Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Bobby Radcliff Live at Lucille’s Bar and Grill, NYC 2/23/08

The joke was on the crowd tonight. There was a long line of New Jersey tourists upstairs waiting to pay $60 to get into the larger adjacent B.B. King’s to see a Journey cover band. The whole lot of them, obviously impatient to get out of the cold, could have gotten into the smaller space and seen Bobby Radcliff and they all would have been $60 richer. And would have had a far better time. Saturday night in New York City at a popular, spacious nightclub, and who’s playing the main stage? A Journey cover band. Just think about that for a second.

To steal a phrase from LJ Murphy, in case you don’t know what the blues is, it is the kind of music that has nothing to do with Eric Clapton. In case you don’t know Bobby Radcliff, he’s one of the world’s most exciting blues guitarists. The Washington, DC native, tonight looking something like Chewbacca the Wookie from Star Wars in a three-piece suit, has always had sensational chops, but in recent years he’s really come into his own. B.B. King is the obvious influence, but Radcliff has brought a multitude of other styles into his playing, from Muddy Waters to funk, and they’re all good. Although he still plays an awful lot of notes, like a funkier, more minor-key or jazz-inclined Stevie Ray Vaughan, he’s finally discovered space, making all those scales and riffs and licks actually count for something. Tonight he was accompanied by what seemed to be a pickup rhythm section, the drummer pushing everything along by playing just ahead of the beat. The bass player was using all kinds of unorthodox voicings for what were clearly pretty standard lines. Instead of staying in position and just playing the notes as they went up the scale and up the strings, he’d move further up his A or D strings, sometimes sliding to the notes, actually a very effective device. A closer look revealed why: his G string was missing. For awhile it was hard to resist the temptation to call out from the audience and ask how that happened. On second thought, it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do: losing one’s G string can be traumatic, something that isn’t easily discussed in front of a crowd.

Radcliff alternated originals with covers. To his immense credit, it was sometimes hard to tell which was which. Although his vocals were miked too low in the mix for his audience repartee to be audible to all but those at the tables closest to the stage, he was in a gregarious mood tonight, revealing how Lovesick Blues wasn’t written by Muddy Waters, but was actually a Memphis Minnie tune (blues fans are obsessive like that). Radcliff’s version was uniquely his own, although he added some low vibrato on his E string, mimicking Muddy’s ominous tonalities. His version of Muddy’s Honeybee was rich with vibrato as well.

He did a couple of ominous, hypnotic numbers that evoked Howlin Wolf’s Smokestack Lightning as well as something that sounded like a dead ringer for Otis Rush’s Lonely Man, right down to the fast boogie break on the chorus, but with different lyrics. Radcliff sang with a drawl, but a casually unaffected one, making it clear that he doesn’t take his blues vocal cues from Robert Plant. Guitarwise, he used pretty much every trick in the book: lightning-fast chord-chopping and tremolo-picking, sizzling sixteenth-note runs, long sustained notes and elaborate jazz chords, all with just a touch of natural distortion from his gorgeous Gibson Les Paul. At the end of the set he did an utterly macabre instrumental cover of Memphis, of all songs, and this was as effective as it was bizarre. Don’t let the fact that he’s white scare you away: the guy can flat-out play, as he reaffirmed tonight. He’s back here on March 15 at 8.

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February 25, 2008 Posted by | blues music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tandy Live at Lakeside Lounge, NYC 2/22/08

Tonight was a triumph for Tandy. It always feels good to see a band take it to the next level. These guys have come a long ways since their days as densely wordy mid-period Wilco soundalikes in the late 90s. Despite having suddenly lost their (and everybody else’s) lead guitarist Drew Glackin at a young age last month, they’ve regrouped and played an absolutely killer set, one gorgeous song after another. Tandy’s most recent material is their best: slow-to-midtempo, contemplative, lyrically-driven, jangly and richly melodic Americana rock with tinges of southwestern gothic at times. Frontman Mike Ferrio began the set on mandolin and harmonica before switching to acoustic guitar. The new guy they had sitting in on Telecaster provided vividly melodic, tastefully terse fills, Skip Ward played a rare gig on electric bass, and drummer Bruce Martin added some very pretty accordion textures while keeping time on the kick on one song.

Ferrio is an excellent lyricist, writing memorable, understated, image-filled narratives of blue-collar life, his vocals casual and laid-back. One of the early songs, seemingly an antiwar number, morphed into a long, crescendoing vamp on the chorus of the Emerson, Lake and Palmer pop hit Lucky Man. Later they did a couple of long, slow, hypnotically summery numbers that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Giant Sand album. The set was somewhat front-loaded – it seemed that they saved the older material for last for the sake of their fans. The Tandy website notes triumphantly that their latest cd is sold out: unsurprising for a band this good. They’re huge in Europe. If Americana or just plain thoughtful, smart, guitar-based rock is your thing, you owe it to yourself to discover Tandy.

February 25, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Serena Jost – Closer Than Far

A richly melodic, stylistically diverse masterpiece. Serena Jost (pronounced Yost) is a multi-instrumentalist who for quite a while played cello in Rasputina. On this album, her second, she also plays acoustic guitar and keyboards and sings in a truly beautiful, carefully modulated voice. What she does here falls under the nebulous umbrella of art-rock, although her tunes are uncommonly catchy, adding both classical and jazz influences. Jost’s lyrics are deliberately opaque, and like her music, they can be very playful: she clearly delights in paradoxes and contradictions, making her listeners think. This is a terrific ipod album. Here she’s backed by her band including Julian Maile on electric guitar, Brad Albetta (who also produced) on bass and keys, and Colin Brooks and Matt Johnson on drums along with strings and horns in places.

It opens, counterintuitively, with a cover, a stomping yet heartfelt take of Iris DeMent’s sad requiem Our Town: could this be a metaphor for New York? The next cut, Halfway There is a beautifully catchy, artsy pop song whose keys surprisingly end up in the hands of guest banjo player Jim Brunberg about halfway through, who drives it home with very rewarding results. The following cut Vertical World ought to be the hit single, opening all dramatic and coy with a faux-gospel intro:

No I’m not from Georgia, but you are on my mind
I swear I am from Georgia, ‘cause I like it when you take your time

From there it morphs into ridiculously catchy piano pop, on one level seemingly a view of New York through the eyes of an ingénue. But as in the rest of the songs here there are possibly several shades of meaning: taken as sarcasm, it’s a slap in the face of anyone in the permanent-tourist class with their 24/7 party lifestyle and fondness for chainstores like Krispy Kreme. After that, we get the inscrutable I Wait, with a long intro that eventually builds to a cello solo that Jost turns over to Maile, who responds by building something that could be Dick Dale in an unusually pensive moment. The next track, Almost Nothing, a lament, begins with stark classical guitar and features some nice background vocals from Alice Bierhorst and Greta Gertler. Speaking of the unexpected, Maile throws in a completely bombastic, Robin Trower-esque fuzztone guitar solo.

The following song Reasons and Lies reverts to a catchy art-pop feel, with a cello solo from Jost doubletracked with eerily reverberating vocalese. Jost likes to take the same kind of liberties with tempos that she pulls with melody and lyrics, and the next cut Awake in My Dreams gently jolts and prods the listener with echoey vocals and sudden tempo shifts. The next cut Jump is as eerie as it is playful: the production is pure 70s disco, utilizing cheesy period keyboard settings, but the darkness of the melody gives it away: “Down is not so far away,” intones Jost without divulging anything more. With its layers of fluttery acoustic guitars and cello, Falling Down reverts to a chiming pop feel. The album wraps up with In Time, featuring more tricky time changes, and then Stowaway, which perfectly sums up what Jost is all about:

I’m hoping for a shore I can seek
Where dusk and dawn always meet

Challenging, captivating, thought-provoking and very pretty. Time may judge this a classic. Serena Jost and band play the cd release show for Closer Than Far at Joe’s Pub on March 3 at 9:30 PM.

February 25, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Amanda Thorpe – Union Square

This could be the ultimate autumnal New York album, perfect for grey days with a chill in the air, winter’s hand tugging impatiently on the curtains. The songs on Union Square are gorgeously wistful and intensely poignant. What Linda Thompson was to the 70s and early 80s, Amanda Thorpe is to this era, another British expat steeped in traditional English folk, possessed of one of the most beautifully haunting voices you will ever hear. Thorpe is somewhat more diverse, however: she will give you eerie austerity and resigned melancholy, but she also has a seductive, torchy side with great nuance. This is the first solo release for Thorpe – who also fronts the supremely catchy Bedsit Poets – since her first album, Mass, in 2002, and it was well worth the wait.

