Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tasty art: Metrano, Monhegan at Carryout

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to attend art openings besides the one taught to every cub reporter on the first day of J-school — that it’s a good place to score a free meal, or at least something to take the edge off, and, if you’re a lucky little ink-soaked wretch, maybe some sort of bracing libations. Mmmmmm, libations. You also get, if you’re pushy enough, some face time with the artist, and, of course, there’s always the art, presumably the reason you’re there. If you’re not a reporter, of course. Now, we’re not guaranteeing that there’ll be a decent spread of anything besides art at the reception for Dylan Metrano’s first-ever solo art show next week at Carry Out Cafe, where the Port native will be showing his excellent paper-cuttings of Monhegan Island, and you don’t really need another reason, but there’s something else in the works, another reason to brave the suddenly snarly season. And that is ... nah, you’ve got to go to the next page to find out.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Port winters lead to Ruin ... and renewal

Sorry, you won't get the full-throttle kick in the teeth you'd expect when Ruin/Renewal blows through Kittery, Maine, next week for the Burst & Bloom festival. The band will play a short acoustic set — not because of artistic considerations or commercial and crossover possibilities, but because the festival location will be in a gallery that's just one thin wall from a nice little restaurant, and the organizers don’t want to rattle the walls or the customers. “It will be a first for us," says Port native Josh Pritchard, who debuted “Mutes in the Steeple: Stories from the Newburyport Music Scene,” a film documenting the city’s second-wave punk scene, at last year’s Burst & Bloom. “We're used to playing loud rock clubs. The change of pace will be nice, I think. It should be interesting.”

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Plaudits for 'punk' playwright

Congrats to Gregory S. Moss. That's him on the left. No, no. Not the short guy who dressed up for the photo shoot, the well-rested one. The other guy. The Pavement Group's production of the Port playwright's "punkplay,” a piece that has its roots in the city, in Inn Street youth culture during the second-wave punk, has just been named one of the Top 10 plays of the year by TimeOut Chicago. Number 3, to be exact. Not that we're counting. Here's what they had to say: "As urgent and concentrated as a punk-rock track, Gregory Moss’s brilliantly funny play was also deceptively empathetic. The roller skates and uncertain sneers worn by Alexander Lane and Matt Farabee as a pair of ’80s adolescents might’ve suggested punkplay was just skimming a surface, but the cast and director David Perez expertly captured the harrowing teenage experience of grasping for identity and validation."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Alan Bull’s sort-of guerrilla gallery

Finding Alan Bull in a gallery isn't all that unusual. On the walls, anyhow. The Port painter always has something going on somewhere. But finding him behind the counter, that's something else. And finding him behind the counter of his own gallery, well, that's just .... whaaaa? Yeah, that's right. Bull, perhaps best known for his emotionally charged series on old trucks, has his own gallery, something that seems to have popped up overnight. Or maybe it's some sort of guerilla installation: Here today, gone tomorrow? Yeah, sounds crazy, but, actually, it's not that far off.  The artist will be ensconced in a comfy little Inn Street storefront, at the former Stitch in Time, between the Inn Street Barbershop and the Purple Onion, through the end of the month and maybe, but not definitely, through January. And the name of the place? 48 Inn Street Gallery.  Yeah, doesn’t quite grab you by the lapels, but certainly functional.  At least you know where the place is. And the hours? Weekends approach “regular” hours, weekdays not so much. It’s all rather improvisational. The guy has to paint — and teach — after all. Can’t be standing around the store all day.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tiger Saw dances in the dark

Tiger Saw's latest, the aptly named "Nightingales," has been billed as a flight back to the nest, of sorts, a return to the Newburyport-born, Portland-based band's slowcore roots, and it's difficult to argue with that assessment, especially after the stylistic detour that was "Tigers on Fire," the controversial 2007 album that reinvented Saw as a kind-of white-kid basement soul dance band, horn section and all. So, yeah, there's a little back to the future feel to it. But, despite some obvious similarities in form and, to a certain extent, content, “Nightingales” finds Tiger Saw in a completely different place —  lyrically, musically, emotionally — from, say, the sweetness and innocence of, "Blessed Art the Trials We Will Find," the band's Kimchee debut, or the joyous, celebratory, everybody-all-together “Sing," from the midpoint of the band's decade-long run. Yeah, the songs, for the most part, are still sweet, sad and, at times, heartachingly beautiful, and have an ineffable yet smoldering sadness — and a terrible, well-remembered longing. And, perhaps most significantly, the new material puts the spotlight back on the interplay of male and female voices to an extent not seen since cellist and vocalist Juliet Nelson left the band three years ago. But Emily Forsythe, probably best known for her work with the Boston-based St. Claire, steps into the duet role with founder Dylan Metrano as earth to Nelson's cosmos, body to her spirit, fire to her cool, ethereal breeze. And, this time out, there's a lot more miles on the vehicle. The shadows are longer, almost stark, and the lines on the faces of the characters, the people whose lives are described more pronounced. And Tiger Saw, a constantly shifting musical collective, is doing it, mostly, with a rootsy, waltzy string quartet as accompaniment. No, it’s never easy with this band.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Mr. Sterile Assembly: Notes from Underground

Trident Studios is housed in a nondescript building in Te Aro, an inner-city section of Wellington, New Zealand. Most people pass it without ever knowing that the Martin Square building was once home to the Secret Intelligence Service, the SIS -- MI6 in the popular jargon -- an organization perhaps not quite so well known as its international brothers-in-acronym, but newly repositioned and reinvigorated in the so-called Age of Terror, keeping an eye on its citizens, and, according to a recent government report, occasionally members of Parliament. Kieran Monaghan, founder of mr sterile Assembly, one of the most interesting, if hopelessly below-the-pop-culture-radar bands in New Zealand, didn't know anything about the Taranaki Street building's checkered, puzzle-palace past until he turned up at Trident to record Transit, the band's fourth proper album, and got the tour from owner Mike Gibson. The irony was not lost on him, or the opportunity it presented. This is a band "on the outskirts of the extreme underground," says Nick Fulton, founder of Einstein Music Journal, a blog on the frontline of New Zealand's emerging music scene, but also a band whose music is "deep and trustful," that has "a sense of humor, fantasy and punk energy very close to my own feelings," says Miroslav Wanek, frontman for the legendary Czech rock band Uz Jsme Doma. 

Read more at Perfect Sound Forever

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Uz jsme doma and the mysterious Building 16

Had a feeling there might be trouble with this show: Uz jsme doma headlining a bill with Providence, R.I., heavies Bellows, Normal Love and Whore Paint at the mysterious, if blandly, named Building 16 — a venue with no phone number and no web presence, which kinda made us wonder if it actually existed. Trolling the web, we managed to find an email address. Fired off an email with a couple pertinent questions, like how the hell do we get tickets? To which we got an auto-response telling us not to take it personally, it's just that they get so overwhelmed with email at the mysterious Building 16 that they could not possibly be expected to answer. Yeah, that's just great. Miroslav Wanek, frontman for Uz jsme doma, didn't have much more information when we cornered him before the band's Wesleyan University gig the night before. We did manage to find an address. On the Cuneiform Records web site, no less: 95 Empire Street. Which put it, more or less, right around AS220, where we had seen Uz jsme doma play about a decade ago. Which would have made things easy. If it were the right address. It wasn't. 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Rocking chapel: Uz jsme doma at Wesleyan

