I’m a big believer in seeing live music. Just the requisite act of achieving enough stillness of mind to listen is good for us. Or for me, at least. I noticed it last Thursday listening to Colin Currie and the Miro Quartet at the marvelous Garmany Chamber series at Hartt. The Miro starts out each set with an old school warhorse before jumping into the edgy new compositions. So they were halfway through a Schubert quartet before I had achieved any kind of focus. At the end of that set Currie — who is probably the best in the world at a certain kind of thing — blew our minds with “Mojave,” Michael Torke’s concerto for marimba. At the beginning of the second set, the Miro came back with Barber’s adagio, which people can and do say is overplayed. Except, no, in a live setting with major musicians, the piece has hues and emotions you just don’t soak up in an Oliver Stone soundtrack.
Speaking of overplayed, that’s a word I’ve been applying of late to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It’s a great song but it’s so everywhere. But I saw the Great Leonard himself on Tuesday night — it has been a week! –at the Oakdale, and audience members kept screaming out the H-word until he did it. I’m not in any sense a Leonard fan, although I can reliably be moved to tears by Jennifer Warnes doing “Song of Bernadette.” But I felt privileged to see the Master anyway. He turns 79 this year, and it’s quite something to watch him, pliant as the Scarecrow, drop to his knees to croon or skip off the stage, twirling an arm in the air like a Gilbert and Sullivan character. And what a story he is of excess, monkishness, creating, financial ruin and renaissance! He’s a famous ascetic who pauses in his concert to lay out — with a wolfish hunger –his plan to take up cigarettes again when he turns 80. Cohen’s band contains four or five musicians you’d venture out, of an evening, to see in their own right.
Sitting elsewhere in the Cohen audience — next to Bill Curry, it turns out — were Michelle Begley and Cynthia Wolcott, two singers who would delight me later in the week, on the first night of the HartFolk Festival. They were backing up Kate Callahan, in what turned out to be the most heavenly 40 minutes of music to wash over me this year and maybe a lot longer than that. Our first glimpse of Kate came in this remarkable foundational story, (by Steve Metcalf, who curates the Garmany series and has special ties to Leonard and is therefore kind of a uniting thread) but much, much more has happened since then. At the risk of sounding a little batty, let me say that Kate Callahan is the only performer I’ve ever seen who occasionally seems to be channeling something vaster and far more ancient than herself, something more easily understood by Emerson than by any modern person. Emerson wrote that “poetry was all written before time was, and whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, we hear those primal warblings, and attempt to write them down…[Wo]men of more delicate ear write down these cadences more faithfully, and these transcripts, though imperfect, become the songs of the nations. For nature is as truly beautiful as it is good, or as it is reasonable, and must as much appear, as it must be done, or be known. Words and deeds are quite indifferent modes of the divine energy.” All of that applies to Kate’s music at its best. Friday night, with Begley and Wolcott flanking her, with the superb Andre Balazs on piano and the exuberant Kaia Pazdersky on violin, there was a kind of giant, multi-pronged Emersonian celestial tuning fork onstage. It was a pretty thing to see, and it put light in one’s heart. And oh! They did a remarkable arrangement of “Hallelujah.” And I was forced to discard my reservations.
I was back at the Festival the next night, this time as emcee, for a round robin of three very different singer-songwriters, for Balazs’s stirring solo set, for The Sea, The Sea, a kind of Long Island Sound / Appalachia fusion duo. Here is a point I made from the stage: We live in this place, among people who make fine art. Callahan’s Friday night set was as fine as anything anybody did anywhere that night, and nobody could hear it in Denver or San Francisco or Nashville. It was only here, where you live. Heaven walks among us, said RWE. Maybe even right down the block. So you should go hear live music.