The Whispering Tree Rocks the Rockwood
Beautiful moment from last night: gentrifier girl wanders into the small room at Rockwood Music Hall. Perky and perfectly coiffed in an expensive mallstore way, like someone who was on the Disney Channel’s My Super Special Yuppie Puppie Prom Night around 2007. Meanwhile, onstage, the Whispering Tree’s Eleanor Kleiner raises her voice in a plaintive wail: “They left me here by the side of the road!” Gentrifier girl promptly scoots out the door and doesn’t come back. Any time a band can clear that element out of a New York club, that’s a victory. Meanwhile, the crowd who’d gathered for the four-piece band’s Friday night set was rapt: when they ended one song cold, mid-phrase, there was a stunned moment of silence before the whole band started grinning and then everybody belatedly burst into applause.
The Whispering Tree manage to be extremely accessible without compromising the intelligence of their music. To say that Kleiner sounds like an edgier version of Tift Merritt, or Shelby Lynne in a pensive, cosmopolitan moment, doesn’t do justice to the originality of her songwriting or her unaffected, disarmingly direct vocals. The band were amazing: they simply don’t waste notes, the guitarist hanging back tersely until it was time to deftly fade one early song up with hazy jangle and clang, or finally cutting loose with some slashing, smartly thought out blues on the evening’s final number. Likewise, the bassist chilled out in the pocket until he took a juicy, slipsliding solo on a radical reworking of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, reimagined as swinging, minor-key gypsy jazz. That Kleiner could wring genuine emotion out of “bluebirds can fly, why can’t I” was unexpected, and impressive to say the least.
But it was the originals that stood out the most. Kleiner played most of the set, including the eerie, apprehensive, minor-key Something Might Happen, on piano, with a brooding, gospel-infused style. The Trees, told from the point of view of one of them amidst the encroachment of city sprawl, took on a towering existential angst: like everyone else, trees long to be free, too. Likewise, they launched into Go Call the Captain, the title track from their most recent album (which received a rave review here last year), with a mighty thump – and yet, when it came to Kleiner going on the attack about how “false prophets, liars and thieves rule the world,” she didn’t go over the top. Instead, she let the lyrics speak for themselves (there’s more about the song on the band’s blog – mighty good stuff). They wound up the set with an unexpectedly fiery guitar-fueled rocker, No Love, a potently metaphorical, bitter anthem that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Penelope Houston’s albums from the 90s.