Summer 2004 pop picks

Composer/keyboardist Michael Gordon brings his band to Club Helsinki on July 15th

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., June 2, 2004) -- The best concert of summer 2004 is probably not on the following list, because it will be the one that surprises a listener the most. But here are a half-dozen shows that hold out the promise of surprise based on the newness of the artist, a fresh approach, or a revitalized creative streak.

Patti Smith (Pearl Street, Northampton, June 3): Tonight at Pearl Street in Northampton, punk-poetess Patti Smith kicks off her summer tour behind her new album, “Trampin’” (Columbia). A veritable throwback to late-‘70s albums like “Radio Ethiopia” and “Easter,” the CD includes some politically outspoken tunes, including the 12-minute, free-form rock poem, “Radio Baghdad.” After hitting Boston, New Haven, Asbury Park, N.J., and a few select venues in the South and the Midwest, Smith -- who played one of the greatest concerts ever at Mass MoCA a few years back -- heads to Europe for much of the summer.

Diana Krall (Tanglewood, Lenox, July 4): What on paper read like one of the stranger rock ‘n’ roll marriages in recent times has proven to be a creative boon for Diana Krall, whose brand-new album, “The Girl in the Other Room” (Verve), reveals an edgy, sultry side of the jazz vocalist and pianist heretofore unexplored or unrevealed. The CD includes seven out of a dozen tunes written or co-written by her new husband, Elvis Costello (the others are by Mose Allison, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell and Chris Smither), and has been hovering in or just below the Top 10 on Billboard’s chart of bestselling pop albums since its release six weeks ago. Costello is Netherlands-bound to do a few concerts just a few days after Krall’s Tanglewood appearance, so who knows? Maybe he’ll show up to duet with her on “Almost Blue.”

Phil Kline (Mass MoCA, North Adams, July 10): Guitarist/composer Phil Kline’s “Zippo Songs: Airs of War and Lunacy” is a remarkable aural collage, combining original, avant-garde music composed for voice, guitar, violin and percussion, with lyrics borrowed from poetry that American soldiers inscribed on their lighters in Vietnam, along the lines of “If I had a farm in Vietnam and a home in hell/I’d sell my farm and go home.” As heard on Kline’s “Zippo Songs” CD on the Cantaloupe label, he also put to music a few choice words that came out of the mouth of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In all it makes for a surreal, sublime, at times hysterical song cycle.

Michael Gordon Band (Club Helsinki, Great Barrington, July 15): On this weekday night, Bang on a Can co-founder and composer Michael Gordon will travel south from Bang’s summer institute at Mass MoCA – known informally to intimates as “Banglewood” – and pull a Clark Kent. The new-classical composer will duck into a phone booth, spin around a few times, change clothes and pop out as a reconstructed electro-rocker, drawing on his roots in the late-‘70s, downtown New York rock scene to perform the hypnotic, state-of-the-art ambient and techno music found on his terrific new album, “Light Is Calling” (Nonesuch).

Ollabelle (Club Helsinki, August 7): Berkshire audiences are being treated to a veritable crash course in the newest and hottest rural-roots group of the year. Ollabelle warmed up the crowd for the Blind Boys of Alabama a few months ago in Pittsfield and will do the same at Tanglewood for Diana Krall on July 4. But the New York-based sextet -- which plays a mixture of traditional gospel, spirituals, country, blues and a few original tunes and boasts Levon Helm’s daughter Amy as one of several lead vocalists -- finally makes its proper, headlining debut at Helsinki in August.

Nellie McKay (Club Helsinki, August 15): By the time Nellie McKay gets around to performing at Club Helsinki in August, she will have spent much of the summer opening shows in arenas and sheds for the likes of Sting, Alanis Morissette, Lou Reed and Barenaked Ladies, and playing such prestigious festivals as Bonnaroo and Montreal Jazz, all on the strength of her dazzling debut album, “Get Away from Me” (Columbia). Recently profiled in the New Yorker magazine as well as Rolling Stone, McKay -- who was still playing New York City bars less than a year ago -- is a hyperkinetic wordsmith whose dizzying, dazzling songs find common ground among Cole Porter, Elvis Costello, Broadway show music and Eminem. Only her reputation as a live performer exceeds the rave reviews she garnered for her recording. Be sure to get your tickets early for a show that’s a cinch to sell out.

Also likely to please, inspire or enrage: “Ethel Goes to the Movies,” Mass MoCA, June 12; French retro-pop dance party with Les Sans Culottes, Mass MoCA, June 25; Carole King, July 18, Saratoga (N.Y.) Performing Arts Center; Norah Jones, August 30, SPAC, Sept. 1, Meadows Music Theatre, Hartford.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 3, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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