’s not part of the scenes, but she’s often somewhere on stage, singing while the play is going on.

She has a gorgeous voice. She sings in a Scottish accent throughout (an interesting surprise for me). It’s hard to concentrate on the lyrics, because quite often, there is action happening on stage, even dialog (which is independent of not being used to hearing a Scottish accent in song).

In addition to singing, Kate also plays the violin (one of her multi-instrumental talents) a number of times.

There is a male singer, Liam Robinson, who is on stage a bit less than Kate. Most of the time that he’s on, they are singing together. They sounded fantastic. He played accordion and harmonica.

What of Matt Doyle? He has CDs out and clearly has a wonderful voice (from the show we saw in May). To my surprise, he doesn’t sing a lick. He’s one of the lead actors in War Horse, playing Billy Narracott. He was one of the strongest performers.

So, both Kate and Matt impressed (if I added mightily, which was my instinct, we would have come full circle back to Mighty Kate).

Rebecca Haviland at Rockwood Music Hall

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Rebecca Haviland at Rockwood Music Hall? We’re there. We’d go even if we knew it would be identical to the last show, but this time I knew there would be at least a small twist. One of her band members, Greg Mayo, was playing in Washington, DC, so something would be different. It turns out that her drummer Kenny Shaw wasn’t there either.

RebeccaHaviland

Rebecca didn’t replace Greg at the keyboards, nor his vocals, so the set was a bit more stripped down and raw. While I will welcome Greg back with open arms, I have to admit that there was a grittiness to having Rebecca’s electric guitar be the primary sound (along with her stunning voice) that was an interesting change of pace.

RebeccaHavilandGuitar

Rebecca just finished tracking (perhaps even mixing) a new CD, after a successful Kickstarter campaign. I believe that most of last night’s set will be on the CD. Another thing to look forward to in the coming months! Here’s the set list:

SetList

Rebecca got the crowd singing (pretty loudly) on If You (I never need an invitation for that one! In fact, it hurts me not to also sing on the lead-in, “If you want me to”, but I muzzle myself.).

She was supported by two outstanding musicians, with a very special surprise guest on one number.

Chris Anderson on electric bass and vocals. Chris co-wrote many of the songs with Rebecca. Their collaboration works perfectly in my opinion. Chris always sings a bunch on Rebecca’s sets, but with Greg Mayo out last night, it was always the two of them, rather than the occasional three-part harmony.

ChrisAnderson

Another effect of having Greg out was the lack of keyboard solos. Chris made up for one by kicking a** and taking numbers on a long and terrific bass solo. Even when Greg returns, I hope they keep that in the set!

ChrisAndersonBass

Dave Burnett on drums. Dave did a fantastic job throughout the set. I admit to be a little worried during the first number (Direction). Dave was great on that too, but a bit more hyper at times than Kenny Shaw’s style and it felt a little out of place to me. I never had that feeling again on the rest of the numbers. Dave is just flat out excellent.

DaveBurnett

Evan Watson came up to sing and play harmonica on Whiskey. His harmonica play was great. He took a verse on the lead and was absolutely wonderful.

Update: almost every time I second guess my memory, I put in incorrect information in the blog. it happened again this time. Because they joked about Whiskey, I said that Evan played on Whiskey, even though I was pretty sure he didn’t. Today, Manish Gosalia posted a video of the song Evan played on, Dig My Grave. Sorry folks, that’s what I remembered, but I overruled myself… 🙁

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In a fitting moment, Rebecca called for him to come up and she didn’t spot him right away. When she asked if he was still in the room, he called out that he was just getting a Whiskey at the bar. Winking smile

RebeccaHavilandEvanWatsonChrisAndersonWhiskey

Rebecca announced that she’d be back at Rockwood sometime in November and then again in December, though the specific dates haven’t been booked yet. If we’re in town, we’ll be there, no question about it.

Manish Gosalia is an exceptional photographer. As important, he has superb taste in music, as I find myself at many of the same shows he’s at. He has always put up a photo or two of each show, but lately I feel like he’s sharing more of them (which is a very good thing). He put up a slideshow of last night’s set. Enjoy!

Julia Haltigan at Rockwood Music Hall

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Julia Haltigan headlined a set at Rockwood Music Hall. She was sandwiched in between two sets we were planning on seeing, making it very easy for us to check her music out.

Mostly Rock, with a number of twists (Trumpet, Harmonica, Electric Mandolin), with nuance among the numbers even within the Rock genre.

Julia has a wonderful voice. She played acoustic guitar (rhythm) on most songs. On two (or three?) she sang without playing the guitar. Given the size of the band, it was a bit hard for me to follow a lot of the lyrics, so I won’t comment other than to say that nothing struck me as poorly done.

