A lot has beensaid about Rufus Wainwright's Five Shakespeare Sonnets in collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony. I was not blown away, nor did I expect to be. While the orchestration was gorgeous, I would have welcomed more breathing time in the compositions. Shakespeare’s poetry came at the audience so quickly, they felt hurried. I would have liked some time between vocal lines to digest, and maybe a little break from Rufus' vocals.
Wainwright’s vocal timbre is a specific taste. You either like it or you don’t. He is one of the few vocalists that can pull off nasaled, and I was curious to see if it would work in a concert setting. It would be interesting to hear a classically trained vocalist attempt to perform these pieces as there were moments of strained higher notes. In popular music, this can commonplace and even artistic, but on the Davies Hall stage, it seemed a little strange. I'm still on the fence if I personally liked it or not.
Greg Laswell holds a special place in my musical being. He was the first post on this blog.
It was a lonely September evening when I went to see Greg Laswell by myself at Cafe du Nord in 2008. But it was there that I decided to go home and actually start writing. I had been thinking about it for awhile, but there was something about discovering this musician and seeing him play live that actually convinced me to do it.
So thanks, Greg.
I'm super excited to see him play with a 5-piece band on a bigger stage. The energy of his music calls for more sound, and somehow the two and three piece groups I've seen him with always left me a tad disappointed.
Just to share: I'm still struggling with reviews in general, but I'm getting better! Meaning: I keep doing it! I hope I'm getting better. And the more I do it, the better I will get. For many reasons reviews are harder for me to write than anything else. (I really just want to support musicians and spread the good juju and many of the people I talk to struggle with this), and I'm still struggling, and will probably continue to do so, with how to balance my opinion of the good with the bad in a critical way. (See this challenge of writing a review of a musical I was super disappointed with). It's also a tricky balance when I'm highly involved in the community I'm writing about. I'm figuring it all out.
Have any of you noticed anything about my writing or just have words of advice, encouragement or critique? I welcome them.
Last weekend I found myself in a jam session among professional musicians at a party at Sonic Zen Studios in Berkeley. As a vocalist who dabbles in playing instruments, rarely do I feel confident enough in my playing ability to pick up something more than a tambourine in these kinds of circumstances.
I walked into the party and a jam session, full of professional musicians. The jam session had already begun. I sat down, listened for a while and then, of course, got myself a tambourine.
Then they hooked up a microphone. I decided to not even consider not singing. I jumped right into it and had the most positive jam session experience I’ve ever had.
How does a vocalist “jam”? These are things I’ve figured out over the years.
1) Be very conscious about how much space you are or are not taking. As soon as a singer begins to sing, the ear focuses on them. It’s just how the ear is trained. A bass guitarist or drummer can keep playing, and should keep playing unless they are making a specific statement to drop out. A jamming vocalist needs stay very conscious about taking up too much of the attention and stay sensitive to what the other musicians are doing. If the keyboardist and drummer are getting something going between them, you want to be sure not to step on their toes until the back-and-forth is over.
2) Dealing with lyrics. How does a vocalist deal with this whole word and lyrics situation? Well if you are a poet, you probably won’t have any trouble. I’ve never considered myself a songwriter or a poet. And I've never really felt that words come easily to me. But this evening, words sort of came out in a stream of consciousness, or as a couple words and then some “Bla-dee-bla-dee-bla” nonsense syllables. I don’t think it really matters if you scat or sing words, but when out pops some funny or thoughtful lyric, people react to it.
3) Think like a horn player. Play your melody a few times, riff on it a little bit. Then drop out for a while, come back in with some back-up, simple lines with some oooo’s or aaaah’s or back-up vocal type punctuation at the end of phrases. (Think Motown or soul back up singers.) Then come back in with the melody.
4) Don’t be afraid to be dramatic or silly, just don’t over do it. Make funny voices, sing real low, real high, scream. Just don’t let that be all you do. Save it for special moments.
5) Don’t be shy to use material that isn’t yours or something you’ve been working with on your own. There’s nothing wrong about quoting someone else. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with bringing in something that you’ve written on your own. You never know what kind of ideas someone else in the circle might bring into the mix that you wouldn’t have thought of. It could make an idea blossom into something bigger the next time you work on it.
