Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Cutting-Edge, Diverse Sonics and a Williamsburg Album Release Gig From the Dither Guitar Quartet

The big news about the Dither Guitar Quartet is that Gyan Riley is in the band. He’s the rare scion of a famous western musical legacy (son of iconic minimalist composer Terry Riley) who’s an individualistic artist in his own right. On the ensemble’s new album Potential Differences – streaming at Bandcamp – he makes a good fit with returning members Taylor Levine, Joshua Lopes and James Moore. This is the band’s most accessible record to date: fans of psychedelic rock and metal who can handle strange and often troubling tonalies should check it out. Dither are playing the release show at the Frost Theatre at 17 Frost St. in Williamsburg on Oct 27 on a bill that starts at 2 in the afternoon and continues into the night. It’s not clear who’s playing when, but there are a bunch of interesting, individualistic acts on the bill including but not limited to singer Alicia Hall Moran and the Mivos Quartet, sort of a reprise of the New Music Bake Sales in Fort Greene and then Roulette a few years back.

The album’s first track is The Garden of Cyrus, by Eve Beglarian, a 1985 piece pulsing with steady, emphatic echo chords, the group quickly adding polyrhythms that shift in and out of the mix. The variety of timbres, the mix of familiar and odder harmonies and the reverb in the room give it a Sonic Youth vibe.

Riley’s The Tar of Gyu is a strangely shifting blend of buzzy volume-knob swells, delicate toy piano-like phrasing and hardbop. The gently ringing harmonics and rising chromatic menace of Paula Matthusen‘s But Because Without This provide considerable contrast.

The album’s centerpiece, the four-part Ones, by Jascha Narveson, offers comic relief. The opening segment, The Wah One, is a playfully hypnotic mashup of the intros from the Theme From Shaft and Pink Floyd’s One of These Days. Then there’s the distortedly circling The Driving One, The Warped One with its down-and-up tuning-peg goofiness and finally the clock-chime harmonics of The Floaty One.

The group shift from gritty late 70s Robert Fripp-style riffage to eerie spacerock bubbles, austere resonance, wry hints of Eddie Van Halen and back in Lopes’ Mi-Go. Moore’s Mannequin is a desolate, morosely howling soundscape. Candy, by Ted Hearne, takes awhile to get going but eventually develops coy humor and incisively paired harmonies between the guitars.

Renegade, a Levine composition, sets growling, increasingly dissociative menace and shred over a piledriver beat. The quartet wind up the album with James Tenney’s 1967 dronescsape Swell Piece. Many different flavors; this group rock harder than just about anyone in the avant garde.

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October 21, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lea Bertucci Brings Her Otherworldly Sonic Cocoon to Downtown Brooklyn

Sound artist Lea Bertucci‘s magically enveloping ep Resonant Field materialized here back in May and is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing on a great twinbill on Oct 22 at 8:30 PM at Issue Project Room in a duo set with alternately feral and meticulous singer Amirtha Kidambi  opening for improvisational Japanese noise band Asa-Chang & Junray in their US debut. Cover is $15/$12 stud/srs.

The first track on the album is Wind Piece, a desolately drifting tableau with creepy microtones, close-harmonied resonances and stealthy, squiggly accents filtering through the mix. Finally, at the end, Robbie Lee fires off (or more likely, loops) a series of triumphant riffs on baroque flute.

The second track, Warp & Weft comes across as what might happen if the reeds around the low A key on an accordion decided to all meditate themselves into a vast poppy field populated by the occasional slug or wandering bee, eventually taking shelter as a gentle rain moves in. Bassist James Ilgenfritz’s increasingly unhinged, tremoloing, heavily processed lines as the piece winds out raises the adrenaline factor exponentially.

Bertucci layers drones, slowly rising sheets of sound and uneasy, wavering phrases in the even more epic, practically eighteen-minute title track. A multi-layered, ghostly, gently echoing, dynamically shifting, Pink Floydian rainscape ensues.

Bertucci closes the recording with Deliquescence, its flickers and then eerie, concentric upper-register circles over omious brown noise wafting in the background, You are returning to the primordial ooze that spawned you and still loves you after many thousands of years, so dive in.

October 20, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Things Go Bump in the Night With the Momenta Quartet

It’s extremely rare that an artist or group make the front page here more than once in a single week. But today, because the Momenta Quartet play such stylistically diverse, consistently interesting music, they’ve earned that distinction – just like the Kronos Quartet have, on two separate occasions, since this blog went live in 2007. Some people are just a lot more interesting than others.

This year’s annual Momenta Festival is in full swing, with its usual moments of transcendence and blissful adrenaline. The Momenta Quartet’s violist Stephanie Griffin programmed night one; night two, violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron took charge. As she put it, the theme was “Lively things that happen at night.” She wasn’t kidding.

Maybe, to provide a little break for her bandmates – who also include violinist Alex Shiozaki and cellist Michael Haas – Gendron supplied a major portion of the adrenaline with an irresistible romp through Erwin Schulhoff’s rarely performed Sonata For Violin Solo. Throughout its eclectic shifts from evocations of Appalachian, Middle Eastern, Asian and rustic Romany music, she swayed and practically clogdanced at one point, and that vivacity was contagious.

The high point of the night was one of the group’s innumerable world premieres, Roberto Sierra‘s sublimely shapeshifting, relentlessly bustling Cuarteto Para Cuerdas No. 3. Flurrying, almost frantic interludes juxtaposed with brief, uneasily still moments and all sorts of similarly bracing challenges for the group: slithery harmonics, microtonal haze spiced with fleeting poltergeist accents, finally a wry series of oscillations from Haas and a savagely insistent coda. Distant references to boleros, and a less distant resemblance to restless, late 50s Charles Mingus urban noir drove a relentless tension forward through a rollercoaster of sudden dynamic changes. There were cameras all over the room: somebody please put this up on youtube where it will blow people’s minds!

There was even more on Gendron’s bill, too. The hypnotic horizontality and subtle development of playful minimalist riffs of Mario Lavista’s String Quartet No. 2 were no less difficult to play for their gauzy microtonality and almost total reliance on harmonics. Harry Partch’s Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales have a colorful history: originally written for the composer’s own 88-string twin-box invention, the Harmonic Canon II, the Momentas played the string quartet arrangement by the great microtonal composer Ben Johnston, a Partch protege. Part quasi Balkan dance, part proto horror film score, the group made the diptych’s knotty syncopation seem effortless.

They closed with Gyorgy Ligeti’s String Quartet No.1, subtitled “Metamorphoses Nocturnes.” The ensemble left no doubt that this heavily Bartokian 1953 piece was all about war, and its terror and lingering aftershock (Ligeti survived a Nazi death camp where two of his family were murdered). The similarities with Shostakovich’s harrowing String Quartet No. 8 – which it predated by six years – were crushingly vivid. If anything, Ligeti’s quartet is tonally even harsher. In the same vein as the Sierra premiere, these dozen movements required daunting extended technique. Which in this case meant shrieking intensity, frantic evasion of the gestapo, (musical and otherwise) and deadpan command of withering sarcasm and parodies of martial themes. All that, and a crushing, ever-present sense of absence.

The 2019 Momenta Festival winds up tonight, Oct 19 at 7 PM at the Tenri Institute, 43A W 13th St., with a playful program assembled by Shiozaki, including works by Mozart, toy pianist Phyllis Chen (who joins the ensemble), glass harmonica wizard Stefano Gervasoni and an excerpt from Griffin’s delightfully adult-friendly children’s suite, The Lost String Quartet. Admission is free but you should rsvp if you’re going.

October 19, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Aizuri Quartet Launch a New Season at a Favorite Upper West Side Classical Institution

It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the Aizuri Quartet‘s eclectically entertaining, dynamic performance earlier this month at the popular Music Mondays series of free concerts on the Upper West Side.

The ensemble – violinists Emma Frucht and Miho Saegusa, violist Ayane Kozasa and cellist Karen Ouzounian – began with an arrangement of a Hildegard Von Bingen diptych, its somber, stately, plainchant shifting artfully between the high strings and the cello, following a lengthy, aptly otherworldly introduction. The group’s take on Haydn’s String Quartet in F Major, op. 77, no. 2 spotlighted those individual, intertwining voices in as high definition as anyone could have wanted, illuminating its innumerable (some might say interminable) moments of playful repartee.

