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.