The heat may have kept the crowds away at Reggaefest '98, but the music was cool
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
The Specials had an encore planned, but Hepcat did not.
Ironically, the crowd had to be suckered into hollering for
a Specials reprise, but they willingly screamed bloody
murder to bring back Hepcat.
“This is really cool,'' said Alex Desert, one of
Hepcat's two singers. “You guys are really hip.''
Indeed, when Tulsans show up to a concert, they are
always a feisty and appreciative bunch. The trick is
getting them to show up. As Reggaefest '98 got under way
Friday afternoon at the River Parks Amphitheater,
organizers were wringing their hands and gazing at an
unusually thin crowd. Until the headliner, Dave Wakeling,
you still could plop down a blanket close enough to see the
wrinkles on the singers' faces. This was, after all, the
13th annual Reggaefest — was the numerology working its
The thin first-night crowd likely had more to do with
the extreme heat (you weenies) and the question numerous
readers might have asked in the previous paragraph: “Dave
who?'' Friday's bill — indeed, this year's whole Reggaefest
line-up — was less focused and recognizable than previous
bills. The talent quotient was high as ever — higher in a
couple of cases — but we're still a city that won't lay down
the entertainment dollars unless we're sure we'll be able
to sing along.
Most folks over 25 probably would have at least hummed
along with most of Wakeling's crystalline tunes. The crisp,
Cockney voice that once led such inimitable (and nearly
identical) second-wave ska groups as the English Beat and
General Public has lost none of its crispness in such
standards as “Tenderness,'' “I'll Take You There,'' even
his old cover of “Tears of a Clown.'' No one else sings
with Wakeling's kind of panache — punctuating verses with a
falsetto bark, opening songs with desperate panting and
stylizing his creamy vocals evenly along a line between
romantic indulgence and lurid excess. His new foursome,
tentatively called Bang!, is a straight guitar-bass-drums
four-piece. True, their are no horns — a ska no-no — but the
witty Wakeling has always been a better pop act than a
trooper in whichever ska revolution, and when the quartet
(electrified by the impressive effects of guitarist Danilo
Galura) blasted through a full-bore rendition of “Twist
and Crawl,'' who still gave a hoot about the unwritten
traditions of ska?
Tulsa's own Tribe of Souls started off the day with
their usual aplomb, and the Rhythm Lizards again deftly
fashioned their own Margaritaville on the second stage, but
other acts fell short. The Blue Collars are a frenetic
young ska-tinged posse absolutely packed with potential,
but lack of rehearsal and enough material to fill the
timeslot made for a weaker-than-usual set and a troubled
ending. Judy Mowatt arrived as they were finishing and,
after asking where was the changing room, added, “Ooh.
Who's making that
Mowatt herself, a former I-Three singer behind the
Wailers, didn't do much to blow anyone away, though. Backed
by a flavorless band, she relied on Bob Dylan covers to
boost the intake of her strong but indistinct voice.
Somehow, when she sang, “We're livin' in a mad, mad world
/ When will the war be over?'' it packed the same punch as
it would have coming from the mouth of Anita Baker, though
her set warmed up as the night cooled down.
Saturday's line-up held faster and drew the standard
Reggaefest throng. Tulsa's own Local Hero again dazzled a
crowd left hanging when King Chango didn't show (instead
opting for another bar gig in Spain — whatever). The night
was capped off by Eek-a-Mouse, a veteran reggae cowboy who
scatted (“bing bing biddley bong bong'') his way through
some middling reggae, but the evening acts nearly brought
the stage down.
The Specials were as smokin' as most fans thought they
would be. Opening with “The Guns of Navarone,'' they tore
through several classics (“Rat Race,'' the scorching
“Concrete Jungle'') and equally arresting new songs with
the manic Mark Adams gyrating behind his keyboards, Neville
Staple singing and toasting (“Man, I thought Jamaica was
hot ...'') and the ferocious Roddy “Radiation'' Byers
striking his Steve Jones (Sex Pistols) poses and wailing on
much more melodic and jumpy guitar solos. After the
still-topical anti-racism rant “Doesn't Make It Alright,''
Hepcat trumpeter Kincaid Smith joined the Specials for
their classic “A Message to Your Rudy.''
