Peter, Paul & Mary
Not surprisingly for a group whose activism is as well known as its music, Peter, Paul & Mary gave a concert at Wolf Trap on Friday night heavily weighted toward issues of peace and equality. This show marked the 21st consecutive year the trio has played Wolf Trap, and while the group's music will always maintain a timeless beauty, the content of the antiwar songs has new relevance. In "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," the group hit each verse with a fresh emphasis. Later, Peter Yarrow talked about his work in the antiwar movement of his youth, apologizing that he had at one time "confused the warrior and the war." With a nod to former senator Max Cleland in the front row (who himself received a lengthy standing ovation), he launched into "The Great Mandala," the most powerful anti-violence song of the night.
The two-hour performance was not devoted entirely to politics. In addition to crowd-pleasing favorites such as "Puff, the Magic Dragon" and "Leaving on a Jet Plane," the trio played newer songs, such as "Don't Laugh at Me," whose touching chorus ("Don't get your pleasure from my pain") moved the audience to its feet.
Toward the end of the evening, a fan shouted, "You rock tonight!" to which Yarrow responded with a laugh, "Your timing was exquisite; your content, questionable." By contrast, the content of Peter, Paul & Mary's set was far from questionable, and while their voices may no longer be what they once were, the classic simplicity of their music remains exquisite.
-- Catherine P. Lewis
Neither rain nor the Redskins broadcast prevented singer Ronnie Wells from drawing an appreciative crowd to Blues Alley on Saturday night. The veteran jazz vocalist returned the favor with a performance that was playful, spirited and soulful by turns -- and, in many respects, refreshingly old-fashioned.
Billed as an evening "with friends," the show found Wells in fine company, supported by musicians who share her gift for gliding through the jazz mainstream, alighting on ballads, bop, samba and swing along the way. The friends included pianist Ron Elliston, bassist Steve Novosel, tenor saxophonist Bruce Swaim and drummer Mike Smith. Wells also honored one of her most apparent and lasting influences, Carmen McRae, the late singer whose memory inspired the opening set's highlight, a heartrending version of "Inside a Silent Tear." Other performances radiated plenty of charm -- the sassy "Candy," the yearning "Little Girl Blue," a stop-time version of "My Baby Just Cares For Me" -- but none proved more affecting or sincere. The McRae homage not only revealed Wells's vocal warmth but her ability to make a soul-baring lyric sound firsthand.
The ballads often benefited from Swaim's resonating interjections and Elliston's flattering and unfussy touch. The pianist also fashioned a lovely, ruminative preface for "It Never Entered My Mind." Novosel and Smith, meanwhile, were similarly unobtrusive, even when propelling delightful excursions into swing and scat.
Wells's engaging personality kept the pace from flagging. Despite the emphasis on mostly familiar material, she had no difficulty making each tune sound worthy of another go-round, usually with a distinctive twist or two.
-- Mike Joyce
Carl Newman is best known as the leading light of indie supergroup New Pornographers. But some of his most compelling work came with Zumpano, a British Columbia-based quartet whose 1995 debut album, "Look What the Rookie Did," remains an overlooked cache of hooks and inventive garage-pop arrangements. The Zumpano DNA was in evidence at the Black Cat Saturday night, where Newman was promoting his first solo album, "The Slow Wonder," but there was a strong vibe of singer-songwriter eccentricity stuffed through a passel of gorgeous chord changes. Newman delivered it all with a professional detachment, however, creating an atmosphere in which his band and the crowd seemed to be enjoying his expert songs more than he did.
Outfitted with distinctive flourishes, the songs on "The Slow Wonder," released under the moniker of A.C. Newman, sound marvelous, and they were reproduced effectively throughout the brisk 45-minute set. From trumpet accents on the song "The Cloud Prayer" to the recorder on "Miracle Drug" to the synchronized whistling on "Drink to Me, Babe, Then," Newman's penchant for creating inventive soundscapes has never been more evident. His enthusiasm for live performance -- despite the energy of guitarist Shane Nelken and bassist CoCo Culbertson -- didn't match the sprightliness of his songs, however. Performing each of his album's 11 tracks, Newman deviated from his task only for a suitably surprising and tasteful encore cover of "If You Want Me" by Detroit band Outrageous Cherry. And even if Newman didn't throw his complete energy into the show, he did bring his songs, and for one night, that was enough.
-- Patrick Foster
"Now that I've made it, I think people like to take potshots at me," Lucinda Williams said Saturday night at the 9:30 club. She was introducing her song "Righteously," which she said was panned in No Depression magazine. It's hard, though, to feel much sympathy for a performer who would announce that she's "made it" and then bemoan the problems related to such a fortunate development.
Lyrically, Williams's songs painted vivid pictures, from the imagery of a scorpion's nest in "Those Three Days" to the straightforward narrative of "The Night's Too Long." Unfortunately, those lyrics were buried under her raspy, emotionless vocals, and her music watered down her blues and country influences to a few generic guitar riffs and an unvarying drumbeat. Williams's encore included a few engaging, subtle ballads ("Minneapolis," "Like a Rose"), but by then it was too little too late.
Williams encouraged the crowd to dance during "Are You Down," but sold-out shows at the 9:30 club are so packed that the audience can barely move, or sometimes even see the performer onstage. That may be for the best, as the view was often of Williams casually conferring with her band mates -- and up to two roadies -- between songs, and blatantly reading her own lyrics as she sang from a book that a crew member had to turn the pages of. This conduct might have been forgivable from a musician just starting out, unsure how to prepare a set list or afraid of forgetting the words she had written, but such unprofessional behavior is disappointing for someone who's been at this as long as Williams.
-- Catherine P. Lewis
Jimmy Thackery quit the local blues scene in the '80s and moved to Arkansas, but he's remained true to his bar-band roots. The former Nighthawks guitarist and contemporary of Danny Gatton, Roy Buchanan and other Fender-wielding geniuses is touring with a septet led by Tab Benoit, a 36-year-old Baton Rouge bluesman who's no slouch with a Telecaster or a microphone.
Friday night at the State Theatre, it was Thackery the fans had come for -- most of them middle-aged and some wearing the same sort of wide-brimmed fedora he sported with the Hawks.
"How many of you saw Jimmy Thackery 20 years ago?" Benoit asked. About two-thirds of the crowd broke into raucous applause before the band delivered a daring and powerhouse rendition of Otis Redding's "These Arms of Mine," with Thackery's supremely melodic solo showing Benoit and everybody in the house exactly why so many local blues fans have stood by their man.
Thackery's efficient fingering set a melancholy mood for Benoit's "Too Many Dirty Dishes" and got the crowd shuffling through Bob Dylan's "Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat." The two traded leads on a zydeco primer that included Hank Williams's "Jambalaya" and "Iko Iko."
When it was his turn to take over, Thackery damped the strings against the fretboard and began strumming furiously, cranking washboard sounds from the guitar. Anybody not from around these parts might have had trouble telling which of the featured players was from Cajun country, and which was local.
-- Dave McKenna