Don Welch on the Gwen McCrae Benefit Concert & the Future of House Music

I was alerted to the plight of classic house diva Gwen McCrae by old friend Don Welch of the Underground Network. Ms. McCrae, best known for her smash dance track “Funky Sensation,” suffered a massive stroke in London on June 3rd. She has thankfully survived but is paralyzed on her left side. Her family is trying to get her home to Florida where they can take care of her. A fundraiser has been set up for next Wednesday the 22nd, at Ajna, 25 Little West 12th Street, from 6pm till 4am. The outpouring of support from the community has been spectacular. House legend Colonel Abrams is hosting, and I have been told that Melba Moore will also be on hand. The incredible number of participants is too long to list here so I’ll just post the invite. I am told that new people are getting involved daily. This is one of those must-attend events, not only because of the good that it will do for Gwen and her family, but because that room will be filled with genius and love and that’s hard to find these days.

Don Welch is old-school, old-school. He is one of those quiet, behind-the-scenes people who has shaped the house universe. As briefly as I can I’ll list some of his too-numerous-to-list accomplishments:

Don Welch is a DJ, co-founder of the internationally-renowned Underground Network, former Billboard reporter, CEO of OHM Music & Film Works, and an event promoter. He DJd Eddie Murphy’s wedding at the Plaza Hotel. He received gold and platinum records from Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, C&C Music Factory, Crystal Waters, and De La Soul. His Underground Network has hosted relevant events since 1992. Him, along with Barbara Tucker, created the Dance Music Industry Night, with legendary DJ Little Louie Vega doing what he does. The list of promoters and celebrities and DJs that have graced his events is a who’s-who of dance and pop culture. In 2006, Don launched Soul Party NYC, promoting classic R&B events. He’s still throwing that party. On September 8th, at Commodore Park, Barbara Tucker and Don will celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Underground Network.

I caught up with Don as he was getting the word out about that Funky Sensation Gwen McCrae:

It’s amazing how the community has gotten together for this cause. Tell me about the event… who is involved?
Well, I was first told about Gwen McCrae’s condition from singer Colonel Abrams, who was in London on the same show; Gwen fell ill in her hotel room and never made it to the stage. When Colonel came back to the states he told me Gwen was still in London in the hospital after a massive stroke and was paralyzed on her left side. As a DJ, Gwen has brought me and my audience amazing memories of dancing to her music, so I’ve always felt very close to her. I posted her condition on my Facebook page & the love and support was incredible. That’s when I spoke to her family and was told about all the astronomical medical bills and the transportation to get her home to Pensacola, Florida. That’s when I reached out to friends like Louie Vega, Jellybean, David Morales, Rochelle Fleming, Bob Davis, Soulfinger, you, and so many stars in this business. They all said anything they could do to help count them in and I am so grateful for their support. We will feature some of the greatest DJs and classic singers. We have so much talent, DJs might only get to play five songs each and singers only one.  

Tell me about Gwen McCrae.
Here is the biography of Gwen McCrae: for over three decades, Gwen McCrae has been a soul and blues powerhouse singer entertaining audiences worldwide. She started out singing as a child with her mother who played piano in church. With a heartfelt phrasing for the blues and the spirit-filled sounds from her soul, Gwen has entertained audiences in countless sold-out venues and set her music in a Blues and Soul category of its own. Since the early ’60s, Gwen has paid her dues, on tour with the likes of Smokey Robinson, Luther Vandross, James Brown, The Temptations, The O Jays, Spinners, James Cleveland, and many more. Gwen’s entertaining has included concerts at The Apollo Theatre, Madison Square Garden, Cow Palace in LA, Disneyland, television shows such as American Band Stand, Soul Train, Midnight Special, In Concert, as well as various venues throughout the world in London, Paris, Germany, Scotland, and Venice, just to mention a few.

I remember house music. Nowadays the electronic dance music scene has grown enormous. Are young people still embracing house or does the energy lay elsewhere?
The electronic music scene is tremendous, but the soulful house music scene is making a strong comeback. It just needs better venues. Lots of club owners love the music but the bar sales aren’t as good as others because no real, true dancers can drink a bottle of Hennessy or Stolichnaya and dance with energy all night.