6) Milk a good idea, just know when it’s time to move on. When you get something good going, and the other musicians seem to react well to it, work it. And then when you feel that you’re ready to move on, do it.
The more you jam, the more comfortable you’ll get. You’ll start to get more confident in following your gut and your abilities to make things up on the spot.
Tim Matson in my living room. photo by Shelli Owens
It's one of those romantic things to have a touring musician stay in your house on their way through. And it's even better when you actually enjoy their music and they happen to record a video in your living room. This is Tim Matson, my roommate's cousin. She sent me a link to his music a few weeks ago and his cover of U2's "40" (or "Psalm 40") blew me away. I'm happy to be a new fan.
With his unique brand of spirituality (à la U2), Tim's thick, gravely voice seems to come from somewhere beyond his throat. He's touring without a band right now, so the focus is on his voice and the simple accompaniment.
Tim has just made his first tour stop in San Francisco and is onto Salt Lake City, Denver, Austin, Tennessee, Florida and then back to the Bay before he returns to Los Angeles.
This is Tim's cover of "Wagon Wheel." The song was suggested by a fan a couple days ago, Tim learned it and recorded this video in my living room. Wagon Wheel was originally performed by Bob Dylan and Old Crow Medicine Show.
It's a brilliant concept: pay for Lia Rose's album now and get it hot off the press when it's done! That's the idea behind many of Kickstarter.com's projects. Many of us donate to non-profits, why not help unsigned musicians pay for a new project? The music industry is changing so rapidly, it's impossible to see where it's going. Record labels used to be the only way to make a record, but now you can do it from your bedroom. Unfortunately, it still takes money to make a record.
Lia Rose is the ethereal voice in front of the dream anthem pop band Built for the Sea. Their sound is big and warm. Rose's voice is sweet and hypnotic. I started listening to Built for the Sea recently and it was hard to take the CD out of my car stereo. Now Rose is hitting the studio on her own to create something all her own, perhaps something a little more delicate. It'll be exciting to see what comes out of this new project.
There are many different levels of funding, each with their own sized "reward" from a signed CD to a handmade art piece by Rose herself. As of Thursday afternoon, Rose is 78% of the way to her goal with 93 backers. She has 14 days to go. Can she raise the money to get cracking? Will you help?
I totally dig Lissie's I-just-rolled-out-of-bed-and-haven't-gotten-around-to-brushing-my-hair-yet look. You go girl.
For those of you who like Neko Case, listen up! I was playing on the internet this morning and Lissie Maurus, a Southern singer/songwriter caught my eye. She was just at South by Southwest and seems to have caught some folks' attention. There's a little bit of buzz going on about her right now, and rightly so.
She's got quite a voice and I have the feeling that like Neko, the songwriting and production quality (all that wonderful guitar reverb!) of recording will get under my skin and put me in that happy, warm place every time I listen.
Do not underestimate the power of making a good cover. That is how, especially on the internet, people will find you. That's how I found Lissie, watching Lady Gaga covers.
I wasn’t going to broach the subject of Adam Lambert's "coming out" into mainstream pop culture post-American Idol , but after hearing and reading reactions all across the board I had to get my two cents in. I, sometimes painfully, sat through most of the American Music Awards and can’t believe the media is getting their panties in a bundle over this. Nevermind, I can believe it, that’s what the media does. I guess I’m part of that, eh?
In the midst of all this Prop-8 nonsense, I do believe it is the double standard that is to blame. But there are two double standards at work here: that of gender and that of sexuality. As many have said before me the Britney Spears/Madonna kiss was okay with the media. They are both straight women. If Melissa Etheridge pulled what Adam Lambert did, I think there would have been a similar noise. Blatant homosexuality is threatening to mainstream media. This we know.
We all know that the internet is an extraordinary thing and has changed the way we live our daily lives (and I don't even have an iphone yet). The internet has also, of course, changed the way we listen to music and how we make music.
One of my favorite artists that I've written about before, Kina Grannis, is one of these people. She writes songs, records some covers and makes youtbe videos with her Mac computer and edits them into some gorgeousness.
But I've got some new finds thanks to my friends on facebook: Pomplamoose and Lauren O'Connell.
