Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sunday Night with Amel Larrieux

Soul singers seem to dig Oakland. Something about the city's vibe resonates with them. Their appreciation is always reciprocated and audiences move rapidly from laidback contemplation to active engagement. Somehow I managed to catch Amel Larrieux and her five piece band last Sunday night in performance at Yoshi's in Oakland. Thus I can share a few notes on a comfort suite...

An electric bass guitar begins warbling, sounding something like an ethereal sitar by the time Amel walks on stage. She hums and launches into a warm acoustic rendition of Morning, the title track of her most focused album. Right out of the gate her voice grabs you as if to say "Pay attention. Get ready for some soul music". She doesn't intend to leave anything on the stage.

Amel Larrieux Morning

Trouble, is done Latin style with, as is typical in her live performances, an impromptu ending in which she starts scatting with abandon. "Louis Armstrong", she later explains, "All those years trying to be like you". She adds, "Lena Horne too". Well she's a singer's singer, it stands to reason that she has impeccable taste.

Giving Something Up is a bassy funk groove overlaid with increasingly abstract vocal stylings as it progresses, the arrangement is a mixture of jazz, soul and hip hop. Then almost improbably she breaks into Amazing Grace - a song that has never been done in this mode, urgent futuristic blues. How, the listener wonders, can a song contains such multitudes, rendered so seamlessly?

All I Got is an effortless follow up, a march reflecting on our condition. The refrain is all about the set upon (when she sings the passing lyric "slapped down a racist fool", those darker than blue in the Oakland audience respond knowingly). It's about standing strong and living without expecting any big bailout or "helping hand" as she sings: "this is all I got" indeed. As she riffs on the economic climate, "we're thoroughly spent... our credit's jacked up", there is complete empathy with the five piece band. They follow her on that the long walk with those worn shoes.

She gives a stately take on Magic and the zingers are fired rapidly: "still paying for your education when you're sixty six". Again the chorus is revelatory: "stress level's high and the morale's low". It's a blues for our time done with minimalist instrumentation. She ends with a turn as a choir director enlisting the audience in three part harmony. This kind of crowd participation is fun: we all need to "tap into that magic" to overcome our subprime present. Indeed that has been the theme of the whole concert, acknowledging what is going on in the world and finding humour to deal with it. Amel is an unpretentious artist, she makes everyone feel at home. It doesn't hurt that she's very easy to look at, the word chic describes her clothes and the long hair is doing all the right things.

A cheer of recognition greets the start of For Real, the ballad being one of the perennial fan favourites. With deft piano playing in the background, she floats into the upper registers displaying her Minnie Riperton credentials. After welcoming a a few bars from a guest soprano in the audience, she takes over. Her vocal control is breathtaking. Game, set and match, I'd say. To top it off she provides three or four different takes of the song - live remixes on stage. I'm always interested in the way singers manage to keep their trademark songs alive; somehow Amel always comes up with new arrangements subscribing to the jazz improvisation aesthetic. The jazz inclination will keep her in good stead with her audience.

We Can Be New is a warm poem, a melodious ballad very beautifully sung and ends with a reggae tinge. It must be the band's trademark to provide full glimpses of her range and musical comfort zone.

She debuts a new song, Have You?, a lover's lament peppered with humourous lyrics "I've mixed denim with whites, have you?". By this stage we are all spellbound. The elements of her appeal are simple: sympathetic piano, the light accents of her backup singer (Amira) and a singer at her peak. Amel is in full effect.

Then I almost died of joy: she sang Gills and Tails - my favourite song, the very definition of virtuosity. The vocal performance is wonderful; what the professionals would call her cry is a thing to behold. It's emotional, it's cerebral, it's quietly devastating. It's everything I like in soul music.

Amel Larrieux Lovely Standards

Wild is the Wind from her album of standards, shrewdly titled Lovely Standards, is done as a homage to Nina Simone. It's just her and the piano player; she has got the audience clinging to her every note. As the song starts to wind down she brings in the rest of the band and they add a dance groove - whoa, she can do house music, what can't she do? - the groove then morphs into Dear to me. House music man, just for the heck of it. She took a jazz standard, did it with flair and, just to show how fearless she is, she gives you some house. I give up, I'm joining the street team, Amel.

As if she read my mind, she then covers Prince's Pop Life, it's a party pure and simple - she reminisces about the Purple Rain to Parade Revolution era of His Royal Badness (she notes that she even digs Tambourine! claiming by this revelation membership in that purple secret society) and talks about the rush she got performing Take Me With You with Kamal the Abstract a couple of weeks ago.

She closes with two crowd favourites: Get up, the monster club hit from Bravebird and Tell Me (from her Groove Theory beginnings). We're all dancing and singing along. It's a celebration. There's a community feeling. We'll be holding our head high in the weeks to come, smiling on Manic Mondays and Black Tuesdays, lifted above the fray, fortified by some soul music, a soundtrack to our struggles, "this great Mountain of When". This is her thing, this is what she does best: two ninety minute sets, three nights in a row in an intimate jazz venue. Every show sold out, the audience in the palm of her hand, the soul singer performs. Amel Larrieux has done it again.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Seminal Lunacy

No one was responsible for the great Wall Street crash. No one engineered the speculation that preceded it. Both were the product of the free choice and decision of hundreds of thousands of individuals. The latter were not led to the slaughter. They were impelled to it by the seminal lunacy which has always seized people who are seized in turn with the notion that they can become very rich.

