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Monday, Mar 2, 2009
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner

The Watson Twins and Ben Kweller. Both equal parts Nashville and hipster. Both singers and songwriters of heavy harmonies and simplified melodies. But only Kweller, however, came away from Town Hall with a commanding and energetic performance, aided towards the end by a dancing infant.


Starting off with poor sound didn’t help the Watson Twins. What sounded muddled with overwhelming bass drones in the balcony sounded more balanced in the orchestra. But the twins’ vocals got lost in the shuddering bass.


During “Only You”, keyboard played the high-pitched guitar strums that appear during each chorus. But it failed to emulate the electric guitar’s other quavering and haunting holds. Instead a nylon-string guitar was innocuously thrummed. This same guitar didn’t suffice for their popular “How Am I to Be”—during which they suggested shoulder dipping as a substitute for actually dancing; be careful what you wish for.


All this begs the question: Where was the strikingly bright guitar that provides such a pivotal counterweight to the twins’ soaring harmonies?


They floated through the Bill Withers standard “Ain’t No Sunshine”, but as people they’re too sanguine to seem heartbroken or lonely. (Maybe because they always have each other around?) In general their vocals were soft and beautiful, but too light. They exuded no energy in their 45 minutes, leaving behind a pretty banal set.


In contrast, Ben Kweller showed up to play his heart out. He prompted the light tech to turn up the houselights so he could size up his excitable crowd and then pursued a relentless setlist covering all the bases. Charging through old favorites like “Walk On Me” and “Falling” Kweller was urbane and sincere, his voice easily seizing the hall’s wide space.


Buttery smooth, his band (drums, bass, pedal-steel guitar) infused Kweller’s country roots into his indie lyricism and punk ethos to form a powerful and cohesive musical synthesis. Whenever Kweller added throwback vocables to a verse it pointed to a past era of pop.


While Kweller sampled material from his latest fare, Changing Horses, its lead track (“Gypsy Rose”) was surprisingly the best song of the night simply because of its delicate balance and Kweller’s sonorous tenor praising love as the saving grace.


His new song “Fight” was a stellar showcase of his band’s three-part chops and unleashed an unshakable melody during the encore.


I found the ending a little awkward, though, as everyone in the crowd decided to get up and dance for the last three minutes of the show. I couldn’t stop thinking, why didn’t they just get up and dance the entire show? Was the setting too intimidating? Too reserved? But what really stole the show was Kweller’s toddler son, Dorian, upstage, rocking out to his daddy’s big finale at the end.


 


 


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Thursday, Feb 26, 2009
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner

Bad news first; M. Ward seemed only marginally enthusiastic for his quick, first ever show at the esteemed Apollo Theatre and was beset with sound problems all night. The good news; Zooey Deschanel was nowhere to be seen. Thus, any She & Him songs would be less lionized, if M. Ward even felt the need to go there. Which he did, briefly, with “Never Had Nobody Like You”.


In general, M. Ward’s hazy country-infused vocals were equal parts sentimentality and robustness—rustling and gliding over a gently strummed chord (“Lulllabye & Exile”) or guttural and assertive (“Vincent O’Brien”). His band, when summoned, perfectly paralleled his dynamic shifts and expressive gestures, sounding heavy and hard or light and soft depending on the song. Each time their balance and touch was superb.


Tech problems showed up during Ward’s most delicate portion of the set (of course).  During “Oh Lonesome Me” and the solo “One Hundred Million Years”, crackling cables plagued the bubbly flow of his guitar’s twang. Though he tried to overpower the obvious sound issues, even his forceful yet deft finger-picking blues could not defy the jolting crunches of a misconnected mic cable.


Time, and audio problems, practically paused for “Post-War”, as everything seemed to melt into the song’s gentle shuffle and Ward’s exposed baritone. We believed him when he sang, “I know when everything feels wrong”.


Maybe cause something was. Not that I could pinpoint its cause, but my friend and I seemed to narrow it down to the incessant technical errors and an overly belligerent crowd—one that would not let Ward’s tranquil indie-folk rock be and kept demanding requests. Just let the man’s fragile muse work!


