Posts by Ernest Barteldes

I am a freelance writer based in New York City. Although I specialize in writing about music, I also dabble in book reviews and more recently I have begun looking at politics, travel and other cositas mas...

Confronting Bigotry and Xenophobia With Dance

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photo by Dominik Werner

Theater review: “INTRO” by Dada von Bzdülöw

Bohemian National Hall

October 1, 2017

New York, NY

 

by Ernest Barteldes

 

During a recent visit to Poland last September, my wife Renata and I made plans to meet with a couple who I’ll call Lukasz and Dorota. It was well after 10 PM by then, and since we were visiting a smaller town,  it meant that kitchens in most places were closed. I suggested going to one of the local kebab restaurants in the area since there were two of those within walking distance from where we were and they stayed open late.

“We don’t do kebabs,” said Lukasz, “because we don’t want Muslims in Poland.” I kind of stared at him in disbelief but reluctantly kept my New York attitude in check. Instead, I just retorted that not all Turkish people are Muslims, but he seemed uninterested in continuing the conversation.

I was aware that Dorota had supported the right-wing PiS party in the last election, and I am guessing that she pulled him into her conservative politics. After an awkward moment of silence in which I took a big sip from my glass of vodka, Renata abruptly changed the subject.  We then reverted to small talk and later we drove to another restaurant that we had visited in previous trips. Since my wife and I had already had dinner, we just enjoyed couple of drinks while they ate.

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photo by Dominik Werner

I didn’t talk about it any further during our trip, but a few days after we returned to New York I had a brief conversation with my Dorota about the issue. When I asked her about how awkward I felt that day, she replied, “My opinion is the same. I don’t like Muslims in Europe, they should be in their country with their own culture.” When I asked what she meant about that, she said, “I like Muslims and my husband does too but when they are in their own countries.”

I countered that Muslims have been in Europe for centuries, and pointed out that Turkey is a secular country with Muslim majority that happens to be part of Europe (and part of the European council since 1949), she replied that “Turkey is not really part of Europe.”

The conversation ended there, and got me thinking about the conservative nationalist wave that has pretty much taken over the conversation in both sides of the Atlantic, especially after the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency.

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photo by Dominik Werner

As I was reflecting about this whole conversation, I learned about a one night only presentation of “Intro,” a theatre/dance production by Gdansk-based Dada von Bzdülöw Theater that took place at New York’s Bohemian National Hall on October 1 as part of a larger program entitled “Rehearsal for Truth,” a festival showcasing (as stated in the press release) “topical and thought-provoking Central European productions” that also showcased plays from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

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photo by Dominik Werner

The show focuses on four central characters that represents different ethnicities living in present-day Poland: one Polish-born Jew that returns to the homeland after a long period of exile, a Croatian-born immigrant who “received a transfusion of Polish blood, “a Chechen seemingly uncomfortable in his own skin and finally a Middle-Eastern woman who expresses her undying love to her adopted home. All of the characters have great conflict and this is expressed in their dance, which is backed by pre-recorded live Polish punk rock band Nagrobki.

The dance moves, which sometimes happen in total silence or with old Polish folk songs (played from cellphones placed onto microphones) depict the anguish that all these different groups live with: at one point, the Chechen (Piotr Stanek) and the Jew (group co-founder Leszek Bzdyl) mimic working out together and flexing their muscles in a duo dance in which they seem to be searching for something unattainable.

All the dance routines are inspired by different forms of dance: at one point there is a lot of modern jumping jazz-influenced movements, but during another movement the two women in the group (Katarzyna Chimielewska and Katarzyna Ustowska) do a classical ballet-inspired dance.

In between numbers, each character reveals him or herself in short speeches: The Croatian immigrant sings the beauties of Poland and spouts nationalist rhetoric; the Jew, long away from his birthplace, shows conflict about coming back home following the end of Communism. The Chechen vows to blow himself up for Poland, there is a surprise twist when one of the female dancers (Ustowska), who spent most of the play scantily dressed in a barely there top and skirt, reveals herself to be Middle Eastern while being forcibly dressed and put into a hijab. Towards the end of the piece, she reappears in a burka – in Polish flag colors.

“INTRO was created in response to the growing acceptance of extreme national, nationalist and xenophobic declarations in the Polish public debate,” said Bzdyl in an interview released by the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, which co-sponsored the event. “in 2015, somehow in a futuristic way, we presented a monoculture psychosis that will have to be confronted by potential immigrants trying to settle in Poland.”

“When we were creating INTRO, the refugee problem wasn’t yet so blown up by the politicians of the extreme right,” continued Bzdyl in the interview. “By introducing the characters of a Jew, a Croatian nationalist, and Arab woman and a Chechen to the show, we thought of mocking the character of the Pole. The Pole is the one who happens to feel like the messiah of Europe, a Pole gazing at his or her national navel, and reaming of the purity of the Polish blood, and of shedding that blood on the altar of national church.”

The piece – which lasted about 90 minutes – was quite moving and even comic at certain times as it exposed the tragedy of these four different characters and their struggles to assimilate and be accepted in Poland.

During a brief Q&A with the group after the show, Bzdyl mentioned the story of naturalized Cuban-born volleyball player Wilfredo Leon – one of the world’s best  – who expressed desire to play for the Polish national team in spite of resistance from nationalists who cannot accept the idea of a black man on the team.

“He had to try so hard to show that he was more in love with Poland than Poles themselves,” he commented. “It’s like if you are an immigrant you have to become even more Polish than those born in the country.”

I was briefly given the floor and told the group about the kebab story, and  Bzdyl responded that the situation is very conflicted. “Many of these nationalist protesters go on rallies and then go to kebab restaurants because they’re not only everywhere but also the food is cheap and tasty,” he said. “Later on, they go out and complain about how Polish culture is being hurt by them –it just makes no sense.”

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Monika Brodka: My 2017 Polish Music Discovery

By Ernest Barteldes

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Brodka (publicity)

Shortly before my last trip to Poland last September (where I attended a wedding and spent a few days exploring Chelm, I had a chat with one of my students and told her how much I admired the work of singers like Anna Maria Jopek and Ania Dąbrowska, and she recommended I check out Monika Brodka, who she described as “really innovative.”

I looked her up and learned that like Dąbrowska, she was an alumna of the popular “Idol” franchise, having won the competition during the 2004 season. She was quickly signed by Sony/BMG and made two very pop-friendly  discs (Album and Moje Piosenki, released in 2004 and 2006) under the production of Bogdan Kondracki (who also produced Dąbrowska’s first three albums).

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“Album” and “Moje Piosenki”

I found both albums at Chelm’s Empik in a two-in-one package labeled “Made in Poland,” apparently part of a series meant to promote the country’s pop-rock artists. Among my favorite tracks from those are a mellow cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Let Me Make It through the Night” (from “Album) and “Glock” (from “Moje Piosenki”), which showcase her vocal potential and also her ability to make a song her own.

Although very enjoyable, neither album stands out – possibly because of Kondracki’s very mainstream sounding production that made them sound almost undistinguishable from Dąbrowska’s first two discs or anything else he touched during that era. Brodka’s albums were nevertheless well received and are still on regular rotation on Polish radio stations like RMF and Eska.

Brodka took a considerable break from making studio recordings and re-emerged in 2010 with Granda, (“Brawl”), an 11-song masterpiece which is incredibly different from anything she’d done before, with nods to electronica and jazz without losing touch with a more pop-rock feel. It is quite adventurous and goes into various directions. The title track is a punk-ish rocker with a pounding bass and some extraneous background sounds, while “Saute” seems to revisit the psychedelic era without sounding dated.

In between albums she released the EP LAX” (which is simply a reference to Los Angeles, where the tracks were recorded), which contained “Varsovie,” a haunting English-language ode to her adopted hometown.

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Clashes

2016’s “Clashes” took things to an even more experimental direction – since she is now signed to an independent label, she has more freedom to do what she wants without having to compromise to whatever the suits might want her to do.  I believe that she is aware of the shock value of the music and of course her looks – like performing with a shaved head.

“Clashes” is not easy listening – there are clear influences from Bjὄrk, the post-punk sounds of Patti Smith and others I have not been able to identify – it’s a disc that has to grow on you after repeated hearings.

Check out “Clashes” here

 

My Polish Music Loot: Anna Maria Jopek, Monika Brodka and… The Beatles

By Ernest Barteldes

 

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Cover art for Brodka’s “Clashes”

Whenever we travel abroad, I always try to bring home some of the country’s local music, and I make a point of visiting local music stores and pick out some interesting albums not easily found in the US market or on download – so on our fourth trip to Poland (for a wedding – more on the travel blog) I made a stop at Chelm’s Empik  and picked out a few albums.

The quantity was not as high as in previous trips since we were in the country for just a few days and there were only a few titles I was thinking about – but there were a few discoveries that I am glad to have found just by browsing through the store.

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Cover art for Niebo by Anna Maria Jopek

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a big fan of Polish World Music singer Anna Maria Jopek, and that I have been slowly purchasing her full collection – in the last a few months I found many of her albums on Walmart.com (don’t ask me why they carry imported albums, but they do) but one that eluded me was Niebo (Universal, 2006), her tenth release in which she continued to branch out into different musical styles, moving away from her previous pop and jazz-inflected albums and into a more diverse sound.

On that online order I also included a DVD copy of the 1981 film “Blind Chance” (Pzypadek), whose plot shows the consequences of the main character making a train or not. According to critics, the film inspired both Sliding Doors (1998) and Run, Lola, Run (1998) in which separate scenarios influences the outcomes of one’s reality.

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Brodka’s Moje Piosenki cover art

A few days before the trip, one of my students at ASA told me about a young singer called Monika Brodka, a contestant – like Ania Dąbrowska before her – of her country’s version of Pop Idol.  I heard some of her clips on Youtube and decided to check out her albums once I got to Poland. On my first visit I picked up a 2-CD set of her two first albums, “Album,” and “Moj Piosenki” (both on Sony Music) – they’re both well-crafted pop albums, but since they were produced following her Idol win, they sound very similar to Dąbrowska’s first discs – after all,  they had the same producer (Bogdan Kondracki) and likely some of the same musicians.

 

What really got my attention was Clashes (2017), her fourth release – no longer constrained by big corporate labels but now with the independent PIAS Recordings, the album is incredibly personal and experimental with no songs in Polish – the music has a unique texture, and she explores the music in a fearless manner that embraces World, jazz and pop tendencies.

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My last music purchase there had zero to do with Polish music – it was actually the 2-disc 50th Anniversary edition of The Beatles‘ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I just decided to buy it there because the price was considerably lower than what I could find in the US. It was definitely worth it since I saved about $10 and this album has been on my list for a while – and upon hearing the new mix I was immediately blown away by the new mix, which enhances Ringo’s drumming and also has a more centered sound more similar to its original mono mix.

While I have ripped all the music to my iPhone, I haven’t had the chance to fully appreciate them in the little time I have had since purchasing them – but that time will eventually come – not soon enough.

 

Final Concert for 2017 at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn: Yacouba Sissoko + Youssou N’ Dour

By Ernest Barteldes

Youssou N’ Dour/ Yacouba Sissoko

BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn Festival

Brooklyn, NY

August 12, 2017

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Yacouba Sissoko

West African music was the focus of the final night for the 2017 season of BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn, and audiences were toasted with two great performances, starting with New York-based Malian kora master Yacouba Sissoko, who came accompanied by a simple trio with the N’goni (a guitar-like instrument) and the djembe.

The trio played a selection of songs that were very mournful and peaceful with lyrics (sung  in his native language) that carried messages of empowerment while also touching on political issues – including the civil war taking place in Sissoko’s native Mali at the time of this writing. All the musicians on the trio were very proficient, often taking long improvised solos on each tune.

At one point, the bandleader upped the tempo for one of the songs and encouraged the audience to get up and dance, claiming that New Yorkers were ‘the best dancers in this nation.” The number featured the percussionist, who played with great energy, motivating the audience to move.

The set closed with “All Things Must Come to an End,” a slower tempo melody that featured improvised moments from all three musicians.

Following a short break, Senegal’s Youssou N’ Dour took to the stage with a 20-piece backing band (guitars, keys, percussion, 2 backing vocalists, bass and saxophone). Taking the lead from the late James Brown, he had one of the percussionists MC the concert, constantly calling out the bandleader’s name.

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Youssou N’ Dour

I have rarely seen the degree of enthusiasm that I witnessed at this concert – as I walked from the press seats towards the photo pit, I encountered a mass of fans, all with big smiles on their faces moving enthusiastically and singing along to every song.  The music was highly energetic, and the 57-year-old N’Dour moved like a teenager, dancing and jumping to the rhythm of the music.

He had a band filled with master players who had great chemistry together – the quality of the sound was perfect, and we could hear every instrument and vocal with great clarity.  During some numbers, a male dancer joined the band and did traditional moves inspired by the percussion and the direction of the music.

Towards the end of the set, most of the band left the stage and N’Dour performed a tune dedicated to his native continent – it was a sweet melody accompanied solely by keyboards and drums. He then briefly left the stage for a false finale, and then the full band returned for an extended encore that included an up-tempo multilingual song (French, English and other languages) and a handful of dance-oriented numbers. As the show came to an end, each musician left the stage one by one until N’Dour found himself alone on stage thanked the audience and then the lights came on.

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Youssou N’ Dour

It was a great closing for what turned out to be one of the best seasons at Celebrate Brooklyn – it’s just a shame they have to end so soon – but we still have quite a few shows at Summerstage in the next couple of weeks.

Weekend Music in Review: Frank Haye & Brooklyn Interdenominational Choir at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn, Brazil Summerfest featuring Elza Soares and Liniker & Os Caramelows at SummerStage in Central Park

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Brooklyn Interdenominational Choir

By Ernest Barteldes 

 

Frank Haye & The Brooklyn Interdenominational  

Gospel Choir 

BRIC at Celebrate Brooklyn 

August 4, 2017 

 

The Brooklyn Interdenominational Gospel Choir  – backed by keyboards, bass, guitar and horns – opened their short set by blending secular and Christian music, including snippets from Nina Simone’s “Ooh Child,” Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” and the Temptations’ “My Girl” and then drifting into a bluesy slow-tempo religious tune that set the tone for the remaining of their set – the music went in various directions, and included a song that challenged the singer as the key was modulated several times.  

One of my favorite moments was a country-inspired number whose lyrics spoke about self-doubt and finding your faith in spite of everything – which then went into the grand finale with the classic “Oh Happy Day” featuring a contralto that blew everyone away with her great energy and vocal prowess.  

The concert was followed by a screening of Creed with a live score performed by the Wordless Music Orchestra, which will be returning to the Prospect Park Bandshell on August 10 for a performance backing Selma fronted by Jason Moran 

 

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Liniker & Os Caramelows

Linikner & Os Caramelows + 

Elza Soares 

Brazil Summerfest at SummerStage 

In Central Park 

August 5, 2017 

 

The annual Brasil Summerfest – a weeklong festival showcasing Brazilian talent –  kicked off at SummerStage with Liniker & Os Caramelows, a large ensemble led by dress-clad Liniker Barros, a powerful singer who prefers to be considered genderless – on an early interview with a Brazilian newspaper, Liniker identified as “gay, black and poor” but hell the band can swing! Their music navigates from blues to funk but their roots are deeply rooted in Tropicalismo – Brazil’s response to Psychedelics that made musicians like Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa and Baby Consuelo household names in their native country. 

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Elza Soares

Elza Soares came on with a selection of music from “Mulher Do Fim Do Mundo,” her first release in over a decade. As Sao Paulo’s Folha de Sao Paulo noted, fans who were hoping to hear familiar sambas might have been a bit disappointed as she focused on new material – she sang seated on a a throne because of current back problems – but it was a stellar performance nevertheless. Due to current political problems in Brazil, the event was politically charged – some fans were screaming “Fora Temer” throughout the set (because many on the left want to get rid of embattled conservative president Michel Temer) – something she encouraged between songs.  

Soares acknowledged the “young Sao Paulo musicians” who made her album possible and kept on going with more alternative material – fans in the audience seemed well-schooled in the material and sang along with every song. Soares did veer into some more traditional material towards the end, but this was definitely her statement – she was not interested in rehashing the past but to look to the future instead – this was definitely not your grandma’s Elza Soares.

What to Hear in August: BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn, Bryant Park, Brasil Summerfest, SummerStage and Charlie Parker Jazz Festival

By Ernest Barteldes

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I kind of hate the month of August, because that is when most of the outdoor events begin winding down – Celebrate Brooklyn wraps halfway through the month, while SummerStage continues hosting free shows until pretty much the end of the month, capping the program with the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Harlem and the East Village, the locales of reference for the annual event in honor of one of the heroes of the bebop era.

For those who missed it in theaters (and still haven’t watched it at home), Creed tells the story of Donnie Johnson – the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed – who goes after his own dream of becoming a champion boxer. To help him on his quest, he seeks the help of an aging Rocky Balboa to become his coach –  possibly closing the Rocky saga. The movie will be screened with a live score performed by The Wordless Music Orchestra conducted by its composer Ludwig Gorannson. Opening the evening is a selection of Gospel music by Frank Haye & The Interdenominational Choir – should be a good one and I will certainly be in attendance (Celebrate Brooklyn, Aug. 4)

Things take a Brazilian flavor at Summerstage with the kickoff of Brazil Summerfest, a weeklong event that showcases various  talents from my other country: legendary singer Elza Soares – still unstoppable at 80 – headlines an afternoon at Central Park that also features Youtube-discovered Linkner e os Caramelows and a DJ set by Teleseen. During the following week there will be concerts in various venues featuring Forro in the Dark (Brooklyn Public Library, August 9).  Aline Muniz (Joe’s Pub, August 10), Zabele ( The Django, August 13) and many others, ending with a massive Brazilian-inspired street fair  (Hester Street Fair, August 14) .

Bryant Park continues its summer program with a concert by the Asian Cultural Symphony to the US – an ensemble of more than 60 musicians, followed by Shoko Nagal’s TOKALA, which explores sonic influences from classic and contemporary Asian sounds (August 11, Bryant Park)

Most people know about Senegalese singer-songwriter Youssou N’ Dour from his iconic tune “7 Seconds,” but  he is beloved among World Music lovers – he has a long career that includes many records and countless collaborations with artists from across the globe – a fitting closing to what has been a stellar run at Celebrate Brooklyn (August 12, Celebrate Brooklyn)

Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ are blues legends in their own right, and I cannot wait to hear how they sound as they join forces – it is sure going to be a meeting of generations and it is a show I am sure not to miss under any circumstance – just imagine how much great music will come from those two together on stage. (Central Park, August 13)

I have heard Anat Cohen in various formats both as a side player with Duduka Da Fonseca with her two brothers in their Three Cohens ensemble  and also leading her own chorinho-inspired group. She is a phenomenal clarinetist and at The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival she will be leading her Tenet in a program that will include her many influences, going from Brazilian to Middle Eastern and some New Orleans material in between (Marcus Garvey Park, August 25)

We wrap up the list with quite a stellar line-up of saxophonists: Joshua Redman, Lou Donaldson and Tia Fuller will close the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival – one can’t help but wonder if they will get together at the end of the day for an improvisational threesome. It might be unlikely, but one can only hope — and then we go over to Labor Day with a nice taste of great music (August 27, Tompkins Square Park)

The Weekend in Music: Accordion Festival at Bryant Park & Evelyn “Champagne” King at SummerStage at Corporal Thompson Park

Accordion Festival

Bryant Park

July 21, 2017

New York, NY

 

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Accordion Festival:  Osnelda

We arrived at Midtown Manhattan as Queens-based Sunnyside Social Club took to the stage doing a collection of New Orleans-inspired music that went in several directions, going from street band to funk, with the bass sounds performed by their tuba player.  The music was very up-tempo, and got the audience moving to its sound… until Brazil’s Osnelda came on with their celebration of  Forro, the syncopated Northeastern Brazilian dance music.

The band started off with a mostly instrumental piece called “Chora Sanfona,” which set the tone for their set – immediately many in attendance got to their feet and began dancing as dust clouds rose into the warm evening air. They followed the tune with a mid-tempo take on Caetano Veloso’s “Cajuina,” a song originally recorded in the 1970s in a much slower tempo.

The musicians had very good chemistry together, and the music flowed effortlessly.  They blended newer music – Including an original by bandleader Felipe Hostins – with classics that included Dominginhos’ “Forro No Escuro” and Jackson do Pandeiro’s “A-E-I-O-U-Y,” the latter being a tune that is included in pretty much every classic forro set in Brazil.

In between sets, host accordionist Rachelle Gamez, who would offer tidbits on the history of the instrument being celebrated that evening. She sometimes went a bit long with the talking and playing, but it was effective and entertaining.

Osnelda was followed by  Zlatni Balkan Zvuk, a group that played Balkan-style music in a lineup that included violin, percussion, keyboards and accordions. While they were obviously good musicians, the band sounded unrehearsed at times, since they didn’t seem to lock in very well. A guest vocalist was brought in and they started to sound better – I guess they were more comfortable with backing a singer than doing instrumentals.

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Accordion Festival: Gregorio Uribe

The evening concluded with Colombian musician Gregorio Uribe, who took the stage backed by a three-piece band (bass, percussion, keys).  He was well-received by the large Latin audience (many in Colombia soccer jerseys) who got up and danced along with his mix of Latin beats, including cumbia and salsa.  He sang with a firm voice and many of his tunes carried a social message – including one clearly aimed at the current American president.

The group sounded great, especially when guest singer Carolina Oliveros joined in – she has a strong, emotional voice and brought much soul to the group. The set ended with a great homage to their native Colombia, whose Independence Day was being celebrated at the event.

Evelyn “Champagne” King +

Fascination and DJ Joey Carvello

SummerStage at Corporal Thompson Park

Saturday, July 22nd

Staten Island, NY

 

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Fascination at SummerStage

Disco was the flavor of the evening at SummerStage on Staten Island’s Corporate Thompson Park – a large green area named after fallen Vietnam war marine Lawrence Thompson as DJ Joey Carvello, a pioneer of the disco area, spun tunes from the genre’s heyday, mixing hits from groups like Kool & The Gang and also deeper cuts I did not recognize.

The opener was 90s freestyle singer Fascination, a singer who has clearly seen better days: she sang not behind a backing track but by her actual tracks – her younger voice could clearly be heard as she screamed over them. At one point t was painful to watch her pretend to be a 20-year-old on stage with her mini-dress and utterly unconvincing sensual dance moves. Looking around me it was obvious the crowd was puzzled with what was going on.

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Evelyn “Champagne” King at SummerStage

After a brief break Evelyn “Champagne” King came on, with one of her earlier hits and then broke into an old-school rap. She greeted the audience warmly, and talked about her career beginnings as a teenager and then acknowledged her age by stating she was a “proud 57” and admitted she was “going through the sweats” at present.

King carried on with “Betcha She Don’t Love You,” a 1982 single in which the protagonist confronts a cheating lover and followed with “Love Come Down,” one of her best-known hits. She then brought out her guitarist husband Freddie Fox for a cut from her 2007 album “Open Book.” The tune had more of a contemporary R&B sound, far removed from the dance flavor of the other selections.

The evening closed with “Shame,” another of King’s major hits. Her voice is in incredible shape, and she was able to connect with the audience – many of whom probably hadn’t been born when most of the songs came out. It was a highly enjoyable set, which coincidentally ended as rain began to pour – refreshing all of us from the heat.