Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Liza & the WonderWheels/Skelter/System Noise at Kenny’s Castaways, NYC 8/23/07

Everbody makes fun of the Bleecker Street strip. It’s so NOT New York, right? Wide-eyed, blue-collar Jersey/Long Island tourists, cheap jewelry stores, faux Italian bistros and so-bad-they’re-funny suburban bands playing the clubs, trapped in a time warp where U2 is considered cutting-edge. Predictably, there was a gaggle of overdressed, fake-tanned girls from Deer Park or Marlton or somewhere the same, all nervous and self-conscious to be for perhaps the first time in their lives inside a place that’s not advertised on network tv. Just as predictably, when the first band started, they were gone in less than a minute.

Over the arch where the main room here starts, there’s a purple neon sign announcing that “Through these portals amble the famous,” or something equally stilted, followed by two exclamation points. Maybe one of Phil Collins’ backup singers walked in here once, thinking it was the Bottom Line, then realized where she was and promptly exited. Over the bar, there are framed gold records by 80s New Jersey REM wannabes the Smithereens (after the band had run its course, the notoriously right-wing nutjob who fronted the band had a brief run as a wannabe politician). This could be anywhere: Deer Park, Marlton, El Cajon. It’s the last place anyone would expect to see the bands on the bill tonight.

And it was Continental loud. For those who don’t get the reference, the sound at the Continental on Bowery just north of St. Mark’s was earsplitting. Then they stopped having bands a couple of years ago. It’s now a tourist bar. Maybe that’s where Mallory, Alexis, Madison, Keighleigh, Kelceigh, AshLee, Prada and Taylor were headed next as they went east armed with their parents’ credit cards. And that’s too bad, because if they’d stuck around they actually might have enjoyed Liza & the WonderWheels. This band looks and sounds like something you’d see in a movie set in New York circa 1981 in the requisite CBGB scene: catchy hooks and cheery vocals, with a quirky 80s vibe. If they were around at that time, they’d also undoubtedly have a record deal and probably at least a couple of radio hits. They have a tight, powerful rhythm section, a dynamic frontwoman and an equally captivating lead guitarist. Their hooks are simple, memorable and driven by the vocals rather than the songs’ chord structures. Frontwoman Liza Garelik was in a great mood tonight because she could actually hear herself onstage, and the sound in the room was equally good: her vocals were coming through strong, all the way to the front door. They ran through a bunch of mostly upbeat, fast material and closed with what has become their signature song, Eddie Come Down, a typically warped number about getting a psycho to chill out that begins slowly and eventually builds to a long jam on a single chord. Tonight the bass and drums pushed it hard as Ian Roure’s guitar screamed through a wah-wah pedal. They built it up, then brought it down, they went up again, then went all quiet and it was Garelik’s rhythm guitar ringing starkly and quietly evil, like the spirit of Bob Weir against drummer Joe Filosa’s sepulchral cymbals, that provided the set’s most mesmerizing moment.

We should be grateful for bands like Skelter, who came next on the bill. This comfortably melodic, garagey upstate trio stays within the world of major and minor chords, and they’re all proficient on their instruments. In a world where most of the descendants of Sonic Youth play like they’ve never seen a guitar in their lives, much less held one, these guys are a pleasure: one audience member compared them to Oasis, and while they don’t steal Beatles licks, they definitely have a sense of drama. And a tendency toward garish guitar and drum flourishes, which they should avoid. But since this was their ten-year anniversary show, there’s little chance of that happening. Their myspace has a very catchy, jangly garage rock song called Ghost Town, and they played that tonight, but with distortion, and it sounded pretty indistinguishable from everything else. Bands like this sound better the more you drink.

Headliners System Noise are arguably the best live band in New York, in fact, arguably the best live band anywhere. “Progressive punk,” one audience member called them. Lithe, cat-eyed frontwoman Sarah Mucho is a force of nature: tonight she belted like Grace Slick raised to the power of ten, wailed like Mary Lee Kortes at her most scary-beautiful, teased and seduced the crowd like Erica Smith. It’s hard to think of anyone outside the world of, say, opera or gospel who can unleash such a mighty, pitch-perfect blast of beautiful sound. They rhythm section handled a lot of tricky time changes and odd tempos with aplomb and the lead guitarist alternated between fiery, virtuosic riffs and sheets of blistering noise. For a band this loud, and this noisy, they are amazingly tuneful. They burned through an all-too-brief, barely 35-minute set including a lot of unreleased material. The macabre Good Enough to Eat, a song about cannibalism, began with a percussive, chromatic hook that wouldn’t be out of place in an Iron Maiden song. Perhaps their strongest number was the equally dark, fiery No One Saw What I Saw, Mucho’s vocals taking flight in the chorus after a relentless, pounding run through the wilderness of the verse.

The night’s big crowd-pleaser was the slow, towering anthem Daydreaming. “A power ballad,” Mucho sarcastically called it, which built in an instant from a mysterious, ominously quiet verse to a literally breathtaking crescendo, then subsided almost as fast. It was heartwarming to hear the crowd’s awestruck, spontaneous applause when the band did this the first time around, affirming that there are still people in town who can appreciate that kind of thing in rock music. The set ended with a ridiculously catchy, Talking Heads-ish funk number from the band’s self-titled ep, with a snide, overtly political lyric that Mucho rapped. What a great night: three bands for eight bucks, the sound was good if a little loud and we weren’t surrounded by assholes. Somebody should start a Take Back Bleecker Street campaign: get all the good bands who used to play Tonic, for example, and bring them down here. It’s easy to get to on the subway and it sure beats Ludlow Street.

From there, we went east to Banjo Jim’s – again (we didn’t see Mallory, Alexis, Madison, Keighleigh, Kelceigh, AshLee, Prada or Taylor – perhaps their Humvee stretch limo had picked them up before they collectively turned into pumpkins). What a pleasant surprise, there was actually somebody good onstage here. Will Scott really has a handle on hypnotic, Mississippi hill country blues. It was just him playing acoustic, backed by a boisterous drummer. It actually would have been nice if they had been louder: people might have danced. This guy gets it: an unabashed T-Model Ford/R.L. Burnside fan, he understands that this is party music. Tonight he played it with fierce abandon, judicious use of guitar chops and without Pearl Jamming the vocals. He’s been playing Wednesdays at 68 Jay St. Bar in Dumbo for awhile. If you miss ole R.L. or have a lot of the Fat Possum catalog in your collection or on your ipod, go see this guy, you won’t be disappointed.

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August 24, 2007 - Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. […] Concert Review: Liza & the WonderWheels/Skelter/System Noise at Kenny’s Castaways, NYC 8/… […]

    Pingback by Index « Lucid Culture | August 27, 2007 | Reply

  2. […] return for Mucho. Although she’s best known as the frontwoman for the ferocious, artsy rock band System Noise, her roots are in the cabaret scene. Her Ziggy Stardust shows at Mama Rose’s and other rooms a […]

    Pingback by Cabaret Review: Sarah Mucho in Subterranean Circus at the Duplex, NYC 12/3/07 « Lucid Culture | December 4, 2007 | Reply


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