The Renaissance Woman Pulls Out All The Stops: Annie Haslam’s Band Returns to Infinity Hall Friday, April 4

By Chuck Obuchowski

annie-by-richard-barnes
During the heyday of progressive rock, the members of Renaissance carved out a unique niche for themselves. With few exceptions, their 1970s counterparts created complex music dominated by synthesizers and electric guitars. Song lyrics tended toward the fantastical, focusing on sci-fi, stoned metaphysics or unusual character sketches.

Renaissance, on the other hand, preferred more traditional sounds: grand piano, acoustic guitar, harpsichord and pipe organ (albeit synthesized) and real orchestrations (when they could afford them). Favored song topics included love, contemplation, historical tales and vivid portrayals of nature. Folk and classical music greatly influenced their original compositions.

But the band’s most distinct feature was undoubtedly Annie Haslam’s remarkable five-octave voice. She often employed classical vocal techniques rarely heard in rock music. Beyond that, Haslam was one of very few female prog rock vocalists at the time.

Before joining Renaissance, Haslam’s musical tastes were varied, but much different from the sounds that were to bring her international attention. She held Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez in high esteem, and also enjoyed listening to Leadbelly, Elvis Presley and trad jazz legends like King Oliver and Jack Teagarden. Her first exposure to progressive rock came through her boyfriend’s copy of “In the Court of the Crimson King,” the 1969 debut by King Crimson.

The rock music world has changed immeasurably since those halcyon days, yet Haslam remains determined to “carry on with Renaissance as long as my voice is good.” She has taken very good care of her instrument; as a woman in her mid-60s, she is still capable of bringing audiences to their feet with her soaring soprano crescendos.

Haslam’s fortitude has been tested greatly in the past six years. She’s had to contend with injuries and related health issues, deal with the challenges of a music industry in turmoil, and – most significantly – try to keep Renaissance afloat after the death of her dear friend and musical partner, Michael Dunford.

“You can never replace Micky; there’s no way,” she admitted during a recent interview, adding “it will always be Micky’s music.”

Dunford, the group’s guitarist and main composer, had joined Renaissance shortly before Haslam became lead vocalist in 1971. The group evolved in England, although Haslam has lived in the U.S. since 1989. Even when the band took several extended hiatuses, Dunford and Haslam kept in touch. In 2012, after the group completed sessions for their first recording of new material in over a decade, it seemed they were on the cusp of yet another period of rebirth. Sadly, Dunford’s death in November of that year cast serious doubt on that notion.

Haslam acknowledges that Dunford was the driving force behind Renaissance’s sound, as well as their undisputed leader. Yet, she realized that her colleague would have wanted them to continue, especially given that there was brand new music to be shared with their fans. On April 10, 2013, Renaissance played its first gig without Michael Dunford at Infinity Hall.
When Haslam took the stage that day for a soundcheck, she noticed a pink feather at the base of her microphone stand. As she explained during our interview, the appearance of a white feather can be interpreted as a message of comfort from a recently deceased loved one. So why was this one pink?

“I know that was to make me laugh!”

Ryche Chlanda assumed the unenviable role of taking over the guitar chair on last year’s tour but has since grown fond of his role in the current edition of Renaissance. The band that will perform at Infinity Hall on Friday, April 4 also includes pianist Rave Tesar and bassist David J. Keys both of whom have worked with Haslam for years. Newer members keyboardist Jason Hart and drummer Frank Pagano played on the most recent album and during the 2013 tour. All but Tesar contribute backing vocals. Ironically, the ensemble, so long associated with England, is now populated by Americans – and one British expatriate.

Haslam seems especially inspired by the strength and unity of the current line-up.

“We have a good time whenever we go out. I feel that people need to go home having had a good laugh. It’s not just about playing music … it’s about connecting with people’s energies … a lot of people have said of my voice that it has a healing sound. I guess it’s because of my intension that everything should be good that I can hopefully help people.”

“I’m going to be pulling out all the stops during the next few months to move things forward,” Haslam added, voicing her intent to return Renaissance to the spotlight once again.

To that end, the band recently enlisted Red River Entertainment to give their latest recording the worldwide distribution that it merits. They’ve re-titled it “Symphony of Light,” and are re-issuing the album on April 15 with new artwork by Haslam and three bonus tracks, including one written in Dunford’s memory, “Renaissance Man.” Copies will be available for purchase at Infinity Hall on April 4.

The new title track, dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci, “the original Renaissance Man,” harkens back to the band’s 1970s style. It’s a suite-like piece, featuring shifting melodies and tempos, which showcases Haslam’s majestic voice. She notes that Renaissance will include this track in their Infinity Hall concert, along with the former title song, “Grandine il Vento” (“Hail the Wind”), which also recalls their early orchestral tour-de-forces. The rest of the set will focus primarily on Renaissance favorites.

In recent years, Haslam has found a new creative outlet: painting. Although she regards most of her artwork as having little or nothing to do with her music, Haslam has recently begun to paint abstract impressions of a number of Renaissance songs. In fact, on the day we spoke, she had already finished two paintings inspired by her music and had begun a third, an 18’x24’ canvas based on the band’s only (British) hit single, “Northern Lights.” Clearly, Annie Haslam has become something of a Renaissance woman herself!

Following their Norfolk concert, Renaissance will embark on “A Crusie to the Edge,” headlined by prog rock stalwarts Yes, which departs from Miami on Monday, April 7. The five-day cruise promises to be a nostalgic journey for prog fans, featuring the likes of Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited, Tangerine Dream, members of Gentle Giant and the Soft Machine Legacy.

Listen to “Carpet of the Sun”:

Tickets for Renaissance:

http://www.infinityhall.com/events/renaissance/

Purveying Some Satellitic Wisdom of Old with Wise Old Moon

wom111(Photo credit: Corey Pane of Wise Old Moon)

by Author Griffin (@AuthorGriffin)

What goes around comes around, any satellite will tell you, isn’t merely karmic law, its more than that, its gravitational. An unseen force, pointless to struggle against, pulling you in a certain direction.

In late 2012, three young musicians from West Hartford, CT joined forces and combined gravitationally on a common course with an aim to create. Connor Millican, Corey Pane & Christian Schrader banded together to pursue their brand of alternative folk rock, and a year later, Wise Old Moon is gigging, writing, recording and preparing to release their debut studio album due out this summer.

I caught up with guitarist/vocalist Connor Millican in advance of Wise Old Moon’s Infinity Hall show with The Zolla Boys in support of Poor Old Shine this Friday March 28th @ 8pm, check it out.

Griff: Connor, great to talk with you today, thanks for taking the time.

Connor: Thank you, I appreciate you doing this.

Griff: So everyone I know at Infinity Hall loves you guys and its no mystery as to why, but that basically came about because you all showed up on a Wednesday night in the bistro and played Infinity’s open mic, correct?

Connor: Yeah so when we originally heard about the open mic night at Infinity, we had no idea what to expect. We drove 45 mins from Hartford on a Wednesday night to be there and playing for that crowd, it was probably one of the first real listening crowds that we had played for at the time, having been doing bar gigs and such for a while. We had such a great response from that audience that we came back a couple of weeks later, and because of it we’ve developed a relationship with the hall. It’s been a crazy experience and totally unexpected. I’d recommend the open mic to any local musician because anything can happen.

Griff: Take a lesson kids, open mics can hone your craft and maybe open doors to bigger stages, literally. You’re one year into Wise Old Moon, gigging and playing out and being a band, where has it taken you and what have you taken from it? What have you learned?

Connor: We’ve had a lot of different gigs, gigs where we’ll have a great night and get a good response from folks and then the next night we’ll play to two people, and it’ll be tough and we’ll get down on ourselves a bit. I think that being patient with that process, going through those ups and downs is really what taught us how to be able to work together. Learning how to book as well, building relationships with venues and going through that process, really taking our own crash course with no real rules or expectations. The first six months was more just having the desire to expose people to the music no matter what happened, that’s what got us to the point where we were strong enough to want to take it to a more serious level.

