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Blow Out the Candles

By B.A. Nilsson

Benny Goodman’s 100th Big Band Birthday

Washington Park, May 10

Doesn’t 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 dedication!

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 Savoy.”

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.

Not What You Wanted?

Mogwai, the Twilight Sad

Pearl 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.

“Auto 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 bliss.

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.

—David King

Blast From the Past

Photo: Joe Putrock

1990s 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 . . .”

 


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