By contrast to Mass, a lushly produced, smokily atmospheric effort, this one is remarkably terse and direct. Every note on this album counts. Thorpe is accompanied here by a choice crew of New York luminaries – co-producer Brad Albetta (also of Mary Lee’s Corvette) on bass, Bill Frisell sideman Tony Scherr on guitar and upright bass, Bob Perry on lapsteel and ex-Psychedelic Fur Joe McGinty on keys. The album kicks off with the sarcastic Life Is Great, a lament directed at a pillhead: “Life is great with a hole inside.” Perry adds layers of bluesy lapsteel over Thorpe’s understatedly frustrated vocals. Track two, Won’t You Let Me (a co-write with Phillip Shelley) is pure seduction set to a sweetly soaring Albetta bassline. The next track, River Song is arguably Thorpe’s finest hour as a songwriter, a vivid account of rejection and despair, here recast with something of a Madder Rose-style 90s trip-hop feel. After that, Next to Me makes a good segue, Thorpe holding up a red flag – albeit from a distance – to a would-be suitor.

Burn This House Down, spiced with juicy blues piano from McGinty, has Thorpe bringing the intensity up to redline as she pulls out all the stops and belts:

Though I still love you
The romance is dead
As you burn this house down

Then Scherr launches into a truly nasty slide guitar solo.

Other standout tracks on this album include the marvelously catchy You and Me in a Doorway (also a co-write with Shelley) with its lush bed of guitars and lapsteel; the hypnotic, pastoral Over the Sea (a Wirebirds soundalike); the beautifully melancholy title track, and the absolutely brilliant Show Me a Place. Thorpe’s voice longs for something transcending the ordinariness that she’s held on to with such a steely grip, until now. “As long as there were cigarettes and another glass of wine,” everything was ok. But now she sees “my own black silhouette reflect against the sky:” high time for a change. Perry’s layers of lapsteel punch at the melody like a string quartet. Few other singers in Thorpe’s league ever get to sing material this good; still fewer songwriters in Thorpe’s league can deliver it with as much passion, intensity and subtlety as she does. This ought to appeal to a very wide listenership encompassing the purist Richard & Linda Thompson contingent as well as fans of the current group of A-list chanteuses (Feist, Erica Smith, Rachelle Garniez et al.) and maybe even some of the less adventurous for whom Norah Jones is simply the greatest thing out there.

February 25, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Mark Sinnis – Into an Unhidden Future

The debut solo album from ominous Ninth House singer/bassist Mark Sinnis is a remarkably stark, terse collection of mostly acoustic songs including a small handful he’s played with the band. Sinnis proves he’s one of this era’s great Americana song stylists: he can croon with anyone. Vocally, this is an unabashedly romantic album, even given the bitter intensity of many of the songs. Most of them are simply Sinnis’ acoustic guitar and vocals, sometimes sparsely embellished with simple, eerily reverberating electric guitar lines from Brunch of the Living Dead’s Sara Landeau as well as gospel-tinged piano by Ninth House keyboardist Matt Dundas, violin from Susan Mitchell and lapsteel by Lenny Molotov. This is a kinder, gentler Mark Sinnis, a worthy substitute for anyone who misses Nick Cave since he went off to do his hard rock thing with Grinderman.

Sinnis’ dark, rich baritone is a potent instrument, whether roaring over the tumult of Ninth House or delivering with considerably more subtlety as he does here. Johnny Cash is the obvious influence, but there are also tinges of Roy Orbison on the understatedly bitter That’s Why I Won’t Love You, and even Elvis Presley circa His Hand in Mine on the austere ballad The Choice I Found in Fate. Sinnis’ lyrics are crystalline and polished: he doesn’t waste words; his melodies are deceptively simple and run through your head when you least expect them. Some highlights from the nineteen (!) songs on the cd: the haunting Five Days, a bitter look at how the hours are wasted on dayjob drudgery; the Carl Perkins-inflected It Takes Me Home, a long, slow, death-obsessed ride; the rousing Passing Time, a warning to anyone not aware that they should seize the day while it lasts; the Nashville gothic The Room Filled Beyond Your Door, featuring some impressively countrystyle guitar from Ninth House lead player Anti Dave; and a stripped-down version of the anguished Ninth House classic, Put a Stake Right Through It featuring some truly scary playing by Molotov. The production is beautifully uncluttered, obviously influenced by Cash’s Rick Rubin albums. This cd works on so many levels: as singer-songwriter album, as sultry country crooner album (get this for your girlfriend, or someone you would like to be your girlfriend), as well as a fascinating look at an unexpected side of one of today’s finest songwriters. CDs are available in better records stores, online and at shows. Mark Sinnis plays the cd release show for this album at the Slipper Room on March 16 at 10 PM.

February 25, 2008 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment