Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: The Debutante Hour and Kelli Rae Powell at the Jalopy, Brooklyn NY 6/15/10

The trip to Red Hook to see if the Debutante Hour could duplicate the harmonically-charged excellence of their new album was worth it. Live, the trio’s roots in 1920s/1930s ragtime and pop really show themselves, in an irresistibly sassy, lyrical Nellie McKay kind of way. The group’s two frontwomen Maria Sonevytsky and Susan Hwang passed an accordion back and forth when they weren’t plunking on a baritone uke or teasing a cocktail drum with brushes, while cellist Mia Pixley held everything together, a casual but compellingly forceful presence whether coloring the songs with plaintive washes of sound or plucking out catchy, bouncy basslines. As expected, their live show brings out their theatrical side, the clever charm of their lyrics and their spot-on three-part harmonies. “You try hard not to be an asshole like the one that’s in your head,” they sang on the tongue-in-cheek, logistically challenged but philosophically apt Organizing My Planner for Next Week. Be Yourself – which encourages listeners to seek out their inner Jennifer Jason Leigh rather than Alyssa Milano – was delivered with split-second choreography from the trio in their matching outfits and hats. Best song of the night, no surprise, was the Nashville gothic ballad Galax, unsettling on album and downright creepy live. A deadpan, oldtimey style cover of TLC’s 1999 top 40 hit No Scrubs had the crowd laughing all the way through to the final “beeyotch,” while the bizarre Sunday in the Trailer got a lot of smiles as the women contemplated who might be an alien: Kate Bush? Maybe? Bjork? No question.

That Kelli Rae Powell’s performance wasn’t anticlimactic is an understatement. At this point in history, stardom as it existed ten years ago may be dead, and if it isn’t, it’s no longer desirable. But from the point of view of someone who saw Neko Case on the way up in 1997, and Amanda Palmer three years later, Powell has that kind of star power, white-knuckle intensity and raw charisma that you only see once every ten years or so. She joked with the crowd, glad to be back at the Jalopy, a trip back to a different time and place, “But with the good beer,” she took care to note. But when she stepped up to the mic she took on a larger-than-life presence. Her vocals have crystallized: she can still do a killer Blossom Dearie or Bessie Smith, but she sang mostly in an insistent yet brittle vibrato that’s as eerie as it is coy, Betty Boop with a Ph. D., but in fullscale needle park panic mode. That voice alone is arresting: what she sings with it makes her so impossible to turn away from. Toward the end of the set, she put down her ukelele, and backed by upright bassist Jim McNamara and blues harpist Dave Pollack at their most torchily bluesy, she went into full-bore sultry mode, contemplating a seduction just as much as she pondered the unlikely possibility of not being alone for once in her life. Like Case, Powell cultivates a raw, wild, inconsolably distant persona, bruised and embittered yet hot to try for a simple connection one more time – at who knows what price. And somehow she ends up laughing at pretty much everything.

Her opening track, The Craggy Shuffle most perfectly captured that:

She could settle for more
He couldn’t ask for less
Under a setting sun
Driving a Pontiac hearse
There’s nothing bad that can’t get worse

Powell hails from Iowa, and did a couple of wistful numbers dedicated to that state, the first a poignant floodwater requiem, the second a request to be buried there since such a bittersweet girl deserves a final resting place in the land of fireflies and tornadoes. The “drinkaby” (combination drinking song and lullaby – a Powell invention) Midnight Sleeper Train came across as far more of a lament than the opiated version on her phenomenal 2009 album New Words for Old Lullabies, while the tour-from-hell narrative Don’t Look Back, Zachary played up the song’s surreal humor in the midst of what must have been one awful road trip, a Midwest late summer tour in a station wagon with no air conditioning.

And when it came to the innuendo-stuffed A Man What Takes His Time (originally written for Mae West), she pulled out every lascivious stop she could find, as her bandmates did. After both McNamara and Pollack had brought the temperature up a couple dozen degrees, she reached to say something for a second, then held back, finally flashing a triumphant grin and a double thumbs up for the band. The audience roared in agreement. Kelli Rae Powell plays Banjo Jim’s on June 27 at 9 PM with another first-class singer, Jo Williamson opening at 8. The Debutante Hour return to New York with a show at Union Pool at 9 on June 30.

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June 17, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CD Review: John Prine – In Person & On Stage

John Prine is one of those songwriters whose music give you instant cred because he’s such a cult artist. He never had a radio hit of his own (although Bonnie Raitt scored mightily with Angel from Montgomery), never was particularly trendy or popular, quite possibly because his output over the past forty years has been so consistently intelligent and often brilliant. Over a career that spans part of five decades, Prine has written scores of wry, clever Americana-rock narratives, many of them classics. Steve Earle would be hard to imagine without him. Prine was one of the first artists to abandon the major label world and release his own music on his own label, Oh Boy Records, the folks responsible for this latest live album which came out late last month. For Prine fans, this is a must-own; for the uninitiated, it’s as good an introduction as any to one of the great songwriters of this era.

In the 70s, Prine’s sardonic drawl always made him seem twenty years older than he was – at this point, his vocals have a time-ravaged edge, approaching Ralph Stanley territory, but his vitality as a performer and writer comes across absolutely undiminished here (NPR has his recent Bonnaroo appearance streaming here). In this semi-acoustic setting, he’s joined by Jason Wilber, a richly melodic, tasteful yet exuberant lead guitarist who’s equally at home with twangy honkytonk as he is with incisive blues. The set is a mix of material from live shows from the recent past, with songs dating as far back as Prine’s 1971 debut album. He’s always had a sentimental streak, but even on the occasion where that vibe might overwhelm the song, the quality of the music here transcends that. She Is My Everything might not be the most poetic love song ever written, but its rich, spiky web of interlocking guitars is, well, transcendent (you can get a free mp3 here). He’s still got that indelibly literate, stream-of-consciousness stoner humor, and there’s virtually always a slyly defiant undercurrent at work here, whether on the upbeat Spanish Pipedream (be careful what you wish for), or going full blast on the classic Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore, as apropos today in the “tea party” era as it was in its Vietnam War heyday.

The acoustic version of the death-obsessed Mexican Home (with Josh Ritter) doesn’t have the spooky organ of the original 1973 recording but still holds up surprisingly well. The brooding, metaphorically charged Saddle in the Rain gets a fresh treatment that considerably surpasses the studio version. There’s also the surreal In Spite of Ourselves, a comically boozy duet with Iris DeMent; the subdued Long Monday, with its surprise dark ending; a slow, pretty version of The Late John Garfield Blues, with Sara Watkins on vocals; a fiery, careening, guitar-stoked version of Bear Creek Blues; the poignant Unwed Fathers (also a duet with DeMent) and the obligatory Angel from Montgomery, Emmylou Harris mystifyingly waiting to appear on the second verse after Prine has announced in his baritone drawl that he is an old woman named after his mother. Surreal as it is, it actually works alongside everything else. Nice to see an icon from decades past still going strong.

June 17, 2010 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 6/17/10

Every day, for the next six weeks anyway, our best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s song is #42:

Elvis Costello – Withered & Died

This Richard Thompson song was originally sung by Linda Thompson on I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight in 1974. Solo acoustic, Costello is even more haunting: his version is the “secret” bonus track on the 1990s Rhino reissue of the underrated 1985 Goodbye Cruel World album.

June 17, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment