OK, I admit it. My expectations for the Mavis Staples/Joan Osborne concert at Proctors last weekend were way over the top. I have seen transcendent performances by both artists, who, at their best, grab their audiences by the throat and take them to heaven not just in their great songs, but with their personalities that cause you to fall in love with them through their intimate connections and amazing vocal prowess.
The idea that these two beautiful souls would collaborate had me fantasizing that together one plus one would equal infinity, an explosive fusion of two great sirens, one black, one white; one a legend of the civil rights movement – the moral equivalent of Martin Luther King – the other a waif from Kentucky who spent years woodshedding with the Holmes Brothers to channel the blues giants and erase society’s imposed boundaries between gospel, blues and pop. Osborne is a vocal dynamo who turned me into a believer more than two decades ago when she blew the roof of The Metro in Saratoga with a version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” that transformed his dirty old man ballad into an erotic orgasm.
Of course, all that hope of an epic collaboration was fantasy. Four days before their major U.S. tour opened in the famed Fillmore in San Francisco, Osborne had yet to rehearse with Staples. She told me they had yet to even get together and talk about the tour. By the time the show hit Schenectady, they’d done 20 shows in a little over a month, and Mavis chided her “Skin–eck–at–diddy” audience: “I believe this is my first time here. What took you so long? You should have had us before now. You let me get older.”
Review by Don Wilcock
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Grace Potter, the prodigal daughter, returned home last Thursday (October 29) to play the Palace Theater in Albany. Originally from Waitsfield, Vermont, she left home more than a decade ago and signed with Hollywood Records releasing five albums in 10 years. Midnight, her most recent release, is her first solo CD without her band, the Nocturnals. In her Albany concert, she gave a shout out to Albany and Troy, acknowledging early gigs here. The elephant in the room, however, was the question of whether she’d be embraced by a fan base she’s left in the lurch, at least on her new solo album.
Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Sam Cooke, the Moody Blues, and Miley Cyrus have all made drastic right or left turns in their sound that alienated their core constituency. Dylan pissed off the traditional folkies when he plugged in, Sam Cooke when he went secular, the Moody Blues when they went from blues to orchestral, and Miley Cyrus when she grew out as opposed to
up and dissed her Disney image. Grace Potter, like Miley Cyrus, has a Disney connection. Her label, Hollywood Records, releases all Disney-related product, and she sang solo on the soundtrack to Disney’s 50th animated feature, “Tangled.”
Potter’s appeal until Midnight has been her ability to bring a Joan Jett-level of rock energy to a band as thick with heavy rock texture as a bowl of New England clam chowder. Drop dead beautiful with her long blonde hair, she played up her sensuality like Madonna without resorting to a bag of tricks, and the band supplied a solid underpinning to offer a hard rock authenticity equaling that of the now long-in-the-tooth band Heart.
Review by Don Wilcock
Photographs by Mary Kozlowski
Tom Rush calls himself simply “a generalist,” a self-deprecating understatement that proved way insufficient in defining his sumptuous nearly three-hour, two-set concert at the Eighth Step at Proctors recently. His tour-de-force performance featured his own signature song “No Regrets” from early in his career as Boston’s best voice of the ’60s folk boom and his career-defining The Circle Game, which introduced Joni Mitchell’s songwriting to the world.
Criss-crossing genres, he re-invigorated Dobie Gray’s pop ode to the palliative properties of music on “Drift Away,” and encored with an energetic acoustic version of “Who Do You Love” that somehow managed to inject as much potency into that Bo Diddley rockin’ blues classic as Diddley himself did in the ’50s with his plugged-in rectangular guitar. Rush joked about songwriter Lee Clayton telling him he’d written the outlaw country number “Ladies Love Outlaws” especially for Tom and then postulated that Lee probably said the same thing to Waylon Jennings, who had a hit with it.
“I remember I was going for a walk with my brother once in Greenwich Village,” says Sarah Craig, the Executive Director of Caffe Lena, “and we passed an iconic Greenwich Village folk venue, and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. There it is,’ and I thought that was really cool, until I examined it and realized that it basically offered some music, but really what it was was a t-shirt outlet for the once great institution. And I said, ‘I don’t ever want Caffe Lena to go down that road.’ My brother said, ‘There’s a lot of money to be made in it. You’re probably the last person who will hold the line against that.’ And I said, ‘I’m gonna stay forever.’
