Sha Na Na: Still Rockin’ After All These Years

SNN-logo[1]By Chuck Obuchowski

Larger, longer and louder rock festivals have come along since 1969, but none have managed to duplicate the musical and countercultural magic of Woodstock. Hendrix, Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane … so many seminal 60s bands, playing all day and night, through rain and shine.

A few new artists were also thrust into the national spotlight that weekend. Santana is the one most people remember, but – shortly before the festival ended – there was another unknown group who managed to excite the dwindling crowd: Sha Na Na. As the bedraggled masses awaited Jimi Hendrix’s finalé, a dozen guys in 1950s attire and hairstyles burst onstage at 7:30 a.m. on August 18 to deliver an adrenaline-charged set of oldies.

Starting with “Get a Job” (whose doo-wop chorus had spawned their name), the band roused the weary festival goers with euphoric pre-psychedelic fare like “At the Hop,” Wipe Out” and “Duke of Earl.” Even though popular music had changed dramatically since 1962 – as Hendrix’s set would demonstrate an hour later – Sha Na Na proved that early rock ‘n’ roll still had the capacity to get bodies in motion.

As out-of-place as the band may have seemed at Woodstock, their impact was immediate. First there was a recording contract, and before long, headlining tours all across the country. In the middle of a burgeoning hard rock scene, and the rise of folk-influenced singer-songwriters, Sha Na Na almost single-handedly began a resurgence of interest in 1950s music and culture.

Astoundingly, Sha Na Na is still around today to chant what founding member John “Jocko” Marcellino calls their mantra: “rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay!” Touring in celebration of their 45th anniversary, Donny York, another co-founder, remains onboard, as does Screamin’ Scott Simon.

Jocko refers to the band’s live performances as “organized frenzy.” The current seven-member line-up returns to Infinity Music Hall this Sunday at 7:30 p.m. with a show that will include 12 songs featured on the über-popular “Grease” film soundtrack from 1978. Sha Na Na appeared in the movie under the alias of Johnny Casino and the Gamblers; they originally contributed six songs but have now added others originally sung by co-stars Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, including “Sandy,” co-written by Scott Simon.

Although the band has released about 20 records, Sha Na Na continues to receive highest accolades for its live shows, which typically include various costumes, props, audience sing-alongs, lots of dancing, even a couple a cappella numbers. That said, the group will have its latest release, “Greaser High School Hop,” for sale after Sunday’s performance, and band members be happy to sign copies, according to Jocko.  Tickets are still available for Sha Na Na’s Infinity Hall show here!

The drummer/vocalist fondly recalls his family crowding around the TV to watch Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. As a kid in Quincy, Mass., Jocko enjoyed hearing his older brothers’ 45s (singles). All that early listening has served him well. Now, several generations of fans are enjoying Sha Na Na’s ongoing salute to the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll. Yeah, as Jocko and his comrades insist, grease is still the word!

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Jane Monheit Pays Tribute To An American Icon: Judy Garland

By Chuck Obuchowski

mhollerjmonheit_13When Jane Monheit makes her annual visit to Infinity Hall this Saturday, she’ll be presenting a new program called Hello Bluebird – Celebrating the Music of Judy Garland.

Monheit has never hidden her admiration for the star-crossed Ms. Garland who – despite lifelong personal travails – enriched many lives with her tremendous singing and acting abilities. One of Monheit’s most frequently performed songs is “Over the Rainbow,” which Garland first sang in the 1939 film classic “The Wizard of Oz.” She often mentions Garland as one of her main influences, alongside jazz vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn and a handful of contemporary pop vocalists, including Bonnie Raitt and Stevie Wonder.

Among the Garland favorites you might hear on Saturday are “The Sweetest Sound,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” and “The Boy Next Door.” Monheit’s longstanding trio is sure to bring new sparks to these and other Garland standards. Pianist Michael Kanan, bassist Neal Miner and drummer Rick Montalbano (Jane’s husband) exhibit an uncanny rapport that’s been developed through years of touring and recording together.

Last year’s The Heart of the Matter, Monheit’s ninth studio album, featured her usual mix of American Songbook standards, pop tunes and Brazilian songs, plus an original composition “Night Night Stars,” inspired by her son Jack. It marked her second collaboration with producer/arranger Gil Goldstein, who added orchestral touches and other instrumental colors to the basic piano trio format.

Her Hello Bluebird performances on this tour may well become the framework for Monheit’s next recording. After Saturday’s performance, the singer heads to the Midwest, and then on to California. She’ll be back in New York, her current hometown, for a couple guest appearances with the John Pizzarelli Quartet at the end of May.

At 36, Jane Monheit is one of the most popular jazz vocalists of her generation. It seems like she’s been on the scene forever; has it really been 15 years since my first encounter with her music?

In November 1999, I was one of the organizers of a concert celebrating the centennial of Duke Ellington’s birth at The University of Hartford. Joel Frahm, a fine saxophonist whose quartet would be headlining the event, asked if it would be okay if a friend of his joined the group to sing a couple Ellington hits during their set.

“You probably haven’t heard of her, but – trust me – you’ll be hearing a lot about her soon,” Joel assured me.

It seemed like a nice idea to add a vocal element to an otherwise instrumental concert, but I couldn’t have anticipated the impact Jane Monheit would have on the audience that night. Although she sang for less than 15 minutes, Monheit received thunderous applause and a standing ovation. She had just turned 22, and her debut recording wouldn’t be issued for another six months, but Jane made a lot of instant fans that evening.

Jane Monheit is no overnight sensation. She’s worked hard for her recognition, shaping her sound over the course of many tours and guest spots on more seasoned artists’ gigs and recordings. Now that she’s an established leader herself, she’s able to entertain and entrance an audience. Hear for yourself on Saturday at 8 p.m.  Tickets are still available for her show by clicking here!

An Interview with James Hunter

Emily Edelman recently talked with James Hunter about his new record, his songwriting process and more!  The James Hunter Six will be performing at Infinity Hall on Thursday, April 17th at 8pm.  Tickets are still available!  Have a listen!


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This Is What Sexy Hamburgers Sound Like – An Interview with Jake Huffman of The McLovins

by Author Griffin (@AuthorGriffin)

Officer Michaels: McLovin?
Fogell: Yeah.
Officer Michaels: Great name.
Officer Slater: It is, it just rolls off the tongue.
Officer Michaels: Sounds like a sexy hamburger.

If you thought I was above doing movie quotes… you wrong.

Besides having the great name, I like The McLovins for myriad reasons, not least of which is that they’re good dudes with Connecticut roots and ties to the Hartt School, the University of Hartford’s vaunted comprehensive performing arts conservatory.

Like me!

I’m, in fact, a good dude with Connecticut roots and my friends Jennifer Hartswick of Trey Anastasio Band fame and Alan from Telefunken definitely attended Hartt, although, back when I hung out there they just called it the Hartt School of Music.

Aside from our shared backgrounds, The McLovins are an improvisational powerhouse of a live act and are also getting some incredibly promising results out of the studio, as is very evident in their latest full-length release, 2014′s Beautiful Lights. And I dig all that about them, too.

McLovins-WebI had a chance to speak with McLovins’ drummer Jake Huffman about the band and about Beautiful Lights in advance of their Infinity Hall show with The Interlopers on 4/20.

Griff: So the McLovins are just off of a couple of Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic runs already this year, your first ever shows in the region, how was it for you guys down there?

Jake: Yeah, in early January we went down to Miami and back, played about twenty one shows in three and half weeks. It was really fun and surprisingly successful and, you know, cool to see a new part of the country. We hit it again a couple weeks ago, we went back down to Georgia, hit Athens and Atlanta, came back up through the Carolinas. It’s definitely been a lot different because this is the first year we’ve been able to really break outside of our region, I think Philadelphia was the farthest South we’d gone for the last five years and now all of the sudden we’re all over the South East and this summer we’ll be going out to Colorado so it’s definitely exciting and different.

Griff: Touring the South beats playing New England in January, huh?

Jake: It was great, when everyone up North was getting hit with snow, we were relaxing on a beach in Miami, so definitely some perks.

Griff: Perks! Nice, we’ll take ‘em, right? So all this touring is in support of Beautiful Lights, your fourth full-length album, which was recorded back at Sonic Boom studios with your friend and former Spin Doctor Anthony Krizan. Now, I’ve always felt that comfort is a good prerequisite for art, meaning you do your best work in your most comfortable surroundings. Does it feel as though, at this point, that Sonic Boom is like your wheelhouse?

