Monday, April 22, 2019

Upcoming Musical Theater on Long Island

Here are some of the musical theater events between now and the end of the year on Long Island:

For the three Actor's Equity Theaters:

The Gateway Playhouse, Bellport:

On Your Feet - May 8-May 25 (Bellport)
Forbidden Broadway - June 5-June 22 (Bellport)
The Bodyguard - July 3-July 20 (Bellport)
The Sound of Music - July 31-August 17 (Bellport)
Kinky Boots - August 28-September 15 (Patchogue)

The John Engeman Theater, Northport:

A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder - Now-April 28
Aida - May 9-June 23
Saturday Night Fever - July 11-August 25
Sunset Boulevard - September 12-October 27
Matilda - November 1-December 29

(Their first three shows of 2020 are scheduled to be Million Dollar Quartet, Sister Act and Anything Goes.)

The Argyle Theater, Babylon:

The Producers - Now-April 27
Million Dollar Quartet - May 16-June 23
Legally Blonde - July 11-August 25
The Full Monty - September 12 - October 20
Miracle on 34th St. - November 14-December 29

(Their first two shows in 2020 are scheduled to be Disney's The Little Mermaid and Caberet.)

For the Regional Theaters:

Noel S. Ruiz Playhouse at the CM Performing Arts Center, Oakdale:

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - Now-May 4
Disney's Newsies, The Broadway Musical - May 18-June 8
Nice Work If You Can Get It - July 13-August 10

(2019-2020 season announced on May 10)

Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, Smithtown

South Pacific - Now-April 28
Evita - May 8-June 23
42nd Street - July 6 - August 18
Let the Right One In (non-musical) - September 7 - October 20

Cultural Arts Playhouse, Syosset

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum - Now-May 5
13 The Musical - May 10-June 1
Mamma Mia! - June 22 - July 21
The Rocky Horror Show - June 29 - August 24
Bring It On! - July 27 - August 25
Jekyll and Hyde - September 7 - October 6

Broadhollow Theater Company at the Bayway Arts Center, East Islip

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying - Now-April 28
Ruthless the Musical - May 11- May 26
Assisted Living: The Musical - The Home for the Holidays - June 22-July 7
The Producers - August 10-August 25
Brigadoon - September 7 - September 21

Broadhollow at Elmont, Elmont

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying - May 4-May 26
Pippin - July 6-July 28
Gypsy - August 4-August 18

Theater Three, Port Jefferson

The Wizard of Oz - May 18-June 22
Jeyyll & Hyde, The Musical - September 14 - October 26

(In early 2020, they'll also be doing a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.)

Merrick Theater and Center for the Arts, Merrick

Legally Blonde - Jun 22-July 21
The Fantasticks - August 2 - August 11
Mamma Mia! - September 7 - October 6
The Addams Family - October 19-November 17
A Christmas Carol The Musical - November 30-December 29

I've already got tickets to Evita at The Smithtown PAC, and I'm hoping to catch Sunset Boulevard at the John Engeman in Northport. And while I know nothing about the Merrick Theater and Center for the Arts, I'd love to see if I can get my daughter to The Fantasticks.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

I'll start this review by deliberately not burying the lead. Although I've complained in the past about the sound system at the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre in Oakdale, I've never attended a show there that I didn't enjoy. And I'll say flat-out that their current production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is the most entertaining show I've ever seen there.

In spite of the fact that I'm a huge Andrew Lloyd Webber fan, this was kind of a surprise to me. Like many (most?) people, I've always considered Webber's big four works to be Jesus Christ, Superstar, Evita, Cats, and, of course, The Phantom of the Opera. I had never seen Joseph performed before, and my only familiarity was a 1973 studio album of the show that I bought a few years back. Denise has always liked this play, so I bought the album to see what it was all about, then largely forgot about it. It was only the second show the pair of Webber and Tim Rice had created, and it only got popular after the success of Superstar. It's not performed all that often, so when I show that the CM Performing Arts Center was doing a production of it, I asked Denise if she wanted to go, and she said yes. (I tried to talk my daughter into going as well, but she didn't show much interest.) I thought it would probably be a pleasant night out, but that's about it.

As it turns out, I'm happy to tell you that this production Joseph is a total wackfest (and I mean that in the best way possible). It's well cast, well executed and full of life.

The show is based on the Biblical story of Joseph and his Coat of Many Colors. Jacob is a farmer who has twelve sons, his favorite being the title character, Joseph. Jacob dotes on Joseph, and gives him a fancy, rainbow-colored coat to show his devotion. This naturally doesn't play too well with Joseph's eleven siblings, so they decide to take him out to the desert and kill his spoiled ass. While enacting their evil plan, however, they relent slightly, and decide to just sell him into slavery instead. They go back and tell Jacob that Joseph was tragically killed, while Joseph goes through some bad times. However, due to his talent for accurate dream interpretation, Joseph ultimately wins out and becomes the Pharoah's right hand man. Through a series of events, he eventually reconciles with his brothers (after fucking with their heads a little). The brothers regret their former actions, and it all ends happily.

I know it doesn't necessarily sound like a chucklefest, but Rice and Webber play fast and loose with the material, presenting us with a bit of country western ("One More Angel in Heaven"), an Elvis-impersonating Pharoah ("Stone the Crows"), a melodramatic French cafe number ("Those Canaan Days"), and a cool taste of the islands ("Benjamin Calypso"), all within an Old Testament setting. And this production takes full advantage of the zaniness, for a bright, buoyant night of entertainment.

As I mentioned, the cast is spot-on throughout. Hans Paul Hendrickson showed a fine comic flair in the theater's previous production of Mamma Mia!, but that was a much smaller role. Here, he really gets a chance to strut his stuff in the role of the title character. He spends a good part of the play being yanked around, by his brothers, the slavers, his master's wife (who thinks he's a stud muffin) and his jailers. But clueless as he often is, he remains an amiable and likable character throughout. In the end, his talent for dream interpretation wins the favor of the hip-gyrating Pharoah.

The role of the Narrator, which is the second-largest part in the play, was played tonight by Jess Ader-Ferretti (who alternates the role with Brianne Boyd). Denise opined that Ader-Ferretti played the role somewhat like Flo from the Progressive Insurance commercials, and I could kind of see what she meant. I was impressed that the actress successfully balanced sometimes playing the role very straight (especially when she was interacting with the children's chorus), but at other times fully joined in on the chaos around her. (I particularly liked when she marched out onto the stage during the great famine munching on a big bag of Lays Potato Chips in front of Joseph's starving brothers).

A few other individuals who stood out were Tom Anderson as Levi, whose job it was to break the sad news of Joseph's demise to his father in true country-western fashion; Terence Sheldon as Issacher, who led "New Canaan Days" in an outrageous fake accent that would have tickled John Cleese's French Taunter character from Monty Python and the Holy Grail; and Antonia Castronova as Issacher's wife, who got the chance a couple of times to show off her stunning operatic voice. Oh, and let's not forget The King ... um, I mean The Pharoah. Steve Cottonaro was very funny in the role, and a couple of times, his obviously improvised lines managed to crack up the other cast members (like when he suddenly referred to Joseph as "My little Honey Boo Boo").

Much of the strength of the production, however, came from it's highly talented ensemble cast. Whether is was breaking into a full "Eleven Brides for Eleven Brothers" hootenanny as the brothers and their wives celebrated Joseph's "death", doffing their French berets in "Those Canaan Days", or prostrating themselves before Joseph in exaggerated fashion during "Grovel Grovel", the genial young men and women who played the Brothers and their Wives (as well as a variety of other roles) sang beautifully, danced well and displayed great comic instincts.

Likewise, the children's chorus also added a great deal to the show. I especially enjoyed Ader-Ferretti leading them around the stage in a conga line for the "Benjamin Calypso" number.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention that once again, the choreography for a CM production was outstanding ( I was all set to praise Ashley Nicastro again, but this time it was Ryan Nolin who did the honors). And the 12-piece (or so) orchestra was also first-rate. The show was well-directed, well acted and just a bundle of fun.

My only complaint/suggestion is you should make sure you know the story going in, because the theater's sound/PA problems make some of the narration difficult to understand. But so many of the songs here are sung by the ensemble that it minimized this issue compared to some of the previous productions I've seen at the Noel S. Ruiz.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is playing for two more weeks, through May 4th. I can't recommend it highly enough. It might not have all of the show-stopping numbers of some of Andrew Lloyd Webber's better-known shows, but it definitely has its own set of charms, and this production does a great job of bringing them to the forefront.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Favorite Artists, Part 5: About The Good Rats

This article will be a little different from the previous four entries in this series, as this is the only band on my Favorite Artists list (other than my wife's band The Slant) that I know (or knew) personally.

I first became familiar with The Good Rats due to the airplay they received in the '70s on WNEW-FM. I'm pretty sure the first song I heard of theirs was "Back to My Music". In short order, the station started playing a lot of stuff from the Tasty and Ratcity in Blue albums, including "Injun Joe", "Papa Poppa", "Songwriter" and the title track from Tasty, and "Advertisement in the Voice" and "Reason to Kill" from Ratcity in Blue. Shortly thereafter, when From Rats to Riches was released, and they started playing a bunch songs from that album too. In fact, a local club called Detroit started using "Taking It to Detroit" as the music for their commercials. (And I think the station even used one part of "Local Zero" as bumper music.)

I liked the band from the get-go. They rocked hard, they featured great vocal harmonies, and their lead singer, Peppi Marchello, had a powerful rock voice. Ironically, I bought Tasty on the same day I bought my first album from another of my favorite band's, Blondie's Plastic Letters. And I was back to my local record shop to buy Rats to Riches and Ratcity in Blue about a week later. Initially, I didn't even realize The Rats were a Long Island band. I just liked their sound.

