SARATOGA SPRINGS - Tabla player Ballu Khan sat at center stage, thwonk-ing jubilant beats, breaking into contagious smiles and commanding the center of attention Monday night at SPAC’s Little Theater where the Sachal Ensemble staged their Saratoga premiere.
The ensemble, perhaps best known for their role in the 2015 film “Song of Lahore,” was created by Pakistani investor and philanthropist Izzat Majeed. The “music-mad millionaire” – as a 2014 NPR interview referred to him – joined the Lahore-based group onstage for a curtain call.
The eight-piece ensemble, making their debut U.S. tour, performed a 70-minute set, re-imagining western based crowd-pleasers such as Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me,” Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme,” and the jazz standard “Take Five” – first and most famously performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet more than a half-century ago. A rendition of French composer Michel Legrand’s “Windmills of Your Mind” was emotionally stirring.
But it was the band’s own personal creations, imbued with syncopated dives, synchronous ascensions and a melodic sweetness that best ratcheted-up the sonic intensity. "Taxali Gate" – written about one of the gates of the old medieval Walled City of Lahore, and “Shalimar,” inspired by the garden complex located in the Pakistan metropolis known as the city of gardens, were the best of these.
Khan’s tabla playing was collaboratively paired with the player of a double-headed hand-drum – called a dholak; the duo’s percussive resonance augmented by the bow-ing of a violin, the tinklings of a grand piano, and the gentle pluckings of a sunburst Gibson Les Paul.
Well-placed accents were delivered by the multi-layered string arrangements of a sarangi - a small, box-shaped string instrument bowed with one hand and noted by fingers across the fret-board with the other. A flutist provided melodic accompaniment, occasionally infiltrated with short tonal flares reminiscent of the stylings of Roland Kirk - all of it held together by the foundation-clang of the beat-keeping bells.
Greeted warmly by a large audience inside the theater the ensemble’s performance was a poignant reminder, for those who may have forgotten, of the collective power of music to erase geographic borders, melt cultural differences and served to transcend the musicians’ struggle to keep music alive under the auspices of a conservative Islamic regime in their native Pakistan, where music of a non-religious nature is discouraged.
Tabla player Ballu Khan. Photo provided.
SARATOGA SPRINGS – It was a year of new things for the most part at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Elizabeth Sobol’s first at the helm of the organization, initiating partnerships with arts-based collaborators in the region, introducing a series of inaugural concert events, and reviving long-dormant pieces of the organization’s past. And more changes are on the way.
At its Oct. 12 meeting, SPAC’s Board of Directors voted to condense the New York City Ballet season to seven performances, down from its 11-day residency in each of the past three seasons - which featured 12 to 14 performances during that period. The 2018 NYCB season will more closely align with 2013 and 2014 models.
Mathematically, 80 percent of New York City Ballet ticket buyers purchase tickets to only one performance, and 11 percent buy tickets to two performances, Sobol said. Only the remaining 9 percent purchase tickets to 3-plus NYCB shows.
“The Board felt that taking on another $1 million-plus shortfall on the New York City Ballet residency, was not prudent,” explained SPAC’s president and CEO.
“A big thrust of our efforts will be towards converting one-time buyers to multiple-performance buyers. Consolidating the audiences into one week will help with that,” Sobol said. “Historically, when we reduce the number of performances, nightly attendance numbers go up. Having fuller houses and the increased energy and excitement which accompanies that helps create more demand for tickets.”
Much as was done in prior years – the National Ballet of China visited the venue in 2015 and the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Bolshoi Ballet staged shows the previous summer - the NYCB dance season will be augmented by additional performances by an international dance company, not yet revealed. Discussions are currently being held with the National Ballet of Cuba for multiple performances in the summer of 2018.
“SPAC certainly remains committed to the residency and our long-term partnership with NYCB,” Sobol said. “Looking ahead to 2018, we will be working to harness that new energy and focus marketing on driving these new audiences to our resident companies. I am hopeful that with this renewed emphasis, we will be able to return to the extended New York City Ballet season in the future.”
SPAC is projected to finish the 2017 fiscal year operationally breaking even. Audience attendance at 2017 classical season performances reached projected levels. The Philadelphia Orchestra is scheduled to return for 12 performances, from Aug. 1 – 18, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will perform at the Spa Little Theatre Aug. 5- 21.
The 2017 Season featured a partnership with Caffè Lena that presented a monthly series of free concerts atop SPAC’s new Charles R. Wood Gazebo stage, as well as a trio of sold-out SPAC at Caffè Lena shows during the spring.
The inaugural “SPAC on Stage” series resulted in three sold-out performances, with nearly one-third of all attendees being first-time SPAC ticket buyers, Sobol said.
A “Live at the Jazz Bar” series was initiated in the Hall of Springs – and brought 300 to 400 people to each of the seven events to hear live jazz following performances by the ballet and orchestra.
