Wednesday, May 8, 2013

It's NOT About The Music!!!

Usually, its all about the music. But sometimes, as surprising as it may sound coming from this music lover, sometimes it has nothing to do with the music. I came home from this special concert with copious notes as to who performed with whom and what songs were played. I had every intention of writing my usual concert review, attempting to give readers a little taste of what the music was like. But when I sat at my keyboard to begin typing, I realized that this was the wrong approach this time. Because on this evening in May, that brought so many of the best musicians, singers and songwriters in Southern California together to perform, the music, as great as it was, turned out to be merely a postscript to the gathering. This event was about community and about the love this music community has for one of its own.

Ron Sarfaty may be completely unknown to the casual music fan in SoCal, but among the singer/songwriter community here, he is much beloved. Some of this is the result of decades as a devoted fan and friend to many of the best talents this area has to offer. A great deal of this goodwill comes from Ron's immense talent as a videographer of live music, a service for which he will not accept any compensation. But the real reason he is held in such high esteem in these circles is because he is just a wonderful guy, always fun and cheerful and inspirational in the way he lives his life. Free videography for most of the singer/songwriters around here is but a reflection of the sweet generosity of spirit this man exudes! I am proud and delighted to call him a dear friend.

Life threw Ron a major curve ball about nine years ago when he suffered a stroke. Ever since, he has depended on a wheelchair or electric cart for mobility and he was left unable to work at a fairly young age. His hobby of taking videos of his friends' live music performances has helped fill some of the void created by his life challenges. His musical friends have found that these great videos were invaluable in helping promote their music and in helping them to find gigs. Many and probably most of these independent musicians would not financially be able to procure such professional videos and would either have to do without them or have an amateurish one done by a friend. It is impossible to fully quantify the influence his videos have had in furthering the careers of so many artists, but there is no doubt that is considerable.

It was inevitable that Ron and I would become friends. As I got more and more involved in the SoCal independent music scene, everywhere I went to see a show, there was this jovial man in an electric cart seated behind a tripod and video camera. Often he was accompanied by his lovely wife Jean, but very often he was alone. I noticed that many houseconcert venues kept a ramp handy presumably just so he, in particular, would always have access. I also found that many of the videos I was viewing online, trying to determine if I wanted to see an act I had never seen, were shot by Ron.

Then, about a month or so ago, in a matter of seconds, life again changed radically for Ron. A motor vehicle accident only banged Ron around a bit and really shook him up, but it totalled out his specially-equipped van that had let him be independent and mobile. This van was how he was able to get to so many of those music shows that he shot videos of, and now he had to be dependent on other people to get around. Of course, his insurance offered him a tiny fraction of what it would cost to replace the van and all the special equipment necesary for him to use it, so little that even haggling with them about it would leave him nowhere near what he needed. He worried he wouldn't be able to come up with the rest and was facing extended lack of mobility and the isolation that would entail.

Well, Ron had made a "few" friends over the years! The music community in Southern California rallied around him. A bunch of good friends, most notably Sandy Ross and Lee Hirsch among many others, organized a benefit concert on Ron's behalf. All of his musician friends who were at all available offered to donate their talents to appear at The Talking Stick Coffeehouse in Venice, who provided a free location.

So last month on a Sunday, dozens of the best singer/songwriters and musicians in the SoCal area and many dozens of supporters showed up for the benefit concert. It was over four hours of spectacular music, much of it done by performers I know and have written about before, but much of it by performers I had yet to hear. There certainly is a lot I could say about all this wonderful music, but, as I have previously stated, the night was more about the music community and less about the individuals and performances. Many of the songs held special messages for Ron or were actually chosen by him as a favorite from a particular artist. The only one song that I will mention specifically here was the only prerecorded tune we heard all night.  Legendary singer/songwriter Wendy Waldman is one of Ron's oldest and dearest of friends, but obligations left her unable to attend this tribute. Wendy wrote music for lyrics that Ron had written himself,  and together they created "My Island" for Ron and Jean's 20th wedding anniversary last year. It was an extremely special emotional moment in this night when we all listened to Wendy's recording of this beautiful and touching song! The evening was made all the more poignant by Ron not only being with his beloved Jean, but also surrounded by both of his sons and his sister and her family.

In addition to all of the songs and music, there were many donated things auctioned off that night, from things like studio time and instrumental lessons to custom designer clothing and restaurant meals. I was extremely impressed by how many folks there just gave and gave. Performers who were already donating their time were stuffing the donation jar with money, donating things to be auctioned and buying auction items from other donors. And this was from musicians who typically are not the most financially secure people around!

It has become common for many of us who are part of the independent music scene to refer to "the tribe", the loosely defined group of performers and their fans who tend to show up at their shows and often the reference is meant in a somewhat humorous vein. But when people in this community are faced with crisis, be it financial or health or something else, I have marvelled at how this informal network can mobilize and actually DO something special to help out. I think because very many musicians are forced to live without the "normal" safety nets like adequate health insurance or pensions or other retirement plans, a whole lot of them spend significant time worrying about what would happen to them in the case of crisis. I am sure many in attendance had unspoken questions in their mind that night, along the lines of "If I ever need this sort of help, would the 'community' rally to my aid like this?" My thought is that for anyone with anything approaching the generosity of spirit and sweetness of nature of a Ron Sarfaty, this answer is "Of course, we will take care of our own!"

This night was a rousing success! While the money raised still will not cover all of Ron's needs, he is much closer and contributions are still coming in! My biggest hope in writing about all of this is that, just maybe, I can help spur a few others to donate and help out. Here is a link where you can make a donation, any amount will help and be supremely appreciated.

Here is a list of all the performers who appeared (accompanists in parentheses):

Lauren Adams (Ed Tree, Mark "Pocket" Goldberg), Joyce Woodson, Ed Tree (Mark "Pocket" Goldberg, Meritt Evan Raff, Jaynee Thorne), Arlene and Bill Kole, John M. (Chad Watson, Elyse), Fur Dixon, Ken Holm and Tom Hubbard, Tim Tedrow and Terry Vreeland, John Zipperer and Friends (Jaynee Thorne, Tara Sitser, Jime Van Booven), Tara Sitser (John Zipperer), Lisa Johnson and Earl Grey, Suzie Glaze (Rob Carlson, Mark Indictor), Dave Morrison (Chad Watson, Meritt Evan Raff), John Batdorf, James Lee Stanley, Dave Tucker, Tracy Newman, Jeff Gold, Severin Browne (Jaynee Thorne), Lisa Nemzo, Michael Wesley Hughes, Chad Watson and Pam Loe, Gary Stockdale, Ric Taylor, Jaynee Thorne, Randall Kirby

I would LOVE to be writing about ALL these performers. They include some of my very favorites from way back, as well as some exciting performers who are new to me that I will be seeking out in the future. I urge you to seek out live performances and recordings by all of them. They are quite an amazing bunch of performers as well as being incredibly generous human beings!!

And then there were all the hard-working people who planned all this out and then made it all happen. Some of these tasks were not as glamorous as getting on the stage and performing, but without them there would have been no performances!  Here are all the people that were thanked from the stage that night:

Emcee Mentions May 5th
1. The Talking Stick Coffee Lounge – Downstairs venue donation
2. Tara Sitser & Tom Hubbard – Emcees
3. All the performers – Donated Performances
4. Sandy Ross – Performance coordinator & Event Producer
5. Diana Weynand – Production Assistant
6. Greg Grueger & Pam Loe  - Sound Engineers
7. Art Brickman – Stage Manager
8. John Zipperer – Stage Grip
9. Tom Hubbard – Upstairs coordinator
10. John M. – Upstairs song-circle host
11. Jeff Gold, Holly Goldsmith, Lee Hirsch, Linda Geleris, Lois Tedrow, Julie Zipperer – Donation Collection
12. Michael Wesley Hughes – Front Door Manager
13. Ken Holme – Backdoor Manager
14. Lee Hirsch – Auction coordinator
15. All people who made donations for auctions:  Severin Browne, Chad Watson, John & Julie Zipperer, Jeff Gold, Jaynee Thorne, Ed Tree, Darryl Purpose, Lois Tedrow, Paul Zollo, Performers who donated CDs, Coco’s, Denny’s, Las Fuente’s
16. Lee Hirsch – Parking coordinator
17. Bright Now Dental, Ralphs, Staples, Chase Bank – Approved Parking for just this event
18. Lee Hirsch & Sandy Ross – Publicity
19. Russell Paris – Webpage & Flyer creation
20. House concert/venue promoters who publizied the benefit to their audiences:  Jaynee Thorne (Stardust Concerts), Julie & John Zipperer (Julie’s Joint), Bob Stane (Coffee Gallery Backstage), Jeff & Holly Goldsmith (West Valley Music Center Concert Series), Russell & Julie Paris (Russ & Julie’s House Concerts), Lois Tedrow, and Lauri Reimer, Brandon & Nickie (The Talking Stick Coffee Lounge)
21. Leda & Steve Shapiro – FolkWorks front page story and calendar listing
22. Larry Wines – Acoustic Americana Music Guide feature story
23. Roz Larman – Folkscene calendar and on-air promotion (two shows)
24. Katie Bain – L.A. Weekly story
25. Dean Kay – ASCAP Dean’s List
26. Dan Kimpel – Music Connection event mention
27. Paul Zollo – Social Media

I'm sure in all this listing and thanking, someone is being left out and I apologize if my fears are realized! Anyone in the know can send me additions or corrections and I will remedy the slight!  And I urge any of the performers reading this, leave a comment with a link to your website, so my readers (both of them!) can find you! There are just too many for me to do all at once!!! I also want to note that the picture above was blatantly stolen by yours truly! It was by far the best shot of Ron I saw after the event, and I had every intention of asking for permission and crediting the photographer, but in the ensuing weeks, I forgot who I stole it from. If its yours, I apologize for my crime and ask forgiveness. If you let me know, I will give you credit or even take it down if for some reasons it was preferred not to be used!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

John Batdorf and James Lee Stanley - All Wood and Stones II - CD Review

 Being the rebel that I am, I love it when I can prove the "conventional wisdom" wrong! So I therefore particularly relish the opportunity to skewer two of these "truisms" at the same time. Two such commonly held beliefs coud be stated simply as "remakes are always inferior to the originals" and "sequels are never as good as the first of the series". Well I just finished listening to a CD that is essentially a sequel to an album of remakes, a double-whammy that should doom the project to failure according the widely-held notions! I am very happy to tell you, that the new "All Wood and Stones II" CD by John Batdorf and James Lee Stanley is a such a fun concept and so perfectly executed that it is not only a wonderful exercise in nostalgia, but also a vital and new-sounding musical set in its own right.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        So here's the set-up:  Back in 2004 (can it REALLY be that long ago?), two of my  favorite singer/songwriters announced a new joint project. John Batdorf and James Lee Stanley in many ways are among the original trend-setters of  Southern California acoustic rock, guys whose careers have been contemporary with luminaries like Jackson Browne and The Eagles. While neither have enjoyed the commercial success of such acts, their original writing and recordings over the years have consistently been of world-class quality and had tremendous musical influence. So when they announced "All Wood and Stones" as a musical re imagining of the songs of the early Rolling Stones done as SoCal acoustic rock, I was pretty surprised. Songwriters of their stature rarely do "cover tunes" and certainly not whole albums of them! But the final product they came up with, eleven of the best known and most beloved Stones songs significantly rearranged, was a really interesting and fun CD that was quite popular, as were the shows they did together to support the CD.                                                     

Since then, nine years have passed and that CD remains a favorite of mine and it still sells well over the internet and at the guys' live performances. So when I heard John and James were talking about doing another album together, this time it wasn't a big surprise. I figured they would find another artist or group to cover this way; there was talk it might be a Motown album or something similar. Yet, heeding "conventional wisdom", I was really shocked that they chose to do another album of Stones material! But now that I have the new CD in hand to listen to, I understand their decision. The new CD may have fewer "hit" songs than the original, but it includes what, in my opinion, are some of greatest tunes in the Rolling Stone archive which are given the SoCal rearrangement and meticulously recorded. To my great surprise, I like it even more than the first one!

The tunes run the gamut from huge hit songs like "Honky Tonk Women" to obscure album cuts like "Before They Make Me Run" and tunes from early years, like "Time Is On My Side" to later stuff like "Miss You". Like the first CD, some songs are drastically changed and rearranged and some are fairly faithful to the original, but all feature the note-perfect musical arrangement and production skills for which both of these artists have long been known. This time around, all vocals and all guitars were done by John and James, with bass by old pros Bill Batstone and Chad Watson and drums by Tom Walsh.

I won't bore you all with note-by-note and song-by-song dissection. These tunes are mainly about having fun and fun is an elusive feeling not readily analyzed and explained. But this "fun" is not something to dismiss as unimportant! In the realm of the singer/songwriter, it is an element often under-appreciated and ignored, which can lead to some ponderous music trying too hard to be "important". John and James have never been guilty of this and this album is a genuine reflection of the fun-loving spirit within each of these artists. And how do two old musical pros have "fun"? By applying the years of perfecting their art to these tunes, finding the most interesting aspects to highlight and making some subtle comparisons to other music. I simply love the little hints of Beatles music that pop up, like the driving Beatle-esque guitar riff behind this version of "Honky Tonk Women" or the "yes it is" line of "Time Is On My Side" that evokes the old Beatles song, "Yes It Is". There are lots more of these always-subtle musical allusions lurking in the shadows of this recording; the "feel" of Steve Stills' guitar work in the Buffalo Springfield tune "Mr. Soul" pushing underneath "Jumping Jack Flash"  or the good-time, call and response "yeah,yeah" towards the end of "Get Off Of My Cloud" that sounds right out of "Hang On Sloopy" by The McCoys. It doesn't get much more fun than a chorus of  "Sloopy" !!!!

But all of this fun is not to deny the artistry John and James display here! Front and center in all these tunes are the magnificent vocals of both. It almost seems unfair to the competition to meld maybe the two best male vocalists in the acoustic music scene here on this one CD. James' full, deep voice brings a distinctive darkness to songs like "Miss You" and "Jumping Jack Flash" which make these versions even more meaningful than the originals. And while John has always been known for the sweet, higher vocals that he wields here on ballads like "Play With Fire" and "Wild Horses", his bluesier takes on tunes like "Honky Tonk Women" and "Sympathy For Devil" growl with surprising intensity! And these voices were made to be blended! These guys really know how to use them behind the lead vocals to grand effect. I wish I had the technical capacity to isolate just the background vocals on this album, picking them out of the full mix they sound simply astonishingly great and, on songs like "Get Off Of My Cloud" or "Before They Make Me Run", they stand out as the most dynamic component of the arrangements.

Then there is the guitar work! Like on the Stones' original versions, these songs are built around the framework of the guitar chording and riffs. John and James have such great voices, I think their guitar virtuosity can often be overlooked. The guitar playing is perfection everywhere on this album. Its hard for me to tell who does what where on this CD, but there are some really remarkable guitar parts played all across the CD. The lead guitar work is all done on acoustic, and I believe the guys both take turns at it, but its hard to tell. And while the acoustic guitars are able to make some songs really rock out, they can also sound almost like a harpsichord behind "Play With Fire"!

