During Lisa Viggiano‘s critically-praised 2018 Bruce Springsteen Tribute Shows (which helped earn her a 2019 Bistro Award for “Outstanding Vocalist”), she included a section of songs by iconic musicians and singers discovered over five decades by talent scout/record producer John Henry Hammond, who also championed Springsteen and recorded “The Boss’s” first demo. Now, like a spinoff from a hit TV sitcom, Viggiano has created an entire cabaret show featuring songs and performers produced by Hammond during his long career at Columbia Records. In FROM LADY DAY TO THE BOSS: 50 YEARS OF TALENT DISCOVERED BY LEGENDARY COLUMBIA RECORD PRODUCER JOHN Henry Hammond, Viggiano will deliver her unique renditions of classic tunes recorded by Bessie Smith, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Harry James, Count Basie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, George Benson, and Springsteen.
Directed by MAC and Bistro Award Winner Tanya Moberly, with multiple MAC Award Winner Tracy Stark on Piano and Tom Hubbard on Bass, FROM LADY DAY TO THE BOSS: 50 YEARS OF TALENT DISCOVERED BY LEGENDARY COLUMBIA RECORD PRODUCER JOHN Henry Hammond will open at Pangea (178 Second Avenue, between 11th and 12th Streets) on Friday, September 27 at 7 pm. Tickets are $20 in advance/$25 cash at door, with a $20 food/beverage minimum. For reservations: www.pangeanyc.com. Viggiano will continue the four-show run (with Matt Scharfglass on Bass) at Don’t Tell Mama (343 West 46th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues) on November 13, 15, and 21, all at 7 pm. For reservations: www.donttellmama.com.
“While researching my Bruce Springsteen show, I became fascinated with John Henry Hammond and his ability to recognize talent,” Lisa says. “His musical discoveries were cutting edge, revolutionary, and the artists he championed seemed to be just what America wanted to hear. Hammond was also a writer and civil rights activist, and as far back as the 1930s he was obsessed with ending segregation, especially in the music industry. During his time, he clearly helped to fuel progress in civil rights movement, and that only added to my passion about doing this show.”
BIO: Celebrating her 20th year as a cabaret performer in 2019, this October Lisa Viggiano will make her debut at the 30th Annual New York Cabaret Convention at the Rose Theatre at Lincoln Center. Lisa was awarded with a 2019 “Outstanding Vocalist” Award by BistroAwards.com, which said “…musician, poet, and storyteller; Viggiano handles all three masterfully”. Lisa has performed as a singer/actor since childhood, sharing the stage and screen with talents such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Tom Hanks, Rita Moreno and Bonnie Raitt. In 2016, her critically acclaimed show, Night In the City, earned her a BroadwayWorld.com New York Cabaret Award as “Best Female Vocalist.” Lisa has performed in major cabaret rooms throughout the country, including 54 Below, Don’t Tell Mama, The Metropolitan Room, The Duplex, The Triad, Baruch PAC, and The Laurie Beechman Theatre in New York City, The Palace of Fine Arts, The Herbst Theatre and The Plush Room in San Francisco, and The Gardenia in Los Angeles, and she has sung the National Anthem at games for various New York sports teams. By day, Lisa uses her voice as a speech-language pathologist for special needs students, helping them to find their voices. You can follow Lisa Viggiano on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for information about her CD release and upcoming shows in NYC and San Francisco.
“No one is more surprised than I am. I had no plan whatsoever,” Van Zandt said of this turn of events. “It just happened totally naturally. It’s a real gift for me.”
Quite literally, Van Zandt said, he had gone two decades without thinking about resuming his solo career. After leaving Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band following the recording of Springsteen’s chart-busting 1984 album, “Born in the U.S.A.,” Van Zandt wrote and recorded five solo albums (with a changing cast of musicians who populated his backing band, the Disciples of Soul), and that very much looked like it would be the end of his days as a recording artist.