This is Pomplamoose. Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn hang out in their apartment in the Bay Area (I guess they are an item and live together) and make music videos. Nataly has a gorgeous voice that she layers and layers and layers and Jack plays all sorts of instruments. They remind me of the early recording experiments of Les Paul and his wife Mary Ford.
These videos are awesomely edited together and showcase a fabulous sense of humor. Watch Jack jump around, say silly things and put puppets on the kick pedal of a bass drum. Oh, and Nataly recently got a Master's degree in French Literature. So she's smart too. And did I say pretty? Because she's really pretty.
Pomplamoose will be playing live in San Francisco on November 13th at the Brainwash Cafe. I hope I can check it out. I would be very interested to see what they do live.
This is their cover of Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)." Yes, I still love this song. This is the first tune I heard of theirs, they have *ton* of good ones though. Click around on their youtube page.
I just discovered Lauren O'Connell this morning (thanks Joey), so I'm still learning about her and all her videos on her youtube page. But, she is friends with Pomplamoose and is only 20! She layers and edits all of her own stuff and does very neat things with percussive sounds (doors slamming, kicking things) to get the sound she wants. She also plays a bazillion instruments.
Rokia Traore's guitar is bigger than she is. It's really quite incredible. And what's even crazier is that people always look bigger on stage than they really are! So she must really be tiny.
I saw the Malian singer/songwriter and her 5-part band play as part of the Stanford Lively Arts 2008-2009 season the other night. It was a really beautiful show; she's created a really gorgeous blend of traditional West African griot music with more modern genres. I really wish I could tell you about her AMAZING band, but the printed program didn't list the names of her musicians. I can't even tell you the name of the neat string instrument one of the guys was was playing, but you can see it at the beginning of the video below.
Rokia didn't speak to much to the audience throughout the show, but she did take the time to explain the meaning of the song "Tounka" and the problem of African emigration. She said emigration is not the answer to Africa's social and political problems, it is only making things worse. She was pointing specifically to the mass African immigration to Europe and that is because of Europe colonization that Africa has most of these problems in the first place. It must be up to Africans to come together to fix the problems, not run away.
Her band laid down the most awesome grooves while Rokia and her backup singer danced. I loved when Rokia broke into some Fela Kuti during their 15 minute encore (the college students a row back from us freaked out in excitement). Watch the video below and also this one on Ted.com. Watch some of the other videos on Ted.com too, this website has some of the most interesting talks and performances like Pilobolus Dance Theater, a Brain Scientist who recalls the experience of having a stroke and an English Knight talking about the importance of Art Education.
Unfortunately, I can't find anything to show you that really captures the energy of Rokia's show, it was way more rockin' that anything I could find on youtube. I've also put a song on the "music I like" section over on the right.
This is a link to her new album "Tchamantche", including a cool cover of Billie Holliday's "The Man I Love." If you listen to some of the shorter samples, you can get an idea of her higher energy tunes.
I've been a Nina Simone fan for a long time now. I'm not ashamed to say that I first noticed her in this Six Feet Under promo (the best tv show there ever was) and thought "WHO ON EARTH WAS THAT???" That cadence (the bit at the end) is the most amazing few seconds of deep feeling vocal virtuosity I have ever heard. I still rewind it to hear it again and again.
Nina Simone was an African-American woman who was way before her time and never got the recognition that she should have. I think this just makes her music more attractive to audiences and artists today. She was more edgy than Carole King, Judy Collins and Carly Simon put together. She was also socially relevant in her thematic material and as a classically trained pianist, she brought an elegance not really ever heard in blues or soul.
Please watch her performance of "Be My Husband" at the Harlem Festival in 1969. Check out here amazing head-dress hairdo and her "percussion section." Please also take note of the last couple verses, you know, the ones that mentions "cooking and sewing", "meanest man I've ever seen" and "sudden death" (you can even her the audience show surprise).
This is typical Nina: the deepest passion and pain all rolled up into one.
Now, this is Shara Worden, a.k.a. My Brightest Diamond. I've heard about here (she's performed at South by Southwest for the last few years), but not taken the time to really listen until friend played her for me last weekend while packing books for a move. I think I was seeing Ozomatli at the Fillmore the same night she performed in San Francisco. Too bad for me.
