Friday, April 10, 2015

2014 New Moves: Symphony + Dance Festival

Hi everyone,

Last year, an email from The Kennedy Center caught my eye. It advertised an upcoming National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) performance that included music from Leonard Bernstein's On the Town and On the Waterfront, complete with dancers. On the Town is one of my favorite Gene Kelly movie musicals about three sailors on 24-hour leave in New York City. This performance was one of three that comprised the Kennedy Center's two-week New Moves: Symphony + Dance Festival. By the end of the night, I had decided to attend all three of the New Moves performances. Here's how they went.

NSO Concert #1. William Shuman, Marc Neikrug, and Leonard Bernstein (May 8, 2014)
For this performance, I got a cheap seat in the front row of the first tier's right-side balcony and had to lean forward to see more of the stage. I couldn't see some of the performers because of the extreme angle of my seat. Note to self: next time, pick a seat on the floor in the center for a straight-on, full view.

My first surprise of the night was that the dancers only performed during selected pieces of the choreographers' choosing. The first half of this show was music only.

William Schuman's "New England Triptych" was a collection of interesting sounds without much melody. It used lots of horns, making it seem very patriotic at times. I liked parts of it, particularly the second movement but, as a whole, it was too modern for my taste. The next piece, "Bassoon Concerto" by Marc Neikrug, had more promise from what I read in the program notes: The composer tried to steer the instrument away from its comical reputation, it explained. Soloist Sue Heineman was great at playing the bassoon, but I still couldn't take its sound very seriously. The bassoon makes me think of cartoons.

The second half included the music I came for and the dancing. The three dance episodes chosen from On The Town were randomly selected from the Broadway show. Although not the same as the movie that I know so well, I recognized and was excited by the music they played.

My second surprise was that the dancing was nothing like Gene Kelly's choreography, a revelation that disappointed, confused, and pleased me all at once. As in the musical, six dancers (from Keigwin and Company) – three girls and three boys – portrayed the sailers and their newfound girlfriends, but that's where the similarities ended. The barefoot dancers were full of New York energy and used the entire length of the 16-foot-by-80-foot extension of the stage in front of the orchestra. It was real-life Cinemascope. (This is where my skewed view became problematic.) I liked the On the Waterfront dance even better, probably because I was less familiar with the music and had no dance routines already memorized.

My third surprise came after the show ended. The performance I chose to attend was followed by a free "After Words" session, a discussion and question-and-answer opportunity moderated by NSO Director of Artistic Planning Nigel Boon with the guest conductor Tom Wilkins, composer Marc Neikrug, bassoon soloist Sue Heinman, choreographer Larry Keigwin, and Kennedy Center Director of Dance Programming Meg Booth.

Learning from choreographer Larry Keigwin (who choreographed Broadway's If/Then) that the Bernstein family and trust forbid copying of any of On the Town's original Broadway show or movie musical choreography made me appreciate his work more. "It was freeing, in a way," Mr. Keigwin said of the restriction. The biggest challenge, however, was rehearsing in a 30-foot long New York studio for a performance in an 80-foot long space. "But I had the dancers go through it five times when they got here," he shrugged. Discussions with such creative people always inspires me, so I made a point to attend the festival's next two performances, including the "After Words" for each.

NSO Concert #2: George Gershwin, Samuel Barber, James Oliverio, and Duke Ellington (May 13, 2014)
Another reason I decided to attend the remaining two performances was that the lineup of this second concert sounded even better than the first. The promise to play selections for orchestra from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and a few others tunes by Duke Ellington was enough to convince me. This time, I bought a pricier ticket for a better view on the ground floor in the center section, about 10 feet from the stage.

The only music I recognized at this concert was George Gershwin's, but I liked everything I heard. The excerpts from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess had me singing the songs in my head. Next, Samuel Barber's "Souvenirs" was a series of pieces that explored dance styles, including the waltz, tango, and two-step. I wanted to see dancers with it, but that's not what the choreographer chose.

The final piece of the first half of the show was Timpani Concerto No. 1, "The Olympian," featuring NSO's principal timpanist Juavon Gilliam. Through this concerto, composer James Oliverio wanted to create a piece where the timpani deserved a place in the front as virtuoso soloist. "I wanted to stretch the instrument," he said. So, those giant drums that typically stay in the back of the orchestra were now spotlighted up front. The hardest thing for the musician was finding all the drums he needed to perform the piece; some were his, some were borrowed, and some belonged to the NSO.

Perched on a swivel chair, Mr. Gilliam was surrounded by eight drums of different sizes. He maneuvered in his chair as if it were an amusement park ride, constantly hitting pedals with his feet and tuning the instruments while he banged on them, sometimes to carry the melody of the piece. It was a sight to see from 10 feet away, a great showcase for an instrument that's usually relegated to the back and only assigned a few notes during high-impact moments. Mr. Gilliam practiced this piece for months in the Kennedy Center basement. He even brought in a TV so that he could catch some basketball games while he worked, yet he downplayed how effortless his performance seemed: "I'm just trying to hit the right notes at the right time."

The second half of the show was all about Duke Ellington. "Giggling Rapids" from The River was a wonderful, fast-paced whirl of a song, after which guest conductor Tom Wilkins – who conducted all three of these concerts – turned to us to let us know when we could start clapping, "That's all we got," he nodded. (This conductor, from Nebraska, was cool! You could tell because he wore black socks with bright, wiry vertical stripes. He told us that he'd wanted to be a conductor since he was 8 years old.)

Two pieces from Three Black Kings followed, "King of the Magi" and "Martin Luther King." While unfamiliar to me, they were unmistakably Duke Ellington's. The final piece, called "Harlem," included dancers from the New Ballet Ensemble in Tennessee. The New Ballet Ensemble is a youth development program that provides arts education after school and beyond for kids who can't afford it. The nine dancers representing the company on stage were of all ages. Inspired by a New York performance she saw of Martha Graham's dance for "Appalachian Spring," choreographer Katie Smythe had the performers portray different personalities through dance styles to paint a diverse portrait of the Harlem scene. She gave the dancers some leeway to improvise at times and noted that using live music makes all the difference. "It gets in your blood and your bones and your heart and the goosebumps on the top of your head," she explained. "You can't do that with recorded music."

No one in the room could help being inspired and humbled by the New Ballet Company's mission and exhilarated by the joy and exuberance of these dancers and the music. Not only was this my favorite concert of the three, but this was my favorite performance. When planning the evening's program, conductor Tom Wilkins said that he and NSO Artistic Director Nigel Boon knew they found a combination of pieces that worked really well together: "We were walking out of the building last week going, 'We're geniuses!'"

NSO Concert #3. Michael Daugherty, George Walker, Aaron Copland, and John Adams (May 16, 2014)
This concert was the great unknown. I was unfamiliar with the composers, but I bought a ticket anyway, confident that they wouldn't let me down. This time, the Kennedy Center emailed me a coupon to access the most expensive seats in the house at a cheap-seat price. I'll take it!

Michael Daugherty's "Red Cape Tango" from Metropolis Symphony was the first and my favorite piece, capturing the comic-book death of Superman. I could see it happen thorough the dramatic sweeping sounds, complete with church-bell chimes. "Sinfonia No. 4 (Strands)" by George Walker is modern and a little frantic. "Appalachian Spring" by Aaron Copland, which is probably the most popular piece of the bunch, easily sparks the imagery its title suggests.

All three of these pieces have been paired previously, and some famously, with choreography. So, choreographer Jessica Lang chose to work with her dancers on John Adams's "Violin Concerto," which had no such familiar connections. Her modern, unique creation began in the chorister seats above the stage. The nine dancers moved among the rows, sometimes in unison and other times not, at a slow pace while violin soloist Leila Josefowicz frantically played her instrument as if it were a race to the finish. She told us later that she's played the concerto so many times now that people have started asking her why she continues to revisit it. "If we said that about Beethoven of Brahms," she countered, "we'd never have any performances." Well played.

The dancers made their way down to the stage after the first, 15-minute-long movement, continuing with random sculptural moves that only dancers can achieve. It was so impressive that many of us, mesmerized by the performers in front of us, lost track of the music.

During the "After Words" discussion, some audience members complained that the dancers, while amazing, distracted them from the music and musicians. But composer Tom Wilkins advised, "Don't cheat yourself out of a new experience just because you like one more than the other. Just treat it like dessert." One audience member had another solution, "Come back tomorrow and see it again." I was all for that idea.

The goal of the New Moves: Symphony + Dance Festival was to mix things up. While sharing the diversity of American music, it brought the performing arts of music and dance together. The festival erased categorical lines and instead embraced connection and collaboration. One audience member summed up our enthusiasm about this experiment well: "I'm excited that the Kennedy Center is fusing the communities, taking time out of your normal schedule – normal for the Kennedy Center – and painting a door for that child..."

Just inspiring one person to think outside the box would make this festival a success, but I can attest that it inspired many. Here's to the next New Moves: Symphony + Dance Festival, whenever that may be. See you there.

Best,


Credits: NSO Concert #1 dance photos © Kyle Manfredi; photo of Juavon Gilliam courtesy of Kennedy Center; NSO Concert #2 photo © Scott Suchman; NSO Concert #3 photo © Takao Komaru 

Friday, April 03, 2015

See You at 930!

Hi everyone,

After a long winter, springtime makes me itchy to get outdoors. As luck would have it, 930 club offered me some enticing options last year. 930 is a small, no frills, standing-room-only venue that holds about 800 people. Sometimes I arrive really early to ensure a front-row spot by the stage. Other times (and more often these days), I arrive really early and head upstairs to the balcony, where 1) there's a railing to lean against and 2) the sound seems clearer. These things and comfortable shoes are important.  I usually forget that I've lost feeling in my feet because 930 shows are usually great. Here are a couple from last May.

The Both, May 2, 2014

I didn't know about this band until Jimmy Fallon told me. Flipping channels one night, I checked the late shows before heading to bed. Aimee Mann, whom I've loved since her Til Tuesday days in the '80s, was on The Tonight Show with some guy I didn't recognize. After their performance, Jimmy Fallon said that, from there, they – The Both – were headed to Washington, DC. Excited, I investigated and planned to go. Thanks, Jimmy!

I've seen Aimee Mann a few times on her own. We must have similar tastes because I always like her opening acts. For this concert, it was Nick Diamonds of the band Islands. This guy also has good taste: he covered "Are You Sleeping" from Harry Nilsson's The Point, one of my favorite albums as a kid, and flooded me with childhood memories. 

The Both tour supports the band's self-titled debut album. The second half of The Both is Ted Leo. I didn't know him, but lots of people at the concert did. Like the Sting and Paul Simon shows, there were distinct groups of Aimee fans and Ted fans in the audience. One of my friends who had already seen them on tour warned me that it wouldn't be like an Aimee Mann show. It wasn't; The Both is rockier. Aside from songs from their new album, though, they sang a couple of their solo songs for us too. 

I had a lot of room around me, leaning against the balcony railing. People on both sides were sitting behind me more toward the wall and never closed in toward the front. As I scanned the crowd below, my good fortune was spotted by a group of talkers who were all Aimee fans, ventured upstairs, and surrounded me. After every song, they gushed about how wonderful she sounded, how beautiful she looked, and declared their undying love. Then they left in the middle of the show to meet up with someone they'd been texting for drinks somewhere else. Right after they left the building, Aimee sang "Save Me," her Oscar-winning song from the film Magnolia, and a part of me was glad they missed it. (The rest of me was bewildered by them leaving.)   

Ted and Aimee make a complementary pair, and the best part of this show for me was actually all of their talking. Apparently, Ted and Aimee have been friends for years – and you can tell, watching them together on stage. It was like listening in on a long chatty phone call. I'd never heard Aimee Mann talk so much. At the start of our show, she mentioned their San Francisco show, where they talked for 25 minutes before realizing they hadn't played any songs yet. She said that wouldn't happen tonight because her brother was in the audience and warned her that he'd probably have to leave early. ("He has kids," she explained.) So, they got started pretty quickly. Throughout the concert, they hit a bunch of interesting topics, like bathroom graffiti and Ted's secret fanaticism for The Hobbit. (He even sang part of a song from a TV cartoon version of the story.)

During the encore, Aimee got heckled by a feisty group who wanted her to play one of her own songs (which I didn't know) called "Red Vines." She politely refused the request because, at The Both shows, she and Ted made a pact to sing every song together, and Ted didn't know this song. "I'm not doing this to be mean, but we're not doing the song," she said. They kept yelling for it, and Ted walked over to Aimee and whispered something in her ear: "Ted's telling me to give in to peer pressure," she reported.

Although she still didn't want to play it alone, she got frustrated by the drunken yelling and bargained, "I will sing the song if you just stop yelling. You can't yell again for the rest of the night – no noise!" (When they broke this rule later, she stopped them short.) I couldn't believe that she put up with these obnoxious fans, and I considered protesting accommodating their demands. Ted broke the tension by saying he could try to play the song; then, she was happy to do it.

It turned out to be wonderful because Ted Leo really didn't know the song at all. We witnessed a first rehearsal. He borrowed a cell phone from the sound guy to find the lyrics, and they started to play "Red Vines." Aimee suggested that she could start the song, and he could come in after the first verse. At the end of the first verse, though, she said, "You look like you need your reading glasses." They were in his dressing room, but someone in the audience saved the day. "Oh my God!" Aimee exclaimed, "Someone just threw you their reading glasses!" He put them on, gave us the thumbs up, and they started again. In the end, he mostly stumbled through backing vocals by watching what she was singing. As soon as the song was over, Aimee threw her head back laughing and we all cheered at the effort. What great performers under pressure!

Here's a song from The Both called "Milwaukee," which captures their goofiness and guitars.

You Tube video: "Milwaukee" by The Both (© The Both)https://youtu.be/VqSYzOXkthg

Elbow, 930 club, Washington, DC, May 11, 2014

Elbow is a British band from Manchester that I heard during a fashion show that I watched online. Halfway through it, I realized I wasn't paying attention to the fashion but the music being played in the background. Shortly after that, Elbow showed up in DC at 930 while on tour  supporting their hit album (the one I heard during the fashion show) called The Seldom Seen Kid. Their popular songs from that album include "Grounds for Divorce" and "One Day Like This." A friend, who had never heard of them before, looked them up and joined me then based on what she heard online. Still devoted fans, we saw them again when they returned.   

Aside from writing great songs, Elbow is sincerely friendly, which I always appreciate from performers. Our concert was the first stop on their new tour, supporting their latest album, The Take Off and Landing of Everything. They dedicated a song to 930's staff because, lead singer Guy Garvey said, everyone they've worked with at the club is nice, and playing this venue is always a highlight for them. He also mentioned two friends in the audience, Lois and Dennis, who'd been championing Elbow since the beginning. He pointed them out, in a special balcony spot above the stage. It's refreshing to see nice people make it as successful rock stars.

I love that Elbow uses strings and horns in their alt-rock songs. They always offer interesting melodies, surprising sounds, and wonderful harmonies. Guy Garvey's voice sounds a lot like Peter Gabriel, but Elbow have their own fantastic sound. I liked their new songs immediately but was apparently late to this party. Everyone around us already knew all the lyrics and sang along. By the end of the concert, this behavior was the norm, and the crowd drowned out Guy Garvey's voice at times. After the show was over, my friend shook her head, "Man, they have some crowd-pleasing songs." That's the truth.

Here's a video for "New York Morning," which is on their latest album and features Lois and Dennis! See how nice Elbow is?

You Tube video, "New York Morning" by Elbow (© Elbow)https://youtu.be/cqnIbueM5fE

Catch these bands on tour when you can. They rock!

Best,


Credits: The Both band photo © Christian Lantry, album cover: SuperEgo Records; Elbow band photo © Tom Sheehan,  album cover: Fiction/Concord  

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

2014 Rainforest Fund Benefit Concert

Hi everyone,
 
Last April, I attended the biennial concert benefiting the Rainforest Fund, a charity founded by Sting and his wife Trudie Styler to protect the forests and the people who live there. When I moved from Ohio to D.C. in 2001, I discovered that tickets to these concerts were relatively affordable ($150 and beyond), and New York was easy to get to by bus or train. Being a devoted Sting fan, I had to go, and I've been hooked ever since!

Always performed in Carnegie Hall, one of New York's most beautiful landmarks, these concerts guarantee a unique, unforgettable experience. You can read about the 2012 concert here. While some concerts have boasted better lineups than others (for my taste, anyway), I always leave with the same exhilarated feeling that only good music brings the soul.

This year, I assumed that extra special planning would be in the works to acknowledge the charity's 25th year. Instead, tickets went on sale with no prior announcement from Sting or Trudie and no clues about who would perform. Luckily, I Googled to find the concert's date, which was listed on a random website. Then, I just kept checking Carnegie Hall's April calendar, waiting for the event to show up. When it did, I bought my ticket without knowing who was going to be there. I assumed Sting was locked into showing up, and that was good enough for me. Also, I've attended this concert enough times to know I wouldn't be disappointed. I felt good about this leap of faith.

A while after the tickets went on sale, a list of some of the scheduled performers was released like an afterthought. Sting and Trudie Styler began showing up on TV and Facebook only about a week in advance, encouraging people to attend the concert. Despite this seemingly lax marketing effort, the show was very well attended and went on with the level of quality I expect from Trudie Styler and company. Here's a rundown on what happened.

The stage is set.
The stage seemed crowded with instruments and equipment this year. The 2014 Rainforest Fund All-Star Players, directed as usual by drummer Narada Michael Walden, included members of the St. Luke's Orchestra (conducted by Charles Floyd) and at least 15 other musicians and seven backup singers.

Thinking back, what threw me off was not the number of people on stage but an unexpected piece of furniture. What I thought was a white upright piano turned out to be a bar, complete with stools. Maybe this is an upgrade from the rows of folding chairs, where the performers could sit onstage to watch their friends singing, I thought. We were apparently in for a party.

Enjoy a view from the top – if you can.
Typically, I get a seat in the cheap section. By "cheap" I mean the $150 to $175 range, which is the top balcony. You know it's the cheap section when you climb five flights of stairs, are told to go out an exit door to climb three or so more, and then receive a final warning that the level you're currently standing on – which is not yet your destination – is the last level that has a bathroom. Despite the height (and maybe because of it), you still get a grand view of the stage (see my vantage point at right). Some years, I've bought more expensive seats in different sections of the hall only to discovered that my cheaper seat is not much different and sometimes better.

The down side to this section is that I've always been surrounded by people who don't pay the performers or the venue the proper respect I feel they deserve. Some people are dressed in jeans, most are using their cell phones or are not paying attention in other annoying ways, and a few leave before the show is over. This year, I was stuck between two women who enjoyed the show, as far as I could tell. But the one on my left didn't return after the intermission, and a woman on my right kept borrowing my binoculars and asking me who each performer was – despite the detailed-with-performer-photos program we were all given and the introductions made before every performance. At times, they distracted me from fully focusing on the show, but I'll do my best to describe it.