“After I did the five albums, I kind of said what I wanted to say and learned what I wanted to learn,” the guitarist/singer said. “So I hadn’t even looked back. I hadn’t written a single song.”
Of course, Van Zandt was anything but idle after his first five solo albums. In 1999, he landed his role as Silvio Dante on the hit HBO series, “The Sopranos.” That role lasted until 2007 and he then went on to star in, co-write and compose music for the multi-award-winning series “Lilyhammer,” which aired in America on Netflix and completed a three-season run in 2015.
He also rejoined the E Street Band when Springsteen put the legendary group back together in the late 1990s. Then there was Van Zandt’s major role in guiding two popular radio programs – the syndicated Little Steven’s Underground Garage (which he launched in 2002), as well as the Sirius Satellite Radio version of that program, and the Outlaw Country channel, also on Sirius. He also started his own label, Wicked Cool Records, in 2006, signing and releasing albums by several garage-rock-oriented acts in the years since.
Chances are Van Zandt would never have added doing solo albums and tours to his slate of activities if not for some serendipity.
A couple of years ago, Van Zandt and his wife were invited to the 80th birthday party for former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman in London. Van Zandt happened to connect with a friend prior to the trip and discovered his friend was holding a blues festival the same week as Wyman’s party. The friend invited Van Zandt to put together a band to play the festival. He decided to accept the offer.
“Now how weird is that? Just the amount of coincidence that had to take place,” Van Zandt said. “And you know, it (playing the blues festival) just sounded like fun. I hadn’t done it in 25 years. But I said ‘You know what, I’m going to give it a shot.’”
The gig prompted Van Zandt to reacquaint himself his ‘80s solo albums for the first time in some two decades, and he liked what he heard. Before long, he was putting together a 15-piece band, complete with horns, and recording a selection of covers and original songs Van Zandt had written over the years for other artists for what became his 2017 album, “Soulfire.”
As touring behind that album unfolded, Van Zandt began to work his way back into writing songs, a process that resulted in the release earlier this year of his first album of original material in 25 years, “Summer of Sorcery.”
He had a clear idea of the kind of album he wanted to make. Where his first five albums were very political and autobiographical, that wasn’t the plan for “Summer of Sorcery.”
“I managed to do a completely fictional album,” Van Zandt said. “I just felt, we’re in such a dark time in terms of our civilization that my usefulness right now would be to provide a little bit of light and a little bit of optimism. So I made summer the theme and kind of looked back to the days when we were young and school was out, and man, that thrill, the excitement of summer, the possibility of just falling in love…that whole feeling of just liberation that comes with summer when you’re young.”
Musically, he wanted to connect back to the soul-meets-rock music he started to develop as a key songwriter and producer in the 1970s for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and carried into his solo albums.
He found himself especially drawing back to his fourth solo album, 1989’s “Revolution,” which he feels was the pinnacle of his exploration of the rock-soul-funk sound, an album where he married those influences to synthetic ‘80s production. (Van Zandt’s fifth solo album, “Born Again Savage,” was a left turn into ‘60s-ish hard rock.)
“I kept coming back to that (“Revolution”) record. I’m like now that’s fascinating to me. Why am I doing that? Because that’s where my progress stopped, you know what I mean?” Van Zandt said. “So I went back to that and really have stayed in that funk thing.
Funk is really the major sort of identity of where this thing is at right now. I don’t want to scare anybody or freak anybody out, but I’m not really making rock records anymore and my show is not a rock show. Now do I have elements of rock in it? Of course, yes, but it’s something else. It’s some other kind of hybrid thing, this rock-meets-soul-meets-funk that I went to an extreme with on ‘Revolution’ in terms of technology.
But now (on “Summer of Sorcery”) I’ve come back, I’ve kind of progressed back in a way toward more natural instruments, although we do integrate synthesizers a little bit. But it’s back to real horns, it’s all real horns and real drums and real everything else, but with some synthesizer elements, some technological elements that remain from the ‘Revolution’ era in there. So it’s a real natural progression from the ‘Revolution’ album, but looking forward.”
Van Zandt wants to keep making solo albums and seeing how he can evolve his music, while keeping his touring band together – it’s made up of some of the finest session players from New York City.
One thing that looks likely to interrupt that process is a return to action for the E Street Band. Springsteen has told interviewers that after finishing his recently released non-E Street Band solo album, “Western Stars,” he had a burst of inspiration and wrote an entire album he intends to record with the E Street Band. A tour is being planned for next year to support the album.
Van Zandt, who has remained close to Springsteen and speaks to him every couple of days or so, hopes the album and tour happens.
“I’m not going to guarantee anything’s happening,” Van Zandt said, noting he had yet to hear any of Springsteen’s new songs. “All I know is I am anticipating the possibility of it happening and I booked this tour until Nov. 6, ending at the Beacon in New York. I did that intentionally with the thought that we may go into the studio. I wanted to make sure that we had enough time to record a new album and get it out for the summer of 2020.”
For now, Van Zandt will tour into the fall with his own band.
“It’s a whole new show this year. It (features) the ‘Summer of Sorcery’ album and a few of the things from my past that fit into the picture. But basically it’s a whole new show.”
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After Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band wrapped up their massive, September 11 memorial-heavy The Rising tour in 2003, sax player Clarence Clemons needed a break. A spiritual seeker – if not a particularly religious one – he decided to book a trip to China, in search of…something.
There, people would only know him as a big man, but not The Big Man. And he brought along director Nick Mead with an eye on making something of an improvised documentary.
But while being filmed with his gleaming instrument on the Great Wall of China—at the time bustling with people—one man took umbrage to Clemons and the film crew impeding his path. “Excuse me!” he says, clearly irritated. “Who do you think you are?”
That simple question set Clemons and the film in a different direction. And that encounter is captured in the culminating work, Clarence Clemons: Who Do I Think I Am? (Virgil Films). Directed by Mead, it is anything but a normal musician documentary. Unfolding at a languid pace (though sometimes too languid), it focuses far more on the inner soul of Clarence Clemons than the outer breath he pushed through his instrument.
“We all know him as the Big Man. But – as Clarence says in the film –people don’t really know him. Even Bruce has said that Clarence created this image,” says Joe Amodei, who co-produced the film with Mead and Clemons.
“He was on this quest to find out what life was all about and what his role is here on Earth. As great as being a member of the E Street Band was, Clarence didn’t think that was the only reason he was here. And Nick wanted to pay respect to Clarence the man and the spiritual seeker, rather than just the man blowing the horn.”
Once completed years later, a 55-minute cut was screened at a New Jersey film festival, and in the audience was film producer and Springsteen aficionado Amodei. Later, he spoke with Mead and Clemons about beefing the film up to a 90-minute mark for wider distribution, and the three men agreed to do more filming and get some talking head to discuss Clarence.
But a little over a month later, in June 2011, Clarence Clemons (whose health had been deteriorating over several years) passed away from complications after suffering a stroke.
Left with a subject who was no longer around, Mead and Amodei soon started calling Clemons’ friends and admirers to participate. An eclectic list appear in the film including Joe Walsh (who played with Clemons in Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band), fellow E Streeter Nils Lofgren, nephew Jake Clemons (who took his uncle’s place in the band), and even former U.S. President Bill Clinton, a fellow honker. Relatives, friends, collaborators, and music journalists also got screen time.
“Every single person we talked to loved the guy. And everybody also misses him. And if you’re a Springsteen fan like I am, not matter how great the band is today – and they’re still great – there is that void on the left hand side of the stage,” Amodei says.
There’s much footage of Clemons reflecting on his life, the universe, visiting a temple and strolling around public squares in China, towering over and surrounded by local for whom he was probably the first black man they’ve ever seen in person. There are also smatterings of recording studio sessions and live performance clips (often with Bruce and the band). This leads into a discussion of what makes Clemons unique as a musician.
“Clarence brought an emotion to those solos that Bruce wrote or they collaborated on. The best way to describe it is when Sinatra sings one of the saddest ballads he recorded in the ‘50s. That music isn’t just a bunch of notes – it comes from the heart and the soul,” Amodei says.
“You could always hear that emotion in his solos. It’s described in the film as an ambulance wailing down a city street or a cry from the apartment above. Especially in ‘Jungleland.’ You hear that solo played by others – and Jake comes close – but it’s not the same. You feel that Clarence is living that solo and using his [life experiences] in it…it’s like an out of body experience.”
One obvious and glaring omission from the talking heads, of course, is Bruce Springsteen himself. Amodei says that he and Mead ultimately decided not to “heavily pursue” filming Clemons’ former boss and bandmates lest it become too heavy on that aspect of his life and career. And today Amodei believes they made the right decision—though he notes that Springsteen himself was aware and supportive of the project, and gave permission for music and video rights.
Ultimately, the biggest presence in Who Do I Think I Am? is (not surprisingly) the subject himself, especially in plenty of voice-over narration. Asked if he thinks that Clarence Clemons ever found the peace or answers in his quest that is the heart of the documentary, Amodei is in the affirmative camp.
“I think he did. At least in the film it all came back to the music, his music and the sound that came out of him,” Amodei sums up. “Some of it was Bruce Springsteen songs and some of it was Clarence Clemons songs. But he knew that he was given a gift to get into people’s hearts and sound and made them think or take them away from their day to day problems. I think that’s where he found why he was here.”
WFUV, New York (90.7 FM/wfuv.org) It’s Bruce Springsteen‘s 70th birthday on Monday, September 23, and 90.7 WFUV in New York is celebrating this local hero in a significant and heartfelt way. That evening, from 9-10 p.m. EDT, WFUV will premiere its original program, The Bruce Project, a one-hour special of live covers of Springsteen’s songs by artists who consider him an influence and inspiration. The starry lineup of performers includes The Head and the Heart, the Amy Ray Band, The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, The Tallest Man on Earth, and Robert Randolph & the Family Band. All performances were recorded at FUV’s Studio A at Fordham University in the Bronx.
“I can think of no other artist more deserving of this deep dive into his legacy than Bruce,” says FUV Music Director Russ Borris. “There’s vast reverence and respect for him in the music community, not to mention the long road of influence he has forged over his six-decades-long career.”
The Bruce Project, which premieres during WFUV’s eight-day 2019 fall fundraising drive, was compiled over the past nine months and now culminates in 10 stellar performances of Springsteen’s hits – and lesser-known gems too.
London-based songwriter David Gray picked one of his Springsteen favorites from 1982’s Nebraska, “Mansion on the Hill” – a song that Gray calls “simple and wonderful.” Shreveport, Louisiana newcomers Seratones gravitated towards “State Trooper,” another meaningful cut on that same album, a song which singer AJ Haynes says that she connects with in a particularly personal way.
Fellow Jersey musicians are duly represented: Titus Andronicus kicks out a triumphant cover of “Glory Days,” from 1984’s Born in the U.S.A., and Pete Yorn calls his choice, “Your Own Worst Enemy” from 2007’s Magic, “exactly my life at that time.”
And Ray, who admits that she always feels a little reticent covering Springsteen in public since she loves his music so much, broke her own rule (again) for The Bruce Project and played a riveting version of “Racing in the Street,” found on 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town.
An artist-to-artist love letter, The Bruce Project is the first in the series of Project programs that WFUV will undertake in the future. While it’s always illuminating to delve into artist influences in interviews, the realization of one artist’s impact on another, via live performance, brings that respect to another level.
“The variety of voices and points of view from the artists covering Bruce brings new depth to these storied songs,” says FUV Program Director Rita Houston. “As Glen Hansard explained to me, ‘You know, there are many great songs in our lives. There’s not many that you go and learn.'”