What It Is…
Your Thursday evenings may require musical cartography skills if the folks at Greenwich House Music School (GHMS) have their way. Last year the over century old establishment cast an ear to the past with a series of shows that paid homage to the Café Au Go Go. That venue shared a neighborhood – New York City’s West Village – with the music school through most of the 1960’s. Hosting an array of performers from Lenny Bruce to Cream, the Café has achieved legendary status.
This time around the GHMS 8 week community concert series is titled Uncharted and aimed at exploration of parts unknown. Concert curator Jennie Wasserman, Associate Artistic Producer at San Francisco’s SFJAZZ, asked each of the featured artists to direct their performances to areas of their artistry that would normally not get aired. The relaxed living room vibe of the music school’s Renee Weiler Concert Hall, and an audience most likely predisposed to new experiences, certainly offers the “safe place to take risks” that Wasserman hopes to establish.
What Went On…
On opening night harpist Brandee Younger was introduced by GHMS director Rachel Black who noted the GHMS faculty member’s impressive résumé, ranging from traditional jazz to hip-hop and pop. Younger, along with pianist Courtney Bryan and harpist Mia Theodoratus, took up the series’ challenge and skewed her set into the “discomfort zone.” Material included a piece by Younger so new it was yet to be titled, an Alice Coltrane cover, and work being prepped by Bryan for Prophetika, An Oratorio which will have its official debut at La MaMa later this month.
Midway through the set, the harp duet “Orbits” offered delicate intertwining melodies that passed each other in purposefully loose meter. Composer Theodoratus prefaced the song’s first performance by explaining that she and Younger would be working off tiny LED blinker boxes, each set to a different tempo, an experiment that successfully evinced the elliptical nature of planetary travel. The boxes were scratch built by artist and musician Lary 7, who also recorded Theodoratus’s most recent album Electric Silver, released on Plastikville Records last October. Seven is himself the subject of a recent documentary Not Junk Yet, The Art of Lary 7, directed by Danielle de Picciotto.
In addition to the performance on stage, pen and ink artist Michael Arthur chronicled the event for GHMS archives and will continue to do so throughout the series. Keep an eye on his daily blog for Uncharted updates.
What’s To Come…
The GHMS Uncharted series promises to be a one of a kind experience. Concerts continue every Thursday evening through April 30, 2015 and the full line-up can be found here.
Greenwich House Music School rolled out the carpet for a post Mardi Gras jamboree that had attendees clapping and testifying like an old time revival meeting. The show was the second in a two month long homage to the influential 1960’s Greenwich Village club The Café au Go Go. Instead of a full second line parade the instigators of this roof raising evening were two conservators of American roots music Dom Flemons and Eli “Paperboy” Reed. Along with their talents for performing in a variety of styles and on a variety of instruments, the two share a collector’s affection for the obscure gems discovered in dusty stacks of record crates. These root cellar relics ultimately inform their aesthetic as well as their repertoire.
Although performing as a duo for the first time, the two had an “old soul” symbiosis, choosing tunes that suited them both extremely well. The performances were loose and joyful, clearly a labor of love.
Utilizing the intimate setting of Greenwich House’s second floor theater to full advantage – literally like having someone play your living room – each took turns explaining the unique history of a song or the artist who recorded it. Flemons demonstrated the term hokum with the double entendre riddled tune “Keep Your Yes Ma’am Clean,” while Reed related surprise at finding a “5” Royales song had been covered by a classic bluesman. They agreed on most “likes,” a mutual confusion over just what lyrics go with which Jimmy Rodgers “Blue Yodel,” and admitted only a good natured divergence on preferring “Sonny Boy” Williamson I (John Lee Curtis) or II (Rice Miller.)
Over the course of the evening they juggled instruments from guitars and banjo to piano. There were dueling harmonicas (“harps” to bluesmen) featured on “Polly Put the Kettle On” and Dom pulled out the “peculiar” castanet-like “bones,” panpipe styled “quill,” and coaxed bass notes from an old cider jug to augment the sound. The set ended with “Do Lord Remember Me,” an a capella call and response that brought the audience to their feet to clap and sing along.