JuliaHaltigan

While there were a few slow songs (one a bluesy rock number, another a jazz one), most were energetic up-beat toe-tappers.

Julia was supported by five people, left-to-right on stage:

Sam Feldman on electric and acoustic guitar (no good individual link). Sam did a very nice job on electric (mostly). A number of times (in particular in the first number), his play felt a bit sloppy to me. Unfortunately, that made me notice other nits throughout his play. At times, he was really good too, so I’m not sure if last night was anomalous.

SamFeldmanElectricGuitar

The shame is that the electric guitar is a centerpiece of Julia’s sound. In my opinion, she would have benefitted from a more solid performance, even if that person didn’t flash as much as Sam did occasionally.

That said, Julia closed the show with a duet, she sang and Sam played her acoustic guitar (the only number he played acoustic on). It was a cover of Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning.

SamFeldmanAcousticGuitar

He was superb on that number, a very difficult one. Here’s a YouTube video of them doing it in June, next door at Rockwood 2:

Julia Haltigan and Sam Feldman performing Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning

Joe Ancowitz on trumpet and vocals (no good individual link). Joe was great on the trumpet, a couple of times taking long tasty leads. He was also the primary backup singer with Julia, doing a very nice job.

JoeAncowitzJuliaHaltigan

Emmet Haltigan on electric mandolin and harmonica. Emmet stood behind Julia, so I only got glimpses of him when Julia stepped to the side. Yes, he’s her dad. He played roughly 1/2 the numbers on electric mandolin and the rest on harmonica. I couldn’t hear a single note of the mandolin over the other instruments so I can’t judge whether he’s good. I can simply judge that the mandolin doesn’t add to Julia’s sound, because I enjoyed the set without hearing a note of it.

EmmetHaltigan

Emmet was very good on the harmonica, which while not loud, was at least noticeable. Like the trumpet, it added color to Julia’s songs, making them not straight up rock.

Bennett Miller on electric bass and vocals. Bennett was excellent on bass and did a nice job on vocals. He sang alone with Julia on at least one number, but for the most part, he joined Joe to give more oomph to the background vocals while Julia belted out the leads.

BennettMiller

Steve Williams on drums. Steve was fantastic on the drums, which were also a critical piece of Julia’s sound. Smooth as butter, never too loud, fast when appropriate, but mostly, just the right sensibility.

SteveWilliams

So, even though I had a (minor) complaint about the electric guitar, this band does an excellent job in backing up a talented singer. A very nice way to spend a completely unexpected hour.

Chris Ayer at Rockwood Music Hall

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Chris Ayer announced a show at Rockwood Music Hall with the following tweet:

chrisayer Chris Ayer

Show tonight in NYC! Rockwood 8p: playing brand new songs w/ @CAndersonbass @matt_simons & @adamchristgau that we’re recording today.excited

We already had it on the calendar for a while, but didn’t know it would be a full band show. In the end, it was close, but not exactly what Chris anticipated. The above was followed by this tweet:

adamchristgau Adam Christgau

Awesome… sick again. Looks like being 29 got off to a great start

So, after braving his cold in the studio all day, Adam simply couldn’t make it out for the show.

Chris is recording a new CD this week. We’re very excited for this, because Chris’ new songs (some of which he’s been playing for the past few months) are great and we look forward to professionally produced versions of them.

ChrisAyer

Chris opened last night’s show solo. In a nice twist for Rockwood, the large crowd was very quiet (necessary for a solo acoustic guitar performer). Thanks! Chris actually joked about it. When he first walked on stage he asked everyone how they’re doing. Perhaps one person quietly said “Great”. Chris said (I’m paraphrasing): “Ah, a quiet crowd, that’ll work!”. Winking smile

When he started playing Hiding Places (one of the new songs that I can’t wait to get a recorded version of) he was finger picking. A little way into the song he switched to using a pick. Seconds later, the thicker of the two middle strings broke.

If Chris were a normal guitar player, we could queue all the “He broke his G String” jokes! But, Chris is a lefty, so the third string from the top for him is the D (or perhaps I have it reversed and it is the G, and we do need to queue the jokes!). Winking smile

Either end string can often be ignored and the performer can power through the song, especially when there are other band members making music. Break one of the middle strings and it’s near impossible to make pleasant sounds.

Chris stopped and replaced the string, pretty quickly. He joked that this was the first time he injected an intermission in the middle of a song. Technically, it wasn’t an intermission, because he didn’t pick up where he left off, he started the song from the beginning (yay!). Smile

ChrisAyerStringChange

A couple of songs later Chris invited the others up to join him.

Matt Simons on grand piano and vocals. Matt actually did a bit more singing than playing the piano. Both were excellent, but their harmonies are exquisite. My fingers are crossed that there are a ton of them on the new CD.

