Album Review: Craig Greenberg’s “Grand Loss & Legacy”

By Ernest Barteldes

I first met Craig Greenberg about three years ago at a rehearsal studio in Brooklyn.  We were both part of the backing band for Roger Greenawalt’s “Beatles Live on Ukulele” at The Brooklyn Bowl – an event I participated in for three years. At the time, I was pretty oblivious of the New York independent music scene since I’d spent most of my time covering jazz and world acts (to a degree that is still true – even today, more West Coast musicians reach out to me for coverage than folks closer to my own ZIP code – but I digress) and had a vague idea of who was taking part of it. As far as I could tell, these were some musically gifted Beatles enthusiasts who were willing to be part of a charitable event.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I realized that Greenberg was actually an accomplished singer-songwriter with great piano and guitar chops (I’ve seen posts about his ukulele, but I haven’t heard him playing that one yet). In fact, one of my proudest moments from the three Beatles events I participated in is a version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in which I contributed bass and supporting vocals with Greenberg on lead vocals, Jeremiah Birnbaum on co-lead guitar and Greenawalt on uke – a the song came out great in spite of the fact that we only rehearsed it a couple of times.

In 2014 I heard Greenberg do his own music for the first time at his debut appearance at Joe’s Pub, which I reviewed for All About Jazz a few months ago – so it was natural that I wanted to listen to The Grand Loss and Legacy as soon as it came out – and let me tell you that his new tunes confirmed my initial good impression of his work as a songwriter.

I read reviews from other writers, and many make obvious comparisons between him and Billy Joel, which I completely disagree with. It’s too easy to pigeonhole a piano-playing rocker from New York to Joel, and I feel that even though Greenberg might have been influenced by him, he goes way farther than that.  What I like about him is his sense of humor towards the music and his jazz-like approach to his main instrument.

One of the highlight from the disc is “That Girl Is Wrong For You,” fast-tempo tune in which the narrator urges a friend to see that he is in a doomed relationship.  The friend spells it right out without any metaphors, making it clear that the woman will destroy his friend’s spirit and advising him to end it “before it’s too late.”  He makes a political statement on “Death on The Liberty Line” that makes a reference to the provisions of the Patriot Act (without mentioning it directly), warning of the dangers of giving up certain freedoms for the sake of fear. I enjoyed how guitarist Patrick Brennan contributed a Brian May-inspired guitar line that accompanies the vocal line and also the ominous-sounding solo towards the end of the track.

Another great moment comes with the uptempo “Weekend Holiday,” a story about a girl who dreams of stardom and once she makes to the top, she seems not to have achieved all of her dreams even though she has everyone at her feet – a cautionary tale about wanting a material life but lacking spiritual achievement.

Greenberg did a great job with this collection – the arrangements were carefully done (although I would have liked the guitars to stand out a little more) and the songs seem carefully crafted.  This is a guy ripe for discovery by a bigger audience – so catch him before he’s playing venues you can’t afford.

Listen to “That Girl Is Wrong For You” 

Visit his website http://craiggreenbergmusic.com/grandloss/

Film Review: “The Return” by Adam Zucker

By Ernest Barteldes

Last weekend Renata and I braved the bitter cold outside to attend a screening of The Return, a documentary by Adam Zucker that was partially financed via a Kickstarter campaign. We’d heard about the film through the Polish Cultural Institute’s 2015 program, and after a chance meeting with Zucker at a cocktail party downtown we decided to check it out.

The screening happened at the Lincoln Square Synagogue – it was only the second time I’d ever set foot inside one (the first was during a service for a friend about two years ago).  The movie follows four young women from Warsaw and Krakow who struggle with the concept of being Jewish in Poland – a country that was once home to over 4 million Jews but has now dwindled to about 25,000 mainly due to the horrors of the Holocaust.

Zucker filmed the documentary over the course of five years, and it was impressive to see how these women evolved. Two embrace Orthodox ways (not a spoiler, you can see that on the trailer) while the other two explore their Jewishness in very different ways.

Of the three women, only one – Maria – was apparently aware of her roots from the start. She was raised in a secular family, but after meeting an Orthodox man she embraces that way of life, quickly getting married and having children. The other three (Kasia, Katka and Tusia) only discovered their roots later in life, and embrace them in completely different degrees.

As the stories progress, we also see many manifestations of Jewish culture in Poland – there is footage of an acoustic set by Mattisyahu (who has a huge fan base there) and glimpses of the Jewish Music Festival in Krakow. There are also two Orthodox weddings and scenes from rituals inside a synagogue.  Though mostly shot in Warsaw and Krakow, there is also plenty of footage taken in Jerusalem (where both Kasia and Maria went to pursue their studies), Prague and Bushwick, where Tusia (a dual American and Polish citizen) lives while pursuing a Masters’ degree at NYU.

The imagery is very rich – we see various locales around the two cities – I recognized the tram we took in Warsaw and the area where our hotel was located, and also the former Jewish district of Kazimierz where Renata and I stayed during both of our visits to Krakow.

The main question the film makes is if Poland is a viable place for young Jews to live in, and the conclusion is up to the viewer.  During one of the various interviews, Katka states that today in Europe, one is seen as cool if you have “black, a Jewish and a homosexual one,” but in another moment she says it is “very hard” to pursue the Jewish lifestyle in Warsaw because there are “very few facilities and a very small community” as she walks around a residential neighborhood.

I thought it was a very touching film – yes, they make references to the Holocaust (we catch some glimpses of Auschwitz) but it’s not something they dwell on, because the film is really about being Jewish in today’s Poland, with all its intricacies and complexities. The film is being screened in various locations (you can check them out on the film’s website http://www.thereturndocumentary.com/) , and I highly recommend it.

