Lucid Culture


Concert Review: Stephane Wrembel at Spikehill, Brooklyn NY 1/24/09

It may have been one of the coldest nights of the year so far, but Stephane Wrembel took the opportunity to reaffirm his status as one of the most exciting, innovative guitarists in any style of music. As an interpreter of Django Reinhardt’s gypsy jazz, he has few if any equals, but it’s his originals that shift the paradigm and pull the listener in the fastest: he brings as many diverse influences, from country to the Middle East, to his gypsy jazz as he brings Django moves to groove-jazz and rock. With the earring and the ponytail, he’s looking more manouche than he used to, but he’s expanded his repertoire exponentially beyond what was already a deep songbook when he first found a foothold here about five years ago. Playing his acoustic-electric with just a touch of natural distortion through the characteristically crystal-clear Spikehill sound system, he roared and stomped through a completely adrenalizing set of classic covers and originals.


While Wrembel is terrific solo or in a small group, having a rhythm section and a second guitarist behind him as he did tonight frees him up to expand his ideas to the extent that he always probably wanted to but couldn’t when he was carrying so much more melody. His backing band was tremendous: a subtle, tasteful drummer who deftly carried on a call-and-response when the challenge arose, a bassist whose aggressive, on-the-beat pulse was matched by a warm, incisive melodicism, and a second guitarist whose fluid legato made a striking and apt contrast with Wrembel’s staccato intensity. They started out in purist, retro Django mode, Wrembel taking flight with his trademark lickety-split, spectacularly precise runs up and down the scale as the band scurried along behind him. Wrembel is famous for an anecdote about the guitar being a percussion instrument, and leaves no doubt about how he feels about getting the max out of his instrument.


About a half-hour into the set, Wrembel introduced an eerie two-chord vamp over a tango beat that the drummer played with his hands, the second guitarist delivering a warmly incisive solo followed by several rounds of smartly terse variations on the theme from the bassist. They closed on a high note with a long, riveting original number beginning in 6/8 time, Wrembel starting out hypnotic with something of a spaghetti western feel, Django as played by Calexico. As the band effortlessly held down the song’s circular theme, Wrembel hit his wah-wah pedal, building from meandering and exploratory to completely psychedelic. Then he picked up the pace with a fiery, flamenco-inflected passage, shades of a young, inspired Robbie Krieger. Roaring through his distortion pedal, he ripped through a frenetic series of scales a la Jerry Garcia, took a brief interlude for a musical conversation with the drummer and then took the song out with some blazing, frenetic chord-chopping. It’s hard to imagine another guitarist in New York who can match such scorching intensity with as much of a purist melodic sensibility: Wrembel may play an awful lot of notes, but in the end they all count for something. Wrembel maintains a very busy schedule, so you have no excuse not to check him out at some point: lately he’s been playing Bar Tabac at 8 on Fridays and then at Barbes at 9 on Sundays, with frequent Spikehill dates as well.

January 24, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Alice Lee at Pete’s Candy Store, Brooklyn NY 1/23/09

The once-and-future Brooklyn siren has been on the road (or more accurately, across the waves) a lot, and consequently local gigs have been few and far between. Last night at Pete’s Alice Lee, backed by legendary ex-Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone and a percussionist playing cajon, shakers and “the world’s smallest tambourine,” reminded how much she’s been missed around these parts. Soul music is her stepping-off point, sometimes moving toward an edgy new wave feel, other times more expansively into jazz. And the tropicalia fixation she’s harbored for the last couple of years is still in full effect, as evidenced by a casually sultry cover of a song by Brazilian crooner Lenini.


The trio opened their too-brief, barely half-hour set with a ridiculously catchy new number perhaps titled We’re Checking, slinking along on a trip-hop beat flavored with eerie, Syd Barrett-inflected chords, Maimone’s fat bass pulse growing more melodic and deviously counterintuitive as the song went on. Another new song, a 6/8 ballad featured the percussionist on harmonica, Maimone deftly and effortlessly carrying the tune with slides and hammer-ons as it built: “Me with your face in my hands, you take a lover’s stance and I am defeated,” Lee sang with an astringent, sardonic bite.


They closed the set with a couple of big crowd-pleasers from back in the day. The catchy, soul-inflected survivor’s anthem I Breathe, from Lee’s sensational 2004 cd Lovers and Losers (look for this one on our upcoming 200 Best Albums of the Decade list) was all sinuous groove, Maimone strikingly shifting from melodic lead lines to a simple, insistent pulse as the song wound down at the end. They closed with the samba-inflected Could This Be Love, perfectly capsulizing the tension in Lee’s music, lush romanticism in constant collision with the jarring rhythm of reality:


Are you the one, my sweet,

To save me from my resolution

To find the one who’ll make me cry

Just keep me safe and sedated


The only thing missing from the set was more songs. But maybe that’s all they’d been able to rustle up for this show. Former Cordero and Bee & Flower lead player Lynn Wright’s intriguingly noir project …and the Wiremen were scheduled to headline, but there were places to go and things to do.

January 24, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Paul Wallfisch and Abby Travis at the Delancey, NYC 1/22/09

Botanica frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch has taken over booking Thursdays upstairs at the Delancey, effectively creating one of the very few “must-see” nights anywhere in the New York rock scene, especially considering that for the time being it’s free. Simply put, New York hasn’t had a consistent home for intelligent, challenging rock and rock-related music since Tonic closed two and a half years ago. With this new series, playfully titled Small Beast, Wallfisch aims to change that. Typically, he starts the evening solo on piano, perhaps introducing a guest or two and then bringing up the night’s featured artist or artists.


In a fascinating if all-too brief forty minutes, Wallfisch ran through a set that illustrated pretty much every style his band plays: an eerie, carnivalesque tune; a fast, scurrying ragtimish number, a noir minor-key blues and the pretty, impressionistic A Matter of Taste, with echoes of the Strawbs’ classic New World on the chorus: “I’m not the tragic figure I once was,” he sang nonchalantly. Then he launched into the gorgeous lament Eleganza and Wines (from Botanica’s most recent US release, Berlin Hi-Fi) and as usual, he used it as a lesson in 7/8 time, getting the crowd to clap and stomp along and for the most part this was successful. Who says American audiences don’t understand anything other than 4/4, anyway? He closed with a Jacques Brel cover and then the fiery, politically charged gypsy rocker How and finally took the solo that everybody’d been waiting for, part high romantic anguish, part sly Tom Waits blues.


Torchy balladeer Abby Travis followed with a gorgeously melodic, frequently riveting, mostly solo show. A striking presence on the small stage, she held the crowd rapt through almost an hour’s worth of songs. As well-known a sidewoman (she’s made a living playing bass on tour with innumerable big-name acts) as she is a songwriter, she impressed as much with her writing and her vocals as with her chops. The obvious comparison is Jeff Lynne: like the ELO mastermind, Travis welds an ironclad pop intelligence to a big dramatic sensibility, in her case part classical and part noir cabaret. “I look in the mirror and see myself dead,” she sang on the first of several big anthems, dramatic yet understatedly so: impressive as her range is and as much as she likes to leap around and belt, she doesn’t overdo it and that only adds to her songs’ considerable suspense. The best song of the night was a new number, Lulu, a lush, crescendoing anthem that built to a chorus rich with subdued longing and anguish, a tune that wouldn’t have been out of place on Out of the Blue or A New World Record.


After a few more on piano, she switched to bass. The idea of just bass and vocals might sound supremely boring, but Travis gave a clinic in smart, tuneful playing. With a muscular, fluidly melodic style, she demonstrated effortless command of every weapon in a good bassist’s arsenal – chords, slides, hammer-ons and vibrato – without wasting a single note or inflection, on an original and then a stunningly good cover of I Put a Spell on You. The world may be full of great bass players, but this was really something special.


Then she brought up Wallfisch to take over the keys on the beautiful, regretful anthem Now Was and then another big, torchy original, Hangover Flower: “Your seeds are lying on my bed, the hangover flower is in bloom,” she sang with nonchalant, breathy sarcasm. Travis then went out the way she came in, solo on piano with yet another big 6/8 ballad possibly titled Our Last Ride. Travis makes much of her material available generously via her podcast; New Yorkers who remember the glory day of Lisa Lost’s noir pop band DollHouse about eight years ago will love Travis’ stuff. Readers in the LA area ought to go check out her upcoming show on Feb 3 at the Cavern Club, 1920 Hyperion Ave in Silverlake.

January 24, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Song of the Day 1/24/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Saturday’s is #550:

The Dukes of Stratosphear – 25 O’Clock

This is XTC pseudonymously doing a loving, spot-on parody of 60s psychedelia (in particularly the Electric Prunes) while making great fun of stoners with what seems like a million tracks of backward masking, phased guitars, keyboards, echo and reverb effects. Listen to this high and the joke is on you. The title track from the band’s 1985 vinyl ep, it’s available wherever mp3s are.

January 24, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , | Leave a comment