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‘Wavy Gravy’s 75th Birthday’

When the truth is found to be lies, it takes a clown of the highest order to make sense of it all. The Ben & Jerry’s flavor may have gone the way of the dodo, but its peace-loving namesake is still alive and grokking. Hop on the proverbial Day-Glo bus called Furthur with the original psychedelic relic of the Merry Pranksters and gambol to the top of the big rock candy mountain as Jorma Kaukonen, Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco, and other beautiful spirits sing the body electric Kool-Aid. You’re either on the bus or you’re off the bus.

Fri., May 27, 8 p.m., 2011

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Todd Sickafoose’s Tiny Resistors

Ani DiFranco’s bassist and Charlie Haden’s former student is also a fine composer of lush, colorful, and seductive music that blends jazz, chamber works, American folk styles, and French film scores into something unique and wonderful. Sickafoose’s nimble septet includes Jenny Scheinman (violin), John Ellis (saxophone), Adam Levy (guitar), Erik Deutsch (piano), Rudy Royston (drums), and Alan Ferber (trombone).

Wed., March 31, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m., 2010

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Twin Cinema

The simple act of attending a Tegan and Sara show can generate a lot of guff from judgmental acquaintances; you’d think I was effusively praising the upcoming Spice Girls reunion or—Quelle horreur!—Ani DiFranco. Despite the pitch-perfect emo-pop of their latest, The Con, hating on the Quinn twins seems to be a surprisingly popular pastime. One friend said that he couldn’t hear their name without conjuring a hit from another duo with a very different relationship to lesbianism: T.A.T.U., the Russian popsters responsible for “All the Things She Said.” And you know what? He’s sort of right—listen to the chorus of The Con‘s title track. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Relocate Tegan and Sara to the Continent and they could kick some Eurovision ass.

The line was way down the block for the duo’s Monday-night set at Webster Hall, but everyone had to suffer opening act Northern State before getting to the sweetness. The trio noted that several tracks off their latest album, Can I Keep This Pen?, were produced by Ad-Rock, as if these bratty Beastie Girls needed to remind us who they were ripping off. Their sloppily choreographed hip-hop is simplistic fodder for fans of shitty radio pop who somehow require it encased in a chic Brooklynite veneer. As for me, I’ll take “Sk8er Boi” any day.

The sold-out crowd was clearly waiting for the main attraction and their charmingly asymmetrical haircuts; the diminutive sisters didn’t disappoint. “Dark Come Soon” opened the set, with Tegan evincing a bit of a throaty growl for a minute, part smoker’s growl, part Cobain. (She soon lost it, sadly, as she warmed up.) “So Jealous” came off as the quintessential Tegan and Sara track: Live, the verse recalls a fragile Sinead O’Connor doing “Nothing Compares 2 U” before ripping into the muscular stadium pop-rock the Quinn sisters pull off so well. “Are You Ten Years Ago,” with its quasi-robotic monotone, was a feminine riff on the bleak-but-cheerful synth-pop of the Faint. And the anecdotal banter between songs unfolded in charming—albeit a bit eerie—twinspeak: We learned that the bouncy single “Back in Your Head” was written by Sara in reaction to a school shooting in Montreal (she was happy Tegan was safe, watching Dog the Bounty Hunter in the Mile End). Also, it’s a tad creepy to watch identical twins harmonize on the line “I feel like I wouldn’t like me if I met me.”

The mind-melting moment of the evening, though, came during the band’s encore cover of Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” in which the sisters scraped down to the song’s darker heart with muted guitar arpeggios. Forget distinctions between high and low, mainstream radio and indie cred—pop music can be a beautiful creature, and there isn’t anything guilty about that particular pleasure.

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Pete Seeger: The Power of Song

This laudatory but not quite fawning 93-minute documentary takes a greatest-hits approach to the life and song of the now 88-year-old agit-folk musician. And surely Pete Seeger has earned the right to talking-head testimonials from Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, and company. Shallow, very officially sanctioned, and overly compressed, The Power of Song plays like a PBS infomercial for the inevitable DVD box set, which will surely include even more archival footage. Director Jim Brown is perhaps too determined to prove the obvious: that Seeger has lived a long, full, admirable life. (Even today, he loves chopping wood, as did his dark historical double, Ronald Reagan.) Bonnie Raitt aptly calls him “a bridge” between prewar folk and its equally political, boomer-era revival. An end-credit antiwar song (“Bring ‘Em Home”), performed with Billy Bragg and Ani DiFranco, extends that bridge to Iraq. Yet today the fan base for Seeger, himself a WWII vet, is mainly the AARP demo. My favorite moment in this blandly affectionate tribute comes when an excited grandmother rushes up to Seeger in Washington Square Park like a tween spotting Justin Timberlake. They may be old now, but the music still carries the passion of youth.

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Acerbic Ephemera From a Wry Orchestral Phenom

Touchstones in Andrew Bird’s bio are entirely misleading. Sure, in the mid ’90s he zoot-suited up to fiddle with the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Ani DiFranco fronted him the cash for his 2005 opus The Mysterious Production of Eggs. And his seventh album, Armchair Apocrypha, is out now on the venerable blues label Fat Possum—suddenly also home to the Fiery Furnaces and Dinosaur Jr.

In the past decade, however, rather than reviving swing, protesting with knee-jerk lefty folk, or channeling blind bluesmen, Bird has combined ’50s-style rock with the tender chamber pluck of his trusty violin, a baroque sensibility for arrangement, and a literate bent for witty, whimsical wordplay that makes even a premonition of death by airplane mishap seem insouciant—see Armchair‘s insistent opener “Fiery Crash,” with its reference to a “face stuck to a vinyl settee” and a dropped phone call “just as you were going to say/Something apropos, I don’t know.”

Bird perfected his craft with Eggs, a meticulously presented platter of moods and textures, fingerpicks and strums. Armchair is a bit more accessible and less subtle, less of a single statement, but with more individual standouts. “Heretics” combines churning rhythms with blithely bowed violin swirls to give weightlessness to talk of a coup. “Simple X” is mash-up fodder, matching a wavering croon over slapdash drums and shambolic percussion loops. Perhaps the best example of Bird’s newly expansive sound, though, is “Imitosis,” an update of the track “I” from 2003’s Weather Systems. In its past incarnation, the song’s treatment was a spare and hesitant rumination, while here it’s been dressed up with all the bells and whistles in Bird’s bag (including actual bells and whistles), a strident revision meant to transcend, not unsettle.

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A Frothy Spanish Singer-Songwriter Establishes her Bona Fides

Maybe you have to be there, but the highlight of any Bebe show usually comes when she pretends to be a Bush twin. She puts on a blond wig, flounces around—it gets pretty involved—and makes jokes to the effect that the electric chair would be a lot more efficient if it were an electric sofa. Or something like that.

Eddie “Bushleaguer” Vedder was never able to get away with this sort of thing back in the early Oughts, but these days it’s Bebe’s way of establishing her bona fides. The Spanish singer-songwriter, unnoticed stateside until her recent Latin Grammy win, hit it big back home with “Malo,” a fiery depiction of domestic violence that was Spain’s answer to “Luka,” except catchier and more detailed (“Every time you call me a whore/Your brain gets smaller”).

Bebe’s debut, Pafuera Telarañas (roughly translated as “Out With the Cobwebs”), is a frothy, fulminating mix of dance-pop, flamenco, rap, and ska that’s intended to position her as a more antic Ani DiFranco; more Urban Outfitters, in other words, less Putumayo. But Pafuera is at once pretty great and a little disappointing. Given the cultural confines of Spanish pop it’s adventurous enough, but it’s still mostly conventional love songs—ultimately more radical in spirit than in deed.

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Ed’s Not Dead

Ed Hamell isn’t much of a bandleader on record, or tunesmith either. Nor are his lyrics perfect—as a distant supporter turned flat-out fan, I still cringe at the forced rhymes of the uxorious “I’m Gonna Watch You Sleep.” (“There’s a door, you cannot latch it/Do you dream I find your Dad and chop him with a hatchet”? Not good.) These failings don’t just vanish onstage, either. Visiting the Knitting Factory Old Office for two sold-out Hamell on Trial shows earlier this month—featuring just Hamell, live he’s always solo—I lost track of several songs the first night, one of them the fan favorite “Hail,” about Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepard in heaven.

And I’m a convert nevertheless. Replaying Hamell on Trial’s six albums, I found I’d underrated every one. On the Mercurys—Big as Life (1995) and The Chord Is Mightier Than the Sword (1997)—the songs divvy up 50-50, and most of the keepers stick big-time. But neither Hamell nor his major label was ready to accept his musical originality and limitations, so the production, while never overbearing, lacks identity, and the vocals are cleaner than need be. The self-released Choochtown (1999) and Ed’s Not Dead—Hamell Comes Alive (2001) are stronger—as records, his best, though he’s kept growing. Both leave extra room for his storytelling, and for all its backing musicians Choochtown evokes the sound manifest on the live album, where Hamell performs the oft reported, seldom observed miracle first falsely attributed to Billy Bragg: getting punk clamor and intensity out of nothing but a well-amped, hard-strummed acoustic guitar. Ed’s Not Dead is a board tape from one of the Ani DiFranco concerts Hamell opened in 2000. DiFranco gave it to him so he could make some dough after a near-fatal car wreck put him in an upper-body cast, and has since produced, and released on her Righteous Babe label, Tough Love (2003) and the new Songs for Parents Who Enjoy Drugs. Both do a defter job of showcasing songs that are evolving discernibly toward universality—”Hail” (named for what happens to Shepard’s spit as it falls to earth), an angrier message from heaven called “Don’t Kill” (” ‘I thought I etched this in stone!’ “), and the jaw-dropping “Father’s Advice,” about how Hamell’s dad killed Hamell’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mom and then himself. It’s hard to imagine a cover of that one, actually. But the others somebody should pick up on.

It would be obtuse, however, to reduce this singer-songwriter to singing and songs. The Miracle of Billy Bragg is part of it—Hamell’s 1937 Gibson is so loud that I was surprised his right hand didn’t feel like a claw. But it isn’t just the noise that’s punk—it’s the intensity. Downing Red Bulls, Hamell is as hyperactive as a two-year-old at nap time, sometimes emitting lyrics you know at a speed so hardcore you can’t make them out. This matters because the words are the point. Hamell on Trial could pass for “performance art,” or a revised Tom Lehrer. At a show back in 1996 there was a shaggy dog story about a snail that I’ve been trying to remember ever since and a one-liner that I never forgot: “Skeleton walks up to a bar, says, ‘Give me a drink and a mop.’ ” Gradually the straight-up jokes, a legacy of his parts-buying father, gave way to yarns, routines, comedy. Hamell has always talked-and-strummed story songs like 1997’s “John Lennon,” about a 1971 encounter with his hero, and “The Vines,” a description of brute physical labor he told me is a metaphor for a job he once had processing food stamps. But these days his show leans on spoken-word material that sounds rough but is rehearsed down to the last expletive. At the Knit there was a long tale (followed by a meta-account of telling the same story to a metal crowd) about delivering pizza for a 19-year-old boss in Austin. “He didn’t know the first rule: ‘I know how to do my job. Leave me alone.’ And he didn’t know the second rule either: ‘I know how to do my fucking job. Leave me the fuck alone.’ ”

As befits someone who literally bumped into John Lennon in 1971 (“Fuck off!” Lennon snapped), Hamell is 51. He is bald and round and has worn glasses since he was a kid, though not onstage—they’d fall off. Half Catholic, half Jewish, he got an accounting B.A. from a Jesuit college in his hometown of Syracuse and never looked back. He held countless temp jobs as he led countless bands, most prominently an Ian Dury–style unit called the Works, and unveiled the Hamell on Trial moniker in 1989, a year after he quit alcohol and cocaine and married a woman who is now a college dean. He is so passionately monogamous that his big love song is “Jerkin’ ” about masturbating on the road to images of his wife, and he has a three-year-old son he never leaves fatherless in Ossining for more than two weeks. He makes “a good living” gigging up to 200 nights a year, he told me, volunteering a figure that definitely wasn’t bad. He knows his music history and loves Chandler, Leonard, and Bukowski, who became less relevant to his art once the Bushies focused his rage. Hamell long chronicled the Runyonesque lowlifes he knew in Syracuse and jaws with at AA meetings, to uncommonly comic, loving, and moral effect—though sober, he still sings to parents who enjoy drugs. But recently he’s also put his class consciousness into songs like the scabrous satellite radio special “Coulter’s Snatch.” Having landed his first record contract at 40 and nearly gotten killed touring, he believes his career is just beginning and wants his music to last. He wonders whether his form might not be the DVD.

I hope not. Having reassessed his records before witnessing the Knit residency I wish I’d pumped harder, I believe they grab and hold. But I’m enjoying the new CD’s “Apartment

4″ more now that I’ve heard him explain each episodic verse after he sings it. And I suspect Ian Dury would have imparted more delicacy to “Jerkin’ ” ‘s tender counterpart, “Socializing.” Hamell has dough to make among the loyalists he’s accrued in the U.S. and Europe and won’t return to New York until June or later. Catch him before he goes to DVD.

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Soooo Appealing

In the basement bar-schmooze area of the Bowery Ballroom last Wednesday night, a man and a woman sat examining a postcard promoting the latest Tegan and Sara album, So Jealous. “I’m, like, soooo jealous!” the guy mocked in a Valley Girl squeal. The woman rolled her eyes at him. He soooo doesn’t get it. That little syllable isn’t a girlish embellishment; it represents the utter devastation of heartbreak. Anyone can relate to that, even people without ovaries.

Because the Calgary-born Quin sisters have ovaries, and they sometimes strum acoustic guitars, and their lyrics talk about feelings and stuff, the 24-year-olds are often relegated to the Kotex ghetto alongside Ani DiFranco and the Indigo Girls, artists they sound nothing like. If Tegan and Sara’s music recalls anybody, it’s Cheap Trick and the Cars, as this sold-out show confirmed. Their three-piece backing band added rhythmic crunch to “I Won’t Be Left” ‘s tick-tock guitars and the synthesized buzz and swoon of “Speak Slow” and “So Jealous,” while the leading ladies traded powerpop licks. Sara’s shrill ululations contrasted with Tegan’s supple emoting; it was one of the few ways to tell the identical twins apart, since both sported fashion-mullet hairdos, blue jeans, and cutoff black T-shirts (Tegan’s had the word “AMAZING” written on it).

As devoted fans know, the music is just a small part of the T&S live experience. It’s really all about the between-song banter. “We’ve been trying not to talk so much,” Sara said early in the set. “We’re running out of things to say.” The crowd groaned, but the warning proved to be false. In between the usual sisterly teasing, they found plenty to discuss: basketball, children’s books, New York City, their appearance on Conan the night before (Mom called to say it was “OK”). After relating a tale of their grandfather’s adventures in a Mexican strip bar, Sara apologized for all the family chatter. “I don’t know why we’re talking about our grandparents so much. We sound like a Christian band.”

That sense of unguarded intimacy, in both their music and their stage personas, is what makes Tegan and Sara so appealing. They act like they want to tell you their secrets, to share inside jokes with you, to be your friends. And everybody needs friends. Even boys.

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Questioningly

The other day, I was leafing through the latest Righteous Babe catalog, unable to settle on either the white ribbed tank (also known as a wife beater, but this is Ani DiFranco we’re talking about here) labeled “righteous,” or on the black spaghetti-strap top marked “babe.” It’s a real dilemma: Do I want to embrace my own self-righteousness, or make like a preteen at Hot Skates daring the eyes of the pubescent hotties?

Luckily, with Ani DiFranco, you don’t really have to choose. Her latest release, a two-disc feat entitled Revelling/Reckoning, is as well-versed in glee as it is in fighting the good fight.

Like many a 13-year-old girl in 1996, I came to Ani through “fuck you”-ing along with “Untouchable Face” on Dilate. That album’s absence of napkin-scrawled manifestas made DiFranco’s core fan base “get their panties all in a twist,” as she put it in a midconcert soliloquy on Living in Clip a year later. In reality, while Dilate didn’t find her clamoring against the death penalty or even getting her period in the white corporate boardroom, DiFranco was turning out apolitical, lovelorn gems like “Shy” and “Fire Door” long before she crowned herself a joyful girl. Besides, radio-friendly though it may have been, the catchiest songs on Dilate were still too impudent and too strategically doused with sauce to ever make it into the buzz bin, or whatever it was called back then.

What is it that sets DiFranco apart from your average guitar-slinging chick chirping Lilith Fair anthems? It could be simple talent, though that alone never whisked anyone off the indie throne and into the suburban armchair. Maybe it’s that she’s transcended the caption to which she’s invariably reduced: the DIY political folk dyke turned uppity entrepreneurial cunt rocker. She’ll mull over growing up while capitalism gunned down democracy, cry on the shoulder of the road, and then plop down beside you to chatter about this crazy fucker who made a sculpture out of butter.

Her recent act at Carnegie Hall, besides being an exercise in cultural disparity (think combat boots blithely swinging over filigreed balconies), was evidence of just how much Ani’s appeal has broadened. The requisite crowd was still there in full regalia—girls in Superman tops with “not a pretty girl” inked robustly on their back jean pockets, girls in horn-rimmed glasses and bandannas and braids, girls making out in the back, girls pretending they weren’t with their mothers—now joined by almost a parity of scraggly indie boys and reedy intellectuals, plus a smattering of adult contemporaries nodding their heads and, when they got up the courage, emitting stray, cautious whoops. All of them wanted in on the phenomenon.

It’s only fitting, then, that Revelling and Reckoning represent, respectively, an instrumental romp and a new emotional maturity. Never one to limit herself to mere dichotomies of merriment versus What’s Really Important, DiFranco’s experimental jamborees are socially conscious, and there’s as much musing on her marital woes in the swelling elegies as there are leftist laments.

On Revelling, she figures out how to flirt with funk and soul without pissing off folk and rock, and even pulls off a potentially dubious but ultimately delicious kazoo ditty, not to mention the drum-flecked spoken-word gamble of “Tamburitza Lingua.” (Or maybe I just like songs that have the word patriarchal in them.) While the acoustic simplicity of Reckoning seems thin at first, particularly beside Revelling‘s sensual, bombastic joy, the croons and ballads grow on you, if not for their melancholy navel-gazing, then for their languid, old-school folksiness.

Vintage Ani is homespun, rough-edged, tied to her expressive whinny. Here, she twists her pipes into snarls, murmurs, giggles, and howls, ranging from the triumphant cackle that rings out at the end of the roistering, frolicsome boogie of “Ain’t That the Way” to the hyperactive cluck-cluck of “What How When Where (Why Who).”

True to tireless form, DiFranco recently announced that she’s planning to follow up R/R with a live album and film, both culled from her current tour. Best of all, there’s an entertaining rumor that she’ll pair up with Jackie Chan for a Nat King Cole cover. There’s a price to putting all of body and soul into her work, of course; her voice is showing the strain, and she would probably make better music if she ate the bread of idleness for a while and temporarily jettisoned the restless diligence that has become her trademark.

This time around, Ani isn’t “in such a rush/to ensure my autonomy,” as she admits in “Whatall Is Nice.” She’s tried to convince us before that she’s no heroine, but her very modesty only nourished the superwoman myth—she was still Mr. DiFranco to you, rocking her ideology on a perpetual road trip punctuated by accidental encounters and soul-searching quotables. Having just left behind both her twenties and her hyperbolic gallantry, Ani riddles both new discs with questions rather than answers. “I guess I’ve only got three simple things to say,” she reflects on “Grey.” “Why me? Why this now? Why this way?”

For starters, because she can bend a mighty band to her will as easily as she can make herself fill the entire universe. It doesn’t matter in the least that her brilliance is largely jagged and uneven, or that her relentless self-analysis and introspection can occasionally be as tiresome as, well, a teenager’s. Just watch her spew maledictions about the new “asshole at the helm” (of our country, that is), urge young women to join the feminist battle, and then turn her constituents into shrieking teenybopper pulp with a single slamming chord. You’ll understand.

Cursed with consciousness, Ani asks yet another rueful question: “How sick of me/must you be/by now?” Actually, not at all. And by the way, can I get that, um, ribbed tank in a small?

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Worldwide Dance

It’s a shame that shows like the amazing Foxhole, by Tanya Gagné and Karen Sherman (P.S. 122), don’t run long. By the time you e-mail friends, they’re gone for good. From its all-female West Side Story rumble to the badass roller derby scene to the bring-down-the-house conclusion of Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield,” Foxhole rocks. This funny, dyke-y, sexy girl gang has so much kinetic and psychokinetic energy that, in a touch of magical realism, crumpled love notes float on air; carnations and a frisky Con Ed worker’s crotch both spontaneously catch fire. Note to David Letterman: This is Babe City!

“I’m not a kitten stuck up a tree,” sings Ani DiFranco in “Not a Pretty Girl.” Neither are any of her male and female surrogates in Maura Nguyen Donohue’s DiFranco tribute, Righteous Babes (P.S. 122). Set to tapes of numerous DiFranco songs and spoken word performances, the dance scorches acres of thematic territory—crossing currents of race and gender, sweeping the dirt of American violence from under its heavy rug. DiFranco’s is a brazen, vulnerable voice; Donohue matches her with sumptuous craftsmanship and a caustic sense of humor, and the dancers give their all.

Scintillating dancers—particularly Jonathan Phelps, Dede LaBarre, and Zoie Morris Quinde—should bear no blame for Chet Walker’s Seductions (Marymount Manhattan Theater). A weak Broadway-style revue isolated in an Upper East Side venue, this “hopelessly romantic” show about relationships has no discernible structure. To quote another of its Paul Katz songs, “I look at you and there’s nothing behind what I see.” Some solos cook, but mannered ensemble work and corny lyrics wreck any potential seduction.

DanceBrazil’s Black Anastacia (Joyce Theater) boldly skewers both the Portuguese and the Catholic Church, which recently sainted the 17th-century African slave of its title. The new ballet by Carlos Dos Santos Jr., incorporating African, Afro-Brazilian, capoeira, and modern dance movement, elevates Anastacia as a model of resistance and cultural integrity, enacting an earnest, complex tale. Despite slow moments and most folks’ unfamiliarity with Brazilian history and Candomblé symbolism, the communication of this rebel’sterrible yet transformational story is crystal clear, thanks in part to its principal dancers—Sueli Ramos, Ágatha Oliveira, and Alex Brito.

The troupe’s other new work, lighthearted Ginga (by Edileusa Dos Santos and Jelon Vieira), ranges over Afro-Brazilian spirituality, festive Carnaval dance, and the ubiquitous, beloved capoeira with its smooth, dizzying moves. DanceBrazil is a juicy, expressive company presenting its culture with pride, gusto, and just plain guts. Similarly, the Bahian fire is well tended in “O Samba!” (Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning). Led by dancer/capoeirista Michael “Ombrinho” Goldstein, “O Samba!” kept an audience of school kids focused, entertained, and directly involved, teaching them good lessons for life amid all the giggling and shaking.

The brisk, handsomely staged opening of “DanceAfrica 2000” (BAM) made me think this year’s edition would not be overstuffed. But the second half stretched on, making the show almost three hours long. After a nice start with the talented Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (BSRC) kids, Les Génies Noirs offered a gracious survey of traditional Benin dances that could have formed a concert in itself. The delightful Djoulé African, the 12 sensationally acrobatic hip-hop guys of Rennie Harris Puremovement, and BSRC all emphasized high-speed, driving movement, so it was difficult to watch the less punched-up, often repetitious dances of the Benin troupe. But Harris’s handstanding, head-spinning, dolphin-diving corps literally andrightly inherits the glory of Masai warriors.