Welcome to our 2006 concert reviews! You will find 2005's reviews of the year on the sidebar of archived reviews; this section covers 2006 and newest reviews appear at top.

We regularly assign reviewers in teams of 2 to only the best venues - and because of regional limits, only those which appear in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

And only the best of concerts receive mention - so enjoy!

17th Annual Festival of Harps

November 11, 2006    Spreckels Performing Arts Center


 Think 'harp' and classical music comes immediately to mind; but Festival of Harps is so much more - it's a celebration of different types and traditions of harps around the world in all their diversity.

 This is the 17th annual Festival: over the years different styles have been featured, but the program this year seems even more satisfyingly diverse, losing some of the emphasis on Celtic and classical harp and including a well-rounded global representation.

 The Spreckles Center is the perfect venue for a harp show: a smaller stage, audience tiered seating where all seat views are maximized, and a simple but effective display of 'floating harps' overhead lends to both viewing enjoyment and excellent acoustics.

 First on is Cui Junzhi playing the Chinese Konghou harp, a traditional Chinese table harp. 'Ginger' does three pieces which deftly show off the Konghou's nuances: a variety of dynamic notes assume a Chinese flavor from a harp with a wooden insert. Junzhi has won numerous awards for her performances and compositions and is the artistic director of the Chinese International Konghou Association: no better player could represent the instrument's range.

 Next is Latin American Harp with Carlos Reyes on quarto guitar and Ramon Romero on Paraguayan harp. A Cuban percussionist rounds out the trio: the music is lively, charged, and features both Cuban influences (bongo, maraca) and of course the lovely Paraguayan harp. The trip is very rhythmic, presenting rollicking Latin tunes which bring out the best of the Latin harp: a spicy, frolicking contrast to the gentle Chinese harp which preceded it. Even a maraca solo is amazing.   Two Paraguayan harpists come on next: it's the 'dueling banjos' of the Paraguayan harp world - and a lovely end to an amazing set.

 After intermission comes Celtic harps and two representatives of Irish and Scottish traditions, Scottish master William Jackson and Irish harpist Grainne Hambly, who play 18th century love songs and more. Both musicians are multi-instrumentalists and play not only harp but flute and concertina. The blends of harp, pennywhistle, bouzouki and squeezebox make for exciting contrasts.

 Mamadou Diabate is on next and last: he was nominated for a Grammy last year and has played with acoustic guitar accompanist Walter Strauss for about three years now. His traditional style of Mali kora features his own homemade instrument which provides haunting praise songs: repetitive melodies backed by guitar.

 Walter Strauss' song about the American Southwest creates quite a different atmosphere, moving away from traditional African harp roots and showing off the two instruments under a different cultural light. Shades of Joni Mitchell lend a folksy atmosphere to the changing song.

 Mamadou's kora holds up well next to the lively guitar, but his finale - a 10-minute solo by himself alone, is what really demonstrates the power of the kora, which has 21 strings and takes many years to master. His kora shines with his amazingly fast, complex playing.

 If you envision harp playing as either Celtic or classical alone, you're in for a treat with Festival of Harps: the 17th annual event proves there's much variety and provides one of the most well-rounded harp programs we've ever seen.


 Desert Blues:
Markus James and the Wassonrai
with special guest Stephen Kent and
Guelel Kumba and Afrissippi


November 3, 2006   Sebastopol Community Center

 Markus James' shows are always unexpected delights: unexpected because his guest star lineup varies from show to show and features some of the best talents in West Africa today.

 To keep up his reputation for the unexpected, the MC for this show was Didgeridu player Australian Stephen Kent, whose striking playing provides a surprisingly compelling introduction to the return of Marcus James and his Desert Blues group to the Sebastopol stage. Where else would the roots of blues include a solo Didgeridu performance?

 One would think it would be an uneven flow to the main West African bluesy act - but it's a compelling introduction indeed, serving well to lead Afrissippi to the stage - Kent's dig and rattles are haunting demonstrations of circular breathing, punctuated by buzzes and providing a powerfully rhythmic drone.

 Audience participation is invited on a powerful song where rhythmic clapping and dig mingle, and it's only a brief set change before the next group, Afrissippi, is introduced - blending fulani and Mississippi hillbilly/blues music and presenting the unique line-up of a Mississippi blues group and a West African vocalist whose journey to America led to his own discovery of blues roots.  Afrissippi is from Memphis and blends guitars, a trap drum and lap steel to create a sound which is part blues, part African.

