Bennie Maupin and John McLaughlin: A (Near) Meeting of the Spirits

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Benny Maupin and John McLaughlin were essential parts of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” band that would reinvent jazz, or really invent a new kind of music. On Friday and Saturday, respectively, each played a concert in L.A. dedicated to their own landmark works from shortly after they left Davis’ employ — a mere coincidence of scheduling, but a wonders-filled chance to compare and contrast two divergent, but related paths of visionary artists, and each show a marvel in its own right.

John McLaughlin & Jimmy Herring final concert of "The Meeting of the Spirits" farewell U.S. tour

(Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance)

By Steve Hochman

Friday night, Bennie Maupin addressed the audience at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater underneath Walt Disney Concert Hall, just after completing the first-ever full concert performance of his landmark 1974 album, “The Jewel in the Lotus.”

“It’s like a dream that continues,” the woodwinds maestro said, overflowing with gratitude. “But it continues with you…. You were worth waiting for.”

The next night, at UCLA’s Royce Hall, a beaming John McLaughlin echoed that as he concluded what he says is his last-ever U.S. tour with a set largely spotlighting the music of his revolutionary ‘70s jazz-rock-and-beyond Mahavishnu Orchestra groups.

“Good vibes!” the guitarist exclaimed at the start of his set, and later at the end he thanked the fans for getting to be there “with you.”

That coursed through both performances. Maupin, switching between flute, soprano sax and his signature instrument, bass clarinet, led a 10-piece band with palpable joy and appreciation for the fans there to see it. McLaughlin was just as buoyed as he strapped on his custom-built Paul Reed Smith double-neck electric12-and-6-string guitar as his 4th Dimension quartet was joined by opener Jimmy Herring’s Invisible Whip quintet and started the shimmering arpeggiated chords opening his “Meeting of the Spirits.”

It was mutual. It seemed many in both audiences had waited, well, decades to hear this music performed like this. REDCAT bristled with anticipation before that concert, the album’s nuanced power and crackling sense of invention and exploration having gained stature in jazz legend over the years, at least among a diverse array of fans and artists, including L.A. percussionist-composer Alex Cline and writer-director Cameron Crowe, both in attendance this night.

And at Royce, many exchanged memories of seeing the original Mahavishnu Orchestra back when, some in 1974 in this very same room, as life-changing events. This writer saw that group in spring ’73, nearly 45 years ago, at the Granada Theater in Santa Barbara, taken by a high school friend without ever having heard a note of the band before. It still stands as a profound moment, ears opened, head turned around by the power and mystery of the music, unlike anything I’d ever heard before. But this weekend it wasn’t just old folks reliving their youth. In both settings, younger people in attendance were eager to be part of something they’d heard about as history but for which they were born to late to experience themselves.

They were not disappointed.

Both Maupin and McLaughlin approached their classic music with all the verve, vibrancy and imagination that brought it about in the first place. These were not mere recreations of cherished recordings, but re-creation, the acts of creative artists still inspired by great music of the past but also still adventurously seeking new routes, new combinations, new expressions. A title of one of the pieces from the Maupin album serves as a nice motto for the approach of both evenings: “Past + Present = Future.”

Now, astute fans of the particular pasts represented here will get the significance of this two-night sequence — not that each alone merits anything less than adulation. Maupin and McLaughlin were each part of one of the most significant, and perhaps controversial, turns in modern jazz: the band that helped Miles Davis realize new approaches to his music, to music in general, with a series of recordings that included the, uh, milestone “Bitches Brew” album.

So here, through an accident of fortuitous scheduling, it was possible to see these two key figures present their own most profound statements, to compare and contrast. Maupin’s “Lotus,” coming on the heels of his work in Herbie Hancock’s electric Headhunters and Mwandishi outfits, was a largely acoustic exploration, airy yet grounded and restlessly meditative, which is not really such a contradiction in terms. Mahavishnu Orchestra was a largely electric hybrid, loud and raw, yet also centered in a spirituality at once calm and searching.

Both brought expanded lineups, and expanded concepts, to the new performances. Both brought levels of vitality and energy that belied the passage of years. Maupin for Friday’s concert assembled a little 10-member chamber group, including several faculty and alums of CalArts, where he teaches, adding viola (Eyvind Kang), cello (Shana Tucker) and vibes/marimba (David Johnson) to the septet format of the album. The very nature of the music involves the players having space and encouragement to experiment, to stretch, but always in concert with the others. All told, the performance doubled the length of the original album version, not a note seeming wasted or less than essential.

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(Photo by Steve Gunther)

It was jazz, sure, but also more. This was explicit in the title piece, which started with young pianist Lindsey Hundley, seemingly undaunted to step into a spot originally held by Hancock, beautifully evoking Debussy impressionism. From their flowed elements ranging from Indian classical music (percussionist Eric McKain creating tabla sounds with an electronic pad) to cool jazz (Johnson’s vibes and the guitar of Jeff Parker, formerly of the band Tortoise, putting personal stamps on traditional sounds). And  the strings brought in experimental/classical music, at times percussive, at times elastic, at times transcending or confounding attempts to fix time signatures and tonal centers, and wondrously so. The leader, generous to a fault, switched between flute, soprano sax and, his signature instrument, bass clarinet, at times joyously parrying with alto saxist Steve Lehman.

The sounds throughout called forth images meteorological — flurries, breezes, roiling storms — as much as musical, though the pioneering global perspectives of Yusef Lateef and Eric Dolphy are clear touchstones, with perhaps the most profound presence being Alice Coltrane’s unclassifiable musical universe, where borders between musics and cultures simply don’t exist. And all this with just one full rehearsal the day before.

On Saturday, the audience had already been treated to full sets by jam ’n’ jazz veteran guitarist Herring and band and McLaughlin’s band before the two units joined forces for the bracing 90-minute finale of this collaborative “Meeting of the Spirits” tour. What preceded was wonderful,  Herring’s combo combining the worlds of jazz-rock a la ‘70s Jeff Beck and the flow of the Allman Brothers (including a fine version of their “Les Brers in A Minor”), and McLaughlin drawing from his very wide-ranging scope (Indian, Iberian, jazz classic and modern) and incomparable talents and touch in electric and electrifying joy. But this last portion was why everyone was here, and expectations were more than met.

While doubling up nearly everything — two basses, two drum sets, two keyboard and, of course, two guitarists, with Jason Crosby’s violin the lone loner — would seem a recipe for a mess, the result was anything but. The drummers (McLaughlin’s India-born marvel Ranjit Barot, who also engaged in some Indian konnakol vocalised percussion, and Herring’s Jeff Sipe) and bassists (Etienne M’Bappé and Kevin Scott, respectively) have developed remarkably intuitive rapport in the course of the tour. One or the other of each pair sat out at various points, and when they all played together they complemented without over-complicating each others’ playing and then, at times, locked together in mixes of power and grace.

It was not as raw and rough as the original Mahavishnu Orchestra could be, but it drew on that and added new aspects and insights, past + present. “Birds of Fire,” the soaring title track of Mahavishnu’s 1973 second album, sported an exhilarating duel of McLaughlin and Crosby trading sparkling improvisations in a quick exchange. (See video below.) There was true beauty in the power as well, with “Lotus on Irish Streams” and “Dance of the Maya” allowing all the musicians space to add their own stamps. And with the “Eternity’s Breath” suite, originally done by a second Mahavishnu lineup after McLaughlin disbanded the first, this 2017 grouping stripped off some of the slicker sheen of the recording to reveal depths.

Judging from a scan of set lists from previous shows on the trek, this was an expanded set, as if McLaughlin and crew didn’t really want it to end. Neither did many of us. But a closing encore two-fer proved a perfect summation, a perfect end to a remarkable two days of concerts: “You Know You Know” and “Be Happy.” We do. We are.

Bruce Springsteen Revisits Our Flood of Emotions

There were a dozen or so people in my house, talking and laughing and eating. I was wrecked. Drained. Spent. Exhausted. I’d spent the day with Bruce Springsteen. Well, so had something like 75,000 others, including everyone now in my house. We were all wrecked. Drained. Spent. Exhausted. But also exhilarated. Inspired. Elevated.

It was April 30, 2006, and Springsteen, debuting the Seeger Sessions Band and its repertoire of songs Pete Seeger had sung, had that afternoon closed the first weekend of the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival after the devastating flood eight months prior. It was no less than the most moving musical experience I, and most all there, have ever had and likely will ever have. It was just what we needed, catharsis in the pure exuberance of the music (horns and accordion and banjo and wild barroom choruses abounded) and the perfectly honed blade of the song choices, observations and screeds from various ages and various events that now, in the hands of Springsteen, captured all the mix of anger and sorrow of this time with our city of ruin (and yes, that particular song was the emotional killer of the day). But also there were the laughs and release we needed, and the hopes that we, well, hoped could be watered by the tears we shed.

As our housemates and guests ate and chattered in the kitchen, I was in the front room trying to write my thoughts of the day for AOL, for whom I was lead blogger of JazzFest, an intense gig of trying to wrap my head around what was happening here and express it in words, with pretty much no time to think. My catharsis, I guess.

The AOL blog, along with everything else from its editorial features of the time, was wiped from the internet when Huffington Post took over some years ago now. But I did save what wrote, and with official release this week of a superb recording of the Springsteen concert, available here via his web site, I went back to what I’d written. There was so much to say, so much that maybe couldn’t be said, at least in words. But here is what I managed to get out in the moment, filed a short few hours after the last note of “When the Saints” faded into the night:

 

Bruce and Tears in “City of Ruins”

Posted Apr 30th 2006 9:11PM by Steve Hochman

The rain stayed away, but the tears flowed freely when Bruce Springsteen capped a rousing, moving, inspiring and all-those-other-adjectives-that-long-ago-got-overused-for-the-Boss-at-his-best performance with “My City of Ruins,” turning the key line of his song associated with post-9/11 New York into a very present tense as “my city is in ruins.” And in the process he showed that he was indeed the perfect artist to close the first weekend of the first JazzFest coming as the city tries to recover from ruin. The tears came in his first encore song, following 90 minutes that had already touched with grace and power on hope, frustration, anger, gallows humor — in other words, all the things left floating around New Orleans after the waters receded — exactly in the tradition of Pete Seeger, the folk singer Springsteen has paid tribute to with his new “The Seeger Sessions” album. None of the rumored guests (Edge, Elvis Costello) materialized, but they weren’t needed.

In full hootenanny mode with as many as 19 backing musicians wielding fiddles, banjo, pedal steel and horns among other things, he brought old spirituals (the opening “Mary Don’t You Weep” with its line about Noah being shown a rainbow and the stern prophesy of “no more water but fire next time”), workers tales of tragic nobility (“John Henry,” a tale of sweat equity if there ever was one) and civil rights anthems (“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”), making them all relevant to the immediate surroundings not just with the lyrics and tone, but with dips into New Orleans music traditions. The horns in particular mixed Dixieland and second-line funk, and Springsteen’s own early ’80s song “Johnny 99” was turned into something that could have been a rollicking number from the late New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair, under a portrait of whom Springsteen performed on the Acura Stage, well over 70,000 captured by every note.

As for the anger, he offered a revision of the Depression-era Blind Alfred Reed song “How Can a Poor Man Stands Such Times and Live,” writing three new verses specifically themed to the Gulf Coast renewal. Introducing the song, he told of having toured the areas of devastation on Saturday, saying he never imagined he’d see such a thing in an American city, condemning the “criminal ineptitude” and “political crony-ism” that contributed to the disaster and dedicating the song to “President Bystander.”

And then there was “My City of Ruins.” How does one follow that? The frivolous sing-along “Buffalo Gals” would seem a strange choice, but this is Bruce and he and his band made it perfect, with the whole audience now showing broad grins. After that was his own “You Can Look But You Better Not Touch,” a fun if trivial rocker, but here turned into a celebrative zydeco hip-shaker. And then he went into really dangerous territory, as he himself admitted, taking on the song most associated with the city, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” But he spoke of his own love for the city (noting that he and wife Patti Scialfa came here when they were first “fooling around” and, with a laugh, that “no one found us either”) and he played it slow, with band member Mark Anthony Thompson sharing some of the vocals and focusing on some lesser-known verses — “I am waiting for the morning, when the new world is revealed . . . ”

The tears returned. And the smiles.

 

Chris Hillman’s Troubadour Seasons: A Time of Love.

To everything, there is a season…

Chris Hillman has marked many seasons at the Troubadour, where he sang those words Monday night in a show as moving and personal as they get.

It was in this very room where he and the Byrds, who had a folk-rock hit of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” Pete Seeger’s setting of the passage from Ecclesiastes, made their first concert performance a full 53 years ago. Flanked by guitarists Herb Pedersen and John Jorgenson on this hot autumn night, he anchored harmonies on this and several other Byrds songs, every bit as vibrant as the group was known for in its heyday. Maybe more so — “It wasn’t very good,” he said this night of that first night back then.

It was here that he and Pedersen first met and formed a lifetime partnership a year before the Byrds formed, when they were each teens playing in different L.A. country-bluegrass bands — the Golden State Boys and the Smokey Grass Boys, respectively. They reached back to that with Buck Owens’ “Together Again” and the gospel-bluegrass standard “Rank Stranger,” heartfelt, joyous, earthy — again with exquisite harmonies running back through the Everly Brothers to the very roots of American music.

It was here, Hillman said on stage, that he first met his wife, Connie, on a night in 1968 when they’d each come to see Joni Mitchell. He sang, “Restless,” from his wonderful, new “Bidin’ My Time” album, for her.

A year after that, he was back here alongside Gram Parsons with the Flying Burrito Brothers, the groundbreaking and still influential country-rock band they co-founded. He recalled singing the Hollywood ode, “Sin City,” back then, and sang it again now.

And with Pedersen and Jorgenson, he was able to revisit his ‘80s time with them in the country-centric Desert Rose Band. The songs they did from that catalog still sound as fresh and distinctive as they did then, upright bassist Mark Fain rounding out the group and this night with a solid foundation.

But it was a season that didn’t come which was at the heart of this special night. The show was originally supposed to happen a week earlier. Tom Petty, who co-produced the new album with Pedersen, was supposed to be joining in on the performance. There were hopes that David Crosby and Roger McGuinn, the other surviving Byrds founders, would appear as well. Petty died, shockingly, three weeks ago. The show was postponed, in part out of respect for Petty’s family, which was holding his funeral on that day. Crosby and McGuinn couldn’t make the rescheduled date.

A time to mourn….

“This is for Tom,” Hillman said at the top of the show. He said it again after they performed Petty’s loving “Wildflowers,” which closes the new album perfectly. And again at the end of the night, after he, Pedersen and Jorgenson did a spontaneous second encore, at audience demand, of HIllman’s tear-bringing ‘90s song “Heaven’s Lullaby.” Petty, who embraced the Byrds as a core influence and inspiration throughout his career, was here through them.

Others who have gone were here too. Original Byrd Gene Clark, who died in 1991, just 46, was represented by two songs, “She Don’t Care About Time” and “Set You Free This Time,” the latter with Jorgenson taking the lead vocals. “[He was] the greatest songwriter I ever worked with,” said Hillman introducing “She Don’t Care,” which is featured on the new album. That’s quite the statement, given who he’s worked with, the late Parsons not the least of them, also represented strongly this night. Pedersen also drew on his time with the innovative ‘60s bluegrass-country band the Dillards, including a sweet version of the Jesse Lee Kincaid song “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune.”

But it was those who were here here, here now, who brought it all to life, who made this such a loving night of music. Jorgenson, playing 6-string and 12-string acoustic guitars, mandolin and, on one song, keyboard, is a dazzling musician — not showy, not flashy, just damn good. Hillman too, switching between guitar and mandolin, has an understated mastery that can sneak up on you. The Byrds’ psychedelic classic “Eight Miles High” was a particular showcase, as they traded licks with Hillman on mandolin and Jorgenson on 12-string, McGuinn’s original channeling of John Coltrane now re-directed through Bill Monroe.

And near the end of the show came the giddy “Here She Comes Again,” a Hillman-McGuinn song from the late ‘70s, revived for “Bidin’ My Time” with McGuinn, Petty and several of his Heartbreakers on board. Even in the acoustic, stripped-down version Monday, it was pure pop delight, a skip to its step and a smile on each face. And that was a great tribute to all involved, here and gone, too.

A time to laugh… A time to dance … A time of love.

Sahel Smiles: Tuareg Guitarist Mdou Moctar Sparks a Frenzy at Zebulon.

Mdou Moctar has a nice little smile. Mona Lisa without the suspicion, though with more guilleless sparkle in the eyes. It’s subtle. But when he flashed it Friday night on stage at the Zebulon Cafe, something like this happened:

And something like this happened in pretty much every song in the set. Guitarist Moctar and his band-mates, rhythm guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane and drummer Mahmoud Ahmed Jabre, would settle into a nice, trance-y west Saharan groove and then, after a steady verse or two, there would be that smile. And…. well, the word that kept coming to mind was frenzy. Everything revved up a gear. Or a dozen gears. Sometimes it would just be the flurry of his spider-leg fingers on his Fender Strat’s fretboard. Sometimes, as in that video, his whole body seemed swept up into making, and receiving, the sounds.

The audience, too, at this packed Frogtown club — mostly young, open to and hungry for a world of sounds — was swept up as well, whipped into the same frenzy, hanging on every note, every beat, every smile, stirred into a collective dancing froth. the word ecstasy might work for this too, but it’s been long-ruined by the rave scene and, well, Ecstasy, the drug. Trance too, for that matter, and bliss, ruined by a kind of new age patina lingering for a few generations. No one was zoning out. No one was transported to another place. This wasn’t about being elsewhere, in mind or body. It was about being right here, right now.

Moctar himself has swept into the position of the latest star to emerge from the culture and music of the Tuareg people, nomads and rebels of the desert region reaching into Niger (where he is from, born in Abalak in the Azawagh desert), Mali, Algeria, Lybia, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. Tuareg music, particularly the electrified brand he plays, remains one of the most prominent, enduring and unlikely phenomena of world music from the last couple of decades, having grown out of the displacement and oppression of these people by various governments, Tuaregs having taken guerrilla action amid great peril and suffering. Tinariwen, the first and still most famous group from the culture, emerged directly from the rebel warfare.

Moctar was already a star at home and well on his way to joining Tinariwen and powerful guitarist Bombino among the handful of Tuaregs with global renown. His new album, “Sousume Tamachek” (from the dedicated Portland-based Sahel Sounds label, which grew from a blog that is essential for all African music fans) captures the magic of his music. But he got an extra boost a few years ago when he starred in the movie “Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai,” basically a Tuareg homage to Prince’s “Purple Rain” with a bit of “The Harder They Come” and the first fictional feature to be made in the Tamashek language. (The title translates as “Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red in it” — Tamashek, it turns out, has no word for purple.) The film, naturally, became something of a world-wide sensation on the culture-shock novelty at first, but ultimately on the heart and dedication that transcends that, not to mention the fantastic Moctar musical performances.

Such terms as Saharan blues and Sahel psychedelia, having been applied to Tuareg music for some time, also seemed ill-fitting beyond any surface application on Friday. The distinction of this music is in its depth. Moctar’s maybe doesn’t bear the explicit sorrows that mark much of Tinariwen’s music, but it’s there at the core, a driving force amid the celebration. This band, and it is really a band, showed remarkable precision and unity even at the most frantic musical moments. Check out this, from an encore instrumental, the three musicians suddenly putting on the brakes, all three at once, and hitting the gas again, with nary a nod. Take a moment to watch Jabre in particular, a drummer of great skill and artistry, seemingly as influenced by jazz as by rock, and driving the music much as Mitch Mitchell did with another lefty Strat player, one Jimi Hendrix, clearly a big influence on Moctar (as is, of course, Hendrix acolyte Prince).

At  the end of the first “frenzy” clip at the top of this piece, watch as Moctar makes a simple swipe of his hand across his sweaty forehead, turns to the band and is ready to start again. With a smile at the ready.

“It should be rum.”

“Debería ser ron.”