This made the set anxious and rushed, clocking in at just over an hour.


On the other hand, the pacing of his set didn’t of come as a shocker. An animated windowpane, projected onto the black backdrop behind the band, gradually progressed from dusk to starry night to dawn, an explicit indicator of where the night was going and when it would end. Conversely, it did give the impression of being included in some sort of late-night jam session with Ward.


Ward was at his best when loudest. The Daniel Johnston cover “To Go Home” (which included hollering Vivian Girls, the opener), “Big Boat”, and encore “Roll Over Beethoven”—during which he summoned his inner Little Richard to play some Chuck Berry—all had an air of indifference and movement that made them potently rock ‘n’ roll.


 


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Sunday, Feb 22, 2009
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner

The epochal South African protest singer and songwriter Vusi Mahlasela played an engaging show before a docile but erudite audience in the sprawling Walt Whitman Theatre at Brooklyn College—a tiny collegiate oasis deep in Brooklyn. The diverse but reserved crowd almost came across as too reverent, passive towards the poet and musician. Only by the end of Mahlasela’s set did they finally muster the courage to indulge in his group’s propulsive polyrhythm and guitars.


Mahlasela will forever be associated with the soundtrack of the anti-apartheid movement. But he is still decidedly a protest singer. (Broadly, that is considered “African folk” music). His defiant, peaceful, and artistic resistance to injustice makes it impossible for him to ignore continuing calamities. However, given the serious subtext of his songwriting and singing his music is not cloaked by the surrounding darkness he endured in the past. Rather the prevailing harmonies of life—love and family—are at the center of his message.


“Everytime”—a track featuring Jem on his 2007 release Guiding Star—was a beautiful flowing song about a devoted lover. Lucid African imagery articulated Mahlasela’s universal sentiments: “Your beauty burns the grass like fire.”


Musically, he and his four-piece band played a brilliant mixture of global sounds, perfectly balancing blues and soul with traditional South African rhythms, melodies and language. “Thula Mama” dedicated to his grandma for thwarting the police when trying to arrest Mahlasela as a young activist—blended scat singing and vocables into a smooth homage to mothers. During the bridge Mahlasela traded a cappella verses as the band perfectly transitioned in-between. Finally the song drifted away in a jubilant, but faint, sing-along: “My song of love / My song of life”.


Purpose is never far from Mahlasela’s mind. It is his guiding principle in life and music, and so everything he does must resonate with a positive and humane message. He took a moment to speak out about the marginalization and forced relocation of Botswana’s indigenous San people, or Bushmen. Remarkably, he never sounded preachy or forceful or hippy-dippy. Instead it was an earnest reproach of an unjust policy, never undermined by segueing into a song introduction. Rather he emphasized his point with a poignant ethical and rhetorical question: Where are they to go?


Mahlasela was not all serious, though. While tuning his guitar he joked, “this is a Chinese song called Too Ning… it’s over now.”


Ending the show with Miriam Makeba’s iconic “Pata Pata” was a well-received homage, Mahlasela spinning, twisting, and shuffling to the song’s rhapsodic refrain.


 


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Monday, Feb 9, 2009
By Craig Wright; Directed by Gregory Scott Campbell; Starring Damon Bonetti, Chris Fluck, Amanda Grove, and Janice Rowland

The set of this drama defines suburban anxiety: Four chairs, each at a corner of the stage, are centered around a bed. Four characters take their spots, awaiting the looming confrontation. Playwright Craig Wright obviously relishes the benefits of the theatrical medium, which allows such heavy visual allegory. Such a design wouldn’t fly in the even the most stylized cinema.


We know two couples will be finagling before long, as we’ve seen so many times before. I can’t shake this play’s association to We Don’t Live Here Anymore, a 2004 film over-concerned with married folks’ need to stray—so concerned is it with infidelity that the film forgets to develop its characters. The same is true in the new anti-nostalgia film Revolutionary Road, whose lifeforce drains under such weighty thematic grounds. 


Yet, in the opening monologue of Wright’s drama comes redemption, especially as performed by Amanda Grove as Cathy in Luna Theatre Company’s new production (Walnut Street Theatre, Studio 5, Philadelphia, through February 14th). We recall that the language is the thing in true stage drama, and the set its mere bag of bones. Cathy recites a letter—if it existed or is imaginary, we are unsure—in words of loss and desperation coming at the end of something. Her spotlight fades, as she takes her seat to see her life unravel. A fade in reveals David (Damon Bonetti) and Beth (Janice Rowland) on the bed (transposed to a motel room), turning us in medias res to the status their affair. At once promising, it is now crumbling at the foundation. 


Regretfully, the drama’s strongest players sit out the first scene. They are Grove and Chris Fluck (playing the wronged husband, Brad), a standby for Luna. When an interviewer perplexed over what exactly makes Gene Hackman such a powerful actor, Woody Allen responded casually: “It’s a reserve of energy.” We cannot call Fluck another Hackman, but he has access to a similar kind of power. His arguments with Rowland in later scenes make the latter seem not to register. Fluck was far better matched against Mary Lee Bednarek in Luna’s 2005 production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, in which he grounded the drama-mystery’s final revelation in pathos as much as fury. 


As a woman about to be abandoned, Grove steals her scenes with Bonetti, who plays her husband moving on and has trouble evening out a Minnesota accent. Grove suggests there is subdued rage behind her character’s inquest, a right to know all as she forces her husband into goodbye sex. Orange Flower Water wears the clichéd cultural archetype of couples mixing like a subversive persona. Blasé anxieties turn visceral, indeed.


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Friday, Feb 6, 2009
Words and Pictures by Sachyn Mital

A long line of people were waiting outside in the freezing January night while on stage at the Mercury Lounge, Brooklyn’s Chin Chin opened up for Brazil’s Curumin (pronounced “KOO-roo-mean”). If you got there late thinking that Chin Chin were serving as a warm-up band, though, you would have made a mistake, because by then the six-piece band already had the place on fire. Numerous people were dancing up close to the stage while everyone else gave way and were forced to groove shoulder to shoulder at the back of the room. Before finishing up, Chin Chin decreed music is “so much better when we do it together” and it was easy to understand why with the number of people moving to their sounds.


Quannum Projects, the record label of Luciano Nakata Albuquerque (aka Curumin), is primarily known for its roster of underground hip-hop artists, including Blackalicious and Lyrics Born as well as being an early home to DJ Shadow. But, as Chin Chin would agree, music needs to be shared. When Blackalicious discovered Curumin during a tour of Brazil in 2005, despite the language barriers, they must have loved his music a lot for they signed him to their label. And hip-hop culture was ever present on the stage at the Mercury Lounge as Money Mark, the keyboardist, producer and past Beastie Boys collaborator performed alongside Curumin and three other musicians as a special guest.


 


Branded as “samba-soul-hip-hop”, Curumin made sure to keep the audience dancing and applauding whatever the genre of song. From behind the drums, he sang songs from both of his albums, Achados e Perdidos and the more recent JapanPopShow, like “Samba Japa”, “Magrela Fever”, and “Compato” that conveyed delicious samba funk. A later song had a breakbeat club rhythm, while the show closer had an easy-going reggae vibe reminiscent of Sublime. Curumin described the next song as “beautiful” before turning the slow original Roy Ayer’s “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” into an extended jam.


Since the majority of singing was in Curumin’s native Portuguese, people could be overhead wishing they knew what he was saying as “the music is so good”. Through his set, Curumin encouraged everyone to wave their arms, gave a salute to New York and expressed his happiness in seeing so many people. He even asked the audience to give back in the form of an MC. And when one was welcomed up, he repeatedly asked people “give it up for Curumin” receiving a resounding sound of gratitude. Even though he would make a perfect outdoor summer show, Curumin turned the tiny Mercury Lounge into a steamy oasis during winter. People came together, not to seek respite in the form of shade or water, but to bask in the warmth and pleasure of the music.



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