Then they played Caroline Shaw‘s deviously Beethoven-influenced Blueprint, its tightly interwoven cellular motives eventually reaching a burst of quiet jubilation, in contrast with its airy, spacious accents. There was also an augmented Brahms work on the bill, after the interminssion, but sometimes sticking around for an entire evening of music ia a luxury. The Aizuri Quartet’s next New York concert is. December 4 at 7:30 PM at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, with works by Komitas, Haydn and Paul Wiancko.; tix are $30 The Music Mondays series at Advent Church at the northeast corner of 93rd St. and Broadway continues on Nov 18 at 7:30 PM with the Brass Project playing works by Bach, Reena Ismail, Gabriella Smith and a New York premiere by Kinan Abou-Afach

October 17, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Irresistible Avant Garde Punk Cello Fun with Okkyung Lee

Over the past year, impresarios Blank Forms have been booking some of the most interesting, individualistic improvisationally-inclined performers in town into some serendipitously unlikely spaces. One of the most entertaining ones, a solo performance by cellist Okkyung Lee, took place ast week, late in the series they’d staged at the James Cohan Gallery in Chinatown,  She tends to push the limits of tonality and uses a lot of extended technique, and this brief set – over in twenty-two minutes – was typical.

And especially funny. Setting up in the back of the gallery, she adjusted her chair. It was a heavy chair, and its metal coasters squeaked and shrieked on the stone floor. Was she going to make that part of her performance? Most definitely – but for just a playful twenty seconds or so, midway through.

She began with a furtive, muted, rustling exchange, a conversation that grew more animated and agitated and then gave way to calm, spacious, flitting motives. The only discernible melody was when she played subtly baroque-tinged if defiantly microtonal variations on a series of fifth intervals on open strings. Otherwise, the show was more about timbre and attack and rhythm – and playful narrative – rather than pitch.

She ended it with a very amusing, extended series of call-and-response riffs, pushing her cello on its stand directly into the crowd. By now, the gallery’s rear room was full, and everybody in the middle of the floor was sitting. Was she going to move around anyone? No way. She took her time, firing off bursts and snippets of sound in various audience members’ faces; a few people found this irresistibly funny, but if anyone else was in on the joke, they didn’t give anything away..

Lee didn’t stop going when she’d made her way all the way through the audience, continuing to the front door, then retracing her steps, walking backwards. She didn’t look over her shoulder once, completely deadpan, Moses in reverse as the crowd on the floor parted once more. And then she was done.

Blank Forms’ next concert, on Nov 23 at 7 PM features trumpeter Nate Wooley and ensemble playing his new suite Seven Storey Mountain at St Peter’s Church, 346 W 20th St.; cover is $10

October 16, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transcendent Rarities and World Premieres to Open The 2019 Momenta Festival

A few months ago at a panel discussion at a major cultural institution, a nice mature lady in the crowd asked a famous podcaster – such that a podcaster in the 21st century serious-music demimonde can be famous, anyway – what new composers she should be listening to. Given a prime opportunity to bigup her favorites, the podcaster completely dropped the ball. She hedged. But if she’d thought about the question, she could have said, with complete objectivity, “Just go see the Momenta Quartet. They have impeccable taste, and pretty much everything they do is a world premiere.”

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the annual Momenta Festival, and the fifteenth for the quartet themselves. There was some turnover in the early years, but the current lineup of violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki, violist Stephanie Griffin and cellist Michael Haas has solidified into one of the world’s major forces in new music. Opening night of the 2019 Momenta Festival was characteristically enlightening and often genuinely transcendent.

Each of the quartet’s members takes a turn programming one of the festival’s four nights; Griffin, the only remaining member from the original trio that quickly grew into a fearsome foursome, took charge of the opening festivities. Each festival has a theme: this year’s is a retrospective, some of the ensemble’s greatest hits.

In a nod to their trio origins, Shiozaki, Griffin and Haas opened with Mario Davidovsky’s 1982 String Trio. Its central dynamic contrasted sharp, short figures with lingering ambience, the three musicians digging into its incessant, sometimes striking, sometimes subtle changes in timbre and attack.

