AND ONCE AGAIN, let me welcome guest post-er Gil Reavill, who took himself out of Cabinworld while I was in lockdown to visit Lincoln Center Out of Doors in Manhattan:
After days of rain (writes Gil) the 30th Annual Roots of American Music, under the aegis of Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, kicked off the weekend with perfect weather.
A political rant festered in the warmth of the beautiful sunshine on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. All around the Lincoln Center cultural mecca, billionaires had festooned their names. Bloomberg sponsored the music festival, so that name was emblazoned on banners and signs. There was also Hearst Plaza, as well as David H. Koch Theater, home of the New York City Ballet and formerly the home of City Opera, used to be called the New York State Theater. If just plain folks do it, it’s called graffiti and prosecuted. But if big-money smears its name around on buildings, it’s called philanthropy and celebrated.
This is how the scam works. Conservatives agitate to eliminate arts funding (among other frivolities like roads and bridges). Under pressure from the billionaire-owned-and-operated Republican party, arts funding is duly cut to the bone. So when some noblesse oblige moneybag like David Koch comes along, a funding-parched venue like Lincoln Center (which was, after all, founded by Rockefeller money) can do nothing else but buckle. The populist-named New York State Theater becomes Koch Theater, and the arts become privatized.
David Koch and his brother Charles Koch lead the radical right-wing libertarian charge. They want to be free of government interference for their pollution-spewing enterprises. The day I willingly enter an edifice named after a corporate gangster like Koch is “when shrimps learn to whistle,” a phrase Nikita Khrushchev liked to use. If we adequately funded our public institutions, they wouldn’t have to lease themselves to big-money robber barons.
Then there was something called the “Modern Luxury Lounge sponsored by Celebrity Cruises,” an enormous covered and cordoned off seating area erected stage left at Damrosch Bandshell. American have slowly gotten accustomed to the idea that these sort of luxury skyboxes/VIP areas are always looking down on them whenever they venture into public spaces. But such zones are a clear violation of the egalitarian spirit. They’ve been tearing down stadiums all over the country just to erect replacements that feature more skyboxes, more segregated playgrounds for the rich. Just remember, folks, some pigs are more equal than others.
But on to the music.
In the smaller performance space on the north side of the Met, we caught the New Orleans band Hurray for the Riff Raff fronted by the wonderful Alynda Lee Segarra.
Her smooth, powerful alto is her own, but her phrasing reminded me a little of Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano. She writes and sings all the band’s songs herself. She killed with The Body Electric, a kind of answer song to the whole tradition of Omie Wise-style he-done-her-wrong murder ballads. How would a man feel, she asks in her lyrics, if a song like Omie Wise was about his own daughter? Beautifully strong stuff, worth tracking down.
The program transferred to the Damrosch Park bandshell on the south side of the Met. Kicking off the evening show was a rockabilly revue, featuring the real reason for showing up that night: James Burton, master of the telecaster, Elvis’s longtime guitarist for his live shows, who played with everybody else under the Sun Records sun, too.
Arkansas’s biggest singer (in the literal sense of the word: he’s 6’7″), Sleepy LaBeef performed the vocal duties and brought along his own band.
Burton did a definitive version of Mystery Train and showed why he was name-checked by almost every person on stage that night.
Jason Isbell of the Drive-by-Truckers did a full-throated middle set, featuring a song by Isbell’s fiddle player and wife, Amanda Shires, formerly of the Thrift Store Cowboys.
Isbell’s recent Southeaster and Shires’s brand-spanking new Down Fell the Doves form a one-two punch for the couple, both albums released within a couple months from each other.
Tough acts to follow. After all the roaring guitars from the all the multiple-personnel bands that crowded Lincoln Center all day, could a single performer with a single acoustic possibly hold the stage? Nick Lowe managed to make it look easy.
The man is simply one the best songwriters alive today. What’s really great about Lowe is how long he’s been out there—from way back in the day when he wrote “(What’s So Funny About) Peace Love and Understanding” for his late-60s band, Brinsley Schwarz. Half a century later, he just keeps going without losing a step, his vocals and songwriting still superb. Lowe’s performance at Damrosch was masterful. Just one guy (he’d probably say “bloke”) held the whole 2,000-plus audience mesmerized with feel-good pop tunes and killer lyrics. Lowe may be a dinosaur, but he’s the kind that eats younger bands for lunch.