So, take a listen yourself and see if you agree that, "conventional wisdom" be damned, this is a thoroughly exciting and inspired "sequel of remakes" that are just a whole lot of fun! The ten songs on this album have already stood up to the test of time in their original versions but here they are injected with new life and added meaning in the fascinating new interpretations. As a whole album they come off as a completed work and there is a fitting irony in the closing tune, because for me, as a huge fan of these tunes back in the day and as a huge fan of  these new versions, I can truly say, "Time Is On My Side".

Here is a link to the "All Wood and Stones" website:
and the Facebook page:

And  links to John Batdorf's websites:

and his Facebook page:

And a link to James Lee Stanley's website:

and James' Facebook page:!/james.l.stanley.7?fref=ts

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Perla in Wonderland - Perla Batalla and Band in Concert with The Eclipse Quartet at the LACMA Bing Theatre February 4, 2012

photo by Claud Mann

There is one thing that I have learned in the few years that I have been writing music reviews. It seems that, the more you like a given performance, the harder it is to express your feelings about it and describe why you liked it so much. When we don't care for something, we can almost always cite specifics; the singing was out of tune, the lyrics were pedestrian and trite, that sort of thing. Well, last week, we attended a performance by Perla Batalla and her band, along with The Eclipse Quartet at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Bing Theatre as an adjunct to the current exhibit, "In Wonderland : The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States". I now find myself in a state I rarely experience, near speechlessness!!!! I really should end my review there, because I know words will be ineffective to communicate the transcendence and wonder of that evening's performance of old favorite gems and exciting, triumphant, newly-commissioned songs. But, as you all expect, I will persevere and attempt to share my enthusiasm in the simple hope it may spur some to investigate more fully the work of this amazing artist!

My expectations leading up to this concert were sky-high for a whole variety of reasons. First and foremost, we have been Perla fans for more than a decade and have seen many of her performances and always have found them to be pure bliss! Whether its been a night of Perla singing jazz standards or a night featuring her Latin roots or a night of her performing her own work, we have always come away exhilarated and inspired. But of all her many "reinventions", our favorite has always been the work she has cowritten with guitarist/singer/composer David Batteau. They recorded two albums of original compositions awhile back entitled "Mestiza" and "Heaven and Earth" which remain to this day two of my all-time, very favorite CDs. Then, of course, there was the fact that this concert was to be the debut of new collaborations by these two talented songwriters and that these new works were actually commissioned by as prestigious an institution as LACMA! This is nearly unheard of territory for indie singer/songwriters and yet, as amazing as it is, I am thrilled to say Perla and David have been commissioned previously to collaborate. It says a lot in these tough economic times that there are institutions that recognize the significant cultural value in the work of these two talented composers.

These high expectations spurred me to purchase tickets for this show on the very day that Perla first announced it publicly, so we were lucky enough to settle into our front row center seats in the Bing Theatre. This was a lovely, comfortable and classy venue for such a concert and it was filled to capacity, I presume with mainly Perla fans. Projected on a backdrop screen on stage were a series of paintings taken from the exhibition that this concert was associated with, which created an atmosphere of serious culture, but, maybe because it was surrealist art, there was nothing stuffy about the vibe at all (see above photo). Very appropriate to the evening's theme, the first half of the performance was by The Eclipse Quartet, four young female string players who presented two extremely interesting and enjoyable avant-garde modern classical works by two female composers, Meredith Monk and Ruth Crawford Seeger. Classical music criticism is WAY outside my area of any sort of expertise, so suffice it to say that this act was a great opener for Perla and her band in that the music was SO different from what we would hear in the second half, and yet so fitting as surrealism and so conducive to the aura of serious cultural significance that this night held.

After a brief intermission it was on to the main event! Perla took the stage along with the great band she had assembled just for this special evening, Pete Korpela on percussion, Perla's junior high classmate, John Beasley on piano, and, of course, David Batteau on acoustic guitar and vocals. They started out their set with a selection of songs from Perla and David's "Mestiza" collaboration. I now see in hindsight how these songs in particular were chosen for this performance: the themes and emotions they explore would be echoed in the new songs presented later, creating a building atmosphere to showcase the new work. I found it interesting that Perla mentioned that she never thought of her work as surrealism prior to being asked to compose for this exhibit. While I'm not sure I would have previously used that word in describing her work, her lyrics have always had the sort of indefinable but strong imagery that is wholly in the surrelist tradition. And the music that she and David create has always been genre-defying, at once jazzy and folky, Latin and pop, ethereal and straight-ahead. "Don't Say That You Did This To Me" started us out with its dark imagery and insistent melody. Then came "Cine de Llantos" or "Cinema of Tears" whose very title embodies the surrealist theme and I have always loved the jazzy Latin rhythms that propel this song. "Tears of the Sun" offered more poetic abstract imagery and then came one of Perla's tour-de-force vocal numbers, "Iberia", with Perla's vocals soaring high but totally under precise control, delivering the surrealistic imagery of a place where "everything runs backwards". In my mind's eye, I was seeing a Dali timepiece in the glare of a Spanish desert, I guess I really took all this surrealism to heart!

That concluded the "old favorites" portion of the show and I was finally about to hear what I really came for, the newest collaborations in the Batalla/Batteau canon! I think, though I am not certain, that Perla was commissioned to write ONE new song, or maybe a couple to accompany this exhibit. But that isn't the way Ms. Batalla does things! As she is known to do, she totally committed herself to this project, and she and David researched the exhibit and its artists and became captivated and inspired by the art and the love story of renowned artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. On this evening we were treated to five new songs documenting the lives and work of these singular talents. Because I have only heard these songs just the one time, I'm short on musical details to share about them, but they are thoroughly delightful songs that are unlike anything I've heard these two come up with before and yet, totally within the musical traditions they have explored together, also. First was "Mexican in Paris" which was about Diego's years in a Paris full of artistic freedom and experimentation. This delightful waltz was made all the more special by the addition of special guest artist, the legendary Van Dyke Parks on his accordion, "Carmen"! This was an unbilled appearance that not only added to the musical spice, but also made so much sense thematically, given that Mr. Parks has long been acclaimed as a surrealistic lyricist, most notably in his collaboration with Beach Boy genius Brian Wilson on the legendary "Smile" album. Next came a song about Frida's art called "The Great Unreason" followed by a tender love song "Diego Mi Amor" which featured a masterful jazzy solo by pianist John Beasley. Through all these songs, I was so impressed by the other players, most notably David's amazing rhythmic guitar-playing and his understated background vocals, which were a perfect foil for Perla's huge voice and vocal charm. "Tell Me" was next, I jotted a note that it was a broken-hearted love ballad, but, I must confess, all I remember about it was that I loved it! But the finale song to evening, "My Blue House" which was accompanied brilliantly by The Eclipse Quartet, was probably the most memorable of the new songs, a totally charming, almost child-like melody that reminded me of abstract carousel music and turned to a chant-like repetition of "Frida/Vida" that brought the song and the show to rousing and triumphant finish!

Well for the guy who claimed to be near-speechless, I've again, not surprisingly, managed to ramble on and on! But this was such a special, special evening that I just had to do my best to describe the indescribable. Perla has mentioned that she and David hope to add to these songs and maybe even expand them into a musical, which I think is a natural for these songs and subject matter. While that is an exciting prospect, I just can't wait to hear these songs again and again and to be able to own them on CD! But until that happens, you can be sure that I will take EVERY opportunity to visit Perla in Wonderland!

Here is a link to Perla Batalla's website:

And one for the LACMA exhibition this show was part of:

And one for The Eclipse Quartet: