“There was a rarely used piano sitting in a hotel foyer in 1986…There was a window full of hanging crystals in 1987…There was pink and teal neon in 1988… There was a pawn-shop in 1989… There was a fire in 1990…” (from post #1)
..then on April 20th, 2011, there was a show…
Location: Studio City (A.K.A. “The Valley”)
It used to be a sprawling orange orchard, but now, the hazy sea of urbanity between husky, fire-prone mountains, is the home to a lively arts district, and many a jazz club with a checkered past. It’s the home of Ventura Blvd., with her sushi restaurants, vintage clothing stores, and the heart of the porn industry.
Around 5 pm, on 4/20/2011, musicians pulled around the back, and began to load equipment up the stairs into the performance space at Vitello’s. Casual, timely, with music on our minds we went through the stages of set-up – moving music and instrument cases through the back alley, talking about traffic, buoyant with pre-show activity as we moved through the alley where Robert Blake supposedly killed his wife…
…no one remembered that till after the show…
So at 9pm, I stood in the spotlight on a slightly haggard, but nicely trimmed stage riser. To my left, an electric bass, an upright bass, and an electric guitar. Behind me, a drum kit. To my right a grand piano, and closer on the same side – for the first time –a string quartet. This was my crew, and this was the live launch of my BIG CONCEPT. The songs from my next album, North of Sunset, West of Vine
How did it go? Read on….
If you are not a regular reader of this blog, let me catch you upon my BIG CONCEPT: I am a singer/songwriter, and I’ve been performing since I was 6 years old – mostly in clubs on Hollywood Blvd. I didn’t realize that was weird until recently, when I really started to think about it.So I began an anthropological dig into my psyche. This blog was the birth of those remembered stories, and this show was the leap from the written word to music.
That’s Robbie Anderson to the right and Leah Zeger to the left. Only attractive people are allowed in my band.
I’ll take you through the show in order of the set list, just to give a sense of the flow. The songs were not arranged in any sort of narrative continuity, but eventually they will be. That’s the next part of the BIG CONCEPT.
Vocals/Guitar – Raya Yarbrough Bk ground vocals - Brendan McCreary Piano/Clavinet/Conductor – Bear McCreary Guitar –Rick Musallam Acoustic/Electric Bass – Daniel “Plainview”Seeff Drums – Joe Travers Violin – Robbie Anderson Violin – Leah Zeger Viola – Tom “Dirrty Brahms” Lea Cello – Jacob Szekely
Cold Hard Killer
The opening line of this tune is somewhat of a personal statement for myself: “I don’t need the machine, my dreams are raw and ragged but they’re clean.”
The is a song about a man with pure artistic ideals, who’s been seduced and overtaken by the Hollywood machine. I sing from the point of view of someone who used to know him before his re-birth into the “chic world.” The chorus of the song takes on a mocking tone, pointing up his brand new attitude:
“Well ain’t you a cold hard killer, little boy well ain’t you the stone cold man Ain’t you the lady killer now, please. I barely recognized you, man.
Well ain’t you a cold hard killer, little boy well ain’t you the stone cold man. Ain’t you technicolor brother, now. The toast of tinsel, everybody’s man.”
This is the first song to which I added strings, it’s a coincidence that it ended up the first song in the set. I wanted the strings to evoke a bluesy rawness, like an insistent, creaky machine switching on and off. Sometimes they groove, but I didn’t want to write for prettiness on this one.
When I brought the chart to Bear for his opinion, I asked him if the parts would work, and basically he said “Why not? I wouldn’t have done it like this, but what the hell.” I very much appreciate his open-mindedness. And patience.
Between Our Words We Danced
“Ok…” I thought to myself, my tailored, cream colored jacket beginning to dampen on the inside. “So far so good, the audience seems to be digging the vibe.”
I see Richard Hatch smiling at one of the front tables, and Stu Phillips to the left of him. Familiar faces, people I respect…feels good. So I pick up my guitar before the applause settles, and begin plucking a simple pattern.
The story in this song is an anti-love-affair – two people who cannot be together although they want to be. They feel it so strongly, it’s as if the romance happens in the space between words, in small movements of eyes and hands - the words they want to say caught in their own breath:
“…when between our words we danced when within my smile I kissed you when within my breath I held you…held you Oh, what am I supposed to do with you? What am I supposed to do?” [audio:http://www.rayayarbrough.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/vitellos4.mp3|titles=Between Our Words]
This tune has a Brazilian influence, and also it’s in 5/4 (ooooohh zazzy!) so I was excited to add strings to this one. It was my opportunity to do a Vince Mendoza homage…ok, rip-off… ‘cause I love his string writing on Bjork’s recordings, and also some of his Brazilian jazz arrangements I’ve heard for other singers.
The arrangement vacillates between “Rite Of Spring” rhythmic intensity, and tender acoustic guitar plucking. Eventually, it explodes into a turbulent, driving wall of sound. It’s a good one for sound-check. (Thanks Dennis Moody!)
In Another Time
I wrote this song about 4 weeks before the show. It was the morning after we’d had a little dinner party at the house, and the social bounce of the evening was still with me. New songs are always the most fun to perform, and in this one I allowed a sense of playfulness I don’t usually indulge.
…so here’s the plot. Two people lock eyes across a table, right? And in that instant, they exchange the energy from a remembered lifetime together. Epochs have passed since they were lovers, but something between them remains, lapping at the spiritual shores of their current incarnations.
“Though galaxies have spun around and out since we last whispered little things in bed and we lingered till the afternoon
Though we’re so different now set with features of another life with other loves beside us
We locked eyes across the table too fast for words, but too slow to stop the radical stop the chemical stop the magical truth
In another time, I think we were lovers in another time, we were in love.” [audio:http://www.rayayarbrough.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/vitellos2.mp3|titles=In Another Time]
The lyric of this song represents a new, more conversational, approach to songwriting. This type of writing, this song in particular, allowed me to address the audience in a more direct way – deliberately breaking the 4th wall – and allowing a measure of theatricality.
Time to take off the jacket. Ah, much better. After I take off my jacket on stage, I always forget where I put it. I think sometimes I just drop it on stage, and some nice audience member brings it back to me after the show. Thanks so much to those folks who have done that, I’d have gone through 20 jackets by now.
So I wrote “Cry” the summer after my freshman year at USC, about some high-school boy I wasn’t over. Hooray for the high artistic yield of unrequited love!
I chose not to add the string quartet here, because it’s a bluesy, raw, tune, and I wanted to keep it simple.
Of course, like all simple-sounding tunes, it’s deceptive. Though there’s not all that much going on harmonically, the “feel” of the tune is all important – it can’t rush, but it can’t drag either – Joe Travers, on drums, found the sweet spot.
Oh Delilah! I’ve been chasing you all these years! But finally, Delilah and I sat down and had a talk, and found lyrics and verses that we agree on. But seriously, I wrote her back in ’02 or something, and she’s never felt right until now.
Inspired by my blog, I started re-writing the lyrics in paragraph form, without considering rhyme or meter – then I went back into the lyrics and added structure. I ended up with a rhyme scheme that was more jagged when performed.
“I never knew how many friends we shared suffice to say I’ve heard the echoing of your suspicions You got a right but hey, I got one too to pull apart the false from true let’s stick to ladylike conditions….
I never meant you disrespect, Delilah I never thought he’d give you up for me Love’s a thing beyond our understanding You have to know I didn’t plan a thing…”
For the string arrangement, I wanted to play with space. I’ve always been inspired by Bollywood string writing, so I wrote some Bollywood-like unison lines between the spaces in the bass groove. After the verses began, I had the strings answer some of my lyric melodies between my words, building up to the Chorus.
It was too much fun, and the string players were so freakin’ ON IT! Damn! We decided to call the feel of this song “Hip-hop Bollywood.” The best part may have been watching Tom“Dirrty Brahms” Lea dance through the whole tune with his viola.
Tom “Dirrty Brahms” Lea grooving, and Leah Zeger clearly means business.
I’ve always considered this a pseudo country tune. An old fashioned country tune, the slow, plaintive kind. I almost recorded this one for my Telarc album "Raya Yarbrough", and I had already recorded it for my “Raya’s Mood” Album (2002), but I wanted to add something. For this show I decided to arrange it simply for string quartet, guitar and vocals. That’s it.
Room 306, Please (Frame By Frame)
In a soon-to-be-written blog entry, I will explain the greater significance of Room 306. Suffice to say, my dad lived in room 306 in his first apartment in Hollywood from 1986-87. (Actually, as of the time I'm writing this, I've already significantly changed this song from the version that was performed on April 20th. The title is now "Frame By Frame," and the chorus is entirely different, though the subject matter is the same.)
Anyway, this song is not about my dad.
It’s the personification of Hollywood Blvd as if it were a man. It’s about the way this man was when I met him, the way he was before I met him, and the reason why – despite my revulsion, my aversion to his personality, his bad habits, his egotism, his sad failures – he made me feel like no one else, and I loved him.
The arrangement opens with the cello playing a lonely solo line, then the rest of the strings follow, with a lilting, dramatic, repeating phrase. I wanted the beginning to suggest the loneliness of life on the rundown boulevard, juxtaposed on the softly lit melancholy of old Hollywood. Then when the bass enters with the groove, the string pattern becomes more rhythmic, moving us into the feel of the current story. The lyric begins:
“You were into cocaine when I met you. You were dirty, cheap and eye-lined. You’d been as great as great can get, but when we met, you were a shadow of a silhouette. You flicked your ashes on my Sunday shoes, I walked beside you just the same. I hate the way you look, but I love the way you look at me, and that’s your power baby, that’s the game.” [audio:http://www.rayayarbrough.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/vitellos1.mp3|titles=Frame by Frame]
“Love came as a dulcet tone, humming up above, suspended, to one who’d been so much alone It said your doldrum blues are ended…” [audio:http://www.rayayarbrough.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/vitellos6.mp3|titles=Love Came]
Those are not my words, they’re the lyrics of one of my greatest inspirations, Billy Strayhorn. I’ve loved this song for years, yet I’ve heard so few covers of this tune. On the one recording I have, the piece is performed by a singer named Ozzie Bailey, accompanied on piano by Strayhorn himself.
It was tough to arrange this for two reasons: First, the recording is completely “Rubato” which means, there is no constant tempo - the piano is following the interpretation of the singer. Because of this, it was hard to figure out the rhythm of the chord changes, and I actually had to write the chart 2 times. The song opens with Dan (bass) and I alone for quite a while, so my only path is a single instrument – it’s one of my favorite things to do, but it’s also a bit like a tightrope walk.
The second arranging challenge, was the task of doing justice to a gorgeous song. My goal was to highlight the parts I found most beautiful and dramatic, while staying out of the way, so the purity of it could come through.
…I also learned that asking string players to play very, very high notes, very, very softly is a very, very, big request. Not impossible, but not a walk in the park. Thanks guys for rocking the pianissimo. You’re incredible.
Dan Seeff on Bass, Jacob Szekely on Cello
Why Can’t You Read Me?
Joe said, during rehearsal, that every time he messed up a part of this chart, he felt the title was mocking him.
Actually, this is one of my most “fun-loving” tunes: simple chords, catchy, all the stuff that I usually forget to write while I’m messing with odd phrases and meters.
It’s a simple story: He’s a bookish, cleaver boy, and I just can’t get anywhere with him. It’s always the smart ones who can’t get a clue, right ladies? It’s like, “Are you gay? If you’re gay that’s totally fine, even good – but if you’re not, what the f*ck, man?!” Put more consisely:
“I wake up smelling like the product in your hair, with a hint of your perspiration. Strong circumstantial evidence of something there, but I just can’t get anywhere.
Between the stacks of books you call your bedroom A Love Supreme was winding down the hours. Dusty seams and dog-eared pages Pages typed with scribbled changes In the midst of this, I try to work my wares
Oh, you’re a bookish and clever boy So why can’t you read me? Oh, you’re a bookish and clever boy So why can’t you read me?”
If I Were Any Good At This
This is one of the only songs I’ve written for a very specific purpose. It wasn’t just a whim, I wrote this one to sing at my wedding to Bear.
…but it wasn’t easy, and I got very frustrated with myself. I was thinking:
“I’m supposed to be a songwriter, and I can’t even write about the person who I’m going to marry? That’s it. I’m a phoney. If I were any good at this I could write my husband a freakin’ song… - oh wait…that works...”
And so I started from there.
“If I were any good at this I’d know what to say It’s like I’ve finally been found but at the same time lost my way I got use to the rest of them getting away, so I never thought the best one would stay.
Most of our lives we walk alone Holding it strong on our own But man, I have been strong, just come home to me.”
We played this song simply –piano, bass and drums. It was a trip to have Bear playing piano on the song I wrote for him.
There’s A Kind Of Hush
In retrospect, this should’ve been the closer. I placed this Herman’s Hermit’s cover as second to last in the set, because the final tune “You’re So Bad For Me” is an oldie-goodie of mine – but this tune raised the roof!
The clean-cut 1960’s British band, Herman’s Hermits, are not known for their dark, haunting melodies, or power-pop angst…but that’s what I’ve always heard in this song. It’s actually a beautiful tune, originally written by Les Reed and Geoff Stephens, and I wanted to take it from pumps to stilettos.
I wrote this arrangement for rhythm section around 3 years ago, but the harmonies I tweaked were a natural for languid, Bollywood-ee strings. The first two chords: Emaj to Emaj7#5/C are so cool, and I wanted to wring the juice out of them, so for the intro I’ve got the bass and the piano doubling the root movement from E down to C, and back. It’s a dark, menacing kind of sound. Then to add some twinkle, the piano and guitar come in with interwoven melodies in their upper register. A bit later, the strings begin some fluid, Eastern-sounding unison lines between the vocal lines, and it builds to the drum’s crashing entrance.
Herman, after this you won’t have to be a hermit, because you’ve become a badass.
Rick Musallam gifted us with a Floyd influenced epic rock solo on this tune…
You’re So Bad for Me
Like all good comic book/movie teenagers, when I was 15, I had a crush on the boy down the block. He was a singer, actor and a dancer, and he wouldn’t return my calls.
What’s worse is that a year before he’d had a crush on me, but I was into this other guy so I wasn’t having it. Then, I saw him in a play and I was all impressed, so then I was into him, but he was like totally over me. I guess that’s movie justice.
“Worthless time spent crying over you should’ve taught me well what not to do I learned, I did I let you go and then you had, you had, to reappear again I think of you as if you were someone who thought of me how much pain will it take for me to see? You’re So Bad For Me but the thought of you keeps me company You’re So Bad For Me but you’re hard to free…”
I wasn’t the protagonist. I was the bad guy who gets snubbed. But I’ve always preferred villains. They get better songs.
The McCreary boys had my back. Singing with Brendan is smooth like buttah!
So then the show was over, and I exited stage left. I sat in the closet-small greenroom, and looked across to the opposite wall, into the wall mirror. Just me, finally, all alone, I inhaled. The applause continued from the main room, and I exhaled. "I made it, I made it through the show."
…and then the applause continued…and continued… and continued….I opened my eyes.
I looked at myself in the mirror, “We didn’t prepare an encore.”
Brendan poked his head in right then, “Did you prepare an encore?” “We were just talking about that.” “What?” “Nevermind. No, I didn’t.” “Well, you better do something.”
I got up and walked into the small space between the greenroom door and the curtain to the main room. Dan was standing there with his upright bass – then I knew what to do. Jazz is my shepherd, I shall not want.
We walked back up on stage, I told Dan a title and a key, and it was go time. “There is no Greater Love in all the world it’s true no greater love…no heart so true…”
Easy as breathing, Dan and I began There Is No Greater Love (in F). Just vocal and bass for starters, and the rest of the band trickled in. Jazz is always there. It’s like an element which can be distilled from the air simply by acknowledging it.Simply by counting off a tempo.
I felt like I was telling the audience my favorite old story, a story that everyone knew, but loved to hear.
A story which doesn’t even need words to be told. I scatted for two choruses, affecting a speech-like pattern, and everyone was there with me, totally in the moment. Jazz is a constant, instant, miracle. [audio:http://www.rayayarbrough.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/vitellos67mp3|titles=There is no Greater Love]
And that was the end of the show. For now…..
But...I’ll see you all on July 10th, 9pm at the Baked Potato!
HUGE thanks for everyone who came to the show!
So sorry for those who were turned away at the door, we were maxed out to capacity. I could only sneak in so many people to hide next to the instrument cases! Thanks to Andrew Craig for all the pictures you see here, Thanks to Dennis Moody for our incredible sound, Thanks to Vitello’s for having us!
All Music and Lyrics on this post © 2011 Raya Yarbrough (except "Love Came," by Billy Strayhorn)