On Stage: Comedian Youssef know how to get to your heart — literally

By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times

Bassem Raafat Mohamed Youssef

Live entertainers can evoke a wide range of emotions.

They can make you laugh, or they can make you cry. They can bring great happiness, or they can rip your heart out.

Bassem Youssef, who is headlining Punch Line Philly (33 East Laurel Street, Philadelphia, 215-606-6555, http://www.punchlinephilly.com), can have you laughing out loud or he can tear your heart out – literally.

Bassem Raafat Mohamed Youssef (باسم رأفت محمد يوسف) is an Egyptian comedian, writer, producer and TV host. He is also a physician and a heart surgeon.

In 1998, Youssef graduated from Cairo University’s Faculty of Medicine with a degree in cardiothoracic surgery. He passed the United States Medical Licensing Examination and has been a member of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) since February 2007. He practiced as a cardiothoracic surgeon in Egypt for 13 years, until his move into comedy and political satire.

He also received training in cardiac and lung transplantation in Germany, after which he spent a year and a half in the US working for a company that produces medical equipment related to cardiothoracic surgery. In January 2011, Youssef assisted the wounded in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution.

“I was doing mostly bypasses and valve replacements when I was working as a surgeon,” said Youssef, during a phone interview Monday from his home in Los Angeles.

“Currently, bypass is the most common heart surgery and it had a 97 per cent success rate. Lung transplant surgery is much newer than heart.”

Arab Spring swept the Middle East and that led to the Egyptian Revolution in 2011. It also led to a change in Youssef’s career path.

“When we had the Revolution, I started doing YouTube videos making fun of the media,” said Youssef. “I expected 5000-to-10,000 views and, instead, got five million views – mostly in Egypt. It made television channels come and court me. If they hadn’t asked, I wouldn’t have done a TV show.”

But they asked and he responded positively.

Youssef, who has been dubbed The Jon Stewart of the Arab World, became the host of popular political satire TV show Al Bernameg, which was the first of its kind in the Middle East. Originally a five-minute show on YouTube, Al Bernameg became the first online to TV conversion in the Middle East and the most watched show across the region with 30 million viewers every week.

“After a few months of YouTube, I went to TV,” said Youssef. “The biggest challenge was – how do you write a TV show? It was not part of the industry. I had to create something that wasn’t there and wasn’t part of the industry. It was crazy success. Suddenly, I had 14 million people watching the show. It was like Super Bowl every Friday.

“It was also very scary. Having 14 million people having an opinion of what you say is scary. I hired new producers, writers, comics and fired the old because they were so locked in their ways. They didn’t want to learn anything new. So, I hired college students, engineers, writers – people who had something new.

“The second season was a big jump. I did shows in front of live audiences – like they did in the U.S. in the 40s and 50s. Everyone was apprehensive and I got rejected from so many networks. But I found a network and we had the first Egyptian TV show with a real live audience.”

Throughout its three seasons, Al Bernameg remained controversial through its humorous yet bold criticism of the ruling powers, which led a slew of lawsuits being filed against the show and its host. Youssef was even issued an arrest warrant in March 2013 and turned himself in the next day where he was questioned for five hours and released on bail.

“The second and third seasons had the same setting,” said Youssef. “What was different was authority.

“In the second season, I was making fun of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the third season, I was making fun of the military. I went from folk hero to ‘Enemy of the State Number One.’ With the military, it was scary because they owned the country. The show was cancelled twice, and they told regional TV not to deal with me.”

In recognition of his success, Youssef was named among the Time Magazine most influential list for 2013 – under the “Pioneers” category, was awarded the International Press Freedom Award by the CPJ and was chosen by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the global thinkers during the same year.

During its third season, the show achieved unprecedented weekly viewership ratings for 11 consecutive weeks. In June 2014, and after a six-week break, Al Bernameg team held a press conference where Youssef announced the termination of the show due to overwhelming pressures on both the show and the airing channel.

“In 2014, I had a verdict against me,” said Youssef. “I had to leave the country immediately because they fined me 100 million pounds. They announce the verdict at noon, and I left the country five hours later on a flight to Dubai.

