The Isabel­la Stew­art Gard­ner Muse­um (Boston)
Feb­ru­ary 19, 2009

The breadth and diver­si­ty of cul­tur­al expe­ri­ences avail­able here in Boston is amaz­ing. So per­haps it should not sur­prise me that I could walk four min­utes beyond my front door to find myself trans­port­ed to anoth­er world in the sump­tu­ous­ly-appoint­ed Tapes­try Room of the Isabel­la Stew­art Gard­ner muse­um, lis­ten­ing to a haunt­ing­ly anachro­nis­tic yet infec­tious­ly live­ly per­for­mance of… cir­cus music. (But sur­prise me it does!)

One must clar­i­fy what we mean by cir­cus music. “What makes it cir­cus music,” writes band­leader, accor­dion­ist, and for­mer clown Peter Bufano in the con­cert pro­gram, “is that I wrote it for the cir­cus.” What he means is that their music has noth­ing in com­mon with Thun­der and Blazes or Wurl­itzer band organs. It is a study of cir­cus music from mul­ti­far­i­ous regions and tra­di­tions. Mid­dle east­ern grooves give way to strains of jazz. Klezmer becomes Turk­ish. The waltzes are dark and creepy but swinging—minor-key reminders of the fes­tive and more inti­mate cir­cus­es of the past.

Bufano’s expres­sive accor­dion pairs nice­ly with the com­ple­men­tary tim­bre of Käthe Louise Hostetter’s five-string fid­dle. Michael Dobson’s drum­ming is sub­tle but com­plex and pep­pered with occa­sion­al nov­el­ty sounds. Michael Mil­narik holds things togeth­er on the tuba while Sam­my Lett lets loose with sweet stac­ca­to sax solos. Sub­lime.

Cirkestra, like the cir­cus, is meant to be enjoyed live, but their records are pret­ty impres­sive too. Check them out.

February 20, 2009 February 20, 2009 reviews by Scott No Comments

Self-portrait in Mt. Auburn Cemetery Win­ters as cold and snowy as this one cry out for a long and thought-pro­vok­ing win­ter book. I fin­ished re-read­ing Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale the oth­er day, and only today’s 40-degree heat wave has man­aged to break the con­tem­pla­tive spell in which it left me.

The book may be a paean to New York, a moral­i­ty tale, or a trea­tise on beau­ty and jus­tice, but it’s also a window—a win­dow through which we can see not just the strug­gles of anoth­er time, but the way in which human­i­ty strug­gles against every­thing which it can­not know or con­trol in blind pur­suit of ideals, prin­ci­ples, hap­pi­ness, and sur­vival.

Liv­ing as I do in an engineer’s world of speci­fici­ty and detail, it is hum­bling to con­sid­er the city on such a scale. But Helprin’s gift is to make it seem mag­i­cal and effort­less, like the pass­ing of the sea­sons.

Pho­to: Self-por­trait at Mt. Auburn Ceme­tery, 2008.

February 7, 2009 February 7, 2009 reviews by Scott 3 Comments

Andrew Bird
Orpheum The­atre (Boston)
30 Jan­u­ary 2009

After a luke­warm but warm­ly-received open­ing by the Swedish indie-folk group Lone­ly Dear, amidst a con­stant shuf­fle of activ­i­ty to and from the bath­room (blame the $10 cups of Har­poon IPA!), Andrew Bird appeared alone on stage wear­ing a dark suit. He played a few notes on the vio­lin, or per­haps even a whole tune—I don’t remember—but he earned his sec­ond round of applause when he leaned down to untie his shoes. Those bright red socks must be the source of his musi­cal pow­ers.

Boston was stop num­ber two on the Noble Beast tour. Some of the num­bers were a lit­tle rough around the edges, with sev­er­al false starts, tun­ing prob­lems, and fre­quent on-stage appear­ances by a track­suit-clad gui­tar tech. Bird, ever the per­fec­tion­ist, apol­o­gized if it seemed that the band was “play­ing stick­ball in a sand­lot,” but nobody mind­ed at all. The show sim­ply rocked.

The con­cert cli­maxed at the first encore, when Bird re-appeared alone to pluck, bow, and wail his way through a com­plex and dra­mat­ic live ver­sion of “Why?” The muse had clear­ly pos­sessed him: his vio­lin exud­ed vir­tu­os­i­ty and his pipes became inex­plic­a­bly cal­i­brat­ed to deliv­er a max­i­mum of raw emo­tion. The audi­ence was on their feet and the air was electric—boisterous men stood most­ly silent, lan­guid women swayed, and a few girls near the front of the house inter­ject­ed screams like they were on the brink of rip­ping their clothes off.

Ver­dict: see it if you can.

January 31, 2009 January 31, 2009 reviews by Scott 2 Comments

Hap­py New Year!

After years of think­ing about it, I final­ly checked out Boston’s First Night fes­tiv­i­ties. What a fan­tas­tic array of arts and cul­ture events to attend, all with­in walk­ing dis­tance of one anoth­er! Here are some notes:

The Post-Merid­i­an Radio Play­ers
The two radio dra­mas per­formed by this Somerville-based the­atre troupe were awe­some! The act­ing was excel­lent and the tech­ni­cal back­up (a com­bi­na­tion of live foley and pre-record­ed effects) was flaw­less. The first per­for­mance, “Count­down to Chaos!” is a mod­ern mash-up of 1930’s and 40’s sci­ence fic­tion. The sec­ond, “Chick­en Heart,” is an orig­i­nal 1937 NBC radio pro­gram. Watch­ing a radio show live on stage—complete with fake com­mer­cials and campy humor—takes some adjust­ment, but it’s a great time. Thanks to Rhode for sug­gest­ing this one.

Light and Seri­ous Music for Organ
This AGO-spon­sored con­cert, held at the Arling­ton Street Church, fea­tured three per­form­ers at the helm of a very nice Aeo­lian-Skin­ner pipe organ. The first organ­ist, Brink Bush, per­formed the most tech­ni­cal­ly com­plex pieces: Bach’s Pre­lude and Fugue in G Major and the pow­er­ful finale from Widor’s Sym­pho­ny No. 6. He was fol­lowed by Fredrick Guza­sky, who appar­ent­ly teach­es piano at MIT. He pro­vid­ed the “light” part of the con­cert, which includ­ed an arrange­ment of John Williams’s “Theme from Juras­sic Park.” Lois Toepp­n­er con­clud­ed the show, and although I didn’t like any of her pieces (Mendelssohn?) I think I pre­ferred her style of play­ing. Frankly I was expect­ing some Vir­gil Fox moments, and there were none. These play­ers were sub­dued but quite com­pe­tent.

Black Taxi
We arrived at this con­cert about two min­utes before its mid­night con­clu­sion, so I can hard­ly say much about the band (the pro­gram promised “woozy pic­tures of Ker­oua­cian mis­ad­ven­tures”). But I liked the way they built a musi­cal groove around the count­down!

Oth­er thoughts about First Night: the events run like clock­work, start­ing and end­ing almost exact­ly as promised. That’s pret­ty impres­sive. But our attempts to get drinks in between events were less suc­cess­ful. There are sur­pris­ing­ly few bars with­in walk­ing dis­tance of the events, and a good major­i­ty of them were charg­ing astro­nom­i­cal cov­ers ($25?!) or com­plete­ly closed to the gen­er­al pub­lic. If I do this again, I’m bring­ing a flask.

January 1, 2009 January 1, 2009 reviews by Scott 1 Comment

Saw Andrew Bird and Wilco at Tan­gle­wood last night. They run a tight ship over there—Bird stepped onstage prompt­ly at the adver­tised time of 6:30. He launched into a cou­ple of solo num­bers which began with his sig­na­ture pizzi­ca­to vio­lin, to which he added lay­ers (thanks to loop ped­als) of bow­ing, singing, and his prodi­gious whistling punc­tu­at­ed with some occa­sion­al glock­en­spiel. His band joined him on stage for the rest of the set, which was bril­liant, weird, and excit­ing­ly fresh. The crowd was fuller and an order of mag­ni­tude more ener­gized for the main act, Wilco, which was sur­pris­ing because Wilco’s show, while very good, was con­sid­er­ably less inspired. I had read that Wilco is famous for being styl­is­ti­cal­ly diverse. Per­haps that is true of their record­ings, but on stage, they hap­pi­ly embrace the strut­ting per­sonas of are­na rock stars ham­mer­ing through their cat­a­log of hits.

Tan­gle­wood, by the way, is the most fab­u­lous and dis­tinc­tive venue for rock shows I’ve ever seen, for sev­er­al rea­sons: It is a beau­ti­ful loca­tion. It has pret­ty remark­able acoustics (for a shed). The secu­ri­ty is friend­ly and unobtrusive—no bag checks or pat-downs—and the few cops I spot­ted were chat­ting bois­ter­ous­ly with con­cert­go­ers. You can BYOB (or any­thing else you want). Ven­dors sell only rea­son­ably-priced beer and ice cream from local New Eng­land sup­pli­ers (Ben & Jerry’s, Mag­ic Hat, Sam Adams). The grounds are metic­u­lous­ly clean. Park­ing is easy. Restrooms are plen­ti­ful. And strange­ly enough for a rock show, there is not a sin­gle piece of adver­tis­ing anywhere—just you, nature, a stage, and music. Now if only you didn’t have to dri­ve!

August 13, 2008 August 13, 2008 reviews by Scott 1 Comment

Birds & Bat­ter­ies (July 5)
PA’s Lounge is kind of ghet­to, and the open­ing band sucked bad­ly. But Birds & Batteries—damn! Com­bin­ing syn­the­siz­ers and cryp­tic lyrics with south­ern twang and ped­al steel, Birds & Bat­ter­ies brings indie cred (read: com­plex­i­ty and copi­ous facial hair) to coun­try rock. They play an awe­some live show, and not a per­son in the room would have dis­agreed with me. I hope this San Fran­cis­co-based band makes it big.
Assas­sins (August 2)
One of Stephen Sondheim’s less pop­u­lar musi­cals, it’s cer­tain­ly unusu­al to see a pro­duc­tion of Assas­sins dur­ing an elec­tion cycle. Com­pa­ny One’s pro­duc­tion, staged in the inti­mate BCA Plaza The­atre, was excel­lent. The cast­ing was first-rate (where did they find a per­fect look-alike for Charles Gui­teau?) and the singing was excel­lent. The tech­ni­cal aspects of the show were a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ing, as was the band, which sound­ed as if it were read­ing the score for the first time. But sim­ply see­ing this show is a lot of fun. By chance I heard Neil Patrick Har­ris (aka Doo­gie Hows­er) inter­viewed by Ter­ry Gross on Fresh Air the pre­vi­ous night—he spoke at length about the way Sondheim’s score reflects the emo­tions of the char­ac­ters and his com­ments were actu­al­ly pret­ty insight­ful.
Sur­prise Me Mr. Davis (August 7)
I have to admit I’ve nev­er been a big fan of The Slip, but I was pleas­ant­ly sur­prised by this weird “elec­tro-folk” com­bi­na­tion of The Slip and singer-song­writer Nathan Moore. Jim Hobbs, an eclec­tic jazz-sax­o­phone play­er, opened along with his hyper-focused avant-garde drum­mer. That show was inter­est­ing enough, but it was just too much when the two acts took the stage togeth­er lat­er that night: as a rule of thumb, there should nev­er be two drum­mers on stage at once. Nor should a jam band take on a sax­o­phone play­er who doesn’t know when to stop. In spite of the infor­mal­i­ty, this show was a series of good long jams—a fun way to spend a rainy night.
Wilco and Andrew Bird (August 12)
The bass play­er for Andrew Bird is a friend of the fam­i­ly. How often do you get to see some­one you know play a sold-out show at Tan­gle­wood? Open­ing for Wilco? Not often! On top of that, Andrew Bird is a phe­nom­e­nal act. And Wilco’s pret­ty decent too. I’m pret­ty damn excit­ed about this show.
Jake Armerd­ing (August 19)
This Cantab Lounge show has most of the fixin’s of a rare Barn Star appear­ance: Jake Armerd­ing on fid­dle, his father Tay­lor on man­dolin, Zack Hick­man on bass… I can only hope to be present when the old-school blue­grass freight train col­lides with some foot-stomp­ing clas­sic rock cov­ers.

August 11, 2008 August 11, 2008 reviews by Scott 1 Comment