Archive for April, 2010

in performance: taylor swift

taylor swift last night at rupp arena. herald-leader staff photo by pablo alcala.

taylor swift last night at rupp arena. herald-leader staff photo by pablo alcala.

“I had a feeling, just a feeling, that this crowd was going to be loud.”

Admittedly, that was hardly risky prophesy on the part of Taylor Swift, the 20 year old country pop megastar at the onset of a near-two hour concert at Rupp Arena last night. The performance was full of abundant positivity, theatricality and, at times, unavoidable dead weight. But Swift made good on her forecast. The sold out crowd of 18,000 treated her like royalty. And Swift reciprocated the love to a lavish degree.

Taylor’s show was, in every sense, a production. She entered the stage (well, actually, she popped up through its floor) dressed as a majorette (as were all seven members of her band) for the show opening You Belong With Me, donned Renaissance regalia for Love Story (as did her band) and confidently patrolled the performance in various shiny, sequined garbs. Her stage set, a multi-level affair, made efficient use of projections and props. At various points, it transformed itself from a fairyland castle to a library to a New York skyline. Coloring the festivities was a team of six dancers that initially helped propel the production but ultimately added to its steadily erratic pace.

Of course, the most audience winning effect were the glances, smiles and looks of amazement that Swift flashed to the crowd. Given that they were generously splashed with remarkable clarity across a massive video screen, the looks ignited the crowd. As such they became a recurrent device that drew increasingly feverish responses as the evening progressed. Ms. Swift, it seemed, was more than ready for her close up.

On one hand, it is hard to fault the general design of a show like this. There were a generous number of children – mostly girls – 10 and under at Rupp last night. In between opening sets by Gloriana and Kellie Pickler, their faces lit up with the sort of genuine, appealing zeal usually reserved for Christmas morning. That alone was a thrill.

As Swift’s performance progressed, the motivational narratives – the sort of confessions best understood between teens – increased, which was also fine. In fact, the concert’s most anthemic moment was also its most effective – a buoyant reading of the title tune to Swift’s multi-platinum 2008 album Fearless, performed with her entire band (save the drummer) in a row, Springsteen-style at the front of the stage.

And for those posing the big question – specifically, whether or not Swift could actually sing (a query enforced by some severely shaky television outings this year) – the answer last night seemed to be an affirmative one. A champion belter, she’s obviously not. And for sheer range and depth, Pickler was the uncontested vocal champ of the night, even though she was visibly distracted by monitor problems during her 35 minute warm-up set. Still, Swift’s singing was honestly serviceable and durable enough to withstand the show’s physical demands.

But like most performances so heavily dependent on props, costumes and theatrical devices, the concert began to sag at the mid way point. The costume changes became longer and more frequent. Or maybe because the the pace slowed, they just seemed that way. By the time the concert, minus encores, began to wind down with Picture to Burn, parents and their weary (or, in some cases, fast asleep) children began to file out.

Still, a hearty bond between artist and audience had been forged. After performing Hey Stephen on the lower arena steps between Rupp sections 15 and 16, Swift took her time walking down to the arena floor, where she sang her breakthrough hit, Tim McGraw (talk about audience/artist adulation) from a second stage. Along the way – and again as she walked through the floor audience back to the main stage, Swift hugged every patron she could get her arms around. The audience awarded her with an ovation that lasted just over five minutes.

So, yes, the Rupp crowd was loud indeed. Chances are, in fact, that if Swift had chosen spend the night standing onstage, with her amazed gaze blown up to Jumbotron proportions, fans not burdened with parental duties would have cheered her on until the roosters crowed.

Lezak, U.S. put on rally swim caps Comeback keeps Phelps on track Hoff, Hansen fall.(Sports)

Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) August 11, 2008 | Latimer, Clay Byline: Clay Latimer, Rocky Mountain News Ah, the agony of victory.

Michael Phelps did it again today (Sunday night, U.S. time), helping lead America’s 400-meter freestyle relay team to a breathtakingly narrow victory against France at the Water Cube.

But this time, Phelps was helpless at the end, in agony on the deck until Jason Lezak overcame a 0.41-of-a-second deficit and out- touched France’s Alain Bernard, who had vowed to “smash” the Americans.

The U.S. finished in three minutes, 8.24 seconds, only 0.08 seconds ahead of the French (3:08.32) and smashing the world record by nearly 4 seconds. Australia won the bronze in 3:09.91.

“It was unbelievable,” Phelps said after picking up his second gold and remaining on course to win eight. “Jason finished the race better than we could have asked for. I was like, ‘This is going to be a really close race. Jason in the last 50 seconds was incredible. At the end, you could see I was pretty excited, I was pretty emotional.” The U.S. hadn’t won the 400 relay since the 1996 Atlanta Games, finishing second in 2000 and third in 2004. Phelps usually scours newspapers for motivational material, but he didn’t have to look hard for this one; not with Bernard’s brash predictions.