That was one of the percussionist-vocalists of Venezuela’s Parranda El Clavo, on stage with remarkably accomplished, expressive singer Betsayda Machado in the Skirball Cultural Center’s Magnin Auditorium Thursday night. He winked impishly to the audience as his words were translated — “It should be rum” — by the group’s manager, Juan Souki. It would have been rum, had the show not been moved to this indoor room (no alcohol allowed) from the outside courtyard due to the monsoon that had swept through unexpectedly earlier in the evening, altering plans for the closing night of the Skirball’s 2017 Sunset Concerts series. Water would have to do for this occasion, that occasion being a little ceremony to bless a CD, that CD being the debut recording of Betsayda Machado y Parranda El Clavo, that debut coming a full 30 years since the ensemble started performing at celebrations and ceremonies in its small, rural village of El Clavo.

It was big moment, a little solemnity following what had been an boisterous, exhilarating, audience-shaking performance of traditional songs going back generations. The first run of CDs had only arrived earlier in the day. The musicians were clearly moved and a little overwhelmed— not a shock, given that until last year, the ensemble had never performed outside of El Clavo. That’s right, 30 years in the village, and now on a North American tour of more than 30 cities, and a CD in hand, titled “Loé Loá – Rural Recordings Under the Mango Tree,” all set for full public release on Sept. 14.

A little of the water was dripped onto a small statue of El Niño, the baby Jesus, his head poking out from the top of a flowing, regal red cone of a robe. He’d already been paraded around the stage a couple of times by Machado’s sister Nereida, who also sings and dances, but now his participation was requested to bestow grace and fortune on this cherished item.

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We all had already been quite blessed with one of the most joyous evenings of music you could imagine, though many in the audience might have wished for some hydration too, not to mention some rum — though the latter hardly could have increased the party spirit, which was ramped up high from the moment the group made its exuberant entrance from the back of the room.

Most fans, many of them Venezuelan, were up dancing throughout the concert, seemingly half making their way to the stage to dance with the artists at one time or another, smiles as bright and broad as they could be all around. This is party music — party is one of the definitions of the term parranda.

It was at a party that Souki first encountered the group. The Caracas resident had been invited to El Clavo for a feast centered on sancocho, the hearty soup of the region, often experienced as a communal meal made in a big pot, everyone tossing something in to the stew, everyone sharing the bounty. Before the encores Thursday he told the tale to us, describing how he’d arrived in town, met some of the locals and then Machado (who was herself well known outside of town, a true voice of her people) and the group performed. And performed. About 25 songs in the ancient tambor style, he said, only stopping when called to from across the street that the sancocho was ready.

As they all ate, he asked where he could normally see this wonderful group perform. At celebrations and parties, he was told. No, not when, where? Do they do concerts? Do they tour? No, he learned. They had never performed outside of El Clavo! That, he was determined, would change. He worked with Jose Louis Pardo, known as DJ Afro of Venezuela’s star modernist group Los Amigos Invisibles, to capture the essence of the field performances and make it work in an album format. They did a great job, with several guests, but nothing intrusive, the album providing an impressive entry into their world, not to mention a captivating listen.

So here we all were this night, shaking and smiling, marveling at the phenomenal webs of rhythms — one particularly jaw-dropping bit came simply from musicians Adrian Gomez, Jose Gomez and Youse Cardozo tapping wooden cylinders on blocks as if pounding grain or something, but in impossibly complex patterns.

It only got more impressive when Diego Alvarez, a.k.a. El Negro, a percussion star from Venezuela living in Los Angeles, was brought on stage to join in. And at many points, the true center of the music was the low moan made by Blanca Castillo on the furruco, the “friction drum” played by stroking a wooden pole stuck into the head of the waist-high drum.

Souki also explained a little history, how the group wanted us all to understand that it represents a “hidden” history of Venezuela, that they are descended from slaves brought from Senegal, that in those days of slavery the masters gave them sticks to work the fields, but during the breaks the sticks were used to make music. Which, of course, ties this to much great music from around the world, the most human expressions, rooted in experiences of inhumanity.

And in the final part of the concert, attention was turned to the current strife and sadness in Venezuela, a nation full of conflict as the economy has collapsed and the government has gone from a modern socialist experiment to an ad-hoc dictatorship. That, Machado explained, with Souki translating, has made her and the group “accidentally famous” via their association with the song “Sentimiento,” a serious piece that commemorates the death and suffering in their nation. But it is also a song of hope:

“It is not impossible for things to get better in Venezuela and to be fixed,” she said. “And we are looking forward to a free Venezuela.”

And after that song, they closed with an ode to the country, waving flags and standing strong. It didn’t dampen the night’s party spirit, it added to it, gave it depth and meaning and context, a night that will loom in memories of those there, all who joined the musicians at the end in shouting, “Venezuela libre!”

El Septeto Santiaguero’s Oasis of Son

The shallow geometric pond at California Plaza in Downtown Los Angeles was a cool, refreshing oasis on Friday evening. It’s surrounded by skyscrapers, not palm trees, and concrete covers its grounds, not sand. But on Friday it was lined by thousands of swaying people, blissfully removed from the cares of the world, the volatile hotspots of the day — Korea, Guam, Venezuela, a New Jersey golf resort, a violence-roiled Charlottesville — all…. somewhere else. Somewhere distant. Somewhere not, for the moment at least, of concern.

From the raised stage at the southeast side of the pond, with a dancing waters backdrop, came the breezy rhythms that inspired the audience’s undulations, created by the band El Septeto Santiaguero. From Cuba. Yes, Cuba, for the better part of the past six decades one of the globe’s volatile hotspots, at least from the perspective of the United States, to the point that many times the mere appearance of a Cuban band in the states has spurred protests and hot rhetoric.

None of that troubled the Plaza waters Friday as El Septeto (an eight-man septeto, but never mind) and the charming and dazzling a cappella quarteto Vocal Vidas (also hailing from the headliners’s hometown Santiago de Cuba) provided what will certainly stand as a highlight of the summer’s highlights-filled Grand Performances series of free shows at this locale. That says something about the distressing state of the world, but also about the progress regarding Cuba, not to overlook any continuing issues there. But the only explicit message, and the only English spoken from the stage during the performances other than a “thank you” or two, came when singer Giraldo “El Flaco” Bravo said, “Please stand up.” Those in the very diverse crowd who hadn’t already been standing, gladly accepted the invitation.

El Septeto’s brand of son is tied to the trova (troubadour) traditions running back in Santiaguero culture long before the Revolution, as far back as the 19th century, learned by these musicians from generations of mentors and reshaped and enlivened through the band’s own 22-year history. It’s a vibrant and vibrating sound built around the slinky sting of group founder Francisco Dewar’s tres, the guitar relative with three pairs of strings at the core of much Cuban music, with guitar, trumpet, bass, congas, bongos and other percussion and the personable vocals and presence of Inocencia “Chencho” Heredia and Bravo. It all wove together in shifting, intersecting patterns, the rhythms sparkling and persuasive. It’s perhaps a more rustic sound than that heard by so many via the Buena Vista All-Stars (whose global success did so much to bring Cuban music to new generations and, arguably, help pave the way for the new openness between Cuba and the U.S.). But then Santiago de Cuba is 500 miles east of, and one-fifth the size of, Havana.

That’s not to say it’s “old” music. El Septeto has brought new touches to the styles, delightfully so in such moments as the whistling-and-hoots break in “Hay Un Run Run…,” sounding like a Caribbean calliope and drawing cheering hoots in return from the fans. (See video below.) Of course, that song originated decades ago, and their version was the lead-off track on El Septeto’s 2014 two-CD set “No Quíero Llanto,” a tribute to the influential Santiago de Cuba band  Los Compadres, the album winning the younger group a Latin Grammy Award. But nothing about the Friday performance felt the least-bit outdated.

Same for the four women of Vocal Vidas, who presented a perfect blend of sophistication and playfulness, impressive chops and engaging personality, a Santiaguero spin on the Swingles Singers’ sound, sorta, reworking son rather than Bach into weavings of jazzy counterpoint. Both of the night’s acts seem poised to become favorites on more U.S. stages, but the setting here couldn’t have been better. Nor could have the timing, taking us away from all that, at least for a few hours.

By the rivers of my memory…

 

Glen Campbell sits on the edge of a pool table in his Malibu home, a lot of activity buzzing around him, cameras and lights being reset in a break from filming interviews to be used for promotion of his upcoming “Ghost On the Canvas” album. Someone in the room asks him about, “Uncle Boo,” the first song he ever learned to play back in his Arkansas childhood. Campbell strums the basic chord pattern, stops to tune up the low E string, goes back to strumming, then pauses for a second, seemingly lost in thought. Then he casts his gaze to the fretboard and sort of aimlessly starts noodling around and then…. peels off a blistering run of jazz licks as if it’s nothing. He pauses, thinking a comment aimed at a lighting guy was meant for him, and then resumes, fashioning a set of complex chords. Again, nothing to it. See for yourself. I shot a short video on my phone as it happened, shared below.

This is the most lucid, the most focused, the most clear-headed he is this day. It’s April 14, 2011, and it’s a month or so before the public will learn that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease via an announcement in conjunction with the album release and related tour plans. I’d been told, though.

I’d been hired to do the interviews with him this day, to get him to talk about the movingly personal album, essentially a look at his life told through songs that producer Julian Raymond wrote, the words drawn from many conversations with Campbell, plus a few written by others, including Paul Westerberg’s touching title song. With that as the vehicle, we were also to explore the remarkable contours of his life from its dirt-poor start through stardom and scandal, peaking when he was the countrypolitan king of radio and TV in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, through his fall into drugs and drink, mugshots and mockery, and then his glorious renewal with the love and support of his wife Kim and his kids, several of whom now made up the core of his touring band.

It didn’t work out the way we’d all hoped. Memories eluded him, names and even just simple words were locked in his brain, and he could not access them. He’d tell an anecdote — Ray Charles’ appearance on the hit CBS-TV variety show “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, clearly a favorite — with boyish glee, eyes a-sparkle. Fifteen minutes later, he’d tell it again. Ditto for talking about how John Wayne took him under his wing and cultivated the actor in him when they co-starred in the original “True Grit” movie. He’d make a little joke or quip, and make it again. And again. And again. Even with Raymond next to him some of the time to help draw out stories, things they’d talked about in the course of making the album, the results were negligible. I’m not sure how much footage was shot that day, but only a tiny amount made it into the EPK. And none of the transcript was usable for the bio I was asked to write to be sent out to press with the album, so instead I wrote an essay with no quotes from its subject.

But someone suggested that having a guitar in hand might center him, ground him, and it did. The change was immediate and dramatic. It didn’t help the interview, but here, now was the Arkansas kid, the barnstorming hotshot playing southwest dives, the L.A. studio cat who Sinatra told to get a haircut (but didn’t fire) and who Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and many others counted on as a key player in the famed Wrecking Crew. Here was the guy who inspired Jimmy Webb to his greatest achievements as a songwriter in a pen-and-voice partnership that dominated its era with songs that transcend the years — “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” just to start. Here was the effortlessly appealing, telegenic good guy who somehow not only found comfort alongside the intellectual, edgy satire of the Smothers Brothers but was given charge of the summer placeholder for their groundbreaking franchise and then his own spin-off show.

This was Glen Campbell. And this was Glen Campbell when he stood in the kitchen later, talking with his wife and a couple of his kids, conferring with Raymond and others who had helped make the album. Yes, he was still at times lost, even in his own house. But he was eager for the company, genial to a fault, and with his family so clearly surrounded by love, so readily, joyously returning it.

And this is the Glen Campbell that people who saw his farewell tour shows will remember, a man failing and lost in some ways, but still finding sublime heights in song and in his phenomenal playing, finding himself there. This is the Glen Campbell seen in the film “I’ll Be Me,” which chronicles that tour and the increasing challenges faced by him and his family as the disease took more and more of him away. A lot has been said about how brave Kim and the kids were to share this, to be so open about something so painful and personal, about what a great service they did with the honesty and openness. It was all that. But that very bravery allowed Campbell to be surrounded by the love of his family, and his many fans, in his last years.

For all the words he sang over his singular career, ideas and emotions given flight in song, none more got to the core of him than the chorus of what for me was the centerpiece of “Ghost On the Canvas,” one of the songs that Raymond wrote from Campbell’s thoughts, “A Better Place.”

I’ve tried and I have failed Lord

I’ve won and I have lost

I’ve lived and I have loved Lord

Sometimes at such a cost

One thing I know

The world’s been good for me

A better place awaits

You’ll see