At some point, in a previous post, I rode about attending frequent poker nights at my friend Mike's house, and how Mike's music collection helped me to expand my musical taste. One of the infrequent guests at these games was a fellow named John who I had also gone to high school with. At some point, I learned that John had spent a year or so as a roadie for The Rats. Although I seldom saw John, Mike was in frequent touch with him, so I sometimes heard stories from Mike about John's travels with The Rats. This only interested me in them more.

Although I didn't go to a lot of live shows in those days, I made a special trek out to Roslyn to see them at My Father's Place. This doesn't sound like a big deal, but I was living in Flushing at the time, and I didn't have a car. I don't remember if I took a bus or the Long Island Railroad out there, but it was worth it. It was one of the best, and most entertaining, shows I ever saw.

Before long, I started to traveling to a large Queens Village club called Beggar's Opera to see them. They would headline the club on a Saturday night, and it was always packed. I had to take the Q-27 bus to get there (and back), about a 45 minute ride, but again, it was worth the trip. I remember taking a date there once, a girl I worked with. She was pleasant about it, but it was obvious they weren't her thing.

Eventually, I realized that although there were always some women at The Good Rats' shows (as evidenced by the line of "Ratettes" that Peppi would invite up onto the stage whenever they played the song "Yellow Flower"), The Rats were one of those bands that mainly appealed to working class guys. There were several reasons for this. For one, and I say this with love, they were kind of an ugly guys' band. Peppi and his brother Mickey were all hair and beards, and there wasn't really anyone in the band with the kind of matinee idol looks that made the ladies go weak in the knees.

More importantly, though, their songs were really all built to appeal to guys. Many of Peppi's favorite themes were about trying to pick up women and failing miserably. Songs like "Coo Coo Coo Blues" and "Reason to Kill" were about pick-up attempts that went horribly wrong, and "Fireball Express" was about a guy who got caught cheating by his wife, and all he can think to do is take a train as far away as possible.

Other male-centric songs included "Injun' Joe", a song sung from the viewpoint of the Tom Sawyer villain, "Victory in Space", about an interstellar prostitution ring, "Boardwalk Slasher", about a surprisingly bashful serial killer, and "Local Zero", about how your bosses and your union leaders work together to screw you over.

The Rats always seemed to be on the cusp of making it big. When Birth Comes to Us All came out in 1979, I remember thinking this was the album that was going to put them over the top. Instead, as far as national fame was concerned, it was their last gasp. I'm not sure why. It's an excellent album, but in some ways, it's kind of quirky. Except for "Cherry River", which is a hard rocking classic, many of the songs are quieter and subtler, and three of them took a chronological step backups by being centered around school-age themes (even though "School Days" became one of their better known songs.)

The next time I saw the Rats after the release of Birth, there had been some personnel changes. The Marchello brothers were still there, and Joe Franco was still drumming. But John "The Big Cat" Gatto and Lenny Kotke were gone on guitar and bass, replaced by Bruce Kulick (who would later join KISS, and later still Grand Funk Railroad) and Schuyler Dale. It was good, but it wasn't the same. They released one album with this lineup, 1981's Great American Music, and after that, they disappeared.

I continued to play my Good Rats albums over the years, but I never thought I'd hear from them again. Then, in the late nineties, I somehow learned that Peppi was now playing local shows under The Good Rats moniker with his sons, Gene and Stefan. Denise bought tickets for us to see them on a show they did on a boat, which took a night cruise around Manhattan. It was amazing to hear them again, even if it wasn't the original lineup. It clearly wasn't Denise's thing, but it was certainly mine.

After that, although the traveling could be difficult (I was still living in Queens without a car), I started going out to see them. One night, I caught them at some club in Nassau County. At this point, Peppi had seen me at several of their shows, and we'd sometimes talk before or after the band's set. On this particular night, I was waiting outside after the show for a cab to take me back to the LIRR. Peppi came out to take down his "GOOD RATS" banner, saw me waiting, and asked what I was doing. When I told him, he said matter-of-factly, "You're out of your fucking mind," and followed it up by asking if I wanted a ride home. Hell yeah I did!

So once the band was loaded out, Peppi drove me back to Flushing (even though I later learned he lived on the north shore of Suffolk County.) He played me songs from the band's upcoming Tasty Seconds album, which for a fan like myself, was quite a treat.

Eventually, I moved to Suffolk County myself, at which point I finally got a car. Over the next decade, I caught the band frequently at clubs both small and large all over Long Island. I also attended several of the reunion shows of the Good Rats' classic lineup. As I started becoming more involved in the local music scene, and began writing for various local music papers, I covered what was going on with the Rats regularly. I also played them fairly often on my radio show on WUSB, and played the video for their "World Party Anthem" on the LIMC-TV show. Peppi usually greeted me over the mic whenever I came to a show, which of course, I was honored by.

A decade or so ago, however, when my wife and I adopted our children, I no longer had the freedom to go out to the clubs at night, and several years went by without my being able to see the band. Then, in July of 2013, I got the tragic word that Peppi had died unexpectedly of a heart attack while recovering from a heart operation he'd had a few weeks before. He died much too young, at 68 years old. I went to the wake, and to the funeral mass.

Since Peppi's death, his son Stefan has kept the band going in some form, although these days, they don't play out very often. The Rats have also released two albums since Peppi's passing, which contain a bunch of Peppi's posthumous material, plus (in the case of the second album, Making Rock and Roll Great Again) some of Stefan's original material.

So what can I tell you about The Good Rats? Well for starters, I say with complete certainty that to me, they're the most underrated band in rock history. Not to their fans, of course -- the band's core fans always knew how great they were. But based on their talent, and the quality of their music and their songwriting, they should have been much larger than were. I heard rumors that once upon a time, the Rats had pissed off the wrong record company executive, and had been effectively blacklisted. I don't know if it's true or not, but I could certainly believe it. Otherwise, it's hard for me to understand why this band never made it to the upper echelons.

I once told Peppi that on certain days, I thought that Tasty might just be the greatest rock album ever recorded. Not every day, by any means. Wish You Were Here, Who's Next, etc. certainly each make their own case. But Tasty is really a perfect album, and From Rats to Riches, Ratcity in Blue and Birth Comes to Us All aren't so far behind. Even in their later period, when it was long since clear that The Good Rats had missed their chance at the brass ring, while the LPs they released weren't completely consistent, there were spots of blinding brilliance. Songs like "Cover of Night", "Ashes to Ashes", "The Springer Singalong" and "World Party Anthem" are classic songs, even if no one knows about them but The Rats' core fanbase.

I've always felt that being a Good Rats fan living on Long Island in the mid-to-late seventies gave me some kind of insight into what it must have been like to be a Who fan living in London in the early sixties, before the rest of the world knew how great they were. For me, Peppi Marchello will always be in the upper pantheon of rock songwriters, along with the giants like Pete Townshend, Ian Anderson and David Gilmour. And one of his favorite things to write about was the music business itself. "Songwriter" is perhaps my favorite Rats song, wherein Peppi pays homage to the great George Gershwin, and confesses "I must admit sometimes I think I'm you". Another his classics, "Dear Sir", talks about how difficult it is to keep your artistic integrity in the music business ("Well I swear I'd rather clean the cages in the zoo/Than to change my songs for you.") But when I think of Peppi Marchello these days, I think about the joy he took in getting to live a life devoted to music and to rock and roll. And wherever he is now, I hope he's living an existence like the one he wrote about in the song "Rock and Roll Point of View": "Sometimes I pay my bills/Sometimes I don't/Sometimes it's steak, sometimes it's Raisin Bran/But when I get to take this on the road/You're gonna see a happy man."

Rest in peace, my friend. And wherever you are, rock on.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

My Favorite Ten Progressive Rock Bands of the Seventies

This is a hard list, because of the question of who do you define as progressive rock, and who do you define as something else.

It's also a little controversial, as I'm leaving out some major bands who were either a little too jazz oriented for me, who who were just too out there (I'm looking at you, Genesis!).

1. Jethro Tull - But you already knew that, didn't you? I love their folky elements.

2. Yes - You knew that, too. I love their classical musical influences.

3. Procol Harum - I'm re-listening to their discography over the next three months. I love Brooker's voice, Keith Reid's fantastical lyrics and Matthew Fisher's beautiful piano. And Mr. Trower wasn't exactly a slouch either.

4. Strawbs - I just wrote about their live show at the Boulton Center last night. Another prog rock band with great folky elements.

5. Renaissance - Annie Haslam's vocals are divine. And this is another band with amazing classical music influences, and in particular, some ravishing piano pieces.

6. King Crimson - They have a bit of a split personality. By and large, I'm not in love with their harsher jazz numbers. But then they have that melodic, beautiful side that they show on "The Wake of Poseidon", "Islands" and "Starless," among others, which is simply divine.

7. Kansas - My favorite American prog rock band (and the only one to make this list). Leftoverture and Point of Know Return are ridiculously good.

8. The Moody Blues - Yeah, yeah, they're a little sappy at times. But at their best, they're also pretty delightful. And they were really consistent over a good, long stretch.

9. Emerson, Lake and Palmer - Yes, they could be pretty bombastic. But Emerson and Rick Wakeman were the two best prog rock keyboardists of their time, and Greg Lake had one of the richest voices in all of rock.

10. Hawkwind - I've only really started listening to these guys in the last year, so they could actually move up on this list. Warrior on the Edge of Time is amazing.

Now there are three bands who would have made this list, except that while they definitely are part prog rock, I mostly classify them in another category.

The Who, to me, clearly have prog rock elements, especially in the two rock operas, and in Townshend's use of the keyboards. But I think that most people classify them primarily as more hard rock than prog rock, and I agree.

Likewise, Pink Floyd definitely has some strong progressive rock leanings. But here again, I think that most people would classify their music as a little more psychedelic rock than progressive rock.

The toughest call was Rush, who I see as having been the forerunners of the progressive metal movement. You could definitely classify them as progressive rock, and many do. But they can also be classified as hard rock and as math rock, so I reluctantly left them off of this list as well.

I know the biggest omission that many would cite is the exclusion of Peter Gabriel's Genesis. They clearly are a prog rock band. But while they definitely had some music that I like a lot (I'm a big fan of their 1973 Live album, with tracks such as "Watcher of the Skies", "Get 'Em Out By Friday" and "The Return of the Giant Hogweed"), a lot of their music was just a bridge too far for me. (And in fact, my other favorite Genesis album besides the Live album is Genesis from the Phil Collins years.

As for my favorite prog rock band of the modern era, right now it's the British band (of course) Mostly Autumn. And my favorite progressive metal band is Nightwish.


Last year, I was all about buying tickets to see bands who were on my "bucket list" -- artists I really liked who I had never seen live before. I'm still doing that to a certain extent, but this year, I've started focusing more on taking the opportunities to see bands and solo artists who I've always loved that I've seen before but might never get a chance to see again (either because of their age, or mine). This was why I sold my son's kidneys and one of my daughter's lungs to get Fleetwood Mac tickets earlier this year, and why I jumped at the chance to see Procol Harum again. So when I saw that Strawbs were playing at the Boulton Center this April, I was on it like buzzards on Justin Bieber's career.

The truth is that while Strawbs aren't part of my Top 25 list, they probably should be. As far as prog rock bands go, for me, they come right after Jethro Tull, Yes and Procol Harum. I've always kind of grouped them in my mind as part of a trio that included them, Renaissance and Peter Gabriel's Genesis, and in terms of my own personal taste, I rank them in that order. They've always had a lot going on that I like, including Dave Cousins' unique voice and distinct folk-guitar style, Dave Lambert's distinctive guitar leads, and songs that feature uncommon musical structures and fantastic lyrical themes. (Geez, when I was a teenager, what could be better than hearing Cousins' quirky voice belt out a chorus like, "May you ROT in your grave!"? It was right up there with the Procol Harum song about pissing on your door and that Jethro Tull song -- you know the one -- about "SNOT running down his nose!")

Now it's been a weird couple of weeks for me. My daughter's car got totaled in December (on the day she left her job), and the one she has now isn't that reliable. It gets her back and forth to her classes and her boyfriend's house, but I don't trust it to go much further. And because she had used up all of her jury duty postponements, this month they put her in juror's hell, otherwise known as Grand Jury Duty. So Dad has been driving her back and forth each day, and she has no idea what time she's getting out on a given day until they tell her when she goes in in the morning. (Or the afternoon. She also has no idea what time she's going in each day until the night before.)

Luckily for me, I caught a break on Friday, in that she was out that day by 11:30AM. This gave me the chance to come home and sneak in a decent-length nap before the Strawbs concert.

I left the house about 6:45 or so, and headed out to Bay Shore without a care in the world. I didn't have any particular expectations -- this was to be the first show of the American leg of Strawbs' 50 Year anniversary tour, so I wasn't able to sneak a peak at the setlists they've been playing lately -- the last full setlist that anyone posted for them on was from last November. So I was just hoping for a good show, and hoping they were still playing at a high level. And knowing that I was seeing them at the Boulton Center, one of my favorite venues, certainly didn't hurt my mood any.

This wasn't the first time I'd seen Strawbs live. I was lucky enough to catch them back in the early 2000's, in, of all places, the University Cafe on the grounds of Stony Brook University. (I'm pretty sure this was a show that Charlie Backfish had booked, because it was a year or two after the University had finally succeeded in hounding Godfrey Palaia out of the UCaf.) But that didn't lessen my anticipation any. To me, Strawbs has enough good material that whatever they chose to play, it was likely to be a fin night.

I arrived at the Boulton Center at about 7:15, after easily finally parking in the lot around the corner. I grabbed a copy of Good Times (the current issue for once), bought a bottle of water, and made my way to my seat.

The way the Boulton Center is structured, there are four or five rows in the front, then a break of a few feet where the audience enters before the rest of the rows begin. I had a nice aisle seat in that first row after the break. I only had the one seat tonight, but I figured it would be OK, as I had leg room in front of me and an aisle on my right side. There could have maybe been a slight problem if the person sitting to my left had a body type like mine. Luckily, the two gentlemen who wound up with the tickets for those next two seats were both of slight build, so it worked out fine.

The house was still mostly empty when I got there. The ushers chatted a bit among themselves about the resurgence in excitement for the Islanders, as they had started their playoff run on Wednesday night with a win over the Penguins.

As the crowd entered, I looked around me to see if I saw anyone I knew. I thought that perhaps John Ford and/or Jill Morrison might show up for this one. (For those who don't know him, John, a Long Island resident, is also the Strawbs' former bass player. I know he's on OK terms with them, because he's playing a special show with them in a few weeks -- more about that later.) Anyway, as it happened, I didn't see any familiar faces tonight.

Then, about five minutes before showtime, as the crowd was still trickling in, the fire alarm started going off, along with a pre-recorded voice telling people to exit the theater. Everyone looked confused, and the ushers had everyone sit for a second while they checked out whether we actually had to leave or not. There were no signs of an actual fire. I suspect Dave Cousins might have been smoking a doobie in the back. (Do people still say "smoking a doobie?" Probably not.) Actually, I think someone tried to sneak a cigarette in the bathroom, and the smoke detectors picked it up.

In any event, a moment later, Michelle, the Boulton Center's Director, entered and told everyone that we would, in fact, have to evacuate until the fire marshal cleared us to return. She was apologetic, but reminded us that the quicker we got out, the quicker we'd be likely to get back in so the show could start. So we all filed outside and waited for the fire department to show up.

Before long, the fire department arrived. Shortly thereafter, we were permitted to re-enter. In all, the whole process had only taken about 15 minutes, a much shorter time than I expected.

As soon as we were seated, the lights went down, and Cousins and company took the stage. I was a little disappointed to see that the show wasn't a sellout -- there were still about four or five rows in the back that hadn't been sold. But the crowd that was there was quite enthusiastic. They gave the band a nice reception, and over the course of the night, rewarded them with at least four or five standing ovations.

Strawbs these days consists of Cousins on rhythm guitar and most of the lead vocals, Dave Lambert on lead guitar and a few of the lead vocals, Chas Cronk on bass and backup vocals, and Tony Fernandez on drums (all of whom recorded and toured together in the seventies), plus Dave Bainbridge, one of the founding members of the Celtic band Iona, on keyboards.

They began with "The Nails From the Hands of Christ" from their most recent album, 2017's The Ferryman's Curse, as I began to assess the state of the band. What I learned was that this is a band that is still capable of playing at a very high level. Cousins (much like Jon Anderson of Yes) looks rather Hobbit-like these days, and he's gotten a bit mumbly -- there were times it was a little hard to understand him, both when he was speaking and when he was singing. However, all things considered, the quality of his voice has held up pretty nicely. Much like Annie Haslam when I saw her with Renaissance a few months back, he's at his strongest in his high range -- his voice is a little less controlled in this lower range. But like Haslam, and like Gary Brooker when I saw him in February, he still sounds better that he probably has any right to at 74 years old.

As for Lambert, I found his vocals to be a little shakier (although they got stronger as the night went on). His guitar playing, however, is still spot on. On certain songs, such as "The River/Down by the Sea", with which they closed the first set, his playing was absolutely riveting.

The rest of the band were no slouches either. Fernandez banged away throughout the night, making madman faces (primarily for his own amusement, I think), Cronk provided a strong bottom end, and Bainbridge, who spent the night looking into the crowd and grinning happily, had some lovely moments on the keyboard (especially in the second set, during the Hero and Heroine suite).

I had some small disappointments with their choice of material, but with 50 years' worth of songs to choose from, this wasn't surprising. They did play my favorite Strawbs number, "New World", which was a definite highlight of the show. And there were a number of tracks that I'd have loved to have heard, but knew were unlikely, including "Witchwood", "Blue Angel", "Part of the Union" (which I knew they'd never play without Ford), and the ridiculous but highly enjoyable "Lemon Pie". The one I was shocked that they skipped, though, was "Benedictus". I'd have thought that along with "Lay Down" (which they did as an encore), this was a must. (I certainly wouldn't have minded "Tears and Pavan" either, although this is another one I wasn't really expecting.)

I did enjoy the hell out of "Round and Round", "Autumn" and "Down by the Sea", though. And while I wasn't blown away by some of the newer material, they had a really nice moment during "The Familiarity of Old Lovers" where Bainbridge stepped out from behind his keyboard, grabbed an electric guitar, and then had a bit of a guitar duel with Lambert that merged into a really tasty instrumental duet (while Cousins took over the keyboard). It was pretty cool.

I didn't check my watch like I usually do (which is a sign in and of itself that I was having a good time), but I'd say they played for over an hour and a half, and did fifteen or so songs (some of which were fairly long). And as I said, the crowd gave them a number of standing o's. So by any almost every measure, the show was definitely a success.

Strawbs is doing a strange tour right now. Most of it seems to be taking place in the Tri-State area ("Tri" if you threw out Connecticut and substituted Pennsylvania, anyway) over the next two weeks. It all culminates on the last weekend in April with a 3-day anniversary celebration in Lakewood, New Jersey. These shows will feature a 30-piece orchestra, and a number of special guest stars, including John Ford (who will no doubt play "Part of the Union" with his John Ford band), and Annie Haslam, who will be joining the Acoustic Strawbs and performing all of the old parts that were originally sung by Sandy Denny. It sounds like an incredible weekend.

