Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Elvis Costello: A master of high fidelity and storytelling, too

Elvis Costello / Charming crowds with his music and storytelling.

Elvis Costello knows how to charm the pants off an audience. He's done it successfully for the past 40 years as one of his generation's greatest songwriters. Now, with a simple wink, a friendly smile, or just the right choice of words and upbeat tone of voice, the bespectacled and iconic English musician who was once described by a critic as a "pop encyclopedia," is delighting crowds with his good-natured manner and geniality of conversation. He's become a master of the craft of storytelling.

Last Thursday evening's City Arts & Lectures event at the Nourse in San Francisco provided Costello with a forum for talking at length about his new memoir -- 'Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink' -- that (at a hefty but very readable 670 pages) shows Costello to be an intelligent, thoughtful, witty and lyrical writer.

In conversation with Dan Stone, editor-in-chief of Radio Silence, Costello showed why he's a wonderful conversationalist and gifted storyteller. Costello stood and read several passages from his memoir that recalled a mostly happy childhood growing up in a musical family in Liverpool, England, and the special relationship he shared with his father, Ross MacManus, who was a professional singer in a popular dance band. The younger MacManus recalled with clarity watching his father play afternoon dance gigs at the Hammersmith Palais in the 1961. By the end of the decade, Costello had gone into the family business, following in both his father's and grandfather's footsteps, and he took the popular music world by storm by the age of 24, replete with his black-framed Buddy Holly glasses.

Over the course of about 80 minutes, there were many funny and good-natured reminisces about Costello's coming of age, including: one of his first jobs as a data-entry clerk for cosmetics giant Elizabeth Arden; the influence of the Beatles on both his and his father's musical careers; coming to play San Francisco for the first time in his early twenties back in the 1970s; and his infamous TV appearance on Saturday Night Live. Costello punctuated his fluid storytelling by sharing many candid family photos that were projected overhead on a giant movie screen for the audience to delight in.

While 'Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink' doesn't adhere to a linear chronology, what I have read thus far has been a fun and enjoyable read, and each chapter presents colorful highlights in Costello's remarkable life. The New York Times called 'Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink' "some of the best writing -- funny, strange, spiteful, anguished -- we've ever had from an important musician."

Throughout last Thursday's conversation and later, during a Question and Answer period with the house lights turned up, we learned why Costello, 61, is truly a music fan and delights in championing the works of other musicians such as country star George Jones, jazz pianist Allen Toussaint, pop composer Burt Bacharach, rock guitarist and producer T Bone Burnett, English singer/songwriter Nick Lowe, former Beatles icon Paul McCartney, and hip hop/neo soul band The Roots, to name just a few whom Costello has collaborated with over the years.

But wait, the best part of the night was yet to come. Without any prompting, Costello asked the audience: "Hey, you wanna hear a song?" The sold-out audience at the Nourse responded by amping up their already enthusiastic applause. Before the cheering could fade, an acoustic Gibson guitar was brought out and handed to Costello to play and, quickly, a stool, microphone and music stand were in place for "the show" to go on.

Thus, Elvis began an impromptu "mini concert" by performing a very meaningful and moving -- and slowed-down -- version of "Every Day I Write the Book" from 1983's Punch the Clock, followed by "I Hear a Melody," originally recorded in 1977 for his debut album My Aim is True. Finally, a medley of "Radio Sweetheart/What Jackie Wilson Said," the former penned by Costello and the latter composed by Van Morrison, brought the crowd to its feet. The night was complete.

Photo images: Courtesy of 'Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink', 2015.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

This "Hamlet" needs to be seen and not just heard

National Theatre Live: Coming to a cinema near you. /
Benedict Cumberbatch in "Hamlet."

Ever wanted to experience the best of British theatre without having to trek to London? Now you can, thanks to National Theatre Live, where all the world's a stage even if the stage is on a big movie screen.

One night recently, my wife and I drove to the Century 14 cineplex in downtown Walnut Creek, Calif., about a half-hour's drive from our East Bay home, where we thrilled to an enjoyable evening of London West End theatre come alive on the big screen.

For just $20 a ticket, we were treated to the National Theatre Live's cinematic presentation of the critically-acclaimed "Hamlet," Lyndsey Turner's monumental Barbican production of the 1603 iconic William Shakespeare play about the melancholy prince of Denmark, that was broadcast to a global audience of more than 225,000 on 1,400 movie theater screens in 25 countries around the world.

I was one of those near quarter-million experiencing one of the greatest moments of theatre I had ever experienced. Yet, what I was watching was more a film than a play, but without any compromise to the live appeal of theatre.

That total represents the largest global audience for a live broadcast of any title in National Theatre Live history. Not to worry if you missed out on the excitement. Additional encores of "Hamlet" are scheduled to be shown in movie theaters later this month.

Since its debut in 2009, among the National Theatre Live presentations beamed to theaters include: "Frankenstein" with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating between the title role and Dr. Jekyll; "King Lear," produced by Sam Mendes; and "A Streetcar Named Desire," which starred Gillian Anderson.

Throughout, "Hamlet" had plenty of "visual swagger" and, of course, there was an infinitely touching prince, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, whom U.S. audiences have grown to love from his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in "Sherlock" on PBS's Masterpiece.

"If there's one good thing about the avalanche of hype surrounding the (Hamlet) production, it's that it made Shakespeare seem sexy. That's quite a feat," wrote Lyn Gardner in The Guardian, one of London's pre-eminent newspapers and news websites.

"The production has been accused by several critics of being overly cinematic, but its visual swagger,  with its indigo hues, comes into its own on the screen. It would be worrying if this production set a precedent for stage shows that are directed and designed with an eye to the live screening and a global audience rather than those seeing it in a theatre," added Gardner.

On the night we watched "Hamlet" -- October 15 -- the audience was comprised mostly of middle-aged suburban adults. There were the curious fans like us, who were eager to see Cumberbatch tackle the title role of Hamlet -- both as a prep-school misfit and as a toy soldier -- and to embrace and enjoy outstanding theatre. In addition to Cumberbatch, there were stellar performances given by Ciarán Hinds as Claudius and Sian Brooke as Ophelia.

The only thing missing that would have made our night more complete -- and something that makes attending West End theatre unique to an American -- was a vendor selling ice cream cups in the stalls during intermission.

Seeing National Theatre Live's "Hamlet" reinvented for a 21st Century audience reminded me of this: "Hamlet" needs to be seen and not just heard. And, seeing a larger-than-life Cumberbatch up-close and personal for three hours added up to one hell of a wonderful night of theatre on the big screen.

Photo: Courtesy of Google Images.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

In 'Fast Forward', Joe Jackson continues his restless pursuit of musical adventure

Joe Jackson / His new album Fast Forward was recorded in four different cities.

Sometimes I look at the Moon
And I think I know just how she feels
Going round and round us again
As we go round the Sun
Watching us as fools and geniuses rush in
And you and me age disgracefully
And have way too much fun.

~ From Fast Forward by Joe Jackson

Fast Forward is Joe Jackson's
 first album of original material
 since 2008.
Fast Forward is British singer/songwriter Joe Jackson's first album of original material since 2008. The album was developed out of an idea to record a series of four EPs, each relating to a specific favorite city of Jackson's. The final product is comprised of 16 songs -- four sets of four songs each which were recorded in the cities of New York City, Amsterdam, Berlin and New Orleans.

Each set includes a different group of supporting musicians and each takes on a slightly different tone. In addition to the 14 new songs penned by Jackson, there are two covers, including a remake of Television's "See No Evil" and a rendition of the 1930s German cabaret tune "Good Bye Jonny." Collectively, Fast Forward is reminiscent of Jackson's Night and Day. From start of finish, this group of musical compositions blend together like a song cycle.

Jackson told Salon.com that he had spent a lot of time accumulating songs. "I was sitting on a big pile of songs, and I was looking for a way to organize them. (When) it started off, the idea was rather than doing a whole album was to work on three or four songs at a time, maybe do a series of EPs. The idea grew from there."

Joe Jackson debuted new material
during his recent concert at
the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
Festival in San Francisco.
I had the opportunity to see the 61-year-old Jackson debut some of his new material ("If It Wasn't For You" and "Ode To Joy") from Fast Forward as well as perform some old favorites ("Is She Really Going Out With Him", "It's Different For Girls" and "Sunday Papers") when he played the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass music festival earlier this month in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Jackson's slick urbanity on keyboards and vocals stood out front and center throughout his 50-minute, 10-song set, which was was greeted with enthusiastic applause by thousands of fans who packed the Towers of Gold Stage on the western edge of Lindley Meadow.

In a recent interview published by Stereogum, Jackson discussed Fast Forward, saying it "has more words than anything else I've written.

On 'Fast Forward', Joe Jackson said:
"I imagined having a time machine,
and hitting 'fast forward' until I'm far
enough in the future to look back at
the present and make sense of it."
"It just kept growing and growing. I imagined having a time machine, and hitting 'fast forward' until I'm far enough in the future to look back at the present and make sense of it," he said. "We've got the past all figured out (or think we do) -- and we can imagine the future as anything we want. So it's only the present that's baffling and maddening. And I think we're living in a confused and anxious time. The commentary out there is extremely divided, either 'we're living in a golden age' or 'we're all screwed.'"

Jackson said he started with the chord changes, "which constantly cycle through different keys until they end with there started, only to start again.

"That triggered thoughts about how things are always changing, yet in some ways stay the same, or go backwards. The lyrics are full of ironies and contradictions."

Throughout 'Fast Forward', there is
strong musicianship and diverse,
well-crafted songs.
Among the musicians who contributed to Fast Forward are longtime Jackson bassist Graham Maby as well as jazz musicians Bill Frisell on guitar and Regina Carter on violin. Throughout, there is strong musicianship and diverse, well-crafted songs.

One of the great things I like about Jackson and what continues to draw my attention to his music is his restless pursuit of musical adventure. In "Kings of the City," Jackson crafts a lovely pop song complete with wit, style and undeniably meaningful lyrics:

We're the A Team -- the White Knights
And we want it all
We got the big dream
And the bright lights
But we don't see the stars any more.

While the Berlin song quartet turned out to be the darkest of the four, it yielded one of the album's loveliest tunes, "The Blue Time," which highlights Jackson's soulful vocals and supreme keyboard stylings coupled with the tender guitar work of Dirk Berger and an understated trumpet solo by Dima Bondarev.

You come to me in the Blue Time
Between the night and the day
Always too soon for the sunrise
Always too late for a second chance.

Fast Forward is Joe Jackson's return
 to pop songwriting. The album is
filled full of bittersweet songs that
are tight and melodic.
While many of the songs on Fast Forward are bittersweet, they are tight and melodic. One is even unambiguous, "Ode to Joy," which has become a favorite of mine. It's the final song on the album and it features three musicians from the New Orleans funk troupe Galactic, plus a horn section featuring Donald Harrison, Jr. on alto saxophone.

"It says, don't forget, there really is such a thing as Joy, even if it's not always there when you want it," Jackson said during an interview with music magazine Relix. "I wanted to get some New Orleans flavor in the context of something that really isn't New Orleans music. There's also a little altered quote in there from Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' from the Ninth Symphony. Everyone steals; I reckon you may as well steal from the best."

We can all be joyful for Jackson's return to pop songwriting -- and he does it with a clear voice and a conscience. "A few of the songs could've been done anywhere, to be honest, but you know, I ended up dividing them up and in the process some things happened that I didn't expect to happen," Jackson told Salon.com. ... But I really like them all equally. If somebody just asked me which was my favorite, no way I'm gonna answer that."

All photos: © Michael Dickens, 2015.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: The wonderful sounds of autumn return to San Francisco's Golden Gate Park

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass / One of the premiere music festivals
in the country -- and it's free, too!

The first weekend of October holds a special significance for my wife and me because it's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass weekend. What has become one of the premier music festivals in the country over the past 15 years has become an annual highlight of our San Francisco cultural calendar.

Oh, by the way, did I mention Hardly Strictly is free, too?

There's no place better to be in San Francisco on a gorgeous, beautiful autumn weekend than in Golden Gate Park at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, the late Warren Hellman's gift to The City. Although the Bay Area billionaire investment banker and benefactor -- himself a spirited banjo player and a lover of bluegrass music -- died in 2011, he left an endowment to ensure its existence for many years to come. There are no corporate sponsors.

Larger than life / Likeness of Warren Hellman
looks out over the Banjo Stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.
In 2012, one of the meadows used for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass was renamed Hellman Hollow to honor Hellman's memory. On the Banjo Stage at Hellman Hollow, a giant likeness of Hellman's smiling face is included on the stage's backdrop scrim-curtain.

Last weekend, the 15th edition of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass returned to the western half of Golden Gate Park spread out over seven stages with its usual eclectic mix of talent -- over 100 live acts -- including Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch, Ry Cooder, Boz Scaggs, Joe Jackson, T Bone Burnett, Los Lobos, Neko Case, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Steve Earle and perennial closer Emmylou Harris.

Americana singer Lera Lynn / Her music has been
featured in the HBO series "True Detective".
For the estimated three-quarters of a million of music lovers who were expected to descend upon the Park over the festival's three days, filling the lawns, crowding into the hills and even dotting a few treetops, HSB 15 offered a little something for everyone's music palette: traditional bluegrass (Cinch Mountain Boys), progressive bluegrass (Punch Brothers), country (LeeAnn Womack), folk (Laura Marling), Americana (Felice Brothers), and roots rock (Steve Earle). Add to the mix some English pop and soul (Joe Jackson and Paul Weller), American Chicano rock (Los Lobos) and Celtic rock (Flogging Molly) and it all added up to a treasure trove of great music riches at this year's festival.

My wife and I ventured out from our East Bay home across the Bay via BART and rode the N Judah Muni Metro train out to 19th Avenue and walked a mile or so to the Park for the first two days of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass -- and we were thrilled by what we heard. On Friday, we arrived early afternoon in time to camp out on the Marx Meadow grounds in front of the Rooster Stage to enjoy the pleasing sounds of the Felice Brothers and Laura Marling.

Chris Thile of Punch Brothers / Spirited and spontaneous.
Then, we sprinted across the grounds to catch the exciting Punch Brothers, led by the very spirited mandolinist Chris Thile, who lit up the Banjo Stage with their progressive bluegrass sound. How best to describe them? I'll defer to The Times of London, which once described the Punch Brothers' sound as "bluegrass instrumentation and spontaneity in the strictures of modern classical" as well as "American country-classical chamber music." Included in their set list was "Passepied" by classical composer Claude Debussy, which was warmly received by the overflow crowd, and they closed with a medley of "Magnet/Alone, Together" by the Strokes.

I later learned that there's a wonderful story behind the band's name. It comes from a critical line of an earworm jingle in the Mark Twain short story "A Literary Nightmare." In it, the chorus of the jingle consists of two lines, "Punch, brother, punch with care, punch in the presence of the passenjare," that are said to be the mantra of railroad conductors.

An American rocker / T Bone Burnett sang protect songs.
Finally, we arrived at the Swan Stage in Lindley Meadow by late afternoon to catch the beginning of a tremendous set of Dylanesque "protest" rock by the innovative American songwriter-producer T Bone Burnett. He was a guitarist in Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue band of the 1970s and later went on to unparalleled acclaim for his work with artists like Elvis Costello and for producing the Grammy Award-winning "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack. Soon, the sun faded out over the nearby Pacific Ocean, and it was time to return home.

On Saturday, we eagerly returned and camped out on the far end of Lindley Meadow at the Towers of Gold Stage, the western-most stage on the festival grounds for much of the afternoon, listening to Lera Lynn, whose work has been featured on HBO's True Detective crime drama series while awaiting for Joe Jackson and Boz Scaggs to take the stage. Toting a picnic basket full of food and beverages, we unfurled a large beach towel on the Lindley Meadow grounds and soaked up some sunshine and good sounds.

Fast forward / Joe Jackson still steppin' out in song.
"Thank you music lovers," Jackson said early during his set of rich and rewarding old faves ("It's Different For Girls", "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" and "Sunday Papers") and new songs ("If It Wasn't For You" and "Ode To Joy") from his first new studio album in seven years, "Fast Forward," which was released a day before his Hardly Strictly Bluegrass appearance.

"We're soldiering on. We learned 40 songs for this tour. If I f*ck up the words, blame the sun!" the ever-restless Jackson joked.

In his defense, Jackson was blinded by the bright sun, despite wearing shades, and his ability to rely upon an iPad that contained song lyrics propped up on his grand piano was all but stymied. Still, the dapper Jackson remained a good sport through it all, and his 50-minute, 10-song set was much enjoyed and appreciated by all.

Boz Scaggs / Having a lot of fun with music, more than ever.
Later, it was time to enjoy the legendary guitarist and vocalist Boz Scaggs, whose hour-long set showed a willingness to wander in several musical directions, including rock, jazz, soul and tango. As Scaggs closed with his mega-hit "Lido Shuffle," the sun began to fade just a bit on what was a lovely afternoon of music that passed much too quickly.

On our way out of the festival, we paused for a few minutes on the periphery of the Banjo Stage grounds to catch a few songs by iconic roots rockers Steve Earle & the Dukes.

As much as we would have liked coming back for a third day of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass on Sunday, we were both musically and physically spent. But it felt good. Instead, from the comforts of home, we caught portions of sets by Neko Case, Los Lobos and DeVotchKa via the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass live stream to whet our music appetite.

Paul Weller / His ever-changing moods.
Year after year, the HSB festival organizers out-do themselves and make it one of the most outstanding -- and uniquely satisfying -- music festivals in the country. It keeps getting bigger and better without becoming commercial.

We look forward to returning next year and doing it all over again.

To see a complete list of artists who performed at the 2015 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival as well as to link to the webcast archive of selected performances:


All photographs © Michael Dickens, 2015.