Saturday, December 8, 2007

CD Review: Ariel Storm

Ariel Storm
Kai Ariel and Ariana Storm
Carefree and Bohemian Records

Someone out there has described the work of Northern California duo Kai Ariel and Ariana Storm as "Ambient Dreampop." Ambient? Certainly-- the CD is textured beautifully, with the extraordinarily rich voice of vocalist Ariana Storm at times embedded in lush arrangements, often of her own voice multi-tracked and punctuated by her own piano playing. Dreamy-- I can buy that. There is something more here than pop music, however.

The lyrics penned by the duo wedge themselves too deeply into your heart to be dismissed as pop.

Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of pop music I like. But this isn't anything like pop.

The songs have a strongly ambient feel to them; the melody is carried by Storm's vocals, accented by almost surgical percussion, guitars, and bass by the multi-instrumentalist Ariel. It is Storm's voice that is the lead instrument. But it is her lyrics that are deeply personal and self-revealing, and challenge the listener, such as in the tune 'Rich Man'.

Who do you run from

I’m not so serene

I want to be somewhere
I’m not demeaned
I want to be something

Other than mad
Could I be here
With a little more heaven

Storm is a woman prepared to ask us and herself difficult questions, to challenge assumptions, to advocate for herself. She is also a person who recognizes that value is not what sits in your bank account; value is found in human relationships, and that some qualify as transcendent. In her song 'Lucky', Storm expresses a vulnerability that is under-girded by her willingness to risk sharing herself, unconditionally; more than that, she is aware of it.

"So rare to find someone
Who’ll talk it out when you trespass

Or they do

I’m afraid sometimes

To let it in let it in
How good it can be
I’m so lucky
To know you"

In the world of Ariel Storm, and lyricist Ariana Storm, (an award-winning songwriter), you will not be lulled to sleep by an ambient confection; Storm is too forceful and passionate a songwriter to take the easy way out. Jump into the CD, and you are entering into a dialogue with two skilled musicians, who will assert themselves, challenge you; at times discomfort you. But there is nothing superficial about Ariel Storm; despite the sheer beauty of Storm's vocals, and the masterful multi-tracking of them that recurs throughout the CD, the songs possess their own depth. Each is confessional; sometimes those confessions emanate from the writer, but more often, they are the whisperings in the heart of the listener.

And yet, for all of the introspective and emotional content on the CD, it ends with an oddly festive, simple tune, 'They Are Not As Many,' with lyrics fitting this moment, 27 years tonitght removed from the death of John Lennon.

"Come on come on

Come on now

Let it be
Away away
Away now

Those who refuse
Open heart
Make it better
One world

Together in Love"

One world. Together. In Love.

Lennon would have liked that.

This Compact Disc is well worth listening to. It is strong, very strong lyrically, with the ability to draw you in and make you think deep and hard. There is nothing about the transparency of Storm's lyrics that will let the listener off easy-- it's your life she is singing about, as well as her own. The musicianship is first rate, and the arrangements serve the lyrics, which in turn are delivered by a strong vocals

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

'Tis the Season, Razor and Tie Version

The Antidote.

Face it. The season of Merry and Jolly is upon us. I can’t decide which is worse, crawling the mall to get that certain little something for the progeny, or the non-stop holiday syrup dripping into my ears from every speaker that is hooked up to a radio, muzak system, and broadcast system 24/7.

Elvis warbling 'Blue Christmas,' not exactly the way I’d like to remember him.

Johnny Mathis, singing ‘White Christmas’, to continue with the color theme. The Barking Dogs. Can there be no surcease, oh Christmas, or is this the vision of what will be?

Thanks to the good folks at Razor and Tie, there are alternatives. I mean alternatives.

They’ve released three really fun Compact Discs just in time to cure your Christmas blues, or whites, or help you roast those chestnuts. Or drive those stodgy relatives back into the kitchen and away from the stereo system.

Various Bands

I’ve never been much of a metal-head, but I do love a well-twanged guitar. There is something irrepressible about the energy of this CD. It features some very traditional pop holiday ballads, shredded gleefully and energetically by the likes of Skid Row, Winger, Nelson, Faster Pussycat, Twisted Sister and Lita Ford, Queensryche.

They say that the measure of a good song, or melody, is that it transfers across a continuum of musical styles. Irving Berlin may be rolling in his grave at the Queensryche version of ‘White Christmas’, but I think it is a rip. (That’s the same Irving Berlin who asked Kenny Rankin, who had just serenaded him with an a capella, skat version of ‘Always’, “Who told you you could sing?”) It has all the angst missing from the more traditional versions; you can just imagine the lead singer sitting on the beach in Miami, writing Christmas cards to friends and family.

Winger does an outstanding job on the Lennon/Ono ode to civic responsibility, ‘Happy Christmas/War is Over’; ringing acoustic guitars, meshed with massive electric chords remind us that this song, perhaps above all others, will stand as the single most poignant and bittersweet call for change in the latter part of the 20th century.

A straight shot of Chuck Berry rockin’, rollin’ is delivered by L.A. Guns, as they rip through ‘Run, Run Rudolph’. It absolutely seethes; if I was Rudolph I’d’ve cleared town the second that machine gun splatter of electric guitars tore through the air.

There isn’t a track on this CD that won’t bring a smile to your face. I know, riffing on Christmas Ballads is a pretty easy target; but doing it and having fun, doing it and somehow, through the wall of sound, retaining that holiday feel; now that is the trick. Listening to the first 30 seconds of ‘Blue Christmas’, contributed by Tom Kieffer of Cinderella, seals the deal. The last minute-and-a-half of alternating wailing guitar, soaring saxophone, and tremulous organ playing will leave you heavily dosed with the holiday spirit.

Even if you bring it out once a year, this one belongs in your holiday collection. Put it right next to Johnny Mathis CD on the rack, between Burl Ives and Helen Reddy; I’ll bet the damn CD pops right out and forces it’s way back into the CD player.

Don’t be surprised if you come home sometime in July, and Stryper’s ‘Winter Wonderland’ is erupting out of your stereo system. This one has legs and attitude.