“We let our swimming do the talking,” Phelps said.

American Katie Hoff, Phelps’ “little sister,” hoped to leave Beijing with a treasure trove of gold, too. But she’s seeing how difficult it is to win a couple of events, much less five or six. Hoff won silver in the 400 freestyle, an improvement over her bronze in the 400 individual medley. see here swim caps

Rebecca Adlington of Great Britain won the 400 free in 4:03.22. Hoff was timed in 4:03.29.

“I gave it everything I had possibly, but they got me in the end. I felt like I should have got my hand on the wall first,” Hoff said.

The Olympic travails of Brendan Hansen also continued in the 100 breaststroke. The 26-year-old world-record holder not only lost to bitter rival Kosuke Kitajima of Japan, but he also failed to win a medal.

Hansen, engulfed in the worst slump of his career, finished fourth at the Olympic trials in his best event, the 200 breast, and struggled to find a groove in preliminaries in the 100 breast.

He has broken seven world records in the 100 and 200 breast and won several gold medals at the world championships but never an Olympic gold in an individual event.

Four years ago in Athens, Han- sen was out-touched by Kitajima and has talked candidly since about avenging that haunting moment.

After another Olympic disappointment, Hansen was the last to leave the pool, walking slow off the deck. Kitajima won in 58.91, followed by Alexander Dale Oen of Norway (59.20) and Hugues Duboscq of France (59.37). Hansen was clocked in 59.57.

The women’s 100 butterfly was billed as another flash point in the mounting athletic wars between China and the U.S., with Zhou Yafei and Christine Magnuson, of Tinley Park, Ill., going head to head.

But Lisbeth Trickett of Australia plunged into the drama, taking gold in 56.73. Magnuson won silver in 57.10 and Jessicah Schipper, another Australian, won bronze in 57.25. Zhou (57.84) was fourth.

Magnuson slammed her right fist into the water after another disappointing result for the U.S.

“It gives me something to improve on,” she said. “It’s one of those things you’re thinking, ‘Should I take an extra stroke or not? I did (Sunday in preliminaries), but today I didn’t.

“I was really relieved (when she touched the wall). I thought I messed it up at the turn, so I was really excited. It’s been an amazing ride. This is what I’ve been wanting my entire career. I know my roommates are probably thinking, ‘Why is she so happy with the silver,’ but I’m just so happy to be here.” Men’s 100 breaststroke: 1. Kosuke Kitajima, Japan, 58.91. (World record. Old record: 59:13, Brendan Han- sen, United States, Aug. 1, 2006, Irvine, Calif.). 2. Alexander Dale Oen, Norway, 59.20. 3. Hugues Duboscq, France, 59.37. 4. Brendan Hansen, Havertown, Pa., 59.57. 5. Brenton Rickard, Australia, 59.74. 6. Roman Sludnov, Russia, 59.87. web site swim caps

Men’s 4×100 freestyle relay: 1. United States (Michael Phelps, Baltimore, 47.51; Garrett Weber- Gale, Milwaukee, 47.02; Cullen Jones, Irvington, N.J., 47.65; Jason Lezak, Irvine, Calif., 46.06), 3:08.24. (World record. Old record: 3:12.23, United States, Aug. 10, 2008, Beijing). 2. France, 3:08.32. 3. Australia, 3:09.91. 4. Italy, 3:11.48. 5. Sweden, 3:11.92. 6. Canada, 3:12.26.

Women’s 100 butterfly: 1. Lisbeth Trickett, Australia, 56.73. 2. Christine Magnuson, Tinley Park, Ill., 57.10. 3. Jessicah Schipper, Australia, 57.25. 4. Zhou Yafei, China, 57.84. 5. Li Tao, Singapore, 57.99. 6. Jemma Lowe, Britain, 58.06.

Women’s 400 freestyle: 1. Rebecca Adlington, Britain, 4:03.22. 2. Katie Hoff, Towson, Md., 4:03.29. 3. Joanne Jackson, Britain, 4:03.52. 4. Coralie Balmy, France, 4:03.60. 5. Federica Pellegrini, Italy, 4:04.56. 6. Camelia Alina Potec, Romania, 4:04.66.

