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Archive for the ‘In performance’ Category

Here’s an entertaining, if incomplete, snippet of video from Voodoo Fest, via Brooklyn Vegan. It’s a double version of “SJI” performed by Preservation Hall, with assists from My Morning Jacket members. The clip starts fairly deep into version one, with guest vocals by Jim James, who as noted here previously does a turn on the most recent Preservation Hall record. “James sang it straight, as a bluesy dirge,” writes Alison Fensterstock. “Once he concluded, [My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick] Hallahan grabbed a pair of sticks and joined drummer Joe Lastie for a hot, swung-out version.” That happens at about the two-minute mark on this video. The transition is really fun.

Fensterstock again:

Hall vocalist Clint Maedgen scorched the mic; plenty of cowbell and tambourine gave the number a street-parade, Mardi Gras Indian feel (sort of like Wardell Quezergue’s famous production of the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko,” which, legend has it, utilized ashtrays and water glasses for its unforgettably clanky percussion.)

After the song, the band second-lined out and into the crowd, then returned to the stage for a closing version of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene.”
Unfortunately, the clip ends well before the song does — but she’s right, this second version is superhot. And while we don’t get to see the band head into the crowd, there are some very amusing shots of fully Halloweened-out audience members dancing.

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Red Cotton on the Gambit’s blog writes:

Leaving Jazz Fest yesterday, I ran into one of my favorite bands The Baby Boyz playing at Stallings Park. I’ve been watching these proteges of trombonist Glen David Andrews for two years now and I’m increasingly impressed by their talent and stage presence. Well, what are the options really when you come from a musical legacy like the Andrews Family and the Treme 6th Ward? You kinda have to be awesome – or else.

Hat tip to Morris Brum.

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A brief note about a version of “SJI” I would like to have heard, despite the description. This NYT writeup concerns a band called Delta Spirit, performing at Piano’s, in New York.

At Pianos the group briefly featured guest vocals by Gordon Gano, formerly of the Violent Femmes, whose take on warped Americana bears some relevance to the Delta Spirit sound. Mr. Gano seemed stranded on “St. James Infirmary Blues” but fully at home on “Add It Up,” one of his old band’s best-loved tunes.

It’s true that I have a hard time imagining Gordon Gano doing “SJI.” But I guess that’s why I wish could hear it!

Update: Well, thanks to the comment below I am now aware that what seems to be a clip from the very gig reviewed by the NYT is available on YouTube. Here then, below, is Gano doing “SJI.” Or, really, he’s dueting it with Delta Spirit’s singer. (I guess it’s part of their repertoire, another clip of them performing the song is here.) Anyway the reviewer is right, Gano does seem a good deal less than confident, but in fairness it also seems that he’s very much operating on the fly here. He really just sings the “Let her go” section, so mostly what he’s doing is just standing there. At one point, invited with a gesture to chime in again, he leans over to the mic and says, “You know all the words!” Finally he chimes in with some sort of random scream-scats at the very end. I don’t know — I think it’s a little unfair to say he’s “lost.” But you can see what you think, here:

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In a May 20th set at the Village Vanguard, Touissaint plays a bunch of material from Bright Mississippi. The band for the gig includes Don Byron, Christian Scott, Marc Ribot, David Piltch, and Jay Bellerose. “SJI” comes up pretty early — about 12 minues into the nearly hour-and-a-half set. Joe Henry (who produced Bright Mississippi) takes the vocals and does a nice job. Full set list and other details + plus audio link here.

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A writeup from Ohio State publication UWeekly.com praises a collaboration of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra and BalletMet for a performance called “Jazz Moves Take 2,” which the writer says “explores all the different ways that jazz in all its various forms and dance can come together.”

A highlight, apparently, is a piece called “Bourbon Street:”

It begins with a funeral dirge set to “St. James Infirmary” where the company marches along as a soloist emotionally expresses the agony of losing a loved one. The piece then moves on to a full company celebration of life set to the exuberant “Bourbon Street Parade.”

Obviously I know nothing at all about ballet, or dance in general. But it sounds interesting.

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… you might consider checking out the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, apparently performing five shows at Benaroya Hall, starting January 22 (tonight). NOJO is led by Irvin Mayfield, one of the city’s preeminent modern trumpet stars.

This spirited, swinging, 16-piece band is steeped in the tradition of New Orleans jazz, blues, swing and spirituals, and performs and presents educational programs that draw upon the rich musical and cultural traditions of its home town….

NOJO’s national tour, “New Orleans: Then and Now,” gives concert goers a taste of the city’s unsurpassed musical heritage and history. Every tune invokes the rich cultural traditions and legacies of America’s most unique city, the birthplace of jazz. From “The Elder Negro Speaks”, a song that brings the city to life with a traditional second line celebrating death and rebirth, to “St. James Infirmary”, which harkens back to Louis Armstrong and the early days of jazz, listeners experience the vibrant spirit of New Orleans….

More here.

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More of our ongoing Q&A series with Robert W. Harwood soon, but meanwhile, it so happens that Mr. Harwood sent along a link of interest.

It’s a YouTube video that’s below, but before I get to it, a little context on why I found it particularly intriguing. Way back in April, The New Yorker published an article titled “The Last Verse: Is there any folk music still out there?” It was mostly about two song collectors who have been working together, but are somewhat different. (The article, so far as I can tell, is not on the New Yorker’s site.)

One is Art Rosenbaum, a University of Georgia folklorist who has been making field recordings of folk music since he was about 19 or 20. The is Lance Ledbetter, in his mid 30s, who has a record label in Atlanta called Dust-to-Digital. Together the pair collaborated on a four-disc retrospective of folk material Rosenbaum had recorded over the years, often in people’s homes. (I later bought this; it’s good.)

To a large extent the article is about the question of what, exactly, folk music is. Writer Burkhard Bilger paraphrases Rosenbaum’s criteria. For one thing, “the songs had to be traditional, the music learned from relatives or local musicians.” On the question of the folk performer, Bilger notes that Rosenbaum never recorded the major figures of the folk revival that was going on even as he began his field-recording career: “Folk music, to him, was the art of the anonymous.”

Elsewhere in the article, John Lomax is quoted saying, in 1937, that the sort of field recording he did (along with his son Alan) would soon be rendered either impossible or pointless by the march of progress: “The influence of good roads and the radio combined will soon put an end to both the creation and to the artless singing of American folk songs.”

So. There is obviously a lot to argue about in many of the words here — what “traditional” means, why it is (or isn’t) important that a song be learned from a local musician as opposed to one heard via electronic media, how to define “artless” and why that should matter, and whether a performer needs to be or stay “anonymous” to count as folk.

With those questions hovering in the background, then, let me get back to what Mr. Harwood sent: It seems that a friend’s teenage son, who plays guitar and harmonica, has discovered and been impressed by another harmonica player. The latter lives in France, and reaches whatever audience she has by way of YouTube. In general, she performs by turning on a webcam, putting on a recording by a well-known artist, and playing along, adding her harmonica part to an existing song. Her name is Christelle Berthon, and her YouTube channel has (as I type this) 1,336 subscribers.

But the video below is a bit of a departure from the scenario just described: It’s a duet between Berthon and Vamos Babe, another YouTubing musician, a guitar player whose YouTube channel has (at the moment) 943 subscribers — and a section called “YT Collabs.” These are her YouTube collaborations with other musicians.  In the explanation for this video, uploaded this past May, she wrote: “I discovered Christelle two days ago and was amazed by her talent... We spontaneously decided we would try a collab on the last song I covered and here’s the result.”

I gather Vamos Babe is also in France, but I assume she and Berthon have never met in person. That is, this duet appears to have happened strictly by way of contemporary technology.

Now … where does that put this performance, on the continuum of folk and not-folk?

While “SJI” is a traditional number (and technology aside, it’s being played here on basically traditional instruments — not a Wii device of some kind, or whatever), this would fail the “folk” test on many levels, as set out by the criteria above. I doubt either of these women learned the song from someone “local;” clearly both performers are not anonymous (indeed they have fans who I assume are far-flung). I’m not sure what Lomax meant by “artless,” but my guess is that while these aren’t professional musicians in a recording studio, this would not qualify.

On the other hand, there’s still something pretty folk-ish about it to me. Each performer seems to be in a rather home-ish setting — just a home-ish setting that happens to include an Internet connection and some audio/video equipment that’s not exactly rare these days. And there’s a kind of informal jam-session quality to the collaboration; I don’t mean that to suggest poor musicianship — they sound pretty good to me. I just mean it’s happening absent the trappings of what we think of as a commercial recording. Much about this scenario suggests both musicians are actively seeking a wider audience, possibly by way of commercial recordings. But for the moment they’re operating far outside the context of “the music business” as we (still, for now) know it.

And this matters, I think, because so much of what’s implied in the Lomax/Rosenbaum comments is basically: Various commercial structures are obliterating a more informal “folk” culture (which they were strikving to preserve). Certainly this collaboration is not a product of such structures. In fact it’s comeing from a place that’s almost the opposite of those structures. Maybe that place is a new version of “folk”?


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Made one of my periodic YouTube checks over the weekend, and found this video of an entertaining performance apparently recorded at Voodoo Fest, by the Paul Sanchez and the Rolling Road Show — with Glenn David Andrews taking the vocals.

New Orleans trombonist Andrews, cousin of James Andrews and Troy (Trombone Shorty) Andrews, seems to be raising his own profile quite a bit in the last year. (Here’s an Offbeat article about/interview with him.) Anyway he pretty much goes to town on his version of “St. James Infirmary,” but the main reason I bring it up is because of the way he tweaks some of the lyrics.

When his narrator goes to Old Joe’s, for instance, it’s “just a few blocks from Congo Square.” I’m going to take that as a direct reference to Joe’s Cozy Corner. Oddly, when ticking off the list of sartorial and material funeral requests, he asks for Reebok sneakers (and, less oddly, a New Orleans Saints hat). And a six of Miller Lite. Yeah?

