Tuesday, February 28, 2017

2016 Rainforest Fund Benefit Concert

Hi everyone,

My view from up high
Tickets for this year's Rainforest Fund Benefit Concert didn't go on sale until one month before the event, and even then only a few performers were mentioned as part of the lineup. None of the performers overly excited me; some had performed for this show before, and I had no expectations about the newbies, since I hadn't heard them before.

Still, I felt lucky to get a seat in row B of the front center balcony. The concert's band – the 2016 Rainforest Fund All-Star Players, led as always by musical director/drummer Narada Michael Walden – included 14 musicians and 7 backup vocalists and featured members of the Orchestra of St. Luke's. As usual, a small row of (four) chairs were placed on the left side of the stage so that the performers could watch and enjoy each other's performances.

The main attractions
This year, the show moved from spring to winter, but no snowstorms blocked my way to Carnegie Hall on December 14. Also unlike years past, the concert was shortened by an hour, and some attendees near me felt cheated. While I too longed for a few more show-stopping moments, I was impressed by the show's efficiency this year. Besides, this year's theme was holiday and winter spirit. Did we really want three hours of Christmas music?

Another weird complaint I heard was that the sound wasn't perfect. I thought it was just me, but others agreed that there were moments when we couldn't understand what some performers said while others were loud and clear. As one attendee said about it on her way out, "I mean, this is Carnegie Hall; what's going on?" Nevertheless, I was thrilled to be there, as always. Here's a run down of the tunes.

1. Carol of the Bells – 2016 Rainforest Fund All-Star Players (aka the band). I've never liked the rocky version of this holiday classic, but I liked this evening's arrangement because it showcased the amazing band and muscled into jazz territory. It still had its signature electric guitars chords jamming at the start and finish but became a brand new beast in the middle, full of instrument solos, like saxophone and flute. The whole concoction was led by pounding drums and heavy bass, and the big finish was enhanced by the guitarists jumping dramatically and lighting swapping colors – red, blue, white – at the pace of the beat. This was an exciting start to the show.

2. Winter Wonderland – James Taylor with Chris Botti. I always look forward to seeing James Taylor at this concert, in which he has participated since 1992. He's always funny and his voice sounds amazing in Carnegie Hall. In honor of this year's theme, he and trumpeter Chris Botti wore winter coats, hats, and scarves while they performed "Winter Wonderland." I also liked the lighting in the background during this song, which displayed white tree branches along with dot and geometric patterns that reminded me of a snowy day. I was surprised that this was Chris Botti's only spotlight appearance during the concert, but he performed this song on James Taylor's own 2006 holiday album, James Taylor at Christmas.

3. Soul Cake – Sting. When Sting first appeared, he wore a long overcoat. For this song, he took it off to reveal the best outfit of the night: a black top with a bright yellow swirled design, a black skirt (which he wore to last year's Grammys), and heavy back boots. (He's such a rock star!) "Soul Cake" is one of my favorites from Sting's winter-inspired album If on a Winter's Night.... For it, he played guitar, surrounded in a huddle by backup singers. Their outfits all included some winter wear. The singers included a regular from Sting's own band, Jo Lawry, who wore a winter knit hat and scarf, as well as Lisa Fischer, who I know as a featured backup singer for the Rolling Stones and as part of the Oscar-nominated documentary 20 Feet from Stardom. (They have both attended this benefit before.) The grown-ups were also joined by a small group of singing children, also dressed in winter wear. Together, they created a warm folk sound and feel.

Break for Trudie Styler's Speech. After this song, Sting's wife Trudie Styler appeared to make her speech. Sting introduced her, noting her "very sexy dress." It was a good one: a sleek shiny silver long-sleeved dress that looked like liquid metal and ran just below the knee. She thanked all the performers, noting that this was the first concert they've held in December, a time to reflect on the joy of the holidays but also winter longing for people no longer with us or people in need, like the homeless. The songs chosen tonight represent all of these facets. She said that the Rainforest Foundation has raised $45 million since its inception, and this year was the first year they were called to action in the United States for the conflict about the pipeline development at Standing Rock, North Dakota. Some people from the Lakota Delegation were in the audience, and she blew kisses to them. She acknowledged that we were headed for challenging times. "This evening is not the time to comment on the incoming administration," she said. "Robert De Niro did that for us." (You can see what she's talking about here.) We laughed, despite our worries, and Trudie finished her speech. Then, we got right back to the music....

4. Let It Go – Idina Menzel and the Manhattan Girls Chorus. Trudie introduced "Let It Go," saying that it has become an anthem for young girls everywhere. Before it started, about 45 girls – the Manhattan Girls Chorus – in black dresses came out and sat hero-style across the length of the stage. I liked that one of them had purple hair. Idina Menzel, in a red pantsuit, stood at the center and sang. The girls stood and sang with her when it was time to do so. During this song, the lights were again like snow dots. Having Idina sing her signature song from Frozen to you in person is pretty amazing. She is "Elsa" after all, and she had a fantastic choir backing her up, which made this already inspiring song even more powerful.

5. River – James Taylor. I love Joni Mitchell's song "River." Before I heard her sing it, I knew it as a cover by one of my favorite bands, Travis. For his version, James Taylor played acoustic guitar, sitting on a stool and backed up by the band. Because of James Taylor's warm voice and the faster pace, I felt that this version sounded too upbeat for its sad lyrics, but I did like the three dancers (two guys and one girl) who swirled around the stage during the song, as if they were on the icy river. This song is included on the James Taylor at Christmas album.

After the song, James announced, "And now, back to Sting...."

6.  The Cherry Tree Carol –  Sting. Like James, Sting sat a stool playing guitar for this song, accompanied by the band and backup singers. I didn't recognize this song at first, but once I listened to it again, I realized I knew it. Sting said that "The Cherry Tree Carol" is his favorite Christmas carol. This song is available on Sting's album, If on a Winter's Night....

After the song, he began to introduce the next performer, saying how happy they were to have him and how amazing it was that he found the time to attend during this busy time of year. Audience members began calling for "Bruuuuuce [Springsteen]" who was on the list of performers, but it wasn't him; instead, Santa came on stage. Someone near me in the audience said to her friend, "But who is it? It's got to be someone."

7.  Vesti la Guibba from Il Pagliacci – Vittorio Grigolo. When opera singer Vittorio Grigolo took off his Santa hat and beard, he smiled at us, shrugging off the disappointed expectations for Bruce Springsteen. I don't know much opera, but I recognized "Vesti la Guibba" immediately from when Luciano Pavarotti sang it. Vittorio was so dramatic, singing tragic lyrics I couldn't understand. As he sang, he dropped the Santa hat and took off his jolly red coat, tossing both on the floor. By the end of the song, he staggered off stage in full misery. This guy's voice is amazing, and he was so fully invested. Though the fluffy red pants and suspenders over his white t-shirt conflicted with this emotional drama, we could all feel it – even in the top rows.

8. The Empty Chair – Sting. "The Empty Chair," written by Sting and J. Ralph, is on Sting's latest album, 57th and 9th, but it was written for a documentary, Jim: The James Foley Story. James Foley was a journalist who was kidnapped and killed in Syria in 2014. When Sting was asked to write this song for the film, he initially refused, unsure he was up to the task. He came up with a metaphor for the tragic story at Thanksgiving dinner, while surrounded by family. He imagined what it would be like if one of his own children was missing from the table – if there was an empty chair. He sang this song sitting on a stool, playing guitar with the band backing him up. "The Empty Chair" earned Sting his fourth Oscar nomination.

9. Nessun Dorma from Turandot – Vittorio Grigolo. "Nessun Dorma" is another song that I remembered from Luciano Pavarotti's version. Vittorio sang his version with the Manhattan Girls Chorus. Everyone erupted at the end, including Sting and others who watched from stage right. This guy is going places.

10. Frosty the Snowman – Ronnie Spector. For a complete change of pace, Sting introduced Ronnie Spector, the Rose of Spanish Harlem, who sang "Frosty the Snowman." This song was a hit for her all-girl band The Ronnettes. Tonight, she wore a fitted Santa jacket over black leggings, and her backup singers wore red dresses to match. They all had bouffant hairdos. It was during this song that I noticed members in the band wearing Santa hats.

11. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus – Ronnie Spector. Ronnie Spector started singing this song but then stopped it because she forgot to tell us the story first. She said that, as a kid, she worried about Santa not visiting her house because her family home didn't have a chimney. Her dad told her that, in New York, Santa uses the fire escapes. The next day, the milk and cookies she left for Santa were gone, so she knew he was real! She sang "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," which was another Ronnettes hit. Afterward, as she left the stage, she gave us a flirty flip of her coat.

12. Last Christmas – Sting. Sting changed his outfit to white shirt under a silky, shiny black suit. "Where are my girls," he asked, and five backup singers, including Jo Lawry and Lisa Fischer, came running out, some in winter coats, saying, "Here we are!" They huddled on either side of him as he said "There you are." As the music for "Last Christmas" started I, and the girls behind me, gasped with excitement and instantly began swaying and singing along. George Michael's music has this affect on us. Sting and the girls did a great job on this '80s favorite, though I later wrote in my journal, "Why didn't they get George Michael to sing it?" Now that surprise appearance would have been exciting! I miss you, George Michael!

13. Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home) – Darlene Love. Making the next introduction, Sting told us to welcome "the beautiful wall of sound that is Darlene Love." He was right; she was thrilling to hear. Maybe it helped that I love this song and forgot she made it famous. She looked beautiful too, in a white wide-leg pantsuit over a red sparkly bustier with red high heels. Her warm energy was contagious, and when the song ended and we quietly waited for the next performer, a lone voice yelled out what we all wanted, "Darlene, come back!"    

14. Baby, It's Cold Outside – Idina Menzel and James Taylor. Oh well, I love "Baby, It's Cold Outside" too. For this song, James played his guitar, and the band backed him and Idina up. James Taylor included this song, a duet with Natalie Cole, on his James Taylor at Christmas album, but I like the classic Ella Fitzgerald version with Louis Jordan best.

After it was over, James exclaimed, "I Darlene Love it! Bring her back out!"

15. Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree – Darlene Love. We all cheered because Darlene Love was again awesome, singing "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." She (and Vittorio Grigolo with his amazing voice) was the highlight of the concert for me.

16.  I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day – Sting. To preface his performance, Sting said, "I promise you, this is the stupidest song you'll hear all night. It was a huge hit in Britain in the '70s, and it's called 'I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day.' That sounds like a form of torture to me, but..." (I think I know the source of Sting's distaste. Watch this video for the song if you want some nightmare material.) For someone who doesn't like this song, Sting did some great dance moves while he sang it. I was unfamiliar with this song (and didn't care for it either), but I heard it in a mall a few weeks later, so I guess Sting is right: it's popular.

After the song was over, it got quiet. Sting said, "Uh, I have no idea what's going to happen next..." Then, a voice came from the orchestra-level audience: "Ho Ho Ho! This is your Jersey Santa Claus!" Bruce Springsteen came down the aisle to the stage while Sting looked out, asking, "Santa?" Bruce had everyone at "Jersey."

17. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town – Bruce Springsteen. I'd only seen Bruce Springsteen in person once before when he performed at this benefit a few years ago. I was indifferent to his music – some of it I like, some of it I don't, and probably most of it I don't know. For a while, I got sick of hearing his version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" on the radio when it was released as a single, but I know how popular he is. His live performances have a joyous energy; he has that effect on the audience, and having experienced it, I understand why he has such an avid following. He becomes one with the crowd when he performs.

18. Merry Christmas Baby – Bruce Springsteen. Case in point, during "Merry Christmas Baby," which Bruce also released years ago as a single, he sat on the edge of the stage and eventually jumped down to sing from the aisles. He was swarmed by women in the audience, and he jokingly called out, "Security?" He was participating in a bunch of fan selfies while he sang, which impressed me. The crowd followed him wherever he wandered until he made it back on stage.

19. Tenth Avenue Freeze Out  – Bruce Springsteen and Lisa Fischer. "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" brought out the crowd's love for Bruce even more than his Christmas songs. Everyone was jumping, swaying, and singing along. This great rendition showcased Lisa Fischer's powerful voice; she and Bruce made a great match. This classic Springsteen song, while not originally a duet with the wonderful Lisa Fischer, is available on Bruce's Born to Run album.

20. Do You Hear What I Hear? – Jennifer Nettles and company. Sting introduced Jennifer Nettles as a special surprise guest that they were lucky to have. I didn't know who she was, but I liked her sparkly silver pants. She acknowledged her dread about following Bruce but said, "Here goes..." Available on her own To Celebrate Christmas album, she started singing "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and was eventually joined by the other performers. Idina Menzel, Darlene Love, and others trickled on stage until they were all there in a row spanning the entire space; the women were on her right side while the men were on her left.  

21. Joy to the World – Jennifer Nettles and everyone. For "Joy to the World," the dancers and backup singers joined the lineup. I could tell that interesting harmonies were happening but the sound, which had been spotty at times throughout the concert, was most noticeably insufficient during this song, which would have most benefited from it. (It's a bummer to miss those harmonies in Carnegie Hall!) Sting rattled off all the performers' and band members' names, but he was also hard to understand beyond the music. I did hear him call for Trudie Styler, and when she joins in, you know it's the finale.

After being treated to 3-hour concerts, including an intermission, all these years, when the lights turned on, many of us were left with a feeling of "That's it?" Still, as I mentioned, I appreciated this year's polished efficiency. Other years, I've heard people complain about the drawn-out length with too many speeches and other business.

People are never fully satisfied, but I've always loved these concerts. They're always special one-of-a-kind experiences that I'm lucky to have. I look forward to returning here for another one in 2018!


Image credits: Aside from the Bruce Springsteen fan shot (© Showbiz411), all professional concert images are © Kevin Kane and Kevin Mazar at Getty Images.

Friday, February 24, 2017

2016 in Review: Turn it up!

Hi everyone,

Continuing my look back at 2016, here's a music roundup. I went to so many concerts last year that I broke this into section. Catching Up With Old Friends offers '80s and '90s favorites, including Belly, a David Bowie tribute, Duran Duran with Nile Rodgers and Chic, Go-Go's, and Sting and Peter Gabriel. Hanging with the Cool Kids includes jazz and hip-hop greats, such as Esperanza Spalding, Jason Moran and Charles Lloyd, Buster Williams, and Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def). Remembering the Classics reviews two concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra at The Kennedy Center, Forever Gershwin and House of Cards in Concert. Browse the list below and read up on whichever peaks your interest. Enjoy!

Catching Up with Old Friends...

Belly (930 Club)
Belly is a '90s guitar-heavy band, whose most famous song might be "Feed the Tree" from their album Star. That album is still one of my favorites, which is why I was excited to see them at 930 club so many years later. This show had a fun, party-like atmosphere. We were all there for the same reason; we remembered how great this band was, and we were ready to hear them. Belly seemed genuinely happy to see us too. After a long day stuck in traffic, the relieved band appreciated our contagious enthusiasm, and we all sang the songs together. Aside from "Feed the Tree," they plays so many other great tunes, including "Dusted," "Slow Dog," "Low Red Moon," "Gepetto," "Full Moon, Empty Heart," "Angel," and "Stay." Thanks for visiting, Belly. Come back soon!

David Bowie Tribute (Wolf Trap)
When I mentioned David Bowie during dinner with a friend, I got invited to tag along with her and her fiance to a tribute concert at Wolf Trap. I'd never been to Wolf Trap, mainly because it's not easily accessible without a car. It's a great outdoor venue, suitable for picnics. In fact, my friends weren't so familiar with David Bowie and just picked this show randomly to have something to listen to while enjoying a summer evening. They made a great choice! This concert played one of David Bowie's best albums, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, in its entirety, followed by a selection of greatest hits. The album includes classics, like "Starman" and "Suffragette City" and the greatest hits spanned from "Changes" to "Modern Love." The professional cover band was good, and some mourning fans in the crowd were dressed like Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane. At one point, it began thundering and a few sporadic drops of rain threatened to dampen our good time. I'm convinced this was just Bowie directing the show and voicing his approval.