“Paperboy” is preparing for the release of a new album of original material and a European tour to support it. Check his official website for dates and details. When not promoting his own music he has been a regular fixture at Brooklyn’s Dig Deeper events. Along with unearthing the best Northern Soul dance tunes, the Dig Deeper promoters have routinely brought the artists who recorded them to the stage, often for the first time in decades. After the much lamented closing of Park Slope’s Southpaw club, the events have found a solid following at Littlefield on Degraw Street below Fourth Avenue. Dom Flemons, formerly of The Carolina Chocolate Drops and currently on solo tour through August, will be back in NYC in April for the Brooklyn Folk Festival at The Bell House. Although not in his arsenal of instruments that night Flemons related purchasing a large 6 string banjo at Brooklyn’s RetroFret guitar shop, similar to the one played by Papa Charlie Jackson (author of “Salty Dog” and “Spoonful Blues”) whose “Baby Please Loan Me Your Heart” the duo included in the set.
Flemons’ current album is American Songster. It’s loose field-recorded vibe and detailed annotation is about as close to a modern day Folkways record as you’re likely to find. It’s available on the Music Maker Series label, as are the current recordings of other Chocolate Drops cohorts, Rhiannon Giddens and Leyla McCalla.
The Music Maker Relief Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping the “true pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern music traditions.” See their website for what you can do to help. SkeletonPete Says…
In retrospect the event served not only as a wonderful night of music and unique pairing of two kindred souls but as a primer on the cross pollination of blues, folk, country, soul and balladry. Kind of like a live version of Barney Hoskyns’ book Say It One Time for the Broken Hearted. I hope Dom and Eli can find the right time in their schedules to do this again soon.
The Café au Go Go Revisited Series, conceived by Greenwich House Music School Director Rachel Black and compiled/curated by Jennie Wasserman, continues on Thursdays through April 24, 2014. Check the website for upcoming artists and ticket purchase information.
Tend My Garden, Pull My Daisy…
February 1964 was a watershed moment for music. On the 9th day of that month The Beatles’ Ed Sullivan Show appearance hit American youth like a ton of bricks and triggered cultural and musical change that would evolve for decades; might still be evolving. A more quiet but ultimately no less influential debut happened just two days before, with the opening of the Café au Go Go in New York City’s Greenwich Village. I say no less influential because, while The Beatles may have been the “last straw” required to activate the wide scale cultural breach, “The Village” had a long established community with a fertile sack of social ideologies ripe for sowing by the teenaged baby boomer generation.
Today the mention of early 60’s clubs may elicit the cliché of guitar carrying “folkies” strumming protest songs but the reality is that club owners Howard and Elly Solomon booked a bogglingly broad range of acts. Blues, jazz, bossa nova, comedy, the experimental films of video artist Nam June Paik and Andy Warhol, were all part of the experience at the 400 seat basement space on Bleeker Street. Check Bruno Cheriotti’s complete performance listing for a detailed eye opener.
Although the club closed after seven years of business, in a sense its work had been done. A sensible lineage and evolution had been achieved. For instance, the Solomons had opened their doors to seminal blues artists like Son House, Bukka White, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. In turn they were rightfully recognized as stylistic godfathers by newly minted blues journeymen like Paul Butterfield, Michael Bloomfield, Canned Heat and The Blues Project. Only two years later Howard and Elly would book genre busting bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, and present the freeform psychedelic blues jazz of Cream (sporting full Marshall stacks) for two weeks. Jimi Hendrix played the club, both before and after his career launching trip to England with Chas Chandler.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the venue’s opening the Greenwich House Music School is presenting a two month long tribute to the club. Looking over the upcoming schedule of Thursday night shows, which will continue through April 24, it is clear that curator Jenny Wasserman has compiled a series that emulates the breadth of Café au Go Go’s eclecticism.
The opening night event, called Scenes From a Café, was comprised of two sections, a panel discussion peppered with excerpts from Seven Years Underground: A 60’s Tale, – Jason Solomon’s 2012 documentary about his parents – and a performance by Steve Cuiffo as Lenny Bruce. Greenwich House Director Rachel Black welcomed the attendees and introduced panel moderator Ashley Kahn, a music journalist and author of books on the work of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Kahn brought to the stage David Amram, Matt Umanov and Terri Thal for a spirited and fascinating discourse on the Café au Go Go and 1950’s – 1960’s New York City music scene in general.
Any single facet of multi-instrumentalist, composer/arranger/conductor David Amram’s musical résumé could be considered a life achievement, and it was a pleasure to hear the self titled “senior-bopper” share his stories. At 83 he still regularly performs “basket shows” at The Cornelia Street Cafe to keep in touch with his Greenwich Village roots. The 2011 documentary “David Amram: The First 80 Years” is an excellent overview of his life and work so far.
Luthier Matt Umanov, whose music store is a Bleecker Street fixture for 45 years, stressed the continued community bond. Although he did not open his shop until after the Café closed, his clientele as a local repairman was comprised of many of the club’s regular performers. He was happy to convey that his establishment continues to be as much a “hang out” as a retail and repair shop, with patrons like John Hammond Jr. still stopping by the shop.
Another Side of “Inside”…
Coinciding with this half century marker is the release of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, a film which is in part inspired by The Mayor of McDougal Street, the autobiography of singer songwriter Dave Van Ronk. Panelist Terri Thal, was Van Ronk’s manager and wife during this time period affording her an insider’s perspective on the Coen’s spin. Thal was dismayed by the film’s “unpleasant” and overly competitive portrayal of the scene, which she said did not represent the real sense of community in the village at the time. While recognizing that the film is not a bio-pic and artists were competing to be heard, all panelists agreed that there was an overall “spirit of generosity” lost in translation to screenplay and screen.
Whatever amount of creative license the Coen Brothers allowed themselves in the creation of their film, one thing is certain, Inside Lewyn Davis has sparked a resurgence of interest in the music of and people involved in the Greenwich Village scene of the early 1960’s. Amram was most pleased to see that younger artists following their creative path have come to the realization that you’re not selling out if you aren’t starving or dieing in the street. To paraphrase him, “What you do to pay the rent has no bearing on your art. What you deserve has no bearing on what you get,” but striving for “creating excellence,” even in situations where “it’s not expected” is the goal.
The evening was capped with Steve Cuiffo’s brilliant reenactment of Lenny Bruce. It made me realize that, while music was the ignition key, it was iconoclastic comedians like Bruce, George Carlin, Irwin Corey and Mort Sahl who fueled change with an uncanny ability to expose the absurdity of then current societal mores. They took the hit for it, as did the Solomons for presenting them with a platform. Transcripts of the obscenity trails read like Joan of Arc’s inquisition, and Bruce often used the legal dogma to great effect in his post-arrest monologues, like the one Cuiffo presented. Series Details… Seven Years Underground: A 60’s Tale is available on DVD at the Official Café au Go Go website store.
Upcoming shows in the Café au Go Go Revisited Series are as follows:
• March 6 – DOM FLEMONS and ELI “PAPERBOY” REED
• March 13 – FALU
• March 20 – PHARAOH’S DAUGHTER
• March 27- MICHAEL DAVES and TONY TRISCHKA
• April 3 – JULIA HALTIGAN
• April 10 – Getz Au Go Go Revisited: Another Look at Bossa Nova in the 1960’s with VITOR GONCALVES, CESAR GARABINI, MARCOS KUZKA, SERGIO KRAKOWSKI, EDUARDO BELO and FERNANDA BRAVO
• April 17- DAVID AMRAM meets THE AMIGOS
• April 24 – DEVA MAHAL
Artist information and tickets to all upcoming Concerts are $20 or less – Available Now Online by Clicking Here.