Sunday, October 11, 2009

Kulak's "Wonderland"

So, I really didn't plan on writing this review. This show wasn't a house concert or a music festival which have been my primary focus with this blog.  Besides, I'm CONSTANTLY behind in writing reviews, I have one half-finished review from a show two weekends ago that needs to be finished, with another show from last weekend waiting to be written about. But, even with all that, I had such a great time last night, that I need to at least write briefly about it, and I need to do it today, because, unlike my usual MO, I took no notes last night.

I've been hearing about Kulak's Woodshed for years, but hadn't ever made it there. I had even sent them an online donation once, but my technical incompetence prevented me from seeing a webcast at the time. And I wasn't tracking this show early on, because we were planning on attending the Joshua Tree Roots Music Festival this weekend. But then I had my surgery the week before last and also some terrible back problems and it became apparent I wouldn't be able to hack camping at a festival and we looked for alternatives. And then our friend, Scott, who lives in Hollywood, expressed interest in seeing this show, and it became a      no-brainer.

After meeting Scott for a really nice early dinner we headed over to Kulak's early for an 8:00 PM show. We had John saving us seats but wanted to still arrive early to check out the place and to socialize a bit. This was a good move, mainly because the room itself was so interesting. Picture a living room-sized space filled with hand-me-down seating of wide varieties. We sat in three connected theatre style seats right in front of the "stage" (actually just a space in the center of the room), but other seats were old couches and arm chairs and bar stools and even an old bed where a couple of people had a very relaxing view. The seating is for about 35 people.  And then there is the decorating!  Think Early American Hippie decor crossed with a real-life Peewee's Playhouse! There is so much STUFF on the walls and ceiling it defies description. Hopefully when I put up pictures it will help or check out the archived videos on the website, pictures being worth so much more in this instance. The net effect was like a trip to Wonderland, NeverNeverland or some other magical location. I even got to read an email live on air! Yep, little ole shy me!

Kulak's is a labor of love for owner Paul Kulak and his staff of volunteers. It is run as a non-profit, no one makes any money, including the musicians. The donations are all there is to keep this place up and running. They pass the donation bucket during the show, suggested donation $10. They also take Paypal donations online. The appeal to the musicians is the warm, enthusiatic and hip live audience and the chance to go out live world-wide  on the net with a fairly professional 6 camera video set-up.

The musical format for the evening was John Batdorf presenting his friends Scott Wojahn and James Hurley, with the performers taking turns with twenty minute sets and each of the three doing two sets. Because I didn't take notes, I'll just give a brief description of each performer's sets as I can remember them with this aging medicated brain. I apologize for not being prepared and taking notes, but I really thought I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing right now.

First up was Scott Wojahn, who is an old friend of John's, they did a bunch of jingle work many years ago doing vocals together to sing about hardware and the like. I gather Scott hasn't been performing in quite a while.  Can I be among the first to say "Welcome back!"?  Because for someone who hasn't performed  lately he was great!  His songs ran the gamut from hysterically funny to emotionally moving to the point where you could find yourself crying in two consecutive songs for two totally different reasons! That's some depth of experience!  Scott has a really nice voice and is an adept guitarist who also played piano on one piece, a very moving song about his daughter which was a highlight for me (sorry didn't catch the title). The other high point in Scott's sets was a little ditty called "It Sucks To Grow Old" a hilarious documentation of the myriad betrayals by our bodies as we age.  Becky was literally in tears, she's still chuckling about it today as I write this. We all thoroughly enjoyed Scott's performance. Scott here's a vote to dive back in and start performing again regularly. If nothing else think of it as altruism, you have too much talent not share it with the rest of us!

James Hurley, the next performer to hit stage, is a name I've been reading on house concert and other schedules for a while, though I never really had any particular feeling for what his music was all about. Well now I understand why!  What do you say to describe a force of nature or  a mirage of an enigma?  How do you relate something you've never experienced before? James has to be one of the most unique performers I've ever seen. It may start with his anti-star appearance, seemingly  middle-aged and balding with some of the most extreme sideburns you'll ever see. But his music almost defies description at times, acoustic guitar and vocals that remind one of a diverse palette of genres from Hoagy Carmichael to OingoBoingo to Delta blues and all points in between. He is both a reviewer's delight and nightmare to try to describe. His songs range from the perfectly over-the-top "The Vampire Song" where he sings about the vampires of Southern California or "Mushroom" where the real house of horrors comes with a hefty mortgage! But just when you think you can pigeon-hole him as a hopelessly quirky escapee of the Dr. Demento Home for the Musically Insane, he hits you with a song like "Mountain"  a driving blues riff that is a scathing indictment of the damage done in the name of "progress" and the "nuisance" of conscience. Or one like "To Carry On" an inspirationally uplifting ballad urging us to strive through adversity.  This is no "novelty" act though he is loaded with personality and quirkiness. James is an amazing guitarist, both in a technical and creative sense and his voice has so much personality that you might overlook how GOOD it is, pitch perfect over a wide range, with an emotional depth. At the night's end I paid James my ultimate compliment, I bought his CD, partly because John told us how good it was. We enjoyed listening to it on the drive home, as good and unique as his performance.

Well, that leaves us with the evening's host and headliner, John Batdorf.  Well it should be getting harder to write a review of John's shows. After all there is no one whose music I've reviewed any where near as many times and now we do the Facebook friend-thing and are getting friendly. You'd think I'd be running out of things to say. Right now you're all going "Right, Peter, running out of things to say! As if!" Well just to not let you down there are always new things I notice in John's music, that's why I go see him so often. There aren't that many artists that will stand up to such repeated scrutiny, but John isn't just any artist. But I will ask you to go back and read my previous reviews of his shows, they are more detailed than this will be and I think he has also inspired some of MY best writing.  On this night we were treated to selection of John's music spanning the decades, with the emphasis, as expected, on the "new" album. I put new in parentheses because I have been living with it and actively listening to it for months and months now.  I show no signs of tiring of ANY of it. Last night he did several songs off it, "That Don't Seem Right To Me" a bluesy rocker of a wail against the negative changes we all see aroumd us, "Eyes Wide Open" his normally scathing musical goodby to W and his cronies that last night sounded extra-venomous like John had a real bad day or something, "Will I Love You Forever" one of the more unusual love ballads that you'll hear, that Becky finds exceptionally moving and I love its almost Cajun-waltz feel and of course "What Dya Got"  maybe John's best song ever, probably at least his most commercially appealing to my ear. Since I never tire of quoting myself, I'll again remind you I once called it an anthem to the down-sizing of the American Dream and the power of personal relationships to pull us all through.Which is just a glib way to say this song tells us to lean on each other to get ourselves through tough times. The fact is that its one of the greatest melodies John has ever written and melody has always been his strong suit. And the lyrics are the usual, literate but universal and always clever. I'm not sure how John and his writing partner, Michael McLean, split their work, who does what. My guess is that it varies from song to song but I've never asked John. But this song may be their best work!
So, in addition to the new stuff, we were treated to some classics like "She's The Girl" a beautiful ballad for their wives, "I Don't Always Win" his dark take on the tolls of substance abuse and of course John's "Stairway To Heaven"  or  "FreeBird" equivalent, a classic from the early 70's Batdorf and Rodney, "Home Again" a song that never fails to make me feel like I have just arrived home!  A true classic. I had a very hard time not singing along like I always do, but we were going out live on the web and many of you have heard me sing, enough said!  The night finished with all three performers joining in a rousing version of The Stones' classic "Ruby Tuesday" and this time we were all INVITED (big difference) to sing along, which we all did! A really fun great night of music in a unique venue. I urge you all to go there in person or visit on the web. And check out musicians links below.

Link for Kulak's Woodshed:

Link for John Batdorf:

Link for James Hurley:

Link for Scott Wojahn :


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