Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

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There may be no better soundtrack to my youth than Carole King’s Tapestry album. I heard that album day and night for years through the wall that separated me from my two older sisters’ room. Say Carole King and my mom will immediately start singing “I feel the earth move under my feet,” almost Pavlov-like before even knowing why Carole King was mentioned. It was only fitting then that my mom, sister, Toby, and I attended Beautiful: the Carole King Musical together. As the lights dimmed and the opening bars of “I feel the earth move” wafted throughout the great Academy of Music, I knew we were in for a treat.

The story recounts Carole King’s early years and how she came into being, well, Carole King. It covers the history of the Brill Building and the period when singer and songwriter teams were churning out hit after hit for groups of the day. It was all about being part of a hit songwriting team with her husband Gerry Goffin, to her relationship with fellow writers and best friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, to becoming one of the most successful solo acts in popular music history. Interestingly enough, most of the teams were Jewish writing for African American groups. And while the racial tension of this arrangement was not fully explored, there was a scene when The Shirelles were criticizing “Will you still love me tomorrow,” as being too country western, i.e. too white. It would be interesting to see the Brill Building story told from the viewpoint of the singers. In any case, the story was interspersed with her greatest hits and how they came to be.

Initially, I was surprised at the seniority of the audience, ie I thought I was the demographic but actually was skewing the group younger. Throughout the show, it started to make sense that the early years of Carole King’s career were all about the hits of the 50s and 60s. And, in fact, when I was listening to these songs for the first time, it was actually their second reincarnation. I never heard the Shirelle’s version of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and only know James Taylor’s “Up on a Roof,” not The Drifters’ version. What happened is Carole King created the singer songwriter genre that dominated the 70s, produced some of my most adored artists and is probably my favorite genre of music.

The show was just wonderful. And part of it was because I got to hear the soundtrack of my youth with the people of my youth, my mom and sister, next to me. When she started singing “You’ve Got a Friend,” there seemed to be a collective sense of memory reverberating throughout the Academy. I wonder what other audience members were thinking during that song. I would guess the same things as I- the first time I heard that song, how it made me feel, the friends I shared the song with, simpler times that seemed so complicated at the time.

The show ended with Carole King’s triumphant Carnegie Hall solo concert the year she won all the Grammys for Tapestry. When she came out on stage it really felt like a Carole King concert and not just a Broadway show. She really brought us along her journey and we all rejoiced in her triumphant solo performance. Most importantly, after the cast members took their bows, she grabbed the mike and insisted it was our turn. We ended the evening singing and dancing to a song I had danced and sung to a million times before. And I felt the Academy move under my feet…

11 shows to go, 78 days left…

Post script: When writing about Carole King, I feel like I can’t not include this spectacular link to Aretha Franklin’s tribute at the recent Kennedy Center Honors event. There is just so much going on here. From Aretha strolling on stage with pocketbook in hand (I guess you can’t trust the security at the Kennedy Center’s green room) to her shrugging off her fabulous fur during the performance, to our President and First Lady totally grooving to the audience singing along and not sure whether to watch Aretha or Carole during it to Carole King’s sheer joy, humility and emotion at the performance. There is just so much to love about this clip.  Aretha Sings Carole

Andra Day

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Last summer, I went to see Lenny Kravitz at the Mann and was blown away by his opener, Andra Day. I was excited to see that she was touring on her own and playing the Ardmore Music Hall. After buying a ticket on Stub Hub (apparently I was more excited about it than prepared and almost missed the sold out show), catching the first half of ‘Nova basketball, a little bite and some tasty beers at Tired Hands Fermenteria, I was ready to rock and roll.

I missed the first opener, Saleka Night, a little bitty thing that sang one heartfelt and stirring song with Ms. Day’s band and also M. Night’s daughter, but caught a couple of songs of the second opening act, Conrad Sewell. People seemed to enjoy this likeable Aussie boy band hair singer. He was fine, but I was really there for Andra Day.