The Yo Yo Kids

This CD is about as close as you will get to blending rap styling with middle class holiday materialism. Produced, recorded and mixed by Frederick Sargolini, the material is a mix of traditional tunes with rewritten lyrics that push a more suburban view of the holiday season. You won’t find much ghetto rage, the language is exceptionally mild, the cheer is good, and the overall package is clean without being slick, safe for kids and even pokes a little bit of self deprecating fun at itself.

And the new version of ‘Deck the Halls’ offered on the CD may be the only song ever rewritten (or written for that matter) that manages to mention Rudolph and Jesus in successive lines. That, folks, is nothing to sneeze at.

Alright, I’ll admit it. I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected. And hey, I've spent the many the month of December listening to music with far less redeeming value. The kids will enjoy it; mine certainly have. And not to boast, they have developed something of a discriminating palate.

Alvin, Theodore and Simon, and Friends

Yup. I should be a little abashed here, but I am not. This CD, released prior to the movie (coming to an old stone wall near you by mid-December) is a pleasant, no, a delightful surprise. Everything old is new again, they say, but a lot of things lose their luster coming down the years. Not the Chipmunks, who were a staple of my childhood. They were the rodents of my pre-teen years. I was, and have secretly remained, Munk'd.

I knew that David Seville had some kind of relationship with Alvin and his posse. Manager, producer, musical director, keeper, I never knew what the nature of his relationship was. But as a kid who was yelled at a lot, Alvin and I were twin souls, forever bedeviling the David Seville’s of the world. Me and Alvin.

Later, I learned that the stern Mr. Seville was actually a gentle soul named Ross Bagdasarian, and that all three of the chipmunk voices were in fact his. At the time (the late 50’s) he was probably pushing technology to the limits- three tracks of voices, then his voice, then a track for music. Whew.

This CD is, in many ways, a good-natured homage to Bagdasarian. But it is more than that. It is a sly poke at the mutability of musical styles, at the ability of the average human, when forced to smile by forces beyond their control, to adapt to the most absurd and wonderful of noises.

I don’t know what the movie is about, I’m not sure that I want to know. But the soundtrack is a blast. Sure, the originals are there- ‘Witch Doctor’, and ‘Christmas Don’t Be Late.’ As sentimental as I am, I’m glad to have them back in my collection.

But the CD starts with the very familiar opening refrain, strumming guitar and piano, of Daniel Powter’s ‘Bad Day’. And then, Alvin, clear as a bell ringing in an upper octave, starts to sing the lead, joined shortly by his erstwhile street corner buddies Simon and Theodore. You are startled, but by the about two minutes into the song, it sounds perfectly normal. Chipmunks singing a pop anthem sounds normal.

If that ain’t magic, what is?

Add a couple of remixed versions of the two classics, trading vocals with and backing up Canadian singer/composer Jason Gleed, and you are well on your way to a terrifically enjoyable send up of the music scene. ‘Witch Doctor’, with Chris Classic, done as a partial rap, while Rebecca Jones joins the rodents on another of those lush pop heart-songs that dominate the Disney-channel radio stations.

They even leap aboard ‘Funky Town;’ and I swear to goodness it is better than the original.

I had to pry the CD out of the hands of my progeny to get it back from them so that I could review it.

Leave your preconceptions outta this decision. And since there are only a couple of Christmas songs on the CD, it qualifies for a year-round listen.

Technically, the album is utterly seamless, managing to blend the harmonious trill of the Chipmunks with the sinuous voice of Ms. Jones, in an utterly believable fashion.

Three months ago, if anyone told me that I’d be writing a review raving about the newest Alvin and the Chipmunks CD, I’d have laughed. I’ve just done that, and you know what? I’m still laughing. I haven’t had so much fun sharing music with my kids since we went to see Jake Shimabukuro play uke.

You can connect with Razor and Tie at They have a pretty eclectic roster of artists, and I can tell you that have a great sense of humor, too. Must be a really fun place to work.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Pat Metheny... "Some Day, I Could Be Good At This"

Lyle Mays, left, and Pat Metheny in detail of picture on back of"As Falls Wichita, so Falls Wichita Falls" CD

photograph by Rob van Petten, ECM Records GmbH, 1981

Back around 1980 or so, there was a tiny little club in Buffalo, NY, called the Tralfamadore Cafe, in homage the writer Kurt Vonnegut. Although the club has since relocated to spacious quarters in the downtown area of the City, the old club had a marvelous charm. You'd enter down a long, creaking staircase into what was essentially an open basement. I'll bet the place couldn't legally hold more than 90 people.

It was a precious and intimate space to see music, and they booked the best around. Spyrogyra was virtually the house band. In that tiny club, I saw Dexter Gordon, Richie Havens, Nina Simone, Carmen McRae, Gap Mangione, Gerry Niewood, and Pat Metheny. To make the gig work, the artists would do 2-4 nights of shows; they all loved the setting, and it enabled them to settle in and catch their breath for a little while when they were on tour.

I did an interview with Pat Metheny at the time that I should dig up and reprint here sometime.

He said something at the time that completely blew me away, and gave me tremendous insight into the mind of an artist. Metheny had just been selected World's Best Guitarist by Guitar player magazine for the third consecutive year, or something like that. He was 27 years old at the time, we were about the same age.

I asked him how it felt to receive all of this adulation at such a young age, did it affect his career-decisions, or his approach to gigging. All four nights at the Tralf were sellouts.

"That's an interesting question, and I'll tell you why," he said.
"I don't get much of a chance to practice anymore. We do about 300 gigs a year, and the average gig is three hours, not that I'm making any excuses for not practicing."

"And just the other night, the band and I hit a groove, and I realized that if I work really, really hard at this, I could get good at it, get to where I want to be."

Midwesterners, unless they are politicians, have a very hard time lying. What he was saying was that in his mind, the absolute truth. Here is a guy his peers consider to be at the peak of the scene, and in his own mind, he's just beginning to formulate a vision of what it might be possible for him to do, and how hard it will be to do it, and how important it is to do it. He was beyond humility, posturing. He'd tuned out all the laudatory static, and was fine-tuning his connection to his own muse.

Metheny's career speaks for itself. It is hard to come up with another artist as respectful of his musical elders, as inventive and fearless, and as damned good as Metheny.

