Robert Francis and the Night Tide in NYC this week

Photo: Dana Point Robert Francis has spent his share of time on the road. But this time out, the touring life has a new meaning for the 26-year-old singer/songwriter. Back on the road with a new band, the Night Tide, to support his fourth album, Heaven (Aeronaut Records), Francis is making his peace with the process. But it’s not been easy.

“If you’re doing the grass roots approach, you have to devote your life to it,” he says by phone a van from somewhere – he’s not sure exactly where – in Kansas. “In the last few days, we’ve driven halfway across the country, and you play for 20-30 people, and you hope it will grow, but…it’s an extremely time-consuming project.”

Francis, who plays Williamsburg’s Rough Trade Records on Thursday (June 19) and downtown Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge on Saturday (June 21), began touring young. Playing bass with his sister’s band, Francis tour up and down California’s Highway 101 from their home in Los Angeles, in the process discovering some of the many places that show up in his songs, including the prison town of Susanville and the town that gives its name to the song “Ukiah.”

“That was the first time I saw these rural beach towns like Crescent City and Point Arena, all those spots that I fell in love with when I first left home to tour,” he says. “Those places have a place in my heart. They remind me of when I first felt free.”

But the limitless freedom of the road can quickly become its own form of bondage, and toward the end of his last tour, in 2012, Francis says he cracked. The causes were many, from the pressures of the road and struggles with his record company to the many indulgences available to break up the monotony of  the road. But the result was a young singer-songwriter who’d convinced himself he was in love, who grabbed that girl he hardly knew, broke into a record store just for fun, and ultimately ran to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There he shaved his head, fired his manager and, eventually, realized that he was running away from something he couldn’t outrun.

“It’s so easy to escape into someone to get away from yourself, distracting yourself,” he says now. “I’ve always had a penchant for being on the edge a little bit, and I’ve always liked experimenting because I liked to get far out, to see the other side.”

But having seen the other side, Francis ultimately came to the realization that he had no idea who this beautiful stranger beside him was. He had to get back to the only work he’d ever known, to writing and playing his songs.

Since releasing his first album in 2007, Francis’ songs have alternated between dark, soulful ballads and breezy, even poppy mid-tempo rockers, which is true of the songs on Heaven. Several deal with the breakdown and its aftermath, most obviously the cold, detached “Wasted On You,” Francis’ stark voice detailing some the uncomfortable feelings of that time, and the dark, regretful “I’ve Been Meaning to Call.” Even the upbeat, jangle-rock single, “Love is Just a Chemical” seems to recall that time.

It’s a fresh start, but even with four albums and thousands of miles under his belt, Francis says he still feels vague on what, exactly, is driving him forward. But it drives him nonetheless.

“There are so many things I thought would make me happy – hook up with this person, sell this many records, play this show – but no matter how much I checked off, I still wanted more.

“I have a lot that I want to prove to myself,” he adds, now just a bit closer to Kansas City. “I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished what what I want to accomplish yet. There’s something I’m searching for and I need to get there. But I don’t know what it is, I can’t put my finger on it yet. I think I just need to keep creating until I can create no more.”

In the meanwhile, he’s enjoying the road in a new way, with fewer drugs, and fewer fantasies about life on the edge – but with a better grip on the process itself.

“I kind of like being in this van – being on this path, in this van,” he says quietly. “Going out and doing this life, with a new band, that’s what I’m in it for. If you can get the hair to stand up on people’s arms, that’s a great thing for me. I don’t know what’s going to happen tonight. But that’s the magic, you know?”

 

Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders, May 17

Wesley Stace

As an honest artist, Wesley Stace doesn’t mind a clear assessment of his 25-year career in music. As an optimist, he doesn’t struggle to find the bright side.

“I’ve never been a household name, it’s true,” he agrees. “But that means I’ve never had a big song that I have to sing over and over. And I have enough fans who want to hear me play songs they love.”

