Thursday, January 24, 2008

Night of A Thousand Years ( Of Commercial Free Music!)

Debra Dobkin, Richard Thompson & Judith Owen Really Belt It Out

It was a windy Wednesday night when the 1600 gang invaded the not-so-ivied halls of academia at George Washington Univ. campus' Lisner Auditorium for a musical history lesson from the renowned singer and guitarist Richard Thompson, accompanied by singer- keyboardist Judith Owen, and singer- percussionist Debra Dobkin, for the "One Thousand Years of Popular Music" tour. Uncharacteristaically early, due to some good parking karma, we showed up in time to hear the sound check and get a small taste of what we would be in for that night. And we were tempted to break into applause long before the curtain ever rose.

First, we had the good fortune and privilege to sit down with the tale-spinning Mr. T for a few minutes prior to the show. He graciously provided insight into the current tour, the character of popular music over the centuries, his songwriting regimen, recordings, soundtracks, videos, and other diverse projects; his quick wit always at the ready, but still indulging our questions with patience and courtesy. All to be broadcast in a 1600 interview coming your way in the next week (starting Feb. 4th, online at soon after)! Unfortunately, time did not permit us to have Ms. Dobkin or Ms. Owen accompany him; we hope to meet them again the next time they are in Washington, and will keep a sharp eye out for their return. The ladies each demonstrated effortless mastery of their instruments, as well as incredible vocal range and sophistication that left the audience breathless and eager for more. Mr. Thompson has never shared the stage with more talented or compelling performers in his long and distinguished career. We hope this particular trio will continue to entertain together for many tours to come.

After our interview and a hastily-gobbled dinner at the packed Lindy's Lion around the corner, we returned to the hall. Now a confession (with all due apologies!): from the door, we observed the three walking in from the back of the audience, Ms. Dobkin in the lead with a bass drum. We waited until the doors were opened, rushed to our seats, and never missed another second of the performance. And what a performance it was!

They serenaded a packed house, and paid tribute to some of the best and most enduring compositions of the last ten centuries, with a loving nod and a wink, and glib introductions by Thompson describing the period from which each song arose, and its significance in the musical pantheon. Over the last few years, the set has changed and metamorphosed, as musicians as diverse as Hank Williams Sr., The Kinks, the Beatles, Nat King Cole, Nelly Furtado, ABBA, and even Britney Spears have been covered alongside Henry Purcell, Gilbert and Sullivan- even Richard the Lionhearted, as well as dozens of traditional folk songs in three or four languages since this series of shows began in 2002.

Thompson was his usual wry, affable self, and he set the crowd up for each song, sometimes discussing the time it was written, other times focusing on content, or who wrote it and what made it significant. So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo, ("I know a lucky man") sung in Italian, was described blithely as a "cuckolding song," a popularly recurring theme which, Thompson noted, has literally "been around for centuries." Pipe Shepherd's Pipe was a madrigal that featured the rich harmonies of Thompson, Owen, and Dobkin to their fullest advantage. Later in the set (by several centuries) came a powerful Shenendoah, which he apologetically explained was not about Virginia, but Missouri. The trio also gave their loving treatment to I Live in Trafalgar Square, a song about a tramp's boast of living the good life on the streets of London. It was just a warm-up for what we would hear in the second half of the show, which was devoted to 20th century compositions.

Stick McGhee's Drinkin' Wine Spo-De-O-Dee was explained to me by Jerry to be the deadly concoction of wine with liquor the wild eyed hillbilly boys drank in the old days to get all revved up. Java Jive was another merry romp, but the highlights of the evening were doubtlessly Judith Owen's stunning renditions of Cole Porter's Night and Day, and Cry Me A River. Her dynamic vocals evoked the greatest response from an appreciative audience, who were on their feet by the end, saluting this versatile chanteusse with well-placed admiration. They also showcased the Kinks' Ray Davies, whom he described as one of the greatest songwriters of our time, with a smart arrangement of See My Friends. And as always, sound wizard extrordinaire Simon Tassano ensured that every note was crystal clear, and the instruments complimented each other without ever overpowering the sometimes-delicate vocals or acoustic guitar and keyboards, played with a subtle confidence that made for a truly intimate performance. And throughout the 2 sets, art from the middle ages and renaissance showed on a screen behind the eclectic artists, as well as more modern pieces, as the band played on.

Although the crowd begged for it, Thompson refrained from playing any of his own songs, many of which were certainly more worthy than the Abba or Nelly Furtado songs they performed. During our interview, he stated that including his own music would have been presumptive, something no one could ever accuse this modest artist of ever being, even though his guitar and songwriting skills are in constant demand, and his albums always critical favorites. Once again, to his credit, Thompson didn't show off his considerable guitar skills, choosing instead to let the songs speak for themselves, the performers' fine voices doing the heavy lifting, and generously sharing the spotlight with Dobkin and Owen, who demonstrated that they could more than hold their own. Debra Dobkin's atmospheric drumming, ranging from sticks on one song, to mallets or brushes on others as the situation demanded, was always tight and timely, providing a steady counterpoint to the guitar and vocals, which she and Judith Owen blended with Thompson's sturdy baritone to achieve breathtaking results.

The band will continue this tour with dates in various clubs through the Northeast and Midwest until the middle of February. If you're interested in seeing just how three talented players can render a wide range of music, from ancient secular music to opera, country, and pop, this is the show for you. As Thompson noted, perhaps this will spark some interest in a particular period, or prompt the audience to delve deeper into the works of some deserving artists. Fans of Richard Thompson will likely be treated to a more characteristic display of guitar virtuosity, when he makes a return to another Washington area venue, either solo or with a band, sometime in the near future. And we hope that Ms. Dobkin ( and Ms. Owen ( also return here soon, like Mr. Thompson, to dazzle listeners with their own music and further enrich the current century with songs yet unheard.

PS: The "1,000 Years of Popular Music" 2 CD/1 DVD package is a beautiful companion to this tour that captures the players at their best, including many songs heard on previous incarnations of this show. And Judith Owen will release her latest album, "Mopping up Karma," in June, and singles will debut beginning February 12th, starting with Let's Hear It For Love, from various online sources. And if you haven't yet heard her 2007 release, "Happy This Way," I encourage you to pick it up to really appreciate the breadth of her songwriting, and vocal and piano skill, with guest appearances by Thompson, Cassandra Wilson, and other world-class musicians.

1 comment:

1600 said...

well done..

Now get the boys over to the 9:30 club at the end of this month and
interview Jeff Tweedy & Wilco!

Kenny Coskey

Thanks Ken, but that one sold out before we could glom onto tix. Of course if you have a few to spare, we'll gladly take you up on it...!