 Their next song holds elements of rock and folk, demonstrating driving rhythms accented by a strong bass. A gentler, more African-inspired beat marks their third offering, with vocals more prominent and in the foreground: Afrissippi is at its best with such a style.

 Afrissippi holds all kinds of surprises: a classic John Lee Hooker style follows a logical path of evolution from Africa to Mississippi, with a lovely funky, bluesy slide guitar, an old fulani song providing the final link between African and blues with a legend song, and a final song developing a rollicking beat which is infectious and bass-driven. Max Williams's guitar shines in a spirited performance, here.   While the African-rooted songs could have used another melodic instrument such as harmonica, the later blues features didn't: the funky guitar carried the sound.

 It's interesting that of the two bands featured, one is led by an African who journeyed to Mississippi to find his musical roots, and the other is led by a white man who journeyed to Africa to find the roots of the blues.

 Markus James' twelve years of visiting Mali, West Africa has brought about this unification of bands and musics and is next as the starring performance - and yet another surprise: Didgeridu player Stephen Kent joins James and his West African lineup for some gorgeous interactions between native Australian and native African sounds.

 The drone of the Didgeridu isn't startling, surprisingly: it all melds beautifully. Afrissippi is the mirror image of James' presentation, so the segue is wonderfully done, and dig drones accent the rootsy blend of African and deep South blues.   James even invites the audience to participate in an enhancing, changing series of claps to accompany the dig's hypnotic beats.

 The phrase 'Doni doni' means a million things - slowly, slowly; so-so - under James' hand it's a rollicking Toure-type song with strong vocals. A similar beat, like a heartbeat, joins all of James' songs, forming the foundation of similarity - it's the changing vocals and solos - as in DoniDoni - that keep a thread of diversity running through the blues foundation.

 Both bands could've benefited from a sax or harmonica player - this said, the songs were all beautifully wrought and rhythmically compelling; especially when Kent added his dig drone to the background.

 His final classic 'Do You Do' is especially powerful with Kent on power drone dig and a bluesy chant including the cast of Afrissippi driving what has become here a social and political as well as a personal mantra.

 Don't ever miss a James concert: there's always something new and delightful going on! Over 400 people knew this - and turned out in droves!


Putumayo Presents Acoustic Africa

Vusi Mahlasela
Dobet GnahoreHabib Koite

October 21, 2006   Napa Valley Opera House


 Putumayo's 'Acoustic Africa' cd features over 9 musicians, but for the traveling road show three of the finest from the cd demonstrate very different acoustic skills - and a unique presentation which pairs individual performances of three 'greats' with an evolving unified front to deliver a polished collaborative joining of all three's skills.

 The three selected are Habib Koite, one of Africa's most famous Malian performers whose unique guitar style mixes rhythms from around the world, and who has appeared on TV, in major music publications such as Rolling Stone, and who has earned singer Bonnie Raitt's enthusiasm; Vusi Mahlasela, the South African musician dubbed 'The Voice' whose cd of the same title has rocked the world; and Dobet Gnahore, whose powerful vocals and lively dance traditions reflecting the Bete people in her native Ivory Coast holds the power to captivate live audiences. 

 We've seen plenty of concerts which merge different bands and different talents: the result of most such mergings usually is that the viewer sees essentially three different concerts under one heading. Not so 'Acoustic Africa', which is outstanding in its collaborative, unified energy.

 The show opens with a balafon solo (a.k.a. marimba), then segues into the power chanting of vocalist Dobet Gnahore from Ivory Coast. As her introduction fades offstage after a few moments, guitarist/vocalist Vusi Mahlasela from South Africa enters for his solo, with gorgeous guitar and smoothly evocative vocals blending precisely.

 You might think from his cd that Vusi is of only slightly-above average talent and that his voice is supported by other artists in the background, so it's an amazing and special thrill to note that live and in person, all the voices are coming from one throat - from a low growl to a soaring soprano. His ability to buzz, growl, or soar makes for rapid changes within the same song's structure, from a scat falsetto to a low rumble.

 You need a show to adequately appreciate 'The Voice': his cd tries but doesn't quite hold the impact of his vocal prowess, emphasized by his live, energy-charged performance.

 Acoustic flute comes next, backed by guitarists: by the time the flute solo evolves into a vocal, drums, guitar, marimba and more have joined the stage, building to a full-fledged band which even features a violin - unusual in such a performance, but it adds a lot. The balafon player also plays violin in a powerful show where every performer seems to demonstrate a multi-instrumental prowess.

 All three singer/musicians come on stage next: their first collaborative song 'The Boys' tells of boys who defy elders' wisdoms and end up in trouble. It's steeped in South African roots and is a classic song avid African music fans will readily recognize as a standard.

