Is it possible to be nostalgic for something that happened just four years ago? Is nostalgia a healthy emotion to begin with? Probably not. But with this week being the four-year anniversary of Small Beast, seeing that date memorialized Monday night upstairs at the Delancey brought back fond memories of the weekly series’ glory days here in New York. Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch – this era’s finest rock keyboardist – founded the night in 2008 as a solo residency, followed by an endless cavalcade of some of New York’s, and the world’s, finest and darkest rock acts. This evening was a fond reminder of what an amazing run Small Beast had up to the summer of 2010, when Wallfisch took his show on the road to Germany. He now runs the State Theatre in Dortmund, which also serves as the European base for the Beast.
The night opened explosively with Valerie Kuehne. She’s part punk classical cellist, part performance artist, but her performance art isn’t the foofy, mannered kind – it’s oldschool 80s style and it has fangs. And it’s hilarious. Whether or not Kraft pasteurized processed American cheese qualifies as food, or how yoga has been transformed from oasis of relaxation to yuppie clusterfuck, might seem obvious. But Kuehne’s rapidfire rants about both were irresistibly funny all the way through to the punchlines…and then she played a roaring solo cello piece that became surprisingly lyrical, as violinist Jeffrey Young strolled in through the audience, and then she and accomplice Esther Neff donned masks and handed out instructions to the audience. Which turned out to be a cruel kind of dada – watching the crowd make fools of themselves, looking up at them from the floor of the club (music bloggers aren’t immune to being spoofed) was almost as funny. Then she and Neff ran off to Cake Shop, where they were doing another show.
Martin Bisi cautioned before his duo improvisation with fellow guitarist Ernest Anderson that it might be “sleepy.” Nightmarish, maybe, but definitely not sleepy: fifteen seconds into it, and Bisi hit a ringing tritone and then sent it spiraling devilishly through the mix as Anderson anchored the ambience with keening layers of sustain from his ebow. Meanwhile, Bisi slammed out chords when he wasn’t building a murky, echoey cauldron of implied melody. And then in a raised middle finger to the sound system, he stuck his guitar in his amp and mixed the noise through a labyrinth of bleeding, pulsing effects. Although he’s not known as a jam guy – epic dark songcraft is his thing – he’s actually a tremendously entertaining improviser who never plays the same thing the same way twice. Jamming out soundscapes is probably the last thing he or anybody who knows his music would expect him to be doing, but this was good trippy fun.
Roman Wallfisch was the star of this show. The guitarist son of the night’s impresario has been playing banjo for a couple of weeks now, and he’s already figured out all sorts of cool voicings mixing old folk tropes with new rock ones. He casually made his way through a couple of shambling narratives, Monsoon Season and Parts of Speech, both songs showing off a wryly surreal lyrical sensibility and a wicked sense of melody: the apple obviously didn’t fall far from the tree. Oh yeah – in case you’re wondering, Roman Wallfisch is fourteen years old.
And the Wiremen – in a duo performance with guitarist/bandleader Lynn Wright and violinist Jon Petrow – could have been anticlimactic, but they weren’t. Wright’s plaintive English/Spanish vocals over broodingly jangly, reverb-toned southwestern gothic melodies were as surrealistically dusky as ever. Wright held the crowd rapt with a quiet new song and ended the set with Sleep, which seems to be a cautionary tale, Petrow’s even more reverb-drenched lines raising the sepulchral ambience as high as anything sepulchral can go.
Guitarist Alexander Hacke and electric autoharpist Danielle Depicciotto treated the crowd to an equally brooding southwestern gothic ballad and then Cuckoo, the old Austrian folk song, complete with yodeling. Noir cabaret personality Little Annie was supposed to be next, but she was under the weather, so pianist Wallfisch was joined by another brilliant dark chanteuse, Sally Norvell, whose takes of three haunting tracks from her duo album with him a few years back were lustrous and riveting, running the gamut from joyously torchy and seductive to funereal.
Wallfisch wrapped up the night with the kind of intuitively eclectic mix that defined the Beast for a couple of years, capturing the raw innocence of the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset and the apprehension of Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell before a wry Little Annie Christmas song, the furtive gypsy punk of the Botanica song Money (from their latest, towering, intense album What Do You Believe In) and then the scorching gypsy punk of How, a crowd-pleaser from the old days. Petrow made another ghostly cameo or two. By now, it was after one in the morning, so Wallfisch wrapped up the evening with the nocturne Past One O’Clock (an audience request), the towering anthem Judgment (centerpiece of the new album) and a gorgeously brooding new number inspired by – among other things – the college kid in New Jersey who lept to his death from a bridge after being outed as gay. If there’s any lesson to take away from this show, it’s carpe diem: if there’s a scene this vital that you hang out in, don’t hide yourself at home, even if it’s Monday night. It could be gone sooner than you think.
