Susan Wallin & Peter Mowrey, "An Evening of American Art Song"

[Author's Note: This review of a faculty recital from Friday will definitely be appearing in this week's Voice. I'm decently pleased with both the way this one turned out and the ease with which I wrote it—I think I'm developing something of the habit behind journalism.]

“An Evening of American Art Song,” presented in Scheide Music Center February 6 by soprano Susan Wallin and accompanist Peter Mowrey, was an evening of rare musical delights, beginning and ending with a voice one would be privileged to hear anywhere, be it Gault Recital Hall or Carnegie Hall. Wallin is fundamentally an extraordinary singer and performer, armed with a beautiful coloratura, impressive range, and dramatic sensitivity—all of which were on full display throughout the rich and varied program.

The recital began with a series of songs by the late-Romantic composer Amy Beach, whose lush, melodic style recalls Puccini or Bizet. Wallin showed a deft attention to both the passionate and the reflective, and the conviction behind her performance more than carried the most traditional set of the night.

She moved into more interesting and surprising musical territory with five contemporary songs by Ricky Ian Gordon in an art-Broadway vein reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein. Gordon's “Coyote” was perhaps the highlight of the entire evening. Wallin threw herself in to the bizarre lyrics with a finessed blend of comedy and pathos—when she proclaimed, “I'll scream until I turn that moon to wax,” you believed it.

She also proved herself superbly attuned to Americanness of Gordon's songs, subtly adapting her tone to suit their unique contours and cadences, whether in the melancholy humming of “Once I Was” or the frenzied ascent of “Poem (Lana Turner Has Collapsed).”

The second half of the program dived into delightfully murky twentieth-century waters with Norman Dello Joio's “Three Songs of Adieu.” Imbued with a dark urgency and extending to the edge of tonality, these offered Wallin ample opportunity to explore their contrasts—really hitting words like “pain,” or fading into an impressive softness at the end of “Farewell.”

Following these was Laurie Altman's jazz-like “reimagining” of eighteenth-century Italian songs. Here, Wallin's voice occasionally fell into a breathier timbre in her only significant misstep of the recital, but the thoughtful attention she lent the syncopations spotlighted the hybrid nature of the work and distinguished her interpretation.

The jazzier songs were proof of Peter Mowrey's exceptional contributions as well. From one composer to the next, he managed each stylistic set distinctly, and while his unshakeable facility at the piano hinted at his own abilities as a soloist, he remained a sensitive accompanist who aptly complemented, but never overpowered, the vocal performance.

The last song of the evening took a sharp turn into light opera (itself a Wooster legacy), specifically Victor Herbert's send-up of the operatic diva, “Art Is Calling for Me,” arranged by Wallin herself. With intermittent quotations from a number of famous operas, among them La Bohème and The Magic Flute, Wallin alluded to her own vast repertoire, and, though she nailed the high Fs from the famous Queen of the Night aria, she proved unafraid to occasionally tweak her ability level to suit the comedy—providing a fitting and lighthearted capstone to a recital of unflagging quality.

A Defense of the Hipster

[Author's Note: These thoughts on the hipster, which appeared in Friday's Wooster Voice, sparked enough of a reaction in me, somewhat unexpectedly, that I decided I'd write a letter to the editor. I'm hoping they'll publish it on Friday, but here it is regardless. Edit: It will actually be published February 20. The Voice forgot to check their email....]

To the editor(s):

I certainly enjoyed Molly Lehman's critique of the hipster—it was well-written and very funny. However, I find myself compelled to give a defense of the subculture lest we overlook any of its value or highly unique contributions to American youth expression.

The hipster inclination for irony is widely acknowledged, and while it can certainly approach overkill it remains a) frankly hilarious, and b) a tip-of-the-iceberg indication that “a smarmy bunch of 18-to-25's” has developed a keen sense of critical thinking and (dare I say) intellectual rigor.

Look at the centrality of culture, both high and low, to the hipster ethos—elevating it, revering it, critiquing it, tearing it down, building it up. Hard to imagine the same age group giving a damn about culture twenty years ago. Now it's the lingua franca of youth, our most basic commodity. We're all part of it, we're all participating in the same exchange of ideas.

Furthermore, look at the quality of the culture hipsters rally around. Wes Anderson films are phenomenally good.

