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You? Me? Pat Metheny?
By Paul Rapp

Richard Thompson
The Egg, Nov. 3

Picking and grinning: Richard Thompson at The Egg. Photo by Martin Benjamin.

Richard Thompson returned to the Egg last Sunday as an itinerant folksinger, without a band and without any new music to pitch. Having seen the guy a half-dozen times or so, I’ve come to realize I like him solo the best: His bands are great and his electric guitar playing is astonishing, but at a solo show, one gets not only his incredible one-man-band acoustic guitar technique, but an uninterrupted, unimpeded blast of Thompson the person. And without a pile of new songs to clutter up the proceedings, this looked like a unique and rare fan’s show.

As it turned out, we did get a bunch of new songs, but they certainly didn’t detract from the brilliant, freewheeling show. Thompson has a new album in the can, and we heard “She Believes in Destiny,” perhaps the closest thing to a pop song Thompson’s ever written; there was a blistering attack on religious fundamentalism that started with the attention-grabbing lyric “God never listened to Charlie Parker/Charlie Parker died in vain”; and a newly-minted ode to Alexander Graham Bell, which walked that fine line between insane and hysterical.

There were classics aplenty; Thompson’s songbook is so vast that he could probably go for days and not satisfy everybody’s wish list. And what makes his best songs so bracing is their novella quality: Thompson adopts a character, a time and a setting, and tells a complete cinematographic story in four minutes. A rollicking “Cooksferry Queen” woke up the crowd, ”Woods of Darney” (which combines a love story with an antiwar message, set in World War I-era England), “Beeswing” and “Turning of the Tide” were luxuriant; “Feel So Good” and “Wheel of Death” rocked as hard as songs can when performed by a guy and a guitar; and, as has become the custom, “Vincent Black Lightning 1952” stopped the show dead.

The nonpromotional aspect of the show was clear in its utter looseness: People yelled out requests, Thompson played them; his guitar solos had a go-for-broke, let’s-see-if-this-works quality that was exciting and often funny; and then there was what could be considered extracurricular material. Thompson played Phil Ochs’ classic antiwar anthem “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” adding several extra verses that brought the song from the Vietnam War era to the present. By the end of the song, half the crowd was standing and yelling encouragement. Thompson’s additions were so dead-on and passionate that even a war hawk would have been moved.

Then Thompson sang a hilarious indictment of the Madonna wedding in Scotland (“Say It’s for Madonna”), and the heavy-handed, publicity-mad, and disrespectful manner in which the event trampled Scotland. This was directly followed by him fulfilling a yelled request for his “I Agree With Pat Metheny,” which Thompson said he wrote in support of his friend Metheny’s scathing upbraiding of Kenny G for recording a “duet” with the very-much-dead Louis Armstrong. “I Agree With Pat Metheny” the song started, “Kenny G’s talent is quite teeny.” The tune got increasingly and hysterically devastating from there, as the rhymes became ever more ludicrous and intentionally strained. Unbelievable.

Now, one could say that this sort of bottom-feeding, easy-target silliness is below Thompson’s stature as an artist, and not befitting his illustrious career and catalog. Not me. When somebody pulls stuff that’s piss-pants funny out of his hat, I applaud, no matter who it is.



Pardon Me, but Your Fangs Are in My Neck

Philip Glass Ensemble
The Egg, Oct. 30

American music icon Philip Glass brought his own ensemble and a 71-year-old film about vampires to the Egg the night before Halloween. The lucky few who showed up—the Hart Theatre was unfortunately two-thirds full at best—were treated to a special evening of sound and vision.

A few years ago, Universal Pictures’ home-video division commissioned Glass to write a score for the mostly musicless 1931 horror film Dracula. It was an inspired marketing idea. The music originally was written for and played by the Kronos Quartet. Maybe it was the new arrangement for more instruments, or perhaps it was the result of replacing Kronos’ strings with woodwinds, but the music sounded fuller and yet softer, more compatible with the film.

Which brings us to the main issue. Many film buffs have griped that the music isn’t appropriate to the film. Seeing it for the first time on the big screen—a fundamentally different experience from video—it did seem like the music fit very well, for the most part. It was in keeping with, and often enhanced, the film’s palpable sense of decay and dread. If Dracula were a silent film, I would rate the score as perfect.

Unfortunately, it’s a talking picture. Particularly in group scenes at the beginning of the film, the dialogue was lost in the music. The same thing happened in sequences with multiple sound effects, as during the passage by ship from Transylvania to England. The rest of the film has the actors speaking very deliberately, so the music was less of a distraction; though, for the life of me, I can’t figure out why Glass thought it was a good idea to play through Renfield’s (Dwight Frye) maniacal laughter on the boat. It wasn’t.

It’s hard to say whether the music or the film was the star of the evening. The print was stunning, and proved again the durability of Dracula. Director Tod Browning is a favorite whipping boy for those who don’t like the film’s slow pace—which is why it’s worth noting that the studio recut the film, and he disowned the final version. The picture is indeed slow, but Dracula is all about atmosphere; while the audience may have laughed at the dialogue early on, the film did cast its spell and the laughter quickly stopped. The outsized performances—Frye as Renfield, Helen Chandler as Mina, and, of course, Bela Lugosi as Dracula—still beguile.

The music was hypnotic in the way minimalist music often is: After a phrase has been repeated half a dozen times, your mind begins to process what it’s hearing in a different way. Glass’ previously noted rearrangement for his own ensemble was nimble, utilizing an unusual array of winds (tenor sax, flute, bass clarinet) with two keyboards. Though I’ve seen Dracula more times than I can remember, I was still drawn into the film. That’s probably the best tribute I can pay to Philip Glass (and Tod Browning).

—Shawn Stone

Way Out East

Mary McCaslin
Caffe Lena, Nov. 1

Early in a career that spans nearly 40 years (she started performing as a teenager), Mary McCaslin wrote and recorded songs that evoked a sense of the Old West but with a modern sensibility. She also recorded some classic Western songs: “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” for instance, an effective piece of chamber music compared to the symphonic approach of Vaughn Monroe or Marty Robbins, and Bob Nolan’s “Way out There.” So it would be easy to categorize her accordingly.

But McCaslin has absorbed a much broader range of musical stylings. Her songwriting is precise and effective, far more so than many others on the singer-songwriter circuit, and shows as much influence of Harold Arlen as Hoyt Axton. Speaking of the latter, her recent Caffe Lena performance included his song “Some Cool Blue-Iced Shore,” an evocative, Dylan-like protest song with a wrenching undercurrent of non-Dylan-like sweetness.

It was as eclectic a mix of material as you could imagine, just McCaslin and her guitar (or, for two numbers, banjo) and a room full of fans happy to see her back in the area after many years.

Her voice was tentative at first, probably the result of a bad bout of pneumonia earlier in the year. But shortly into the first set, she held a long note in her song “Santana Winds” that seemed to turn up her vocal strength. And her guitar work was, as always, magical, journeying through many different tunings with many different picking styles.

“The Wayward Wind,” a hit for Gogi Grant, got an easygoing, plaintive rendering, not unlike Neil Young’s version, and Young’s “Losing End” followed soon thereafter.

As McCaslin traded guitar for banjo, she announced her next song as an opera overture, then launched into clawhammer arpeggios and “Pinball Wizard” from the Who’s Tommy. “I always knew this was a banjo song,” McCaslin later explained, and it sits in her voice and on that instrument amazingly well, which set us up for Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird,” also with banjo accompaniment.

McCaslin sang many of her well-known originals, like the haunting “Prairie in the Sky” and “Ghost Train,” both of which can easily settle in with folk tradition’s best. She and Jim Ringer wrote “The Ballad of Weaverville,” another timeless-sounding ballad that offers gambling and love, and sounds like it just came out of the Childs collection.

More recent songs included a tribute to the late Walter Hyatt (“The Lights of Spartanburg”) and a mournful tribute to suburban sprawl, “Acres of Houses,” which takes Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes” out of the city and onto former farmland, to a melody reminiscent of “Rosin the Bow.”

McCaslin is one of those musical powerhouses whose influence is felt these days more than her presence, so it was a great treat to have her back in person during this brief tour.

—B.A. Nilsson


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