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Here, kitty kitty: the Pussycat Dolls.

CREDIT: Chris Shields

Hot Stuff

By John Brodeur

The Pussycat Dolls, Danity Kane

Palace 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.

A Master at Work

Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble

Levon 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 comfortable.

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.

—Paul Rapp

Ageless

David Lindley

Caffe 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 and shoes).

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.

—David Greenberger

Out of Africa

Omar Sosa’s Afreecanos Quartet

Club 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 record.

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 organic.

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.

—Paul Rapp

Spirited

From the Sahara to Shangri-La featuring Hassan Hakmoun and Yungchen Lhamo

Troy 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 the stage.

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.

—Glenn Weiser


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