Summer Arts Weekend: Real Talk with Irma Thomas, The Soul Queen of New Orleans

By Bridgit Brown   |   Tuesday, July 24, 2012
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July 24, 2012

Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans (Photo:

When I told Irma Thomas, The Soul Queen of New Orleans that I had been on a soul music search for a very long time and was glad to finally meet her and get her take on what it actually was, she laughed at me.

“You’ll never find what you’re looking for because it doesn’t exist,” she said. “You’ll find it when you truly understand what it is.”

Now I wasn’t born just yesterday but I needed a bit of clarity on this one. “Soul is the gem of black American music,” I said and then repeated a phrase I’ve heard over the years about soul music. “It’s the ‘real’ thing,” I said.

“Soul,” she continued, “is the satisfactory feeling that you get from doing what you love. It has nothing to do with a genre of music, and everybody has it.”

I didn’t start out trying to take the conversation down this route at all, but since it was going there, I had to ask: “Then how did soul get its name in the first place?”

“I don’t mean to make this a conversation about race,” she said, “but what happened in the 1960s, when rhythm and blues and rock and roll were in their earliest stages and in order to separate black musicians from white musicians, DJs had to put titles on music and they started calling black folks’ music “soul”, but there is no such genre as soul–it is a feeling that’s connected to the person that is doing what they love to do and that’s the soul of it all. It’s in gospel, country, R&B, rock and roll, rap. It’s the soul of the music coming through.”

I guess I should have known this, seeing that I’m a soul music fan, but you live and you learn.

Irma Thomas was officially named the Soul Queen of New Orleans by Mayor Ray Nagin in 2007, but the title has been with the respected Grammy award-winning singer since her start in the recording industry, nearly 50 years ago. For refined soul, listen to her first song, “(You Can Have My Husband But) Don’t Mess With My Man” or “It’s Raining.” Both are pure, definable soul from the vocals to the piano to the tempo. And even though The Rolling Stones popularized the song “Time Is On My Side,” Thomas released it first; in fact just months before their version was recorded. Hers is soulful; theirs is just as good but with a different feel It was common practice for songs to cross over from soul to rock and roll during the emergence of these two music forms.

Irma Thomas loves what she does, and this is why NPR featured her as one of its 50 Great Voices in 2010. “I get great joy seeing the looks on people’s faces when I sing what they like, when I know that they're feeling the song. Often times, when I’m allowed to, I take requests from my audience members instead of developing a set list of songs.”

What's your favorite Irma Thomas tune? She just might sing it for you this Friday during her performance at Boston Summer Arts Weekend, Friday, July 27 at 9:15pm on the Main Stage in Copley Plaza.

Summer Arts Festival: Paying It Forward with Dan Zanes and Friends

By Stacy Buchanan   |   Tuesday, July 24, 2012
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July 24, 2012

Dan Zanes and Friends (photo credit: Gala Narezo.)

If you’re my age (forever 29) you’ll remember Dan Zanes as the lead singer of the popular ‘80s band The Del Fuegos. And immediately upon hearing his name, nostalgia for one of the most influential musical periods of our time sets in.

But now us “forever 29ers” have become grown-ups, right? And we have kids of our own–kids who we hope will enjoy the great music we once did. Well, thanks to Dan Zanes and Friends, they can.

Zanes became a parent himself when his daughter Anna was born in 1994. As an exercise in setting a good example for her, he explored music for families and all ages with neighborhood fathers, and turned his hobby into an opportunity when he created his own independent record label, Festival Five Records.

He’s an advocate for creative collaboration, and through his life and work (and life’s work), he focuses on the good that happens when everybody is brought together to connect their pasts with their futures. Musically, he’s inspired by Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Aretha Franklin, all of whom have been influential to him since he began pursuing music as a child. This combination works well together, and over the span of eight albums (and counting) it has made Zanes a Grammy Award-winning childrens performance artist.

I myself have been a big fan since his Del Fuegos days, and am a product of the communal message from his music back then. And now I’m a parent, and wanting to relay the same message to my own son. And I love that I can do it the same way I learned (and from the same person no less), proving that music truly can bring people together and transcend all ages and times.

