Concert Highlights–Eric Burdon and the Wild New Band of Animals at City Winery, 8/8/2016

I haven’t forgotten the first time I saw Chubby Checker.

It was around 1980 or so, and I was reviewing for Variety when he opened for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison. He had a young rock ‘n’ roll band that was full of energy, and he made Frankie look tired and boring in comparison. After his set I told him about my friends Dr. Bop & the Headliners who were playing at a campus club and sure enough, he went down there and sat in.

I thought of Chubby Monday night at City Winery, when Eric Burdon did the first of his two-night stand there. The last time I saw him he was with a band made up of guys in his age range, that is, middle and older, now that he’s 75. He was great, they were great, but I will note that he sat on a stool a lot of the time. Maybe he had to—but not now: His band now is made up of youngsters and there was no stool in sight. And when he sang “When I Was Young”—which smoothly segued into “Inside Looking Out”—well, he sounded none the worse for 50 years of wear as one of rock’s greatest vocalists.

He opened with his 1970 hit with War, “Spill the Wine,” his bass player Justin Andres laying out a funky bottom from which Burdon modified the lines “When I thought I’d lay myself down to rest/In a big field of tall grass” to a big field of “medical marijuana”—in Mexican accent. Ruben Salinas added a blazing sax answer to “I could feel hot flames of fire roaring at my back,” and on “See See Rider” trombonist Evan Mackey took a lead.

Other Animals classics performed included “Don’t Bring Me Down” (featuring another great sax part), the anthems “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “It’s My Life,” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which Eric dedicated to “the spirit” of its originator, “Miss Nina Simone”–then related how he was introduced to her, upon which she said, “You’re the little white motherfucker who took my song and ruined it!”

He sang Lead Belly’s folk standard “In the Pines,” his “Bo Diddley Special” tribute from his latest album ‘Til Your River Runs Dry (opening with a tuneful dirge during which guitarist Johnzo West reverently placed his hat over his heart and Eric and the rest did the same with their hands), and of course, his Animals signature “The House of the Rising Sun,” really hitting those high notes solid.

“Hitting all the notes in all the original keys,” marveled the great guitarist and Conan bandleader Jimmy Vivino in a post-show tweet. “No small feat. Just wonderful to hear that voice and songs again.”

He even threw in “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” the Randy Newman song that he recorded before Three Dog Night hit big with it, and Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” But maybe the night’s big takeaway came in his self-penned 1967 hit “Monterey,” about the legendary California pop festival and in which he invoked the participants Ravi Shankar, The Who, The Dead, Hendrix, Hugh Masakela and Brian Jones. “You want to find the truth in life?” he asked/sang the lyric. “Don’t pass music by…and you know I would not lie!”

And then he shared the wonderful story about how a girl handed him a white rose while Otis Redding was performing, and in keeping with the overall vibe, he ate it.

Eric Burdon adds two August shows to City Winery schedule

(Photo: David Weimann)

With a pair of already sold-out new York shows slated for October (Oct. 10 and 11), City Winery has added two more Eric Burdon shows for this month.

Legendary Animals frontman Burdon, backed by a new band of enthusiastic and energetic young Animals (aptly called the Wild New Band of Animals and starring guitarist Johnzo West, keyboardist Davey Allen, trombonist Evan Mackey, saxophonist Ruben Salinas, drummer Dustin Koester and bassist Justin Andres), is now at City Winery Aug. 8 and 9, with Alberta Cross opening. The Wild Ones are ready, willing and able to perform Animals classics including “House of the Rising Sun” and “We’ve Got to Get Out of This Place”), Eric Burdon & the Animals hits like “When I Was Young” and “Monterey,” his huge “Spill the Wine” hit with War, “Bo Diddley Special” from his latest album Til Your River Runs Dry, and “some songs I’ve always wanted to sing and never got the chance to” by such writers as David Bowie, Randy Newman, Leadbelly and Ian Dury.

Of his own songs on Til Your River Runs Dry, Burdon notes that they’re “certainly some of my most personal: Every song I wrote reflects a real feeling, for the environment, for my wife, my friends, my role models, and some subjects that I avoided for years.”

Burdon, who turned 75 on May 11, is touring more than ever. He’ll return home to Newcastle upon Tyne on Sept. 7 for a celebration concert at Theatre Royal.

Concert Highlights–Loudon Wainwright III with Friends and Family, 6/29/2016

The extended Family Wainwright must be the biggest and most talented clan in contemporary music. Headed by Loudon Wainwright III, it includes sister Sloan, son Rufus, daughters Martha and Lucy Wainwright Roche and now Alexandra, and numerous other relatives and players associated with Loudon and his exes Kate McGarrigle (late mother of Martha and Rufus) and Suzzy Roche (mother of Lucy).

At City Winery June 29 (the second of two consecutive Wednesday night Loudon appearances there), he brought along Rufus, Martha and Alexandra (Lucy was on tour with the Indigo Girls), Sloan, Suzzy and frequent and versatile accompanists Chaim Tannenbaum and David Mansfield. Billed as Loudon Wainwright III with Friends and Family, it was definitely a family affair, albeit one that reflected an uncommonly accomplished family that nonetheless has never been wholly functional.

He hinted at this after the the nostalgic summer opener “The Swimming Song” (sung with the full family) with “Bein’ a Dad,” a song expressing both the joys and sorrows of fatherhood (“Bein’ a dad can make you feel sad/Like you’re the insignificant other/Yeah right from the start, they break your heart/In the end every kid wants his mother”). He sang this one solo, and then the set broke into various solo, duet and trio vocal combinations starting with Loudon and Suzzy—with Mansfield on fiddle—singing Marty Robbins’ classic “At the End of a Long Lonely Day.”

Nervously noting that she rarely sings by herself, the ever wonderful Suzzy Roche followed with a confident take on Connie Converse’s “Talkin’ Like You (Two Tall Mountains),” crediting Loudon for her being aware of the tragically mysterious Converse–the New York singer-songwriter of the 1950s who wrote sad and simple songs, and when her dream of a career didn’t pan out, disappeared without a trace in 1974, to be recently rediscovered with the release of rare recordings over the last decade or so. Sloan Wainwright capped her solo segment with a duet with her brother on the Everly Brothers classic “Love Hurts” (Mansfield on mandolin).

Tannenbaum took a fine turn, playing harmonica opposite Mansfield’s accordion on “I Had a Dream,” playing banjo on Kate McGarrigle’s “Talk to Me of Mendocino” (Martha Wainwright singing backup), and guitar on “Brooklyn 1955,” a poignant song of summer and baseball from his new self-titled debut album. A major part of the Wainwright-McGarrigles universe for decades, he also performed country bluesman Peg Leg Howell’s “Coal Man Blues,” whistling along solidly while Mansfield fiddled.

Loudon then returned to offer a taste of his Surviving Twin show, in which he “posthumously collaborates” with his late father Loudon Wainwright Jr. (the esteemed Life Magazine columnist with whom he had a typically complicated relationship) by juxtaposing his music with his father’s words. But youngest child Alexandra Kelly Wainwright nearly stole the show when she came out, complained how she’d had to watch her entire family perform on stage with instruments her entire life, and for this one time only, would throw her almost 70-year-old dad a bone by singing “No Time at All” from Pippin, which was written by his college classmate Stephen Schwartz. This she did with endearing off-the-wall aplomb, a girl friend holding up cue cards for the audience to sing along while Suzzy supported on guitar.

“Why did I spend all that money to send her to college?” wondered the proud papa. “That’s a gold mine right there!” Lexie really was that good, but older sister Martha, after duetting with their father on the guilt-slinging “You Never Phone,” picked up the gauntlet and ran with it on her own terrific “Traveler,” which she performed solo with acoustic guitar. Rufus then joined her on piano and vocals for the 1930s pop song “Moon Over Miami,” which they sang in French, they said, at their father’s surprise request—Rufus explaining that Loudon (and the kids called him “Loudon” as often as “Dad”) used to complain when they sang in French, having grown up with their mother in Montreal. Rufus followed solo with his angry and vindictive “Dinner at Eight,” though he noted the obvious in that while he and his father had indeed fought hard, “in the end, it’s a love story.”

“Isn’t this the greatest family?” the ever upbeat paterfamilias asked at one point. “It’s always a great contest getting the family on stage!” Then again, he added, “it’s all about what happens in the dressing room after!”

At least Loudon, Rufus and Martha were all good on “One Man Guy,” after which Loudon ended with “All in a Family,” having earlier sung his new Trump Funny or Die video nightmare “I Had a Dream.” He brought everyone back for the wacky encore, “Meet the Wainwrights,” which he wrote last year for The Wainwright Family Adventure in Alaska, in which the family did five shows in five different cities in Alaska, with the audience traveling with them through the entire tour.

Maybe now they might consider a family TV show a la The King Family Show, or even Lawrence Welk.

Concert Highlights–Cindy Lee Berryhill and Al Stewart at City Winery, 6/14/2016

Cindy Lee Berryhill alluded to her difficult recent past at the beginning of her opening set Tuesday night at City Winery when, leading into her forthcoming album The Adventurist’s track “Somebody’s Angel,” she invoked “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” the 1969 hit by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition that was written by Mel Tillis and is about a paralyzed veteran of “that crazy Asian war” who begs his wife not to go out on the town.

