Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The 17th Annual Appel Farms Arts & Music Festival - June 4, 2005

For the sixth consecutive year my wife and I volunteered at The Appel Farms Arts & Music Festival in Elmer, NJ where we have witnessed some great music. In the past Appel Farms top notch lineups have included Mary Chapin Carpenter in 2000, Jackson Browne in 2002, and Los Lonely Boys last year. In return for volunteering admission is free for the all day lineup of musical events. Our shift schedule and the weather have often prevented us from participating in the full day of concerts but this year we saw more music than ever before. The weather was on our side.

The first concert we had the pleasure of seeing was a solo acoustic performance by folk singer John Gorka, someone we both have seen at least five times before. Gorka is one of the few folky troubadours I really enjoy and that is because of his deep golden baritone and his imaginative lyrics. Because Gorka possesses a truly great singing voice his songs are far more melodic than most singer-songwriters and therefore immediately more enjoyable. He sang many of his best and most well known songs including "I'm From New Jersey," I Saw A Stranger With Your Hair," and "Good Noise." His friendly, onstage demeanor just added to his fine performance. Gorka played, as do all of the Appel Farms musicians, on an outdoor stage, yet you would be surprised to hear the clarity of the performance their sound system provides. The sound is better than at many indoor venues I've attended.

Appel Farms always has two stages active at the same time. Unfortunately the scheduling is not always conducive to seeing full performances of everyone and such was the case after Gorka concluded his portion of the day long festivities at the larger Meadow Stage. We then moved on to the more intimate, tree-lined Grove Stage to see Loudon Wainright III whose show was already in progress. As usual Wainright's odd sense of humor and cynicism were in tact and his performance was better than the last time I saw him because he seemed to be in better voice. Wainright made his performance a family affair as he brought out daughter Lucy and his son Rufus, this year's headliner, to sing three songs with him.

When Wainright was finished we went back to the Meadow Stage for a singer I would have paid to see, Madeleine Peyroux. The great jazz and jazz-folk singer, who sounds too much like Billie Holiday to please some, became a favorite of mine after her debut CD in 1996. Unfortunately she took eight years to release a followup, Careless Love, in 2004. She sang most of the album with a five piece band, including a "hot" pianist and a drummer, who managed to lay down a solid backbeat without pumping up the volume. I'd like to see Peyroux in a smaller venue such as a jazz club or a cafe style music house. She would definitely be worth the money.

Now for a big let down back at the Grove Stage. Aimee Mann, wife of singer Michael Penn, and sister-in-law of the famous actor Sean Penn, is a crashing bore. Mann has a great voice but she does nothing with it. Her songs have no melody and her dour expression matches her dour songs and performance. We left early to secure good seats for the headliner, Rufus Wainright.

Unlike Loudon who only plays guitar, Rufus possesses a better voice and plays nice keyboards along with his guitar. His songs don't seem to have the nasty streak that has become standard in his Dad's work. Rufus played some of his better known material, including "Hallelujah," the cover of the Leonard Cohen song most of the crowd came to hear. Just as his father did Rufus made his performance a family affair by introducing Loudon and his sister Lucy. The strange thing about this trio appearing together again at this time is that they performed the same three songs they sang on stage with Loudon just a few hours earlier.

One of the things that came out of the day was the discovery that I need to dig into the work of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, someone whose music has remained unfamiliar to me over the years. In addition to "Hallelujah," which I mentioned was covered by Rufus Wainright, Madeleine Peyroux played my favorite song from Careless Love, Cohen's "Dance Me To The Edge Of Love." Perhaps I've been ignoring an artist who shouldn't be missed.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Top 5 Albums of 2004


1. Black 47 - New York Town
This CD was in a close race with #2 but Black 47 wins out because of the emotional content of some of the songs, especially "Orphans Of The Storm" in which the subject dies in the World Trade Center. Larry Kirwan said this is his love letter to his adopted home town.

2. Madeleine Peyroux - Careless Love
Speaking of better late than never, in 2004 Peyroux released only her second CD, a long EIGHT YEARS after her debut. The good news is that it's even better than her first one! Peyroux is a great singer, with great arrangements. She ranks among the best interpreters of other people's songs and she makes excellent choices with her cover material while co-writing only one of her own tunes. Some of this stuff isn't really "pure" jazz but it all works well.

3. Nellie McKay - Get Away From Me
This CD is hard to describe but the assessment that McKay is "a cross between Doris Day & Eminem" is accurate. Maybe she should do a hip-hop version of "Que Sera Sera" on her next album. Her debut CD is eclectic, weird, and wonderful though she needs to make an effort to clean up her potty mouth.

4. Peter Cincotti - On The Moon
Much of what I said about Madeleine Peyroux holds true here except that Cincotti writes more of his own material than she does and he plays very fine jazz piano in concert. Peyroux is more of a singer (even though she does play acoustic guitar). This too is his second release but he didn't wait eight years to release it. You need to hear Cincotti's jazz version of "Bali Hai." Yes, it's the song from South Pacific but this version really swings. Cincotti covers everything from the "St.Louis Blues" to Goffin and King. He needn't apologize for any of it.

5. Los Lobos - The Ride
The Wolves latest CD is musically diverse once again. Their Mexican heritage is apparent as ususal and the music is colored even more by a slew of guest artists: Dave Alvin, Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Tom Waits, Bobby Womack and more.

Honorable mention goes to Johnny A, Los Lobos's covers EP, and a fantastic Christmas CD by Chris Isaak.

The Saw Doctors - Live In Galway (2004)

Live In Galway, released in 2004, is The Saw Doctors first live album and their latest to be available in America.

The Doctors are one of the great Irish rock bands, second in popularity in Ireland only to U2, yet they remain virtually unknown in America except to hardcore fans of Celtic music.

Because vintage Saw Doctors music is not easily available stateside you may view Live In Galway as a tempting first purchase, but please do yourself a favor and don't rush out to buy this CD unless you are already a fan of their first two releases If This Is Rock & Roll I Want My Old Job Back and their followup All The Way From Tuam. If you are not familiar with those CDs Live In Galway will be an unfullfilling experience because most of the songs do not have the high quality production of their excellent studio recordings. The melody and lead guitar are washed out of the songs due to the imperfect live mix and therefore the songs all tend to sound the same. When I finally heard their first two CDs I became far more appreciative of this performance from a band who has a great reputation playing on stage.

The album is almost a greatest hits live and contains their two most famous songs, "N17," and "I Useta Love Her" along with several other choice nuggets such as "Red Cortina," "The Green and "Red Of Mayo," and "I'll Be On My Way.

"Bless Me Father" gives the listener a good glimpse of the the Saw Doctors typical humorous irreverence while still acknowledging their obvious Irish-Catholic roots.

Become a fan of the Saw Doctors studio works first. Only then will you appreciate Live In Galway.

Madeleine Peyroux - Careless Love (2004)

Madeleine Peyroux has finally released her second CD, Careless Love, a long eight years after her stellar debut and it is even better than its predecessor.

Just as she did on 1996’s Dreamland, Peyroux still sounds a lot like Billie Holiday but with out the late singer's gruffness, and her band still features the same sparse arrangements that allow her voice to be the star because, after all, her vocals and the mood she sets with her voice are what this CD is all about. Even though her few detractors say she sings too much like a Holiday clone Peyroux is still one of the best pop and jazz singers in business today.

This time around there is only one self-penned tune which allows Peyroux to choose some excellent cover material. The CD starts off with a bang with Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End Of Love". Her reading of Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," originally found on his Blood On The Tracks album, is superb. She also covers Hank Williams, as well as the title cut by W. C. Handy, and the old jazz standard “the Lonesome Road.” “Don’t Wait To Long,” the only original song, shows Peyroux has great taste in collaborators because her co-writer here is none other than Jesse Harris who wrote a lot of Norah Jones first major label release.

Peyroux's terrific band never overwhelms her vocals but they make their presence known with occasional flourishes and solos that standout because of the sparse arrangements. The band is capable of offering an up-tempo beat without any bombast and on the mellow songs the soft accompaniment is very appropriate.

Peyroux can’t wait another eight years for a followup. Not only is it a bad career move it isn’t fair to her growing legion of fans because she has too much to offer the music world.