April 16, 2017

Concert #798 - Ruthie Foster at McCabe's Guitar Shop (April 15, 2017)

I'm afraid I'll run out of superlatives half-way through this write-up. Simply put, anything and everything Ruthie did last night at McCabe's was at a level of musicianship that can be seldom seen on any stage, anywhere, yet her show was so much more than just great music. With her warmth, humor, humility, and most of all, with her incredible smile, Ruthie put on a show that few other musicians are capable of. With the greatest of ease, Ruthie held the audience in the palm of her hands for almost ninety minutes, a feat accomplished with nothing more than her voice, personality, an acoustic guitar, some captivating storytelling and a massive helping of musical credibility. Indeed, with lots of old-school church music in her DNA, Ruthie picked me up and transported me to a different world, and yes, when she unleashed that divine voice of hers, even my secular self felt the full intensity of the spirit.

My introduction to Ruthie Foster, many years ago, did not go well at all. I first heard of her in 2002, when the Folk Music Center, a historic music store and occasional concert venue in Claremont, California, announced a show with one Ruthie Foster. That was many years before YouTube, so I couldn't check out her singing anywhere on the Internet. Still, one month before the show, I bought two tickets just on the strength of a complimentary article I had read somewhere on the web. One week before the show, I talked two friends into joining us, so I went back to the venue to buy two more tickets. Well, there was a problem, they said, the concert got cancelled. Why? I asked. Because we only sold two tickets, they replied. I pulled out my two tickets from my wallet and asked: You mean these? True story. The good news is that I caught Ruthie the following year, when she performed at the Boulevard Music in Culver City and I've been a huge fan ever since.

Ruthie Foster at McCabe's
Ruthie opened her set with a couple of songs from "Promise Of A Brand New Day", her outstanding new album. She pretty much followed her written set list, but skipped "Richland Woman Blues", "Stone Love" and "Ring Of Fire". Ruthie is a good songwriter - her self-penned "Small Town Blues" was one of the shows many highlights - but she also excels at covering stellar songs written by others. I particularly liked Chris Stapleton's "What Are You Listening To" and Terri Hendrix's "Hole In My Pocket". Patty Griffin and Lucinda Williams were also represented by one song each, "When It Don't Come Easy" and "Fruits Of My Labor", respectively. Ruthie spoke highly of Mavis Staples, before launching into a soulful rendition of "The Ghetto", from the repertoire of the Staple Singers.
The set list

For her two-song encore, delivered without even leaving the stage, Ruthie sang two gentler songs, Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" and a slowed-down version of Steven Foster's "Oh Susanna". Usually I prefer shows to end with a thunderous crescendo, but last night, after being treated to a show of unmatched intensity, these final mellow moments provided a smooth return to the real world.

I hope and pray that Ruthie will become a regular performer at McCabe's, a venue that is perfectly suited for her many talents.

Ruthie Foster at McCabe's
Ruthie Foster at McCabe's
Ruthie Foster at McCabe's
Ruthie Foster at the end of the show
The stage
The crowd settling in
Concert poster

April 4, 2017

Concert #796 - Tom Paxton at McCabe's Guitar Shop (April 1, 2017)

This was my fifth time to see Tom Paxton live in concert and, based on the fine form he demonstrated Saturday night at McCabe's, I'm pretty sure that I'll catch up with him again. At the tender age of seventy-nine, Tom is not ready to call it a career, and why should he? He still sounds good, still writes great songs and certainly has enough energy to complete a decently long concert with a smile on his face. Good for him. Even better for us.

Two days after the concert, the positive vibes I felt at the end of the show are still with me. When thinking about the quality of Tom's newer compositions, all I can do is shake my head in disbelief - his melodic sense is still there and his words are as captivating as ever. One would expect a singer of his seniority to occasionally fumble the lyrics and maybe even scramble to find the right words, but Tom's show progressed without a glitch, from start to finish. Granted, Tom's songs are not particularly difficult to sing, but even so, I was impressed with his precise singing, with all the right notes delivered at the right time.

Tom Paxton at McCabe's
Indeed, Tom Paxton was great, but thanks to the DonJuans, the show had so much more to offer. Not too many folks know who the DonJuans are, and until not too long ago, I didn't either. Their tongue-in-cheek moniker is derived from their first names, Don and Jon, and not from their unproven amorous conquests. As a songwriting team, Don Henry and Jon Vezner earned a Grammy in 1990 for "Where've You Been", a song first recorded by Kathy Mattea. By the way, Kathy and Jon are married to each other. Many more songs that Don and Jon wrote, either together or separately, got recorded by some of the greatest names in music. Songwriting may be their strongest asset, but they can sing, play a few instruments and make us laugh as well.

Don Henry (left) & Jon Vezner at McCabe's
The evening was kicked off by the DonJuans, who sang four catchy songs that included the Grammy-winning "Where've You Been" and "Garden Of The Dead", which became a humorous unsolicited sing-along. Then Tom Paxton joined the duo and together they launched into "How Beautiful Upon The Mountains". From that point on, it was one great song after another. Mississippi John Hurt and Dave Van Ronk were each given a musical tribute. Don Henry sang his own "All Kinds Of Kinds", a hit song for Miranda Lambert a few years back.

The place went crazy when Tom invited Paul Stookey to join him for the singing of "Ramblin' Boy", one of Tom's handful of signature songs. Needless to say, Tom did not forget to credit Pete Seeger for having put this great song on the map, in the early sixties.

Paul Stookey and Tom Paxton at McCabe's
Unexpectedly, "The Last Thing On My Mind" was given a new treatment and I loved every bit of it. Instead of opening with "It's a lesson too late for the learning", Tom started out with the chorus "Are you goin' away with no words of farewell". Like most folk music fans, I know the words of this gem of a song and it was an absolute thrill to sing along with the one who gave it to us.

The show ended with "Dream On, Sweet Dreamer", a gorgeous song from "Boat In The Water", Tom's brand new album. I went home with a warm feeling in my heart.

The end of the show
Don Henry at McCabe's
Jon Vezner at McCabe's
The set list
Another set list

April 2, 2017

Concert #795 - David Baerwald at McCabe's Guitar Shop (March 31, 2017)

Even though I place "Welcome To The Boomtown" in my Top 10 songs of the eighties, I still can't call myself a connoisseur of David Baerwald's music - this may explain why Friday night I went to McCabe's not only with a strong desire to be pleasantly surprised, but also with a certain degree of apprehension. Spoiler alert: the concert turned out to be everything I had hoped it would be and more.

Nothing is classier than having a headliner introduce his band before anyone played a single note. Most artists handle such introductions late in the game, but it was the first thing David did, as soon as he took the stage. Very nice. Consisting of Brady Cohan (acoustic guitar), Sebastian Steinberg (upright bass), Brian MacLeod (drums) and Steve Lindsey (keyboards), the band contributed a whole lot to the success of the evening - there were no flashy solos, just solid support work of the highest caliber. A post-concert Google search revealed some impressive musical résumés, particularly those of Brian and Steve.
The concert announcement mentioned that David  had not performed live in over twenty years, but I could not detect any signs of rust up there on the stage - he appeared to be relaxed, but also in control. His voice was strong, thunderous at times, as he delivered one great song after another. His songwriting is such that one does not have to know his songs in order to enjoy them - even at first blush, everything David played was instantly accessible to these ears. I also loved David's outstanding guitar playing, as well as his often-humorous interaction with his band.

David Baerwald at McCabe's
As expected, David's set list consisted of a mix of songs from his David & David album ("River's Gonna Rise", "Swallowed By The Cracks" and, of course, "Welcome To The Boomtown") and also his solo career ("Compassion", "A Secret Silken World", "Born For Love" and a few others). He also sang "Leaving Las Vegas", the hit song he wrote for Sheryl Crow in the nineties.

For his two-song encore, David elected to sing the unreleased "Stand To Your Rifles" and his "Come What May", the song heard by millions in the 2001 movie "Moulin Rouge". Both sounded great.

I won't even try to pick a concert highlight, as the whole set sounded like one big block of quality songs. Come to think of it, this whole evening was one of those "only in LA" kind of events, when a small group of lucky fans can see top-notch musicians in action, in an intimate room, without having to spend a fortune.

David Baerwald at McCabe's
The set list
The stage
Fans lining up before the show
Concert poster

March 5, 2017

Concert #794 - Peter Rowan at McCabe's Guitar Shop (March 3, 2017)

This was my fifth live encounter with Peter Rowan, an event that came exactly twenty-two years after I first saw him - surprise, surprise - also at McCabe's. Yes, years have past, Peter is now in his mid-seventies, still recording, still touring and I felt that I just had to be there to see him, quite possibly, for one final time.

His Friday night show at McCabe's cannot be described as a high-energy event. Not that anyone was expecting it to be. Accompanied by yet another famous septuagenarian, Jack Casady, Peter delivered a fairly long set, ninety minutes in all, and that was only his early show - as he was wrapping up his set, people were lining up out in the street to attend his 10 PM show.

Peter Rowan (right) and Jack Casady at McCabe's
My hopes of hearing a retrospective of Peter's long recording career did not materialize. Instead, Peter played for us his latest album, "Dharma Blues", in its entirety. The music wasn't bad, but there were just too many songs there that I didn't know. By the way, the album was produced by the late John Chelew, who - prior to becoming a producer - was a successful concert director at McCabe's Guitar Shop.