Jake: Yeah, you know, I totally agree with that. When you’re in a nice, comfortable environment you’re going to do better than maybe you would in an unfamiliar place. We’ve known Anthony for years, we’ve written songs with him and we’ve even gone down just to hang out with him, not necessarily music-related so we’ve gotten to know him on a really personal level. Not only is the studio state-of-the-art and awesome to hang out at, there’s like tapestries all over the walls along with his gold and platinum records, but he’s so down-to-Earth and super cool himself. We were playing like probably 15 to 17 hours a day for a whole week and it was really relaxed but also really productive. Anthony doesn’t ever step on our toes in terms of songwriting, but when he does give suggestions they’re always really smart and we always take them. A lot of them are usually on vocal melodies and kind of the lead-type parts, but he just has a great mind, musically, and a great energy to be around and I think it came through. This is definitely our best record we’ve ever put out, it sounds a bit more mature, there’s more layers, but also we’re a little older and I think that came through as well, but yes, we do our best work with Anthony in his studio.

Griff: Awesome man, and I’m glad you clarified that point, that comfort doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not working hard, it’s just… comfy hard work. Next question, in reference to your song of the same title, is there a real ‘Tracy’?

Jake: (laughs)

Griff: (laughs) Or is that like a metaphor for the collective ghosts of girlfriends past?

Jake: Well, to be honest, I don’t know how to write, ahh… I don’t know how to fabricate stories so every song is definitely about something that has happened in my life so yes, there was a Tracy, although her name wasn’t Tracy. Of course, if you did any like Facebook detective work (laughs), I’m sure you could figure out who the real Tracy was, but it’s a very personal song and all the songs I write are about people I know or things that have happened to me.

Griff: Nice. No I hear that, I dabble in lyrics myself, published on a couple, two/three albums, nothing major, and I always envied the guys like Dylan, who could write fiction lyrically, I don’t know how to do that either. Now, I always ask this question the same way, what was the last disc in your player? And by disc I mean Spotify playlist, Pandora station, iTunes library, anything up to and including round pieces of plastic…

Jake: Tallest Man on Earth was the last thing I was listening to, The Gardener. Speaking of him, he’s kind of like a new age Bob Dylan, that’s kind of the style he goes for and I dig that. Before that it was Phoenix, I think.

Griff: Good stuff. Jake Huffman of The McLovins, thanks so much for taking the time and I for one am way psyched for your 4/20 show with The Interlopers.

Jake: Yeah we’re super excited for the Infinity Hall show ourselves. This summer, for us, is about breaking new territory, new ground so other than festivals, this will be our last show in Connecticut until probably November so…

Griff: So let’s do this! Jake, thank you brother.

Jake: Thanks Griff.

An Interview with Hubby Jenkins of the Carolina Chocolate Drops

Emily Edelman recently chatted over the phone with multi-instrumentalist, Hubby Jenkins, of the Carolina Chocolate Drops about the history of the band, the variety of instruments he plays and more!


The Carolina Chocolate Drops will perform at Infinity Hall on Wednesday, April 16th at 8 pm.  For more information on tickets, click here.

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Al Stewart’s Aural Cinema Still Oscar-Worthy

By Chuck Obuchowski

Ask any ten baby boomer pop fans what they know about Al Stewart. Six will remember him only as “that Year of the Cat guy”; three won’t have a clue. But listen carefully to what the tenth has to say. Those comments will spark your curiosity, and – once you’ve heard his music – you just might find yourself seduced by the melodies and captivating tales conceived by this one-of-kind singer/songwriter.

Stewart, still looking fit and sounding fine at 68, returns to Infinity Hall this Sunday, April 6 for a 7:30 p.m. performance. He’ll be accompanied by guitarist/singer Dave Nachmanoff, who’s been a frequent collaborator for nearly 10 years.

The Californian multi-instrumentalist plays and sings with Stewart on Uncorked, a live recording released in 2009. Longtime fans may have been wary of Nachmanoff initially, since Stewart’s previous musical partner, Peter White, was such an incredibly talented and tasteful acoustic guitarist. White, who now enjoys a successful career in smooth jazz, made significant contributions to Stewart’s music for two decades; he even shared writing credits on the well-known “Time Passages.”

alanddaveDave Nachmanoff and Al Stewart (photo credit: David Miller)

Once given the opportunity to tour with his mentor, Nachmanoff quickly won over audiences. One listen to Wordless Rhymes, Nachmanoff’s album from 2005, not only reveals his mastery of Stewart’s material; it also demonstrates his impeccable musicianship – and his originality. The record contains 10 instrumental interpretations of previously recorded Al Stewart compositions, expertly arranged and performed on various instruments by Nachmanoff. For example, in Dave’s hands “Year of the Cat” becomes a madcap fusion of flamenco and bluegrass.

Stewart grew up in the UK, Nachmanoff in Alexandria, VA – but each has called California home for quite awhile. Onstage, the two seem like old pals, sharing stories and jokes, blending their guitars and voices effortlessly. Many of Stewart’s songs from the 70s and 80s – originally adorned with electric guitars, multiple keyboards and Alan Parson’s lavish production – actually work as well, or better, in their current, two-man concert configurations.

Asked by a Canadian interviewer in 2012 to describe his songs, Stewart replied “it’s aural cinema. I want to show you a movie when I’m playing a song. That’s essentially what I’m doing.”

Stewart has always sought to stimulate the listener’s imagination. In 1966, his very first single, “The Elf,” created fantastical images with film-like precision. Granted, a lot of his other early lyrics focused on love and relationships, but usually managed to transcend songwriting clichés. By the time of his first American release, Past, Present and Future (1974), he was writing epics about the German invasion of the Soviet Union during World War ll (“Roads to Moscow”) and 16th century soothsayers (“Nostradamus”). Besides history, Stewart’s subject matter over time has expanded to include geography, literature, early rock & roll, fine wines and politics.

This might lead some to fear that the man’s songs are too wordy, but Stewart possesses a keen ear for catchy melodies and a knack for fashioning clever rhyme schemes. And he continues to be an enthralling storyteller. On his most recent studio release, 2008’s Sparks of Ancient Light, he holds one’s interest whether he’s recounting turmoil in Iran during the 1970s (“Shah of Shahs”), the fickle nature of fame (“Football Hero”), or a bizarre story of images a certain superstar claimed to see in the clouds one day in 1964 (“Elvis at the Wheel”).

Stewart’s 1976 hit single came after more than a decade of honing his craft, mostly gigging and recording in Great Britain. He’d already recorded seven albums as a leader before Year of the Cat brought him a taste of international stardom.

The Scottish-born vocalist discovered his passion for music during the skiffle craze of the 1950s, after his family relocated to England. Like most of his peers, young Al soon graduated to the music of first and second generation rockers. However, in 1964, inspired by Bob Dylan’s take on folk music, Stewart traded in his electric guitar for an acoustic model, and headed to London in search of a career.

It took him a few years to establish himself, but the fledgling singer/songwriter signed with the UK division of CBS Records in 1967. Musically, he remained committed to the acoustic guitar but began incorporating sounds and styles of the psychedelic era. Over the course of three albums, Stewart’s singing and composing matured, but it wasn’t until Past, Present and Future (and a new record contract with RCA) that everything fell into place. His reputation grew in the US, until his fame here actually eclipsed the attention he was receiving at home. Eventually, he moved to Los Angeles.

Although his songs remained as poignant as ever during the 1980s, Stewart failed to generate any more hits, thereby falling out of favor with the corporate music industry. He soldiered on, and has continued to record excellent music, with varied degrees of commercial success, for a number of independent record labels.

More than fifty years after Stewart began his artistic journey, his music – new and old – still touches people. He may not get to record as often, but happily, he still has the opportunity to tour. Are you prepared to be escorted through the past, present and future of Al Stewart’s cinematic songs? He and Dave Nachmanoff will gladly lead the sonic tour Sunday evening.

 

 

 

The Renaissance Woman Pulls Out All The Stops: Annie Haslam’s Band Returns to Infinity Hall Friday, April 4

By Chuck Obuchowski

annie-by-richard-barnes
During the heyday of progressive rock, the members of Renaissance carved out a unique niche for themselves. With few exceptions, their 1970s counterparts created complex music dominated by synthesizers and electric guitars. Song lyrics tended toward the fantastical, focusing on sci-fi, stoned metaphysics or unusual character sketches.

Renaissance, on the other hand, preferred more traditional sounds: grand piano, acoustic guitar, harpsichord and pipe organ (albeit synthesized) and real orchestrations (when they could afford them). Favored song topics included love, contemplation, historical tales and vivid portrayals of nature. Folk and classical music greatly influenced their original compositions.

But the band’s most distinct feature was undoubtedly Annie Haslam’s remarkable five-octave voice. She often employed classical vocal techniques rarely heard in rock music. Beyond that, Haslam was one of very few female prog rock vocalists at the time.

Before joining Renaissance, Haslam’s musical tastes were varied, but much different from the sounds that were to bring her international attention. She held Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez in high esteem, and also enjoyed listening to Leadbelly, Elvis Presley and trad jazz legends like King Oliver and Jack Teagarden. Her first exposure to progressive rock came through her boyfriend’s copy of “In the Court of the Crimson King,” the 1969 debut by King Crimson.

The rock music world has changed immeasurably since those halcyon days, yet Haslam remains determined to “carry on with Renaissance as long as my voice is good.” She has taken very good care of her instrument; as a woman in her mid-60s, she is still capable of bringing audiences to their feet with her soaring soprano crescendos.

Haslam’s fortitude has been tested greatly in the past six years. She’s had to contend with injuries and related health issues, deal with the challenges of a music industry in turmoil, and – most significantly – try to keep Renaissance afloat after the death of her dear friend and musical partner, Michael Dunford.

“You can never replace Micky; there’s no way,” she admitted during a recent interview, adding “it will always be Micky’s music.”

Dunford, the group’s guitarist and main composer, had joined Renaissance shortly before Haslam became lead vocalist in 1971. The group evolved in England, although Haslam has lived in the U.S. since 1989. Even when the band took several extended hiatuses, Dunford and Haslam kept in touch. In 2012, after the group completed sessions for their first recording of new material in over a decade, it seemed they were on the cusp of yet another period of rebirth. Sadly, Dunford’s death in November of that year cast serious doubt on that notion.

Haslam acknowledges that Dunford was the driving force behind Renaissance’s sound, as well as their undisputed leader. Yet, she realized that her colleague would have wanted them to continue, especially given that there was brand new music to be shared with their fans. On April 10, 2013, Renaissance played its first gig without Michael Dunford at Infinity Hall.
When Haslam took the stage that day for a soundcheck, she noticed a pink feather at the base of her microphone stand. As she explained during our interview, the appearance of a white feather can be interpreted as a message of comfort from a recently deceased loved one. So why was this one pink?

“I know that was to make me laugh!”

Ryche Chlanda assumed the unenviable role of taking over the guitar chair on last year’s tour but has since grown fond of his role in the current edition of Renaissance. The band that will perform at Infinity Hall on Friday, April 4 also includes pianist Rave Tesar and bassist David J. Keys both of whom have worked with Haslam for years. Newer members keyboardist Jason Hart and drummer Frank Pagano played on the most recent album and during the 2013 tour. All but Tesar contribute backing vocals. Ironically, the ensemble, so long associated with England, is now populated by Americans – and one British expatriate.

Haslam seems especially inspired by the strength and unity of the current line-up.

“We have a good time whenever we go out. I feel that people need to go home having had a good laugh. It’s not just about playing music … it’s about connecting with people’s energies … a lot of people have said of my voice that it has a healing sound. I guess it’s because of my intension that everything should be good that I can hopefully help people.”

“I’m going to be pulling out all the stops during the next few months to move things forward,” Haslam added, voicing her intent to return Renaissance to the spotlight once again.

To that end, the band recently enlisted Red River Entertainment to give their latest recording the worldwide distribution that it merits. They’ve re-titled it “Symphony of Light,” and are re-issuing the album on April 15 with new artwork by Haslam and three bonus tracks, including one written in Dunford’s memory, “Renaissance Man.” Copies will be available for purchase at Infinity Hall on April 4.

The new title track, dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci, “the original Renaissance Man,” harkens back to the band’s 1970s style. It’s a suite-like piece, featuring shifting melodies and tempos, which showcases Haslam’s majestic voice. She notes that Renaissance will include this track in their Infinity Hall concert, along with the former title song, “Grandine il Vento” (“Hail the Wind”), which also recalls their early orchestral tour-de-forces. The rest of the set will focus primarily on Renaissance favorites.

In recent years, Haslam has found a new creative outlet: painting. Although she regards most of her artwork as having little or nothing to do with her music, Haslam has recently begun to paint abstract impressions of a number of Renaissance songs. In fact, on the day we spoke, she had already finished two paintings inspired by her music and had begun a third, an 18’x24’ canvas based on the band’s only (British) hit single, “Northern Lights.” Clearly, Annie Haslam has become something of a Renaissance woman herself!

Following their Norfolk concert, Renaissance will embark on “A Crusie to the Edge,” headlined by prog rock stalwarts Yes, which departs from Miami on Monday, April 7. The five-day cruise promises to be a nostalgic journey for prog fans, featuring the likes of Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited, Tangerine Dream, members of Gentle Giant and the Soft Machine Legacy.

Listen to “Carpet of the Sun”:


Tickets for Renaissance:

http://www.infinityhall.com/events/renaissance/