And I'd bet that if I spoke with him today, he'd still say he has a long way to go.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


In the early 1980's ex-King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, did a solo tour. He chose mostly small clubs, restaurants, and record stores as venues. Why would a man whose undisputed genius and vision, not to mention mind-boggling guitar chops have lead to collaborations with artists as diverse Brian Eno and The Roche Sisters, choose such an odd array of places to play?

The local NPR affiliate in Buffalo, New York, where I was living at the time, interviewed him. I've never forgotten what he said.

The interviewer asked Fripp, who could easily have sold out much larger theaters that would have been available to him at the time (among the promoters in town were the team of Harvey and Corky-- Harvey later morphed into Harvey Weinstein, movie mogul, but that's another story), why he had chosen the smaller rooms.

"Ah, well you see," said Fripp.
"I work in an industry which is controlled by large, shambling dinosaurs. They easily crush the life out of artists and art, with their great, ponderous movements."

"And I, well I am just a small, furry mammal, scurrying between their legs, trying hard not to get stepped on."

"But, have you noticed that every day, every month, every year, it is getting colder and colder?"

The image of Fripp, a genius, slipping through the grasp of dinosaurs to live and create another day, made me smile. And with the advent of the Internet, who knows. It is getting colder. Janis Ian has some very interesting thoughts on the role the Internet can play in the "biz," and why the major corporations are so scared. Fripp was, as ever, prescient.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Janis Ian- Always Breaking New Ground

Interview with Janis Ian From Late 2006

As she eloquently confessed in the lyrics of one of her songs, Janis Ian “learned the truth at seventeen.” As a performer entering her fifth decade on stage, she has never stopped sharing those truths.

Ian is one of the great treasures of contemporary American popular music. She started playing piano at the age of two, and published her first song at the age of twelve. That song, Hair Spun of Gold, appeared on her first album, recorded on the Verve-Folkways label, when she was fourteen. Her first album yielded her first hit single, Society’s Child, which dealt with the issue of interracial dating in 1965.

The song was controversial, and resulted in the torching of a radio station and the firing of several disc jockeys who played it.

Starting Young

Was her adolescence as filled with as much angst as Society’s Child and At Seventeen would indicate? Ian laughs at the question.

“Yes, in many ways. But I was making records, and out on tour. I was getting a lot of feedback, but I would only think about it in my most private moments. That isn’t something I think an artist should gloat about; you wouldn’t think about putting it on a resume. But it is what makes it worth getting your nose ground into the dirt in this business.”

Ian is emphatic about that last point. Given her unique vantage point of over forty years as a professional musician, she has seen the music business change.

“The main thing is it that is was a business, and now it is an industry. When I started out, when you added in even the lawyers, the whole business had about 2,000 people in it. You could fit them all in the ballroom at the Waldorf. Now, it’s like U.S. Steel; the mega-corporations getting everything they can out of it. That’s why the Internet has changed so much of the way things are done. Anyone with five hundred bucks can make a compact disc, and distribute it.
That is so different than the way it was when I started.”

Running Against the Tide

Ian’s restless intellect was fascinated by the potential for using computer and digital technology to create and distribute music. Her article “The Internet Debacle” became a rallying point for artists and computer users in their battle with the RIAA over downloading music.

“I embrace the new technology because I looked around and hated the industry, and what it had become. I thought a lot about just chucking it all. Then I went onto the Internet, and realized it was a different world. Even with all the science fiction that’s been written, we couldn’t imagine access to all the information now at our fingertips.”

“We’re all trying to reinvent ourselves, because we have to. To the industry, you could say in one sense, ‘we’ are the software, and what we sell is the hardware. No one needs a singer songwriter, so from their point of view, it won’t make them money unless we can move product. But the technology has the potential to remove the middle man.”

An Industry, A Business

In recalling her early days in the industry, Ian is characteristically direct.

“Even back when I started, when it was a business, and not an industry, the racketeering notwithstanding, you always knew where you stood with people, with the company.”

Ian, who has nine Grammy nominations and two Grammy awards to her credit, understands that while the acknowledgment of her peers is important, she needs to keep things in perspective.

“For a while, it means greater sale-ability. Back when I was first being nominated there were something like 70 categories. I’ve lost track of how many there are now.”

More important to Ian were the accolades she has received from artists like Ella Fitzgerald, who called her “the best young singer in America,” and Chet Atkins, who claimed that Ian’s skill on the guitar gave him “a run for my money.” Her music has been recorded by Cher, Mel Torme, and many other artists.

Stormy Waters

It hasn’t always been a steady course for Ian. Despite recording twenty albums on major labels of the last forty years, she has taken several breaks from the studio and touring. During those breaks, she has written short stories, written music for television and film, and for a nine year period, studied acting with the acclaimed teacher Stella Adler.

“Stella Adler was my first real female role model, after my mom and grandparents. She taught me articulate what I felt about things.”

She also feels a great debt to conductor Leonard Bernstein, who showcased Ian and her controversial song during one of his telecasts.

“Bernstein was a force of nature. I owe my career to him.”

Through the frenzy of living life on the stage, and making a living as a performing artist, Ian has learned some important lessons. While she took off the nine years to study acting, she was married, divorced, survived two emergency surgeries, and ended up losing all of her earnings and her home to an unscrupulous business manager. Needing a change in scenery, she moved to Nashville, arriving “penniless, in debt, and hungry to write.”

Nowadays, Ian has found the balance that has often eluded her, personally and professionally.

“I try to lead a congruent life. If you can manage to stay on the path, things have a way of falling into place as they are meant to. Even with my music. I can hear other artists producing albums that sound like they were meant to make just a living, the same stuff put together in the same way.”

Ian puts it simply.

“I can’t put out something inferior.”

A Kinder, Gentler Place

The move to Nashville has had a salutary effect on her.

“Well, it keeps life interesting. If I’d stayed in New York, I’d just be preaching to the choir, which isn’t any good. It isn’t interesting. I find that I really like the south. It’s slower, kinder and gentler, more tolerant of eccentricity. I find that conducive as a writer. You know, you hit an age where you don’t want to have to fight all day. You want to save you passion for the art, and not squander it on the day to day.”

“As a writer in a city with so many other good writers, I find that Nashville keeps your motor oiled; writers need to write.”