MattSimons

Chris Anderson on electric bass. We’ve seen Chris Anderson play with Chris Ayer a number of times. Anderson typically plays the upright bass, though a few numbers have been on an electric. Last night they were all electric. It didn’t matter, with the exception of one song that demanded it, Chris was very subtle on the bass, suited perfectly with each song.

ChrisAnderson

Chris closed the show in what has become a tradition. Typically, he descends into the audience (with the band when there is one) and belts out an unplugged version of Roy G Biv. Considering how crowded it was in Rockwood, he varied by asking the audience first whether he should play on stage, or unplug and join them. He was enthusiastically welcomed into the audience (with the necessary parting of the sea) for the big finale.

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ChrisAyerRoyGBiv

Another excellent set by Chris, Matt and Chris. If you’re reading this in Europe, you can catch Chris Ayer and Matt Simons on their upcoming tour there in roughly 5 weeks.

Here’s the set list, our view and Chris’:

SetListSetListFlipped

We brought along our goddaughter and some friends, who had seen Chris play before in a 100% unplugged solo show.

SarahPaulLauraHadar

Another friend joined for his first Chris Ayer experience:

Jason

New York Chamber Soloists All Mozart Program at The Morgan Library

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Melissa Tong and Jim Johnston told us that a friend of theirs was playing the flute in an all Mozart program. That’s all I needed to hear, especially given what I wrote two weeks ago in a post about a rock set:

On one number she also played the flute, beautifully, an instrument that is sorely lacking at Rockwood.

The concert was held at The Morgan Library, which is very close to our apartment. It’s a stunning place, highly recommended for the museum experience, independent of the musical events.

I love classical music, but rarely get to see it live (at least compared to all the other genres we attend regularly).

The program was split into four pieces. The first was performed by 16 members of the New York Chamber Soloists. Actually, all four pieces were performed by them, but the first had no soloist featured.

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Here is the set list (otherwise known as the Program). Winking smile

Program

The symphony was performed beautifully. Here’s the bio for the orchestra and their members:

NewYorkChamberSoloists

Andrew Schwartz joined the company on bassoon. He was wonderful and the audience let him know it. He ended up sitting immediately behind Lois for the second half and she told him how much she enjoyed his performance.

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After the intermission, one of the two horn players from the first half, Sharon Moe sat front-and-center to solo on the horn. She was replaced with another horn player to maintain the 16 chamber orchestra members supporting her.

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The horn is a very difficult instrument to play. While Sharon did a nice job in general, it wasn’t the most impressive performance of the night. That said, the piece itself was lovely.

Jennifer Grim then came to center stage with her flute. She was the reason for our attendance. To my ears she was great and I really liked the piece. We got to tell Jennifer how wonderful she was after the program.

JenniferGrimFluteMelissaTongJimJohnstonJenniferGrim

Melissa is friendly with (and has played with) a number of the other members of the New York Chamber Soloists. Lois snapped some additional photos of them as we headed out.

MelissaTongTomoyaAomoriAdamGraboisEmilyPophamGillins

I didn’t realize that there is a Season of music held at The Morgan. I doubt we’ll get a subscription, but I imagine that we’ll be back for specific shows in the future. The Gilder Lehrman Hall is beautiful and the acoustics were fantastic.

Thanks to Melissa and Jim for telling us about the show!

Sierra Noble at The Bitter End

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What do you do when one of your favorite performers has a show at one of your least favorite venues? You go, without hesitation. Smile

Sierra Noble easily qualifies as one of our favorites. The Bitter End easily qualifies as one of the least enjoyable venues we frequent semi-regularly.

Both turned out exactly as expected. Sierra (and band) put on a great show. The Bitter End didn’t disappoint in its disappointment. Let’s start with the good stuff.

Sierra Noble opened with a long traditional fiddle tune (a collection of styles that are popular in her hometown fiddle community, Winnipeg). This was an excellent choice as there was still a bunch of milling around from the previous show’s audience.

SierraNobleFiddle

When things settled down, Sierra changed to singer/songwriter mode and rattled off one winner after another, starting with Possibility. She switched back-and-forth between the fiddle and an acoustic guitar.

Her voice is gorgeous. Her lyrics are captivating. The music (melodies) enchanting. What more could you ask for? Nothing, that’s right.

SierraNobleSinging

But wait, there’s more. All of that would be more than enough if Sierra were performing solo (which she easily could). Given her talent, it’s easy for her to attract equally talented people to play with her on a regular basis. In NYC, she has just such a regular collection of musicians she can call her band.

Left-to-right on stage:

Greg Mayo on guitar (electric and acoustic) and vocals. I’m not sure whether Greg’s acoustic guitar is rebelling against him personally, or if it prefers to enjoy Sierra’s sets from the back of the stage without having to work at the same time. At The Living Room show (the last time we saw Sierra), Greg popped a string the minute he picked up the guitar (he had popped one on the same guitar during sound check!). Last night, the strap holder flew out. In both cases, Greg switched to one of Sierra’s two acoustic guitars.

GregMayoAcousticGuitar

No matter, he was wonderful on Sierra’s guitar and played significantly more on his own electric, which he wields masterfully (read the dozens of posts I’ve written that mention Greg’s skills).

GregMayoElectricGuitar

Greg also sings a lot of harmony with Sierra, beautifully. All around A+.

GregMayoSierraNobleHarmony

Chris Anderson on upright bass and vocals. Chris was excellent on the bass, plucking and bowing. He also sang quite a bit, including providing the primary harmony on the gorgeous Human After All.

ChrisAnderson

Rebecca Haviland was a special guest vocalist on at least three songs. One one song, Rebecca sang harmony throughout. On the other two, she sang a bit of harmony during the verses, but completed fantastic four-part harmony with Sierra, Greg and Chris.

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Another Sierra Noble show in the books. Already looking forward to the next one.

After the show, I introduced myself to Carrie Welling of The Vanity Belles. I’m a proud contributor to their current Kickstarter campaign. Here’s what she tweeted during the show:

thevanitybelles The Vanity Belles

@SierraNoble @gregmayomusic @rebeccahaviland @CAndersonbass makin beautiful music here @BitterEndNYC tonight! Lovin’ it!

I couldn’t have said it better. Smile Lois bought another copy of Sierra’s EP, Possibilities, to give to our goddaughter.

Here’s the set list. Sierra didn’t get to play the last song, as The Bitter End was running a bit behind due to the show before Sierra’s.

SetList

That’s a good segue into three of my complaints about The Bitter End (I don’t want to turn this into a rant).

There is a cover charge (fine), but there is also a two drink minimum, per person, per set. That’s nuts. I’m not complaining about the money. In fact, I would have thrown more into a Rockwood tip jar for Sierra than the cover charge. If I sat through as many consecutive sets at The Bitter End as I do at Rockwood, I would worry that the Medical Examiner would declare my death an internal drowning.

The Bitter End is very long and narrow. The stage is smack in the middle, facing the narrow part. Very few people get a direct view of the stage. As in most venues where that’s the case, people on either side of the stage delude themselves into thinking no one can hear them, even though they are just as close to the stage.

The Bitter End didn’t list the start time of Sierra’s set. She tweeted 9pm. A friend warned us that she was unlikely to go on before 10pm. They were correct. Sierra started playing at 10:12pm. That’s a dilemma. We didn’t want to show up at 10 to find out she was on at 9. We showed up at 8:45 and endured 75 minutes that I would gladly have put to use differently.

I don’t blame Sierra for picking the more conservative start time. I blame The Bitter End for not posting any start time for her, even if they ended up slipping it dramatically.

Rock Talk with Ian Axel at Feinstein’s Hosted by Phil Lipof

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Another Monday, another excruciatingly difficult choice of shows to see. There were four can’t miss ones all going on at the same time. This week’s calculus was radically different than last, but after crunching the numbers, we ended up selecting the same group of performers.

Ian Axel appeared on Rock Talk, hosted by ABC’s Phil Lipof. The event (it’s not just a show) was held at Feinstein’s at the Loews Regency Hotel. We selected this over the other shows because of the format. Rock Talk is a mix of interviews and performance. Phil Lipof interviews the performers about the specific songs, their writing process, motivations, experiences, etc.

ChadVaccarinoPhilLipofIanAxel

Given that Phil is an award winning Anchor and Reporter, the concept intrigued us. Phil was masterful (no surprise).

PhilLipof

Phil started by introducing Ian and asking a few questions. Then Ian played Waltz. The evening was sponsored by Gibson Guitar Corp., makers of Gibson Guitars and Baldwin Pianos. Ian sat behind a gorgeous looking and sounding Baldwin Grand Piano.

PhilLipofIanAxel

My guess is that most of the people in the room were familiar with Ian’s music. Some may never have seen him perform live before. Phil was among the latter, familiar with the music, watched the videos, but was finally experiencing it first hand. Waltz, on a grand piano, with a good sound system, in an intimate room, is a perfect way to be introduced to Ian.

IanAxel

The expression on Phil’s face when Ian’s hands were flying up and down the keyboard was priceless. When the song was over, Phil told us that he wished there was an overhead camera so that we could all see what he was seeing. Typically, the piano is turned sideways (parallel to the stage) so half the audience can see the keyboard. Last night, it was perpendicular, so only Phil could see the keyboard.

That made for a number of amusing moments (to me). When Ian plays solos (meaning, when he’s not singing), he often tilts his head to one side or the other, getting lost in the music. Last night, given the angle of the piano, that meant that Ian completely disappeared from view, creating the impression that we were watching a player piano. At those moments, watching Phil’s face gave you a sense of the magic happening just out of sight.

Phil continued interviewing Ian, telling us that we were about to hear a song that was very different from Waltz. He was right, Say Something is different in every way. Ian talked about the inspiration for the song, how long it took to write, how and why it was started on piano (the writing) but finished on the ukulele.

He then played it for us. Phil summed it up by saying that even though he hadn’t gone through the same experience Ian did, his heart was breaking nonetheless while listening to Ian sing. I agree (though I have experienced exactly what Ian was singing about, long ago).

He then switched gears again, introducing Gone and explaining what he (Phil) found out during his research watching YouTube videos and reading the comments. He mentioned he had heard Ian’s Mom didn’t particularly care for that song. He then called out to ask whether she still felt that way. A second later Ian’s Mom called back “It’s not my favorite!”. That got a huge chuckle.

Ian’s family was well represented, including his Grandfather and Grandmother who drove up from Florida. I so enjoyed meeting them before the show and getting to chat a bit.

IanAxelGrandfather

Switching gears again, Phil talked about the fact that many people compare Ian to a young Elton John. After asking Ian some questions about that, he mentioned that Elton John has had a lifelong writing partner in Bernie Taupin. Phil asked Ian a lot of questions about his writing partner, Chad Vaccarino.

He asked him how they met and Ian told a funny story, which culminated in Chad buying Ian a singing lesson, starting Ian down the road that we’re all lucky to be a part of. When Phil brought Chad up on stage, the first thing he asked was whether Chad remembers it the same way Ian does. Chad burst out laughing saying “Yes, that’s exactly how it happened, even though it sounds unbelievable.” Smile

ChadVaccarinoPhilLipof

Musically, the gears shifted again, dramatically. Ian and Chad performed Rockstar. Such an awesome song, performed to perfection.

More interviewing (you get the format by now, right?), with both Ian and Chad. Followed by more gear shifting. During this round of interviews, they talked about another friend/singer/songwriter who they met in college (NYU), Mike Campbell. Chad was in a band with Mike before either of them met Ian.

Chad has written a number of great songs with Mike. Lately, Mike has been joining Ian and Chad from some writing sessions. They’ve already played a couple of those on stage (most recently, Amory), proving that this triumvirate will continue writing great songs.

Mike was called up to play a song with them. Given that this event was sponsored by Gibson, Mike didn’t have to provide his own guitar (though I’m pretty sure he had it there just in case). Gibson had a guitar all tuned and ready to go for Mike.

MikeCampbellGibsonGuitar

They played Shorty Don’t Wait (a song that Mike didn’t co-write with them, but plays often, always creating an extra bit of magic when he does). This is the only song that Ian left the Baldwin for, picking up us ukulele. Something was wrong with the electronics and Ian couldn’t get the uke to be amplified.

Rather than waste time figuring it out, he asked Chad and Mike, and the rest of us, if we’d be OK doing it completely acoustic. Everyone agreed. Mike unplugged the Gibson, and they pushed the microphones out of the way so that the vocals were acoustic as well.

IanAxelMikeCampbellChadVaccarino

The result? Awesome.

When Mike left the stage, the house lights signaled Phil that the show was nearing an end. He asked whether we wanted one more song before shutting down. Ha! Ian selected You’ll Be OK, and he and Chad killed it. It took a long time for the applause to die down (that was true after every song).

It was also clear that people wanted at least one more song. Phil seemed willing to push the venue for one more and no one in the audience wanted to leave. With some reluctance (I’m not sure why), Ian agreed to sing their newest song (as yet untitled, I continue to lobby for The More We Love). Who did Ian agree with? Let’s just say someone called it out repeatedly, enthusiastically, from the audience, using a different working title: Homeward Bound (no, not the Simon and Garfunkel one).

What a spectacular way to end an incredible evening. The applause lasted even longer, because even many of Ian’s die-hard fans haven’t seen this song yet (Ian joked that it was still being written while they were performing it!). I should mention that this last round of applause came in the form of a long standing ovation.

ChadVaccarinoPhilLipofIanAxelStandingOvation

Many people milled about for quite a while after the show was over, the glow was still too warm to want to let go. Right before we headed out we went over to say a quick goodbye to Ian. He was standing with a good friend of his, Philip Ettinger.

