Monthly Archives: December 2009

Happy 63rd, Patti!

Patti Smith, sharper and more focused on her birthday. (Photos copyright 2009, Steven P. Marsh)

Patti Smith was still as giddy as a little girl last night, for the second of her three New Year’s shows at The Bowery Ballroom. She had reason to be happy — it was her 63rd birthday, or “burfday,” as she so charmingly says it.

But, unlike the first night, Patti brought a bit more snarl and a lot  more focus to the show. (She mentioned that The New York Times said she did some “bad things” on the first night. Check out that review, by Ben Ratliff, here.) The only slight disappointment last night was that the set list largely repeated the first night’s set. It was a spirited evening, though — good enough to make me regret my decision to skip tonight’s show to avoide the craziness of a Manhattan New Year’s Eve.

It didn't look like there were 63 candles on the cake that Jesse Smith brought onstage for her mom. But who's counting!

The evening had a few surprises. For me, the best came when James Mastro of Hoboken’s The Bongos, resplendent in a red hat, materialized onstage to assist on a cover of Neil Young’s Powderfinger. Last night’s version was much stronger than the opening night’s tepid effort, and Mastro’s professional attitude, great guitar work and solid vocals made a huge difference. (It would have been helpful if somebody had bothered to introduce James when he came onstage. While plenty of people in the audience recognized the local hero, his name wasn’t announced from stage until after he was done playing.)

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Patti Smith: The original Punk Princess

Patti Smith and longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye kick off the the first of her 2009 New Year's shows with an intimate version of "Southern Cross." (Photos copyright 2009, Steven P. Marsh)

Patti Smith assured the sold-out crowd at the Bowery Ballroom last night that 2010 is going to be a better year. Not a perfect one, maybe, but better than 2009. And I think I can safely speak for the crowd when I say I sure hope she’s right. She reminded us that we’re having a blue moon this New Year’s Eve, and suggested it’s a sign of good luck.

Patti shows off a copy of her new book, Just Kids, at the beginning of last night's show.

Patti, who turned 63 today, kicked off her annual New Year’s run at the Bowery last night with a reading from her new book about her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, which is due out Jan. 19. She wandered onstage wearing a knit cap and a heavy black hoodie snatched right from her merch table because it was so cold backstage — and outside — last night.

“I just got it on my way here tonight,” she told the crowd with her crooked smile. “It’s not like I’m trying to do a commercial. I’m just excited. … (But) I know you can’t download it. It was a bit about her first days in New York back in 1967, a perfect vignette.

The evening quickly, but briefly, turned bittersweet as she memorialized three like-minded artists who died this year — including rock poet Jim Carroll and singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt — by performing a beautiful acoustic version of Southern Cross with help from her longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye.

After a round of applause, Patti surrendered the stage to daughter Jesse Smith, who said not a word during her 25 minute piano ramble, accompanied by drums. glockenspiel and tubular bells. Jesse seems to be a competent player, but is visibly uncomfortable and uncertain onstage. Every time I see her perform, I wonder why she’s up there. Unlike her brother Jackson, who did not play guitar with his mom’s band last night as he often does, Jesse does not give the impression that she was born for the stage.

Jesse Smith and her band was the first-night opener.

Later, Patti reminded us that “Lenny Kaye played in Jim Carroll’s band. I did other things with Jim,” as she introduced Lenny for a version of Jim’s Still Life. That one drew a laugh. It was the first of two songs the band did without Patti – the second being a Tony Shanahan-led cover of Powderfinger in honor of Vic Chesnutt.

There were plenty of other charming moments and laughs throughout the evening as Patti plowed through at least one song from just about ever album. And even though she told the crowd she was still fighting the residue of illness, she sounded great and never faltered — except when she forgot the words to songs from time to time as she inevitably does at every show.

