of the Telecaster: Bill Kirchen at the Corning Preserve.
Photo by Joe Putrock.
Freihofer’s Jazz Festival
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
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
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
Bill Kirchen, the Lustre Kings
Preserve Boat Launch, June 27
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
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.”
Real Don Ho-down
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 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
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.