Ben Noble highlighting Whisky Priest at Bryant Lake Bowl

If you have time for just one song by Ben Noble, make it Little One. As he says, it’s a story song presumably about his own three year old. It’s a gentle song, too loud for a lullaby but the kind of song you’d listen to with your own little one cuddling on the couch. It showcases his falsetto range that produces an ethereal, soothing sound. The strings (especially on the album but also live) have a dream quality that plays against an otherwise straightforward tune. The lyrics are touching and sweet. The song is like a little vacation.

Luckily I had time for a few more watching Noble play at the Bryant Lake Bowl with a bass player, keyboardist and drummer. They played many songs from his latest CD, Whisky Priest. Keeping with a theme, he led with Daughter, which is another pensive almost melancholy song. Again the song features his unique voice. The lyrics, the voice, the guitar are very tender.

Noble’s song writing is very personal but it’s a case of when personal detail can make something so universal. Many of the tunes are inherently sad. Good listening for a cold winter afternoon.

Piano preview of Christmas peace from Steven C & Friends at the St Paul Cathedral

Steven C’s piano solos have been downloaded millions of times. Millions! He has played with the London Symphony Strings at Abbey Studios and with Mannheim Steamroller on the TODAY show. So I feel fortunate to have seen him in his own backyard, which it turns out is the same as my backyard.

Steven C (and his friends) played a set of Christmas and Emotive music at the Cathedral. His friends include the St Cecelia and St Gregory Choristers of the Cathedral Choir School, vocalist Kathleen Johnson and three musicians, Pat Frederick on violin, Charles Asch on cello and Lawrence Lawyer on pipe organ.

They started with O Come, O Come Emmanuel. The choir began a cappella. Then just the piano. Then the strings joined in. The music sounds like the Cathedral looks. The majesty draws you into the space but the details keep you there. A joyous start.

The second song was Still, Still, Still with piano and strings. It’s a more pensive piece and the audience was clearly touched – each in a different way. I find it soothing. It’s a one-hour break with stimulus that spoils you into a brain lull. But around me, I could see tears or joy and remembrance. Everyone has taken time from a busy week to escape and the music did not disappoint.

Some songs stand out – such as the siren’s plaintive start of Twas’ in the Moon of the Wintertime. And the husky low notes of Mary Did you Know.  There was a sing-along and Phil Coulter’s Irish Blessing. That’s always going to be a hit in St Paul.

I enjoyed Steven C’s original work too, especially Restored. Apparently, he felt called to write that just before he recorded the new album live at the Cathedral (Sep 2017). He wrote it based on his experience restoring old houses in the area and based on memories of the restoration of the Cathedral roof. (Remember when the Cathedral dome was green?) He wrote it during a 3-mile run to the Cathedral. And that is when I knew we shared a backyard. Because I had walked with a friend to the show that night,  4 miles each way in windy, freezing weather. But it was absolutely worth the hike!

Steven C has two more shows this season:

I rarely include video and I hope the artist won’t mind – but I thought everyone could a quick break of hectic for splendor of music and art

Hatchet Lady: Carry Nation, Angel of Destruction – the must-see musical

Crazy or chosen? That is the question that I’m left with after seeing Hatchet Lady, performed by Walking Shadow Theatre Company. Are larger-than-life zealots driven because they are crazy or chosen (by God)? And who gets to decide? A timely question for so many reasons!

Historically, Carry Nation was a passionate member of the temperance movement, known for destroying taverns with her hatchet. Hatchet Lady is inspired by her story and her modern-day, fictional biographer (Frances) who bemoans her own lack of passion or courage, striving only for “what will make people like her.” Frances presents as a third option to the “crazy or chosen” option – damned by mere adequacy.

And the story is a musical!

That idea of “crazy, chosen or adequate” gets to the root of some of the feminist themes in the play. Girls have traditionally been taught to aim for adequate over chosen or risk being labeled crazy. The title character sings a song comparing herself to John Brown, American abolitionist who believed in violence. They are similar in some ways; different in others. Both were religious and both were violent. One fought against slavery and the other against alcohol. Or is it that one was a woman and one was a man? If the story were about Joan of Arc, the important difference would be clear. The fact that we’re comparing Brown to Nation leaves room for deeper consideration.

The action of the play is driven by vignettes narrated by a community radio talk show format (think SNL skit) and punctuated with musical numbers from punk to country. Admittedly the flow could grow tiresome if the writing and acting weren’t as good as they are. As it stands, it’s a good way to convey info (I might not have passed a test on Carry Nation) and start conversation on themes of isms and historical perspective.

The acting is suburb. Keeping with the SNL references, Maren Ward as Carry Nation and her biographer brings the physical humor of Melissa McCarthy. Megan Burns nails the community radio personality. Maureen O’Malley as the intern sent to work with the seasoned biographer is a good wide-eyed balance. Chelsie Newhard rounds out the cast playing several roles, including Mr. Carry Nation. The writing (Savannah Reich) is clever and thoughtful. It’s the kind of writing that makes you happy to have an MA in literature and sad that you can’t discuss the work in great depth in class the next day. So many levels.

The music (by Luc Parker) stops the action in important places and allows for total turnaround in plot. It sets the tone. The band includes Britt Collis on guitar, Katelyn Farstad on drums, Pamela Laizure on violin and Shannon Boyer on bass. Dressed as angels with wings and halos, the musicians are part of the performance. The music in integral but not overbearing.

Remaining performances:

  • Thursday, Dec 14, 7:30pm
  • Friday, Dec 15, 7:30 – post-show discussion
  • Friday, Dec 15, 10:00pm
  • Saturday, Dec 16, 7:30pm – CLOSING

Amanda Grace releases new CD – Better Life

Amanda Grace played a cozy set of new and old songs at the Warming House to release her new CD, Better Life. She started with a brand new song – first time played publicly I think. It was a slightly bluesy piano song with a hint of drumming. It’s a format and tone that sets nicely with her sultry voice. The drummer stayed with her as she played some covers and older songs. She was joined on stage with fellow singer Joyanne Parker to sing a Christmas song.

She saved the music from the new CD for the second half of the show. There were two songs that really stood out – Better Life and Los Angeles.

Better Life has a popular music feel, with a folksy twang that harks back to Jewell; maybe that’s combination the guitar and voice with range. And Los Angeles has a marching drive forward. She talks about the song pouring out of her when visiting a sick friend in California. It has touches of sweet keening but it’s the step by step rhythm that pushes the song forward.

Grace’s music is very personal. She writes, sings and talks about the death of a nephew, the death of a brother-in-law and a sickness with friends. There’s an undercurrent in spirituality seemingly born of life experience balanced with hints of the harder rock she noted enjoying as a student. She uses her talent as an opportunity to work with ChildFund, a nonprofit that strives to feed kids all over the world. During the performance she mentioned two children – Bui and Vilma – and asked us to think about them. After the performance, she is available to speak about the kids and ChildFund. Guests are offered a free CD as they learn more about ChildFund. It helps spread the word. ChildFund helps promote the artist and compensates them for the cost of the CDs. It’s a win-win.