The night’s piece de resistance was Julian Carrillo’s phantasmagorical, microtonal 1959 String Quartet No. 10, a piece the Momentas basically rescued from oblivion. Alternate tunings, whispery harmonics and a strange symmetric logic pervaded the music’s slowly glissandoing rises and falls, sometimes with a wry, almost parodic sensibility. But at other times it was rivetingly haunting, lowlit with echo effects, elegaic washes underpinned by belltone cello and a raptly hushed final movement with resonant, ambered, mournfully austere close harmonies.

In typical Momenta fashion, they played a world premiere, Alvin Singleton‘s Hallelujah Anyhow. Intriguing variations on slowly rising wave-motion phrases gave way to stricken, shivering pedal notes from individual voices in contrast with hazy sustain, then the waves returned, artfully transformed. Haas’ otherworldly, tremoloing cello shortly before the coy, sudden pizzicato ending was one of the concert’s high points.

After a fond slideshow including shots of seemingly all of the violinists who filtered through the group in their early years, conductor David Bloom and baritone Nathaniel Sullivan joined them for another world premiere commission, Matthew Greenbaum’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, a setting of Walt Whitman poetry. The program notes mentioned that the text has special resonance for the composer, considering that he grew up close to where the old ferry left Manhattan, and now resides across the river near the Brooklyn landing. Brain drain out of Manhattan much?

It took awhile to gel. At first, the music didn’t seem to have much connection to the text, and the quartet and the vocals seemed to be in alternate rhythmic universes – until about the time Sullivan got to the part cautioning that it is not “You alone who know what it is to be evil.” At that point, the acerbic, steady exchange of voices latched onto a tritone or two and some grimly familiar, macabre riffage, which fell away for longer, rainy-day sustained lines.

The Momenta Festival continues tonight, Oct 16 at 7 PM at the Americas Society, 680 Park Ave at 70th St. with works by Harry Partch, Mario Lavista, Roberto Sierra, Gyorgy Ligeti and Erwin Schulhoff programmed by Gendron. How much does this fantastic group charge for tickets? Fifty bucks? A hundred? Nope. Admission is free but a rsvp is very highly advisable.

October 16, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating a Halloween Classic and Its Enigmatic Composer

To celebrate Halloween month, here’s an iconic piece from the creepy classical repertoire: French early Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. It’s been recorded to death (ouch, sorry), and strangely, it doesn’t seem to be represented here in concert here in New York this month. But there’s a Utah Symphony recording worth hearing, if 19th century phantasmagoria is your thing – and if this recording ever makes it to the web. For the moment, here’s a 1951 New York Philharmonic recording with maestro Dmitri Mitropoulos.

Conductor Thierry Fischer leads the Salt Lake City ensemble through a colorful, careening, deliciously inspired take. Madeline Adkins’ solo violin is jagged, almost haphazard, the simmer underneath is mutedly evil and the group are obviously having a great time with the gleeful grimness of this quasi-tarantella.

The rest of the record holds up robustly. The composer’s Symphony No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 55 opens with a series of spot-on, momentary solos from oboe, violin, bassoon and clarinet, introducing a slashing chromatic theme. The riffs are short, sharp, Mozartean, the orchestra pulsing tightly underneath. Saint-Saens was a prickly guy and didn’t do himself any favors for the sake of posterity, but this isn’t shalllow music, and the orchestra completely get that. It’s a clinic in classical composition.

The concise, contrapuntal phrasing of the second movement is more warmly crepuscular and early 19th century, closer to, say, Beethoven’s Sixth. Fischer lets the dogs out to leap and waltz around the wry, momentary solo passages of the third, then the orchestra go racing, lickety-split through the jaunty concentric circles of the finale. Still, conceptually, wouldn’t it have been a whole lot more interesting if Saint-Saens had rolled with the menace inherent in the opening movement? Maybe eschewing that was a commercial move, figuring that there’s only so much macabre an audience can take.

The opening of the other symphony here, No. 2 in F, “Urbs Roma” has been ripped off for plenty of pop songs over the years. It’s surprising that the tumbling pageantry of the second movement and the troubled Mitteleuroepean gothic of the third haven’t been also been plundered. The album’s liner notes witheringly quote Claude Debussy as saying that Saint-Saens – who’d trashed the debut of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn – once showed promise of becoming a great composer. Whatever you think of his music – his endless volleys of orchestral counterpoint, his grandiose, Lisztian piano concertos, his irresistible Organ Symphony and perhaps shockingly poignant solo organ works – you can’t deny his gift for pure entertainment. Once again, Fischer gets that, and so does this orchestra.

October 15, 2019 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Airy, Low-Key Ambience and Choral Themes From Carolina Eyck

Carolina Eyck‘s new album Elegies for Theremin & Voice – streaming at Spotify – blends multitracked, wordless vocals with theremin. which she uses for for both steady sustain as well as the instrument’s signature quaver. In places, it’s impossible to tell which is human and which is machine. It also tends to be minimalistic: from time to time, the music recalls John Zorn’s work for small vocal ensemble, as well as Sophia Rei in a rare pensive moment, or Emilie Wiebel. There’s a general sense of calm in these pieces: as elegies go, this is not a dark album.

The album’s opening track is Duet 1, a simple, gentle miniature, fuzzy lows from the theremim almost buried in the mix. The second number, Remembrance is a happy one, an increasingly complex web of harmonies based on a blithely dancing ba-ba vocal riff,  with a choir of voices massing in the background, the theremin occasionally diverging into tremoloing microtones.

Eyck’s vocals seem taken by surprise during the first part of Absence, a diptych. As the theremin grows more present, they grow more wistful. She builds Uncle from a simple descending progression into a steady, sober choral piece: it’s the album’s most recognizably elegaic theme. She follows that with a fleeting solo theremin miniature and then the slowly shifting tectonic sheets of Duet II

The hazily looped Commemoration brings to mind Caroline Shaw’s choral work, reduced to simplest terms. The playfully rhythmic Presence is Eyck’s take on Indian takadimi vocal exercises, while Friend, a synopsis of sorts, wouldn’t be out of place in the early Meredith Monk catalog. Eyck winds up the album with the baroque-tinged Solo II. She’s playing the album release show tomorrow night, Oct 16 at 8:30 PM at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave in Chicago; cover is $10.

October 15, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Slashing, Richly Acerbic New String Music and Reinvented Film Noir Sounds in the West Village

This past evening at Greenwich House Music School, the Sirius Quartet wound up their two-day annual festival of category-defying music with an incendiary, dynamic set, followed eventually but the historic live debut of a trio legendary for a classic of film noir music from two decades ago.

The quartet’s latest album, New World is a searing portrait of the here and now, focusing on discrimination and terror experienced by immigrants and minorities as well as the fascist assaults and bigotry of the Trump administration. While artistic communities as a whole have mobilized against the Trumpies, there are few ensembles in any style of music, let alone new serious concert music, who’ve been writing as consistently and acerbically as this group.

Violinist Fung Chern Hwei’s slashing downward cadenza early on in the night’s opening number, Beside the Point, reaffirmed that commitment, terrorized but still defiant. This piece came across as even more epic live than on album, cellist Jeremy Harman alternating between stark washes and a catchy, trip-hop flavored pizzicato bassline, Hwei delivering a couple of mighty crescendos with tantalizingly brief, shivery solos. The tersely conversational interplay between violinist Gregor Huebner and violist Ron Lawrence provided sobering contrast.

They vividly brought to mind the great Kurdish composer Kayhan Kalhor with To a New Day, rising from relentlessly tense, sustained close harmonies to a fluttering, soaring theme punctuated by spare, similarly suspenseful pizzicato passages and a grimly sardonic Vivaldi quote from Lawrence. A little later, they reinvented Radiohead’s Knives Out as a spare, swinging. quasi-baroque string-rock anthem, diverging toward chaos for an instant before reconfiguring with a wary intensity.

The centerpiece was the new album’s savagely colorful title track, a portrait of the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election. Quoting from Dvorak’s New World Symphony as well as Shostakovich’s shattering, horrified String Quartet No. 8, the group shifted grimly from anxious, massed, chattering voices, to mournful sustained passages spiced with sarcastic faux-pageantry and a buffoonish accent or two. Huebner took centerstage, finally rising to a frenetic, terrorized crescendo over the rest of the group’s plaintive, doomed ambience in Still, based on the Billie Holliday hit Strange Fruit and its grisly, surreal portrait of a lynching.

Theremin Noir – the trio of thereminist/keyboardist Rob Schwimmer, pianist Uri Caine and violinist Mark Feldman – put out a single 1999 album that’s become revered as a classic of film noir composition. The three seemed especially psyched to finally stage this material, a mix of reinvented Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock themes and originals. Schwimmer drew chuckles from the crowd, acknowledging the challenges of trying to lead a band, let alone turn pages, with both hands on the theremin:.. Throughout the trio’s hour onstage, a lot of head signals were involved.

They opened with Herrmann’s bookstore scene from Torn Curtain and its haunting, plaintive variations on a melancholy, neoromantic piano theme, Schwimmer switching between theremin and a touch-sensitive synth full of patches evoking everything from a choir to a wind tunnel to a bell tower, as well as a theremin. That enabled him to sit at the keys for long periods without having to leap up and switch back.

An enveloping, echoingly industrial tone poem brought to mind the lingering, metalloid menace of Philip Blackburn’s electronic tableaux. Schwimmer explained that his melancholy Waltz for Clara was a homage to the late, great theremin pioneer Clara Rockmore. His more film noir-inspired originals were spot-on, full of furtive, stairstepping motives, a wry interlude of door creaks amid angst-fueled, subtly shifting neoromantic piano-and-violin themes.

Feldman opened his original, Real Joe with a moody solo before Caine’s piano and Schwimmer’s increasingly surreal synth flourishes joines the mix. Two pieces from Herrmann’s Vertigo score – Carlotta’s Portrait and Scene d’Amour – were the highlights of the night. The former was rich with aching, increasingly enigmatic piano from Caine and morose violin from Feldman as Schwimmer put the quavering icing on the cake. The latter made an apt closer for the evening, with an unexpectedly playful, tongue-in-cheek, loungey jazz interlude midway through, before a return to ineluctable grimness. If the trio had the presence of mind to record their set, and the quality is even remotely usable, they’ve got a brilliant live album to follow up the original studio release.

October 11, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

Iconic Songwriter Amy Rigby Revisits a Lost New York in Her New Memoir Girl to City

Amy Rigby‘s new memoir Girl to City validates the argument that great lyricists are also strong prose writers. But beyond a stunning level of detail, that generalization is where the similarity between Rigby’s often outrageously hilarious, witheringly insightful songwriting and this plainspoken book ends. Instead, it’s a sobering and understatedly poignant portrait of an era in New York gone forever.

Rigby is humble to a fault. If there’s anything missing from this book, that would be more insight into her songwriting process. She’s a polymath tunesmith, equally informed by and eruditely successful with styles as diverse as Americana, honkytonk, purist pop and these days, psychedelia. As a lyricist, she’s a first-ballot hall-of-famer: it wouldn’t be overhype to rank her with Elvis Costello, Steve Kilbey, Hannah Fairchild and the most memorably aphoristic Nashville songwriters of the 40s and 50s. Rigby takes some pleasure in revealing how she wrote one of her most gorgeously plaintive songs, Summer of My Wasted Youth, in her head on her way home on the L train. Otherwise, we’re going to have to wait for a sequel for more than a few stories behind some of the best songs of the past thirty-plus years.

Beyond that, this is a rich and often heartbreaking narrative. The only daughter in a large, upper middle class Pittsburgh Catholic family, young Amelia McMahon (nicknamed Amy, after the 50s Dean Martin pop hit), grew up in the 1960s as a tomboy and evemtual diehard Elton John fan. Spared the ordeal of Catholic high school, she developed a highly refined fashion sense – she was East Village chic long before East Village chic existed – and although she doesn’t go into many details about what seems to have been a repressive upbringing, it’s obvious that she couldn’t wait to escape to New York.

A talent for visual art got her admitted early into Parsons, where she earned a degree she never ended up falling back on – then again, fashion illustration was basically obsolete by the time she graduated. Meanwhile, she haunted CBGB at its peak. Even then, her taste in music was eclectic and adventurous, from punk, to gothic rock, disco, and eventually pioneering feminist bands the Slits and Raincoats.

Auspiciously, she teamed up with a bunch of college friends to open the legendary Tribeca music venue Tier 3 – where she made her New York musical debut, as the drummer of the minimalistically undescribable Stare Kits. “It seemed unthinkable even a decade later that the streets of downtown could ever have been so empty at night, or that a Manhattan club could have such haphazard beginnings. But that was part of the beauty, although you wouldn’t have thought to call it beautiful, “Rigby recalls. Understatement of the decade.

Rigby reveals that she came to embrace Americana when she realized that country music was just as  alienated as punk. Now playing guitar (and percussion, and a little accordion), it wasn’t long before she and her younger brother Michael McMahon (who’s led the hilarious, theatrical Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. for almost twenty years now) founded one of the first New York urban country outfits, the Last Roundup. Maybe it was that group’s newfound embrace of country music – a genuine appreciation, rather than the kitschy contempt for it that would characterize the Williamsburg Americana contingent twenty years later – that shaped their individualistic sound. Even then, Rigby was flexing her songwriting chops.

What’s even more improbable than being able to situate a punk club in Tribeca is that it was once possible to (barely) make ends meet as a working musician in Manhattan, playing original music. Like those trust fund kids in the East Village now, somebody had to be subsidized, rigtht?

As Rigby tells it, no. Cruelly, inevitably, money is always elusive. When she isn’t gigging, she temps and temps, for a succession of bosses from across the boss spectrum. The plotline of her classic, cynical bargain-shopper anthem, As Is, has never been more resonant in light of her experiences here. She seems to have given up everything but her career to keep her daughter clothed and fed.

Misadventures with small record labels, well-intentioned but clueless enablers and wannabe enablers from the corporate world, with both the Last Roundup and Rigby’s successor band, the fetchingly ramshackle, all-female Shams, are predictably amusing. Her details of simple survival are every bit as bittersweet.

Time after time, she falls for emotionally unavailable older men. She mentions “dad’s putdowns,” in passing: this legendary beauty doesn’t even seem to think of herself as all that goodlooking. A marriage to drummer Will Rigby results in a talented daughter (future bassist Hazel Rigby). and doesn’t last. The author goes easy on him, maybe because she’s already excoriated him, if namelessly, in song. 20 Questions, anyone?.

Yet, out of that divorce, and the borderline-condemnable three-bedroom $700-a-month Williamsburg apartment at the corner of Bedford and Grand, she built a solo career that would earn her a well-deserved media blitz and critical raves for her solo debut, Diary of a Mod Housewife. That’s pretty much where the story ends, and a sequel hopefully picks up.

What’s most depressing about Rigby’s narrative is that it could never happen in current-day New York. She started totally DIY – she’d never played an instrument onstage before joining Stare Kits – and made her way up through a succession of small venues, then larger ones and all of a sudden she was playing the Beacon Theatre and touring. No such ladder of success exists here anymore: in fact, it’s working the other way around. All the rock acts that used to play Bowery Ballroom are now being squeezed into its smaller sister venue, the Mercury (a joint that Rigby used to sell out with regularity twenty years ago)

What’s left of the Americana and rock scenes, so vital in Rigby’s early years, now rotate through a handful of small Brooklyn clubs, playing to the same two dozen people week after week. With larger venues (and even some of the smaller ones) assiduously datamining so they can book only the most active Instagram self-promoters, the idea of thinking outside the box and promoting artists whose strengths are not Instagram followers but lyrics and tunes is almost laughable. All this is not to say that the typical club owner in, say, 1985, wasn’t plenty lazy and greedy. It’s just that laziness and greed, at the expense of genuine art, have been institutionalized by social media.

Throughout the book, this charismatic, acerbic, laser-witted performer comes across as anything but a diva. Maybe the Catholic childhood, the authoritarian parents and series of doomed relationships cast a pall that she’s still trying to get out from under. More than anything, this tale deserves a triumphant coda: since Diary of a Mod Housewife, Rigby has put out a series of consistently brilliant albums, toured relentlessly if not overwhelmingly lucratively and married another legendary rock storyteller, Wreckless Eric.

October 8, 2019 Posted by | Literature, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment