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