Forecasting summer highlights for Berkshire pop season
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., June 6, 2002) The good news is area nightclubs, coffeehouses and festivals are jam-packed with dozens of performances in coming weeks and months in a wide range of styles and genres. The not-so good news is that a lot of what is on the summer menu looks very familiar – almost an instant replay of last summer -- giving an overall been-there, done-that feel to the entire season. But there are a few exceptions, and here are a half-dozen or so shows that seem intriguingly different or overwhelmingly worthwhile from the get-go.

Asylum Street Spankers (Club Helsinki, Great Barrington, June 6): Tonight, the Austin-based Asylum Street Spankers invade the Berkshires with their radical, pre-rock blend of vaudeville, blues, jazz and swing music. The group, which variously boasts eight to 15 members, may well be the only genuinely “unplugged” group currently performing. Not only do they use only acoustic instruments, they don’t use any amplification at all – no microphones, no loudspeakers, no p.a. system. The most transcendent moment on the group’s Live in Europe 2001 CD comes in the middle of “Tight Like That,” a rip-roaring swing number, when they interpolate a verse of punk-poet Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” into the tune.

DJ Spooky and Gary Lucas (August 3 and 17, respectively, Mass MoCA, North Adams): Two geniuses in their genres: the former in hip-hop and the latter in guitar music. DJ Spooky aka That Subliminal Kid aka Paul D. Miller is the preeminent proponent of turntablism as art form (in addition to being a poet and artist who has exhibited at the Whitney Museum in New York), equally influenced by John Cage and Grandmaster Flash. At MoCA, he will reinvent D.W. Griffith’s landmark racist film, “Birth of a Nation,” as “Rebirth of a Nation.” Two weeks later, Gary Lucas, who performed his original score to “The Golem” at MoCA two summers ago and who is one of the pioneers of the neo silent film-scoring movement, returns to improvise in his omnivorous style over three early masterpieces of surreal cinema: Rene Clair’s “Entr’Acte,” Fernand Legere’s “Ballet Mecanique,” and Ladislaw Starewicz’s “The Cameraman’s Revenge.” (DJ Spooky will also be at Jacob’s Pillow with choreographer/dancer Francesca Harper on June 20-23.)

Ani DiFranco (Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, Hillsdale, N.Y., July 28): After several years away, phat-pholk singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco returns to Falcon Ridge, where all weekend (July 26-28) there will be plenty of great music to hear, including Greg Brown, Chris Smither, Lucy Kaplansky and Nerissa and Katryna Nields. But undoubtedly there will be thousands in attendance just to hear the righteous babe herself, who has a new album coming out this summer as well as the first feature-length film by and about her, Render: Spanning Time with Ani DiFranco, which arrives next week.

Medeski, Martin and Wood (Berkshire Mountain Music Festival, Butternut Ski Area, Great Barrington, Aug. 9-11): Whether or not there would ever even be another BerkFest was a cliffhanger, but in the end, good sense prevailed and the festival, now its fifrth summer, will once again highlight the groove and jam-band scenes. With bands on the bill including Garaj Mahal, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, John Scofield, Soulive, and headliners Medeski, Martin and Wood – the quintessential, jazz-groove crossover band -- the festival also promises to be the jazziest ever. And with frequent MMW collaborator DJ Logic also on the bill, the possibilities of an impromptu jam session are heightened. The fifth BerkFest may well prove to be the best.

Bang on a Can (Mass MoCA, North Adams, July 13 and 27): The Berkshires already have Tanglewood, and now we have Banglewood up in North Adams, where the premiere new-music ensemble Bang on a Can will be in residence for two weeks with a summer institute and festival. As part of its residency the Bang on a Can All-Stars, whose omnivorous musical palette includes classical, rock, jazz and world music, perform two big shows: “The Big Bang” on July 13, which will include a composition by avant-jazz clarinetist Don Byron, a new sound score set to an episode of “The Ernie Kovacs Show,” and music from Bang’s excellent Renegade Heaven recording. On July 27, Bang’s residency culminates in one of its trademark marathons, a six-hour extravaganza including a collaboration with new-music legend Steve Reich, the debut of the summer institute’s Balinese Gamelan, and a performance of Terry Riley’s groundbreaking work of minimalism, “In C.” Throughout the period that Bang is in residence at MoCA, there will be free, daily performances by institute participants and faculty members.

Everton Sylvester and Searching for Banjo (Club Helsinki, August 15): Spoken-word artist Everton Sylvester buries so much rhythm and evocative sound in his witty, inventive poems that they need no conventional melodies to exist as songs. Besides, he has the burnished voice of a jazz singer anyway. His woodwind-bass-drum trio’s blend of hip-noir jazz is the perfect compliment to Sylvester’s snapshots of life in New York and Jamaica. His show last year at Mass MoCA left this listener questioning all conventional notions of pop music performance, which is what any and every great performance should do, but few ever achieve. Seeing him in the intimate confines of Club Helsinki should be a real treat.

Charlie Parker Tribute (Tanglewood, Lenox, August 31): At last year’s jazz festival, Louis Armstrong got the treatment. This year an all-star group of young lions – including trumpeter Roy Hargrove, bassist Christian McBride, pianist David Kikoski and Kenny Garrett in the tough role of saxophonist, will salute the legendary “Bird” in a band powered by one-time Charlie Parker sideman Roy Haynes on drums. Saturday’s lineup at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival is one of the best in memory, also including a live taping of the National Public Radio program “Piano Jazz” with host Marian McPartland and special guest Sir Roland Hanna, and a jazz-organ summit featuring a showdown between the old and the new embodied by the Jimmy McGriff Quartet and the Joey DeFrancesco Trio with special guest David “Fathead” Newman, respectively. Diana Krall tops off the evening with her first-ever headlining gig in the Shed (on previous occasions at Tanglewood she was the opening act for the likes of Tony Bennett).

Other summer concerts worth noting are the return of world-jazz/groove outfit Living Daylights, led by avant-jazz saxophonist Jessica Lurie, to Club Helsinki on June 27. Irish fiddler Eileen Ivers was already at the top of her game in the progressive-Irish music movement when she was tapped by “Riverdance” to join that traveling ensemble; she will make her Berkshire debut at Club Helsinki on July 4.

Blues-folk singer-guitarist Rory Block makes an all-too-rare Berkshire appearance on July 4 at the Guthrie Center in Great Barrington. Soul-jazz sensation Norah Jones is at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton on July 9. And on August 3, Bob Dylan returns for the first time since 1965 to the scene of the original crime – the Newport (R.I.) Folk Festival -- where he first plugged-in, electrifying the crowd in a shocking display of audacity that resulted in boos and catcalls and launched a folk-rock revolution whose reverberations are still being felt to this day.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 6, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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