Despite the freezing cold temperatures, music lovers of all ages are making the short trip from the parking lot into the warm and inviting Grunin Center of the Arts theater in Toms River, NJ, this Friday, February 2, 2018 evening. Located on the campus of Ocean County College, these music fans have all arrived tonight to experience a rare New Jersey concert appearance by musician Steven Page and the Art of Time Ensemble.
Steven Page is a founding member and former lead singer of the iconic Canadian band, Barenaked Ladies, a group with whom he toured the globe and sold millions of albums. Born in Ontario, Page grew up in a family in which both his father and brother were drummers. As a child, Steven took piano lessons and sang in a youth choir. Along with a friend, Ed Robertson, Page started Barenaked Ladies — a group that went on to create hits including “Brian Wilson,” “One Week,” and the theme song for the hit television show, The Big Bang Theory.
While still a member of Barenaked Lades, Page began a collaboration with Toronto’s Art of Time Ensemble, an acoustic music group created in 1997 by pianist Andrew Burashko. Exploring the relationship between classical music and other genres including jazz, pop, electronica, rock, folk, gospel, and more, the group was conceived in an attempt to reveal the qualities that lie at the heart of all great music.
In 2010, after leaving Barenaked Ladies, Page and the Art of Time Ensemble recorded an album together — A Singer Must Die — which included music from a live 2008 Songbook concert they had performed in Toronto. Whereas the term “Great American Songbook” is the name typically given to the pre-rock era compositions of songwriters such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin, Page’s Songbook expanded the concept to focus on the songs of rock and post-rock writers in an effort to create a sort of “Great American Songbook Vol. II.” In this iteration of the Songbook concept, Page and the Art of Time Ensemble covered compositions by the likes of Leonard Cohen, Rufus Wainwright, and Radiohead.
Page and the Art of Time musicians partnered yet again in 2011 for a concert of innovative arrangements of songs by Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, and others in a continuation of the Songbook series. Currently, the musicians are traveling around North America on the 2018 edition of their Steven Page Songbook tour where they recently made a stop in New Jersey at Toms River’s Grunin Center of the Arts.
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Inside the beautiful Grunin Center auditorium, the stage is set with a grand piano, an acoustic bass, a pair of saxophones, an acoustic guitar, and a microphone. As the audience anxiously awaits the arrival of Steven Page, the lights dim and the musicians of the Art of Time Ensemble make their way onto the stage. In addition to artistic director Andrew Burashko on piano, tonight’s line-up of talented instrumentalists includes Peter Lutek on woodwinds, Joseph Phillips on acoustic bass, Rob Piltch on guitars, Rachel Pomedli on cello, and Stephen Sitarski on violin.
Steven Page makes his entrance to avid applause. Then he and the musicians open tonight’s performance with their rendition of “Lion’s Teeth,” a song by the American band, The Mountain Goats.
With the musicians playing an arrangement which features an ostinato — or repeated musical figure — akin to the one heard in Ravel’s Bolero, Page’s dynamic tenor voice fills the theater as he croons, “The king of the jungle/Was asleep in his car/When your chances fall in your lap like that/You gotta recognize them for what they really are.”
As he sings, Page’s voice sounds full, clear, resonant, and natural in this optimal acoustic environment. Likewise, the Ensemble’s instrumental accompaniment is presented in all of its natural acoustic glory with a minimum of electronic miking.
Following hearty applause, Page welcomes the crowd by announcing, “My name is Steven Page and this is the Art of Time Ensemble.” Explaining, “I’ve been working with Art of Time on Songbook where our goal is to find the boundaries of songs,” Page further adds, “Some songs you’ll be familiar with and some you’ll want to know better.”
Introducing the next two pieces, Page acknowledges, “One of my heroes is Leonard Cohen. I hope you enjoy two sides of Leonard Cohen.”
Launching into the first Cohen song, Steven and Art of Time perform “I’m Your Man,” a composition which features an innovative Peter Lutek saxophone solo, a theatrical vocal performance by Page, and crack instrumental playing from the string section which includes Rachel Pomedli on cello.
As the audience applauds, Page notices several audience members arriving late to the theater and jokes with them, “You missed the best two songs of the night!”