On Saturday (May 16), the venerable Saratoga Springs coffeehouse Caffe Lena presents a double celebration at Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center. It’s the 55th anniversary of America’s longest running coffeehouse and Craig’s 20th anniversary as executive director of the venue that has outlived its Greenwich Village and Harvard Square prototypes as a premier showcase for folk music. Perhaps more important than its tenure, under Craig’s leadership the Caffe has progressed beyond the scope of places like Café Wha and the Bitter End in Greenwich Village and Club 47 in Harvard Square to present an overview of “folk music” today that assures this vaunted venue will be credited with discovering as much new talent in 2015 as it did in 1960.
Percy Sledge passed away on Tuesday (April 14) from liver cancer. He recorded six songs in Muscle Shoals, Alabama on February 17, 1966, and he liked all five of the others better than he did “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
“I didn’t know anything about music,” he told me in 2004. “All I done was just sing.” But Sledge producer Quinty Ivy felt differently, and Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler “went crazy, absolutely crazy about the song.” “When a Man Loves a Woman” became Atlantic Records’ first million seller. It became one of the cuts in “The Big Chill,” a film that defined ’60s soul for the generations to follow. And it unilaterally established a career for Sledge that still sustained him 38 years later when I saw him perform at Columbia-Greene Community College in April, 2004.
It was a song that almost never saw the light of day. It began with a catchy melody, a completely different set of lyrics and a title that was the polar opposite of what it would eventually become – “Why Did You Leave Me.” Sledge was lead singer in a band called the Esquires playing fraternity party gigs at Ole Miss and doing covers of Beatles hits and soul smashes like James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please” and Wilson Picket’s “634-5789” and “Mustang Sally.” One night, Ivy who was establishing himself with a studio in Sheffield, Alabama, heard Sledge sing an original with the Esquires.
Rock photographer Ethan Russell is on a one-man crusade to prove that the ’60s were the first time in American history when the dream inspired our reality rather than the other way around. His photographs of John Lennon & Yoko Ono, the Rolling Stones and the Who are a peek behind the curtain into an intimate reality that gets lost in the revisionist history that Dion once told me has become “a cartoon.” Russell sees that cartoon as TV footage that has become embedded in our brains with the themes of sex, drugs and rock and roll.
Russell’s “Best Seat in the House” show at Proctors’ GE Theatre in Schenectady on Saturday (March 28) promises to show 380 pictures of the most iconic rock stars of the 1960s complete with back stories. His photos offer a reality that exploded in a cultural shift away from the black and white box that was TV at the time into a colorful embrace that brought the pop musicians of the day closer to their fans and turned the rock stars away from being actors parroting other people’s songs into complicit compatriots in a modern revolution.
Dale Watson – appearing Wednesday night (January 28) at The Hangar in Troy – has an axe to grind about today’s so-called country music, what it is and what it isn’t. “Blake Shelton says nobody wants to listen to granddaddy’s music, that they’re just old farts and jackasses. He’s wrong,” says the silver-haired, tattooed Texas troubadour.
Watson is single-handedly bringing the Sun Studios, rockabilly and countrypolitan music
kicking and swinging into the 21st century with apologies to none of the black-hat pretty boys who are filling Nashville’s coffers these days. He has a two-decade discography of 20 albums that declared his intentions first time out of the box with a song called “Nashville Rash” on his 1995 Hightone CD Cheatin’ Heart Attack that railed against the mainstream country hits of artists like Blake Shelton and Kenny Chesney.
Paul Nelson and Johnny Winter (photo: Greg Olliver)
Interview and story by Don Wilcock
“He wasn’t just playing it. He was living it.” That’s the way Paul Nelson remembers Johnny Winter. Nelson was Winter’s lead guitarist, band leader, songwriter, album producer and perhaps most importantly, the man who brought the albino blues rocker back from the brink of a lifestyle that threatened to kill him a decade ago. Winter finally succumbed to pneumonia on July 16.
“I made my first records when I was 15,” says Winter in the film documentary, “Down & Dirty: The Johnny Winter Story.” I started playing clubs when I was 15, started drinking and smoking when I was 15, sex when I was 15. Fifteen was a big year for me.”
That documentary will open the Johnny Winter Remembrance Concert on Saturday evening (November 1) at The Egg. This show headlines Johnny’s band under Nelson’s direction with guest guitarists Sonny Landreth, Ronnie Baker Brooks and Debbie Davies, all blues-based artists who, like Winter, know how to put a kick into blues guitar.
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