New York based Shara is a classically trained vocalist and multi-instrumentalist. She has studied string quartet arranging and has just an adorable presence (She's tiny!) and funky look.
Watch HER cover of "Be My Husband." Shara, as you might notice, has changed up the last couple verses making it a little less of a downer. (Check out HER hairdo!)
Now let me throw an original at you. This is a live performance of "My Brightest Star." Just Shara and her guitar. (The open tuning gives the guitar that moody feel.)
Many of you may have heard about this already, but NPR and The New York Times have both run stories about The AccoLade, a all-female rock band from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (you can listen to the NPR radio spot here).
The three college students posted the tune "Pinocchio" on facebook and myspace and at first, only had a couple dozen fans, but now they have over two thousand.
They do not play live shows or share their full names, nor to they post images of themselves on the internet out of respect for their religion. The NPR story states that "cultivating a modest and somewhat anonymous identity online lets them thrive in this strict society." Instead they interact with their fans on facebook and myspace and share original drawing and paintings to represent themselves (see the above images).
Dina, Dareen, Amjad and Lamia, all college students between the ages of 19 and 21 have received a wave of international support as well as criticism for being female and playing in a rock band. The ladies state on their facebook page (with a few edits to bridge the language gap):
Anyone in this world can play, hear and create music no matter what their gender is or nationality, we are making music and we would appreciate it if the comments are only about our music, lyrics, paintings, where talk about our song, or how good/bad our song is…and omit anything that is irrelevant or inappropriate .
And by the way we are not facing any problems with anyone, and we are satisfied with what we are doing and the way we provide our song to you ... as we said before we are doing this for fun only and we respect our country, culture and traditions …we’ll continue our music without contradicting them…
Read an interview with them here (scroll all the way down).
I am so impressed with these women and their courage to live and make music within the system, even in a city like Jidda, by far the most cosmopolitan city in Saudi Arabia. It got me thinking about other female Muslim musicians and also how the internet is really revolutionizing and changing the world that we live in. It as has made things possible for women like The AccoLade to do what they love and share it with others.
Another woman who comes to mind is Souad Massi, an Algerian singer/songwriter who started playing as a teenager and was immensely influenced by American roots music, flamenco and rock bands like Led Zeppelin and U2. In the 1990s she joined an Algerian hard rock band called Atakor, but because of the political climate (civil war), political lyrics and growing popularity became a public target. Massi tried disguising herself by cutting her hair and dressing in male clothing. But despite these efforts, she began to receive death threats, so she left the band and moved to Paris in 1999.
Massi, finally found massive success in her solo career in Europe. This is a clip of a gorgeous performance in Brazil of the tune "Yemma," a song for her mother.
From the research I've done online, it looks like she never moved back to Algeria. I also can't tell how much her gender effected the reaction she got from her involvement in Atakor. But I do know that women and musical performance do not mix well in the Islamic world. I am doing further research on why and what women are and are no allowed to do. (For example, women are allowed to perform for other women, which is the case in the Bedouin community of the Sinai Desert between Israel in Egypt.)
If you have any information on this topic, I would love to hear it. I am very curious. (I found this too from Muslimah Media Watch, very interesting how the media is framing AccoLade in terms of it's political presence more than it's musical attributes.)
I also think it's fascinating that a band, in this age of the world wide web, no matter who or where they are, can be successful and have fans, without ever leaving their homes; ESPECIALLY if they don't want or need to make money from their music. They don't need record labels, or CDs or managers. Just an audio recording and an internet connection.
If you are a Muslim female musician or are a fan of a Muslim female musician, Please check this out: there is an effort out there by the English organization called Ulfah Arts to connect these women and give them a supporting network.
Odetta is an artist I've really never fully appreciated, simply because I haven't taken the time to check her out. Unfortunately, she's never gotten the overwhelming popular support as Mahalia Jackson, Pete Seeger, or even Nina Simone (although Simone is more popular in death than she ever was in life). But after hearing some clips of her performances on NPR last night reporting on her death, it is her powerful voice and exquisite lyrical phrasing that has drawn me in to learn more about her.
I knew of Odetta through my time spent interning for Smithsonian Folkways, and I knew she was very influential in the folk world and I knew she must have been instrumental in the civil rights movement simply due to being a black female in the 50s and 60s. This is probably also what kept her from being as well known as she should be. She had continued to perform up until last summer when she developed kidney trouble.
In 1963, Odetta sang at "I'm on My Way" at the historic March on Washington, D.C. where Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. She is known to have wanted to perform again in Washington in January at Barack Obama inauguration. I think it is a blessing that she at least lived to see his election; a direct result of the Cause she had been fighting for for most of her life.
Unfortunately the video and audio clips available to link to here aren't as awesome as what I'd like, but hopefully you'll get an idea of the power of the voice of Odetta. You might be able to hear what a great influence on folk singers ranging from Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary to more contemporary singers like Tracy Chapman.
This video of "End of the World" is one of the most beautiful videos and songs I've seen/heard in a long time. I appreciate Matt Alber's similar sound to the vocal stylings of Rufus Wainwright, Duncan Sheik and Duncan O'Rourke (did I compare Greg Laswell to them too? I gotta get some new material). And, baby, can he sing!
Alber's debut album Hide Nothing is absolutely gorgeous. The aptly named album (purposely, maybe?) makes it unavoidable to mention the fact that the Los Angeles based singer/songwriter is openly gay. I know that the creative world is full of openly gay artists, but in reality, how many of them are well-known as gay when they are at the top of their game? (Ricky Martin coming out of the closet years after his peak does not count.) We need more! The general public needs more! This is one of the reasons why I secretly hope that Linsday Lohan is a lesbian (and isn't just going through a phase) and just comes out and and says it. One day, and soon I think, gay couples will be able to marry in any state they want. I really do believe that.
Anyway, Alber's website has streaming audio of some of his other tracks as well. Check out his falsetto on "Beotia."
The blog recounts his experience at "No on Prop 8" protests in L.A.
Alber was a vocalist in the San Francisco based vocal group Chanticleer. Check out his classical vocal stylings in his performance as a "Messiah" alto/countertenor soloist.
These runs are not easy people!
Hopefully we'll hear more from Alber in the near future.
I'm sort of obsessed with this today. This is Kina Grannis, she's a singer/songwriter in LA. She's got three albums of original music out, all of which you can buy on itunes, imeem, myspace and every other music distribution method out there. (I should check out imeem)
She's cute as a button, a good guitarist and has a lovely voice. I'm sure she's a decent songwriter, but that's not what interests me about her.
Like many folks out there, Kina posts video blogs on youtube. Every Monday she records covers on garageband and makes her own videos with her Mac (I assume). Before and/or after she performs she talks about random stuff, it's very youtube celebrity (and gives shout outs to all of her fans that have birthdays that week). She's got over 33 THOUSAND subscribers presumably from all over the world. In the world of modern day technology you can be famous from your bedroom. And then maybe you tour, but you might not. It's amazing.
This is Kina's cover of Rihanna's "Disturbia," wonderful pop schlock, that gets into your brain and won't go away. I really enjoy watching and listening to Kina's video. I think I just like that it's good and homemade. It's hard for me to knock the songwriting skills of professional songwriters. They are very good at what they do. And when you hear an INTERESTING version of the song, you'll know why.
This is the wonder of the internet and home technology.
This is a 1965 clip of Joan Anderson (a.k.a. Joni Mitchell) singing "Favorite Color" on the Canadian Oscar Brandt TV show called "Let's Sing Out."
Even though Joni looks squeaky clean without a trace of the California hippie she would soon become, this song already features the finger-picking style, open-tuning, eerie chromaticism and gorgeous poetic lyrics melding child and nature imagery she would use so much in her career.
Host Oscar Brandt points out the rise of the crazy new movement of singers writing their own songs. Writing their own songs...crazy!
Joni never recorded this song to my knowledge. She was 25.
And ainit she just cute as a button? My second favorite Saskatoonian.
I've added "Night in the City" and "If I Had a King" to my playlist, a couple tunes off of her first album produced by David Crosby called Joni Mitchell (Song to a Seagull) in 1968.
Here's a modern interpretation of Austin, Texas' Will Taylor and String Attached.
