Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life

Stevie Wonder
Oracle Area
Oakland, CA
December 5, 2014

Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life

In order to be a musical legend, you need the Chops and the Vision (of a certain kind).  Also, longevity.  Stevie Wonder released his critically acclaimed masterpiece, Songs in the Key of Life, in 1976, over 38 years ago.  It was an ambitious social and cultural work filled with over 20 songs, an R&B Opus, if you will - including hits, “Sir Duke,” “I Wish” and “Isn’t She Lovely.”  It was envisioned and released at a time when albums were listening experiences, composed and arranged from start to finish and meant to be listened to that way - not just a collection of singles.  It was an instant classic.  Listening to Songs in the Key of Life can be an enlightening experience and listening to Stevie Wonder play the album live was epic.  No, awesome.  It was awesomely epic.  Fantastic and epic and awesome.

In fact, the only complaint that I can think of is that there was too much talking.  Stevie can be a bit of a chatterbox once he gets going, thanking God and each musician in his (more than) 30-member band, praising the sublime talents of India Arie (correctly so), who performed with him, and introducing his brother (who co-wrote “Have a Talk with God”) and his daughters and introducing Sheila E (who received an enthusiastic reception) and explaining each song and introducing Dave Chappelle who came on during the encore to play a half-hearted tambourine.  When you have songs as well-crafted and powerful as those on Songs in the Key of Life, the music can do the talking.  The chatting continued even during the encore when he played a medley of hits, abruptly stopping several songs after just a verse in order to demand that he be called “DJ Tik Tik Boom.”  This was a bit frustrating since I would have loved to hear all of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “For Once in My Life,” “Master Blaster (Jamming),” or “Do I Do.”  Fortunately, he did play all of “Living for the City” and a rousing “Superstition” (two of my favorites) to end the night.
 
Still, those complaints are a pittance compared to the gratitude that I felt to be in the company of the genius of Stevie Wonder for the night.  Before playing Michael Jackson's
 “TheWay You Make Me Feel,” he jammed on a new instrument called a ‘harpejji’ which displayed his virtuoso skill at any musical instrument.  He also consummately directed the band and his string session in a jam session between a couple songs. All of which was great fun and left no doubt that Stevie is truly a once in a generation talent.

Ziggy: The Old Man’s Shoes

Ziggy Marley
The Fillmore
San Francisco, CA
November 6, 2014

Ziggy: The Old Man’s Shoes


Has there ever been a concert review of Ziggy Marley that does not include comparisons to his legendary father, Bob Marley?  Of course, Ziggy doesn’t entirely discourage the practice since he includes three or four songs by his father at each concert.  And he probably is intensely proud of his father and everything that he accomplished during his short stay on Planet Reggae.  Some of the most warmly received songs that Ziggy played last night included Father Bob’s ‘One Love’ ‘Could This be Love?’ and ‘Iron, Zion, Lion.’  All of which distracts from Ziggy’s own gifts and talents as a songwriter and performer.  I’ve always thought that Ziggy’s songs were very poppy, kind of 'reggae-light'.  However, last night, Ziggy and his band sounded immensely professional and accomplished, there wasn’t a false note in their performance.  And his (now dated) hits, ‘Tomorrow People’ and ‘Love is My Religion’ sounded fresh and full of energy.  Even the predictable clouds, the ganja concert haze, that floats over any reggae audience didn’t mellow the party.    All in all, an evening well spent.

Aida: Stay Classy New York

Aida
The Metropolitan Opera
Lincoln Center
New York City, NY
October 30, 2014

Aida: Stay Classy New York

Oh, did I neglect to mention it was Opening Night?  Sadly, there were not very many tuxedos, furs or diamonds which you might expect to see at Opening Night of Verdi's Aida at The Metropolitan Opera in New York City.  Manhattan ain’t want it used to be.  But The Met still puts on a classy show.  The sets were quite an Egyptian spectacle and even included live horses (that weren’t always happy about being on stage).  At one point, I counted more than 100 people on stage!  Now, that’s a production!  Of course, any opera will be judged by the quality of the singing which I feel unqualified to judge.  There were times when I was engrossed and times when I was struggling to stay awake despite the eye-popping sets and stomping horses.

Though most of the drowsy moments were in the first Act when the performances were static and the singing forgettable.  Everything improved as it went along from the orchestra, to the sets, to the singing and the acting.  And while the audience may dress more casual than they should, the Met will always sparkle and is a special experience every time.

Amateur Night: A Professional Night

Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater
Apollo Theater
New York City, NY
October 29, 2014

Amateur Night: A Professional Night

The original American Idol!  Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NYC is a legendary event, not least of all because of the legendary stars that have launched legendary careers after performing at Amateur Night.  Going all the way back to the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s!  I think much of the audience at Amateur Night is hoping to see someone like Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, James Brown, Lauryn Hill or Ella Fitzgerald who previously debuted on the legendary stage.  Well, to bury the lead, we didn’t quite have that luck but what we did see was a consummate display of professionalism that ultimately belied the title of the show. 


The Amateur Night band at the Apollo was fantastic and tight.  The host comedian Capone kept things moving briskly and knew just how to work the crowd.  And the Set It Off Man, Joe Gray, is a class act.  The opening number included Joe coaxing three audience members from the crowd and egging them into a dancing display.  A young Japanese tourist did some impressive break dancing, capped with a backflip, followed by a twerking tourist from Virgina and an old white guy from Vancouver that did a kind of Chuck Berry hoe-down.  I got the feeling there weren't a lot of people from Harlem in the audience.  At least, not on the ground floor.  Next up, was ‘Stars of Tomorrow,’ performers under the age of 15 which were as good as or better than some of the adults.  The adults are subjected to boos and catcalls if they aren’t up to snuff.  But only a couple of the adult performers were yanked from the stage though perhaps that number should been a little higher because there were several moments of deep unrest in the audience.  Though first place probably went to the best performer, second and third place undoubtedly only got through because of a large number of family and friends that packed the audience and cheered loudly for their favorites.  Nevertheless, a very fun night that I recommend to anyone visiting NYC.  Go to the Apollo!

Rodriguez
The Warfield
San Francisco, CA
May 27, 2014

Rodriguez: Sugarman Found      


Almost everything about Rodriguez is unique.  His lifestory is so unusual and compelling that it became an Academy Award winning documentary called Searching forSugarman.  If you haven’t seen the film, you are missing out.  It’s an incredible, heartwarming story about the rediscovery of a 70s folksinger abandoned to the Could-Have-Been pile of history and his unknown fame in South Africa.  And it couldn’t have happened to a warmer, more generous or more genuine person.  Seeing Rodriguez perform live was a special experience, not only because I felt I was witnessing part of his unusual history, but even moreso because his talent really holds up without the Silver Screen treatment.  While many of his recordings sound dated now, they really came alive with his young bandmates.  There are obvious and striking comparisons that can be made with 
Photo by Jana L.
(midcareer) Bob Dylan.  At times, Rodriguez sounded like Dylan’s long-lost brother, perhaps separated at birth - though Rodriguez does sing better.  Rodriguez did look visibly frail at times.  He moved slowly and appeared to have significant vision problems but all that disappeared once he started singing.  His voice was strong and energetic. Crowd favorites, like I Wonder and Sugarman, were given upbeat rearrangements and Rodriguez really seemed to enjoy himself.   He also exhibited a wry sense of lefty humor throughout the evening.  A special night.



Paul Simon’s Graceland: Fire in the Kitchen

Undercover Presents
Paul Simon: Graceland
Jewish Community Center- San Francisco
San Francisco, CA
April 12, 2014

Paul Simon’s Graceland: Fire in the Kitchen

Just two months ago, I was waxing rhapsodically about Undercover Presents as being the Best In Show in the Bay Area live music scene.  While that still holds true, the latest Undercover of Paul Simon’s Graceland, did not quite live up to the lofty standards that were set during earlier UPs of Joni Mitchell’s Blue or Sly and the Family Stone’s Stand.  And though this could be an entire blogpost about the controversial, award-winning classic album and its controversies and award winning, I will resist the temptation.  There's already plenty of That on the internets for those who are interested.  

Despite the one or two disappointing performances last night, there was also plenty to celebrate, including John Vanderslice’s folky 'Graceland,' Diane Gameros’ latin jazzy 'Gumboots,' Afrofunk Experience’s afrofunky 'Under African Skies' and Guy Fox’s indie 'Crazy Love.'  One of the big talking points of the UP Graceland will undoubtedly be the Pacific Boychoir.  A supremely talented and much decorated choir of young boys who performed a fairly faithful rendition of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s 'Homeless.'  Also, much discussed, in a more negative sense, was the experimental pop of Bill Baird who altered 'You Can Call Me Al' pretty much beyond recognition.  In the end, his performance seemed like experimentation for its own sake.  Walking around in circles in a purple poncho while reciting a pizza order through a distorted mic does not qualify as art, mostly it is just annoying.

While UP’s Sly The Stone Stand! was a nonstop high-octane party, UP Graceland was more mellow and introspective.  Not a big surprise given PSimon's more quiet, literate music.  In fact, the party did not really get going until after a kitchen fire set off alarms and caused the theater to empty out on to the street.  Several of the musicians followed the crowd outside and created an impromptu drum-circle while waiting for the all-clear from the SFFD to go back inside to continue the show.  Then, for the final number, PS's '50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,' members of the audience flocked to the stage to dance and drink with the entire ensemble.  A memorable evening to say the least.  (Stay tuned for more UP including an encore of Stand at the Fox and the upcoming UP does Bob Marley.)

Hugh Masekela: The Best of South Africa


Hugh Masekela
The Miner Auditorium
San Francisco, CA
March 25, 2014

Hugh Masekela: The Best of South Africa

There are few artists that can be accurately characterized as a living legend.  Frequently, that honorific is thrown around willy-nilly without any relation to actual accomplishments.  However, master trumpeter and flugelhornist (flugelhorner?) Hugh Masekela is real live living-legend.  He is also a powerful reminder of the power of music.  After three decades of exile from apartheid South Africa, he finally returned when Nelson Mandela was released from prison over 20 years ago.  Hugh has been making music for a long time!  His music is filled with hope, vitality, and defiance.  Things that would threaten any government based on racial discrimination.  It’s hard to be fearful and anxious when listening to Hugh Masekela.   

As a living legend, you also get to play with the best in the biz.  HM was accompanied by some of the most talented cats around at Tuesday’s show at the Miner Auditorium- where, by the way, there isn't a bad seat in the house.  His guitarist, keyboardist, drummer were all ear-opening impressive.  When he puts down the flugelhorn, Hugh also plays a mean cowbell.  Who knew?  More cowbell !  In addition to the unanticipated and welcome sense of humor throughout the performance, I also really enjoyed his tribute to the Bobs:  Masekela performed Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and Marley’s “Soul Rebel.”   The love felt for Hugh was palpable in the Auditorium including when the crowd burst into a spontaneous round of Happy Birthday in anticipation of his upcoming 75th birthday.  

One highlight was his classic 1968 hit, Grazing in the Grass.  

Sly Stone: The Man Funktastik

Undercover Presents
Sly and the Family Stone
Stand!
The Independent
San Francisco, CA
January 18, 2014

Sly Stone: The Man Funktastik


Epic show with about a million talking points that I can’t possibly cover!  Every band was funking fantastic!  From the opening Awesome Orchestra's uplifting and empowering Stand! to the final funk and soul note!  Undercover Presents, in no time at all, has become the Must-See shows of the Bay Area music scene.  If I were a musician in the Bay Area, I would be begging to be a part of any UP.  Undercover presents a classic album song by song, each one performed by a different Bay Area artist.  Not only does this showcase some of the best musical talents of the San Francisco area, it allows the musicians to showcase their love for some of the greatest tracks of all time.  See, e.g., the longer review of Joni Mitchell’s Blue.  The tribute to Sly’s Stand! was equally exceptional.  The show was super octane charged, each band trying to out-do the previous one culminating in a frenetic funk and soul free for all when the musicians all joined together for “Dance to the Music.”  The best show of the past year and why I love live music.   Huge Show, Huge Night.

A little taste:



video



Thievery: Better Luck Next Time

Thievery Corporation
The Greek Theater
Berkeley, CA
September 21, 2013

Thievery: Better Luck Next Time


The last time, MV&R visited Thievery Corporation, I was blown away by their next generation, multiethnic, multigenre vibe of celebration.  They played a great show at the Fox Theater that made me optimistic for the future of music while living in our dismal world of Justin Biebers and Miley Cyruseses.  There was still integrity and art in music somewhere.  Too bad, that couldn’t last.  This time around, the band sounded older and dated.  Only took a couple years for the bloom to fade.  They also played virtually the same show, song for song, as they did over a year earlier which disappointed and made the future of music seem less secure.  The main problem seems to be in the rotating crowd of singers upon which Rob and Eric, the essential duopoloy that is TC, rely.  They are overly dependent on the singers making good.  This time, their voices were frequently weak and they simply failed to connect as they did at The Fox.  I still have great hope for TC but it was not their night.