Monday, December 7, 2009

Jugglers, Clowns, Debutantes, Antifolk and Me

Somehow, unexpectedly, my weekend became filled with performances by clowns, jugglers, magicians and performers from the extended Sidewalk scene.

John Lennon Tribute at Symphony Space
First off, on Friday at the last minute I decided to go to a John Lennon tribute at Symphony Space. It was one of those evenings with lots of different performers singing one or two songs. I'm a huge John Lennon fan, of course but the bill also had a number of interesting acts, including David Bromberg, who I love. The discovery to me was Sonya Kitchell who sang This Boy. A very soulful, moody interpretation with a great, lurching kind of guitar solo by ...I'll have to fill in his name later. There were other very talented people on the bill. Betty LaVette stood out, as did Joan Osborne who sang I Am the Walrus.

However, most relevant to this blog was the appearance of Nicole Atkins who sang "Woman is the Nigger of the World." Nicole was very active at Sidewalk when I started hanging out there in 2004 and I remember seeing her at the open mic. I think the only time I saw her solo might have been the evening she arrived 45 minutes late to her show and ended up playing only a couple of songs. Anyway I always enjoyed Nicole's performances at Sidewalk and thought/think she has a great voice, but I have been intrigued that of all the people from around that time, she emerged with a record contract on Columbia (and a resultant American Express TV ad).

I find it so curious how it happens that some performers on the scene cross into a position of recognition/celebrity. And it's also interesting to look at where the dividing line is between average Joe performer and star. Some of my friends have started to get some decent press but don't really earn much money from what they're doing. Are the people I hang out with celebrities because they get written up in Time Out New York or New York Press? I'd love to have a conversation with Regina Spektor sometime to see how she has dealt with all the issues that come with the type of accomplishment she's achieved. But maybe in some ways it's better to be a Jeff Lewis type artist. It seems that Jeff gets to play as much as he wants, has a certain amount of positive attention, but also can go to the grocery store and the bank without being hassled. (Mind you I don't know if this is how Jeff feels about it--just my interpretation.) In any event, I am glad for Nicole's success. She is talented, but I wonder about all the other talented people I see all the time and why some emerge and others don't.

In the meantime, Friday's show also featured juggler Chris Bliss, who was a sensation on YouTube with his juggling interpretation of part of Abby Road's side 2. It is a spectacular performance and it was thrilling to see (although he did drop a few times--while recovering nicely).

Chris was the first of the juggler/variety artists I saw over the weekend.

Debutante Hour's Variety Show
The next night was the Debutante Hour's Variety Show at the Ukranian National Home. The evening was a five or six hour extravaganza of acts, all playing as part of a benefit to raise money for The Debutante Hour's next recording. Among the artists on the bill were musical groups and solo artists like Kung Fu Crimewave, Old Hat, The Wowz, Phoebe Kreutz, Corn Mo, opera singers, Annie from Opera on Tap and Marti Newland (who sang a great gospel piece as well as a Mozart aria); and comedians Victor Varnado and Rachel Feinstein. Jonathan Vincent did a great job as m.c. with his somewhat bizarre intros and commentary, and he also performed a solo set as the last act of the evening. Oh yeah the bill also included a mini reprise of the Susan and Herb Show performed by me and Susan Hwang. We worked in a version of "Let it Snow," which featured a dancing chorus line of the gals from the Debutante Hour and also played a cover of Prince's Darling Nikki. And of course we featured a magic trick, which involved pulling ropes through a volunteer from the audience. Throughout the evening Mike Richter performed various circus skills, including plate spinning and unicycle riding. Mike and I also whipped together a brief little juggling act which we performed at one point.

The Debutantes seemed to have a good turnout. The performers alone helped fill up the house but there also seemed to be a solid contingency of regular audience. There was also a silent auction with bidding slips positioned on tables with old Eastern European telephones that Maria Sonevytsky had collected. It was a fun night all around, well organized and executed by the Debutante Hour.

Finally, on Sunday, my place of employment (a well-known source of knowledge at 42nd & 5th) had a big open house that featured a wide range of performers, including more magicians and clowns (athough I didn't see any jugglers). And, I ran into Anna Leuchtenberger, a performer who is involved in the scene...if a bit peripherally....but it least it gives symmetry to my weekend to point out she was there.

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