From Stony Brook to Huntington—Mixed Media On The Road

Concert Review: The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger at Staller Center, Stony Brook University (10/15)

The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger performed at the Staller Center at Stony Brook University on October 15th. The band is led by Sean Lennon and his girlfriend Charlotte Kemp Muhl. Anyone who attended the show in the intimate and acoustically superior confines of the Staller Center looking for an evening of Beatles or John Lennon-like music would be disappointed. However, anyone who entered with an open mind or who is charmed by the duo’s two CDs, released on its own Chimera label, experienced a great evening of music.

While Sean Lennon made some excellent, largely overlooked solo albums, his amusingly named new group is truly a treasure. Lennon sang and played guitar, while sitting on a stool behind a drum kit he occasionally played simultaneously. Muhl switched between xylophone, bass, accordion, mouth organ and vocals. A third musician, C.J. Camerieri, supplied trumpet, French horn and percussion. From the very start, Lennon and Muhl exchanged pithy and humorous quips, as entertaining as the wonderful music.

The group’s sound is a timeless and indescribable mix of cabaret, French film music, jazz, folk and experimental sounds. Lennon’s dreamy vocals blended beautifully with Muhl’s. Her voice alternately reminds one of Lætitia Sadier of Stereolab, Sarah Cracknell of Saint Etienne, Dominique Durand of Ivy, Carla Bruni, Coralie Clément, and Juliet Greco. The simple instrumentation worked well and Camerieri added Burt Bacharach-styled touches.

The song “Jardin du Luxembourg” a signature song of the evening, in a better world, would be a big hit. Songs such as “Lavender Road,” “Candy Necklace,” “Rainbows In Gasoline” and “Dark Matter” revealed a songwriting style that mixes the dark and serious and silly with the light. The lyrics are dense, complex and very poetic.

This is a very mature, evolved group who seems to be completely bypassing what passes for pop music. Also, anyone who thinks Muhl is merely in the group because she is Lennon’s girlfriend is sadly mistaken. Her lovely voice and particularly her gritty bass work spotlight her as a serious and confident musician.

The show coincided with the final night of “Yoko Ono Imagine Peace,” an exhibit held at the adjacent University Art Gallery. The exhibit featured art installations, multi-media presentations, photographs, music memorabilia and more and chronicled “John & Yoko’s Year of Peace (1969-1970).” Starkly moving, but also playfully thought-provoking, the exhibit chronicled the couple’s activities and political stance on peace and while it could be misconstrued as naive, in fact it recalls a time of possibilities rather than limitations.

Concert Review: Amos Lee at The Paramount, Huntington (10/29)

Two nights before Halloween and feeling more like two nights before Christmas due to a snowy storm that blanketed much of the Northeast, Amos Lee’s warm musical vibe made everyone forget the weather outside of the Paramount in Huntington. Lee and his amazing band put on a show that will long be remembered. Lee is at a point in his career where he is about to break through to a very large audience. “He performed Windows Are Rolled Down,” somewhat of a hit from his latest album Mission Bell, to rapturous cheers. “Shout Out Loud,” a real show-stopper from his second album Supply and Demand, released in 2006, also thrilled the crowd. It clearly shows that Lee can reach a larger audience without pandering to commercial trickery.

It’s great to see an artist whose music is rooted in the acoustic singer-songwriter scene perform with such a large accomplished band. Lee was backed by a drummer, a keyboardist, a bassist, two backup singers and two guitarists, including a pedal-steel player whose signature sound made “Windows Are Rolled Down” sound as good as the studio original. Lee could easily tour solo, or with minimal support given his music is so acoustic and song-based. To see him with such a large band was a treasure. A raucous version of Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls,” a surprising cover near the end of the show, pulled off completely deadpan, gleefully amused the crowd.

Lee’s music has touches of country, blues, pop and rock and, although he sings soulfully, he played down this aspect of his sound in concert. On some songs he strapped on a Telecaster and played gritty blues-rock. He’s not much of an entertainer, and rarely spoke other than saying thank you and introducing the individual members of the band. He possesses the quiet, laconic look of a character in a Sebastian Junger or a Jon Krakauer book. He’s compact, and bookish and although he looks like he could be some young cool professor everyone likes, there’s a tough resolve to him. The audience cheered loudly in voicing their pleasure in celebrating the lyrics of his songs. To see a crowd cheering for the words of an artist is a rare thing.

For those who don’t know Lee, he mixes folk and soul with a great voice like such 70s icons as James Taylor and Jonathan Edwards. In terms of more contemporary artists, there’s the same songwriting chops and bluesy grit of John Hiatt.

Lee has the potential to break out and become as hugely successful as some like Norah Jones..

Concert Review: Willie Nelson at The Paramount, Huntington (11/2)

Like a scene out of Urban Cowboy, Long Islanders donned cowboy hats, and buckskin jackets and kept the bartenders more than busy when Willie Nelson and Family brought their down-home country review to the Paramount on November 2nd. With his long-graying hair in his signature braids, the 78-year-old red-headed stranger, dressed in black jeans, black tee-shirt and sneakers, may not look very powerful when he first stepped on stage, but as soon as he let out those first few notes of his signature show opener “Whiskey River,” clearly country court came to order.

Nelson began the show at a fast pace, moving from one song to the next with no letup. With the backing of bass and drums, along with sister Bobbie on keyboards and the now legendary Mickey Raphael on harp, Nelson charmed the capacity crowd with his talent, song selection, craggy velvet voice and amazing guitar pickin’. Nelson plays his battered acoustic guitar like a rock god, churning out exquisite, if at times ragged, lead. It’s this approach that at times influenced Bob Dylan’s more recent bands, where acoustic guitar becomes a lead, as opposed to merely just a rhythm instrument.

The songs veered between Nelson’s own country classics and those of other songwriters important to the country canon or to Nelson’s life and music. Long past the mid-point, he performed three Hank Williams classics. He did two songs by his friend and former bandmate in the Highwaymen, Kris Kristofferson. There were songs he performed such as “Georgia,” and also songs he changed in his own way, such as Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.” Other show-stoppers included “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” “Always On My Mind” and “To All The Girls I Loved.”

Of course Nelson performed songs he wrote and made famous such as “On The Road Again” and songs he wrote for others such as the hits “Nightlife” and “Crazy.”

Many people are called legends, but Nelson truly is one. Through his sheer will, originality, place in country music and fearless approach to life, Nelson only becomes more loved and honored. Through his radicalism, uncompromising nature and refusal to adhere to the status quo, Nelson exhibits the best of what an American can be. He stands alongside contemporaries like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, B.B. King and Quincy Jones and is easily part of a very small of not only musicians like Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Elvis Presley, but American iconoclasts such as Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. Let’s hope Willie Nelson stays on the road forever.