Sunday, May 5, 2019

Lucy Kaplansky

A week or two ago, I received an email informing me that folk singer Lucy Kaplansky would be appearing in Stony Brook on May 5 as part of Charlie Backfish's Sunday Streets Concerts series. Now I've been familiar with Kaplansky's name for years. I think I'm even the one who set up her Sputnik Music page last year. But I'd never actually heard any of her music.

Last year, I attended my first Sunday Streets concert when John Gorka played the series. I'd liked his recent True in Time album a lot, and I enjoyed his concert even more. Then, a few months later, I bought a ticket to see Kate Campbell play the series. Unfortunately, I'd bought her new album Damn Sure Blue after I'd bought the ticket, and I wasn't really impressed by it. As it happened, I'd had a bad week prior to the show. Then, on that afternoon, I'd learned that everyone in my family was going to be out that day, and I had the all-too-rare opportunity to have the house to myself. And as it happened, I was exactly halfway through the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House. So in the end, I decided to blow off the concert for an opportunity to binge watch in total peace. (It didn't completely work out that way. A few minutes into my second episode, the smoke alarm in our basement went off for no apparent reason. And shortly thereafter, while I was trying to sort it all out with the alarm company, about five fire trucks and a bunch of policemen showed up and scared the living shit out of me. But it was probably just as well I'd stayed home, because I got the sense that if I hadn't been there to let them in, they'd have broken down my front door with their fire axes.) I still feel just a little guilty about missing the show, though, even though I'm sure that Ms. Campbell had no idea that I'd dissed her.

Anyway, back to the Kaplansky show. I was strongly tempted to buy a ticket, but a couple of things held me back. One was just that my calendar was already pretty busy this weekend. Denise and I were going to The Paramount on Friday night to catch the later of two Jim Gaffigan shows. ("Hot pockets!"And Saturday morning was the monthly staff meeting for my job, which always knocks me out for about a day and a half. (I'm just not an early riser.) Plus, I also have another concert scheduled for early this week (which you know I'll tell you about after the fact.) So I wasn't sure I'd have the energy for a Sunday afternoon show.

The other I was undecided was because I'm not that familiar with Kaplansky, and I wasn't sure if she's stridently political like some folk singers can be. I believe in freedom of speech, and that a singer should be able to sing about whatever she or he wants. But that doesn't mean I'm willing to sit there to listen to it. So I was on the fence.

I looked at Ms. Kaplansky's website, and at her Wikipedia entry, and nothing I saw made me believe that she was an ardent political activist, so that was that box checked. So now I was balancing my busy week against my neurotic fear of missing out.

Now last year, I almost bought a ticket to see Gordon Lightfoot at The Westbury Music Fair (which some people like to pretend is called The NYCB Theatre, but it's not. Not by me, anyway.) Then, at the last minute, I went up on YouTube and played one of his most recent videos, and I was horrified. I had always loved Lightfoot's voice, but it was pretty shot. Instead, it sounded as if they'd pulled some random old guy off of a park bench, gave him a really good band, and asked him to sing a few Gordon Lightfoot covers. And the Westbury concert wasn't even scheduled to have an opening act. It was going to be two solid sets worth of Lightfoot, Lightfoot and more Lightfoot. In the end, I knew I just couldn't handle it.

So I decided to give Lucy Kaplansky the YouTube test, and see how she held up. I entered her name in the search engine, and the first thing that came up was a concert that had only been shot a year ago. I only had time to listen to a song and a half, but it wound up being the opposite of what I now refer to as The Lightfoot Effect. I thought she sounded very fine indeed. (I'd tell you what those first two somngs were, but YouTube is being finicky about loading that video tonight, so I'll have to pass.) So later that day, I went up online and ordered a ticket.

I took a pretty laid back day for myself today. I needed it. Last night, my daughter and her boyfriend came over to hang out with my son and his friends. There was some drinking involved, and let's just say that hijinks ensued. (Or as the charming old lady in Sweeney Todd would have put it, "Mischief! Mischief!!!")

I left my house with plenty of time to make the concert, only to get a few blocks away and discover that, A. I had forgotten my wallet, and, B. My son, with whom I share my car, had forgotten to inform me that I only had about a quarter of a tank of gas left. (His part of the "sharing" these days consists of doing more driving than I do, while mine consists of paying for most of the gas.) So after I'd gone back home and retrieved my wallet, and then stopped up the corner to put $20 in the tank, I was feeling much more rushed than I'd have liked.

Luckily, I needn't have worried. There wasn't much traffic (possibly due to the fact that the weather was fairly miserable), and the trip was shorter than I'd remembered. So I made it in plenty of time.

Once inside (the venue was once again the Long Island Museum of American Art, History and Carriages), I said hello to the usual group of familiar faces helping out here and there, including former WUSB station manager Norm Prusslin, Amy Tuttle (Bob Westcott showed up a little too late for the show), the museum's Public Program Coordinator Emma Backfish, and her dad, Sunday Street host Charlie Backfish (OK, I didn't get a chance to say hello to Charlie. But he was there.) I also unexpectedly ran into my friend Ed (The brother of Tom, the keyboard player in both of Denise's bands), so we hung out together for the show.

Kaplansky soon took the stage. She played non-stop, for about an hour and forty minutes, to a very enthusiastic (and mostly sold out) crowd. Her set consisted of a bunch of material off of her most recent album Everyday Street, which is only available at her live shows and through her website; some songs from older albums; and covers by artists such as Loudon Wainwright III, Johnny Cash (well, really June Carter and Merle Kilgore, but most of us think of it as a Johnny Cash song), Eliza Gilkyson and Richard Shindell.

Overall, I found Kaplansky's music to be quiet and gentle. She played solo, and switched back and forth throughout the performance between guitar, mandolin and piano. Her voice isn't especially unique, but it is quite pleasant. Most of her original material was pretty personal, with songs about her daughter, her husband, her mother and her dog. Kaplansky lives in Greenwich Village (she was thrilled to be playing "54 miles from home"), and New York City also features prominently in many of her songs. She seems to have a very pleasant personality, and was willing to take a certain number of requests from the crowd. (Or to attempt them, anyway. A few of the requests were for songs she hadn't played for awhile, and she ran into some trouble there. She also played a brand new song she'd just started writing that morning, which naturally also gave her a bit of difficulty. Being the most curmudgeonly bastard in a crowd full of nice people, I had to bite my tongue to keep from calling out, "Play something you actually know!") Yeah, I know. I suck.

Anyway, I basically enjoyed the show, enough to buy her new CD afterwards. I think this was a case where I'd have actually appreciated it a lot more if I'd had time to familiarize myself with more of her material before seeing her play live (which I'd have done if I'd made the decision to buy the ticket earlier than last Thursday). With Gorka, just knowing his most recent album contributed significantly to my enjoyment of his live show, and I have a feeling that having listened to Everyday Street beforehand would have produced the same effect. I can say that I particularly liked the song about her husband ("Ten Year Night"), the song about her dog ("Janie's Waltz"), her 9/11 song ("Brooklyn Train") and her Eliza Gilkyson cover ("Sanctuary"). And Ed was also particularly taken with her Philip Seymour Hoffman song ("Keeping Time"), which has apparently been getting some airplay on WFUV. (Of course, given my weekend endeavors, all I could think about when she mentioned Philip Seymour Hoffman was the way Jim Gaffigan joked about his and Hoffman's resemblance on Friday night).

Anyway, in the end, I'm glad I bought the ticket. It's my own fault I didn't do my due diligence before the show. But if Kaplansky plays the Sunday Street series again, I'll be ready next time.

(The setlist for the show is available at