INFOBOX Pool party How U.S. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps is faring in his quest to win eight gold medals:

Event Result 400 individual medley Gold 4×100 free relay Gold REMAINING EVENTS Event Day 200 freestyle Today 200 butterfly Tuesday 4×200 free relay Tuesday 200 individual medley Thursday 100 butterfly Friday 4×100 medley relay Saturday CAPTION(S):

Photo U.S. swimmers, from left, Garrett Weber-Gale, Jason Lezak, Michael Phelps and Cullen Jones celebrate after winning the 400-meter freestyle relay today in Beijing. “At the end, you could see I was pretty excited, I was pretty emotional,” Phelps said. TIMOTHY CLARY / AFP/GETTY IMAGES Latimer, Clay

the singletary looks to autumn

What’s this? Summer’s not even here and we’re already looking ahead to next fall and winter? Indeed so. The bulk of the concert season to be at the Singletary Center for the Arts is already posted on the venue’s website. Rich Copley offers a complete run down of the entire season this morning in Copious Notes. But we thought we’d spill the beans on three performances The Musical Box is especially thrilled about.

+ David Sanborn, Oct. 9 – One of the most distinctive alto saxophonists in or out of the jazz world, Sanborn has played with everyone from Paul Simon to The Rolling Stones to Roger Waters to James Taylor to a few hundred others. But with a catalogue of solo recordings dating back to 1975, Sanborn’s music has also been unfairly been stamped with that most dreaded of labels: smooth jazz. Admittedly, his mid ‘80s recordings approached such commercial turf. But for well over a decade – and especially on his last two albums, 2008’s Here and Gone and 2010’s Only Everything – Sanborn has channeled the sterling soul-jazz inspirations of Hank Crawford and David “Fathead” Newman. This will be his first Lexington concert since a sold out performance at the Opera House nearly 15 years ago.

+ Branford Marsalis Nov. 13 – A member of the first family of New Orleans jazz and an alumnus of jazz music’s most storied stepping stone band, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Marsalis is a profoundly versatile saxophonist, composer, improviser, bandleader and, increasingly of late, educator. He hasn’t performed in Lexington in over 22 years. But three successive mid ‘80s performances nicely summed up the stylistic breadth of his playing – a 1984 performance with brother Wynton Marsalis at Memorial Hall, a 1985 outing at Memorial Coliseum as a member of Sting’s celebrated Blue Turtles band and a 1987 concert with his own quartet back at Memorial Hall. More recently, he released a sublime album that emphasized the compositions of his then-decade-old quartet (2009’s Metamorphosen). This time out, he plays the Singletary on a Saturday night. Autumn rules!

+ Bang on a Can All-Stars with Glenn Kotche, Jan. 30 – While we’ve all been salivating for a return outing by Wilco at the Singletary, the side projects by the band’s drummer, Glenn Kotche, have proven equally fascinating. Sure, that’s partly because Kotche is a University of Kentucky album and has played the Singletary numerous times as a student. But a far bigger reason is that Kotche is a stylistic journeyman. While he bashed about on the Singletary stage with Wilco in April 2003, he also performed an arrangement there the preceding winter of the Balinese Monkey Chant aided by an orchestra of “cricket boxes.” And that doesn’t even include one of my favorite non-Wilco Kotche projects, the recent, ultra cool Extended Vacation album by On Fillmore (Kotche’s duo project with bassist Darin Gray). Next January, Kotche will be featured with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, a New York ensemble that has regularly meshed progressive chamber music, jazz improvisation, pop experimentation and a modest theatricality since forming in 1987.

the other sold out show

james mcmurtry. photo by craig seth.

james mcmurtry. photo by craig seth.

Just a quick word about that “other” sold out show heading our way on Thursday.

While Taylor Swift plays to the jubilant, youthful masses with a Rupp Arena concert that was a near instantaneous sellout, James McMurtry will perform to a more modestly sized capacity crowd at Natasha’s Bistro.

Needless to say, Swift and McMurtry could not be more dissimilar. Swift is all cheery vibes, pop hooks and big league production – and that’s fine. Arena rock thrives on those credentials. McMcMurtry, on the other hand, can best be categorized as “the real deal” – a songwriter with a dark social depth to his songs, a storyteller that delves into the kinds of rural realities contemporary country forever shuns.

Encapsulating the blunt, literary drive of McMurtry’s new CD/DVD set Live in Europe are two older songs that are reinvented on the DVD performance from the Paradiso in Amsterdam.

The first comes in the form of 10 savage minutes that make up Choctaw Bingo, a scrapbook of backwoods horror stories (“he cooks that crystal meth cause his ‘shine don’t sell”) set to a unrelenting shuffle by McMurtry’s jittery guitar work and the Doors-like keyboard strolls of founding Faces member Ian McLagan.

The second is an equally aggressive reading of We Can’t Make It Here, a saga of social and economic downturn and the legions of youths it leaves “high on Jesus or hooked on dope.”

What’s even wilder is that these two songs predate McMutry’s last studio record, 2008’s extraordinary Just Us Kids (whose songs are more generously displayed on the CD portion of Live in Europe). In short, McMurtry, for all his dry, sly stoicism, is still making the finest, most frightening music of his career.

But, alas, his Thursday show at Natasha’s with opener Johnny Burke is sold out. McMurtry will, however, perform for free tonight at Louisville’s Waterfront Park as part of the Kentucky Derby Festival. Showtime will be 7 p.m. Will Hoge will open.

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critic’s pick 121

In the pantheon of artists that can be truly called ageless, Willie Nelson, who turns 77 on Friday, sits among the very few. But locating the pick of Nelson’s still-bountiful recorded output is far from an easy task. Amid countless anthologies and hit collections that pour forth from labels that have recorded Nelson through the years are standouts like the Daniel Lanois produced Teatro (Island, 1998) and the Ryan Adams produced Songbird (Lost Highway, 2006). Both strip the singer’s music down to elemental, but not always rootsy essentials. Those records also mixed vintage Nelson originals with well chosen covers that let the underappreciated jazz phrasing of his singing mingle with undeniable Lone Star country inspiration.

This brings us to the unceremoniously titled Country Music, a new record that marks a perhaps inevitable collaboration for Nelson – an alliance with roots music entrepreneur T Bone Burnett. Unlike Teatro or Songbird, which were heavily atmospheric records favoring assimilations of country and contemporary sounds, Country Music is just that – a collection of regal country waltzes, laments and celebrations along with darker, brittle acoustic explorations that mine the pre-country terrain championed for so long by Burnett.

The results are quietly majestic interpretations of tunes by Hank Williams, Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Ernest Tubb, Ray Price and George Jones with crisply understated musicianship by some of Burnett’s favorite hired hands (most notably, fiddler Stuart Duncan and bassist Dennis Crouch), one of Nelson’s most trusted bandmates (harmonica ace Mickey Raphael) and a host of extraordinary Nashville heavy hitters (Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale). All help accent the album’s lean, drummer-less sound.

Something luminous emerges when the livelier moments of Country Music swing into action. The decades-old Nelson original Man with the Blues, full as it is of hapless despondency, sounds like it could ignite a dance hall in a heartbeat. Ditto for the more gently propulsive strut of Watson’s Freight Train Blues. Finer still is a version of Pistol Packin’ Mama that steers clear of its World War II-era blueprint by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters for a light but robust honky tonk charm initiated by Crouch’s playful bass support.

But Country Music really lights up when its songs go dark. Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down, in particular, possesses the sort of Appalachian ambience Nelson seldom gets to work within. On Travis’ immortal – and, in the wake of the recent West Virginia mining tragedy, topical – Dark as a Dungeon, Nelson and Burnett strike an arresting balance between Country Music‘s blissful, bluesy traditionalism and a worldly reality that is older, colder and vastly more sobering.

more swift thinking

taylor swift

taylor swift

Yesterday morning, after my commentary piece on Taylor Swift ran in the Lexington Herald-Leader (it was posted last night here at The Musical Box as “Swift Thinking”), KO Roberts of the Academy of Country Music emailed me this insightful response, which he kindly allowed us to share with you.

+ + + + +

Mr. Tunis, I enjoyed reading your article on Ms. Taylor Swift this morning. I wanted to comment on your perspective of her recent snub from the Academy of Country Music. I was somewhat surprised but not shocked by her going home empty handed. I have been a professional (voting) member of the ACM since 2004. As you know, the criteria for the ACM awards is much different than other awards such as the CMA’s. Most artists would tell you they would rather win a fan voted award than something from the industry elite. However, that is usually said after they lose the award. I don’t claim to know what other members are considering as we wind through the nominations and voting process, nor do I speak for them. But I can tell you, from my perspective, Taylor Swift’s success will continue to soar in spite of what Nashville thinks of her as an artist. I don’t mean to imply that they have a negative opinion. I think you are correct in your assessment of her vocal talent. I’ve made no bones about the fact that she’s not a great singer. But let’s face it, how many on the radio today would win a singing contest? It’s not so much about the voice but connecting with the fans and Taylor Swift does that better than anyone right now. Her lyrics and arrangements complement her vocal style. She doesn’t need the power and range to pull it off. Her audience is mostly made up of teenage girls who can identify with her message and personality. She’s a gifted songwriter and speaks directly to them. That’s the key. As a father of a teenage daughter, I appreciate the fact that she is a good role model. I often use her as an example when having life discussions with my daughter. Taylor is all about living life to the fullest and not turning into a snob or brat celebrity. She’s very real and genuinely appreciates her fans and is humbled by how they’ve responded to her music. I see her branching out into areas never before attempted by other country artists and developing many other revenue streams that will make her widely successful. She’s got a great future as a songwriter, producer and performer.

swift thinking

taylor swift

Over the course of the four minutes it took for her to sing the anthemic Change at last weekend’s Academy of Country Music Awards, Taylor Swift sailed over the crowd at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, trotted into the audience so she could make her way to the stage, aerobicised with a decidedly non-gospel choir and fell back first into the arms of some well versed stage hands to make her exit in one of the most antiseptic examples of crowd surfing ever broadcast.

