Jottings from a pop culture junkie

BROOKLYN, NY; FEBRUARY 14, 2020—Will you experience magic too if you attend one of the two remaining performances of the Brahams Violin Concerto in D Major by violinist Janine Jansen tomorrow (2/15) or Tuesday (2/18) with the NY Philharmonic under conductor Jaap van Zweden? And what is magic? When does it happen?

I’ve been attending live music for close to 60 years, and wrote about it professionally for 25+. I’ve seen thousands of concerts, been moved by many. But last night was rare magic that left me exhilarated and teary. Is it that Jansen was simply so lost in the music that there was nothing else in the world? And that she carried me so completely into her world (and judging by the lengthy ovation she earned, everyone else in David Geffen Hall)? It was certainly that, but that feels inadequate to describe the experience.

I’m not familiar with Jansen. I’m getting so now, listening even as I write to her beautiful recording of Bach violin concertos. She has a solo recital next season at Carnegie Hall. We’re signing up. But in the meantime, you have two opportunities to test out whether this magic is conjured consistently or what.

Bonus: This is part of the NY Phil’s Project 19, marking the centennial of the 19th Amendment for which the orchestra commissioned 19 women composers to create new pieces. There is an interesting Tania Leon commission on the program, and as I write, there are still more than 100 $19 tickets in the orchestra for Tuesday night (just a few for Saturday). Visit here and use promo code PROJECT19.

This brief video from a different concert is energetic and passionate, but doesn’t begin to convey the sensitivity of the overall performance.

Until recently at the Metropolitan Opera, my all-time favorite performance of Porgy and Bess was in 1971 at an outdoor theater on Lake Constance in Bregenz, Austria. No doubt the setting had something to do with it: When the residents of Catfish Row headed by boat to Kittiwah Island, they did in fact get on a boat, which circled out behind the stage before returning for the next act. It didn’t hurt, either, that William Warfield sang Porgy, as he did on a great recording I loved (still do) which featured Leontyne Price as Bess (in Bregenz, Joyce Bryant played Bess).

Until Bregenz, I’d only seen Porgy & Bess on film; today, the new production at the Met is the sixth live version I’ve seen.

I was seven when the film came out in 1959, and credit to my parents on many counts for bringing me to see it. Not many years later, the combination of taking piano lessons, the film, and the soundtrack and Warfield albums inspired me to head to G. Schirmer on W. 49th St. in Manhattan (any excuse to spend a few hours at this rarified sheet music and record emporium; more on that another time) and purchase the only complete vocal score I’ve ever bought. There was nothing I could really do with that score, but the recordings didn’t have enough of the music, and I wanted to have it all. No, I needed it all. [For an excellent article about the troubled history of the Otto Preminger-directed film starring Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, and Sammy Davis, Jr., click here. I’ll just note that Poitier and Dandridge were dubbed by others; but to this day, no matter who plays Sportin’ Life, I see Sammy Davis, Jr.]

At the Met there were “only” eight dancers, but the waves they generated literally and figuratively made it seem as though everyone on stage was moving, gracefully and authentically. The Met has its own tremendously accomplished chorus, but Porgy & Bess calls for an all Black cast, and so fresh voices were recruited — and they delivered enthusiastically. The Met Orchestra played gloriously (as it almost always does). And, yes, the entire large cast, headed by Eric Owens’s Porgy and Angel Blue’s Bess was on the mark for both singing and acting, even if Owens could have used a little more power especially in the duets with Blue. I do believe this James Robinson production, conducted by David Robertson, would do the Gershwins and DuBose Heyward proud.

The other productions I’ve seen:

The Houston Grand Opera, on Broadway, with Clamma Dale as Bess; 1976

A Sherwin M. Goldman touring production based on the Houston Grand Opera version, which stopped at Radio City Music Hall; 1983

The Metropolitan Opera, with Simon Estes as Porgy and Grace Bumbry as Bess; 1985

A musical theater interpretation, with script by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, on Broadway, starring Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald; 2011

Of course, there are dozens of jazz and pop albums interpreting the score, with personal favorites by Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong, and Joe Henderson, among many others. As the Met production, and many of the recordings demonstrate, this is timeless music with a deep humanity.



Broadway Theater; January 6, 2020 (preview performance; opens February 20)—I’m curious whether a younger video-based generation (assuming they’re interested in West Side Story) will embrace this production. The often brilliant director Ivo Van Hove uses live and recorded video projections, as he often does, and mini-sets from which some of the video is broadcast, to distressing effect here.

All of that constant two-story-high motion blunts the impact of one of Broadway’s most beloved scores (Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim). And the classic Jerome Robbins choreography is eschewed in favor of mediocre imitations. We heard understudies for Tony, Maria (bravo to Mia Pinero), Riff and others.

Plus, Stephen Sondheim may cringe when he hears “I Feel Pretty,” but having been jettisoned, I still miss its playfulness (not to mention the “Somewhere” ballet). And playing “Gee, Office Krupke” for gravitas rather than playfulness makes no sense.

I don’t regret hearing this production; I do regret being distracted by video-verite blow-ups of what I was watching. I don’t mind updates. I’ve seen plenty of well-deployed live video and video sets. I’ve seen fine choreography “inspired” by masters. But this production is burdened by change for change’s sake.

Metropolitan Opera; January 2, 2020—The Met hasn’t always delivered on its new productions in recent seasons. This one, designed and directed by South Africa’s William Kentridge, is devastating and dazzling at the same time, much as Berg’s 12-tone score. Not for newcomers to opera, Wozzeck was stunningly moving, beautifully sung (Peter Mattei) and acted, and Kentridge’s video projections evoked the opera’s transplanted-to-WWI setting brilliantly.

Ask for Jane” is an important, beautifully made, moving re-telling of the true story of a group of women in the pre-Roe v. Wade 1960s who provided 11,000 illegal but safe abortions to University of Chicago women and others. Made on a shoestring budget by a clearly passionate cast and crew, the writing, acting, and story-telling are exemplary.

We saw it at the Teaneck International Film Festival, where Heather Booth — the original “Jane,” still an activist and political consultant – along with Cait Cortelyou (producer and lead actor), and screenwriter/director Rachel Carey, among others, appeared for a discussion following the screening. Cortelyou, who had the idea for the film in 2016, didn’t foresee a need for the message at the time; Donald Trump hadn’t been elected president yet. But as Booth said during the discussion following the screening, we may need the Janes’ brand of activism once again. Let’s hope (and pray) not.

“Ask for Jane” is on the festival circuit; it is also streaming on Amazon Prime, Youtube, and Google Play. Very worth your time.

Love Tanya Tucker’s new album “While I’m Livin’,” produced by Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings, with Carlile and bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth providing backup and writing many of the songs evoking Tucker’s story. Her vocals are as evocative as they were (in a different way) when I got to meet her and review “Would You Lay With Me In A Field of Stone” for Record World magazine in 1974. I was 22, she was 15. Even crushes were off limits!


NEW YORK, NY; AUGUST 5, 2019—Let me say right off the bat (duh; that would pass for quality dialog here) the theatrical spectacle Bat Out of Hell was worth every penny (I paid under $50 a seat). I haven’t heard this much laughter at City Center since I saw Richard Pryor there in 1978.

Listen, folks, no one ever accused Jim Steinman of writing anything that wasn’t overblown, so it’s fitting that everything about this Bat Out of Hell is over-the-top. The sets, the slo-mo motorcycle, the awful video-verite…

However, these must be some of the best actors in the world. They go on stage night after night sometimes playing it straight, sometimes playing it for laughs, sometimes not clear which way they’re playing it — giving their all for what they clearly know is the worst show they will likely ever be paid to appear in.

