"Hey, Fred!" live music

Things I’ve Been Digging – 04/12/2021

The last photo I ever took of Bob, how I like to remember him, at Ace deep in conversation with a few of my favorite people. From left: Chris Quickert, Bob Petric, Nick Schuld, Aleks Shaulov

As we get closer to the first little slice of normalcy – my second vaccine is coming up this week – there are reminders that we’re not out of the woods yet: horrifying statistics around the world, anecdotal evidence from every channel.

One that hit close to home for me was Saturday’s public announcement of my friend Bob Petric’s death. I probably didn’t know Bobby as well as at least 100 people on my friends’ list, but I had genuine conversations with him once or twice a week. 

The definitive retrospective comes from great writer and longtime friend of Bob’s, Bela Koe-Krompecher at the Alive:

He was someone I thought about regularly: the sly one-liner, the big laugh when you landed, and that hand on your shoulder that reminded you he was glad to see you. When I was at a loss for what to do, getting off work or a summer afternoon, “Head down to Ace of Cups and see Bob” was always one of the best options on the table.

Before and parallel to that friendship was his presence in my life as a guitar player. I never got to see Girly Machine (I squandered a few opportunities as a kid), but I saw Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments every time I got the chance. The way he fused an almost hyperactive, polished technique to a frenzied wildness was breathtaking. There was the emotional quality of opening a nerve at the same time he compressed the entire history of the guitar and cracked the sky at the same time.

I saw a couple of TJSA shows that were shambolic trainwrecks but even those had a few minutes that affirmed I was in the right place. Far more often, they were mind-blowing. Petric’s melodic, fiery counterpoint to Ron House’s wry, cracked lyrics over a shifting series of great rhythm sections were what I’d reach to 9 times out of 10 when someone asked me what “Columbus music” sounds like.

A tangent: one late afternoon, Anne and I were at HiFi Bar in Manhattan (RIP) who had an astonishing jukebox, a precursor to the now-ubiquitous internet jukes, called El DJ. El DJ boasted a hard drive we controlled with a trackball through an interface that cross-referenced bands. One highlight of EJ DJ, for me at least, was a surprising number of Columbus acts: Times New Viking, Gaunt, New Bomb Turks, and, of course, TJSA. 

As the two-for-one happy hour shifted gears, I put on “Cheater’s Heaven” off their seminal first record Bait and Switch and owner Mike Stuto lit up. “Who played Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments?” He exclaimed from across the bar, and Anne and I spent a great hour talking about Bob’s guitar, Ron’s singing, the connection between our town’s scenes. When I think about Columbus crossing the world – and there are a million stories – that’s the one I go to first.

So while this is not something I was digging, there’s never a bad time to remember our friends and tell the friends here we love them. If you’re reading this, I love you. If I haven’t told you lately, I’m sorry and I want to do better.

If you haven’t listened to TJSA, maybe the best place to start is the blistering live record from their legendary tour with GBV just released on Bandcamp:

Some other video evidence of this juggernaut at the top of his powers:

This one taken by great friend (of mine and the band’s) Shirley Tobias

Playlist record reviews

Playlist – March 2021

Spring feels good as it comes in fits and starts. Optimism leavened with more loss – most recently one of the best, kindest, most enthusiastic music fans I ever had the opportunity to know (and not know as well as I wish I had), Matt Bush. It’s hard to think of going back out to shows again and not seeing Matt’s face. Continue reading for notes on these songs.

Courtesy of the Hype Machine’s merch table function, links to Bandcamp for much of this:

"Hey, Fred!" film

Things I’ve Been Digging – 03/29/2021

Without Getting Killed Or Caught

We’re in both a golden age and a glut of music documentaries right now. The most moving example I’ve seen in a while, and I fully admit to my biases here, is Tamara Saviano’s gripping, intimate portrait of songwriting guiding star Guy Clark, Without Getting Killed Or Caught.

Saviano logged many hours in Clark’s world writing her excellent biography of the same name. She made the brilliant choice to tell his story through the voice of Susanna Talley Clark (also an acclaimed songwriter with big hits like “Come From the Heart” and “Easy From Now On,” along with being a painter and writer). Saviano uses Susanna’s audio diaries and her written diaries narrated by Sissy Spacek to capture that vital voice.

Because Susanna’s voice is so prominent, much of the movie focuses on the inseparable trio rounded out with Guy and Townes Van Zandt. Still, Saviano never lets it turn into a Townes movie. The impeccable editing keeps the focus without ever getting mired in minutiae. 

Saviano also avoids the trap of too many talking heads. Every person in the film is someone Guy loved and who loved Guy and Susanna. The closest thing to a record label suit is Barry Poss from Sugar Hill, who helped resurrect Guy’s career at a low point. He adds vital color to Guy’s place in the burgeoning Americana scene. There’s no bending over backward to prove the subject of the film is important.

Everyone who appears – Steve Earle, Vince Gill, Verlon Thompson – knew Guy’s love up close. Nowhere is that more clear than Rodney Crowell, who almost serves as a joint narrator. The quick cutting from one of these almost invariably laughing voices to another reminds us of how art and personalities can bring people together. A scene which epitomized this feeling came with the clip of Guy taking a long drag of wine and pointing to a very young Steve Earle and saying “You need to hear this” to the camera from Heartworn Highways echoed through Rodney Crowell talking about writing the last song with Guy almost 40 years later.

There were more of those moments in this film than I could keep track of. One that echoes with me a couple of days after seeing this was the revelation he wrote “She Ain’t Going Nowhere, She’s Just Leaving” for Bunny Talley, Susanna’s sister, who killed herself. Then the hammer drop of Guy’s recorded voice recounting the story with the line, “Part of being alive is going through that veil of tears.”

Anyone with the slightest interest should check this out in its staggered digital screenings and whenever it finds a more permanent home. Without Getting Killed Or Caught reminded me how much I love my friends and was an incitement to be better.

"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 03/22/2021

Amina Claudine Myers, taken from livestream and edited

Amina Claudine Myers Solo

Keyboardist Amina Claudine Myers is the beating heart of the soulful Chicago avant-garde that enraptured me as a teenager and shaped so much of my tastes then and since. Arts For Art, the organization that helps present Vision Festival, has done more to keep the flame of this music strain alive when we can’t gather than anyone else. They outdid themselves with a birthday set by the great one herself on solo piano.

In the same room they’ve used for other streams, Arts for Art deployed their typically excellent sound design and production values. Every vibrant note rang out of the piano and washed over me, almost making me forget I was so many miles away, watching it on Youtube.

A long ballad with sparse, affecting lyrics floated on chords that seemed to play in the dappled Sunday sunlight when I watched this. A speedier, percussive, swinging piece used clusters of notes to make me feel the pounding in my chest a little more deeply. 

For this hour of her birthday, Myers treated us to gorgeous conversations with the universe, her intense history of the piano, and with the core goal of turning personal expression into a deeply felt sense of connection with her chosen community. I was lucky to even be in the room, virtually, for this reminder of everything I love about music.

L-R: Ashton Lambert and William Porter in the Otterbein Departments of Theatre & Dance and Music production of “Into a Lamplit Room: the Songs of Kurt Weill.”
Photo By: Mark Mineart; provided by Otterbein

Into a Lamplit Room: The Songs and Life of Kurt Weill produced by Otterbein University

I hadn’t checked in with Otterbein University’s virtual offerings this season until now, and I regret I wasn’t able to make my schedule such to write a full preview of their delightful Kurt Weill tribute, which aired last week.

I’ve long been a fan of Weill, in my case going back to a Grandmother who loved standards (and placed “September Song” so high it was practically the star on the Christmas tree) and the Hal Willner compilation Lost in the Stars I found on a campus record store run during High School. 

And I love what Otterbein does. Their focus on very traditional, entertaining storytelling with rock-solid standards for singing and dancing occasionally lines up with my more idiosyncratic tastes for some of my favorite experiences in town – in recent years they gave us a Top Girls and a Fiddler on the Roof I still talk about. 

Into a Lamplit Room, a 2013 revue devised by CCM Musical Theatre chair Aubrey Berg with arrangements by Julie Spangler, soars. I hadn’t realized how much I missed what they do until watching this a stellar young cast of Emily Baggarly, Lucy Breedlove, Nijah Dent, Ashton Lambert, Kate Maniuszko, Victoria Mesa, William Porter, Max Pinson, Hannah Schmidt, Tru Stites, and Dean Yurecka splash a new coat of paint on these time-worn chestnuts. I apologize I didn’t capture who sings what – my press data just says there are no named characters. If someone wants to fill me in with the comments or in an email, I’d appreciate it.

Under the expert hands of director Thom Christopher Warren and musical director Lori Kay Harvey, Into a Lamplit Room balances the rat-a-tat-tat percussiveness and wordplay of these songs with a necessary acid irony befitting the times they were written and just as useful a tonic today.