And what did she get for her trouble? Nada. Out of four major nominations (Entertainer, Female Vocalist, Song and Video of the Year), the singer who has sold in excess of 10 million albums in a little over three years, went home empty handed.

The ceremony was a curious, though not entirely unexpected new chapter in the amazing flight of a star singer just barely out of her teens. Less than three months earlier, Swift won as many trophies at the Grammy Awards as she lost at the ACMs, including honors for Album of the Year. The morning after the Grammys, though, all anyone could talk about was her pitch deficient performance alongside Stevie Nicks.

Four months before that was the now-infamous MTV Video Music Awards broadcast where Swift was thrust into an unplanned duet with Kanye West, who appropriated the microphone when the country singer was accepting an award for her You Belong With Me video. The whole mess prompted an appropriate outpouring of support for Swift. After all, the incident was viewed, not improperly, along the lines of a wicked adult stealing presents from a child at her birthday party.

Swift got a jab back at Kanye-zilla when she hosted Saturday Night Live in November. But for the most part, she addressed the incident as coolly as she has the triumphs of her young career. In short, there is much to admire about Swift. It’s just that little of it has to do with actual music.

Addressing stardom with a maturity that goes light years beyond teen-dom, presenting an eagerness to tackle entertainment possibilities that extend to comedic and dramatic acting and, most of all, maintaining a level of personal dignity when many young artists – especially females – are encouraged to act out every growing sexual impulse in public a la Britney Spears… these are attributes of a commercial artist with an eye to a long career. Within the honestly G-rated boundaries she has set up for herself, there is no reason to think that career won’t prosper further. But it will likely do so outside of Nashville circles.

Was the cold shoulder exhibited by the ACMs an indication of what contemporary country thinks of Swift these days? Perhaps. Of course, for a country awards ceremony to turn judgmental when it’s staged each year in Las Vegas creates a bit of a double standard. But then commercial country these days is so entangled in pop cosmetics that its very heritage has been shed. There isn’t likely to be much of a traditional Nashville turn in Swift’s future, save for possibly cutting a hardcore country album as a one-off project. And that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. For starters, she just doesn’t have the pipes for it.

Admittedly, the ACM ceremony was a step up from the performance nosedive at the Grammys. Still, the fact remains that for all of the likeability, possibility and bankability Swift commands, she remains, at best, a mediocre singer. But that matters not a whit to her considerable fanbase. When an artist sells out Rupp Arena at the bat of an eye, as Taylor did when tickets for her Thursday concert there went on sale in December (additional seats for the Rupp concert were made available last week), you can bet fans care little about the critical limitations of an artist. With Swift, they like the look, the songs (most of which Swift has co-written and co-produced), the whole amiable presentation.

Kids like her because they so readily associate with her youth. Parents like her because she is so thoroughly non-threatening. It’s a safe bet, though, that Swift, even at her young age, possesses a greater level of shrewdness about where her own career is going than anyone – her biggest fans or her sharpest critics – suspects.

That’s something the ACMs missed entirely this year. As far as country music is concerned, Swift has grown up and moved on. The rest of the entertainment world now sits before her.

Taylor Swift, Kellie Pickler and Gloriana perform at 7 p.m. April 29 at Rupp Arena. Ticket tickets: $26.00, $50.50, $60.50. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-8000.

current listening 04/24/10

+ R.E.M.: Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) – When its extraordinary third album was released, R.E.M. was a band of wonder – and not just because you couldn’t understand a blessed word Michael Stipe was singing. With veteran British folk-rock champion Joe Boyd producing, the Georgia rockers created a neo-psychedelic dreamscape album full of murky hooks and melodies where you can practically hear the rain, fog and shadows.

+ Jeff Beck: Blow By Blow (1975) – Released 35 years ago this spring, Blow by Blow remains Jeff Beck’s masterpiece – an instrumental album cut at the heart of the fusion era with George Martin as producer. From the elegant blues of Steve Wonder’s Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers to Martin’s majestic orchestration on Diamond Dust to Beck’s own ferocity on Scatterbrain, this career-defining triumph still sounds like a million bucks.

+ Various artists: California Concert (1972) – Out-of-print CD edition of a 1971 live album featuring jazz artists signed to the then-booming CTI label, including George Benson, Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Turrentine. The music makes nods to fusion without being overtly poppish. Asking price for a new copy on $177. Found a clean-as-a-whistle used copy at CD Central last week for 7 bucks. Mercy.