My particular tastes and interests may not always align with that of true-blue hipsters. I'm not a hipster myself. The band I'll be seeing this summer is Phish. But the value that this generation places on cultish obsessions and cultural artifacts puts me in good (spiritual) company.

This is also, I believe, the first American youth movement that has recognizably elevated the nerd, that is fundamentally nerdy. Think of how that will shake up teenage social hierarchies across the nation.

Of course, it is evolving into a consumer-driven movement. But it's interesting and refreshing to reflect on what's now commercially viable. Think of the “Fantasy Football” shirts on BustedTees. Anachronism aside, would that have been popular twenty years ago?

Finally, one might be advised to get used to it. Nothing says Generation Y more than hipsterism—it's our biggest impact to date on the cultural landscape.


[Grateful Dead, 7/21/90 Tinley Park, IL: NOTES]

[Author's Note: As I have in the past, I'm posting my very detailed, unedited notes for the much more concise review posted below. Anyone really interested in song-by-song analysis of Grateful Dead shows might appreciate this level of scrutiny; for everyone else, let it stand as proof of my obsession.]

Grateful Dead
Tinley Park, IL 7/21/90


Touch. Perhaps because of its close association with the start of a Dead show, maybe because it's status as a bona fide hit—always lends an energetic punch as opener. The harmonies, as usual, fall somewhere behind the overall standard, but Jerry is individually in VERY STRONG voice, Brent's organ is nice and juicy, and Phil really smokes in some interesting bass counterpoint. Jerry's solo isn't too shabby. Some really weird effects during the second bridge! (SOUND QUALITY, by the way, is fantastic—this is a Miller, and it could pass for a Dick's Pick.) No true segue, but following soon is:

GSET. Brent's still suffering from whatever vocal ailment dogged him through July '90, during a month that was exceptional for his keyboard performances. (Hope he's saving up for Just a Little Light.) Bobby, however, is in as strong voice as Jerry, sounding fairly unstrained on a song that often gives him some trouble. Brent's keyboard tumbling kicks serious ass, and the intersection of him and Phil and Bobby and Jerry is right on during the instrumental. Even better than Touch.

Bottom line: Touch and GSET form an extremely well-played and energetic combo. I'm seriously pumped for whatever else this show might hold.

Jack-A-Roe. Starts off with a lot of energy and bounce! Jerry's guitar lines in between lyrics carry a lot of elegant menace. Again, this is about the best 1990 singing you could ask for. What's striking about instrumental action like such here is that is really has all the interweaving attentiveness of the early- to mid- 70's—the drummers' relative rigidity makes a difference, of course, but this is really fine playing from all (Bobby included).

Maybe I need to be more sparing with four-star ratings, because it eliminates a special class for material that's as excellent as this, but just barely shy of five stars.

Walkin' Blues. And into harmonic major. Wonderful swampy tone here, and it sounds like everyone's playing it with attentiveness and not by rote. Jerry and Bobby's skillful framing of Brent's solo is exquisite. I love Bobby's vocal performance in blues songs—idiosyncratic like Dylan's, but moderately convincing.

FOTD. I never tire of hearing this song in this era, for whatever reason. Starts fairly inconspicuously, as if the band isn't entirely sure if it's still prepping itself or if it's already begun in earnest. Every reiteration of the main riff, however, gains confidence. Jerry's voice sounds craggier here, but I think he's adjusting to the song. Almost inversely, the harmonies are stronger. The usual cycle of solos begin: Brent's more upbeat and barroom sounding than those from the early end of his tenure, which I confess to prefer (at least in this song), but however it doesn't perfectly suit the song, his playing is at its most virtuosic; Jerry jumps in with an awesome anticipating into what is, unfortunately, Bobby's solo slot, leaving the latter momentarily unsure of what he should be doing—it is, however, representative of the immense energy everyone's bringing to the show tonight. They've got their A game on. Jerry's solo is spiraling in a way that indicates he's following the tone set by Brent (though I swear he usually goes through two iterations of the solo). Very good altogether, but not 6/16/90, say.

