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:

Monday, January 30, 2012

Severin Browne - "LUCKY MAN - A Songwriter's Notebook" - CD Review

At the end of every calendar year, there is always a rush by artists to get their new CDs released in time for holiday gift-giving and, this year, among my most-anticipated releases was the new Severin Browne CD, which we had purchased as a pre-order. With it now in hand and having listened to it numerous times, I notice a very apparent error!  No, the songs are all great and there are no bad notes here; my problem is with the title. While "Lucky Man" is a VERY appropriate title, being the name of the killer opening track, my beef is with the subtitle, "A Songwriter's Notebook". To me the concept of a "notebook" gives connotations of unfinishedness, a work-in-progress glimpse at the artist at work, and that certainly is not a very good description of this CD. With the well-honed perfection of these songs and the wide array of styles  and feelings they incorporate, "A Songwriter's TEXTBOOK" would have been a MUCH more apt description!!!

So, now that my ridiculously cute opening paragraph has hopefully grabbed your attention, let me tell you a bit about this wonderful collection of songs by one of the best songwriters around. For those unfamiliar with Severin and his work, he has spent the better part of four decades as a professional songwriter and was a staff writer for Motown  many years ago. The discipline he learned back in those days has given him  a real depth of musical experience to draw from in creating and arranging this remarkable bunch of tunes. The first thing that will grab you about these songs are the amazing variety of styles and feels these songs encompass. From tender ballads to uptempo rockers, from cosmic folk tunes to bouncy calypso, from Cajun raveup to bluesy soul vamps, Severin is able to find just the right voice to tell the story at hand in the most effective manner.  What always strikes me about his music, whether enjoyed live in concert or recorded on CD, is how the performances are always about the SONG, not the singer or the instrumentals. Severin's singing can be deceptive in its strength. He will never wow you with vocal fireworks, like hitting big huge notes or soaring to incredible high notes or the like. Instead the "everyman" warmth in his voice helps lend these songs a universality that would be less effective delivered in a bigger voice. But please don't misunderstand what I'm saying, I have NEVER heard the man sing a bad note in countless performances both live and recorded over many years. He has a GREAT voice that I know is capable of much more than we ever hear, but he uses restraint to serve the purpose of the tune with no distractions. Similarly, while Sev is one of the best guitarists you'll ever hear, he is content to let his incredible side musicians play the solos and provide the background coloration, while he concentrates on the message in the song.

Now that we have established that Sev is all about the songs, lets examine these great tunes a bit. I could write on and on about each and every song here, but I know I tend to get too wordy when I'm this enthused about music. I will only describe a few of my personal favorites so I won't bore any of you, but each and every song on this CD is praise-worthy in its own way and deserves your careful attention. The CD starts with the title song, "Lucky Man", a jazzy musical morality play which features Gary Popenoe's plaintive harmonica work underscoring the twists of the ironic story of the lyrics. Its a perfect opening tune to draw the audience into Severin's view of the world. The song "Calypso Rose" lets us know that we will travel the world appreciating his songs, a full-blown Calypso rocker complete with steel drums and infectious rhythms that make you want to get up and do the limbo all by yourself!!!  Some songs are more about FUN than anything else, which makes a terrific release from the "seriousness" of some of the other tunes.

"To The Light" is a song Severin penned along with Freebo, James Lee Stanley and David Roth. We have also heard Freebo and James perform this tune both live and on record, but I think Severin's version is the best of all! His breezy delivery of this "cosmic"  new-age sounding song keeps the message grounded in every-day realities, steering the song from over-blown philosophy into the realm of a much more personal universe, without sacrificing the "cosmic" feel. This a superbly crafted song that features a chord progression that is at once unusual and totally logical, which again, perfectly underscores the lyrical content.

One of the most personal songs on the CD, "I Am Not Cactus", takes a metaphor and runs free with it, comparing the walls with which we protect ourselves emotionally to the protection that the spines give a cactus. The simple melody and chord progression, the spare production and Severin's warm vocal delivery are one of the most starkly beautiful expressions of vulnerability you will ever hear!

Do you know what is the most recognizable song in the English language? "Happy Birthday To You" has generated a huge amount of royalties over the years and is maybe the song most firmly entrenched in our Western culture. So who would be able to replace this song for us?  Sometimes the most simple, straight-forward sentiments are the hardest to express. No worries, Severin Browne is on the job and more than up to the task! "Britta's Birthday Song" is a brave attempt to come up with an a grown up song to celebrate our personal milestones in song and it succeeds on every level:

"The longer it steeps, the better the tea, the more time that the sauce can slowly simmer naturally, Today we celebrate another year, Happy birthday!"

