JAZZ CHANTEUSE, OFF BROADWAY: Coming out of the chute young and strong, Jane Monheit hit the ranks of high profile female jazz singers right on time, at the turn of the century. Suddenly, the jazz chanteuse world became more than just a modest tributary of the jazz scene but a potentially raging river. Much of this was thanks to Diana Krall’s friendly and deserved palace coup of the public’s love. Monheit was fresh-faced and lovely, and boasted a big, clear voice.
Now 29, she has taken on the usual nooks and neighborhoods of the jazz singer’s world, from standards to rearranged pop tunes and Brazilian fare-especially on her fine new album Surrender (Concord) - all with ease. Sometimes, too much ease: she sometimes draws more on her experience in musical theater than jazz’ delicate balancing art, where emotion and intellect must do a strange, uncharted dance to get to the truth.
But that girl sure can sing, and she delivers the goods impressively live. She exudes a scary confidence. Vulnerability can wait. Monheit played at the Lobero Theatre four years ago and has returned for a two-night stand at SOhO, through tonight.
DOWN BY THE RIVER DEPT.: If you’re an open-minded and open-hearted music-loving newcomer to town or otherwise have somehow managed to miss it, be sure to check out this weekend’s Live Oak Music Festival. Be forewarned: It can be habit-forming. The festival has unfolded every Father’s Day weekend since 1990 at the Live Oak Camp, framed by the Santa Ynez River and Highway 154. But it’s far enough removed from civilization to encourage the blissful illusion of a remote, self-contained encampment.
The festival’s musical program can be trusted to be generous and border-crashing. Festival highlights include country bluesman Corey Harris, slide guitar wizard Sonny Landreth, bluegrasser Claire Lynch, Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas, eclectic gypsy-cum-chamber-cum-klezmer-whatnot group 3 Leg Torso, crooning TexanJoe Ely celebrated neo-acoustic music rebels the Mammals, and La Guitara, an all-female guitarist multiple threat/treat-including Patty Larkin and Muriel Anderson.
As if the escapist prospect and musical enticements weren’t enough, it’s all for a good cause, as a fundraiser for the non-commercial airwave oasis of KCBX in San Luis Obispo (89.5 FM), a rejuvenating place to go when commercial culture and sanctioned idiocy has got you down.
FRINGE PRODUCT: With the Santa Barbara Bowl season finally within earshot, kicking off next Friday with Norah Jones/M. Ward, memories of past Bowl glories flit about the restless summer-hungry brain. It was three years ago that another Bowl season-opener rocked this town’s world-the night David Bowie deigned to stop by. For some of us, Bowie’s show-along with Radiohead’s Bowl shows-was the high point of the Bowl’s track record in these ‘00s.
Opening for Bowie was the peculiar taste treat called Polyphonic Spree. Theirs is a bigger-is-better-and-weirder approach to performance, with scores of white-clad musicians and a cheery cult-like shtick, following bandleader Tim DeLaughter‘s lead into gleeful theatrical excess. As is often noted, the band’s strange boosterism and epic effects can suggest Up with People on controlled substances. At last, the Spree has followed up 2004’s Together We’re Heavy with another winning, winsome song parade, The Fragile Army (TVT), just in time for summer’s airheaded sensibilities. Though graced by colors of Pink Floyd, Queen-ishness (as in “Get Up and Go”), Flaming Lips service, and echoes of the Fifth Dimension (it’s true!), the Dallas-based Spree has managed to carve out a sound all its own, and it’s a real kick.
Twenty members (a nice round number) stand shoulder to shoulder on the album’s back cover, in black uniforms (black is the new white in this group) with red and white touches. On charmers like the aptly-titled “Together We’re Heavy” and “Mental Cabaret,” the minions rally around DeLaughter’s goofily theatrical voice like true believers in some cryptic creed still in search of a manifesto. In the meantime, they’ve got the hymnbook and the anthem down.