The Mid-30s Guide to the Orchestra

I have a concert coming up. It’s quite a special concert. It’s me performing my comedy songs with a symphony orchestra on Sunday November 24, and I’m calling it The Mid-30s Guide to the Orchestra.

The Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago and their music director Mina Zikri have given me this extraordinary opportunity. I’m the composer, lyricist, arranger, host, singer, pianist, bass guitarist, and very occasionally conductor and ukuleleist ukulelist string-strummer.

You’ll hear songs from my album Pumpkins with technicolor sound: “Symphony No 1 in Eb”, the “Root Vegetable Opera”, “Book Club”, and “Love is a Four-Letter Word” are all in there. read more

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The “wow” moment – Part 1

I have a habit of writing blog posts at airports. But that is apt – airports are portals for the beginnings and ends of journeys. Palaces of taking stock. Palaces of excitement of what is to come and reflection on what has been. And palaces of not enough power points and intrusively annoying WiFi networks. Yes, I’m at LAX.

I’ve been on the road 127 days on my longest travels yet. I’ve been in two improv festivals, gone to the world’s largest musical festival, seen improv, comedy, music, theatre, ballet, musical theatre and opera. I’ve entered five countries, three Canadian provinces and twelve US states (four of which I was in for transit only).

I’ve identified 15 performances in which I had a “wow” moment. Or a “whoa” moment. Or “Fuuuuuck.” Put simply, they amazed.

I can rattle off honorable mentions by the dozen, but for the time being, here’s the first half of my abiding memories from Travels 2013.

1. Roberto Fonseca & group
Thursday 24 January 2013
La Zorra y El Cuervo (Vedado, Havana)

Originally from Cuba, jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca divides his time between Havana and New York. He is a demon on the keys, and his band were equally virtuosic. The final number of their first set was a relentless 15-minute fast rock groove, with a head so fiddly and complicated (yet memorable) that most musicians couldn’t even attempt it. Solos lasted an age but maintained momentum the whole way. I sat with a Uruguayan couple who told me I had my mouth open for the last 80% of that number.

Clint & Buck Vrazel, from Twinprov. (Source: their Twitter.)

Clint & Buck Vrazel, from Twinprov. (Source: their Twitter.)

2. Twinprov (workshop)
Friday 15 February 2013
Jet City Improv (University District, Seattle)

Two white guys from Oklahoma do an improv rap show. Not a promising description, but these guys are deserved megastars of the North American improv scene. Twinprov is the twins Buck & Clint Vrazel, and I met them at the Seattle Festival of Improvisational Theater. They bring it for a show, no doubt, but more significantly they are the most effective workshop teachers I’ve ever seen in improv. Teaching music to non-musicians is a difficult prospect – if adults have had negative experiences with music when young (like being told they aren’t good at it), it’s so hard to get them to open up. Rap is a more intimidating genre still. But Buck & Clint are f**kin’ mint at breaking down those barriers – Nick from Canberra, if you’re reading this, get these mofos down to Improvention some time.

3. 3 For All
Friday 1 March 2013
BATS Improv (Fort Mason, San Francisco)

All down the west coast I’d been told “book for 3 For All, book for 3 For All, they will sell out”. For reasons of geography, this long-tim trio gets together only three or four times a year, so it was lucky coincidence that I was in San Francisco the same weekend. The thing I took away from this was the superb physicality they exhibit. I don’t mean that they are frenetic and full-of-energy, but rather their immaculately controlled movements to indicate changes in time, place, setting, character. I once heard it said about Jane Austen’s writing that you never need to see “said so-and-so” after lines of dialogue; you instantly know who’s speaking by the precision of her writing style. The same applies to the actors of 3 For All – the moment you look at them, you know where the story’s at.

4. Dudamel Conducts Firebird
Sunday 3 March 2013
Walt Disney Hall (Downtown Los Angeles)

I hadn’t intended to go through Los Angeles so early in my trip. I had booked to spend a week in the area at the end of my four months and have a single direct flight home. However, when I saw the LA Phil‘s offerings for early March, I changed my plans: Stravinsky’s Firebird and a brand new John Adams work within five days of each other, both conducted by His Curliness, Gustavo Dudamel. My eye-wateringly expensive ticket for Firebird meant for one superb seat at eye level with the front desk of the first violins. And Disney Hall has such a clear sound! I do love the Auckland Town Hall for all its fond memories for me, but it is a wallowing Brucknerian shoebox that doesn’t do any favours to my own compositional style, or many other composers’. As for the playing, what an all-encompassing sound. Stravinsky’s jagged string writing sounded so full and rich, the brass was immaculately balanced with the winds, ogh, it was heaven.

5. Matt Davis Gets a Girlfriend
Tuesday 5 March 2013
UCB Theatre LA (Hollywood, Los Angeles)

A very pleasant surprise! Taking a look at the offerings of the main comedy and improv theatres in Hollywood, I came across this intriguing one-man musical on the UCB website. Matthew Patrick Davis performs his show solo from the keyboard, in the first person, and has this rich Sondheimesque linkage of themes and motifs that inspired me so much. Some still linger in my head: “I’m gonna get a girlfriend”, “I’m gonna die alone”, etc. I got inspired by all the thematic threading and repetition of musically-associated phrases, and designed my libretto to Annie & Joshua around that principle. Now I’ve got my own phrases like “None of your business”, “Okay, okay”, “If you must know”, “Please, please, please go on a date with me!”, etc. (More on Annie & Joshua another time – Bridget Costello and Callum Blackmore perform it in Short+Sweet Song, 11-15 June at the Herald Theatre in Auckland.)

The Bolzen Beer Band's album cover. (Source: Bandcamp.)

The Bolzen Beer Band’s album cover. (Source: Bandcamp.)

6. Bolzen Beer Band
Tuesday 12 March 2013 (or early Wed 13)
Corner of 6th Street & Trinity Ave (Downtown Austin)

I went to SXSW. It’s probably the biggest music festival in the world. I saw Coolio. I saw The Specials. I had a great Saturday night watching the most amazing mélange of styles (see below). But the Bolzen Beer Band made me lose my shit in the geekiest way possible. They’d done one single official SXSW showcase that Tuesday night – a lowly slot, to put it mildly – but they didn’t care. They were just going to jam the shit out of the rest of the festival, on the street, in indie gigs, wherever. I’ve recounted this story enough: they are a polka punk band from Lincoln, Nebraska. They have an accordionist, a tuba player and a punk drummer. They wear Lederhosen. The one hook of theirs that is still in my head is “We love weed and beer, my friend, we love weed and beer! / Pour a glass of ice-cold weed and score a sack of beer!”. And the coup de grâce (grass?) was when the lead singer went into a half-time rap breakdown IN GERMAN. They had all the right spirit.

7. Red Baraat
Saturday 16 March 2013
Stage on Sixth (Downtown Austin)

This looked like a pretty good night at South By: long-time LA-Mexican party band Ozomatli, home-town favourites Grupo Fantasmo, and Bajofondo from Argentina. But Red Baraat killed me. Hailing from Brooklyn, their frontman plays the dhol. Combine that with a rhythm section; a sousaphone for the bass line; and horns that include the unusual bass trumpet, you have a bitchin’ crossover of Bollywood dance rhythms and New Orleans bounce. My first ‘wow’ moment came when the frontman called for a sousaphone solo. Perfectly synchronised, every other band member ducked down low to the ground, flashed their attention towards the sousaphone’s bell, and the lights snapped to put a solo spot on him. These mofos finished their set with a procession out onto the floor of the venue and being right up and close with us dancers and punters. They were drenched in sweat by the end, having given their all. What an impressive group.

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Part 2 of my “wow” moments will take in the Chicago Improv Festival, a diverse range of Broadway offerings, one of the most novel theatre shows I’ve ever come across, and a live dog. You can look forward to that in a few days.

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