Leon Russell — In his presence

I don’t know that I’ve ever read much rock music criticism. I guess it’s like all writing about art — it helps readers find what they may not have known they wanted to listen to, helps win recognition for new artists, creates buzz – but once you know who moves you reading words and analysis can seem very beside the point.

Case in point: Leon Russell. I just ran across a quote on the Internet from Robert Christgau’s Record Guide (1981) review of the singer’s 1970 debut album as a single artist (backed by pals Harrison and Starr, Wyman and Watts, Clapton) that says that while his singing is “distinctive, and valid, it grates,” and that the album’s impressive songs would be more so if someone else were doing the vocals. Calling the album “weirder than you would expect,” Christgau gave it a B+. Well, thanks for listening, I guess.

Myself, the moment I heard Leon Russell would be headlining Hoboken’s Art and Music Festival this past Sunday afternoon, appearing at 4:30, I knew where I’d be, rain or shine. The first few hours of the festival did feature rain, and after it stopped the sky stayed gray and heavy, which cut attendance and seemed to keep smiles at a minimum, but the open tent at the foot of Washington Street wasn’t big enough to hold the appreciative crowd that loved what it was hearing. 

Leon at 67 has lost a lot of the bounce he had 40 years ago; time does that. He sat fairly motionless in his Hawaiian shirt and white cowboy hat, and behind big shades. But his hands were moving up and down the keyboard and his mouth was at the mic, and the four much younger men he had with him, each a fine musician in solos, provided the visual oomph, the guitars and drums and backup vocals. The voice the noted critic took exception to so many years ago is still strong. Russell still owns every one of his hits. “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Delta Lady,” “Wild Horses.” And lots more, all rendered with maturity and majesty and fun.

I realized I hadn’t heard what’s categorized as Southern rock in so long I’d almost forgotten its power. In fact I was primarily there because I needed to hear him sing “A Song for You,” and until I heard it and a lot of mist got in my eyes I had indeed “forgotten” why. A friend who’s now gone home to Australia used to sing it in piano bars every time she was asked, and she was usually singing it to one of my best friends, her partner, now gone. I love the both of them “where there’s no space and time.” And on stage, Leon Russell was alone now and he was singing that song for us.

Then the younger guys came back and they all did “Roll Over, Beethoven” and “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and some other hits other people had way back when.  Which was only natural, since according to one biography on the Internet Leon Russell was about 15 when he was lying about his age so he could tour in support of Jerry Lee Lewis. He’s come a long way from Lawton, Oklahoma, where he was born and started studying classical piano at age 3. A success in the music biz long before he became a star, he was the arranger of Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” as well as a member of Phil Spector’s studio group and a collaborator with the Rolling Stones. I know a lot of people are glad Hoboken was one of the stops along the way in a long life filled with music that rolls like a river.

 Leon Russell Delta Lady

Leon Russell A Song for You

The Flora Dora Girls Weekly Sewing Circle

I’m pleased to learn that a play I’ve enjoyed twice during staged readings will be given a full production in fall 2010.

I was curious but had no high expectations when I arrived at the Hoboken Historical Museum last fall for a staged reading, presented by gaia studio, of “The Flora Dora Girls Weekly Sewing Circle.” I know some of the actresses who would be performing, and knew their enthusiasm about bringing life to this previously unproduced play by the late Louis LaRusso II, a Hoboken playwright who received Tony and Drama Desk best play nominations in 1976 for “Lampost Reunion.” That play told of some old pals drinking the night away with their famous singer friend (Frank Sinatra) after he does a show at Madison Square Garden. Word of mouth was that “Flora Dora Girls” was a Hoboken “Steel Magnolias” set in a past that’s largely gone.

Part of my curiosity came from having edited so many Jersey Journal obituaries in the 1980s and ’90s for Italian-American matriarchs who’d worked in sewing factories in Hoboken, Weehawken, Union City, West New York. Each woman’s life had been different, of course, but the obit facts hardly varied: Born in a little town in Italy, came to America as a girl or a wife in the 1920s, worked in a coat or dress factory for 20, 30, even 40 years, the factory’s name now forgotten, not important, but if she had been a “floor lady” who oversaw production, that was always worth noting. Many times a surviving child or grandchild had earned a Dr. or other title to put in front of their name or added an Esq. after it. Sometimes the woman had no survivors, at least in America. Fewer of these obituaries ran with each passing year; very few of these women are living today. All had built America, and done so in sweatshops doing boring work day after day, year after year, so their children could have better lives.