Monday night at the Delancey is still the most happening night of the week for rock music in New York. Small Beast founder and Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch may have taken his act on the road to Dortmund, Germany for the next year, but the weekly series lives on. This must have been close to Beast #100 and it was characteristically fascinating. Black Fortress of Opium frontwoman Ajda the Turkish Queen opened. That band’s 2008 Martin Bisi-produced album is a highwater mark in recent dark rock, but hearing their singer play solo was a real revelation. Switching between mandolin and piano, she showed off a versatile, nuanced and even playful vocal style that with the band sometimes gets subsumed in the din of the guitars. On album, her song Ari is a slowly crescendoing, ferociously guitar-fueled epic; live, it was hypnotic and plaintive. As it turns out, it imagines the life of the son Nico had with 70s French actor Alain Delon. A new, ornate ballad featuring some unexpectedly nimble mandolin work followed an upward trajectory; another new one, Fata Morgana was lyrically charged, “shot down by a man with disillusion in his eyes,” she sang with a wounded understatement. A fragmentary piano sketch with a long, intense a-cappella passage was claustrophobic and intense, followed by a percussive, insistent requiem. Her band is back in the studio working with Bisi again, a collaboration that promises even better results a second time around.
Pete Galub followed with a clinic in great guitar solos. He’s reached the point where he ranks with Gilmour, Frisell, B.B., whoever you care to put in your guitar pantheon. Galub matches wit to intensity, surprise to adrenaline and does it over incredibly catchy changes. He’s a powerpop guy at heart, so there’s always a memorable tune playing underneath his rhythmically tricky, dynamically shifting solo excursions. Watching him with just his Telecaster running through a few off-the-shelf pedals, it was a chance to see those solos completely unadorned: you could imagine any backing you wanted and they’d still work, whether that might be the Undertones, Big Star or even ELO. He’s a maven of melodic rock, opening with a relatively obscure but typically tuneful Only Ones anthem, Woke Up Sticky, eventually running through a thoughtfully paced version of his 6/8 ballad Boy Gone Wrong (title track to his surprisingly quiet singer-songwriter album from a couple of years back), and two fiery, noirish, minor-key anthems, the second a bitter, metaphorically loaded kiss-off song. He wrapped up his set with a clever, somewhat tongue-in-cheek reworking of Steely Dan’s Every Major Dude Will Tell You.
Atmospheric, edgy guitar noir soundtrack guy Thomas Simon – whose new album Moncao is one of the year’s best – had booked the night and was next on the bill, but the trains were messed up so it was time to go. And he’s gotten plenty of ink here before.
The big show happened at the Orensanz Center Friday night. Because the night had to end before midnight, it was like the Rolling Stones Revue, 2010 style: everybody got short sets but made the most of them. Spottiswoode opened, solo on piano. He’s never sounded better. He has a musical theatre production coming up in the fall and if the trio of brand-new songs he played are any indication, it ought to be good. Intense and pensive, he began with a gospel flavored number, following with one of the best songs of the whole night, a bitter, brooding wee-hours tableau possibly titled Wall of Shame. He then dedicated a passionate ballad to a pretty, short-haired brunette in the crowd named Nicole: “I would follow you to Philadelphia,” he intoned.
Barbez have never sounded better either – their set was amazing, maybe the best of the entire night, an offhanded reminder of how brilliant this band is. Even more impressive, when you consider that their van had just been broken into the previous night, most of their gear stolen (Williamsburg bands beware – this is the second one in two days). This was their instrumental set, all minor keys, erasing all cross-country and cross-genre borders with perfect effortlessness. Guitarist Dan Kaufman led the band into a Balkan surf groove in 7/8 time, building to a squall with the clarinet going full blast, down to a masterfully nuanced passage featuring the marimba, then bringing it up again and ending it cold. The next one had a tango flavor, more prominent marimba and tricky rhythms. After that, they worked down from a furious gallop to atmospherics and then more tango, then started the next one with an ominously funereal, minimalist rumble that picked up in a rawtoned Savage Republic vein, ending with a creepy, carnivalesque waltz.
Since Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch had booked the night, he was pulling triple duty onstage, his first set of the night being with his longtime sparring partner Little Annie Bandez. This was the cd release show for their new one, Genderful, arguably the high point of their career together up to now. The crowd was silent, rapt, amazed – as a raconteur, Bandez has no equal, but since time was tight she kept the songs tight and terse and absolutely haunting, beginning with Wallfisch on guitar and backed by the full band on a wistful, sad version of Billy Martin Requiem, a tribute not only to the fallen Yankee skipper but also that era’s AIDS casualties. “Thirty years in business to learn a word like ‘monitor,'” she joked as soundman Marco, on loan from the Delancey, made some expert adjustments (big up to Marco by the way – the sound was outstanding all night). The wee-hours lament Suitcase Full of Secrets was poignant and loaded with understatement, on the wings of Heather Pauuwe’s violin; they closed with a brand-new song, Dear John, a requiem for a suicide. Bandez looked up, then around at the majestic synagogue facade behind the stage and did a slow, thoughtful 360, leading the crowd’s eyes just as she’d led their ears.
Bee and Flower have been conspicuously absent from the New York stage, but they haven’t lost a step. Frontwoman/bassist Dana Schechter began their all-too-brief set as chanteuse, swaying and playing shakers on a particularly haunting version of the slowly sweeping, characteristically cinematic minor-key 6/8 anthem Homeland. They picked up the pace briefly with a bouncy number that saw lead guitarist Lynn Wright (leader of the amazing And the Wiremen) swooping on his low E string to provide a second bassline against Schechter’s slinky groove. Switching pensively from tango inflections to starlit wonder to a pounding, hypnotically intense version of Twin Stars, a standout track from their first album, the only thing missing was the epic suspense film for which the songs would have made the perfect score.
The crowd peaked for Botanica, who were serenaded on and then offstage, from the balcony overhead, with the exquisive and otherworldly Balkan vocals of two completely unamplified singers, Black Sea Hotel’s Corinna Snyder and her equally haunting pal Kelly. Wallfisch had just played keys for Bee and Flower, so he switched to his battered Wurlitzer-and-organ combo and then went into a zone. Guitarist John Andrews blasted out wild Dick Dale-style tremolo-picked passages, playing through a skin-peeling cloud of reverb and delay. He also sang what might have been the best song of the whole night, the menacing art-rock epic Xmas, opening with just guitar and vocals for a Beatlesque verse, finally exploding with a crash on the second chorus. Their opener, the title track to their new album Who You Are (whose release was also being celebrated this evening) moved from stately menace to unaffected, longing angst; La Valse Magnetique, sort of the title track to their previous studio cd, featured more insane surf guitar and a very pregnant pause. Monster surf met Elvis Costello on a pointed, relentless version of the gypsy-punk Witness. There were other acts on the bill, but after a set like this, anything that followed it would have been anticlimactic – after five bands, maybe more (this is just the highlights), it was time to take a break and enjoy what was left of the early summer evening outside.
So sold as we were on this show (in case you were away, we plugged it shamelessly for a week), it pretty much delivered on its promise. The weekly Small Beast concert upstairs at the Delancey – from which this sprang – is the closest thing we have these days in New York to what CBGB was in the 70s, or what Tonic was from 1995 to 2005: the most fertile, fearlessly imaginative rock and rock-oriented scene in town. And from a blogger’s perspective, it’s a dream come true – for the price of a few hours worth of an otherwise fairly useless Monday, it’s an absurdly easy way to keep in touch with some of the world’s most vital rock and rock-oriented acts. Shame on the other Manhattan venues for not doing something like this on a Saturday and promoting it to a wider audience.
“Which one are you?” host Paul Wallfisch asked, completely deadpan (his Big Small Beast extravaganza, maybe the best NYC rock show of the year, takes place on Friday at the Orensanz Center – tickets still available as of Monday night).
Price thought about it. “I’m the ‘and’.” And followed with a set of casually quirky art-rock that was as fun as it was virtuosically brilliant. Swaying on her feet instead of sitting down, she started out by building a series of loops – first a bouncy beat, then a cleverly plucked groove, then embellishments, building to ferocious, roaring cello metal – and then a cold ending. She varied her vocals from song to song, moving from a full, plaintive, soul-tinged delivery to one a lot more tongue-in-cheek and more than a little creepy on an oldschool country-style number that she played on tenor guitar. She explained that she’d just toured the south for the first time and gotten the inspiration for it from all the “Jesus Saves” billboards down there. “They don’t have a phone number – you know how billboards have phone numbers?”
Price is in the midst of a 365 project, writing a song a day for a year, ambitious to say the least, and she played a couple of what must be very recent creations, one a slinky cello groove number propelled along by fast broken chords, the other a mini-suite of sorts called War that began sparse and reflectively with judiciously dynamic textures and then grew to a fullscale roar. The audience demanded an encore: she rewarded them with the closest thing to a pop song she did all night. Price somehow finds the time to play frequent solo shows like this as well as gigs with her band, in addition to her daily compositions. Pearl and the Beard’s next NYC-area gig is at Maxwell’s on June 23.
The whole town seemed to be partied out from the long weekend, so this Small Beast was a particularly intimate one. Monday was comfort night, comfort in darkness, in raw intensity and intelligence with a diverse quartet of acts who share the ability to bring all that for hours on end. Playing solo on acoustic, Elisa Flynn opened the night and immediately delivered chills with her plaintive, austere, broodingly nuanced vocals coupled to imaginatively scruffy guitar playing. She loves 6/8 time, and she knows how to use it, whether on an insistent, hypnotic tune about earth artist Robert Smithson (possibly the only song anyone’s ever written about the guy, she mused), a pensive sleeping-under-the-stars scenario, or a dark wintertime shipwreck tableau. And the single best song of the night, Timber. Others less subtle might be tempted to turn the towering, haunting yet wry ballad into grand guignol, but Flynn didn’t, holding back just a little on the pauses between verse and chorus to drive them home for all they were worth, tossing off a dirty, distorted solo, then hitting her pedalboard to crank up a sweet swoopy slide on her low E string. She closed with a gorgeously intense cover of Silver Rider by Low, wailing on the downstrokes.
