Monday, September 27, 2010
Tea at the Drake and More with Van Dyke Parks
Michael and I made a jaunt up to Chicago yesterday to hear Van Dyke Parks and Clare and the Reasons play a concert at Schubas, a restaurant and concert venue on the near north side. Michael, who named his blog after "Orange Crate Art," one of Van Dyke Parks' most charming songs, has been a devoted fan for years and years. After having tea with him at the Drake Hotel, I have joined the ranks of his admirers. I was totally charmed by his sharp-as-a-diamond-stylus wit, his style, and his extreme generosity.
Unfortunately the tea menu at the Drake has little to offer to vegans besides tea, so while Van Dyke and Michael enjoyed what I think was a lemon curd, some clotted cream, and an array of dainty-but-rich cakes and scones, I had an order of something called "Little Miss Sandwiches" (peanut butter and jelly), which is pictured above.
The palm court (mais sans palms) atmosphere of the Drake, which is really quite well-suited to Van Dyke Parks' music, had harp music for their afternoon tea. Penny Currier was our harpist du jour, and when she came over to our table to thank the nice man who gave her a tip (who obviously knew something about the harp), she probably had no idea who he was.
We brought Van Dyke back to his hotel, and went to the Schubas, where we had dinner (they make a great vegan burrito). We then made our way into the concert room where I observed a few rituals that were odd to me. I ask my music appreciation students to write about the protocol they notice at their (often first) experience at a classical concert. This was my first time going to a non-classical concert in a venue like this one, and I did notice some odd customs that seemed to be protocol.
The concert room at Schubas has benches along one side wall, four or five tables with chairs along the other, and the middle is an open floor. I made a beeline for one of the tables (luckily we were in the front of the line of people waiting to get in), and claimed a seat. I noticed that other people made their beelines for particular places to stand, and there they stood. People didn't talk, really. They just stood. Eventually the place filled up modestly, and the show began about 20 minutes later than announced, after the musicians quietly made their way, in dribs and drabs, onto the stage. There was no audience applause.
Olivier Manchon, a sparklingly-talented violinist (among other things) greeted the audience with an imitation of Ira Glass from "This American Life," and the show began. All the members of the ensemble have beautiful voices, and most of them double on various instruments. A brass trio (French horn, trombone, and bass trombone) from Chicago joined the core group of violin, cello, and bass with various doubles on clarinet, keyboard, washboard, glockenspiel, electric bass, percussion, and plastic soprano recorder. The most audacious double of the evening was when Manchon, while playing the guitar, took breaks (without missing beats) to play left-handed recorder and right-handed glockenspiel simultaneously. I was quite impressed when Manchon would sing (back up) while playing the violin, which is something I find almost impossible to do because of the vibrations that occur between my neck and the instrument.
The arrangements were excellent, and the ensemble playing was disciplined and precise, but not mechanical. The sound was successfully amplified so that the two string players, who simply used standing stage microphones on their acoustic instruments, were nicely balanced to the brass, who did not use amplification. The result was more of an "enhanced" acoustic sound than an electronically-created one. The group did incorporate sampled electronic sounds very tastefully into their arrangements, which impressed me quite a bit.
More people arrived during the course of the show, and by the time Van Dyke Parks came on stage to play with the group, the hall was full of tall people standing. If I had been standing (I really don't like to listen to music standing up if I can sit down), I wouldn't have been able to see anyway. I was able to catch a glimpse here and there.
After a short intermission Van Dyke Parks, Manchon, the cellist of the ensemble whom they called "tiny," and the bass player played a set of songs and chamber music. Van Dyke, who at tea was irrepressibly witty and lovable, was irrepressibly witty and lovable on stage, but even more so because he had a microphone and a keyboard. He began the set with the "lion's roar" from Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals," and then launched into a Br'er Rabbit-based bit of story and song, which then moved into other mixtures of his Southern-influenced (but not too much) idealistic Americana. He made very serious cultural comments that he dressed up in a kind of semi-mockery, which made some members of the audience laugh. Some members of the audience got a little nervous when Van Dyke played some very heartfelt Gottschalk in a beautiful arrangement for keyboard and strings, but little by little they understood that they were experiencing music that defies the genres that people have been using to try to make sense of the great kaleidoscope and smorgasbord of music that they have been lucky enough to have at their fingertips since recorded music became so easy to "acquire" and enjoy. It was all simply beautiful music, that was exquisitely played and sung, and was offered in a spirit of true warmth and generosity.
Van Dyke Parks' jokes and banter were funny, but I won't repeat them here, just in case someone reading this is planning to go to an upcoming show on this tour. Towards the end of the concert he did comment on the oddity of people standing in the front of the audience. Perhaps for some of the future shows on this tour, if this is indeed custom to have this kind of standing arrangement, someone might accommodate the audience with some chairs in the front, so that the people who want to stand can see above the people who are seated.
Be sure to read Michael Leddy's post about the concert.
Here are the next stops on the tour:
9.28 – Pittsburgh, PA – Andy Warhol Museum
9.29 – Toronto, ON – Music Gallery
9.30 – Montreal – Ukrainian Federation (Pop Montreal)
10.1 – Northampton, MA – Iron Horse
10.2 – Brooklyn, NY – The Bell House
10.3 – Philadelphia, PA – World Cafe
10.6 – Grantham, PA – Messiah College (Clare and the Reasons solo)