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Injustice as Inspiration: Max Gomez at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center

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Singer-songwriter Max Gomez.

Singer-songwriter Max Gomez. Courtesy of New West Records.

By Tessa Raebeck

From pop charts to dive bars, love songs are rampant. A universal topic, love makes it easy for artists to connect with audiences, but singer-songwriter Max Gomez takes a different path.

“I hate to say this old song-writing cliché, but a little bit of heartbreak will turn you into a songwriter real quick,” explained Mr. Gomez, who will perform at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Saturday, March 29.

That heartbreak stems from more than lost love. Mr. Gomez draws inspiration from any form of injustice, from restless girlfriends and the hold of addiction to the misuse of power and widespread violence. His music is soulful and gritty at the same time, balancing mellow rock instrumentation with blues, country and folk influences.

Growing up with four older brothers in the remote hamlet of Taos, the most northern of the New Mexico pueblos, Mr. Gomez first learned about music on an old player piano his family had.

“We used to have a closet full of scrolls and we would get our different scrolls and pump the pedals and the piano would start playing,” he said. “It was just kind of a fun thing to do. I always was into any kind of music, really…I played music ever since I was a little kid.”

When Mr. Gomez was 9, his older brother got a guitar. He quickly usurped control over it, playing it constantly.

“Eventually, I got my own and I’ve never really put it down,” he said. “And now, it’s gotten way out of control.”

At just 15, Mr. Gomez was offered a job to play regularly at “kind of a honky-tonk bar and restaurant” that typically hosted country artists. “It was kind of an unusual thing for a 15-year-old,” he said. “I got a little job playing when I was that age and over the years, I just kind of continued to work at it and study different kind of music and I got different influences.”

Originally listening to and playing only the blues, working at the country venue introduced Mr. Gomez to traveling singer-songwriters and new influences, including writers who worked with John Prine, today a major influence of his, and Mentor Williams, who wrote Dobie Gray’s biggest hit, “Drift Away,” in 1973. The experience helped Mr. Gomez establish himself as a singer-songwriter with diverse influences rather than solely doing a “blues or country kind of thing.”

“The blues has been a major influence, the old recordings of Robert Johnson, which I think kind of started American music in the way that we know it, even today,” he said of the Mississippi Delta blues master, who died in the 1930’s at age 27 after finding little commercial success.

Big Bill Broonzy is another blues influence, “and then in the folk world, I’m big on John Prine, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt…to me that music really never gets old, I listen to it a lot.”

With a piano, a mandolin and a banjo at home, Mr. Gomez continues to “dabble on this and that,” but his focus has always been the guitar. Although he remains rooted in blues and folk, the constant in Mr. Gomez’s music is not a melody or an instrument, but thoughtful, intent songwriting.

“Rule the World,” Mr. Gomez’s debut album, was released in January 2013 by New West Records, which represents eclectic artists like The Devil Makes Three, The Replacements, Drive-By Truckers and Steve Earle. Jeff Trott, who has worked with Stevie Nicks and Sheryl Crow, produced the 10-song album.

The album’s first single, “Run From You,” was co-written by Mr. Gomez and Mr. Trott. It begins:

“I was walking around with my old friend, where the pavement ends and the trouble began, it’s true, that’s where I ran into you. White blossoms in raven hair, got a funny feeling and a dead man’s stare, wishing I knew, I should have run from you.”

The “anti-love” lyrics are supported by the heartbreak evident in Mr. Gomez’s relaxing melodies and mellow, crooning vocals. He often co-writes songs, drawing influence from talented friends like singer-songwriter Shawn Mullins, best known for the 1998 hit single “Lullaby.”

“We get together and we just kind of start playing and find something that we like the sound of musically, and then we start writing a little story to it,” he said of collaboration.

“But when I write by myself,” continued Mr. Gomez, “I tend to only write when I feel really strongly about something and it just can come out in a fell swoop and you just make a little music to go with it, which is kind of different.”

That’s where the injustice comes in as inspiration.

“I was writing a lot of real love songs—specifically for somebody, in a certain sense—and when that whole thing didn’t really pan out, I started writing the other kind of love song, which is the anti-love song.”

“Run From You” is a story about meeting someone and later wishing you hadn’t, a feeling to which most who have endured a difficult romance can likely relate. A specific experience prompted the song, yet Mr. Gomez keeps the lyrics broad for others to decode, so the audience’s interpretation can still be open-ended and every story can also belong to the listener.

“Sometimes you write very literally and you just kind of write a story,” he said, “but I often try to keep the story buried inside, so that it’s not really that specific or literal and it’s something that can be interpreted into the way you feel, rather than a certain, exact thing. I think that’s a good key in songwriting, to not tell the listener exactly what is going on, but to let them make that decision themselves.”

For Mr. Gomez, performance is an extension of that creative process. He tries to play at least one brand new song at every show, to see how the crowd reacts to it and gauge how it can be improved. The audience is crucial to his craft; a draft cannot be complete until the song is tested live, he said.

Despite his anti-love tendencies, Mr. Gomez remains a romantic at heart: In “Love Will Find a Way,” he writes, “Take a good look around, you’ve got both feet on the ground. Kiss the pain, and taste the truth, while you hang onto your youth. You can fly far away and dream of yesterday, and pray, pray that love’s gonna find a way.”

Max Gomez will perform Saturday, March 29, as part of the Breakout Artist Series, in partnership with WEHM 92.9 and 96.9 FM at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center at 76 Main Street in Westhampton Beach. For tickets, call the box office at 288-1500 or visit here.

The Lovely Beth Orton Comes to WHBPAC

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Beth Orton Sugaring Season Press Shot 4 - Photo by Jo Metson Scott

 

By Emily J. Weitz; Photo by Jo Metson Scott

Beth Orton’s voice is so sweet and natural that one could reasonably conclude that the English singer-songwriter’s journey to fame has been a perfectly smooth one. And while every career has its twists and turns, Ms. Orton has been seemingly pulled toward musical stardom by an invisible current.

The first song she ever wrote—when she was just 9—was for her mother. Her mother’s friend, a Scottish folk singer, loved it and insisted that they record it.

Becoming a professional musician “wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do,” she said, “but it just keeps coming up in my life. It’s like a recurring dream. I retire again and again, but the fact is I like making music so I keep making music.”

That doesn’t mean it’s always easy, of course, but Ms. Orton does find that when her music comes naturally, it often makes for a better result.

“I find if I’m trying too hard in anything,” she says, “it’s usually not the right direction. But it’s a fine line. Effort is important. It’s complicated.”

Ms. Orton walks that line, particularly in her collaborations. Even though there’s a folky, simple quality to her music, she frequently works with electronic artists such as the Chemical Brothers or William Orbit. This juxtaposition of the warm with the ethereal creates tension and edgy beauty.

“Comfort isn’t always the most interesting thing to listen to,” she says. “People are looking for where the edges meet: the interplay between forces. That’s what happens when I work with electronic artists.”

Ms. Orton has become known for this “folktronica” sound, although her collaborations with other artists cross genres and include musicians such as Emmylou Harris and Ryan Adams.

Most recently, composer and arranger Nico Muhly remixed the track “Mystery” from Ms. Orton’s 2010 album “Sugaring Season.” The remixed song will be a unique part of her current tour, which includes a Saturday show at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC). “Mystery” had a warmth at its core that Mr. Muhly replaced with electronic sounds that create a sense of detachment where there was once connection.

The sense of connection and warmth in her original, unadulterated work is the source of much of Ms. Orton’s inspiration, though she probably wouldn’t say it is so simple.

“It’s a conversation I’m having with someone,” she says, “but I’m not entirely sure who. It’s a conversation I need to have, and it becomes a song. It’s often a feeling of reassuring.”

That was particularly true, she says, on her older albums, like Trailer Park (1996).

“I wanted my songs to reassure,” she says, though she’s quick to add that it isn’t out of pure altruism that she’s making music. “My need to connect is my need.”

The feeling of the songs that Ms. Orton writes is palpable, and because of that she says she finds it difficult to sing the same songs again and again. There’s something deep within her that is a part of the song, and it comes out through the lyrics and the music, and also through the feeling she conveys.

“When I first made ‘Trailer Park’,” she recalls, “my best friend said ‘Oh no, what have you done? People are going to be able to reach right in and touch you.’ In a way, she was right.”

But the feelings that were present when Ms. Orton created those songs may have changed, now that she’s cut six albums, had children and lived a dozen more years.

“The reason you can’t sing a song like you did when you first wrote it is you stop hearing it in the same way,” she says. “When you first write a song, the melody and the words, they all combine to create feeling, and I don’t know how to describe it, but you put your feet in the same holes so many times that you stop feeling it, and that’s a shame.”

So she keeps creating, armed with her experience in the present moment. Her voice, a reassuring hum in the ears of those who listen.

“Am I reassuring myself?” she asks. “A friend? I don’t know. I’ve always had this thing of wanting to be that rock in that moment, and it’s a good place to write from. It’s a good place to create music from.”

Beth Orton will perform at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Saturday, February 15, at 8 pm. Tickets are $40. The PAC is located at 76 Main Street in Westhampton Beach. Call 288-2350 or visit whbpac.org for tickets.

 

Tribute to the Duke

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By Emily J Weitz

Joe Jackson made a name for himself in the late 70s and early 80s in the pop/rock scene, and his biggest hit, “Is She Really Going Out with Him” has one of those choruses that just won’t get out of your head. But his work has spanned the genres, and when he comes to Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center this weekend, it will be in the midst of a tour promoting his newest album The Duke, a tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington.

The Duke features 15 tracks, all composed by Duke Ellington. Jackson collaborates with a wide spectrum of artists from punk icon Iggy Pop to R&B powerhouse Sharon Jones, from The Roots’ drummer QuestLove to jazz violinist Regina Carter. While most of Jackson’s other albums consisted primarily of original work, he felt it was time to honor one of his greatest influences.

“This is a project that has probably been in the works for many years,” Jackson said in an interview last week. “I’ve long been a fan of Ellington and I really wanted to do what no one else has seemed to do: take the compositions in directions that they haven’t been taken before.”

Jackson believes this is crucial when musicians navigate the tricky waters of covering other musicians.

“I think doing a cover is only interesting if you’re going to bring something different to it,” he said. “Put your own stamp on it. I don’t see the point of singing or performing a song exactly as it was recorded by someone else. That’s why although “The Duke” is a collection of compositions by Ellington and others, it’s still very much a Joe Jackson record.”

You can hear Ellington’s influence in some of Jackson’s work, but he says that even in his more contemporary or poppy sounding pieces, the influence is there. That’s because it’s not just in the sound or the style.

“I think it’s really the spirit in which he worked,” said Jackson. “His sense of musical adventure and his reluctance to put music in different categories. To him there were only two kinds of music: good and bad.”

The other aspect of The Duke’ spirit that is invoked with this new tribute is his playfulness and creativity.

“I think the album is really in the spirit of the Duke himself, who was constantly rearranging and reworking his own compositions.”

One striking choice that Jackson made was to leave the horn section out of the equation entirely. For some purists, Duke Ellington without the horns is hard to imagine. But Jackson was confident that it was the right choice for the sound he wanted.

“That was the first real decision I made when I started to think that this could be an album,” he said in an interview with NPR last week. “I think sometimes you have to give yourself rules or limitations. Because I think you’re trying to create an identity for a project and sometimes you have to do that by what you don’t do as much as you do.”

He wasn’t attempting to recreate Ellington; he was attempting to re-imagine him.

“I just thought right away: as soon as I start using clarinets and saxophones and trumpets and trombones, it’s going to start sounding like Ellington, but not as good.”

Instead, he maximized the talented people he was working with, like Regina Carter on violin.

“All the musicians were fantastic to work with,” he said, “and I never imagined I would have the opportunity to work with so many.  Everyone was really into the project and they were all very well prepared and enthusiastic.  The most difficult part was really coordinating the very busy schedules of all these very much in demand musicians! And we are very lucky to have Regina Carter who plays on the album, also be part of the touring band.”

Other members of the 6-piece touring band include percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Allison Cornell, bassist and tuba player Jesse Murphy, guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Nate Smith.

“The show will be a mix of Ellington songs from ‘The Duke’ and quite a lot of my own catalogue,” says Jackson. “Working with a bigger band gives me a lot more options and I’ll be taking full advantage of that.”

 

 

Send in the Clowns

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By David McCabe

For most Americans, the ideal of a circus is clear: three rings, lots of animals, flashy acts and lots and lots of flare. But for attendees at this weekend’s Zoppé Family Circus in Westhampton Beach, things are going to be a little different.

That’s because the circus is of the traditional Italian variety, and has been since 1842 — since it was founded.

While visitors to an American-style circus might be accustomed to maintaining a level of distance from the performers, the artists in the Zoppé circus greet their guests at the door of their one-ring big top.

“It’s like going to somebody’s house,” said Giovanni Zoppé, who runs the circus that was started by his family six generations ago. He added, “At the end of the show, we’re going to say goodbye.”

Zoppe described the circus’s setting as intimate, saying that no seat in the tent is more than twenty feet from the ring.

The acts in the circus are also more evocative of shows past than of the arena spectaculars we know today. When Zoppé looks for performers, he says he wants to find acts that are unique and are based in more traditional circus skills. Case in point: one of the newest acts in the Zoppé Circus is a young man who does head stands on a trapeze while in motion.

“It’s an antique circus act that nobody does anymore,” Zoppé said.

Likewise, attendees at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center aren’t going to see many of the animals common in American circuses, like lions and tigers, in the ring. The show does feature 12 horses, one miniature horse, 12 dogs and four chickens. The dogs perform with Zoppè’s sister, who trained the chickens during the winter to incorporate them into the act.

While Zoppè said he isn’t philosophically opposed to using wild animals in shows — a topic that drew protesters to the site of the Cole Brothers Circus at the Shinnecock Indian Reservation a week and a half ago — his show doesn’t feature them because they would not have been used in the circus when it was founded.

After a season during which the program for the show is developed, the Zoppe Circus travels all around the country from June until January showing off their different type of circus.

Even the clowns are different. Giovanni Zoppé said that the clown he plays, Nino, does not fit the mold of the big-shoe-wearing, heavily made-up clowns of the American circus. His character wears very little make-up, and lacks the colorful outfits of American clowns.

“I don’t make balloon animals,” he said.

“Nino is actually me,” he said. “When I’m not Nino is when I have to act because I’m very comfortable being my clown.”

Still, Zoppé said that he doesn’t believe one type of clown is better than another. They’re just different.

“There’s good clowns all over the world,” he said. “It’s about what your soul’s about, not what your makeup is about.”

And surely the soul of the Zoppè Circus lies in its history, which could be straight out of a romance novel. In 1842, an Italian clown named Napoline Zoppè met a ballerina named Ermenegilda in Budapest. Her father, the Zoppés claim, would not allow his daughter to marry a clown. And so the pair eloped, supposedly, to Venice, where they opened the circus that still runs today.

While Giovanni Zoppé says that the show has only a loose plot, it does seek to tell the story of the Hungarian ballerina and the Italian clown who loved her.

Napoline’s great-grandson, Alberto, eventually brought the circus to American shores. Giovanni is his son.

And Giovanni Zoppé has a son of his own. While he says he hopes that his young son will consider getting into the family business, he believes that’s a choice only his son can make.

“What my children do in their lives, it’s their choice. I just want them to enjoy what they do,” he said.

Still, if his son does choose to pack up and join the circus, he won’t have to run away from home to do it. Because ultimately, he’ll be joining a tradition that spans more than a century and ultimately relies not on flashy effects or exotic animals, but the simple act of human connection. It’s  tradition that is reflected in the way Giovanni Zoppé selects acts for the show.

“I pick acts only if they can look at the audience and smile and relate,” he said. “It’s more about a personal experience than a phenomenal trick.”

 

The Zoppé Family Circus will run at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center from August 3-5, with both afternoon and evening performances.

Coming Home to the Wallflowers

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web Wallflowers


By Emily J Weitz

Jakob Dylan was born to write songs, and he has just whipped up his first new batch in seven years. The Wallflowers are on their way to Westhampton Beach fresh out of the studio, having just completed their new album. After the independent journeys each of them has taken since their last collaboration, Dylan says coming back together feels a lot like coming home.

“We needed time off,” says Dylan, “and everyone picked up a lot of knowledge along the way. It [playing together] gets better and better.”

When the Wallflowers first got together, they were in their early 20s. They were ambitious, and they saw their high aspirations come to fruition in the mid-90s with some hit songs like “One Headlight” and “6th Avenue Heartache”.

“But ambition can’t do it alone,” says Dylan. “When you’re new to it, things are simpler. Things get complicated along the way and that’s important and you pick up information; but then you realize things were right at the beginning. We had it right the first time around.”

The fluctuation between the members’ solo careers and their collaborations is essential to their success, Dylan says.

“I have these two roles,” he says, “and I’m lucky to do both. I always hoped I could do both. There’s something I can do with the Wallflowers that I can’t do on my own.”

Whether he’s on his own, or frontman for the Wallflowers, Dylan is writing songs. Sometimes it’s a lyric that starts the process, and other times it’s the melody.

“You find a hook,” says Dylan, “and then, it’s a free-for-all. You don’t always know. I suppose a lot of ideas get right past you. But sometimes something hits you on the head. There’s an undefined quality that songwriters are always looking for. When something is rich and special, it’ll knock you on the head, and you’ll know.”

Dylan says that his songwriting is not a kind of catharsis, nor is his playing. But his music does come from a place that’s genuine.

“I take real life situations and turn them into straight fiction,” he says. “I don’t think cathartic materials make great songs, but you can’t write songs from a meaningless place. I don’t tend to work my issues out through music… I am a fan of completely nonsensical songwriting and stuff that’s poignant. I think there’s room for all of it.”

Whether he’s writing for his solo career or for his group collaborations helps to define the sound of the song.

“There are personalities in a group,” he says, “and you work within the parameters of what you do best. It’s different doing a solo record than doing a band record. I’m glad to be back with the band because everyone is able to contribute so much. It’s teamwork, where solo records bring a lot of solitude.”

As the Wallflowers emerge from the studio, don’t expect their sound to be packaged or tidy. According to Dylan, live performance is completely unrelated to the kind of music that comes out of the studio.

“Going to the studio is what gives you the material to go out to do what musicians are really meant to do. Live shows are where you live and breathe. That’s why, with the availability of music today, live shows are not in trouble. You can’t reproduce a show. And in this business, it’s not about producing records. It’s about playing shows.”

At his concerts, Dylan has seen the spectrum of fans, from those sitting quietly, intently listening to the lyrics, to those up and dancing their faces off.

“Any which way they come is good for me,” he says. “There isn’t a fan that’s more important than the other.”

Their upcoming performance at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (whbpac.org) is towards the beginning of the Wallflowers’ first tour in years, and they’ll be playing brand new songs off their upcoming album (which will be released in the fall).

“The band is feeling stronger than it ever has,” says Dylan, “and we’re anxious. It’s been a while since we’ve had a new record and we’re excited to get out there and start playing… I’m grateful we can come back together and do this thing only we can do.”