The songs carry themselves in arrangements that, for the most part, pay due respect without purely imitating the classic originals, be the originals from the iconic Todd Rundgren-produced Meatloaf Bat Out of Hell album or the Celine Dion hit bag. As my son pointed out, the audience seemed even more confused than it had been when Steinman’s It’s All Coming Back to Me Now started up, probably not realizing the same man wrote both.

The audience giddily bopped along and cheered the songs, and hooted, howled and “What the hell are they doing”’-ed the rest of the time. Literally. “Oh, my god, what are they going to do next?” asked the incredulous couple behind me. Several times.

The choreography was pedestrian at best. And when I say pedestrian, for the leads who couldn’t dance that meant being relegated to dropping to their knees and pushing their way along the stage floor. Several times.

It’s definitely a night’s entertainment, just maybe not how the creators intended.


NEWPORT, RI; July 31, 2019—If there is one musician who embodies the spirit of the Newport Folk Festival today it is Brandi Carlile. Within a one hour span on the opening day of this 60th anniversary festival Friday she sat (really sang) in with Amy Ray on the Harbor stage, with Sheryl Crow on the Fort stage, and then as one fourth of the most anticipated group at the three-day event this year: the supergroup The Highwomen — Carlisle, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby.

And no band in recent memory so overdelivered on already high expectations as The Highwomen did following an ovation that was by far the loudest I remember to greet a band here. In this first public appearance they previewed their forthcoming (this fall) album in order. Their four-part harmonies are richly textured. All are outstanding songwriters individually and every verse of every song had a memorable lyrical hook. Their joy working together was celebratory.

Theirs are strong messages packaged in tightly-written melodies about the roles they see for themselves in the context of the civil and women’s rights movements; motherhood — these are four distinctive voices writing a verse each for a song about discovering “the kids don’t care” when you have a hangover and a few songs later a melancholy song about having an only child; and relationships across the rainbow spectrum. And from a purely musicianly perspective their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain was stunning.
The Highwomen are progressive country at its absolute best.

Other first day highlights:

Sheryl Crow bringing on Jason Isbell (perfect pairing on Dylan’s Everything Is Broken) as well as Maren Morris and Carlile for a song each.

Yola, a Nashville-based country soul singer with a big voice ready to unleash who showed up during many sets throughout the day.

Cooks In the Kitchen’s Phil and Brian Cook hosting an array of singers and songwriters including Hadestown mastermind Anais Mitchell and Amy Ray during their set.

Lukas Nelson (the vocal resemblance to his dad at times uncanny) stepping out forcefully from sideman and production.

Day 2: Past, Present, Future

I wrote too soon singing Brandi Carlisle‘s praises after the first day of the Newport Folk Festival this past weekend. Producing the end-of-second-day set, Carlile gifted this 60th anniversary festival (take that, Woodstock 50) with a triumph steeped in its history, completely of the moment, and focused on the future.

Citing landmark events involving women at the festival, including Judy Collins introducing Joni Mitchell to Leonard Cohen in 1967, the show Carlile curated was all women on the frontlines — the backing band being male. We’re talking Collins dueting with Carlile on Mitchell’s Both Sides Now and a group arrangement with Carlile’s latest group, The Highwomen (see the earlier report), Molly Tuttle, Courtney Marie Andrews, and others of Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi; and Sheryl Crow sharing the stage with (in different combinations) Lucy Dacus, Amy Ray, Yola, Maggie Rogers, Jade Bird, Linda Perry and others. All of those artists had performed (or in Collins’s case were to play day 3) in the course of the prior two days. The surprise addition, who had never been to Newport, was Dolly Parton, who performed a five song set of her hits around the theme of women’s strength (“Though I like my men too!”). Here’s the whole cast on an exuberant 9 to 5 closing the night.

The energy, with Carlile the binding voice literally and figuratively, was exciting, uplifting, and powerful. Said Crow, “There’s so much estrogen up here I feel my ovaries getting younger!” If Fort Adams State Park, where the festival is held, could have levitated, this would have been the night.

