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Making a joyful noise: Ban On a Can All-Stars at the Egg.

Photo: Chris Shields

Three Shows in One

By Shawn Stone

Bang on a Can All-Stars with Iva Bittová and Don Byron

The Egg, Jan. 26

When the Bang on a Can All-Stars venture north from their New York City base, it’s usually to some town in Massachusetts like North Adams or Williamstown. This past weekend, however, the Capital Region was lucky to be favored with a visit from these downtown denizens and two noted collaborators, composer-clarinetist Don Byron and composer-flautist-singer Iva Bittová.

It was like getting three shows in one. First, BOAC clarinetist Evan Ziporyn led the ensemble (bassist Robert Black, percussionist David Cossin, cellist Felix Fan, pianist Lisa Moore, guitarist Mark Stewart) in four movements from ShadowBang. Based on structures in Balinese music, it’s fascinating, flavorful music. An insinuating first section, dominated by the clarinet, was followed by a movement in which the guitar and piano took the lead, with bowed cello and bass rumbling underneath. A spare, dramatic section followed, which built into a crescendo in waltz time; prog rock raised its magnificent, ugly head in the final section. It rawked.

When Iva Bittová took a seat in the audience after her performance (to watch the rest of the show), a precocious tot of about 3 told her he liked her, but wondered, “Why were you screaming?” Smiling, Bittová corrected him: “Joking!”

The Slovakian singer-violinist entered from offstage left, singing and playing her way to the opposite side. She had the audience from the first note. (Well, except for the group of teens in the back who skipped out in the middle of her performance.) Going back and forth between vocalese and Czech, Bittová conveyed a range of moods and emotions beautifully in music that ranged from folky to funky. She was funny, freaky, endearing—and I couldn’t understand a word. Bittová recorded a nifty album, Elida, with BOAC All-Stars in 2005 (I bought one at the show); all of the selections came from this collaboration.

After intermission, Don Byron joined the BOACers to play selections from their new CD collaboration, A Ballad for Many. (I bought this one, too.) Byron, as cool as his white suit, introduced “Eugene,” a musically slapstick tribute to 1950s TV surrealist Ernie Kovacs; this was followed by the dramatic “Basquiat,” an arresting tribute to the late artist. They finished the show with a suite of songs from Byron’s soundtrack to a documentary on the Tuskegee Airmen: “Silver Wings,” “Integrity,” “Explanation” and “Credits.” The music was evocative and to the point, as much film music needs to be; Byron’s explanation of what the Airmen meant to him added to the experience. There was a standing ovation, and an encore.

A tip of the hat to the Egg for their “New Work, NY” series, which hosted this concert; a wag of the finger to all y’all who didn’t come out to see this amazing show. (The Swyer wasn’t quite half-full, for Chrissakes.) Don’t make the same mistake with the next New Work, NY concerts, DBR & the Mission (Feb. 24) and Ethel (March 23).

The Phoenix of the Blues

Danny Kalb

Caffe Lena, Jan. 28

So what if he sang an occasional note flat, or too faintly? So what if now and then he muttered incoherently amid his often hilarious patter in between songs? So what if he played more than half of his material in the same key? This was a master guitarist here at Caffe Lena, spinning out spellbinding webs of blues, jazz, and even Celtic melody on his beat-up but magnificent-sounding vintage Gibson acoustic. This was a musician, who, had it not been for a fateful bad acid trip decades ago, would have risen from being a mid-1960s cult icon to the pantheon of guitar gods. This was the Blues Project’s Danny Kalb. For the two dozen or so listeners who turned out last Sunday night at Caffe Lena, his two sets were a feast for the ears.

Originally a guitar student of folksinger Dave Van Ronk, Kalb first established himself as a solo performer in the legendary early 1960s New York City folk-music scene, and then as a session guitarist for Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins and others. But then came the Beatles and the British Invasion, which for many folkies meant plug in or perish, so in 1965, Kalb, along with Dylan sideman Al Kooper, and Steve Katz, Andy Kulberg, Roy Blumenfeld, and Tommy Flanders, launched the Verve/Folkways recording group the Blues Project. In those days before Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix became rock guitar’s twin titans, his technically brilliant and passionate playing earned critical acclaim. With the release of LP Projections, the Blues Project seemed headed for superstardom.

But in 1967 Kooper left the band, and Kalb had a devastating LSD bummer that evidently derailed his career, as he did not record again until 1995 (disclosure: I spent an evening playing my original fingerstyle guitar pieces for him in his Manhattan apartment in the early 1970s, but we never met again after that until last Sunday). More CDs followed, and now he is gigging in quality venues again, his guitar playing as good as ever.

For this performance, Kalb was backed by Brooklynite Mark Ambrosino on drums and local electric bassist John Profeta. With only Ambrosino backing, Kalb, wearing a black shirt, tan slacks, and red, white and blue suspenders and playing seated, opened with a fingerstyle version of Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” His baritone singing, while not robust, was relaxed and assured, and he played guitar with authority, his right-hand thumb thumping the bass strings while he picked tasty riffs in the treble with his fingers.

Two more blues in the same vein followed, and then Kalb offered a delicate, jazzy instrumental arrangement of “Over the Rainbow,” changing up the harmonies as he repeated the verse section. The first set also included Ray Charles’ gospel-tinged “Drown in My Own Tears,” and “Banks of the River” by Gary Davis, whom Kalb proclaimed “my favorite guitarist of all time.”

The second set was even better. He began with an uptempo blues, “Mean Old Southern,” which he had once played in a 1961 New York radio performance with Bob Dylan backing on harmonica. Next was Jack Johnson’s “I’m Going to Kansas City,” the song on which Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller based their 1959 rock & roll hit “Kansas City.” He also played “Alberta,” a beautiful old 16-bar blues from New Orleans, a version of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” arranged in the rarely heard open-C tuning, and Pete Seeger’s calypso-inspired guitar instrumental “Livin in the Country. The musical zenith of the night, though, was Jimmy Reed’s “Caress Me Baby.” For this, Kalb used a flatpick and switched to a single-note Chicago blues style, his fingers climbing the neck in breathtaking, perfectly phrased runs.

For the encore, he played a jazzy version of the Irish rebel song, “The Foggy Dew,” and an original ballad, “Visions of Flowers.”

If you’re a blueshound or an acoustic-guitar fan, don’t miss him next time he’s around—he’s one of the best you’ll ever see.

—Glenn Weiser


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