Duran Duran with Special Guest Nile Rodgers with Chic (Verizon Center)
On the day of this show, I decided I couldn't pass up seeing Duran Duran at Verizon Center, which is walking distance from my apartment. I bought my ticket an hour before showtime and got an great seat next to a group of millennials who had VIP passes. While they were busy taking selfies, I really enjoyed this show, which opened with two special guests. Newcomer Shamir, whose song "On the Regular" I somehow recognized, was odd yet interesting, but I was most excited to see the guest to follow – Nile Rodgers with Chic. (The video bio on the homepage is fantastic!) I've known Nile Rogers from his work with David Bowie and Duran Duran in the '80s. He's also participated in Sting's rainforest benefit concerts before. Coincidentally, I had just seen an old recording of him performing with Chic and thought they'd be really fun to see live because of the dance-party atmosphere they create. And that's what happened: we were all on our feet dancing from the start, when they played a few of their own disco hits, like "Le Freak" and "Good Times." They finished off the set with a slew of impressive chart-toppers that Nile Rodgers cowrote with other people, including Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" and David Bowie's "Let's Dance." Paying tribute to Bowie, he said, "This man changed the whole course of my life. If it wasn’t for David, I don’t know where my life would be right now. So we dedicate this to him.” Duran Duran also saluted Bowie, injecting a bit of "Space Oddity" into "Planet Earth," while displaying a young photo of him that I'd never seen before on the Jumbotron. These things made me happy.

In fact, everything about this show made me happy. Duran Duran kept Chic's dance party going. When they appeared on stage, the level of screaming in the sports arena noticeably increased. While highlighting its latest great effort, Paper Gods, the band revisited signature songs that span Duran Duran's entire catalog of awesomeness, including "Hungry Like the Wolf," "A View to a Kill," "Ordinary World," "Come Undone," "Girls on Film," and "Rio." Nile Rodgers joined Duran Duran on stage for two songs he helped produce, "Notorious" and the new "Pressure Off."  Some surprises, like the band's cover of Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel's "White Lines (Don't Do It)," had everyone jumping in the aisles in unison. During the encore, lead singer Simon Le Bon dedicated "Save a Prayer" to the victims of the Bataclan nightclub massacre in Paris. "Music should bring people together," he said. "We feel people are good, and music brings people together, so we play this as a protest against those people who want to dim the light." In solidarity, a sea of cellphone flashlights swayed along to that song. By the end of the show, my voice was hoarse from singing, my throat was scratchy from cheering, my feet were sore from dancing, and my face hurt from smiling. Duran Duran still got it.

Go-Go's (Warner Theatre)
After learning about their farewell tour, I made another last-minute decision to see the Go-Go's at Warner Theatre, another venue near my apartment. I snatched a great fourth-row seat, as the show began with two opening acts. Kaya Stewart reminded me of Gwen Stefani and Madonna while Best Coast felt more like a Liz Phair type band. I liked them both, especially Best Coast, who had an super-fan in my row, snapping photos and gazing longingly at the lead singer. I appreciated these performers' girl-power energy and planned to look into their music when I got home, but I was also annoyed that the main attraction didn't come on stage until around 10 p.m. While I waited, I continued to survey the crowd. Like seeing millennials at Duran Duran's show, the audience members attracted to this concert was baffling, as I noticed people of all ages, shapes, and sizes. I guess I assumed everyone would be from my generation and look like my sister and me, but the Go-Gos did play older songs I didn't recognize and newer songs I never bothered to learn. Hearing those that I know by heart, however, was exhilarating: "Tonight," "This Town," "Skidmarks on my Heart," "Vacation," "Our Lips Are Sealed,"  and "Head Over Heals." By the time they ended their set with "We Got the Beat," a song I've loved since grade school, I was delirious.

Sting and Peter Gabriel (Nationwide Arena, Columbus, Ohio)
After sharing the stage with Paul Simon during his last tour, Sting invited his old friend Peter Gabriel to tour with him this year. Like the concerts with Paul Simon, these shows included their individual bands playing on stage together, creating all-encompassing sound. My sister and I attended the Rock Paper Scissors tour's opening show at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, which had a Japanese-themed d├ęcor with large video screens that looked like handmade paper and even a back-up singers dressed in a kimono-inspired outfit. I've lost count how many times I've seen Sting, but I've never seen Peter Gabriel before; my sister and I were excited!

Described as a Battle of the Bands, this 3-hour concert included nearly 30 songs by both artists. They took turns singing their own songs, sometimes sang together, and even sang a few of each other's songs on their own. (At times, one would sit in a comfy chair on the side of the stage to watch the other perform.) While Sting stayed in one central spot throughout the show, singing and playing bass, Peter Gabriel sometimes played keyboards among the band members and spent the rest of the time roaming the stage, singing and making exercise-like moves. I didn't recognize all of Peter Gabriel's songs, but this concert reminded me to add more to my collection. I loved his slow, jazzy version of Sting's "If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free" – he turned it into a new song. He also sang all the classics from his popular solo effort, So, including "Red Rain," "Don't Give Up," "In Your Eyes," and "Big Time." During "Sledgehammer," everyone on stage did the dance from the famous video. Peter Gabriel dedicated his own "Love Can Heal" to Jo Cox, the recently assassinated Parliament member, whom he'd met years before as a young activist. Sting dedicated his song "Fragile" to the victims of the recent night-club shooting in Orlando. His selected songs spanned his Police and solo years. I was excited to hear the Police songs "Invisible Sun" "Driven to Tears," and "Walking in Your Footsteps" and solo tunes, like "If I Ever Lose my Faith in You," and "Hounds of Winter." Granted, I've loved both of these headliners since the '80s, but the collective musicianship and showmanship brought together for this concert was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Hanging Out with the Cool Kids...

Esperanza Spaulding (930 Club)
I first saw Esperanza Spalding on The Late Show with David Letterman. I was impressed with her voice, her bass-playing, and her wild hair. Since then, she's shown up in all sorts of places, including Sting's rainforest benefit concert at Carnegie Hall, World Jazz Day at the White House, and Smokey Robinson's Library of Congress Gershwin Prize concert, playing and singing all sorts of music. Although her usual genre is jazz, she showed up at 930 club in support of her latest rock-laden concept album Emily's D+Evolution. I didn't listen to this fantastic album enough before the show to fully understand what was happening on stage. Not only did Esperanza sport a new look of long braids, big glasses, a crown, and a colorful jumpsuit that reminded me of Steven Tyler, but the performance included storytelling with three other singers in specific roles, puppetry, and choreography. Some people who were there because of Esperanza's jazz background were disappointed and confused by this new incarnation, but I knew there had to be a reason behind booking 930 club instead of Blues Alley. Even if we didn't fully grasp the story, the music – which showcased her voice and musicality – made it worth it. Esperanza is ahead of her time and always trying new things that will take her further. We're lucky to be along for the ride.

Jason Moran and Charles Lloyd (Kennedy Center) and Buster Williams (Blues Alley)
I'm lumping these two jazz shows together because I saw them during a jazzy weekend with my dad. Jason Moran, who took over as Artistic Director for Jazz at The Kennedy Center in 2011, has brought so many great shows at different price levels to the Kennedy Center, introducing audiences of all ages to the jazz. We had seen Jason Moran doing amazing things at the piano before, but we only knew saxophonist Charles Lloyd by name. When the 78-year-old shuffled on stage, we knew we were in for something great. While we didn't recognize the music, which we later learned was from their 2013 album Hagar's Song, we loved it. Charles Lloyd has a just-rolled-out-of-bed-and-started-playing coolness and years of hard work and talent to back up that reputation.

Seeing Buster Williams at Blues Alley gave me a similar feeling. You could tell this old bassist was enjoying himself and his happy spirit was infectious. But the reason we bought our tickets for this show was not Buster Williams; it was his quartet's drummer, Jeff "Tain" Watts. We'd seen Jeff Watts before, and like Buster Williams, he loves playing his instrument. Jeff Watts goes into a blissful zone, drumming along with a serene smile and blank gaze. He transports to a different world through his instrument, a world you can only imagine is the best place to visit.

Patty Larkin and Suzzy Roche & Lucy Wainwright Roche 
(The Hamilton)
Once you see Lucy Wainwright Roche, you might be hooked for life. She tells great, funny stories, like the time she and her mom, Suzzy Roche, performed a cover of the Eagles classic "Desperado" at "one of my dad's weddings" without realizing (until they started singing) that its lyrics were inappropriate for the event. She has a disarming demeanor on stage that feels like that of an old friend. Touring with her mom in support of their 2013 album Fairytale and Myrth, everyone at this stop at the Hamilton could see where she gets these endearing traits. (When Lucy announced she was going to sing some songs on her own, her mom decided to take a nap at her feet while she sang.) Between our bouts of laughter were wonderful songs. I've figured out that I love the Wainwrights not only because of their great voices and musicality but because of their ability to write sad songs to happy melodies. That's my kind of music.

Joining them on this tour was Patty Larkin, who I hadn't heard of before but has a well-earned 30-year career behind her and a loyal following in attendance. I liked many of her songs, but I was most impressed by her guitar playing. She played both acoustic and electric guitar with blurry speed and precision. She even used a violin bow on her electric guitar, creating sounds (and sights) I hadn't experienced before. This evening, led by these three powerful ladies, ended up being one of my favorites of the year.

Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def (Kennedy Center)
I don't like going out on New Year's Eve, especially when I have a cold. When Mos Def announced he'd be performing farewell concerts at The Kennedy Center, though, I couldn't miss it. I've always found Mos Def interesting and liked him as an actor. I also have a few of his songs from the great Lackawanna Blues soundtrack on my iPod. Luckily, I attended the concert with a friend who knew more about his music and could ask her questions. This show was improvisational and so laid back that, at times, it felt like a rehearsal to me. Also, throughout the concert, a French film from the '60s, featuring (I assume) African tribal characters, played silently in the background and was never explained. Still, we were all excited to catch Mos Def while we could before he heads off to Africa himself for a new chapter in his life, pursuing painting and focusing on his arts, culture and lifestyle collective, A Country Called Earth. I told you he was interesting.

Remembering the Classics...

Forever Gershwin (Kennedy Center)
You can't go wrong with a concert of George Gershwin music. Forever Gershwin, performed with the National Symphony Orchestra, caught my eye because of Jason Moran's involvement. Everything I've seen Jason Moran work on for The Kennedy Center has been special. Here, he premiered jazz-heavy variations of Gershwin classics, including three preludes, "Embraceable You" and "Fascinating Rhythm." I also really liked the show's introductory piece, "Cuban Overture," which I'd never heard before. You could feel Cuba's energy in it. The second half of the show was a selection of songs from Porgy and Bess, Gershwin's classic opera. I love some of these songs, like "Summertime," "My Man's Gone Now," and "It Ain't Necessarily So." Norm Lewis as "Porgy" had a wonderful deep voice and lots of personality, and Alicia Hall Moran (Jason Moran's wife) as "Bess" was fantastic too. To top things off, they were accompanied at times by the Heritage Signature Chorale, a massive group of voices that shook our seats. This was a night of great music, unaffected by my disappointing, expensive front-row seat that offered very little to see.

House of Cards in Concert (Kennedy Center)
I decided to go to this world-premiere National Symphony Orchestra concert at The Kennedy Center on the day of the show. I kept seeing ads for it, and I also got Season 4, Disc 1 of House of Cards from Netflix that day. I didn't need any more hints and braved a July heat advisory to get there. I'm so glad I did. House of Cards is one of my favorite shows, even if it makes me feel slimy after every episode. Everyone knows I love Robin Wright, and her star turn opposite the equally amazing Kevin Spacey makes it all worth it! But I really went to this concert for the music. I love this show's theme song, and when they played it at the concert, I realized I wasn't alone. Everyone cheered when the signature trumpet notes played; our excitement was similar to hearing the Star Wars theme at the movies. For this performance, composer Jeff Beal created suites that capture the show's themes and characters. He served as conductor and played the trumpet every once in a while. His wife appeared during certain suites to add an operatic voice to it that I had always assumed was some sort of physical musical instrument. His son was in the orchestra playing bass (as he does for the show). The music was paired with snippets of scenes from the series, sometimes with bits of dialogue. I couldn't tell what was happening during the scenes from Season 4, but Jeff Beal was thoughtful about that, ensuring that nothing made too much sense for those of us who hadn't caught up on that season yet. (Thank you, but I also wanted to run home to find out what was happening!) Here's a trailer about the concert to help you see what it was like.

For an extra treat, some cast members (who were sitting in my row) joined Politico's Joe Schatz on stage for a panel discussion about working on the show. No, Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey were not there, but I was excited to see Michael Kelly (who plays Doug Stamper so creepily on the show and is so funny in real life), Michel Gill (President Garrett), Jayne Atkinson (who plays Secretary of State Catherine Durant and seems so nice and down to earth), Rachel Brosnahan (Rachel Posner, even though she didn't say anything),  and Boris McGiver (Tom Hammerschmidt). Executive Producer Beau Willimon and Executive Producer, Author, and Original Book and U.K. Series Creator Lord Michael Dobbs were also there to offer their insights. I loved this immersive House of Cards experience! Bring on Season 5, please!

Wow, 2016 was really filled with music for me, and I'm not quite done! I'll wrap up my look back at 2016 with my next post, revisiting the latest Rainforest Fund Benefit Concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. For Sting, I travel.


Image credits: Belly: B.C. Kagan; David Bowie album cover: RCA Victor; Nile Rodgers and Chic and Duran Duran: Matt Condon; Go-Gos: Matt Condon; Sting and Peter Gabriel: Shawn Farrell;  Esperanza Spalding: Josh Sisk; Jason Moran and Charles Lloyd: TVJazz.tv; Buster Williams: Paola Visone; Lucy Wainwright Roche & Suzzy Roche: unknown (courtesy of Eventsi); Patty Larkin: unknown (courtesy of The Hamilton DC); Yasiin Bey: Jati Lindsay/courtesy of The Kennedy Center); Forever Gershwin: unknown (courtesy of Access Granted Journal); House of Cards panel: unknown (Courtesy of cdninstrgram.com).

Saturday, February 18, 2017

2016 in Review: Dance, Dance, Dance!

Hi everyone,

It's hard to convince people to join me for dance performances, but they are well worth the price of admission. Continuing my look back at 2016, here's an review of the shows I saw last year.

Bowie & Queen (The Washington Ballet) 
Wandering around the Kennedy Center before seeing a show there, I saw the Washington Ballet's poster for its Bowie & Queen show. The image was of two glammed out ballet dancers striking poses – one was clearly meant to represent David Bowie during his Aladdin Sane days, while the other was obviously meant to be Freddie Mercury. I gasped, took a photo of it, and posted it on Facebook, noting that I was getting a ticket for whatever this was. My sister responded, saying she wanted to go too!

By the time the show came around, David Bowie had died. I'd never been so upset about a famous person dying as I was when he did. I attended a few local tribute concerts before realizing I wasn't enjoying the songs as much as hearing Bowie's own voice sing them. And, it was five months before I was ready to switch my iPod from my Bowie playlist back to shuffle mode. So although this concert was planned well in advance of Bowie's death, I set the bar unfairly and unreasonably high for how good it had to be.

I had some disappointments: First, no ballet dancers were dressed up as David Bowie or Freddie Mercury, as the poster had implied. That's false advertising. Also, the show was not a mix of David Bowie and Queen music, as I had assumed it would be. The first half was a world premiere dance, titled "Dancing in the Street," choreographed by Edward Liang. It focused on Bowie's introspective side and included two obscure 1966 tunes ("Good Morning Girl" and "I'm Not Losing Sleep") along with his 1985 cover with Mick Jagger of "Dancing in the Street."  From David Bowie's vast library of amazing songs, these are the only ones the choreographer chose to use! They were intertwined with live instrumental music by Gabriel Gaffney Smith, which my sister and I enjoyed more than the unfamiliar Bowie songs. My sister even commented that some of the dancers were, at times, a beat behind in their steps.

Now that I have a handle on my grief, I appreciate the Bowie-inspired dance much more and wish I could give it another look. It attempted to tell a story, revealing the thoughtful and deliberate relationship he had with his fans, behind his personas. It was intellectual, concise, and quiet, like the man himself. I think that Bowie would have loved it because his music was used to inspire new art from a completely unexpected perspective. You can't get much better than that.

Here are some highlights from the Bowie side.

Bowie dance highlights courtesy of The Washington Ballet, 2016 

The Queen side of the show – titled "Mercury Half-Life" – was exhilarating and everything I expected the Bowie side to be. It was Queen hit after Queen hit – "Bohemian Rhapsody," "We Are the Champions," "We Will Rock You," "Under Pressure" (Freddie Mercury's duet with David Bowie) and many more. Choreographed by Trey McIntyre, the dances were exciting, the lights were bright, and the music was loud. That's all I wanted. Trey McIntyre, please create a David Bowie show next!

Here's some solo work from Mercury Half-Life.

