Melissa Tong

Alex Wong at Rockwood Music Hall

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We try never to miss an Alex Wong show if we can help it. To prove my point, we saw him last night at Rockwood Music Hall, we’ll see him tonight (supporting Ximena Sarinana) and again tomorrow night as a special guest playing with Dave Eggar’s Deoro band. Three nights in a row feels just about right, especially since all three performances will be radically different.

Last night was a classic Alex Wong solo show. I put solo in italics because Alex had three guests, but there’s no doubt that this was an Alex show.

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Alex opened with a new-ish song (still unrecorded), Always Something Better. Such a beautiful, deeply true song. We spend way too much time searching for (trying to acquire) fill-in-the-blank. I was thinking that every time I hear the song I realize the truth of it, and of course, the minute it’s over, I’m back to living in the same foolish manner I did before Alex reached me in the moment.

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Next, he invited Melissa Tong and David Fallo up to accompany him on Brooklyn Blurs (a song I will never tire of). Since they were on stage already, he followed it up with Don’t Be Afraid. He introduced the song by explaining that the first line came during an argument with a friend, who yelled the line at him. Inspiration comes from many places. Winking smile

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Alex had another special guest up his sleeve, the absolutely incredible Ximena Sarinana (linked above, who he will be supporting at midnight tonight at Bowery Ballroom). Ximena sang harmony on a few numbers and played some notes that sounded like a glockenspiel on an electronic device that looked like a WiFi router.

I told this out of order, because I wanted to say a bunch of nice things about Ximena in a block. The part about playing the WiFi Router came in the very first song, which she also sang harmony on. Smile That’s my back in the next photo, so you can see how close I was to the stage.

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Ximena took to the piano later in the set to play and sing a song that she co-wrote with Alex. The song was written in a day, at Dubway Studios, as part of a challenge to write a song while being filmed. I declare them winners in this endeavor! Alex moved off the stage to the corner where the drums are. He played the kick drum and high-hat cymbal while sitting and playing guitar during this song.

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It was a slightly surreal experience for me (not necessarily for most of the people at Rockwood). I was right up at the stage. Alex’s guitar amp was four feet to my left, but Alex was eight feet to my right. I could hear the guitar coming from behind me (because I was facing Alex), even though I could see him playing it in front of me. It was a little eerie.

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One of the songs that Ximena sang gorgeous harmony on is a song that Alex Wong co-wrote with another of our favorite Alex’s, Alex Berger, called The Fighter. We’ve missed hearing that song, so thanks for that! 🙂

We’ll be at Ximena’s midnight set tonight (it’s part of the Latin Alternative Music Conference Showcase). Any show that Ximena is part of should automatically be labeled a Showcase, because that’s what it will turn into!

I didn’t snag a set list (I’m not sure there was one). So, I can’t tell you every song that was played. What I can tell you, with certainty, is that Alex closed the show with another new-ish (unrecorded) song that he co-wrote with Nate Campany. It’s called Are You Listening (but secretly, I will continue to call it the “Yeah Yeah Yeah” song, like I did until I knew the title, even though there are four Yeah’s in a row, not three, sue me!).

Alex invited us to sing the “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” part. He might have meant only at the end, when it continues to build a few times in a row. I didn’t care, I sang it from the first time he sang it, reasonably loudly. Perhaps no one noticed, since I was in front, singing toward the stage. When we likely were supposed to sing, I heard many people joining in. If it’s not completely obvious, I’m in love with this song.

Alex is producing and recording a solo album for release later this year (at least I think that’s the plan). I can’t wait, because a number of the songs that will be on it can only be heard when Alex blows through NYC on occasion. Smile

SYREN Modern Dance and Artemis Chamber Ensemble at Baryshnikov Arts Center

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We rarely attend dance recitals (is that the correct word? feels wrong to say “concert” or even “show”). We love music. One of the flexible groups of musicians that we follow is The Artemis Chamber Ensemble. In particular, we are huge fans of Melissa Tong, David Fallo and the conductor and musical director, Matthew Oberstein.

When we heard that Artemis was performing with SYREN Modern Dance for three nights (part of a six-night run for SYREN, opening their 8th season), we bought tickets for the third night. The performances were (and are being) held at Baryshnikov Arts Center.

SYREN performed two pieces, broken up by an intermission. The first was Dolce, choreographed by Kate St. Amand (one of the co-founders of SYREN).

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There were six dancers for this piece. They performed in every permutation from only one of them on stage to all six. They were: Sonja Dale, Chanelle Lagacé, Xuexin (Nico) Li, Brigitte Mitchell, Lynn Peterson (the other SYREN co-founder) and Chihiro Shimizu. They were all terrific, individually and collectively.

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Artemis can be configured from a quartet all the way up to a 19-piece chamber orchestra. Last night was seven pieces plus Matthew working his conductorial magic. The seven players were: Melissa Tong, Heidi Shaul-Yoder and Sarah Koenig-Plonskier on violin, David Fallo on viola, Laura Bontrager and Emily Brausa on cello and Eleonore Oppenheim on bass. They were fantastic (no surprise, that’s why we showed up in the first place).

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Dolce was set to Holberg Suite by Edvard Grieg. It’s a stunning musical piece, brought to life perfectly by Matthew and Artemis. SYREN’s choreography (or Kate St. Amand’s, to be more precise), matched the music wonderfully. Given that we’re not “dance first” people, the visual could have distracted me from the amazing music, but it didn’t.

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The second piece was “the last of the leaves” (I put it in quotes since it wasn’t capitalized in the program) also choreographed by Kate. In addition to the same six dancers above, two male dancers were added to the mix: Bryant Henderson and Jeremy Neal. The men dressed in the same outfits as the women.

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The dance was set to Shaker Loops by John Adams.

While the dancing and choreography were as fluid and interesting (to my untrained eye) as the first piece, the musical experience was nothing like the Holberg Suite. I would describe the piece as constantly dissonant. The skill require to play the piece might have been even more difficult, but it felt to me like I was watching horror movie transitional music.

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I was expecting a knife to come through a shower curtain, or someone to be pushed down a flight of stairs in the dark. Unlike Dolce, without the dance, I would not have been able to enjoy the music with my eyes closed.

