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Mark On The Move by Mark Leviton
I made it to the last day of Hangtown Halloween Ball in Placerville, Railroad Earth's annual gathering of jambands, Afro-funk troupes, folkies and renegade jazzers. It was held the weekend before Halloween, but most people dressed up anyway. At 10:30am I got my first look at Midnight North, the band led by Phil Lesh's son Grahame. They did a cracking set of country-rock, with the advantage of three decent lead singers in Lesh himself, Elliott (she's a gal) Peck and Alex Jordan.
They have plenty of good originals, but their choice of outside material is stellar; they kicked off with Gillian Welch's "The Way it Goes," with Elliott on lead, and she also helmed a tight, peppy version of Grateful Dead's "Mr. Charlie" mid-set. Grahame was the leader on The Band's "Ophelia" and Alex had a great time, enthusiastically fronting the bluegrass standard "I'm Here To Get My Baby Out of Jail." Alex is a fine guitarist, but when he sat at the B-3 organ for about half the set, he really blazed (Elliott also switches between guitar and keyboards with no drop in quality).
Their original tunes like "Greene County," "Miss M" and "Phoenix Hotel," can be hit or miss, but they're on the right track. Within a few weeks, I managed to see Midnight North twice more, at Phil Lesh's San Rafael club Terrapin Crossroads, and opening for Stu Allen's Mars Hotel at the Auburn Events Center. They continued to impress, especially when they let tunes evolve into guitar-duels or other more psychedelic territory. I also heard more good covers, including two Emmylou Harris/Gram Parsons tunes, "Luxury Liner" and "In My Hour of Darkness," and a nice version of Leon Russell's "Tightrope."
The other revelation at Hangtown was a 5-piece funk/fusion band called Kung Fu, boasting several outstanding musicians, including Robert Sommerville on tenor sax, guitarist Tim Palmieri and keyboardist Beau Sasser. They hail from the New York Tri-State area, and have been going in some form or another since 2009. Their originals all instrumentals -- recall the mid-seventies times of Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Return To Forever, as well as the influence of Frank Zappa, especially whenever Palmieri tore off a gnarly, lengthy solo. Sure enough, after their set Palmieri and Sasser met up with drummer Bill Carbone to play as the band Z3, and their set was entirely Zappa tunes "Baby Snakes," "Pygmy Twylyght," "Big Swifty" and "Willie the Pimp" among them. I've got to see this band again!
My trip to New Orleans included a stop at Café du Monde for beignets, and I ran into cartoonist Bill Stout and his wife, who were on the "Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise" for a week and had just docked for the day in The Big Easy. They hipped me to a 4pm show at The Howlin' Wolf club, which was to feature local bluesman Kenny Neal and The California Honeydrops. The Stouts' ship was pulling out again at 11pm, hence the early start time for this show, arranged to showcase Neal (who couldn't make the cruise this year, although he was on the 2014 sailing) and Honeydrops (who were on the ship and had already done a couple sets).
I hightailed it over there and mingled with Blues Cruisers from around the world (including a couple from Melbourne, Australia), and caught a blistering 2-hour set from Neal, who brought several of his family members on stage, plus two outstanding female singers whose names I unfortunately did not catch (one them sang "Chain of Fools" incredibly well).
My internet searches turned nothing up, so I found Kenny's website and sent a query. The next day he called me himself and told me the woman who sang the Aretha tunes was a friend of his daughter's, named Quiana Lynell. It turns out Quiana's got her own website and plays around Louisiana. I loved Neal's loose, Buddy Guy-inspired playing, and his connection to the audience and now I know he's an incredibly nice guy off-stage too!
After New Orleans came New York City, where I made it to the Iridium jazz club to see an all-star tribute to Roland Kirk (featuring Kirk's old running buddy Steve Turre, and the amazing saxophonists Vincent Herring and James Carter). The club had about 20 patrons for the late show it was Halloween, and the Mets were playing in the World Series so I got to sit right up against the stage.
They played fantastic versions of "Volunteered Slavery" and "The Inflated Tear," and poet Betty Neal was on hand to recite Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "When Malindy Sings." For a few moments, the audience was transported back to the late 19th century. Steve Turre's gorgeous daughter Andromeda (a model and designer who's launched a music career) sang a wonderful "Spirits Up Above" too.
The next day was a study in contrasts a matinee of "The King And I" at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre accompanied by my daughter, followed by Dead & Company at Madison Square Garden, with 18,000 DeadHeads. The Rodgers-Hammerstein classic had Kelli O'Hara in the lead role of Anna, and she wowed me again (I'd seen her play Nelly in "South Pacific" twice, so I knew she was going to be terrific).
O'Hara has a big range, vocally and emotionally. She can show the lightest touch or the most operatic angst, allowing her to nail "I Whistle a Happy Tune" and "Getting to Know You" as well as "Hello, Young Lovers." Hoon Lee was a great King of Siam, and the pair's "Shall We Dance?" in act two was the show-stopper it was always meant to be. Half price tickets were $85 each Broadway shows continue to price themselves into the stratosphere.
Over at MSG an hour later, three surviving Grateful Dead members (Weir, Hart and Kreutzmann) joined forces with Oteil Burbridge (bass), Jeff Chimenti (keyboards) and John Mayer (guitar) for another attempt to keep the franchise going. I wasn't convinced by the first set, which leaned heavily on Mayer's not very interesting lead vocals for "Bertha," "Sugaree" and "Friend Of the Devil. His guitar playing was spirited enough, but the group never really jelled.
The second set was much better, with the jamming turned up several notches and Mayer confined to instrumental hijinks. "Scarlet Begonias," "Fire On the Mountain" and "Shakedown Street" were all great starting the set, which then launched into a spectacular "Dark Star" that levitated my section of the Garden.
After a juicy drumming duet from the telepathic Hart & Kreutzmann, the poignant "Wharf Rat," a short "Playing In the Band (reprise)" and "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" concluded the show, with a heartfelt "Ripple" as the encore. Well worth going across the country to see, even if Jerry Garcia was, alas, still not able to attend.
(Mark’s sixties-themed radio show Pet Sounds can be heard alternate Wednesdays 10pm-Midnight PST on KVMR-FM 89.5 in the Sacramento area and streaming at www.kvmr.org. You can access his latest podcast and playlists at www.petsoundsmusic.com)