Here, kitty kitty: the Pussycat Dolls.
CREDIT: Chris Shields
The Pussycat Dolls, Danity Kane
Theatre, April 24
There are worse things going on in pop music than the Pussycat
Dolls. I’d be hard-pressed to name them, but I’m sure they
exist. Still, something about the group’s rise to superstardom
doesn’t wash. “Inside every woman is a Pussycat Doll,” founder
Robin Antin has said. (The Dolls were created as a modern-day
burlesque act before being reinvented as an R&B group
a few years back.) Tuesday night, when the Dolls came to town
on a night off from their tour with Christina Aguilera (sigh),
lead singer Nicole Scherzinger claimed that their mega-hit,
the Cee-Lo Green-penned “Don’t Cha,” has to do with girls
feeling good about themselves . . . or something like that.
So this bare-midriffed, multiethnic song-and-dance troupe
try to sell their act off as one of female empowerment?
The Spice Girls wept.
Honestly, as of three hours before the concert, I’d not heard
more than two Pussycat Dolls singles—of which there are apparently,
like, seven. And I had broken the cardinal rule of objectivity
well in advance, having written the group off as little more
than a booty parade, a trifle. Which they are, but I almost
let that keep me from having a good time.
The view from second row, center, changed all that. As Scherzinger
strode to the lip of the stage during a medley of “Tainted
Love” and “Hot Stuff,” I do believe she was giving me eye
sex. I’m sure the middle-aged guy next to me thought the same
thing, much to the chagrin of his wife in the next seat. Whatever.
It felt like a connection, and I was going to hang on to it
for the duration.
The duration, as it turns out, wasn’t long. Following a too-long
opening set by R&B-by-the-numbers girl-group Danity Kane,
the Dolls put on an entertaining 65-minute set, during which
the six dolls pumped, bumped and writhed, in front of and
atop a rather simple (by the standards of the typical pop-tart
concert) metal rigging. They looked great, danced well enough
(I guess), and most of all, they pimped the hell out of their
brand name (most of their apparel, however scant, was adorned
with the letters “PCD”). Hits were interspersed with “sassy
but classy” covers, including the burlesque standby “Fever”
and an odd-but-quick take on “Whole Lotta Love.” The crowd—mostly
dads with teenage daughters, and college-age girls dressed
for clubbin’—went wild for every gyration and gesticulation.
And for all the eyelash-batting and empty come-ons, Scherzinger
revealed (among other things) a strong set of pipes, especially
on her a cappella introduction to “Stickwitu.” Each of the
Dolls had their chance to sing lead, but this was her show,
as evidenced by the fact that her microphone was about 30
percent louder than the others. This bodes well for her first
solo release, due this summer—and, in a fashion, for new Doll
Asia, who was crowned as such on the group’s television reality
series within moments of the concert’s finish.
Put simply, this show was more fun than it had any right to
be. But then, I like boobs.
Master at Work
Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble
Helm Studios, April 14
So I get an e-mail from a buddy Friday afternoon telling me
he’s got an extra comp ticket to the Levon Helm Midnight Ramble,
and would I like to go? Holy moley! I offered to drive.
Levon started holding these Saturday night shows at his studio
in Woodstock in 2005. Around 100 tickets are sold at $150
a pop, and the shows feature Levon and his band, local soul-gospel
singer Alexis P. Suter and her band, and whatever friends
Levon drags over. And Levon’s got a lot of cool friends.
Past guests have included Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello,
and Donald Fagen.
We drove into an unmarked driveway off a narrow country road
just outside of Woodstock and were directed by a very organized
cadre of old hippies to park in a field near the studio building.
A big brown dog wandered over to greet us. “That’s Levon’s
dog,” one of the parking attendants told me.
The studio room is big and airy and woody, with exposed rough
wood beams and pillars; the wall behind the band was stone
and the back wall was stone with a huge fireplace in use.
The bands were set on the floor on Persian rugs. The control
room was on a raised area behind the band. There were folding
metal chairs for the audience. It was intimate, casual, and
Levon looked, played, and sang like a million bucks, and seemed
like the happiest person in a room full of happy people. His
band featured guest guitarist-fiddler Larry Campbell, who
did everything well, ace klezmer trumpeter Frank London, and
an ever-changing vocal section that varied from two to six
members, and included Levon’s big-voiced daughter Amy.