I was going to try to reproduce a few his other ad-libs, but they often involve jamming a huge number words into a very short amount of time, and so they’re kind of hard to decode, let alone transcribe.

Anyway, he ends riffing on pretty much every line of the lyric, adding local references, jokes, and so on. It’s a wildly hammy and totally fun performance.

Immediately after I watched it, I went back to YouTube and checked out one more video I hadn’t noticed before.

You’d be surprised how many of my “SJI” correspondents over the years have told me their favorite version is by Danny Barker. Or maybe you wouldn’t. Either way, that’s what this other YouTube video was. (In fact the person who uploaded it put this in the description: “People keep talking about their favorite version of the St. James Infirmary Blues…I have a funny feeling this’ll change your mind.”)

This is part of that category of YouTube videos wherein someone basically has one still photograph onscreen while a song plays. In this case, it’s Barker singing “SJI.”

I soon realized that Andrews’ take actually owed a lot to, or referenced, Barker’s. That was true of a couple of minor details, like both singers appending the description of the character with “eyes bloodshot red,” with the aside, “just like mine.” Also a reference to Memphis blues that’s unusual, but in both of these versions. And a joke about asking for another shot of booze “because I’m a chronic alcoholic.”

But the most striking similarity was those rapid-fire additions to the lyrics.

In Barker’s case, they come gradually. First just a few extra words, but then, when the singer gets to funeral requests, super-fast addendums between almost every line.

The YouTube uploader transcribed them, and my listening matches that transcription:

When I die I want you to dress me in straight-laced shoes
(Put my shoes on because I may have to run from the devil)
I want a boxback coat and a stetson hat
(Put my hat on because the cinders from in fire will be fallin’)
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So all my phony, whiskey-head, reefer-head friends’ll know I passed away standin’ pat

I want sixteen snow-white horses
(No mules, no ponies no jackasses all horses)…

And so on. I particularly like the editorializing bit about the friends being a bunch of chemically dependent phonies. Funny.

But my very favorite Barker addition comes when he repeats the stanza about going down to St. James Infirmary. Those lines get repeated in many versions of the tune, but this is the only one I know where the singer offers a reason for why he’s come back to them:

Went down to the Saint James Infirmary the second time, because I didn’t believe what I saw the first time…

Not only that, he adds a twist:

And sure enough my poor dead baby was still laying there with a sheet over her head
(she looked like a [??*] gown man**)
I raised up the sheet and said, “Darlin’, would you say some nice kind words of consolation to me?”
She opened up one eye and said, “Get the hell away from me. Can’t you see I’m tryin’ to pass away?”
(I said, “Forgive me darlin’.)

Not bad! And as I think you’ll agree if you give it a listen, the mix of soulfullness and deadpan is really quite effective — totally understated, but still with real feeling. A keeper for sure.

[* The YouTuber transcribes this as “doll,” but seems unsure. I can’t figure out what he’s saying. You?]

[[** “Gown man” — see comments for explanation.]]

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So I noted a while back that Cassandra Wilson had started performing “SJI” live, and had recorded a version for her album Loverly.

Well that’s been out for a little while now, and I finally bought the song (and so far one other tune from Loverly).

Her “SJI” is definitely a keeper.

The version on the record stretches to four and a half minutes, but doesn’t feel overstretched. It’s propelled by a really nice back and forth between a high-energy piano line, and a low-key but funky guitar (a paring that’s especially effective in the final minute or so of the tune).

Wilson’s vocals are really engaged, but mostly she shows very fine restraint, and does a great job picking the right moments to break out of that. I have no idea if it was recorded live in studio, but it really has that feel — like a really smoking little jam session. I’ve sometimes found Wilson’s voice a little cold in the past, but definitely not here. There’s even a little hand-clapping, which I have a terrible weakness for. Anyway, this came in way above my expectations, and I think it’s the best new version of “SJI” I’ve heard in quite a while.

One minor lyrical tweak to note: Instead of switching to the first person in the verse about  burial instructions (“But a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain,” etc.) she keeps it in the third person — so she’s still discussing the dead lover stretched on the long what table and what (in this case) his funeral should be like.

I almost hesitate to share the above video of a live version from the North Sea Jazz Festival (which I’m not familiar with), above. Maybe it’s a function of the sound quality, but despite approximating (a longer version of) the album arrangement, it’s not nearly as appealing. It’ll give you a very basic idea, but, you’ll have to trust me, the tighter recorded version is vastly superior.

Cassandra Wilson - Loverly - St. James Infirmary “St. James Infirmary,” Cassandra Wilson

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Well, this isn’t much of a video, but a somewhat interesting live version of The White Stripes’ take on “SJI.” Differs from the recorded version in just how heavy Jack White gets on the guitar. He does some nice stuff — going even weirder on the lyrics than he does in the band’s studio version, and doing a pretty nice job with the vocal delivery, too. Actually, it’s sort of worth hearing.

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