John Oates, Joshua Radin

City Winery, NYC

Joshua Radin, John Oates, Blind Boys of Alabama & Marc Cohn
City Winery - NYC - 1/6/19
Photos & Review - Rebecca Wolf

As well-known music venues around NYC lose their leases and shut their doors, City Winery continues to bring to the stage an eclectic mix of musicians to satisfy a wide range of musical tastes. From jazz, to reggae, to blues, to rock, to tribute bands to award winning artists, all can be heard within the confines of this dimly lit, intimate-feeling, Hudson Square winery. On any given night fans in the crowd may range from those in their 20s to those 40 years their senior….something for everyone.

On the night of January 6th City Winery had a packed house. The line-up for the evening was a clear example of the range of performers that might grace the City Winery stage on any given night. However, on this evening it was a mix of performers all playing on the same night. These artists were singer-songwriter Joshua Radin, Songwriters Hall of Fame and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member, as well as singer and guitarist, John Oates, Grammy Award-winning gospel group, Blind Boys of Alabama, and Grammy Award-Winning folk-rock singer-songwriter, Marc Cohn. While I have yet to determine a common thread bringing these musical acts to the City Winery stage on that night, what I have concluded is that the enthusiastic crowd was treated to 3+ hours of a mix of energizing, soulful, folksy, bluesy, rhythmic music.

The opening act of the evening was Joshua Radin, acoustic guitar player and folk singer. Radin has recorded 7 studio albums and his songs have been used in a number of films and TV series. Radin easily engaged the crowded house, who was enthused to hear his warm, whispery, and at times melancholy voice. Many of Radin’s songs are like poetry, with themes of love, intimacy, hope and longing. These emotions are apparent on Radin’s face, as well as in his voice, giving audience members the sense that Radin is honestly bearing his heart and soul for all to see. 

The second act of the night, John Oates, is known to most as half of the famously talented musical duo, Hall & Oates. While John Oates wrote many of the duos hit songs, Daryl Hall sang lead on the majority and has been the center-stage, crowd-engaging, frontman of the band. Oates’ quieter, presence in Hall & Oates may have given the impression he doesn’t have an equivalent level of musical talents as Hall. However, after seeing John Oates, with his band, The Good Road Band, I can equivocally say that’s anything but the truth.  Some people enjoy the flash and fanfare they receive for ceremoniously displaying their skills. However, others don’t need or want that same type of attention, and prefer to share their talents in a quieter fashion.  This is John Oates.  John Oates has tremendous vocal abilities, as well as songwriting and guitar playing skills, that many of us never really witnessed during Hall & Oates.

Oates’ current music, and his new album Alabama, is vastly different from the hit pop tunes he helped create with Hall & Oates. Currently living in Nashville, Oates’ music is a mixture of folk, blues, ragtime, and bluegrass. It’s a feeling of old-time Americana, with a fresh flavor and energy. As “frontman” in his own band, Oates displayed warmth, sense of humor and kindness. He easily communicated with the crowd (in his down-to-earth nature), sharing background stories about the origins of his songs. To the delight of the audience, Oates shared the history of one of Hall & Oates’ most famous hit songs, “Maneater”. Oates described to his enthused fans an evening in The Village at a popular haunt for musicians, models, actors, and Wall St. execs. While sitting with friends, a beautiful woman entered and seated herself in front of Oates.  To his surprise, when she opened her mouth she had “the foulest vocabulary” he’d ever heard. ‘Wow’, he said to himself. ‘She would chew you up and spit you out.’ After returning home, with a reggae vibe in his head from a recent Jamaican holiday, Oates wrote down a chorus. Upon playing it to Hall, Hall suggested a more Motown rhythm for the song. And “Maneater”, released in October 1982, reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on December 18, 1982.
Entering the stage after John Oates’ departure was the Grammy Award-Winning gospel group The Blind Boys of Alabama. The Blind Boys of Alabama first sang together in 1939 and have been touring for the past 7 decades. The boys first sang together in the school chorus at 9 years old at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind. Of the  7 founding members, only one was sighted. The group’s first professional performance was in 1944, and by the following year the boys had dropped out of school to tour the gospel circuit, which they are continuing to do 70 years later.

The only original member of the Blind Boy is Alabama is Jimmy Carter (as the rest have passed). While the band members have changed, the Blind Boys have stuck to their original gospel roots, even when the popularity of gospel music faded in the 60s and 70s. Over the years, the group has received a multitude of awards and has released close to 70 albums. While members of the Blind Boys may have required assistance getting seated on the stage, no help was necessary for showcasing their beautifully rich gospel voices. Energy and spirituality emanated from the stage to the appreciative audience members, who received the Blind Boys’ uplifting messages, as if they were present at a Sunday morning religious services.

Joining the Blind Boys on stage for the last performance of the evening was Grammy Award-Winner Marc Cohn, best known for his song “Walking in Memphis”. In 1992 Cohn won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist and he has continued to make music for the following 25+ years. Cohn has shared the stage with the Blind Boys of Alabama on a number of occasions. As he sat at his piano for his first song of the night Cohn remarked to the audience that “just to be in the company of these titans of gospel music is an honor”.  He recalled as well that at a recent performance his brother took a photo of him performing with the Blind Boys and said it’s the happiest he’s seen Cohn in a long time. Noting that the Blind Boys had just played “this joyous Christian music”, Cohn remarked he was now going to depress the crowd with his “Semetic soul”.  

As Cohn began with the song “Ghost Train” (a song he later explained is about the day his mother passed away, when he was 2 years old), there’s understandably a heavy, somber quality to his voice. There remains a throaty, heaviness to Cohn’s voice even when he isn’t singing about such an emotionally charged subject. However, his voice is also rich, stoic and at the same time beautiful. There is a sense that Cohn continues to carry some heaviness within him, and sharing his music is his way of releasing some of that weight. Maybe that’s why Cohn’s brother noticed him smiling while singing with the Blind Boys of Alabama….their faith and spirituality can’t help but raise your spirits. For their last song of the evening, Cohn and the Blind Boys of Alabama joined forces to sing the classic, “If I Had a Hammer”.  It was an uplifting experience for everyone on stage, as well as everyone in the audience.  And as the refrain in the song states, “love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.” Isn’t that what we all need here in the US right now?

City Winery on January 6th brought a night of beautiful, spiritual, down-home music, filled with depth, richness, and truth. The music was real, the musicians were real and the atmosphere provided an overall sense of “connection”. As I look back on the evening, I now see the common thread between the musicians ….they all had that sense of depth, honesty, truth and allowed audience members to leave with a feeling of well-being, spirituality and peace. What a great bargain for the price of a concert ticket!
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