The Columbus Free Press

From Loreena and Bonnie to Isaac and Wolfie
Concert Reviews from the Heart

by Harvey Wasserman - 9/23/96

One of the joys of being a journalist is that you get to review books, movies and concerts, many of which can inspire the deepest forms of love and gratitude. So let's start at the top:

BONNIE RAITT -- Bonnie is a fabulous human being with great politics and as strong a devotion to peace, justice and the Truth as anyone today on the American public scene.

She is also as talented a rock/blues/country musician as there is. Her vastly under-publicized ROAD TESTED is just plain great. It beautifully and gracefully covers an amazing range of musical accomplishment, from hard rock to funk to R&B to heartfelt ballad. It is lively, spontaneous, moving, danceable and a totally un-missable experience. If ever proof was needed that Bonnie Raitt is a national treasure, ROAD TESTED makes the case.

It also stands as a monument to the callous foolishness of big corporations. Bonnie's record company was too busy hyping the Beatles (what have THEY done lately?) to give ROAD TESTED the top-line promotion it deserved. They left it unclear that this is a double album and simply neglected to push this masterpiece to the head of the class, where it belonged.

Bonnie's shelves are already groaning with Grammies, but ROAD TESTED deserved still more. More importantly, it deserves your listening attention. Get it for yourself, and for your friends.

JACKSON BROWNE -- In December I had the good fortune to catch Jackson's show in Oakland, California. His "Looking East" tour features a supremely polished band, playing flawless, riveting shows of technically seamless music. When he came to Polaris, he showed another side of himself as an artist and a person. He came in a day early to spend time with a friend, and to catch the Joe Cocker/Buddy Guy show that preceded his concert. His own show began with a relaxed, jaunty air that was as welcoming and laid back as his Oakland Concert had been precise and demanding. Interspersing old favorites with newer material and the occasional welcome piano solo, he seemed perfectly at ease and in tune with his audience and band. His voice is as strong and clear as ever. And he provided as purely enjoyable an evening of music as one could hope to spend with a relaxed master exuding friendly joy from a large-scale concert stage. Lets hope he returns soon.

By the way, Jackson's hospitality extended also to tables aimed at the cause of freeing Leonard Peltier and Voters for Choice. Over the years few, if any, major artists have devoted more of their time, energy and resources than Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt to causes ranging from the environment to human rights to basic governmental sanity. All the more reason to celebrate their virtuosity.

LOREENA MCKENNETT -- This tough-minded Manitoba red head can also claim a unique musical mastery. After a tumultuous midwestern upbringing, McKennett took her astonishing soprano voice to Toronto, where she began selling her tapes as she sang on the streets.

Building her audience from the ground up, McKennett held off the major record companies, insisting on producing her own work.

That work's cultural range is somewhat limited, with distinctive Scotch-Celtic roots that consistently summon images of the medieval.

It is also spiritual, etheric, haunting and profoundly addictive. She has a hypnotizing voice that is at once earthy and other-worldly. It penetrates the soul and demands listening to over and over, as if it were some cosmic drug. She also surrounds herself with musicians whose material and performances are first-rate. THE VISIT and THE MASK AND THE MIRROR are as compelling and utterly brilliant as albums get.

That may, of course, be a matter of taste. But judging from the air play on ECHOES, HEARTS OF SPACE, TOSS THE FEATHERS and THISTLE AND SHAMROCK, Loreena has a following that is broad and deep, and probably fanatical.

I say "probably" because I've never actually seen her perform. The one night I know she was here in Columbus, she played the Riffe Center as we held our party celebrating the shut-down of the Trash Burner. Let's hope she returns.


CARLOS SANTANA -- Like all the above, Carlos Santana is a true mahatma, with deep, long-standing commitments to the best human values.

Santana's magnificent performance last summer at Polaris was simply overwhelming, with his patented brilliant, hard-driving meditations on the true power of electric music.

A matter of taste, I suppose. But of all the male musicians who've come to us from the ancient days of the late 1960s, I find his music the purest, the most organic and most compelling.

When he played Polaris, the stage was draped with a magnificent canvas mural that was a blinding cross between folk art and a celebration of fertility.

Carlos, come back soon. And bring that painting with you.

BOB DYLAN -- The surprise of the year. His return to the Palace Theater was an event about which I'd thought little, partly due to a busy schedule, partly because of his lackluster performance at Cooper Stadium a few years ago.

But Dylan is HOT!!! His virtuoso band simply rocked the Palace for more than two hours this summer. Though he sang many of his creaky standards, they served simply as vehicles for five guys who WAILED with truly great, unrestrained rock and roll.

It was an amazing treat, as was the energy of the audience, which seemed evenly divided between Baby Boom geezers and young Grateful Dead refugees, wandering in their tie-die, looking -- successfully -- for a new musical rush.

The Dylan we saw a few years back was mediocre at best (though hearing "Tambourine Man" live from second base does count as a cosmic moment). One problem was his emotional distance -- he came on stage, sang and left. No interaction with the crowd whatsoever. Word was he had arrived with his accountant (who may have been playing bass), and that seemed to say it all.

But at the Palace he was open, warm and responsive, exuding good cheer and even allowing some of the more enthusiastic (and younger) tie-dyes onto the stage. Hey! This guy is 56!!!

All I can say is, if there's a CD out of this concert, or a reasonable facsimile, BUY IT!!!

And BOB! Glad you lightened up; how about helping us fight nuclear power!!!

THE ALLMAN BROTHERS -- Speaking of geezers, these guys can still play. Their music is a pleasant mix of red-neck raunch and slick '60s electric. EAT A PEACH/MOUNTAIN JAM remains an all-time classic, and the Allmans did replicate its magic, even at Polaris. Their's are among the very few concerts where hemp and Jack Daniels are consumed in roughly equal quantities.

ISAAC STERN -- Speaking of geezers, Isaac Stern's star turn at the Ohio Theater last year was also a treat.

Unfortunately, I am nowhere near conversant enough in the qualities of classical music to judge the level of his performance (though he did have a really neat way of holding his violin between his chin and shoulder without using his hands). I will confess to being seriously in love with classical music of the 1700s and 1800s. If there is a voice of God, in my mind's ear it speaks through Mozart and Beethoven, Bach and Brahms (Hendrix and Dylan, too, but with a shorter attention span, and less staying power).

Think about it: every day, all over the world, literally millions of people listen to hour after hour of music that was written more than 150 years ago.

If asked (go ahead!) to name two individuals who have had the greatest influence on western civilization, I would have to respond: Wolfie and Ludwig. Do we know exactly how? No. But their compositions fill the hearts and minds of millions day in and day out, and have for two centuries, in a spiritual way that I believe is beneficial, inspiring, moving us all in ways that are as mysterious and unknown as they are tangible and deep.

E=mc2. That was good.

But Beethoven's Ninth. Now that was REALLY something, and I think Einstein, if he could, would probably choose to have written the latter rather than discovering the former.

So I'll rush to hear Beethoven's Seventh (the closest thing to 19th century rock and roll) next month, and as much else as I can, especially at the Ohio Theater, which I think is as vibrationally perfect a setting for this kind of music as any I've entered. (And with the cheap seats at just $10, it has to be the best bargain in town).

Which brings me to the finale here, the Columbus Symphony's recent triumph in presenting Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade.

I have a deep soft spot for Rachmaninoff's piano concertos, because my mother had a recording of Van Cliburn playing the Third, which we spun endlessly while I was growing up. It is a dramatic and emotional (very Russian!) piece, requiring serious athletic ability and stamina to get through and a deft touch to pull off. It made Cliburn a legend, and it's telling that he no longer has the physical force needed to play the whole thing (maybe they should try a relay).

CSO guest pianist Philippe Bianconi did a wonderful job of lending vigor and grace to Rachmaninoff's similar Second last May. It was a joy to hear in large part because the Orchestra was clearly so excited to be playing it, and the full house was so entranced and embracing of what was clearly a unique experience.

I had the rare "problem" of being slightly too close to the stage, and having my view of the conductor mostly blocked by the piano. But there was one fabulous moment when, at the peak of the piece's soaring drama, I saw both conductor Alessandro Siciliani's feet (and ONLY his feet) leave the ground as if blasted into the air by the shear excitement of the music. It made me laugh, which was perfectly keeping with the night, because the community inside that theater had joined together with such rare and welcome joy.

Rimsky-Korsakov's more laid-back but lyrical and very sexy Scheherazade followed. The orchestra was languid and somewhat spent, as if in the throes of having just made love, which was apropos both of the aftermath of the Rachmaninoff and the nature of Scheherazade. Suffice it to say that the piece flowed beautifully and capped yet another wonderful evening at the Ohio that, for me at least, was about as good as it gets. At least until Beethoven's Seventh, coming this weekend, which is the closest thing to rock and roll you'll hear out of the 19th century.

In October comes the New World Symphony. This time, I'm taking my kids. See you in the balcony!!!

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