As for the Boulton Center, I know they had Iron Butterfly playing there tonight ("In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, baby!") And while I won't be able to make it this time, Martin Barre is doing a show highlighting Jethro Tull music, featuring former Tull band members Clive Bunker and Jonathan Noyce, on April 26. Wishbone Ash is also playing there the following night, on April 27.

As for me, I've got a little musical theater to report on for you coming up in the next week or so. So I guess we're all keeping busy, huh?

The setlist for this show can be found at Anyway, cheers, folks.

Monday, April 8, 2019

The Kenn Morr Band

As I've written about before, the mid-nineties was the point where I fell into a black hole as far as the national music scene was concerned. After Kurt Cobain died, and alternative rock didn't become the big seller that the record companies hoped it would, they pivoted to prefabricated crappy pop. And I ran for the hills. I started with college radio and indie bands. Then, because I had started managing Denise's band The Slant, I came back to my own backyard, where I discovered that all over Long Island, there was great music being played from the heart by musicians and bands who were playing and writing simply for the love of it.

The Slant used to rehearse in Tom (the keyboard player's) apartment in Bellerose. And as it happened, two of his neighbors were a female couple who rented the apartment next door, Pina and Rose. One day, they mentioned the music, and Tom apologized for disturbing them. They explained that they liked it, however, and went on to tell him that they were in the process of opening a small New Orleans-style coffee house/restaurant in Floral Park, The Crescent City Cafe. They then asked if his band would like to play there. A few weeks later, the place opened, and The Slant became one of the regular weekend acts. Soon, our friend (and a former Slant member) Chris Peters began playing there regularly as well, and we noticed that there was a regular rotation that developed on the weekends, which mostly consisted of Chris, The Slant, a female duo called Crystal Rose, and a Huntington-based musician (who played as a 3-piece) named Kenn Morr. It was a nice little scene. The place wasn't making any money, but Pina and Rose would always make sure to at least feed the band, and the food was first-rate.

Before long, we had made friends with Kenn and his band as well as with Crystal Rose. (An early version of Dave Isaacs' band Jackalope Junction and Frank Walker played there also, but they were mostly Sunday brunches and weekday nights, so we didn't get to know them until a couple of years later.) Eventually, we started attending Kenn and Crystal Rose's gigs outside of Crescent City (often at bookstores, which were a popular place for acoustic acts to play at that time.)

Crescent City didn't last all that long. Could have been a year and a half, could have even been less. And by the end of the decade, Kenn and his wife moved away from Long Island to somewhere in Connecticut. But occasionally, he'd come back and play somewhere, and I'd see him when I could.

Of course, once Denise and I adopted our kids, I stopped going out to local music shows and spent most of the last decade concentrating on being a Dad. However, I've always kept track of Kenn over the years, and whenever he's put out a new album, I've picked it up. I hadn't seen him live in 10 to 15 years though.

Now that I've been getting out now and again for music, though, I've noticed that Kenn usually comes back and plays Long Island once or twice a year. The last couple of times were Friday night gigs at some art gallery in Huntington. I've had every intention of going, but Huntington is kind of a pain in the ass for me to get to, and over the last few years, however sincerely I've planned to go to a Friday night show, when Friday comes along, I'm usually too tired and listless to go out.

This past week, though, I received an e-mail saying that The Kenn Morr Band was playing a Sunday afternoon show at the Northport Library. Honestly, from Patchogue, Northport is almost as big a pain as Huntington (although it's significantly less crowded.) But Sunday afternoons work a little better for me than Friday nights, so I made a plan to go.

I wasn't 100% sure I was going to make it. I had an early-morning staff meeting for my job in Little Neck on Saturday, and those meetings tend to knock me out for the rest of the day. I think it's the diabetes. (I recently got this new-fangled sensor thing up and working. I've been taking regular readings over the last few days, and frankly, my blood sugar count is a horror show.) I had no stamina all day long. But by Sunday, I had recovered, it was a beautiful day, and I was up for some music.

I found the library with little problem, and made my way down to a nice (if somewhat dimly lit room) in the basement. It had a full stage (which was fully lit, thankfully). I grabbed a seat as a few other patrons trickled in. Before long, Kenn and his band appeared. (Their instruments were already set up). We said a quick hello. He didn't recognize me right away (which wasn't surprising, given how long it's been), but as soon as I said "Rich", it clicked. We joked about how we hadn't aged a bit. (And truthfully, except for just a little bit of salt and pepper coloring in his hair, he really hasn't.)

After about ten minutes, at 2PM, Kenn and his band started a 14-song set that ran about an hour and twenty minutes. And although most of the crowd wasn't previously familiar with him (as he'd never played this library before), I think he went over really well.

For those not familiar, Kenn Morr plays a laid back brand of folksy-Americana. If I had to compare him to someone, James Taylor would be a good place to start (although during the show, he mentioned that Gordon Lightfoot was his hero, and I can see the influence there as well.) His deep voice has just a little gravel to it. His music is mostly positive -- it's not that he doesn't sing about the difficulties of life, but there's a gentle feel to the songs, and a feeling that even in the lowest of times, it's possible to make it through somehow.

The band played this show as a three-piece, with some nice three-part vocal harmonies throughout. Kenn sang the lead and played guitar, Tom Hagymasi played a variety of instruments (including mandolin, violin, accordion and Irish Bazouki), and Pat Ryan played bass.

Throughout the afternoon, Kenn told interesting stories, about his memories of Long Island, his new home (in the middle of nowhere), his former and current dogs, and the bear who comes out of the woods every year to rip the door off of his shed. He even told a story about how a slow Southern pancake waitress might have saved his life. (I think that's all I'm going to tell you about that one.)

Over the years, he has released eight albums, and for this show, he played selections from most of them. A couple of my favorites were "My Friend", a tribute to his now-deceased dog Lightfoot, which really captures the flavor of the relationship between man and man's best friend; and "Anna Lee", a song he wrote after a German critic complained that his music should have more "blood, sweat, toil and booze" in it.

It was a treat to catch Kenn and his band again after so many years. These days, he has a number of videos up on YouTube, and of course he also has a website at I don't know when he'll be back on Long Island again, but he plays New England regularly, and he has a museum date scheduled in The Bronx on May 3. I'd highly recommend you check him out.

Monday, April 1, 2019

He-Bird, She-Bird (Again)

Yesterday was a rainy Sunday afternoon. So what better time to catch up with one of my favorite local bands these days, He-Bird, She-Bird?

I headed out to the Sayville Public Library, where the show was scheduled. I had a free day, and the price was right. (Library shows are generally free -- Todd Evans and I had an email conversation about how I got a little out of control with my concert budget recently, so I was especially excited about this). Although I'd never been there before, I found the library pretty easily -- it's just a couple of blocks west from that cut-rate Sayville movie theater that my kids like so much. I parked in the church parking lot next door (I figured it was a 2-hour show at most, so I'd be long gone if they had a 5 o'clock mass scheduled).

On my way in, I had a brief conversation with two women, one of whom looked familiar. I later learned it was Linda Sussman, an excellent folk musician I used to see play back before The Zen Den became The Pisces Cafe. She's been recording again, and playing out frequently, so I'm hoping to get to catch her sometime soon. I also said hello to Hank Stone, who was standing out in front of the library, waiting to meet up with Bob Westcott. I stepped inside, and the first face I saw was Bob Westcott's, so I popped back out to let Hank know he was already inside. I then headed downstairs for the show.

This was my first time inside the Sayville Library. It looks nice and new, and it seems like a pretty impressive library.

As I entered, He-Bird, She-Bird was doing a quick sound check. I settled in, and chatted briefly with Hank and Bob before the show.

He-Bird, She-Bird plays both originals and covers in a variety of compatible genres, including folk, country, Americana and bluegrass. Each of the members of the band makes their own unique contributions. Todd Evans plays a mean lead guitar, and provides the gravelly male vocals. Terri Hall provides many of the lead vocals, and plays an assortment of hand-percussion instruments. She has the kind of voice that is perfect for those slow, bluesy country songs, although she also does quite well with more upbeat numbers as well. Christine Keller adds the rhythm guitar, and sings in a sweet, pretty voice. She also does the songwriting for the band's original numbers. And Zach Swanson (who I think is now a regular member of the band) plays one of those huge stand-up basses, and provides the band's music with some nice bottom end. He-Bird, She-Bird has put out one self-titled album so far, and it sounds like they're in the process of recording their follow up.

This day's show found the band in top form. After Bob Westcott introduced them, they kind of sauntered back onto the stage one by one, and one instrument at-a-time, worked their way into "Travelin' Song", one of the best numbers from their album (on which Todd sings the lead.) Other favorites from the LP included "Little Muse O' Mine" with Christine singing, and "Don't Tempt Me" with Terri taking the lead.

They also mixed in some excellent new songs, including "I Don't Care", a comedic number that found Todd playing a brow-beaten husband, "Hell or High Water", a song Christine wrote partially based on the Western film of the same name, and "You Won't Find Me", a track about quitting your day job.

They also threw in some covers by some of their favorite national artists, including Emmylou Harris, Hazel Dickens and Trio (wherein they established that Todd was singing the Linda Ronstadt part. Oh yeah, did I mention that these guys do some terrific three-part harmonies as well?)

They closed out with their own version of the old Roy Rogers and Dale Evans song, "Happy Trails", on which they invited the audience to sing along. Bob Westcott coaxed them back for a one-song encore, but I couldn't tell you what it was, because by then my bladder was bursting and I was too busy mentally plotting my way to a restroom to focus properly on the music. (Aging sucks.)

In any event, He-Bird, She-Bird will be continuing their World Library Tour (my name, not theirs, although they're welcome to steal it) next Sunday afternoon at 2PM at The Brentwood Library. If you're free that afternoon, I'd encourage you to check them out.