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The Leon Redbone Suite for Guitar and Genius in B-flat, Part II

Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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II. Rondo

On Sunday, February 9th, your Own Personal Genius pointed the new Geniusmobile west and headed to Charlottesville to enjoy a live performance by this month's Genius Guide subject, Leon Redbone. And try as I might, I just could not work the word "Genius" into that last sentence any more times. I have been studying steganography, though, insinuating gags into the HTML of this article so that our friends with the CIA can enjoy this column as well.

Pulling the piece back onto the road.

The venue, Starr Hill Brewery and Music Hall (you can see immediately what drew me out of the comfort of the Geniusdome), is a wonderful little slice of heaven for beer aficionados located in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. After a wonderful meal of amber ale-and-honey glazed pork tenderloin over an herb risotto, and enough site-brewed amber and pale ale to make a rhinoceros call a cab, I ambled upstairs to the music hall for the show.

Once upstairs, I met the beauteous and charming Nikki, venue manager extraordinaire, to whom I am this close to proposing marriage and thi-i-is close to meaning it. She made sure I was comfy and well-beered, which is as much as I expect out of any woman in exchange for my dog-loyal devotion, and then went to attend to her duties. I put a down payment on a little villa in the mountains where we could raise our bespectacled, beer-loving kinder, then took my seat for the performance.

The Opening Act: Greg Howard

Greg Howard is a fellow Virginian, a fellow lefthander, and a fellow musician (and on his birthday, a jolly good fellow which nobody can deny). That's where the similarities end. Howard plays a unique instrument called the Chapman Stick® (there's a Chap Stick gag here somewhere, but I'm far too busy and important a humorist to reach for it), a sort of ten-string guitar and bass combo deal played with a two-handed tapping technique. While I was completely enthralled with the instrument itself, wanting to add one to the already plenteous menagerie of instruments in the 'Dome, I was even more taken with Howard's ability with the unique axe.

Those of you who have followed the Genius Guide know that I am no great fan of anything recorded after Coltrane's death. Yet, I found myself enjoying Howard's playing immensely. It was both a combination of his astounding technical faculty (chops enough to chew through a $2 steak) and his melodic sensibilities that caught my ear. Howard's performance brought to my mind such disparate influences as Wes Montgomery and Danny Gatton, although I'm certain someone with a more developed ear for more modern players may have heard traces of John McLaughlin or perhaps Al Di Meola. FBI analysis of the CD he graciously provided me (my first artist schwag garnered as a result of my AAJ celebrity status) revealed traces of bauxite and 100% of the recommended daily allowance of thiamin.

Howard's website, the ironically-named greghoward.com, features MP3's and Quicktime video of Howard's performances, as well as the ability to order his CD's directly. There is also a great deal of information on his distinctive instrument, and a myriad of great tips on everything from maintaining the perfect bowl haircut to how to grab a man by the nose with a pair of pliers (or am I thinking of moehoward.com?).

Why I oughta...

All in all, Howard put forth a very enjoyable 45 minute appetizer and merited serious consideration as a jazz artist to watch. To that end, AAJ and I have hired private detectives to watch him around the clock and will regularly report when he does anything interesting.

Leon Redbone

I was first introduced to Leon Redbone back in the seventies, when I stayed up late to watch Saturday Night Live. Those were the days when SNL offered groundbreaking comedy as well as a stage for such unique performers as Harry Anderson (back in his far-more entertaining "Harry the Hat" days) and the Roches (who have apparently entered some sort of witness relocation program), before they discovered that someone sitting in front of their TV at 11:30 on a Saturday night would watch anything.

It wasn't nostalgia that brought me to Charlottesville to see Redbone, as fitting as that would seem for an artist whose stock and trade seems to be creating a sense of nostalgia for a time his listeners have never known, but in fact a 27-year long affection (minus vacations and sick days) for his music. My favorite album, Branch to Branch , has already been purchased twice on cassette and once on CD. I would have purchased it on reel-to-reel, just as a gag, but that option was never presented to me. And the song "Seduced," from that album, continues to act as an instructional set to music for any woman who would seek my fondness.

Taking the stage with nothing more than his guitar and minimal accompaniment, a real cornet and synthesized (from soy proteins) piano, Redbone began the show with a chestnut from his first album, Desert Blues (Big Chief Buffalo Nickel). His relaxed, almost demure stage presence was readily in evidence, as he sat to the back of the stage behind a music stand, flanked by his sidemen. Fortunately, given his unmistakable voice, genial delivery and criminally underrated musicianship, he doesn't require a flashy stage present to command an audience. Let's see what Christina Aquilera could do with a chair, a guitar, and a cornet, that wouldn't constitute an unnatural act by definition of state or local obscenity statutes.

Gliding through a few more recognizable standards such as "Sweet Sue" and one of his best-known renditions, "My Blue Heaven," Redbone seemed as comfortable as though sitting on his front porch. Even the perfectly-executed double-time breaks came off as natural, unhurried. Between songs, his banter with his cornet player, Scott Blank, seemed more endearing than corny. Gags he's used many times before, judging from other reviews, such as taking a picture of the audience and promising to mail out copies, still played well to the receptive crowd. Even I laughed, and I'm as harsh a critic of humor as I am of pop culture. Harsher, in fact, since I actually contribute to modern humor (and for only pennies a day, you can too).

Through the course of the evening, Redbone invoked such restless spirits as Anton Karas, the unfortunately forgotten zither master (and if you ever see the words "zither" and "master" together again without mention of Karas, I'll personally buy you a pony) whose soundtrack to the 1949 masterpiece The Third Man continues to astound, Jelly Roll Morton, and the great American railroad work song. All delivered with the deft, expert touch of a performer who honestly cares for both the music and the audience.

At the end of the evening, as my blood alcohol content ebbed away from the "should be dead" range, Redbone's 90-minute show seemed too short. There were perhaps ten songs I could think of offhand that I would like to have heard, but I have no complaints for the songs he did perform. Though I came for other, less sentimental reasons, I left with a longing for another time. Perhaps it was the simpler era from which Redbone's songs refrain, perhaps it was just the halcyon days of my childhood in the seventies when my parents were still alive and healthy and so was Saturday Night Live. Either way, the evening would have been cheap at twice the price.

Check out leonredbone.com for upcoming tour dates (since the ones already past won't do you much good), and until next month, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.

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