“I stayed there a few months and then moved to the United States in 2015. It was tough at first in the U.S. I needed to establish myself all over again. John Stewart helped.”

The result was that an Egyptian heart surgeon became an American comedian.

“I do stand-up comedy in English,” said Youssef. “It’s a one-hour show where I tell my story in a funny way. The first part is about my life as a doctor and a comedian. The second part is about coming to America and things like Trump as a president. Our region has dictators. Trump is the first American president to look to our region with envy.

“I want more Americans to come to my show. It’s a world show. I’m not a Muslim comedian — not an Arab comedian. What I do is a combination of self-deprecating humor and observational connect on a very personal story. It’s a story that people can relate to.”

Video link for Bassem Youssef – https://youtu.be/4ZkaWQYkHKM.

The shows at Punch Line Philly will be at 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. on September 28 and 29. Tickets are $25 and $35.

Kasim Sulton

One measure of grading a musician is to examine the list of musicians with whom the musician has performed or recorded with. If you reviewed Kasim Sulton’s careen from that standpoint, he would be a summa cum laude graduate.

Sulton, who will be performing at the Sellersville Theater (24 West Temple Avenue, Sellersville, 215-257-5808, www.st94.com) on February 29, has a list of names on his musical resume that looks like the “Who’s Who” of the world’s best rock musicians.

Sulton is most known for his work with Todd Rundgren’s Utopia and on a number of other projects with Rundgren. He also has spent a lot of time over the last few years playing bass for Blue Öyster Cult.

The long list of acts he has worked with includes Mick Jagger, Bon Jovi, Meat Loaf, Hall & Oates, Cheap Trick, Patty Smyth, Patti Smith, Richie Sambora, Lulu, Rick Derringer, Indigo Girls, Joan Jett, Bonnie Tyler, Steve Stevens and Eileen Ivers.

Sulton has been involved with the making of more than 100 albums — including three of his own. His most recent albums are “3,” which came out in 2014, and “Live Bootleg,” which was recorded in 2015 at The Cutting Room in NYC and Hotel Utah in San Francisco

Sulton will be honoring his longtime association with the groundbreaking progressive rock band Utopia and its legacy by performing a limited run of full band shows consisting entirely ofUtopia music.  Billed as “Kasim Sulton’s Utopia,” the shows will feature songs hand-picked by Sulton, spanning the 10 albums he appears on, including deep cuts as well as many more familiar songs.

“I stay true to Utopia,” said Sulton, during a recent phone interview from his home on Staten Island, New York.

“Utopia never played Kasim Sulton solo material. Later this year, I’ll go out on a Kasim Sulton tour and play my own material.”

Utopia was formed in 1973 and by mid-1976 settled into a stable line-up featuring quartet of Todd Rundgren (guitar, vocals), Kasim Sulton (bass, vocals), Roger Powell (keyboards, vocals), and Willie Wilcox (drums, vocals). 

All four band members wrote, sang, produced, and even engineered material for the band.  Sulton wrote and sang lead on Utopia’s biggest hit, “Set Me Free,” from the band’s best-selling album “Adventures in Utopia,” which was released in 1980 and peaked at number 27 on the Billboard Top 40 charts in the U.S.

According to Sulton, “My career began with Utopia. I can’t think of a better way to honor my work with Todd, Roger, and Willie than to do a handful of shows that celebrate the special and unique music we created together.”

Sulton is always busy with a variety of projects. His latest endeavor – other than this tour – is making new music of his own.

“I’ve been working on my next solo project,” said Sulton. “I was in London working with my writing partner Phil Thornalley. I go to his studio in St. John’s Wood.

“I just finished 10 songs. A lot were done at his place. On some, I used my home studio – mainly for the bass parts and the lead vocals.”

The band line-up for this tour is: Kasim Sulton, bass and vocals; Bruce McDaniels, guitar and vocals; Gil Assayas, keyboards and vocals; and Andy Ascolese, drums and vocals.

“Andy has been my drummer for the last four years,” said Sulton. “I met him when he was a guitar tech for Blue Öyster Cult. He’s a drummer but he can also play bass and guitar. Gil plays synthesizer and he’s an octopus. I usually work with Jesse Gress from Todd’s band. But he’s recovering from the flu, so I have Bruce McDaniels on guitar.

“I play the Sellersville Theater pretty much every year. It’s a great theater and the people who run it are pretty cool. I really enjoy playing there.”

Video link for Kasim Sulton’s Utopia — https://youtu.be/jQKrZKtRlGs.

The show at the Sellersville Theater will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35 and $45.

Other upcoming shows at the Sellersville Theater are Cherish The Ladies on February 27, Pat Travers Band on February 28,

The McCartney Years (Paul McCartney Tribute) on March 1, and Peter Asher & Jeremy Clyde on March 4.

Moon has been in the title of many songs over the years and has been a subject in at least twice as many songs.

Brooke Annibale

For singer/songwriter Brooke Annibale, moon is not a faraway place in songs she has written – it is the place where she grew up.

Moon Township was home to Annibale until she graduated from Moon Area High School and headed to school at Belmont University in Nashville. She returned to Steel City after college and then recently relocated to New England.

On March 1, Annibale, who turned in an impressive performance two years ago at a Philadelphia Folksong Society show, is returning to the area to headline a concert at The Locks at Sona (4417 Main Street, Manayunk, 484- 273-0481, sonapub.com).

“That was the last time I played a show in Philadelphia,” said Annibale, during a phone interview Wednesday morning from her home in Providence, Rhode Island.

“In the past two years, I’ve been doing a lot of writing and home recording – releasing house recordings of new stuff. I’ve been doing it acoustically.

“I put out three acoustic versions of my songs starting in July. I also put out a piano version of one of my songs – ‘Collided.’ I recorded them all at home using Logic.

“I did another song in April that wasn’t recorded at home. I recorded it in Pittsburgh with Jake Hanner at his studio there. It’s the bridge to whatever comes next.”

Annibale has released five albums — “Memories in Melody” (2005), “The In Between” (2008), “Silence Worth Breaking” (2011), “The Simple Fear” (2015) and “Hold to The Light” (2018) – and two EPs – “The Nashville EP” (2006) and “Words in Your Eyes EP” (2013).

“I’ve made five albums, but I only really count the last three,” said Annibale, who graduated from Belmont in 2009 with a degree in Music Bisiness. “The first two were experimental when I was in college. The same with my EPs – I only count the one made in 2013. My recording acreer really began with ‘Silence Worth Breaking’ in 2011.”

A number of Annibale’s songs have songs have been licensed for use in television for such shows as “One Tree Hill,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Pretty Little Liars,” “Teen Mom 2,” and “The Vampire Diaries.”

Annibale’s latest album — “Hold to The Light” — was released in June 2018 via Brooke Annibale Music.

“I started working on the album toward the end of 2016,” said Annibale.

“It had been a year since my last album came out. In the past, it’s been inspired moments. This time, I started writing and had a lot of inspiration. Another difference was that usually I play acoustic guitar. This time, I did more electric guitar.”

“Hold to The Light” is billed as “a pop-progressive album that offers a fusion of textured electronic and traditional (guitar, strings, keys) instrumentation with songs bearing Brooke’s keen, soulful lyricism.”

Produced by Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter, Lake Street Dive), “Hold to The Light” marks several major departures for Annibale in terms of both songwriting and production. Brooke’s thoughtful, layered songwriting anchors the production to explore a range of narratives working through themes of seeking truths, letting go, and reconciling the past with the present.

“I’ve had my electric guitar for 10 years and I occasionally wrote on it before,” said Annibale. “This time, I wanted to play around with different sounds – a new palette with things like pedals. I think it affected my songwriting. There is a different energy with electric rather than acoustic.

“I started writing more with a full picture in mind. I’d start and then add stuff on tracks at home. There was no set formula for the songwriting. When I was younger, it always started with lyrics. Now, it could be a melody or a chord progression.

“It’s always interesting at the end of making a record to see what themes emerge from a bunch of songs. On the new album, there were a lot of references to time and light. The last song I wrote was the title track – looking at life and examining it. It summed up the theme.”

Annibale is now working on her next album and it has a different slant.

“This time, I have been writing a lot on acoustic guitar,” said Annibale. “Now, it’s more a mix of the two.

“I’ve got a bunch of songs that are close to being finished. I’ll try out two or three of them on this tour.

“I also just released a cover of the Beatles’ sing, ‘I Will.’ I had been out for two years on Amazon as part of a compilation. Amazon had the exclusive rights for two years but that’s over now. I released it on my own just recently on Valentine’s Day.

“I’m doing a short tour in the Northeast now and then I’m off on a European tour in April. I start in Amsterdam and I’m really looking forward to it.”

When Annibale played Philly two years ago, it was as a duo with a keyboard player – Mark Ramsey. Ramsey will be with her again for the show at The Locks along with bass player Seth Pierson.

“We’ll be playing songs from each of my releases,” said Annibale. “Anna Vogelzang, who is the opening act, is going to sing with us on a couple songs. I met her at the Folk Alliance a few years ago but this is our first time to tour together.”

Video link for Brooke Annibale — https://youtu.be/YTpobORcq5g.

The show at the Locks at Sona, which features Anna Vogelzang in the opening slot, will start at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12.

Another upcoming show at The Locks at Sona is Kenn Kweder and the Men from WaWa along with Mia Johnson on February 29.

Juliana Danese

Kennett Flash (102 Sycamore Alley, Kennett Square, 484-732-8295, http://www.kennettflash.org) will host Dri Rain on February 27, Filo Betto (feat. members of Kategory 5) with Juliana Danese on February 28, The Sin City Band on February 29, and Open Mic with guest host Jason Webb on March 1.

The Steel City Coffee House (203 Bridge Street, Phoenixville, 610-933-4043, www.steelcitycoffeehouse.com) will host Kat Minogue on February 28 and 4 Shadow with Kevin Leonard on February  29.

Chaplin’s (66 North Main Street, Spring City, 610-792-4110, http://chaplinslive.com) will host The Reasons, Brain Peel and Declan Fischer on February 28 and Tuesday Night Project and Low Tide on February 29.

The Ardmore Music Hall (23 East Lancaster Avenue, Ardmore, 610-649-8389, www.ardmoremusic.com) will present Lonny Brooks (RatDog), members of Terrapin Family Band & Midnight North, Grahame Lesh & Cris Jacobs’ Philly Shakedown and Cris Jacobs Band on February 27, Marty Stuart And His Fabulous Superlatives on February 28, Bill Frisell: HARMONY ft. Petra Haden, Hank Roberts and Luke Bergman and Rotem Sivan on February 29, Magical Mystery Doors (The Beatles + Led Zeppelin + The Doors tribute) on March 1, and Little Brother, Dell-P, and DJ Antlive on March 5.

Living Room at 35 East (35 East Lancaster Avenue, Ardmore, https://thelivingroomat35east.com) will have Sarah and the Arrows on February 28 and Michael G. Ronstadt and Katie Barbato on February 29.

118 North (118 North Wayne Avenue, Wayne, www.118northwayne.com) presents You Might Think (Cars Tribute) and Full Circle (formerly The Janglers) on February 27, Travel Lanes and David Cope on February 28, Concrete Charlie on February 29 and Ben Turner Duo on March 1.

The Keswick Theater (291 N. Keswick Avenue, Glenside, 215-572-7650, www.keswicktheatre.com) presents

Franco Escamilla on February 28, The Robert Cray Band and Sahara Moon on February 29 and The New Shanghai Circus on March 1.

The Grand Opera House (818 North Market Street, Wilmington, Delaware, 302-652-5577, www.thegrandwilmington.org) is hosting Sweet Honey in the Rock on February 28.

Jamey’s House of Music (32 South Lansdowne Avenue, Lansdowne, 215-477-9985, www.jameyshouseofmusic.com) presents Big Boy Brass on February 28 and The Blue Plate Specials on February 29.

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