Sunday, August 21, 2011
… the room was humming harder
as the ceiling flew away
–from “A Whiter Shade of Pale,”
-words by Keith Reid, music by Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – There wasn’t a “countdown,” a “slow fuse,” or a “warming up.”
Instead, the intimate listening room that is Caffé Lena gently rose straight into the air, steady as you please from the first note of Joni Mitchell’s “Carey” as the six-piece band of Jeanne O’Connor & The New Standard began a nearly two-hour program of rock, R&B and pop classics-plus.
The “plus” included originals from guitarist/Caffé Lena staple Bob Warren jazzed up with the piano of the very, very talented Peg Delaney, a less-than-overplayed Beatles tune (that’s rare in itself) and an encore with a modern folk classic by Tom Paxton. And there was a little more Joni.
Now, in spite of the familiarity of some of these tunes … from Bert Bachararch’s “Do You Know the Way to San José?” to Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” to Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” – all heard over the past several decades from cruise ships to karaoke bars and everywhere in between – this was a show of the highest level. If PBS had thought to record the show for broadcast … it would have equaled or exceeded the vast majority of musical programs of old or new music ever televised.
Some of that has to do with the vocal dynamics. With Jeanne O’Connor and young Mallory O’Donnell trading leads through most of the show with Warren and percussionist Sam Zucchini harmonizing (though both men took lead vocals on some songs), the harmonies were rich and tonalities complex and rewarding. O’Connor pointed out that for O’Donnell, born after almost all of the songs performed were written, the process was one of discovery and in turn, her voice, with great range and strength becomes a sort of discovery in itself. She was simply brilliant.
Some of the quality came from the sheer quality of musicianship in a combination that seemed to bring out the best in all of them … now seemed is clearly the operative word because all of them have actually done some brilliant things on their own and in various combos. Just as one example, Peg Delaney really is fabulous with her jazz trio. Really fabulous. Yet while her solos might have been somewhat compressed, given the relative limitations of the modern pop song … she did not … I repeat did not … seem cramped in this setting.
Her piano and Zucchini’s drums ride this … delicious edge in Ray Charles’ classic, “Unchain My Heart.” Here, she takes a second piano solo. She jazzed up “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” with real flair. Switching her keyboard’s voicing to strings (as the vocalists sing the “do-do” part) in the aforementioned “…San José?” or to something like a xylophone to suggest shimmering stars on Warren’s “Voices,” she built her instrumentation vertically where “horizontal” space was tight, so to speak.
And that … that song, with its poignant lyrics … “some doors have no voices behind them except for the ones on TV” … in case I haven’t already made my point, this wasn’t just a good times oldies show, no, no, not by a longshot.
It’s senseless to speak of highlights in a show so consistently brilliant, but Warren’s electric guitar solos were so … right on throughout.
Perhaps … I mean from the point of view of sheer aesthetics … the Lennon-McCartney tune, “The Word,” stood out. It’s an unusual song and I think one that’s a bit difficult to get just right, although … although my memory tells me that it’s been in the Bob Warren kitbag for many years. Tony Markellis – who generally anchors Warren lineups — stood out keenly with a walking bass part on that particular tune. I can’t quite … well the best way to describe the vocals is that in that repeated phrase, “the word” … it’s as if all the material objects and surfaces in a room are somehow suddenly sucked out through a ventilation vent. Or something like that. It’s a “whoosh” and it’s quite magical, and to hear it with this particular vocal dynamic … I think better than hearing it on an old Beatles record.
Blasphemy I’m sure you’ll say. But that’s how I feel. Or more like … the sound of something leaving you, through the bones and out, out, out and it’s something you don’t want there: The weight of the world.
And then with Warren taking the lead vocal on his own, “He Don’t Live Here Anymore,” I’m realizing that … with Delaney somehow sort of “swimming” through the piano lines, if that makes any sense, that the overall sound I’m hearing is very … well it’s very Dr. John. Not scratchy voiced, mind you, but in spirit … and that is a magical spirit, to be sure.
So … I think with a really good performance … a reviewer is challenged to make sense of it. And that’s where these folks have left me. And I should talk about Jeanne some more, about the strength and suppleness of her vocals, about the musical intelligence and sensitivity she brought to the stage and even details such as … her striking appearance in a bright red dress. Her taste and judgment and energy. And this energy built up, you know, during the first set, into the second set, into the Ashford/Simpson classic, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” made famous by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. And when they closed with, “Grazin’ in the Grass” (Friends of Distinction, Hugh Masakela, Raven Symone, etc.) … well it was difficult to be in just a listening room without moving the feet … please understand.
I want to say … Jeanne … was not just a principal vocalist but … the love that made it work. The one who brought out only the best from everyone around her and filtered out and discarded what was nonessential. Heady stuff, I know — and some of you are going to snicker, but there ya go. And here I go. Bye.