Dan Zanes and Friends will be performing with the South Sudanese group Dieer Dee Jieng and African Gospel Artists at the Boston Summer Arts Weekend at 1:00 pm on Saturday, July 28th.

Summer Arts Weekend: Suzanne Vega Not Alone in Celebrating Solitude

By Scott McLennan   |   Monday, July 23, 2012
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July 23, 2012

Suzanne Vega (photo credit: Mary Rozzi.)

Even though she has a stack of new songs ready to record, Suzanne Vega isn’t quite done examining her past–a task she started in 2010 with the first volume of her four-part Close Up CD series.

The final Close Up, which like its predecessors will feature stripped-down acoustic versions of songs from earlier studio work, is due out by the fall. And Vega is also making a detour back into Solitude Standing, her breakout sophomore album that turns 25 this year.

Vega has three special Solitude celebrations lined up, the first one happening Saturday as part of the Summer Arts Weekend in Copley Square. The others are slated for City Winery in New York City and the Barbican in London.

Solitude Standing is Vega’s best-selling album, yielding the hits “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner.” It is also home to such concert staples as “Gypsy,” “Calypso,” and the title track.

“Some of these songs I’ve played solidly throughout my career; others fell by the wayside,” Vega says.

But listening to the CD before calling Vega at her New York City home, it was clear how well these songs have aged. Even the “wayside” numbers such as “Night Vision” and “Language” are disarming, with the sort of poetic and pointed lyrics that are Vega’s artistic signature. These are not so much “songs from the ’80s,” but rather a gateway into modern folk.

Vega says she wants to play the Solitude songs the way people remember them, so unlike the Close Up treatments given older tunes, she is working up this material with full arrangements. Drummer Dougie Yowell and bassist Mike Visceglia are back in the fold with Vega and her guitarist Gerry Leonard. And the prospect of collaboration with other musicians performing at Summer Arts or visiting the event was already percolating.

“Well, there’s going to a lot of horn players there, and they seem a natural for ‘Tom’s Diner.’ Being in Boston, I would like Evan Dando to come by–I like what he did with ‘Luka’–but I don’t think that’ll happen,” Vega says.

“Luka,” a chilling concoction of cheery melody couching disturbing lyrics about child abuse, wasn’t simply a hit for Vega, but a maturing moment for folk-pop in general paving the way for others to bring more mature themes to the radio and concert halls.

Solitude Standing will likely not be the only place Vega finds common ground at Summer Arts. The Low Anthem piques Vega’s interest, and she is pegging the Rhode Island folk-music innovators as cool collaborators for her version of the Grateful Dead’s “China Doll,” something she recorded for the Deadicated compilation album in 1991

“When I tour the U.S., people yell out for that song a lot,” she says.

And in Boston, she may just find the perfect way to serve it up.

Vega is scheduled to perform on the Summer Arts Weekend main stage at 7:30 P.M. Saturday and then in the Fairmont Copley’s Copley Club at 12:45 A.M.

Summer Arts Weekend: The Eclectic, Ethereal Sound of The Low Anthem

By Mary Tinti   |   Monday, July 23, 2012
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July 23, 2012

The Low Anthem (photo:

I first encountered the music of The Low Anthem in Providence a few years back, when the hauntingly sweet melody of “Charlie Darwin” was brought to my attention and subsequently played on repeat in our office for several weeks in a row. I far from minded, for the satisfying, classically infused, ever-so-smart songs of this talented young band have that unique ability to seep into your mind and feel very much at home.

I suspect that many listeners who were not familiar with The Low Anthem in its earliest years are now discovering them thanks to “Lover Is Childlike,” their on-point contribution to the T. Bone Burnett produced soundtrack for The Hunger Games, and are no doubt yearning to know more. What better way than to soak in their set at the Summer Arts Weekend?

The Low Anthem’s sound is at once folky, ethereal, harmonious, and complex – the product of impressively proficient musicians who play an astonishing amalgam of unconventional instruments with both facility and grace. I wondered if there was anything they hadn’t yet tried, and was informed by band member Ben Knox Miller that they would love to find a way to experiment with bagpipes, “mini Indian fiddles,” and a “Kenny G sax.” Then, to sum up their out-of-the-ordinary instrument proclivities, he shared, “basically anything that makes dogs run for the brush turns us on.”

I also wondered which bands this quirky ensemble might be listening to at the moment. The answer? “Weezer, Pink Floyd, Maia, Mountain Man, Beefheart, God Speed You Black Emperor”…as eclectic an assortment as the instruments that find their way into The Low Anthem’s melodies.

Their albums usually are recorded in fascinating places (a house on Block Island, for example, or a former pasta sauce factory in Providence). The natural, site-specific sonic elements of the locations become intimate components of those recordings, which not only document the music made at the time, but also the temporary community that comes together during the course of creating the album.

It is for this reason that I am most excited to hear them perform live in Boston on Saturday, July 28th as part of the Summer Arts Weekend lineup. I can’t wait to see how the sounds of the city, the energy, and the excitement sure to be reverberating through everyone in attendance in Copley Square that afternoon, will echo and help shape the music performed on stage.

Summer Arts Weekend: Preservation Hall Jazz Band Brings New Orleans Spirit to Boston

By Mary Tinti   |   Monday, July 23, 2012
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July 23, 2012

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band (photo credit: Clint Maedgen, 2010.)

The musicians who comprise the Preservation Hall Jazz Band are self-proclaimed ambassadors of New Orleans Jazz; their forthcoming performance at the Boston Summer Arts Weekend on Friday, July 27th fulfills their charge to bring the elation, good times, and great music of their hometown to audiences the world over. Touring since 1963, the band – named for the iconic French Quarter music hall that is one of the last bastions of no-frills, all-about-the-music gigs – has known many configurations over the years and the current performers strive to honor the legacy passed down to them from the band’s founders.

When asked to write a few words about the PHJB and what Bostonians can look forward to, I couldn’t help but think of the former jazz band instructor at my high school – Michael Breaux – a native Louisianan who helped me hone my own trombone skills years ago, and wonder what he might say about this legendary band…

“As a child growing up in South Louisiana, I was exposed to many, many types of music: Cajun, Zydeco, Big Band Jazz, and New Orleans Jazz in all the many forms that fall under that umbrella term. All of those different types of music (along with all of the popular and classical music I was studying) fell on my ears and found a way into my musical heart. The Preservation Hall is a national treasure….”

“The phrase, "Laissez le bon temps rouler!" (translation: “Let the good times roll!”) embodies the spontaneous and exuberant essence of that music” and the PHJB personifies “that joyous tradition.” (Mr. Breaux went on to confess his great desire that a bit of New Orleans Jazz will forever find its way into the music that he performs and passes on to his students, in whom he hopes “to preserve the joy of making music” for their entire lives.)

But you don’t have to be from Louisiana to be a fan of the contagious spirit and sounds of the PHJB whose members, according to Preservation Hall's Creative Director Ben Jaffe, were all “born and raised in New Orleans.” He goes on to share, “the music we play was handed down to us from the generation before and the generation before that, all the way back to before there was jazz! We’re proud of our history, our community, our traditions…there’s no place on earth like New Orleans.”

Pride in one’s past and love of city and family are exactly what the contagious spirit and sounds of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band are all about. So get ready Boston, the good times are about to roll…

PS – Congratulations to Ben Jaffe who, along with his wife Jeanette, celebrated the birth of their child this week. Life is good, indeed!

Summer Arts Weekend: A Conversation with Sierra Hull

By Kris Wilton   |   Monday, July 23, 2012
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July 23, 2012

Sierra Hull (photo credit: Delman.)

Sierra Hull has been shaking up the bluegrass establishment for years, having released her first album, Secrets, with Rounder Records in 2008, when she was just 15. She is also the first bluegrass musician ever to land the prestigious Presidential Scholarship at Berklee College of Music, from which she graduated this May. Returning to Boston, the now 20-year-old singer-songwriter and mandolin player will kick off the Summer Arts Weekend on Friday, July 27 with her band Highway 111; she will also take the stage with bluegrass great Del McCoury, for what promises to be a fantastic meeting of the traditional genre’s legacy and future.

You just graduated from Berklee, right? Are you still in town?

I’ve been in Nashville for over a year now. I basically finished Berklee last May but I still had a couple credits left to complete, and I worked on those here in Nashville. I went back to graduation this year because they were honoring Alison Kraus with an honorary doctorate degree and they invited me to come back up there, and that’s when I officially walked.

Why did you return to Nashville?

I love Boston and I really enjoyed my time there, but I’m from Tennessee, and a big part of me feels like this is just my home. I had always planned to someday live in Nashville. And now I’m a two-hour drive from my parents instead of two flights away.

Did Berklee change your musical tastes or your performing style?

I still love all the things I loved before; it just added a lot to what I was already listening to and doing. It exposed me to some different types of music that I hadn’t spent as much time on, and just being around a community of young people who are really hungry for music was really inspiring and helped me realize all that there is to learn.

Did you experiment with any other types of music?

A little bit. A cool thing about Berklee is that some of your classes are ensembles. One I took was a Django Reinhardt ensemble that was gypsy jazz. And the first semester they decide what kind of ensemble would be most fitting or maybe most challenging for you, and I was in sort of a hip-hop ensemble, which was really strange for me. I’d never done anything like that.

What are you working on now?

I’ve been working on writing a bunch of songs since I moved to town, with hopes of making a new album, maybe by the end of the year. I’ve been thinking, if I can be anything, what is that? and trying to write honest material. Other than that we’ve been on the road, traveling.

What will you be playing at the festival?

We’ll be doing a couple of configurations. We’ll be doing more of a traditional set, and I think Del McCoury is going to sit in with us along with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. That should be really fun. We’re all big fans of Del, and he’s been a hero of ours for a really long time. And we’ll also be doing stuff off of my albums and some other things people may recognize as well.

Going forward, do you think you’ll ever branch out from the traditional bluegrass format?

I’ll always love bluegrass and traditional music, and I can’t imagine going very far away from that, but I definitely see myself branching out. I’m still growing and developing and by no means do I want to feel like everything I’ve done is all I’m going to be.

About the Authors
Bridgit Brown Bridgit Brown
Bridgit Brown is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Emerson College ('98). She was a Fulbright Lecturing and Research Scholar in Cote d'Ivoire, West Africa, and her writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Bay State Banner, Color Magazine, Black Perspectives Now, Colorlines of Architecture, Exhale Magazine, Ibbetson Street Magazine, and Somerville Review.
Stacy Buchanan Stacy Buchanan
Stacy is California born and raised, and happily living in Boston.  By day, she’s a seasoned digital marketer, social media enthusiast and pop culture consumer. After studying special effects makeup and film for over 20 years, she is also full-time film buff and by night, produces content for horror publications, focusing on classic and contemporary horror films.
Scott McLennan Scott McLennan
Scott McLennan is a music correspondent for the Boston Globe and former entertainment columnist for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. His work as taken him from the Newport Folk Festival to the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival and many musical points in between. Scott also writes about skiing for Hawthorn Publications.
Mary Tinti Mary Tinti
Mary is a Koch Curatorial Fellow at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. On her blog, Dress For Sports, she says, "I love innovative public art, creative design, and unique intersections of architecture, sculpture, and installation.  And I love stumbling upon cool collisions of art and everyday life." Mary has a Ph.D. in art history from Rutgers University.

Kris Wilton Kris Wilton
Kris is a freelance arts journalist who has contributed reported pieces and reviews to outlets including the Huffington Post,,, Modern Painters, Art+Auction, Art New England, New England Home, Entertainment Weekly, the Village Voice,, ARTnews, Philadelphia Weekly, Emerging Photographer, Photo District News, and RL Magazine.


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