 The former glows like a knife on finger-snapping romps through “Schicklgruber” (with expert use of split-screen), “Economics,” and a riotous “The Trouble With Women” sung by the women in the cast. 

Not every experiment works. There’s an off-kilter “Mack The Knife” that tries too hard to put the sociopathic narrator in a social context and falls flat – though the gorgeous black and white footage of the cast at Westerville hotspot Asterix made me miss that bar with a visceral pang.

At its best, Into a Lamplit Room summed up what I love about these songs and gave me fresh ears. The cast’s women harmonizing and trading off on a brittle, wrenching “The Soldier’s Wife” stunned me. A breathtaking “Pirate Jenny” made the line “And you yell, ‘Why the hell do they spare that one?’” hit like an acid-tipped dagger. A duet on “Moon Faced, Starry Eyed” was ribald perfection and a crackling showcase for Stella Hiatt Kane’s always dazzling choreography. A bravura “Cry. The Beloved Country” excellently used footage around the Short North without detracting from the jaw-dropping singing.

I want to take a moment to highlight the stellar production values. Otterbein takes deserved pride in the technical side of their theatrical education department and Warren, Harvey, Kane, scenic designer Rob Johnson, and costume designer Rebecca White, with special attention to Avery Barrett’s stage managing, T. J. Gerckens’ lighting and the sound design team of Doc Davis and Kailey Miller, made something that sounds and looks every bit as good as it does in their big concert hall. It’s a tremendous achievement and a hell of a lot of fun.

"Hey, Fred!" live music

Things I’ve Been Digging – 03/15/2021

From left: Ethan Iverson, Thomas Morgan, Andrew Cyrille. Taken from stream and edited.

Ethan Iverson Trio at Smalls

I raved about Ethan Iverson’s vibrant new record Bud Powell in the 21st Century in last month’s playlist. In place of a record release, Iverson convened a top-tier rhythm section to play one of the temples of classic bop, Smalls, in a set of almost entirely Powell and Thelonious Monk compositions.

Andrew Cyrille on drums, 81, is an inspiration. I’ve been a fan for almost as long as I’ve cared about jazz – my gateway came from his work with Cecil Taylor, especially buying Unit Structures at 18 and hearing him power the rhythm of the massive, undulating machine – and he’s blown me away with reeds players like John Carter and Bill McHenry. Still, there’s a particular delight watching him lock in with a piano player. Thomas Morgan on bass brought vital color and dancing propulsion to recent Bill Frisell and Henry Threadgill records.

The two sets here are a clinic in how much life there is in these songs. It’s no exaggeration to say I probably own 30 versions of the opening tune here – Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” – and I’ve heard it at least 200 times over 20+ years of assiduous show-going. Those first notes brushed any preconception away, and I listened with grinning, childlike glee like the first time.

At once point, Iverson says, “It feels great to play,” and that joy suffuses everything in these sets: the interlocking handoffs on “Bouncing With Bud;” the long solo piano intro building to a luxurious simmer of “I’ll Keep Loving You;” the explosive, contained cacophony on “52nd Street Theme” with Iverson’s gleaming, sharpened attack rubbing up against Morgan’s thick, declarative notes and Cyrille’s hooky patterns.

Smalls has reopened to limited capacity audiences, and as great as the no-audience streams are, as lucky as I feel to have them, there’s a distinct difference in the vibration of these shows, even having ten people in the audience creates the feedback loop I’m missing and, as I see it close on the horizon, makes me miss being in the room with the music very much.

"Hey, Fred!" live music

Things I’ve Been Digging – 03/08/2021

More thinking about absent friends and the circles they ran in, especially as this weekend brought news a missing friend’s body was found. RIP Lane Campbell. And this weekend was the anniversary of another friend’s death, Melissa Bontempo. Two of the biggest music fans I was ever lucky enough to know among many, many other fine qualities.

From left; Charles Wetherbee, Marisa Ishikawa, Ariana Nelson, Korine Fujiwara; taken from stream and edited

Carpe Diem String Quartet – Ancestors on 03/07/2021

Carpe Diem String Quartet have been one of the Columbus music scene’s gems for 15 years, straddling the line between the classic quartet repertoire and brand new work from living composers. Their stream this week was a brilliant example of how well they work both sides of that line.

The quartet kicked off their program with the founding father of the modern string quartet. Their jubilant thrill-ride take on Haydn’s “Opus 76, No. 1,” amplified and underlined the sense of invention and play and the different forms rubbing against and sparking with one another, sacrificing none of the piece’s intense emotional impact.

They closed with Erberk Eryılmaz’s dazzling fireworks display and deep dive into the folk music of Thrace, “Tracian Airs of Besime Sultan.” Bold spinning dances and sudden fires as the quartet zoomed in and out of the most microscopic details, shining a light on them like an Elizabeth Bishop villanelle then pulling back to show us the whole undulating landscape.

As great as those pieces were, I came for the world premiere in the middle and it more than lived up to my high expectations. Mark Lomax II has been at the highest tier of Columbus’s best composers for a long time. The world got to experience that brilliance with wider recognition of his epic 400: An Afrikan Suite in 2019. 

When interviewing him about that masterpiece for a preview, it surprised me that Lomax had less luck breaking into the classical/chamber music worlds, with quartets and even a ballet that weren’t produced. With recent connections to the Wexner Center and the Johnstone Fund, that’s happily started to change in recent years. This world premiere of the entirety of “String Quartet No. 1” continues that much-needed corrective arc.

Partly inspired by his Grandfather and two other elders who were important to him, Lomax also made connections to the more than 500,000 people we lost this year in a soaring four-movement work of tribute and memory that never succumbs to despair. The opening movement uses long tones and swirling harmonies to evoke a home-going ceremony, rapturous cries bubble up and recede.

The second movement, “Reflection,” ripples with bouncing pizzicato and dialogue between the strings. Some of the most joyous writing and playing in the entire piece shows up here and the kind of uncanny tightness you only see in this sort of ensemble from players who know one another this intimately; this was the section of the piece that reminded me most of Lomax’s jazz writing, the catchy but always surprising rhythms and the sense of trust in the players.

“Acceptance,” the third movement, orbits around a haunting, evolving viola melody from Korine Fujiwara as the rest of the quartet creates a world for that line to inhabit. “Soul in Flight” ends the piece with high, sliding, and soaring lines swirling around a singing cello from Ariana Nelson.

It’s remarkable work from one of my favorite composers and, looking at death again both near and far as I said in the preface, it was exactly the balm I needed on a down Sunday evening. A brilliantly arranged and ordered program that makes me want to get out and see something as soon as I responsibly can.

This is still available on YouTube for an indeterminate amount of time:

Playlist record reviews

Monthly Playlist – February 2021

Thinking a lot about absent friends lately, and I’m sure that colored these choices. But usual winter melancholy and spiraling showed up, so I tried to counteract that with as much dancing as possible. Courtesy of Hype Machine, a merch table for this playlist:

Continue reading for notes on these songs.

"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre visual art

Things I’ve Been Digging – 03/01/2021

Clockwise from top left: Sarah Hollis, Chris Gardner, Naïma Hebrail Kidjo; taken from stream and edited

Iseult et Tristan by Pia Wilson

One of the great landmarks of New York underground experimental theater, La MaMa ETC, continues bringing exciting, vibrant work as it transitions to a digital space. Monday’s entry in the Experiments series was a brilliant example of how classic, almost archetypal stories can be repurposed and still resonate in our shared here and now.

Writer Pia Wilson resurrected the centuries-old love triangle of Iseult (Naïma Hebrail Kidjo), Margot (Sarah Hollis), and Tristan (Chris Gardner). She placed these old-as-time feelings in the milieu of contemporary New York with Iseult as a boxer, fresh out of rehab, under the tutelage of her retired boxer sister and her sister’s man struggling with some issues of his own.

Sympathetically directed by Susan Dalian in this zoom reading, the specifics of the setting hit with the concentrated fury of targeted punches as the characters danced around each other and their own pain. Lines drew blood like Iseult’s devastating “How do you do your life sentence in a cage of skin and blood? I don’t know how to do this life sentence.”

This is still viewable at for I don’t know how long.

November at CCAD’s Beeler Gallery

My first art exhibit of the year and it felt like the first air in my lungs after being submerged in dark water. All the art institutions here are doing a great job with capacity limits, timed ticketing, contact tracing. Those steps make me feel mostly comfortable doing an activity that gave me the most joy before the pandemic even while I’m not as at ease doing it, always watching to see who is in the room and how close we are to one another. 

For the last several years, the Columbus College of Art and Design’s main exhibition space, Beeler Gallery, has carved out its own vital, unique space in our crowded art world. This multi-artist exhibition, November, was curated by alum Heather Taylor for the uncertainty and challenge of the 2020 election and pushed back due to a record-high wave of cases. 

These works stand up to the different but still present anxiety and tension of the moment because they were built already dealing with the layers of historical rage, sadness, and mistreatment. The unifying thread among these pieces is the sad certainty that what we all went through wasn’t a blip but a coalescence, a locus, a culmination; a clear-eyed desire to understand and respond to move forward.

Each of the artists brought something personal and sharp to this call and Taylor’s curation – and whichever preparators she worked with – shines in the way they speak to one another. Benjamin Willis’ gripping self-portraits in a warm, textured light played with Dawn Kim’s punching layers of The Apprentice soundtrack over a C-Span litany of contenders walking into Trump Tower in early 2017. 

Some of the highlights were full-room installations. Bobby T. Luck’s Drapetomania, or The Disease Causing Negroes to Run Away presented a breathtaking collage knocking the breath out of my lungs. Luck plays with our inability to connect and the sea of media buffeting us at every step and forcing a hard look at who chooses the prevailing images of a group – in this case, specifically black Americans – and why. 

Calista Lyon used old-school overhead projectors to dive into colonialism’s impact on the Crimson Spider Orchid, stitching together history and an almost apocalyptic warning in deep duende, amplified by the nostalgia of that humming light and the pink cast of the walls. 

There’s so much to unpack in this triumphant exhibition and it runs for one more week (through March 6, 2021). For details and to reserve timed tickets, visit 

Farewell, Ace of Cups: Muswell Villebillies on 02/27/2021

Anne rightly points out that one key to not losing your mind in this time when we can’t see each other up close is finding ways to mark the things we’d usually get together to celebrate or mourn. The value of that approach was affirmed and its limits tested this Saturday as Marcy Mays said goodbye to her time owning Ace of Cups.

For the last decade, Ace made itself indispensable to the Columbus rock and roll scene, filling a specific gap. We had great clubs since Little Brothers closed but we missed that size of room with a rock-centered booking approach but casting a wide tent (and using the best existing bookers in town) while also being open for bar hours and serving as a central clubhouse for many of us.

Ace of Cups’ greatest successes came from its unshakable faith in and deep love for our shared community – Columbus’s and the larger rock and roll scene. I lost count of the number of birthdays (including Anne’s and her Mom’s) we celebrated, the people we mourned, the out-of-town friends who wanted to come back, and the great times we shared. I also lost count of the number of musicians who wanted to play Ace – sometimes hadn’t been to Columbus in many years – because of their longstanding friendship with Marcy going back to her days in Scrawl.

That sense of community was all over this final show as Ace transitions to a new owner – Conor Stratton who comes highly recommended by every friend of mine involved and with a proven track record including the exciting Yellow Springs Springfest. First, by continuing a long partnership with neighbors Lost Weekend Records, owned by scene stalwart (and the gold standard for stage managers) Kyle Siegrist, for Lost Weekend’s 18th-anniversary celebration.

That community pumped through the veins of this show in the people playing too. The core of two of this town’s favorite cover-bands-for-people-who-hate-cover-bands, The Randys (Dave Vaubel and Jon Beard) and Popgun (Joey Hebdo and Tony McClung) teamed up with guitarist and producer of too many bands to count Andy Harrison in a gloriously fun Kinks tribute act, the Muswell Villebillies, aided by key members of New Basics Brass Band, Tim Perdue on trumpet and Tony Zilinick on trombone and sousaphone, on key tunes.

The players had a great time leaning into some of the great pop songs of the middle of the 20th century and the Kinks’ wide-ranging appetite for fusing disparate, sometimes discarded styles and making something new out of them along with the almost ravenous taste for melancholy in these songs made for an appropriate sendoff to a place we love so much.

That hunger for connection in tunes like “All of My Friends Were There” with its lines about “I’m thinking of the days – I won’t forget a single day, believe me;” “Picture Book;” “Party Line” with its warm paranoia, “I wish I had a more direct connection,” cut deeper than I expected, watching from my couch. 

The set drove home that longing – not being in the room to hug people and give it a proper goodbye as I did with other rooms I loved so much in their last days, Little Brothers and Larry’s here, Lakeside Lounge in New York immediately come to mind – on tunes tailor-made for it, Ray Davies’ wincing look at childhood on “Come Dancing” and a wrenching turn through one of the most beautiful songs of the 20th century, “Waterloo Sunset,” with guest vocals by Mays.