The Great Crash 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith
I was reading Galbraith's tome last summer in an attempt to clear my thinking about bubbles and their typical aftermath. Later in his life Galbraith would cover financial euphoria more closely, but here it was all about its counterpart: the crash. He surely had a twinkle in his eye as he made his felicitous coinage of "seminal lunacy", lowering the reader's guard before proceeding to skewer at will. The book was a tonic for him to write and it is accordingly a tonic to read.

animals in the sky

News headlines are replete with mantras about sound fundamentals, healthy economies that are resilient, innovations that are safe, disruptions that are contained and so forth. On this trend he had some cutting observations:
By affirming solemnly that prosperity will continue, it is believed that one can help insure that prosperity will in fact continue. Especially among businessmen the faith in the efficiency of such incantation is very great.
Stated another way, this is merely a tactic for dealing with ignorance.
That much of what was repeated about the market - then as now - bore no relation to reality is important, but not remarkable. Between human beings there is a type of intercourse which proceeds not from knowledge, or even from lack of knowledge, but from failure to know what isn't known. This was true of much of the discourse on the market.
It is often effective.
We are a polite and cautious people, and we avoid unpleasantness.
Social beasts that we are, we follow the herd.
Others pointed out that the prospects for business were good and that the stock market debacle would not make them any less favorable. No one knew, but it cannot be stressed too frequently, that for effective incantation knowledge is neither necessary nor assumed.
There is perhaps an echo of Walter Bagehot's observation in Lombard Street
Every great crisis reveals the excessive speculations of many houses which no one before suspected.
the world of riches

We have the spectre of bemused and gray suited serious technocrats making pronoucements with great alacrity. And a wary public begins to ask whither regulation. But that is by the by
One of the oldest puzzles in politics is who is to regulate the regulators. But an equally baffling problem, which has never received the attention it deserves, is who is to make wise those who are required to have wisdom.
The great crash, like other seminal lunacies, caused much revision of the conventional wisdom.
What six months before had been a brilliant financial maneuver was now a form of fiscal self-immolation. In the last analysis, the purchase by a firm of its own stock is the exact opposite of the sale of stocks. It is by the sale of stock that firms ordinarily grow.
There are likely many contemporary equivalents to the deficiencies pointed out about buying your own stock. Modern finance has been shown to favour opacity over transparency and the consequent costs are mounting.

Looking forward we can expect lots of hearings, meetings and busy work. Politicians shown to have been asleep at the wheel will now demand answers.
The rite of the meeting which is called not to do business but to do no business... one of the oldest, most important - and unhappily, one of the least understood - rites in American life.
Action is the theme of the day
Men meet together for many reasons in the course of business. They need to instruct or persuade each other. They must agree on a course of action. They find thinking in public more productive or less painful than thinking in private. But there are at least as many reasons for meetings to transact no business. Meetings are held because men seek companionship or, at a minimum, wish to escape the tedium of solitary duties. They yearn for prestige which accrues to the man who presides over meetings, and this leads them to convoke assemblages over which they can preside. Finally there is the meeting which is called not because there is business to be done, but because it is necessary to create the impression that business is being done. Such meetings are more than a substitute for action. They are widely regarded as action.
When histories are written about our present disillusionment they will surely read like Galbraith's summary of the reasons behind the crash:
In 1929 the economy was fundamentally unsound...
  • the bad distribution of income... highly unequal income distribution meant that the economy was dependent on a high level of investment or a high level of luxury consumer spending or both...
  • the bad corporate structure... the vast new structure of holding companies and investment trusts...
  • the bad banking structure...
  • the dubious state of the foreign balance...
  • the poor state of economic intelligence
By harkening to "fundamentally unsound" and ending with a note about "economic intelligence", Galbraith puts the knife in Herbert Hoover and others of his ilk.

It requires neither courage nor prescience to predict disaster. Courage is required of the man who, when things are good, says so. Historians rejoice in crucifying the false prophet of the millenium. The never dwell on the mistake of the man who wrongly predicted Armageddon.
There are lots of emotions when it comes to finance, concern chief among them. During a crash or panic, emotions turn darker and this can be a perilous time.
Despite a flattering supposition to the contrary, people come readily to terms with power. There is little reason to think that the power of the great bankers, while they were assumed to have it, was much resented. But as the ghosts of numerous tyrants, from Julius Caesar to Benito Mussolini will testify, people are very hard on those who, having had power, lose it or are destroyed. Then anger at past arrogance is joined with contempt for present weakness. The victim or his corpse is made to suffer all available indignities.
And a parting warning for those erstwhile masters:
One trouble with being wrong is that it robs the prophet of his audience when he most needs it to explain why.
Shell games do have costs.

A brief soundtrack

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