Even more than that, the 48-year-old singer/songwriter says, never being known extremely well for one thing has allowed him to try lots of different things – writing novels, for instance, or hosting a monthly variety show at City Winery, as he does Saturday night, May 17 – and to have each of those things be accepted as a part of what he does.

“I’ve had the chance to do all sorts of things without them being considered embarrassing side projects,” he says by phone from his home near Philadelphia. “The first novel took seven years to write, and I put my heart and soul into it, so it was very satisfying to have it come out and be accepted for what it was. I think that very good writers like Steve Earle and Rosanne Cash have had a harder time because they are more famous than I am, so people don’t give them a chance in other areas.”

Stace – who until his 17th album, 2013’s Self-Titled, released albums as John Wesley Harding – has taken full advantage of this flexibility. Since his 2005 debut novel, Misfortune, Stace has published three more, winning all manner of recognition and encouragement, including Misfortune being short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Stace is a native of Britain) and name one of the Washington Post’s Books of the Year. His most recent book is this year’s Wonderkid.

“No one likes a Jack-of-All-Trades,” he says. “They want people to stay in their boxes.” But Stace has beaten those odds, and positively revels in his current role, one that ties nearly all his trades together in one entertaining package: Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders, a monthly variety show he hosts at New York’s City Winery.

In the show, Stace gets to play songs, read from his books, recite a monthly poem about the show’s guest stars and exercise another muscle: Show host, raconteur and impresario.

“You kind of learn as you grow older what you’re good at,” he says. “And I find I’m good at getting people to do things I want them to do. They trust me, and everyone who comes to do the Cabinet wants to do it again. That’s about being a good host, being a good MC, and picking the right people.”

Stace’s guests since the Cabinet of Wonders launched in 2009 have been a varied and talented lot, reflecting Stace’s own talents: Musicians, writers of a literary bent, comedians and even visual artists. Among them have been Cash, Graham Parker, Sondra Lerche, Rick Moody, Josh Ritter, Tanya Donelly, Sarah Vowell, Janeanne Garafalo and Andrew Bird.

Saturday’s show will feature a large, typically eclectic mix: New York folk veteran David Bromberg, former Faces keyboardist and singer Ian McLagan, Steven Page of Bare Naked Ladies, Craig Northey of The Odds, and James Fearnley of the Pogues, with whom Stace “will be playing the role of Shane McGowan.” Comedian Eugene Mirman, a regular, will be among the several other performers.

“There’s a lot of knowledge that goes into putting the show together,” says Stace. “I don’t mind making a fool of myself, so I like to plan only so much – not very much. But I keep a form, and it feels a very natural thing. It’s the most natural thing I do, actually.”

Stace has another appealing quality: He doesn’t take himself too seriously.

“I’m not a perfectionist, which is a leading motive in the lot of the things I do,” he says. “I love to move on and do the next things.”

But for all that, this Jack-of-all-trades is still able to write a song as nearly-perfect as the elegiac song he played at last month’s Cabinet, from Self-Titled. “We Will Always Have New York,” a highly-detailed yet instantly memorable song that combines Stace’s way with words and a newfound emotional depth that has come with his years of experience as not the next-big-thing.

“‘We Will Always Have New York’ is a song I could not have written 20 years ago,” he says. “It’s a song of experience, it reflects 20 years of living and loving in New York, of life.

“For years I tried to make music live up to my idea of how literary it could be,” he adds. “Now I think I’m doing much better by making literature a bit more musical, and freeing the songs to be more natural, and make you feel the way a great song makes you feel.”

Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders plays City Winery Saturday night. 

 

Zombie Colin Blunstone at City Winery

Photo Adnan Mohamedy

Photo Adnan Mohamedy

Standing stately still and elegant at center stage Tuesday night at City Winery, Colin Blunstone owned the stage like someone who has been doing this for a long, long time.

Indeed he has. As he noted in passing amongst the many quips and war stories that framed his songs, Blunstone, now 68, has spent a half century singing for audiences around the world – 50 years since he was the 18-year-old lead singer in a British Invasion band called the Zombies.

Never as big in the US as their peers The Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks and the rest, the Zombies, which also featured keyboardist/singer/songwriter Rod Argent, nevertheless occupies a rarefied position in rock history. Known by audience members for their numerous (and enduring) hit singles like “She’s Not There” and “Time of The Season,” the band was also known, especially among other musicians, for their epic 1967 album Odessey and Oracle, which disappeared nearly without a trace when first released, leading the Zombies to disband in frustration at the peak of their powers. And leaving them to watch as their last and greatest album, with its brilliant left-field chart-topper “Time of the Season,” grew in stature over the decades into one of the most-praised albums of the rock era.

Blunstone, meanwhile, carved out a solo career based not on history, or decades-old hits, but on something uniquely his own: a singular, magnificent voice. Dramatic and sultry, with a power not often found in male voices so high, Blunstone wasted no time Tuesday night in establishing his vocal dominance, with a powerful falsetto capper to one song, followed by a look that seemed to say, “Well, alright then. Now you know who you’re dealing with.”

Count me as someone who, while a fan of Odessey and Oracle, did not know until that moment just whom I was dealing with. Blunstone schooled me, and continued to show his vocal agility on original songs (including from his latest album, On the Air Tonight) as well as classic tracks from Billy Bragg’s “Levi Stubb’s Tears” to a gorgeous version of Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears,” a reminder of how devoutly the early British bands worshiped the Motown classic.

While not as well-known Stateside, Blunstone has done better elsewhere in the world, and he spent part of the show explaining to an American audience – even one that was clearly devoted to him – why he was doing Motown covers such Robinson’s “Tears” and the classic “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted,” which was an international hit for him.

He was also pleased to be able to share war stories, one of which involved a voice teacher he had years ago, when he had decided that he was going to devote himself to being a great singer. “Lift from your pelvic floor,” his teacher told him. When the young Blunstone didn’t understand, the teacher, exasperated, simplified: “Sing from your ass, dear, sing from your ass.”

The overall impression was of an artist still pushing forward, even at 68, with a strong band of mates including longtime guitarist Tom Toomey and drummer Steve Rodford, who are also part of the reunited Zombies. A portion of that band starting regular touring in 2000 after decades apart, and Blunstone was well served by his supporting players again Tuesday night. Toomey in particular is a subtle guitarist whose acoustic work was as delicate as his electric soloing was muscular.

During a middle section, Blunstone was joined by a string section led by Jane Scarpantoni, which matched the sweetness and gentleness of his voice. That’s where Blunstone remains so wonderfully surprising: Able to punch out powerful lines, in his strong tenor or in a soaring falsetto, his voice also has an appealing vulnerability that may be in part age, but is largely an artistic choice he made long ago to put himself into every line.

That continued presence in his singing made the evening more than just an evening of memories, yes, but an evening of moments – moments that were much of their time, but remain part of ours: Blunstone may have been burned at points by the fickleness of the market, or missed the big post-invasion boom of British rock into the 1970s, but his recorded impact has ultimately proved substantial, and his live presence – even, as he characterized it, as the “late autumn” of his career – is a gift to anyone who still values the greats.

The Gospel According to Josh (Rivedal)

IMG_1952 2Yes, I need to work on my recording technique – I’ve never been one for shoving mics in people’s faces, but I guess that has to change – but here’s my conversation with monologuist Josh Rivedal, who brings his solo show The Gospel According to Josh: A 28-Year Gentile Bar Mitzvah to The Players Theater at 115 MacDougal Street in the Village for four shows starting this Friday, May 16.

Josh’s show, developed over the last few years and returning to New York after runs out of town, delves into his struggles with depression and suicide in his family, but it’s hardly a dour show: Rivedal plays a variety of characters, from family members to  Moms Mabley and Elvis Presley, and finds the humor in struggle.

http://soundcloud.com/davidwattsbarton/josh-rivedal-4-21-14

 

 

Red-Eye to Havre de Grace at NY Theatre Workshop

One must assume that they didn’t have red-eyes in 1849 – don’t you need an airplane for that? – but the title isn’t the only anachronistic reference in the strange, compelling and utterly fresh Red-Eye to Havre de Grace, now playing at the New York Theater Workshop in the East Village through June 1.