Wow! This is simply ASTOUNDING songwriting! I hope that this eloquent expression of the upside of aging and the celebration of the lives of our loved ones will replace the old standard at future parties in my circle of family and friends!

The next highlight is a stop at the back alleys of New Orleans for a Cajun rocker, "Cat Woman", with its tales of love and fast food and felines, this song has been a crowd-pleasing staple  of Sev's live act for years. Its another tune that is just a lot of fun, from a serious songwriter who never takes himself all that seriously. On songs like this or "Calypso Rose" you can hear Sev's years of experience as a bandleader and these songs have a "live" feel and immediacy to their groove that only hundreds of live gigs can impart to a tune. I need to stop and mention the great musicians and background vocalists that Severin has assembled to add some serious polish to some already gleaming songs. There are too many different players here for me to mention them all, but the list of names resembles a Who's-Who in SoCal music circles and includes some players that are particularly favorite to me. In a business climate that lends itself to down-sizing and do-it-yourself technologies, it is a singularly refreshing and wise decision that Severin made in bringing in all these pros and it has a wonderful effect on every moment on this CD.

The next song on the CD, "Dear Ruthie", could very well be my favorite Severin Browne song and maybe just one of my favorite songs by anyone! Another seemingly simple tune that is utterly perfect in its construction and starkly beautiful in its execution, and whose emotional  "pay-off" at the end avoids over-the-top sentimentality mainly by virtue of Severin's perfect vocal delivery and the inevitabilities built into the structure of the song. The same tune written by less of a craftsman would never work, but this gem never fails to bring a tear to this jaded, cynical reviewer's eye! I am being purposely vague on the "story" of this song, since it is best experienced for the first time without knowing where the story is headed. I remember Sev saying once in a live show that that night was the first time in years that he had performed it, and it still blows me away that a songwriter could discard a tune of this magnitude! In a review of that live show, I wrote that, to me, that was "like Michelangelo leaving the Sistine Chapel out of his portfolio"!

Well, hitting just these seven "highlights" has left me neglecting some really great songs, because this CD has no filler at all. The remaining six songs, stated as succinctly as I can, include the nostalgic drinking song "Enough For Us", the blue-eyed soul of "Is It Really True" seems to hearken back to Sev's Motown days, "Don't Give Up On Me Virginia" with its bluesy boozy vibe, "The Other Man" a beautifully dark, minor key ballad with its wonderful "pirate" metaphors, "When It's Right It's Right", another gorgeous simple melody with wonderfully optimistic lyrics and finally "Lessons" a heart-felt finale of a tune with its child-like questioning and questing.

So there you have it, thirteen exquisitely crafted tunes that embrace  an amazing breadth of styles and feels and are recorded with all the love and care they deserve by some of the greatest musicians around! Like I said originally, a veritable "Songwriter's Textbook"  delivered by the old master himself, Severin Browne!  There is a lot to be learned here, please get yourself a "textbook" and see what lessons YOU can learn!

Here is a link to Severin Browne's website where you can learn more and purchase the CD directly from the artist!

And here is a link to a video I shot of Severin accompanied by Ed Tree  doing "Lucky Man" at Russ and Julie's House Concerts on 11/11/11

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Koles and John Batdorf In Concert at the Simi Vallety Cultural Arts Center Saturday, February 18, 2012

So, normally this blog is about reviewing shows after they happen or CDs after they are released, maybe a music festival overview, that sort of thing. But sometimes events and circumstances are more important than formats! Besides, my readers are few enough that there will hardly be a public outcry that I'm  stepping over lines, and I write what I want here anyways. So today I am taking the time to help promote a show, (and hopefully a whole concert series!) that is VERY dear to my heart. On February 18th, 2012 at 7:00 pm there will be a concert at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center featuring The Koles with special guest, John Batdorf.

With all the great music we are blessed with the opportunity to see in person here in SoCal, its hard to single out individual shows as extra-special. But the combination of a super-strong co-billing and some special considerations has prompted me to support this show with all the gusto I can muster and with whatever meager influence I might be able to generate.

If you have read the reviews I have posted on this blog, you will notice that the name John Batdorf shows up more than any other name. I have been a fan of John's since the Batdorf and Rodney days in the early 70's, when they were thought of in same light as the earliest releases of folks like The Eagles, America and Jackson Browne. To give you an idea, yesterday an old friend back on the east coast, who I recently became Facebook friends with, saw a post I put up on Facebook about John Batdorf. Her comment was    "as in Batdorf and Rodney? I loved those guys. May be worth a trip to the west coast!" After 4 decades without hearing any of John's new music, she is ready to fly cross country for a chance to hear him now!!!!  I would find that astounding if I didn't relate to it so much!  For me, finding John out here in California and becoming acquainted with his new music has reignited my passions for live music and spurred me to become more involved the SoCal music scene.  Talking about music being "life-changing" may sound a bit over the top to some, but John's music is THAT good. And he is only one half of this co-billing!

Knowing how much I esteem John Batdorf as a musician, you might imagine how I felt a couple of years ago when he told me about this new act he had heard, a singer/songwriter named Arlene Kole who performed with her husband and daughter. He told me that their CD was the BEST new album he had heard in years and that it not only had some great songs but it also just SOUNDED great! Well, if you have heard me describe John's talents as a masterful producer, arranger and engineer of his own albums in addition to his singing,songwriting and guitar-playing, you would understand what this endorsement meant to me! And when I jumped at my earliest opportunity to go see The Koles live and buy their CD, I totally understood John's enthusiasm!

Unfortunately, due mainly to my neglect at times of this blog, I have yet to review The Koles in concert, so I'd like to give you taste of what the experience of seeing them live is like. The first thing that will strike you are the voices!! All five members of the band have amazing voices and four of them take turns at singing lead, though the bulk of the repertoire is fronted by either Arlene or her daughter Skyeler. Their harmonies are amazingly beautiful adornment to some really transcendent soaring lead vocals. Then you will notice the virtuosity on their instruments, not to mention that they swap around instruments on almost every song (they each play more than one instrument with lots of skill). This ability to swap instruments makes an infinite variety of musical coloration possible, providing each song with just the right sound to make it fully effective. The key to the sound of The Koles is husband and father Bill Kole, another wizard of the recording studio and a guy who I swear has never met a musical instrument he couldn't master. In the course of an evening with The Koles, you will hear Bill play guitar, bass, keyboards, mandolin, banjo, drums and Lord knows what else, and he plays all these expertly and with taste. With the recent addition of young virtuoso Wyatt Stone, a child prodigy we heard years ago playing with Rickie Lee Jones and now grown up, the band has even more instrumental variation. Wyatt is a KILLER on guitars, fiddle and keyboards, pedal steel and any other instrument he lays his hands on and he is contributing some surprisingly mature songwriting. And with the always tasteful "Uncle" Jim Rolfe playing spot-on-perfect guitar flavors, as well as taking turns at bass or mandolin, the depth of varied musical sound this band is capable of is virtually limitless. Then, most importantly, there are the songs! With at least four incredibly talented songwriters in the group, the songs also vary greatly stylistically, from angelic ballads to stinging blues wails, from bluegrass rave-ups to indie rockers with stops at all points in between! And I must particularly note how much I love the songs penned by daughter Skyeler Kole, her songs have a unique quirky indie feel that make me think this is where the band might really take off with commercial success!  This "share the spotlight" ethic is a key ingredient in experiencing The Koles live and also, from what I'm told, on the new CD!

Hopefully my words have at least begun to convey how excited I am at the prospect of seeing two of my most favorite acts appearing together and hopefully, maybe, I have transferred a little bit of that excitement to you. But there is another important reason this show is so important to me and again, maybe I can convince you of its importance to YOU.  Arlene Kole is promoting this show herself, in the beautful, intimate and comfortable confines of the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. For us, this is quite a different setting than we are used to frequenting to hear live indie acoustic music! Usually these sorts of shows happen in someone's living room as a houseconcert or in the basement of church on folding chairs, or out in a field at a festival, or, even worse, in a noisy nightclub where most of the folks ignore the music as they get obnoxiously inebriated. It is quite rare to get to hear this music in a real theatre setting, with comfortable seats, great sightlines, pro sound and lights and a real stage!!! Arlene is trying to show the powers that be in Simi Valley that this music will draw people and she hopes to promote lots more shows of this nature with other indie talent. If this show does well, it can lead to all sorts of other shows in this great venue or others like it!!! So I have given Arlene my FULL support on this, as I think it to be of MAJOR importance to the SoCal music scene. I am BEGGING all my friends, acquaintances and readers to buy tickets NOW and support this show!!  I would also encourage any performers who are without gigs that evening to buy tickets and show up also, you folks have a vested interest in this show's success!!!!

I sincerely hope to see you all there that night!!!!!!!

Here is a link to John Batdorf's website

and to The Koles' website

and to the event Facebook page

and for the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center to buy tickets and get directions