Peter Rowan at McCabe's

Peter opened his set with "Have You Seen My Aloha", a song that served as his vocal tune-up. In addition to the songs from "Dharma Blues", he also sang "The Ballad Of Ruby Ridge", Elizabeth Cotten's "Freight Train", a few snippets from "Mule Skinner Blues" and "Panama Red".

Seated right next to Peter, the legendary Jack Casady played his oversized acoustic bass guitar with great competency.

Jack Casady at McCabe's
Late in the show, Peter brought out Katie Skene, a young singer and guitarist who made a good impression on the audience. She sang backup vocals, played the guitar and soloed on Bessie Smith's "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out".

Peter Rowan & Katie Skene at McCabe's
The show ended just as I hoped it would: accompanied by Jack and Katie, Peter sang "Midnight Moonlight", his signature song and to me, that was the highlight of the evening.

The sheet left behind on the stage only lists the songs from "Dharma Blues". Surprisingly, Peter's last name is not spelled correctly.

Dharma Blues song list
The stage

Concert #793 - Griffin House at McCabe's Guitar Shop (February 10, 2017)

This was my first time to see Griffin House in concert. The event took place on a Friday night, at the end of a long and tiring week. Indeed, at that point in time, what I needed was a massive adrenaline shot, something I often get while listening to live music. Well, there wasn't much adrenaline emanating from the stage, as Griffin delivered his entire set by standing still right in front of his microphone stand, a place he never left for the entire duration of his show.

Okay, so Griffin may not be the world's most dynamic performer, but in all other respects, his show was totally fulfilling. His compositions, even the ones I had not heard before, were instantly accessible. Starting with "Games", the show opener, and ending with "Liberty Line", his one-song encore, he delighted us with quality songs that came in quick succession, one after the other. The ones I liked the best were "I Remember (It's Happening Again)", "A Painting By Hieronymus Bosch" and "The Way I Was Made".

Griffin House at McCabe's

I'm relatively new to Griffin House's music, but based on his performance at McCabe's, I'm placing him alongside Slaid Cleaves, John Gorka, Richard Shindell and Ellis Paul, right up there among America's finest singer-songwriters.

Griffin House at McCabe's
Griffin House chatting with his fans at McCabe's
The stage
The merch table

February 8, 2017

Concert #792 - The Dustbowl Revival at McCabe's Guitar Shop (February 4, 2017)

I've been closely following the revivalists for exactly five years now, during which time I have seen them thirteen times, at seven different venues. In earlier posts, I have written many times about how great these guys are and how much I have enjoyed their music so in this post I will say a few words about my perception of their musical evolution.

In terms of the band's line-up, the first few years were a bit more volatile, with fairly frequent personnel changes, but lately, things have stabilized quite a bit. Indeed, last Saturday's show featured the same musicians who have been steadily recording and touring with the band for the past two years or so.

Zach Lupetin (vocals, guitar)
Liz Beebe (vocals, washboard)
Daniel Mark (mandolin)
Connor Vance (violin)
Matt Rubin (trumpet)
Ulf Bjorlin (trombone)
James Klopfleisch (upright bass)
Josh Heffernan (drums)

Zach Lupetin & Liz Beebe at McCabe's
Just like the makeup of the band, their repertoire has not stood still. A few years back, when describing their music, I used to say something like "Well, they play a form of old-school music that blends gospel, folk, Americana, jazz and an occasional touch of blues into an infectious mix that appeals to all ages". To a large extent, this description is still valid today, but to these ears at least, their current repertoire is a little bit less old-school and a bit more modern. There's even a touch of experimentation, such as Connor Vance's surprising use of a wah-wah pedal. Nothing wrong with all these changes, which simply reflect the normal evolution of a band that's forging ahead with youthful exuberance.

Connor Vance & Daniel Mark at McCabe's
Ulf Bjorlin & Matt Rubin at McCabe's
The evening consisted of two sets. First, the revivalists delivered a few of their "oldies", among which the "Cherokee Shuffle" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" stood out. After an intermission, they returned to play their entire yet-to-be-released new album - there were many high-energy songs there and, at first blush, they all sounded good. By the way, I did contribute a few bucks to the making of their new album and you can do that too, via www.pledgemusic.com, the self-described online direct-to-fan music platform that's somewhat similar to Kickstarter, but not entirely.

Zach Lupetin & Liz Beebe at McCabe's
Liz Beebe & Matt Rubin at McCabe's
For their encore, the band did something they often do: they stepped off the stage and performed two rousing songs while standing on the floor, right next to their fans. "Down By The Riverside", the song that wrapped up the concert, was particularly good.

The first set
The second set
My friends Daniel & Susanna, fans of the band
The merch table
Band members and fans mingling after the show