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The kids are alright: Tom Chapin at the Egg. Photo by: Shannon DeCelle

Window of Opportunity
By Kathryn Ceceri

Tom Chapin and Red Grammer
The Egg, April 18

There’s a small window of time, according to children’s singer-songwriter Tom Chapin, between a child’s first words and the point where they stop listening to their parents and start listening to their friends, when they’re open to children’s music. Even smart, funny children’s music like Chapin’s. And that window, eroded by the targeting of Britney Spears-type pop to ever-younger markets, sometimes feels like it’s closing fast.

But the Rockland County-based musician, whose 2002 album Great Big Fun for the Very Little One was aimed at the preschool set, says that the upper limit of his audience has stayed more or less right where it’s been since 1988, when his first children’s album, Family Tree, was released. His show Sunday afternoon at the Egg, his first with fellow children’s performer Red Grammer, attracted a large contingent of little kids, a smattering of 8- to 12-year-olds, and a whole lot of enthusiastic grownups. And everybody sang along.

With 10 kids’ albums to his credit (including 2003’s Making Good Noise, his fourth to be nominated for a Grammy), Chapin has produced a wide variety of music in styles ranging from calypso to ragtime to Irish jigs. And his forte is the storytelling song, often with a continuing cast of characters that his audience comes to know and root for. But, having now been to three of Chapin’s concerts in this area in the past four or five years, I was a little disappointed to find that his live performances stick to pretty much the same few crowd-pleasers—songs like “Mikey Won’t” and “What Is a Didjeridoo?” (accompanied by a collapsible travel model of PVC pipe painted in Aboriginal colors).

On the other hand, this was my first exposure to the music of Red Grammer, and I was duly impressed. His songs have a high proportion of hand clapping and finger snapping, but he can also produce (as can Chapin) a really beautiful tune, delivered in a mellow tenor. From its setup I thought “On the Day You Were Born” was going to be a humorous tune, as Grammer took names of birthday celebrants from the audience, even graciously including one girl’s newborn filly. Then he pulled onstage an audience member who happened to be a sign-language interpreter (signing while singing being an activity common to both headliners) and set forth a magical song of praise. Words echoed by flowing gestures—“The angels are singing and blowing on their horns, they’re smiling and raising up their hands”—couldn’t help but lift anyone’s spirits.

While Chapin’s longtime collaborator Michael Mark’s name got second billing, it should be mentioned that he too has a wonderful voice that blends nicely with Chapin’s scruffier, lower range. Tall, lanky and charming, Chapin is the younger brother of the late Harry Chapin, and shares his brother’s activism, notably on environmental issues. Among the songs in which the audience was invited to participate was the round “This Pretty Planet,” a lullaby-like paean to Mother Earth that is hard to resist. In fact, it would have been a challenge for anyone to avoid joining in Sunday. And for a parent whose kids are reaching the age of no return, it was a pleasure to enjoy a few more minutes of innocence and joy before the fast-paced real world steps in.

Freedom Rock

Air
Pearl Street, Northampton, Mass., April 14

“Does anyone speak French here tonight?” asked Nicolas Godin of francophone electropop group Air during the band’s performance at Pearl Street Nightclub in Northampton, Mass., last Wednesday. Given that Godin’s stage talk had been limited to a thickly accented “Thank you very much, merci beaucoup” until that point in the night, it was obvious he was making a bit of a joke, at his own expense perhaps. When someone in the crowd shouted a reply that was unintelligible even to native-English ears, Godin sheepishly grinned, “What? I don’t understand.”

Rumored to be a bit shy about their heavily-accented English, the duo of Godin and his song-writing partner Jean-Benoit Dunckel relied mainly on guest vocalists for their first three studio albums. On Air’s most recent album, Talkie Walkie, the two multi-instrumentalists allowed their own singing to take the forefront for the first time, reportedly at the urging of Talkie Walkie’s Brit producer Nigel Godrich. Air trades in the sort of moog-enhanced atmospherics that don’t depend much on vocals anyway; on Talkie Walkie, the frontmen’s fragile vocals add a new, intriguing element of foreignness to the band’s already otherworldly sound.

Godin began the show by strumming an acoustic guitar, whistling the song’s synth line and singing the lead on “Venus,” an eerie, lovelorn track from Talkie Walkie that sounds akin to the Twin Peaks theme had the twisted 1990s television series taken place not in the Pacific Northwest but on the moon. Magenta and lime-green lights washed over the band as spooky space sounds emanated from a colony of synthesizers at the back of the stage, programmed by a nearly hidden Frenchman who was dressed all in black and wearing (who would have guessed?) a beret. A drummer banged out live beats while Dunckel presided over a stack of keyboards—including a Korg synthesizer, a Fender Rhodes electric piano and a Wurlitzer—that nearly towered over his head.

With the porcelain features of a young Truman Capote, Dunckel added vocals that were just as delicate as his face, giving an ethereal presence to Talkie Walkie tracks like “Surfing on a Rocket” and “Another Day” (on which the usually harsh- sounding phrase “fuck off” sounded like a more benign “fek ov”). It’s a rare band who can win over a crowd with instrumentals alone, but two of Air’s soundtrack numbers were among the night’s most-affecting and best-received songs: “Highschool Lover” from Sophia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides and “Alone in Kyoto” from the same filmmaker’s Lost in Translation. It’s not hard to guess why Coppola chose the French band to color her films. Beneath their dense synthesizer layers, Air create some powerfully mood-enhancing melodies. Their songs have a cinematic quality too. “Biological” captured all the longing, nostalgia and dread of a B-movie wherein the whole world has been wiped out by a nuclear meltdown. (But wait, one couple survived, and they run toward each other with outstretched arms as a nuclear cloud shadows the background. . . .)

Closing the set with the much-less-foreboding “Sexy Boy,” a party hit of sorts from 1998’s Moon Safari, the band—all dressed in neatly pleated trousers, black shirts and black ties—bowed and smiled somewhat bashfully before the packed audience. They may feel out of place in the American rock world, where machismo often trumps melody, but those French boys sure know their way around a pop song.

—Kirsten Ferguson

I Am a Photorealist

Tobin Sprout, Count West West
Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Mass., April 17

It may be educational to compare the known extracurricular activities of the songwriting duo who once defined Guided by Voices: Bob Pollard, who still soldiers on under the GBV moniker, is known for his intimidating productivity as a songwriter, cranking out melodic gems by the bucketful; other than that though, fans would probably guess his primary interest to be . . . well, beer. Pollard is not only a remarkable popsmith, but a bona fide rock star with big appetites, broad gestures, high jumps and kicks, the works. His former GBV copilot, Tobin Sprout, on the other hand, is a photorealist painter, and a pretty good one. I’d hate to belabor this distanced observation, but the difference is telling.

Pollard now tours with a backing band of youngsters who very apparently take their cues from Big Bob, all windmilling and rock-starring—and they still pack ’em into the larger clubs in the major metropolitan areas. Sprout, too, has enlisted a set of young players to back him up, but as last Saturday’s show at the Iron Horse made evident, they’re of a very different temperament and style. Sprout takes a low-key approach to the role of frontman (in his jeans, plaid shirt and black Chuck Taylors, he looked more like a Little League coach than a rock star), so there were no groin- or hamstring-threatening acrobatics during the set. And there weren’t more than 30 or so people in the club, which I hope was just coincidental, because though Sprout’s current touring band are less visually dynamic than some, they are—in a thorough, thoughtful, focused way—pretty hot shit.

Sprout’s compositions veer to the wistful and delicate end of the pop-rock spectrum (his slightly pinched vocals reiterate the seeming fragility), so it would have been incongruous to have the band leaping about like monkeys or background vocalists in a ska band—even if a reputation for a frenzied live show draws. Instead, the band sedately did their job and filled out Sprout’s tunes with the tightest, most tasteful three-guitar frontline I’ve heard in about 1,000 years, throwing in atmospheric keyboard figures and unshowy vocal harmonies for sonic variety. Over a reliable rhythm section, the guitarists wove distinct but interrelated patterns within Sprout’s songs. Even the musicians’ gear and rigs seemed chosen for specificity of tone: A Rickenbacker through Vox head and cabinet, a Tele Custom through a Fender twin, a single-coil Tele through a Hiwatt head, all suggested an attention to detail worthy of the bandleader’s hyper-deliberate paintings.

The glory days of Guided by Voices were revisted, and songs like “Mincer Ray,” “Awful Bliss,” “Atom Eyes,” “Dodging Invisible Rays” and “Gleemer” drew scattered cheers of recognition. But Sprout’s solo tunes were just as solid, succesfully working a gently psychedelic Byrdsy vein.

During a quick quiz in the restroom line, Sprout’s lead guitarist said that none of the current lineup has made it to record with Sprout yet; but he sounded hopeful. And now I am too.

Count West West (I’ll take Kafka trivia for $500, Alex) turned in a set of mid-’90s-style indie rock, coming across like the quieter younger siblings of Pavement or the Pixies.

—John Rodat


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