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Friday, Mar 6, 2009
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner

The minimalist folk music of Ida was so ethereal, concentrated, and beautiful at times, it’s as if they had coaxed their sounds from the earth’s elements—air, for the bellows of various sound-boxes and the music’s lightness; fire, igniting and electrifying Dan Littleton’s guitar; earth, procuring their instruments’ bodies; and water, the common solvent, generating a lyrical flow. No other sources would be sufficiently raw or beautiful.


The intimate setting of Joe’s Pub was ideal to listen to Ida’s delicate harmonies and sentimental melodies. Though a time-constrained set, the group—consisting of Littleton, singers Elizabeth Mitchell and Karla Schickele, violinist Jean Cook, and percussionist Ruth Keating—relished the venue’s sensitive acoustics and the crowd’s attentiveness. 


Their first song didn’t start so much as emerge. Littleton and Mitchell played complimentary rolling patterns on mini hand-held xylophones, and as they ebbed and flowed together they slowly added harmonies, singing, “I have not been here before.”


The somber lucidity of Mitchell’s vocals were arresting and soothing at the same time.  And when paired with Littleton’s parallel intonations, or the entire band’s gentle backing vocals, their sound was sonorous and lush.


Ida sounded equally fragile and sparse too. The majority of their instrumentations and accompaniments began with faint strumming and would eventually swell into all-encompassing droning tones, with the help of Cook’s even-handed violin bowing or Mitchell’s harmonium. Their attention to sonic textures made for really interesting combinations of tones and layered together made Mitchell’s plain but increasingly gorgeous voice float above it all.


Their tactile focus made their song structure become increasingly repetitive, however, and one had to scrutinize the lyrics or melody to find distinctions between numbers.


Littleton added density with electric-guitar cadences on “Late Blues”, creating monstrous distortion and feedback during the chorus and bridge. It was a jarring contrast to the verse’s introspective shell.


The best song of the night used to be about America, we were told, but instead had simply become another Dolly Parton cover, “The Pain of Loving You.” The treat was that they ditched their mics and exploited the small room’s acoustics singing a cappella.


Ida’s last song was the closest they’ll “ever come to ‘We Will Rock You’”. They got everyone tapping the song’s simple beat in unison on tables/people, revealing further their elemental nature.


 


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Wednesday, Mar 4, 2009
Words by Christian John Wikane and Pictures by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

The Pointer Sisters gave New Yorkers a Valentine’s Day treat with a powerhouse performance at The Lehman Center for the Performing Arts. All of the hits of the group’s four-decade career were revisited in the 80-minute set. Ruth Pointer’s gospel-inflected pipes opened the show offstage with “Happiness”. With sister Anita and daughter Issa in tow, Ruth sauntered out onto the stage as the band transitioned to the strutting funk of the song’s second half. Ruth’s voice has only gotten more nuanced and rich over the years, as her take on Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” amply illustrated.


Anita Pointer, who co-authored many Pointer Sisters classics, brought a little country into the mix with “Fairytale”, a song that earned the group their first Grammy Award in 1975 for – get ready – Best Country Performance by a Duo of Group. “Slow Hand”, a number-two pop hit from 1981, was also given a slight country makeover with an arresting lead by Anita. A highlight of the show was Anita’s rap introducing a medley of “How Long (Betcha’ Got a Chick on the Side)” and “Yes We Can Can”. The segment was prefaced by some exotic vocalese reminiscent of “Chainey Do” from The Pointer Sisters’ Steppin’ (1975) album.


Issa Pointer took center stage for “Dare Me”, a song that June Pointer originally fronted. (Issa replaced June when she passed away in 2006.) Issa made the song her own, injecting sass and spunk into every note. Her aunt would be proud.


The Pointer Sisters closed with a four-song explosion of hits: “Fire”, “I’m So Excited”, “Neutron Dance”, and “Jump (For My Love)”. Their ability to shake, stir, and summon an audience to their feet is nearly unparalleled by performers half Anita and Ruth Pointer’s age. After more than 35 years of entertaining audience, The Pointer Sisters prove how flavors-of-the-moment come and go but legends remain.


(Note: to celebrate the 35th anniversary of The Pointer Sisters’ debut album, PopMatters sat down with Ruth Pointer at her home in Massachusetts to discuss the group’s legacy. Look for the complete interview soon!)


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Wednesday, Jan 21, 2009

After being postponed a week due to snow, the NEXT Music Charity Concert Series (in support of Big Brothers and Big Sisters) at Rack ‘n’ Roll in Stamford kicked off January 16th with a performance by Jukebox the Ghost. While the name Jukebox the Ghost doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, the trio’s infectious songs got the patrons grooving whether they came to see the band or were just there shooting pool. Having been likened to Ben Folds, Jukebox perform similarly fun, piano-driven indie-pop that gets fans enthusiastically clapping and dancing along with the music and their nuanced lyrics. The D.C. based band even contains a Ben, the lead singer Ben Thornewill plays piano, and is accompanied by Jesse Kristin on drums and Tommy Siegel on guitar.


After Chris Bro, a DJ on 107.1 The Peak, made his concert series introduction, Jukebox the Ghost took the stage encouraging the mixed audience to draw closer. Several girls, who seemed a bit too young to be in a bar, appeared to be loyal fans of the band (or perhaps of boys in a band). And then there were folks intrigued by the sounds of the warm-up piano-tinkling who pulled away from their billiards table to listen. Jukebox performed several songs off their album Let Live and Let Ghosts, as well as a couple of newer ones. The second song, “Hold it In”, got people clapping along to the particularly catchy piano melody punctuated by Ben’s “whooo”-ing. “Victoria”, which might lyrically hint at a Ben Folds song with its inclusion of the word ‘bitch’, had even more people shaking to its drum stomp sound.


Before the encore new song of “Nobody”, Jukebox dove into an enjoyable rendition of The Beatles’ “Golden Slumber/Carry that Weight/The End” - a song whose broad familiarity appealed to a good many in the bar. This Ben and the band engaged the crowd all night, cracked jokes with each other, noted the irony that they had only one song about a ghost (and home foreclosures) and gave a spirited little shout for Obama. If one is comparing the studio tracks to the performance, a lively concert from Jukebox the Ghost is much more satisfying. Demonstrating their admirable spirit, Jukebox’s first show of 2009 earned them many new fans—they have an auspicious future ahead.



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Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009
by Randy Haecker
Pictures by Randy Haecker.
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James Allan of Glasvegas


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Glasvegas


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No, it’s not Joe Strummer. It’s James Allan from Glasvegas.


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Rab Allan, Caroline McKay, James Allan and Paul Donoghue of Glasvegas


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James Allan gives a hand to the crowd.


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James Allan and Paul Donoghue of Glasvegas


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Glasvegas


See more of Randy Haecker’s photos on Flickr.


Tagged as: glasvegas
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Monday, Dec 29, 2008
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner

As intimate venues go, the Blue Note in New York City’s Greenwich Village certainly qualifies. Reaching up and high-fiving the lead guitarist after a solo is doable, if not downright tempting. And it’s dinner theatre-style seating instantly makes a set a communal experience. (The mirror and leather-padded striped walls suggest a more wanton environment though.)


So when Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, traversing the crowd in order to take the stage, mingled through, their larger than life abilities seemed quite ordinary—if only for a moment.


The occasion, a holiday tour in support of their latest release, the festive Jingle All the Way, found the band even more relaxed and in their element than usual. It also makes one wonder how long the above album really took to record. With such incredible pitch, listening abilities and virtuosic skill, the album seems like a jocular seasonal exercise evolving into a record ex-post. Without abandoning the melodies that have made them seasonal standards the record is more or less deconstructed Christmas carols.


They lead off with “Medley”, a densely packed six minutes including “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “It’s Beginning to Look a lot like Christmas”, “My Favorite Things”, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “The Little Drummer Boy”.


Only getting started, “Silent Night” and “Sleigh Ride” quickly followed. At one point saxophonist Jeff Coffin played both alto and tenor saxophone, simultaneously harmonizing and performing on the two instruments—an awesome party trick.


Percussionist and inventor Future Man (Roy Wooten) dressed like a pirate, as is his custom. He regularly ignites the crowd with his singularly unique synthaxe drumitar instrument, tapping and fingering intricately delicate rhythms. With his younger brother, Victor Wooten, on bass, they continually created a coolly swinging rhythm section, particularly on “Sleigh Ride” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. They possess an intangible rhythmic connection, manifesting itself in an effortlessly perpetual swing. It plants the quartet’s sound into a jazzy context whenever they need such a feel.


Béla Fleck jokingly told the crowd, “Hey guys, keep it down. Vic’s playing”. The crowd ceased murmuring even though Fleck said it teasingly and it was inconceivable for such an appreciative audience to ignore Wooten’s solo, but quiet, playing. And from his extended solo he segued into the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, only to trip over a transition and start over with the crowd’s encouragement. He obviously should have practiced more. Redeeming himself, he then played a solo version of “The Christmas Song” with everyone in the room looking on in a mix of admiration, astonishment, and apathy (the latter referring to the wait staff).


In a season replete with circus albums, the Flecktones’ contribution came by way of a juggling act: Performing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” using a different key and time signature for each day. It was dizzying to listen to, let alone keep track of.


And with the melodies so familiar, the group so relaxed and the playing mostly effortless, it was easy to forget how masterful the Flecktones really are.



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