Monday, October 15, 2012

Balboa Beach Festival review - Matt Nathanson, Joshua Radin, A Fine Frenzy, Maria McKee

Maria McKee played a mid-afternoon set
My review originally appeared at

[Note: Today, organizers said more than 2,000 people attended and an excess of $100,000 was raised from sponsorship support from local organizations.]

A dozen nationally touring and local music acts all played a part in preserving the past on Saturday during the Balboa Beach Music Festival in Orange County, Calif.
The nine-hour benefit concert, held at Peninsula Park, supported the renovation of Balboa Theater, which was built in 1927, but has been closed for 20 years. Approximately $4 million is needed to transform it into a viable 300-seat multi-use facility.
Esteemed local concert promoter Ken Phebus - who brought top notch talent to such O.C. venues as the Pacific Amphitheatre, Sun Theatre (now Grove of Anaheim) and the Coach House for decades - initially came up with the event idea before passing away last April. Phebus frequented The Balboa and always dreamed of seeing it back in action. He had already put the benefit gears into motion earlier this year.
Adult contemporary, pop, rock and folk charting artists Matt Nathanson, Joshua Radin and A Fine Frenzy, plus Maria McKee from acclaimed 1980s band Lone Justice, Lucy Schwartz, Stacy Clark and others’ sets were rotated between two large adjacent stages.
Concertgoers (many with young children in tow) used blankets and small chairs to spread out among two divided sections on the grass. A sports lounge tent was equipped with several 50” TVs showing the USC football game. Meanwhile, decidedly older benefactors and sponsors mingled loudly in the VIP area, paying minor attention to the music.
Before New England native Nathanson closed the evening with a fun, yet impassioned 70-minute, 13-song set, he predicted it would be “magical euphoria.” That about summed up his duo performance with Aaron Tap. Both routinely switched from acoustic to electric guitars and sang high-flying harmonies. 
The selections were divided between last year’s solid Vanguard Records release Modern Love (a top 20 Billboard 200 chart debut) and 2007’s Some Mad Hope. A jaunty “Faster,” riveting “Run” (recorded with Sugarland), sinister rock of “Mercy,” vibrant poppy vocals on “Car Crash” and Nathanson’s platinum-selling single “Come On, Get Higher” fared best.
Attentive to the audience’s comments and movements, Nathanson humorously riffed about scary movies, dated hairstyles, The Kardashians and lunkheads at a recent Peter Gabriel show. Some giddy teenaged girls even held up signs about Pitzer College in Claremont, his alma mater
While the crowd dwindled slightly by 9 p.m., the remainders enthusiastically participated on the Taylor Swift-approved singer’s usual covers of James’ “Laid,” Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” and segue into The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” and Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” amid the spirited “Room at the End of the World.” Nathanson mentioned driving by the Balboa Theater on his way to the park and said he hoped to return once the project is finished. 
A Fine Frenzy had fun onstage
Alison Sudol, the Los Angeles singer/keyboardist known as A Fine Frenzy, has a massive Twitter following and is known for crafting Adult pop music that verges on Tori Amos territory.
Her new Virgin album Pines is quite different. Featuring appearances by Jon Brion and Jonathan Wilson, the extended, pastoral songs are an acquired taste and more along the lines of Joni Mitchell.  
Despite Sudol’s somewhat perky demeanor, much of her band’s quiet sundown set was too subdued to compete with surrounding chatter and noises. A dramatic “Pine Song” and “Avalanches (Culla’s Song)” were both characterized by fluttering vocals. Once the band wisely stepped it up a bit, people suddenly seemed to pay more attention.
Electric guitar stabs provided a much needed jolt of energy on the cabaret-styled “They Can’t, If You Don’t Let Them,” electronic rhythms and synth washes during “It’s Alive” were capped off by wails a la Annie Lennox and the exuberant “Now is the Start” (complete with Sudol’s gestures) made for a dynamic finish.
A Fine Frenzy’s current tour mate Joshua Radin (they return with Lucy Schwartz on Nov. 16 at the Wiltern) got his first widespread exposure nearly a decade ago on the TV comedy “Scrubs.” Once a regular among LA’s Hotel CafĂ© singer/songwriter scene, Radin’s entire 2008 CD Simple Times was licensed for  film/TV usage and moved a quarter million copies around the world (he is big in England). The musician performed at Ellen DeGeneres’ wedding and his new album Underwater reached No. 2 on Billboard’s folk album chart.
“No Envy, No Fear” launched the set with some fine Americana strains. Radin’s hushed vocal delivery on the optimistic “Brand New Day” recalled Paul Simon as he totally reveled in the music (the dexterous band utilized harmonium, glockenspiel, baritone guitar and upright bass at various points). Guest backing vocalist Schwartz provided a welcome female counterpoint on a few tunes as did Tristan Prettyman. 
Joshua Radin invited two special guests to perform
Radin reminisced about coming to OC for Thanksgiving at his grandparents’ house as a kid before the happy-go-lucky highlight “Let It Go.”
Then he joked it was time to “get back into a depression” for the eerie, almost jazzy “One of Those Days.”

Later, the Ohioan looked over at the palm trees blowing in the wind and opined about how they were not indigenous to California.
Other standouts in the excellent set included the bluegrass of “She’s So Right,” rocking “Ones With the Light,” pensive fan request “I’d Rather Be With You” and folky, harmonica-laden stomp, “Underwater.”
Singer/songwriter Maria McKee’s compositions have been recorded by multiple acts over the years (Dixie Chicks, Feargal Sharkey), she has an impressive resume of guest studio appearances (U2, Robbie Robertson, Counting Crows, Jayhawks) and several acclaimed solo albums.
Her latest endeavor is the indie film “After the Triumph of Your Birth.” Helmed by bassist bandmate/husband Jim Akin, McKee appears in it and handled the score. The soundtrack CD is available through
Right before taking the stage, U2 music was being played – an appropriate choice considering Lone Justice opened for the Irish band on its “The Joshua Tree” tour. McKee, born in LA, talked about spending summers in OC, swimming and looking for phosphorous in the ocean. 
Originally scheduled to play 45 minutes at Balboa, her set started late and wasn’t allowed to go over. A wonder from start to finish, fans only got to witness a half hour of the firebrand’s glorious pipes, most notably during the rootsy soul of “I Can’t Make it Alone,” “Am I The Only One Who’s Ever Felt That Way” and an inviting “Shelter” (from the same-named 1986 Lone Justice record).
Schwartz had a track featured on the Twilight: Breaking Dawn soundtrack, has collaborated with Aqualung and played at the last Lilith Fair. The young Angeleno’s 25-minute performance was marked by pleasant adult piano pop and highlighted by the idyllic “Gone Away.”
Photos by Miguel Vasconcellos 

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