Marcus Simeone & Sean Harkness Spin Grief Into Art
ake your broken heart,
make it into art
-Carrie Fisher for broadwayworld.com.
In 1969, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the noted Swiss-American psychiatrist broke the process of grief into five stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Marcus Simeone is no stranger to grief. In addition to being an accomplished singer of blues, jazz, soul, and R&B he is a therapist and social worker. But his knowledge of grief is not merely academic. Having lost his partner in 2017, he has walked the five stages of grief and knows their colors. Together with his musical partners, Sean Harkness and Lina Koutrakos he took that experience and made it into art. Their album Blue is a profound expression of grief and its transformative power in the life of a passionate artist. He turned to Koutrakos to shape the album into a cabaret event. I was fortunate enough to catch the latest iteration of Blue last night at Don't Tell Mama.
Marcus Simeone is a singer of great range and much soul. He is fearless in going to very intimate, emotional places. He is also a born storyteller, creating vivid images with only a few words. Sean Harkness plays guitar like he made a deal with the devil. His fingers do things that should be impossible. He plays every inch of the instrument, not only the strings but the fingerboard, the frets, the bridge and he even uses the body of the guitar as percussion. The partnership between these two artists is so simpatico, it feels like one mind.
They opened with a snippet of the Carpenter's "Rainy Days and Mondays" wedded with "Here's That Rainy Day," probably one of the bluest songs in the American Songbook. It was a perfect mood setter. They followed with a great reading of "Blue Side." Sean Harkness did the first of several great instrumentals in "When Sunny Gets Blue." Marcus Simeone found beautiful nuances in Sinéad O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U." Harkness added his vocals in a duet on "When Something is Wrong With My Baby."
Sean Harkness gave us a musical history lesson, singing "Out of Nowhere." An avid Trekkie, he explained that when the creators of Star Trek were pitching the show, they had trouble explaining a space show to network executives. They would describe the credit sequence saying that a spaceship "came out of nowhere." They remembered this phrase when writing the theme song and based the now-famous tune on the chord progressions in Johnny Green's 1931 tune.
Simeone gave a sultry performance of the great jazz standard "Angel Eyes. Harkness gave us one of his original tunes with "Holy Days." One of the highlights of the night was a cool as ice rendition of Anita Baker's "Rapture." I was particularly fond of Simeone's interpretation of Sondheim's "Losing My Mind," which he began with the song's bridge. It was a thoughtful reinvention of this familiar classic. They gave us a surprising uptempo rendition of Duke Ellington's torch song "Mood Indigo." I love it when an artist can make you see a standard in a brand new light.
Harkness and Simeone saved the best for the last part of their show. Harkness gave us a brilliant instrumental version of "My Favorite Things," which he introduced "with apologies to Julie Andrews." It was so delicious, no apologies were necessary. Marcus Simone delivered a devastating 11 o'clock number in Sam Smith's "Lay Me Down." It had the kind of internal focus that cabaret singers should study as a master class.
They ended their show with Julia Fordham's delightful "Skipping Under the Rainbow." It was a beautiful full-circle ending to a show that started with rain and ended with rainbows. Kudos to Lina Koutrakos for giving this show that kind of structure. A show about grief is a risky proposition. But Marcus Simeone, Sean Harkness, and Lina Koutrakos avoided anything mawkish or sentimental. The show felt cathartic, an expression of a universal humanity. It was a praiseworthy glimpse into the broken heart of artists with a unique and sensitive perspective on life.
Have you ever watched children playing on the playground? Maybe you've stood in your living room window and looked out on the neighborhood kids, having fun and enjoying being young. Perhaps strolls through the park have provided opportunities to observe the sweetness of young 'uns at their recreation, laughing, having a good time, and enjoying each others' company. It's a satisfying sight, one that warms the heart and nurtures the soul, one that leaves behind a feeling that everything is, at least for that moment, right with the world.
That is the experience of seeing CLEARLY NOW in performance.
At first blush, one might think that Clearly Now is the name of a nightclub act in which the performers are Sean Harkness, Lina Koutrakos and Marcus Simeone (alphabetical order, if you please) but the assumption would be wrong. Clearly Now is the name of the combo that the three musical prodigies created, and the group is doing so well that it is in its' second season and recently was the opening act for the rock group Air Supply, and given the enormity of talent on display last night at Pangea, one can only wonder when they will be opening for Aerosmith, because (not to bury the lead) Clearly Now is effing awesome.
Three revered members of the cabaret community, Harkness, Koutrakos, and Simeone are constantly in demand, so the fact that they even had the time and energy to dream up the creation of a music group is a wonder in and of itself, but create one they did and, in doing so, they have breathed a breath of fresh air into the cabaret rooms of the city, to say nothing of the rock and roll venues that are either enjoying their music now or will be in the future. Their show is equal parts cabaret, concert, coffee shop set, and blues jam session, and though this writer generally prefers a cabaret show with a storyline, it doesn't matter that there isn't one here because this trinity brings the story with them when they walk in the room. They are the story, and it is the story of a friendship, the happy byproduct of which is music so exceptional that audiences just sit back in their seats, close their eyes, and float away on a steady stream of melodic bliss. Not voices that one would automatically think of putting together, Harkness, Koutrakos and Simeone have found a sound and a chemistry that makes for a pleasing symbiosis akin to putting together Feliciano, Joplin, and Vandross, and audience reaction last night was proof positive that it's a winning combination. Clearly Now's act is a satisfying night of music and of storytelling. Watching three consummate musicians immerse themselves in their passion for the music is one of their stories, while the second is the story of friendship, and the third is the collection of stories they present with each of the 15 songs they perform - and they do, with each newsong, tell a brand new tale. That's enough storytelling in one 65 minute set to keep any club-goer or cabaret journalist happy.
The musical entries for the evening are remarkable in their eclectic nature, ranging from music originally performed by Billie Holiday to that sung by Ben Platt. There are tunes one would recognize from the Tom Waitts catalog and the Beatles collection, as well as a little Lady Gaga and some marvelous Johnny Mercer. There is even a little Aerosmith in their set. In spite of the varied nature of the music that Clearly Now is performing, the sound of the music is always consistent with the brand that Clearly Now is creating. Thanks to the musical direction of Mr. Harkness (who Koutrakos rightly points out sounds like an entire band, even though he is just one Superman with a guitar) and the pure focus the trio places on the placement of their wondrous harmonies, every song performed could be a song they wrote themselves, in their own Clearly Now sound. There is no disparity in the styles of the evening, even though the music comes from varying genres of music, vastly different times throughout history, and wonderfully distinctive voices.
Taking the lead on the more bluesy numbers, Ms. Koutrakos uses her powerful instrument to run the gamut of emotions, even while running the length of the musical scale, while Mr. Simeone's flawlessly ravishing voice is used to complete effect on some pop song performances that would make a Billboard music critic weep with joy. Mr. Harkness may raise his voice on the group numbers, proving that he is more than ten fingers on a set of strings, but there is no disguising the fact that Harkness and his fingers are reason enough for anyone to go sit in a club for an hour or so. Whether accompanying his mates on their songs or playing one of his original compositions, he is a marvel of a musician and one of the wonders of the world, though it would be nice if there were more light on his face during the show. There seems to be a growing trend in the nightclub industry toward leaving entertainers to perform in light so dim that the audience has to squint to see them. Ask anyone and they will tell you Sean Harkness is one of the sexiest men around -- we want to see him. A little white light on the stage would do the trick; not a lot, just a little.
An evening with Clearly Now is pretty much dialogue-free. Now and then the gang talks to each other and talks to the audience, and always with a complete lack of pretension. Comfortable with each other, with their patrons and in their own skin, the playful and intellectual gang speaks spontaneously, but only when there is something to say. When there isn't they let the music and the lyrics do the talking, and always with admirable craftsmanship. Note the way Ms. Koutrakos absorbs, with every fiber of her being, the full effect of the song she embodies, or the ease with which Mr. Simeone opens up to the audience during his time onstage -- even when it is not his number, Marcus can be observed, seated but intent on consuming every moment of his colleagues' performances, a look of bliss on his face, a tear or two on his cheek. This is the modus operandi of all three of these artists - when one is front and center, the other two are engaged in an act of reverential observation, as true friends and artists would be. There is a visible adoration between them, which is probably why they decided to start this band anyway, because what is more fun than playing with the friends you love? With Lina wooing the audience with "Midnight Sun" and Marcus wowing them with "Go On and Cry" the solos are a wonderful way to give each artist their due, which they rightly earn, but the highlight of a Clearly Now show is when the three of them rock out together, like on "Diggin' My Grave." It is an unqualified thrill to see these three beautiful people get down, and if you can get your eyes off of them during the party and look around the room, you will see the clientele of the club getting down in their seats, jiving to music, and grooving with the beat -- the true mark of a successful night of musical entertainment.