Carlile warned early on, “If you leave early to avoid the traffic getting out of here, I promise you you will spend the rest of your life regretting it. Don’t worry, I’ll be in the same traffic as you!”

This was 90 minutes of progressive pop-country-folk perfection.

Also day 2:

Songs for Beginners, a substitution for an unannounced act that didn’t make it last minute, during which different artists (Rachel Price, Milk Carton Kids, Tallest Man On Earth, Anais Mitchell, and more) each performed a song from Graham Nash’s 1971 solo debut.

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, turning 88 in a few weeks, reminiscing about his first Newport appearance in 1963 (“They tell me I had a very good time.”) and demonstrating he is still the raconteur nonpareil with a 10-minute shaggy dog lead-in to Don’t Think Twice that he’s told no doubt thousands of times. The Museum Stage, a small indoor venue that probably holds 100 people, was packed mostly with young people who had never seen Elliott, in fact many who didn’t know who he was but had been told by friends to take advantage of the opportunity to hear him. I stood to the side watching faces intently paying attention as though this story was going to reveal the secrets of the universe; there were but a handful who were grinning and clearly got it early in that they were in the presence of a master story-teller. Happy birthday, Jack!

Day 3: Did They Ever Have Songs to Sing!

Cumulatively this was the day with the most fun, interesting music-making culminating with If I Had A Song, a tribute to what would have been Pete Seeger’s 100th birthday. If that closing set couldn’t match the prior night’s non-stop excitement with its focus on the women of this year’s Newport, this tribute still offered plenty of highlights:

Kermit the Frog (who else?) opening the set with Jim James on a duet of Rainbow Connection.

Judy Collins and Robin Pecknold together singing Turn, Turn, Turn.

Our Native Daughters (Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell, and Leyla McCalla) sending chills with If You Miss Me At the Back of the Bus.

Mavis Staples with Hozier and Jason Isbell delivering passion to spare on Keep Your Eyes On the Prize (Hold On).

A few favorites from earlier in the day:

EB The Younger, Texas singer-songwriter, ex- of the band Midlake. Take a little Beatles, a little Jimmy Buffett, and some Texas prairie dust…solid songwriting with unusual melodic twists. Fun video I came across (not from Newport) here.

The Infamous Stringdusters, who were joined by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band horns during their main set of old-timey and bluegrass, in this case creating a kind of marching band swampgrass amalgam.Newport 2019 Infamous Stringdusters w-Pres Horns

Also, the Bonny Light Horseman, specializing in seafaring songs; Billy Strings & Molly Tuttle, transcribing fiddle tunes for dueling guitars; Our Native Daughters, essentially performing their album but, my — as beautiful and moving as the album is (and it is stunning), hearing those soaring voices live is an experience in its own right; the Milk Carton Kids, combining their sad, melancholy songs with existential angst and humor; and Alice Gerrard, once half of Alice & Hazel (the late Hazel Dickens), with her mournful songs of mines and miners, accompanied now by two young women, Tatiana Hargreaves and Alice Degroot.

In all, this was the 60th anniversary for the festival, and the 50th anniversary of my first attending at 17 in the summer of 1969 with my friends Howard and Loring (see separate post about the night of the Apollo 11 moon landing and the song Len Chandler sang that night). Riva and I took the kids in 2005, and six or seven years ago, the kids (by then including our daughter’s husband) and I turned the festival into an annual pilgrimage. Riva didn’t cotton to the more indie rock thrust of the music (“It’s not ‘folk music’ as I think of folk music.” And it isn’t.), so she dropped out a few years ago.

But this year may have been the most musically satisfying of this last few years. Yes, Brandi Carlile balanced the old, the new, and the future — but that’s what overall producer Jay Sweet accomplished for a three day event. No easy task.

What’s so different about Newport? It is a spirit of collaboration. That headline-level performers hang out for three days, sit in with each other even before they’ve had their big spotlight moments, and risk some things not working is clearly exciting for the performers and gives the audience a legitimate sense that they’re witnessing something genuinely special. Acts may “do their set,” but it’s the added bonuses of jams and backup support that are unique.