So it meant a lot to me, and to many in the Historical Museum audience who could remember these little old women who dressed mostly in black, that LaRusso’s play, set in the mid-1960s, brings their stories and passions to vivid life. As the producers observe, the characters “come together for a weekly sewing circle, the one place where they don’t need to be ‘ladies.’  They sew, gossip, laugh, cry, fight, curse, ask big questions, tell great stories and bond – like a fist!”  By turns dramatic and hysterically funny, “The Flora Dora Girls Weekly Sewing Circle” is a human comedy, richly observed, with emotions and dialogue that pre-date political correctness.

It was fun to revisit “The Flora Dora Girls” on Sept. 26 when it was again performed as a staged reading, with many new faces in the cast, and this time at the Monroe Arts Center in Hoboken. Directed and edited by Taylor Keith, produced by Lillian Ribeiro, featuring Susan Bucci, Eileen Gaughan, Domenica Galati, Angela Kariotis, Sheila Mart, Ellen O’Neil, Florence Pape, Chelsea Lee Richardson, Angela Sharp, Trish Szymanski and Eva Visco. With judicious cuts, the play did seem tighter the second time around. I look forward to seeing it performed on a set with costumes and props.

“The Flora Dora Girls Sewing Circle” is an ensemble work, but Florence Pape had the leading role. She gave what I call a “whammo” performance last year, and she was in top form this year as well. Below is one of the faces Florence showed me in my studio. I applaud her every chance I get.

Florence Pape Rose 600

I Love My Life opens in Hoboken

Saturday night in Hoboken. Art time. Party time. And I was in the mood for both, having spent all afternoon staring at only three my own photos in Photoshop and learning new moves and tools through trial and error with a good friend who’s slightly more proficient. So I made my way down to the opening reception for “I Love My Life,” a major fall group art show at the Eureka Art Gallery, 259 First St. (Park-Willow), accessible for the night through the rear garden courtyard (pretty twinkling lights) around the block on Newark Street.

Not many photographs up, but plenty of eclectic art created by 35 artists in many media. Roland Ramos, a mover and shaker in the Hoboken art scene, put it all together. Lovely space, as you’ll see below.

In his intro to the show Roland recalls how he shared with a dispirited woman friend going through difficult times that her new mantra should be “I Love My Life,” and how she should keep saying it “until it says you.” This is a very wise idea. Everything in the show is tied to this mantra “I Love My Life.” Positivity is indeed what we need in bad times, in fact at all times. Be here now was a theme of my Saturday.

Of course I schmoozed with some Jersey City art scenesters, and took snaps as I headed home. Didn’t get names. But we’ll meet again. Everyone’s looking forward to the Jersey City Art Studio Tour on Oct. 3 and 4, when 600 artists’ works will be on view in dozens of galleries and public spaces and the Downtown Jersey City art scene will be rocking. I’ll have three of my photos in a group show. I love my life.

Roland’s I Love My Life show, open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., will be on view through Saturday, Oct. 10, and have a closing reception that night beginning at 7 p.m.   

Rolando Ramos

Rolando Ramos 2

Dark clouds over Hoboken

This is not a political blog; you’ll have to go elsewhere for that. But I find this odd photo says a lot and I’m showing it. The very hour I saw it in the viewfinder, while relaxing on a bench on Washington Street, which is Hoboken’s main drag, the candidates for mayor in the upcoming special election were playing beat the clock in delivering their nominating petitions to the County Clerk’s Office in Jersey City. The deadline was 4 p.m.

A little background: Hoboken is having its third mayoral election of the year because the cute 32-year-old lawyer most recently elected mayor resigned after only a month in office. He was one of 44 people, three of them mayors of New Jersey municipalities, arrested on corruption charges in late July. Charged with accepting $30,000 from a “cooperating witness” secretly working a sting operation for the FBI, and having been caught on tape saying some very unbecoming things over dinner in a diner just before allegedly taking some cash in an envelope as he and the “cooperating witness” parted in the parking lot (New Jersey’s image to the rest of the world), the photogenic young mayor’s face was prominent in newspapers from coast to coast. The “reform” candidate he had beaten by a few hundred votes in the June runoff is now serving as acting mayor. Both were on the City Council, and as council president she stepped into the Mayor’s Office when he stepped out. She’s now running in the special election, as is another councilwoman whose “reform” credibility has been questioned because she allegedly forged a secret alliance in the May election with another council member, who’s considered to represent the old “business as usual” Hoboken. His father, who served as mayor for most of the Nineties, did prison time after an earlier scandal involving developers and bribes.

