‘I’m talkin’ little Jimmy Baldwin, baby — you gotta go to Another Country if you wanna get to Giovanni’s Room

‘Passing Strange’ alums bring new work to the New York stage in celebration of James Baldwin

BaldwinSome of my readers may recognize the main headline of this post as a quote from the musical play “Passing Strange.”

It’s Mr. Franklin, the church choir director talking, sitting in a VW Bug with some of his musical charges, holding a “prayer circle” whose sacramental ritual involved smoking weed.

It was hardly the only touching moment in the 2008 Tony-winning musical, but it was one of the more memorable.

I often say, jokingly, that everything in my life somehow connects to “Passing Strange.” When I look at the artists and performances that have inspired me over the years since I first encountered the show in a developmental form then known as “Travelogue,” back around 2004, many of them are somehow connected to the existential musical play.

Later this month, three key members of the “Passing Strange” family — Stew, who wrote the book and lyrics and co-wrote the music with Heidi Rodewald, and actors from the original production Colman Domingo and Eisa Davis — and a slew of other notable writers and performers will be involved in the New York Live Arts “Live Ideas Festival: James Baldwin, This Time!”  (Tap or click here for schedule and ticket options.)

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Classical pianist Vladimir Feltsman: Still looking for the sweet spot

Pianist Vladimir Feltsman

Pianist Vladimir Feltsman

Pianist Vladimir Feltsman arrived in the United States a quarter century ago after spending eight years as essentially a nonperson in the Soviet Union, his homeland. After finally being permitted to emigrate to the West, the former refusenik has tried hard to stop talking about those dark days.

After years of playing many concerts every year, he’s settled into a schedule of a smaller number of carefully selected appearances, always performing superbly, but always on the hunt for the sweet spot. As he tells me in a conversation for lohud.com/The Journal News: “On some good days — it’s not always happening — but when it’s happening, it feels great. There’s like an exchange of energy, which is very much real and tangible, between public and artist. So when that happens it feels really good.”

I spoke with Feltsman in advance of his concert Wednesday evening at Bedford Chamber Concerts (St. Matthews Episcopal Church Fellowship Hall, 382 Cantitoe St., Bedford, NY; 914-522-5150).

Please tap or click here to check out the conversation.

Poland will never be the same after Ubu Sings Ubu

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A dangerous man: Tony Torn as Pere Ubu at Joe’s Pub on March 25, 2014. (Photos © 2014, Steven P. Marsh/willyoumissme.com)

About midway through the show on March 25, the flabby, shirtless man on stage at Joe’s Pub — his face still bearing the image of the Polish eagle albeit runny with sweat — stepped out of character as Pere Ubu, the king of Poland.

It’s at this point in the show that I’d be introducing my special guest, said actor Tony Torn But I can’t, he added.

So he invited the audience to join him in a chant:

“Stew has flu. Stew has flu. Stew has flu….”

After chanting that a few times, any disappointment I might have been feeling about the absence of Stew, Tony Award-winning creator of “Passing Strange” and leader of the rock band The Negro Problem, vanished as Torn returned to character and carried on with the set.

Sure, it would have been nice to see Stew sit in with this talented band of actors and musicians. But he deserved to stay home and nurse his illness. And Torn and company managed to provide an extraordinarily entertaining evening without their announced special guest.

I had wondered how Stew fit into this mad plan of creating a band to cover Pere Ubu songs in character from from the Alfred Jarry’s 1896 French play “Ubu Roi.”

Torn, happily, answered the question from stage.

This show, “Ubu Sings Ubu,” wouldn’t have materialized at all if, some years ago, Stew hadn’t let Torn sing what he called “one of his crazy punk rock songs.”

He didn’t explain exactly when or how that occurred, so I can only guess it was in a workshop of some sort. Continue reading

Kaki King announces pregnancy

Kaki King opens her new concept show at BRIC House in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, on March 6, 2014. (Photo © 2014, Steven P. Marsh)

Kaki King opens her new concept show at BRIC House in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, on March 6, 2014. (Photo © 2014, Steven P. Marsh)

Guitar wizard Kaki King tweeted a sonogram image on Sunday afternoon bearing the name of her wife, Jessica Templin King.

Looks like congratulations are in order — to the happy couple and to the fans who made it possible.

Intentional nostalgia: Mission of Burma and Speed the Plough played The Bell House

Mission of Burma at The Bell House, Brooklyn, NY, Feb. 7, 2014 (Photos © 2014 Steven P. Marsh)

Mission of Burma at The Bell House, Brooklyn, N.Y., on Feb. 7, 2014: Roger Miller, Clint Conley and Peter Prescott. (Photos © 2014 Steven P. Marsh)

Back in February — it seems such a very long time ago — I stopped by at The Bell House in Brooklyn to catch a double bill featuring two of my favorite bands.

Speed the Plough at The Bell House in Brookly, NY, on Feb. 7, 2014.

Speed the Plough at The Bell House in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Feb. 7, 2014: Ed Seifert, Toni Paruta Baumgartner, Mike Baumgartner and Cindi Merklee.

Mission of Burma and Speed the Plough both factored heavily in my experience at the late, lamented Maxwell’s in Hoboken, so it was a real joy to see them together at the Bell House, which was becoming Maxwell’s musical successor even before the lights went out in Hoboken. (And it’s no surprise, given that former Maxwell’s booker and co-owner Todd Abramson has been booking bands at the great Gowanus club for quite awhile now.)

The show was awesome, as expected. And the crowd — packed with more than a few familiar faces from Maxwell’s — was enthusiastic.

So step into my time machine and get a look at some shots from the show. If you were there, the pics will spark some good memories. If you didn’t make it, I apologize if my images make you envious.

Either way, enjoy them.

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Ecstatic Music Festival brings together 5 musicians in a unique collaboration

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It’s hard to believe that the 2014 edition of the Ecstatic Music Festival is nearly over. I suppose it’s because I haven’t been able to get to most of the shows in the festival, which kicked off Jan. 31 and ends this Saturday, March 29.

Two shows remain this year: Wednesday’s bill featuring So Percussion and Buke & Gase, and Saturday’s program with Man Forever and William Basinski. Both shows start at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are a reasonable $25, but if you attend both shows, you can get in for $20 apiece. Click here to buy tickets online, or visit the Merkin Concert Hall box office at 129 West 67th Street in Manhattan.

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Cynthia Hopkins tells it like it really is

Cynthia Hopkins in character as “the fat lady” for her latest show, “A Living Documentary.”

I’ve long wondered how edgy performance artist Cynthia Hopkins survives.

The answer, it turns out, is: just barely.

Her extremely personal theater work, often presented as slightly bizarre, dreamy (sometimes verging on nightmarish) faux autobiography, has won increasingly wide acceptance. Aside from being the darling of St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, she’s put on her shows at other leading venues such as the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

She’s become a favorite of comedian John Hodgman, who featured her on his end-of-the-world “Ragnarok” show in 2012.

She’s had a Guggenheim fellowship and has won Bessie, Obie and other awards.

(Click through to the jump for videos and more about Cynthia Hopkins.)

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