Last night we went to see Julianne perform with the Austin Symphony Orchestra, which is the reason we came to the capital city of Texas in the first place. The ASO delivered a stirring rendition of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, then Julianne’s oboe solo kicked off John Corigliano’s beautiful and touching Music from the Edge. I’d never heard anything by Corigliano before, but I really enjoyed that piece. The concert closed with a return to Copland, for some fine clarinet work on the Concert for Clarinet and String Orchestra (with Harp), and finally Dvorak’s powerful Symphony No. 8 in G Major. Julianne played marvelously — of course!
It was a great performance by a really good orchestra. One other thing about the ASO — its performance hall is world class, with a walkout area that offers a magnificent view of the Austin skyline across the river. And since the ASO doesn’t like photos taken inside the building, I took the photo above to remember a wonderful evening.
Everybody knows Austin has a thriving bar and live music scene. Last night we started our pub crawl in the very cool Rainey Street area, which I’d never visited before, stopped to have a beer at the Container Bar, which is largely constructed out of those enormous corrugated containers used by the shipping industry, then legged it up past Stubb’s to a bar called Cheer Up Charlie’s, where a kind of light show projected against a white bluff entertained us. After noshing at Stubb’s we headed over to Sixth Street, the traditional strip of bars and live music venues that keeps getting bigger — and louder.
Around Austin you see people with t-shirts that say “Keep Austin Weird,” or something like that. After our foray through Sixth Street, I’d say that goal is being accomplished. You see people wearing flags as capes, masks, wigs, glitter, and just about any combination of clothing, or lack of clothing, you can conceive. On Sixth Street, you can still freely let your freak flag fly.
The tributes to Chuck Berry are pouring in from across the music world. The Billboard tribute linked above notes that John Lennon once said: “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’” The New York Times has published a fine list of 15 essential Chuck Berry songs that are worth listening to, again, in honor of his passing. And a good indication of Berry’s huge influence on other crucial artists in the rock ‘n roll genre is that his songs were covered by the Beatles, who released excellent versions of Rock and Roll Music and Roll Over Beethoven, and the Rolling Stones, who recorded memorable live versions of Carol and Little Queenie, and just about everybody else of consequence in the world of rock music. Has any artist had more songs covered by more superstars?
I can’t compete with the likes of John Lennon and Billboard in assessing the impact of Chuck Berry on the world of music, so I won’t even try. I can say this without fear of contradiction, however: when my college roommate and I hosted parties back in the late ’70s where the whole point was to drink draft beer and dance with wild abandon, nobody was better at getting people up and moving their feet than Chuck Berry. That remains true today, 40 years later. That’s quite an impact, when you think about it.
The other day, a colleague was talking about one of his young children and their behavior in the car. It made me remember when Richard and Russell were little, during what I now think of as “the Raffi Years.”
Raffi (whose name is actually Raffi Cavoukian) was a singer of children’s songs whose CDs dominated the playlists when the kids were in the car in the early ’90s. We had multiple Raffi recordings, and they were played on strict rotation.
At first, our discovery of Raffi — no doubt occurring through the “Moms’ grapevine” by which women with children disseminated information about what to do to keep from being driven crazy by those little hellions at home — was a blessing. A Raffi CD actually got Richard and Russell to stop poking each other, fidgeting in the back seat, and repeatedly asking “when are we getting there?” Instead, they listened to the music and would pipe up “put on Raffi!” whenever we got into the car.
And that quickly became a double-edged sword, because as they listened to the music, we did, too. And I’m not saying that Raffi’s music was utterly puerile, but songs about baby whales that are targeted for little kids simply aren’t meant for repeated listening by adults. At first I appreciated Raffi for helping to keep the kids occupied on car trips and introducing them to music, then repeated exposure to his songs started to really irritate me, and finally I would grit my teeth whenever the kids wanted to replay “Baby Beluga” again and think about how pleasant it would be to drive steel spikes into my eardrums.
Of course, one day Richard and Russell decided they’d had enough of Raffi and moved on, and soon enough they were listening to their own music on Walkmans and iPods and other devices. I feel grateful to Raffi for getting us through the squirmy years, but it was wonderful to take his CDs out of the car, forever. And I’ve got no desire to hear him sing, ever again.
I hope the Queen of Soul doesn’t fully drop the mike, because she’s simply irreplaceable. Of all the great female R&B and soul singers of the ’60s and ’70s — and there were a lot of them — Aretha Franklin was without peer. Once she sang a song she made it her own, and there was just something about the tone, and timbre, of her voice that could reach into your chest and grab your heart. Listen to any of her great recordings from the ’60s and you’ll be amazed at how fresh and stunning they still sound, 50 years later. I’ve provided two vintage videos, one from the ’60s and another from the ’70s, that I think make the point.
I hope Aretha Franklin gets to spend that time with her grandkids, but I also hope she’ll continue to give some of her time to the rest of us.
Last night Kish and I completed our Christmas cultural gift exchange by attending a performance of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra. Entitled Ella Fitzgerald & The great Ladies of Swing, the show featured the CJO in full throat and two superb guest artists: Marva Hicks and Nicki Parrott.
It’s the first time I’ve seen the CJO in a long time, and the show demonstrated what I’ve stupidly been missing. This is a tight group with a big sound and lots of talent to display, and when they get a chance to play classic tunes from the American songbook with two brilliant female vocalists (and, in Parrott’s case, a fine double bass musician, besides), you’re going to get a great show.
The program was top-notch from stem to stern, but I particularly liked Parrott’s rendition of Fever and I Will Wait for You and Hicks’ version of Stormy Weather, and Kish and I always relish Blue Skies, which was played on our wedding day. I also enjoyed CJO artistic director Byron Stripling’s tasty trumpet fills and deft vocal efforts to channel his inner Louis Armstrong– but the high point for me was Hicks’ powerful and heartfelt performance on My Man’s Gone Now, from Porgy and Bess, which was a knockout punch if there ever was one.
The CJO is another artistic asset in a city that is full of them. If you’re in the mood for some great lives music, you can still catch this show tonight and tomorrow.
Last night I got one of my Christmas presents when Kish and I attended Opera Columbus’ Mission: Seraglio. Opera tickets were one of my stocking stuffers.
The timing was excellent for another reason. Mission: Seraglio is a reimagining of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, and yesterday just happened to be Mozart’s birthday. The wily Wolfie, were he still among us, would have been 261 yesterday.
Opera Columbus’ production features all of the same beautiful music, but the setting and dialogue of the opera are transformed into a ’60s James Bond caper with a dashing spy, an archvillain apparently bent on world domination of a sort, and “Bond women” galore. The modifications turn Seraglio into an outright comic romp, from the point at the outset when a tiny doll figure parachutes through the Southern Theatre, to the suggestive rearrangement of topiary plants by a sex-obsessed gardener, to a clever use of the lyric translation display, to the finale where one of the characters is securely wrapped in a straitjacket and hauled away. The sets are great and the new dialogue is clever and occasionally laugh out loud funny. And, while the characters clearly enjoyed their light-hearted trip down James Bond Lane, they also did justice to the lovely, often passionate songs that Mozart created. I think he would have approved.