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