Linda Draper played the cd release show for her latest and fifth effort, Keepsake. Playing solo on acoustic guitar as she virtually always does, she fingerpicked with imagination and agility and made it look effortless. She still sings with the bell-like clarity of a chorister, which she once was, but she’s utilizing her lower register more and it suits her material. As a lyricist, Draper is unsurpassed. While her new material backs away from the intricate rhyme schemes and deliciously off-the-wall metrics that were all over her last couple of albums, she hasn’t lost the ability to deliver a knockout double or triple entendre. As much as her songs tend to be melancholy, she writes mostly in major keys, and serves them up with considerable humor, even on the haunting, ghostly Traces Of, from the new album. She’s also reverted to the catchy pop sensibility of her first album, as opposed to the hypnotic fingerpicking style that she’d been mining until recently: you can hum her stuff for hours after hearing it. Despite this being Memorial Day weekend, the house was full, the audience was ecstatic and wouldn’t let her leave without an encore.
Kat Heyman and her rhythm section opened the show with a soporific set of generically narcissistic, tuneless Lilith fare.
Tues May 29, 9 PM Devi – which is monster guitarist Deb DeSalvo’s power trio – play Trash Bar. Open bar with wells and PBRs with club admission 8-9 PM. DeSalvo found a way to work with her rhythm section’s metal tendencies, meaning that she’s stretching out and taking some wild, riveting, completely psychedelic solos. A lot of her songs are very dark, and this allows her inner rock animal – which is very, very funny – to jump out of its skin and slay you with chops and sly humor.
Also Tues May 29 Bryan Wade plays with the Jack Grace Band’s onetime bassist J. Granelli and current drummer, Canadian jazzcat Russ Meissner, at Paddy Reilly’s at 9 PM. Quirky, virtuosic guitarist who shamelessly mixes every style known to man. At his best he evokes XTC.
Weds May 30 Sean Kershaw & the New Jack Ramblers play Spanky’s BBQ, 8 PM, 127 W 43rd St (6th Ave). In case you can’t make it to their weekly thing at Hank’s on Sunday nights. They started as an allstar cast of country types who only had time to play together one night out of the week (does this mean that somebody in the band has lost a gig now?). Whatever the case, it’s your treat.
Also Weds May 30 a dynamite doublebill at the Parkside, way west on Houston St. at 9 PM Paula Carino plays with her band. Her myspace page calls her music “crunk,” and having heard her stuff while in that condition I can tell you it’s an apt description. To be more specific, she sings brilliantly intense, wryly humorous, literate lyrics in a nonchalantly alluring voice to catchy janglerock melodies. Liza & the Wonderwheels follow at 10 in a similar vein but with more overtly quirky 80s and new wave influences and the Larch’s amazing lead guitarist.
Also Weds May 30 it’s the Evan Schlansky Experience at Sidewalk, 9 PM, timbales by Jon Curtiss, acoustic thumb piano by Nick Schulman. Don’t think they’ll play Third Stone from the Sun: rather, Schlansky is the rare songwriter who’s actually worth seeing solo, and the sidemen should be a plus. He knows his blues and his way around the fretboard, writes very smart, biting lyrics and has a pleasantly nonchalant, unaffected vocal delivery. Dylan peeks out from behind the curtain, approvingly.
Thurs May 31 8 PM at Barbes it’s the Plunk Bros. – 2 Guitars and a mic. Bob Bobberson aka Bob Jones and Boo Booberson aka Boo Reiners of Demolition String Band fame pick and sing classics from the songbooks of Jimmy Rogers, the Delmore Brothers, The Louvins, Doc Watson, Bill Monroe and more. Effortlessly and virtuosically good, fun stuff.
Also Thurs May 31 Dina Dean and her band (featuring bass monster Christian Bongers from Botanica) play the Rockwood, east side of Allen St. just south of Houston, 9 PM. She’s basically a rock tunesmith but she draws on old-school soul as well, tells a great story (like the one about Elvis Presley’s project apartment) and sings with an understated grace. And plays guitar lefthanded so you can expect some especially interesting voicings and phrases.
Also Thurs May 31 a dynamite double bill at Pete’s Candy Store. 9 PM – Serena Jost, cellist and multi-instrumentalist par excellence, acerbic and spectacularly good songwriter with the eerily dazzling Greta Gertler on keys and Alice Bierhorst on drums. Then at 10 PM it’s Brookland: they could be the quintessential Pete’s act. Sweet harmonies; pretty, major-key, oldtimey country/folk tunes; acoustic instrumentation. Except that neither of the duo sing in a phony country accent and they write good lyrics. Robin Aigner (melodica, ukelele, guitar) is the undercover jazzcat, Matt Singer (guitar and banjo) is the political firebrand, and there’s a little gypsy/klezmer feel to some of their stuff too.
Also Thurs May 31 the Jack Grace Band plays Rodeo Bar, 9 PM for the Pre-Premiere Party of the movie I’m Reed Fish. Grace has getting a lot of Hollywood exposure and this is an example: several songs off his shockingly serious, beautifully intense and retro country album The Martini Cowboy. Expect those tonight along with the usual shenanigans.
Also Thurs May 31 the Coffin Daggers play the single release party for Something Wicked This Way Comes, 10 PM at the Pussycat Lounge, 95 Greenwich St., NY, NY, Westside trains to Chambers or 6 to Wall St. Impossible to think of a more appropriate band to put out a delicious vinyl single in these tinny mp3 times. They’ve gone back to their retro surf roots but still have the scorching, macabre lead guitar, pummeling rhythm section and spooky organ. The music is upstairs here: you have to go downstairs and pay a lot more to watch the desperate, drug-addicted women peel off their undies.
Later Thurs May 31 The Snow, which is Melomane frontman Pierre de Gaillande’s side project and plays mostly elegant, tersely arranged versions of Melomane songs, is at Mo Pitkins downstairs at midnight. The downstairs room here is a lot nicer than upstairs and cheaper too; it’s a chance to hear all those gorgeous art-rock songs stripped down to the basics with lots of harmonies.
Fri June 1 the Moonlighters play Barbes, 8 PM. See our reviews page for a close look at their excellent most recent album, Surrender.
Sat June 2 Love Camp 7 plays the Parkside, way west on Houston St. at Attorney. 10 PM. See our reviews page for our take on their latest album – their best ever – the deliciously psychedelic, historically-rooted Sometimes Always Never
Sun June 3 it’s a killer triple bill at the new Luna Lounge. At 8 the Bedsit Poets play their wickedly catchy, sometimes gorgeously pastoral 60s Britfolk and garage-inflected harmony-driven art-pop. Sustainmeister Don Piper and his band follow, evoking 80s Fenderheads like Band of Susans or the Feelies. At 10 the Oxygen Ponies play their dark, sprawling Leonard Cohen-esque art-folk. There are about 15 people in this band so the interplay between instruments should be delicious.
Mon June 4 an amazing show at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, 107 Suffolk Street (between Rivington and Delancey), time TBA but it assuredly won’t be during the day. Piker Ryan aka Mark Steiner used to front one of NYC’s best bands, the haunting, ethereal, gypsyish Kundera and he’s back from Norway for a rare solo show. He calls his stuff “lounge-noir” but it’s a lot more intense than that, like Nick Cave at his peak backed by ominous surfy guitar. Also on the bill later: warped, fiery, Americana-driven noir rockers the Bellmer Dolls with Peter Mavrogeorgis from Tav Falco’s band.
Another great album by the world’s most romantic band. While going to see the Moonlighters is something of an institution among young NYC couples, don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a sappy act. Their specialty is bedroom music, par excellence. This cd – their fourth – continues with more of the charming, effervescent Hawaiian and old-time music for which they’re best known. The cd cover, with its striking imagery of a flame-haired surfer girl trapped in a jar, staring into the mouth of a tiger while cowboys circle below and a vulture circles overhead, gives a hint of the uncompromising, politically-charged power of their live shows. Steel guitarist Henry Bodgan has been replaced on this album by Mike Neer, whose more traditional style lacks Bogdan’s sting but is probably a better fit with the fetching harmonies and strumming of frontwoman/uke player Bliss Blood and guitarist/singer Carla Murray. As with their live show, Blood plays the vivacious redhead, Murray the sultry brunette; the way their voices and personalities blend and contrast is nothing short of sexy. That’s not to say that the band puts style over substance: as a songwriter, Blood absolutely owns the nouveau-Gatsby-era genre. Foremost among her original songs here is the gorgeous, heartbreaking, minor-key Dirt Road Life, which works either as a contemporary maquiladora ballad or a lament by a 1920s sweatshop worker here in New York. Other originals here, including the cd’s bouncy opening cut Big Times and the unabashedly romantic Every Little Raindrop sound like authentic soundtrack material for some pre-code Mae West movie. There’s also the eerie Broken Doll, as well as Murray’s magnificently arranged pastiche Ziegfeld Doll, and the upbeat, old-timey hobo tune Boxcar with a View. The covers on the album are wisely chosen and beautifully performed, among them an airy, atmospheric take on the old Rodgers/Hammerstein chestnut Bali Hai, the novelty tune Makin Wickey-Wackey Down in Waikiki (a big hit at live shows), and the innuendo-laden Take a Picture of the Moon. Bliss Blood’s iconoclastic wit doesn’t shine through here quite as much as it does onstage, but that’s not what this cd is all about. Put it on the table by the bed with the Al Green and the Sade and break out the incense, wine and candles (just kidding – with this cd, incense, wine and candles are overkill). The Moonlighters play June 1 at 9 PM at Barbes; CD’s are available at shows, at better record stores and online.
Following Randi Russo and her band is never easy, but long-running California act 17 Pygmies proved more than worthy of the task. The band setup for the current tour includes three guitarists, including Jackson Del Rey (ex-Savage Republic) on Strat as well as a 12-string acoustic player and their frontwoman switching back and forth between acoustic guitar and accordion. If it’s possible for a sometimes quirky, often transcendentally beautiful art-rock band to slay, 17 Pygmies slayed.
They opened with a couple of tunes set to a pummeling surf beat, the second with a ridiculously long title (edited version: Sammy Hagar Saves Los Angeles from Godzilla). It didn’t sound anything like the Hag or Godzilla – in fact, it was a dead ringer for Misirlou up until the chorus – but it was the perfect opportunity for Del Rey to show off his devious wit. Then they got serious.
The rest of the set was mostly new material from their new album 13 Blackbirds (their first release since the 80s), as well as some unreleased songs. 17 Pygmies alternated lush, ornately arranged art-rock anthems with quieter, introspective, pastoral fare featuring a lot of fingerpicked classical guitar. With the clang and chime of the 12-string carrying the melody and Del Rey’s nimble, sometimes minimalist leads and fills hovering and circling around, they brought to mind other great, artsy jangle bands like the Church, the Byrds, Fairport Convention or the late, great Wirebirds. Mixing major and minor chords, verses that built slowly to towering refrains and then subsided again, the band held the small but attentive audience spellbound. If the live show is any indication, the new album must be amazing. This is a band you should get to know.
They ended their hourlong set with a psychedelic Kinks cover and then a suitably volcanic, seven-minute take on the Neil Young classic Cortez the Killer which Del Rey attacked with appropriate frenzy when it came time to solo, chopping at the fretboard with a fury that would make Old Neil proud, using his effects pedal to get a watery, chorus effect that effectively set this version apart from the millions of others.
An aggressive, ballistic performance. The Dog Show is basically frontman/guitarist Jerome O’Brien backed by a rotating cast of A-list New York musicians. As with the great jazz groups of the 1950s, this band shifts shapes depending on who’s playing: with one cast of characters, they can sound like the Stones playing early Elvis Costello; with a different crew, they sound more like the Animals. This unit featured the players on their landmark album Hello, Yes, which was the last recording ever made at Jerry Teel’s legendary Fun House studios. This incarnation bears a very close resemblance to the Jam, mod beats and melodies fueled by pure punk energy and O’Brien’s corrosive, literate lyricism.
The rhythm section had come out of semi-retirement for this show and played like they’d never left. Although the drums were too high in the sound mix, this was a blessing in disguise: Josh Belknap played joyous, rolling thunder all night. You could have closed your eyes and believed that Keith Moon was behind the kit. Bassist Andrew Plonsky was also way up in the mix, playing his dexterous, melodic lines with a growly, trebly tone, defying any conventional wisdom about having to have calloused fingers to play well. Lead guitarist Dave Popeck, whose regular gig until recently was fronting the power trio Twin Turbine, was unfortunately way back in the mix for most of the show. Those lucky enough to figure out what he was doing by watching his fingers fly up and down the fretboard were, until the end of the show, the only people in the house who could have appreciated his searing leads. O’Brien cut loose in front of the band, delivering each line as if it was his last.
The entire set was songs from the Hello, Yes album, opening with Broken Treat, sounding very much like something from All Mod Cons. They followed it with a scorching version of the Stonesy White Continental. On the next song, a particularly terse version of the 6/8 blues Diamonds and Broken Glass, the band came way down on the third chorus, putting O’Brien’s bitter lyric front and center. It’s a dismissive slap at an ex-girlfriend’s “man who can open you up like a can,” building to the chorus:
There’s a diamond inside
For every tear you ever cried
And broken glass is all you’ll ever find
When you’re living a lie
Popeck, finally audible in the mix, followed with a brief, blistering, trebly solo, then the band brought it down again for a final refrain. Later in the set, on the bouncy I Heard Everything That You Said, Popeck built the tension to the breaking point on the chorus with sheets of guitar feedback. Then, on the gorgeously evocative Halcyon Days, a series of scenes from a happier era on the Lower East Side – now overrun with luxury housing and tourists from the outlying counties – Popeck let loose with his most pathological, Stoogoid solo of the night. The band built to an extended, pummeling crescendo out of the chorus on the next song of their tantalizingly brief set, Every Baby Boy. While the sound in the club was uncharacteristically muddy, the passion and intensity of the show made up for it.
One of the later bands on the bill had cancelled, but instead of giving the Dog Show a chance to stretch out and give their fans a little extra, the club pushed them back an hour. Which backfired: when the announcement was made, the audience trickled out for food or cheaper drinks elsewhere, returning just as the Dog Show were about to take the stage for real.
This week’s live music calendar is place-specific. You will assuredly recognize a lot of these acts, but what about where they’re playing? Is a good time guaranteed for all or none at all? This week we give you the scoop.
Thurs May 24 the Dog Show plays Midway, Ave. B and 2nd St., 7 PM sharp. The frontman, a brilliant lyricist and rock hookmeister surrounds himself with a rotating cast of the crème de la crème of the NYC underground rock scene. The songs have Elvis Costello craftsmanship and vintage Who/Stones passion and propulsion. The venue is a comfortably scruffy bodega-basement type place with excellent sound.
Also Thurs May 24 Tandy plays Rodeo Bar, 10:30 PM, 2 sets. The Wilco fixation has finally run its course and they’ve developed their own sound: a lot more rocking, just as hooky, and also a lot more literate than Wilco ever was. The venue: it’s Rodeo Bar. Wasted Baruch kids boinking in the bathrooms. Greasy, somewhat pricy Tex-Mex food. Free peanuts in the shell: hey, that’s dinner! Legendary tekillya slurpies whose potency justifies the expense, and great sound if you can situate yourself in front of the hordes of sloppy drunks who have zero interest in the music.
Also Thurs May 24 genius guitarist Jim Campilongo plays songs off his new one Heaven Is Creepy at 10 at Barbes in Park Slope, F train to 7th Ave and walk downhill. The album title cuts both ways with this guy: heaven is a pretty creepy concept, isn’t it? And creepy is heaven – for this guy anyway, with his eerie reverb tank overflowing with ominous echoey surfy tonalities. He’s followed by the hilarious and talented country hellraiser Jack Grace. I can see a gig like this happening somewhere in San Antonio in 1976: if that’s your great lost time and place, you could approximate it well here tonight. The venue: the back room here is SMALL, in order to get a seat you should plan to arrive at least an hour before showtime. Decent sound, very intimate, the club – which takes its name from a formerly sketchy section of Paris and has a very Francophile vibe – has reasonably priced microbrews and wine.