As for how she arrives at a song, Ian herself remains unsure.

“I’m damned if I know where the inspiration comes from. All good songs have an urgency; they have to otherwise it is way too much work. And there are multiple ways to approach it. Some people need to push it. I tend to be looser than that. I mean, I say everyday I’m going to write, but in general I wait for it to happen. Too many people are afraid of their talent.”

Ian has also collaborated with some pretty formidable songwriters, including Kathy Mattea, John Mellencamp, and Bette Midler.

"Collaborating always takes you out of your place of comfort. You can always find a songwriter in Nashville. There is always that element of surprise, because you never know how another person writes. It is a way for me to stay fresh at something I’ve been doing since I was 12."

Ian has been touring in support of her latest CD, her twentieth, “Folk is the New Black.”

“It’s as close to folk as I’ve ever gotten. The CD features some great playing, and I’m really pleased with the songwriting. The older I get, the more I find that I’m really in service to the song. Luckily, I am able to work with musicians who are attracted to the music. I finally understand that the singer doesn’t need to get in the way.”

Janis Ian, still learning after all these years.


Janis Ian
“Folk is the New Black”
Cooking Vinyl USA/Rude Girl Records

There may not be a more persistent, and insistent songwriter than Janis Ian. Her voice retains the power to persuade; and her lyrics, provocative, reassuring, insightful, and occasionally rankling, are buoyed by inventive melodies and flawless guitar work.

Ian has always been a fearless writer, truthful and clear, gifted and economical. “Folk is the New Black” displays all of these qualities. Working with a very sympathetic pair of musicians, Victor Krauss on bass and guitars and Jim Brock on percussion, Ian paints a mural of love, xenophobia, the loss of love, the tragedy of an urban death; sixteen songs that display Ian at the peak of her considerable songwriting powers.

And while she sings with her tongue planted firmly in cheek, it’s hard to disagree with the opening lines of her song “My Autobiography:”

I know you and I’ll agree
What this world needs is a lot more me…

A terrific return by Ian, whose songwriting improves with age, she posses a wit that spares no-one. and retains a fearless simplicity.

Jake Shimabukuro- Don't Expect Your Grandpa's Ukuelele

Compiled from interviews done in 2006/2007

When you go out to hear ukuelele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, don’t expect “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” You won’t hear any Rudy Vallee tunes, either. Shimabukuro’s cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” may be the definitive post-George Harrison rendering of the tune. His astonishing set of chops on the traditional Hawaiian instrument, skills that have lead to the nickname “the Jimi Hendrix of the Uke”. His repertoire includes an array of original tunes and covers that span musical genres with ridiculous ease

The basic box is the same, and Shimabukuro hasn’t added any additional strings to it. It still covers two deceptively simple octaves. Occasionally, he will add some pedals to shape the amplified sound, giving it a more guitar-like quality. Beyond his lightening speed and deft skill, the 30 year-old musician has an unerring melodic vision informing his work.

His own performances have begun to sell out everywhere he plays as word of his ability spreads.

“The sold out shows are new for us,” says the soft-spoken native of Hawaii.

“It has really begun to happen for us on this 2007 tour, especially on the west coast. Some of my friends on the mainland kept telling me it will happen when I play in their towns, but it was hard to believe. But it keeps happening, and that is just amazing to me.”

Touring With Buffett

There is no false modesty here. Shimabukuro is used to sold-out shows; he has over the past several years been touring as a Coral Reefer, a member of Jimmy Buffett’s band. He has managed to meld that larger than life experience with a deeply personal musical journey that has a path, but no clearly articulated endpoint. Shimabukuro still retains a very humble and genuine sense of awe and modesty, of knowing what it is he wants to learn, and how far he has yet to go.

“I want to respect where the instrument has come from. But the things that I have been doing and trying have already been done with other instruments. You’ve already done just about everything possible with a guitar and a bass. I’ve always believed that the ukulele could’ve been explored much more deeply; and that’s what I’ve tried to do. I’ve also tried to keep the traditional sound.”

“In that way, I can be something of a purist. People here in Hawaii have been very supportive. I’ve never been disrespectful to the traditional music. But I want to extend the range of it. I can use the instrument to pull off a few classical pieces, or jazz, or rock. If I can change the sound for some tunes by using pedals, maybe it can spark something for people. I want people to get excited about the instrument and expand it’s possibilities.”

At the Beginning

Shimabukuro has literally grown with the instrument from his earliest days. He started playing the ukulele at the age of four.

“I started with the basic chording, the traditional Hawaiian approach. As I grew, and became exposed to other influences, I tried to find different sounds, new chords and shades, and extend the voicings possible with the instrument.”

Shimabukuro’s stage presence is electrifying. The fourth-generation Japanese-American can careen from a subtle, peaceful strumming style to a wild, flailing rock-influenced urgency.

Shimabukuro understands that this can be disconcerting sometimes.

Last year, he was asked to play the National Anthem at a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden in New York.

“I was incredibly nervous. The Honor Guard marched out and the next thing I knew, all this amazing noise died down, and I was standing in the middle of the Garden. All of these people must’ve been thinking ‘what’s this little Japanese guy gonna do with that tiny guitar.’ Once I started, I was fine, and the crowd really loved it. One of the most amazing things I’ve ever done.”

Shimabukuro has released a steady stream of CD’s and EP’s, featuring solo covers, mixed originals and covers done with a band; he has even completed a moving and beautiful soundtrack for the movie “Hula Girls.” His output is astonishing.


Although original music has always been a staple of his recordings, he has been unafraid to cover an interesting array of songwriters, including Paul Simon, Sting, George Harrison, classical composer Joaquin Rodrigo, and jazz pianist Chick Corea. He is often attracted to song by some element he notices.

“I feel a lot of times I have two ways of hearing music, which I can actually turn off and on at will. I can listen for pure enjoyment. But then, there is a part of me that can be analyzing, learning and understanding what is going on. I can concentrate on the texture and color-- listening over and over. I listen to what is happening in each part, because I want to grasp all the subtleties and nuances.”

It’s not all work, he points out, with a laugh.