Part of what made this band work so beautifully is the best work of most of these players comes in reconfiguring and enlivening structures. There weren’t a lot of deconstructionist impulses on display and you don’t want it for this kind of repertory band. The key to breathing life into these classic songs is trusting them and loving them on their own terms and the distinct players’ skillsets and ability to find space within both the song and the unit of the band shone brightly.

McClung’s heavy post-Elvin Jones drumming – I’ve compared him to Columbus’ “Tain” Watts a few times – snaps everything into place here, with the supple rhythm section rounded out by Vaubel’s crisp, melodic bass and Beard’s blood-pumping surges on barrelhouse piano, silent-cinema organ, and beer-garden accordion. 

Within that framework, Hebdo leaned into the aggressive affectation of Davies’ phrasing, not making the mistake of trying to make things more natural to our ears, turning over the words and their rhythm as they were set in stone. Harrison’s crackling guitar and gets space to play as the horns lift everything up with punctuation and announcement.

I’ll miss you, Ace. I look forward to seeing what you bring us in the future. And I look forward to catching this band when I can dance with my friends and sing along in the open air.

This is still viewable for an indeterminate length of time: 

"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 02/22/2021

Seth Soulstein from Hotel Good Luck, image taken from official website of the production

Hotel Good Luck by Alejandro Ricaño, presented by Cherry and New Ohio Theater

I’ve liked New Ohio’s work for a long time – they’re always on the short list of companies I check for whenever I’m in New York – and they have taken their ethos of brand new work that simultaneously vibrates with the pulse of the avant-garde and packs a deep emotional punch and found a path to present that vital work in our distanced environment and sacrificing very little in translation.

The newest, striking example of this crucial work came in partnership with the Cherry Artists Collective. Hotel Good Luck, from acclaimed Mexican playwright Alejandro Ricaño, hit hard in a stream from an empty theater in Ithaca, with an empathetic translation by Jacqueline Bixler and directed by Samuel Buggeln.

Hotel Good Luck uses the vibration of that empty theater to braid the metaphors of parallel universes and the solitary DJ for maximum loneliness. Bobby (Seth Soulstein) hunches over his turntables, spraying patter into the void and spinning records like a French version of “My Generation” when he discovers a gateway into other universes.

The irrevocability of death is baked into the Minotaur’s maze Bobby runs, backed by haunting cello lines and the confounding guidance of his psychologist and quantum physicist Larry (Desmond Bratton, also composer of the original music he plays). 

The work also teases the frustration of figuring out where in the world – which world – any of us belongs. As Bratton declaims, right as answers start to appear in front of our hero but without solidity, “You be a disc jockey without listeners and I’ll be a therapist without patients! There is no original universe, Bobby. There is a universe you belong to but I don’t know how you get back there.” 

The two performances and Buggeln’s beguiling direction, creating enough space to drift through but always knowing when to focus, made this dazzling play sing.

From left: Adrian Lester, Danny Sapani, from Hymn. Image taken from official website of the production

Hymn by Lolita Chakrabarti, presented by Almeida Theater

My first – alas, so far only – trip to London made me fall in love with so much I expected to (The Tate Modern, The V&A, Southbank) and things that weren’t even on my radar before. Almeida is top of that latter list, a contemporary theater doing everything right, from the cafe to sightlines to starting on time to their selection of work.

Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti hit my radar through one of my favorite institutions, St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. In 2013, St Ann’s presented the American premiere of Red Velvet, based on the true story of Ira Eldridge, the first black American to play Othello on the West End, starring Chakrabarti’s husband Adrian Lester, fresh off a smoking-hot London run.

Rolling the dice on an actor I was a fan of and a presenter who’d never let me down, I was enraptured. Later, I saw and reviewed a very good production at Ohio State’s theater department, proving the play wasn’t reliant on just that symbiotic relationship between star and writer.

Almeida’s transitioned to virtual shows that pack almost the same punch as being in their theater and I was overjoyed to wake up in time to catch the new Chakrabarti play, Hymn, streamed at 10 am my time (3 pm in London), starring Adrian Lester as Gilbert, the only known son of a local dry cleaner and upstanding member of the community, and Danny Sapani as the half-brother he didn’t know he had until a notice of their father’s funeral brings their orbits into collision.

In a taut 90 minutes, Hymn delves into what family and friendship mean, and the tracks left by the enormous shadow of a charismatic and loved father. Those impressions hit the two men in different ways but confirm presence and absence can both be suffocating and everything we live through has to be navigated.

The piece is bookended – after a whiplash prologue of Benny (Sapani) at the end of his rope, roaring at a bartender – by two eulogies, each delivered by one brother. The struggle to sum up a life in a few well-chosen words reverberates through the acid-burned snapshots that string the rest of the play together.

