The Best New York Concert of 2009
It was at Small Beast, of course, the weekly Monday series at the Delancey booked by Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch, who usually hosts. This past Monday he was in Germany with Little Annie, so fellow dark rocker Carol Lipnik ran the show and opened it with characteristic noir panache. Small Beast being simply New York’s most exciting weekly rock event, it gets so much press here that we’ve tagged all the shows we’ve seen there (if you go to Categories, to your right and scroll down to Small Beast, you’ll find an embarrassment of riches). So it was no surprise that the best New York concert of 2009, barring something even more off-the-chart intense happening in the next month, would take place here.
Lipnik has a franchise on dark carnivalesque rock, more so than Tom Waits or anyone. This time out it was just as much about her four-octave voice – which she ran through two separate mics, one with a bullhorn effect – as it was about the songwriting. Climbing to the top of her stratospheric range, she whispered, purred and wailed, through a bunch of originals from her most recent cd Cloud Girl as well as an original setting of a Rumi poem, the hypnotic, raptly tense Your Pure Sadness. She also brought out every bit of surreal macabre in the Michael Hurley cult classic Werewolf (which you may know from the cover versions by Cat Power or Sarah Mucho). This was just the start of the night.
Next up was the self-described “baroque folk-punk” cellist/songwriter Bonfire Madigan, playing solo with the help of a loop pedal that she’d use to lay down a nimble pizzicato bassline over which she’d layer stark sheets of ambience along with some absurdly catchy pop melodies.She opened with a number based on a seditious seventeenth-century British play and followed that with a savage, two-chord Rasputina-esque chamber rock number. Several of the later numbers hitched Siouxsie-style menace to a clever pop sensibility. She closed with the dramatic, tongue-in-cheek grand guignol of a song titled The Lady Saved the Dragon from the Evil Prince and encored – the crowd wouldn’t let her go – with a somewhat pensive number that evoked Cat Power without the affectations.
Sporting a new Pat Benatar bob, Rachelle Garniez took the intensity to redline in seconds flat, playing solo and switching between accordion and piano. Even in the quietest moments she’s a charismatic performer, but this time out there was no doubt that she had come to conquer – the evening’s lineup had quickly turned into a Murderesses’ Row and Garniez was swinging for the fences. Just as Lipnik had done, she had the the vocal pyrotechnics going even before her first song, the wistful country ballad January Wind, had begun. She likes to jam out her intros and this was a prime example: “So happy to be here as the winter descends upon our town…your heart is cold and I wish mine was too, but instead the snow falls on my heart and creates a hissing sound.” After a long and very funny digression on frogs and their psychedelic properties, she sweated and sighed her way through the orgasmic vocalese of the noir cabaret Medicine Man with a passion that would do Millie Jackson proud. “I wish I’d written this and it was me performing,” one luminary in the crowd whispered to another.
The metaphor-laden 6/8 outsider anthem Tourmaline got the benefit of a gorgeously chordal accordion solo, then Garniez launched into a quizzically fierce new one inspired by someone from her past who’d recently found her online and was no less enamored for all the days between. As angry and dismissive as the song was – “you could have been anyone,” she raged – it also radiated poignancy. Garniez clearly left a mark during her early punk rock years and she makes no secret that she misses at least the fun parts of the pre-Rudy Mussolini era. She wrapped up the too-brief set with a defiantly jaunty version of My House of Peace, the new single she just did with Jack White: “Nobody gets away with murder in the House of Peace.” She’s at Barbes on Dec 3 at 10 if you’re cursing yourself that you missed her here.
Vera Beren also swung for the fences, but with an icy, unforgiving cool. Backed by a one-guitar version of her aptly titled Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble, she played more piano than she usually does, filling out the sound with a characteristically slashing, gypsyish chordal attack while bassist Greg Garing swooped, dove and pummeled the crowd with chords when Beren’s crushing, goth-inflected anthems would rise to a fiery crescendo. She showed off her punk roots with a noir blues in 6/8 (it’s hard to think of another songwriter who writes so many great songs in that time signature), a “careless evil lullaby,” as she put it. Her big crowd-pleaser The Nod was a typically roaring, furious, hypnotic gypsy stomp, Beren’s contralto a black river of venom. Another number paired off fast Siousxie-esque rock against a stately, Blue Oyster Cult-inflected 6/8 art-rock sway. “I should have held you, not repelled you,” she lamented. She wrapped up her too-brief set with an old song from the 90s, Baby, an indelibly New York, Jim Carroll-style tale of the cab ride from and maybe also to hell, pelting the crowd with white roses as she roared to the finish.
After all the sirens, it might seem that McGinty and White would be anticlimactic, but they weren’t, which speaks volumes. Ward White has always been a good singer – that he could hold his own alongside the women before him, let alone continue the vocal intensity, testifies to how good he’s become (his version of Life on Mars was the high point of a recent Loser’s Lounge evening). Playing acoustic guitar and accompanied by ex-Psychedelic Fur Joe McGinty on piano and Claudia Chopek on violin, he might have sung his best show ever. McGinty, by contrast, has all the vocal range of Lou Reed, but he’s all nuance anyway, on the keys and on the mic as well, contributing both his bubblegum pop satire Get a Guy and keeping the innumerable levels of the rest of the songs from ever going too far over the edge. Their playfully titled new album, McGinty and White Sing Selections from the McGinty and White Songbook is high on the Lucid Culture list of best albums of 2009. Unsurprisingly, the set list was full of those selections: the doomed romance of Everything is Fine; the sultry Big Baby, Chopek’s gently beautiful violin a study in contrast with McGinty’s jaunty piano; the ruthless kiss-off anthem Knees; the casual El Lay nightmare roadtrip ballad Stay In Love and the night’s closing number, Wichita Lineman, just White crooning over McGinty’s plaintive keys. By this point, it was almost two in the morning, most of the crowd had dissipated into the drizzle, but it was pure exhilaration for those who were sufficiently energized or unemployed to stick around. The next Small Beast will be December 7 featuring Wallfisch – back from Deutschland – along with the reliably charismatic Reid Paley and others.
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