Me? Pat Metheny?
By Paul Rapp
Egg, Nov. 3
and grinning: Richard Thompson at The Egg.
Photo by Martin Benjamin.
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
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.
Me, but Your Fangs Are in My Neck
Philip Glass Ensemble
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
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).
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
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.
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
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.