Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Curtis Eller at Highline Ballroom, NYC 1/25/09

This was one of those good-to-be-in-NYC days. A trip to the Met to see the retrospective for departing director Philippe de Montebello was worth the shlep. The theme is simply a selection of the best of what the museum has acquired during his long tenure there. Everything is out of context, medieval Indian silk battle portraits side by side with antique instruments, pre-Renaissance Italian paintings, firearms, a Vermeer and a Van Gogh, effectively engaging and challenging the viewer with a whirlwind of art forms so diverse that it’s impossible not to discover something new and intriguing. The exhibit is up through the end of the month: you should see it.

 

After that it was down to St. Thomas Church where the estimable John Scott delivered a rousing, heart- and soul-warming program of Mendelssohn organ works, closing with a particularly inspiring, energetic take of the Second Organ Sonata. To fans of organ music, Scott needs no introduction; much has been written about him in this space, all of it good. The afternoon’s program was yet another reminder of how brilliant and stylistically diverse he is.

 

Next stop was Highline Ballroom, where songwriter/banjoist Curtis Eller was scheduled to play. Seafoam and the Psychedelic Chain Gang opened. Maybe because 70s music is so easy to lampoon, there are a whole bunch of parody bands around town who make fun of various 70s styles, Rawles Balls, Van Hayride and Mighty High notable among them. This band not only spoofs the music but also the look. Their frontman, his shaved chest festooned with the silliest temporary tattoos you could possibly imagine, affects a swishy, flamboyant gay stereotype (a swipe at Queen or Judas Priest, maybe?). The rest of the guys in the band all have the dirtbag look straight out of Almost Famous. Their musical satire ranges from predictable and dumb – give them credit for really knowing how to write a REO Speedwagon/Styx power ballad – to laugh-out-loud funny. The rhythm section plodded along predictably with the occasional faux Led Zep drum interlude. The guitarist and violinist would each simultaneously take a garish, masturbatory solo without paying the slightest attention to what the other was doing. Compounding the tasteless 70s vibe were the troupe of strippers with hula hoops cavorting across the stage while the band played. They closed with their Stonehenge number, all phony suspense as the volume rose to a crescendo that never arrived.

 

Curtis Eller took the stage and immediately climbed up on his chair, raising his mic to about a ten-foot height. To call him a dynamic performer would be an understatement. He spun, kicked up his leg a la Dontrelle Willis (now THERE’S a Curtis Eller song waiting to happen: The Ballad of Dontrelle Willis, the suspense is gonna kill us), darted out onto the tables to sing unamplified and at the end of the show took several sprints along the perimeter of the space, running outside til he reached the limit of how far the wireless mic on his banjo would carry. Because of his choice of instrument and maybe also because his songs have such a rich historical sensibility, he typically gets lumped in with the oldtimey crowd. Which doesn’t really do him justice: while his melodies frequently have a dark, Tom Waits-y bluesiness, the vibe is pure punk rock, especially when the lyrics hit you. And they hit hard and unsparing, with an Elvis Costello/LJ Murphy style brilliance. Eller’s bullshit detector is set to kill, whether playing psychopathologist and making fun of twisted everyday people or holding politicians to a pre-Bush regime standard. “I was extremely disappointed that plane made it back to Texas,” he mused. “Now it’s not an assassination, it’s just a murder.”

 

He opened with the aggressive, characteristically sardonic title track to his 2004 cd Taking Up Serpents Again, following with a coal miner’s bitter lament and then John Wilkes Booth, a fiery, minor-key call to arms that made an awfully good anthem before that one Tuesday last November. Like so many of Eller’s songs, Come Back to the Movies, Buster Keaton worked on several levels, in this case as both a sly, tongue-in-cheek slap at the entertainment-industrial complex and a revealing connection between the curmudgeonly and the reactionary.

 

To his further credit, Eller got the surprisingly young, obviously moneyed crowd going, especially on a quietly harsh 6/8 ballad about pigeon racing. Introducing the song, he mimicked a pigeon call: “You can do it, just pretend you’re from Hoboken,” he deadpanned, and by the time he’d reached the middle of the song, the crowd was a chorus of rats with wings.

 

As much as he energized the crowd, he antagonized them. “You know who Jack Ruby was? Some of you?” And then followed with the best song of the night, a blazing version of the haunting Appalachian gothic number Sweatshop Fire, from his latest cd Wirewalkers & Assassins (one of our top 50 picks of 2008):

 

I’m going down to Antietam with a quart of bourbon in my hand

I’m going to kick the shit out of Vicksburg…

I’m gonna get fucked up like Ulysses S. Grant

Get as black as a Tuesday in 1929

 

He closed with the barely restrained rage of Sugar in My Coffin – “There ain’t no such thing as Elvis Presley from the waist down, that’s one thing I learned from tv,” and encored with an evocatively wistful cityscape, “Coney Island right where it should be.” For anyone with an appreciation for what New York has lost and might create again now that all the money for luxury condos has evaporated, this show was a hopeful summer breeze on a nasty cold night. Curtis Eller is at Banjo Jim’s on 2/26 and then at Public Assembly on 3/14 before going off again on European tour.

January 26, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , ,

6 Comments »

  1. How incredibly dismissive. I applaud your close-mindedness.

    Comment by Roland | January 27, 2009 | Reply

  2. dismissive? huh?

    Comment by lc | January 27, 2009 | Reply

  3. Thanks for coming down to the show with a sympathetic ear. I had a real good time and I hope everybody enjoyed the performance.

    Comment by Curtis Eller | January 27, 2009 | Reply

  4. Hey, this is the plodding dirtbag drummer of Seafoam. Nice review, I laughed. However, I can’t really take your comments seriously when you describe Curtis Eller as having a “pure punk rock vibe”. Maybe next time you should see an afternoon show so that the late night loud noises don’t make baby so cranky, eh?

    Comment by Eli | January 27, 2009 | Reply

  5. Eli, if you read the review, it doesn’t refer to you personally as a dirtbag. You’re probably an aesthete who’s an expert on fine wine and medieval poetry. The review simply refers to the role you play in the act. I personally think that although Curtis Eller plays acoustic, his songs embody all the best things about punk rock: good energy, smart lyrics, a political awareness and just plain good fun. You guys are fun too, you had me laughing a lot.

    Comment by lc | January 28, 2009 | Reply

  6. I’m sorry to have misinterpreted what you were saying, and though I agree that Curtis Eller’s music shares many attributes with punk, those vibes existed before punk. I guess I just had a little nerd rage episode back there. Thanks for the press!

    Comment by Eli | January 29, 2009 | Reply


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