 Female vocalist Dobet Gnahore brings on a drummer and two guitarists for a less traditional, rocking song - the music still steeped in African rhythms and history. Both guitar and backup vocals drive the music. Dobet's Bete-style dancing (similar in appearance to Zulu dance) comes towards the end of an already-powerful presentation and is simply stunning.

 A later song opens with powerful rattles and guitar, and a driving, contemporary rhythmic beat. Two trap drums and a powerful bass enhance the effects.

 Any expecting a quiet acoustic performance will find ACOUSTIC AFRICA filled with surprises: it's driving, hard-hitting music which leads into a driving, hard-hitting concert.

 To cross the Sahara, one must prepare - to bring in Act 2, a 10-minute break prepares the musicians and audience alike, building audience anticipation. How can Act 2 possibly top Act 1, with its diverse artists and back-and-forth mixing of individual and collaborative performances?

 Well, it does: a crooning lullaby-type tune opens the second set and provides a gentler story and introduction. Ending with his signature falsetto, Vusi Mahlasela again proves you really have to see him in person to appreciate his prowess.  There's a jazz influence in his playing and singing which shines, especially in the song 'Tomorrow is Going to Be Better'. There's even audience participation invited, as in 'My Song of Love, My Song of Life', which swells and reaches to embrace all, even non-musicians.

 The ACOUSTIC AFRICA concert is arranged perfectly, with songs flowing smoothly and segues seamless.

 By this time there are not 3, not 4 or 5, but 11 performers who share the stage: the three key featured artists and all their backup musicians working together as though they'd played together all their lives rather than joining forces for this collaborative tour.

 You can see why there was a rush to the cd sales table during intermission and after to obtain Putumayo's recent cd release Acoustic Africa, which holds not only the three artists but other African notables from Angelique Kidjo to Lokua Kanza: the concert was one of the best we've ever seen - and so compelling you just have to bring a piece of it home for yourself.


Luau on the Lawn:  Willie K., Eric Gilliom and Na Mamo No'Eau

July 16, 2006    Rancho Nicasio

  It's the perfect day for a California barbecue on the lawn, and making the most of it is a Hawaiian venue sponsored by Rancho Nicasio, a restaurant specializing in fine summer music programs held on its expanse of outdoor lawn.

 Nicasio means "the hidden one" - but Rancho Nicasio is scarcely hidden: it's a Marin County venue which began as a popular hotel in the 1800s, burned to the ground, and arose again as Rancho Nicasio,  the small town's center and today the source of an extraordinary entertainment program.

 For 'Luau on the Lawn' Rancho Nicasio pairs traditional Hawaiian foods with fine music; from kalua pig to barbecue salmon; from the local Walnut Creek band and dancers of Na Mamo No'eau to Hawaii's own Willie K., who with partner Eric Gilliom are the 'Barefoot Natives'.

 It's hard to believe one of the featured groups is a Walnut Creek transplant: Na Mamo No'eau plays with Polynesian dancers and those demonstrating Old Hawaiian-style dancing alike, while chants are authentically rendered with sparse drum accompaniment.  The traditional Hawaiian dances aren't usually done for commercial venues - but fit nicely here, and are a special treat.

 Na Mamo No'eau doesn't forget its audience either: audience participation is solicited for a fun song about frigate birds, with much hand clapping and arm movements; then an entirely different note is struck with the gentle ballad 'I Remember You'.

 Tahiti is a popular focus of Na Mamo No'eau; especially when an impromptu dance contest is conducted from the audience, with winner James allowed to perform and take a lesson in Polynesian dance in front of all.

 Willie K. and Eric Gilliom are next, the 'Barefoot Natives' who are two guitarists with lovely vocal harmonies.   Willie Kahaiali`i was raised on Maui, performing in his father's band and playing for audiences since the age of ten. His teamwork with Eric Gilliom adds an extra dimension of depth to his music.

Their song about Maui is on their Barefoot Natives debut release and charted in four days. It's a gentle ballad sung in English and speaks of lazy warm nature and peaceful dreaming - much like the Rancho Nicasio day all were enjoying. But theirs is not a purely Hawaiian billing, as evidenced by 'Scratchin' , a lively jive song, the old Beatles standard 'Something', and a yodeling cowboy song.

 Willie K. can yodel with the best of them - it may not be traditional luau music, but it sure is fun - especially when it evolves into 'Dueling Banjos'. Jewish music comes next, evoking audience clapping, while 'Waterfall' provides a folksy song of paradise.