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Lois got there before I did. When I made my way there, I burst out with: “I bet Lois just told you that we saw you on TV!”. Indeed, that’s what Lois had just done. Smile

Just this week we watched Phil as the special guest star on CBS’ Blue Bloods (we love that show). Phil was outstanding in a very dark role as the evil perp (oops, too late to say spoiler alert). I teased Ian that this blog would likely be all about Phil. Winking smile

After the show, Mike told me that the Gibson guitar was great. Lois tracked down their representative (Suzanne) to tell her how much we appreciated their sponsorship.

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I’m sure we missed three other amazing shows, but at least we didn’t regret the choice we made!

In addition to the great show/interviews, we got there really early to enjoy a meal with many of our friends. For anyone considering going to Feinstein’s for a meal (whether that includes a show or not), let me say that the food was fantastic, as was the service. It’s not cheap (OK, it’s actually on the expensive side), but the quality was so good that I don’t have any complaint, just letting you know what to expect.

We got there a few minutes after the doors opened at 6pm. The show wasn’t scheduled to begin until 8:30. I admit to being a little worried about lingering over a meal for 2.5 hours, including wondering whether our friends would show up early or late.

Nearly everyone showed up early and more than 10 of us enjoyed the meal, drinks and non-stop conversations until the second the show started (right on time). The evening would have been a phenomenal success if we had stopped after the meal. Thankfully, it only got better from there.

(Apologies for the grainy photos, which were taken without flash)

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Alex Berger at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2

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Alex Berger headlined a special show at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2 last night. Special, because we Americans rarely get an opportunity to see him since he abandoned us 20 months ago to return to his native England. His last show in NYC was also at Rockwood 2, 11 months ago (covered here).

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Alex is like a giant English magnet. In addition to hearing great music, performed wonderfully, it was like being in a friend’s living room (a very large, crowded one), given how many of the people we love we bumped into, hugged, waved to, chatted with, etc. (Photos at the bottom of a small sample of said people.)

Right before Alex returned to England, he put out his debut album, Snow Globe. It has since won two International awards. He has amassed enough new material to record his second CD, which he’ll be doing in a few months, produced by Alex Wong (who also produced Snow Globe).

Alex opened the show solo at the grand piano. He captivated the audience with his silky voice and exceptional piano play. From that point on, most of the songs had at least one special guest (often more). This morning I read a tweet, which I couldn’t agree with more:

martinrivas Martin Rivas

So impressed with how @BergerAlex so effortlessly carries a room by himself. What a show!

Alex switched back-and-forth between the piano and an electric guitar. In a not-so-small irony, that guitar (which sounded amazing) was borrowed from his good friend Adam Levy. Adam just happened to be headlining a set on the other side of the wall at Rockwood 1. Each would likely have happily guested on the other’s set, if it were not for the bad luck scheduling.

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In addition to sporting Adam’s guitar, Alex used it to play a song they co-wrote, which will be on the upcoming CD, A Kiss is as Sweet as it Gets.

Alex played a number of songs that he co-wrote with other top NYC-based songwriters. I believe that every one of them will be on the new CD. Two of them were guest stars who got to sing the song with Alex.

The first was Jay Stolar who came up with an acoustic guitar. That song was not the song Jay co-wrote with Alex. He sang Ari Hest’s part in a song Ari co-wrote with Alex.

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Alex Wong joined Alex Berger, along with Martin Rivas (who played Adam Levy’s guitar, beautifully!), to sing their co-written The Fighter. That song will be on each of their upcoming CD’s. Let the battle begin to see which one does it better. Keep in mind that Wong is producing both CDs, so Berger better be careful of sabotage if winning the title is important to Wong. Winking smile

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Jay Stolar returned late in the set (second-to-last song?) with Martin Rivas and Chrissi Poland to sing the song he co-wrote with Alex. The introduction was but one example of how relaxed and entertaining Alex is in talking to the audience (I’d almost say caressing the audience). He noted that this was a very upbeat song about the End of the World. Winking smile

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The four of them proceeded to make us laugh while singing their hearts out.

Speaking of laughing, perhaps my favorite song of the evening was one Alex co-wrote with Bess Rogers (who is on tour and couldn’t be there). This song is about reading too much into every situation. It’s hysterical, but so melodic and lyrical. Alex was awesome on the guitar as well, making his lush picking and strumming seem effortless. It was a joy, with everyone laughing at practically every line.

This photo doesn’t quite capture the ease with which Alex delivers his banter, but it will at least remind us of it. Smile

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For completeness sake, another song Alex performed was co-written with Allie Moss (who also couldn’t attend last night). In other words, Alex has very good taste in who to write with, as do each of the people who were wise enough to write with him. Smile

I can’t give you the titles to any of these songs, as I didn’t notice a set list on stage to grab.

Ezra Gale on upright bass accompanied Alex on roughly half the songs. He was terrific on every number.

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Andrew Nemr joined Alex to dance on two numbers. He tapped beautifully (and mostly subtly), adding the only percussion of the performance. He was originally scheduled to do one number, but everyone encouraged him to stay on stage for the next one as well.