The dance matched the music in this case as well, but I could have stood for a repeat of Grieg’s work. Smile

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I am thankful that we get to broaden our horizons through our connections with our friends and the musicians that we actively follow.

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Tonight through Sunday, SYREN is performing a different piece (without Artemis to my knowledge): Toward Home, music by Damon Ferrante.

Paper Raincoat and Gregory Alan Isakov at Highline Ballroom

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Looking for a night of good music in NYC? Every night of the week will present difficult choices. Occasionally, those decisions achieve Solomonic proportions. Last night was one of those nights. I had Carley Tanchon and Joey Ryan in our calendar for quite a while. Carley was appearing at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 1 at 7pm and Joey was at Rockwood 2 at 9pm.

Everything changed when a month ago, The Paper Raincoat (TPR) announced that they were appearing at Highline Ballroom on the same night. It’s not (necessarily) the case that we would always choose to see TPR over Joey. It’s that opportunities to see TPR live are rarer nowadays than they used to be.

We last saw TPR on September 7th, 2010. We have seen Joey live three times since then.

TPR was sandwiched between two other acts. I’ll cover them first since we showed up expressly to see them.

TPR is comprised of two people, Alex Wong and ambeR Rubarth. They (nearly) always have a drummer, but which one will show up to any particular show has been a surprise lately (last night included). They often have special guests join them, last night was no exception.

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The 9-song set was well chosen, kicking off with perhaps my favorite TPR song, Brooklyn Blurs.

The second song was Sympathetic Vibrations with its signature audience-participatory clapping. Our table (well, four of the six of us) clapped on cue (perfectly if I may say so myself). But, it seemed to us that very few people in the extremely crowded audience were clapping with us.

We must have been correct, because a little bit later in the song, ambeR looked at Alex and said that it might be a good idea to teach the audience the clap (it’s sophisticated) Winking smile. After the lesson, more people joined us.

The next song, Motion Sickness has become a sing-along in the last year (mostly at solo Alex Wong shows). Half the audience sings the na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na part and the other half sings the ah, ah, ah ah ah part. Alex always seems to get the entire audience doing their part. Last night, the singing was anemic (except for our table, again).

I can’t tell whether the majority of the audience was unfamiliar with TPR or they were shy.

After playing The Same Old Things, Rough Cut, Don’t Be Afraid and Right Angles, they played another favorite (OK, I admit that the entire set was comprised of favorites), It All Depends. First, a photo of Alex and ambeR playing the keyboards together on Right Angles:

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As they started It All Depends, Alex tossed (yes, actually threw) a tambourine at Lois. I was shocked and impressed when she caught it without flinching.

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The rest of us did our clapping part until the finale, where Alex (and shortly after) ambeR both joined the drummer with all three of them drumming on the same drum set at the same time. I never tire of it and I never will! Of course, without Lois’ tambourine play, the entire song would just be boring. Winking smile

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They closed the set with their signature a cappella Rewind, wonderfully!

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The drummer for last night was Sarab Singh who is the regular drummer for a hot local group, Harper Blynn (they have a new site coming too). We’ve seen Sarab once before, supporting ambeR’s solo show at Highline as well. He’s very good, but it took a few songs for him to settle into a good rhythm with TPR. The kick drum was mic’ed too loud and made my hair flutter every time he kicked it.

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Alex is an amazing producer. TPR’s self-titled CD (absolutely incredible) is but one of his masterpieces. One of Alex’s specialties is crafting string arrangements that blend perfectly with Pop music. Last night we were treated to two top musicians playing some of those arrangements live.

Melissa Tong on violin. Melissa was wonderful (as always) throughout the set, but in particular, the opening for Right Angles is all violin.

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David Fallo on viola. David too was wonderful (as always) throughout. He too was highlighted a number of times, most notably on Don’t Be Afraid where David took the lead.

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Another surprise occurred during Rough Cut. There is a local dance troupe called Insight Dance Company. Last year they set a ballet to the music of Ian Axel. They are currently working on a number of pieces by TPR and will be putting on a show in the Spring (I believe). ambeR called them up (six of them, I believe) to dance while TPR performed Rough Cut. It was interesting, but the stage was definitely an obstacle course for the dancers. It will be more interesting to see them in their own element.

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After a 20-minute break, the headliner (co-billed) took the stage.

Gregory Alan Isakov sings, plays the guitar and the harmonica. I’ve heard of him but knew nothing about his music. He headlined a show at Highline where Rosi Golan opened for him. We had hoped to make that show but couldn’t. I’m told he played solo that night. Last night he was joined by three musicians.

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I was impressed by Gregory’s voice, very rich and clear. That said, he had a setup I’ve never seen before, two microphones inches apart. One was normal and the other had a couple of effects attached to it (including heavy reverb, but more importantly, a vocal distortion). While it was technically interesting to see him switch (even in the middle of a song) from one mic (and sound) to another, I strongly preferred the normal mic to the more synthesized voice. It’s a gimmick (to me) and I can do without it.

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It’s often tough for me to hang on to lyrics when seeing someone new the first time. Aside from the fact that there is so much else going on (when there are other musicians), big spaces aren’t conducive for really close listening. Still, on occasion I heard some very interesting phrases making me feel that Gregory is a poet first and foremost, but it will require more listening for me to be sure.

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

Philip Parker on cello and vocals. Phil did a really nice job on the cello. He actually played it as much as an upright bass (plucking it) as he did as a cello (with a bow). While I could see him move his lips on many songs, I would be lying if I said I could hear a single sound coming from his mic. Before I got to say that to Lois, she told me that she thought he did a nice job singing with Gregory, so it might have just been me who couldn’t pick out his voice.

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Jeb Bows on violin. I was very impressed with Jeb’s play and felt that he was the most critical part of enhancing Gregory’s sound. Gregory came out for a two-song encore, the first of which was just Gregory and Jeb, validating my feeling that Jeb was more central to Gregory’s sound. On a number of songs Jeb plucked the violin. We’ve seen that before (in fact Melissa did it during the TPR set). But, for the first time in my experience, much of Jeb’s plucking sounded a lot like a mandolin. Cool!

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James Han on electronic keyboards. James had two keyboards placed at a right angle. He swiveled to play one or the other. His play was quite understated, but also excellent. It fit the mood of Gregory’s music very well.

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Paul Dempsey opened the show at 7pm on the dot (always a pleasure when shows start when they’re supposed to). He has an easy charm, a good voice and plays the guitar well enough to accompany himself. His song intros (very short) amused us. Other than a few choice phrases though, I can’t say that the lyrics made an impression on me.

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He played for exactly half an hour.

Six of us had dinner before the show. The food and drinks at Highline are always a treat and our service last night was excellent as well. Another fun night out with friends, sharing some laughs, some food and a lot of music.

Ian Axel, Greg Holden and Julia Nunes at the Studio at Webster Hall

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This night couldn’t come fast enough for us. We bought tickets the minute they went on sale (we like to believe they were the first four sold, so don’t burst our bubble if you know differently).

Ian Axel just released a new CD (well, at the moment it’s digital downloads only, but the physical CD is coming soon), called This Is The New Year. The NY CD Release Show was last night at the Studio at Webster Hall and Ian tweeted in advance that he’d be playing the entire album in order.

The show was sold out and there are only roughly 10 seats around the edges, so there were 300+ people standing packed like sardines throughout the night. There were two opening acts making it a long night of standing for us old folks. Q: Would we do it again? A: Seven nights a week! Smile

Rather than post a set list, I’ll point you to where you can buy the CD, since the track listing is what was played last night (with the exception of the encore). Here it is on Amazon first (my preferred place to buy MP3’s). Here it is on iTunes. It’s the same price (currently) on both, $7.99, but there’s a different bonus track on each service, so that too might sway your decision as to where to buy it. There are gorgeous liner notes in a downloadable PDF in iTunes. I don’t know if they come in the Amazon flavor, so that too might be a factor in your decision.

Ian came out with the full band with one new twist. In addition to the drums, bass and guitar, Chad Vaccarino was tucked away in a dark corner behind Ian played a double-decker electronic keyboards (from what I could hear, largely an organ sound to complement Ian’s piano sound on his electronic keyboards).

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In the very old days (yes, they’re still only 25, at least for another month!) Chad only used to sing. More recently, he has added his trumpet playing skills to a number of songs. On a few numbers last night, Chad played both the trumpet and the keyboards! This adds a new dimension. Very well done!

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After playing Leave Me Alone and Afterglow (knocking them out of the park, of course), the band left the stage. Ian played Gone, solo. It’s a very moving song in general, but given that we were standing inches from Ian’s mom and a few feet from her twin sister, the emotions in our vicinity were running a little higher than usual.

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It’s a tribute to Ian’s overwhelming talent that he can electrify a crowded room with a full band and not lose a single audience member when switching to a heart-tugging solo number.

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The band came back out for The Music that Haunts this Town with a surprise guest in tow. Dan Romer came out with an accordion and joined Ian for consecutive numbers, rejoining again later. While the accordion was a fun addition to the sound, it wasn’t about adding an accordion sound that caused Ian to invite Dan on stage.

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Ian told us that Dan produced the album (the title track was produced by John Alagia, with Dan getting credit for producing the piano on that track as well). Dan produced the rest. Dan also produced the original version of This is the New Year and while Alagia added some things, he stayed reasonably true to Dan’s vision. It was a wonderful way for Ian to thank Dan and ensure that everyone knew who made this album sound as good as it does!

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When Dan left the stage, Chad Vaccarino came front and center and everyone in the room knew what was about to happen. Not only because we knew the order of the show, but because the electricity in the room became even more palpable. The title song was about to be played. If you weren’t there, I have no words to describe what was going on at Webster Hall. Suffice it to say that Ian and Chad could have healed the sick if they touched their foreheads right after that song. Smile

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After keeping the blood pumping with Hangman, the band again left the stage. Ian played Cannonball solo, again tugging at everyone’s heart.

When the band returned for Girl I Got a Thing, another special guest joined. Glenn Chocky joined to perform his usual ritual during this song (a staple at Ian’s NY shows). Chocky drinks burboun (or scotch, etc.) on stage while Ian sings. He has two jobs, both of which he nails. 1) Shake a tambourine when Ian sings “You make me wanna shake my tambourine.” (the crowd goes nuts!) and 2) lead the crowd in singing back “Girl I got a thing for you” in response to Ian singing it. Chocky often gets the crowd to clap as well, so he really has three jobs. I am not sure whether the drinking is part of the job or just his compensation. Winking smile

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It’s a shame that Chocky probably can’t afford to go on tour with Ian just to perform this one song. The crowds in other cities are missing out on a bit of fun.

The setup changed again for Pacific Sun. Ian took center stage with his ukulele. Chad moved to Ian’s keyboards (sitting down) but didn’t play. He sang harmony and lead on a verse as well. Whenever the two of them sing together the already magical numbers/performance rises to a new level.

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After playing We Are (back in the normal band configuration), Ian mentioned that it had been ages since he’d performed that. It’s clearly an emotional song for him.

One last time, the band left the stage and Ian closed the show (and album) with Say Something on the keyboards. Another wildly emotional tug at our heartstrings. On the iTunes version of the album, the bonus track is a ukulele version of this song.

Of course there was going to be an encore. Everyone returned to the stage, including Dan Romer and Glenn Chocky. Chad took center stage and Ian announced that they would play You’ll Be Okay (a crowd favorite). He explained that he and Chad co-write most of the material, but that they went a year without writing after Say Something. When they finally sat down to write again, You’ll Be Okay was born. Thank goodness they started writing again! What a way to close the show!

I can’t end the Ian section without writing about his amazing band. I’ve already mentioned that Ian mesmerizes all on his own, but I have to tell you that the full band is a mandatory experience, if you have the chance!

All three members of the band are top-notch musicians, but more importantly (from our perspective) is that all three are absolutely incredible people. You’d want to hang out with each of them even if they couldn’t play a note.

Adam Christgau on drums and light vocals. Adam is one of our favorite drummers (I’ve said it often, I’ll say it again, deal with it!). He was perfect last night. I’ve recently written about two other amazing drummers, Josh Dion and Vinnie Sperrazza. In both of those cases, I wrote that their drumming on each song was better than their solos.

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To extend that, Adam didn’t take any solos last night. But, I believe that if you recorded Adam’s drums last night, and cut out all other sounds completely so that you were just listening to his drum track, you would be listening to one of the best drum solos ever. In other words, his normal drumming on Ian’s songs are full-out gorgeous drum solos, which just happen to perfectly fit with the rest of Ian’s songs and band.

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Simply amazing. The fact that Adam is the person most responsible for us discovering Ian Axel to begin with (both in a roundabout and direct way!), makes it all the more satisfying to hear him complement Ian’s sound so well.

Chris Anderson on electric bass and light vocals. Another of our favorites (we’ve seen him a number of times in the past couple of weeks). He’s always excellent, but his fit with Ian’s music and style make his appearances with Ian the best. Last night the bass was at the right volume, but at the same time, every note shook Webster Hall to it’s core. The bass never overwhelmed any other instrument, but my pants were vibrating and a rush of air hit my chest every time Chris played a note.

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Chris Kuffner on electric guitar and vocals. While Adam and Chris Anderson sing a bit of backup vocals (Girl I Got a Thing for You, for example), last night, Chris Kuffner took a more prominent role. On at least two numbers (Pacific Sun most notably), Chris sang full-on three-part harmony with Ian and Chad. It’s a role often reserved for a different guest star, Mike Campbell. Chris nailed it.

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Chris is also a top guitarist (and bassist), but on most of Ian’s songs, it’s hard for me to pick out the guitar lines. There was at least one very notable exception, where Chris got the guitar to sound exactly like an organ. It was cool and eerie at the same time.

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It was incredible to watch/hear so many people in the audience singing along with every word. I’m not surprised that Ian’s fans know his songs so well, that’s a given. What’s cool is seeing their joy at having a chance to sing those songs with him.

To sum it all up, awesome! Much of the crowd hung around afterward to say hi to the performers, buy stuff, get things signed and pick up one of the 150 signed posters that Ian was giving away. Lois bought a T-Shirt (new style just out that day) and got a poster. Many people just mingled to not let the glow fade too quickly by leaving the place.

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Greg Holden opened the show. Greg is releasing a new CD in April and played a number of songs from it, including some of his previously recorded favorites as well. For the most part, he played solo accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar. He had some guests that I’ll cover in a minute.

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The show could have started off disastrously for Greg, but he turned a problem into an interesting solution, without missing a beat. Half way through his opening number he moved slightly and somehow, lost the amplification on his guitar. It was obvious, but he didn’t panic or stop the song to figure out what was wrong.

After trying quickly to jiggle the cable (again, without missing a beat in his vocals), he pushed the guitar onto his back and finished the second half of the song a cappella. He did a great job, including maintaining all of the long-ish pauses where he might have played some guitar (very brave and very well done) in order to keep the song and pacing completely authentic. He turned a potential mishap into a crowd-winning maneuver. Very professional and well executed.

When the song was over, he figured out that the cable itself was bad. He switched cables and didn’t have any issues for the remainder of his set.

New cable: $1.98. Not missing a beat when discovering a bad cable: Priceless! Winking smile

After playing a couple of songs solo, Greg invited up one of our favorite violin players, Melissa Tong. She played two songs with Greg, and returned for two more later in the set.

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Melissa’s fills between Greg’s verses were amazing. Very classical in nature, complementing Greg’s guitar play and the melodies in a way that made the two of them sound very compelling together.

After the show I asked Melissa if Greg sent her a score to follow (I figured he might have violin parts from his upcoming CD recordings). Amazingly, she said “No, he emailed me the tracks he wanted me to play on, and I improvised those parts.”. Folks, she got the tracks that morning and was teaching violin lessons during the day. If you don’t understand why we think so highly of Melissa, you never will.

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I want to give Greg the credit for thinking of her to begin with (since they never played together before!) and for being brave enough to risk something cringe-worthy in order to achieve what he had hoped he would!

Greg closed his set with all of Ian’s band (including Ian) joining him on stage. In addition, the act following him (to be named in a second) and Melissa Tong were on stage as well, to sing his signature number, Bar On A. The crowd sings the chorus along with everyone on stage and I always enjoy it as I did last night.

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Julia Nunes was next up. Julia played all but two numbers solo, accompanying herself on two different ukuleles. She has a very powerful and clean voice and some of her lyrics struck me as insightful and well put together. Oh yeah, she’s only 22-years-old (that will become more relevant in a moment).

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First, she’s a YouTube sensation. Videos that Jullia has uploaded have collectively been viewed more than 43 million times! Second, quite a percentage of the audience last night were huge Julia Nunes fans. I was amazed that dozens of people (OK, mostly young girls, but they’re people too!) Winking smile sang every word to every song, from the first note, out loud (and very well, they could join her as a professional chorus!).

Second, and by far the most impressive to me about Julia’s set is her stage presence. 22-year-olds aren’t supposed to have that kind of poise on stage. Her style is forceful and cheeky (I’ll give an example in a minute) and it doesn’t/won’t appeal to everyone. I’m not judging the style, but rather the ability to pull off any style (she gets to choose!) and I think she has what it takes to completely own a stage.

Here’s but one example (Julia bantered quite a bit): She said that she was about to play a song (it was a cover) that would sound ridiculous if the crowd didn’t sing with her (actually, do their part). She said that if she wasn’t impressed with our singing, she’d walk off the stage and give us the finger. Hysterical to some, crude (at best) to others. Thankfully for all of us, the crowd did indeed sing their hearts out and we were spared the indignity of getting the finger from Julia…

On one number, Julia invited up Ian, Greg and Adam to sing harmony with her. Greg did the majority of the harmony, but Ian and Adam pitched in nicely as well. When Julia continued to play the ukulele during that number, Greg was barely audible and Ian and Adam not even. But, toward the end of the song, Julia stopped playing and all four voices came together beautifully for a very powerful ending!

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I enjoyed the set for the most part and I certainly see the talent (which obviously has many years to grow and mature). But, as much as I like the ukulele as an instrument, merely strumming it for 10-straight songs doesn’t hold my musical interest and the songs themselves (at least the originals) often blended in my mind. Her fans would completely disagree with me and I honestly get why. We’re just at different stages in life.

A few more random photos of some friends and musicians, who are huge Ian Axel fans as well. Smile

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The Ramblers at the Living Room

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This is post #2 of the evening. #1 was about Sarah Jarosz and Alex Hargreaves and can be read here.

Under normal circumstances, we would have stayed at Rockwood and caught Leslie Mendelson at the 9pm set. We’d never heard her before, but we were planning to be at Rockwood 1 for the 10pm set anyway and I liked what I heard on Leslie’s MySpace page.

Then we heard that Melissa Tong was sitting in with The Ramblers at The Living Room. That was enough to make us change our plans.

We walked in to The Living Room at 8:50pm. The place was a zoo (not in the child-like wonder way). The bar was mobbed, the inner room where the music is played even worse. We could barely make it in three feet from the curtain dividing the two rooms.

We watched the last three songs of Shanna Zell’s set on a TV that shows the live action from the stage for those who are too far back to see it. Shanna has a nice voice but otherwise couldn’t hold my attention. Given the crowd (and who knows how late her set got started), the show went past 9pm. When it was over, it took us another few minutes to get an additional 20 feet closer to the stage, still behind everyone who was seated.

The Ramblers had a number of special guests (they called it an orchestrated acoustic set), so it took them extra long to transition from Shanna to their setup. There were nine people on stage so it wasn’t surprising, just frustrating to wait, uncomfortably at that.

Then they started playing. Excellent. Definitely my kind of music. Actually, since they had so many guests, I don’t know how I would react to a normal The Ramblers set, but I’m willing to find out.

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Thankfully, during the first two songs, the violins (yes, there was a second violin joining Melissa Tong) were front and center (literally, at center stage and figuratively, as in highlighted throughout the piece). We were far back, so apologies for the fuzziness of the few photos worth posting.

Jeff Young played the violin amazingly (as Melissa always does). Together, bliss.

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Melissa didn’t play during the third song. Jeff was featured, as well as another guest Bill Bell on mandolin. I wanted to stay because I love mandolin so much (did you read the Sarah Jarosz post?). While Jeff was incredible, Bill’s part was nothing special. This is not a comment on Bill’s skill. When he was sound-checking before the set, I was quite impressed with the licks he was throwing around.

Anyway, because the set started so late, we had to run out after the third song. I was sorry to miss more of The Ramblers (and Melissa and Jeff in particular), but very happy to get out of that crowd.

Between Sarah and The Ramblers, we had a quick and exceptional meal at Sugar Café. It looks like a hole-in-the-wall on the corner of Houston and Allen. We’ve walked by there a hundred times and never considered going in before. What a mistake. We loved our food (fast and fresh) and the staff were as outstanding as the meal. Don’t go for the atmosphere, but if you’re on the Lower East Side and need something good, quick and reasonably priced to eat, I recommend it.

Dennis Lichtman and Mona’s Hot Four

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This post is really a continuation of the previous one, but I was so blown away by my experience that I felt it needed to stand on its own. They link to each other at the appropriate head and tail ends for those that want to read through the night as a single event.

Melissa Tong won the gentle arm twist and we grabbed a cab over to Mona’s.

First, as life-long New Yorkers, it never ceases to amaze me how many facets of the city are not only undiscovered by us, but are actually invisible to us. Mona’s is one such place, but I’ll bet a lot more than $1.75 that it’s one of dozens of such places.

It’s a neighborhood bar, and a very crowded one at that. It feels like two railroad cars. The front room is the bar itself (long and narrow room) and the back room has a pool table and a bit more space to sit. Next to the end of the bar, right where the two rooms meet, is an upright piano (ancient looking). In that tiny space, where you might expect to fit one or two other musicians, an entire music scene is in full gear.

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At one point eight people were jamming at the same time (trumpet, trombone, clarinet, piano, upright bass, two banjos and an instrument I never saw before, some kind of finger steel drum, played brilliantly). There were as few as four playing (when we first walked in) comprised of piano, guitar, upright bass and clarinet. People (musicians) kept coming and going with their instruments strapped on their backs, waiting for their turn to jump in.

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Here’s a fuzzy photo of the finger steel drum thingy. Feel free to comment if you know what it’s called. Smile

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Most of the music was ragtime/Dixieland, with a bit of more mellow jazz thrown in for good measure. To say it was awesome would be to understate it dramatically. The clarinet player was killing me he was so good.

Dennis Lichtman was that clarinet player. When I mentioned that to Melissa, she told me that he doesn’t consider the clarinet to be his strongest instrument. Say what? Now I have to find him and watch him play every other instrument, first ensuring that my seat belt is on and my tray table is locked in its upright position!

Now I have to blow my own mind (and yours, if you are open to that kind of stuff). When I went to dennislichtman.com to link it to his name, I saw that he has a few projects. In addition to his regular jam at Mona’s, he has a group called Brain Cloud. That name sounded familiar. I looked at my open tabs in Firefox and saw that a week ago I opened a tab to the Brain Cloud section of dennislichtman.com, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

Someone (Melissa, Kevin, Alex?, I’m thinking Kevin!) told me that I had to check out Brain Cloud. I dutifully opened a tab with the intent of doing so, then got so busy with shows every night (you can read my thoughts on each one) that I haven’t gotten to it yet. I was clearly destined to know about Dennis and at least one of my friends (sorry that I can’t even remember who told me about him!) knew that was the case.

Here’s a second thing that amazed me about the scene at Mona’s. We normally get really annoyed if people even whisper at the shows we attend. We’re there to enjoy the music and respect the artists. At Mona’s, the context seems different. Yes, there’s a show of sorts going on, and yes, it’s specifically about the music, but no, it’s not a concert, it’s a jam, in a local bar.

The social scene is loud (very loud) and buzzing/humming non-stop. People who really prefer to hear more of the music than hang out naturally gravitate as close to the musicians as they can get, and somehow tune everyone/everything else out. Don’t get the mistaken impression that people who are talking loudly aren’t simultaneously enjoying the music. We too were part of a loud four-way conversation for the first 45 minutes that we were there, but I was also soaking in every note.

Then, when the steel-finger-drum thingy joined the jam, Melissa suggested we get a closer look. I stood in the door-jam between the rooms for the next 30 minutes, away even from the people I came with and soaked up the music for another 30 minutes. At 12:30am, Lois and I decided that we had pretended to be young long enough and we called it a night, though it was really hard to walk away from that music!

We’ll be back at Mona’s, count on it! Smile

Chasing Violet and Michael Daves at Rockwood Music Hall

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Once again, Twitter delivers. I’ve mentioned it before, I’ll mention it again, follow the artists that you like on Twitter, you never know when you’ll find out about something that you might otherwise never hear about.

For a few months now, Melissa Tong has been telling me that I need to see Michael Daves perform. Beginning a few weeks back, he has a residency at Rockwood Music Hall every Tuesday night at 10pm. We had an aborted attempt to see him last Tuesday, but were finally able to commit to going last night.

We were sitting around watching TV, resting up for what was going to be a later night than usual (it ended up being even later than we had imagined). I was catching up on Twitter, when I saw a tweet from Rachel Platten (if you read this space, you know she’s one of our current obsessions!):

Whatever. Get it together Platten. Oh and come to Rockwood Music Hall tonight! My new band is playing at 9 ~ it’s free!

Say what? The set immediately before the set we’re already going to be there for is Rachel Platten? How could I have missed this? I didn’t! I went back to check the website and the band listed at the 9pm slot was called Chasing Violet. If you’ve learned anything in these posts, it’s that many (most?) of these NYC-based musicians have at least one side project, some have a dozen!

Listen to the five songs available on the Chasing Violet link above and if you don’t love them, I’ll immediately refund the money you spent on my advice here! Winking smile

We happily accelerated our plans and showed up at Rockwood exactly at 9pm. The place was crazy mobbed as Ed Romanoff was packing up his equipment from an obviously very successful set. As people left we got to squeeze in and even (luckily) grab two seats.

Chasing Violet is Rachel Platten and Nick Howard. Nick is a Brit (we won’t hold that against him). Winking smile In a small world story, I was introduced to Nick by Alex Berger on December 7th, 2010, when we all attended an Ian Axel show at Mercury Lounge. Nick was charming and funny and we had some good laughs (all at Berger’s expense, in front of him). Winking smile So, I was now even more intrigued to hear Chasing Violet (though Rachel was draw enough).

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This was their first-ever public show. The songs are great, their voices amazing. For a first show, considerably polished. The flubs (of course there were flubs) were turned into very light-hearted moments that enhanced the show. Each is charming in their own right and together even more so.

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One big surprise was hearing Nick sing after hearing him talk (even at the show, not just when I met him in December). With one exception, Nick sang in an alto register, often taking the higher harmonies and Rachel does not have a deep voice. He hits the high notes so crisply, but when he speaks, it’s a more normal male baritone. Quite interesting.

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They joked a number of times about how this would likely be their last show as well. That’s not true, as they’re already listed at Rockwood on March 8th at 9pm (once again followed by Michael Daves). Of course they’ll get better with each show, but they might lose some opportunities to make us laugh along the way.

I’m so glad that I found out about this show and that we were able to make it in time. I would not have been happy to hear about it after the fact.

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Back to why we were originally going to Rockwood to begin with, Michael Daves!

Michael played acoustic guitar and sang solo (with the exception of one surprise guest). He had his own microphone with him (the kind you see in a studio, with a shock mount). I’ve never seen anyone have that kind of mic at Rockwood before. Amazingly, I’ll bet $1.75 that for whatever reason, the mic was not playing through the PA. In other words, it didn’t matter that he brought (or even had) a mic at all. His guitar wasn’t plugged into an amp either, he was raising it to the mic to play.

Did it make a difference? Not in the least! He sings so powerfully, and with a serious bite in his voice, that it carried cleanly throughout the room. His guitar was a bit softer, but since it wasn’t competing with any other instruments or voices, it was easy to hear as well.

He’s a superb guitar player. I had no doubt of that going in, since I became aware that he regularly plays with Chris Thile. Chris wouldn’t play with a musical slouch.

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Michael’s set consisted of traditional Appalachian-style bluegrass/roots music (since I’m not familiar with him, I don’t know if all of his sets are this style or not). I’m mildly surprised that a place like Rockwood gave him a long every-Tuesday residency, since this isn’t the most popular music in NYC.

We like most kinds of music, in particular bluegrass (though typically, the more full-band bluegrass sounds). So, it was definitely a treat to see his particular picking style. He was capable of mixing a flat-picking lead with a strumming rhythm, at the same time. Sort of accompanying his own leads. Sweet.

Toward the end of his set, in a complete surprise to everyone (including her), Michael called up Melissa Tong (our reason for being there to begin with!) to sing a song with him. It was the best song in his set (IMHO). Melissa has a lovely voice (though she doesn’t sing often enough). Because the mic was off (no one has proven to me that I am wrong yet, so my $1.75 goes unclaimed) Melissa had to sing louder than she normally does. Bravo, more Melissa! Smile

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When the set was over we bumped into Rebecca Haviland and got to tell her in person how amazing she was on Monday night at the Soul Revue Benefit.

Lois and I probably could have just fallen asleep right there at Rockwood. Melissa gently twisted our arms to extend the evening a bit longer and head over to Mona’s for their amazing Tuesday night jams. We had no idea what we were in for, but we agreed.

Continue reading about our experience at Mona’s, which was amazing enough for me to want to make it a separate post.

Alex Wong and Guests at Rockwood Music Hall

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It’s been a month since we’ve seen Alex Wong perform at Rockwood Music Hall. It’s not good to go much more than a month between doses of Alex, so it’s good that he had a show last night. Winking smile

In fact, after seeing his solo show at Rockwood 1 on December 9th, we saw him sit in for one song with Alex Berger at Rockwood 2 on the 13th. That night, they performed a song they had written that weekend (and just finished up the morning of the show!), called The Fighter. I wrote about how beautiful a song it is.

Alex opened last night’s show with that song, solo this time, at the piano. As much as I like the song, it also immediately reminded me of the fact that our beloved Alex Berger is now too many thousands of miles away, back in merry old England, leaving us less merry in these old United States…

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Next Alex invited Rachel Platten to join him. Rachel played the piano and Alex the guitar. They played a song they co-wrote about Alex’s first Christmas in NYC (one he spent here not by choice!). It’s a wonderful song called Make It Home. We’ve seen Alex perform it solo a number of times, but this is the first time we got to see Alex perform it with Rachel, harmonies included.

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The song is special for another reason. Alex and Rachel have made the song available for purchase at Bandcamp. It costs (a minimum of) $2.25 (please feel free to donate more, we did!). 100% of the proceeds go to City Harvest. The production quality is superb (no surprise, Alex is one of the best producers around!). You’ll get a great song and be donating to a very worth charity. Just do it, you’ll feel a lot better about yourself and have the music to enjoy for years to come!

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Next Alex invited Melissa Tong and David Fallo to join him. I’ve written about both many times. Suffice it to say that any string section in any style of music would be instantly enhanced if either Melissa or David joined them. Both at the same time? Dream time!

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But wait, there’s more! I purposely left out one thing about Make It Home above because it fits better here. One of our favorite drummers is Adam Christgau. Adam was supposed to leave for a tour in Australia, yesterday morning. On Tuesday, his flight was canceled preemptively due to the anticipated snow storm (that wasn’t much of a storm after all). So, Adam was stranded in NYC (much as Alex had been in 2004, for different reasons). Alex dedicated Make It Home to Adam, who happened to be in the audience for Alex’s show.

With Melissa and David on stage, Alex coaxed Adam to join them to play the drums. Since Adam was there as a guest, he didn’t have his equipment with him. No worries. Seth Faulk, another top local drummer handed Adam his cymbals (Rockwood has the core drum set) and his brushes. Thanks Seth!

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With that, Alex proceeded to right a wrong that he perpetrated on his audience a month ago. As I mentioned in the post about that show, Alex teased us by playing the intro to Brooklyn Blurs (one of our favorite songs) and then changed his mind. Last night he played it, with the strings and drum, more than making up for his indiscretion the month before.

During the song, I could swear that I heard someone singing the ambeR Rubarth part (harmony) absolutely perfectly with Alex. I couldn’t see anyone doing it, and it wasn’t anyone on stage (it was a female voice). After the show, my friend turned to me and said: “Did you hear that woman over there singing the ambeR part perfectly?”. Yes, yes, I did! I honestly thought it was just me knowing the song so well that my mind filled in ambeR’s part on it’s own! Whew, I’m not totally addled just yet… Winking smile

Adam tried to get up after Brooklyn Blurs, but Alex cajoled him into playing one more song, Motion Sickness, with Melissa and David as well. Not just them, but the entire crowd was split into two to sing along with the chorus. I was on the side of the audience that in the previous two shows was assigned the “na na na na, na na na na, na na na na, na” part. Alex changed it up this time, and our side was given the “oh, oh, oh oh oh” part. I’m adept at both, so he didn’t throw me for the loop that he hoped to! Winking smile

After dismissing the band, Alex started his looping machine and tapped out some percussion on the guitar body. Then he added a whooshing sound by rubbing the strings. While that looped endlessly, he returned to the piano and played another new(-ish) song (I think it’s one he co-wrote with Paul Freeman). Absolutely wonderful!

For more Alex Wong / Paul Freeman goodness, check out their new project, Bellows Band where you can hear three songs stream for free!

He followed that with a song he co-wrote with Nate Campany. I call it the Yeah Yeah Yeah song (that’s the entire chorus). Last time, Alex Berger sang the Yeah Yeah Yeah part in harmony with Wong. This time, the audience did. It was awesome. In particular, Seth Faulk (the aforementioned drummer) stood right over my left shoulder and sang incredible harmony with Alex. Nicely done all, but especially Seth who gave me a personal concert! Smile

I might be missing another song or two, but suffice it to say that the entire set was a blast.

Making it even better was running into three friends who we sat with (I didn’t know any of them would be at the show, though I could have guessed). We even got to introduce one to the other two, so the circle widens. Good music, good company and a good glass of wine. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Melissa Tong and Pork Chop Willie at Banjo Jims

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This is my first post for 2011. It’s 24 hours late because I also just upgraded the disk and OS on my laptop, which caused me to be down all day yesterday.

We love bluegrass music and we love all things Melissa Tong. We’ve seen Melissa perform a number of violin styles, but had not seen her perform bluegrass, which she does regularly in her role as a member of Pork Chop Willie (PCW). PCW has a residency at Banjo Jim’s on the first Friday of every other month, with a full (electrified) band.

To be more exact, PCW plays North Mississippi Hill Country music, which is a little more raw, rootsy (I know, not a real word).

The core of PCW is Bill Hammer and Melissa Tong. Beginning this past Friday (the night we went), they are performing on the alternate first Fridays purely acoustic, just the two of them.

As with many neighborhood bars, there is no stage at Banjo Jim’s, just an area of the bar set aside for music. We were sitting in the center of the bar (essentially, the front row), on bar stools at a round table. That made for a strange (but interesting) experience, since we were looking down at the performers (slightly), who were both sitting.

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Given that intimacy, it felt more like sitting on a friend’s porch listening to them sing and pick a bit, rather than a show. That’s cool, we like that.

Bill Hammer played three different guitars, starting off on a cigar-box, 4-string guitar. He played with and without a slide on all three guitars. He sang most of the leads with Melissa providing harmony. They switched on roughly three songs where Melissa took the lead vocals.

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Melissa was her usual incredible self on the violin (now officially called a fiddle). Winking smile

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We were very glad to have come out for the evening and even happier that the predicted snow was afraid of PCW and mostly stayed away. Smile

For those who want to know what they played, here’s the set list:

SetList

Looking forward to catching the full-band PCW experience.

Alex Berger at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2

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We waited nearly a year for the pleasure of seeing Alex Berger perform live again. We had to console ourselves by listening to his wonderful CD, Snow Globe. It’s great, but it’s not quite the same as seeing Alex live. Last night was his first time performing at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2. We weren’t scheduled to be in NYC this week, but we couldn’t resist changing our plans in order to catch the show.

Wow, we are both so grateful that we did that. This will be a long post, which I know means most of you will bail now. So, the bottom line first, it was an absolutely spectacular show (as in awesome, but also a spectacle, in the best sense!).

On to the details! Smile Most of the photos were taken during setup, since the stage was so crowded there were very few clear shots from as close as we were to the stage.

Alex is just here visiting (briefly) from his native UK. That he was able to get booked into Rockwood 2 is good enough. That it was mobbed is a testament to how many fans and friends Alex has. If you know someone who is nicer than Alex Berger, please tell me now, because I very much want to meet that person and become their friend!

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Let’s start with Alex’s talents (as a singer/songwriter, I don’t have enough time to cover his talents as a person!). Alex has a fantastic voice. I am a very happy person (nearly 100% of the time), but if I’m ever tense, I’m sure that listening to Alex sing would relax me instantly.

Alex is fantastic on the keyboards (last night he played the grand piano). He can tickle my ivories any time he wishes. Winking smile

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Alex plays the guitar beautifully (last night he played Adam Levy’s electric guitar). I believe we were at the show where Alex first played a guitar publicly (The Living Room, on 1/11/2010). Perhaps he was practicing for years, but if he has truly only been playing the guitar for roughly a year, he’s picked it up extremely quickly. He closed the show solo with a finger-picking masterpiece (more on that later).

Alex writes gorgeous (lush) songs. Most are more of a throwback to jazz, ragtime, Dixieland, blues styles, but he also has some pop tunes (just to confuse you). Winking smile One of the most pleasant concert surprises I had was seeing Harry Connick Jr. play at Radio City Music Hall (I simply didn’t know his music well). If you like him (and how smooth he is), you’ll like (love!) Alex Berger, I’m sure.

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So, if you trust me (and why shouldn’t you, I haven’t steered you wrong yet!), then we can move on to the numerous musicians who joined Alex on stage last night. I’ve never seen that many people on stage at the same time at Rockwood. Most songs had eight people playing at the same time (a veritable orchestra!). There was a ninth person as well (we’ll get to him), but not all the others were on stage when he was. So, the record (for me) is eight on stage at once.

Left-to-right and front-to-back, here’s who sat (or stood) in with Alex:

Melissa Tong on violin. I can never say enough, or get enough of Melissa. We just saw Melissa play with Artemis Chamber Ensemble the day before, and I covered that in this post. It was a treat to see her change styles so radically a day apart.

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Christiana Liberis on violin. Christiana was wonderful! She and Melissa did not play in unison, they each had their own leads. I admit to thinking that Lindsay Lohan was getting on stage to play the violin, but it was only the looks that deceived me. Christiana was well behaved. Winking smile

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Marika Hughes on cello. We’ve seen Marika a number of times and she never disappoints.

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Ward Williams on cello. We’ve seen Ward many times as well and he too is a wonderful cellist. As with Melissa and Christiana, Marika and Ward often played different parts.

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Tony Maceli on upright and electric bass. Tony was wonderful (as he always is). On the opening number, it was pretty much just Alex and Tony playing, with Tony taking a long tasty solo on the upright bass.

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Katie Scheele on oboe. Katie is part of Threeds a wonderful oboe trio in NYC. We’ve seen Threeds and Katie separately a number of times and always enjoy her performance. She had a few standout solos last night and was always interesting even when in the background.

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Elliot Jacobson on drums. Tucked away in the corner, behind all these wonderful musicians was one of my (newly discovered) favorite drummers. I wrote about Elliot in a post about Bess Rogers. Let me add to my praise of Elliot. Before seeing him, at least two people told me Elliot was a “real hitter”. That means he strikes the drums really hard. Both people think Elliot is a great drummer, so it was a compliment, but it could also be taken to mean that Elliot is one-dimensional. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Last night, Elliot drummed nothing like he did for Bess and Lelia. He used brushes, had soft touches on the rims only and in general kept a quiet (appropriately) but steady beat to the more jazzy numbers that Alex played. To repeat, my respect for Elliot Jacobson grew last night. Sorry, no good photo of Elliot, this will have to do:

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Including Alex, that makes eight people.

Alex Wong joined Alex Berger on stage for one number. They played a song they co-wrote this weekend. According to Berger, they finished it the morning of the show, when they were rehearsing it to play for us. That kind of stuff just amazes me. Yes, they both had the words written down. Still, they nailed it. Lois cried during the song, titled The Fighter.

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Alex Wong played the piano and Berger sang with him (they alternated verses and sang harmony throughout). Wong also scored all of the strings for the entire show. If you’ve never read this space before, then you don’t know how in awe I am of Alex Wong. Now you know! Smile

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Alex (back to Berger now) had a number of songs left on his set list, but the mean management at Rockwood told him he could only do one more. Winking smile

Set List

He chose to play a cover. The song is called Washing Day, co-written by ambeR Rubarth and Adam Levy. I love the song. It has a wonderful feel to it (really slow). But, the thing that makes it a great song are the lyrics. Fantastic imagery to capture universal emotions. ambeR and Adam won 1st place in the 2006 International Songwriting Competition for this song! It was the first song they ever wrote together.

Alex said that he was playing it because it’s one of the songs that inspired him to pursue singer/songwriter as a career! ambeR was supposed to sing a song that she co-wrote with Alex earlier in the set, but she didn’t make it to Rockwood in time. At least she was there to hear Alex heap some mighty praise on her for being his inspiration!

Alex just killed Washing Day. Of course, his voice is perfect for the song. But, he also shone on the guitar, which is a non-stop finger-picking extravaganza. I was incredibly impressed all around, independent of the fact that I love the song.

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Right before playing it, Alex gave us a shout out, mentioning that we changed our plans to attend the show. Thanks Alex, it was more than just worth it, it was an evening we’ll never forget. We miss you already. Move to our (frigid) city soon!!! Smile