 Their diversity of choices provides more satisfying than a Hawaiian-only venue could have offered up, from Italian opera to 'hippie songs'. Willie K does the best vocal imitations since Merle Haggard in the 60s, as evidenced by his duet of Patsy Cline meets Willie Nelson in 'Crazy'.  And Willie K. moves easily form jazz and country western to Hawaiian ballads with a gorgeous falsetto fueling many moments.

 All in all, Luau on the Lawn was not only a big success, but it introduced the audience to a far broader interpretation of Hawaiian pleasure than many competing Hawaiian venues offer up.


July 13, 2006     McNear's, Petaluma
http://www.mystictheatre.com/       http://www.hapa.com/

  Hapa nowadays is three members: founder/Irishman/composer and 'perpetual student' Barry Flanagan on acoustic guitar, Honolulu bass guitar extraordinaire/12-string acoustic guitarist Nathan Kawai Aweau, and native Hawaiian chanter/drummer Kumu Hula Charles Ka‘upu, whose powerful chant opens the concert before the dual guitars kick in.

  The amp was too loud on reverb for their signature song: perhaps purposefully, for the crescendo of chords burst upon the audience and generated excitement as much as a bit of distortion: while the result is less than crisp and may prove too loud for some, muting the lovely guitar's tones, the audience clearly loved it, as evidenced by the excited welcome clapping at its conclusion.

 For the second tune Hawaiian gourd appeared (the biggest we've seen!) - and the lovely guitar instrumentals demonstrate harmonies which don't need much amplification to prove hard-hitting. The songs aren't strictly traditional - but then, Hapa isn't strictly traditional either - a fact which comes forth more as the concert progresses.

 The next tune comes from the acclaimed Polynesian group Te Vaka, 'Away', or 'Sorry to See You Leave'. Here Barry's guitar shines, serving as a $2K steel guitar substitute - and performing perfectly for the mid-song traditional steel guitar solo. 

 Slack key time follows with a more traditional Hawaiian sound, proving Hapa is as adept at traditional as at innovative explorations of the entire region's music. Shades of western swing artist Bob Wills drift in and out of the melody.

 Chant blends with Bob Marley's 'Redemption Song' next: reverb is turned up - and here's where Hapa's vocal harmonies shine. When the Hawaiian chant from Charlie kicks in, 'Redemption Song' becomes a powerful universal message and not just a reggae standard.

 For the visuals, a Hawaiian hula dancer accents many of the songs. And for audience participation, the impromptu stage performance by a willing male hula dancer invited to accent a song couldn't be beat.

 Hapa is adept at moving from lovely harmony  vocals to rippling, vibrant guitar riffs - but turning the reverb and volume down would have helped crisp and clean some of the tunes: again, a personal observation as the audience seemed to love it.

 The real surprise of the evening: Nathan takes a decidedly un-Hawaiian bass solo - a medley of songs which are simply stunning. Seldom is bass appreciated as an instrument on its own: it's strength usually lies in laying a foundation of beats and solos usually are so rhythm-oriented that audiences find it hard to relate to compared to a guitar's melodies - but Nathan's bass playing is snappy, melody-oriented, and gorgeous in tone: the audience loved it. An all-bass recording from him would surely be a winner.

 And, we hope it's a possibility: he's produced solo albums before, the last of  which won him Male Vocalist of the Year, and he's worked in the recording studio - producing, arranging, singing, playing instruments. We can only hope a recording of bass and vocals is in the works! Nathan made his living as a bass player and his amazing riffs show off his many talents - which shine on an unusual 7-string bass.

 Hapa's latest cd is 'Maui' - we haven't heard it; but if this concert's any indication, Hapa's lost none of its strength from personnel changes over the decade and instead has grown stronger, evolving beyond traditional Hawaiian to embrace a wider sound music audiences love.


Jake Shimabukuro

June 26, 2006    Yoshi's   http://www.yoshis.com

  Think 'ukulele' and 'Hawaiian' automatically comes to mind, so think Jake Shimabukuro and you may think Hawaiian ukulele, since Hawaiian is usually the primary (and often only) genre associated with the instrument - but in Jake Shimabukuro's case this is not so. Go to one of his concerts and you'll just as likely hear jazz, as we did at Yoshi's.  In fact, the only Hawaiian heard from the Hawaiian-born ukulele player at this concert was an 'aloha' introductory greeting and 'mahalo' at the end. 

 Even though he is well known throughout his native Hawaii as well as Japan, Jake's popularity has obviously reached onto the mainland: his two Monday evening concerts at Yoshis were sold out well in advance, with potential viewers trying to hawk a ticket off the long lines. Jake has been the opening act for many famous groups, from Bela Fleck and the Flecktones to John Hiatt, Bobby McFerrin, Diana Krall, Jimmy Buffett and Stephen Bishop, so his solo act is polished and well versed.

 Jake began playing at age 4 when his mother gave him his first ukulele lesson. He fell in love with the instrument, but unlike many players he didn't limit himself, seeing the ukulele as an “untapped source of music with unlimited potential.” His experimental techniques and amplification paired with his affinity for jazz makes for a unique sound indeed.

 From the first opening note, you'll realize you've never heard ukulele like this. Jazz rifts waft on rich, gentle notes and are coaxed from the ukulele in a surprising rendition of 'Over the Rainbow'.  The sounds Jake evokes from his instrument are astonishing, from a smooth jazz style to flamboyant flamenco beats.

 Jake's album DRAGON was inspired by Bruce Lee, and he tries to apply martial arts concepts to his music. The title song 'Dragon' in contrast is a lovely, soft instrumental with little of the flamboyance of its predecessor, though elements of flamenco creep in from time to time.

 Chick Corea's 'Spain' is next - pure jazz - and this vigorous exercise leads to another of Jake's own creations, a song replete with harmonics and vibrant calypso-like energy. The wild energy and snappy chords elicited enthusiastic audience response. And his 'pitter-patter' of explanations, biography, and details involves the audience: a truly winning statement from Jake maintains the audience atmosphere and feedback constitutes a virtual collaborative band between the solo artist and audience.

 A very quiet, gentle tune follows again, as if to demonstrate Jake can keep it very soft, as he wishes.

 A real surprise of the evening was a rendition of George Harrison's 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' - but don't expect the familiar pop/rock rendition right away. The song begins with far-out jazz stylings - more like screaming blues guitar mixed with jazz -  and just when you think you've gotten the title wrong it evolves into the familiar melody, some time into the song. When the familiar tune does emerge from the intro, it evolves from a subtle, gentle sound to a vibrant, rollicking tune, escalating to a  screaming crescendo of chord action before dropping away.

 Jake plays plugged in for most of the concert, but he does unplug to play a classical Schubert 'Ave Maria'. 

 'Breathe' is yet another departure: sparse, longer-held notes, spaces in between for absorbing, and a low, lazy beat.

 With the flamenco-style flair which is Jake's trademark and style, his fast riffs, sharp clear notes and seasoned jazz fingerings create a fine conclusion to a riveting evening.

Los Cenzontles
May 4, 2006    Wells Fargo Center for Arts, Santa Rosa CA
http://www.lbc.net/      http://www.loscenzontles.com/index.html

  Mexican music plays a lively introduction from the speakers at the Wells Fargo Center before the concert of Los Cenzontles begins, appropriately setting the mood for  a local California Bay Area band specializing in presenting a range of Mexican sounds.

  One expects to see a large brass band in traditional Mexican music, but not here: two violins, two guitars, two vocalists and two dancers provide the action, dispensing with the usual brass-oriented focus to provide a lovely and more acessible regional touch, as the music sounded before it was popularized and expanded. A blend of traditional mariachi from the southern part of Jalisco opens. The dances are what people used to dance to on the ranches of Jalisco, and provide lively, foot-stomping beats to the lovely music.

 After mariachi songs, the band moves to rancheras and more, exploring the traditions of the Mexican countryside in music and dance. The band brought traditional manseco sound back to Jalisco and documented it (in a film which will be showing in the Bay area); its performance reflects this focus and pairs both instrumental and vocal traditions with dance to provide a lovely blend of styles.

 In 'Bullfighter', the female dancer entices the male with a pink shawl; in other songs the lovely vocal harmonies soar: three-part harmonies at one point are particularly stunning with a capella drama and serve as a break for another part of the band's appearance: members who have traveled in Veracruz for several years.

 Here the harp comes out, along with guitars, the small guiterra, and clarinet and sax. In Veracruz there are 3-day fandangos: the vocalist explores a piece of this sans in a dramatic song, danced by two women and one man and telling of a man who has many girlfriends.

 The percussion is fascinating and well done: a tambourine player uses the rim of the tambourine to great effect, while a ass jawbone produces unique accents. 

 The African influence is strong too: at one point the foot-stomping music leads to rhythmic clapping and audience participation as percussion creates the backbeats.

 Since there are nine musicians and most travel and teach, it's a rare treat to see them all together.