For a tourist coming to NYC looking for the real deal, what parties or clubs are true to the religion that is house?
The true house parties have become mobile… always on the move until you and I open one 🙂

Will this event, based of course on a tragedy, have the effect of reuniting different members and aspects of the house community, and possibly be the catalyst for future events?
Definitely, but I’ve been bringing different types of talent together for years and will continue to do so… stay tuned.

Armen Ra On His Shocking Documentary, Favorite Nightlife Stories, & Theremin

In this holiday-shortened week, with the spring pushing and pushing and pushing its way to free us from this winter of discontent, I am writing about the unusual suspects who toil or play in the clubs as they define their crafts. Yesterday it was FLXX. Today it’s Armen Ra, the master of the theremin. The theremin is a rare, eerie-sounding musical instrument, with its foremost astonishing trait explained by Armen in our interview below. Right now, Aremn is raising loot on Indiegogo for a theremin-infused feature documentary about his life: one of growing up in Iranian aristocracy and, after going on vacation in the United States, being forced to stay there due to the Iranian Revolution. A man from wealth and in exile, his story takes flight when he discovers the magic of the theremin and its effect on people. The fundraiser has six days left, and $4,000 to go to get the feature released.

Armen Ra is a well-known face and figure in the posh NY nightclub scene. His story is of ups and downs and all-arounds. It will shock and awe you. I asked him to tell me all about it
 
It’s been a long road. You are an exile,  being forced to leave Iran and live in a foreign land. Tell me about that transition.
That transition was a complete nightmare. I literally thought it was a nightmare for years. Coming from a sheltered aristocratic background, growing up in the opera, traveling the world yearly, submerged in music and art and literature. Being stuck here was like Gilligan’s Island from Hell. I started making jewelry, doing puppet shows with sets and costumes, learning about the power of beauty. We had been to the US several times already, but I didn’t speak any English. My mother and sister were fluent though, so they helped. I adapted quite fast in every way possible. I had to. It was a sudden survival, and I was unprepared at that age, but you figure things out when you have to.

Drugs, prostitution, alcohol, a zillion demons – not exactly the American dream. How’d you get out of that?
Divine intervention, self discipline, and believing in my own intelligence to eventually conquer the demons that were in reach. The light is always there. We are all light. The substance abuse was knocking holes in my aura, diminishing the light. It was not easy to get a regular job for someone like me at the time, especially when the club scene collapsed. Sometimes I had nowhere to sleep and was living in my friend’s multi-million dollar mansion. I worked at Patricia Field doing make-up, did reception at hair salons, drag shows, and whatever else I had to do to survive. I even worked at Show World in the old Times Square! Until I found a voice through the theremin, I was spiraling downward. I wanted to be great at something, and drag and clubs and doing make-up did not satisfy that urge, that quiet knowing that something else is in store, but what? A gift from the gods…waiting for me to open my eyes, to look up.

Tim Burton, Andy Warhol, Vali Myers, Salvador Dali met you, checked you out… you guys rubbed shoulders.
Being in NYC at that time and living in the East Village, it was inevitable really. I’ve always been lucky in attracting interesting people, and I was just amazed that such incredible people and artists wanted me around. It wasn’t that I had low self-esteem; I was just coming out of years of school and abuse, so it was a fabulous shock. I tell the stories in the film. It really is like mythology, and thankfully its all documented and witnessed. Being 16 and spending hours a day with Vali Myers in her room at Hotel Chelsea with people like Ira Cohen,  Andy Warhol, and Debbie Harry coming and going was insane. Vali would constantly take Polaroids of me and send them to Dali. Befriending Leigh Bowery and Thierry Mugler, dancing with Grace Jones in the Limelight DJ booth,s itting on the floor of Frankie Knuckles’ DJ booth at the World… going to a tranny hooker club with Tim Burton and Francis Ford Copolla. Yes, really. Doing the 1999 MTV VMAs in the Madonna Drag Queens segment; I represented the frozen video, that’s a story! I COULD go on! 

The theremin. You have mastered it, and yet I’ve never heard of it.
The theremin is the first electronic instrument ever. Invented by Russian Physicist Leon Theremin around 1920, it is the only instrument that is played without touching, and one of the most difficult to play. Many people use it as a sound effect. I play it as a classical instrument and a voice. My theremin has an eight-octave range, so she is like the ultimate opera singer. She sounds like Maris Callas from beyond. The theremin was used in many sci-fi and horror movies in the background. I think it fell into obscurity because it was difficult to play properly and was not easily accessible. My intention is to bring this instrument to the foreground where it belongs. It has taken me all over the world and onto some of the greatest stages. The sound affects people, it brings out emotion, and touches the heart like a beautiful voice does.