The material was heavily into old-timey country and gospel,
and included a healthy bunch of old Band tunes (like “Ophelia,”
“Rag Mama Rag,” “The Weight”). Things were loose—the band
misfired the beginning of set closer “The Weight,” playing
it in at least three different keys. It took a few minutes
for the musicians to stop laughing so they could start the
song a second time. But everything swung hard, as things do
when Levon’s drumming; the room rocked. At one point I just
walked over and stood about four feet behind Levon and watched
him play close up. Imagine.
So, you probably want to know: “Is it worth $150?” I guess
this depends on your relationship to money, and to Levon.
But I’d say, all things being equal, it’s a bargain. Go.
Lena, April 22
David Lindley is like the Wilfred Brimley of exotic stringed
instruments, but only in one regard. Brimley made a career
of playing parts beyond his years, looking like a man 20 years
older than himself back when he was first being utilized as
an actor and television pitchman. Now he truly is that old
man. Lindley first stepped into the music scene as a key member
of the band Kaleidoscope in the ’60s, playing all sorts of
pluckable instruments from around the world. Now in his 60s,
he seems ageless. He looks pretty much as he has right along,
though his distinctive mutton chops have grayed, his black
hair still cascades over his much-loved polyester print shirts
(part of his attire, along with correspondingly loud pants
Last Sunday night’s performance at Caffe Lena found Lindley
stretching out on a wide range of material and instruments.
Opening with an old fife-and-drum song he’d adapted to the
bazouki, he made the piece come together as short melodic
riffs coalesced into a hypnotic groove that would’ve been
right at home in a Moroccan opium den (or a San Francisco
ballroom dance, circa 1967). His 75-minute set consisted of
barely more than a half-dozen songs, each one coming in at
nearly 10 minutes. But time is relative, and Lindley bends
it handily, as his subtly nuanced explorations led the rapt
full house along on a series of potent journeys. Drawing from
Middle Eastern styles, he combines them with blues motifs,
the prewar blues of Delta players who had a more fluid approach
to their craft than the highly genre-bound electric styles
associated with Chicago.
Covering such past masters as Blind Willie Johnson and assorted
contemporaries (Springsteen) and friends (Zevon), Lindley
also offered up a few originals. He was a relaxed presence,
and his between-song patter was alternately informing and
amusing. Starting from a love of past masters, he has become
one himself. Place the name David Lindley in the search engine
of your brain so that a bell goes off next time his name appears
for a show in the area.
Out of Africa
Omar Sosa’s Afreecanos Quartet
Helsinki, April 22
As co-owner Deborah McDowell was greeting the packed house
Sunday night, some muffled singing could be heard in the distance.
Then the stage door opened, and in walked the quartet, singing
and shaking shakers. They were something to see, dressed in
colorful African garb, with Sosa draped in flowing white silk.
Sosa started triggering sounds off a touchpad—recorded African
voices, synthesized loops, sounds of nature—and he struck
low strings inside his baby grand piano with a beater. The
others held down a simple groove with their shakers, blew
into wooden horns, whizzed thingys on strings around their
heads, and tinkled African thumb pianos. Then Julio Barretto,
on a drum kit, focused the beat, as Mozambican Childo Tomas
picked up an electric bass, and Sosa played repetitive patterns,
punctuated with bold chords, on the piano. The singing continued,
featuring Senegalese Mola Cylla in a clear powerful tenor,
and Sosa singing his piano patterns in a soft falsetto. The
piece grew, as the groove deepened, as Sosa layered more sounds
off his touchpad, and started running piano sounds through
electronic effects. It was frenzied and blistering and trance-inducing
at the same time, and after maybe 10 intense minutes (maybe
20, maybe 30), it climaxed with a bang, with Sosa leaping
off his piano stool in ecstasy, and the crowd just screamed
at him, because there was no other rational response to what
had just happened.
Just another Sunday night in Great Barrington.
There was an African sing-along (Sosa: “OK. Now just the ladies!”)
and several times during the show Sosa jumped up and implored
the crowd to clap along, Sly Stone-like. There was a quiet
playful funk tune, with the sound of crickets, the jabbering
of disembodied African voices like a dream radio, and looped,
treated piano that could have been yanked off an old Fripp-Eno
Sosa makes use of his entire instrument, from busy high arpeggios
to majestic cascading blocks in the lower register, calling
up Mozart, Monk, Glass and Palmieri in equal measure, and
then throwing in the subtle use of electronics, looping and
filtering the piano sounds, done so well that it sounded positively
Sosa, who just released his 10th album in five years (!),
is a genius, seamlessly melding the past, the present and
the future of exotic places we may never see, but with his
help, we can feel.
From the Sahara to Shangri-La featuring Hassan Hakmoun and
Savings Bank Music Hall, April 21
To the mystics of Islamic Sufism Tibetan Buddhism, their religions,
regardless of the differences in outer trappings, are roads
to the same liberating truth of oneness. Last Saturday, musical
representatives of these esoteric traditions shared the stage
of a sparsely-attended Troy Music Hall in a sharply contrasting
split bill of world music that was often mesmerizing, occasionally
repetitious, and ultimately meditative in spirit.
First up, Yungchen Lhamo (whose given name means “goddess
of melody and song”), is today’s leading Tibetan singer. Born
in a labor camp in occupied Tibet in 1969, Yungchen learned
the by-then-forbidden devotional songs from her grandmother.
In 1989 she fled Tibet on foot in a 1,000-mile trek across
the Himalayas to freedom and an eventual meeting with the
Dalai Lama, who encouraged her to perform as a way of life.
Standing in a white, ankle-length silk dress, with her long
black hair flowing from a bejeweled topknot down to her knees,
she opened the show with a set of austere, ethereal unaccompanied
singing. Lhamo prefaced her oriental-sounding melodies with
short soliloquies on the Buddhist themes of the universality
of suffering, the futility of pursuing the ephemeral, the
need for compassion, and the transformative power of inner
awakening. Her voice was extraordinarily clear and resonant,
and she embellished it with slow, sweeping gestures of her
arms reminiscent of Tai Chi. Although the songs were all of
a piece, she still evoked a serene aura that was engrossing.
The headliner, Moroccan-born Hassan Hakmoun, has been entertaining
since age 4, when he started playing his native Gnawa music,
a style originally from West Africa used in nightlong Sufi
exorcism ceremonies to induce healing trance states, on the
streets of Marrakesh alongside snake charmers and fire-breathers.
In 1987 he made his American debut at Lincoln Center and later
moved to the US, where he’s blended his sound with contemporary
influences including reggae, funk, and Afro-pop.
Fronting a quartet consisting of his brother Sayeed on qarkabeb
(large metal castanets), Brooklynite Sean Kelly on hand percussion
and drums, and Brahim Fribgane of Casablanca on percussion
and electric guitar, Hakmoun sang and played the santir, a
three-stringed lute-like West African instrument that is the
ancestor of our five-string banjo. But all he played on it
over and over in song after song was essentially the same
primitive riff. The vocals also consisted of similar, reggae-sounding
lines. Sufis may use such repetition to induce trance states,
but a concertgoer’s ear can soon tire of it. Only Fribgane
and Kelly’s spellbinding percussion prevented monotony from
claiming the first couple of songs, which, like those in the
rest of the set, went unnamed, untranslated, and unexplained.
But then Kelly went over to the drum set, and Fribgane switched
from percussion to guitar, enlivening the mix with snaky,
metallically toned single-note lines.
Midway through the second set, Hakmoun called out Lhamo, who
joined him for a duet. It felt unnatural, though, the two
being from such disparate musical backgrounds.
During the frenzied closing numbers, the Hakmoun brothers
demonstrated the spectacular dancing of the Gnawa ceremony
when they spun, crouched, double-leg kicked, and leapt around
Hassan Hakmoun and Yungchen Lhamo may not have delivered the
most diverting evening of music, but what they offer is rare,
and the spiritual paths they come from are pools of light
in an ever-darkening world.