From the first moment on stage, she did not disappoint. First, she is absolutely stunning in a retro way. She came out on stage in a paisley silk pajama set and fur stole and was absolutely radiant. She was more beautiful than I remember and with a much better voice. I re read my June post where I had described her as a sultrier Amy Winehouse, but she is so much more. She is jazzy, funky with touches of Nina Simone and Billie Holidays’ tragedy. She started out the evening by saying, “tonight we will be having a conversation and it will be done through music.” Ah, she is speaking directly to me. Being able to articulate what music can do for one’s soul, psyche and relationship all wrapped up in one. I do indeed have many conversations through music by sharing favorite songs and bands with friends when the music resonated with me. Sometimes I am not even sure why music moves me or why I need to share that certain music with a certain friend. I just know that music moves me. So, I was more than ready to have this conversation with Ms. Day (for some reason, I only refer to her as Ms. Day, not Andra).

Her voice is just mesmerizing. She was singing through a 1940s look alike microphone and she sang, which really does not adequately explain what she was doing up there, the first song sitting down with so much emotion that I was almost weepy. I could not take my eyes off of her and she was so mesmerizing that I forgot to check out her band. Holy hell, they were good when the Ms. Day spell was finally broken during the second song. There was so much energy among all of them and they clearly adored each other. When band members spoke, they told us she was as genuine as she seemed. Conversely, she was constantly telling us how good her band was and how lucky she was to tour with them. There was immense chemistry between her and Charles, her keyboardist, and their songs together were some of my favorites. She even left the stage for a song so Charles could play one of his originals. It sounded a lot like a George Benson tune. The name George Benson has, literally, not passed my lips for 25 years and I cannot not name a tune he sings/sang, however, that evening, that was what popped into my head immediately. She sang a Nina Simone song, she took off her make-up during a Kendrick Lamar song (No Makeup (her vice)) and swayed and grooved with that awesome band. At one point, her earpiece went out and she stopped the band to start over and explained “we can’t give you mediocrity now, can we.” Right on- that is the way to deal with an equipment failure! Though, truth be told, her mediocrity is better than most people’s best.

The show went way too quickly and she is a wonderful storyteller and performer. She is as political as she is playful. She is classy, and while stunning, I think she should only be photographed in black and white to really highlight her classic retro jazz singer persona. The Ardmore Music Hall is the perfect venue for her; you need a small, smoky (metaphorical) club for her intimate type of show. And the conversation continued. As she wrapped up, she told us that she and her band members are all huge Queen fans. What? Boy, I did not see coming at all. Nothing in her set would have prepared me for that. Now, stay with me here as I try to recount the many and diverse musical influences and styles I have now heard. During the June show I thought she sounded like Amy Winehouse and played both Bob Marley and Eminem covers. This evening, she was channeling Nina Simone, performing spoken word in honor of Phife Dawg, doo wopped a bit, her keyboardist sounded like George Benson and their favorite band was Queen! Did I get them all? Probably not. Good lord, who else incorporates that many different styles with ease and aplomb? I can’t recall another show quite like this one. As they sang, “I want it all,” it was something like I never heard (and for those keeping track at home, this is the second Queen cover I have heard in six days). She left the stage after shaking as many hands as were thrust at her. A little dazed, I left the show thinking this was the best conversation I have had in a very long time.

12 shows to go, 84 days left…

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Lake Street Dive and The Suffers

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A million years ago, I was fortunate to live in New Orleans for six months cocktail waitressing on Bourbon Street. When I was deciding what city I would move to from California before coming back to Philly for good, I knew it had to be somewhere with a good music scene. I was lucky that my sister lived there and had a pool house that I could crash in, so New Orleans rose to the top of the list. Besides seeing a lot of music at small venues and really testing if bars stayed open all night or until the last patron left (PS, they do), I spent a ton of time wandering around the huge Tower Records store. Back in the day, that is what an old head did. You wandered around record stores aimlessly, picked up albums and figured out if it was worth the buy. Tower Records had a ton of stuff I could not get in Philly and, obviously, a great New Orleans, blues, funk and jazz section. One day as I was perusing the racks, a very classy lady peered out from her cover just daring me to buy her album. I did. And I fell deeply in love with Alberta Hunter that very day. I recall this story because that is what happened to me when I saw The Suffers poster at the Union Transfer box office one day.

As you all know, I am allergic to service fees, so I will visit box offices whenever possible to purchase tickets. I went to Union Transfer to get Lone Bellow tickets (see my XPN Fest post for those guys) and in the box office window is this poster of an awesome 10-piece band, all men with a gorgeous woman smack in the middle. It was love at first sight, again. The tickets were $10 and the show was on Popeapalooza weekend. What could be better- a new band two blocks from my house during the weekend I could not drive anywhere. I was psyched. Alas, they cancelled.   So, imagine my delirious delight when I went to the Fillmore box office (by the way who charges service fees at the box office. At the box office. Besides being totally shameful, it totally breaks the gentleman’s agreement of going to the box office to buy tickets to avoid the service fee. Do not get me started…) to buy Lake Street Dive tickets and they were on the bill. This was going to be an epic show.

Initially, I thought that The Suffers would be the next Sharon Jones and Dap Kings. They are described as “Gulf Coast” sound, heavy on the funk and soul. But they are way more that that. They are not your typical young guns “let’s give rock and roll thing a shot” band. They are all professionals who quit their careers to give “this rock and roll thing a shot” band. They describe themselves as “A gulf coast soul band from Houston Texas. Bringing elements of classic American Soul and rock and roll to crowds that love to dance.”

They started their set with a count off, their warm-up and, I would posit, to make sure all 10 were onstage (I guess it’s hard to keep track of that many people) and launched into their first song with a chorus of “Can I make you a sandwich?” Kam Franklin, The Suffers’ front woman, explained that making someone a sandwich is a true and wonderful show of love. During the chorus, Susan leaned over and asked me “is this our song?” One of the many reasons why I love my woman, because even though she cooks for me 85% of the time, she knows that sandwiches are my favorite food and my forte. Next time you see her, ask her about the filet mignon cheesesteaks I made her during the 2016 blizzard. Anyway, they went on to introducing themselves and Kam said they have a couple of goals at every show. They want everyone to know their name, The Suffers, to remember where they are from, Houston Texas, and make sure everyone has a good time. The crowd totally delivered on our part by screaming their name and hometown every time asked and they delivered on their side by making sure we had a rollicking time. The 10-piece band was tight and the keyboardist and drummer even switched instruments on the last song, which is always a sign of a talented set of musicians. Throughout the set, the brass section put down their instruments to be the back-up dancers. And they were totally in sync with that too. Their set was soulful, funky, danceable, emotional, and, simply put, magical. There was just so much authenticity in their music and when Kam thanked us, thanked us!, at the end by telling us,” supporting live music is beautiful,” I knew I had found my new favorite band. One last time, a 10 member band fronted by a beautiful, soulful woman absolutely glowing in a bright green glittery gown. A bright, green glittery gown. And that was just the opener.

After catching my breath, I was ready for Lake Street Dive. Susan and I got pretty close up for the first set, but the sold out place was, well, sold out by the time Lake Street Dive took the stage and we only lasted a couple songs in our close to the stage spot. They are a great band. They are young, have tons of energy and you bond a little more with them with each song. I was impressed that as a band of four, one member plays the upright band the whole time- that is some serious commitment to the bass. The guitarist switched from guitar to trumpet, but that bass player stayed with her bass. I always knew bass really stood for bad ass, she just proved it to me. I found that as the show went on, there was more depth to their songs that the pop arrangements would have you believe at first glance. They were also somewhat mysterious, which is hard to explain but that is just what I kept thinking. But they are a very cool band and put on a great show. I felt a little cooler just being there. They are going places, they put on a great show and have the music chops to back it up.   Rachael Price, lead singer, has a very smoky voice and sounds a bit like Eva Cassidy and dances a bit like Elaine Bennis, which someone said. I am not sure that is entirely fair, but I did not have any trouble copying her moves and keeping up with her so there may be more truth to it than she would want to admit. At this point, we were in the back and thoroughly enjoying ourselves.

One of the reasons it was so much fun in the back was because The Suffers were hanging out there while not at the merch table. And they were totally jamming out. At one point, we knew something was up when three of them rushed over with their iPhones and started filming. Kam was joining Lake Street Dive for a tune and her band mates wanted to make sure they got it on video. That is just cool. I had way more fun watching them jam out than jamming out myself.

As the opening bars of the last tune came on, I knew I was not done dancing. Everyone knows the opening bars of Queens’ Bohemian Rhapsody and my head and body knew it way faster than my brain did. As I was singing Gallileo, Gallileo on top of my lungs, with my hair wildly bouncing during my air conductor solos, I was in pure music heaven. Supporting live music is indeed beautiful, and incredibly cathartic.

13 shows to go, 90 days left…

John Francis and Friends

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I am not sure exactly the last time St. Paddy’s Day coincided with the first day of March Madness, but it almost prevented me from heading into Old City to hear John Francis last Thursday. My friends Suzy and Lappy had mentioned they were headed over to the Tin Angel for the show and since I had not been to any shows in a awhile, getting nervous about my count and wanted to see a show with these two, so St. Paddy’s madness be damned! I am so glad, because I ended up spending a delightful evening listening to John Francis and his friends playing some great Irish tunes, including a full set of Van Morrison covers.

I got there a little after his first friend was just finishing up, but in time for the start of John Francis’ set (apparently you have to always refer to him as John Francis, not John, not Mr. Francis, full on John Francis). He started out with a Ragland Road, which I am going to pretend that anyone reading knows this is one of my favorite Joan Osborne covers. And through his first set, he did some of his original music, some shtick (i.e. “Tonight is an alcohol free evening for me- I am not going to buy a drink.” Rim shot.) and general story telling. All very pleasant. After his first set, another friend came up and she played one song. Sounded a lot like Maura O’Connell to me, you know a voice that could sing the phone book and you would end up weepy because it sounded so sad and plaintive. Then his friend Sarah Williams, Hurricane Hoss, came up for a set.

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Chris may have sometimes played her fiddle like a ukulele.

 

Hoss (below) was awesome. She switched from Irish music to country, which is really the same thing when you think about just different accents. But you got your sad songs, some drinking, lost loves and general depression in each genre. Good stuff. In any case, who cares if it is Irish or country music, because she ended with an awesome cover of Wichita Lineman by Glenn Campbell. All was right with the world at that point.

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John Francis then came back with his band for the Van Morrison set. And here is where it all changed for me. It was an enjoyable evening before, now it was an excellent evening. When he stopped with the stories and just did his Van thing, it was mesmerizing. His voice and attitude changed and the band was tight. And if you have ever been to the Tin Angel, you know that one person on the stage makes a band. Now there were five guys on stage, piano, drummer, etc. It was crowded, as in it “duck the bass player’s instrument on the way to the bathroom” crowded. And it was awesome! You know how sometimes you go to a show and the band covers a song as an encore and you are like- wow that was cool. But there is something totally different going to a show knowing it is all going to be cover songs and of an artist you love. It is just unapologetic fun. The crowd was some dancing, lots of singing along at top volume and general merriment. And since hearing the stories of how disagreeable Van can be at his own live shows, I think I had more fun at this Van show than people who actually see him live do. John Francis ended the set by coming off the stage, unplugged his guitar and among the dirty glasses lit by candlelit he sang to us “Beautiful Ones.” Beautiful indeed.

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There are a couple of morals to this story. One, when Suzy and Lappy tell you they are going to hear music- join them. And, two, don’t let a little March Madness and St. Paddy’s Day scare you off from going to see music. Otherwise, you may just miss the “beautiful ones.”

14 shows to go, 91 days to go…