Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Music Never Stopped Over the Weekend (René Marie, Oliver Lake & more)

I was occupied with live shows all weekend. This month is pretty jam packed, with more coming up. 

Friday night, I played at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern. Every time I've mentioned playing there, before and after the show, variations on the same thing are heard: "I thought it was closing;" "Wait - it's not closed?" No, not yet, or else I wouldn't have played there. The last show is October 22, or thereabouts. Get your fill of pierogies and haluski while you can because everyone and they're mother are doing that now, keeping the kitchen staff running. 

Anyhow, the Love Letters played there, in our first show as a five-piece band, since Amy Kline has joined us on keyboards. We played third, so by then the evening was in full swing. The thing about the BBT is that the stage set-up is at the back of the room and the only things that get miked are the vocals. It's up to the band to adjust the stage volume appropriately. It wasn't until we were a couple songs into the set that I realized Amy's keyboard amp should have been set up on her right side, shooting the sound into the audience, rather than on her left, tucked behind Mike Prosser's guitar amp. Oh well, we had a good time. There were new people in the audience and they said they dug our set! Success on both counts!

Before our set, I climbed onstage with John Young and Kip Ruefle to become Husker Don't, the city's premiere Husker Du cover band. This had been planned long before Husker drummer Grant Hart died (the day before the show) so the evening was a celebration of the band and of his spirit. We were practiced just enough to know what we were doing, but loose enough that some of it was going to be left up to chance. In short, great time. If you want the set list, I'll put it in the comments.

John, from Husker Don't, played with his band the Optimists to kick off the show. Their sound is more power pop than the Love Letters, but they still put a lot of kick into their delivery, which might be due in part to new drummer Tyler. He, guitarist Steve Morrison and bassist Rick Gercak harmonize really well, so it got me energized for the whole evening. 

Saturday night, René Marie performed at the New Hazlett Theater. (For my preview of the show, click here.

It's pretty impressive when a singer can fill up a room with only the accompaniment of her bassist. Marie did that in her opening number - and she did it with a personalized version of no less than Bob Seger's "Turn the Page." Yes, her introduction made me think, "Uh oh," but she and Elias Bailey avoided the heavy-handedness of the original, making it swing and feel dramatic.

Marie told me during our interview that she took some inspiration from Nina Simone and, like the High Priestess of Soul, she wasn't afraid to blur genres during her set. From "Turn the Page" she went into her own "Black Lace Freudian Slip," a bluesy number that overflowed with sensuality. The set also included "It Might As Well Be Spring," Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark" and "Rimshot," an original inspired by a desire to get drummer Quentin E. Baxter to give her that drum trick in a song. The easygoing rapport between Marie and Baxter made the singer crack up repeatedly during the song (maybe a few times too many) but it added to the singer's casual, friendly manner. (Which of course was not something you'd get from Nina Simone.)

There were no songs from Marie's Eartha Kitt tribute album I Want to Be Evil, nor did she sing "Blessings," the heartfelt, gospel-driven anthem that closed last year's Sound of Red. The latter song weighed heavy on my mind as I was writing the preview, in light of all the turmoil that has gone done in places like Charlottesville in the last month.

Regardless, Marie still left the audience in a good mood after her solid 90-minute set. Special appreciation should be given to Allyn Johnson, who substituted for the trio/s regular pianist. He might have learned the music on the fly, but his comping and solos were in the pocket, picking up on the Marie's vibe and groove.

The René Marie show ran from 7:00 to about 8:30 in part because Oliver Lake was performing with Jump Up, right around the corner and up the street at Alphabet City, the performance space connected to City of Asylum. All month, the space is hosting performances with jazz and poetry, which started when Lake was first brought to town in 2005 to perform with Chinese poet Huang Xiang. (That whole story can be found here.)

I didn't make it to Jump Up, still feeling like I needed some time at home to relax after the previous night's jumps around the stage. But I did catch Lake's set on Sunday evening, in a trio with Pittsburgh bassist Dwayne Dolphin and New York-based drummer Pheeroan akLaff (who also played in Jump Up). The music was pretty free and loose, and often times very spare. Dolphin coaxed gentle double-stops with just his left hand, while Lake emitted high shrieks and barbed low-end growls. There were times when I wished he cut loose a little more,  developing a more lengthy statement. Still, the atmosphere he created was strong, especially in the opening of the set, when the trio accompanied a video projection (behind them) of Lake reading a poem about the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.

AkLaff fit right in with Lake and Dolphin when it came to keeping things open, but two pieces also found him playing variations on a Second Line groove. This approach wasn't meant to merely lighten the mood with something happy. It added more dimension to the whole performance.

During the second set, the trio accompanied poetry readings by Román Antopolsky (whose Spanish poems were translated on the screen), Dawn Lundy Martin and Jericho Brown. The musicians seemed to be holding back quite a bit, perhaps not to overpower the readers, so the combination was a little off balance. But the poets themselves were all dynamic readers.

Jazz Poetry month continues this week. Polish clarinetist Waclaw Zimpel appears solo on Friday, with writer Osama Alomar and poets Toi Derricote and Maung Day. All of these shows are free but reservations are required (and seats seem to be going fast!). Visit www.alphabetcity.org for details.

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