“I didn’t understand it when I was a kid,” Berryhill said, quoting the lyric “And if I could move I’d get my gun and put her in the ground/Oh, Ruby, don’t take your love to town.”

“Where was she going? The bowling alley? An Al-Anon group? There are any number of things she could have been doing besides having an affair!”

Berryhill has said that The Adventurist “bookends” with her 1994 album Garage Orchestra in that the first album documented the beginning of her relationship with her late husband Paul Williams and the new one its end: Williams, a prominent rock journalist who was a founder of the seminal rock magazine Crawdaddy!, died last year after many years of debilitation from a severe brain injury following a bicycle accident.

Ruby, Berryhill came to realize, was, much like herself, “a caretaker.”

“That’s not an easy way to go,” she said, adding, of caretakers, “It’s not an easy life—they deserve a song.”

Hence, “Somebody’s Angel.” But she noted after that she had “no regrets,” and had started the show with “a downer song” in order to progress to the more hopeful fare included on The Adventurist.

“You have to eat the healthy stuff first,” she explained, “then the Coca-Cola with ice cream.”

She later brought up her longtime friend Lenny Kaye, who produced her 1989 album Naked Movie Star. Kaye played acoustic guitar on The Adventurist’s “American Cinematography” and the Velvet Underground classic “Femme Fatale,” which was written by Lou Reed—Reed being part of Berryhill’s acknowledged “triumvirate” of key influences, the others being Patti Smith (Kaye has forever been Smith’s guitarist/collaborator) and Brian Wilson.

Berryhill was opening for another influence, Al Stewart, who sang his hit “Time Passages” at Kaye’s request. For his part, by the way, Stewart was quite engaging, particularly in stories like the one about playing places like Tokyo and Rome and hearing wives complain to their husbands that they thought they were going to see Rod, not Al Stewart.

Stewart also brought a nifty merchandise item: a poster pattered after the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover and featuring some 200 people and things associated with the lyrics to his songs–historical, if I heard correctly, and being hard of hearing and sitting in the back and Stewart not having a loud voice, I’m not 100 percent sure. He definitely said that only one person had been able to identify all but one of the figures, and he might have said that he himself couldn’t identify at least 30.

Concert Highlights–The Graham Parker Duo Featuring Brinsley Schwarz at City Winery, 4/7/2016

I really can’t say enough in praise of Graham Parker.

I remember years ago at The Bottom Line he joked about how he’d been signed to and dropped by almost every major label and a lot of minor ones, and how he was dropped by Atlantic before they even put out an album!

After two great albums with the reunited Rumour, I don’t know if he still has a deal, but I do know that there will be more albums, and as tired of it as he said he was after his April 7 City Winery gig (he likened himself to the Energizer Bunny), more touring. Like all great ones, it’s in his blood.

He can also play in any kind of situation, in bands (besides The Rumour, he toured and recorded extensviley with the much younger Figgs, and has had bands of other musicians backing him) and solo. He’s currently touring with the Rumour’s guitarist Brinsley Schwarz as The Graham Parker Duo Featuring Brinsley Schwarz, Brinsley on gold Les Paul and G.P. on acoustic guitar and harmonica—and, of course, storytelling.

As for singing and songwriting, he remains one of the most dependable artists 40 years following the release of his landmark debut album with the Rumour, Howlin’ Wind. As evidenced at City Winery—where he returns with Schwarz tonight—his voice hasn’t changed a whit, nor has his wit, for that matter. In a typical set that spanned his entire career, he leavened his repertoire both with surprise selections and signature self-deprecation, as in “Turned Up Too Late,” from the Howlin’ Wind followup album Heat Treatment (also ’76), but here referenced by its Pointer Sisters’ 1979 Priority album version.

Priority, Parker noted, went more rock than the pop-R&B sound that established the Pointers, and also including songs by Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones.

“Unfortunately, it was just past their prime,” reported Parker with customary resignation. “But [their cover] was very good. I was waiting for the swimming pools to come in!”

Here he motioned with his arms as if sweeping the swimming pools that never came in onto the vast estate he never had—but should have.

Then there was “When the Lights Go Down,” which was completely obscure even to a guy in France who calls himself Parker’s No. 1 fan and thereby attempting to usurp my position; after all, I did write the CD booklet notes for the 2001 Hip-O label Graham Parker Ultimate Collection, when G.P. himself called me and asked me to do them, since he was tired of writing them himself. But in all fairness, the French guy–Eric Naulleau—actually wrote a book, Parkeromane (Parker Maniac) about his experiences seeing Parker play in various places. Turns out he heard a Parker bootleg tape with a song he didn’t know on one of his travels—“When the Lights Go Down”—that Parker had penned at Rick Springfield’s request over dinner, for Springfield’s 1984 Hard to Hold film soundtrack, which resurfaced in 2005 on the Parker compilation The Official Art Vandelay Tapes, Volume Two.

“In those days if you coughed loudly and called it a soundtrack album, you sold a million copies,” said Parker, and he wasn’t altogether wrong.

“You’ve all seen Hard to Hold. What? No takers? It must be some kind of classic.” This time he was altogether wrong, though I’m sorely tempted to Netflix it after hearing the song, which Parker said plays in the background when the car with Springfield and Patti Hansen crashes.

Parker recently had to learn “When the Lights Go Down” in French in order to accompanying Naulleau on a novel tour where the author read from his book and the singer-songwriter-muse performed a corresponding song.

“I have no idea what he was talking about, but I don’t care—just pay me Euros!” said Parker. But he had to look up the song on YouTube, he said, and then “stick it on poor Brinsley here.”

Schwarz acquitted himself well, though, also on songs he originally played on back in the day with Parker and the Rumour (“Watch the Moon Come Down,” “Fool’s Gold,” “Stick To Me,” “White Honey,” “Don’t Ask Me Questions,” “Silly Thing,” “Passion is No Ordinary Word,” “You Can’t Be Too Strong”) and those Parker wrote and recorded post-Rumour (“You’re Not Where You Think You Are,” “Under the Mask of Happiness”). The duo also delved into the reunion albums with “Stop Crying’ About the Rain” from 2012’s Three Chords Good and “Flying Into London” from its 2015 followup Mystery Glue.

It being New York, it was nice they threw in “The New York Shuffle,” from Graham Parker & the Rumour’s third album Stick To Me (1977). But it was somewhat different from the near-40-year-old recording.

“We did everything in those days at breakneck speed,” said Parker, and indeed, he and the Rumour in those days played fast and hard.

“But with the word ‘shuffle’ in it, it should really sound like a shuffle.”

And so it was at City Winery, a right New York shuffle slowed down to audience clap-along time.

The persistence of John Mayall

The first time I saw John Mayall had to be at Bunky’s in Madison, Wisconsin, in the late 1970s, and I’m pretty sure Harvey Mandel was with him. I don’t remember the last time but it had been a while, so long, I’m afraid, that I came dangerously close to embarrassing myself when I walked into City Winery Monday night (Mar. 21) and almost asked the old man at the merch table if Mayall might be hanging out after the show–said old man, of course, being Mayall himself, getting in a few pre-show CD sales.

Compounding the near embarrassment was the fact that even at 82, John Mayall looks pretty much the same as he did at Bunky’s, hair shorter and whiter perhaps, but that’s about it. He definitely sounds as good, even without Mandel; here he had a couple other excellent Chicago players in bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport, and ace Texas guitarist Rocky Athas. He also retained his unusual set-up of two keyboards–Hammond organ on his right, Roland electric piano on his left-lined next to each other horizontally in the middle of the stage as he stood behind them facing the audience, alternating between them when not playing guitar or harmonica, or in some cases harp with one hand, keyboard with the other.

Remarkably, too, Mayall still plays as good as he sounds on all instruments–spry on keys, crisp on guitar and harps. It made perfect sense that he played “Dancing Shoes,” from his 1999 album Padlock on the Blues (love that title!) that featured John Lee Hooker. Hooker, old bluesers remember, played with Canned Heat, and Mayall also performed his ode to that great blues-rock band, “The Bear,” from his 1968 album Blues from Laurel Canyon. He went even deeper into his catalog with the slow Chicago blues-styled “Have You Heard,” from his 1966 album Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton–Clapton, if you don’t know, being merely one of a myriad of future legends besides Mandel who came up through Mayall blues bands.

From 1967’s Crusade (which featured the likes of future Rolling Stone guitarist Mick Taylor and future Fleetwood Mac founding members Mick Fleetwood, Peter Green and John McVie) came the train song “Streamline,” and from 1970’s USA Union came the ecology-minded “Nature’s Disappearing,” which came out, incidentally, the same time that Chicago’s Siegel-Schwall blues-rock band took a similar tack on “Do You Remember.”

Mayall introduced “Big Town Playboy” as a cut from “one of those new albums” (2014’s A Special Life, to fill in the blank), and from his latest album Find a Way to Care–from late last year–were “Ain’t No Guarantees” and the Lonnie Brooks cover “I Want all My Money Back,” for which he switched from Hammond to Roland during the instrumental break.

But he was equally impressive in switching from the Chicago blues harmonica style to rhythmic country/folk blues chording–what he termed “chicka-chicka” during the lead-in to “Room to Move” on his 1969 album The Turning Point. And he in fact ended the set with “Room to Move”–now a true harmonica classic–after noting how people call it out every night, but that he doesn’t always do it, and that he wouldn’t do it the next night (the second of two at City Winery) since it would be an entirely different set.

“There are some oldies in the house tonight! I saw you come in the door!” he had said at one point, referring to those in the crowd who went all the way back with him–and no doubt me in particular. As I took one last look at him as he signed CDs at the merch table after the show I thought of my conversation with Jennifer Warnes from a few nights earlier.

“My generation of artists has been hit pretty hard,” she said. “For those of us who survive, there’s an urgency to keep on going. Look around at all our peers who have passed like Joe Cocker [her duet partner on the 1982 hit ‘Up Where We Belong’]. The antidote to the horribleness, if you know how to be a beautiful, decent, good and capable professional, is for God’s sakes, do it–and do it on a pedestal so that young people can see you! Write a sentence, paint a beautiful painting, cook a beautiful meal–it must be done. The most revolutionary thing you can do is persist in doing things well.”

I’m not sure there were a lot of youngsters at City Winery, but John Mayall’s band members are certainly younger, and I’ve actually got a ways to go before I catch up with him. I just hope I persist as well as he clearly has.

The tone of Memphis Charlie Musselwhite

I don’t know when it was or who it was–or what instrument it was in reference to–but someone once told me it was all about tone, the player’s instrument’s tone, that is.

It’s one of the many keys to Charlie Musselwhite’s greatnesss as a blues harmonica player, but it applies to any harp player, really. Re Charlie, he has one of the richest tones, virile, robust, horn-like, smooth yet rhythmic. And like all the greats, readily identifiable.

Compare it with my pal Corky Siegel’s, though in Cork’s case, I do a shitty job describing it. All I can say is, without knowing exactly what I mean, that it’s balloon-like. Like the reeds in his harp were encased in a balloon, maybe, or some such material that expands and contracts without breaking–even when overblowing, to use a technical harmonica term out of context.

Listen to the 1970 Siegel-Schwall ’70 album track “Walk in My Mind” and the harp accents at the end of each phrase and then the fluid back-and-forth bend at the end of each verse and, please, come up with a better description.

But back to Charlie. I don’t know when I got to know him, but figure I must have met him, at least, before I came to New York from Madison in 1982. But me and my blues friends used to talk about him all the time after we got out of high school and started going to see him, and even though we didn’t know him, God knows we cared about him as if we did.

“How’s Charlie doing?” we’d ask whoever was lucky enough to see him most recently. “Oh, he didn’t look so good,” was often the answer.

We attributed it to his drinking, and for sure, the extreme introvert was a big drinker–two quarts of liquor a day, he once said, “every second I was awake,” until he tapered off (“I remember getting all the way up to noon without a drink and I thought, ‘that calls for a drink!'” he told’s T.E. Mattox)” and then quit cold after being moved by the bravery of Jessica McClure, the 18-month-old tyke who famously fell down the well in Texas in 1987 and was dug out 58 hours later. He had always felt he had to drink to play in front of people on stage, but now figured that if Baby Jessica could sing nursery rhymes to herself during her ordeal, why couldn’t he “just get up on stage and do something I know perfectly well how to do” without the alcohol prompt.

Charlie ended up writing “The Well,” the titletrack of his 2010, about Baby Jessica. He now lives in Sonoma County, and after his gig Thursday night (Mar. 10) at City Winery, said he’s the only musician who moved to wine country and quit drinking. Too bad, in a way, because they made up a special signature bottle of wine for him.

He had walked out with his band unannounced, setting up his harmonica case on a stand next to his mic and keeping it open, facing him, throughout the show. It was covered with stickers, not unlike those of so many other touring musicians, but from where I sat the only one discernible was the “I [heart] Clarksdale [Mississippi]” at the bottom, though I’m sure the rest were good.

Born along the Mississippi Blues Trail in Kosciusko, Miss., Charlie Musselwhite, who later bought a building in the historic blues town of Clarksdale, moved with his family to Memphis as a child. He recalled running moonshine during his City Winery set (he said it was nothing like Robert Mitchum’s 1958 bootlegging movie classic Thunder Road, though it has been noted, incidentally, that he and Mitchum bear a resemblance, though a Facebook friend says recent promo shots of him look more like David Niven).

“The police wanted me to live where they worked,” he said, so he moved to Chicago and drove an exterminator truck, thereby learning where the blues clubs were and hanging out and studying with the great Chicago bluesmen, many of whom likewise moved from Mississippi in search of work.

Late in the set he spoke of busking with blues guitar legend Robert Nighthawk on the streets in Memphis, where he eventually picked up the nickname Memphis Charlie.

“We made tons of money,” he said. “Twenty-five bucks once.”

But watching Nighthawk, he also learned how to play a stinging slide guitar, as demonstrated during the set on “Crying Won’t Help You.” He also performed “Strange Land,” from his landmark 1967 debut album “Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Band,” about discovering Chicago following his move and before, he noted, knowing about Robert A. Heinlein’s sci-fi novel Stranger in a Strange Land.

His harmonica case, like I said, remained open. Charlie periodically fished out a different-key harp, maybe glanced at the set list or otherwise looked down into it as his phenomenal guitarist Matt Stubbs soloed. One of my favorite Charlie Musselwhite myths was that he slept every day until Hollywood Squares came on, so I was kinda hoping he was checking out some whole episodes or at least a few classic Paul Lynde bits on an iPad secreted in his harmonica case–but I didn’t ask afterward.

I also remembered two of my favorite Charlie Musselwhite response lines, one of which I use whenever the opportunity arises: Some guy once yelled out, after he took the stage at a gig, “How are you doin’, Charlie?” upon which he answered, “You don’t know, do you?” In fact, I actually used that line in a tweet just last week. The other, too specific for me, was Charlie’s understandably annoyed retort to “Play some blues!”: “You give me the blues!”

Here, though, it was, “How y’all doing tonight? We got the blues in the house tonight. You ready to hear a little blues?” and a request that the club’s “million dollar dance floor” be filled: “I see women move and I feel like I accomplished something!” he said, in his ever soft voice and droll manner.

He did “Long Lean Lanky Mama” from last year’s great live album I Ain’t Lyin’, and noted that “by pure coincidence, all the blues tunes we’re doing happen to be on that CD” after revealing that “it turns out there’s a way for you to listen to us in the safety of your own home,” copies of I Ain’t Lyin’, also by pure coincidence, being available at the table by the door.

While it’s safe to say that everyone at City Winery was blown away by Charlie’s blues harp blowing, one fan stood out, standing up in the VIP area the entire show.

“Do it the way you done it!” Cyndi Lauper commanded after Charlie called her up, upon which she sang Chicago blues harp hero Little Walter’s “Just Your Fool,” as she did on her 2010 album Memphis Blues–also recorded with Charlie–after a remarkable on-the-spot soundcheck micromanaged from the stage with City Winery’s sound man down to the precise number of hertzes.

“She really is a sweetheart, who knows her voice and range exactly,” he marveled after the show. “But you’d never want to cross her.”

I filed this last comment somewhere in my brain for future reference if needed, though Cyndi was a purring pussycat next to Charlie.

“I toured with him every night and pride myself on watching him and telling myself to remember everything,” she said, and she was typically adorable as she sang and danced like she was in some Mississippi Delta roadhouse. She was just as adorable after the show, making trademark goofy faces while posing for selfies with all who asked.

“She just killed me again!” said Charlie after she finished, adding in between his own fan selfies after the show that she was so funny on tour that he once had corn come out of his nose from laughing so hard. It might happen again, for Cyndi’s parting words were “Charlie, you should go on tour with me!”

Charlie returned for his encore while everyone was still standing.

“Did somebody say ‘Christo’?” he asked. “I wasn’t going to do it.”

His signature instrumental “Christo Redemptor” was on Stand Back and is on I Ain’t Lyin’ as well, and really, there was no way he wasn’t going to do it. He stayed long after it was over to sign copies of the album at the table by the door.

Concert Highlights–The Fab Faux at City Winery, 12/28/15

“We’ve been doing this since 1998 and we’re still trying to get it right,” said Will Lee early in the Monday night Book of Paul show at City Winery, which followed Sunday’s opening night’s Book of John and preceded Tuesday night’s Book of Harrison, Wednesday’s Rubber Soul album in its entirety, and New Year’s Eve’s early show of The Beatles at Shea Stadium and late show of mixed Beatles favorites.

After what, 17 years of doing this?, the Fauxs constantly come up with ways to make it fresh. Then again, as anyone who was with me in streaming Beatles albums over Christmas–when they first became available for streaming, finally!—The Beatles always sound fresh, and there’s always something new to learn from listening for the millionth-plus time.

Jimmy Vivino once likened listening to The Beatles to archaeological science, saying something to the effect that there’s always more to learn, always more “information” becoming available. That explains how Fab Faux somehow keep sounding better and better—that, of course, and the fact that they’re some of the top players in the world, who have studied The Beatles catalog like it was the Dead Sea Scrolls.

A few from a full evening of highlights from Monday’s show:

“Paperback Writer” replicated the Beatles’ great layered harmonies, and after an outstanding guitar break from Vivino in which he even threw in a guitar bit-—maybe even the backward solo from the 1966 two-sided single’s flip “Rain”–Lee asked the sold-out audience, “Don’t you just love the versatility, the dependability?”

Indeed, I was thinking the exact same thing. Every time I see Vivino–and I’ve been seeing him in differnt groupings for decades–I’m even more astounded by his versatility and dependability.

“Blackbird” had Lee and electric guitarist Frank Agnello switching to acoustic guitar, drummer Rich Pagano clicking sticks, and keyboardist Jack Petruzzelli coming out dancing and blowing into a bird whistle–with Pagano also whistling along. And when Agnello sang “We Can Work It Out,” I remembered that it really was a McCartney/Beatles song and not Valerie Simpson’s—since she’s made it her own in closing out Thursday Night’s Open Mic events at the Sugar Bar with her own touching take on it.

For “Yesterday,” Lee and Vivino both played keyboards. Petruzzelli wailed so hard on “Oh! Darling” that everyone in the room was on their feet, same with “Get Back,” so thoroughly researched by the Faux that both the lead guitar and piano parts sounded right off the record player–the only difference being vocalist Vivino’s brief cuts to “All Right Now,” “Satisfaction” and “I Can See for Miles” while Lee traipsed around the room while playing bass, returning to the stage in the nick of time for Vivino to get back to “Get Back.”

Lee, by the way, always astounds with his singing, since you never got to hear much of it when he was on Letterman. But as he related after the show (and Valerie Simpson avouched the next night at the Sugar Bar, where Lee’s Letterman band mate Felicia Collins held court), he sang on tons of jingles back in the day (as did Val), including Stroh’s Beer. And while Vivino acquitted himself very well on McCartney fare, he got the night’s biggest laugh by confessing that he always favored Lennon, who was “much closer to the Italian guys we like—Dion and Elvis Presley.”

Incidentally, though he’s not tributed with his own special night during this run, Ringo has been given the encores, Monday night’s being “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “I Wanna Be Your Man.”

But really, it was the show’s opening song that renewed my appreciation for Paul McCartney, as I’ve never forgotten the thrill of opening the White Album in 1968 and putting on Side One of the first disc and hearing, for the first time, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Even now I think it’s the most revolutionary song in rock ‘n’ roll history, matched maybe by “God Save the Queen.”

When I got home I went straight to Wikipedia. Sure enough, it said how The Beatles had been “officially derided in the USSR as the ‘belch of Western culture,’” while at the same time “Back in the U.S.S.R.” was seen in the U.S. as pro-Soviet, particularly by anti-communist groups.

“It was a mystical land then,” McCartney said when he arrived in Russia to perform in 2003. “It’s nice to see the reality. I always suspected that people had big hearts. Now I know that’s true.”

Even in the darkest days of The Cold War, that’s how I figured it. Sure enough, in the mid-‘80s I met some Russian TASS correspondents based in New York who have remained lifelong friends.

And no surprise, they loved The Beatles as much as we did.

Concert highlights: Ralph Stanley, 8/10/2015

I wish I could remember the name of the girl who took me to see Ralph Stanley the first time. Sue Something, I’m thinking. I definitely owe her as it was a pivotal music experience for me back in 1971 or so. Definitely at the University of Wisconsin Student Union, in an upstairs ballroom.

Sue turned me on to bluegrass, as well as Cajun music–which five years later became my entry into music journalism and the music business. But that first time I saw Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain boys, little did I now then that Ralph Stanley and Keith Whitley were the youngsters in his band. I would get to know Ricky very well throughout my career, and I knew Keith good, too, and his wife Lorrie Morgan, before he drank himself to death in 1989.

I think they did my favorite Ralph Stanley song, “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem, that long ago night in Madison. I’ve never forgotten hearing it around 3 a.m. driving back from Milwaukee on some clear-channel country station, then switching over and hearing a live version of The Carpenters “We’ve Only Just Begun,” recorded, I think, in concert in Japan. Somehow both recordings had the same power.

This time, at City Winery in New York last night, I returned Sue’s favor indirectly, taking Emily Kenison, my friend Beefy’s daughter. Beefy’s better known as Troy Charmell, multi-instrumentalist for legendary Madison-based ‘70s band Dr. Bop & The Headliners, and current half of Those Weasels, a fun duo also starring Dr. Bop’s frontman Al Craven, The White Raven. Like me some 44 years ago, Emily, just out of law school, had no idea who Ralph was, or what bluegrass is.

She does now.

Ralph’s set started with the current version of his Clinch Mountain Boys band, including his son Ralph 2 on lead guitar and grandson Nathan Stanley on rhythm—also the main vocalist, who did most of the talking. He sang a wonderful, heartfelt tribute to his grandfather, “Papaw I Love You,” from his recently re-released album The Legacy Continues; in it he refers to his “father figure” Ralph, on whose boots he fell asleep on stage as a two-year-old, as “my hero” and “best friend.”

When Ralph came out after a substantial opening segment from the band, he looked every bit his 88 years, dour and stone-faced in the manner of Jackie Mason (84), not at all robust like Tony Bennett (89). He seemed to have shrunk a foot or two since the first and last times I saw him, too frail now to play banjo, let alone hold one. Yet when he steadied himself at the mic and began singing his classic “Man of Constant Sorrow,” his voice was surprisingly strong, same with “O Death,” delivered so famously in O Brother, Where Art Thou?—the dirge here a tour de force full of unintended but undeniable meaning in his a cappella plea, “Won’t you spare me over ‘til another year?”

When the band ended with “Orange Blossom Special,” Ralph appeared disoriented, but clearly didn’t want to leave the stage. If nothing else, it was muscle memory if not sheer force of will, and they closed with the bluegrass staple “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.”

Nathan promised that Ralph and the band would be out to sign merchandise, and I waited 10 minutes or so for Ralph. I hadn’t spoken to him since 2009, when we talked about his support of Obama in his dressing room at B.B. King’s. I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in a long time while waiting, which was nice, but didn’t want to risk a second time, and besides, Ralph looked tired and there was no guarantee he’d even remember.

But I did round the corner thinking of trying the bus, and ran into a young fan hoping for a Ralph autograph, who said Ralph wasn’t feeling well so they took him on the bus to rest. No point in knocking, but I did take a photo of the bus, which was Ralph 2’s, but carried a huge ad for a local law firm representing, among other things, black lung cases.


I didn’t tell the kid, but I did hope that Ralph 1 would be spared over for another year, at the very least.

Tales of Bessman: Marty Stuart, Tim White, and adopting tribes and cultures

I don’t think of Tim White regularly, but not infrequently either.

I thought again of Tim, my late, great friend and editor at Billboard , last week in the middle of Marty Stuart’s show at City Winery, specifically, when he spoke a bit about Badlands.

Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota was Marty’s ambitious and acclaimed 2005 concept album take on the Native American struggle, via the Lakota Sioux of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of South Dakota. Speaking of it, Marty told the audience that he had essentially adopted—and been adopted by—the Lakota tribe in Pine Ridge, that in fact, everyone should adopt a tribe.

On the bus after the show, I told Marty what a wonderful thing that was to say, what a wonderful project Badlands was.

“When we started the band back in 2002,” he said, referring to His Fabulous Superlatives—with guitarist Kenny Vaughan, bassist Paul Martin and drummer Harry Stinson, as good a band as any of any genre—“they were the only people that let us play! I try to get back there once a year.”

And then I told him something that Tim said many years ago that was very much in line. Tim, of course, had written the celebrated Bob Marley biography Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, and in an interview, related how he had “adopted” Jamaica as a country. He said that everyone should adopt a country.

By immersing yourself in a country and its culture, you open yourself up to something more than you and your own—something more important now than ever in a world where tribalism, in its various forms, is threatening our species’ continued existence, if not our planet’s. If I can devote myself to learning about you—and hopefully vice versa—it won’t be so easy for me to want to kill you, let alone carry it out.

Not to say that there aren’t bad things in your culture and most certainly mine, that hopefully we can surmount if not change before coming to blows. At least we can acknowledge the good things, in my case music in particular.

I was lucky enough to adopt Russia and then India somewhat, nowhere like Marty and Tim, but enough to get a greater understanding of their people and by extension, me and my own. As in all things for me, music was my major point of entry: If you can appreciate someone’s music, at least to some degree, you can appreciate the person, at least to some degree. That’s the true beauty of world music, and while cultures that condemn it and other artistic expression—the Taliban, for an easy example—are doomed to a joyless, self-imposed isolation.

Tim White died in, 2002. Obviously, I still miss him much. We can all be glad that Marty Stuart is still with us, so alive and well.