So did the two ladies meet the 4 p.m. filing deadline to quality for the November ballot? The county clerk has been saying yes, but another candidate — herself a former Hoboken municipal court judge – says no, that the acting mayor filed her petitions a few minutes after the hour and should be stricken from the ballot. This “is it a mountain or a molehill?” dispute, which involves time stamps on documents and disputes over notarized signatures, seems headed to court. Meanwhile, another candidate who’s been on the council and school board before, and has been serving on the local sewer authority board for 22 years, is also running, along with a few other contenders, and no one is talking, or being asked, about any real issues.

The current turmoil and fingerpointing is nothing new. Last year’s big news was that the City Council refused to pass the budget until way past the legal deadline, blaming the lame duck mayor for keeping the council in the dark as to its contents until the last minute, when his familiar budget balancing tricks were seen not to have worked. That mayor in turn blamed the council for not going along and doing their legal duty to pass it. So the state government stepped in and appointed a fiscal monitor, who found the budget had been being “underfunded” for several years and promptly raised Hoboken’s city taxes 47 percent, later adjusted down to 23. Ouch and groan!

Then came the May mayoral election, with a crowded field and all the candidates claiming to have “new answers” to “old problems.”  Then the June runoff with the narrow results, then the July corruption arrests and the mayor’s resignation, then a relative quiet August and now a September that’s awakened simmering ambitions all around. The special election is being held the same early November day New Jersey will elect its governor for the next four years, which means Republicans in Hoboken will be sure to vote, as the GOP candidate for governor actually appears to have a chance of unseating the millionaire Democrat (who lives in a Hoboken penthouse, built on the site of the old Maxwell House coffee plant) now winding up his first term. This means some Hoboken voters who couldn’t be bothered to vote in a city election may come out. And this GOP candiate is running on an anti-corruption platform, having sent scores of politicians to prison on corruption charges (including the above mentioned Hoboken councilman’s mayor daddy) during his tenure as the Bush-appointed U.S. attorney for New Jersey. Personally, I don’t think the state’s voters would be wise to hand over the governor’s job to someone who’s never had responsibility for running anything more complicated than an office full of prosecutors and assistant prosecutors, but despite having his own ethical lapses like being stopped speeding in an unregistered vehicle and giving a soon-to-be-former subordinate a $46,000 personal loan and not declaring the interest as income on his income taxes, having “corruption fighter” attached to his name may just do the trick.

My perennial questions: Can any of these people add? Can they balance municipal budgets without tricks like selling this or leasing that? Can they work together for what used to be called the common good?

The only thing I’m sure of is that there are clouds over Hoboken these days, and not the fluffy white kind.

Clouds Over Hoboken


Maybe it’s because I grew up in Kansas, where it is the state flower, but I love every sunflower I see. And yet I’ve never tried to grow one; there’s no spot in my garden that’s right. Luckily, Jersey City Heights has lots of sunny front yards where they do grow tall. Just yesterday, I found there’s a 6-footer in front of a house across the street. Voila! Does seeing it make you as happy as it does me?


Kathi Carlson and the faces that launched my headshot career

What casting directors and agents want to see nowdays is not necessarily the one perfect headshot, a mutual friend was explaining as I started taking pictures of Kathi Carlson a couple of summers ago. The people doing the hiring today want to see all the characters you can play, this actor and model said, and you need a selection of good shots so you can present an appropriate image for whatever part you’re seeking. Glossies with resumes on the back are still a necessity, but actors now are submitted for work with electronic images e-mailed to decision makers whose desks may be across town, or across the globe.

We were working with the available light streaming through Kathi’s living room windows, which was abundant (though variable, due to clouds, and eventually fading as the sun moved), and added fill light from incandescent bulbs in several lamps with their shades removed. I’ve always been comfortable using improvised lighting; it’s far preferable to flash-burning people’s faces. And digital cameras get better results with it than film cameras ever did.

As our friend Gary worked to call forth all the personas Kathi might take on for a stage play or a movie or commercial, I learned a lot about collaborating with performers. Gary and Kathi had just finished taking an acting class together, and with trust, trickery and a few acting exercises that afternoon we produced more than a dozen usable photos that suggest Kathi’s range. She was set to look for work. It was about that time that she quit an office job in the suburbs to put her energy into pursuing a show business career. It’s all paid off.  

Flash forward two years, and Kathi’s been in one theater or film production after another in and around New York, and I’m now lighting my subjects with synced strobes that give consistent results frame after frame in my own well-equipped studio. And the trust and tricks still work their magic. Thanks Gary!

Last spring, Kathi hilariously played an android actress cast in TV soap operas and corny frontier family dramas in Alan Ayckbourn’s early-80s satiric comedy “Comic Potential.” (pictures way below).

