A Subway Collaboration

12:13 AM 2-17-10
42nd St Port Authority Subway Station Uptown & Queens Platform

The coolest thing just happened.

I descended the stairs to the platform for the E-train and I saw a subway bard with an acoustic guitar sitting on the bench near the map.

Now for years I’ve been wanting to relive a magical late night moment that occurred in this exact spot. On that particular evening, a very different middle aged subway bard led an entire platform in a 3AM soul sing-along, including “My Girl,” “Bring It on Home to Me,” and other ’60s classics. He was amazingly charismatic, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call him the greatest solo subway performer I’ve ever seen. I would often try to find him in order to recapture that moment of spontaneous simultaneous vocal jubilation, but it was never meant to be.

Subsequent performances on this very “stage” would include the fragile old lady with the huge sunglasses who would play mind-numbingly simple but poorly executed “melodies” on her synthesizer and never receive more than occasional pity pocket change for her efforts, as well as some oddball trios featuring djembe, trumpet, and pan flute.

In other words, the stage had seen better days.

That held true until this evening when I saw a white-haired woman whisper something to tonight’s troubadour. I figured I’d at least give him eight bars to prove himself before donning my headphones and walking away, so he began by playing some classically influenced arpeggios. (I DID say he was a bard.) This quickly became the intro to Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide.” He was thankfully not playing the Taylor Swift arrangement, so he was singing on key. To be perfectly honest, his was a fine version of the song, filled with pathos and emotion.

But then came the unexpected.

At the other end of the bench, a young guy started freestyling on top of the bard’s playing. His rapping took everyone by surprise, and the platform was suddenly…well…rapt with attention toward the bizarre duet. The bard, presumably not a hip hop fan, seemed quite annoyed and tried to play louder. The white-haired woman shook her head in disappointment because this rapping was not what she had requested. Everyone else just stood there staring, waiting to see what would happen. The bard looked like the pacifist type, but he was clearly irritated and reaching his breaking point. Would he just stop playing, yell, or smash his guitar into the rapper’s cranium? It was hard to get much of a read on the rapper, so I had no idea if his goals were collaborative or antagonistic, and what would he do if someone tried to stop him?

It was a tense situation, but in the midst of all this tension, some oddly beautiful music was being made. Never in a million years would I pick “Landslide” as the perfect background for hip hop, but this guy was making it work. Now I wasn’t able to understand much of his lyrics, but they did seem to be positive. (Had he taken this opportunity to rap about violence, misogyny, or the size of his genitalia, it would have been rather tacky but fantastically incongruous when juxtaposed with Fleetwood Mac.) Somehow he appeared to be perfectly in sync with the song, deftly matching the bard’s dynamic and tempo changes with impressive style.

The longer this went on, the less resistant everyone became. While the bard never fully embraced his rapping collaborator, by the end of the song, both the bard and the white-haired woman cracked the faintest of smiles. The beauty of collaborative music had triumphed over pessimism! The rapper calmly got up and walked away, disappearing into the shadows without acknowledgement. I dropped a buck in the bard’s guitar case, the E-train arrived, and another great musical moment in subway history was in the books.

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My new purpose in life!

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The Rise and Fall of Music in the 20th Century

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What the Fuck Is Wrong With You People?

As I sat at home yesterday, frantically refreshing the Doppler on Weather.com, I wondered how much I really care about Soulive. I used to love this band circa 2000 and 2001, but somewhere along the way, I lost interest. It’s been so damn long that I don’t recall what drove me away, but I think it may have coincided with the moment when they stopped wearing suits on stage. Anyone who has seen my disheveled appearance knows that I’m far from a disciple of the fashion police, but I seem to recall their sound taking a different direction once the suits disappeared. They lost a little of their connection to the old school funk and veered off on a path that no longer appealed to me. Of course, this was all so long ago that I could be grossly misreading Soulive’s history. The fact remains that when it comes to music, I’m a highly judgmental sonofabitch, and when I’m faced with the embarrassment of musical riches that New York City provides on a daily basis, I’m (often unfairly) quick to the cut the cord on a band that has a couple of mediocre shows. Sometimes, it’s two strikes and you’re out.

So the question remained: Did I like Soulive enough to stand out in a deluge of rain while they would play their 10th Anniversary Celebration gig? I had been to Celebrate Brooklyn the night before for a uncharacteristically fair set from Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens and a phenomenal set from Burning Spear. It was probably the first time I’d gone to the Prospect Park Bandshell solo, and I instantly made friends while surrounded by every Jamaican living in the city of New York, all of whom made significant contributions to a cloud laced with delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol that permanently hung over the lawn like the fog in the San Francisco Bay. While Thursday was fun, did I want to take the solo plunge again? Citing the rain and their fear of melting, my Nervous Nellie friends had previously made firm commitments to this show but were now withdrawing faster than a sixteen year old without protection in the backseat of a Ford Escort. For a few hours, I fell under their pessimistic spell until I finally realized that a man who lives a full-throttle lifestyle does not take nights off because of rain. No, sir, it was time to man-up and do this thing.

I didn’t arrive to the park until 9:00, and even though I pleaded with others WHO ACTUALLY LIVE WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE OF THE PARK to join, I was met with pathetic text excuses:

“I think it might be canceled.”

“You’re only gonna see one hour of music.”

“You might stub your toe.”

Nevertheless, I arrived to see Soulive tearing it up in a nasty way for an appreciative but small crowd. The rain had rendered the muddy lawn vacant, and the puddles on the seats caused everyone remaining to get up on their feet. This all resulted in an excellent dance-a-thon, and Soulive delivered. It had been at least six years since I’d seen a full Soulive show, and either Neal Evans has grown tremendously over that time or I have a terrible memory. In any case, his ability to mimic a bass guitar with the lefthand on his keys is now unrivaled. By the end of the show, he was laying down the most ridiculous, funked-out basslines with a hyperkinetic blazing speed that bass guitarists could only dream of matching. Guitarist Eric Krasno was a perfect foil, displaying aggressiveness and bite, and drummer Alan Evans put some dip in my hip with thumping beats. Rounding out the lineup, the Shady Horns dropped some 1970s-inflected soul into the proceedings, and guitarist John Scofield sat in and showed why he’s still a badass at 57 years of age.

Scofield and Krasno duel. – Photo by Allison Murphy Photography

The finale was Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America” jammed into Sly and The Family Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay,” featuring vocals from Nigel Hall, as well as Ivan Neville and Tony Hall of Dumpstaphunk, whose set I sadly missed while foolishly debating with the rain.

Nigel Hall on the vocals. – Photo by Allison Murphy Photography

Nigel Hall and Tony Hall get into it. – Photo by Allison Murphy Photography

The Grand Finale. – Photo by http://www.ga-photos.com

Download the show at http://www.archive.org/details/soulive2009-07-31 or stream it here:

I was feeling too good to quit now, and after attempting in vain to get some Park Slope friends to redeem themselves and salvage the evening, I journeyed onward to Barbes, the tiny little bar with music that’s the hidden gem of Brooklyn. Someone earlier asked me who was playing, and I responded by saying, “Does it matter?” 90% of my visits to Barbes have featured musicians I’ve never heard of before, but they’re always phenomenal. Last night was no exception.

Scott Kettner’s Forro Brass Band was holding court in the backroom, which was naturally crowded but not uncomfortably so. When I walked in, they were deep in the midst of a sweaty samba jam, and I had never seen a crowd like this at Barbes. Usually, you see a mix of people that are attentively enjoying the music, a couple of dancers, the occasional talker who was dragged there by her friends, and a hipster or two who mistakenly wandered southward from Union Hall. However, last night the backroom was a slithering pit of lithe bodies dancing salsa, cha-cha, and just undulating to the heavily addictive, pulsating percussive grooves laid down by Kettner. The horns added some brightness and flair, and guest guitarist Jesse Lenat brought a rollicking country soul feel to the ensemble. It didn’t take long before they had a whole New Orleans thang goin’ on, and this unique hybrid of secondline, Brazilian, and bouncing blues created a wild Carnival atmosphere in the backroom. The closer of “Big Leg Woman” had everyone doing a crazed strut, and the encore, which was desperately squeezed in before midnight, had us all singing on a full-throated call-and-response to “When I Lay My Burden Down.” It was a highly charged ending to a great night of music, a stellar evening that would be capped by slice from Smiling Pizza and a miraculous appearance by the ever-elusive G-train.

I only wish some of you people in Park Slope could have gotten off of your lazy asses to experience it!

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"I Want To Take You Higher!" – THE Show of the Year 7.16.09

Thursday’s triple-header began at Union Square, where despite an earlier threat of rain, Buzz Universe took the stage with a radiant sun setting across them. They gradually built a large crowd and entranced many with their galloping grooves delicately seasoned with Latin spices. The gig was a lot of fun, and I would have loved to have stayed, but after 30 minutes, I needed to get downtown to Castle Clinton for Destination 2: Electric Boogaloo.

Castle Clinton is an 1812-era fort that was built to protect Lower Manhattan but was never actually attacked. After outgrowing its use as a military installation, it eventually became a beer garden, a covered opera house, and then an immigrant processing center before losing its roof while returning to original form and serving as a national park. Now the River to River concert series hosts events there to a mostly seated, polite audience.

Photo courtesy of http://www.ga-photos.com

Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock, many of the city’s myriad of free concerts are paying tribute to the performers of the legendary three-day Aquarian Exposition. Last night, the incredibly talented Steven Bernstein and his Millennial Territory Orchestra (along with plenty of all-star guests, such as Bernie Worrell and Vernon Reid) paid homage to Sly & The Family Stone in a thrilling 90 minute performance that nearly rocked Castle Clinton to it’s nearly 200-year-old foundation.

Bernie Worrell – Photo courtesy of http://www.ga-photos.com

Vernon Reid – Photo courtesy of http://www.ga-photos.com

After the band made their way through an instrumental opening, we found ourselves wriggling inside “Stand.” The gloves came off, and the funk was dropped in a serious way. I immediately took the advice of the lyrics and knew that sitting was no longer an option. I made my way into a roped-off area where the funked-out freaks cut loose with abandon while remaining separated from the seated folk, who looked at us with a mixture of curiosity and longing, as if they secretly wanted to join the wild animals in the cage but were too white to do so. Nevertheless, many of the heavy-assed crowd gave the band a standing ovation, and I knew that even though we were only one song in, this was going to be a stellar evening beyond compare.

“Fun” jammed straight into “M’lady,” which took about 2 seconds to initiate the liftoff sequence. This was so…damn…fon-kay. Some of the baddest reeds I’ll ever hear were swirling around this gem.

Photo courtesy of http://www.ga-photos.com

While the funkiness was fantastic, it wasn’t until Shilpa Ray took the stage that I realized we were witnessing greatness. After Bernstein reminded everyone of Sly’s famous quote “Don’t hate the black; don’t hate the white. If you get bit, hate the bite,” Ray began singing what may be the most cathartic version of “Everyday People” to be heard in the last 30 or so years. Accompanied by the ancient, hypnotic Eastern drones of her harmonium, she led the ensemble through a tremendously pensive rendition of this iconic song of togetherness. I hesitate to use these words because I think they have become little more than cliché, but I truly felt chills run up and down my spine while listening to her voice, a voice so simple and pure that it sounded like a matte finish. These lyrics were hitting home, and when a cynic like me is suddenly filled with an overwhelming rush of naïveté and love that can make you believe we can bring the whole world together— well, that’s the power of artistic genius. The Millennial Territory Orchestra took a brilliant work, reinvented it and twisted it through the dueling prisms of modern times and archaic musical styles to add a whole new level of depth and understanding.

Shilpa Ray wailing and playing harmoninum – Photo courtesy of http://www.ga-photos.com

That’s when I knew that this was no ordinary show. Nay, we were witnessing the Show of the Year.

Mind you, this is not a mark of exaggeration. There was a rare level of inventiveness and virtuoso musicianship on display in this show, and the results were deeply affecting everyone within earshot. Those who were seated, swayed with rapt attention, while those who stood experienced involuntary muscle spasms, as waves of kinetic energy rifled through the air.

And who the Hell takes Larry Graham’s signature funk-throttling electric basslines and divvies them up between an acoustic upright bass and a horn section while weaving in interludes laced with klezmer to yield stellar results? Steven Bernstein, that’s who!

Steven Bernstein – Photo courtesy of http://www.ga-photos.com

There was no let up here. Every arrangement and performance of every song was nothing less than a building block in one phenomenally moving experience. Martha Wainwright delivered an over-dramatic version of “Que Sera Sera” but it was so heartfelt that we all bought into every uplifting word of it.

Martha Wainwright – Photo courtesy of http://www.ga-photos.com

Dean Bowman brought a bafflingly broad vocal range to sing lines that were all over the scale in a jubilant “Sing a Simple Song.”

Dean Bowman – Photo courtesy of http://www.ga-photos.com

And then came the finale.

After sitting for nearly 90 minutes, the crowd finally broke free from the chains of their chairs on “Dance to the Music.” Leaping to their feet, people sang and bounced around to the modern-day Ode to Joy. Those of us who had already been dancing took this as our cue to begin the epic full-body freakout—well, at least I did. I’m not really sure what the people around me were doing because I was in a total trance. My movements were no longer voluntary. The music of Sly Stone was commanding my central nervous system, and his lyrics of unrepentant bliss had permeated even the darkest corners of my soul. When “I Want To Take You Higher” and “Music Lover” had been weaved in, we all responded by shouting “HIGHER!” Each one was challenging Bernstein to take us to loftier heights, and he and his compatriots had just enough rocket fuel to blow that old fort to shreds.

Photo courtesy of http://www.ga-photos.com

“I Want To Take You HIGH-ER!”
Photo courtesy of http://www.ga-photos.com

Bernstein lifts off on the final note
Photo courtesy of http://www.ga-photos.com

It was a simply stunning ending to a mindblowing concert. I was covered in sweat and pulsating with adrenaline. I needed more, so I quickly convinced my business manager to hop in a cab with me in a mad dash to climb nearly 100 blocks north to Lincoln Center for the last hour of the Ponderosa Stomp. We were overflowing with energy, so we engaged our poor cabbie in a bout of rapid-fire conversation and questioning that probably bordered on interrogation. He was initially scared of us, but by the end of the ride, he was talking and opening up in a way that he probably hasn’t in many years. We did our best to convince him to stop being a hermit, give up his addiction to Off-Track Betting, and get out to go see live music.

Unfortunately, what we saw of the Ponderosa Stomp was a bit of a letdown. We were far too wired to appreciate William Bell’s ballad-heavy set, including “You Don’t You Miss Your Water.” It didn’t help that I kept thinking William Bell was Archie Bell, expecting a “Tighten Up” that never arrived. While the show ended on a high note with The Bobbettes’ “I Shot Mr. Lee,” it really just paled in comparison to what we had experienced at Castle Clinton. The disappointment was inevitable because once you’ve been to the mountaintop, there’s nowhere to go but down.

It may seem ridiculous, but I cannot throw enough ebullient praise in the direction of Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra. Their show had a little something to please everyone from the jazz snobs to the fist-pumping lovers of shredding guitars to the indie rock whores to the klezmer-addicted Hassidim to the funk-worshipping lapsed Jews. Over a day later, I remain convinced that those in attendance witnessed the show of the year. As a matter of fact, I will publicly challenge anyone who attended that show to prove me wrong. I am adamant about the unprecedented level of inspired wizardry that took place on that stage, and if you want to debate me on this, go for it. I’ll just warn you now that you had better have your shit together because if you haven’t noticed, I feel kinda strongly about this subject, and I will come prepared with full color charts and graphs in tow.

You had better accept it or you betta bring it!

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Consider the Thursday Night Tripleheader

Dear Friends,

July finds us deep in the throws of a plague of phenomenal music. It is absolutely criminal that we must face so many daunting choices for entertainment each evening, and so much of it is devilishly free. I abhor this situation, and I’m tired of suffering from FOMS (Fear Of Missing Something). This Thursday features an extraordinarily cruel spate of options, and I feel as though the only way to combat this conundrum is by attempting to see as much as humanly possible. Therefore, I invite you to entertain the Thursday Night Tripleheader.

The best part of this exciting endeavor is that the music won’t cost you one red cent. Sadly, we’re only scratching the surface of Thursday’s free musical delights, and if anyone has devised an inexpensive way to stop time, please get in touch because I’d also like to catch Man Man at East River Park, Kronos Quartet with Luminescent Orchestrii at Celebrate Brooklyn, as well as Credence Clearwater Revisited, Mountain, and John Sebastian at Asser Levy Seaside Park in Coney Island.

But I digress…back to the tripleheader at hand.

Any successful tripleheader begins with a plan and advance scouting, so if you follow this schedule, all your Thursday evening dreams will come true:

5:00 PM – Get way downtown (or send a proxy on your behalf) to Castle Clinton, where tickets will be distributed for that evening’s Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra’s tribute to Sly & the Family Stone. I don’t know how long it will take for these tickets to be distributed, but the venue only holds about 750.

6:00 PM – Get thee up to Union Square, where Freaks’ fav Buzz Universe will be headlining Summer in the Square for an hour set of Latin-tinged, butt-shakin’ grooves.

6:35 PM – Depart Union Square with expediency and get on the 4/5 to Bowling Green. This should get us to the show just in time.

7:00 PM – Arrive at Castle Clinton for Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra’s tribute to Sly & the Family Stone. Yeah, we’ll be in the back, but that’s fine because we’ll want to dance. If you want to sit down during a Sly & The Family Stone Tribute, please do not consider doing the Thursday Night Tripleheader, rather you should go straight to the city morgue because you are probably dead.

8:30ish PM – The show ends. We have grooved with the best of ‘em, but we’re just getting warmed up. Unfortunately, we have no time to socialize, chit-chat, or even wave goodbye. We are on a mission, and we need to make like Christopher Cross and run…run like the wind! We’ll be getting our asses uptown to Lincoln Center post-haste. Hopstop says both the 1 train and a cab will each take 36 minutes, so we’ll gauge the weather, consult our astrologists, and decide on a transportation method and GO, BABY GO!

9:00ish PM – We arrive at Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Swing to catch the last hour of the Ponderosa Stomp’s presentation of Get Down! This bill features some funky-ass performers, including William Bell, Harvey Scales, and The Bobettes, with The Bo-Keys. Do you doubt the awesome funk power of this lineup? Well, after you listen to the clips on this link, ye shall doubt no more:


10:00 PM – The show ends. We just did 3 shows in 4 hours and traveled all over Manhattan. But it’s only 10:00… Could there be a quadruple header in our future?….

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Birthday a la Solitude

When you tell people that you’re celebrating your birthday by dining solo, the reaction ranges from “That’s so sad!” to “That’s so awesome!” Many thought there was a good chance I’d end the evening either in my bathtub with my wrists slit or sitting at home with a smile on my face. Because I have an aversion to the sight of my own blood, I opted for the latter.

While my birthday fell on a Wednesday, it was only appropriate to celebrate the night before on Fat Tuesday. After Ryan and Sarah treated me to an excellent dinner at Vynl that included a deliciously rich Black Truffle Mac ‘n Cheese special (apparently, this recipe was the winner on Top Chef Season One), a gaggle of my closest friends gathered for a great Nola-style throwdown at Sullivan Hall featuring The Funky Fritters and Bill Malchow & The Go-Cup All-Stars (with a 4 piece horn section and backup singers!) playing the classic album, Dr. John’s Gumbo. I had a blast and got down and funked it up with my good buddy John Jameson by my side. Amazingly, I avoided drinking too much (a first) and woke up in my bed instead of on the living room floor under the coffee table (yet another first).

I decided that Wednesday’s celebration would be a little more subdued. Upon reading that some of the best cassoulet in the city is served at Jarnac, I had found my target. I wanted to go by myself because I find that the rare, solo dinner is the best way to appreciate what you’re eating. The distractions, needs, and complications of others are removed, and all that remains are you and your delectable meal. Dining solo gives you all the time in the world to slowly savor and focus on every bite of your food. (If you think this is a pretentious load of bullshit, piss off! It’s my party, and I’ll cry in my food if I want to!)

Jarnac is in a quaint little room in the West Village, just below the obnoxious Meat-Packing District. As soon as I entered, I was greeted warmly by the jovial staff, especially the fun-loving owner, Tony. Including the owner, a team of four people waited on the tables and tended bar interchangeably, everyone constantly shifting responsibilities and no one claiming specific tables as their own territory. I’m sure this cannot be the only restaurant that approaches service in this logical yet casual way, but this was the first time I’d experienced it. Everyone was so warm and friendly that I really felt at home the entire time.

Initially, I thought I’d be good and forgo the alcohol for a nice, restrained meal. It wasn’t long before I realized that this was a dumb idea because the words “restrained” and “Brian Ferdman” do not belong in the same sentence. Upon considering that all three of my readers seem to be disappointed when I write about anything that isn’t completely gluttonous, I decided to throw caution to the wind because you only turn 33 once. I started with a French 75, a cocktail that I first became a fan of in New Orleans. Jarnac’s version mixed the standard cognac and champagne, but there was more than the normal amount of citrus in it. Normally, a French 75 tends to be a sweeter drink, but this creation was quite tart and a refreshing way to begin the meal.

I made a nice choice with the Roasted Bosc Pear, Red and Gold Beets with Forme d’Ambert Dressing. This was a well-composed dish, as the flavors seemed to reveal themselves in shades of one another. First you had the sweetness of what I believe were candied pecans. Then things scaled back a tad with the sweet roasted pear, which was followed by the mellower sweetness of the red beets and the semi-sweet but slightly savory gold beets. Put all of this on some peppery arugula with a little chive, lightly toss on some mild cheese dressing, and you got yourself a winner.

For the main course, I went with the much-vaunted Cassoulet along with a side of Carmelized Baby Brussel Sprouts and a glass of Côte du Rhone. This cassoulet was a dynamite concoction, and there’s a reason why it takes the chef three days to prepare it. Duck confit, pork cheeks, and some truly stellar, savory pork sausage all sat in a bubbling hot dish with plenty of white beans, tomato, herbs, and garlic. It was a mouthwateringly brilliant combination and certainly the best cassoulet I’ve ever eaten.

The baby Brussel sprouts provided a nice bitter contrast. The carmelization was essential to their flavor, although I have to admit that I found their texture to be a little mushy. I’m not sure if this lack of density can be attributed to their young age and small size or the fact that they might not have been parboiled and shocked prior to sautéing.

Cassoulet demolished. (Inexplicably, my boss always says that it’s impolite to finish all of the food on your plate. She says you should always leave something, so I felt generous and left a bone.)

Upon finishing all of that food, I was more than full, but a waitress was really twisting my arm to order dessert. Finally, I chose something that seemed small and wouldn’t put me to sleep—Vanilla Gelato with a Shot of Espresso. The waiters delivered the dish with their back to the table, waiting until the last second to reveal the candle nestled in a small cookie on the plate. The dessert was another winning combo, as the waitress poured the espresso on top of the gelato to create the coffee equivalent of a root beer float. It was a great finale and was further enhanced by some complimentary champagne. This champagne had a sweeter, peach flavor and was made with Semillon grapes. I believe it was called Clos du Somethingfrench. As soon as I’d finished my glass, Tony immediately filled it up again, and had I not insisted on the check, I’d probably be still be there, on my 17th glass and thinking about sleeping on the floor.

Much has been made about New York restaurants rolling out the red carpet in an attempt to persuade guests to come back again soon. I don’t know if that’s what was happening at Jarnac, but I really don’t care. French restaurants aren’t typically lighthearted, fun places to eat, but this staff seemed to be having a great time, which naturally rubbed off on the customers. The synthesis of well-crafted food and friendly service certainly made for a fantastic birthday meal and effectively ensured I will return to Jarnac in the near future.

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