Moving on to the second Cohen piece — one of the highlights of tonight’s concert — Page and the Ensemble peform “Famous Blue Raincoat,” a beautiful ballad which boasts a gorgeous arrangement by Jonathan Goldsmith. The number also features a lush Pat Metheny-like guitar sound by Rob Piltch, terrific piano playing by Andrew Burashko, and some unique-sounding C clarinet playing by Lutek.
Introducing a composition by “one of Canada’s greatest writers of songs — Gord Downie,” Page and the group perform “Chancellor.” Singing, “Seconds from pajamas I must/First open all the doors and the windows/And invite the vampire in to be one of us,” Page’s lyrics are accompanied by an instrumental arrangement which combines both classical and folk music. As he sings, Page’s controlled voice rises above the instrumentalists who accompany him with varied dynamics.
Revealing that the next song “is about a man’s relationship with his cat,” Page and the Art of Time Ensemble perform The Weakerthan’s “Virtute the Cat Explains her Departure” by John K. Sampson. On this number, the natural sounds of the instruments dominate — including rhythmic chording on the grand piano, slides and glissandos on the strings, and an extended instrumental coda. On this number, Page’s voice sounds simply dreamlike.
The audience hoots with delight and one member of the crowd even shouts up to Steven on the stage, “Thank you playing that — it’s my favorite song!”
Page expresses his appreciation and then introduces the next piece by stating, “I hope you enjoy this song by a group I’ve been following for a long time.”
Here, he and the Art of Time musicians perform a creative rendition of The Beatles’ “Girl,” which features an avant-garde orchestral accompaniment and another Lutek sax solo.
The musicians follow up with “New Shore” — an original composition by Page — which boasts a rhythmic accompaniment in the style of a sea chantey. Using his falcetto voice, Page sings, “I settled here on a new shore/My lips were blue and my legs were sore/And I forget if I was pushed or I jumped overboard/And after all this time, what’s the difference?/Land ho!” Accompanied by rock guitar and staccato strings, audience members tap their toes and nod their heads before responding with a hearty “Yay!” at the number’s conclusion!
Revealing, “We’ll do one more song before we go backstage and have some cubes of cheese,” Page discloses, “Our next composer is a band — so they can’t be dead — but they’re dead to me.” Here, the audience starts to laugh — obviously thinking Page is referring to his former collegues in Barenaked Ladies — until he realizes his words and exclaims, “No! It’s Radiohead!” before wryly adding, “but I could use this introduction later!”
Launching into yet another highlight performance of the evening, the group plays “Paranoid Android.” Opening with a single repeated tone on the piano, Page uses his impressive voice to great dynamic effect.
Singing, “What’s that? What’s that? When I am king you will be first against the wall,” Page is accompanied by orchestral string runs. What follows is a distorted “In A Gadda Da Vida”-like guitar figure, a screaming sax solo, and a violin and cello duet from Stephen Sitarski and Rachel Pomedli which resembles a J.S. Bach passacaglia. As Page sings with passion — his voice sounding operatic in nature — he intones, “God loves his children,” before the arrangement ultimately harkens back to the single piano tones which soon fade away themselves to pure silence.
The audience pauses — enabling the silence to allow the full effect of the performance to sink in — and then bursts into applause, hoots, and hollers!
Following a short intermission, Act II opens with Page playing acoustic guitar on Elvis Costello’s “I Want You.” Starting as a country waltz, the arrangement soon shifts to rock. Page vocally gives it all he’s got until the song builds in intensity to a soaring string section interlude a la The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” before transforming into a funeral dirge with its haunting melody.
Page mouths the final words, “I want you” — producing absolutely no sound at all — expressing great emotion in utter silence.
After addressing the crowd by inquiring, “How was your break? I looked out and saw many of you just sitting here!” several in the audience start to giggle.
Announcing, “Here’s another Leonard Cohen song — because I love Leonard Cohen,” Page and the Ensemble perform the title song from their recording, A Singer Must Die. In waltz time, Page sings with irony about his so-called vocal “crimes” crooning, “A singer must die for the lie in his voice…Your vision is right, my vision is wrong /I’m sorry for smudging the air with my song.”
Following enthusiastic applause, Page claps and physically step-dances the Latin rhythm which undergirds his original composition, “Entourage.” Featuring a sultry Lutek saxophone solo, Page sways and emotes while he sings, “I want to live with you and your entourage.”
The musicians follow up with a number about which Page says, “This is a song from one of the greatest ’80s albums — which sounded very ’80s — Jane Siberry’s The Speckless Sky.” The song, “The Taxi Ride,” opens with Rachel Pomedli’s cello and Joseph Phillips’ bass playing a drone-like introduction before Stephen Sitarski adds his violin and Page enters singing.
In the middle of the number, Page speaks the line, “I thought I heard someone screaming outside. It was just a bus.” After which, the piece drifts off into a surreal classical/jazz soundscape before returning back to the original tune for a dramatic conclusion.
After introducing the members of the Art of Time Ensemble to the audience, Page attributes the next song to “a band Barenaked Ladies opened for — The Skydiggers.” Here, he and the musicians perform “Anything For You,” a gentle and rhythmic rock number featuring distorted electric guitar accompaniment by Rob Piltch.
Following audience applause, Page thanks the crowd before telling them, “This next song is by David Bowie. I bought the album it comes from — a Mexican cutout where all the words were in Spanish — on the same day I went to the movies to see DC Cab starring Mr. T,” going on to joke, “I pity the fool who doesn’t enjoy this next song!”
Performing Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes,” the musicians open with a quirky staccato intro. Page sings using his falsetto voice in a rubato style — creatively taking the tempo at his own pace. The ensemble strings re-enter with pops, slides, and crackles performed on their instruments along with woodwind growls emanating from the saxophone. The number concludes with Page as he sings and then ultimately whispers, “My mother said to get things done/You’d better not mess with Major Tom,” to the audience’s delight.
Announcing “This is our last song, which is from a band from Ireland called Divine Comedy.” A lovely and hopeful composition entitled, “Tonight We Fly,” the Art of Time Ensemble strings rhythmically play straight eighth notes as Page sings, “Tonight we fly/Over the houses/The streets and the trees/Over the dogs down below/They’ll bark at our shadows/As we float by on the breeze.” Making the audience feel quite like they’re taking a trip in a hot air balloon, the song builds to a satisfying conclusion, after which the audience responds with a rousing standing ovation!
Page and his colleagues leave the stage, but soon return, at which point Page says with a twinkle in his eye, “Our next song is by a band — so they can’t be dead — but they’re dead to me!” The audience laughs as he and the Art of Time Ensemble launch into a dynamic rendition of Barenaked Ladies’ 1992 hit “Brian Wilson.”
The audience clearly enjoys every note, after which Page signals, “One more?” to which the audience responds with continued cheers and applause.
Here, Steven and the group perform yet another highlight of the evening — a stunning rendition of The Beatles’ “Oh, Darling” which includes an innovative musical arrangement featuring bluesy piano playing by Andrew Burashko, a melding of jazz and classical string playing, wah-wah electric guitar, and a knock-your-socks-off lead vocal by Steven Page.
Following even more cheers and applause, as the audience members make their way out of the auditorium and out into the cold winter night, they can’t help but feel they’ve been a part of a very special musical event — a concert where they were not only throughly entertained, but one in which they also were exposed to real culture.
It’s not often that a listener can get the same feeling from a so-called “pop” concert that he or she can get from attending a concert of orchestral music, an opera, or a even a great visual art exhibit. Thanks to Steven Page and his talented cadre of musicians for making the leap to expand the “Great American Songbook” and create a new “volume” of standards so elequently presented tonight in Songbook: Steven Page and the Art of Time Ensemble LIVE! at the Grunin Center.
To learn more about Steven Page, please go to stevenpage.com. For further information on the Art of Time Ensemble, please click on artoftimeensemble.com. To find out about upcoming performances at the Grunin Center of the Arts — including An Intimate Evening with Rickie Lee Jones on Mar. 22, Tom Chapin and the Chapin Sisters on Apr. 21, and Peter, Paul and Mary’s Peter Yarrow on May. 11 — please go to grunincenter.org.Photos by Love Imagery
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