What is the film about?
The film is channeling sadness and horror into beauty, and music is the alchemy. It’s about being clear enough to receive. We are in THE LAST WEEK of our Indigogo crowd-funding campaign. We’re asking anyone who is interested in seeing this fabulous film made properly to please help support us by making donations and/or especially spreading the word about the film and the campaign. We are working very hard to create a meaningful, beautiful, high-quality work of art. Any and all support is welcomed and much appreciated.

And thank you, Steve. You helped me when I first started working in clubs by believing in me and giving me work of all kinds, and you continue to support what I am doing. I really appreciate it. You’re a real gentleman.

Domi Dollz Launch Fundraiser For Their First ‘Kink for Dummies’ Book

There are several things in life that make us consider how woefully sad and colorless the world must have been without their very presence. We’re talking things like cinnamon buns, leather pants, and snow globes. But recently, another addition has been made to the list: the book Kinky Amour. A “kink for dummies,” this tome brings all things kink – from S&M to bondage to role playing – out of the taboo and into the mainstream in an accessible, step-by-step, educational way. The learning gets easier since Kinky Amour will be available in eBook form as soon as February 2013, and include downloadable video tutorials and photographs of incredibly good looking people in lingerie doing very naughty things. If only all our textbooks had that…

But I digress. Kinky Amour is created by the experts themselves: the Domi Dollz, a group of professional NYC-based dominatrixes who know the power of a sexual power play and a good spanking. With personal stories and kinky tips contributed by the Dollz and the founder and president herself, Ms. Nina Payne, Kinky Amour doesn’t simply educate;  it titillates and elevates your play to a nearly pro-level – safety first, of course. And since the Dollz are currently NYC-based, the book is making the teachings of their world-renowned workshops national, global, atmospheric, as anyone, anywhere – martian or man – can buy or download the book.

To raise money to release Kinky Amour, the Domi Dollz have launched a fundraiser, where certain donations are rewarded with incentives from a “yes, mistress” t-shirt and free tickets and VIP access to their workshops, to one-on-one lessons with the Dollz in person. And if you’ve ever witnessed one of their workshops – ahem, I have – let me just say the experience is priceless.

So go ahead: be selfish, demand an amazing sex life, get that book out into the world. Bedtime reading doesn’t get better than this.

Taste of the Nation Charity Event Draws New York’s Best Local Chefs, Feeds Kids

Last night the charity Share Our Strength hosted Taste of the Nation, their annual culinary fundraiser as a means to help end childhood hunger. “We are here tonight because there are 16 million American kids who struggle with hunger,” said co-founder Debbie Shore. Since 1988 the foundation has hosted these yearly events in 30 plus cities and raised over $75 million, and frankly, given the number of top named chefs, bartenders, and restaurants that volunteer their time and ingredients, the organization makes donating money easy.

In New York this year, the two-story, four-room space at 82 Mercer was filled with delectable bites including: Old school Lobster Thermidor served by chef Aaron Bashy of The Water Club; the infamous fois gras and jelly doughnuts made by the boys at Do or Dine; a fluke cebiche from La Mar’s smiley chef Victoriano Lopez (plus his translator); and an amazing razor clam and fennel dish from Ai Fiori.

On the high-end-low-end spectrum guest were forced to ingest the comforting pickled beef tongue by the gang at Mile End, slices of a six-food wedge salad sandwich by chef Joe Dobias of JoeDough, and the most amazing savory cotton candy being whipped up by the adorable Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy. Oh the tragedy.

To wash all these treats down Eben Freeman shook up a delectable Melagrana Sour for Osteria Morini, Jeff Bell from the clandestine bar PDT poured a smoked cardamom-infused Mariner cocktail, and Employees Only whipped up a blackberry vodka drink. Hands down the most exciting drink being made came in the form of Booker and Dax’s Hendrick’s Rose, a sweet, fizzy cocktail that smoked.

Amid all the opulence, we can’t forget the real reason Taste of the Nation is held. After all, most people don’t think of American kids going hungry and in a place where many of us throw food away every day, it’s tragic that about one in five children in this country don’t get enough to eat. As the organization continues to fight this cause, they continue to give something to raise a glass of smoking pink bubbles to and I hope to see them again next year.