Just A Little Light. Okay, I'm no fan of this compositionally, but it can still bring out a good performance. In the pre-song tuning, everyone adjusts to the right synth-tones. I like the collective timbre, I admit! Thick and funky. Brent's voice acquits itself decently, but it's not up to its usual standards; he sounds more than a little hoarse. And the difficulties in the singing somehow manifest itself in a considerable absence of keyboard work. Jerry's playing well, but the song continues to hobble as if everything's been thrown just a little bit out of sync. The keyboard playing is extremely thin, and the song loses a lot of energy. Brent seems unsure of when and where to come in. Let the man go back to his keyboard and leave his singing out of it tonight. (Uh-oh. We've got a Dear Mr. Fantasy coming up.) Low point of set so far.

Queen Jane. Let's hope this song picks the energy up since it came to a really unfortunate halt in the last song. Brent's still not playing like he was in FOTD, and Phil doesn't seem as prominent as he was in the first half of the set. Jerry is easily the strongest player tonight (which wasn't a given in the later years, of course). Brent's keyboard lines follow fairly basic established patterns for Queen Jane, until about halfway through, when things start to pick up more. Jerry's harmonizing his part well, too. Brent's solo is busy, but hardly inventive, and too fixed on the upper register. He leaves a gaping which Jerry fills with another solo. By the end of the song, everyone's packing some power, and it looks like the Bird Song to round things off, jam-heavy and Jerry-led, might keep this set in very positive terrain.

Bird Song. The tuning gives everyone ample hint as to what's to follow (and likely close the set). They all sound really prepped to kick into it, though. Brent's sometimes dizzying keyboard lines are much more appropriate-sounding here, but occasionally overkill. (This is, by the way, the longest GD Bird Song in my possession.) Jerry and Phil are weaving a very convincing Bird Song from the beginning of the jam, with Brent adding appropriate threats of dissonance, throwing in all possibilities of dangerous twists and turns and dark alleys. Jerry's the main player, but everyone's listening very attentively to him, following him and supporting him and mirroring him and filling in for him and giving him space as necessary. Jerry starts bending notes in all kinds of crazy ways, effecting this spacey kind of sublimity everyone's pushing toward. This is another song I really like to hear in '89-'90—less introspective than the versions of '72-'73 but equally well-played. Reaches some really piercing and resounding highs. From there, the intensity starts to come down for the last five minutes, but that's okay. They're talkin' their way back down—really a beautiful structure for a jam, too. Amazing what you can do modally.

Set one in review: Total time 67:32. Generally very strong. Highlights are Bird Song followed by Touch>Greatest followed by Jack-A-Roe. Everything else very good except for Little Light, which in context is a real downer that takes just about the whole of Queen Jane to recover from (for both band and listener). I'm calling it a 7 on the whole.


Scarlet. Jerry's singing well, and the whole thing is crisp, but Brent's organ is really all that stands out instrumentally during the singing. As usual for July, Brent's harmonies are somewhat weak. Jerry's solo won't take your breath away, but Phil supports him nicely, and you can hear the crowd digging it, even in the soundboard—maybe why the band seem to warm into it as the instrumental goes on. Brent switches to keyboard for the jam, which I appreciate in Scarlet. The jam takes an easygoing course. It's nice, but not too lengthy (the 6/16 China Cat is about as long as this Scarlet). I'm liking Brent's touches here more than in the first set (and Jerry's only slightly less). Bobby adds some really nice color, too. It's a fine thing they have going before they hit >

Fire. Scarlet may be a better composition, and yield a more obviously "interesting" jam, but Fire often outshone its prerequisite in performance. Brent's failing harmonies really mar the chorus, but in between verses, wonderful things happen. Jerry's got that wonderful "Fire"-specific tone—he's playing for VOLUME, and Brent's right with him, and Bobby knows just how to stoke the intensity even more. This is HOT. Brent's flurries or stabs of notes come off not clumsy but inspired and "ablaze." Bobby's playing is really elegant, too, and his more distorted tone is a wonderful foil for the clarity of Jerry's declamations. That Scarlet reprise-thing ends the pairing with bounce and poise, an interesting pairing to the catharsis of the past couple minutes.

In essence, this "Fire"'s on fire.

Playing. Yay—Funiculi tuning. Just a little bit. Looking ahead at the setlist, this is a nice three-part Playing, with a jam and a reprise to follow post-Drumz. Obviously, this song isn't what it once was, and I prefer many of the Bruce versions to late-Brent ones, but this is at least crisp, unflubbed. I really prefer the direct dive into D minor in the jam, too—a D major jam feels much more like just an afterthought to the "song" portion much more suitable to an unfinished Playing. The jam here starts off even more low-key than the one out of Scarlet, but by about halfway through things start to get harrier, more chromatic—Brent and Bobby responsible as much as Jerry. Bobby's dissonance occasionally robs Jerry of some inspired melodicism, but we do need some envelope-pushing if this jam is going to be worth our while. It's not badly handled at all, of course. The latter jam portion, incidentally, would be a great pre-Drums jam—I'm hoping He's Gone rises to the occasion. About nine minutes in we get some pseudo-Terrapin jamming—undoubtedly very much a possibility. Jamming cools off considerably in the last minute and sounds like something late in Space–tonal, searching for the next path to take. >

He's Gone. Interesting overlap between the end of playing and the start here. Brent's still trying to carry the high line, but he's very hard to hear. The verses can be a little monotonous, for all the neatly executed playing. The instrumental gains considerable interest. Phil starts to speak up more than he has in a while—contributing a really cool run to the second "steal your face" line. The vocal coda comes off quite well, in spite of a series of questionable uses of the dominant chord in Garcia's guitar accompaniment. Leaves us about 2:40 to get us to Drums. Very pleasant stuff. Hints at Eyes, Stella, maybe even the upcoming Miracle. Phil is very prominent and they really make this a nice, if brief, little jam. Bobby last man standing before >

Drums. Drums and Space probably best serve their function if they can pretend not to be a rote fixture—that is, if they can masquerade as the natural jam that lies between, in this case, He's Gone and Miracle. I suppose if they take on a really successful life of their own, that clinches it on different terms. I'll admit, I don't think most do either, but this is a fairly interesting Drums, and it may well belong in that second positive category. It's indicative of Mickey's world music interests, certainly, and parts recall that really cool "And" jam from Drumz featured on Terrapin Limited. >

Space. The MIDI effects really work well here, and the drastic fluctuations in volume and timbre sound really cool on these headphones. '90 Space could be pretty scary (3/19 comes to mind, not to mention 9/20 leading into Dark Star). I'm always glad to spend more time on Space than Drums, as here. Still, it's just atmospheric—it doesn't have the boldness that define a few excellent examples that solidify into a more musical statement. You'll get a cool passage or two, and they're listening to one another, but it just doesn't add up as much as one would like. My ears perk up for anything suggesting E: E is where we came from, and E is where we're going. We need to find our way back there. The transition amounts to about 20 seconds Miracle riffing at the end. >

Miracle. Nothing beats the coolness of "Lunatic Preserve">Miracle coming up on 9/16 of that year, but this show has its own draws, of course. Phil's fairly loud '90 tone is a lot of what makes this song. I just can't help tapping my foot along to Jerry's solo, giving the slightest inclination toward head-banging even though my roommate's around. This is actually one of my favorite exits out of Space, and this one really ROCKS. This is a lot of fun, and a good way to kick off what is typically the weakest third of the show. The G major transition provides a good hint as to the coming song, and it's a beautiful, natural segue into >

Crazy Fingers. I've very seldom heard a Crazy Fingers post '76 that turned out as I would have liked, but I do like them post-Space. The instrumentation during the singing is mostly just chords, and one or two isn't quite right. Brent is the best bit to listen to. And Jerry no longer sounds like he's owning the vocals. The choruses would really benefit from Brent's voice being there. Jerry's solo is weak and spindly. The instrumental outro is better. Really brief Main Ten jam/fakeout into >

Dear Mr. Fantasy. Brent doesn't sound nearly as wrong-footed as he did in Just A Little Light. Jerry really tears up the rather easier material in this song. Everyone does really well in this kind of three-chord rock environment at this point in the show. I wouldn't have minded a straight nosedive from Miracle into this (I also wouldn't have minded the Crazy Fingers if it had just been better). If you weren't looking at the set list, of course, you would think a Hey Jude reprise were on its way; Jerry's first guitar line in the coda is almost straight "na-na-na"s. >

Playing. I shouldn't have expected more of the 30-second "jam" earlier. Let's see how they bring this string of music together. It's crisp, but the coda isn't as impassioned as I would like to hear. And sounds really weak next to any ending to Playing in the 70s. No segue whatsoever into:

Saturday Night. Not as intensely rockin' or well-played as any number of earlier versions, but Phil's into it, and no one's really messing up. Probably a fun ending to the show for those there. It's certainly got more balls than the Playing Reprise which preceded it (alas—the show could have just ended with a GOOD Reprise). They milk that last C chord for all it's worth.


Quinn. It's a fun encore. Brent's keyboard playing really suits the happy-sloppy mood of the song. Jerry's guitar isn't there as much, even when he's not singing. It's a pity that Bobby's voice is the one on top.

Set two/encore in review: Total time 103:43. Very solid pre-Drums, moderately disappointing post-Space, in spite of rockin' fun in Miracle and Mr. Fantasy. Highlight of the set was the incendiary Fire, aforementioned rockers, and nifty little jam out of He's Gone. Overall, it blows its load at the beginning and doesn't leave me feeling as good as set one, so I'm calling it a 6.

Show in review: Total time 171:15. A fun, uneven show worth hearing for its share of really stellar playing. Does not have enough to recommend itself over many other summer '90 shows. B-.

Grateful Dead, 7/21/90 Tinley Park, IL

[Author's Note: I've finally done what I'd promised myself to do for ages and distilled my notes on a Grateful Dead show into a coherent review. Reviewing live music was the principal intended purpose for this blog, so I hope to make this something of a regular occurrence. This post is first in a planned three-part series dissecting Brent Mydland's last shows with the Grateful Dead.]

Grateful Dead
Tinley Park, IL 7/21/90

Brent Mydland's Last Stand: Part I of III

There's a lot to love about set one tonight. In the first fifteen minutes, the band delivers a truly wonderful string of uptempo songs: "Touch" and "Greatest Story" show both Jerry and Bobby in excellent voice, as well as energetic and attentive playing from all, which spills over into an infectiously bouncy "Jack-a-Roe." In the last fifteen minutes, we get a beautiful and expansive "Bird Song," which reaches some piercing and resounding highs at the end of its long, cathartic climb, hinting along the way at startling wells of dissonance and space—it's about as good as the song ever got.

In between these extraordinary bookends falls half an hour of more uneven fare. "Walkin' Blues" is fun and fresh, and "Friend of the Devil" is even better, if not 6/16/90. The show comes to the first of two considerable crashes, however, with "Just a Little Light." Brent's voice is showing a lot of strain this entire show, as it was throughout July, and these difficulties somehow sap his keyboard playing which in turn throws the band out of sync and derails the song. It takes them the entirety of the following "Queen Jane" to fully recover.

The second set starts off at least as promisingly as the first. After an average, low-key "Scarlet," the band creates magic with a "Fire" that truly lives up to its name. Bobby and Brent know just how to poke Jerry for maximum intensity, and tonight they really succeed—his playing is simply ablaze. "Fire" is the absolute highlight of the show and a wonderful reminder of the copious treasures of Summer 1990.

There's still a "Playing" and "He's Gone" to come before "Drums," and both are well-played, especially in the last few minutes of each. The former dissolves into a jam like something from late in "Space" as they search for the next path to take; the latter resolves into a gorgeous, E-major dew with generous contributions from Phil, hinting at at "Eyes," "Stella," maybe even the coming "Miracle."

Post-"Space" isn't nearly as successful. In between a head-banging "Miracle" and a juicy "Dear Mr. Fantasy" comes the second great crash of the show, an all-around weak "Crazy Fingers" followed by a whimper of a "Playing" jam. To round out the set, we get the conclusion to "Playing," which is crisp but flat, and an average "Saturday Night," which, along with the average "Quinn" encore, still makes for a fun end to the show.

7/21/90 offers a relatively attractive package of Grateful Dead from the end of the Brent years and boasts its share of really stellar playing. However, its frustrating unevenness, particularly in the second set, takes a heavy toll on the show, which ultimately does not have enough to recommend itself over many others from that tour.


The recent remasters of this run by Charlie Miller sound fantastic, on par with, say, Dick's Picks, Vol. 9. This is unquestionably the version you will want to seek out.