Fri May 25, 9 PM the ethereal Lispector plays the Creek and the Cave in Long Island City along with the very creepy, minimalist, early 80s inflected Invisible Friend later in the evening, 7 train to Vernon/Jackson or G to 21s t/Van Alst and a short walk. Never been to the venue: they serve Mexican food, and the website looks like they’re trying to be trendoid central. But you never know.
Fri, May 25 the Elana James Trio (ex-Hot Club of Cowtown) with brilliant guitarist Whit Smith (from Western Caravan) plays Rodeo Bar, 10:30 PM. Country/western swing guitar and fiddle, par excellence.
Fri May 25 Melomane and Jack Grace Band bassist Daria Grace’s excellent old-timey band with J. Walter Hawkes on trombone and Jon Dryden on piano – and the reliably entertaining Ms. Grace on ukelele – play Biscuit BBQ, 5th Ave at President St. in Park Slope, take any train to Atlantic Ave. They open for the charmingly self-explanatory Ukeladies, showtime is 9 PM. The venue: never been there. The website makes it look straight out of central Jersey: it’s ostensibly a barbecue restaurant with a cover charge and also food/drink minimum, but these bands are worth it.
Also Fri May 25 System Noise play the Mean Fiddler, 266 West 47th St. @ 8th Avenue 10 PM. Right band, wrong time: spectacularly passionate, virtuosic guitar, bass, drums and female singer with amazing range and belting ability. The trendoids just don’t get it, but they won’t be here tonight. Late 70s King Crimson meets late 70s Public Image Ltd. meets prime-era Polvo with funk, hip-hop and even pop influences. For such a loud, noisy band they’re amazingly catchy and melodic and on any given night are easily the most exhilarating live band in town. The venue: nice place, good sound, formerly an off-Broadway theatre. Drinks are Midtown pricy but the milieu is surprisingly comfortable even if the universally despised Left Eye Lopez has been booking there recently.
Sat May 26 an especially good triple bill at Cake Shop – Linda Draper headlines at 9, celebrating the release of her new cd Traces Of. She’s one of the most exciting lyricists anywhere. Musically, Draper has reverted to the super catchy acoustic pop of her first album, and her latest stuff has a newfound terseness, but she’ll still dazzle you with inventive, frequently corrosive wordplay. The venue: best new club in town. You could live here: it’s a combination bakery, used record store and music venue. Reasonable prices (including the cover charge), superior sound and a completely unpretentious, old-school vibe.
Also Sat May 26, fiery garage/punks 18 play Trash Bar, open bar 8-9 PM during their set. Good drinking music. One of the tightest bands in NYC. Riff-driven rock with effortlessly unleashed energy the way it was played in 1966 by Sam the Sham…and in 1976 by the Ramones…and in 1986 by the Lyres. Except that 18 plays all their own stuff.
Also Sat May 26 Cementhead play the Annex on Orchard St. (the former Bar 11), 8 PM. Fiery, driving punk-pop with especially interesting, arpeggiated guitar work. Twice the testosterone of the Buzzcocks and about a hundred times that of the French Kicks. Worth braving this horrid venue – a place where many bands refuse to play – for this show. Why? It’s crawling with trendoids and tourists, drinks aren’t cheap and the music they play over the PA between bands is so bad and so loud you’ll want to take up smoking just so you can step outside. If the Continental was too quiet for you, you’ll love the Annex.
Also Sat May 26 at Barbes starting at 8 PM it’s the Spinal Tap of lounge bands, Cocktail Angst, one of the most hilarious live acts you will ever see. If you remember Richard Cheese’s album of lounge covers of 90s grunge songs, you’ll love these guys. Frontwoman Toby Williams is a bonafide, stylistically diverse jazz singer with great range, and the band knows the genre expertly so their parodies are spot-on. As a bonus, Delta Dreambox – which is Moonlighters frontwoman Bliss Blood’s acoustic blues band – plays at 10.
Also Sat May 26 Flugente plays Midway, 9:30 PM. That’s Jerry Adler from the Blam, solo acoustic. Unpretentious, conversational singer; great lyrics; barely restrained rage. This is the guy who snarled, “Death to all hipsters!” at Capone’s and the trendoids looked around in disbelief. See our reviews page for a take on his superb solo debut cd.
Also Sat May 26 fiery two-guitar highway rockers the Sloe Guns celebrate veteran drummer Bill Gerstel’s birthday at Arlene’s, 10 PM. They finally found a drummer, a real good one, and suddenly they’re back in the fast lane. If Steve Earle or the Jayhawks rock your world so will the Sloe Guns. The venue: it’s Arlene’s. Pretend it’s a midtown Irish bar and you won’t be far off the mark. Fairly comfortable, generally good sound, but not cheap either.
Late Sat May 26 Brainfinger play Hank’s in Brooklyn off the Atlantic Ave. stop at midnight. It’s the former keyboardist and drummer from the Coffin Daggers playing pretty much the same thing: ostensibly it’s surf music but there’s a macabre Doors influence, especially with the keyboard guy’s Balkan funereal tones. The venue: this place rocks. $2 shit beers, old-man bar vibe, shockingly good sound, completely unpretentious local crowd.
Tues May 29, 9 PM Devi – which is monster guitarist Deb DeSalvo’s power trio – play Trash Bar. Open bar with wells and PBRs with club admission 8-9 PM. DeSalvo found a way to work with her rhythm section’s metal tendencies, meaning that she’s stretching out and taking some wild, riveting, completely psychedelic solos. A lot of her songs are very dark, and this allows her inner rock animal – which is very, very funny – to jump out of its skin and surprise you with chops and sly humor. The venue: they get pretty much everything right. The sound quality runs hot and cold but drinks are free if you get there for power hour and they serve free tater tots every hour on the hour. The crowd depends on the act onstage: Devi’s fans are an unpretentiously polyglot crew with a smattering of metalheads.
A luminous, mesmerizing performance. It’s impossible to imagine a more exciting band right now. The crowd was rapt. Many of the songs segued into another, but whenever the sound stopped, there was a noticeable moment of silence before the applause began. This was a particularly terse show for New York’s most exhilarating rock instrumentalists. Improvisation is usually the game plan for guitarist Steve Ulrich, upright bassist Paul Dugan and their impressively smooth new drummer. Tonight, it was all about the compositions throughout their tantalizingly brief 50-minute set: extended intros, outros and solos were kept to a minimum, which on one hand is too bad since that’s their meal ticket. No other band takes so many chances (unless maybe you count what’s left of the Grateful Dead) and flies without a net to the extent that these reverbed-out, surf and rockabilly-tinged noir soundtrack rockers do. The upside was that they got to show off a lot of new material from their brilliant new album Postcards from X along with a bunch of proven crowd-pleasers.
Ulrich and Dugan share a fondness for (some would say an inability to resist) haunting chromatics and menacing chordal work, so it was unusual for them to open with the uncharacteristically cheerful, major-key highway tune Junction City, from their first ep. A bit later, they played the opening cut on their classic, self-titled second album, Skinless Boneless, with Ulrich taking the solo of the night, an all-too-brief, screaming series of minor-key hooks, constantly shifting tones and textures by mixing up the pickups on his Gibson Les Paul and alternating between effects pedals. On a new song, Glitter Gulch, a loping spaghetti western number, Ulrich switched to baritone guitar. Then it was Dugan’s turn to stun the audience with a sprinting, Ron Carter-ish solo on the lickety-split Princess Nicotine. As great a composer as Ulrich is, Dugan’s signature style of aggressively propulsive, melodic fingerpicking on his bass, along with a great deal of eerie, cello-style bowing is as essential to their sound as Ulrich’s trademark reverb attack.