Selection of Mercury Half-Life Solos
(Benjamin Everett Behrends, courtesy of NetworkDance, 2013)

DEMO Series (Damien Woetzel)
I went to two shows that were part of the Kennedy Center's DEMO series because of Lil Buck's involvement. I know Lil Buck, a hip-hop "jookin" dancer, from his involvement with the TV show "So You Think You can Dance." He's amazing and can be seen on TV these days in variations of this Apple commercial. Conceived by Damian Woetzel, the DEMO series explores different themes through a variety of art forms.

In April, DEMO: Places offered varied entertaining performances representing arts from around the world, including hip-hop dancing and authentic music from India, Ireland, and China. It also included some original American songs (sung by Kate Davis, who is new to me but I liked her voice and songs) and familiar classical music, like Stravinsky and Bach.

The next day at noon, I attended a Citizen Artist Event that was advertised in the playbill. It was presented by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in collaboration with the Kennedy Center.  The same performers presented a similar free performance outside the museum's front doors, where we sat on the ground in a wide circle to watch them. These are the types of things that make D.C. awesome.

Six months later, DEMO: Heroes focused on performers and mentors who have inspired future generations. I was excited that the first dance noted in the playbill was a tribute to Gene Kelly and other dancers, but my first thought was that the list missed the opportunity to acknowledge the title of the show with a performance of one of David Bowie's signature song, "Heroes." (Yes, I am still sad.) But great minds think alike because Kate Davis kicked off the show performing this song with her acoustic guitar while Lil Buck glided around her. (In fact, this show was named after this song, inspired by the outpouring of tributes paid to artists in 2016, including David Bowie.)

I knew most of the mentors they chose to highlight in this show. Aside from Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, they also paid tribute to dancers Martha Graham, Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis, Jr., and George Balanchine, among others. For music, they honored opera singer Renee Fleming, Stevie Wonder and Oscar Peterson (with a piano performance by 12-year-old blind prodigy Matthew Whitaker), and Leonard Cohen (with a performance by the Musicorps Wounded Warrior Band). One of the most poignant pieces was "Vision and Justice," a video collage of photographs set to segments of speeches by John F. Kennedy.

These DEMO series concerts are not only educational but entertaining, offering unexpected combinations of art forms. Prepare to be surprised and inspired! While not the same show I saw, this video is a sampling of what to expect from a DEMO show.

Works in Progress at the Guggenheim: DEMO with Damian Woetzel, 2014

The Blues Project (Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGlovely)
I came back to the Kennedy Center to see The Blues Project by Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGlovely. I was impressed by Michelle Dorrance when I saw her on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert earlier in the year.

This tap-happy show was accompanied by live blues music by Toshi Reagon and BIGlovely, who played behind the dancers. Although I hadn't heard of Toshi Reagon and BIGlovely before, some people in the audience were longtime fans. Now I'm a fan too – I liked their songs and style. This performance introduced some inventive tap moves. I liked the colorful costumes and appreciated that the dancers comprised a diverse group.

Check out this preview to get a taste of the exciting performances in The Blues Project.

The Blues Project: Dorrance Dance and Toshi Reagon and BIGlovely, 2016

Dancers are amazing athletes, and they're energy is contagious. Treat yourself to a show. It's good for your health, and you just might come away from it floating on air, just like them.


Image credits: Bowie & Queen: Jennifer Zmuda, Demo Series: Teresa Wood, and The Blues Project: Christopher Duggan

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

2016 in Review: The Shows Must Go On

Hi everyone,

I'm down and out with another cold, but I thought I better muster some energy to get out my 2016 reviews before springtime. In my next few posts, I'll share my memories about some of the best of last year's live entertainment.

Let's start at the theatre! I tend to forget how much I love going to the theatre until I'm there, and then I'm addicted, as you can tell by the length of this post.

I started off the year at the Kennedy Center, seeing Matilda The Musical, based on Roald Dahl's classic children's book about a girl living with horrible self-involved parents. She spends her time lost in books, feeding her imagination. I loved seeing this story through a child's eyes and how the production reflected that with cartoonish characters and colorful sets. I haven't read this book and didn't know what to expect. This show is a fun, heart-warming surprise.

I saw Kinky Boots, also at the Kennedy Center, mainly to hear Cyndi Lauper's musical score. Based on the 2005 British film about a shoe factory owner's switch from making classic men's shoes to footwear for drag queens in order to save the family business, Kinky Boots gives me the same heart-warming feeling as Matilda. Cyndi's great music aside, I love this show's message of resilience and acceptance of all people. By the last show-stopping number, performed by the great J. Harrison Ghee in the lead role of Lola, we were all cheering, ready to try on our own pair of kinky boots.

The title, Urinetown, The Musical, does not appeal to me. After reading the synopsis and learning that it won Tonys for best musical, book, and score, however, I gave it a chance. Suffering from a severe water shortage, city officials ban the use of private toilets, forcing unlikely citizens to take a stand and start a revolution. This hilarious satire, which pokes fun at everything from politics and capitalism to musical comedies themselves, has surprising twists and turns that keep the laughter going.

New to me, the 10-year-old Constellation Theatre Company put on this great show with imaginative direction, sets, choreography, and musical arrangements. Like Matilda and Kinky Boots, this cast offered some exaggerated and memorable performances. Voted Best Theatre Company in 2016 by City Paper and The Washington Post, I look forward to seeing more shows here.

When it was announced that Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed, was closing by the end of July after its short run on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre, my friend and I made an emergency trip to New York to see it. It was worth it! This adaptation tells the true story of the making of the popular 1921 black musical that launched the careers of Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, and others. It delves into the interesting lives of its creators and the challenges that ended their successful partnership. Shuffle Along is also a jubilant celebration of tap dancing, with massive musical numbers and inventive choreography by the always-amazing Savion Glover that shook the building with its beats. I wish this show had lasted longer so that more people could learn the fascinating history of this show and revel in this exciting production.

I made another trek to see Jelly's Last Jam, all the way to Virginia's Signature Theatre. My dad bought these tickets but then couldn't attend, so my friend and I were stuck with perfect seats for this musical biography of 1920s jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton. A pioneer of Ragtime music and the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton had a healthy ego, but his fantastic music made up for his exaggerated claims. With a wonderful cast, Signature Theatre's revival of this Tony-winning musical is an immersive experience with seating arranged with tables for a night club setting and some performers, at times, dancing right next to us. As with Shuffle Along, we left the theatre wanting to hear more music and learn more about the fascinating historical figures who created it.

2016 wasn't all about musicals for me. I also saw three brilliant plays at Studio Theatre, thanks to their encouraging $20 deals for neighborhood patrons. First, I saw Constellations, which I had heard about when it was on Broadway, starring Rachel Weisz and Jake Gyllenhaal. This intimate performance is set in a circular space with audience members surrounding it, only a few steps away from the two performers. Marianne and Roland offer glimpses into their relationship through a series of scenes that are sometimes repeated from different perspectives and usually presented out of chronological order. From these vignettes, we learn how they fell in and out of love, the joys and challenges of their relationship, and their present-day circumstances. Somehow it all works with keen direction and impressive performances by Lily Balatincz and Tom Patterson, who – without the help of props – convincingly transitioned from moment to moment, sharing a range of emotions that we all felt.

Next, I saw Moment. This riveting family drama set in Dublin unravels when the reappearance of a long-absent son visiting his mother and sister sparks tragic memories, repressed emotions, and shocking revelations about the cause of the rift. Moment, wonderfully written by Deirdre Kinahan and directed by Ethan McSweeny, leaves an impression on everyone who sees it. Despite its surprising plot twists, the story is universally relatable, exploring the complicated consequences of past mistakes and murky layers to earning forgiveness.

The Object Lesson, created and performed by Geoff Sobelle, offered some much-needed comic relief. Set in a warehouse full of boxes and furniture, audience members were invited to sit on any available couch, chair, or box that allowed for it. This one-man show is a combination of storytelling and stand-up, as Geoff Sobelle discusses his relationship with things and how they affect his relationships with people. Reenacting scenes from life or speaking directly to the audience, he uses inventive techniques to revisit some of life's key moments, including starting out in college, beginning and ending personal relationships, building a career and family, and dealing with old age.

Both funny and poignant, each experience involves various objects that people tend to collect through life, and Geoff Sobelle contemplates the memories attached to them. Sometimes, finding these objects involves climbing up and over boxes (some of which were stacked to the ceiling) or audience members, who were pushed into scenes for some improvisational fun. (We were even offered snacks – French bread and goat cheese – when he mentioned and found them during one of his stories.) This immersive performance was unlike any I'd experienced before. Studio Theatre never lets me down.

All of these performances provided unique experiences, one of the hallmarks of live theatre. You never know what you're going to get, but it can be exhilarating and unforgettable.

Treat yourself to some tickets and see for yourself. I'll probably see you there!


Image copyright credits: Matilda the Musical: Joan Marcus; Kinky Boots: Matthew Murphy; Urinetown: Daniel Schwartz; Shuffle Along: Julieta Cervantes; Jelly's Last Jam: Margot Schulman; Constellations: Igor Dmitry; Moment and The Object Lesson: Allie Dearie

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

George Michael

Hi everyone,

I'm slow in tackling Illustration Friday's drawing topics this year because I've been pondering my tribute to George Michael, who died on Christmas Day. (Thanks again, 2016.) Technically, my tribute could relate to two recent topics, Tape and Sound, because most of my memories of George Michael involve dancing around my room to my Wham! (Fantastic and Make It Big) and Faith cassette tapes. I danced beyond my room when I upgraded to a Discman, which allowed me to tune into Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, wherever I wanted.

MTV introduced me to George Michael. He was pretty and had style. He made great videos, had a fantastic voice, and wrote amazing songs – a vast catalogue of pop perfection with thoughtful messages. While I haven't heard all of his latest work, I grew up listening to Wham! and George Michael's first two solo albums; all those songs are still among my favorites. George Michael was always there for me, offering through his music whatever my mood needed.

In mid-December, I attended the biennial Rainforest Fund charity concert in New York, which had a seasonal/holiday theme. When Sting broke into a cover of Wham!'s "Last Christmas," I – and all the girls around me – gasped and started joyfully dancing and singing along in our seats. (George Michael has that effect on all of us!) I secretly hoped that George Michael would make a surprise appearance to finish the song himself. I wondered what he was doing now.  

After I heard the news, I spent the rest of my Christmas vacation reading more about his life. I was reminded of his bravery and humor in the face of life's challenges and whatever unnecessary details the tabloids published about them. I learned about his big-hearted generosity among friends, fans, and strangers alike. And, suddenly, I longed for that ever-present honesty in everything he did. What song should I listen to now, George Michael?

This drawing is a true story. (I've upgraded my Discman to an iPod so don't worry, George Michael, The Kitties and I are still dancing and singing along.) Here, we're listening to "Freedom '90", one of many songs that perfectly captures a moment of honesty and growth in George Michael's life, as he sheds his early pop star image and asks to be accepted for who he really is. We could all use some more of that.

Freedom '17
Freedom '17 (See and hear "Freedom '90" herehttps://youtu.be/diYAc7gB-0A.) 

I'll miss this guy – his thoughtfulness, talent, grace, and style. I'll miss him being unapologetically George Michael.