Clearly Now has a CD coming out (interestingly named CLEARLY NOW) and next Saturday, January 18th, at 7 pm, there will be a release party and concert at Pangea. For information and tickets visit the Pangea website
© broadwayworld.com / Stephen Mosher
Don't Tell Mama
New York, NY
Though at first Simeone’s palette seems a bit limited, his singing of “Somewhere Lies the Moon” disabuses one of this impression. Here, ironically, his well-trained voice renders a more intelligent, nuanced delivery with more shadings of feeling that appeal to the emotions naturally. We see that trained technique can produce what is intuitively unexpected—smooth, easy-seeming, unaffected results.
Marcus Simeone’s unusual generosity in introducing and handing over the stage to a young singer, Caress, during his October 5th performance was moving and admirable. He was warm and empathetic as he encouraged her to work up an act and even shared with those present the fear he had to overcome to do so himself. He even moved among the audience, and gave several amateurs the opportunity to join in the refrain, "Just one kiss.” An outbreak of smiles and laughs moved contagiously through the room.
Barry Levitt, musical director, and the Barry Levitt Quartet, do a fine job of accompanying the singer. Marcus Simeone is also assisted by back-up singer, Carol Goodgirl.
October 5, 2008
Marcus Meets Mathis
When we heard that award-winning cabaret artist Marcus Simeone was doing a show devoted to Johnny Mathis we knew he was on to something smart. Performing the music made famous by Mathis was a natural fit for Simeone whose singing style already resonates with the master's ethereal high notes. We went to his show with high hopes, and this is what we found ...
If you're coming, in part, for the patter, hoping to learn about the life and art of Johnny Mathis, you won't get it in Simeone's show. It's simply not that kind of act. He throws an occasional factoid your way, and he sets up a few songs with Mathis anecdotes, but these moments are more the exception than the rule. Unfortunately, he doesn't replace patter he might have used to give us insight into Mathis with anything else, but that doesn't stop him from talking. Our best advice; if you haven't got something specifically prepared to say before a song, don't talk, just sing.
And singing, of course, is Simeone's strong suit. We haven't seen all of his shows in recent years but among those that we have seen, this is the best he's done so far. Perhaps the overlay of performing an evening of Mathis hits has given him a vocal discipline he never displayed before. When he performs "It's Not for Me To Say," "There Goes My Heart," and "Wonderful, Wonderful," Simeone isn't adding extra syllables in a vocal riff or soaring to high notes for the sake of proving he can do it. No. Working with musical director Tracy Stark, he's mostly singing the songs straight and true. And he sounds all the better for it because the songs are being served rather than being used as a vocal exercise. Speaking of Stark, one of the most charming numbers in the show is a comic duet between her and Simeone called "I Said No." It was sweet, simple, funny, and entirely real.
Both Mathis and Simeone have a natural cry in their respective voices that suggest emotion. And Simeone, at his best, was able to make us feel when he performed "Yellow Roses on Her Gown" and "Answer Me, My Love." At his worst, he had the poor judgment to cover one of Mathis' more foolish adventures, doing a disco version of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine." Everything about this number is wrong, starting with a complete misunderstanding of the lyric. "Begin the Beguine" is a song of romantic torment, not a tune one sings with a big smile on your face and a disco ball swirling overhead. Its bad enough Mathis did it; Simeone hardly needed to remind us of the travesty.
We caught the last of three shows Simeone was doing at Helen's, but it's reasonable to assume that he is not yet finished with Johnny Mathis. This is a show that is easily fixed of its modest flaws and, given the subject matter, could readily be booked in clubs around the country.
By Noah Tree
Haunted opens with such a tripwire offering. Marcus Simeone, gifted with a gorgeous instrument that begs to wrench your gut, always keeps it in control just this side of sanity. The eponymous title tune, penned with Tracy Stark (the CD’s musical director—and pianist on this cut) sets the stage for the rest of the album which offers other personal assists: John Bucchino ac-companies with piano on his own ”If I Ever Say I’m Over You” and the multi-talented, lovely Heather Sullivan does the same—with an umbra of additional vocal—for “Somewhere Lies the Moon.”
Otherwise, with new maturity, heft and breadth, Marcus has effortlessly woven 15 songs into a cohesive and conversational soliloquy: a comfortable cuddle of works freshly hewn. The turnabout balladizing of “If I Only Had a Heart” (Harburg/Arlen)—which unexpectedly surprises—appreciates the lyric of what has usually passed as archetypic patter. An almost haiku rendition of the Rodgers and Hart “Nobody’s Heart” proves less is more. Holland/Dozier/Holland’s ”Where Did Our Love Go” from Motown is whipped up as spicey salsa. Mercer/Arlen’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” is a passionately contagious purifying rhythm.
The bold spirit of Marcus Simeone abounds, his inner voice surfaces and resounds, making this a deservedly vaunted, undaunted, Haunted.
After a double bubble opening of a believer’s gospel, ”Many Rivers to Cross” (Jimmy Cliff), and the impressively amped-up ”A Change Is Gonna Come” (Sam Cooke), Simeone shape-shifts—with “change” being the magic word—into a coupling of a scatty- sounding ”There’ll Be Some Changes Made Today” (Billy Higgins/W. Benton Overstreet/ Herbert Evans) and a freestyle “Getting to Know You” (Rodgers & Hammerstein), then to a smoothly bluesy “You’ve Changed” (Bill Carey & Carl Fischer). All this alchemy is accom- panied by appropriate shares of a pinch of subtle to a dash of satisfying shoulder-shuddering piano pounding by Barry Levitt (also ar-ranger and co-produ-cer), joined throughout the heady brew (ha ha) by nicely featured Morrie Louden’s bass and Jack Cavari’s guitar.
Presto change-o, for the second half of the hocus-pocus! Two tunes into one twice: “Road Ode”/”Home Again” (Gary Sims & Dan Woodhams/Carole King) and “Since You Stayed Here”/”I Haven’t Changed the Room” (Peter Larson, Josh Rubins/Barry Manilow)—both second songs first rate. Separated by “Everything Must Change“ (Bernard Ighner) (so all in love is fairish), is “Be Aware” and as epilogue, “I Just Have to Breathe” (both Burt Bacharach & Hal David), might just leave you breathless.
Ladies and gentlemen, Marcus Simeone. Might I remind you this program was recorded live at the Metropolitan Room. Most singers couldn’t sound like this in a recording studio.
To paraphrase Nina Simone: he’ll put a spell on you.
EVERYTHING MUST CHANGE
LIVE FROM THE MET
For his recent act recorded live at the Manhattan nightclub The Metropolitan Room, Marcus Simeone chose songs around the theme of "change." Some reflect on and acknowledge how time and experience changes us. And people change people, as referenced in the song from The King and I included here, a very hip and contemporary "Getting to Know You." Most of the material is far more serious, pensive and cathartic—confronting the pain and daunting challenges in life in general and love relationships in particular. For a world view and reality check of perspective realignment, there's "Be Aware." I'm very pleased to see a new recording of this powerful and haunting song, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for Barbra Streisand, who performed it on television with the composer. She did not release a recording, though the team's main muse Dionne Warwick did. It's a call to action and a reminder that we can become spoiled and myopic, becoming "forgetful" that others have more serious problems. Although act sticks closely to its theme, there's quite a variety of genres R&B, pop, soul, musical theatre, and singer and musicians don't ever seem to be slumming or wearing one more lovingly than another.
I've never been a big fan of the schools of major doses of melisma, melodrama and mannerisms, when the style takes over the substance. That has been a major problem for me over the years with Marcus, who I always knew had a powerful vocal instrument with some gorgeous tones, because he lost me with the way they all this was employed. There were embellishments and very stylized choices that I think can overwhelm songs and he can come off as overwrought in person, when there are accompanying distracting, intense facial expressions, gestures, gasps and such. He's always had his followers and resisters, as performers with strong styles and old choices will. So be it. But maybe, to quote one of the songs here, "A Change Is Gonna Come." This is a powerful listening experience with far, far less of what I'd described above which seemed self-indulgent. Leaner with his styling and cutting to the quick, he's showing genuine gutsy emotion—rather than showboating. There's communication and a delivery of the songs' intents, not just intense performing. He hasn't abandoned some of his favored ways, but seems to have pulled back the attack—as a result, the songs shine. And so does his voice, because we can appreciate the vocal qualities more when it's a laser beam rather than a flashing-lights show.
"Since You Stayed Here" from the Off-Broadway musical Brownstone moves in with Barry Manilow's "I Haven't Changed the Room." These musical roommates get along rather well, crooned attractively with thoughtfulness and some swallowed pain. But it's not just about interior decoration—it's about the people changing themselves on the inside. When someone moves out, we need to move on—that appears to be the message. The album's title song tackles larger issues with grace, embracing the circle of life and the uncertainty of the future and is performed with dignity.
The very accomplished, in-demand Barry Levitt is pianist/ musical director/ arranger and co-producer (with the singer and Kitty Skrobela for Miranda Music). He's in top form here, joined by Jack Cavari on guitar and Morrie Louden on bass, who sound great, and the musicians get some spotlight, especially dazzling on the (rhythm and) blues. Tracy Stark takes the piano seat for the final cool-down track, another Bacharach/ David song, "I Just Have to Breathe," and brings just the right understated, hold-your-breath touch. There's barely any patter on the recording, but the songs say a whole lot and pack a punch.
Metropolitan Room: New York, NY
Captivated by the word “haunted,” he explained that all his songs would relate in some fashion to the word’s definition. Although not my favorite premise for choosing a song list, in Simeone’s hands, and with his vocal prowess, it made for a powerful set indeed. The highlights were too numerous to mention them all.
With Tracy Stark at the piano, the ever-versatile Steve Doyle on electric bass and Sean Harkness on acoustic guitar, he opened with Floyd Tillman’s “I Love You So much It Hurts,” sung a cappella in his soulful, husky, sweet and seemingly effortless signature sound, and he coupled it with Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” backed by the band with a fine, bluesy solo by Sean Harkness.
His incredible note-sustaining ability was evident on phrases from Mercer and Arlen’s “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken’s “Cold Enough to Snow," (from the film Life with Mikey) and Heather Sullivan’s “Somewhere There Lies the Moon.” He allowed his fun side to emerge, in the midst of the heavier laments, with an arrangement of “All of Me” by Harkness, who accompanied Marcus on ukulele.
Given that most people in the room were aware that this has been a particularly difficult year for Simeone personally, several songs took on even greater emotional resonance. In John Bucchino’s “If I Ever Say I’m Over You,” Rupert Holmes’s “My Father’s Song ” and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s “I Have a Love,” he revealed just how painfully vulnerable he’s been in certain close relationships and, by contrast, in Sade’s “Soldier of Love” and “No One Like You” (Bateman/Goldsmith/Soltau/Peterson/Zippel), he showed just how very resilient he is as well.
The encore “Haunted” (Simeone and Tracy Stark) perfectly punctuated the theme of the evening and, by so doing, exposed two, perhaps haunted—but very high-spirited— hearts.
October 29, 2010
April 13, 2013
Tanya Holt and Marcus Simeone are so symbiotic onstage in Quiet Storm, it’s as if they’ve been working together for a decade. Both artists approach material from the inside out, expressing emotion with sincerity and phrasing rather than gesture or volume, communicating even the deepest of these without abrasive vocal stress. Both have polished presence. The two voices weigh in and play off one another with finesse. During a duet, Holt sometimes reacts to what Simeone is singing as if sharing an intimate opinion with the audience. Simeone has a habit of affectionately touching his partner or taking her hand. She’s still, he moves as if music’s coursing through him; she looks into our eyes, he channels his own experience. Holt deftly handles minimal patter. They face one another with warmth, neither angling for the spotlight.
The duo’s latest show at the Metropolitan Room is an appreciative nod to R&B radio station WBLS. “I’m quiet and he’s the storm,” Holt comments, smiling. It might also be construed as reference to the calm at the center of a storm represented by the tenor of the evening. The poetry of Jimmy Webb’s “Beyond Myself”: “Among my demeanors and dark dreams/I stood with hate and bitterness/My pride is like a furnace/Low and light” is rendered grave and feathery, while a tandem “It’s All Right with Me” (an odd choice for its necessary lyric change) and “Them There Eyes” is jaunty. Songs by Ashford & Simpson and Anita Baker provide the smoothest nostalgia.
A terrific version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” to seriously thumping piano, is a staccato to satin, sell-it-brother spiritual.
Holt offers a subdued and wrenching “No Plans for the Future” and a simply gorgeous “Black Butterfly,” whose lustrous tone and eloquent phrasing lifts us in hope of open wings. She just keeps getting better. Simeone’s “End of the World” is as delicate as it is strong. His interpretation of “Strange Fruit” unleashes controlled and gripping cadence; lyrics implore with open arms. Upper octaves create visceral frisson.
Arrangements by Musical Director/pianist Tracy Stark offer easy, textural harmony marrying pop to R&B. Lina Koutrakos’s direction is perceptive in its use of each performer’s assets and visually appealing. With Marco Brehm on bass and Donna Kelly on drums.
By Alix Cohen
© Cabaret Scenes / April 13, 2013
November 13, 2013
One Isn't Like the Other, and That May be the Point
Tanya Holt and Marcus Simeone at the Metropolitan Room
Congenial vocal chemistry is where you find it, and sometimes unlikely couples like Tanya Holt, a sultry pop-soul singer, and Marcus Simeone, a hyper-emotional tenor, who performed together at the Metropolitan Room on Saturday evening, have it. The title of their show, "Quiet Storm," refers to the simmering romantic radio format first popularized in the mid-1970s. Adapted for cabaret, it embraces everything from Motown to "West Side Story" to Anita Baker.