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Master of the Telecaster: Bill Kirchen at the Corning Preserve. Photo by Joe Putrock.

Limp Hepcat
By Paul Rapp

Freihofer’s Jazz Festival
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, June 30

Despite the fine weather, attendance seemed sharply down for the SPAC jazz fest this year. Could it be the lineup? War, or a bunch of guys calling themselves War, headlining? Natalie Cole? And what happened to that idiom called Latin jazz?

Anyway, Sunday’s lineup was a mixed bag indeed. Trombonist Steve Turre and his quintet were wonderful; nothing too taxing, but everybody played lyrically, especially pianist Mulgrew Miller. I missed Turre’s legendary conch shell solo, deciding instead to run up the hill to see the Vijay Iyer Quartet in the gazebo. Mistake. Iyer and his band played edgy, aggressive and self-indulgent post-bop music that neither jelled nor commanded attention.

Angelique Kidjo came to conquer, and conquer she did. Starting out before several hundred people in the amphitheatre (most of whom appeared to be doing the Times crossword puzzle), she finished the set an hour later with a teeming mass of singing and dancing zealots, many of whom were up on stage with her. Kidjo’s Afro-French-Brazilian pop is both exotic and easy to grasp, and her outrageous, joyful stage manner is absolutely infectious. More than anybody all day, she killed.

Not wanting to miss any of Roy Haynes, I stayed put after Kidjo’s set, missing Ray Vega at the gazebo. Second mistake. I’m told Vega rocked. Haynes came out with a young band (I doubt the sum of their ages exceeded Haynes’ 76 years) who all played deferentially and carefully, and 20 minutes into the set there had been lots of long solos by everybody but Haynes. Dispirited, I trudged up the hill to catch a roaring set by the Seattle sax-bass-drums trio Living Daylights. These folks played a cool combination of lounge, acid, funk and bop, and they all played great, particularly saxophonist Jessica Lurie.

Presumably, Fourplay took their name upon finding that Four Jacks and a Jill was already taken. What the hell were they thinking? In any event, I was ready to use Fourplay’s set as an excuse to make snippy, elitist comments about smooth jazz, but changed my mind after Larry Carlton’s third guitar solo. Holey moley, can he play that thing! The set was very much stuck in the ’70s in a Steely Dan-Weather Report sort of way, which isn’t necessarily bad, and Carlton’s solos and drummer Harvey Mason’s deep and stinky grooves left very little not to like.

I have no idea what to make of Cassandra Wilson. With an overbearing Latin percussionist, a bassist whose notes got lost in a murky mix, an acoustic guitarist playing minimally, and Wilson’s tendency to sing around her melodies, there wasn’t much to grab onto— just an amorphous and uninteresting bunch of sound.

The first solo of Wynton Marsalis’ set was on clarinet. As one would expect, Wynton’s offerings were virtuoisic, overly reverential and largely backward looking.

Do you really want to know about Natalie Cole? I didn’t think so.

Sturm und Twang

Bill Kirchen, the Lustre Kings
Corning Preserve Boat Launch, June 27

“I don’t want to be an alarmist,” twang guitarist Bill Kirchen announced from the stage during his Alive at Five performance last Thursday, as ominous dark clouds swirled around the I-787 overpass. The free concert was held under the highway, its rain date location, in anticipation of the impending thunderstorms. Far from being deterred by the weather, however, Kirchen made light of the forbidding surroundings (and his risk of electrocution) as he led into his next song. “If something should happen to me tonight,” Kirchen added, as lightning flashed against the Albany skyline, “I want a rockabilly funeral when I die.”

The gloom provided Kirchen and his Too Much Fun bandmates (Johnny Castle on bass and Jack O’Dell on drums) with the perfect setup for “Rockabilly Funeral”—a Blackie Farrell song once performed by Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, the pioneering country honky-tonk group that Kirchen first made his name with in the ’70s. Kirchen punctuated the seriocomic tune with a raw guitar snippet of Chopin’s “Funeral March” as he rattled off a series of outrageous last requests—from being buried in a Cadillac with the tail fins poking out of the ground to having a funeral service attended by women with beehive hairdos.

If any singer could make a funeral sound like a romping good time, it’s Bill Kirchen. He may look like your next-door neighbor or your best friend’s father (sort of a graying Woody Allen and Andy Dick mix), but he rocks like the best of the rockabilly cats, whether he’s shaking his rubbery legs like Elvis, manipulating his rumbling vocals with cool echo effects or unleashing gnarly riffs on his Telecaster.

Kirchen’s guitar skills were best displayed during the classic “Hot Rod Lincoln.” Playing the same guitar that he used to record Commander Cody’s hit version of the song more than 30 years ago, Kirchen reenacted the scorching, octane-fueled joyride of the song’s narrator, even tweaking his guitar knobs to replicate the sounds of car horns. As the song reached its climax, Kirchen pretended to be “passing by” all of his guitar heroes on the highway, which he acted out by imitating the signature guitar riffs of everyone from Johnny Cash to Duane Eddy to Chuck Berry to Jimi Hendrix. Damn impressive.

The sky darkened considerably as Kirchen launched into a straight rendition of Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Even as rain started to leak down from the highway overhead in big drops, Kirchen continued on unfazed. “Don’t know how much time we’ve got until the amplifiers float off the stage,” he said, calling local guitarists Graham Tichy and Mark Gamsjager (whose band the Lustre Kings opened the show with a well-received set of smooth, rockabilly goodness) up to help him perform one last song: a joyous rendition of Kirchen’s self-described “chicken-pickin’ diesel-billy” number “Too Much Fun.”

—Kirsten Ferguson

A Real Don Ho-down

Hawaiian Rawkfest
Valentine’s, June 28

Downstairs at Valentine’s Friday, the first night of the second annual Hawaiian Rawkfest (written as the more mundane “Rock Fest” on the handbills) was a big success. True, there was no fat pig roasting on an open spit, but there were cookies, Hawaiian Punch, and a menu of tropical drinks. The cheesy and colorful decorations, including plastic Tiki-head lights, lent a real Brady Bunch-goes-to-Hawaii atmosphere to the festivities.

The line of bands was eclectic, to say the least. To Hell and Back kicked off the evening with a statement of purpose, telling the crowd “whoever said you can’t sing and drink beer was a fucking liar.” Their hard-edged rock blend strayed into punk territory on a couple of numbers, but even the slower songs had a pleasing punk-style artlessness. To sum up, they were loud and proud.

Manhattanites Connie Acher and Blind Drunk John followed next, and turned the direction of the show around 180 degrees. (Actually, this radical shift happened between every band, and made the evening fresh.) With Acher on ukulele and B.D. John on slide, they opened with the only traditional-sounding Hawaiian song of the evening (it was actually improvised on the spot). They both switched instruments throughout the set, with Acher doubling on acoustic guitar, and B.D. John on guitar and mandolin. Acher sang lead, in an often deadpan style that matched the dry wit of her lyrics. B.D. John played imaginative, ear-catching leads on each instrument he employed, even making a mandolin sound like a surf guitar. Whether the music was old-school country (old old school, as in the Carter Family), or downtown New York City, the duo were terrific.

BoneOil followed with a set of wide-ranging musical explorations. With guitarist George Muscatello lurking unassumingly on the right of the stage (out of sight of half the audience), the talented trio confidently went wherever the spirit led them. Progressive rock, free jazz, Dead-style jamming (which got the crowd dancing, briefly), and samba were all incorporated into the mix. The constant musical shifting worked partly because of the quality musicianship, and partly because the listener couldn’t help but wonder what the hell they would play next.

The Kamikaze Hearts must be the most aggressive acoustic band on the planet. Their songs maintain a consistent mood of thoughtful anger, matched with snarling vocals and a hard strumming sound. As he cheerfully informed everyone, Troy Pohl may have been performing under a high level of stress (he had a fever, and had been hassled by a freak when unloading their van), but this only added to the intensity of their performance.

Kitty Little ended the evening with a set of joyous power pop. Backed by two faux-Hawaiian garbed backup singers (the “Kitty Little-ettes”), Matto and company had the packed house moving with their smart pop songs and infectious energy. If the second night of the Rawkfest was half as successful as the first, one can only hope that organizers Matto and Jason Martin will bring it back next year.

—Shawn Stone

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