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'Gypsies and Clowns - Natalia Zukerman and Friends live at SPACE'

Released on Weasel Records, 2013

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

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Natalia Zukerman & Friends Live at SPACE

Natalia Zukerman & Friends Live at SPACE

© Weasel Records
Natalia Zukerman is part of a rather vibrant, creative, talented Northeastern US singer-songwriter scene. The songwriters on that local/regional circuit have gathered together before, to support others on their recordings (some of them on Rose Cousins' We Have Made a Spark in 2012). Thus, their presence on this recording is nothing particularly shocking or new, or special to the occasion. That said, Zukerman's enlisting of them for a two-hour set at a venue called SPACE in Evanston, Ill., last year resulted in a beautiful live recording that's bound to win her new fans and satisfy long-time admirers just the same.

A Community of Music and Musicians

Natalia Zukerman has been touring the US singer-songwriter circuit solo for years. She's established herself, in certain circles, as a reliably gifted vocalist and instrumentalist who doesn't need a full band backing her in order to hold her own onstage. But, if Gypsies and Clowns is any indication, when she decides to surround herself with other artists she pulls in some of the finest talent in the business. Here she is surrounded by Willy Porter, Edie Carey, Garrison Starr, Trina Hamlin, Erin McKeown, Susan Werner, and others. Together, this musical crowd delivers a two-hour set which holds and supports the 22 songs Zukerman's selected, with total musical prowess and no detectable ego.

The accompaniments are as intuitive and spot-on as you might imagine from a band that had worked together at forming a cohesive sound for years. Hamlin's harmonica solos, alone, bring the whole disc up a level, as do the perfectly punctuating backing vocals from the whole crew. Porter, McKeown, and Starr trade guitar licks like a trio of seasoned collaborators, but never eclipsing the guitar work Zukerman easily achieves on her own. After all, this isn't a band album - this is a crowd of people backing up one of their buddies, and doing so artfully.

Live Performance vs. Studio Album

Natalia Zukerman

Natalia Zukerman

promo photo
It's hard to listen to this record without considering the phenomenon of the live album itself. After all, there are live albums on which artists embark for the purpose of depicting a different side of the music than they could achieve on a studio album. Zukerman, however, makes studio albums which are raw and rootsy enough that they sound almost exactly like a live performance. What you hear on the recording is what you see on the stage, give or take.

Indeed, the music on this disc is pulled from across the realm of Zukerman's last few studio albums, not veering terribly far from the mood, melody, or spirit she achieved in each. However, on this live disc, Zukerman and her friends interject the performances with the occasional giggle, surprising each other with particularly playful performances now and then. You can hear them respond to each other's improvisational moments with grunts and cheers, as they either nail the song hard or flub a note or two in the process. Those moments could have been captured in a studio too, granted. Anytime you assemble that many friends and peers, you'll fall into surprises and impressive moments. But the added impulses in the live show bring a certain humanity - transforming the music into a conversation rather than allowing it to remain simply a document or a performance.

Before singing "Sorry Side of Town" (purchase/download) with Adrian Gonzalez, Zukerman explains to the audience: "After...traveling around with these folks, I feel like the songs become as much theirs as they are mine, because they help me flesh them out. There are certain songs...like, I don't play ['Song for Ramblin' Jack'] unless Trina's around. I just don't, because...why would you? It's just hers now."

Indeed, with that tune and all the others on this 2-disc collection, the recording quickly becomes less a re-hashing of songs for the purpose of presenting a new narrative, and instead simply about the way music changes when your friends sing along. It's a lovely live album; highly recommended whether you know Zukerman's work so far, or not. (Currently it's only available at Zukerman's website.)

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