Sunday, May 5, 2013

Vienna Teng (again) at Ann Arbor's Water Hill Music Festival, May 5, 2013

This will be a short one, I promise.

After all, I spent way too much time talking about Vienna Teng's extraordinary and intimate performance at the University of Michigan's Erb Student Space last month. That show was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

That said, I really enjoyed this singer/songwriter's performance at Ann Arbor's Water Hill Music Fest this afternoon.

One day after she graduated with a dual degree from U-M's business and natural resources schools, Teng participated in one of the most unusual musical events in Tree Town – if not the country.

All over one of Ann Arbor's oldest and most residential neighborhoods, musicians of all genres, persuasions and ages performed on porches and in backyards to hundreds of people who drifted from house to house for several hours.

There was not much drifting going on while Teng performed her 10-song, 45-minute set, which had seemingly hundreds of people rapt (see left).  Unexpectedly, perhaps the highlights were two covers: An improved version of the "Ain't No Sunshine"/"Lose Yourself" mash-up she debuted last month and Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," which she performed for her fellow graduates the day before.

Dressed in the cap and gown she wore Saturday (see above), Teng was her usual ebullient and gracious self. Perhaps because of time constraints, there wasn't much in the way of her usual storytelling. Still, she did get lots of laughs for her line about Michigan's four seasons: Almost Winter, Winter, Still Winter and Construction.

Really, this post is about sharing something with Teng fans not lucky enough to find themselves on her lawn Sunday. I brought my professional Zoom H2 digital recorder to the performance and was situated right between the speakers. So even without "mixing"or doing anything vaguely professional (OK, I did separate the tracks, using Audacity), I got a pretty fair version of what happened on a sunny Sunday afternoon in southeast Michigan.

I've created a RAR file, which you can download and extract with a program like the RAR Expander.

Download here.

For those who prefer uncompressed/lossless WAV files, I have uploaded the recording to the Internet Archive at here. (You can also – if you prefer – download the individual songs at this site)

Finally, here's the video of Teng performing "Boy At the Piano," a song she wrote during her high school days. The video comes from a point and shoot camera and the audio from the Zoom H2. Hopefully, I synced them right.

Friday, April 12, 2013

If You Had One Shot, One Opportunity...

Tonight, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

Sorry to break the three-year silence on this blog by shamelessly cribbing Lou Gehrig's farewell speech. But that's truly how I feel right now.

I never got a chance to be on that London rooftop when the Fab Four were jamming with Billy Preston on "Get Back;" hang out at Ardent Studios in Memphis when Alex Chilton first started making musical magic with Chris Bell and the rest of Big Star; or even watch while Tim Davis, Steve Miller and Nicky Hopkins put the finishing touches on my all-time favorite song, "Your Saving Grace."

But at least I can say I was in a small second-floor room on Ann Arbor's South University Avenue with only about two dozen others, watching one of my favorite musicians Vienna Teng play a solo set that was so intimate and warm that I feel like I was invited to her private party.

I've written about Vienna in the past. But the truth is, I haven't seen her perform in a few years – partly out of life getting in the way and partly because Teng  decided a few years ago to nearly shelf music and become a graduate student at the University of Michigan's relatively new Erb Institute, a collaborative effort of the school's business and natural resources school to develop sustainable technology that also makes economic sense. For the last few years, Teng has lived just a few miles from me in my adopted hometown.

Tonight, just three weeks before graduating, Teng performed a show that she quietly announced on her Facebook page as a benefit for the institute's new collaborative space – the spot where she performed with just her Yamaha electric keyboard and her inimitable self.

In a few earlier blog posts, I've described myself as a kind of real-life version of "High Fidelity"'s Rob Gordon: Someone whose "glory days" in music have long since passed, but still manages to keep an ear out for the newest things – and yes, make mix CD after mix CD.

I don't know if I've made a mix CD in the last few years for a new or old friend that hasn't included a Vienna Teng song.

"You've got to hear this woman," I'll usually say. "No one else sound like her. She's amazing."

Tonight was a rare opportunity to worship at the altar of Vienna Teng in a way that few others have had the privilege of doing.

Vienna is a story singer in the sense that almost everything she writes has a fascinating backstory to it. So we got to hear how "Whatever You Want" was inspired by Milton of "Office Space" fame. Or how she endlessly listened to Dolly Parton records so that she could make "City Hall," her ode to California's legalization of same-sex marriage, a semi-country song to thumb her nose at the genre's homophobic tendencies. Or how the "Grandmother Song," which she had us stand up and do with her (see left), was written to both pay homage and gently poke fun at a woman who fled from mainland China to Taiwan to escape the Maoist revolution.

She even responded to comments and questions from the audience – including, ahem, one loud-mouth
who wondered about her beautiful dress in the "Gravity" video (watch it below) or what she thought in retrospect about her 2008 love song to Barack Obama, "Stray Italian Greyhound." (For the record, despite some of the president's loudest left-leaning critics belonging to Teng's green community, she still things he's a good person trying to do his best. But then again, she admitted, she would probably say the same thing about Mitt Romney if he had won)

For years, I've wallowed in Teng's music. Tonight allowed me to take that wallowing to a whole new level. The smallness of the crowd, the intimacy of the space and the warmth of Teng's own personality made the evening truly magical.

Vienna even thanked me for coming afterwards. For years, I've wondered what would happen if I came face-to-face with Paul McCartney, Steve Miller or Suzanne Vega.

I think I now have my answer. I'd act like a bumbling fool, stumble over my words and not know quite what to say.

Ironically,  Teng tonight did a combined cover of "Ain't No Sunshine"/"Lose Yourself." I didn't quite throw up like Rabbit from "8 Mile," but sadly nothing even remotely Christgau-eaque spewed forth from my mouth.


That said, if you read this Vienna while you're Googling your name (something you admitted to doing tonight as part of grad-school procrastination. Let me just say: Been there, done that), I'm hopefully better expressing how much tonight truly meant to me.

Thank you.

I was a pretty lucky guy.