Kathi has just been cast as Irina Arkadina in a new Americanized adaptation of Chekov’s “The Seagull” that will be performed in Manhattan by the Curan Repertory Company at The American Theater of Actors from Oct. 28 to Nov. 1. While Kathi often plays “mother” roles, Arkadina is not your run of the mill mom. I’m looking forward to seeing what she does as the big-ego stage actress reluctantly dealing with a neurotic son while trying to hold onto a fickle poet lover as well as her own fading stardom – a role of many nuances attempted by almost every great Russian, British and American actress of the past century.

Kathi Carlson is one of those performers who isn’t afraid of challenges, knowing how much they can stretch one’s talent and make the performing life exciting. Having gone skydiving for a recent birthday thrill, nothing will stop her from creating a memorable Arkadina this fall.

Kathi Carlson

Kathi Carlson 2

Kathy Carlson New third

Comic Potential Gregory Nye Brian Hopson Kathi Carlson

2 Comic Potential Gregory Nye Brian Hopson Kathi Carlson

Comic Potential Kathy Carlson Gregory Nye

Comic Potential Kathy Carlson Kelly Reeves Gregory Nye

Kendra Shank is the real deal

Kendra Shank is a  fabulously gifted and inventive jazz singer. She works jazz originals and standards in unique ways, pushing them to abstraction yet never losing the thread. She’s led her own quartet for about 10 years, and was a West Coast singer based in Seattle before moving to New York in 1997. Born in California, at 19 she began her career playing guitar and singing folk and pop in the subways and sidewalk cafes of Paris. A Billie Holiday recording eventually prompted her to pursue a jazz career. Shirley Horn brought her to New York to perform as her guest at the Village Vanguard and co-produced her first album in 1994. Kendra Shank played guitar on Abbey Lincoln’s “Over the Years” CD as well as issuing her own “A Free Spirit: Abbey Lincoln Songbook” in 2007. With four albums of her own receiving critical acclaim over the years, she produced her fifth — “Mosaic” — in April 2009 and toured to promote it, drawing great reviews everywhere.

I’ve been a fan since Halloween 2008, when she and her group played a gig at 55 Bar, on Christopher Street near Seventh Avenue in Greenwich Village. Small and intimate, downstairs, unpretentious, no food, no cover charge — just my style. I wish a young couple at the bar hadn’t chattered continuously, and the lighting wasn’t particularly camera-friendly. But the singer and her longtime associates — Frank Kimbrough on piano, Dean Johnson on bass, Tony Moreno on drums, plus the young saxophonist who joined them for some songs — had me enchanted and impressed. I’ve since learned that not only has Kendra Shank played every important jazz venue, she’s taught clinics at music schools and at the New School. The quartet plays at the 55 Bar now and then. She must like it. Both brilliant and down to earth, Kendra Shank is the real deal.

Kendra Shank 55 Bar

Kendra Shank 55 Bar 2

Kendra Shank 55 Bar 3

Human history in a glance

I’ll always photograph panoramas like this, which I call “The Passaic River Flows: Indians, Farmers, then Industrialists and Neglect, Now Rebirth.” Such landscapes contain stories and relationships that words and statistics piled together, even with great skill, cannot convey. The Passaic River meanders along through New Jersey for 80 miles, and its Great Falls in Paterson once ran that early city’s silk mills and are still considered a scenic wonder, but just before the Passaic  empties into Newark Bay it flows through one of the most urbanized and industrialized areas in the nation.

Only 400 years ago, before Henry Hudson and the Dutch came, the Lenni Lenape Indians fished its waters. Only since the early 1970s have there been efforts to clean up the river, and the water quality is still not great, though high school and club rowing crews have been using it for decades. Certainly no commercial fishing is allowed and no one is supposed to eat anything they catch in the lower stretch of the river. For more than a hundred years factories lined the river, operating 24/7, and dumped all of their waste into the water. Just google Dioxin and Diamond Shamrock and Agent Orange for a few facts about what still lies in the river’s sediments.

In my photograph, Newark is on the left, Harrison on the right. Newark has redeveloped many acres over the past decade or so; the New Jersey Performing Arts Center is visible, as is an improved McCarter Highway and a light rail system. Harrison is busy, too, with condos and commercial buildings going up and a world-class soccer stadium under construction for the Red Bulls where acres of old red brick factory buildings once stood.

I don’t know of any other American landscape that’s gone from pristine ecosystem to total heedless exploitation and degradation, then been an abandoned wasteland for decades before ultimately seeing as much rebirth.

Passaic River Newark

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