Monday night in New York might not be professional night anymore – every night is Saturday for the pampered sons and daughters of the ruling classes – but vestiges of it remain. If only out of habit, crowds are still smaller on Mondays. A crawl around town last night started out disappointing and ended every bit as ecstatically as hoped. This week’s installment of Chicha Libre’s weekly Monday residency at Barbes was cancelled, and the early act playing in the back room wasn’t exactly setting the place on fire, so it was time to go to plan B: Small Beast.
Small Beast is now a global event. Founder and Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch has taken it on the road with him to the Stadt Theater in Dortmund, Germany, but the original weekly Monday night series at the Delancey has continued on, virtually nonstop since he moved. Last night’s was Beast #103, if memory serves right, and it’s safe to say that at this point, at least stateside, this Beast is cooked. The night doesn’t even have a web presence anymore – none of the rotating cast of musicians who book it have bothered to update the Small Beast myspace page, or create a new calendar somewhere else – and without Wallfisch and his bottomless rolodex of amazing dark rock and rock-related acts, it’s been on life support other than on the few nights where Vera Beren or Carol Lipnik have taken charge. Which is a shame: its first couple of years will go down in New York rock history for being every bit as exciting and cutting-edge as the early days of CBGB were. To make a long story short, last night the room was practically empty and there was good reason for that. At least the drinks were cheap.
But the night wasn’t over. Next stop was across the river at Union Pool where Rev. Vince Anderson made all the shlepping around in the cold worthwhile. The place was mobbed, as usual. Like Bowie or Madonna, he never ceases to amaze as he reinvents himself or his band. This time they opened with a long, hypnotically circling Afrobeat instrumental – maybe the presence of star trombonist Dave Smith, from the Fela pit band, had something to do with it. Later they did a fiery, minor-key reggae song with a Peter Tosh feel: “You have to know the law to break the law,” Anderson insisted again and again, pumping juicy organ chords out of his Nord Electro keyboard.
The first set peaked with a long dance contest. The Rev. works a crowd like nobody else in this town, and he got everybody screaming as a handful of brave contestants showed off their Big Man Dance moves. “This is for the oldschool people here tonight,” Anderson explained. “I wrote this when I was fifty pounds heavier.” This particular dance is a soul shuffle where you stick out your gut, hold your lower back and walk with your legs apart as if it’s midsummer and you’ve run out of Gold Bond Powder. After a couple of elimination rounds and endless tongue-in-cheek vamping by the band, the winner got to enjoy a few seconds of triumph, a free glass of whiskey and a big shout-out from Anderson. After that, the woman who serves as Anderson’s excellent backup singer led the band in a volcanic, psychedelic blowout of Amazing Grace that actually managed to transcend the song’s dubious origins (the guy who wrote it was the captain of a slave ship). Baritone saxophonist Paula Henderson showed her usual wry virtuosity and spectacular range, but it was guitarist Jaleel Bunton who sent it off into orbit and wouldn’t let up, through a warped, reverb-drenched bluesmetal solo that must have gone on for five minutes and was impossible to turn away from. Even when the rest of the band had all come back in, he wouldn’t stop, alternating between sizzling hammer-ons and eerie off-center atmospheric washes. After all that, Anderson’s usual singalong of This Little Light of Mine couldn’t help but be anticlimactic. That was it for the first set: by now, it was one in the morning, the temperature outside had dipped into the teens and it was time to get lucky and catch a shockingly fast L train home.
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