It's Showtime!
Each concert usually has a theme, like Motown, The Beatles, or movie songs. This year, they seemed to choose whatever song they considered to be a classic - be it show tunes, Nirvana, opera, rock, or something else. This show had a little bit of everything for everyone. Luckily, the performers have good taste. Here's what happened:
  • The white bar was there for a reason! Kevin Spacey served as bartender with Sting as his customer. They sang What a Swell Party as a duet until James Taylor stumbled onto the stage wearing a lampshade on his head. All three of them topped it off as best they could in their drunken state. Kevin even did a little soft shoe. My ticket was worth it already.
Sting stuck around as the bar was pushed off stage and everyone else left. He reintroduced Kevin Spacey as "President Underwood," his character on the Netflix series House of Cards. When the initial list of concert performers was finally released, I was most excited to see Kevin Spacey's name. I assumed that he'd just make a speech, but I don't know why I stopped there since I know he can do so much more!
  • Taking over as emcee, Kevin Spacey talked about the concert and the cause behind it. Then he said, "But, first, the Johnny Carson impression." Aside from the phenomenal acting and apparent tap dancing skills, he does impressions that always make me laugh. He told some jokes as Johnny Carson, including that he ran into Christopher Walken at Carnegie Hall, who advised [in Christopher Walken's voice], "Prac-tice, prac-tice, prac-tice..." Did I mention he sings really well too? Did you all see him as Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea? As he belted out That's Life, I think Sinatra was in the room and, at the end, everyone cheered like it too.  
After the song, Kevin Spacey continued, "Sting introduced me as Underwood. Let me just say this [in Bill Clinton's voice], 'I love that House of Cards. I don't know how accurate it is. You could never get an education bill passed that fast." He then introduced Renee Fleming, who sang two opera pieces.
  • O Mio Babbino Caro is an aria about a girl who threatens her dad that she'll jump off a bridge if he forbids her to marry the boy she loves. (Look it up; you'll recognize the melody.)  
  • La Ci Darem La Mano is from Don Giovanni, which she was currently performing at the New York's Metropolitan Opera House. For this piece, three microphones were set up, and she said that she was looking for someone to perform the song with her. Behind her, all the members of the horn section volunteered, wearing period-style hats adorned with neon-colored feathers along the rims. "Those hats are the correct period, but I'm not sure about the fringe," she said. "I don't know what kind of Don Giovanni that would be." Luckily, someone else came trotting out to save the day: "Oh! Oh, here comes Sting. Okay!" He held a rose while they sang in Italian. Mid song, Kevin Spacey walked out, holding a sunflower and began competing for her affections, despite Sting's dismay and attempts to wave him off. They all sang together, but at the end, Oscar Isaac showed up with an entire bouquet of flowers and stole her away. They walked off stage, leaving Sting and Kevin Spacey sulking.

  • Kevin Spacey, then introduced James Taylor, who sat on a stool with his guitar. When James Taylor didn't attend the 2012 concert, I really missed him. Since attending these concerts, I've fallen for his voice, his sense of humor, and his calm, thoughtful demeanor. The acoustics of Carnegie Hall are perfect for him. He told us that he'd been to all but two of these concerts. "Every year, it stretches me to do something outside my comfort zone, which is a good thing, I think. This next song is definitely smack dab in the middle of my comfort zone. I think I've done it thee times on this stage." To everyone's supreme joy, he performed his classic Fire and Rain.  
  • Next, James Taylor introduced Chris Botti, who played his trumpet with violinist Caroline Campbell  for a great song called Sketches of Spain, which I'd never heard before. I was unfamiliar with the violinist, but I  first heard of Chris Botti when he joined Sting's band years ago. Since then, he's continued solo and been busy; he explained the rise in his popularity in an interview once, saying, "Be friends with Sting." The most memorable moment of this performance for me was when he played a single note on his trumpet for a ridiculous length of time. I'm convinced that he and Sting must do yoga together to get their exhales to extend that far.
  • Sting came out next and sang When We Dance, which is one of my all-time favorite Sting songs. He had changed outfits from a gray fitted shirt with a black flower pattern on it, white cream jacket, and black pants to a black three-piece suit. Two ballet dancers, Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo, swayed and twirled next to him as he sang. They were so moving to watch, set to this beautiful melody and lyrics. They must really be in love, I thought. When the song ended, I came back down to Earth and realized it was more likely that they were just excellent, convincing dancers. 
  • Dionne Warwick was next with two songs, Walk On By and Anyone Who Had a Heart. I was unfamiliar with and really liked the latter song. She was one of the "big names" for this year's concert, but I felt indifferent about the idea of seeing her. Of course, she sounded wonderful. She even reminded me of Whitney Houston in the way she talked with the audience. She also looked fantastic with snow white hair a sheer blousey green pattern shirt that was tied in front and long in back, black trousers, and kitten heels. I'm all about the outfits. 
Kevin Spacey returned to check on us: "Are you having a good night?" Yes, thank you. He apparently forgave Oscar Isaac for stealing away Renee Fleming and brought him back to the stage.
  • You probably know Oscar Isaac best from the Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis, in which he played a struggling folk singer. He really plays guitar and was accompanied here by more guitarists and little bit of drums. He sang Young Turks, and everyone around me sang along. Sting joined in our enthusiasm, exclaiming afterward, "I love that song!"
  • When Oscar left the stage, Sting continued, "The sign of an important song is one that conjures up a time in your life." He reminisced about starting out with The Police, driving a station wagon across the U.S., staying in sketchy hotels, and struggling to make it as a musician. "This song," he said, "brings that all into focus. He started playing  his acoustic guitar and singing Paul Simon's "America" He tells his same story while performing this song on tour with Paul Simon, but it's still just as effective. As he started to play and everyone recognize it, an audible "Awww..." filled the room. It sounded beautiful in Carnegie Hall and might be my favorite performance of the night. 
  • As that song finished up, Stephen Stills walked out playing his electric guitar to drown out the moment and blast into another with For What It's Worth. Toward the end, other performers joined in, singing along, including Sting, Patti Scafia, James Taylor, Kevin Spacey, Dionne Warwick, Joe Sumner, and Trudie Styler. During this song, the woman to my left swayed in her seat, singing along word-for-word, to her own tune, in her own way, directly in my ear. It was kind of a bummer, because I too love that song and wished I could better hear Stephen Stills singing it. 
Here are some things to ponder during intermission (and beyond).
Sting's wife Trudie Styler, who produces this event, makes a speech at every concert. This time, she noted that the fund has raised $35 million so far, the vast majority of which comes from these Carnegie Hall concerts. She said she's is always asked why she and Sting work on this charity, and her response is two words: people and planet. "This is not the Wild West," she says of the land being destroyed. "This not ours for the taking." She gave examples of global warming, extreme weather, fires, and natural disasters, explaining that it's all connected. "There is only one [planet]. We have to change." This statistic surprised me: Fourteen companies are responsible for two-thirds of carbon emissions. She stressed that they have to change. Trudie Styler is a passionate, impressive speaker, and I'm always inspired after listening to her.
Next, she introduced another good speaker, Bill Clinton! Everyone broke the rules and got out their cell phones immediately to snap photos. He said, "I'm here to tell you that the break is on its way." The woman to my right, noticing the heightened excitement upon this man's appearance, asked me who he was. (I swear!) "Every tree in every rainforest is better left standing than cut down," he reminded us. He thanked all of the performers, naming a few, and then said, "I know Kevin Spacey came out here to make fun of me." Kevin Spacey was behind him. They hugged and kept their arms around each other as he continued speaking, sharing that they went to Africa together once and people couldn't tell who was talking. "I've always admired you and wished I could be in your line of work," he told Kevin. "Dammit if you didn't get into mine!" Bill's so smooth.

Stephen Stills returned to end the first half of the show performing the instrumental Amazonia as a we watched a video on a wall-mounted screen behind him, showing the work of the Rainforest Fund and the people it helps. I thought this whole presentation was quite well done and effective. I thought about it well into our intermission and after the show, and I hope the rest of the audience did too.

They're Back!
  • Opening the second half, Lisa Fischer (longtime backup singer for The Rolling Stones who was in the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom) and newcomer Ivy Levan kicked off the second half of the concert with powerful performances of two Rolling Stone songs, Start Me Up and Jumping Jack Flash. Sometimes, Lisa Fischer's voice overpowered Ivy Levan's. Their performance together was fantastic, but if they were competing on The Voice, the winner is clear. I fantasized about Mick and Keith interrupting them, but that didn't happen. 
  • Next, Sting's daughter Eliot Sumner appeared as if she just woke on up on street corner and forgot to shower.  (She's so talented and I love her. I only mention this because the last time I saw her at this concert a few years ago, she was very glam. Apparently, this is her new look. Of course, the woman next to me asked who she was, and I explained it was Sting's daughter. She exclaimed, "That's a girl?") She sang Born to Be Wild, which was good but I wished she had performed a quieter song that fit her voice better. The last time I saw her at this concert, she sang an amazing song of her own called, "Bohemian Love" on acoustic guitar. Everyone was so attentive, you could have heard a pin drop – until she was finished, when we erupted in cheers because we all knew a star had just been born! For me, the bar was set high for this appearance.
  • Her older brother, Joe Sumner, came out next to perform Smells Like Teen Spirit. He also performed at this concert before, the same one where Eliot Sumner looked glamorous and blew everyone aways with her song. Back then, he was the grungy one with long hair. I saw him again shortly after that, opening for Sting with his band Fiction Plane. Now, at this concert, he looked like a businessman. The siblings have  apparently swapped stylists. Joe Sumner is a good screamer, so this song was a good fit for him. I remember reading that Nirvana is a big influence on his music, so I wasn't surprised by this choice. They both must have just picked a favorite song.
  • Sting returned and introduced a friend of 25 years, Patti Scafia (Bruce Springsteen's wife). They sang a lovely rendition of Stand By Me, during the middle of which they slow danced. And, as they finished, Sting knelt on one knee, holding her hand. It was a sweet performance, and I liked Patti Scafia's unique voice, which I don't think I've noticed before.
  • Next, James Taylor appeared, but I didn't recognize him at first. He changed from his typical suit attire into a casual jacket with khakis  and a pageboy hat. He looked like he just stepped out of Newsies. He sang How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), to which everyone in the room swayed, including Sting and Trudie Styler who were watching from behind a partition that shielded the backstage entrance. Awww, she gave Sting a quick kiss during this song. (These are the kinds of things you can see from these seats.) 
  • Next, Paul Simon sang Graceland and The Boxer. For "The Boxer," Sting sang backing vocals, as they do on their current joint tour. I love the harmonies they do on this song. This song showcases how their voices are a perfect combination. I always think of Paul Simon as a funny guy because I remember always seeing him on Saturday Night Live. Here, though, he told some bad jokes that I didn't get. Sting just shook his head at them, and Paul explained that only people in the Amazon, with their dry sense of humor, would understand them. Paul did say some nice things, though, about the work that Sting and Trudie have done for the Rainforest Fund. He got everyone to give Sting a standing ovation for their efforts. I'm all for that, of course.   
  • Sting spoke to get the show moving again. "You know, when Artie would sing, he'd send Paul off the stage. Well, tonight, Paul, I'm not going to send you off the stage. I want you to stand right there while I sing your song." Everyone laughed, and together they sang Bridge Over Troubled Water, as they have on their tour. At one point during the song, Sting held the note for "I will ease your mind...." for so long that the audience began clapping and cheering before he was finished. (I'm telling you, it's the yoga!) When they finished the song, Sting pointed at Paul and exclaimed, "He wrote that!" Everyone cheered and they hugged. 
  • Stephen Stills closed the show with another perfect song, "Love The One Your With," for which everyone joined him on stage, played, and sang along. Our hosts, Sting (shaking maracas) and Trudie, were the last ones out.


Good night!
As anticipated, we were all exhilarated by this one-of-a-kind show. When I met a friend for lunch the next day, still delirious from the night before, I described the show as a motley group of people who played their favorite or best-known songs. A while into my incoherent ramblings, my friend interrupted and said, "So, who else was there because so far you've only mentioned Dionne Warwick..." Hopefully, I did a better job here. 

Visit the Rainforest Fund to learn more about this great charity!

Best,

Image credits: Rainforest Fund logo and concert save-the-date ad © Rainforest Fund; all concert photos © Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Wainwrights Strike Back

Hi everyone,

You might remember that I saw Rufus Wainwright with his sister Lucy in concert at 930 club for the first time in 2013. It was so fantastic that I vowed to see them whenever they returned. Last April, they did, performing at Lincoln Theatre this time. This historic venue is located a few blocks away from 930 and is owned by the same people. Lincoln Theatre is bigger and  fancier than 930 and therefore, to me, seems better suited for Rufus Wainwright. By this time, I'd met a friend who has been a fan of his for years and had seen him in concert many more times than me. She joined me for this show, and we scored a pair of VIP seats in the left-side stage-level box located about a foot away from the performance space. We were already thrilled, and the show hadn't even started yet.

Like last time, Lucy Wainwright Roche opened the show in her delightful way, discussing random topics and asking if we had any questions or comments between songs. At one point, she mentioned Ben's Chili Bowl and how she didn't have a chance to eat before the show. Someone in the crowd offered to get her some food, and a debate began among audience members about whether to get her meat or vegetarian chili. Then she talked about recently playing at Jammin Java in Vienna, Virginia, but no one showed up. She asked us where she should play next time to ensure a full audience. This started another debate with people yelling out various venues and reasons why they're good and bad. She stopped us and suggested that we think about it until after the show and then discuss it some more. I think these kinds of things probably only happen in D.C.

Lucy's voice is very pure and clear, which is what I love about it. I'd also seen her on her own at The Kennedy Center and am always entertained by her stage presence and moved by her songs. When she stops by your town, you should definitely go see her. Here's one of her songs, "Last Time," to give you a taste:

You Tube Video: "Last Time" by Lucy Wainwright Roche (https://youtu.be/zOXtC9-ps7g

After she finished her set, Rufus Wainwright made a grand entrance onto the stage, wearing an amazing full-length cream-colored silk John Paul Gaultier coat with red floral embroidery, sequin, and other sparkly beading. He said he saw this coat at a party, put it on, left with it, and had been wearing it at concerts for about year now. I could have gone home after this and been happy, but there's more!

Rufus Wainwright has an amazing voice and great musicality. The uniqueness of his songs always surprises me. He sang a few of them and then started playing a dramatic, classical, tornado-like concoction on the piano. The lights flickered and swirled as he told us a story about walking downtown late one night, seeing someone come out of the shadows, and trying to make out who it was....

Then, Liza Minnelli showed up. (It was really Lucy dressed like Liza, but we went with it.) She was led out by masked man in a tux as Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" blasted out of the speakers. They sang a song that Rufus wrote as tribute to Liza Minnelli called "Me and Liza." (The whole thing went something like this, but in English.)

Afterward, he left it to "Liza" to entertain us while he tuned his guitar. In her typical fashion, Lucy asked us if we had any questions. No one really did, and Rufus couldn't believe it: "I know you're all into politics, but this is a real opportunity here," he told us. "This is Liza Minnelli! This is show biz!" (He emphasized this with jazz hands!) Some people began asking goofy questions about Liza's recent appearance at the Oscars and host Ellen DeGeneres's jokes about her. Finished tuning, Rufus took control of this situation –
Rufus: "What was it like having Judy Garland as a mother?"
Liza/Lucy: "Fabulous!"
Rufus: "Okay, let's sing a song."

At this concert, he sang a bit of everything: hits like "Vibrate" and "Out of the Game," new songs like "Argentina" and "Friendship is the Wind," and even pieces from his opera Prima Donna. Among all this entertainment, the highlight of the show was "Candles," a song for which Rufus put his guitar down and silently walked up to the microphone. He sang it acapela, and the song came out of him in every direction, with his entire body swaying like a car dealership's airdancer on a windy day. When he finished, we were silent until one guy among us said, "Whoa." That sparked our eruption of cheers. It was pretty spectacular.

This isn't quite as mesmerizing as the D.C. version, but here he is singing "Candles" in San Francisco in Davies Symphony Hall, June 9, 2013:

You Tube video: Candles by Rufus Wainwright (https://youtu.be/S2p06Atb-i4)

Are you a fan yet?  Catch these two on the road when you can, and you will be.

Best,

Friday, March 20, 2015

So Anyway...

Hi everyone,

Thanks to my Monty-Python-viewing upbringing, John Cleese is one of my favorite comedians. (Thanks, Dad and PBS!) He can walk into a room and make me laugh without saying anything.

Scott Simon and John Cleese
It was thrilling to see John Cleese in person last November in a live interview event, organized by Smithsonian Associates and conducted by NPR's Scott Simon, in support of his new memoir, So Anyway.... As the Smithsonian representatives struggled with audio and visual issues before the start of the program, John Cleese and Scott Simon stood around watching them test microphones and move furniture. John Cleese quipped, "Why don't we make all the arrangements now, and then you [the audience] can come back tomorrow night." Then he muttered, "I left New York for this..." The biggest problem was that the clip-on microphones they planned to use didn't carry the speakers' voices: "Jokes don't work if people can't hear them," he observed. At one point he clipped the microphone to a nostril and excitedly asked us if this improved things. We were all disappointed that it didn't help.

The best part of this event was not a John Cleese gag, but a teenage girl who sat next to me and attentively studied John Cleese's every word through the whole interview. She arrived wearing a tie dye t-shirt, jeans, and UGGs, carrying a large Barnes and Noble bag full of books, a backpack, and a rubber chicken, which – for the entire length of the interview – she held up erectly at just as much attention as she was.

When she stood up to ask the last question of the night, I think John Cleese was as impressed as I was that such a young person was so interested in this 75-year-old British comedian. He motioned for her to come up to him to ask the question since he's a bit hard of hearing these days. She told him she was here courtesy of a kind lady she'd met in line who had a spare ticket. The woman's friend couldn't attend because she couldn't find a babysitter. John Cleese ended up borrowing the woman's cell phone to call her friend, who didn't pick up. He left her a message complaining about that. He asked to see the girl's rubber chicken and began to bite its head off while she told him its name and that she has five others at home. Eventually, she asked her question: Her #1 favorite comedy film is a tie between John Cleese's A Fish Called Wanda and Robin Williams's Mrs. Doubtfire, so she asked if he had any fond memories of Robin Williams that he could share. After a thoughtful response about Robin's apparent defense mechanisms, constant joking, and innate kindness, he gave her a long hug that we all envied. She came back to her seat in tears, having shared a monumental moment with one of her heroes. It was the best moment for all of us!

While I knew that So Anyway... was a memoir that leads up to the start of Monty Python's Flying Circus, it wasn't until I was more than 100 pages into it that I heard two more books were to follow that cover the rest of John Cleese's life. I lost some motivation, thinking that his next book – which will cover the Monty Python and Fawlty Towers years – is the better one to read.

So Anyway... had peaks and valleys for me: learning about his upbringing and relationship with his parents was very intriguing to me, but I couldn't relate to his British school studies, professorship, and love for cricket. I got through some tediously described, over-analyzed sections by looking forward to what was coming in the next chapters. It seemed sudden, too, that he began writing and performing comedy. On one page, he was studying for law exams and, on the next, he had a new job at BBC developing skits for a local comedy show.

What I like about this book is that it's written very distinctly in John Cleese's voice. The audio version would be perfect because so much of John Cleese's comedy comes from his tone, inflections, and facial expressions. I tried to hear his voice in my head as I read this book, but that's hard to do for 375 pages. Videos of the sketches he discusses in this book would have had more impact on me too. I'd rather see a sketch for the first time than read through it with someone telling me how funny it is.

Until this magic electronic version of So Anyway... that I've developed in my head is released, fans will still enjoy this book. It occurred to me how useful it'd be to up-and-coming comedians who are trying to learn the history and business of comedy. John Cleese is very serious about comedy, as all good comedians are, and this book is instructional at times about how jokes work best and how to achieve the greatest audience response. It mentions many comic legends, such as Peter Sellers and Marty Feldman, and others who, despite their key contributions to comedy, were less well known and completely unfamiliar to me.

Monty Python in 1968: clockwise - John Cleese,
Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry
Gilliam, and Michael Palin
The formation of Monty Python doesn't occur until page 356. Before that happens, the best thing about this book for me is learning about John Cleese's relationship with Graham Chapman, whom he first met and worked with at Cambridge. It was interesting to see how the other Monty Python members trickled into their lives and came together with the idea for a new TV show – one that became essential, iconic, and synonymous for British comedy.

I love John Cleese, but there are some grumpy old man moments in this book that I don't really understand – his disdain for taking photos with fans and remark that we readers don't really care about him and are just waiting for a laugh and Monty Python trivia. (Is this sarcasm that's just not translating for me?) I wouldn't blame him for being sick of talking about Monty Python's parrot sketch and all the other classic jokes that made him famous, but it's kind of a downer to end the book saying that, while waiting to do a live sketch during the recent Monty Python reunion tour, he wondered, "How is it possible that I'm not feeling the slightest bit excited?"

But I am excited. I was going to include the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch to give you a taste of what we have to look forward to in John Cleese's next volume, but you all know him from that one, right? I got lost on YouTube watching all the old Monty Python skits and trying to pick one. It's difficult, so I encourage you to check out their YouTube channel for a healthy, consistent dose of laughter. Picked at random, here's a good one that he did with Graham Chapman:


© Monty Python's Flying Circus, Management Training Course Interview: https://youtu.be/iV2ViNJFZC8

Now you know where I get my weird sense of humor.

Keep up the silliness,





Monday, March 16, 2015

Leaders in American Song: George Gershwin and Cole Porter

Hi everyone,

Because I grew up watching movie musicals, I love all those old songs. For the last few years, I've noticed that the Smithsonian hosts lectures on songwriters and performers of that era. I wrote about their Ella Fitzgerald event last year. In addition to that one, I attended two lectures about American songwriters George Gershwin and Cole Porter, both hosted by pianist Robert Wyatt.

Gershwin, By George!, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian, March 27, 2015

My love for George Gershwin (1898-1937) probably stems from my love for An American in Paris, the 1951 Best Picture Oscar winner with an exclusive Gershwin soundtrack. I also saw Hershey Felder's inspiring one-man show George Gershwin Alone at Ford's Theatre in 2003.

George Gershwin was an amazing composer and musician, a prodigy who accomplished so much in his 37 years, from classical works and piano solos to musical theatre scores and film songs. Together with his lyricist brother Ira, they formed one of the best known songwriting teams of the 20th century. I bet you know some of their songs [click on the titles to hear them]: "But Not for Me," "Embraceable You," "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," and "Someone To Watch Over Me."

When George Gershwin first started complaining about headaches, his friends assumed he was being overly dramatic to get attention, but he died of a brain tumor shortly thereafter. About that, the composer's writer/friend John O'Hare appropriately said, "George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to."

What attracted me most to Robert Wyatt's event, Gershwin, By George!, was that it included his performance on piano of Gershwin's orchestral masterpiece "Rhapsody in Blue." You can't get much better than this piece of music, which is always associated with the vibrancy of New York City living. Hearing it live is a treat! While I waited for it, I learned some things about George Gershwin during Mr. Wyatt's informative lecture:
  • George Gershwin's parents bought a piano when George was 10. He sat on the bench and began to play it before ever having a lesson, so his parents found him a teacher, Charles Hambitzer, who later said, "I have a new pupil who will make his mark if anybody will. The boy is a genius." 
  • Growing up, he loved listening to ragtime composer/pianist Scott Joplin. 
  • He wrote the opera Porgy and Bess, based on the book by DuBose Heyward. Although not a songwriter, the author wrote lyrics to some of its most memorable songs, including "Summertime," "A Woman's a Sometimes Thing," and "My Man's Gone Now," but George's brother Ira got all the credit. 
  • He wrote "An American in Paris" before ever having gone to Paris and played it in Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1928. (Click the song's title to hear George Gershwin himself performing this piece.) 
  • "Our Love Is Here to Stay" is the last song George Gershwin ever wrote. Knowing that makes his brother's lyrics all the more poignant, don't you think? Below, hear the song, performed by Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in An American in Paris.

"Our Love Is Here to Stay," An American in Paris (©1951, MGM): https://youtu.be/WrZM0ReQi6o


Cole Porter: Sophisticate of American Song, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, July 22, 2014

My love for Cole Porter (1891-1964) doesn't come for a specific musical but a bunch of them, like Kiss Me Kate (1953) and Silk Stockings (1957). From there, I checked out MGM's 1946 Cole Porter biography Night and Day, starring Cary Grant, though it's pretty inaccurate in that Old Hollywood sort of way. A better biography is De-lovely (2004), starring Kevin Kline. 

Born into wealth, Cole Porter never needed money. He pursued music and found success as a composer in musical theatre. Although gay, he married friend Linda Lee Thomas, and – content with their platonic relationship – they lived lavishly and traveled abroad. A horse-riding accident in 1937 led to 33 operations on his legs and constant pain for the rest of his life. Some of his many popular tunes include the following [click on the titles to hear them]: "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love," "Night and Day," "Anything Goes," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "It's De-Lovely," "I've Got You Under My Skin,""My Heart Belongs to Daddy," "So In Love," "I Love Paris," "All of You," and "True Love." 

Although Robert Wyatt didn't play piano during his lecture, Cole Porter: Sophisticate of American Song, he provided some great archival footage and trivia. Here are some interesting things that I learned:
  • Cole Porter was very smart. Originally from Peru, Indiana, he went to school on the East Coast and didn't contact his family the entire time he was there. He was valedictorian of his class at the Worcester Academy in Massachusetts. He went to Yale University, where he participated in lots of extracurricular activities but didn't bother with his studies. Then, he was nearly expelled from Harvard Law School but was transferred to music school instead. 
  • He was very good friends with composer Irving Berlin, but composer Lorenz Hart was not a fan. He also didn't like Frank Sinatra's versions of his songs. 
  • He wrote at least 800 songs, and "Love for Sale" was his favorite. 
  • After he wrote "Your the Top," everyone asked him to add more verses to it; he added 300 lyrics  in a week. (Click the song's title to hear Cole Porter himself perform it.) 
  •  After his horse-riding accident, he named his left leg Geraldine and his right leg Josephine. (Hallelujah for his sense of humor!)  
  • In 1948, his musical Kiss Me Kate became the first to win the Tony for best musical. Below, hear the song "Too Darn Hot," performed by my favorite tap-dancing lady, Ann Miller, from the film version of Kiss Me Kate

"Too Darn Hot," Kiss Me Kate (©1953, MGM): https://youtu.be/T2CmgBGmDSI


Where would we be without these two prolific composers' astounding contributions to music? Don't you feel grateful to them – and in the mood for an MGM musical marathon right now?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Twice the Sting

Hi everyone,

Did you know that Sting has the flu with a high fever? Under doctors' orders, he's canceled two shows in New York this week. It's a good thing I waited a year to talk about these concerts to hold you over until he's feeling better.

You all know how devoted I am. Last year, he planned two different local shows two days in a row, so it was my best week ever. First up was a charity performance he shared with "very special guest Paul Simon" at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland, which benefited the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. The next night, Sting and Paul Simon performed at Verizon Center in D.C. in support of their On Stage Together tour. I was torn about going to both shows: Must I? Will they be the same? Will it be worth it? Of course!

The first show was on Wednesday, March 12, and I came down with a cold two days before the event. I gave myself a deadline to be rid of it before the first concert. Wednesday morning, though, I was unsure whether I could get out of bed, never mind to Bethesda! But I did get out of bed, put in a full day of work at home, and miraculously felt pretty healthy by afternoon. That's it: Sting has magical powers!

The Performance Series of Legends for the Duke Ellington School  of the Arts: Sting and Very Special Guest Paul Simon, Strathmore, Bethesda, Maryland, March 12, 2014

When I arrived, through hurricane-level rain, I was greeted with a program. The cover read, "Sting and very special guest Paul Simon and [previously unannounced] legendary musician Stevie Wonder." I nearly fainted. It was short-lived delirium, though: at the start, they announced that Stevie Wonder had to cancel his appearance in order to attend a funeral. That's an understandable excuse. Then the music started and I forgot that I was disappointed.

The Duke Ellington School of the Arts serves 9th to 12th graders who are immersed in a full academic course and an arts major, which could be dance, literary media and communications, museum studies, instrumental or vocal music, theatre, technical design and production, or visual arts. While this annual event is a wonderful and worthy cause, the organizers really drilled it into our heads that they wanted more money from us than the cost of our ticket. They reminded us before, during, and immediately after the show, which killed a bit of my concert-induced euphoria. I started to feel like I was watching PBS during pledge week or attending an amateur high school fundraiser. But they have to do what they have to do: the arts are essential, so support this amazing school!

Strathmore provides a beautiful blonde-wood-filled concert hall with fantastic acoustics. Despite its three levels of seats, the space is intimate with great views from any spot. My seat was in the second row of the top level, and I still felt relatively close to the stage. Let's get to the main event!

To start things off, the students of the Duke Ellington School for the Arts performed in an orchestra, sang in a small choir, and danced on stage through two of my favorite Police songs. "Demolition Man" included a spectacular guitar solo and four dancers. "Synchronicity" had 20 dancers performing on stage, at first, in pitch black to show off their glowing, blinking shoes. These kids were so bright and joyful, they lit up the room, lifted our spirits, and let us know what made this evening so special.

Next, they accompanied Sting as he sang three of his songs ("Englishman in New York," "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," and "Driven to Tears"). Impressed, he suggested that they help him out tomorrow night too, but they left the stage, and Sting played with his own band. Paul Simon shared the stage with him sporadically. They sang some songs as duets, like Sting's "Brand New Day" and Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer." They also traded songs; for example, Paul Simon sang Sting's "Fragile," and Sting sang Paul Simon's "America."

That was one of my favorite parts: Before singing "America," Sting reminisced about coming to this country, aiming for stardom with The Police. He felt driven but uncertain, anxious, and excited about the future. "America," which was playing on the radio during that time, captures all those feelings for him. He sang a quiet, acoustic version of it, which was beautiful and moving, and then he transitioned into a fully electric version of "Message in a Bottle." The Police have arrived!

All that emotion was released during the next song, "Desert Rose," which Sting infused with Bollywood sounds. I loved this new arrangement, but the best part of this song on that night was watching a lone fan – a big black guy who was built like a football player  dancing up a storm in one of the front balconies.

After that, the choir kids returned and sang "Bridge Over Troubled Water" with both Sting and Paul Simon. During this song and "The Boxer," their harmonies blended beautifully. The woman next to me, who was clearly a big Paul Simon fan, got very excited when this song started, and her friends all knew that this was her moment. When the kids began singing its chorus, the song transformed into gospel, and she burst into tears and cried through the rest of it. She even got Kleenex out of her purse.

Sting and Paul Simon ended the show with another duet, "Every Breath You Take." Always a crowd-pleaser, this song capped off an inspiring night! As we gathered our coats, I wanted to ask the woman who cried if she was all right, but instead I asked if she enjoyed the concert. "So much!" she said. "Just seeing them with the kids, it's like....The kids are amazing!" Agreed! That's what it was all about.

Here's a short synopsis about this charity event, which gives you a glimpse of how it went:


Courtesy of Branden Kownacki, You Tube video: https://youtu.be/GakfTI7kZwQ


Paul Simon and Sting: On Stage Together, Verizon Center, Washington, D.C., March 13, 2014 

The next night, I felt even healthier. The Verizon Center is a huge stadium, where the Washington Wizards and other sports teams play. These stadiums are pretty impersonal but I go when necessary.

Singing together at Beacon Theatre, New York, 2011
I was immediately struck by how different this performance was compared to the night before. It was bigger and better to fit the enormous space and satisfy the massive crowd. Sting and Paul Simon have been New York neighbors for years, and the idea for touring together came to them after they performed together at Sting's 60th birthday concert at Beacon Theatre in New York, a charity event which benefited the Robin Hood Foundation. (I was there!) Sting described their On Stage Together tour as a musical experiment that merged their bands and musical styles together. Both of their bands shared the stage. This combined group of excellent supporting musicians excelled in the energetic atmosphere, creating music that was full, all-encompassing, and infectious.

As they did the night before, Sting and Paul Simon sang duets and traded songs. While last night's show was more Sting-centric, Paul Simon sang many more of his songs during this concert, balancing out the number of compositions between the two of them. The distinction between Paul Simon fans and Sting fans was much more prevalent too: Groups of us danced and cheered during Sting songs while others sat stone-faced, quietly waiting for a Paul Simon song, and vice versa. Some of Paul Simon's songs were new to me, but I knew most of them, so I sang and danced through it all. This concert was like a joint greatest hits celebration.

On the Sting side, new from the previous night were: "Fields of Gold," "Hounds of Winter," "They Dance Alone," and "Roxanne." I was so excited about "They Dance Alone," a slow song about political prisoners that Sting includes on his 1987 ...Nothing Like the Sun album. I know what you're thinking, but it's an amazing, uplifting song that changes tempo toward the end to signify hope and resilience. Amid my sea of oblivious Paul Simon fans, I longed to be with a group of girls I saw in the middle of the stadium who were dancing in the aisles – as you should by the end of that song.

My favorite thing about Paul Simon is his sense of humor. I think I remember him more from his stints on Saturday Night Live than from his music. This concert reminded me of all of his great classics and introduced me to some new one. Among the hits he performed that night were "The Boy in a Bubble," "Mother and Child," "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," "Graceland," "Still Crazy After All These Years," "Me and Julio Down By the School Yard," "Diamonds on the Soles of Their Shoes," and "Call Me Al."

Sting and Paul Simon shared the same duets as the night before, like "The Boxer" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water," but Strathmore's intimacy trumped Verizon's arena setting. Here, they also threw in some songs written by other people, like Paul Simon singing "Wheels" by Chet Atkins.

They performed the second of two encores without their bands. Paul Simon said, "The idea for this tour started with two voices and two guitars, so we felt the show should end that way." In honor of Phil Everly, who passed away in January, they sang an acoustic version of the Everly Brothers' "When Will I Be Loved." After such a vibrant, energetic show, this quiet song reminded us of why we were all there. Blended together, these voices and combined musicianship guarantee an unforgettable musical experience.

Sting and Paul Simon's On Stage Together tour is in Europe right now. If they are coming to a town near you, get your ticket!

Feel better soon, Sting!


Credits: Duke Ellington School of the Arts benefit  poster: courtesy of Strathmore; video courtesy of Branden Kownacki; Image from Strathmore performance: Kyle Gufstafson/WashingtonLife.com; Beacon Theatre image: Andy Kropa, Invision/Associated Press; Image from On Stage Together tour show in Houston, Texas, February 2014: Kevin Mazur/WireImages; On Stage Together tour poster: LiveNation
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