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The Sea The Sea – Performance and CD Review

IMG_2298aCD Release Show at Rockwood Music Hall

Mira Stanley and Chuck E. Costa, who call their duo The Sea The Sea, held a CD release performance at Rockwood Music Hall, Saturday, March 1. I had seen the two perform at The Northeast Regional Folk Alliance (NERFA) Conference previously. I don’t recall what I heard at NERFA, but this time the impact seemed tenfold. They were very impressive. The harmonies were lush and melodies were unique. They entered from the back of the small basement room of Stage 3, singing the first track of Love We Are We Love, “Re: Blah,” unamplified, with Chuck on banjo. They reached the stage as the song ended, and the packed room roared its approval. The rest of the set explored the songs from the CD and added a few new ones as well.

Mira sang without playing anything on some songs and then played guitar or added creative, steady percussion on a snare drum on a few others. Chuck switched back and forth between acoustic guitar and electric guitar and banjo. I especially enjoyed his spare, haunting electric leads, whether they were done fingerstyle or picked individually. They amply stood in for the excellent studio production on the CD. They ended the set with the closing track on their CD, “Ten Thousand Birds.” On this song, Mira played electric guitar and Chuck simply sang. I had been informed that video recording would not be allowed, but I made a surreptitious video of this song.
What can I add about their vocals? We’ve admired Chuck’s feathery baritone for years, and his partnership with Mira has added another elegant instrument, at once both delicate and powerful. Our respect for this duo has skyrocketed. We encourage everyone to see them live.

CD Review: Love We Are We Love

Love-We-Love

There are so many gems on this CD, It’s hard to pick favorites. We especially loved:

“Re: Blah,” Track one examines the philosophical point of view about having too much faith in people, then getting disappointed when they don’t come through: you say sometimes you have too much faith in people / they have a way of letting you down / but I say, don’t be quick to judge those people ’cause that kind of thing / has a way of coming back around.
Chuck described its origin this way: “This song was inspired by an email one of my younger sisters sent me with the subject ‘Blah’. She was having a difficult few months when she felt like she was putting “too much faith” in people who kept letting her down. So she asked me, as her big brother, for advice — and while I sent her an email in response, Mira and I also sent her this song. The idea of having ‘too much faith’ was an idea that really resonated with me…is it possible to have ‘too much faith’? Is there such a thing? To me, it seems like an all or nothing proposition. You either have faith in something or your don’t. You can’t have too much or too little of it. Love We Are We Love is an album about leaps of faith into the unknown and trusting intuition – so this song felt like the right way to introduce the idea of having faith in something – we like to think of it as a prelude.”
Well said.

“Guess it Was” This song is one good example (among many) where the duo illustrates their command of a poetic phrase: Oh the day rose up like it had before / And I rolled the stone away / and pushed it up the mountain / and thought I heard you say / Something ’bout how you have to let some things go / could’ve been the radio / Oh I thought it was a freight train / Guess it was just everything. The harmonies, need I say, are an absolute joy.

“Love We Are We Love” The chorus of the title track is sung as a round at the beginning and the end, with overlapping lines. It effectively illustrates the idea of the eternal pondering of the nature of love: Love we are wise too late to know / too late too wise … Was it a hammer or a fist? / A feather or a kiss? This is a track where Mira uses the snare and Chuck is on acoustic guitar.

“In the Dark”
I’m especially fond of this one because the harmony, tempo and melody remind me of early rockabilly and the Everly Brothers. If the Everlys had come from Michigan, this one might’ve slipped somewhere in between “Bye, Bye, Love and Cathy’s Clown.” Are there birds that fly in the dark / in the dark, in the dark … when I come back to Michigan / will we kiss again?

“Fists Full of Flowers”
The rolling bass line that begins this song reminds me of the indie rock/jazz of Sam Prekop (a member of the coincidentally-named art-rock band The Sea and Cake). The offbeat melody yet positive nature of the lyrics is enhanced by the spritely quickness of the way it’s sung: Once we planted a garden, but it didn’t grow …not where we wanted ’cause the seeds had blown / over the fence into the field, oh – oh / do you think it’ll still be beautiful when we’re old?

“Watertreader”
There are sonic delights on the exquisitely conceived “Watertreader.” I love the chime-like electric guitar strum and I think I hear the very clever use of a finger running the edge of “tuned” water glasses in the background of the chorus (Jonny Rodgers on “tuned glasses” in the album credits).
… And the sky / opened wide / and I tried / my best to breathe / Cause I’ve been a watertreader / lost at sea / spending time, spending energy / And I have almost run out / So I’m heading out / into the deep

“In My Pocket”
There’s a fingerpicked melody, rising and falling on the electric guitar that I love, sliding chord patterns with the strings pinched up and back along the fretboard. There might be more of the “tuned glasses” here as well. Something borrowed, something stolen / Something silver, something golden / in my pocket / Something lucid, something shallow / something rooted, a sparrow / in my mind

“Ten Thousand Birds”
The closing track, softly sung, has a haunting quality. It was the sound / a gentle thunder / ten thousand birds / in the front yard / altogether / all at once / taking wing to lift the silence / that one moves / moves the other / it was the sound / a gentle thunder. Slightly overlapping lines and the wash of piano and — is it those tuned glasses again? — bring the album to a fitting finale.

Every song deserves an accolade, but I’m running out of superlatives. Jazz and rock bassist, composer and producer Todd Sickafoose, did an outstanding production job on Love We Are We Love. This album is a must-have.

CD Review: What You See is What You Get by Toby Walker

Walker_WYSIWYGOne of the chief attributes of a top-notch blues player, using Mississippi Delta or Piedmont fingerstyle guitar, is the ability to maintain a steady bass line while inducing thrills with playfully rollicking, achingly sad or ominously dark melodies on the treble strings. Add in wicked slide licks, and you have almost all the ingredients that are found in monster bluesman, “Little” Toby Walker. He was the cover feature for Acoustic Live in August 2007. In addition to giving the old blues songs a fresh reading with his muscular picking, Toby also has the ability to write songs that tell a funny story. It’s all there in Toby’s newest CD, What You See is What You Get. As an additional incentive for purchasers, printed on the inside of the CD jacket is a URL to a secret web page containing free videos, stories and other historical information.

Sixteen tracks long, the CD is a smorgasbord of Toby Walker delights. We get the usual fingerpicking clinic on some tracks and chills-inducing ear candy on the slide tracks. Coincidentally, like the Garland Jeffreys CD in our previous review, each track on What You See is What You Get was done in one take with no overdubs. Using the information Toby shares on the web page, we’ll explore some of the guitars he plays. Taking each track from first to last, here’s how the album takes shape:

On track one, “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” we find Toby using his 1963 Gibson ES-120, the one concession to electric guitar. As he states on that web page: “Whenever I’m in the mood to play electric slide guitar this is the axe I go for. In my opinion there’s simply no comparison to any other guitar out there … this guitar sings regardless of whatever amp I’m going through.” It’s one of the slower numbers, with delicious slide licks precisely placed for dramatic emphasis over the steady 4/4 throb on the bass strings.

On track two, “She’s Into Something,” he’s using the Huss and Dalton MJC acoustic guitar he purchased (and later found out) was owned previously by Mary Chapin Carpenter. This song, about a desirable female (what else?) features a beautiful rhythm set up by a pinch and strum percussive effect. Toby lays some treble melody lines over the top that seem impossible to this listener. There is also some chill-inducing tremolo and fast fret sliding.

“Everything I Want” is a humorous co-write (Jeff Steinberg). The song’s protagonist, an addictive consumer, buys stuff beyond his pocketbook’s capacity: “seems like everything I want is the opposite of what I need.” It’s a sweet Piedmont-style, Mississippi John Hurt-like number, using a 1944 Gibson LG-2 Banner acoustic guitar.

“Glory, Glory,” a particular favorite, has me bouncing up and down in my seat and my foot uncontrollably thumping the floor. It’s a gospel slide rave-up with Toby using that ‘63 Gibson ES-120 again.

“God Moves On the Water” is about the sinking of the Titanic. Toby gives a very tight performance on a 1961 Gibson B-45 12-string acoustic. There’s a video of the Reverend Gary Davis on the web page playing his Gibson B-45, and sitting to his left, could it be? Yes, that’s Pete Seeger.

Toby wrote track six, “Swing Bean” himself. It’s a very rapid-fire, jazzy swing tune that has a Chet Atkins-like feel. Toby uses the Huss and Dalton again on this one.

“Dead Stray Dog” is an ominous, thumping Delta blues, done on the electric Gibson. Toby takes an old song and puts his own stamp on it.

“Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl” is another glorious ode to Piedmont fingerstyle guitar done on a 1930 National Steel Triolian resonator guitar.

I’ve heard a lot of versions of track nine, “Statesboro Blues,” over the decades. This one, done on the Gibson 12-string, is a clinic (as usual) on how to play clean on a very tough instrument.

Track 10, another Toby Walker original, “Putting On the Blakes,” is a rapid-fire Piedmont-style number. It has me thinking (and laughing), “Damn Toby,” are you ever gonna stop showing off?” The picking is so fast and intricate, it’s breathtaking.

“Ham Hound Crave” is a standard raunchy blues fingerstyle picker that exclaims,”I’ll be your rocker ‘til your straight chair comes along.” Toby’s natural gift for singing in a sandpaper growl comes in real handy here.

“Roaches and Bedbugs” is Toby’s adaptation of a Furry Lewis song. This tasty slide number makes good use of his humorous side with, “the roaches and the bedbugs, playin’ a little game of ball / the score was 20 to nothin’, the roaches were ahead…”

“Highway,” is a description of various chapters following Toby’s taking to the road as a youngster. It’s an exciting, fast-driving fingerpicking opus. For anyone contemplating becoming a guitar player, this one will either be an inspiration or very daunting cautionary note.

“Put Something Stupid On the Tube” was co-written with Tom Griffith. It’s a very funny, satirical look at how TV watching is used as an escape: “The big boss man drove me half insane / there’s nothing left to do but to drain my brain.”

“Got the Blues, Can’t Be Satisfied” is immediately recognizable as flat-out Mississippi John Hurt, written by the man himself. Toby does it proud, the picking clean and bouncy, with double-pinched notes and turnarounds galore.

The CD finishes up with “Custard Pie,” a slide number attributed to Sonny Terry, with a percussive bass line. Its insistent throb puts me in mind of Bo Diddley. If this were the last encore in a live performance, the audience would be sent home happy.

For purchasers, there are three additional songs available for download on the secret web page. “I Was Gone” chronicles the two years Toby spent hitch-hiking around the country back in the mid ‘70s. “Sadie Mae” is one of his favorite numbers to perform. An alternate version of “Ham Hound Crave” has been doctored to sound like an old record the way his great-great-grandfather, bluesman Willie Walker, would have done it.

We’ve always been gobsmacked by the sheer physical exploits of Toby Walker on guitar. For a listener who’s into the blues, it can’t get much better. This CD should be in the collection of anyone who loves the genre (or anyone who just loves good music).

CD Review: Truth Serum by Garland Jeffreys

Truth-SerumThis review is long overdue. Garland Jeffreys is a long-time favorite, whose voice has remained robust and vibrant into his seventh decade. He’s sung alongside many greats including Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger. He has the ability to combine rock, blues and reggae into a rootsy mix with a socially progressive viewpoint.

Truth Serum begins with the title track and a low, ominous electric guitar blues vamp that would sound perfectly in place on a Lucinda Williams recording. A honky-tonk blues harp, the player’s hands obviously cupped around the microphone, forms a Greek chorus for the song’s message: Sometimes a stiff drink will cut through all the b.s. Get it down so fast and that’s all she wrote / lies, lies, lies and alibis, still don’t hear no truth.

“Any rain” got the most airplay when the album was released last fall. It might be the most melodic track on the album. The lyrics are an appeal for social harmony: Suffering is optional, I heard a wise man say / You can live on violence / or you can make it fade away … Any rain, black rain, red rain / anything to ease the pain / anything to ease my sanity. Recently an interviewer asked if his songs were reactionary to political injustice. He responded: “Yes, it is. It just hurts to see it.”

Although not written for his friend of over 50 years, the recently deceased Lou Reed, “It’s What I Am” has found a place in his repertoire as a tribute to Lou. What I say and how I live / are means to me is what I give / Still alive by the skin of my own teeth / I crawl right through from underneath … I say to all my friends I’ll always be a part of you / No matter where I go / no matter what I do / It’s what I am, It’s what I am.

“Dragons to Slay,” concerned with speaking out against social ills, is a very effective Reggae number that Bob Marley would be happy to have written. In a few places, Garland’s voice is a close approximation of Marley, who called Garland, “The best American Reggae singer.”

“Is This the Real World,” a hopeful song, starts with steady 4/4 tremolo on an acoustic guitar which is soon joined by a drumbeat before the rest of the band joins the party. Dry your eyes, wipe away your tears / Blue your sky, your blues will disappear… It’s a new day comin’ round … I can’t be your optimist / I won’t be your pessimist / when you live in a world like this / something’s got to pull you through / Is This the real world?

Listening to “Collide the Generations,” we’re reminded that this is a 70-year-old guy who has an 17-year-old daughter, Savannah Jeffreys. She’s obviously helping to keep him young. A musician herself (her vocal and piano-based videos of original compositions are getting increasing hits on Youtube), she inspired this track. Percolating under a snarling electric lead guitar and another employing distortion booster is a drum beat designed to pull listeners out of their seats and onto a dance floor. Garland sings: Daddy’s little girl … crashed a generation… It’s about the collision of generations from parent to child and vice versa. When it comes to his daughter, Garland embraces it. This collision works.

What is truly mind-boggling about this album is that all the tracks were recorded live, in ONE take. It helped that Garland enlisted the likes of Larry Campbell and Duke Levine on guitars, Steve Jordan on drums (except one track — he left to join an Eric Clapton tour), Brian Mitchell on keys and Zev Katz on bass.

He’ll play one show on February 22 at Tim McCloone’s Supper Club in Asbury Park, NJ, then a number of dates in Scotland and the U.K. before returning to New York for a show at the Highline Ballroom on March 28.
This is an album worth adding to your collection and Garland is someone worth seeing live.
garlandjeffreys.com

John Platt’s On Your Radar, Feb. 11, 2014

IMG_2079John Platt hosted another stellar lineup consisting of Wool&Grant, Darlingside and Meg Hutchinson tonight at 7pm at Rockwood Music Hall, on Allen Street (just below Houston Street), New York City. Viki and I started the evening with a stop for dinner at the Meatball Shop around the corner on Stanton Street. Our favorite is the chicken meatball smash with pesto and provolone and a side salad of arugula with apple slices. “Two of those, please!”

We headed over to Rockwood right after and got a front center table. The first performer IMG_2048was Meg Hutchinson. Meg was our cover feature in June 2012. She sang in her distinctive velvety tone and it was a marvelous treat. We particularly enjoyed her song “Gatekeeper” about a patrolman who has talked hundreds of would-be suicides out of jumping off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Meg also took a turn at the piano for a couple of numbers.

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The second of this month’s three acts was Wool&Grant, our favorite cheeky act We featured Ina May Wool and Bev GrantIMG_2152 on the cover of our July 2013 issue. We use the term “cheeky” mainly in regard to their song, “Get the Frack Outta Here.” We were gratifed to hear them perform it tonight: “Natural gas, you can kiss my natural ass…” Couldn’t have said it any better myself. Ina May’s husband, IMG_2137accomplished musician/composer, Daniel A. Weiss, provided backup on piano and guitar.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2183Darlingside finished the night with an inspiring set. They scored a trifecta, with a command of singing, songwriting and instrumental virtuosity. We especially liked “My Love” and “Open Door.” After the show I approached band member Auyon Mukharji to suggest a July cover feature. He was very receptive. Stay tuned.