“Sometimes I just want to go and listen and not even try to understand what is happening, have a good time. I’ll just sit there and close my eyes, listen and feel the energy, try to feel that communication; what the artist is trying to say to me.”

When Shimabukuro decides to cover a song, he brings his own unique perspective to it.

“A lot of it is playing the tune in a way I’ve never heard anyone else cover it before. I already know that playing it on ukulele will make it drastically different, so I have a big advantage. I want to make it a little bit more thought provoking, take it a step further.

His cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was a case in point.

“There are songs that don’t peak but just have a vibe from beginning to end, like ‘Guitar.’ It’s a great song. It starts in a minor key for the verse, then opens in the chorus section. I really wanted to express that and exaggerate it; and yet, I also wanted it a little bit more subtle, like holding a feeling in and allowing the music to bring it out.”

“I received a letter from George Harrison’s widow, who told me that she enjoyed it and that had George lived to hear it, he would have loved it. I can’t tell you how much that means to me.”

Live As You Wanna Be

Shimabukuro prefers playing live.

“I hate to be in studio, to be honest. It’s like writing a letter to someone versus speaking. Music is about communicating and connecting. When I’m on stage, performing live, I’m comfortable to play and do my thing. I feel more energy, depth. I feed off the energy of the audience.”

When Shimabukuro recently turned 30, he was ready for some new challenges. He ran his first marathon.

“Yeah, I ran the Honolulu Marathon. I really needed to challenge myself physically, before I got too old. One of my friends wanted to do it, so I agreed. It was a great experience. I had never done anything physically challenging; I was mostly terrible at sports growing up. Somehow, I got into this, and it brought about a lot of other changes.”

“I started eating things that were healthier for me, organic foods. I started stretching and doing yoga, and I also understood how important it was to take better care of myself.”

“I think I was in the best shape of my life while I was training for the marathon. I was thinking more clearly than I ever had. When I finished the race, I was left with such a nice of sense of confidence that I know it had a very positive impact on my music and creativity.”

After the marathon, immediately after, Shimabukuro put on a special performance for the other competitors. He laughs about it.

“Yeah, I gave a show at the finish line. I was dying, but it was one of the best feelings I’ve had performing. Maybe it was the runners high; maybe it was just seeing all of my friends and family, and the other runners. It was the best.”

As for his upcoming plans, Shimabukuro expects to spend more time with Buffett.

“I’ve done a Caribbean tour with Jimmy- we played Anguilla. That was rewally a lot of fun, and I’m hoping we can et back there.

Shimabukuro has a strong following in Japan. It would appear that ‘mainlanders’ here in the United States are beginning to awaken to the young ukulele player from Hawaii, his uncommon technical proficiency, and his crossover repertoire.

No Boundaries

Shimabukuro does not accept artificial boundaries that try to hem in what he is doing.

“For musicians that there aren’t limits, it is not about the ‘genre’ you play. The people who sell it are the ones who categorize it. Music is an expression of art reflects the artist. I don’t believe in labels. Music is music, we listen to things, we share and pick up things, and then what we do is create a fusion.

Shimabukuro is living proof. He has toured with Bobby McFerrin, Bela Fleck, Fiona Apple, Diana Krall, Toto, Jimmy Buffett, and Les Paul, among many others.

“In the end, it’s not about what is around you, it’s about what is inside- we’re going to keep on trying to figure this out until the day we die, it’s a journey that goes on forever. Trying to figure out your instrument, and who you are as a person. Even when I die, I’m gonna wish I’d lived another year longer, so I could have kept learning from everyone.”

These days, people mention Shimabukuro in the same breath as Bela Fleck, Mark O'Connor, Edgar Meyer, Alison Krause and Sam Bush as cutting edge innovators, crossing musical boundaries with impunity and virtually reinventing the instrument they play. Shimabukuro is in some pretty heady company; but it is where he belongs.


Jake Shimabukuro
Hitchhiker Records

Although he has done some scoring for television, Hula Girls is his first major motion picture effort. Point worth noting, is that despite the title, my own initial impression that the movie was going to be some chintzy "Elvis Does Hawaii" knockoff was way, way off base; so off base that I need to publicly apologize for it.

It is a very moving story about a failing coal town in Northern Japan, which, in a last ditch effort to save the town, decides to recreate itself as an Hawaiian style resort destination. They bring in a jaded and cynical retired hula dancer to teach the girls of the village the hula dancing. It is a very poignant story.

And it is well-served by Shimabukuro. Working with a band, or percussionists, solo, or with a vocalist, the soundtrack is evocative and seamless.

They damn well better release this movie in the United States; I want to see if it delivers what Shimabukuro's soundtrack so eloquently promises.

Jake Shimabukuro
Hitchhiker Records

This is like getting a Stocking Stuffer at Thanksgiving. Take one brilliant uke player, ask him to put together a list of songs he loves but hasn't recorded yet, and put out an acoustic EP. Best idea since sliced bread.

Those of you who know Shimabukuro understand he has an adventurous and eclectic repertoire. You won't be surprised to find two Lennon/McCartney tunes (In My Life and Here, There and Everywhere); Led Zep (Going to California); Lauper and Hyman (Time After Time); Arlen and Yarburg (Over the Rainbow); and Sarah McLachlin (Ice Cream).

His ability to find nuances in each of these songs not only makes them memorable, he is able to put his personal stamp on each of them. Few artists have the chops, the sensitivity, and sheer courage to take a song that has been covered by a hundred artists, and make you forget every previous version.

Shimabukuro can do it. This is and absolutely lovely EP.


Jake Shimabukuro
Hitchhiker Records

At some point, Shimabukuro was either going to have to go into the studio and record a solo album, or do a live recording, both of which he was reluctant to do.

Jimmy Buffett producer and guitarist Mac MacAnally managed to coax the reluctant Shimabukuro into a Nashville studio to produce this gem. First he had to convince a skeptical Jake that he could do a solo album.

“For a long time, I avoided doing a solo album. I wanted to do other stuff; I guess I was a little nervous about having people just listening to me. Mac kept telling me that I had to do it, that since I was doing acoustic shows I should really put something out that reflected that part of my work. He talked me into it by agreeing to produce it. I came to Nashville, and we recorded 17 songs in two days."

"Mac was an amazing producer. He has great “ears”—he hears everything, he’s cool, calm and relaxed. In the past, when I’ve recorded, I’ve usually had a single mike on the ukulele; Mac set up about 14 mikes, which allowed me to move around, more like I do onstage, so that I was more comfortable, and what he caught on tape was much more like a live show.”

“And when things would get frustrating, Mac would just smile and say ‘let’s get a bite to eat’. He knows how to record, and he knows how to work with people.”

MacAnally, for his part, also shrugs off the compliments.

“Jake has a great talent. All we did was set the scene to try to capture’ that magic he has when he plays live. I hope we’ve done that.”

The CD contains acoustic versions of many of the songs of his solo shows; the sympathetic miking and clarity of the sound make every subtlety of his performance crystal clear.

After rocketing to public attention through a You-tube take on George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," it is nice to see the cut finally appear. The entire CD is really a tour-de-force for Shimabukuro; his instrumental prowess is amply displayed, and entirely consistent with his real-life persona-- humble, and just enjoying the crap out of everything he has been able to do. The man has chops that have chops; but when you talk with him, he'll wave you off, and tell you he has a ways to go yet.

This CD shortens the distance considerably. For sheer breadth of material, from Schubert to Johnny Mercer, Harrison to Chick Corea, it is a very bold statement. For making it happen in such a magical, sustaining way, it is an accomplishment.

His originals are inventive and rhythmic; his interpretation of Schubert's Ave Maria is ethereal and respectful. Finally, his version of the Star Spangled Banner, is so eloquent and understated that it reminds us of what America was, should and still could be.

This CD is a keeper.

Jake Shimabukuro
Hitchhike Records

At some point, people will probably stop referring to Shimabukuro as the “Van Halen” or the “Hendrix” of the ukulele. That point will probably happen after listening to “Dragon,” his fourth CD. The instrumental CD is breathtaking in scope, and is a tour de force that exhibits the jaw-dropping skill of Shimabukuro. At 28, he possesses all the confidence and musical wisdom one would expect in a much more seasoned artist. He is clearly evolving into an artist so utterly unique that analogies will lose any power to capture his sound. You just have to hear it for yourself.

“Dragon” features a full palette of self-penned songs that range from the whimsical (‘Me & Shirley T,” a love song to his favorite drink, still; a Shirley Temple) to the title track, which acknowledges another hero of Shimabukuro’s Bruce Lee. The young musician feels that the discipline of the late martial artist has been a major source of inspiration for him; the homage is heartfelt and evocative.

The CD, like Shimabukuro, will not disappoint. He is a major artist evolving with every foray into the studio, growing with every turn on the stage.

Sweet Honey In The Rock- Soft and Mighty Voices

(left to right): Ysaye Barnwell

Aisha Kahlil, Louise Robinson,

Carol Maillard, Nitanju Bolade Casel,

Shirley Childress Saxton

Photo: Sharon Farmer

An Interview From 2006

There is great power in the melding of voices, raising them to illuminate the human spirit and the broad palette of emotions we carry within. Sweet Honey In The Rock, a group of African-American women have been doing just that for more than 30 years.

Carol Maillard, by training a singer and actress, was one of the original founders of the group. Although she left for other projects, she returned and has been with Sweet Honey since 1992.

In The Beginning

“Essentially, Sweet Honey was something that happened at the DC Black Repertory Company, a theatre group, around 1972-73. The people in the troupe were extremely talented performers, singers, arrangers, and we liked the music we were creating. We asked Bernice (Johnson Reagon, founder) to get us together as a singing group. She finally gave in, and set up rehearsals on Tuesday nights, from 8-10pm.”

Maillard cites this as the genesis of Sweet Honey.

“It ended up being an ensemble of the best singers, sometimes all men, sometimes all women, sometimes a mix. We took a break that summer, and when we resumed in the fall, it turned out that there were four of us, all women, who had been to every rehearsal. We just sort of became Sweet Honey In The Rock.”

“One of the best things that happened to us was the Smithsonian Festival of American Folk Life. Bernice, who was working as a singer/cultural educator at the festival, brought us into her gig. We made our debut in May of 1974, as part of the ‘African Diaspora.’ It was wonderful. For two weeks, we sat on a porch that had been constructed, just sang; 30 minutes in the morning and then twenty minutes on the stage at night. Whoever was available sang, there were no mikes, we’d sing and talk to the audience. We did it in 1975 and again in 1976.”

“After that, we just started getting a lot of exposure. We played at folk festivals, rallies and fundraisers, at colleges and church functions.”

The “work” of Sweet Honey” has become clearer over the years.

Coming Into Focus

“We are intentionally bringing music that reaches people on so many levels. We sing about social justice, politics, love, human rights, everyday life and living. Music is so much a part of African culture; it really is part of daily life and living. It is participatory, not something you just sit back and watch. It is part of birth, growing, taking care of the village. These are the sounds that we all lived with. Sweet Honey honors that tradition.”

While the group, with dozens of albums/CD’s to their credit, are accomplished a capella singers in the studio, their live shows provide audiences with a genuine, soul-stirring experience. With their astonishing repertoire, ranging from traditional African chants to gospel shouts and spirituals, folk songs to original songs about growing up and learning and loving, Sweet Honey has honed their Grammy-winning style into a veritable musical force of nature. They present audiences with a delightful paradox; they manage to exude an utterly guileless and infectious exuberance and at the same time retain a nearly regal dignity.

Maillard is amused at this description.

“I don’t have a clue about how it happens; we don’t study or talk about it, we just do it. With the people we have in the group, we have the ability and energy to reach the audience. We sing about some pretty serious issues. I guess we ask questions, like where is the will to go forward towards joy, and how are you going to raise yourself up? You have to exude energy if you are going to make a change.”

Thirty Years of Growing and Learning

Working as a group for more than thirty years has been a great experience for Carol Maillard.

“We learn something, every time we get together and sing. These are very creative people with a lot of influences that really run the gamut. Sometimes we hear different things within a song, in voicing or meanings, rhythms. Sometimes these don’t become part of what we are doing until a year or two down the line. I might want to expand an idea, add words, grow the song. That way even traditional songs stay fresh, and we want to keep that solid. But we can hear things in another way, and have the freedom to try that.”

For Maillard and her companions in Sweet Honey, she hopes that audiences will take away a clear sense of the group.

“We just want people to know the group is constantly evolving. We are pleased when you people come to see us, and we like going to sing in new places. We want to do everything we can to Sweet Honey out there to learn from, enjoy and share.”


Sweet Honey In The Rock
Earthbeat R2 76422

This soundtrack, taken from a PBS American Masters presentation, captures the live sound of Sweet Honey to perfection. Not only do the shifting and swirling arrangements spotlight individual voices, they also embrace an eclectic range of harmonies and rhythms.

To fans of the a capella group, this should come as no surprise. Their live performances are legendary for their sheer energy and their eclectic repertoire, and this album is a veritable buffet for the fan and the uninitiated. Several of the songs feature spoken introductions, which help place the songs into a context- historical or otherwise relating to the growth of Sweet Honey. The first song they performed live, ‘Joan Little,’ is as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. Likewise, ‘The Ballad of Harry T. Moore’, adapted from a poem by Langston Hughes to commemorate the death of an organizer for the NAACP in Florida in the early fifties, in this heart-felt rendition, is a haunting reminder of the road we still have to travel.

The other highlight of the CD is an ethereal version of another of their reportorial classics, ‘In The Upper Room With Jesus,’ worth the price of admission by itself.

Thirty years on, Sweet Honey remain luminous, inspiring, and most decidedly on key. A terrific introduction to one of the truly important musical groups in American culture.

Jesse Winchester- More Than Just a Showman


Acknowledged as one the finest songwriters of his generation, Winchester is in his fifth decade as a performer. His catalog of 11 albums, (ten recorded in the studio and one live), representing 35 years of his songs, remains one of the most consistent and coherent bodies of work from any musical artist in the last 50 years.

The music may have a linear feel to it: Winchester’s path has not. He was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, and raised in Memphis. After spending some time in Massachusetts and Munich, Winchester moved to Montreal in 1967 to avoid the draft, something he spoke about in the song “Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt:”

“’Cos I'm baptized by water
So I'll pass on the one by fire
If you want to fight
Go on and fight if that be your desire”

Reliving History

Avoiding the draft altered his life forever, something Winchester has always acknowledged. With recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan, he finds the feelings of forty years ago still resonate.

“I do feel a great sadness, and am distressed about our country. You have to wonder do we really ever learn the lessons. This time, though, there at least are some differences, and in our response at home; we haven’t made some of the same mistakes. Back in the sixties, we didn’t pull any punches. Then we made mistakes by blaming the soldiers who fought in Viet Nam. But still, the war is the exact same cultural argument from then, which never got resolved.”

Winchester retains his southern accent and manner. His conversation is leavened with gracious gentility, and he often adds “why, thank you” and “bless your soul” at the end of his comments, or in reaction to a compliment.

He has made the transition from the warmth of Mississippi to the cool frosty air of Montreal.

“It’s gotten so that I actually look forward to winter. After all the grey dreariness of November, you long for the beauty of the snow.”

His songs are noted for their wry humor, poetic twists, and poignant, sometimes aching timbre. They are songs about disappointment, about living with choices made in life; as well as wistful memories of times and places that are lost forever. Winchester is also known for his astonishing economy of language.

The Songwriter's Songwriter

“I am a very slow songwriter,” he says. “I edit severely. Even the stuff that I write that I like gets edited down to the absolute bare bones. Over time, I’ve become more conscious about what I want to say.”

“There are so many people that I admire, so I can look at what they’ve done and still learn. Harlan Howard, Hoagy Carmicheal, Johnny Mercer. All of these wonderful songwriters who’ve gone before help me to be a better writer. Maybe when I was younger, I’d write a tune that was ‘Bob Dylan’ cryptic, more stream of consciousness. “Brand New Tennessee Waltz” was like that. I guess I don’t really do that anymore.”

As some of his most poignant tunes show, Winchester remains deeply rooted in his southern childhood. Songs he has written about the south, “Biloxi,” “Mississippi You’re On My Mind,” and “Bowling Green” have been covered by artists as diverse as the Everly Brothers and Jimmy Buffet.

Winchester can plant his tongue firmly in cheek, however. In “Let the Rough Side Drag,” he manages to be both wry and ribald simultaneously.

“It's a good thing the sea's not dry
Such a good thing that cows don't fly
What a good thing to make a joyful noise
It's a good thing that beds don't talk…”

"A Blessed Thing"

Winchester's ability to tour the United States was made possible by President Jimmy Carter’s 1976 amnesty of Viet-Nam era draft-evaders.

“That was such a blessed thing. It had such an impact on my life, and that of my family. Huge.”

The amnesty opened up the possibility of returning to the United States to promote the albums he was producing during the late seventies and early eighties. A songwriter’s songwriter, Winchester was beloved by a small but devoted base of fans, which hasn’t really translate into robust album sales.

“Well, let’s say I haven’t gotten rich from any of the albums. A couple of songs have done real well for me, which gave me a chance to step back and figure out what I wanted to do.”

By the late nineties, Winchester had stopped touring and going into the studio. He simply wasn’t enjoying it anymore. The difficulties of constant road life, the breakup of his marriage and other struggles sent him in a different direction. He had been offering nuggets of insight to his fans through his songs for years (“A Showman’s Life” and “Little Glass of Wine”); he decided to concentrate on his songwriting.

“I wasn’t having fun. It had become just ‘doing something.’ You see, when you’re enjoying it, it’s like the lights come on when you step on the stage. It’s like magic. Time stops and you’re in this moment with the audience.”

“Real true music is a performing art. It’s evanescent, it lasts for that moment you are up there and the audience is tuned in. It shouldn’t be frustrating, and it was.”

When the Spirit Moves

A recurring theme in Winchester’s music is a spiritual dialogue; an ongoing conversation versed in both testaments, occasionally borrowing from the deep and rich style of spirituals. This is a conversation that shares lessons, and doesn’t preach.

Winchester is animated when he discusses it.

“Spirit is important to me. It means a lot. I also value doubts as much as faith. We lose something as human beings without doubters to challenge us and make us think. I guess on that final day, I’d be lining up with the faithful.”

“Peter Ustinov once said that humanity was divided by faith and united by our doubts. I couldn’t put it any better than that.”

Winchester is now ready to return to the stage.

“Yeah” he admits. “I want to keep on getting after that kick of doing it right. I guess I’m crazy for that pleasure of getting it right, of getting the respect of my fans.”

Jesse Winchester, after 11 albums, 35 winters in Montreal with his feet in the Mississippi mud, is also a pragmatic wanderer who recognizes when the deck is stacked and fate is rumbling. Appropriately, on his 1972 tune “Do It,” he offers sage advice and a shy, winning smile.

“If the wheel is fixed
I would still take a chance
If we're treading on thin ice
Then we might as well dance”

Indeed. Come on out and dance, and sing a joyful song.


Jesse Winchester
Blue Plate Special

Jesse Winchester, alone on stage with his guitar, is a magical performer. This show-stealing set recorded in 2001 showcases his animated percussive guitar-plucking style contrasted with his sweet, sweet tenor. Wrapping those two gifts around some of his best tunes, the package offers a terrific sample of the work of Winchester.

His sly, self-effacing stage presence is not as evident on the disc, but his facility with a sharply-turned lyric, coupled with simple and haunting melodies make this a joy to listen to.
Winchester opens the set with two songs that are utter bookends; “Eulalie,” which finds him on the sideline mooning over the prettiest girl in town who doesn’t even notice him, and the delightful “Foolish Heart,” where he’s strolling down Main Street, with another pretty girl admiring him, much to his delighted confusion.

The set also features some other classic Winchester tunes- “Little Glass of Wine,” “Brand New Tennessee Waltz,” and “Yankee Lady.”

It serves as a good introduction to the estimable singer songwriter, and it’ll do until you get the chance to see him live.

Lucy Wainwright Roche, with Musical Lineage to Spare

Interview Conducted in Fall, 2007

By Bruce Menin

Lucy Wainwright Roche is the daughter of Suzzy Roche and Loudon Wainwright III. Her mother, along with aunts Maggie and Terre, make up the eclectic and much beloved Roche Sisters, who recently appeared in Newburyport. Her father Loudon has been writing heartfelt and eccentric songs for more than 30 years, including the achingly funny “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road.”

Did I mention her brother Rufus, and her sisters Sloane and Martha?

Lucy Wainwright is ready to set out on her own, however.

“Yeah, I feel a little bit of anxiety about the family thing, they’re all so talented. After college, I really stopped having anything to do with music. Over several years, I edged a little closer, but I worried a lot about being compared to my siblings. Once I stopped worrying about that, then I found I really was hard-pressed to sound the same as them, or act the same way. I have a lot of similarities to a lot of people out there, a lot of women who play guitar. I wasted a lot of time prejudging myself. I should’ve gone out sooner than I did.”

Wainwright Roche is typically self-deprecating; she didn’t exactly waste time. She finished a Master’s Degree and taught 2nd and 3rd grade for several years.

“I loved elementary school myself, I went to a public school in Manhattan. I’ve always loved kids and babies and people younger than me. I had a great teacher in 2nd grade, so I had it in my head that that was the level I wanted to teach at. I’ve really loved it.”

“Now as I get older, I think I could get into older kids; middle school, and high school. Before, I felt I was too close in age to them to have much to offer. But being a teacher is so amazing, I think it’s one of the most creative jobs you can have, especially now, when resources are scarce.”

Surprisingly, music did not appear as part of her teaching toolkit.

“I was very avoidant of that, I was going through that phase. I did teach the kids to sing one song, and another year, I did bring my guitar into the class to do some songs for them. In a funny way, I think being a teacher has made me a better performer, and being a better performer will make me a better teacher.”

Lucy wouldn’t be surprised if she ends up, somehow, combining her two careers.

“As much as I love teaching, I began to realize that I would always regret it if I didn’t try to get out and perform. Ideally, somewhere down the road, I figure out how to combine teaching kids with my music.”

Because of the sheer breadth and talent in the gene pool surrounding her, Wainwright Roche admits to being intimidated.

"Oh, gosh, I would never ask my relatives to help me finish a song, or put something together. It was so easy for me to get spooked at the thought of what they would say, or suggest. I would never let Rufus hear anything I had done. I mean they all care, but after a while, I realized they’re busy doing their own stuff, and there was nothing so precious or weird about what I was doing that would cause them to criticize me.”

In many ways, being surrounded by songwriters, Lucy Wainwright Roche’s life is something of an open book. She understands that often, the songs each or her parents and siblings are writing are autobiographical, and she is part of that story.

“Because so much of what I’ve lived is wrapped up in our music, I can’t really subtract the things from the music from the things that are part of my life. To do so would like removing puzzle pieces that fit perfectly well right now.”

She understands that her name and lineage has opened doors for her, but she is really determined to rise of fall on her own talent.

“We’ll just have to see how it happens. I’m really just starting out; the first show where I performed solo was in January of ’07. The field has a lot of complicated connections. I know that I have access to a lot of people that others don’t. I’ve been opening for a lot of people, which has been great. Just being able to watch others perform, that becomes a very rich environment to draw from. And I can call my mother, who has a lot of years is this business; there’s an upside and a downside to that. In the end, if what I’m doing doesn’t come together, all the relatives in the world won’t make it work. You have to survive on your own ability. I don’t know exactly when I get to that point.”

Despite the preponderance of talent in the home, Lucy laughs when asked who sang lullabies to her when she was young.

“No one, actually. We were always read to, which was the most fun thing ever.”

As for songwriting, Wainwright confesses the process mystifies her.

“I don’t really know how it happens, I just know it feels lucky. A handful of songs have come from family, but those don’t tend to be as confessional as the rest of my family writes. All of my songs have to do with relationships with others; they are all about today. I guess the major relationship I write about is the one I have with myself, which is always changing.”

“I remember reading in a liner note that my Aunt Maggie wrote that sometimes when you’ve lost something, but when you wrote a song about it, you’ll feel better. I was in a hotel in Charlottesville, and there were some losses I was feeling. And this song came to me. And the truth, was I did feel better after I finished it.”

For more information, try

Roche has an eight-song demo CD, half originals, and half covers.