SPAC on Stage, Live at the Jazz Bar and the Caffè Lena at SPAC series will all be back for the 2018 season.
In 2017, SPAC’s free education programs reached more than 15,000 young individuals, offered more than 125 classes, presentations, performances, and events, and partnered with more than 70 schools and non-profit organizations across the greater Capital Region.
In the near future, the organization anticipates launching a new user-friendly website, and in December will initiate a pilot program with the Decoda Chamber Ensemble. The group, the first affiliate ensemble of Carnegie Hall, will include a weeklong artist-in-residency for students at the Saratoga Independent School (SIS). A full chamber program will be staged Dec. 15 at the Bethesda Church in downtown Saratoga Springs.
Upcoming SPAC events include a lecture luncheon featuring a discussion titled the “Fascinating Life of Katrina Trask,” at 9:30 a.m. Oct. 26 at SPAC’s Spa Little Theatre; The Sachal Ensemble musicians - known for their extraordinary journey from Lahore to Lincoln Center featured in the “Song of Lahore” film - live and on stage at the Little Theater 7 p.m. Oct. 30, (preceded by two screenings of the film at 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. ay Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas a day earlier), and a pair of Nutcracker Teas in the Hall of Springs on Nov. 19 at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. For ticket information, go to: spac.org.
SARATOGA SPRINGS – The Sachal Ensemble – whose story of traditional musicians trying to survive under the oppression of modern day Pakistan was told in the film “Song of Lahore” - will perform at Proctors Oct. 28 and at SPAC’s Spa Little Theatre on Oct. 30.
The film, “Song of Lahore,” will also be screened at Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas in Saratoga Springs on Sunday, Oct. 29. The film, by two-time Academy Award-winning director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken, illustrates how their music-making not only brought inspiration to their lives, but literally sustained them in their struggles – and how, finally, they were discovered on YouTube by Wynton Marsalis and brought to the US for performances at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
In one of the most poignant moments of the film, Nijat Ali, conductor of the Sachal Ensemble says, “we want to show the world that Pakistanis are artists, not terrorists.”
Tickets for the performance at SPAC’s Little Theatre start at $40. To purchase tickets, or for more information, visit: spac.org.
SARATOGA SPRINGS - A special guest appearance by Boston Red Sox baseball legend David Ortiz will be among the highlights of this year’s Saratoga Wine and Food Festival on Sept. 8- 9.
The sports star, known affectionately to his fans as “Big Papi,” will participate in Friday’s Fired Up! event as well as two smaller gatherings on Friday evening, spotlighting his new line of cigars and Arias wine.
“He is not only a baseball hero, he is someone whose life and career have been an inspiration to millions of people.” said Elizabeth Sobol, president and CEO of Saratoga Performing Arts Center. “We are proud that such an outstanding and beloved public figure and role model will play a part in this year’s festival and gratified that a portion of the proceeds from his VIP appearances will benefit the David Ortiz Children’s Fund, an organization that supports lifesaving pediatric care for children in need.”
Ortiz recently launched a line of wines with the local Ianniello & DeCrescente families. "Arias" is named after David’s mother, Angela Rosa Arias, who tragically lost her life in a car crash in 2002. The multi-colored wine label illustrates two hands raised with index fingers pointing upwards, a salute Ortiz often made to his mother after hitting a home run and now is a symbol to encourage the human spirit to rise against adversity. The Arias portfolio includes a merlot, chardonnay, cabernet and sauvignon blanc.
He has also introduced a cigar line, "Big Papi David Ortiz Cigars,” crafted by "El Artista Cigars" based out of the Dominican Republic. Its band displays a red silhouette of Big Papi also pointing upward, as in his post-home run stance.
Ortiz will headline a 7 p.m. – 7:45 p.m. meet/greet and photo signing for 100 Fired Up! ticketholders who donate a minimum of $50 or more per person to the David Ortiz Children’s Fund; brief remarks to all Fired Up! guests in the main tent, followed by a video presentation on the Children’s Fund; and a 90-minute “Big Papi’s Arias Wine & Cigar Bar” experience for 100 people that will take place in the Hall of Springs Jazz Bar from 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. A portion of the proceeds from each event will benefit the David Ortiz Children’s Fund, a charity which funds pediatric services for children in New England and the Dominican Republic.
Presented annually at the end of its classical season, the Saratoga Wine and Food Festival is an epicurean showcase featuring two days of gourmet events showcasing fine international wines, innovative chef-prepared menus, cooking demonstrations and wine seminars, expansive tastings, upscale auctions and a luxury auto show. Held under elegant tents on SPAC’s lawn, the weekend is anchored by three events: an Adirondack Road Tour and Luncheon; Friday’s Fired Up! Grill Competition and Saturday’s Grand Tasting and Concours D’Elegance, the festival centerpiece. Presented in partnership with the Saratoga Automobile Museum, proceeds from the festival benefit education programming at SPAC and the Museum.
A featured event at Saturday’s Grand Tasting will be the final round of SPAC’s “Home Rangers” Amateur Chef Competition, which includes a cook-off between the competition’s amateur chef finalist and BlueStar celebrity chef Melissa Doney. Chef Doney was a competitor on Season 8 of Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen hosted by Gordon Ramsey.
Among the judges for the final round will be BlueStar All Star Chef Jay Hajj and Ariana Philips, editor of Food Network magazine. Chef Suvir Saran, an accomplished chef, cookbook author, educator as well as a farmer who specializes in bringing Indian cooking to the American kitchen will be the final judge.
FRIDAY, SEPT. 8: Adirondack Road Tour & Gourmet Luncheon | 10:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. This spirited 1 ½ hour, professionally-led road rally for auto collectors winds through beautiful Adirondack roads to finish at the historic Lake George Club, where a delicious cocktail reception and three course wine-paired luncheon will be served. Event price: $100.
Fired Up! Grill Competition featuring Special Guest David Ortiz| 7 -10 p.m. Chefs from the Capital Region’s finest restaurants will battle it out for the FIRED UP! title as guests enjoy great music, gourmet food, BBQ, a cold refreshing Stella Artois, wines and spirits. The event is held under an oversized tent on SPAC’s lawn. Event price: $85
David Ortiz Meet and Greet | 7 p.m. – 7:45 p.m. This opportunity will be available to the first 100 people who purchase a specially priced Fired Up! ticket of $135, which includes a $50 donation to the David Ortiz Children’s Fund. Event price: $135
“Big Papi’s Arias Wine & Cigar Bar” | 8:30 p.m. -10 p.m. David Ortiz will host a VIP experience for 100 people that will take place in the Hall of Springs Jazz Bar from 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. The event will feature an opportunity to mingle with the baseball legend and other guests while enjoying Arias wines, gourmet hors d’oeuvres and cigars. All of the guests will receive an autographed bottle of Arias. A portion of the proceeds from this event will benefit the David Ortiz Children’s Fund. Event price: $175
SATURDAY, SEPT. 9: Grand Tasting and Concours D’Elegance, noon – 4 p.m. All guests will have the opportunity to savor exquisite foods created by more than 20 chefs in the Capital Region; a mystery wall, and cocktails, wine and beer. In addition, The Saratoga Automobile Museum will present a show of luxury collector cars including classes of Shelby Cobra, Porsche, Lancia, Maserati, Ferrari, Lamborghini, among others. Event price: $85. A VIP Grant Tasting ticket, which allows earlier entry to the Grand Tasting and exclusive access to the VIP area, is available for $175.
The Saratoga Wine and Food Festival is Saratoga Performing Arts Center’s primary fundraiser for its educational programming, including Classical Kids, a collaborative program in which SPAC works with local schools to teach elementary and middle school aged children about the classical performing arts.
Tickets to the festival and more information about the complete festival schedule are available at spac.org; by calling 518-584-9330; or in person at the SPAC Box Office.
SARATOGA SPRINGS – A few months into her tenure at the helm of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Elizabeth Sobol explored the venue’s historic stage, the jigsaw pieces of a unique concept formulating in her mind.
“One day I was standing out in the amphitheater and looked up at this massive stage while thinking about this crazy idea,” recalled SPAC’s president and CEO. “I wondered: How many people can we seat up there? As it turns out, it’s 300.”
Earlier this week, the fruition of that “crazy idea” went on full display when the venue hosted the first of four SPAC On Stage events, which spins the performers’ podium 180 degrees and places audience members at the back of the stage to face the musicians. A panoramic of the setting sun. the great lawn of SPAC and the columned architecture of the Hall of Springs lazily recline in the distance.
The four-part series will be staged consecutive Monday nights in August. The grand experiment kicked off Aug. 7 and by all measures of sound and vision was a major success.
“We’re making SPAC history tonight!” Sobol told the audience assembled for the series premiere featuring The Hot Sardines. The ensemble, which boasts triple-horns, sassy vocals and a rhythm section that channels the vintage essence of New York speakeasies, Parisian cabarets and New Orleans jazz halls alike, proved to be a perfect choice.
“Tonight, we’re doing this for the first time together, so let’s let our hair down and have a ton of fun,” Sobol announced, the foundation of a rollicking piano punctuated by the brassy horns of The Hot Sardines.
“Tonight, you can take photographs,” Sobol instructed. “Tonight, you can dance.” Some couples did just that, swooning to the sounds of classic jazz interpretations.
The visuals are splendid, with no seat more than a few meters from the stage, and however it was done, the sound on this night is perfect: each musical intonation easily observed, and the volume boosted at an enjoyable level.
The experience is both intimate and surreal. The lawn and amphitheater, absent of patrons, is eerily quiet, and even the venue’s security detail collectively wear perplexed looks. Audience members are directed to their seats via an ascending staircase at stage left, warmly greeted as if entering a gallant eatery, and are directed to their pre-numbered seats by walking across the historic stage where everyone from Jim Morrison to Mikhail Baryshnikov have strutted their stuff.
The U-shape seating configuration cradles the stage, with a half-dozen or so rows flanking the band podium on either side and a bleacher-type fixture housing seats that climbs at its center.
SPAC on Stage takes place Mondays at 8 p.m. in August. Time for Three will perform Monday, Aug. 14, Black Violin on Aug. 21 (tickets for this show are sold out), and three-time Grammy nominated Afro-Cuban music group Tiempo Libre will conclude the series on Aug. 28.
“When the notion of SPAC on Stage was born, there were bands that I wanted to bring in that I thought would do this so perfectly,” Sobol said. “We’re almost sold out of the whole series and 22 percent of our ticket buyers for this series have never been to SPAC before, so that’s huge. I wanted to introduce a type of music we weren’t really touching on at SPAC and this was the way to do it. You’re bringing the audience out of the amphitheater and onto the stage to be with the artists.” Sobol said audiences can expect the series to be revisited in future seasons.
Time for Three will be showcasing a lot of their new material during their SPAC appearance Aug. 14.
“Inviting the audience on stage to get that close to us is going to be awesome,” said Time for Three founding member Nick Kendall. “I think it plays into the unexpected characteristics of Time for Three. You’ll really get to witness the interplay between the three of us. So much of (our sound) seems like it’s being created in the moment and by being a lot closer you’ll be able to see that interplay that sometimes is missed at a big concert hall or a stadium.
“We have played at SPAC before with the orchestra, so iIt’s going to be really cool to turn that on its head, and bring the audience on stage.”
Time for Three and its three classically trained musicians — violinists Nick Kendall and Charles Yang, and double-bassist Ranaan Meyer defy traditional genre classification. The trio performs music from Bach to Brahms and beyond, playing originals and their own arrangements of everything from bluegrass and folk tunes to mash-ups of hits by the Beatles, Brittany Spears, Kanye West, Katy Perry, and others. The group has performed at venues as diverse as Carnegie Hall, to the ABC TV show “Dancing with the Stars.”
The variety of venues well suits the SPAC on Stage series as well as the ensemble’s performance chops. “It reflects the energy of our band. We love the surprise nature of it. We’re just as comfortable playing on street corners as we are in concert halls,” said Kendall, adding that the group’s three co-creators inspire a fusion of sound that creates a larger symphonic fourth.
“At the root of my desire in music is the appetite to create,” Kendall said. “There’s such a reciprocal energy, especially with my bandmates when we perform; I’ll go out, spark an energy and if the energy comes back – well, that’s what I live for, whether it’s with another musician or with the audience.”
Monday night the energy created in that magical place between audience and band will be given a whole new sea of possibilities in which to flourish.
Audience filing in to the U-shaped seating configuration during first of four SPAC on Stage performances Aug. 7, 2017. Photo by Thomas Dimopoulos.
SARATOGA SPRINGS - Stéphane Denève was 11 years old when he sat inside a darkened movie theater and watched a young boy try to help a loveable alien find its way home. Thirty-five years later, that moment continues to carry a special emotional significance for Denève, and one that he hopes to share with thousands of others on Saturday when he stands atop the stage at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, flanked by four HD screens showing Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” and leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in a live musical accompaniment of John Williams’ score.
“I was born in ’71 so I saw the movie when I was 11. I loved it so much I cried in the theater. And during my childhood, I had a poster of ET over my bed,” says the conductor.
When it came to his own daughter, Denève and his wife ensured the first time she saw the film was during the staging of a performance accompanied by the screening of the movie with her father conducting the orchestra. “That was very special, being able to share that with her,” he says. “I was very moved by it.”
Conducting the orchestra in real time while the film is screening is not without its challenges.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m piloting a big plane,” Denève laughs. “The movie is moving forward and so you’re moving forward with it. You cannot stop and say: oh, let me do it again.
“There are hundreds of cues through the movie interpreting the score. It’s fun, of course, but it’s also one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done in my career because you want to be both precise and expressive,” says Denève, who in June was named as the next music director of the St. Louis Symphony.
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s August residency, which kicked off Thursday with Tchaikovsky’s famed 1812 Overture, will run through Aug. 19 with a celebratory “A Night at The Opera.”
“It’s an incredible orchestra. It’s home for them, of course. You feel the connection they have with the audience. Some of the musicians even have their private homes in Saratoga,” Denève says. “You put a group together to do something special and I feel we are creating the tension, the rhythm and the dialogue between the instruments.
“When I am conducting I can feel the energy in the room. The energy of the audience, even though I have my back to them, is essential. You really feel when people are listening and the peak of tension, and attention, in the audience. I find that quite magical.”
Elizabeth Sobol, who is spending her first summer guiding SPAC as the organization’s president and CEO, says she is excited about all of it - from the scheduled appearances of Yo-Yo Ma and Marcus Roberts, closing night’s “breathtaking evening with exquisite arias,” and a night set aside to pay tribute to Gershwin.
“At SPAC you want to be presenting the best of all genres. Gershwin was the ultimate composer who brought popular and classical music together on the knife edge that made it such brilliant, amazing, universal music,“ Sobol says.
Saturday, Aug. 5 - E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (complete with film). Steven Spielberg's cinematic masterpiece “E.T. The Extra—Terrestrial,” will be shown on four HD screens and accompanied by a live performance of John Williams's Academy Award-winning score.
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s return to its summer home at Saratoga Performing Arts Center features three weeks of performances. The season, Aug. 2 – 19, encompasses wide-ranging classical and contemporary repertoire, world renowned musicians and conductors, family-oriented multi-media offerings and an opera evening. All performances at 8 p.m.
Some highlights: Friday Aug. 4 - Cirque de la Symphonie; Saturday, Aug. 5 - E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (complete with film); Wednesday, Aug. 9 - American Classics Day 1. An icon of classical music and arguably the world’s greatest living cellist, Yo-Yo Ma will grace the SPAC stage with his unmatched artistry; Thursday, Aug. 10 - American Classics Day 2. Maestro Marin Alsop n conducts an evening dedicated to the music of cherished American composer George Gershwin. Also: The Marcus Roberts Trio; Friday, Aug. 11 - American Classics Day 3. Duo Concerto for Vibraphone and Marimba is comprised of several Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays compositions arranged and orchestrated by Principal Percussion Christopher Deviney; Saturday, Aug. 12 - Raiders of the Lost Ark (complete with film). The film that gave the world one of its greatest movie heroes, Indiana Jones, will make its SPAC debut as John Williams's epic score is performed live; Wednesday, Aug. 16 - Sophisticated Ladies; Thursday, Aug. 17 - French Festival Day 1. Music Director of The Philadelphia Orchestra and Grammy Award-nominee Yannick Nézet-Séguin returns to Saratoga to lead the final week of programs; Friday, Aug. 18 - French Festival Day 2; Saturday, Aug. 19 - A Night at the Opera. Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin will lead singers from The Metropolitan Opera in an evening of glorious arias and sublime ensembles from the opera repertoire.
The full schedule of SPAC’s programming and events is available at spac.org.
Why We Like Him: With his trademark raspy voice and exemplary musical lineage, Rod Stewart is one of the top-selling singers of the 20th century. Of particular note: his run with the Jeff Beck Group in the 1960s and his stint with The Faces, as well as his solo albums, through the mid-1970s.
Heritage: Born of Scottish and English ancestry. Loves soccer. Knighted by Prince William at Buckingham Palace in 2016.
Set List: Twenty songs. Ten originals. Ten covers.
Visually: Sir Rod looks healthy up against the 72 years he has spent on earth: shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest, swatches of blonde zagging across his scalp, and a voice that mostly still manages fine and complemented on stage by a chorus of back-up singers. His shaggy-hair look also inspired more than a few fans to don Rod The Mod hair-wigs, although for the most part the wigs seemed less like the classic rooster-cut of the ‘70s and more like a Long Island housewife’s beehive hair-do that had been violated by a pair of sheep shears.
Memorable songs performed: The Faces’ “Stay With Me” still maintained some of its original joy-filled intensity, and was supplemented by the kicking of several soccer balls into the crowd. Renditions of Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe” and Cat Stevens’ “The First Cut Is The Deepest” were emotionally moving during the evening’s five-song acoustic set. “Maggie May” and “Ooh La La” were not.
Stewart name-checked blues legend Muddy Waters before performing the Hambone Willie Newbern song “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” – which dates back to at least 1929 - dedicated “Young Turks” to World War II servicemen, covered Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train,” and performed a duet with Cyndi Lauper on The Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart of Mine.”
“You Wear It Well” brought the crowd to its feet, and “You’re In My Heart” had them swaying, arms waving and taking the lead on the choruses.
Ill-advised: The drum solo during “Forever Young,” featuring two drummers no less, making the most boring thing in rock doubly so. Another low moment occurred when the band, sans Rod, played “Proud Mary” Ike & Tina Turner style - likely meant to be a tribute, but mostly just looked like a foolish parody. Coincidentally, both segments were used to occupy time so that Rod could go backstage and change into another outfit.
Overall: Entertaining, but lacking the emotional passion that set him apart from his peers during the early 1970s when he reigned as king. All the sharp edges were removed from the guitars, the band – in their matching suits and neat styles – looked more like Rod’s wait staff than musical foils, and Rod himself seems destined to grab the title of rock’s version of Wayne Newton. Clearly, he misses Ron Wood, who left to join the Rolling Stones in 1975. It doesn’t look like the Stones are going to give him back any time soon.
Most annoyingly is the known talent that Stewart once promised before he began his descent into the maelstrom of mainstream mediocrity. It was what promptedmusic critic Greil Marcus to proclaim decades ago: “Rarely has a singer had as full and unique a talent as Rod Stewart; rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely.” Not much has changed.
Why We Like Her: Fun, talented, and charming.
Heritage: Born at Astoria General Hospital and grew up in Ozone Park - both neighborhoods in Queens whose surrounding environs also spawned Tony Bennett, Simon and Garfunkel, Marty Scorsese, three New York Dolls, all four of the Ramones, and Steinway Pianos.
Set List: 11 songs, covering a span of recordings from 1983’s “She’s So Unusual,” to “Detour,” which was released in 2006.
Visually: The show began with Lauper swinging around an oversized traveling trunk while teetering atop a pair of high heel shoes, her dancing form framed by massive video screens that depicted Betty Grable days and classic Horror film nights. During her singing of “She Bop,” perhaps most appropriately, she shucked off her oversized top hat and her shoes and performed the balance of the set in bare feet, alternating between song and stand-up shtick, including a joke of sorts about a Nashville hotel that merged Dolly Parton with the Dalai Lama. She also name-checked Captain Lou Albano.
Memorable songs performed: The set began a bit rough – including one off-key tune which was halted and re-started for which a missing stage prop was blamed - but hit stride mid-way through the set and absolutely took off with the turbo-charged fury of “Money Changes Everything,” the joy-filled “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” – which also included pertinent social messages - a charming rendition of “Time After Time,” and an emotionally charged “Not My Father’s Son.” “True Colors,” Lauper’s beautifully haunting ode to humanity, provided the show-closer.
Throughout her set Lauper alternately whirled like a dervish, shared center stage with a dulcimer, and serenaded like a chanteuse. “Have a beautiful summer,” she told the crowd as she exited the stage. “Take care of each other and remember: diversity makes us stronger.” As one clearly moved row-mate inside the amphitheater expressed after Lauper’s finale: She really leaves it all up on that stage.
SARATOGA SPRINGS – Jorma Kaukonen stepped into the sunlight and rode an E chord for all it was worth:
“Down in the mine,
circled ‘round the diamond,
Serpent of your expectations,
Sleeps a nervous dream…”
Electric Hot Tuna – these days a power trio led by longtime bandmates Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, and aided amply by the grounding beats of drummer Justin Gulp, came to Saratoga July 3 and staged a show at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in support of the Tedeschi Trucks Band, and the Wood Brothers.
Hot Tuna delivered a seven-song, 45-minute set that came full circle, commencing with “Serpent of Dreams” and concluding with “Hit Single #1” – adjacent vinyl tracks on the band’s 1975 album “America’s Choice.”
It was 49 years, nearly to the day, when Kaukonen and Casady graced the front cover of Life Magazine beneath the headline: “Music That’s Hooked The Whole Vibrating World.” Perhaps best known for their respective roles in helping create the Jefferson Airplane’s signature sound – try imagining songs like “White Rabbit” sans Casady’s "Bolero" bass, or “Somebody To Love” and “Lather” without Kaukonen’s soaring guitaristry - the Hot Tuna duo has done well in creating their own legacy during the past 45-plus years, alternating between the moody electric wailing of Kaukonen’s wheezing guitar and elaborate acoustic fingerpickings, and Casady’s melody bass. Add to that hipping an entire generation of guitar players to the music of Robert Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton, Jimmy Reed and Rev. Gary Davis.
Much of that legacy was on full display at SPAC, where the band’s set began with a pair of acoustic numbers and took off in earnest when Kaukonen strapped on his electric Firebird that bent through the wave of a Wah-Wah flange and delivered a string-bending swoon of vintage psychedelia, blown in on a breeze from the west coast of America.
The three-piece ensemble allows ample space for each instrument to be well-defined by the human ear, and as Kaukonen displayed a mental fixation on his fretboard delivering his searing notes, Casady plunked, boomed, slid and slapped out the low tones on his Wine Red hollow-body bass, his undulating eyebrows rising and falling with the plonk of the beat.
“The last time I remember that Jack and I were here was in ’89 on the (Jefferson) Airplane reunion tour,” announced Kaukonen, a black Harley T-shirt clinging to his 76-year-old frame. Truth be told, the band had been here with The Further Festival in the late ‘90s and on a bill with the Allman Brothers in 2000, but no one seemed to mind the historical misstep inside the amphitheater and out on the summer lawn where fans of the music swooned and grooved, transported to some heavenly place in a world of song.
SARATOGA SPRINGS – Quinn Sullivan was in the second grade when legendary bluesman Buddy Guy pulled the 8-year-old guitar player onto the stage in his native New Bedford, Massachusetts to show what he could do.
“I'm like, "There's no way in the world you can play these notes,” Buddy Guy told Rolling Stone, regarding the performance. “He was hitting Eric Clapton, he was hitting me, Stevie, Jimi Hendrix. I couldn't even play a radio when I was seven or eight years old! Players like him come along once in a lifetime. I said, 'I need to let the world know about you.'"
A decade later, the guitar prodigy has shredded six-string licks in front of the TV cameras for Oprah Winfrey, Jimmy Kimmel and NBC's The Today Show, performed at music festivals alongside Dave Matthews, Sonic Youth, and Pearl Jam, and received a standing ovation while on stage at the Crossroads Guitar Festival at Madison Square Garden with his mentor Buddy Guy. Surreal, he says.
“The musical influence came right from the time when I was a little kid,” says Sullivan, who celebrated his 18th birthday in March. “My parents bought me a First Act acoustic guitar for Christmas – one of those kids’ guitars - when I was about three years old. That was my first encounter. They also played me all different kinds of music, from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers band. In my house, the music was always playing and I would just sit down, and absorb it all.”
Sullivan released his debut album, “Cyclone,” in 2011. His latest, “Midnight Highway,” was released last year. Sunday afternoon, local fans can catch the blues phenom on the big stage during Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The event, which takes place on two stages Saturday and Sunday, features nearly two dozen acts and is headlined by Chaka Khan - on Saturday night, and the Gipsy Kings – who close the festival on Sunday.
A living contradiction of the classic Alice Cooper tune about teen angst, Sullivan is 18 and he knows what he wants.
“There are the normal things that are great about becoming 18, but I think I’ve grown up in such a good environment with really great people in my life and a support system that has always been there and surrounded me. My main focus now is to just put on the best show I can,” says the guitarist, who performed nearly 100 shows last year and will certainly top that number in 2017.
“I’ve been able to evolve; Playing with the guys I’ve been playing with for years now we’ve reached this level on stage where everybody is jelling and the chemistry is very good,” Sullivan says. “I think the future of music – real music anyways - is live music and live performances, more so than records. I love the recording process and making records, but to me you need to have that same level of confidence on stage,” he says. “I think that’s what a true artist does, and that’s what I’m trying to do: to better my live show, and to not be afraid to take chances. Life in general is about taking chances especially when you’re in the music industry. I’m all about learning more and more every single day. “
With a bright future ahead of him, Sullivan says the musical path is without restriction, or limit. And while some may try to tag him strictly a blues artist, the guitarist says he won’t be pigeonholed into such fine a category.
“I don’t think of music as one thing, six different genres. I think if you’re putting out music that touches someone, that helps someone feel something, that’s the key to great music. I have so many different influences that I take from and I want to put that into what I do,” he says. “The sky’s the limit.”
If he wasn’t a touring musician, Sullivan says he imagines he somehow would have found his way into some segment of the arts. And at the age of 18, he’s not so far removed from his initial inspiration of what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“When I was a little kid, it was funny, I wanted to be a police officer. That was my first love,” recalls Sullivan of an age when the guitar was still a hobby. “I had a cousin who I used to play cops and robbers with all the time. I was totally down for that.”
View Quinn Sullivan at various stage of his musical life:
- The 8-year-old guitar prodigy tears it up on the B.B. King classic, "The Thrill is Gone," at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHoO3JHnn3Q.
- Performing Jimi Hendrix’ “Little Wing,” a sunburst Strat draped across his lithe torso, his chest be-spotted with a Sex Pistols “T-Shirt, on stage at the Western Maryland Blues Festival, June, 2016: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMl7FYVz8x8
- Sullivan’s latest, “Something for Me,” featuring noise-infused blues on the cobblestone streets of downtown Manhattan: https://youtu.be/C1oIzzxtOUQ
Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival will be held Saturday, June 24 and Sunday, June 25 at SPAC. For more information about artists performing and tickets to the festival, go to: http://www.spac.org/events/jazz-festival.
Danny Melnick grew up on Long Island listening to The Who and the Rolling Stones records the older kids used to play. His friends loved Kiss, the Good Rats, and Twisted Sister; his younger brother had a fondness for pop new wave.
“Depeche Mode and the Pet Shop Boys,” he bristles. “Music I couldn’t stand then, and music I still can’t listen to today.”
Melnick was more drawn into a world of moody tempo changes, haunting mellotrons and lyrical fantasy. Melnick was a Prog kid.
“Somehow, I got into Progressive Rock: King Crimson and Yes, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull. Through that education I learned about Miles Davis and John Coltrane and then quickly on to people like Dave Holland and John Abercrombie, Gary Burton and early Pat Metheny,” he says. “It really opened up my ears to a lot of things.”
Why this all matters is the reasoning behind what brings thousands of people to the Spa City every year for The Hang. This month, the Saratoga jazz festival celebrates its 40th anniversary with two days of shows on two stages, marking the fifth longest-consecutive-running jazz festival in North America.
Melnick first worked with the festival in 1991, overseeing the transport of musicians from New York City to Saratoga Springs. “The band bus monitor,” he says. Eight years later he was in charge of booking all the artists to perform at the festival.
“The market there is pretty interesting. The audiences in Saratoga have been coming to this festival at SPAC for a very long time. They’re committed to it. We’ve got people coming in from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the tri-state New York City area, and of course, the Capital Region. So, for me, as a presenter, I’m trying to appeal to all of them with a great mix of artists,” Melnick says. He’s also cognizant of maintaining traditions.
“When I look back at the acts in the late ‘70s and ‘80s there was always blues, always Latin, always straight-ahead jazz, a little bit of avantgarde here and there. I try very hard to continue that. The biggest challenge in modern times is that so many legendary jazz legends have died,” Melnick says, riffing on a memory list of the departed that includes Dave Brubeck and Ray Charles, B.B. King and Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Art Blakely and Ella Fitzgerald. “I can name fifty artists who have played the festival and who today are gone. So now, I have to mix it up a little more.
“The festival needs to keep going forward. In order to stay alive and stay relative you need to book a diverse roster of artists who can tell where the music is today,” he says. “I want people to learn about new artists, I want them to be entertained and to have fun. I want emerging jazz artists to have a platform, to be heard, to build careers so that hopefully they will become headliners in the future.”
This year’s Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival - initially called the Newport Jazz Festival at Saratoga when it launched in 1978 – will feature a new, bigger gazebo stage for emerging artists to showcase their talents.
“Quite a few people who started out playing the gazebo stage have moved on, to the main stage, or are playing bigger festivals around the world. It’s cool that the festival audience is supporting the artists. They’re listening to them, they’re meeting them, they’re getting their autographs, they’re buying their CD’s. And there are no walls between the artists and the audience, it’s all right there,” says Melnick, president and director of Absolutely Live Entertainment. His official title at the Saratoga jazz festival is producing partner and artistic director.
His accomplishments as a presenter include a world tour commemorating the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue" recording, North American tours celebrating the Monterey Jazz Festival’s 55th anniversary, and the Newport Jazz Festival’s 60th, concerts at Carnegie Hall as part of the JVC Jazz Festival and a Blue Note Records' four month-long 70th Anniversary tour.
“There were nights when I was hanging out with Dizzie Gillespie backstage in Japan and thinking: really? How did this happen?” Prior to forming ALE, Melnick was the artistic director and a senior producer at George Wein's Festival Productions company.
“I have a lot of great memories and incredible stories. I’ve been very lucky over the years to be in the places that I’ve been and do the work that I’ve done, particularly in all the years when I worked as an employee for George Wein,” he says of the jazz impresario who founded the local festival in 1978. One recent memory involved booking legends Tony Bennett and Buddy Guy on the festival’s closing night in 2013.
“Buddy Guy was set to close with Tony Bennett going on before him. A week before the festival, Buddy’s agent calls.
“Buddy has a problem closing,” Guy’s agent told him. “He feels weird going on after Tony Bennett. He doesn’t want to disrespect Tony.”
“I said: What? What do you mean?”
“Well, Tony is a legend and Buddy feels, who is he to go on after Tony Bennett?” the agent said.
“Listen, ‘Buddy Guy is a legend also,’ I told him. Tony is going to go out there with a jazz trio. He’s going to sing standards. He’s going to put the microphone down at one point and sing an amazing a capella tune, and then Buddy’s going to come out with his electric blues band and rip the place to smithereens,” Melnick recalled. Those in attendance will recall that’s exactly how it all went down.
“It was all vetted with Tony, and he was fine with it. The agent called me back to say Buddy was cool with everything. What was so interesting to me to hear, after all those years and success and awards that an artist like Buddy Guy still had the humility to look at the situation and express themselves in that way.”
The Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival will celebrate its 40th anniversary on Saturday, June 24 and Sunday, June 25 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The milestone event features the return of Dee Dee Bridgewater and Jean Luc-Ponty - who performed on the inaugural 1978 festival. Headlining the weekend are Chaka Khan, and the Gipsy Kings. Jazz 100, led by Danilo Pérez, will pay homage to iconic musicians Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Mongo Santamaria, and Thelonious Monk in celebration of the 100th anniversary of their shared birth year. For more information about the festival go to: www.spac.org.