Trey Anastasio (of Phish) and Rachel Price (Lake Street Dive) singing God Only Knows was a rare mismatch this year. But Anasasio brought out his share of guests during his set, and Price was singing backup with any number of people and talking up the Institute of Musical Arts in Western Massachusetts, an organization she and Lake Street support (and to which the Newport Festivals Foundations contributed on their behalf) that teaches young girls and women everything from how to run a soundboard to how to play an instrument to songwriting. Price brought some of the students with her to perform in a two-song acoustic set at the Foundation tent as well as during Lake Street’s main stage appearance.

Newport 2019 Rachel Price in Foundation tent

Lake Street Dive’s Rachel Price singing at Newport Festivals Foundation tent

Whatever it is that festival producer Jay Sweet does to encourage such collaboration and risk-taking — well, to my experience, there is nothing comparable.

[Note: For more videos, just search Newport Folk Festival 2019 on Youtube; there were more than 100 as I posted this.]

BROOKLYN, NY; JULY 19, 2019—Len Chandler — folk singer, songwriter, actor, activist — walked on stage at the Newport Folk Festival late Saturday night July 20, 1969 with a piece of paper in hand. Chandler fumbled with the paper, trying to find a way to attach the lyrics on that sheet to the microphone stand. If memory serves, Pete Seeger came out, took some chewing gum out of his mouth, and pasted the sheet to the microphone stand and left the stage. Chandler laughs when I tell him my recollection of the night over the phone this week.

Ripped from the headlines topical songs weren’t as common in 1969 as they had been earlier in the ‘60s but Chandler was known for being a songwriting demon. That song, 50 years old this weekend, was about the moon landing, which he had just watched on TV backstage at the Festival.

“I wrote that in Newport but not backstage,” Chandler, now 84, told me from his home in Los Angeles. “CBS News asked me to write a song for a show on the moon shot. It never got much coverage, though, because Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge in Chappaquiddick with a woman [Mary Jo Kopechne] in the car.” Kopechne was killed in the accident, which happened the night before the moon landing.

CBS filmed him singing the song on a beach in Newport. “I made a mistake in the lyric and asked if they could record it again. They said no because they were already packing their gear to get to Chappaquiddick!”

Chandler doesn’t remember singing the song at the Festival, or exactly what its title is, but told that there are several references to his performing it the night of the moon landing (not to mention my very distinct memory of it), and to its title as “Moon Men,” he acknowledges it could well be that he sang it that night.

There is a brief silence on the phone and Len, whose voice sounds instantly familiar, starts to recite one of the verses.

Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria

Sailing o’er dark silent oceans

Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins follow fleeting new horizons

Moon men sailing dark sky silent oceans

Step first foot on heaven’s nearest shore

Say ‘In peace we come and in peace we should remain’

And our horizons will expand in light years more.

As reported widely in recent days, Richard Nixon’s speechwriter William Safire had prepared two speeches for the then-president — the one Nixon was ultimately able to give congratulating the astronauts, and another in case the Apollo moon mission failed. Had there been a disaster, Nixon would have said, “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” according to a copy in the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum. But Chandler could not have known of Safire’s speech and Safire would not have known the song.

Some of Chandlers best known songs include “To Be A Man,” “Roll, Turn, Spin” and “Beans In My Ears,” the latter a hit for the Serendipity Singers and remembered by many for the anti-Vietnam war lyrics Pete Seeger added to it.

Chandler doesn’t remember the rest of the lyrics of “Moon Men,” but says he has a recording of him performing it a few years after the moon landing. Asked if he might post it, he said he didn’t know how to do that, but maybe an assistant could find it and figure it out.

Chandler had a radio show in LA for about a year many years ago, writing new topical songs three times a day based on the news. Even he, who ran the Songwriters Showcase in LA for many years, seems surprised today that he kept up that pace. That was a lot even for a songwriting demon who contemplated the moon men in light years.