Reviews of shows from the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts and other local venues published by the Los Cerritos Community News. The writer and paper are in their twentieth year of covering these events.

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Location: Fear City, Ca., United States

"My name is Addison DeWitt. My native habitat is the theater. In it I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the theatre - as ants to a picnic, as the boll weevil to a cotton field." George Sanders in "All About Eve"

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Memphis Music Fest August 24, 2013

Memphis Music Fest: Stax Volt Time Machine Running Smoothly

                                                     By Glen Creason

     The trouble with tribute shows like “the Memphis Music Fest” featuring stars of yesteryear is that the spirit may be willing but the flesh is weak. At this concert, the second in the Cerritos Center season, much of the material was drawn from the Stax record label heyday with the lady and gents who sang those greats now solidly in the AARP demographic. Plenty of gray hair on both sides of the footlights but the memories and melodies seemed to breathe new life into everybody in attendance and the energetic men and woman on stage. Every single performer was up to the task with nary a musical wrinkle in sight. In fact, in the case of Booker T. Jones I would say the man has never played better or stronger on his Hammond B3 than he did at the Performing Arts Center on Saturday night. As a matter of fact, everybody sounded strong and enthusiastic and that sweet, swinging Stax-Volt sound was absolutely invigorating for the well-dressed crowd.

     The entire proceedings were backed by the rock solid Bar-Kays whose bassist James Alexander kept the beat along with the unsung heroes: the rhythm guitarist and an unbelievably tireless and talented drummer whose names were lost in the funk.  Jean Knight started the fireworks, exploding through “Supernatural,” her own “Mister Big Stuff,” and the infectious “Toot-toot” that seemed to clear out all the soul-cob-webs and get the crowd standing and moving. The first of inspirational septuagenarians William Bell came forth looking very clean, as was his strong voice. The man who is credited with creating the Stax-Volt sound sounded fine in his set with “Easy Coming Out,” “I Forgot to Be a Lover,” “Trying to Love Two” and even a “Sad Song” in tribute to the King of Stax, Otis Redding.  Eddy Floyd, the other fit 70-something was still charming the ladies and singing with plenty of soul. His anthem “Knock on Wood” got most of the crowd on their feet. The undisputed high-light of this show or season was Booker T. Jones’ magnificent “Green Onions” which filled the hall to the rafters and another utterly rambunctious oldie “Time is Tight” that really and truly never sounded so good.  After Booker T. the Bar-Kays just would not allow the energy level to dip below out of sight and their “Soul-Finger” followed by a rousing tribute to Otis Redding sent the delighted crowd into the Summer night happily recalling 1966 and feeling like they were there again.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Folks Festival August 16-18, 2013

“In the confusion we stay with each other, happy to be together, speaking without uttering a single word.”- Walt Whitman

     Strangely enough, I kept thinking of Walt Whitman as I completed my annual Summer pilgrimage to Lyons, Colorado.  Whitman suggests we “love the earth and sun” and "have patience and indulgence toward the people" which seems to be the way things are done up there in the mountains. It was time again to breath the high altitude air at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival and to hear good music unsullied by the flesh-peddlers, played by fine musicians dedicated to their craft and not their balance sheets. This is indeed a spirit re-charging weekend that has become almost a necessary stopping point in my salad year’s vacations where my family joins together with a thousand strangers who behave in the best way people know how. Maybe some teenagers might think it strange to see the occasional gray-heads bobbing in their tie-die -ensembles but for those of us who have been around the block a few times these three days are pure gravy. It is hard to find another venue or event where beer flows, skunky smoke drifts and not a discouraging word is heard despite inhibition loosening spirits and rambunctious kids in the mix. Simply put, it is the music that gives the Rocky Mountain masses a cool and groovy disposition that feels like a dip in the hot springs of Ponce de Leon.  Good and true music can bring us to that place where we become one with an entire audience, lead on by a transcendent song performed by an artist with great skill. While someone like Patty Griffin, dives deep into one of her song-stories we “stay with each other, happy to be together, speaking without uttering a single word.” Especially in the darkness of the late sets all of Lyons becomes locked in a common embrace of song. As another songwriter says “it’s that place where time stands still…it’s no place you can get to by yourself.”

While the event has to hang a name on the experience it is really not a pure folk music festival in the strict sense. Many of the groups defy labeling and there were representatives of R&B, Indie-rock, Blues, New Age, Poetry-Slam, techno and whatever you call the towering genius of John Prine. What is truly inspired is the ability of the Festival organizers to find such excellent quality from all over the musical world, while bringing in some unknowns who are accomplished and polished, learning their trades in the hard and true ways. I missed a few sets but it was not my heart or my ears but my back that kept me from taking in the more than two dozen acts. I did take the old hambone down into the low-backed chairs for seventeen performances that never hit a sour note. I might add that very often I experienced the kind of musical epiphanies that stick with you for a lifetime. Granted, the audience is occupying tarps and blankets with visiting friends and family scattered about so there is not the “hear a pin drop” quiet of a concert hall. Then again, you can’t sip a craft beer at your seat in the Disney Concert Hall. 
     Right from the start, former songwriter showcase winner Robby Hecht bumped the bar up very high with his fine set, marked by a better than the original “If I Needed You” and a finishing home run with the touching “The Sea and the Shore.” The quality of the first day remained high with the exhilarating wall of drum driven sound of Brooklyn’s “Lucius” that rocked the red rocks of Lyons both sonically and visually. Lucius made me wish I were young again and hanging out in Brooklyn. The young’ns were followed by the incomparable Mary Gauthier whose set was made even better by her superb band of two Winnipeggers Scott Nolan and Joanna Miller. Gauthier commanded the stage and brought insight and pathos to her sad but beautiful repertoire. Her haunting “Last of the Hobo Kings” made a railroad riding vagabond into an American hero. Colin Hay held the banner high and brought back some good musical memories of the 1980’s by making some “Men at Work” gems shine up pretty well along with some droll story-telling and an evergreen voice that lifted his own solo material. The audience had a chance to relax and unwind with the finishing dreamscapes of the marvelous Loreena McKennitt who turned a “Mummer’s Dance” into pure magic. Still, day one was owned by a singer-songwriter with just one name: Ellis who packed humor, lyrical beauty and dynamic emotion into a truly memorable set. While her tiny daughter called for rock and roll in front of the stage Ellis turned my t-shirt into a hanky and totally got it right with “Right Now” and her finisher “Right On Time” that left a sweet, unforgettable glow behind.  Having seen Ellis as a young song schooler with great promise years ago I was able to view this year, a polished veteran with unlimited talent and a remarkable voice.

Day two was sun-dappled and full of musical drama with some surprises. JOHNNYSWIM from my dear hometown was dazzling musically and visually. Singer Amanda Sudano-Ramirez is so beautiful it is easy to overlook her fine voice which is enhanced by the arrangements and harmonies of husband Abner Ramirez. Their “Paris in June” was as lovely a love song as you will ever hear anywhere. Relatively unknown Irishman Foy Vance followed strongly and despite his “Joy of Nothing” being the big winner in the set he showed a deeply evocative voice and confident stage presence. Day two really showed the close study and risk taking of the festival organizers who just never missed the mark. Case in point was poet Shane Koyczan who had one of the most riveting hours on the Lyons stage begun with his now famous “This Is My Voice” with its YouTube cred but followed by many other insightful and optimistic poems that were very well-received by the unblinking crowd. Typically, the penultimate act on any day has to be strong to revive the fatigued festivarians but when Patty Griffin took the stage there was hardly time to take a deep breath. While great might be a term thrown around too lightly there is no doubt that this lady elevates all folk music with her brilliant songwriting, deft guitar playing and powerful singing. She sang, told stories and gave me goose bumps when she described her rain-soaked performance at a prior Festival as one of the greatest hours of her life. Strangely enough, it was one of mine also as I was in the second row with a blue tarp over my soaked form, being captivated by songs I have never forgotten. This one was no different, highlighted by the fresh and powerful “Go Wherever You Want to Go” from her “American Kid” recent release. To hear Patty Griffin sing is a rare privilege and I cannot overstate her talents. The John Butler Trio had the unenviable task of following La Griffin but his expansive and dynamic electronic creations won the very wonderful day two. A ten minute, free-form finale was one of those moments in great concerts when blissed out listeners get lost in the music.

     The bittersweet last day, like many Sundays is a hard to get started day and when we arrived late I was met with raves for “Chic Gamine” but alas it was only the echoes I heard of this four women harmony group from Manitoba, Canada . Another talented singer-songwriter from the North came next with Quebecois Lynn Miles, with an introspective and insightful hour of C&W flavored songs; highlighted by “How to Be Alone” that was sweet and heavy at the same time. Local boy Nathaniel Rateliff quickened the pace and demonstrated that there is plenty of talent in the centennial state. Imagine a great bar band with brains and a lead-singer who can write penetrating lyrics and howl at the moon in his vocals. “Shroud” stood out in this lively round of songs, keeping the stage warm for what was to come. What came next was another very young, talented voice from the North with great musical bloodlines. Canada won the women’s war on Sunday as Ontario’s Ariana Gillis, a mere twenty-two years of age, owned  the stage and fired off high-energy pop with a pretty sharp edge. While I must admit the shirt I was wearing was older than she I was impressed by the quality of her lyrics and the singing from the gut that had the veteranos standing in awe at stage-side. “Forget Me Not” was just one of many terrific tunes she belted out in her set.
      It was best Ms. Gillis be good as the next performer put on a show they may never forget at Lyons. I would guess that most of the assembled folks had never had an opportunity to hear a genuine, sweat-drenched, soul-soaked, classic R&B extravaganza like Mister Charles Bradley put on for the next hour and a quarter. When his band-leader introduced him as “the Screaming Eagle of Soul” and “the Soul of America” he was not exaggerating. Despite being of fine vintage Bradley has only recently been discovered/re-discovered after a life that could fill a feature film. Yet, on the Lyons stage Bradley absolutely created something that James Brown himself would have appreciated with a “huh…huh…huh!” Wearing a costume (seen here) that lit up (literally), holding an old-fashioned big, cord-attached mike which he bounced around with the mike-stand the Screaming Eagle showed us why R&B is such a great part of American music. Bradley’s sexy, confident vocals electrified the stage, the mountainsides, the campsites, the St. Vrain River and highway 36 all the way up to Boulder. His moves were straight out of the Apollo Theater and his towering readings of songs like “the World,” “Victim of Love” and “How Long” had the entire audience dancing with undiluted soul-power. 
      Colin Meloy was the unfortunate artist who had to follow the large charges of dynamite set off by Charles Bradley but he fared well, although at a much more subdued pace. Meloy, the former front man of the “Decembrists” needed patience and some audience concentration to appreciate his intelligent and nuanced songs that gave insight into “the Hazards of Love” and explorations of musical hallucinations such as “the Calamity Song.”  After Bradley it was hard to get the crowd to settle but Meloy kept his head and won over the audience in the most difficult segment of the festival. The grand finale of the entire Folks Festival was the genuine American Musical National Treasure: John Prine. In the first two songs Prine sounded like his voice might not make it to the third but somehow he got back on track and gave the happy crowd the best of the best. This included “Fish and Whistle,” “Hello in There,” “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” “Flag Decal” and a stirring finale of the bona-fide masterpiece “Lake Marie.” How appropriate that an artist who has danced with death and come back to affirm life in song concluded an event that celebrates the spectrum of pain and joy we all share.

When it was all over and the common folks of the folks festival were shining tiny flashlights on the grass gathering up their low chairs, folding up the tarps, slinging sleeping kids over their shoulders, collecting all their trash and making sure they hadn’t forgotten any left behinds the feelings of bittersweet melancholy filled me up to the eyeballs. Like leaving the old home gathering on Xmas eve or driving away from a wedding reception of happy friends or getting on a plane to leave the family you love behind for another year the good times pass so swiftly. You reach a certain age and you gain the wisdom that it won’t last forever but for 2013 it sure was grand. I know I won’t forget the festival or the family.

 (Photos: from top to bottom  the low-back chairs during a break, Robby Hecht, Ellis, Lucius, Mary Gauthier, Colin Hay, Loreena McKennit, Johnnyswim, Shane Koyczan, Patty Griffn, the rocks above the St. Vrain, Nathaniel Rateliff, Ariana Gillis, Charles Bradley, Colin Meloy, the family...)