Music strings together this sudden, late-life friendship, staring from Sapani’s righteous takes on an evocative “Lean On Me,” and a furious read of the ominous Temptations classic “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” through ‘80s classics like Full Force’s “Alice, I Want You Just For Me,” “Rapper’s Delight,” and a big UK hit I had to look up, “Street Tuff” by Rebel MC and Double Trouble, even into an ironic twisting of “Gettin’ Jiggy With It.”

The script brilliantly lets the physicality of these two men imply whole lives we only see glimpses of and highlights how little we – especially men – know each other, how hard we have to dig. McIntyre (who also directed The Writer which I saw at Almeida) uses the sparse set to evoke space and time, melting the scenes together organically with almost imperceptible transitions until suddenly the transition is a crash.

Grappling with self-awareness sparks heartbreaking moments at the end of the play. A haunted Lester saying “It’s the silence that breaks your heart,” looking at a suit in plastic. Sapani, summoning all his strength, sums up his brother with “The pieces of your life you think are missing are not necessarily the right ones…Gil tried so hard to play his notes in the right order but there is no right order, is there?”

We all have to reckon with that lack of a right order to find any semblance of peace. Hymn knows the joy in trying to live, if we let ourselves, but never forgets how much work it requires.

Frank Lacy’s Trombonivers at Smalls, image taken from stream and edited

Frank Lacy’s Trombonivers at Smalls

One of the great things about Smalls in its public incarnation was – through their late-night jam sessions – they provided more public showing-your-ass stage time for young players than anywhere else in the current state of moneyed Manhattan, while still having the core house band be professional enough that if things went south it didn’t go on so long it drove the post-midnight crowd back up to 10th Street.

Great trombone player and bandleader Frank Lacy also has a reputation as a great teacher and encourager of young talent. For a vibrant Smalls set that brought tears to my eyes and made me dance around the room, he convened 8 fellow trombone players across the spectrum of experience – Corey Wilcox, Rashaan Salaam, Corey Wallace, Colman Hughes, Alevtina Wilcox, James Rodgers, Jacob Melsha, Maxine Troglauer – along with a sizzling rhythm section of Felix Moseholm on bass, Evan Sherman on drums, and Jon Elbaz on piano.

Appropriate for Fat Tuesday, that instrumentation soared through strutting New Orleans material with teeth like Ellis Marsalis’s “Nostalgic Expressions.” They also played with dynamics, harmonies like slow molasses seeping into a holy river then evaporating into colored smoke on a ballad original of Lacy’s. That ballad, with an insinuating, punchy bassline from Moseholm melted into one of the great ballads, Monk’s “Crepuscule for Nellie, with the horns capturing all that kaleidoscopic color, bouncing back and forth between dramatic punctuation and a silken waltz.

Probably my favorite – or at least most surprising – tune from the set was a funky dance take on Wayne Shorter’s “Palladium,” a highlight from the first Weather Report record I bought as a kid. Explosions of dive-bomb harmony with a thick, sultry bottom and a particularly smoking drum solo from Sherman which hinted at the Latin elements of the original without falling into cliches.

"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 02/15/2021

Livelabs: On Love by Mfoniso Udofia presented by MCC Theater 

I saw a reading of Mfoniso Udofia’s In Old Age in a Chelsea rehearsal space as part of a Page 73 reading series. I’ve never been so glad I made one choice over the carnival ride multiplicity of delights on a New York City afternoon; within five minutes, I knew this is one of the great voices of my time.

For all its troubles and difficulty, this enforced streaming age – at its best – makes these voices available to a wide range of people all at once. MCC’s Livelabs series does a great job bringing new work at affordable prices through its youtube channel. I got reacquainted with Udofia’s crackling writing with its layered depth of feeling via On Love, expertly directed by Awoye Timbo.

These vignettes turned the prism of love around and played with different refracted light, between Eros and Agape, from Ludus to Mania, exposing the very different impressions these loves leave and how thin the barriers between them are. With a crackling cast spanning superstars like Keith David to Broadway heroes like Anastacia McClesky and rising Off-Broadway mavens Antwayn Hopper, everyone delivered.

Using perfectly carved moments. On Love opened us to these characters hinted at whole worlds and lives. There wasn’t a person I met for these few minutes I didn’t want to know for a full-length play. I want to see every person in this – especially those new to me – in something else. And more than anything else, this made me hungry for more of Udofia’s writing.

Tim Easton, taken from stream and edited

Tim Easton – The Truth About Us 20th Anniversary

In early 2001, Columbus’s treasured son Tim Easton made his entrance onto a wider national stage with his second solo album, The Truth About Us. For this debut with ascendent label New West Records, Tim Easton recruited an all-star lineup, including producer Joe Chiccarelli (Lone Justice, Steve Wynn, Oingo Boingo) and the core of Wilco at the time (multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, bassist John Stirratt, and drummer Ken Coomer as the backing band. 

Easton and Chiccarelli augmented that sturdy core with guests of the highest order – Mark Olson and Victoria Williams singing on one track, Petra Haden’s haunting violin, Bruce Kaphan’s pedal steel, Kat Maslich on vocals, and local confederates like Chris Burney (who’d been playing bass for him on the road and would soon lead underrated Warner Brothers rock act The Sun).

Like many songwriters, Easton uses this pandemic to webcast from his home – including trying out new songs and dialoguing with old friends like JP Olsen. Last week, in honor of its 20th anniversary, he revisited The Truth About Us from front to back. He peppered the set with reminisces about its making – including fond recollections of everyone who worked with him on it.

That hour and a half was a powerful nostalgia trip, remembering trudging through the snow to Little Brothers for the release show – great Cleveland band Rosavelt backing and opening for Easton – with my roommate at the time. It also reminded me how well the songs hold up two decades later.

At its best, The Truth About Us grapples with the very concept of truth and its value. Trying to understand people’s motivations, and his own, to get out of the writer’s own way, while also trying to find their place inside an “us.”

Around the time of this record, I saw many shows – frequently local – and listened to a lot of records with my friend Heather, now based solidly in LA. Easton’s deceptively easy-going manner and charm put her off, feeling like its truths weren’t as hard-fought as her favorite writers: “It’s all good, but it comes too easily to him.” 

The one song she made an exception for was the second song on The Truth About Us: “Carry Me,” a plea for forgiveness and an accounting. The tune hides a knife in its gentleness: a catchy, fingerpicked lilt that drifts from “People love you like a diamond in their hand, but they don’t know that diamond like I do” through “It was selfish to think you’d be better off just ‘cause I wanted to be further along,” into “Here comes that old devil midnight and I have not slept in days.” Hearing him do this one again, with just that acoustic guitar, chilled my blood.

“Happy Now,” always one of my favorite hooks Easton wrote – in a period he wrote more jangling, haunt-your-sleep choruses than anyone else in town – reasserted a psychological weight I didn’t give it credit for at the time. I’d never seen a Rauschenberg combine when I heard that song, and I’d barely graced the surface of cut-ups as a form, so the accretion of collaged emotional details took me a while. Stripped from the Byrds chime of the guitar and the grooving Kinksish organ on the record, the depth of feeling hit harder. 

Verses paint people in crisis, a tattoo parlor owner’s wife screaming at him, “You’re ruining me somehow”; a man jumping a roof to find the same callous disregard in death – “He wanted them to miss him, that was part of the plan, but nobody ever even gave a damn. Are you happy now? They were laughing as you went down;” a woman in her front yard praying with the prayers answered by, “Nobody knew what to do or what to say; the traffic light changed, and we just drove away.” s the chorus taunting “Are you happy now” with the sinking suspicion the narrator’s turning on himself.

The obsessive ramble that always recalled Elizabeth Bishop to me, “I Would Have Married You,” retained its keening, searching power in this format. Easton rightly called out the magnificence of Petra Haden’s violin – this was the first I’d heard of her, and her playing drove me to pick up my first That Dog record – Maslich’s harmonies and Kaphan’s moaning steel.

Easton’s affection for people and memory for detail is the not-so-secret engine that’s powered his career and created the longevity he enjoys. This evening was a reminder of that joy, as much as the record is. Nowhere does that manifest more than in his long-running friendship with JP Olsen. The two songs on The Truth About Us not penned by Easton come from Olsen: “Bad Florida,” a standout on my sleeper pick for best Columbus album, Burn Barrel’s Reviled!, and last-call promise from Olsen’s band The Beetkeepers, “Don’t Walk Alone.” The latter closes the record and imbues Olsen’s razor-sharp words and sly melody with a greater earnestness as he  bolsters the anthemic qualities of the chorus with surging backing vocals and my favorite Haden string parts here. That anthem recast clings to his arrangement, even with the elements stripped away.

This is still viewable on Tim Easton’s official Facebook page.