That was only a glimmer of the fun to come. Hepcat may
be the classiest, most entertaining act at Reggaefest since
it moved from Mohawk Park. Led by the playful duo of Desert
and Greg Lee, Hepcat brought the festival to life with an
unusual elixir: they combined the carefree cheer of
Jamaican roots rhythms with both the wide-eyed swing
touches of current retro bands like the Royal Crown Revue
and the cool soul-jazz stylings abandoned since the days of
'60s cats Earl Grant, Brother Jack McDuff or Harold
Johnson. As the poker-faced band kept the music bouncing,
Desert and Lee (and sometimes Smith) kept dancing. They
seemed to prefer instrumentals like “We're Having a
Party'' because it gave them the opportunity to dance
together on the runway, though their warm voices blended
well for both sprightly romantic ballads (“Goodbye
Street'') and grooving movers (“I Can't Wait''). Worth
every drop of sweat.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
One of the many bonuses of being a Loudon Wainwright fan
is discovering his immensely talented children. On Loudon's
previous record, he sang a duet with his daughter Martha, a
formidable singer on her own and currently being courted by
Martha's brother Rufus, however, beat her to the punch.
The ballyhooed DreamWorks record label this month released
Rufus Wainwright's astonishing self-titled debut to the
accolades of critics across the continent.
"I definitely have the writers under my spell," the
younger Wainwright said in an interview earlier this month.
"My favorite review said that I sounded like a cross between
Kurt Weill and the Partridge Family."
It's an apt description if you can fathom it. Rufus
Wainwright's "modern standards" or "popera" is worthy of its
other high comparisons, such as to Irving Berlin and
especially Cole Porter.
"I really want to be the next Wagner," he adds.
Rufus plays piano, unlike his acoustic guitar-playing
dad. Loudon divorced Rufus' mother — another noted folk
singer, Kate McGarrigle of the McGarrigle Sisters — when
Rufus was very young, and Rufus was raised chiefly by
McGarrigle in Montreal.
That accounts for a good deal of the operatic and French
influences on his rich, warm songs. But is Generation X
ready for this kind of sweeping, orchestrated pop?
"Are you kidding? They need it. They're dying for it,"
Rufus said. "My main objective is to be in that great
American songwriter tradition, like Porter and Gershwin ...
Some reviews say I'm retro, but I'm not. I'm just doing the
art of songwriting, which really hasn't changed much in
thousands of years. I'm not doing sounds, I'm doing songs."
But while Loudon spent a career singing mostly
autobiographical songs about "Bein' a Dad," Rufus doesn't go
for the first-person approach. He can't spend his life
writing answer-songs to his father, he said.
"He goes right for the nugget, my dad," Rufus said.
"Sometimes I thought he used the family in a vicious way
when he wrote about us, but then I realized that it's just
the way he does it. It's whatever gets your goat. He wrote
beautiful songs about the family, as well. "My songs are
more innate. I'm still pretty much the central figure in
all of them, but I tend to portray myself in songs as more
omniscient, perhaps just as an observer of things around
me. Then the listener can more easily place themselves into
that position. The songs are still about me, but I'm more
hidden. I don't want to embarrass myself."
Rufus now launches his own series of concerts across the
country to support the debut record. His dad said he gave
Rufus a little advice, but not much was necessary.
"I told him to get a good lawyer. But he doesn't need
advice. He's a good performer and funny and nice looking
and an egomaniac. If you ain't got that last one, you might
as well hang it up in this business ... Plus, he and his
sister have watched their parents make so many mistakes,
and that suffices as advice. I'm just hoping in the end
that they'll buy me a house."
And how did Loudon react when he found out that Rufus
was an openly gay performer?
"He didn't care one bit," Rufus said. "One day he just
turned to me and asked, `So do you like guys or girls or
what?' I was a pretty flamboyant little child. He claims he
knew from age 4."
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Loudon Wainwright III isn't bitter. Nominated for two
Grammy awards, he lost both times ('85 and '86) to the same
dead guy — the equally humorous and compassionate folkie
For his latest album, "Little Ship" — his 17th — Wainwright
worked with John Levanthal, who just won two Grammys with
his songwriting and production partner Shawn Colvin.
"He was very gracious and did not flaunt his trophies,"
Wainwright chuckled in an interview this week, "though I
suppose he's got one for each ear."
Wainwright is the oft-overlooked wry songwriter once
hailed, among many others, as the New Bob Dylan (also, the
Woody Allen of Folk or the Charlie Chaplin of Rock). He
couldn't quite live up to that title, though, because he's
got too great a sense of humor.
That same sense of humor also cursed him with his one
and only "hit" song, 1972's "Dead Skunk," which remains a
perennial favorite on Dr. Demento's radio shows and CDs.
"It was a novelty. People thought it was funny, and they
played it. It surely had more to do with payola than
anything," Wainwright said. "I'm being facetious, but not
entirely. If you recall, Clyde Davis was kicked out of
Columbia for the payola scandal not long after my song got
around. Thing is, we start this leg of the tour in Arkansas
where 'Dead Skunk' was No. 1 for six weeks. So surely it
wasn't all payola."
Today, radio support for Wainwright's confessional,
sometimes cheeky folk music is tough to find, though
Wainwright said a few major cities boast acoustic-oriented
"There's still college radio and NPR stations, and
there's this format called triple-A. That's the Automobile
Association of America, as far as I'm concerned.
Fortunately, I am a member, but it doesn't guarantee me
airplay. In fact, that's why I joined ..."
Wainwright, though, is one of those artists with a
devoted cult following. Since his eponymous debut in 1970,
he has crafted albums with laissez-faire care and
razor-sharp wit, frequently turning out deeply personal
songs with the ability to touch the heart and bust a gut --
sometimes within the same verse. His small but mighty
legions of followers have charted his course through minor
novelty hits to sorely underappreciated masterpieces
(1988's "Therapy") and his occasional acting whimsies, such
as his three appearances on "M*A*S*H" as Capt. Calvin
Spaulding, the singing surgeon.
Still, he keeps in mind the goal of branching out to
attract new audiences, and he said he hopes that his work
with Levanthal on "Little Ship" — one of his most fully
realized records — bolsters a few new fans.
"I've been only marginally successful in my career. It
actually helps me to be fairly flexible when recording,"
Wainwright said. "For instance, the song 'Mr. Ambivalent'
(on the new record). I went to John with a lot of songs --
things I'd thrown out, forgotten about, old stuff I hadn't
gotten to — and just played him stuff for days. 'Mr.
Ambivalent' was one I wouldn't have recorded, but John
liked it because it had a chorus and a hook and was fairly
catchy. I decided to try something different, you know.
Whether or not we fooled some new people, I don't know."
Teaming up with Levanthal came about as most musical
collaborations do: they were mutual friends of someone — in
this case, Colvin — and after several years of casual
suggestions that they should work together, finally
mustered the time and energy to do it.
"I've known Shawn for 15, maybe 20, years since she came
to New York City. They were living together in those days,
and I'd heard he was interested in working with me,"
Wainwright said. "His contribution to this record was
substantial. He has his stamp on the way it sounds, and
it's a way that I like very much. It was a different way of
working for me.
“John's got this little funky East Village pad with
foam rubber gaffer-taped to the door, and he records in
there hoping all the while that the people upstairs stop
stomping around and the buses don't go by. It's primitive,
I suppose, but it's relaxed. He works in his own way, too.
You record with him, and then he sends you away. You come
back in a few weeks and hear what he's done to your songs.
He's kind of a mad scientist kind of guy."
Wainwright continues touring this summer in support of
Loudon Wainwright III
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Old Fort River
Festival, Ft. Smith, Ark.
Where: Harry E. Kelley Park near
downtown. Admission: $5 at the gate, with children under 12
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: City Arts Center in Oklahoma City (at the
fairgrounds, gate 2-26 off of May Avenue). Tickets: $8 in
advance or $15 on Saturday. Call (405) 951-0000.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
It's been a season of rock 'n' roll legacies in the
music biz. We've seen albums from Chris Stills, son of
Stephen; Emma Townshend, daughter of Pete; and Sean Lennon,
son of John — and none of them have been very striking.
Enter Rufus Wainwright, son of folkies Kate McGarrigle
and the also cumbersomely named Loudon Wainwright III. He
looks hip enough — leather jackets, bushy hair, knife-blade
sideburns — but he's crafted a debut that won't seem hip
right away. Wainwright, you see, is so freakin' talented,
he will have to slip into his destiny as the Gen-X Cole
Porter or Kurt Weill slowly.
Those comparisons are not tossed in here merely as
reference points for the reader. Wainwright is writing
standards on that level of charm and genius. His songs have
been described as retro (or, my favorite, “popera''), but
that's simply because the young generation responding to
Wainwright's timeless laments and musical sighs only know
of standards from the perspective of their parents. But
these days it's the mainstream to buck tradition, so
Wainwright's return to the traditional conventions of 20th
century classic songwriting may turn out to be the hippest
Like his father, the younger Wainwright writes form very
personal experiences, but unlike Loudon, Rufus phrases his
lovelorn laments and cheery ruminations in an omniscient
voice. It's just as easy to place yourself in the center of
the moseying “Foolish Love'' as it is his own reminiscing
on boarding school days in the jaunty “Millbrook.'' His
“Danny Boy'' is a rolling original, though like many of
the songs it restrains Wainwright's delicious, reedy tenor
into one constraining octave. String arrangements
throughout are courtesy of Van Dyke Parks — a definite
kindred spirit — while Jim Keltner provides drums and Jon
This debut is an intelligent cabaret — with all the sly
wit of Porter and the high-though-furrowed brow of Weill.
Several notches above the cleverness of Ben Folds,
Wainwright could be the closest thing my generation has
come to an original, classic entertainer.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.