Out the Candles
Goodman’s 100th Big Band Birthday
Park, May 10
it seem like only yesterday when Benny Goodman and his band
scored such a success at the Palomar Ballroom that the swing
era officially started? All right, then. Maybe I live in a
different era. But whatever your perspective, music of the
late 1930s was characterized by the punchy, brassy arrangements
of the likes of Fletcher Henderson, himself a bandleader,
and Jimmy Mundy, and played by the bands of Goodman, Tommy
Dorsey, Artie Shaw and many, many others. Performing the tunes
called for tremendous virtuosity, and gave us a generation
of players still revered for their skill. It’s something of
a shock to realize that there’s a current generation of musicians
able and eager to play in that style, and can bring to life
music heretofore trapped on decades-old recordings.
Clarinetist Dan Levinson is a musical chameleon whose specialty
is channeling styles as far back as the teens. His heart seems
to be in the ’30s, though, and he plays music of that era
both with a small group (his Swing Wing) and large ensembles
like Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks. For this event, he fronted
James Langton’s New York City All-Stars, a 15-piece band sporting
the caliber of player Goodman would have been delighted to
hire. The program opened as Goodman would have opened it,
with a short, rousing “Let’s Dance” that he took almost immediately
into “Bugle Call Rag,” a Mundy arrangement that quickly showcased
many of the individual players.
A swing concert needs a canary, and Levinson has found the
surest way to keep a very talented singer at hand: He married
her, he told us, a year ago. Molly Ryan has a crisp, versatile
voice that she can style as needed, deftly tossing off Helen
Ward specialties like “You Turned the Tables on Me” and “Between
the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” or capturing Peggy Lee’s
saucy intensity on “Why Don’t You Do Right?”
It took a couple of numbers for the group to really coalesce
and play as one, which I suspect was more of a function of
the sound system than of the players, who have long histories
together. The amplification was poorly applied, neglecting
the brass while punching up the reeds and piano, and nobody
made any effort to correct it as the concert continued.
Jon-Erik Kellso is one of the best trumpet players working
in the swing style, and proved it as he blew his solo on a
Harry James specialty, “Life Goes to a Party.” Kellso was
an inspiring presence throughout the 90-minute concert, also
taking terrific solos on “Stealin’ Apples,” “One O’Clock Jump”
and more. But it was trumpeter Dave Brown, a fixture in the
Broadway pits, who took the Ziggy Elman solo on “And the Angels
Sing,” a nice piece of showmanship.
Levinson’s set list was consistently Goodman-intensive, but
not necessarily drawn from Goodman’s late-’30s band. “Georgia
Jubilee” was from a 1934 session in which BG was a sideman
(along with Coleman Hawkins), while “Bashful Baby” saluted
Goodman’s stint in Ben Pollack’s orchestra, with Langton laying
aside his sax to effortlessly recreate the Scrappy Lambert
vocal. And Levinson took an extended solo on this number by
combining what Goodman recorded on two surviving takes—that’s
And, in a nod to a later Goodman group who recorded for Columbia
in the ’40s, the band played “Clarinet a la King,” a brilliant
Eddie Sauter chart that showed the group at its tightest.
There was some competition in the sound system with wind gust
across the microphones, causing enough of a roar for guitarist
Matt Munisteri to ask, “Is Armageddon coming?” Swing-era guitarists
tended to be neglected, but Munisteri was a quiet powerhouse
throughout, taking a long-overdue solo in “Stompin’ at the
Sporadic outbreaks of dancing early in the program gave way
to a continuous stream of jitterbugging, egged on by Levinson,
whose always tasty solos seemed to work the same terpsichorean
magic as did Goodman’s.
The concert peaked, as one would expect, with drums-and-brass
feature “Sing, Sing, Sing”—or the first half of the number,
anyway—and drummer Kevin Dorn was right on top of the Gene
Krupa tradition, capturing the intensity without slavishly
imitating the solos. The only other drummer I’ve seen do it
as well was Connie Kay, which puts Dorn in excellent company.
And high praise, too, to pianist Mark Shane, who sounds like
Fats Waller, Count Basie and Joe Bushkin rolled into one.
The concert ended—again, per tradition—with Gordon Jenkins’s
“Goodbye,” and we stepped from the Steel Pier in 1939 back
into Washington Park.
What You Wanted?
Mogwai, the Twilight Sad
Street Nightclub, Northampton, Mass., May 2
I could have had lots of fun on Saturday night at the Pearl
Street Nightclub—all I had to do was go downstairs to the
Electric Six show. But instead, my girlfriend and I decided
to check out Mogwai, a band I like, but not one exactly known
for delivering a rollicking good time. It wasn’t silly of
me to ask if there was going to be a mosh pit—the folks waiting
in line were dressed to rock. Mogwai, who hail from Glasgow,
Scotland, attract a mixed bag of walking rock stereotypes.
Most prevalent on Saturday night were the plaid types: jeans,
T-shirt and an abundance of flannel. But it was the metalheads
who stuck out the most—real metalheads with their Motorhead-type
vests with sewn-on patches of black- and gore-metal bands.
But Mogwai just don’t really work themselves up into a moshable
frenzy, and only someone raised on a musical diet of Rilo
Kiley and Michael Buble would mistake them for metal. In fact,
Mogwai mostly deliver fragile, intricate, instrumentals. They
plod and plink like the soundtrack to some tweaked-out, overly
dramatic science-fiction epic. (They’ve provided music for
The Fountain and 28 Weeks Later, among others.)
The band usually keep at the soundtrack-type plucking until
it breaks into an explosion of distortion. It’s an obligatory
freak-out, but the thing is, the notes don’t change much.
And since there are generally no vocals, you have to, you
know, feel the music.
I should say again, I like Mogwai. At times I have professed
to “love” Mogwai. It’s just that explaining all this to my
girlfriend during what had otherwise been a lighthearted,
thought-free spring trip was sort of a drag.
The audience might have preferred to be at a rowdier show.
Someone’s goddamn techno ringtone kept interrupting the more
delicate parts of “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” from the band’s
new album, The Hawk Is Howling. Seriously, it’s a sweet
song with a skeleton of piano chords that are slowly joined
by howling guitars and guffawing laughter. Well, strike the
laughter in this version; the laughter was added by the assholes
in the back who spent most of the show waiting for the rock.
Rock,” another piano-based piece that dripped with melancholy,
felt naked and abused under the weight of a talkative crowd
and the pulsing bass lines coming from the show downstairs.
It wasn’t until the band’s de facto leader, Barry Burns, moved
from his keyboard/laptop setup to a Gibson SG that the rocking
officially started—though they interrupted it for a second
to deliver the only song of the night with vocals, “Hunted
by a Freak,” which features Burns singing through a vocoder
and lush synthesizer. (Think Kid A with less warm sleepy,
more stalky scary.)
The band dove into the old-school guitar number “Like Herod”
from their much heralded first album, Young Team, the
three guitarists delivering fuzzy riffs mixed with squeals.
Sadly, it sort of felt forced. The band aren’t built for rocking
anymore. They’re not a rock band who produce soundtrack-inspired
music, but a soundtrack band who used to be inspired by rock
& roll. On Saturday night they provided the soundtrack
to my girlfriend’s struggle to stay awake and the adventures
of some bored, chatty, drunk guys periodically checking the
sports scores on their cellphones. To me it was pure, grating
Openers the Twilight Sad from Kilsyth, Scotland, mixed a Joy
Division-style rhythm section with a lead singer and guitarist
and who channeled Morrissey and Johnny Marr, respectively.
Heartfelt balladry interrupted by searing white noise. We
liked it so much we bought the CD.
From the Past
hitmakers Third Eye Blind returned from a six-year hiatus
to headline the main stage at Tulip Festival on Saturday.
The San Francisco-based alt-rock quartet are preparing to
release a brand new album, Ursa Major; their set reportedly
drew from both new material and their extensive collection
of radio singles, including the once-ubiquitous “Semi-Charmed
Life.” And all the Albany girls sang “Doot doot doot, doot
doot doot doot . . .”