Botanica keyboardist/frontman Paul Wallfisch – who as you probably know by now books Small Beast – quickly figured out that trying to outshadow Flynn would be a bad idea. So he played the fun set: a devious, sarcastic cover of Mack the Knife, musing on who the hell all those oddly named characters really are; an otherworldly version of Nature Boy retitled Nature Girl, which totally changed the song; a couple of soul-inflected new ones, Here I Am (with a lyric by Paul Bowles) and Hard to Cross; a hushed Marlene Dietrich homage, and a Vic Chestnutt cover that rhymes “paragon” with “Louis Farrakhan.” Wallfisch thought that particularly appropriate and wondered aloud what Farrakhan’s violin might sound like alongside Richard Nixon’s piano – paragons, both of them.
Inimitable art-rock songwriter/pianist Greta Gertler has a new kitten, who’d taken a swipe at one of her fingers: “Does anyone have a tampon at least?” she grinned. She’s got a new album, The Universal Thump, coming out. If you’re interested in getting in on the ground floor with it and whatever benefits come with being one of its sponsors, there’s still time: the cast of characters continues to expand. Her too-brief set offered an auspicious look inside, beginning with the bright, percussive, Kate Bush-inflected pop of Swimming with its murky, reverberating instrumental break; the resonant, sad 6/8 ballad Grasshoppers; a darkly dramatic take on the bustling title track to her previous album Edible Restaurant; the pretty yet uneasy, aptly titled Darkened Skies, and her best song, the richly melodic, crescendoing Teacher. When she took the vocals way, way up to the top of her range, i.e. the stratosphere, she pulled off the mic; likewise, she played it casually, letting the power of the chords speak for themselves. Then Wallfisch joined her for a couple of impromptu four-hands numbers, adding incisive upper-register rivulets and staccato over her catchy changes.
Kings County Queens were unfortunately missing baritone ukelele player/singer Daria Grace, but their two women – on piano and accordion – compensated well. Smartly, the band pulled out their dark set, frontman Chris Bowers in particularly bristly, quietly affronted mode. He even took a pointed southwestern gothic solo in the surprisingly bitter, tango-inflected opening number, and another later on, sailing plaintively over drummer Johny Rock’s hypnotic malletwork on a slow, catchy, nocturnal ballad. KCQ earned themselves plenty of cred around the turn of the zeros as one of the originators of the Pete’s Candy Store sound, i.e. urbanites playing low-key, harmony-driven country and Americana and they also provided plenty of that, notably the wistful waltz Magnolias. The warm, gentle insistence of the melody of that one and several similar numbers made for a perfect segue out of a long, crazy weekend into the sobering reality ahead.
The Monday night Small Beast show at the Delancey being New York’s most brazen display of good songs and good chops, the parade of talent that’s come through here over the last eight months or so far exceeds anything any other club in town has seen over that span of time. As far as pure talent is concerned, Greg Garing tops the list – and for anyone who was lucky enough to catch his solo show last night, that’s no disrespect to any of the other artists who’ve played here. If you can imagine Willie Nelson if his drug of choice was moonshine instead of pot, you’d be on the right track. Garing is the kind of artist who inhabits his songs – it’s impossible to separate him from them, seeing as he practically goes into a trance and becomes them. His guitar virtuosity, soulful terseness and stylistic chops are unsurpassed, matching a jazzy Chet Atkins-gone-punk countrypolitan feel along with a seemingly effortless whirlwind of flatpicking on a couple of bluegrass numbers, along with some judicious blues and country gospel work. As when Black Sea Hotel played a couple of weeks ago, the room was silent, absolutely rapt. Garing may have a four-octave vocal range – from Tennessee Ernie Ford bass to a falsetto and a heartwarming blue yodel – but he used all of those devices subtly. It would not be an overstatement to mention him in the same sentence as Jimmie Rodgers. And while he did play a few covers – a brisk, unadorned Deep Ellem Blues, a slowly smoldering take of the blues How Long and a Jerry Lee Lewis barrelhouse romp through Real Wild One (he also played pretty amazing piano on that one and a brief ragtime number that he seemed to make up on the spot), it was his originals that resonated most intensely.
The biggest crowdpleaser was a gentle ballad, a reflection on how nature has no preference for any season, with the refrain “We’ll be happy once again.” With the mercury outside below twenty, this hit the spot, along with a beautifully heartfelt gospel-inflected number possibly titled Teardrops Falling in the Snow. One of the more upbeat numbers sounded like a Hasil Adkins song; he also did a resonant cover of the #1 country single of 1968, the politically charged Skip a Rope, written by his old friend Henson Cargill. Garing admitted as his set got underway that he’s “a lucky boy,” having played with several original members of the Grand Old Opry as well as bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin (Garing was reputedly the only sideman that Martin would allow to drink with him, maybe because he could). And some years later, as leader of the Alphabet City Opry, he jumpstarted a fertile New York country scene that’s still going strong almost fifteen years down the road.
Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch played mostly solo on piano beforehand, covering Leonard Cohen, Serge Gainsbourg and then, with Bellmer Dolls frontman Peter Mavrogeorgis on guitar, the Stooges’ Gimme Danger (Paul sang) and a spine-tingling noir version of She Cried ( a Del Shannon cover that Peter, who sang, discovered via the late Roland S. Howard ). Wallfisch’s longtime onstage sparring partner Little Annie also contributed characteristically charming, smoky vocals on songs by Jacques Brel and Leon Russell.
Before Wallfisch, a boyfriend/girlfriend duo called the Pinky Somethings [wasn’t really paying attention] opened the night with carefree if barely competent covers of a lot of good songs: Warren Zevon, John Prine, George Jones, more John Prine. This is how you start out, playing your favorites. If they keep it up and reach the point where they’re writing songs like the ones they like so much, they’ll be really good too.
Concert Review: Valerie Kuehne, System Noise, Black Sea Hotel, Lenny Kaye and Paul Wallfisch 12/14/09
The last Beast of the decade (for us, anyway) was one of the best. That such a ridiculously spectacular display of talent doesn’t instantly leap to the top of our Best New York Concerts of 2009 list speaks to how good, and how essential, Paul Wallfisch’s weekly Small Beast concert at the Delancey has become. It’s like this every week.
This one was characteristic in that it ran the gamut from the avant garde to noise-rock (a welcome if unrelated excursion to the downstairs room) to Bulgarian choral music to powerpop to sinister gypsy rock played solo on piano: eclectic to the extreme. New music composer Valerie Kuehne opened the show on cello and vocals, backed by violin, upright bass, electric guitar and drums. Her shapeshifting songs stopped as fast as they started, went doublespeed, lept abruptly and then crept quietly, sometimes in the span of what seemed a few seconds. She sings with the wide-open belt of a classically trained singer, her vocals typically impatient and uneasy. “Do you believe in patterns? Patterns? Patterns?” she inquired accusatively, early on. Her second number, Now We Know set eerie tremolo guitar against jagged, disjointed rhythms that evolved out of the song’s initial stately 6/8 sway. She closed her brief set with a study in abrupt hard/soft contrasts with the vocals and also the stringed instruments. Not exactly easy listening, but then it wasn’t meant to be.
The next act had cancelled, so there was a long lull, long enough to head downstairs where art/punk/funk/noise rockers System Noise had launched into their own magnificent set, unrelated to what was going on upstairs, but it made a perfect segue (and because the next Small Beast act didn’t want to start early and be done by the time their fans had turned up, there was plenty of time to catch this one). Known for their assaultive, roaring guitar and vocal attack, they’ve never been more catchy and accessible, even if it’s a savage, cynical accessibility. A new one, Blame It on the Rain ran an absurdly catchy funk/blues phrase over a slinky groove while frontwoman Sarah Mucho gave it a characteristic sultry ominousness. Hair and Nails (the two parts of the body that continue to grow after death) followed in a similar vein; the best song of the entire night was another new one, a magnificently morbid epic that grew from apprehensive David Gilmour-inflected guitar arpeggios to an almost punk chorus, ending with a dramatic, classically infused buildup that would have been perfectly at home in the Procol Harum catalog. The even more punk number after that maintained the ornate intensity. It’s too bad that the band has since gone on what turned out to be a long-anticipated hiatus: what a run they’ve had, five years at least as one of New York’s best bands.
Upstairs, the four women of Black Sea Hotel assembled onstage. Their claim to fame – beyond having four of the most amazing voices of any New York group, in any style – is their innovative arrangements of traditional Bulgarian choral and folk music. Sometimes they’ll scale down a big, lavish chart to four-part harmony, other times they’ll embellish a folk song’s original single vocal line. Either way, the songs in their repertoire are hypnotic, otherworldly and haunting, but they’re also funny, ironic and sometimes completely absurd, and the crowd clearly got as much of a kick out of hearing the meaning of the Bulgarian lyrics as much as the band did relating them. A woman defiantly tells her guy that even if she’s wearing his clothes, he still can’t have her body; a (probably drunken) guy leaves home dressed in the garb of both his male and female relatives; a hot-to-trot single guy can’t make up his mind whether he’ll continue to court the women of his hometown or try his luck (not so good, so far) elsewhere.
Yet another advantage of Small Beast is that you get to watch the bands up close. Black Sea Hotel’s debut cd (look for it on our Best Albums of 2009 list) is gorgeous and swirling, but it’s impossible to know who’s singing what. Seeing them here, it was a lot of fun to discover that of the four, Corinna Snyder takes the biggest risks and the highest leaps, jumping octaves with split-second precision and losing nothing in pitch or power. Joy Radish is the smallest member of the group but sings with the most power. Willa Roberts has a stunning clarity and precision, and got to deliver the evening’s single most captivating moment, ending a song about a soldier gone off to war with a final, poignant verse in English. Sarah Small, meanwhile, achieved the impossible by being simultaneously raw and intense yet hypnotically atmospheric, and this time out she was the one who got to add the striking, strange ornamentation that Bulgarian vocal music is best known for. The audience was awestruck. The group have a reputation for being a sort of punk rock version of le Mystere des Voix Bulgares – they’ll sing anywhere – but where they really ought to be is Carnegie Hall.
