Folked Up

Sorry to have disappeared like this, but it’s been a crazy few weeks here, with visitors galore and lots of stuff to do. It’s always nice having visitors, and the stuff to do was free, thanks to the generosity of the PR guy for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s music series which accompanies their re-opening New York exhibition.

Now, as readers of this blog know, I’ve had my problems with the organizers of this series, but after they screwed my plans up, I let it go. After all, there was nothing further I could do. But I was, on the other hand, offered tickets to any shows I wanted to see, so I took full advantage.

The series of shows I attended got off to a rocky start. Little Jimmy Scott is 82 years old and has never been in the best of health, but I knew it’d be at least an intermittently good show because he was travelling with his regular band, the Jazz Expressions, who are a tight, traditional post-bop band. Plus, it was the dancer’s birthday, and I suspected she’d enjoy this. The opening act could have gone either way, the weird combination of trombonist Roswell Rudd and acoustic ragtime guitarist Duck Baker. Well, it went one way: straight down. The series of concerts this was part of was the Broadway unit, so Rudd and Baker spent over an hour allegedly improvising a medley of Broadway tunes. There were some which were recognizable, and it started and ended with “Lullaby of Broadway,” but inbetween was pure wankery. My take on it was that Rudd and Baker know each other socially and when one of them — probably Rudd — got offered this gig, he went to the other and said “Wanna make some easy money and go to Europe at the same time?” Like an idiot, I sat through the whole thing, and it was excruciating. After the break, on came the Jazz Expressions, with a local tenor guy substituting for their regular saxophonist, and doing a good job at it. Finally, Jimmy Scott came out in a wheelchair, looking horribly emaciated. It was clear from the beginning that his breath control, pitch, and intonation are in pretty bad shape, although he did briefly catch fire during “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” All I could do was remember the early gigs I saw in 1991, when John Goddard at Village Music in Mill Valley flew him and the Expressions in for one of his parties at the Sweetwater in Mill Valley. I’ve got those memories — and, somewhere, the album he did shortly afterwards — but the Berliners in attendance (and there weren’t too many) only got to hear shadows.

The next night, I was back. I’d seen Maria Muldaur hanging around during the set-break the night before, and she was looking good, so I was looking forward to her gig. This time, I was prepared for the opener, which turned out to be one Masha Qrella, a local indie-rocker who had somehow convinced the people curating this event that she could do Broadway tunes. She, another guitar-playing woman, a guy with some odd-looking keyboards, and a drummer slunk onto stage, and wisps of feedback started, followed by a drone. “I have often walked/Down this stret before,” she intoned, “But the pavement always stayed beneath my teeth before.” Okay… I was up and out of my seat before the song ended. The schtick was “What if Joy Division played Broadway tunes?” Unsurprisingly the audience loved her. There’s always a market for gloom here, after all. I’m happy to say, though, that Maria was much better. She apparently hadn’t been aware that she was booked for the Broadway, and not the Greenwich Village series, and only learned that she was expected to play Broadway tunes when she landed. The fact that that’s not what she does didn’t seem to faze the organizers, who seem to have spent very little time trying to understand the music they were booking, and to her credit, she managed to come up with a bunch of material that could conceivably fall under “Broadway,” like playing a Fats Waller tune and reminding us that the revue of his songs called Ain’t Misbehavin’ was a success on Broadway. She was backed by a fantastic band, anchored by bassist Ruth Davis, and featuring a number of her long-time associates, and among the gems she pulled out of her song-bag was an obscure Leiber and Stoller number called “Some Cats Know,” which I have decided should be the Older Guy national anthem. Once again, though, the house was small — and smaller after the Qrella bunch left.

Next up was the Greenwich Village series, in which a few well-known names were paired with total unknowns that none of my New York sources could identify. This series was apparently co-curated by Jeff Lewis, who isn’t exactly a household name himself, but is apparently a neat songwriter, if Peter Stampfel’s word is to be trusted. Lewis led off the series himself, along with a poet named Professor Louie, but I missed the show. I did, however, respond to an invitation to see Bob Neuwirth do his thing, because one never knows what kind of odd song he’s going to pull out next, plus I was told that he’d be performing with David Mansfield, who’s as great a side-man as you could ask for. Opening was a talent-free (and totally un-folky) young guy named Ish Marquez, who brought along a large claque which he used as an excuse to stay on stage well past the time he was supposed to have left. This meant that Neuwirth’s set, which was being recorded by Radio Eins, wouldn’t be broadcast in its entirety, which is a shame, because it got better as it went along, except for the brief moment when a drunken middle-aged blond woman stood up and loudly declared “Dave Von Ronk.” This stopped Neuwirth in his tracks. “Dave van Ronk…um…so?” She just repeated the name (not getting it right on subsequent tries). Finally she sat down. The late start for Neuwirth’s set meant that I was too tired to stick it out, so about 12:30 I headed home, just as Mansfield began playing his fiddle. Damn.

To show how totally clueless the curators of this series were, the next booking was Joe Boyd, who’s touring Germany in support of the German translation of his book White Bicycles, and had brought Geoff Muldaur (Maria’s ex-husband, and Joe’s childhood friend and college roommate) along to provide musical interludes during the reading. Which is fine, except for one thing: this series was allegedly about the Greenwich Village folk scene, and the Cafe Global, where the folk stuff was presented, had been made over into a fake club with “Greenwich Village Folk Club” signs. And, if you’ve read Joe’s book (and by all means, you should: just click that link up there!), you know that he was firmly on the Cambridge side of the great Cambridge-vs.-New York folk debate, excoriating people like Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger and Dave van Ronk and building up, among others, the Jim Kweskin Jug band, which the Muldaurs were part of. Ah, well. At least the reading — in English and German, with a German reader — went well, and I must say Geoff Muldaur is in astonishing voice even today. Apparently he’d been touring in Holland, and had I known how good he was, I would have thought about going to see him. As it was, four or five numbers were clearly not enough to satisfy me.

Next up was Peter Stampfel, the artist I’d tried to present, only to be shot down. I can’t be particularly objective about Stampfel, a huge influence on my teenage years as a part of the Holy Modal Rounders, and a living repository of incredibly embarrassing stories about the New York folk elite, so I won’t be. He called me when he got to town, and I took him to the bloggers’ Stammtisch on Thursday, which he enjoyed. The show itself was pretty wild. Openers were another talent-free act, a husband-and-wife duo (he on guitar, she pounding on a couple of plastic buckets) who call themselves Prewar Yardsale. It became painfully obvious after five minutes why they were so obscure, and why they deserve to remain so. Stampfel came on, yowling and banging away at a guitar — and, later, a banjo — offending the musical, cultural, and general taste of the audience, who began filing out after a while. He’s been writing a lot recently, and some of his new songs are just great. And he encored with “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” of all things. That really confused the people who were left.

The series continues this coming weekend with David Peel and the Lower East Side (who knew Peel was still around? And who’d go see him in this day and age) with Roger Manning, the stalwart anti-folk singer, opening, a clear case of bad priorities, on Friday, and Saturday sees Eric Andersen, who I understand has been living in Scandinavia for a number of years, with someone called Langhorne Slim (no relation to the great Greenwich Village folk guitarist Bruce Langhorne) opening the show. And I missed last night’s show by Biff Rose (although I got to meet him while waiting for Stampfel’s set to start) and the no-doubt well-named Dufus.

However clueless the music programming has been, though, it appears to be well overshadowed by the cluelessness of the exhibition which it supports. I’ve only seen one room of it, and it was completely incoherent. I’m planning to go back, though, and file a complete report here.

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