Archive for July, 2019

in performance: george winston/andrew bird

George Winston. Photo by Todd V. Wolfson.

If the WoodSongs Old-Time Hour succeeds in nothing as it edges closer to its 1000th broadcast this fall, it has produced what will likely be the year’s most improbable but engaging double bill. On Monday evening at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, the weekly live music show offered a program divided equally between Grammy winning solo pianist George Winston and indie-rock songsmith Andrew Bird – two artists that navigate seemingly disparate musical trajectories.

Winston’s reputation extends back to his early ‘80s albums for Windham Hill and the blanket genre tag of New Age. Now at 70, the Winston of today hasn’t changed much – certainly not in the influences he relishes. The perception of his musicianship, though, has evolved dramatically. If your introduction to Winston’s playing was his set opening performance of “Pixie,” then your resulting estimation of his playing wasn’t that of some stereotypically plaintive instrumentalist, an unfairly misleading tag that has dogged much of the original Windham Hall roster, but rather that of a schooled musicologist. Embracing the jovial stride of New Orleans piano pioneer James Booker, Winston tackled the tune’s rich harmonics, especially within its rampant boogie woogie-esque strolls, through an exhibition of stoic stamina. The tempo never strayed, but neither did the music’s unrelenting rhythm and drive.

Winston was born in Michigan, grew up in Montana, studied in Florida and has long resided in California yet his WoodSongs set suggested none of those regions. In honoring another longstanding inspiration, jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, Winston headed back to New Orleans. On “It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown,” his playing adhered to a sunny, sweet lyricism that retained Guaraldi’s animated spirit but still rocked with a Southern buoyancy that echoed the Booker piece

For balance, Winston turned to a pair of immortal hits popularized by pop-soul maestro Sam Cooke – “A Change is Gonna Come” and “You Send Me.” The former, the only tune featured from Winston’s new “Restless Wind” album (a record he seemed almost hesitant to promote), the pianist stayed in the South, enhancing the song’s gospel foundation with leisurely, efficient grace. The latter placed Winston on seven string acoustic guitar and an arrangement that essentially detuned the song’s melody for a brittle, music box charm that borrowed generously from the Hawaiian slack key sound he has long championed.

Andrew Bird. Photo by Amanda Demme.

Bird’s set flipped the proverbial coin altogether for a quartet of works from his fine, immodestly titled new album “My Finest Work Yet.” Operating with his full five- member band, but in an exclusively acoustic setting, Bird emerged as a pop stylist of an indeterminate era. The opening “Sisyphus,” for example, mirrored a tempered but topical narrative colored by one of Bird’s two trademark musical voices – his own whistling.

But it was “Bloodless,” which sent the song stylist to violin for the rest of the program, that cut to the heart of Bird’s long-distinctive sound as well as the core of the new album’s contemporary perspective. Through subtle use of looping, he conjured the effect of a string quartet that played off the piano colors of pianist Tyler Chester and Bird’s long (and longing-filled) lines on violin. The groove all this played against mirrored a sense jazz and blues-informed cool that was a marked contrast to the song’s storyline of political fearmongering (“They are profiting from your worry”).

“Olympians” and an encore version of “Manifest” further underscored the strengths of Bird and his band. These shifted from the bandleader’s clean and, at times, booming vocal leads to the efficient harmonies he created with guitarist Madison Cunningham and bassist Alan Hampton around a single microphone.

The worlds of these two stylists remained separate, though, during the program. Outside of a brief instance when Bird nodded in appreciation as he sat behind Winston during the relentless piano rolls of “Pixie,” there was no interaction. The universes they traveled proved fascinating, but their passages were clearly booked separately.

echo in the canyon: rapturous music, but with blinders

Jakob Dylan and Tom Petty in ‘Echo in the Canyon.’

In the opening scene to the entertaining but short-sighted documentary “Echo in the Canyon,” Jakob Dylan and Tom Petty converse over the proper pronunciation of “Rickenbacker” – as in guitar, as in the instrument that set forth an electric lexicon that ignited the folk-rock music beaming out of Laurel Canyon in Southern California over 50 years ago.

Ever the efficient debater, Petty straps on the guitar and shoots off the familiar intro to The Byrds’ immortal version of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” ending any further discussion on the word’s proper usage. His victory complete, he then shuts the song down and slyly remarks to the camera, “You can’t afford the rest.”

Apparently, director Andrew Slater really couldn’t. The vintage music he chronicles in “Echo in the Canyon” is rapturous but his tribute to it is woefully incomplete.

The cornerstone bands he spotlights – The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Mamas and the Papas and Buffalo Springfield – are all worthy and essential pioneers of a movement that grew out of Laurel Canyon meshing folk tradition with rock immediacy. Likewise, and without exception, the artists interviewed from that era (David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Michelle Phillips, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, producer Lou Adler and even a somewhat somnambulant Brian Wilson), their British contemporaries (Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr) and the immediate successors of that era (Petty, Jackson Browne) offer insightful commentary and, more importantly, a level of still-vital enthusiasm for the resulting music.

But “Echo in the Canyon” approaches its sense of time and place with blinders on. Its omissions – most notably, Joni Mitchell and Jackie DeShannon, neither of whom are even mentioned in the film – are considerable. The Doors, Love, John Mayall – the list of the overlooked is extensive. There is also no discussion whatsoever of the world outside of Laurel Canyon and how socially and politically in flames it was. Included is Buffalo Springfield performing its protest anthem “For What It’s Worth” on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” but “Echo in the Canyon” doesn’t approach at all what the song, and what much of the music from the slim time frame the film represents (roughly 1965-67), was actually protesting.

More disenchanting are performances and interviews overseen by Dylan with present day artists inspired by the ‘60s music (Regina Spektor, Beck, Cat Power, Norah Jones). The performances, especially from Dylan, are hazy and, frankly, lethargic. Only Malibu songstress Jade Castrinos offers any substantial vocal fire. The interview segments, while respectful of the era, are equally distant and lacking in any real artistic insight.

Still, the music “Echo in the Canyon” echoes with is remarkable, from the always chilling harmonies of the Mamas and the Papas’ classic “California Dreamin’” to the compositional genius of the “Pet Sounds”-era Beach Boys. It is also heartening to see the film give considerable homage to The Byrds, a band whose influence extended far, far outside of Laurel Canyon to shape the musical landscape of a generation in ways that are still underappreciated to this day. Similarly, hearing McGuinn and Crosby discuss the band’s innovation, as well as the dissent that led to the latter’s firing, is quite intriguing.

The most mercurial parting shot from “Echo in the Canyon” – aside from the obvious fact that Petty’s inclusion, filmed not long before his death in 2017, constitutes one of his final artistic statements – is studio footage of Neil Young blazing away alone on guitar during a new version of Crosby’s 1966 Byrds tune “What’s Happening?!?!” Not appearing, outside of vintage footage, anywhere else in the film, Young summons a wordless, electric torrent that speaks in far more succinct and scholarly terms about the lasting inspiration of the Laurel Canyon era than anything the new generation artists on hand have to say.

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