Disc Review: Discover World Music/Various Artists

By Ernest Barteldes

When it comes to music, I am a bit of an omnivore – I listen to almost everything with the possible exception of gangsta rap or death metal (then there’s the music played at the gym, but my earphones have solved that). As far as I can remember, I have always listened to music from all over the world. In school, I remember being the only weirdo who not only knew who Harry Belafonte and Elizete Cardoso were (I’ll let you Google that one) but also knew a great part of their catalogues.

Lila Downs

Attending concerts at Summerstage and Celebrate Brooklyn deeply broadened my scope – it was there that I first heard groups like Babasonics (Argentina), Amadou & Mariam (Mali) and Lila Downs (Mexico), and I was also blessed to have been present for what turned out to be the final performance by Celia Cruz.

My time as a contributing writer for the now-defunct Global Rhythm magazine was also an eye-opener. I recall that every month the editors (some of whom I am still in touch with) would send the writers a list of records to review, and I would always pick stuff I was not really familiar with so I could learn a bit more about them – during those years, so much music reached me that it is almost overwhelming to think about it. After some time, I started reviewing live performances – one of the most funs was The Pogues, who played a St. Patrick’s Day Concert at Roseland Ballroom back in 2007. I recall that I was probably one of very few sober people in the room (I don’t drink much while covering shows, maybe a beer and that’s it – you can’t really rely on just your notes if you have too much to drink).

World Music is, however, a hard sell in America. Just a few months back I remember talking about Lila Downs to some co-workers and getting blank stares in return – even if some of them HAD watched Frida. Never mind that her shows are completely sold out in New York, and that is also true about stars like Bebel Gilberto, Malian blues guitarist Vieux Farka Touré, Mexico’s Maná and Colombia’s Aterciopelados. From my experience, American audiences in general do not get ‘foreign’ music unless it is sung in English (one of the reasons why Shakira is big in the US and other Latin artists are not).

It’s not like folks don’t try –  World Music organizations and labels frequently bring artists stateside, but those shows are limited to centers like New York, Chicago (which hosts an annual festival every year during the summer), Los Angeles and Miami – some acts do make it as far as Phoenix but it’s not like they are filling halls in Topeka, KS.  I once had an argument with an editor who told me to stop pitching him African musicians – his readers (or he) were not interested – never mind that some of the acts were performing in one of the most popular concert venues in his town.

What would it take mainstream audiences who are not fans of NPR to pay attention? Maybe bringing everything together in a package would be a good start for World Music neophytes would be a good start – which brings us to Arc Music’s Discover World Music, a double CD that showcases different musicians from around the globe. Some are old favorites like Portugal’s fantastic guitarist Custódio Castelo, one of the most sought-out musicians in his country. He appears on “Inquietude,” a gorgeous instrumental piece that highlights his technique on the Portuguese guitar – the most important instrument in fado.  Brazilian music is also very present via Ceumar’s “Gotas do Norte,” a fine example of xaxado, a near-forgotten rhythm from the northeastern part of the country that has been pretty much dwarfed by more commercial fare I’d rather stay away from.

Other highlights include Egypt’s Hossam Ramzy, one of the most creative composers of his generation, and also Noel McLoughlin’s gorgeous “Song for Ireland,” a tune sung with so much passion that it gives you goose bumps even if you don’t have an Irish bone in your body.

Arc Music is one of these labels that always bring you something new – discovering their releases led me to learn about artists like Marta Gomez, Klezmer Juice and so many more. I really recommend you to get this one as your personal introduction to many other things out there.

Discover World Music

Various Artists

Arc Music

Welcome to Music Whatever – What is This About?

By Ernest Barteldes

After years of contributing to alt-weeklies around the country, I have found it more and more difficult to deal with editors these days.   For instance, about a year ago I had a discussion over the fact that one of my reviews did not contain background information on the artist – basically, he wanted my reviews to look like a Wikipedia entry. I respectfully disagreed because I felt that wasting space (which was already limited in the first place) was basically distancing the music review itself, but he just said that is what he wanted and we amicably parted ways.

Other publications have also become way too niche, focusing on a single genre instead of expanding things to make things interesting. I still write for a small number of these, and I feel that it is really constricting to write about an artist and then getting answers back that my article doesn’t quite fit their vision (without exactly telling me what the heck they want in the first place. Finally, there are other magazines that have gone ‘local’ and that no longer accept work from writers that do not reside in their area. I can’t really blame them for that one, because sometimes there is a struggling writer in say, Phoenix and here I am in New York taking his or her opportunity (I still occasionally write for said publications when they can’t find a local that can do the job properly). And then there are those editors who prefer to discover the next Justin Bieber instead of an African player who actually deserves to be heard but it is not palatable to a wide array of readers (I actually had a discussion with an editor about that, I am not making this up).

As someone who has been writing about music for such a long time, I feel that there is way too much music that has been overlooked because it doesn’t fit a certain profile or is not considered to be cutting-edge in some 23-year-old who somehow got the job as editor even though he or she could not put two sentences together with any coherence, so I have decided to start my own music page that will focus on these overlooked gems. Here I will post anything that I find interesting and that doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves. I will not focus on any specific genre, so you might find me writing about African music one day, New York jazz the other and Polish pop the next.

I have yet to figure out how I will be able to monetize on this, so don’t expect to see daily posts for now because I still have to make a living. Guest posts are welcome but until I find a way to make this lucrative, I cannot promise payment. I understand it sucks, but I don’t have a trust fund to draw from.

This is a work in progress – I don’t have a set plan in my head, I just want to find space to write about the music that I find without having to exchange 100 emails trying to convince someone of my point of view. So bear with me during this process – and do not hesitate to send suggestions my way.