Just back from the second stop on Uz jsme doma's US tour, their first since 2007, and I've gotta say, man, aren't the Wesleyan University kids just the coolest? And I'm not just saying that because I'm afraid the little bastards will give me another shiner. No, I wear those colors under my right eye as a badge of honor. It's the first time I've gotten a black eye from a college student since, well, since I was a college student all those years ago, before most of them,  probably all of them, were born. And it's certainly the first time I've ever gotten a black eye in church. It's also the first time I've seen Uz jsme doma play in a church — Memorial Chapel, a 19th-century Gothic Revival brownstone, one of the most prominent buildings on the Middletown, Conn., campus: Pews, pipe organ, everything but the preacher. And, just a half-hour before show time completely empty, except for the band and two jocks from WESU-FM, which sponsored the show. You could hear your footsteps echoing through the building. Staked out my position in the front row, er, pew — comfortable, cushioned. A pretty strange experience, though. I've never been "comfortable" watching a punk show. You're not supposed to be. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Frame kicking out the jams for schools

Fans have been bugging Liz Frame for product for the past two years, ever since the Newburyport musician jump-started the career she had all but abandoned for marriage and motherhood and put together the Kickers — a tight, country-tinged acoustic act known for solid playing, tight harmonies and just plain looking good on stage. Not a bad problem to have, if you think about it, but frustrating if you can’t give the fans the answer they want. But the long dry stretch is just about over: The first official Liz Frame and the Kickers CD will be released next week, just in time for Music Matters — a Kicker-powered Oct. 2 Firehouse concert that will directly benefit music programs in the city's public schools. It's not the full-length Frame fans would like to see, but it's a nice taste of what the band does. It includes three originals and a cover — a haunting take on Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love," which strips all the groovy from the flower power classic to reveal a wold of hurt spinning in a subtext of sin.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Brew Fest: More than great taste, less filling

The suds will be flowing next weekend in Carriagetown. Hundreds of brews, dozens of styles will be featured at the Amesbury Brew Fest on Sept. 25.  Which is a good thing. Because when you get hundreds of beer freaks together, the only thing you can count on is disagreements about what to order, about what's the best brew and, of course, what naturally flows from this, is why the other guy, even if he's your best friend, is completely wrong and obviously, unequivocally an idiot. You can't get anything approaching a semblance of a consensus — even when stating the obvious, the incontrovertible, like that all attempts at pilsner fall flat in comparison to Pilsner Urquell, the original and still the gold standard, other beer-drinkers being prone to making broad statements of fact and all. Hell, you can't even get an agreement among the musicians playing the festival, which is expected to bring upwards of 2,000 people to Amesbury Sports Park. The difference is style as much as taste. You've got guys like Seacoast regular Scott Barnett drawn to well-known, solid — if somewhat white-bread, performers like Newcastle or Sam Adams, especially seasonal varieties like Sammy Summer.  "Nothing like a long day at work and then going out thirsty as could be ... and showing up at a bar, noticing that they have Newcastle on tap," he says. Then you've got guys like Christoph Krey, frontman for McAlister Drive, the Boston-based rockers known for big-ass hooks and sweet harmonies. He's your classic beer nut, a near-fanatic. The kind of guy who, when you ask him about his favorite beer, will rattle off the top five — Abita Purple Haze, Tripel Karmeliet, Wachusett's Blueberry,  Mayflower Porter and Guinness — and for an encore, Shipyard Pumkinhead Ale. The top pick is a New Orleans brew, which, for those of us with any lingering memories of the '60s, is a name that probably over-promises what the experience will be. This choice, he admits, is probably a bit personal: When he was at Tulane and gigging around New Orleans, they always fed him free Abita products like Purple Haze. 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Pure Poe-etry with Theater in the Open

We all know that, for better or worse, pictures convey more information, more quickly than words ever will, but the Lydia See photo you see here, as powerful and creepy as it is, just barely scratches the surface of what will be happening at Maudslay State Park this weekend. It shows a line of cloaked specters. Only one face is visible. It’s blank, emotionless and appears to be covered with lesions. The image is from "Poe," a new Theater in the Open show — specifically the Master of the Macabre's short story "The Masque of the Red Death." What the picture doesn't show — and what word-slingers, even extremely long-winded ones like yours truly, can explain in far less than a thousand words — is the claustrophobic context of the piece: These figures, suffering from a plague-like disease, but who can be seen as a monstrous metaphor for any of the thousands of scary things out there in the world, will be surrounding the audience, as a narrator reads Poe's texts, creating the impression of being locked away in the relatively safe confines of the dauntless and sagacious Prince Prospero's castle, but for how long? The population has been halved already.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Moss premiere just seconds away

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your patience. In a moment, relatively speaking, we will begin our featured performance,  the world premiere of "Orange Hat and Grace," the new play by Newburyport playwright Greg Moss that kicks off the new season at Soho Rep. In this case, in a moment means roughly 12 hours — just enough time to get to the city and find a parking space. We understand it may seem to be stretching the meaning of the phrase "in a moment," especially if you're just tuning in, but we've been waiting in line through the spring and summer. Soho Rep, which made a huge splash last year with its critically acclaimed production of Sarah Kane’s “Blasted,” was supposed to bring out the play for a three-week run beginning last March, with artistic director Sarah Benson in the driver’s seat. Then came the "creative team availability issue" — long story, believe me — and “Orange Hat and Grace” got bumped from the lineup.  

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Tip of the hat from Charles Van Eman

Busy guy, Charles Van Eman. He's flying up Route 95, trying to make a rehearsal for the Firehouse production of Mark Twain's “The Diaries of Adam and Eve" at the Firehouse. It's not quite clear whether it was a last-minute thing or whether it just got lost in the shuffle of his schedule. Doesn't really matter. He got the call, he made the rehearsal and, en route, was able to check off a scheduled press interview during the ride from his home in Middleton. Besides, the actor, whose credits over the past three decades include everything from a recurring role in the "The Colbys," the Dynasty spinoff, to his current gig as writer-director of "High Rise," a Melrose Place-like internet drama, had already accomplished the major task of the day: Making revisions to "Jack's Hat," a new play, which will be getting its first spin around the theatrical block soon, very soon, at the North Shore Readers Theatre Collaborative. There's still the second season of "High Rise" hanging over his head, of course. Lots of pressure there, too, seeing how the show has been upgraded from bite-size eight-minute episodes to a full half-hour, and has been picked up by Fox 5 in Atlanta, where the series is filmed. 

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Creepy, compelling take on 'The List'

If you check it twice, you'll find out that Port playwright Ron Pullins' "The List" has re-emerged, strangely naughty and nice, making the leap from an award-winning short play to a creepy-but-compelling two-minute video. It was one of five pieces selected for Project Y's "Confessionals," a fundraiser for the New York-based theater company. It's a monologue by a compulsive list-maker who has committed a terrible crime, the worst you can possibly imagine. Her list gives her strength and helps her prepare — to deaden herself — so she can emerge from this moment of ugly truth, broken but alive. The company just posted the video online. You can watch it here

Friday, September 3, 2010

Nope, there are three sure things in life

C'mon kids. We all knew it would come to this eventually. Long-distance relationships just don't last. So, when Jeff Morris blew town for Chicago last year, we knew what it meant — even if we never said it out loud. Morris came back from time to time over the past year, dusting off Death & Taxes, the ex-Bruiser's no-nonsense, straight-ahead rock trio, for another mad joyride. But, seriously, how long did anyone think he would deal with that 1,000-mile commute? Then came the blog, which had a nostalgic, summing-up quality about it. Then the news a couple of weeks ago that "bad luck, bad living & bad decisions," the much-anticipated follow-up to the Port band's debut "Tatooed Hearts & Broken Promises," had been shelved and, in a terse statement on the blog, that there were no plans to make another.  "Yeah, I just don't see being able to write/rehearse and record being 1,000 miles away," he says. "I thought we could do it, but it looks like that was wishful thinking." And now? Yup, that's the sound of the other shoe dropping. It's last call, Death & Taxes is kaput. They'll  play two farewell shows in September: The first on Sept. 24 at TT the Bear's, with Lenny Lashley, The Welch Boys and Wicked Whiskey; D&T will go on at midnight. The second at the Dover Brickhouse, one of the band's favorite haunts, on Sept. 25. After that, who knows? But don't hold your breath. Only three things are certain in life: Death, taxes and the death of Death & Taxes. 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Murder, mayhem in Joel Brown's Port City

Caught up with Joel Brown at Fowle's. He's a regular, stops in every day after an solo sunrise bike ride on Plum Island, and, closer to home, a bit of exercise with his dog, Buffy. Yes, named after the vampire slayer. He confesses to being “a little uncomfortable on this side of the pad.” You know, answering the questions instead of asking them. He's an old-school ink-soaked wretch. Moved to town in 1998 after landing a gig as television editor at the Herald, became executive arts editor, got voted off the island about five years ago, another casualty of print journalism's sad, long-running decline. He's still in the game — freelancing, poor bastard. Running a blog, Hub Arts, which has a wider view than its name might suggest. We're sitting at a table on State Street. Everybody seems to know him. Then again, he is a regular and this is Newburyport, or Libertyport, as Brown calls a somewhat fictionalized city in “Mirror Ball Man,” his first mystery. It's an “old-fashioned New England small town where everyone knew everyone else, an idyllic vision straight out of Norman Rockwell, but gay-friendly, with hybrid cars and flat-screen TVs.” That vision is shattered when Jules Titward, a local developer who has stirred up a lot of ugly emotions in his bid to build a hotel on the central waterfront, turns up dead, face first in the gravel parking lot, the proposed project site, next to his Beemer, in a pool of his own blood.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Crazy beer at the Ale House

Dreary afternoon. Desperately needed rain, equally desperate need to get out of the house and do something amazing — or at least amusing. So, from the list of fun things to do and other strategies for avoiding boredom-inspired bickering: An afternoon of crazy beer at The Ale House. And, man, they've got some kinda crazy brewskis at the Carriagetown restaurant, located at the former site of Pow Wow River Grille: about thirty wild, intriguing brews on tap, three times that in bottles — from unique Belgian lambics to muscular imperial stouts brewed with coffee to, for all you high-rollers out there, a special Sammy described as other/unclassifiable, that clocks in at 27 percent alcohol and will set you back $22.50 for a 2.5-ounce taste. My goal was to get as far outside my comfort zone as I could and, if at all possible, shut up my buddy Jason — a hopeless task, no doubt — who says I'm just stuck in the sudsy mudsy because of my preoccupation with Czech pilsner. Not that I really care what he thinks. He's moving to Canada anyhow. Weirdo. The wife would be ordering because it was way too scary for me. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Latin Quarter: Sambas, rhumbas, cha-cha-cha

It’s not like John Tavano really needs anything else to fill out his dance card. The guy's stretched pretty thin as it is. Performing with Rhina Espaillatt and Alfred Nichol in Melo Poea, the continuing music-meets-poetry series, and with soprano Ann Tucker, most recently in "The Ballad of San Isidro," a program also based on one of Espaillat's poems. He's also gearing up for a fall show with Polish pianist Malgosia  Smolarek, and preparing a new album of non-traditional Christmas music. And that's in addition to regular gigs as a classical guitarist, a staff musician with the Museum of Fine Arts, an instructor at The Musical Suite and as a portrait artist. But the way the Port guitarist figures it, what's the point of having a bunch of sweet sambas, rhumbas and bossa novas in your bag of musical tricks — and he's got them — if you don't have the means of getting them out there? So, about six months ago he assembled a team of local aces and revived the Latin Quarter, a Tavano project that had its last twirl on the dance floor about ten years ago. The ensemble, now a quartet, re-emerges with a new line-up for a weekend performance at the Actors Studio.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Port home, architect cooking on HGTV

Let's be clear about this: Andrew Sidford does not know whether he's getting thrown off the island or not. Not Plum Island, where the Port architect does a lot of his work, like Sea View House, a unique, striking home on the dunes that we've written about before, but in a "reality" TV sense, after lots of old-fashioned intrigue and dramatic backstabbing. But there'll be none of that on HGTV's "Bang for Your Buck," which looks at three similar home projects and, after much poking and prodding, decides which represents the best investment for the homeowner. This week, they'll be looking at Sidford's kitchen renovation at the home of Jocelyn and Frank McLaughlin at Plum Bush Downs — just a plover's egg throw from the Plum Island Bridge — which the architect describes as "a radical transformation from a cluster of dark rooms closed off from its to-die-for location to  a bright perch, positioned to enjoy views of the Great Marsh," done on a shoestring budget of just $75,000. 

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Deak: Big Bad Wolf got a big bad rap

OK, we’re not naming names, but Jon Deak has seen a lot of the clips of people performing his “B.B. Wolf” and, frankly, some of them make him ... well, cringe. Because the piece for double bass and narrator, which he will perform at this year’s Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, is cool and funny and seems easy enough to handle and “open” to interpretation, especially once you finesse the haunting, sublime sound of the Kabloona wolf in the wild. Which is no mean feat in itself. Just ask NCMF artistic director David Yang, who still remembers the first time he ever heard the sound. “I simply had never heard anything like this before,” he says. “How can someone make a bass sound so convincingly like a wolf howl that the hairs raised uncomfortably on the back of my neck?”
But, to make “B.B. Wolf” work, you have to resist the impulse to mug for the cheap seats, to play it for laughs, says the composer. This takes  focus and discipline, because you’re talking about a piece for solo bass and narrator that is, essentially, an apologia by the Big, Bad Wolf, one of the original bad guys, the “star” of all the fairy tales we grew up with, a huffing-puffing, Grandma-eating baddie whose rep is just above Eden’s serpent on the Richter scale of literary evil — and whose real-life counterparts are just as hated. And that is the subtext for the 10-minute piece. It’s funny, but it’s not a joke. Personalizing it, incorporating cutesy quirks or ad-libs, has the same effect as adding “meep-meep,” the roadrunner’s eternal response to the coyote, a wolf for all practical purposes. Improvising in what is pretty much a set piece, “sinks it to a comic level,” he says. “It becomes just a cartoon.”

Monday, August 9, 2010

Andrew Mungo and the fame game

This is the story of two Andys. The first one came up with the insight — prescient, now a cliche — that in the future everyone would be famous for oh, just about a quarter of an hour. And he became very famous indeed, Andy, almost as famous as the amazing Lindsay Lohan is today. The other Andy has a peculiar relationship with celebrity. Unlike Andy I, a genuinely revolutionary artist who became famous the world over for being famous, Andy II is very well known, famous you could say, but only within narrow geographical constraints. Call him a local celebrity. If you’ve been in the city for a while, chances are that you know him. You’ve probably given him money for a good time. He's been a fixture in downtown Blueberryport for more than three decades .... What's that? Yeah, right, Blueberryport. That’s what our Andy — Andrew Mungo, the owner (and the guy behind the ticket counter and sometimes behind the projector and popcorn machine) at The Screening Room — calls the community that looks an awful lot like Newburyport in “Thanks for Listening, A Memoir," a film that has been in the works for a decade and that will make its big-screen debut this week. Not at the alt-hip downtown cinema, but just up the street, at a meeting of the Newburyport Public Library's Film Club.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Sound and fury on opening night

A fabulous start to Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, a stunning performance by the Naumburg competition-winning Trio Cavatina at the Carriage House that was a treat for eyes and ears.  The trio — pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute, violinist Harumi Rhodes and cellist Priscilla Lee — pounced on the program, bringing a real physicality, a fiery, visual intensity not often found this side of tell Tchaikovsky the news, balancing a rock attitude, a muscular musical attack with dead-on technical skills and a subtle emotional heat that made for a mesmerizing performance and an exhilarating opening night.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Talking music: NCMF finds its voice

Yeah, sure. He admits that he’s “probably pushing it” a little — fessing up that, unlike previous years, there’s no immediately obvious overriding theme unifying the music of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival this year. But David Yang, the guy behind the programming at the festival since its inception nine years ago, isn’t quite ready to give up the musical ghost: He’s starting to warm up to the subject after cautiously playing the theme. He’s thinking of the lyrical nature of music — not in the sense of the always- breathtakingly “singing” quality of Yo-Yo Ma’s playing. He’s thinking about non-verbal communication that actually approaches conversation. You hear it in the Kodaly (Duo for violin and cello, Opus 7), where, Yang says, the composer seems to be interested in striking up a dialogue, having the musicians talk — and, at times, spar — with each other. And the Mendelssohn (String Quartet in F minor, Opus 80), which was published posthumously, a piece he wrote after the death of his beloved sister, after which he just could not go on. It is “desperate communication,” says Yang, “a terrible cry of anguish … so intense.” And the two Jon Deak pieces (“B.B. Wolf” and “Sherlock Holmes and The Speckled Band, Scene I,” take the Yang theme to its limit, with the composer actually telling the stories.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Exit: Just what the doctor ordered

Here's a little zig to the normal zag of performance: The always-intriguing Exit Dance Theatre will be collaborating with father-and-son duo Doc Zig and Benny Z, otherwise known as Jim and Benny Zanfagna, who will be joined by local aces Roger Ebacher and Mike Gruen — yes, the same lineup as "Father & Son Playing for Small Change,” Zig and Z's debut EP —  in an evening of dance and music to benefit the modern dance company. Fontaine Dubus, Erin Foley, Wendy Hamel, Nicole Duquette and a special guest or two (nope, not telling) will perform new choreography, including a dance set to the duo's single "Run, Run." Played live, of course. From there the band will finish out the night, kicking out its crazy mix of sounds that someone said is Americana realized through a filter of reggae and jazz, or the other way around. Yeah, that would be me. The show takes place at 7:30p.m. Aug. 20 at the Tannery, at the Dance Place's Studio II Black Box. Cost you $10. Cheap date. You can check out the video for "Run Run" here and look up Exit here.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Dylan Metrano: A real cut-up

Dylan Metrano has been escaping to Monhegan Island for the past four years. Every summer, like clockwork, he just vanishes into the mists of Maine. So does his band, Tiger Saw. It's a time for everyone to kick back and recharge. You've got to chill on Monhegan — a close-by island with a far-away feel, just a dozen miles off the Maine coast, accessible only by boat, no cars or paved roads. He writes, he reads, he works as a cook in a fancy restaurant, and lately he's been capturing the island, its historic buildings and natural landmarks, in a series of papercuttings. The former Newburyport resident, a central figure in the city's new music revival in the late 1990s, has been showing the work in Down East galleries and shops since 2008. Now he has collected the work in "Monhegan Island Papercuttings," just published by Burst and Bloom. 

Friday, July 30, 2010

Tom's in town: Whoa! Dude! Freebird! Whoo!

Dude’s a monster, a triple threat — drummer, writer, producer. Yeah, on the left wearing the Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt. Old friend Tom  Hambridge, one of the original members of Parker Wheeler’s Blues Party back ... nah, forget it. It couldn’t possibly be almost two decades since he first started working the weekly sessions at the Grog, right? And why Skynyrd, you might ask? Old school nostalgia? Nah, because they’re pals … and soon-to-be shipmates. Hambridge, now living in Nashville, and his band, the Rattlesnakes, will be sailing and wailing with Skynyrd and a dozen other bands on a four-day cruise from Tampa to the Grand Cayman islands in January. And because he wrote five of the tunes on "Vicious Cycle," the Southern rockers’ latest album — surprisingly, a name without an inappropriate “y” in sight — and one on their platinum-selling "Thyrty,” a greatest hits collection that cannot make the same claym. 

TITO's 'Soprano' hits the high notes

Everything seems just hunky-dory, but, almost from the beginning of "The Bald Soprano," you know something is off, and if you say "off what" you are on track, in the zone, whatever that means, in this completely over-the-top absurd Ionesco classic being staged by Theater in the Open. We find the Smiths, a proper English family, which is to say circumspect and bloodless and deceptively matter-of-fact, in their living room, in an unnamed suburb of London, discussing the mundane details of their day-to-day, like the quality of the oil, both cooking and salad, which, the missus says, is delightfully not rancid, as is sometimes the case. They talk about superficially interesting, ultimately distracting facts gleaned through the course of a life well avoided, like the restorative qualities of good-quality yogurt. They talk about the interesting news of the day, like the death of family friend Bobby Watson, not to be confused with his wife, who has the same name, or his son and daughter, who also have the same name, and a chap who actually seems to have died several years before, the mister just failing to bring it up until now. And, speaking of death, they talk about those other irritating facts of life, like how the papers always seem to list the age of people who die, but never of those who are born.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Hey mon: Reggae singer gets back to 'Roots'

The whole thing had a feeling of inevitability about it: Gary Shane, the man of a thousand musical identities but probably best known for his hit-making power pop band, The Detour, runs into Wade Dyce, the Jamaica-born reggae singer now living in Salem, who made his name with the band Cultural Roots right about the same time as Shane was scoring on the charts. They didn’t know each other — never heard of each other, in fact. They just bumped into each other in the hallways of North Shore Community College where, coincidently, they were both training for second careers as mental health professionals. They started talking about music. Then Dyce, to illustrate a point, started singing Jah Cure’s “Prison Walls (Reflections)” — “and he just floored me,” says Shane. The Ipswich resident says he got “a real education” in that college corridor that day, and a “burning yearning” for reggae — and he wanted more ... Read more here.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Bruising blogging from a Port punk

When Jeff Morris (yeah, that's the guy, second from the left) pulled up stakes last year, he left behind a two-decade deep, stylistically diverse musical legacy only hinted at in "Mutes in the Steeple," the Joshua Pritchard documentary focusing on the Newburyport indie music scene in the late '80s and '90s — from NPD, one of the city's first punk bands, and the Bruisers, who bashed their way out of regional obscurity with a punishing, as-hard-as-you-can-get street punk sound, to the surf-rock-with-an-edge sound of the Cadillac Hitmen, and the in-your-face improvisation instro trio Zuni Fetish Experiment, before finally returning to the song format with Death & Taxes, a straight-ahead rock outfit with no room for flash or showboating. Now Morris, who moved to Chicago last year after getting a day-job offer he could not refuse, begins telling the nasty little story on “Tattooed Hearts and Broken Promises,” his new blog.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Reeling in the years with the Young Moderns

It’s like that old Reese’s commercial, except that instead of a collision of chocolate and peanut butter, it’s the somewhat accidental grouping of the Merrimack River Bluescruise and the spirit of Yankee Homecoming, but with a distinctly counter-cultural vibe to it, focusing on the Joan-and-Ra-era Fowle’s and the Canta Libre and Cluster School crowds. And if any of that rings a bell, you might remember this: “I feel like a vegetable, but I’m not growing much.” It’s from “Living in a Small Town,” an ode to Newburyport by The Young Moderns, the homegrown power-pop band. You might have heard them playing it in Market Square during Homecoming, or on WBCN, back in the day, when bands without a major record deal could get significant airplay. And, sorry to say, if true, you’re probably seasoned enough to have been targeted in a membership drive by the American Association of Retired Persons ‑ something that just happened to Mike Hoag, a formerly young member of The Young Moderns, and it’s freaking him out a little bit. “I still can’t believe it,” he says from his home in Florida. Mike and Mark Hoag, twin brothers on the not-so-fair side of 50, both of whom left the city about the same time for different parts of the country in 1990, are on the phone, talking about “Wasted Youth Cruise & Other Modern Adventures,” the opening salvo in the 20th-anniversary season of the popular Bluescruise series, which will put the Moderns in front of local audiences for the first time since the band, in a moment of frustration, decided to take a breather — “a break that lasted 30 years,” says Mark.

