Guesting with Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble last Tuesday at the Van Dyck, trombonist-composer Alan Ferber changed tempos and arrangements, added a guitarist, cued solos on the fly and generally revved the band. Arriving for the second set, I saw “Get Sassy” start slow, grow bluesy swagger then rev into a fierce, funky cacophony — all fun and fire. “Late Bloomer” bounced between riffs before resolving, then Ferber’s own “The Compass” enlisted everybody, first in a romp then quieter waves.
Film with music or music with film? Both! At Skidmore’s Zankel Music Center last Thursday, Yo La Tengo played live with Sam Green’s film “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller.” Stage left under the screen, they made brilliantly cinematic music that subtly paralleled Green’s tale of the utopian visionary. Expanding our view of “the dome guy,” it explored his ambition and ego, but optimistically asserted Fuller’s egalitarian hopes for mankind and what “could happen and should happen.”
Quiet under vintage film sequences with scratchy audio, Yo La Tengo went bold, loudly intense leading up to one of several disasters in Fuller’s life, for example.
Meanwhile, music-fan pals later told me, the rootsy Bottle Rockets and Sarah Borges rocked The Hangar in Troy. Borges borrowed the Rockets’ rhythm section and sang strong.
Friday: back to Saratoga for Albany troubadour Jim Gaudet’s sold-out album release of his new “Real Stories And Other Tall Tales” at Caffe Lena. Billed as a solo album and show, it featured Railroad Boys Sten Isachsen and Bobby Ristau. With fiddler Sara Milonovich playing in New York, Gaudet shook things up, subbing in pianist Rich Pagano. He started both sets solo, the first with “Bobby McGee and Me” that evoked the Kristofferson/Janis classic, just as “Blue Moon” later recalled Carl Perkins’s “Honey Don’t.” Sparse — Gaudet sang “”Runaway Train” with just Pagano’s piano — or rocking — “Goin’ On Downtown” upshifted from victim to vengeance on Isachsen’s switchblade mandolin break — the band impressed at all tempos or densities. “Bad Ol’ Betty” hit a rockabilly cascade; Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” jumped just as high. Ultimately, though, Gaudet’s songs soothed or soared, sweet or sad or savage — just as he wrote them. The yearning “We Talked about the Rain” and “A Girl Like You” went deep as Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark, and upbeat honky-tonk tunes felt like a party.
Not Nashville, but Schenectady — on a perfect Saturday full of outdoor music.
Discover Schenectady’s Summer Kick-Off presented regional favorites and a touring reggae band at Music Haven as tree-pollen swirled in the air like fuzz-as-light from a giant mirror ball and fans sought shade at the top of the hill, shocked by warm sunlight.
At noon, Eddie Ade Knowles’ Ensemble Congueros stirred a spirited stew of Afro-Cuban percussion and chants, congas and djembes propelling a metallic clatter of cowbells and hand percussion.
Michael Benedict’s virtuoso Jazz Vibes quintet played cerebral at first, mostly tunes by pianist David Gleason; he also played in Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble Tuesday at the Van Dyck. Gleason’s “Herbie” rode a cheerful reggae bounce but Benedict said he’d appropriated a Gleason ballad to rename “Ginger” for his wife, a slow, sweet valentine. Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” closed in beautifully balanced ensemble swing.
Girl Blue next aimed her big voice at well-chosen covers and originals rich in wordplay, restless melodies and touching vulnerability. Her pipes, guitar and cajon player Jimmy drove such familiar fare as Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and her own “Lolita” straight to the heart.
Twangiest thangs in North and South Dakotas’ (very twangy) muscle-bluegrass set? Zak Hay’s high voice and Mark Retajczyk’s electric guitar; strong sounds that precise picking and hearty harmonies framed in tunes on the push-pull of home versus escape. Plaintive in “Please Don’t Wake Me” and “Blue,” they put pedal to the metal in what Hay rightly dubbed “a ripper” to close a masterly set rich in texture, authentic rural feel and easy tunefulness.
Closers Meta and the Cornerstones first hooked the crowd on bass-boomy beats before messages of liberation not unlike the Ensemble Congeros’ chants earlier. Fans I see ONLY at reggae and Afro-beat shows flowed into Music Haven, either sitting in the triangle of shaded seats up front or dancing before the stage. Meta may be reggae’s most Bob Marley-sounding singer, crooning over grooves like the Grand Canyon.
Heading to Mohawk Harbor for the Albany Symphony’s “Sing Out! New York” free concert, I heard dancey Italian tunes from St. Anthony’s Festa and rock from the Van Dyck’s outdoor 10th anniversary show. Soon I was in a giant throng clustering around food and drink trucks, settling onto lawn chairs and blankets.
Even maestro David Allen Miller laughed when a fan requested “Free Bird” between movements in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The place smelled like beer and pizza, and sounded like a playground until the orchestra fired up this symphonic warhorse.
Reduced to fit the stage, the orchestra electrified the crowd, some erroneous between-movements clapping easily forgiven for its enthusiasm; woodwinds sounding especially strong and cohesive against the diminished strings. Even the abstract truth of Clarice Assad’s musical setting of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” (co-written with teenagers at Girls Inc.) hit home, powerful vocals carrying the words. A folk song sing brought voices together on and offstage, then the orchestra hit full glee gear in the exuberant “Hoedown” from Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever” before — what else! — booming fireworks over the Mohawk.
Dead & Co. return to Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC — routes 9 and 50, Saratoga Springs) Tuesday — 36 years to the day after the Grateful Dead first played there. 8 p.m. $49.50 lawn; inside, up to $1,227 from resellers. 800-745-3000 www.livenation.com
EVERYBODY is inside Wednesday when the SPAC on Stage Series opens with Spanish-born worldbeat superstar Buika (born Maria Concepcion Balboa Buika). Inspired by Nina Simone and Edith Piaf, she’s made nine albums including the Latin Grammy winning “El Ultimo Trago” (2009), and has collaborated in film soundtracks and an opera. This series brings both artists and fans onto the SPAC stage, which is larger than some states. 8 p.m. $50, $40. 518-584-9330 www.spac.org
BAD NEWS, GOOD NEWS
Brian Wilson’s Tanglewood show Sunday is canceled due to illness, and the Jocelyn & Chris Arndt show Saturday at Caffe Lena is sold out.
However, the Caffe (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs) serves up several more cool shows: indie-folk singer Heather Maloney tonight (7 p.m. $20 advance, $22 door, $11 children and students — 518-583-0022 www.caffelena.org); the Irish trio High Time Friday (8 p.m. $29, $22, $11); the guitar-pop harmony duo Maswick & Brown Sunday at Pitney Meadows Community Farm (223 West Ave., Saratoga Springs – 3 p.m. Free); jazz/klezmer clarinetist Paul Green introducing his “Two Worlds” album Sunday (7 p.m. $18, $20, $10); Open Mic Night Monday; the Rochmon Record Club Tuesday; and the Schroon River String Band hosts the bluegrass jam Wednesday.