Part I: Before the Concert (written 1/23)
I first started working on my Best Things I Heard All Year post for 2014 about a month ago. Joe Henry’s Invisible Hour was in the running for the #1 slot and I got to thinking about how I’ve been a fan since 1996 and still hadn’t managed to catch up with him in concert. I headed over to Joe’s website (cleverly called joehenrylovesyoumadly) to see if he had any upcoming tour dates. I was shocked to discover that three of his next six shows were scheduled for Cincinnati. Hey, that’s where I live!
I did some digging and learned that Joe Henry was going to be a part of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra’s “American Originals” program, a three-night concert series dedicated to the songbook of Stephen Foster. He’s the songwriter who wrote “Oh! Susanna”, “Old Folks at Home”, “Camptown Races”, and “My Old Kentucky Home”…and then died at the age of 37 with less than a dollar to his name.
Before I really knew what I was doing, I found myself on the phone with the ticket office buying a $70 front row balcony seat for opening night. With the exception of that time I accidentally spent $110 on the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over tour (long story), it’s the most money I’ve ever dropped on a concert ticket. It seemed worth it at the time, but now I’m not so sure. I’m wondering how much Joe Henry I’m actually going to get for my $70. As you can see from this concert poster, he’s not the only performer on the bill. I like the other musicians just fine, but I’m kind of worried about the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra itself. I don’t even know what that is. It sure sounds schmaltzy, though.
But anyway, I’m pretty excited and nervous. This could be a great night of music or a total disaster. I guess that could be said about any concert, but I’m really feeling the potential for disappointment tonight. We’ll see.
Part 2: During the Concert (review written 1/24)
The program consisted of John Morris Russell conducting the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra through two sets of songs. Most of these songs were written by Stephen Foster, but a few were written by others and included for reasons that were never fully explained. Some of the performances were instrumental, but most featured guest musicians on vocals. In addition to Joe Henry, the guest vocalists included Rosanne Cash, Over the Rhine, Aoife O’Donovan, Dom Flemons, and a local bluegrass outfit called the Comet Bluegrass All-Stars. John Morris Russell, who also acted as emcee, told stories about Stephen Foster and the music being performed, and introduced the guests.
The setlist consisted of the following. All songs were written by Stephen Foster except where noted.
- Battle Cry of Freedom (George F. Root) – The evening’s performance started off with an instrumental take on a patriotic song written by George Frederick Root in 1862. The song was so popular back then that both sides fighting in the Civil War had their own versions. Now it just comes off as kind of hokey. I considered it a warm up for the orchestra.
- Red River Valley (Traditional) – The first guest musicians of the evening were the Comet Bluegrass All-Stars. Their fiddle player, Ed Cunningham, provided the vocals on this traditional number. It was catchy, but the orchestra drowned out much of his singing. That would prove to be an ongoing issue.
- Oh! Susanna – Now we’re gettin’ into it! Joe Henry came on out and sang what is probably my favorite Stephen Foster song. This is the song that I’ve somehow known all my life. My favorite version is the one on James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James album, but Joe Henry did a fine job considering he had to compete with an orchestra seemingly intent upon turning the song into a Disney princess anthem.
- Why, No One to Love? – Joe Henry left the stage and was replaced by Over the Rhine, a long-running local duo consisting of Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler. Karin told a story about opening for Bob Dylan in Music Hall 20 years ago and then sang “Why, No One to Love?”, a song that’ll break your heart if you’re not careful. Karin’s version was lovely and the first song of the evening where I felt the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra was put to good use.
- Kumbaya (Traditional) – #*&@$!
- Old Folks at Home – Dom Flemons brought out his banjo to perform one of Stephen Foster’s most famous songs (sometimes known as “Swanee River”). Dom was well on his way to turning it into a highlight of the night when his voice either gave out or he forgot the words. Twice.
- I Still Miss Someone (Johnny Cash & Roy Cash Jr.) – I guess if you’ve got Rosanne Cash on the bill performing in a show called “American Originals”, then it makes sense to get her to sing one of her father’s songs. Even while the stickler in me was objecting to the fact that the song was written 100 years after everything else on the program, the part of me with a heart was getting all teary-eyed.
- Beautiful Dreamer – Rosanne stuck around and sang this heartbreaking lullaby. Her version was delightful, but it still didn’t top the one Raul Malo did on the tribute album Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster. Check it out if you can find it.
- Amazing Grace (Traditional) – The Comet Bluegrass All-Stars returned to the stage and were joined by Aoife O’Donovan. Her voice wasn’t strong enough to carry the first part of the hymn on its own, but things improved greatly when the bluegrass band joined her on backing vocals. The second half of the song worked well. It made for a nice ending to the first half of the concert.
- Foster’s Folly – The second set opened with the orchestra performing a medley of tunes from Stephen Foster’s Social Orchestra project. Whereas I didn’t care for the two instrumental performances from the first set, I really enjoyed this one. I was tapping my toes and bobbing along. It was the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra at their best.
- Slumber My Darling – Aoife O’Donovan was the first guest vocalist of the second set. She told a charming story about first hearing the songs of Stephen Foster in the Little House on the Prairie songbook she had as a little girl. Although “Slumber My Darling” wasn’t in that book, Aoife imagined that her mother probably sang the lullaby to her growing up. It was an effective way of showing how these songs written in the mid-1800s are still relevant and important to us all these years later. And the performance that followed her story convinced me that I finally need to give in and buy Aoife’s Fossils album. A handful of free Noisetrade songs is no longer enough.
- Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair – Aoife O’Donovan was joined on stage by Karin Bergquist for a duet of one of my favorite Stephen Foster originals. Sadly, I don’t remember much about it except that both singers were wearing blue sleeveless dresses. I wonder if they planned that.
- Ring, Ring De Banjo – I’m very happy to say that Dom Flemons redeemed himself after his botched song from the first half. He brought his banjo back onstage and was joined by Ed Cunningham on fiddle for a rave-up performance of an instrumental called “Ring, Ring De Banjo”. The song was highlighted by Dom playing the bones. Yes, the bones! It earned some of the biggest applause of the night.
- Hard Times Come Again No More – Mavis Staples recorded the definitive version of “Hard Times Come Again No More” on the Beautiful Dreamer tribute mentioned above. I usually think singers should avoid covering songs once Mavis Staples has made them her own, but I’m glad Over the Rhine thought otherwise. Their take on “Hard Times” proved to be one of the evening’s highlights. It really sounded like a contemporary Over the Rhine song.
- Rolling River (Sketches on “Shenandoah”) (Peter Boyer) – The second set of “American Originals” was far better than the first. This was the only dud after intermission.
- Aura Lee (George R. Poulton) – The low point of the second half was followed by one of the best songs of the night. Yes, Joe Henry finally returned for his second song, a cover of George Poulton’s “Aura Lee”. As Joe mentioned in his introduction, it’s a song we all recognize despite not knowing the words. Why? Well, Elvis Presley lifted the song’s melody for his “Love Me Tender”. Joe said they did that a lot back then. He and Ed Cunningham did a fine version of the original.
- If You Only Had a Moustache – This funny little number was the only Stephen Foster song performed tonight that I wasn’t familiar with going in. John Morris Russell said he had to dig deep into the songbook to find it. Dom Flemons joined the Comet Bluegrass All-Stars for this song about the glories of facial hair. Ed Cunningham sang lead.
- My Old Kentucky Home – Rosanne Cash finished off the evening with “My Old Kentucky Home”. I’m sorry to say I don’t remember much about it.
- Camptown Races – The orchestra didn’t leave the stage, of course, but “Camptown Races” still felt like an encore. All the guest musicians came out for this last song. Five of them had to stand around with nothing to do while the orchestra did their thing, but the song eventually opened up and turned into a great big sing-a-long. It was hokey and fun. I guess I could say that about the entire evening, really.
Part 3: After the Concert (written 1/24)
I went on home and proceeded to spill my cup of spicy hot chocolate all over the floor. I somehow managed to do this twice.
Once I cleaned that up, I got out my calculator to determine how much I spent per Joe Henry song. He sang two songs on his own and contributed vocals to “Camptown Races” along with the other five guest musicians (counting the Comet Bluegrass All-Stars and Over the Rhine as one entity each). Based on the logic that made sense at the time, I came up with 2.1667 Joe Henry songs. I divided that into the actual ticket price of $73. My math looked like this:
$73/2.1667 = $33.69 per song
On a strictly Joe Henry basis, $33.69 per song was probably not worth it. Fortunately, I enjoyed the rest of the guest musicians. And while the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra was a bit syrupy for my tastes, I appreciated what they added to at least half of the songs. Overall, I had a good evening and that probably makes the expense worthwhile.