At Close Quarters: Three Intimate Live Music Shows
1) The Kidtopia Series
What to do with your little ones on a Saturday morning when you live in the countryside, it’s January and it’s freezing: take them to Todd Rundgren’s old video complex in Bearsville for the weekly Kidtopia concerts. The food counter, staffed by local teens, sells fresh coffee and pastries from Bread Alone, and the atmosphere is one of community and camaraderie mixed with some nursery/kindergarten age madness. But though parents occasionally have to retrieve their kids when they either get up on stage uninvited or get in some other kid’s face, for the most part, the little ones are, like most gig goers, perfectly happy as long as they’re offered the freedom to dance. For the January 10 show, I arrived (from a morning run) a little too late for Ratboy Jr., but in time to find my toddler Noel sitting on the lip of the stage, at the feet of his idol Uncle Rock, who soon introduced a new song “Buddy Holly’s got the Hiccups,” intending to educate kids about the early days of rock’n’roll as well as to demonstrate that wearing glasses can be cool. This in addition to a set that already includes material about sock bandits, disco naps and sugar highs. In other words, socially conscious music for the socially undeveloped. Kidtopia continues through January. Ratboy Jr. will be at every show.
2) Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble
There’s no sign at the street end of Levon Helm’s lengthy Woodstock driveway to tell you you’ve reached your destination; you have to just follow the directions and hope for the best. There are no hard tickets to present for one of his Midnight Rambles either: your name is checked off, down the end of the driveway, at a little sentinel post against the pre-purchase list. There’s no bar, though as long as you behave, you can bring your own drinks in plastic containers. There’s no charge for snacks, which are bolstered by contributions from concert-goers. (We brought the remainder of the previous night’s pad Thai.) And there are no reserved seats. But then again, in a studio environment in which it’s impossible to position yourself more than 30 feet from the stage, there’s no such thing as a bad seat. And on a heavily snowy night like that of January 10, when the show is not sold out and some people have not showed up, you have the freedom to move around, upstairs and down, and to stand if you care to, too.
Here’s what you do get for your substantial ticket fee: the most intimate of concerts with the most accomplished of musicians. Opening set featured Howlin’ Wolf’s former sidekick Hubert Sumlin, now 77 years old, still dressing like a dandy and playing deceptively understated, frequently chromatic solos that reminded me of be-bop’s approach to the blues. (i.e., full of deliberate “off” notes.) The headline set was anchored, as almost always, by the great Levon Helm himself, on vocals and drums and occasional mandolin, and also by the phenomenally talented guitarist, mandolin player and fiddler Larry Campbell, along with and electric guitarist Jimmy Vivino, who had only just finished his stint as band-leader for Sumlin’s set. Other musicians in what often stretched to an eleven-piece band included Levon’s daughter Amy Helm, singer Teresa Williams, Conan O’Brien’s pianist Scott Healy, and a brass section so damn talented that it almost knocked me out. (Literally so, given that I spent part of the time within range of the trombonist’s extended reach.) The set list drew from Helm’s Grammy-winning 2007 comeback album Dirt Farmer and extended back through familiar and (more so, to these untrained ears) unfamiliar tunes that ran the gamut of American music, from country and folk through blues and soul. We left at midnight, almost two and a quarter hours into Helm’s uninterrupted set, fully satiated by the experience. I believe the music continued for another half hour.
It’s understandable that tickets should be expensive as they are, given the intimacy of the occasion (we were among but 80 people in attendance, and I doubt they ever admit more than 150), the quality and quantity of the professional musicians, and the various other staff that need to be paid; it’s also regrettable, as everyone should have the opportunity to experience, at least once in their lives, such great music, from some of America’s finest musicians, in such close quarters.
3) Daniel Martin Moore
But then, if it was merely intimacy you wanted, at no cost, you could have found it at the Muddy Cup coffee house/Inquiring Minds Book Store in Saugerties, where Sub Pop’s Daniel Martin Moore played on Monday January 12 to an audience of… well, if you count the people reading books at the tables, it might just have reached double figures. Moore, an unusually quiet signing for the label that brought us grunge, seemed entirely undeterred by the turn-out; accompanied by two musicians (playing keyboards, mandolin and bongo between them) who had traveled with him from Kentucky for his first tour of the east coast, he contentedly played his way through two short sets of considerable fragility, the collegiately dressed former Peace Corps member frequently singing with his eyes closed. The material drew mainly from his lovely album Stray Age – you can listen to the title track here, and yes, as his label bio notes, he does indeed cover similar musical territory to Neil Halstead – but he also threw in a cover of the Charlie Chaplin-composed “Smile,” and, somewhat boldly, a delightful version of “Danny Boy.”
The second set became more of a conversation. Daniel introduced a song from a forthcoming collaborative album for Sub Pop that he hopes will draw attention to open-top mountain coal mining in Kentucky and West Virginia. When I mentioned having been horrified by pictures I’d seen of the devastation wrought by such industry, Daniel’s keyboard player handed me a book on the subject (we were in a book store, after all), and we all got to talking further about this environmental disaster before he embarked on a song entitled “Fly Rock Blues.” (Fly rocks are those that the mining equipment kicks up, some of which are as big as a car and have been known to land on nearby houses.) Moore brought his seat yet further forward to our sofa to finish his set with his album’s own gorgeous finale “The Hour of Sleep.” By then it was 9pm, and the book store manager was locking up for the night. This was what you call an early gig. Moore and his companions seemed perfectly happy to have sold a few CDs, made a few friends (and, as part of their promo tour, to have appeared on a couple of local radio stations earlier in the day) and were eagerly eager for their following night’s show all the way down in Philadelphia, where hopefully, they had something of a crowd. Because intimacy is all well and good, but an audience is even better.