Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Musical Theatre West Production of ‘s Wonderful at the Carpenter Center

Aloha!

As part of their 61st season, Musical Theatre West included ‘s Wonderful, which is a show I had never heard of (I had heard of the Gershwin song), so I was looking forward to seeing what they had in store for their loyal audience. Unfortunately I came away with mixed feelings after seeing their matinee show last Sunday.

Musical Theatre West has been around since 1952, when it started out as the Whittier Civic Light Opera. Their productions evolved over time, and they went from being an all-volunteer operation to producing full seasons, currently under the capable leadership and vision of Executive Director/produce Paul Garman. Their big shows are hosted by the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach, which is a lovely venue with plenty of conveniently located parking.

’s Wonderful is based on the music of show business legends George and Ira Gershwin, and their estate approved the production of the show which includes 40 of their fabulous songs crammed into five mini-musicals. Each of these vignettes explores a different era of the 20th century, but none of them terribly well, which we will get into a little later. The show is the brainchild of Ray Roderick, who wrote it and has directed it around the country, including these shows for Musical Theatre West.

As far as musicals go, this has to be one of the easier ones to put on, especially because it has such a small cast with only five actors and two dance extras. But, the actors are all top-shelf performers, with veterans Rebecca Johnson, Damon Kirsche, Ashley Fox Linton, Jeff Skowron, and Rebecca Spencer each getting the opportunity to take a lead. All of them have been in Musical Theatre West productions before and they are all good singers and actors that come off well in leading or supporting roles.

Fortunately they are all good dancers, as the choreography was outstanding, making good use of the stage and the sparse elements available to them. This is thanks to Charlie Williams who represents the best of the next generation of choreographers,and he is the one to watch.

The sets are minimal, with small elements coming on and off the stage for each new act, and a large video screen in the background that adds visual elements that are mostly appropriate for the on-stage action. The center piece of the show is the on-stage seven-piece orchestra, which is led by the uber-capable Musical Director/pianist Bret Simmons. The stage and bandstand were put together under the direction of Kevin Clowes, with lighting by Jeff Warner. Even though there are only five actors, there are plenty of costume changes, and Deborah Roberts did a fine job of capturing the spirit of five different decades. The Barry Manilow Cuban outfit and the lederhosen are a tad tacky, though, enough so that I felt embarrassed for Skowron, who had to wear them.

It was refreshing to have the orchestra on stage so the audience can have the opportunity to see how hard they are working, and it is a small ensemble with a pianist, one violin, a double bass, a drummer, a trombone, a trumpet and a woodwind player. The overall effect was not reduced by having only seven musicians, and they were up to the task of keeping the action moving throughout. The sound (under the direction of Brian Hsieh) was well-done for the orchestra, but there were far too many missed cues on the vocals when the microphones were not turned up in time.

With no sets everything was focused on the individual actors, so this is a show that is much better to see up close. The Carpenter is a big theater and the folks in the back missed out on a lot. Suckers!

So if the songwriting, singing, dancing, choreography and music were great, that means that there is only one big thing to gripe about, and that is the show itself. It is hard to know where to start.

For starters, the premise is weak. It is the height of laziness to come up with a “new” musical where all of the songs are culled from other shows. Don’t get me wrong – they are all very good songs, but each one has a history and a place in the musical theatre world and this is not it. I am not fond of paying to watch one man’s idea of the perfect Gershwin iTunes mix.

Secondly, the vignettes are cartoonish and are expected to do too much in the short time allotted, not to mention that the stories are so thin that the audience will poke holes through them while they are unfolding. Don’t get me started on the modern day act with the premise of a woman giving her grandson an iPod full of Gershwin hits that the cast then performs. Good songs are not enough to carry this one, and it was like being served a plate of meat without the rest of the meal. It was not very satisfying, and I expect better from Musical Theatre West.

In mitigation, this show would be good for someone who has never heard of the Gershwins so that they could experience their magical collaboration.

There is one last minor complaint before I wrap this up and that is that all of the performers deserve recognition in the program, not just the leads. The musicians and the two extra dancers (Annie Hinskton and Tyler Logan) received no credit, and that is just wrong. It does not take up that much space in the program, and what if their parents come to see the show? For shame…

If you decide to head out to see ’s Wonderful, it is playing through this weekend (closing on April 20), and seats are still available. Remember what I said about the size of the theatre and get seats as close to the front as you can.

Musical Theatre West’s 2013-2014 season only has one show left, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast from July 11 to 17. And, next season is really looking up with Once, Big Fish, Les Miserables and South Pacific on tap. Check out their website at musical.org for details about tickets and packages.

Mahalo!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Fabrizio Poggi & Chicken Mambo – Spirit of Mercy, a Collection Album Review

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the May 2, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at thebluesblast.com

Fabrizio Poggi & Chicken Mambo – Spirit of Mercy, a Collection

Ultra Sound Records

www.chickenmambo.com

www.ultrasoundrecords.it

14 tracks / 57:18

A friend of mine is writing a book about the history of the harmonica in music, and when I mentioned I was writing a review of a new CD from Fabrizio Poggi, he nodded his head and smiled. He allowed that he was a fan of Mr. Poggi, and that his skills are certainly top notch, but that his feel for the instrument and his respect for its role in music is what really sets him apart. It turns out that Fabrizio has also written books on the history of folk harmonica, which is quite a coincidence. Maybe I should introduce them…

Fabrizio Poggi has played with what seems like every notable blues performer that has been active over the past few decades. He has released fifteen albums (if I counted them right), and though he is based out of Italy, many of them were recorded in the United States. Two of his more spiritual efforts have been 2008’s Mercy and 2010’s Spirit & Freedom; his latest album, Spirit of Mercy, is a compilation of the highlights from these two albums, with a few alternate takes. This ends up being a neat combination of blues and spiritual tunes.

Not surprisingly, Fabrizio takes care of the harmonica chores, as well as many of the vocals – but keep in mind there are plenty of featured artists sharing this role. Joining him are Roberto Re on bass, Stefano Bertolotti on the skins, Bobby Sacchi on accordion and vocals, and the trio of Maurizio Fassino, Gianfranco Scala and Francesco Garolfi on guitars and vocals. You will find that these are all first-call artists, and there is not a missed cue or clunker note on this CD.

The other thing you will find is that although Poggi is a harmonica virtuoso, this is not a harmonica album: it is all about the lyrics, as is befitting of a spiritual work. This is brought home by songs such as “I Heard the Angels Singin’” which features none other than Eric Bibb (who recorded this song back in 2001) and the inimitable Garth Hudson (formerly of The Band) on the keyboards. Their great vocal harmonies, combined with Hudson’s spooky keys and Fabrizio’s harmonica gives this song a wonderful Louisiana feel. Hudson appears on two other tracks, including the brief opener, “Mercy” and “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.”

There are plenty of other guest artists on this collection, including Tejano accordionist Flaco Jimenez on “Jesus on the Mainline.” This is a live track, and there is a lot of great stuff going on in this countrified blues song. An uncredited female vocalist tears this song apart as she harmonizes so well with Fabrizio. Flaco is given plenty of room to work and he shows exactly why he is a living legend of the squeeze box. If this song is any indication of what Poggi’s live show is like, I will have to try to see one of his live shows some time.

Another featured artist is one of my favorite singer/harmonica players, Rob Paparozzi, who appears on “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” He trades vocals and harmonica licks with Poggi and it is great to see that Fabrizio is willing to share his stage with so many great talents.

My favorite tune is the most intimate song in the collection, “Precious Lord,” which highlights Fabrizio’s emotionally wrought vocals over a base of beautifully-picked acoustic guitar. He uses his harp well too, and this song is so well recorded that all of these elements come together perfectly. Poggi also does a mean rendition of “Amazing Grace” on his harp, with the sound of a hammer driving nails into a cross in the background. We get to see a piece of the man’s soul here.

I admire the cleverness that Fabrizio showed by taking the best parts of two good albums, and combining them into Spirit of Mercy. Though this work is a fine example of harmonica talent, the bigger story is the excellent cross section of blues and blues-based spiritual music that is found within. If you do not have any Fabrizio Poggi albums yet, listening to this one would be a great way to experience his music, and possibly to start your own collection of his catalog. Check it out!

Mahalo!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Nash PB-63 Bass Guitar Review

Aloha!

Today we are looking at a very nice Precision Bass copy: a Bill Nash built PB-63. I was recently looking for a back-up P Bass, and this one definitely fit the bill and there is certainly not much to dislike about it.

Bill Nash has been assembling vintage-style guitars since 2001, and has gained a lot of respect and a faithful following because he builds guitars that play very well and sound incredible. All of his instruments received the relic treatment, so you will never have to worry about scratching one.

By the way, Bill Nash initials and dates the headstock on each guitar they build, and writes the serial number on the tip of the headstock. And the serial number convention is something I have not seen before. The first two letters of the serial number denote which dealer the guitar was shipped to. In this case the writing is sloppy, so I have no idea what dealer it was originally shipped to.

From its specifications, this PB-63 is a fairly faithful reproduction of a 1963 Fender Precision Bass. It has a three-tone sunburst nitrocellulose lacquer finish and a dead-on accurate tortoise shell pickguard (since changed to black). The maple neck has a C shape and a 10-inch radius rosewood fretboard with a 1 5/8-inch width Graphtech Tusq nut. They installed tall Dunlop 6105 frets on this one, which is a departure from the early 1960s standard.

The hardware is also true to the theme, with Kluson-style reverse tuners and a serrated-saddle bridge. Nash went with Jason Lollar pickups, which I think are the best choice for a P-bass these days. There is no pre-amplifier, just the expected volume/volume/tone pots. By the way, the pots are 250K CTS, and they included a Sprague Orange Drop capacitor in the circuit. Yay!

And all of these fabulous things were put together very well by the folks over at Nash Guitars. The craftsmanship is very good, with a comfortable neck and great fretwork. For those that complains that these are parts guitars, I say go buy a bag full of parts and see if you can do this good of a job. I have not found any dead spots, and the Lollar pickups sound very rich. It does not hurt that it is relatively light, coming in at 8 pounds, 13 ounces.

This is one of the best Precision Basses I have ever owned, and it should be for a street price of around $1900.

As with all Nash guitars, I am a little hung up on the way this one looks. Even though this one is described as having light aging, I think the relic process goes a little too far -- I guess I do not have to worry about scratching it. Also, there are no bridge cover or pickup cover holes drilled in the bass, which is an oversight for a 1960s Fender replica. If that is all I have to complain about, they must have done a good job!

If you have not had the opportunity to play a Bill Nash guitar or bass, I recommend you give one a shot. It may be the closest you will get to ever owning a pre-CBS Fender.

Mahalo!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Scott Ramminger – Advice from a Father to a Son Album Review

Hello!

This CD review was originally published in the May 16, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at thebluesblast.com

Scott Ramminger – Advice from a Father to a Son

Arbor Lane Music

www.scottramminger.com

10 tracks / 48:12

The culture and vibe of Washington D.C. and New Orleans are worlds apart, but Scott Ramminger thrives in both environments as a vocalist and master of the saxophone. This point is proven by his new album, Advice From a Father to a Son, which was recorded in both cities with a little help from Nashville.

Scott spent his youth in Hunstville, Alabama but has since transplanted to the nation’s capital. No matter where he lives, he seems to carry New Orleans in his soul, and his jazz / blues sound has a decidedly Louisiana bent to it. Crawstickers, his first album (and a fantastic title) is very well regarded so I had high expectations for this follow-up effort. I did not come away disappointed.

Advice From a Father to a Son is an ambitious work, with ten original tracks written by Ramminger and not a Muddy Waters cover in sight. Though it was recorded in two cities with different personnel, the set list is organized so it is easy to follow (even for me). The first seven tracks were recorded in NOLA with a core band of Shane Theriot on guitar, George Porter Jr. on bass, Johnny Vidacovich on drums and the marvelous David Torkanowsky on keys. The last three tracks were cut in D.C. with Barry Hart on drums, Jay Turner on bass, Dave Chappell (no, not that one) on guitar and Tommy Lepson on the organ. Pitching in with lovely vocals on many of the tracks are Nashville’s McCrary sisters, Regina, Ann and Alfreda. These talented women tie the two parts of the album together and serve to give it more of a sense of continuity.

His New Orleans band is the most that anyone could hope to play with. Torkanowsky is possibly the best piano man in the Crescent City, and the other three men are just as talented. They slide effortlessly through multiple genres, including blues, rock and roll, funk, and even a little Latin flair. They start Advice From a Father to a Son with “I Really Love Your Smile,” an ode to Ramminger’s wife, Claire. The piano intro sets the listener up for a good time right out of the gate. Vidacovich has mastered the art of playing the drums without overplaying, and he and Turner are right in the pocket the whole time. The home-spun lyrics are playful and the rhymes are clever, making the whole song come together.

From this rousing bar room romp they change directions with Theriot’s funky and syncopated guitar action in “Funkier Than Him.” This is also the first chance to hear the McCrary sisters, who are a treasure of American music. They sang with Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, you know…

On “This Town’s Seen the Last of Me,” Nashville’s Etta Britt sings a fun rock duet with Scott, and he plays a pretty mean sax too. This is a fabulous party tune, for sure. Britt also sings with him on the title track, and “Advice From a Father to a Son” turns about to be more playful than the title implies. It certainly is full of helpful hints, which any of us would do well to heed. “Don’t be that grumpy guy in your workplace, who always seems to wear a frown.” Indeed.

The standout tracks from Ramminger’s New Orleans sessions are “The Other Man’s Shoes” with a heavy dose of Regina McCrary’s dead sexy voice, and “I’ve Got a Funny Feeling.” The lyrics are the stars here: whether showing empathy for one’s fellow man or that sinking feeling that your partner is stepping out on you, they really hit close to the heart. His growly New Orleans voice fits well with these musically simpler ballads, too.

The Washington D.C. sessions end up with a different sound, which is not a surprise as it has a different backing band. It is a tough act to follow the New Orleans dream team, but these guys do a good job. These three tracks each have a unique sound, starting with “More Than One Flavor,” which has a more urban sound and features Vince McCool on the trumpet. His horn mixes nicely with Ramminger’s sax, and Lepson does a fine job on the organ.

His keys also lend “Must be True” a cool gospel feel, though the lyrics are certainly more temporal than eternal. And the album ends with “Sometime You Race the Devil,” a bit of reggae-infused blues. McCool comes back for this one, joined by Jim McFalls on the trombone and this song ends up being a really fun way to finish things up.

Advice From a Father to a Son is very good, and it is evident that Scott Ramminger has been putting in a lot of quality time at the studio. I respect that he did not feel the need to dominate his songs with saxophone, but instead added bits of it here and there as needed. I am curious to see where he goes next, and if we are going to get more of a Washington D.C.-influenced album, or if he will stick closer to his Louisiana roots. Either way, it will surely be something good!

Mahalo!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Aguilar GS 112 Bass Speaker Cabinet Review

Howdy!

I recently re-vamped my main bass amplification system, and decided to use a pair of Aguilar GS 112 speaker cabinets with my Genz Benz Shuttle 9.2, and it is turned out to be a match made in heaven.

Aguilar Amplifiers was founded in New York City by Alex Aguilar and Dave Boonshoft in 1995. Dave was a studio musician on bass, of course) and Alex was an electronics guru that designed Roger Sadowsky’s now legendary bass pre-amplifier. They started by building pre-amplifiers, then moved on to amplifiers and speaker cabinets. Alex sold his share of the company to Boonshoft in 2004, and Dave continues to run the show. The company’s products are very well-regarded and are a staple of many gigging bassists’ arsenals.

The GS 112 is available either with a tweeter or without (I have one of each), and they are a neat piece of work. The cabinet is made of carpeted 7-ply Philippine mahogany and is loaded up with a single 12-inch speaker that has a cast frame and a 56-ounce magnet (3 ½ pounds!). The GS is not terribly coming in around 42 pounds, and the single spring-loaded handle on the side is sufficient for a beefy boy like me to haul it around with. The whole thing measures 19 x 14 x 18 inches, and there are plastic interlocking protectors on each corner.

The speaker is rated for 300W (@ 8 ohms), and the phenolic tweeter has an integrated phase plug. Round back there is a Neutrik Speakon connector as well as two ¼-inch jacks. On models with a tweeter there is an adjustment knob to set the level.

I first tried out the Aguilar GS 112 cabinets with my Genz Benz Shuttle 9.2, and came away very impressed. They do a surprisingly good job on the lows (frequency response spec is 42Hz to 16kHz), and the overall tone was clean but still very thick and punchy. In this case when I say “clean” I do not mean sterile, but instead that there was very good note definition.

As I said earlier, these cabinets are rated for 300W, and thought they are not as efficient as some (95dB) they are still very very loud. Putting two of them together is enough for any gig I will ever do, and if I ever needed more power the signal would need to go through the PA anyway. Have the tweeter on only one speaker worked well, and I placed that speaker on top so I could hear the highs better.

The second combination I tried was with both speakers on the floor and my old Ampeg V4B sitting on top. I dialed the tweeter all the way back, and an acquaintance of mine put the set-up through its paces with his upright as well as his old P bass. He is an old-school blues and rock guy, and the results were monstrous, with a very organic sound and tone galore. It was pretty perfect, which is all anyone could hope for.

As far as other details, they are easy to lug around and set up, and there is only two things that I do not care for with them. I wish that there were two Speakon connectors on the back so that they can be hooked up in series. There are two ¼-inch jacks, and I do not know why they could not go the extra mile and do the same with the Neutrik parts. Also, I am not a fan of carpeted cabinets as the covering pills up and collects all kinds of fuzz and junk as time goes on. That’s it!

So, these cabinets are at the top of my list, and I would wholeheartedly recommend them to anyone that is looking for a new 1x12 speaker.

The Aguilar GS 112 is not cheap, with a list price of $799 and a street price of $599, but it is an incredible speaker and is good value for the money. Plus, it comes with a 3-year limited warranty if you buy it new. Check one (or two) out if you get the chance!

Mahalo!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

2nd Quarter of 2014 Inventory Update

Hi there!

Time flies by, and it is time again for the quarterly update of what is stacked up around my studio these days. Things have gotten crowded over the past few months, so there are definitely a few things that I can move along to someone else. If you see anything here that you cannot live without, drop me a line. It is all good stuff…

First off, the basses (back in the saddle, baby!):

∙ Sadowsky NYC Ultra Vintage P, NYC P/J, and NYC Standard J

∙ Nash JB-63 and PB-63

∙ Ernie Ball MusicMan Stingray 4H, Stingray 5H, and Bongo 4H

∙ Kubicki Ex Factor

∙ Spector NS-2A

∙ Epiphone Jack Casady Signature Model in Silverburst

∙ Squier Vintage Modified Bass VI

Electric Guitars:

∙ MIJ Fender 1962 re-issue Stratocaster

∙ 1960s Teisco Del Rey ET-220

∙ Gibson Explorer – still apart for a project. I can hardly wait to see it!

Acoustic Guitars:

∙ Martin D-18 Golden Era, and Backpacker steel string

∙ Takamine F360 and F369

∙ Two Ibanez mandolins

∙ Kala solid mahogany soprano ukulele (on loan to a friend)

Amplifiers:

∙ Ampeg V4B

∙ Orange Micro Terror with Orange 1/8 Cabinet (a review is on its way)

∙ Genz Benz Shuttle 9.2 with Aguilar GS112 and GS112NT Cabinets

∙ Fender Twin Reverb

∙ Fender Acoustasonic 30 DSP

Check in again on the first of June to see what is still around. As always, you know it will be different!

Mahalo!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

2008 Sadowsky NYC Vintage Jazz Bass Review

Greetings!

Today we are looking at a very nice Sadowsky NYC Vintage 4-string bass guitar. It is one of the nicest basses I have ever owned, and that is saying something as a lot of instruments have come through the studio over the years.

Sadowsky NYC basses are built in New York City by Roger Sadowsky’s luthiers, and are the best Fender-inspired guitars and basses you can buy. Some haters (i.e. guys without enough money to buy one) sneer and call them “parts basses.” They should go buy a box of parts and see how well they can build one…

This bass was made in August 2008 for one of Sadowsky’s endorsing artists, Fuji Fujimoto, and it has quite a striking appearance. I am not ordinarily a fan of natural finish basses, but this one has a vintage tint applied to its ash body and it looks wonderful when contrasted with its tortoise shell pickguard. It is not too heavy, coming in around 8.5 pounds.

This bass has a traditional four-bolt neck and the neck pocket fit is super-tight, and after 10 years of use and transportation there are no signs of finish damage (i.e. cracking) around the joint. The Sadowsky luthiers really do a fantastic job.

The 21-fret neck is very good, and the original frets are still in great shape. The frets are perfectly level and are finished very well on the edges. It has a 1.5-inch wide neck with a 12-inch fretboard radius, but seems to have a shallower profile than most jazz basses. The trussrod adjusts at the heel, and there is a nice cutout in the body and pickguard, making the process a little easier. The tuners are first rate, as is the high-mass bridge.

This bass has its original hum canceling pickups and Sadowsky pre-amp with Vintage Tone Control. The knobs control: volume, pickup pan, VTC/preamp bypass (push/pull pot), and stacked bass and treble boost. Vintage Tone Control minimizes the treble for a darker tone, and works in both the passive and active settings. Overall this bass is astoundingly quiet, and sounds flawless. It is versatile, and can attain high-gain growliness and ultra clean tones.

The overall condition of this bass was very good when I had it, as It had been well cared for so it only had some light swirl marks on the body and pick guard. It played very well and sounded killer, but then again that is really the least I would expect from a bass that cost as much as it did.

So why did I get rid of it? For the amount of money one of these basses costs (even used they are stupid expensive), it has to be the perfect bass for my feel and playing style. I did not like the feel of the very thin neck, and I prefer the tone (and appearance) of a rosewood fretboard. I have since found a Sadowsky NYC Standard with a chunkier neck and a rosewood board that works out a lot better for me. Keep your eyes on the blog, as a review is coming soon.

If you want a bass like this, it might be time to start saving. A Sadowsky Vintage 4 starts at $4175, and it will take at least 6 months to get it built.

Mahalo!