After intermission comes rancheras, polkas, and more. The saxophone adds a light touch of brass to a compelling performance of vocal harmonies: from polkas to rancheras to boleros, the music moves smoothly between forms and traditions and provides a lovely concert revealing Mexico's varied folk forms and traditions.

 A further note: Los Cenzontles isn't just a group: it's the name of a Bay Area Mexican Arts Center which began in 1989 to create a family-oriented environment for young people to learn about their heritage and traditions. 

 Today it's a nonprofit center successfully run by community members addressing problems of youth by involving them in learning about their heritage. From musical problems to the arts, Los Cenzontles is much more than another Mexican band: it's a reinforcement of heritage and lifestyle not to be missed.

Tim Conway & Harvey Korman 'Together Again'

3/30/2006     Wells Fargo Center for the Arts
Santa Rosa, CA

 If the duo of Tim Conway and Harvey Korman look familiar to you, they should: I first saw Tim Conway on a TV show called McHale's Navy, a goofy show about island sailors during WW2  and a take-off on the Phil Silvers show - where he played an ensign.

 Ernest Borgnine played the lead  on that show- he was McHale - and Tim Conway played a lesser role, but actually stole the show. He was so funny - and you got the feeling he was improvising many of the script lines, not just reading. He could do incredible facial expressions, too. Later on he and Korman were both on the Carol Burnett show, which ran for several years: that's where they both became famous.

 To have the two of them together in a reunion tour is thrilling; especially since they're in their 70s and likely not to be spending the next 20 years touring together.

  First each comedian comes to stage with a funny set: hilarious laugher from the older set in the audience welcomed Harvey Korman's skit observing the oddities of aging, from skin change mysteries to tinkles that don't work right.

 Korman has worked on stage for nearly 40 years, and his pizzazz and smooth deliveries are perfectly timed, with punch lines which work and which are tied to real-life events and observations.

 When Conway joins in on the fun, it's to speak of their travels together, differences in approach to locating cheap tickets and accommodations, and to present a history which works in well with Korman's character.  Their ability to play off each other is polished and reflects these years of comedy associations and familiarity, with jokes building on ironies and character traits.

 One wouldn't think much more is needed than the two of them, but to make the scene changes smooth (and probably to provide a break for the voices!) guest star Louise DuArt, famous in her own right for her TV show and impersonation skills, comes on stage.

 At first the audience seems taken aback by the high Broadway drama of DuArt in contrast to the skits of Conway and Korman, but she's able to capture the audience with a series of powerful impersonations of famous stars which lead smoothly from one to the other and offer easily-recognizable voices.

 Perhaps the best moments of the show are when all three appear in skits - such as the boring lecture given by Corn Grower Korman, which leaves Conway in such a stupor he nearly burns his pants off with his cigar.

 Or maybe it's the airline commentary, as in a 'Speed-O-Air' skit about an impatient flyer purchasing tickets from an elderly man with a penchant for falling asleep on the job. Again, the theme of cheap airline tickets - and experiences- is brought to life.

 The skit involving Dorf the golf pro midget is absolutely hilarious, too. The golf character evolved from a series of films Conway did called 'Dorf' (his principle means of support for a while was selling the Dorf golfing instruction films on TV).

 Conway's  probably standing on a regular stage with a secondary stage built below, so he looks most convincingly like a midget and can do incredible maneuvers, such as bending way backwards from the waist. It wasn't possible to see exactly how it was done - but the effect was most realistic and startling.

 Between skits DuArt smooths changes by coming onstage with her own impersonations, skits, and quick clothing changes.

 House lights come up for a unique blend of humor and questions taken from the audience, and the show closes with a famous Carol Burnett skit, 'The Dentist', aided by DuArt's introduction - as Carol Burnett.

  If you get a chance to see these two together, it's worth it - and Wells Fargo Center for the Art's rare comedy treat attracted many local fans; a welcome respite of fun in a season of rain, winter, and dark news.


Masters of the Hawaiian Guitar concert George Kahumoku Jr.

           Dennis Kamakahi 

3/25/2006      8PM
Sebastopol Community Center

Cyril Pahinui

 The Sebastopol Community Center's venue is nothing fancy: folding chairs and a large auditorium provide a setting which caters to a variety of audiences and a versatility in seating. As the stage is raised, even those in back have some good viewing; but Masters of Hawaiian Guitar isn't about viewing so much as listening.

 George Kahumoku Jr. opens with guitar and a Hawaiian chant. Actually, it's a chant/story of his childhood and a volcano's meditative influence: the volcano story leads to one of his most recognized tunes. (George, as with many Hawaiians, is a storyteller, opening his songs with dramatic and often funny tales which document Hawaiian wellsprings of inspiration.)