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I mentioned above that Snow Globe won two awards. One was by a panel that included Tom Waits, one of Alex’s inspirations. Even though Alex had a ton of new (original) material he would never have the time to get through in this set, he wanted to honor Tom’s influence on him (and the selection of Snow Globe as Best Story Song!), so he played one Tom Waits song on the piano.

The guest performers obviously enjoyed the set even when they weren’t on stage!

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Great music, performed wonderfully, surrounded by friends in a warm environment. Alex Berger better not make us wait another 11 months before he plays in NYC again!

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Patrick Firth at Rockwood Music Hall

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Patrick Firth debuted as a headliner at Rockwood Music Hall last night. Those of us who see Patrick play sideman in a number of bands have been eagerly awaiting this night. That said, I had no idea what to expect. In the other bands, Patrick plays keyboards (piano and electronic) and sings background/harmony. I’ve heard him sing covers, so I know he has a good voice.

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In May, we learned that Patrick was working on a CD of original songs. Since then, we’ve seen him perform one of those songs, Boomerang, two different times. Each time Patrick played acoustic guitar (backed by a full band).

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I could never have guessed what I would end up seeing at the actual show. First, let me say a few words about Patrick and the songs themselves, then describe the surprise.

I enjoyed Boomerang the two times I heard it (now three) but if the entire CD was made up of similar songs, I don’t think it would excite me. Even though I still like the song, let me say definitively that every other song I heard last night was dramatically better (apologies to fans of Boomerang).

Patrick Firth is an excellent songwriter, both the music and lyrics. Many of the lyrics are sophisticated, without feeling forced. One out-of-context example:

My tears can’t douse the Sun

Clearly, an interesting image of a broken-hearted person. (If I misheard, and it’s “My tears can douse the Sun”, it works too!)

I already knew how good he is on the keyboards, but he also impressed on the guitar, in particular when he finger-picked an entire song.

I will own this CD (whenever it comes out), and it will get many plays.

A few days ago, Ryan Vaughn tweeted about rehearsing for the show:

ryandrummerboy Ryan M. Vaughn

Rehearsal for @mirthfulfirth ‘s Sunday show @ Rockwood at Astoria Soundworks w/ @zachjonesmusic @OscarBautista1 @gregmayomusic & @pbassnbeer

I assumed (incorrectly), that each of those people would rotate on/off for different songs. Why? Because two are top guitarists and two are top drummers. Rockwood 1 is small, so my assumption seemed natural.

Bzzzt! All of them were on stage for every song. Two of the best guitarists and two of the best drummers, supported by one of the best bass players. All of them supporting one of the better keyboard players (who happens to handle the acoustic guitar well). Wow!

Here’s what made it more special than simply listing out their instruments. Typically, when an album is produced, many sounds can be achieved that are hard to reproduce in a live show. Overdubs are the most obvious reason, but having a top session musician come in to lay down a very specific sound is another.

When you can have those top session musicians, in duplicate, you can create many of those textured sounds live. They did exactly that last night (including having a few pre-recorded sound effects playing on Patrick’s Macbook Pro as well). Patrick spent half of the show at the keyboards and the other on the acoustic guitar.

The amazing band, left-to-right on stage:

Greg Mayo on electric guitar, keyboards (grand piano and electronic) and vocals. This music calls for subtle (dare I even say supple) guitar play. On at least two songs, when Patrick was on acoustic guitar, Greg took over the keyboard duties. Greg sang the most harmony with Patrick as well (beautifully). Of course Greg was great on the guitar and keyboards.

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Patrick mentioned that Greg has been engineering the new CD in his studio, causing them to spend hours on end together. No wonder Greg knows the lyrics so well. Smile

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Oscar Bautista on electric guitar. Oscar is an amazing guitarist. Having him play with Greg is something I never expected to see. I’ll admit to having had a fantasy of seeing them play some Allman Brothers (or Lynyrd Skynyrd) together. This wasn’t that, but it was equally interesting in a different way.

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Oscar used the slide to create very ethereal sounds while Greg played subtle leads. At other times, Greg played more of an organ sound while Oscar played some lead. When Greg was at the keyboards, we still had a top lead guitarist, etc. The point is they were able to produce all manner of guitar sounds, just like I’m sure we’ll hear on the actual CD.

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Brian Killeen on electric bass and vocals. Brian always does a great job on the bass, last night included. He sang harmony with the others.

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Zach Jones on drums and vocals. I always rave about Zach’s drumming, as recently as the night before when he supported Robbie Gil. Last night was even more special. When Zach sang, it was typically the third or fourth voice, making for some big sounding vocals. First, I have to mention another person, so I can write about them as a unit.

