Preservation road

Acclaimed gay musician Michael Feinstein isn’t interested in simply playing the Great American Songbook — he’s also trying to save it

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer  lopez@dallasvoice.com

Michael Feinstein
‘TO THE MOON,’ ALICE | Michael Feinstein performs songs from his new CD at the Winspear Wednesday, but his passion is saving America’s musical heritage for future generations. (Photo courtesy Randee St. Nicholas)

AMERICAN SONGBOOK
Winspear Opera House,
2403 Flora St. Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m. $25–$125.
ATTPAC.org

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Michael Feinstein is on the road again, touring for his new album Fly Me to the Moon — a reference to a Sinatra song lyric, in keeping with his love of American standards. On this new collection, Feinstein tackles newfound arrangements of classic songs.

But today, Feinstein isn’t being talkative about his latest CD and his tour, which comes to the Winspear on Wednesday. He’d rather talk history — or better yet, rescue it.

The musician began the Feinstein Foundation with the mission of educating and preserving the music from the early half of the 20th century, which included the likes of the Gershwins, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter.

“Many of these composers had no success during their own lives but there are still many samples of their songs out there in movies or commercials,” he says. “They get rediscovered by a new generation. That what happens with Gershwin all the time. As long as it’s out there, it will continue.”

PBS stepped in last month to help. Feinstein partnered with the Public Broadcasting to produce Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook, a three-episode series documenting his work on saving our musical heritage. In it, he documents recording sessions, live performances and gives histories on artists. But the best part is when it turns into the musical version of The History Channel’s American Pickers. He’s not reselling old heirlooms but rather unearthing sheet music, old recordings and memorabilia in attics and dusty storage areas.

“I was approached by [producer] Amber Edwards who wanted to create a show,” he says. “I trusted her with the material so I have nothing to do with that. She followed me around for quite some time and honestly, I didn’t like that in that sense to know someone’s watching you or filming you all the time. But ultimately I accepted it for the purpose of the result.”

With the TV show and his tours and CDs, what Feinstein worries about is getting through to the younger generation. Now in his 50s, Feinstein has been a musical historian, archivist and musician for a quarter century, and throughout that time he was entranced by the classic American songs. He worries, though, that enthusiasm for what came before is waning. He’s not a fan of MTV and even declares that it (along with movies and TV in general) has shattered what focus young people might have with fast editing and lack of details. The Internet hasn’t helped, with the onslaught of social networking and its nurturing of fast-paced information. To him, it has become a “subversive means of destroying attention spans.”

Irony may be his biggest ally. Musical trends now lean toward an appreciation of vintage country music and old-school soul. Feinstein thinks that’s a start and that there are people in Generations Y and Z exploring the American standards.

“People can’t sit still anymore, and it’s an awful thing that’s happened,” he says. “But I do think people are exploring it. It may not be in the Top 40 ever again, but you can find anything on Buddy Clark or Ethel Waters on the Internet. There is more access than ever, so yes, it will survive and take on a life of its own. One never knows what happens with music.”

While those trends toward vintage sounds are on the rebound, Feinstein is not so thrilled with the idea of modern bands taking up the fad of releasing an album on vinyl. In fact, it kinda pisses him off. He grunts with disapproval.

“No, I wouldn’t do a vinyl recording — that’s a stunt,” he says. “It doesn’t make any sense, unless it’s recorded in analog, but otherwise, it’s the same. The time for vinyl has passed for new music. I loved my Sinatra project when we recorded with one channel like they did it the ‘50s, but we didn’t put it on vinyl. The people who do it now, it’s bogus.”

With his focus on the foundation’s work, Feinstein doesn’t forget he has an album to promote. For Moon, he collaborated with guitarist Joe Negri. He’s a fan of the collaborations — both professional and personal (he and his longtime partner were married in 2008 by TV judge Judy Sheindlin.) Feinstein did it last year with fellow gay artist Cheyenne Jackson in The Power of Two. That album and the live performances at Carnegie Hall were huge successes for them both.

His approach to Moon plays it a bit more subdued, thanks to Negri’s delicate strumming.

“He was one of the greatest guitarists and very facile,” he says. “Any song I could name, he could immediately play beautifully. This definitely was a meeting of musical minds. He’s magical.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 12, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens