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The musical genre known as Americana dominates this week’s top events.
The biggest comes courtesy of Portland Ovations: “Million Dollar Quartet” is a stage dramatization of one of the most extraordinary jam sessions ever held. That happened on Dec. 4, 1956, when Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley spent a day together in the Sun Records studio in Memphis. Catch it in Portland this Saturday.
Eilen Jewel is a contemporary Americana artist who pays tribute to the greats of the past as well as moving in new directions of her own. She’ll be performing this Friday in Portland.
Chadwick Stokes is an alt-rock artist who is best known for fronting two Boston area bands. His latest project is a solo effort, and it was released two weeks ago. Titled “The Horse Comanche,” Stokes will be promoting it in a Feb. 25 concert in Portland.
In the famous Sherlock Holmes stories, the great detective often remarked to Dr. Watson that in the realm of crime, reality exceeds writers’ best efforts at fiction. In the realm of show business, that tenet is illustrated by a jukebox musical that’s heading to Portland.
At first glance, “Million Dollar Quartet” appears to be the figment of some script writer’s overheated imagination: Four pioneer rockabilly musicians gather for a jam session and perform some of the most iconic songs of their era. But that’s the way it happened, purely by chance, on Dec. 4, 1956.
The place was the Sun Records studio in Memphis. The occasion was a recording session featuring guitarist-singer-songwriter Carl Perkins, supervised by Sun’s owner, Sam Phillips. Unbeknownst to Perkins, Phillips had also invited pianist Jerry Lee Lewis to bolster the instrumentation. Soon two other musicians dropped by the studio and joined the session: Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
It was the first and only time that these four would perform together. Sun’s engineer recorded the whole session. When Phillips realized the importance of this event, he called a local newspaper, which sent a reporter and a photographer. The newspaper’s report was headlined “Million Dollar Quartet.”
Fragments of the recording were released years later under that title. Fifty years later, a jukebox musical based on the event was created. The script was written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, and the score was entirely based on the early hits of the four luminaries. Including several session musicians plus Phillips and Presley’s girlfriend, the cast numbers about 10.
After productions in Florida, Washington and Chicago, “Million Dollar Quartet” debuted on Broadway in 2010, running 14 months and garnering three Tony Award nominations, winning one.
The score comprises 23 songs, representing early hits by all four. Perkins is represented by “Who Do You Love,” “Matchbox” and “Blue Suede Shoes.” Lewis’ hits include “Real Wild Child,” “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
Songs made famous by Presley include “Memories Are Made of This,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Hound Dog.” Cash is represented by “Sixteen Tons,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.”
After its Broadway run, “Million Dollar Quartet” was re-launched as national touring company and has been on the road ever since. When it visited Minneapolis, Pioneer Press reviewer Rob Hubbard made some insightful comments:
“It’s easy to be cynical about the whole ‘jukebox musical’ concept. When theater impresarios take a big batch of familiar tunes and stitch them together with something like a story, it can seem like a naked cash grab. Performances can leave you feeling like you’ve just consumed an enormous bag of popcorn for the price of what should have been a satisfying dinner.
“‘Million Dollar Quartet’ is a great example of what a jukebox musical can be, but too rarely is. The high-octane touring production currently being presented at Minneapolis’ State Theatre has enough substance and story to satisfy, the characterizations strong, the songs exceptionally well performed. Driven by the rough and reckless spirit of early rock ‘n’ roll, it makes for an exhilarating and enjoyable evening.”
On the contemporary Americana scene, no singer-songwriter interests me more than Eilen Jewell, a Boston-based musician who makes frequent forays into Maine, where she found some of her early successes. Nowadays she usually plays at One Longfellow Square, and that’s where she’ll be singing on Friday.
Jewell is a very contemporary musician who understands the importance of traditional roots. The second of her six CDs to date, “Butcher Hollow,” is entirely devoted to covers of songs of country legend Loretta Lynn. Most of her concerts include at least a couple of Loretta Lynn tunes. This past summer Jewell had her first child and named her Mavis, honoring American gospel singer Mavis Staples.
I’ve attended several of Jewell’s concerts, and I’m always impressed by the range of her talents, which include her music, lyrics and interplay with the band.
Jewell’s most recent CD of original material was released in 2011, and is titled “Queen of the Minor Key.” It is the product of a crafty wordsmith with a heart of burnished gold.
Catch Eilen Jewell at 8 p.m. Feb. 20 at One Longfellow Square, corner of State and Congress in Portland. Call 761-1757.
Chadwick Stokes is one of the Boston area’s most versatile alt-rock musicians. He’s a guitarist-singer-songwriter – plus he plays several other instruments – who is best known as the frontman for State Radio and Dispatch. He’s also known for using music as an instrument for social activism through Calling All Crows.
In the past year Stokes has devoted much of his creative effort to a solo project that was released a couple of weeks ago. Titled “The Horse Comanche,” Stokes’ 10-track album garnered a favorable review from Lee Zimmerman at PopMatters.
“With songs that literally seem to go from a whisper to a roar, Stokes’ melodies inhabit a kind of netherworld where it’s never a certainty where they’ll end up next,” commented Zimmerman. “Regardless, there’s an unmistakable energy and intensity at play here, and regardless of where the songs seem to start out, they ultimately make an emphatic impression once they reach their conclusion.”
On Dec. 4, 1956, four soon-to-be-famous rockabilly musicians got together in Memphis for an impromptu jam session. “Million Dollar Quartet,” a stage dramatization of that extraordinary happening, will be presented Saturday, Feb. 21, by Portland Ovations.