+ Grace Potter and the Nocturnals: Live in Skowhegan (2010) – Borrowing from vintage girl group pop and muscular, organic ‘70s rock, Vermont songstress Potter has rightly earned high marks as a live act – hence, this seven-song concert EP from a June 2008 show at a Maine opera house. Available as a limited edition release for Record Store Day, Skowhegan nicely fills the gap until Potter’s next studio album hits stores in June.

+ Various artists: Broadcasts Vol. 17, KGSR Radio Austin (2009) – Every year at holiday time, a friend in Austin, Tx. sends a copy of the newest Broadcasts disc. With proceeds benefiting mental health and addiction services for the central Texas music community, Broadcasts is limited to single pressings of fine acoustic radio performances. Then they’re gone for good. Vol.17 boasts Steve Earle, Alejandro Escovedo, Gillian Welch and a lot more.

in performance: george winston

george winston

george winston

A deceptive stoicism surrounds the performance music of pianist George Winston. Last night at Berea College’s Phelps Stokes Chapel, he resembled an aging hippie professor – balding, bespectacled and informally attired right to down the stocking feet he played the piano pedals with (resulting in some often stunning examples of melodic sustain, we might add).

Before each selection, he offered a brief, informative discourse on the tune’s composer, his choice of inspirations and even the performance style he employed to propel the music. The latter invariably included an element of New Orleans stride piano where rhythm and melody are played by separate hands simultaneously.

Not surprisingly, there was a kind of bookish presentation to all of this. Winston, known initially for the accessibly impressionistic solo piano recordings he released for the Windham Hill label (especially ones he cut in the early ‘80s) came across as a retiring and unassuming presence onstage – the sort of polite concert artist that could be counted on to not impose himself too severely on an audience.

But when the introductory chat ceased and Winston set  his hands in motion to tear up the keys with the bright barrelhouse bounce of Professor Longhair’s New Orleans Shall Rise Again, you saw how misleading appearances could be. Winston may be a scholarly clinician in how he approaches another composer’s works. But when the words stop and the music plays, he can be a soulful terror as an instrumentalist.

Granted, there were several instances last night where the more tranquil aspects of his music were spotlighted, as on the autumnal original Woods or his popular, wintry variation on Pachelbel’s Canon. Both were curious entries, perhaps, given that Winston termed the Berea concert as a “Summer” themed program. But there were also curve balls, as when the Windham Hill-friendly passages of Rain opened up with Steve Reich-style minimalism or when a show closing adaptation of The Doors’ Riders on the Storm revealed the same stride piano split performance thinking that drove an earlier version of the James Booker-inspired Pixie No. 3.

Add in jazz explorations of great variance (Vince Guaraldi’s sunny theme to It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown and Art Lande’s more pastoral Fragrant Fields), along with works for solo guitar (Leonard Kwan’s Hawaiian slack key meditation New ‘Ophi Moemoe) and even some Appalachian flavored solo harmonica and you had a musical seminar that went beyond the piano and way beyond any audience’s broadest expectations.

critic’s pick 120

Though promoted over the past two decades as a world music songstress, Angelique Kidjo has very much evolved into a singer that defies borders. Inspired by the Afro-pop muse of Miriam Makeba, among many others, she absorbed the culture of her native Benin, soaked in modern European pop influences after moving to Paris and now sits as a reigning multi-cultural star in her current homeland of New York.

Not surprisingly, Kidjo makes the rounds on her new Ojo album. She rubs elbows with Bono, John Legend and Dianne Reeves, covers Makeba hits, embraces soul classics by James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Aretha Franklin and reinvents a sterling Santana instrumental.

That, amazingly, isn’t what sets off sparks on Oyo. Its appeal instead sits in a sense of balance that hasn’t always been exacted from past Kidjo recordings. The intense dance groove quotient has, quite rightly, leveled off. Kidjo has never needed production tricks to enhance her very natural sense of soul and rhythm. So it’s a treat to hear the subtle lushness of the Makeba lullaby Lakutshona Llanga glow with a groove so summery that it sounds like a West African variation of the great Brazilian songs popularized by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Such a style is underscored further on a beautifully lyrical, French sung version of the Sidney Bechet jazz ballad Petite Fleur.

One might raise an eyebrow when the big names roll out. Typically, a hearty guest list commodifies the work of ethnically rich artists like Kidjo. But teamings with Bono and Legend on an update of Mayfield’s Move On Up and jazz-pop diva Reeves on Monfe Ran E (a revision of the 1967 Aretha Franklin hit, Baby, I Love You) are far from mere marquee star mash ups. Move On Up puts the emphasis on sleek, percussive grooves while Monfe Ran E promotes an Afro-pop sheen with hints of Americanized gospel.

The treats simply pour forth from there. Kidjo applies her native Yoruba (one of the four languages she sings in) to the Otis Redding soul standard I’ve Got Dreams to Remember (which results in shades of continental blues and gospel) and the 1970 Santana instrumental Samba Pa Ti (which further benefits from trumpet turns by Roy Hargrove). And then there is the most unlikely transformation – a version of James Brown’s Cold Sweat served with a humid, commanding vocal charge.

But the most telling moments on Oyo are the most reserved. On the album-opening Zelie and the closing Atcha Houn (well, it’s a finale save for a pair of bonus tracks), Kidjo sings with light but still joyous buoyancy against the backdrop of a single guitar. Both tunes reveal a sense of unadorned soul and a voice built to wail around the world. Here, though, that voice sings with the forthright reserve of a friend close at hand.

in performance: peter brotzmann/hamid drake

peter brotzmann and hamid drake.

peter brotzmann and hamid drake.

“Not too close” warned Peter Brotzmann playfully as Hamid Drake approached with a chair in one hand and a large frame drum (most likely the North African bendir, but we won’t swear to that) in the other.

It was a fitting remark as the duo’s often fearsome two-set improvisational performance drew to a close last night at Gumbo Ya Ya. Over the course of an initial 70 minute set, Brotzmann and Drake engaged in visibly stoic but musically riotous sets of exchanges where the sparks truly flew. So, yes, when Drake moved away from the drum kit to play a more intimate show-closing exchange alongside Brotzmann, caution was probably advisable. Someone could have been singed.

But much like the great Brotzmann’s February duo performance here with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm (that’s right… the veteran chieftain of the European jazz avant garde was, amazingly, playing Lexington for the second time in just under two months), last night’s concert was a study in contrasts and dynamics with the blues as the middle ground.

Where the three lengthy improvisational pieces making up the first set (which deployed Brotzmann on the clarinet-like tarogato, alto sax and tenor sax, respectively) would recoil and release with varying levels of jazz tension, the far shorter (25 minute) second set opened with Brotzmann playing short, drone-like passages on alto over brushed drum strokes, primarily on snare, by Drake. The results were downright contemplative compared to the first set’s firestorm.

The finale on frame drum, a hand-held instrument that looked like a larger version of the Irish bodhran, with Drake complimenting his playing with chant-like vocals, re-introduced Brotzmann on tarogato. Then came darker, dirtier rumbles on the reed instrument that built to the sort of blues-tinged outbursts that ignited the first set.

The engaged and seemingly eager crowd answered all five improvised works with a response both rewarding and revealing: a beat of silence so that the musical fireworks that had been spitting sparks before them could sink in.

Southern union leaders’ paths diverge with big labor-movement split.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution July 29, 2005 Byline: Matt Kempner Jul. 29–They were close friends in a hostile environment, trying to spread unions in the South.

Bruce Raynor was the Southern regional director of a textiles union, whose battles included winning a three-year struggle to organize hundreds of workers at two curtain-making plants in east Georgia. Stewart Acuff launched the Georgia State Employees Union and became president of the Atlanta Labor Council, helping win union jobs building venues for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Together, Raynor and Acuff operated side by side as two of the most prominent labor leaders in Georgia over the past two decades. They even went to jail together after a sit-in at a local Kmart.

But now the two 50-something guys hold crucial national posts on opposite sides of the biggest split the U.S. labor movement has faced in decades, one that may help determine whether unions become a historical afterthought or a reignited power in the American workplace.

Acuff is national organizing director of the AFL-CIO, the federation representing most major U.S. unions. Raynor is general president of UNITE HERE, a textile and hotel workers union with 450,000 active members and one of several big unions that appear to be on the verge of bolting from the AFL-CIO.

This week, two giant unions — the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters — announced their departure from the AFL-CIO, draining labor’s dominant federation of about 3 million workers. At least two other unions, UNITE and the United Food and Commercial Workers, are considering doing likewise. Leaders of the protesting unions criticize the AFL-CIO for not focusing enough resources on signing up new members after decades of union decline. Just 12.5 percent of U.S. workers — and less than 8 percent of those in the private sector _are union members, down from about one in every three workers in the 1955, when the AFL merged with the CIO.

The split in the AFL-CIO is testing friendships in the highest reaches of the labor movement, an arena that at least in theory is supposed to be a bastion of unity. see here lenox square mall

“It makes me angry,” said Acuff of unions leaving the federation.

“Unity and solidarity are the foundation of the labor movement.

“It’s not a difference of opinion,” he said. “Not at all. It’s a destruction of unity.” Raynor describes the scenario as “honest disagreements between the leaders of many American unions and some of the staff of the AFL-CIO.