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Ryan Vaughn (mentioned in the tweet above) also played drums and percussion. He had a slightly reduced kit (no kick drum). That Rockwood was able to fit 1.5 drum kits in the tiny space to the right of the stage was incredible.

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I love drums. A number of my all-time favorite rock bands have multiple drummers (notably: The Allman Brother Band and The Grateful Dead). If the drummers are great, you simply can’t have too many of them. They won’t step on each other or drown anyone else out. They will create sounds that a single drummer would have trouble producing. The Allman Brothers have three full-time drummers/percussionists, and nearly always have a fourth guest drummer join for a song or two.

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Zach and Ryan are great drummers and were absolutely perfect together last night. I can’t stress enough how amazing that is. They are not in this band full time, therefore rehearsing and touring non-stop playing this material. We know from the tweet that they rehearsed together at least once. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that was the only time.

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Yet, they were so tight, on every note. It was one drummer with four arms/hands.

One last word about the music. No two songs sounded alike. When the originals were over, the sound guy signaled to Patrick that he had time for one more.

Patrick closed the show back at the grand piano doing his signature cover, Take Me to the Pilot, ending the set on a very energetic note. Here’s the set list:

SetList

Patrick will never be able to debut again, but he won’t have to. He doesn’t need a do over. Smile

Greg Mayo Band Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2 CMJ

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Greg Mayo Band headlined at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2, one of the last sets to officially close out the week-long CMJ Festival (of course, there were a ton of other sets closing out the week in many other venues). But there was only one venue for us to be, namely the one Greg was playing at.

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Having just seen Greg shred the guitar minutes earlier when he was part of Robbie Gil’s band, we got to enjoy an extremely different set. Greg likes his band to dress up, so there was just enough of a break to reset the stage and give Greg time to put on a suit.

Greg Mayo Band is a big-band sound of rock/soul/R&B/funk. The performances are always stellar, with Greg killing it on the grand piano, electronic keyboards, and singing everyone (including himself) into a frenzy.

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Toward the end of the set Greg split the audience in two and we sang along to the chorus, in harmony. Greg made sure we knew exactly when to sing. Winking smile

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We were able to sit near the piano for every previous show. Last night there were no tables so we stood dead center, right in front of the horn section. That was a ton of fun (I love me some brass).

Lots of people on stage (eight, counting Greg), so let’s get to them:

Rebecca Haviland on vocals and tambourine. The girl’s got voice, pure and simple. She sang with Greg throughout, but took the reigns on lead vocals when they morphed a song into Long Train Running (and later morphed back into the original song). Rebecca blew us all away. I told Lois after the show that they would have to rename the group The Doobie Sisters in her honor!

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Rebecca will be headlining a set at Rockwood 1 this Friday (October 28th) at 10pm. Come at 8pm to enjoy Chris Ayer as well. Smile

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John Liotta on baritone sax. John was excellent throughout, as he always is, taking a long solo toward the end of the set.

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Josh Reed on trumpet. I was afraid Josh would be fired on the spot. While he had a jacket on, he was the only member of the band who didn’t have a tie on (including Rebecca!). Once he took a solo, and Greg praised him, I calmed down and realized he was safe (at least for the night). Winking smile

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Matt Simons on tenor sax. Seconds before Matt walked on stage I commented to Lois that the band was short one horn player (John and Josh were already on stage and it looked like the show was about to start). Thank goodness Matt was there. He destroys the sax, and one of his super fast solos was in the very first song.

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Matt wasn’t there for the last Greg Mayo Band show we attended. He was ably substituted for that night, but I am personally very happy whenever I can get even the slightest taste of Matt’s masterful sax play.

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Kenny Shaw on drums. I never doubt that I will love Kenny’s play. Considering he’s the drummer we’ve seen most often in 2011, there’s little chance I’ll be wrong about that. The set before had one of my favorite drummers, Zach Jones, so any contrast would be a little more obvious.

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No difference in quality. They have different personas and they were supporting different styles of music, but in the end, both deliver as good a performance as you could hope for, every time.

Chris Anderson on electric bass and vocals. Another musician that we see a ton of times, who has never disappointed. He co-writes and performs with Rebecca Haviland, so if you take my advice and show up this Friday, you’ll get to see him sing and play.

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Paul Maddison on electric guitar and vocals. Paul was solid throughout, but this set didn’t call for any particular leads on the guitar. He did play a critical role in the transition to Long Train Running (mentioned above), with the iconic guitar part that kicks off that song. All eyes were on Paul until Rebecca let loose.

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Another fantastic set by the Greg Mayo Band. I think Greg announced that they’ll be back at Rockwood 2 on November 19th. It’s not listed on the site yet, so please confirm before showing up. Here’s last night’s set list:

SetList