Friday, July 17, 2009

Bernstein Would Like to Take You Higher

I finally made it to a River2River event: Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra Plays The Music of Sly & The Family Stone. "Plays the music of" are generally words that strike ennui into the heart of music-lovers, signaling the presence of a---shudder---tribute band, all-too-often with and overenthusiastic singer and embarrassing outfits. And Bernstein is probably overenthusiastic, not infrequently pausing between songs for long, rambling stories about growing up Jewish, Woodstock, and utopian musical hopes. But in fairness, the show was the start of a tribute to Woodstock, and Sly & The Family Stone have been inspiring utopian hopes for a long time.

As part of a Woodstock tribute (seemingly sponsored by the makers of the film The Road To Woodstock, who were out in force passing out fliers to the urban grey-hairs who are pretty much dead center of that biopic's demographic targeting zone), the show focused on the music S&tFS played during their show-stealing performance at Yasgur's farm, which means the hits were well represented. It was a good choice, not least because those songs take very well to the big-band transfer---like the Mingus Big Band, Bernstein's group alternates between brainy deconstructions of a song's musical elements and a full-court press of syncopated volume.

Also on site were a succession of terrific, interesting singers, each determined to bring their own stamp to the classics. Highlights included Shilpa Ray's East Indian punk drone on "Everyday People", Martha Wainwright's god-abandoned gospel keening on "Que Sera Sera", and Dean Bowman busting out his deep-piped cerebral genius freak act all over "Sing a Simple Song". The great Bernie Worrell was on keyboard, and though his instrumental medleys leaned a little heavily towards the jokey, he's a player who's always instinctively understood the jangly jump of the Family Stone's keyboard lines---looking back, the synth that propels The Name of the Band Is Talking Heads sounds not unlike the hyperactive jangling on "I Want to Take You Higher".

Understandably, though, there wasn't much heard from the landmark album "There's a Riot Going On". While we did get the ballad "Family Affair", most of that strange, murky, grim album is pretty much the exact opposite of what you want to hear at an outdoor summer show. It says a lot about my musical tastes that "Riot" is my favorite S&tFS album---it reverses all the principles of funk music, replacing the propulsive crispness that defines the genre with a grim, lurching swirl. Again, the Talking Heads connection---"Riot" was the first album to realize that the tightness of funk tunes could become a prison, and the sound of the singer being buried alive in "Luv 'n' Haight" and "Poet" anticipates the vocalist's paranoid lurking all over "Fear of Music".

Also of note: This was my first time seeing a show at the Castle Clinton space, in Battery Park, and it's quite a charming little venue. It's an enclosed open-air space that seats about 250, and it's a hell of a lot better designed than the average outdoor stage. The ground is well raked, which means that the seats in the back still get good sightlines (better than the seats in front, actually), and although the volume was kept a little on the low side (perhaps out of consideration for the kind of audience drawn to a Tribute to Woodstock show), the enclosure held the sound in nicely. Looks nothing at all like a castle, but 'ey, dis is Amurrica!

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