It doesn’t mean I don’t have respect for those people. They are honest, smart people. They care about workers. We just see it differently.” Union organizers often tend to be a passionate lot. In many parts of the nation — but especially in the South — their chances of victory have been slim.

Union membership in the South is particularly low — a fact historians link in part to the region’s relative lag in developing heavy industry such as steel and automobile plants, where unions have historically been strong.

Efforts to organize Southern textile plants met with brutal failure early on, especially in the 1930s, a fact historians tie to particularly tough resistance by plant owners and government leaders.

With unions already weak, Southern politicians passed laws that made labor organizing even harder. Just 6.4 percent of Georgia workers are members of unions now — about half the ratio for the nation as a whole.

But union organizers keep trying.

Raynor grew up in New York City, the son of a truck driver dad and a mom who worked in retail. Acuff grew up in rural western Tennessee, the son of a Southern Baptist preacher and a schoolteacher mom. Two different upbringings, but Raynor and Acuff followed a similar path, including college and organizing on the front lines of the union movement. this web site lenox square mall

Both came to Atlanta in the 1980s. They worked closely — organizing drives, standing in picket lines, and helping on campaigns of friendly politicians. They were arrested and went to jail together, Raynor recalls, when they held a protest at an Atlanta area Kmart in the 1990s. Raynor remembers the ultimate punishment: He had to write an essay on civil disobedience. Acuff recalls a protest at another retailer that led to both men’s yearlong banishment from Lenox Square mall.

And before Acuff decided to run for president of Atlanta’s Labor Council, Raynor stayed with him until midnight on a Friday before Christmas as the two tried to tally how many votes Acuff might get.

Acuff said Raynor “built a good organizing tradition at UNITE in the South that had a great effect on the way I looked at the world.” In particular, he said, he had great respect for the perseverance Raynor’s organization showed in continuing to battle for union membership.

Raynor, for his part, liked what he saw in Acuff. “Stewart is a capable, honest, hardworking, dedicated man.” And Raynor said he still considered Acuff a friend, though he said the two hadn’t seen much of each other during recent years. Acuff lives near Washington, where the AFL-CIO has headquarters. Raynor lives in the suburbs of New York City, the base for UNITE.

The two did speak briefly this week in Chicago, where the AFL-CIO was holding its convention, Raynor said, but he declined to describe the conversation.

“I’ve heard his point of view,” Raynor said. “I just don’t agree with it.” Acuff also declined comment on the subject.

But the two don’t hide their differences of opinion about how to rebuild the U.S. labor movement.

Raynor said his union, which represents workers in the textile, hotel, gaming, laundry and apparel industries, had yet to decide whether it would leave the AFL-CIO. But he said he was convinced the AFL-CIO — which gets funding from dues paid by unions — needs to funnel far more money into increasing the number of union members in the United States. That means cutting back on other spending, including political lobbying and campaign contributions, he said.

“The AFL-CIO has tied itself too closely as a wing of the Democratic Party,” he said.

Some unions should merge to reduce costs, said Raynor, and all unions should financially and organizationally support a union taking on a huge target nationally, such as unionizing Wal-Mart.

The AFL-CIO has balked at the idea of making major cuts in political spending.

“Politics and organizing should be absolutely integrated and combined,” Acuff said. “It makes no sense to do one without the other.” But Acuff said much of what UNITE and other critical unions have pushed for has been endorsed by the federation.

“We have taken action on every one of the issues that they have raised, and the differences that remain are not nearly large enough to warrant disruption of unity,” Acuff said.

He declined to comment on what motives the unions might have for departing.

What impact the split in the AFL-CIO might have on union efforts in the South, and Georgia in particular, is unclear, Acuff said. “It’s too early to tell.” Raynor, though, said he hoped the changes would lead to more union organizing throughout the nation, including Georgia.

He compared pay for dishwashers in Atlanta with that in booming Las Vegas, where UNITE has signed up many of its newest members. Atlanta dishwashers, he said, generally get about $6.50 an hour, have little or nothing in the way of health benefits, no pensions and no free training to learn skills to get better-paying jobs. In Las Vegas, dishwashers represented by the union make $14 an hour, have pensions and full health care benefits for themselves and their family at no extra cost, and get free job training.

“That’s what is at stake in this fight for workers in Atlanta,” Raynor said.

What’s at stake for friends within the labor movement is another matter.

Raynor said that if his union broke away from the AFL-CIO, it would still work with the federation on campaigns where they agree.

As for the relationship between Acuff and Raynor, both said they expected to remain friends.

“We can have disagreements and be friends,” Raynor said. He paused, adding, “I hope that is the case.” Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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