Friday, September 19, 2008

Music Review: Danny Aiello- Live from Atlantic City

By paying tribute to the greats,
Danny Aiello paves the way to greatness himself
... this time as a singer.


For a large portion of Generation X and Y video game devotees, after a long day of working in the concrete jungle, the ultimate way to unwind is via a rousing game of Guitar Hero or Rock Band -- wailing along with their favorite artists. And for others who are mostly female — as a natural progression from the innocence of singing into one’s hairbrush-- some still find themselves belting out pop songs at stoplights with their windows rolled all the way up while imagining that for five minutes they’ve become Madonna or Gwen Stefani. Yet for a certain type of music lover — usually those who revere the classics — there is no greater fantasy than daydreaming that you’re under the hot spotlight of a darkened club crooning standards, cabaret tunes and/or torch songs with enough lung power to rival Dino, Old Blue Eyes, Billie, or Judy Garland amidst the sounds of ice cubes clinking in a glass.

Often filled with melancholic lyrics of love gone wrong or pleas for one’s current love to last, these are the type of songs of which even a passionate fan of diverse genres of the medium, such as this reviewer, can’t get enough. Sure, I still mostly listen to alternative and independent rock and always rush out to buy the latest disc from Radiohead or Wilco.

But whether it’s in the shower, in the car, or in my head, often the first songs that pop into my mind are the ones of the past that told a story — adult contemporary jazz standards — of emotion and heart. And for a moment, just listening to the various arrangements by artists such as Louis Prima, Bobby Darin or Carmen Miranda makes one mentally travel back in time fifty plus years to an era of classic standards as Danny Aiello told J&R interviewers where they were “sung the way [we]… like to hear them (understanding every word).”

Therefore it’s no wonder that Aiello titled his 2004 debut album, I Just Wanted to Hear the Words, and although, unfortunately there seems to be little call for these ballads in an increasingly modern MP3 based market of iPods and electronic redubbing, in Aiello’s follow-up album Live From Atlantic City, he again loses listeners in a dreamy reverie of musical storytelling with enough drama to rival the great Russian authors, yet with a beat you can dance to and with the brevity of a poet and the wit of a comedian. Offering listeners a performance from February 18, 2006 just two years before Atlantic City’s legendary Sands Hotel and Casino was demolished, Aiello’s concert was initially recorded just for the sake of Aiello and his band (called Joe Geary & The Guys).

However, given the hotel’s destruction and the success of Aiello’s first album, which reached #4 on the Billboard Charts alongside Harry Connick Jr., Winton Marsalis, and Diana Krall for about “five minutes,” as Aiello jokes on the CD, suddenly the idea of a recording to preserve history for one’s private use seemed like a limited goal as it is now a historical document in its own right. Additionally it's highly significant to Aiello on a personal level as the album was recorded in the very Copa Room wherein he met Old Blue Eyes (Mr. Frank Sinatra himself) ten years earlier at his final American public concert at the Sands.

Indeed the album and the songs chosen for Aiello’s concert are a tribute to artists like Sinatra deeply admired by the actor turned musician. Thanking “all the artists whose memorable performance[s] have impacted so many lives including my own… [and]… those songwriters whose words have helped create a beautiful soundtrack to my life story,” in the liner notes, he begins the album with the pointed choice “All Of Me,” which announces not only Aiello’s style but his intention to serve himself up fully for the enjoyment of the audience.

And although he admits that as a singer it’s an “avocation” not a vocation as he’s primarily an actor—earning Emmy and Oscar nominations and acclaim for his memorable turns in everything from Moonstruck to Do the Right Thing to the Madonna video “Papa Don’t Preach,” Aiello eases into the roughly hour long live concert with humor and self-deprecation. In between songs such as “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” before launching into the Louis Prima like fast-paced “Pennies From Heaven,” he riffs with the audience, telling stories about his life and background whether it was spending just a half an hour in high school to enlisting in the army at seventeen or working as a bouncer, along with sharing an endless appreciation for his wife of more than fifty years, Sandy.

Sharing that he loves “those sexy songs,” he rips into “Besame Mucho” with soul. And although he frequently shares his own fan-like adoration of the artists who performed the quintessential versions of the tracks like his musical idol Bobby Darin, for whom he performs the record's two final songs “Beyond The Sea” and “Clementine,” his own versions of the works are helping to encourage a new generation as well. You can witness this revelation via the following YouTube clip wherein Aiello performs with rapper Hasan in a “Mucho” remix.

While you can listen to two of the album's tracks here via Windows — “All Of Me,” and “Pennies From Heaven”-- the disc works at its best as one big concert with each track and anecdote flowing right into the next. While I only wished it would’ve been recorded on DVD as well, Aiello is a tremendous entertainer and one who seems like in addition to his many other career twists and turns, would’ve made quite a gifted writer in his own right. Given his background in acting, he adds a depth and character to the music we know so well, most evident in “I’m Confessing (That I Love You)” as he walks away from the standard easygoing Chet Baker style of the piece and tells a tongue-in-cheek anecdote making endless excuses for a most likely dalliance completely in the character of the song.

However, the album’s crowning achievement is the vocally impressive “Some Of These Days,” which he attacks with an energy that men half his age would envy, which is all the more of a feat considering that it’s the ninth tune of a twelve track album and by that point, normally one would be longing for a break. Instead, in Aiello's case, it just highlights his tremendous range.

Just before he begins the song, Aiello shares the way that that particular tune helped propel him from one phase of his life to the next, echoing the way he confesses throughout the record that when he was at a loss for words whether it was at a charity function or in questioning the direction his life was headed, he would turn to music. And when you hear it, you’ll soon realize that it’s lost none of its significance so many “days” later in this impressive man's varied life.

In fact, while most actors in their seventies — let along double hyphenates such as Aiello’s actor-singer — would begin to aspire to slow things down, as far as Aiello is concerned, he has many, many plans for the rest of his days and we’re glad he’s decided to overcome his hesitation as a lifelong aspiring singer to finally get some albums recorded. As you can see below, the infectious ambition he offers listeners in the aforementioned track makes us all fantasize just for a moment of putting down our Guitar Hero or hairbrush and deciding that one of these days, we’ll sing in public as well.