Griff: On Infinity Hall’s website there’s a video of you guys playing in the soon to be completed Infinity Hall Hartford. What was that like for you?

Connor: That was definitely a unique experience. We were at the hall in Norfolk one night and Dan Hincks asked us to be a part of that video and we were pretty amazed and surprised and totally excited to be included. It was cool, Alan Venitosh of Telefunken came out to record the audio with a great set up of their microphones. We recorded three songs and one was used for the construction update video. Infinity has put a lot of effort into promoting that video, it has many, many views and the exposure from that is something we could’ve never gotten on our own so, once again, Infinity Hall has come through for Wise Old Moon. I should also mention that we’ll be doing a limited edition press of those three songs recorded by Telefunken with original artwork which will only be available at our Infinity Hall show Friday night with Poor Old Shine.

Griff: Nice man, T-Funk represent. Al’s my boy, we go back. Speaking of going back, not to date myself, I’m only 33, but I used to ask this question as ‘what’s the last disc in your player?’…

Connor: Oh yeah, now it’s like ‘what’s your last Pandora station?’ or whatever. (laughs)

Griff: (laughs) Yeah, ‘what are you rocking on Spotify?’ doesn’t have the same ring to it as ‘disc in your player’ does, right?

Connor: Right. No, I still listen to plenty of discs in the car, I’ve been on a long repetitive kick of Wilco’s Yankee Foxtrot Hotel and also Mandolin Orange, they’re a bluegrass/folk duo from the Carolinas, but yeah lots of Wilco.

Griff: Man I love Wilco.

Connor: Tweedy has this way of projecting unfiltered truth that I’m way into, yeah. His songwriting is a big inspiration on some of my recent stuff.

Griff: Are you the principal songwriter for Wise Old Moon?

Connor: I am.

Griff: Cool. So what can we expect Friday night at Infinity, anything exciting planned for the show?

Connor: Yeah we have a lot of new songs from the upcoming record that we’ll being playing live for the first time actually. And again, as far as merchandise, we’ll have limited copies of those three songs with original artwork, so we’re super excited.

Griff: Awesome man, looking forward to it. Connor Millican of Wise Old Moon, thanks again, brother.

Connor: Cool, thanks.

An Interview with Jim Weider

Listen to our blogger Emily’s phone interview with guitar extraordinaire, Jim Weider.
Jim Weider performs with the Masters of Telecaster featuring G.E. Smith and Danny Kortchmar as a tribute to Roy Buchanan at Infinity Hall on Saturday, March 29th at 8:00 pm.  Tickets are still available here!

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Shindell Brings New Songs to Norfolk Friday – Concert Will Include Collaborations with Lucy Kaplansky

imgallery-_MG_0570-2By Chuck Obuchowski

Richard Shindell fondly recalls his first encounter with Lucy Kaplansky, twenty-some years ago: “She was brought in to sing harmony on my first record. I had no idea who she was. She had no idea who I was. Her voice – along with the harmonic choices she made that day – made quite an impression, to say the least.”

Neither had committed completely to a music career at the time, but each realized that the blend of their voices was something special. Despite all the changes during the intervening years, the vocal camaraderie Richard and Lucy share has retained its magic. On the Infinity Hall stage Sunday, the two will reunite for the first of three shared concerts on Shindell’s current U.S. tour; he’s lived with his wife and kids in Argentina for nearly 14 years but still regularly travels to the States to perform.

“Lucy and I usually alternate sets. Within one’s set, the other might join in on a couple songs. Then, at the end of the night, we might do a few songs as a duo.”

Kaplansky’s most recent release, “Reunion,” was issued in 2012 on Red House Records. Shindell’s fans have had to wait almost five years since “Not Far Now,” his last collection of new compositions. Apparently the wait isn’t quite over, but the 53-year-old New Jersey native promises that at least half his set on Sunday will consist of songs from the much-anticipated “Viceroy Mimic.”

The music has already been recorded – “all over creation,” in Shindell’s words, “in Argentina, New York, Nashville, the Bronx, various hotel rooms.” But the meticulous creator is still tweaking mixes and making minor adjustments before he subjects his story-songs to public scrutiny.

Among the many musicians who’ve contributed to his new album, Shindell mentions studio heavyweights David Spinozza, Clifford Carter and Jerry Marotta, in addition to percussionist Joe Bonadio and electric guitarist Marc Shulman. The latter two are currently on the road with the acoustic guitarist/singer.

“Both are fabulous musicians – unorthodox, willing to try new things, take chances. I’m having an absolute blast playing with them,” he enthuses, adding that no two shows have been the same thus far. For all his attention to detail, Shindell obviously likes to leave room for onstage inspiration so the music stays fresh and vibrant.

Asked to describe his music for the uninitiated, Shindell responds “literate, not-so-popular pop music.” To which one might add brilliant storyteller, impassioned vocalist and occasional humorist. Shindell creates contemporary folk music that expertly blends elements of country, bluegrass, Celtic and South American musical traditions. Add Lucy Kaplansky’s voice to the mix, and Friday’s Infinity Hall concert is sure delight fans and newcomers alike.

Spring Swing: Sunday’s Jazz Festival Will Benefit High School Music Programs

by Chuck Obuchowski

Jazz is one of America’s most acclaimed cultural exports, yet it still struggles for recognition in the country of its birth. Thanks in large part to the enthusiasm and dedication of music instructors in our public school system, the situation has begun to improve during the past few decades.

Even so, whenever there’s a budget shortfall, music programs often end up on the chopping block. In order to safeguard these precious opportunities for kids, people who understand how much the arts enrich young people’s lives are pursuing increasingly creative ways to keep the music playing.

Infinity Hall Entertainment Director Jack Forchette came up with one of those creative concepts several years ago. Why not stage a high school jazz festival at the historic music hall? By charging a small admission fee, monies could be raised for the music departments of each participating school. By publicizing the event to the community at large, more people could be exposed to the superb instrumental talent that’s been brewing in our region’s school systems. And, lastly, such a concert would allow the student musicians to experience the excitement of performing in a bona fide concert hall, working outside the familiar confines of a multi-purpose auditorium, or, worse yet, a gymnasium.

This Sunday, March 23, marks the third annual Southern New England High School Jazz Festival at Infinity Hall. Over 100 students from a half dozen schools will be taking part in the all-day event. There are three separate seatings; two schools will be represented during each segment.

Bloomfield and Berlin High Schools – both festival newcomers – will be featured during the 1:00 p.m. performance. Simsbury High and Monument Mountain Regional High School (from Great Barrington, MA) follow at 4:00 p.m. The final seating at 7:00 p.m. highlights the talents of students from Litchfield and Torrington High Schools.

Litchfield High’s Big Band Director Dan Porri notes that “the festival is one of the highlights of the year for our jazz band. The students get a thrill out of seeing the names on the backstage walls of all the great musicians who have performed at Infinity.”

Although most high school jazz festivals are structured as competitions, this one focuses on the worthiness of each ensemble, large and small. In general, the small combos will perform modern jazz compositions by the likes of Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard – and will provide ample room for the musicians to improvise. In some cases, the students have created their own arrangements.

The larger ensembles will offer a wider variety of musical styles, from a swinging Nat King Cole 1950s hit to contemporary funk charts by Maynard Ferguson. Modern pop and R&B will also be on the bill, alongside an old Beatles song and the classic blues tune “Night Train.” The band directors also promise Latin jazz, vocal and gospel sounds.

Ken Fischer, leader of the Simsbury High School Jazz Ensemble, is impressed with the caliber of musicianship he witnesses among these aspiring players:  “it’s exciting to see and hear students performing sophisticated jazz charts and learning about the great tradition of this music.”

While their instructors admit that most of the young people participating in Sunday’s festival will not pursue music careers, they add that this kind of experience is invaluable in teaching teens about discipline, team work and utilizing the creative side of one’s brain.

But some are inspired enough to continue their explorations. Fischer says that one of his current students is “planning on being a jazz major” in college. A Simsbury High alumnus recently earned a Masters degree from The Julliard School of Music in New York.

Wayne Splettstoeszer, who has taught at Torrington High School since 1996, calls jazz “America’s art form,” adding that “it gives kids of all ages the opportunity to express themselves in ways that other forms of music cannot.”

This Sunday, listeners will get a sneak peak at the next generation of jazz musicians, and every concertgoer’s ticket will help assure that more young players will follow in their footsteps in the years to come.

Leo Kottke: One-Man Band & Sit-Down Comedian

Contactby Chuck Obuchowski

In the late 1960s, while most of his  guitar playing peers were trying to imitate Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, Leo Kottke was charting a very different musical course. A fan of acoustic country blues, folk, and various fingerpicking styles, Kottke assimilated these and other sonic strands into a unique solo instrumental style anticipated by his mentor, guitarist John Fahey. The young plectorist began attracting national attention with the 1969 release of “6 and 12 String Music,” issued on Fahey’s Takoma Records.

Twenty-some recordings later, Kottke is acknowledged as one of the pioneers of what has become known as American fingerstyle guitar. Yet his music is far too eclectic to fit neatly into any one style or genre. In concert, he’s as likely to tackle an old Buddy Holly favorite as he is to approximate the sound of two or three guitarists during one of his intricate original compositions. He might dust off an old Pete Seeger song or belt out Fleetwood Mac’s “World Turning” in his craggy baritone (Listen here). The latter, in fact, became something of a college radio hit when it was released in 1997.

While Kottke’s vocal excursions remain few and far between, live audiences are always treated to healthy doses of his humorous, free-associative stories and asides. As he tunes his instrument, he’ll be improvising a narrative that may or may not be relevant to the situation, and that in turn will spark an idea of where he turns next in terms of song selection. Watching the creative process in action is one of the joys of a Leo Kottke concert, and one can never be quite sure what to expect.

The outstanding acoustics at Infinity Music Hall make it an ideal space in which to experience Kottke’s music, since the guitarist focuses so intently on clarity and detail. Unlike his classical brethren, however, Kottke sees nothing wrong with following a gorgeous reading of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” with a gritty “Corrina, Corrina.” Nor with paying homage to Johnny Cash and Duane Allman in the same set. Leo Kottke has very big ears.

Sadly, those ears suffered hearing loss on two occasions when he was a young man. During the 80s, Kottke developed tendinitis and had to rework his fingerings in order to remain active. More recently, he’s had to contend with the music industry upheaval and hasn’t released an album under his own name since 2004’s “Try and Stop Me” (RCA).

Despite all these challenges, Kottke at 68 retains his curiosity and creativity, always eager to build upon his kaleidoscopic musical vision. Collaborations with Phish bassist Mike Gordon during the past dozen years have exposed a new generation to Kottke’s artistry. Other collaborators include Ricki Lee Jones, Los Lobos and Chet Atkins, among many others. Recently, Kottke has expressed interest in recording with two past associates: the Turtle Island String Quartet and dobro master Jerry Douglas.

Ever the road warrior, Kottke heads to the west coast for the rest of the month following his Infinity Hall stop; then it’s back to New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia in April. Perhaps he’ll even make it back home to Minneapolis if he’s lucky. For an indication of how important touring is to Kottke – and of how delightfully quirky he is – visit www.leokottke.com. There you’ll find a tour schedule, a discography and a “notes” section, which currently displays only a single, hilarious account of his failed childhood attempts to learn to play the trombone. Must have been divine providence that he never mastered that instrument.

Tickets still available: http://www.infinityhall.com/events/leo-kottke/