Naked, another song from the new album, proved that they can play noise rock with anybody, although Ulrich reverted to melodic, melancholy mode at the very end. On Just Plain Scared, from the band’s second album, someone missed a cue, extending the lightning-fast drum intro and for awhile it wasn’t clear if the drummer was going to be able to make it into the song at that breakneck pace. Happily, he did. Toward the end of the set, Ulrich picked up his lapsteel and played an unreleased song, Black-Eyed Susan, on which he picked arpeggios and melody lines rather than creating washes of sound or chords, with a slide, as the instrument is typically played. He was in typically witty form between songs, telling the audience how a nasty disagreement between bandmates during a Yoko Ono performance at one of Tonic’s last shows resulted in Big Lazy not playing on the bill that particular night: “Yoko almost broke up another band,” Ulrich deadpanned. They wound up the set with a Paul Dugan composition, Hell in a Handbasket, with screechy, pizzicato bowed bass pedaling the same note and building tension while Ulrich supplied the firepower.
Happily, the sound in the club was superb, perhaps because Big Lazy’s studio engineer from the new album was on the sound board. Strangely, there was no band playing afterward, especially considering how Big Lazy seemed constricted to less than an hour onstage. Another set – or at least a longer set – would have been nice, but it was obvious that this was something the band had no control over. Even if they’d played longer, they still would have left the crowd wanting more.
Sometimes life kicks you. Last night Randi Russo and her band kicked back, hard. She and tw0-thirds of her backing unit hit the stage around 5:30, early, playing on a bill with literally dozens of other acts from the loosely organized New York City collective known as Olive Juice Music. Russo’s drummer was AWOL: stuck in traffic, the audience would learn later. The bass player was clearly hungover. As the band was setting up, the multi-talented Nan Turner (of Schwervon, who were scheduled to play later in the evening) passed by the stage: Russo leaned over, and in a matter of seconds managed to corral her and install her behind the drum kit. Turner’s timekeeping is marvelously precise: you could set your watch to her and it would be accurate to a nanosecond. The band was visibly delighted to have her up there with them, as they launched into a dirty, blistering cover of the Slim Harpo blues Hip Shake (which the Stones covered very differently on Exile). At the end of the song, Russo took a rare solo, a screaming serics of macabre chords that evoked Joy Division circa Unknown Pleasures. Turner looked like she wanted to leave the stage, but the band wouldn’t let her, following with another stomping bluesy number, Release Me, and then a slowly undulating, groove-hugging take on Russo’s eerie, Middle Eastern-inflected dajyob-from-hell masterpiece Battle on the Periphery.
Just as Turner exited the stage, Russo’s regular drummer Dan Zachary rushed in through the audience, and in moments the band launched into a new song that saw Russo and lead guitarist Lenny Molotov trade off licks over a minimalist, midtempo punk rock beat. The song morphed into a hypnotic, stomping cauldron of noise about halfway through, the bassist playing a repetitive chromatic riff as a whirlwind of eerie overtones flew from the two guitars. It was obvious by now that the band was working completely without a set list: since Russo uses a lot of different guitar tunings, there was always a pause between songs. “Play something,” she told the bassist and he tried tackling the Mr. Softee ice cream truck theme without much success. He was having a rough time up there, his hand visibly cramping up during the long, ethereal, surprisingly optimistic Ceiling Fire.
But no matter: the band was on fire for the rest of the set, including the psychedelic, riff-driven Great Adventure, the wounded, bitter Hurt Me Now, the towering, majestic outsider anthem Prey and their final song, an impossibly catchy, backbeat-driven pop hit possibly titled Invisible (“I am, I am invisible/I feel, I feel invincible”).
The Wowz followed with a sprawling set of happy, shiny, shambling Simon and Garfunkel-esque acoustic pop, an obviously under-rehearsed choir of backup singers lined up behind the drums: it seems they’re going for something approximating a lighter side of the Arcade Fire.
This is the solo project by Moist Paula Henderson, frontwoman and baritone sax player from New York’s terrific all-instrumental trio Moisturizer (Moist Paula from Moisturizer: get it?). On the album, she plays all the instruments, meaning lots of bari sax, sometimes played through Garageband patches so they sound like other instruments. This could be the soundtrack to a really cool indie film. Let’s make some pizza bagels and watch the movie. Are you down?
The movie’s first scene is South Carolina Holiday. It’s a balmy, beachy day, not a cloud in the sky and not even hungover, listening to some dreamy, ambient sax lines. Suddenly it’s almost 5 in the morning and the scene shifts to a Dominican restaurant: you can almost smell the spices rising in the steam from the rice and beans and fresh chuletas. Mofongo Raincheck, which sounds like a song from Paula’s band, is playing: a catchy, sexy vamp set to a Latin beat with bongos and surprisingly authentic-sounding upright bass patches. It builds to a wild little interlude as a couple of scary-looking, drunk dudes enter the joint but ultimately nothing bad happens.
After the restaurant, suddenly it’s a crowded mini-mall somewhere in the Midwest except that it’s way after it should be closed and the sketchy dudes from the Dominican place are back and suddenly they’re running after somebody. It’s Instant Messenger Dream, bari sax grating through a distortion pedal, disquieting and weird, pairing what’s essentially a classical melody with a heavy metal feel against layers of ambient sax washes.
Just outside the mall at the edge of the parking lot, a girl is looking at her reflection under the lights in a shop window and rehearsing what she’s going to have to say to get Daddy’s Approval. Tastily doubletracked saxes play over weird, out-of-time electronic blips and bleeps.
Suddenly a Mouse appears and moves its mouth. It sounds like low bass synth with someone having fun with the portamento lever, holding down the low notes as attractively thoughtful, upbeat sax flies overhead. It’s Moist Paula the jazzcat. This a long scene, it gives the mouse a chance to go for an Oscar and the sax player to show off her great chops and sense of melody.
Then the New Age Ladies enter. This part of the soundtrack could also be a Moisturizer song if it had a real rhythm section behind it, layers of ambience over a percussion loop, what sounds like string synth and then a cimbalom. Where did that come from. And why are those women on the yoga mats wearing Hungarian capes and have all those rings on their fingers?
Jump cut to the inside of some tourist trap in Chelsea, a mob scene packed with fat old Wall Street guys in fancy suits smoking cigars and hitting on high school girls from central Jersey with big hair and way too much foundation. I guess they call this 10 Sex. One of those obnoxious drum machines is going whoomp whoomp whoomp whoomp. Ugh. Time for a bathroom break. Fast forward to the next scene, would you please?
OK, we’re back. This is where Moisturizer can be seen in the background if you look closely: I’ll bet the girls would love to play this one live. This must be Risk Failure, which starts with a snapping funk bass line, then a super catchy sax melody. When the camera pans to the Vietnamese Restaurant at the corner, the waitresses have all gathered around an older Arab gentleman who’s playing backgammon by himself while the waitresses sway in time and yet more sax hooks kick in over what sounds like gamelan percussion. Then an oud begins to play, the Arab gent gets up and opens his suit coat. Inside there is a leather holster with a spatula inside.
All this is Not It Vain (as opposed to Not In Vain). Right about here the movie gets very 80s. Is that Scott Bakula? He looks exactly like he’s always looked (just like every annoying boss I ever had). Didn’t know he was still acting. There’s a synthesizer, the images speed up early MTV-style, then suddenly slow down. There’s a gorgeously melodic bluesy sax way in the background. Something is going on here, you have to look very closely and suddenly it’s very different, very bleak. Someone has a Decrepit Heart. A dancer enters the frame, swaying sadly to a trip-hop beat, layers of synth chorus singing a sad refrain as she moves all by herself to an imaginary band.
And then the movie is over. The credits roll against a montage of of mountain and riverbank images. A tall, beautiful, raven-haired woman is messing with her cellphone and not hearing anything. Must be No Service in the Poconos. Layers of saxes play against each other, rubato. It’s completely random yet melodic at the same time.
So there you have it, a delightful, utterly surreal sound movie. Sundance, are you listening? This further solidifies Paula Henderson’s reputation not only as a rocker and a frontwoman but also as a bonafide, serious composer with jazz chops and a completely unique sense of humor. It will lift your mood and make you see a lot of things you probably never imagined before. Great album.
Kocsis’ bright, twisted, witty pen-and-watercolor work closely resembles Gerald Scarfe at his best circa The Wall, 1980. This is her first solo show and very much worth your while. The opening reception is at Pie by the Pound, 124 4th Ave (btwn. 12 and 13th St.) Tues May 22, 7-9 PM. For some background on the headbanging artist click http://www.natty.org