 Hawaiian history is related with each song, offering something different than a cd of music alone could provide - and there's even a Hawaiian dancer, his wife Nancy, who provides lovely hula moves to his gentle guitar.

 Even 'Amazing Grace' assumes a lovely Hawaiian influence as he sings of a visit to an aging woman on her deathbed.

 George is a high school teacher as well as a musician: he's also a farmer, and has played Hawaiian music around the world. Despite the fact he's entertained royalty, he's most at home in venues like this: small stages, with cd signings afterward promising one-on-one contact with his audience.

 Cyril Pahinui comes on next: he's a new Grammy winner this year, and one can see why as he begins with a smooth, rich vocal to accompany his guitar playing.   His is such a different style than George's: more a ballad crooner, Cyril has long participated in his family tradition's of music and carries the torch from his famous father Gabby.

Cyril does more than traditional Hawaiian music: he sings a song of love written by his wife, followed by a Sonny Chillingsworth classic; and George's wife Nancy again offers a hula dance to accompany his music.

 Cyril's final song is almost rollicking in comparison to his soft ballad style, providing a lively energy.

 Dennis Kamakahi comes on after a brief intermission, recalling travels of the three together eight years ago for the first time. His first song (ironically recorded in nearby Cotati, not Hawaii) is a new one from a yet-unreleased album, making for a real treat for avid fans already well familiar with his standards.

 The song tells of the last great Hawaiian chief of Hawaii and offers up an ancient chant modernized with a ballad overlay, opening with the traditional chant call and moving to a lovely ballad with Hawaiian guitar.   While the chant's still evident, its presence in a melodious new format provides a much more accessible work to audiences unused to traditional Hawaiian chant.

 Dennis prefaces each song with a long history with weaves Hawaiian lives with mainland history. His account of Hawaiian influences on Sacramento, California, small town Washington and other U.S. areas enthralled the audience with stories: again, something you'd only get from the concert, not the typical music-only cd. 

 The highlight and grand finale of the evening, though, is when the three guitar players get together on stage to share the final set, providing a powerful sound with their three styles and gorgeous voices in harmony.

 The sum is even better than the individual performers: the full sound and vocal blends work well together, and even if one were to wish for a rhythm player to solidify the presentation, the result is awesome - and a brilliant conclusion to a multi-faceted performance.

Maria del Mar Bonet & Monica Salmaso


3/11/2006        8PM
Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley

 Berkeley, California's Zellerbach Hall features a diverse musical program with an emphasis on classical performances, so it sports a large auditorium able to seat a good-sized audience.

 Tasteful guitar instruments create the appropriate atmospherics as the audience fills the seats in anticipation of a dual performance by two notable world music singers: Maria Del Mar Bonet and Monica Salmaso - and comments overheard from numerous members of the audience indicated many had not been to Zellerbach in years, and eagerly celebrated this a notable duo billing of world music vocalists.

 First on the bill is Monica Salmaso - and someone planned well, having her subtle, gentle and ethereal voice come first in the program. She sings with only light drums, sax and piano backing her soaring range, with most of her songs holding avante jazz and bossa nova tones.

 While her selections allow solos and riffs apart from her vocals at points, the point of the program is to let her vocals carry the load - and she does, providing the audience full access to a lovely range of delicate music from her Barcelona heritage.

  As all songs are in Portuguese, some introductory explanation at the beginning of the program would have helped - but if the purpose in its omission was to have the audience experience a sparkling voice first, regardless of meaning, this was achieved - and as the program progressed, there was some explanation provided for many of the songs, as in a new samba composed on the roots of an old classical tune.

 A wordless composition brings out the sense of play and interaction between vocal and piano on one cut, while classical and avante jazz permeate Maria's changing vocal creations.

 Under her treatment even a Beatles standard 'Blackbird' soars from a ballad to a samba.

 Monica began her career in European venues in the early 1970s, traveling across Europe and even into Russia and Japan. In the 1980s she explored North African music and in the 90s she toured Spain with Brazilian musician Milton Nascimiento, offering a blend of Mediterranean music and South American style.

 Despite this background, it's the listener steeped in avant jazz who will best appreciate Maria's approach. As she states, her music is more a collaborative effort - normally she works with a larger group of musicians - and her projects and style reflect a jazzy diversity which melds international influences with a foundation of avant jazz riffs, so the smaller stage venue probably is not a true indication of the deeper nuances of her projects.

