I first saw Milton perform about a decade ago at tiny Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg. Back then, he was still figuring out how to get comfortable onstage, and his voice was mostly gravel and subway steam. But he was a genial presence, and he knew how to hold an audience spellbound with a story. He brought down the house with “In the City,” a post-9/11 love letter to Manhattan that mentions Warhol, Lou Reed, and curry and red beans, practically in the same raspy Brooklynite breath. The song that really got me, though, was his ambivalent ode to his hometown of Larchmont, N.Y., and the suburban predicament in general. Fast-forward a year or two, and Milton had become the host of variety shows of his own at Pete’s and the Living Room on the Lower East Side, applying everything he’d learned from the Woodstock movie and “The Last Waltz.” As he learned how to emulate his heroes — Dylan and the Band, Van Morrison, Sam Cooke, Paul Westerberg — his writing went from brusquely effective to timelessly gorgeous. He put together a terrific backing band, started touring, cut several albums of first-rate folk-rock, and built a devoted national following. If you’re a fan of classic ’70s-style singer-songwriter music and you don’t know who Milton is … well, he’s not the sort of performer who is going to jump up and down to call attention to himself. He’s built for the long run: when you’re ready for him, he’ll be there for you. Should you wish to take the initiative, though, you can catch him at The Loft at the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway on Saturday night.
Another understated but charismatic performer takes the stage at the South Orange Performing Arts Center this week. Bill Frisell doesn’t get called a guitar hero very often, but that’s because his fans tend to be a bit too old to idolize their favorites. But Frisell has spent the last 30 years coaxing otherworldly sounds out his six-string, and developing a graceful aural signature that is unmistakably his. Because of the company he keeps and the labels he’s worked for, Frisell is considered a jazzman, but really, Frisell plays in a style all his own. Early in his career, he made a racket with Naked City, John Zorn’s abrasive avant-garde combo; more recently, he’s drawn from American folk and country music. His interpretation of Madonna’s pop ballad “Live to Tell” remains one of the most radiant things he’s ever recorded. “Guitar in the Space Age,” his cheekily titled most recent album, takes inspiration from the surf-rock that Frisell grew up with. At Thursday night’s South Orange concert, Frisell will be accompanied by bassist Tony Scherr, drummer Kenny Wollesen, and the much-traveled pedal steel wizard Greg Leisz.
When he was first making a name for himself, Frisell lived in Hoboken, making him one of the many internationally recognized jazz players to have made a home in the Garden State. Stephane Wrembel is another. Wrembel — a titan of manouche, or the French style of gypsy jazz that has descended from the work of Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt — is still there, and he won’t have to travel too far for his Wednesday night jam session at Razza in Jersey City. If you haven’t been there, Razza serves some of the best pizza in this pie-obsessed town (it’s a sister restaurant to the unbeatable Arturo’s in Maplewood, so if you like that, you’ll like this, too). Jersey City is surprisingly fertile territory for gypsy jazz: Manouche Bag, a gang of locals fronted by the proprietor of Madame Claude Bistro, has become one of the Downtown’s most reliably entertaining live acts. Will the Manouche guys end up strumming along with Wrembel? Well, he is calling this show a jam, so I figure there’s a pretty good chance that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
In my non-Philadelphian opinion, the best Philly soul album ever cut was made by a group from Detroit. The Spinners were already established as Motor City favorites before enlisting help from Cincinnati singer Philippé Wynne and Philly producer Thom Bell, but their self-titled album, released in 1973, made them international stars. The Spinners contained blockbuster singles (“I’ll Be Around,” “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love”), a bit of social commentary (“Ghetto Child”) and a seven-minute soul epic (“I Could Never Repay Your Love”) that stands as a template for all of the 6/8 soul ballads that have followed since. Really, there’s not a cut on the set that isn’t fantastic, and while it doesn’t get the recognition that albums by Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder do, I continue to find it to be the quintessential soul record of the ’70s. Wynne died in 1984, and most of the original members are gone — but Henry Fambrough, who has been with the outfit for half a century, brings the Spinners to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center on Friday night. They are double billed with another ’70s soul legend — Gladys Knight — and they’re guaranteed to sing all the hits.