To read more, click here.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Alan Bull: Little wheels keep on turning

Ever wonder how Alan Bull got started with that edgy, somewhat nostalgic and most definitely, emotionally charged truck series that, like it or not, more than anything, has come to define him over the past decade, despite the Port painter's diverse portfolio? The answer is obvious ... if you have a background in automotive forensic psychology: The big truck thing grew out of his childhood obsession with much smaller vehicles — those little Matchbox cars, to be precise. And, since we’re being so precise, we should make it clear for those of you with fuzzy memories that we are not talking about the much sexier Hot Wheels, which took the air out of the practical-but-kinda-frumpy Matchbox collection back during the Summer of Love when Mattel introduced its series of sports cars instead of, er, the cement and dump trucks favored by its English rival.They may have been stupid little boy toys, but, for many of a certain age, they are soaked in nostalgia, like the truck series — and, the artist says, "definitely the source of my fascination with the trucks. They started the whole thing rolling."

Friday, June 11, 2010

Godot: The wait's over

Funny thing about “Waiting for Godot” is that, despite the intense baggage that accompanies it, the seemingly unbearable intellectual burden and endless exegesis of the work and its possible meanings, there is, absurdly, a lot of humor, warmth, even humanity, in the play. It’s existential slapstick in the countryside, a place where humor — granted, dark humor — coexists with bleak clarity, absurdity and, of course, despair that accompanies life. A state of being some of us were coming to terms with not that long ago, when, unlike "Godot," rarely performed in exurbia, came and went, leaving us waiting like the hapless Estragon and Vladimir, making that scraggly old tree look pretty inviting. Think it's strung enough? If only it weren't such a bother. No, no, no — just getting carried away with the mood of the thing. And it is a moody thing. But unlike the play, where waiting gets you nothing but despair, if you're aware, this time it paid off: Less than two months after its short run as part of a spring fundraiser for Theater in the Open, “Godot” is back in town for three shows at the Firehouse. 

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Elinor Teele: Playing the 'Waiting' game

Elinor Teele thought she was finally done with old English literature years ago — and we are talking really, really old English literature, pre-Norman conquest, the language of Beowolf, which they call English, but barely resembles it — years ago, when she locked up the doctorate from the University of Cambridge, England. Her thesis was on the "Heroic Tradition in the Old English Riddles," a collection of evocative and bawdy — okay, let's just say dirty — poems in the so-called Exeter Book. But, as the Brits might say, there you go: The playwright, who had lived on three continents before returning to what had been the family's summer home in Annisquam, is at home, rifling through the old books and papers she thought she had "put away for all eternity" after her brain "all but imploded" from the sheer academic weight of her studies. But no. She's apparently not quite done with Seventh-Century England yet. She was happy to get away from the academic part of it, but the period "still fascinates me," she says. "Such incredible characters, such incredible stories ... " That's why she's writing a play set in that period. But that's not the point of this conversation. We're here to talk about "The Waiting Room," a new full-length play that gets its first spin around the literary block with a staged reading this weekend at the North Shore Readers Theater Collaborative.

Friday, June 4, 2010

TITO goes panto

They call it panto, a form that finds its roots in the ancient Commedia dell'Arte but is filtered through old-school British vaudeville and seasoned in the modern. But you probably could do just as well calling “Cinderella: A Pretty Princess Panto,” which Theater in the Open takes for a spin around the park this month, a pop culture Cuisinart. The show slices and dices all those beloved stories from your youth, mixing and matching their characters and whipping their stories into a thick theatrical broth that is seasoned with the buzz-buzz of news, real and pseudo, and following the trail no matter where it goes. It's both a new, original show and a pastiche. It features everyone’s favorite housecleaner, who always makes her curfew, no matter what; a dozen princesses, mostly dancing; a trio of troublemakers, Mavens of Misery — Maleficent from "Sleeping Beauty," Ursula from "The Little Mermaid," and Cruella De Vil from "101 Dalmatians" — who are every bit as evil as those clowns from British Petroleum who are still busy fouling the Gulf and who take a few well-deserved b-slaps during the show. You add a little singing and buffoonery, as well as a little encouraged booing and hissing and stage direction from the audience and you’ve got a panto. Add a seven-foot giraffe made from, well, whatever you manage to get your hands on, and you've got yourself a Titopanto. 

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Benny & Doc's healing musical journey

Everyone knows medicine usually leaves a bad taste in your mouth, but not the concoction cooked up on “Father & Son Playing for Small Change,” a new four-song EP by Doc Zig and Benny Z — otherwise known around the Port as Jim (father) and Benny (son) Zanfagna. (That would be pronounced zan-fawn-nya.) No, this stuff is pretty sweet. You won’t need a spoonful of sugar to make this go down. But what a strange concoction this is. Just get a load of the active ingredients, the flavors: folk, country blues, reggae, jazz. And the instrumentation: acoustic guitar, mandolin, dobro, flute, saxophone, congas. Nope, this isn’t traditional music, not exactly. It’s Americana realized through a filter of reggae and jazz. Or is it the other way around? And, obviously, it’s not actually medicine, so probably not a good idea to send the receipt to your HMO, but the project is an elixir of sorts, a home cure that combines the healing qualities of music and the physical therapy that comes along with playing it — soothing the savage breast while, for example, goosing neural pathways — as part of recovery. “It’s literally medicinal,” says Benny Z. Which is why they named their publishing company Making Music Medicine Productions. 

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Run, don't 'Walk' for Miller's latest

This strange dissociative thing comes over me when I listen to "Walk," Byfield cellist Kristen Miller's new album. It's like she's whispering in my ear, reminding me of things we have always known, hard-learned lessons that have been all but lost in the maddening rush the present, the incessant tedium of life's details. It's like catching up with an old friend in a way. But, somehow, it feels wrong, like I'm somewhere I'm not supposed to be — lurking in the shadows, ear cocked toward the confessional, eavesdropping. Not that any great secrets are being betrayed. The stories are lyrical studies in contrast and paradox, seemingly small, but significant situations that are closely observed, unfolding in front of you, the details emerging in relief. It's poetry that feels like prose. Songs about longing, love, and loss. Urgent fictions, mostly, situations that ring true, that have a terrible sense of immediacy, familiarity. You know these people, even if you've never met them, even though their stories are not completely drawn. Miller sketches, drops a few hints and lets the listeners fill in the details. 

Friday, May 14, 2010

Now, about the new 'guy' in Epomeo ...

Got so wrapped up in the Ensemble Epomeo’s program for “Music and the Manse” and our new appreciation for the Italian language, that we forgot to talk abut the new guy. And the old guy. But it turns out that the last time we saw Byron Wallis — during Ensemble Epomeo’s Port debut last year, when the trio rolled out, among other things, a magical performance of Schnitke’s String Trio, the piece that brought the group together in the first place — will likely be the last time we ever see him. The Paris-based violinist is no longer performing with Epomeo. He’s been replaced by Carolyn Chin, a rising classical star who with a packed resume that includes leading the conductorless String Orchestra of New York City, performing as concertmaster with the Paragon Orchestra and touring the United States and Japan with the tap dancer Savion Glover.
No, there’s nothing particularly nasty going on. Just the usual “creative differences,” which often, just below the surface, are about personalities, plus the fact that working with someone who lives and performs thousands of miles away from the Center of the Universe — that would be New York — makes the whole trio thing just a little too complicated. Wallis, who frequently performs with the Orchestre Nationale d’lle de France, “is a terrific guy, one of the sweetest and gentlest guys I know,” says Epomeo violist David Yang. “We just had different approaches. We are still good friends so I think I can say the parting was mostly mutual”

Yang, who is also artistic director of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, performed with Chin a couple of years ago at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, always liked her and her playing. “In addition to being a truly impressive musician with outrageous chops she is also an unusually honest person, and that is important,” says Yang. “She has a core of steel, too. By this I mean she is a real leader — a strong personality in the group. A trio is so small that everyone needs to hold their weight, but even in the more democratic form of a trio (versus string quartets, in general) you need a violin who likes to lead. So personality is really important. I mean, look, we just spent two weeks together rehearsing, I kid you not, eight hours a day. You think that is going to work for very long if we don’t know how to get along? You don’t have to like one another, but you have to respect one another. We have had disagreements, but the amazing thing is how non-personal it is.

“The stakes, while they may seem small outside, can feel enormous in a group,” says Yang. “Differences in interpretation, in pitch, timing. A small disagreement can feel very personal - can you play that note a little higher? No, why would you want that? It sounds terrible? Well I think your way sounds terrible? Who are you calling terrible? How dare you? And so on. It is important to me to play with people I admire as players and also as people.”

Epomeo, which also includes Kenneth Woods, founder of the Taliesin Trio and the Masala String Quartet as well as principal guest conductor of the Stratford-upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan, takes its name from the non-active volcano that dominates the landscape of the small, sun-drenched Italian island of Ischia, where the trio is currently holed up. The group is the resident ensemble of the island’s Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia‚ a 10-day chamber music festival and intensive study retreat. They’ll have little time, just four days, between Ischia and the Port performance, which, itself, is part of the Newburyport Preservation Trust’s weeklong festival. The program will include “Thrice blest,” a world premiere by Kile Smith that is based on music by 17th-century Newbury composer John Tufts that came from a hymnbook discovered by NCMF executive director Jane Niebling. Also on the program will be the Sitkovetsky transcription of Bach's Goldberg Variations for string quartet and Beethoven's String Trio in D major, which Yang says is the “core” of the program for the trio.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Ensemble Epomeo will perform at “Music and the Manse,” a benefit for the Newburyport Preservation Trust, May 21 at the 18th-century Henry C. Learned House, 190 High St., Newburyport. The program includes the Sitkovetsky transcription of Bach's Goldberg Variations, Beethoven's String Trio in D Major and “Thrice blest,” a world premiere based on music by West Newbury composer John Tufts. The event, which runs from 5:30 to 9 p.m., also includes a tour of the historic home and a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception. Tickets are $75. Reservations are required. For more information, call 978.463.9776.


Exit Dance Theatre rises again

Funny thing is that when Fontaine Dollas Dubus takes the stage for a performance of “On the Third Day,” her new piece for Exit Dance Theatre, you might not even notice her, because you’ll be looking in the wrong place because she won’t be one of the dancers — not in this piece, at least. She’ll be in the chorus, one of 17 voices in the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Choir, lead by Don Argyrople, while nine dancers perform in front of her. Kind of a strange place for a dancer and choreographer to be, right? Um, yeah, if you look at it that way. Dubus doesn’t.

Yes, she’s a dancer and choreographer.Yes, she’s been performing with a modern dance company for more than two decades. And, yes, she’s also the owner of a Newburyport dance studio. But Exit has always been about more than “just” dance. Just look at the name — Exit Dance Theatre, spelled the fancy French way. It’s always related dance to theater and drama, and approached dance as more than movement, as a way of telling a story.

And Dubus, while primarily a dancer and choreographer, also studies acting and has sung all her life — in choirs, in schools. She recently returned to the Annunciation choir, after a long absence. She long ago found inspiration in how the old Slavonic texts mixed with the music, “which, to me, are the sound of old Europe,” she says, “All of my life I imagined movement with this music.” And this week, it all comes together.

The piece will include parts of five hymns rooted in Russian and Byzantine hymns, drawing musical pictures of lost, ancient times. It will premiere this weekend during “Sound Moves,” the new Exit program. Much, if not all of the lyrical content will likely be lost on the audience, but not the feeling.

But “On the Third Day” the is not the only choreography set to live music in “Sound Moves.” Byfield cellist Kristen Miller will provide the musical backdrop, with three original pieces for a trio choreographed and danced by Dubus, Susan Atwood, and Sarah George.

And it’s not the only surprise in the production. Gordon Pryzbyla will premiere a new experimental film, truly turning the “Sound Moves” into a multimedia event. And Dubus and recently returned Exit co-founder Stephen Haley, who is also suddenly all over the local scene, directing “The Agawam” at the Firehouse, “Waiting for Godot” at Wentworth and as a Theater in the Open fundraiser and currently working on a new production of Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano,” will team up together for the first time in a duet — “Bloodstone,” which examines the relationships of obligation, love and abandonment.

Erin Foley brings back an extended verion of ReRot, which was inspired by Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and its references to human existence as perceived through the philosophy of Nietzsche. The new piece continues the exploration of mortality and timelessness.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Exit Dance Theatre will perform “Sound Moves” at 8 p.m. May 14 and 15 at the Firehouse, 1 Market Square. Tickets are $18, $16 for members of the Society for the Development of the Arts and Humanities and $14 for seniors and students. For more information, log on to or call 978.462.7336.

JUST THE FOLKS, MAN: Performers in Exit Dance Theatre's Sound Moves show include: Susan Atwood, Darlene Doyle, Fontaine Dubus, Nicole Duquette, Erin Foley, Sarah George, Wendy Hamel, Stephen Haley, Jennifer Steeves, Edward Speck, Tricia Walsh. Also performing will be Don Argyrople and the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Choir and Byfield cellist Kristen Miller.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Epomeo: Now, that's Italian

Our Italian vocabulary word of the day is "aliscafo," as in "Oggi David Yang e a cavallo di un aliscafo." And, you may well ask, just what is David Yang, the artistic director of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, and a fellow comfortable enough with Italiano to order, properly, insalata, fusilli con formaggio e piselli and prosciutto crudo e mozzarella di bufala, doing in a hovercraft? Answer: Barely touching the surface of the Mediterranean in a mad dash to the island of Ischia, home of the Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia in Italy, a weeklong chamber music festival where he has been a resident coach for years and where Ensemble Epomeo will be settling in for its second year as the festival's ensemble-in-residence. That’s what he’s doing. And he's getting a just a little sick to his stomach (solo un po 'malato al suo stomaco) from the choppy seas as he blasts across the Sea of Napoli, taking questions about Epomeo’s May 21 show at the historic Henry C. Learned House, a benefit for the Newburyport Preservation Trust. We see the sea sickness as a kind of penance for totally blowing off a certain arts writer a couple of days earlier. No, no, no. E solo uno scherzo. Just joking.

No, Yang’s a tough guy to get ahold of under the best of circumstances. In addition to playing with Epomeo, he’s a member of Auricolae, a Philadelphia-based storytelling troupe, as well as a performer with Poor Richard’s String Quintet. He’s also director of chamber music at the University of Pennsylvania and coach at Swarthmore and, well, you get the idea. And this time of year, with Epomeo doing its usual globetrotting spring schedule, with tours on the East Coast, including a live radio broadcast, as well as shows in England and Wales, before retuning to Ischia, its home-base — and, four days after they put the lid on the intense Italian music festival, parachuting into Newburyport for “Music and the Manse,” as the program is being called.

The ensemble will also have a new look, with Caroline Chin, leader of the String Orchestra of New York City and artistic director of Musica Reginae, replacing Byron Wallis on violin. Cellist Kenneth Woods, another guy with a resume — Taliesin Trio and the Masala String Quartet, principal guest conductor of the Stratford-upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan, and author of the entertaining and informative View from the Podium blog — returns on cello.

They’ll will be taking a comparatively lighter program around the block: Instead of piling on, emotionally, with Krasa’s "Tanz," which opens with a waltz and ends with oblivion; or Hovhaness’ mournful, ethereal Trio, they’ll be playing Sitkovetsky’s transcription of Bach's Goldberg Variations for string trio, Beethoven's String Trio in D major and "Thrice blest," a world premiere based on music by Newbury composer John Tufts.

The Variations, of course, were written for keyboard by Bach and forever seared into the collective musical imagination by the admittedly idiosyncratic performances by Glenn Gould, much to the dismay of purists. Yang confesses to sacrilege, saying the piano version is, well “a little, um, boring” ... and is immediately rewarded with the crash of a huge wave against the aliscafo, raising a collective moan from passengers.) “I think what is so interesting about this piece is its hybrid nature. It is a period work but played on modern instruments Also, since we can sustain with string instruments vs. a harpsichord (no sustaining) or a piano you can get a very different effect so that harmony, instead of having to be implied can really be just, well, played,” Yang says. Because of time restraints, the trio will be doing only two-thirds of the variations.

The Beethoven is “the core of the repertory for us,” says Yang. “What is neat about this is the slow movement which is written in an Italian feeling style (Yes, of course, affettuoso). By that I mean it is less contrapunctual, with parts playing off one another and more... like an opera, with arias and accompaniment. But since it is Beethoven it is incredibly beautiful but also complex, although I hope you don't hear the complexity as much as just feel it deep down in the animal part of your brain.”

The final piece will be a world premiere by Kile Smith, who is a bit of a classical star in Philly. He has his own radio show and runs the legendary Fleisher Collection of Music. He’s also been resident composer for the Jupiter Symphony in New York. Yang asked him to do something based on a local hymnbook that Newburyport Chamber Music Festival founder Jane Niebling found. He used a melody from Tufts who was from 17th-century Newbury. The composition has three sections — the hymn, then an agitated quick and rhythmic middle section and then back to the hymn. “The piece, I am sure, will be very popular with the audience,” Yang says. “It is lovely, the kind of stuff people will ask for again.”

Road warriors
From Newburyport, Epomeo will pack up and head north to Portland before calling it a wrap — a hectic time that has the favor of a rock tour. “Well, it has felt a little like that recently,” Yang says. “But I stay in one place usually for a few days. I like traveling but am torn, as I really miss my little daughters. When I am home I spend as much time with them as I can. I also really like my home. Philadelphia has been good to me, and I live on a leafy little city street where all the neighbors know each other and have dinner together and stuff like that. It is a treat to be home. (And now we are rolling side to side - oooh nooooo! I really have to stop now.)”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Ensemble Epomeo will perform at “Music and the Manse,” a benefit for the Newburyport Preservation Trust, May 21 at the 18th-century Henry C. Learned House, 190 High St., Newburyport. The program includes the Sitkovetsky transcription of Bach's Goldberg Variations, Beethoven's String Trio in D major and “Thrice blest,” a world premiere based on music by West Newbury composer John Tufts. The event, which runs from 5:30 to 9 p.m., also includes a tour of the historic home and a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception. Tickets are $75. Reservations are required. For more information, call 978.463.9776.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Rewriting Rites: TITO takes a different tack

Tough year last year for Theater in the Open, the company that has been living and performing at Maudslay State Park nearly a quarter-century, which had to suck it up and absorb a one-two combination of change and challenges that began during its dark winter months, traditionally a time of reassessment, when longtime artistic director Jeffrey Rath stepped down, and was followed up, rather quickly, by news that they would be getting the old heave-ho from the so-called Coachman Property, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century complex of buildings that included “the barn,” the nerve center for TITO productions for the past eight years. We’re using past tense because the suddenly vacant, historically significant building burned to a crisp earlier this year, before the state even managed to ink a deal with the organization that was supposed move in and dump hundreds of thousands into renovations, throwing the whole deal into disarray. Which is exactly what happened to Theater in the Open as it was about to open its thirtieth season.

Unsure of its status, the company dramatically scaled back the Rites of Spring, its traditional season-opening pageant, and moved it from the park to the other end of the city, starting out downtown, where the actors would generally call attention to themselves with some unscripted performances before parading to March’s Hill, where they would roll out the big guns — the giant puppets — for the Rites. It worked out nicely, says TITO artistic director Edward Speck, salvaging the production and boosting its public profile by bringing Theater in the Open to the people instead, but the company may have performed its last Rites. “This year we’re going in a different direction,” says Speck.

And that would be a completely different direction.

This year, the company will open the season not “in the open,” as its name proclaims, but inside, at the Dance Place, not performing one show twice over the course of a weekend, but five productions of three very different shows over three days. The Spring Fundraiser (apparently the person in charge of coming up with memorable names was on vacation) will feature:

• “Waiting for Godot”: The absurdist Samuel Beckett masterpiece will be directed by Stephen Haley. This production, which double-casts the main role, will feature performances by Phil Atkins, Missy Chabot, Dylan Fuller, Paul Wann and, rumor has it, Haley himself.

• “The Real Inspector Hound”: Tom Stoppard’s one-act who-done-it, a farce that blurs the line between audience and performers, will be directed by Speck. The cast includes Missy Chabot as Birdboot, Beth Randall as Moon, Bonnie Jean Wilbur as Mrs. Drudge, Matt Kiely as Simon, Hannah Libby as Felicity, Alyssa Theriault as Cynthia, Scott Smith as Magnus and Kelley Knight as Inspector Hound.

• The Olas Dance Party, featuring Portland-based world beat band influenced by Andalusian flamenco and Arabic folk music, whose members include Theater in the Open alum Dylan Blanchard.
There were a number of reasons the company decided to pass on the Rites this year, but mostly it was because of Mother Nature. Says Speck, the old girl shut down, at least partially, the Rites four times over the past six years. And it’s not just rain that’s the issue: Strong winds make it impossible to handle the giant puppets. Of course, the company will still have to pray for good weather for the rest of its summer and fall shows, but that will not be a concern with this show. Will the Rites return? No one is saying definitively, no one’s ruling anything out. Speck says the season opener “feels like it’s missing something,” and talks about incorporating the puppetry, the brand of storytelling normally featured in the Rites, elsewhere in the season. 

The season officially gets under way with “Cinderella: A Pretty Princess Panto,” panto being a physical storytelling device that places the put-upon Cinderella in a zany upside-down world. The summer program reprises Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano,” which will be directed by Haley. The summer workshops and popular fall program “Maudslay is Haunted” will return as usual. The winter show is up in the air right now, but will find TITO collaborating with Exit Dance Theatre and The Joppa Jazz Company for a still-secret Christmas production at the Firehouse.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The Theater in the Open Spring Fundraiser takes place May 7 to 9 at the Dance Place at the Tannery, 50 Water St. Here is the schedule: 7 p.m. May 7, “Waiting for Godot,” Tickets are $20; 2 p.m. May 8. “The Real Inspector Hound,” directed by Edward Speck; 8 p.m. May 8, the Olas Dance Party. Tickets are $25; 2 p.m. May 9, bonus performance of “Waiting for Godot,” tickets are $20; 7 p.m. May 9, bonus performance of “The Real Inspector Hound,” tickets are $15. A three-show pass is available for $50 and includes one ticket to ”Godot” on the day of your choice, one ticket to “Inspector Hound” on the day of your choice and one ticket to the Olas Dance Party, including a wine and cheese mixer. For more information, call 978-465-2572 or log onto

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Lazarus rises to vocal challenge

This weekend Penny Lazarus will perform a selection of art songs in "for the love of singing,” an aptly named program, at Governor's Academy. Which may seem like a strange place for her to be if you only know Lazarus from her other roles — as a piano teacher or opening night arm candy for Port playwright Joshua Faigen or even as "the well-known creative mind," as the Nock School newsletter puts it, behind the transformation of the Nock courtyard. But the May 2 recital with Amesbury singer Louise Cramer actually represents something of a creative plateau in a long process

The Merrimac Street resident has been singing all of her life, but the piano won the musical argument early on because ... well, because as much as Lazarus loved singing, as much native talent as she had, she didn’t have the chops, the combination of clarity and athleticism needed to get over the top — to get beyond good. That didn’t happen until Dr. Gerald Weale, the guy with the baton at the Newburyport Choral Society, got ahold of her at a workshop/coaching session and taught her some tricks of the trade, and then pushed her on to what would become five years, so far, of private studies with one of the area's leading vocal coaches. And, of course, none of that would have happened if her hubby hadn't tipped over the family cart, about a decade ago, taking a job in Massachusetts, presenting the move from Pittsburgh as a fait accompli. He wasn't a playwright then, just a type geek — er, typographer. The whole playwright thing wasn't on anyone's radar until they settled down next door to local theater mucky-mucks Ron Pullins and Leslie Powell.

Lazarus, who grew up in Pittsburgh, “was heartsick” at the idea of leaving her friends and family, her turn-of-the-century Victorian home and garden. The first thing she did (after cooling down, of course) was research what would become her new stomping ground — and found the Newburyport Choral Society. It was, as far as she was concerned, “the only carrot” in the whole deal. Faigen accepted the job in the summer, the family settled into their new home on Merrimac Street, and Lazarus started rehearsing with NCS, and launching the Northeast edition of her piano studio, in September. She credits Weale, professor emeritus at Boston University who, in two decades-plus as NCS conductor, has developed a reputation for shaping the emotional and dramatic content of singers' work, for taking her singing to the next level ("I was hitting two Cs above middle C — and it was easy," she says) and encouraging her to work with a private teacher, which brought Lazarus to Martha Peabody — a singer, educator and lecturer for the past 25 years. Since then Lazarus has found her way to the stage as a singer, playing the Widow Corney in the Anna Smulowitz production of “Oliver” last year and in the last two Theater in the Open productions of “A Christmas Carol.” (The Dickens story mentions music, but productions rarely play up what should be an obvious opportunity to play to the audience. Background carolers had already been incorporated into the TITO production. In last year’s show, Lazarus sang “Lulay” as Christmas Future is dishing out the bad news to old Scroogie, although you might not have known that unless you were paying attention to the program notes: A group of singers is gathered around the grave, all dressed in black.) And just last week she sang an arrangement of Emily Dickinson's “Love Stricken, Why?” during the Your Favorite Poem event at the Firehouse.

But why? Why would someone steeped in the fields of music and education, with decades of experience with the piano, take such a creative left turn as an adult to reinvent herself as a vocalist?

"The piano is a wonderful instrument," she says. "You can let a lot of emotion go with it. I’ve performed and taught the piano for 30 years, but when I sing, I am the instrument — and it’s the most intimate musical experience one can have.”

This weekend, Lazarus's musical journey brings her to the gorgeous, acoustically pristine Moseley Chapel at The Governor's Academy for the recital with Cramer, a soprano. Cramer will tackle the work of modern French composers like Eric Satie and Francis Poulenc, and Lazarus, a mezzo-soprano with a dark, chocolaty voice, will perform the dark, soul-searching Mahler — really emotional, deep stuff there. Everyone should recognize the Copland ("It's a Gift to be Simple," "Hush a Bye"). Lazarus will also perform a comic duet with a Governor's Academy student, Kim Uggerholt — Irving Berlin’s “You're Not Sick, You're Just in Love,” with its still-mysterious reference to a red velvet glove. Barbara Flocco will accompany the singers on piano.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Louise Cramer and Penny Lazarus will present "for the love of singing," a celebration of the human voice, at 4 p.m. May 2 at Moseley Chapel at The Governor’s Academy in Byfield. The concert is free. Donations will be taken for Our Neighbors’ Table. A reception will follow the performance. For more information call 978.462.4720 or visit The photo of Lazarus is courtesy of Rebecca Wish Esche.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ebacher, Air Department back with new CD

Roger Ebacher? Port musician, jazz guy with the crazy flute, right? The melody flute, a glorified penny whistle essentially, an instrument that, in the right hands, is capable of producing a glorious, soaring sound — something that Ebacher has been doing since he stumbled across the instrument in a New York pawn shop more than three decades ago? So, yeah, that’s the guy, but it’s just the shorthand: He’s a jazz guy, right, but jazz has never been about one particular thing and neither has Ebacher. His sound, generally, has a southern perspective — think Cuban, Brazilian — but also incorporates Afro-pop and other world music (talk about imprecise labels) influences. And, yes, he still plays the melody flute, he’s probably still best known for it. Which makes sense, because there are so few people who play the instrument. But it’s not even his primary instrument. He started his career as a vocalist and keyboard player. The melody flute is just one of seven Ebacher axes. The point is that his work, to date, is difficult to summarize or categorize. And it doesn’t get any easier with The Air Department, his latest project, an eight-piece duo that ... huh?

An eight-piece duo: There are two people in the band — Ebacher and Denny Pelletier, a former Amesbury percussionist now living in that vast expanse of wilderness known as western Massachusetts, whose history with Ebacher goes back to the 1970s, when they played together in Timestream, a seven-piece jazz band with a punk attitude — a little ahead of its time, perhaps, with one of those familiar backstories about a group that collapses just before getting to the finish line. But in concert the band has way more voices than personnel: Ebacher is surrounded by instruments on stage: congas, computers, keyboards, flutes and gadgets and instruments — like the so-called digital horn — and he plays them all. Not at the same time, of course. The structure of the songs is hardwired, sequenced. The actual, flesh-and-blood musicians perform live over the top of this pre-recorded structure, largely improvising, playing broadly conceived big-tent, all-inclusive jazz. You can see what it’s all about this weekend, when the Air Department rolls out “Frigid Air,” its new album, at a release party at the Actors Studio.

The project grew out of Ebacher’s work with his Quintet, which released two albums (“Flutation Device” in 1998 and “Backyard Carneval” in 2000). He followed that up with “To Dream, To Dance,” a 2004 collection that began with what he calls orphan tunes — stuff that didn’t fit in with whatever thing he had going at the time, or that needed a little something that did not quite make itself obvious or materialize at the time. After going through the material and selecting the tunes for the album, he found a certain cohesion among many of the remaining songs. He tapped Pelletier, who had played on the his last three albums (in addition to performing with vocalists like Cleo Laine, Peggy Lee, Bonnie Raitt and Linda Rondstat) and the Air Department was born.

“Frigid Air” is the band’s first “proper” album — that is to say old-school, physical release, but third album overall. In 2008, the band put out two very different albums as digital-only releases: The eponymous debut, which has a downtempo, ambient feel, which Ebacher calls “film music looking for a film,” and “Air Dance,” which is more exotic, incorporating a wide set of influences and musical pulses that, he says, “have been percolating for a while.” The new album covers a lot of ground, musically: “Chick Thing,” which opens the album, dips its fingers into fusion. “Traffic Stream Dream” is straight-ahead jazz built over a bossa nova beat. “Autumn Air” slows things down. It’s a sweet little ballad with a beautiful, film-score melody. (“I like pretty and I’m not ashamed to say it,” says Ebacher.) ”Lotus Motion,” which they performed live to choreography by Exit Dance Theater last year, has distinct Arabic rhythms and ethereal flutes. But the tunes refuse to sit still, and take off in sudden, unexpected directions.

“It’s really freeing to let to let the music evolve like that,” he says. “The music is all different. It doesn’t really sound like any one person or style. It sounds like us.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The Air Department will host a record release party for “Frigid Air” at 8 p.m. May 1 at The Actors Studio, Mill #1, Suite 5, the Tannery, 50 Water St. Tickets are $15. Advance tickets are available at Dyno Records, 1 Middle St. For reservations, call 978.465.1229. For more information about the band, check out the band’s MySpace or Ebacher's Rebach site.