 After a brief intermission comes the very different vocal powerhouse Maria del Mar - and any who have been nodding in seat reflecting over delicate jazz workings had better awaken, because Monica comes in with a beat and Spanish guitar backing her powerfully rich Catalan vocals, and it's impossible not to sit up and take notice.

 In sharp contrast to Monica delicate soaring vocals, Marie's voice rings out and fills even the large auditorium with drive and zest. The placement of the two performers first and second thus is a thoughtful, well-done choice: audiences receive the soft jazzy lull of Monica first, then are startled to life by Marie's drive.

 Her performance on the classic 'Lady Lae' song is awesome: Turkish and Arabic elements  infuses this and other songs: she doesn't just sing though - on the third cut she picks up guitar to accompany her powerful vocal performance - and her flamenco-style playing is as vivid as her voice.

 She comes onstage with three other guitarists, so her powerhouse vocal effect is accented by a solid backing force behind her, guitar in hand or not.

 An unusual 3-part vocal with Indian-style vocal drones under hers is especially energetic and fresh.

 The two vocalists together create a powerful, stunning performance: a good choice in contrasts, in a concert which holds something for everyone.


Huun Huur Tu

Alyosha (Alexei Saryglar)Anatoli Kuular

Huun-Huur-Tu on the Tuvan Steppe

2/18, 8pm
Osher Marin JCC , San Rafael, CA

    With its cafe table seating, snacks in the lobby, and offset tables assuring nearly un-obscured views for all, the Tuvan throat singers Huun Huur Tu promised to be special, with soft, jazzy vocals (from a tastefully-chosen cd)  proceeding the concert and setting the appropriate mood. It was a fine mood-setter for an indescribable vocal group.

  It's a long way from the lives of a Tuvan animal herder to the life of a touring musical quintet - and Huur Huun Tu has made the long journey, bringing their intense vocal traditions to a new world.

 An introduction explains the geography and peoples of Tuva: the South Siberian Turkic people only number some 150,000 and use their voices to capture elements of the Tuvan natural landscape. Indeed, all of their music reflects some aspect of the nature they live so closely to: the Tuvans make sonic 'maps' of their environment which use throat-singing, whistling and other vocal products to capture natural sounds.

 While the introduction was done by a team of comedians who get the message across by capturing the audience's attention, their approach in no way deterred from the fine information about Tuvan history - and then the band comes on in colorful Chinese-style costumes with exotic-looking native instruments and the audience is captivated from their first song.

 Try to imagine an instrument plucked like a guitar with a series of deep, droning throat solos which evolves into a 3-tone whistling drone: if you didn't see it yourself, it'd be easy to think overdubbing was involved: you can scarcely believe the three notes could drone simultaneously from a single throat - but they do.

 Huur Huun Tu's next song celebrates the mountains and beautiful landscape, the leader explains in broken English - and opens with a rollicking horse beat - complete with a horse neigh which ripples from both throat and a horsebeat instrument dedicated to the galloping rhythm. Then the Tuvan drone/whistle builds behind the instrumental backdrop.

 For some minutes you are off on the Tuvan plain with the horses - complete with neighs, blows, and hoof-stomping - rather than in the OSH JCC auditorium.

 A Spanish guitar appears for the next song, which tells of their people's heritage - a haunting long instrument with flute-like sound enhances this lament.

 The Tuvans also traveled using camel a long time ago: the next song captures this experience and it's interesting to note it as a gentler, more rolling tune which captures the camel ride feel, with vocals ranging high and low in timbre.   Here the ringing whistle blends with the low Tuvan drone in a most satisfying mix. The whistle fade provides a powerful feeling to the swaying camel song.

 All songs are multi-instrumental as well: drums, flutes, and a variety of string instruments create a folk sound but keep the Mongolian landscape running through every song.

 All musicians play instruments on the next piece, a love story with the instrumentals providing the background drone here: a fine backdrop for vocal note highs and lows.  As rolling horsebeat turns over to string instruments, accented laments, and back, the audience is treated to the highs and lows of the Tuvan herder's life.

 Perhaps the most stunning performance was a piece blending bird and wildlife sounds with vocal drones and instruments. The combination was astonishing, poignant, and rooted in the land: one could nearly feel one was in the Tuvan forest.

 It's one thing to hear these sounds on a cd; it's entirely another to see them actually in performance coming from throats which use no feedback, overdubbing or electronic enhancement to gain the spectacular highs, lows, and trills.

 Huur Huun Tu is unabashedly one of the best all-time performances we have ever observed - and we've seen many over the decades. It's a whole new world brought to your doorstep  - compliments of OSH JCC.