The kids are alright: Tom Chapin at the Egg. Photo by:
Tom Chapin and Red Grammer
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.
Street, Northampton, Mass., April 14
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.
Am a Photorealist
Tobin Sprout, Count West West
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.