Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Paul Wallfisch, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble, Spottiswoode and Steve Wynn at the Delancey, NYC 4/30/09

An appropriate way to end a grade-A grey day, to steal a phrase from the Wade Schuman songbook. This being a Thursday, that meant Small Beast, Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch’s weekly upstairs show at the Delancey and this was the best ever, no question, in fact arguably the best show of the year so far. Maybe because the quality of the talent on the bill was so obscene, Wallfisch brought his A-game – not that he doesn’t typically put on a good show, but one of the reasons the Beast came to exist was to give him a chance to work out new material solo on piano in a live setting. Consequently, sometimes his set is more akin to a view of an artist’s studio rather than a gallery view of the finished product. Finished or not, the songs resonated with characteristic noir glimmer: the savagely beautiful Botanica concert favorite Three Women; a new one, Waits-ish and gospel-inflected; a towering, majestic new 6/8 ballad that could be the band’s Eldorado; a super-fast romp through the Little Annie noir cabaret hit Because You’re Gone and then the Botanica show-closer, How, a galloping, unstoppable gypsy caravan blazing with torrents of piano and eventually a satirical Riders on the Storm quote, held on a steady course by Linda Pitmon (the best rock drummer on the planet, from Steve Wynn’s band) on tambourine.

Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble was next, the band spilling over onto the floor in front of the stage. Their name is well chosen. There was an offhandedly menacing look to the whole black-clad crew, and they were tight beyond belief, their bluesiness most vividly visible in their dramatic, stately noir cabaret numbers. With roaring, punk-inflected guitar, keyboards, rhythm section and guest accordionist Marni Rice supplying the night’s most haunting tonalities behind her, Beren was an avenging angel. Her powerful, anguished contralto wail going full throttle, she radiated intensity throughout a ferocious 45 minutes of big anthems, mostly in 6/8 time. “I’ve seen the lights beyond, I’ve seen the lights that could have gone on if I’d demanded,” she reflected with a passion only enhanced by longing and regret. The high point of her set was the relentlessly haunting gypsy vamp The Nod, her keyboardist opening the song with a murky Balkan trombone riff. Beren opened and closed the set at the piano, playing with a restrained savagery. But it was Rice who stole the show, her wrenchingly sad, poignant tones a stark contrast with Beren’s righteous wrath.

Spottiswoode was next. His myspace shows him in faux-mugshot pose, shades on, a homemade Marseille police department clapboard in hand, a persona that earlier in his career sometimes overshadowed his music. The persona is still there, but he’s grown into the old rake he always wanted to be, albeit with a strikingly politically aware sensibility – Marty Willson-Piper is an apt comparison. He started out solo on guitar with a bawdy English dancehall number, That’s What I Like, imbued with characteristic boozy sarcasm. Then he went to the piano and got serious, resulting in an often riveting show, the rest of his songs imbued with a woodpaneled, rain-soaked, early 70s European ambience. His best number was a big, somewhat anguished ballad with some tasty major/minor changes: “Save up the days until the war begins,” he cautioned. It’s still sometimes hard to tell whether he’s being satirical or not, but this show was a revelation.

Steve Wynn headlined, playing with his longtime lead guitarist Chris Brokaw for the first time in eight years. Wynn’s stock in trade is menace, but this show had an especially warm, intimate feel, not only because the two guys were jammed up there on the little stage with Pitmon looking on warily, tambourine in hand, but because this was all about joy and rediscovery. Their guitar duels, both on record and onstage, are the stuff of legend: get your hands on a classic like Melting in the Dark or Here Come the Miracles (both of which you’ll find on our upcoming Best Albums of the Decade list), or spend an hour or two (you’ll probably be there that long) at archive.org. This time it was about trading off, about getting back in touch with the songs, stripping them to nothing but the shell (they played that one, sorry, couldn’t resist) to see what they were made of. More often than not, it was lush, jangly melody, without hardly a hint of the noise or unrestrained wrath you’d expect from a full-band show by these two.

An unexpected cover of Waiting for the Man was every bit as tense and nervous as Lou Reed should have made it. The big, grim suicide anthem Southern California Line was transformed into a terse, minimalist dirge. The menacing Morning After – the best song ever written about perjury – segued into an even more menacing, skeletal Silence Is Your Only Friend. Then they took it up, transforming the darkly galloping Death Valley Rain into a swaying, hypnotic clinic in harmony and overtones before bringing it all the way down with a slow, evil version of the Dream Syndicate classic When You Smile. How cruelly ironic that the only place in town you could see a show this good this year would not be at Madison Square Garden, where by all rights all these acts deserve to play, but upstairs at the Delancey on a little stage half-occupied by the Small Beast, an 88-key spinet piano.

And walking across the bridge after the show, it was impossible not to smile seeing all those HIPSTERS GO HOME stencils on the pavement. In fact, in every case they all happened to be very close to stencils for THE BROOKLYN WHAT FOR BOROUGH PRESIDENT, and in the exact same spray paint color.

May 6, 2009 - Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. hahahahaha, okay. You got us. That was us, including “ratner in jail”. That was us too.
    _Doug
    The BK?

    Comment by Doug_ The BK? | May 7, 2009 | Reply

  2. ALSO Vera Beren engineered our album!!!! I had no idea she had a band!

    JF

    Comment by Jamie | May 7, 2009 | Reply


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