Got two shows coming up this week: The first is Greg Laswell at Cafe du Nord on Wednesday November 5th. The second is the Dodos at Bimbo's 365 club on Thursday November 6th.
Since blogging last time about Greg Laswell, two of his tunes have been played on NBC's Grey's Anatomy, totaling three times now this season. And as we have seen in the last decade or so, the importance of television exposure has overtaken radio, and Grey's Anatomy, love it, hate it or indifferent to it, has been known to boost obscure bands into greater popularity.
So congrats Greg and I'm looking forward to hearing you (and your full band this time) at Cafe du Nord Wednesday night, November 5th. He'll also be on a small American tour, check out the locations on his myspace page.
On Thursday, I'm going to see the Dodos, a San Francisco band that has received international success. I saw them at the Independent a couple months ago after being drawn to their strange child drawn album coverVisitor (by a special ed student who the Dodos played for in South Central, Los Angeles) and silly band name (formerly Dodobird). I know, silly reasons to be drawn to a band, but something has to make me want to listen to them.
But what made me want to buy the album and to see them live again as soon as possible was their unique sound. While there are lots of bands these days that consist of the simple combo of guitar and percussion, it is the combo of the African inspired percussion of Meric Long and the country blues influenced acoustic guitar work of Logan Kroeber. But I think it's really the percussion that I dig the most, their myspace bio states that the drumming plays a central role and helps bring out the syncopated rhythms of the acoustic guitar. It is really special how these two instruments work together.
When I saw the Dodos last time, they had a third member playing auxiliary instruments such as the xylophone and a metal trash can. It was awesome. I want to play a trash can!
Check out this live performance of "The Season"
The Dodos are on an international tour! They'll be playing in the UK, the Europe (France and Denmark, wink wink), Australia and New Zealand in the next three months. Check out their tour schedule on their myspace page or their website.
The sad and melodic Greg Laswell has the honor of being my first entry for this new blog.
If asked to describe his sound to folks that haven't heard him, it would have to be like if Duncan Sheik was the lead singer of Coldplay. With his painfully sweet lyrics, driving piano rhythms and subtle production quality, Greg's music got under my skin and "forced" me to buy his two albums and E.P. on amazon.
Just this evening, I had the opportunity to see the San Diegan native play a live set at the Cafe du Nord in San Fransisco. Other than the loud German (could have been Austrian, not sure) girls talking loudly right behind me and talking flash photography, it was a wonderful show.
With just one other musician, an exquisite quitarist whose name I believe is Brandon, Greg played several songs off his new album Three Flights from Alto Nido,which I discovered was the location where most of the songs on the album were written.
I spotted Greg right before his set on the way out for a cigarette and had a nice quick chat with him. Trying to not sound like a stalker (probably a good thing I didn't mention that I spent a good amount of time watching everything I could on youtube with him in it), I was able to share that this myspace fan site plays almost all of his music in its entirety. He said he didn't mind as long as people were listening to it. So you have his approval, don't feel bad that it's free, take a listen.
I first heard the song "How the Day Sounds" on the monthly Paste Magazine CD sampler, a magazine whose musical taste I greatly respect. And like I said, I was immediately hooked. Because Greg produces as well as makes his own music, his recordings have a sophisticated yet subtle production quality to them. At his show he described "How the Day Sounds" as the happiest sounding song he's ever written that actually isn't happy at all. It ends with these lines:
I think I like how the day sounds through this new dawn.
And the lines have all been drawn,
I know where I belong.
Check out the the awesome video starring Greg, guitarist Brandon and great supporter of independent music Elijah Wood, who has his own label, dancing around a grocery store in hipster suits and hats with glass soda bottles.
Moment to listen for:
The cool vocal echo effects on "way down" during the bridge, around 1:35.
From a long way down
It's well worth the time that it's taken to get here now
October 24, 2008. Greg's "And Then You" was featured last night on Grey's Anatomy (as annoying as the show is, I can't stop watching it and it DOES propel unknown artists into a new level of success). The album cover was also flashed for a couple seconds at the end of the episode. It's of course become Greg's most popular songs on itunes.
He's going back on the road, so check out his tour schedule. I already have my tickets back at Cafe du Nord on November 3rd in San Fran.
Congratulations Greg! I see big things happening for you in the near future!