Putting legendary Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye next on the bill was a smart move – it completely changed the vibe yet maintained it, at least as far as smart songwriting is concerned. Kaye’s stock in trade has always been his guitar playing, but he’s also a formidable songwriter, a first-class powerpop tunesmith. Playing most of the show solo on Strat, occasionally joined by his old 80s bandmate Paul Dugan (of Big Lazy) on upright bass, he ran through a catchy, hook-laden set of mostly original tunes with lyrics ranging from sardonic to fearlessly political. In Style casually dismissed a tourist on the Lower East Side: “You must like that Def Leppard, I know you do.” A rueful garage pop ballad, and another big anthem, were dead ringers for Willie Nile tunes. A jangly ballad by the Weather Prophets – whom Kaye had produced in the 80s – was compelling and pretty, while The Things You Leave Behind – a dedication to Jim Carroll – managed to be both ominously wistful and sarcastic. The duo closed with a sizzling, completely off-the-cuff version of Gloria, Kaye finally cutting loose with a couple of leads, the first going over the edge into noise-rock (this is the guy who basically invented the style, on Radio Ethiopia) before bringing it back to a delirious audience singalong. The crowd wouldn’t let him leave, so he rewarded them with a nasty, sarcastic cover of Jesse’s Girl and then a dark, subdued, jangly meditation on distance and absence, Telltale Heart.
Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch usually opens these shows – the series started as just a way for him to work out new material in front of live audience – but this time he closed it. Because we’ve reviewed so many of these shows this past year, he’s gotten more ink here than anybody else, but it wouldn’t be fair to neglect to mention how intense his own set was. Shira and Sofia is a swinging, noir cabaret-infused Botanica number about two WWII whores – essentially, its theme is make love, not war. When Wallfisch got to the part of the lyric where one of the hookers can “suck your dick,” he screamed it as if was the last thing he’d ever say and the crowd didn’t know whether to completely crack up (it was hilarious, actually) or do something else. He also played a tango, a waltz, a couple of soul numbers, a whiplash version of his collaboration with Little Annie, Because You’re Gone, and an absolutely morbid, Satie-esque rearrangement of Nature Boy (retitled Nature Girl). And had the crowd dancing to pretty much all of it. Small Beast will be off for a couple of weeks and then back on January 10.
It was at Small Beast, of course, the weekly Monday series at the Delancey booked by Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch, who usually hosts. This past Monday he was in Germany with Little Annie, so fellow dark rocker Carol Lipnik ran the show and opened it with characteristic noir panache. Small Beast being simply New York’s most exciting weekly rock event, it gets so much press here that we’ve tagged all the shows we’ve seen there (if you go to Categories, to your right and scroll down to Small Beast, you’ll find an embarrassment of riches). So it was no surprise that the best New York concert of 2009, barring something even more off-the-chart intense happening in the next month, would take place here.
Lipnik has a franchise on dark carnivalesque rock, more so than Tom Waits or anyone. This time out it was just as much about her four-octave voice – which she ran through two separate mics, one with a bullhorn effect – as it was about the songwriting. Climbing to the top of her stratospheric range, she whispered, purred and wailed, through a bunch of originals from her most recent cd Cloud Girl as well as an original setting of a Rumi poem, the hypnotic, raptly tense Your Pure Sadness. She also brought out every bit of surreal macabre in the Michael Hurley cult classic Werewolf (which you may know from the cover versions by Cat Power or Sarah Mucho). This was just the start of the night.
Next up was the self-described “baroque folk-punk” cellist/songwriter Bonfire Madigan, playing solo with the help of a loop pedal that she’d use to lay down a nimble pizzicato bassline over which she’d layer stark sheets of ambience along with some absurdly catchy pop melodies.She opened with a number based on a seditious seventeenth-century British play and followed that with a savage, two-chord Rasputina-esque chamber rock number. Several of the later numbers hitched Siouxsie-style menace to a clever pop sensibility. She closed with the dramatic, tongue-in-cheek grand guignol of a song titled The Lady Saved the Dragon from the Evil Prince and encored – the crowd wouldn’t let her go – with a somewhat pensive number that evoked Cat Power without the affectations.
Sporting a new Pat Benatar bob, Rachelle Garniez took the intensity to redline in seconds flat, playing solo and switching between accordion and piano. Even in the quietest moments she’s a charismatic performer, but this time out there was no doubt that she had come to conquer – the evening’s lineup had quickly turned into a Murderesses’ Row and Garniez was swinging for the fences. Just as Lipnik had done, she had the the vocal pyrotechnics going even before her first song, the wistful country ballad January Wind, had begun. She likes to jam out her intros and this was a prime example: “So happy to be here as the winter descends upon our town…your heart is cold and I wish mine was too, but instead the snow falls on my heart and creates a hissing sound.” After a long and very funny digression on frogs and their psychedelic properties, she sweated and sighed her way through the orgasmic vocalese of the noir cabaret Medicine Man with a passion that would do Millie Jackson proud. “I wish I’d written this and it was me performing,” one luminary in the crowd whispered to another.
The metaphor-laden 6/8 outsider anthem Tourmaline got the benefit of a gorgeously chordal accordion solo, then Garniez launched into a quizzically fierce new one inspired by someone from her past who’d recently found her online and was no less enamored for all the days between. As angry and dismissive as the song was – “you could have been anyone,” she raged – it also radiated poignancy. Garniez clearly left a mark during her early punk rock years and she makes no secret that she misses at least the fun parts of the pre-Rudy Mussolini era. She wrapped up the too-brief set with a defiantly jaunty version of My House of Peace, the new single she just did with Jack White: “Nobody gets away with murder in the House of Peace.” She’s at Barbes on Dec 3 at 10 if you’re cursing yourself that you missed her here.
Vera Beren also swung for the fences, but with an icy, unforgiving cool. Backed by a one-guitar version of her aptly titled Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble, she played more piano than she usually does, filling out the sound with a characteristically slashing, gypsyish chordal attack while bassist Greg Garing swooped, dove and pummeled the crowd with chords when Beren’s crushing, goth-inflected anthems would rise to a fiery crescendo. She showed off her punk roots with a noir blues in 6/8 (it’s hard to think of another songwriter who writes so many great songs in that time signature), a “careless evil lullaby,” as she put it. Her big crowd-pleaser The Nod was a typically roaring, furious, hypnotic gypsy stomp, Beren’s contralto a black river of venom. Another number paired off fast Siousxie-esque rock against a stately, Blue Oyster Cult-inflected 6/8 art-rock sway. “I should have held you, not repelled you,” she lamented. She wrapped up her too-brief set with an old song from the 90s, Baby, an indelibly New York, Jim Carroll-style tale of the cab ride from and maybe also to hell, pelting the crowd with white roses as she roared to the finish.
After all the sirens, it might seem that McGinty and White would be anticlimactic, but they weren’t, which speaks volumes. Ward White has always been a good singer – that he could hold his own alongside the women before him, let alone continue the vocal intensity, testifies to how good he’s become (his version of Life on Mars was the high point of a recent Loser’s Lounge evening). Playing acoustic guitar and accompanied by ex-Psychedelic Fur Joe McGinty on piano and Claudia Chopek on violin, he might have sung his best show ever. McGinty, by contrast, has all the vocal range of Lou Reed, but he’s all nuance anyway, on the keys and on the mic as well, contributing both his bubblegum pop satire Get a Guy and keeping the innumerable levels of the rest of the songs from ever going too far over the edge. Their playfully titled new album, McGinty and White Sing Selections from the McGinty and White Songbook is high on the Lucid Culture list of best albums of 2009. Unsurprisingly, the set list was full of those selections: the doomed romance of Everything is Fine; the sultry Big Baby, Chopek’s gently beautiful violin a study in contrast with McGinty’s jaunty piano; the ruthless kiss-off anthem Knees; the casual El Lay nightmare roadtrip ballad Stay In Love and the night’s closing number, Wichita Lineman, just White crooning over McGinty’s plaintive keys. By this point, it was almost two in the morning, most of the crowd had dissipated into the drizzle, but it was pure exhilaration for those who were sufficiently energized or unemployed to stick around. The next Small Beast will be December 7 featuring Wallfisch – back from Deutschland – along with the reliably charismatic Reid Paley and others.
Concert Review: Thomas Truax, Paul Wallfisch and Little Annie, and David J Survive CMJ at the Delancey, NYC 10/22/09
It wasn’t as bad as that: actually, it was transcendent. It’s hard to imagine a better bill in this year’s CMJ atrocity exhibition than Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch’s entrant, part of his weekly salon/extravaganza, Small Beast. Lots of talent on this bill: Pamelia Kurstin and Spottiswoode had played early in the evening. By ten, Thomas Truax had taken the stage, solo, accompanied by a couple of his Rube Goldberg-esque inventions, the Hornicator and something else whose name is lost to memory. It was something of a triumphant homecoming for the songwriter, now based in London but once a denizen of the late, lamented Tonic scene and a popular attraction here. He has a new album of songs from David Lynch films out, and played a handful of these, often leaping from the stage with his acoustic guitar and darting through the audience, Reverend Vince Anderson style. The best was a haunting version of the Orbison classic In Dreams, swaying along on the pulse of the Hornicator and its primitive echo/reverb effect. For an encore, with Wallfisch on piano, he tossed off a viscerally evil, feedback-driven version of I Put a Spell on You. Let’s hope he brings his menace back sometime sooner rather than later.
Wallfisch, joined by erstwhile Big Lazy bassist Paul Dugan and Botanica violinist Heather Paauwe, then ran through an especially passionate set of new material, surprises and covers, beginning with a knowing, cautionary tale affirming that “nothing is still too much,” set to a crescendoing five-note descending progression. Their cover of the Leonard Cohen classic I’m Your Man channeled a sultry triumph; the centerpiece of Botanica’s forthcoming album Who You Are had a similar exalted feel, albeit infused with classic gospel in place of classic soul. The quasi-official Small Beast theme, Eleganza and Wines was nothing short of exhilarating, Wallfisch effortlessly kicking out a Chopinesque solo before leading the crowd in a brief lesson in 7/8 time. After an angst-fueled Because You’re Gone, he then invited his longtime noir cabaret cohort Little Annie – who wrote it – up to do it again, infusing it with even more gravitas. But then she flipped the script with a brief, characteristically bitingly funny take of her post-rehab narrative The Other Side of Heartache: “If I could have invented an original sin, I would have and shared it with all of you,” the punk rock Eartha Kitt confided to the crowd.
Then they brought up David J. Over the past 25 years, the Bauhaus bassist has built a rich, stylistically diverse body of work that overshadows what he did with his original band. Without his bass, he embraced the role of noir crooner, sinking his fangs into the songs with unabashed relish, imbuing them with equal parts ominous deviousness and offhandedly snarling wit (he can be very funny – a few years ago he did a hilarious cover of Madonna’s What It’s Like for a Girl). He turned an LCD Soundsystem number into Orbisonesque pop, evinced every bit of gleeful menace as he could from Tom Waits’ Dead and Lovely and turned St. James Infirmary into a carnival of dead souls. Boulevard of Broken Dreams was as old-world phantasmagorical as it could have been: at the end, he finally let the audience know that “Bela Lugoi’s dead,” as close as he would come to a Bauhaus song. His lone original of the night, a new one titled Bloodsucker Blues was a caustic dismissal of twelve-step idiocy; he closed with an almost sadistic stalker cover of New York Telephone Conversation, finding yet another level of meaning in what was already a completely tongue-in-cheek lyric. There were other bands on afterward – this was a CMJ event, after all – but by then it was one in the morning and time to find an alternative to the now-dormant F train (FYI – after midnight when the F stops running, the J and M from Delancey will connect you with other trains at both Canal and Fulton). Small Beast returns with Wallfisch and another equally haunting rocker, Randi Russo on November 2 at 9.
Monday night was typical Small Beast – gauche as it may seem to review the same event week after week, the simple fact is that this is the best regular rock night in New York. Maybe the world. And it’s free. As usual (last week was an exception), Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch opened the night solo on piano. He’s the kind of player who is frequently at his best as a response to some kind of adversity, in other words, when he has something to transcend. Last night, by contrast, he was clearly in a good mood, a welcome opportunity for the crowd of cognoscenti to hear some of his warmer, slightly more carefree, gospel-flavored material: the title track to Botanica’s forthcoming album; the hypnotic Beauty Is; a version of the Paul Bowles lyric Etiquette, which he’d set to an aptly pensive tune; a noir cabaret number by Baby Dee; a typically jaunty version of Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man and an absolutely psychedelic Ray Davies cover on which he was joined by the evening’s next act, cellist Julia Kent.
Yet another reason why Small Beast is so cool is how effortlessly it’s balanced in terms of gender: women have been the stars lately and this evening continued that trend. Kent – who did time in Rasputina and has an exhaustive symphony orchestra and chamber music background – is a first-class composer in her own right, playing a hypnotic set of expansive originals. Typically, she’d pluck out a playful bassline and then loop it, adding layer after layer of frequently haunting ambience over it much as the Quavers do live. To do this is far more complicated than it seems – your timing has to be spot-on, and Kent’s was. The effect was riveting and frequently cinematic. Moving from trippy, echoey and atmospheric to stark and haunting, she evoked composers as diverse as Jenny Scheinman and Shostakovich. The best piece of the night grew strikingly darker as its second movement kicked in; her final number layered squalling insistence over swaying, casually pretty arpeggios.
Then Carol Lipnik and her longtime cohort, pianist Dred Scott – whose Tuesday midnight shows at Rockwood Music Hall have become the stuff of legend – took the stage and took the volume up a notch. With her spectacular four-octave range, Lipnik barely requires amplification, and this time out she’d brought along a reverb pedal that she used to give her big crescendos even more firepower. As expected, the audience was rapt. Scott didn’t waste a note as he moved from the noir swing of The Last Dance, through the macabre tango pulse of When I Was a Mermaid, the playfully minimalist psychedelicism of You’re My Firefly and the hauntingly plainspoken sympathy-for-the-freak narrative Two-Headed Cow. Lipnik moved and swayed effortlessly from a wail to a devious smirk to what sounded like a wildly phasing human theremin. As one knowledgeable member of the crowd was quick to discern, wherever Lipnik was, she was invariably in the moment. Lipnik’s collaborations with Scott and also with John Kelly are ongoing – watch this space for updates. It would have been fun to stick around and see what the next act, violinist Rebecca Cherry and her nine-piece band had up their collective sleeves, but the F train was about to turn into a pumpkin and that’s no way to get home.