Thursday, November 26, 2009

New PoZitive Orchestra! And the Many Adventures of Vinni-Pukh.

Firstly, Happy Thanksgiving to our American readers. Eat turkey, be merry, hang with your families, have fun, and let's not have any shopping-related deaths this year. Having celebrated our Canadian Thanksgiving last month, today is . . . Thursday. Yep, business as usual, though I might try to go for my H1N1 shot tomorrow. Now, to Russia for the rest of this post!

Huzzah! The PoZitive Orchestra's official site was updated sometime fairly recently with a new band photo, some upcoming gigs, and the jackpot: three new songs! With their same unique bossa string quartet sound, they tackle three homegrown Russian covers. I had to do some digging to find out exactly what songs were being covered, but don't let your unfamiliarity with the source songs dissuade you from eating these up since they're, naturally, brilliant. As might be expected, there are a few musical quotations of American classics sprinkled within, but I'll leave those for you to discover.

PoZitive Orchestra - Носки [originally by Sektor Gaza]
This was originally by the Russian punk band Sektor Gaza (in English: Gaza Strip) from their 1990 album, Ядрена Вошь. The track's title translates as "Socks". Check out this music video of the original song:

PoZitive Orchestra - Прощайте, скалистые горы [original music: Evgeny Zharkovsky; lyrics: Nikolay Bukin]
This one translates as Farewell, Rocky Mountains and was originally a WWII poem by Nikolay Bukin telling of the impenetrable Soviet defense of the Rybachy Peninsula against the Germans. Songwriter Evgeny Zharkovsky set the lyrics to music and it became popular among Russian army seamen. For a little more historical context, read this. There are numerous recordings of this song, but I found this youtube video particularly compelling:

PoZitive Orchestra - Смуглянка [original music: Anatoly Novikov; lyrics: Yakov Shvedov]
Here's another WWII-era song. The title translates as "Darkie" and it seems to be a love song. Youtube embedding is disallowed, but check out a performance of the song by the Alexandrov Red Army Choir here.


I was reminded of a discovery I made at the library a while back in the Russian children's section. Do you recognize these characters?

Why, it's Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet, of course! Confused? It's not the Disney incarnation and a long ways off from the E. H. Shepherd "classic Pooh" design. In 1960, Russian poet and children's author Boris Zakhoder introduced generations of Russian children to Winnie-the-Pooh with his liberal translations of A. A. Milne's classic Pooh tales (originally published in 1926). His design of Pooh and the other residents of the 100 Acre Wood may be jarring to us Westerners, but from what I gather, this is the lasting legacy of Pooh in Russia to this day. See if you can recognize some of these iconic moments and characters from the Winnie-the-Pooh stories:

Even more fascinating, Russian animator Fyodor Khitruk started a trilogy of Pooh short films in 1969, three years after the first Disney Pooh short, based on the translated books (Zakhoder co-wrote the screenplays). Now I'm an unabashed devotee of the Disney Pooh films, but these are quite brilliant in their own unique way. The voices, the hand-drawn quality of the animation, the music, and basically everything about it is a little mind-blowing. The first two shorts are each about 10 minutes and part 3 is about 20 minutes . If you've got some spare time (or even you you don't), definitely check these out!

Vinni-Pukh (1969)

Vinni-Pukh Goes on a Visit (1971)

Vinni-Pukh and the Day of Concern (1972) PART I

Vinni-Pukh and the Day of Concern (1972) PART II

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

It's Over Now, the Music of the Night... or not.

Just over a week ago was the final performance of Ramin Karimloo in the title role of The Phantom of the Opera in London. In 2007, he became the youngest ever actor to play the Phantom in the West End and now he'll continue the part in Andrew Lloyd Webber's sequel Phantom: Love Never Dies, which begins previews in February at the Adelphi Theatre.

As preposterous as a Phantom sequel may seem (set 10 years later at Coney Island!), I can't help but feel some good ol' Canadian pride as the Iranian-born, Ontario-raised Karimloo tops the bill of the eagerly anticipated new musical. He even started off in a Tragically Hip tribute band(!) before lying about his age and singing on cruise ships for two years. And now he's bringing the Phantom back. I may just have to make some sort of pilgrimage to New York when it eventually opens there, not to mention the crazy spectacle that will be the U2/Julie Taymor Spider-Man musical-- I want to see it, no joke. Ah, the power of the Music of the Night!

Ramin Karimloo - New York State of Mind (with Hadley Fraser) [originally by Billy Joel]
From Karimloo's 8-song EP of musical numbers and a couple Billy Joel covers that can be purchased from his official site.

Nightwish - The Phantom of the Opera [originally performed by Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford]
You just can't top this snarling, but soulful metal rendition by Finnish power metal band Nightwish.

Sammy Davis, Jr. - The Music of the Night [originally performed by Michael Crawford]
It's almost unthinkable now that The Phantom of the Opera has been seen by tens of millions worldwide, but it's wonderful to listen to Sammy Davis, Jr. describe the plot of the musical and set the stage for the Phantom's signature song before delivering an expressive performance as only he could do it. This is from a 1989 "Ultimate Event" with Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli in Detroit, but you can find youtube footage of him performing the same song during a Jerry Lewis telethon the previous year.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Belated Bridge School '09 Wrap-up

It's been almost three weeks since I got back from The Bridge School Benefit shows and if I postpone this post any longer, it may end up like my never posted Calgary Folk Fest '07 Part II (sigh). Quickly, Ben Folds with the Seattle Symphony was awesome as expected (from the 2nd row!), but The Very Best show in San Francisco was unceremoniously cancelled on the day of the show since Esau Mwamwaya had passport issues getting into the US... very disappointing.

After the stage was blessed by native dancers, Bridge School founder Pegi Young introduced the students and alumni sitting at the back of the stage before introducing her husband (and school co-founder) Neil Young who kicked off both shows with Comes a Time before turning over the stage to the other artists. He also ended each show with Comes a Time with all the artists on stage, so in total we heard this song four times in less than 48 hours. Part of their inspiration for starting the Bridge School in 1986, which assists individuals with severe speech and physical impairments, was that their son Ben (in attendance) and Zeke (from Neil's previous marriage) were both diagnosed with cerebral palsy. It was very humbling to witness the students and their families enjoying the concert from the back of the stage and think of the major obstacles they've had to overcome in their lives. One remarkable alumni of the Bridge School recently graduated with a double major at the University of Berkeley!

Kate York - Comes a Time [originally by Neil Young]
From the tribute album Cinnamon Girl: Women Artists Cover Neil Young For Charity available on iTunes or directly from American Laundromat Records.

Gavin Rossdale was up first. He was fine, if a bit of a downer to start off the day. His set included covers of Fleetwood Mac's Landslide and Prince's Sometimes It Snows in April as well as several Bush songs.

Gavin Rossdale - Landslide [originally by Fleetwood Mac]
From a live "Stripped" session on, which has a fair number of covers lurking in the archives.

The newly retooled Wolfmother brought up the energy level, ripping through a rockin' acoustic set consisting of earlier hits like Woman and Joker and the Thief mixed with several cuts from their latest release Cosmic Egg. Only lead singer/guitarist Andrew Stockdale remains of the original trio, which is now a foursome. On Day 2, they pulled out the Neil Young cover Don't Let It Bring You Down, which they recently performed in the SPIN offices.

team9 - Daddy and the Thief [Wolfmother vs. Gnarls Barkley]
Great mash-up of Wolfmother's Joker & The Thief and Gnarls Barkley's cover of the Violent Femmes Gone Daddy Gone from the 2006 team9 mash-up album for, which is still available as a zip file here.

Fleet Foxes were next. To be brutally honest, they did almost nothing for me. The first day was pleasant enough with their CSNY-ish harmonies but the songs all started to bleed into each other, eventually lulling me into a mid-afternoon nap through parts of their set. The next day I couldn't even fight it, nodding off shortly into the first couple songs, occasionally opening my eyes to see if they were done yet. I do have to admit though, that I was captivated by their performance of a song called White Winter Hymnal. Maybe I wasn't in the right mood or they're suited to a more intimate venue or something, but I just had to laugh when I was at work last week and saw an old issue of Mojo with Fleet Foxes triumphantly on the cover as the "Best Live Act in the Entire World". And they put me to sleep, sigh.

Next were Monsters of Folk. Honestly I was expecting this to be a rather mellow set based on what I've heard from the individual artists, but I quite enjoyed their set which had some rock, folk, and even an old timey country vibe to it.

Sheryl Crow was never on my bucket list and now I've inadvertently seen her perform three times in less than two months. I took this opportunity to visit the facilities and roll my eyes at the concession stands prices. With $6.50 fries, I chose to skip dinner. Her sets on both days included a singalong cover of You've Got to Hide Your Love Away.

Sheryl Crow - Here Comes the Sun [originally by The Beatles]

I'm not familiar with any Jimmy Buffett songs, not even Margaritaville, which I heard here for the first time. Overall, his upbeat brand of "trop rock" music was pretty good, though his fans are fairly obnoxious... I'll leave it at that.

Jack Johnson - A Pirate Looks at 40 [originally by Jimmy Buffett]
From the soundtrack to the Jack Johnson directed surf film The September Sessions.

Day 2 featured Adam Sandler taking over Jimmy Buffett's slot. I like what he said when he came out: "I'm with you people, I don't what I'm doing here either!" While I knew more or less what to expect with all the acts on the bill, Adam Sandler was the one wildcard. Was he here to do stand-up in the middle of this concert, would he play a string of cover songs, the Chanukah Song? Backed by a full band, he jumped right in with a cover of The Doors' Break on Through (To the Other Side), followed by a string of original songs including the stellar Listenin' to the Radio, which treaded a fine line between funny, clever, and sincere while referencing seemingly every hit song about a girl in the last 50 years. Next, he said he was going to sing a song he "wrote for Led Zeppelin" and I was absolutely thrilled when I heard the opening chords of Hey Hey What Can I Do, one of my favourites.

He finished with two familiar originals Lunchlady Land and The Chanukah Song ("Mel Gibson: Not a Jew!"). Then the biggest surprise came when he brought Neil Young on stage to perform a duet on Powderfinger. This ended up being the only instance during the whole weekend where Neil joined another artist on stage. A Neil Young duet with Adam Sandler, go figure.

Adam Sandler - Listenin' to the Radio

Neil Diamond - The Chanukah Song [originally by Adam Sandler]
If you thought a Bob Dylan Christmas album was weird, how about Neil Diamond covering Adam Sandler on his latest disc of Christmas tunes, A Cherry Cherry Christmas?

Armed with just a piano, Chris Martin proved that sometimes less can be more with an impressive set of stripped down Coldplay songs and a couple covers. Oblivious to the fact that he even played the piano at all, I was quite impressed with his dangling particularly on his rendition of the Maple Leaf Rag, which led into Viva La Vida.

After a couple solo songs, he was joined by violinist Davide Rossi for the rest of his set. Coverwise, he did a rendition of Bruce Springsteen's My Love Will Not Let You Down and led the audience in a singalong version of his "favourite song from his favourite film", Earth Angel, played at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance in Back to the Future.

Red Hot Chilli Pipers - Clocks [originally by Coldplay]
If you like instrumental bagpipe covers, this one's for you. Also, check out Weezer's recent cover of Viva La Vida.

As the penultimate act of each night, No Doubt delivered a pair of fantastic sets filled with rare acoustic renditions of their hit songs. When they were first introduced, Gwen Stefani spent 90% of the first song Spiderwebs singing directly to the Bridge School kids at the back, a touching moment. The group was joined by a string quartet for the latter half of the set including Don't Speak and their cover of Talk Talk's It's My Life.

Lea Delaria - Just a Girl [originally by No Doubt]
In the Bridge School preview post, I shared a jazz rendition of this song by Shannon Butcher. Well, here's another jazz take by Lea Delaria. I wasn't kidding about it being a modern standard! No Doubt's acoustic rendition at the concert was a particular highlight of their set with just Gwen and guitarist Tom Dumont performing before the rest of the band, who had left stage, joined in one by one.

And, of course, Neil Young. Unlike the previous time I saw him for an austere solo set at Ambleside Park, here he was joined by a full band for most of the set with Sheryl Crow joining Pegi Young on back-up vocals (interestingly, I read Crow's first big break was as a back-up singer for Michael Jackson on tour!). For me, the highlight of his set and possibly the whole weekend was his performance of Harvest Moon complete with an old man "playing" the broom. Swish, swish.

Ben Kweller - From Hank to Hendrix [originally by Neil Young]
This cover is from Ben Kweller's visit to the Dermot O'Leary show last year.

Jean Jacques Milteau - Heart Of Gold [originally by Neil Young]
Neil didn't play this either night, but I couldn't resist posting this bluesy cover of his classic song.

I'll be back someday... maybe in 2011 for the 25th anniversary. Thanks for the music, Bridge School!