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Gone too soon: Vic Chesnutt dead at 45 (UPDATE: Donate to help Vic’s family)

Vic Chesnutt wheels into the spotlight at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC on June 16, 2009. (Photos copyright 20009, Steven P. Marsh)

UPDATE: Longtime Vic Chesnutt collaborator Kristin Hersh has set up a web page for donations to help Vic’s survivors. Click here to donate. Kristin promises that all proceeds will go to the family to help cover the costs of Vic’s hospitalization and burial.

Singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, 45, who was confined to a wheelchair after breaking his neck in a car accident at age 18, died today after lapsing into a coma after taking an overdose of muscle relaxants earlier this week, family spokesman, Jem Cohen told The New York Times.

Vic's energy came out in a howl.

Kristin Hersh, a frequent collaborator with Chesnutt, said on Twitter that it was suicide. “No one knows much: another suicide attempt, looks bad, coma–if he survives, there may be brain damage,” Hersh Tweeted yesterday. “This time, it’s real scary: *this* time, he left a note, *this* time, he asked them to call me.”

The Athens, Ga., -based performer, had attempted suicide in the past. But the lyrics of the songs on his new album, In the Cut, seemed to signal a positive outlook on life. He even wrote directly about suicide in “Flirted With You All My Life,” writing “Everywhere I go, you’re always right there with me. I flirted with you all my life. Even kissed you once or twice… But clearly I was not ready. … Oh death, really I’m not ready, no no.”

Vic opened for Jonathan Richman at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC in June. He seemed as cantankerous as ever and full of life. After his set, he hung out with some younger men at the back of the room and talked about partying after the show. He seemed content, not as angry or hurting as in the past. Perhaps he had just learned to hide it better.

R.I.P., Vic.

Merry MexMas with El Vez and Los Straitjackets

El Vez rocks The Bowery Ballroom. (Photos copyright 2009, Steven P. Marsh)

The holidays have given Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? plenty of shows to check out, but little time to say much about them. So today is catch-up day on one of the season’s most enjoyable holiday shows:  El Vez, the Mexican Elvis, and masked surf rockers Los Straitjackets.

El Vez and Los Straitjackets filled the Bowery Ballroom with their special brand of Christmas spirit on Saturday night, Dec. 5.

El Vez is serious.

It put an awesome new spin on El Vez’s longstanding Merry MexMas holiday tour, as Los Straitjackets brought a slightly different musical sensibility to El Rey de Rock ‘n Roll’s show. El Vez normally tours with his own band, the Memphis Mariachis.

El Vez in Santa suit.

The new pairing freshened El Vez’s wonderful mash-ups of traditional holiday songs with punk and rock classics.

If you weren’t there, you missed a real treat. Be sure to plan early next year. Enjoy the photos.

In the Heights headed to the silver screen

Lin-Manuel Miranda (center, wearing cap), who created and composed In the Heights, is set to reprise his starring role as Usnavi in the big-screen version.

The New York-themed hit Broadway musical In the Heights will follow in the cinematic footsteps of its contemporary, Passing Strange, with a film adaptation.

The Hollywood Reporter says the movie will be directed by Kenny Ortega, the director of the High School Musical movies and Michael Jackson’s This Is It. No dates have been announced.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created and composed the show about three days in the lives of neighbors in NYC’s Washington Heights section, is starring and producing the movie. Quiara Alegria Hudes, who wrote the book for the musical, is writing the script. Lin-Manuel originated the starring role of Usnavi in the off-Broadway production, and opened in the show when it transferred to Broadway.

In keeping with a trend on Broadway, a movie star — Corbin Bleu of High School Musical — is set to take over the show’s starring role starting Jan. 25.

In the Heights was nominated for 13 Tony awards in 2008, and won for best new musical. Passing Strange got seven 2008 Tony nods, and won best book of a musical.

This is just the latest parallel between theatrical classmates Heights and PS, both of which were staged off-Broadway to great acclaim in 2007 and transferred to Broadway in 2008. NYC-themed Heights won the East Coast-West Coast battle against PS, which tells the story of a black man growing up in Los Angeles. Heights, which had its first Broadway performance a week after Passing Strange transferred, remains open, while PS closed on July 20, 2008, after 186 performances during a six-month run.

Director Spike Lee, a Strange Freak (a term used to describe the most devoted Passing Strange fans), filmed the final performances of PS. His film — a relatively low-buget record of the stage show with few grand cinematic tricks — was released earlier this year. The Heights movie is being billed as an “adaptation,” which suggests a slicker, big-budget project complete with location shots. Heights struck me from Day One as an updated West Side Story, and this approach to making the film seems likely to underscore the comparison.

Colman’s Big-Ass 40th Birthday!

Colman Domingo does the dance of the flaming pastry with De'Adre Aziza, Soara-Joye Ross and Eisa Davis. (Photos copyright 20009, Steven P. Marsh)

Actor Colman Domingo‘s birthday is Nov. 28. He celebrated at home with some close friends.

Colman channeling Maya Angelou.

Two nights later, on Nov. 30, he turned Joe’s Pub into a reasonable facsimile of his living room two nights later when he threw Colman Domingo’s BIG ASS 40th Birthday Party for his friends, family and fans. It was an evening of irresistible fun.

The stage was filled with singing and stories from Colman’s varied acting career, some from Passing Strange (De’Adre Aziza, Eisa Davis and musical director Jon Spurney) and others, including Ari Gold, Marva Hicks, Soara-Joye Ross and director Charles Randolph Wright, from other acting ventures.

Colman, who is one of the sweetest and most genuinely real actors I know, was touched by the audience’s enthusiasm. And he was thrilled to donate the evening’s proceeds to the Save the Children charity.

If you missed it, nothing I can write here could really recreate the moment, so just sit back and enjoy lots more photos after the jump.

Colman, De'Adre, Eisa, Ari, Marva and Neil Totton join voices.

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In the Clear

Paul Oakley Stovall and Joshua Kobak share a moment in Clear.

It’s been a very busy time, with so many great shows that I’ve been swamped. But one of the best things I’ve seen this season is Paul Oakley Stovall‘s autobio-musical Clear, which was performed in a developmental reading at Joe’s Pub in NYC on Monday, Nov. 30. Even in its unfinished form, Clear kept the audience enthralled with a beautifully told tale of the struggle of life.

Paul Oakley Stovall onstage at Joe's Pub.

Paul, a well-established singer, actor and playwright who has a day job working for the Obama administration, has written a show that anyone familiar with Passing Strange will find quite familiar. It’s the story of a black misfit’s journey through life. Though in this case, the central character also is gay.

The show starts with a flashback to 1991, when Paul’s character was recovering he was shot in a case of mistaken identity in Minneapolis and is left temporarily crippled. It jumps around in time, tracing Paul’s journey of personal development — he admits he told his parents he as gay by writing them a letter — at home in Chicago, and in Stockholm, where he found he love of his life.

Clear comes across as unadulterated autobiography. That was underscored by the fact that at least one of Paul’s lovers portrayed in the show was actually in the audience for the show. Paul introduced him to fans backstage after the show.

The cast of Clear at Joe's Pub.

The links to Passing Strange (Paul met the creators of that show during auditions and has remained a part of the PS family) are more than coincidental. Stew, who wrote PS with Heidi Rodewald, composed some of the music for Paul’s show. The music was quite polished and on target. While there were touches of trademark Stew stylings, the overall effect, luckily, stayed well away from rock-heave sonic world of Passing Strange. As a result, Clear skilfully avoided becoming a Passing Strange clone. (But Paul was afraid of underscoring the PS connection by  having actor Yassmin Alers make a direct reference to that show: “A wise man once said, ‘Your mother’s love might seem insane…'” The line drew knowing laughs from the Strange Freaks in the room!)

Paul is quite a talented artist. I’m sure Clear will return on a bigger stage soon. Don’t miss it when that happens.

Paul Oakley Stovall, George Farmer and Yassmin Alers.