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Based on letters, poetry, lectures and other contemporary accounts written by or about the great 19th century American poet and thinker Edgar Allen Poe, Red-Eye to Havre de Grace is an impressionistic recreation of Poe’s last few days before he died in mysterious circumstances at 40 (the play seems to claim 39). Read more…

Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders at City Winery

John Wesley Harding was a wonderful singer/songwriter whose debut album delighted critics, including this one, when it came out in 1990. A handsome, literate rock star backed by Elvis Costello’s band, Harding would go on to make a dozen-plus more albums, a track record that nearly anyone would be thrilled to have produced. Read more…

Sneak peek at The Music of Paul Simon at City Winery

You don’t put on a concert as ambitious as tonight’s star-studded The Music of Paul Simon at Carnegie Hall without a little rehearsal.

Although the musicians performing tonight at Carnegie Hall aren’t going to get the proverbial “practice, practice, practice” one usually requires to get there, they did get a Sunday’s worth of rehearsal with the house band for the evening, the Afropop ensemble Antibalas.

Greeted by promoter Michael Dorf, promoter of tonight’s benefit concert for seven youth-centered music education programs in the city, the lucky full house at City Winery got to sit in and watch as some of the performances came together.IMG_5443

Read more…

Vaclav Havel’s The Pig at 3-Legged Dog

I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when I arrived to see the Untitled Theater Company #61’s new imagining of Vaclav Havel and Vladimír Morávek’s The Pig – also known as Vaclav Havel’s Hunt for a Pig – at 3LD Art + Technology Center all the way downtown. Read more…

Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information at the Minetta Lane

The title of British playwright Caryl Churchill’s new play, Love and Information, now at the Minetta Lane Theater in Greenwich Village, clearly states the play’s subject.

But the play’s context – or rather, many contexts – only become apparent during its rapid succession of vignettes, acted with precision and panache by 15 actors playing multiple roles. Read more…

Jherek Bischoff’s “Composed” Comes Alive

JherekBischoffWhen Jherek Bischoff dubbed his 2012 recording Composed, he was being accurate. But only minimally so.

Saying Bischoff’s music is “composed” is like saying that the Sistine Chapel is “painted” or Grand Central Station is “decorated” – it is a pretty inadequate description. And calling his intricate, detailed songs “pop” doesn’t help much, either.

But based on Wednesday night’s performance at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO (the second is tonight), however you describe it, Bischoff’s music is well worth hearing. Read more…

Steampunk musical retools The Wind in the Willows

Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 book The Wind in the Willows has seen many adaptations, from cartoons to musicals – one of which is running on London’s West End through January – and has attracted interpreters from playwright Alan Bennett to electronica DJ Paul Oakenfold.IMG_0502

So when composer Collin Simon and his lyricist partner Liz Muller found themselves inspired by the century-old tale of Mr. Toad and his animal friends, they felt free to take it somewhere the story had never gone before: Steampunk. Read more…

Lee Breuer’s epic La Divina Caricatura shines at La Mama

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Health issues delayed the world premier of Lee Breuer’s new spectacle, La Divina Caricatura until last night. But the three-hour, multidisciplinary production, featuring actors, singers, musicians, puppets, puppeteers and a sound effects man, showed that Breuer, who is 76, remains a staggeringly vital creative mind. It opens tonight.

Tuesday night, we got a look at what is just the first part of a planned Caricatura trilogy at La Mama, in a co-production with St. Ann’s Warehouse. Its subtitle, The Shaggy Dog, is the essence of truth-in-titling: The show’s twisting plot tells the epic tale of a dog, Rose, who falls in love with her artist master, John, and the results are salacious and hilarious, heart-breaking and philosophically-charged. Read more…

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