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Published: 2007/02/09
by Joe Ciarallo

The American Beauty Project Night One: Workingmans Dead, Winter Garden at the World Financial Center, NYC- 1/21

What can you really do when the second you step out of the subway, the coldest, hardest wind cuts right through you? You can yell. You know it’s really cold when you find yourself yelling back at the wind. Given the warmer weather in New York this year, my wind-yelling time has been somewhat reduced, although it did come back last weekend as I trekked to the Winter Garden for night one of the American Beauty Project.

I must say, I had never been to the Winter Garden for a show before, and while it is definitely a cool setting indoor palm trees! it feels like a giant stage plopped down in the center of a shopping mall, which it sort of is. This made for some not-so-friendly acoustics, but once you got down up front, things weren’t all that bad. First of all, the crowd was huge, massive, they actually had to lock the doors to stop more people from coming in. Imagine, all that wind yelling and you get shut out!

I settled in for Ollabelle doing a smooth version of “Uncle John’s Band” with Larry Campbell. Hand clapping and sing along style, a great start to the night. Next up was “High Time” with the Holmes Brothers. I read an interview where drummer Wendell Holmes said about their blending of secular and sacred music, “Jesus turned water into wine, not wine into water.” Amen. But these guys have been killing it for so long that the stage is their home and it shows. Catherine Russell joined them and nailed it as well. Soulful and true, this pairing was even better then expected.

Rob Barraco is always a positive force, whether he’s playing with the boys themselves or in any of his other projects. He joined up with Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams for “Dire Wolf,” where the chorus sang down and floated around the high glass ceiling. With the three of them right up at the front of the stage, they really belted it out and left with a big ovation.

It was about this time in the show that I found the announcer/moderator to be a bit repetitive and slightly annoying. I mean do you really have to ask musicians questions like “So you’re playing Dire Wolf,’ what can we expect?” Perhaps that wasn’t verbatim, but why ask musicians questions about music they are going to perform 30 seconds before they play it? Why not just let them play? Having said that though, the moderator was a DJ from WNYC and I must acknowledge that we are lucky to have organizations like WNYC, who do so much to support cultural events in the city.

Back to the music. I love “New Speedway Boogie,” and Catherine Russell nailed it with just upright bass and mandolin behind her. The stripped-down version did a lot with a little and further allowed Catherine to win over the crowd. After a short interlude, the Klezmatics came out to play a version of “Cumberland Blues.” I had heard really great things about them, but I really couldn’t get into this version of the song. It wasn’t a bad version by any means, as they took it out a bit and really put their own spin on it. However, I just felt like the vocals were a bit too nasal and didn’t fit with the song’s style.

Nashville singer Jim Lauderdale came out for a string band arrangement of “Black Peter,” with John Leventhal, a country producer who’s worked with Shawn Colvin, David Crosby, and is married to Johnny Cash’s daughter, Rosanne. Their version of this was excellent but unfortunately “Black Peter,” isn’t one of the more well known tracks off the album, leading some in the audience to chat through it. Tim O’Reagan of the Jayhawks delivered “Easy Wind” with a few friends, laying back and giving the blues tune more the sound of a ballad.

There were several interesting “interlude” performance in-between the songs, one of in which clarinetist Andy Statman played a duet improvisation off of “Uncle John’s Band” with the berimbau, a Brazilian instrument that sounds like something between a tabla and hammer dulcimer. Banjo player Tony Trishka also came out a few times, playing a Jerry Garcia tune “Jerry’s Breakdown.”

Railroad Earth by far had the most fans there, judging by the response when they stepped out on stage to close with “Casey Jones.” They started off with a spoken word introduction to the tune, which eventually evolved into a familiar version except played with mandolin, guitars and banjo. This band has definitely established themselves nicely over the last several years, as was witnessed by the affectionate hometown crowd. Everyone was up and dancing, a perfect way to close the night.

The encore featured everyone coming out for “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” tried and true. I enjoyed most of it and began to shuffle out to beat the masses as the last notes rang out through the big glass ceiling with the big palm trees and out into the cold, cold night.

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