Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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

A Clinic in Tunesmithing and Improvisation From This Era’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist

Albums that combine state-of-the-art tunesmithing with similarly rapturous improvisation are rare. That’s what Bill Frisell does on his latest release, Music IS, a solo recording streaming at Spotify. His previous album, Small Town, was a similarly spare, low-key set, recorded live at the Village Vanguard with bassist Thomas Morgan. This one’s even more intimate, a master class from this era’s greatest jazz guitarist. Or maybe, considering that Frisell has never limited himself to jazz, it’s time to consider him as this era’s greatest guitarist, period. Americana has been an important part of his catalog for decades, but on this album it really comes to the foreground. He’s in the midst of a long stand at the Vanguard this month, with sets at 8:30 and 11. Today and tomorrow, he leads a trio with Morgan and the great Rudy Royston on drums. Then on the 20th, the three add add violist Eyvind Kang.

At a time where every six-string player with fast fingers and absolutely nothing to say seems to be going into jazz, Frisell stands out even more. He can play lickety-split when he wants, but throughout his career, his songs tend to be on the slow side. This album is a clinic in how he does it, just guitars and Frisell’s trustly loop pedal.

The songs are a mix of new ones and stripped-down versions of older material. The standout among the album’s sixteen tracks is Change in the Air, a somber, plaintive, Britfolk-tinged pavane, Frisell methodically building lingering rainy-day ambience around a simple one-five bass figure. Like most of the other tracks, it’s over in less than three minutes.

Go Happy Lucky comes across as a minimalist collage based on the old blues standard Since I Met You Baby. In Line, which could be an electrified John Fahey tune, begins with a lusciously chiming vintage soul progression, then Frisell deconstructs it using every wryly oscillating, floating or echoing patch in his pedal: is that a twelve-string effect, or the real thing? Likewise, is that an acoustic that Frisell’s playing on the subdued, spare oldtime folk-style ballads The Pioneers, or just his Tele through a pedal?

Sometimes Frisell’s loops are very brief; other times he’ll run a whole verse or chorus. Kentucky Derby has one of the longer ones, a very funny juxtaposition of distorted roar and flitting upper-register accents. He expands very subtly on a stately oldtime folk theme in Made to Shine, then artfully makes a forlorn, abandoned, Lynchian ballad out of a purist Jim Hall-like tune in Miss You.

Another ballad, Monica Jane is more spare and lingering, Frisell turning up the tremolo and spicing it with the occasional tritone or chromatic riff for distant menace in a Steve Ulrich vein. There’s also a punchline, a long one.

In Pretty Stars, Frisell stashes a simple, twinkling two-note riff in the pedal, then makes soulful country gospel out of it – lots of history and a little mystery at the end. Rambler follows the same formula, in this case a surreal wah-wah figure that completely changes the mood from pensive to bemused, compared to the alternate take included as a bonus track at the end of the album.

Frisell salutes iconic bassist Ron Carter with a stark, saturnine theme, part 19th century spiritual, part Wayfaring Stranger, with a little Wes Montgomery at the end. The album’s most anthemic track is Thankful: methodically crescendoing with burning, distorted, bluesy leads. it’s the closest to rocking the hell out that Frisell does here. Although the simmering miniature Think About It is pretty loud too.

The album’s most wintry number is What Do You Want, again bringing to mind Steve Ulrich and Big Lazy in pensive mode. A blues with uneasy ornamentation, Winslow Homer has a similarly surreal cinematic feel. All this is another notch on the belt for a guy who might have made more good albums than anybody else over the past thirty-five years.

March 16, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Hot Jazz Jumpers Revisit and Reinvent the Wildly Syncretic Spirit of the 1920s

True to their name, the Hot Jazz Jumpers‘s sound springboards off of oldtimey 20s and 30s swing. And in the spirit of those mostly unsung, regional combos who ripped up dancefloors back in the day, the Hot Jazz Jumpers mash up styles from all over the map. The seventeen tracks on their new album The Very Next Thing and live concert dvd comprise swing, delta blues, southern rock, C&W, Carolina Coast folk music, free improvisation and more. So their sound is totally retro – yet completely in the here and now, another case where the old is new again. they’re playing the album release show on Friday, November 6 at 11 PM in the cozy confines at Pete’s, which should be party in a box – literally. As a bonus, guitarist/bandleader Nick Russo does double duty, opening the night at 10 with a set with his ambitious large-ensemble jazz project Nick Russo +11, who’re celebrating their ninth year in business.

The new album opens with a scampering take of Back Home Again in Indiana, sung by banjoist/guitarist/dancer Betina Hershey. Lots of period-perfect, quirky touches here, from the twin banjos, to Walter Stinson’s sotto vocce bass solo, even a dinner bell. They follow that with Freight Train, a dobro-driven oldtime C&W tune, Hershey’s honeyed vocals evoking Laura Cantrell. The take of Caravan here is a long, loose, otherworldly-tinged shuffle with vocalist Miles Griffith’s rustic, impassioned gullah-inspired vocals, Russo’s spiraling solo echoing Gordon Au’s jaunty trumpet lines.

Griffith’s gruffly animated scatting contrasts with Hershey’s summery warmth on You Are My Sunshine, reinvented as a sprawling soukous jam. Nobody But My Baby Is Getting My Love gets an oldtimey banjo swing treatment livened with Josh Holcomb’s wry, amiable trombone.  Russo and Griffith do both In a Mellow Tone and Manha de Carnaval as a duo, the ancient paired against the brand-new.

Driven by Russo’s slide guitar, Jock-a-Mo looks back to the Grateful Dead, if with considerably more focus. Dirty 40 slowly builds from stark delta blues to a Stonesy ba-bump Beggars Banquet groove. Fueled by the banjos and Hershey’s sassy delivery, Sweet Georgia Brown mashes up 40s swing, bucolic string band ambience and an Aiko Aiko Crescent City bounce. They keep the Aiko Aiko thing going through the spirited Jam for Lenny.

Hershey’s nuanced sense of angst breathes new life into a slowly swinging, bristling, banjo-propelled take of Ain’t Misbehavin. By contrast, they do Got My Mojo Working as a loose Mississippi juke joint jam, Russo’s slide guitar front and center. The upbeat dance vibe continues through the oldtimey swing of When the Red Red Robin Goes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along, then the band mashes up gospel, gullah folk and bluegrass in This Little Light of Mine. There’s also a second take of Jock-a-Mo and a lively jam on the way out. The album hasn’t officially hit the street just yet, but copies are available at shows and the opening track is up at soundcloud.

November 5, 2015 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jake Schepps Quintet Take Bluegrass to Unlikely Places

It’s likely that there’s a crowd of people who think the idea of playing classical music on bluegrass instruments is flat-out absurd. Then again, music is always evolving, and the musicians pushing that evolution are usually the bravest. The Jake Schepps Quintet have chops to match their utter lack of fear. Wednesday night at Subculture, the five-string banjoist and his group – Ryan Drickey on violin, Jordan Tice on acoustic guitar, Andrew Small on bass and Matt Flinner on mandolin – played an ambitious program that encompassed so-called indie classical as well as Nordic fiddling and a healthy dose of traditional Appalachian music. At worst, they came across as a less fussy take on the Punch Brothers; at best, they took a lot of chances, danced on cinders and came away for the most part unsinged.

The centerpiece of the program was Flinner’s four-part Migration, a vivid, uneasy suite that, as the mandolinist explained to a pretty full house, sought to explore how bluegrass made its way from rural areas to larger population centers like Knoxville and Baltimore. Growing from a stern, terse, ruggedly minor-key gospel theme, it slowly brightened, although it ended with a lingering lack of resolve. Along the way, there were plenty of choice moments for soloists throughout the band, at one point Small pushing a waltz interlude with a practically new wave bassline. And it worked as well as it did, because, as Schepps put it, Flinner comes out of “the tradition” and never lost sight of it, no matter how minimalist, or avant garde, or for that matter, cinematic, the piece became.

Small revealed himself as an inspired country fiddler on an animatedly pulsing, biting, original bluegrass number on which the band was joined by a guest bassist who just happened to be in town. Tice alternated between big, expansive, jazzy chords and nimble flatpicking, particularly on an elaborate, dynamically-charged, waltzing original. Drickey led the group through a bracing number from the Swedish-Norwegian border which gave the quintet a launching pad for plenty of high-octane solos.

The night got off to a slow start with a couple of works by contemporary composers from outside the group. The first was gingerly blues-tinged, with the unfocused yet cautious feel of a student work, one that came across as trying to avoid failure rather than reaching for victory. The second rehashed Steve Reich and Windham Hill with the kind of preciousness that plagues so much of the indie classical demimonde. So when Schepps led the group from there into a mashup of a Bartok Mikrokosmos etude (#87, maybe?) and a high lonesome traditional number, it took awhile for the band to shake off the stiffness. One up-and-coming composer that the group ought to seek out is mandolinist Vivian Li, whose irrepressible, distinctive style is a richly intertwining blend of traditional bluegrass and cutting-edge contemporary composition for traditional folk instruments.

The Jake Schepps Quintet is currently on tour; their next concert is Feb 7 at 8 PM at the Theatre at 291 Gay St. in Washington, VA, tix are $20/$10 18-and-under.

February 6, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, country music, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jennifer Niceley’s Birdlight Reveals a Unique, Captivating Southern Voice

Over the last few years, Tennessee songwriter Jennifer Niceley has distilled a distinctive blend of noir torch song, Americana, Nashville gothic, classic southern soul and blues. Her latest album, Birdlight, is streaming at Soundcloud. In recent years, the twang has dropped from Niceley’s voice, replaced by a smoky, artfully nuanced, jazzy delivery. The obvious comparison is Norah Jones, both vocally and songwise, although Niceley has more of an edge and a way with a lyrical turn of phrase. As with her previous releases, the new album features a first-class band: Jon Estes on guitars, keys and bass; Elizabeth Estes on violin; Evan Cobb on tenor sax; Steve Pardo on clarinet and Imer Santiago on trumpet, with Tommy Perkinsen and Dave Racine sharing the drum chair.

The album conjures a classy southern atmosphere: imagine yourself sipping a mint julep in the shade of a cottonwood, the sound of a muted trumpet wafting from across the creek, and you’re in the ballpark. The opening track, Nightbird, sets the stage, a nocturne with Niceley’s gently alluring delivery over a pillowy, hypnotic backdrop livened by samples of what sounds like somebody clumping around in the woods. The second number, Ghosts, is a balmy shuffle lit up by Estes’ deliciously slipsliding Memphis soul riffs, and picks up with a misty orchestral backdrop. .

Niceley sings New Orleans cult legend Bobby Charles’ Must Be in a Good Place Now with a hazy late-summer delivery over a nostalgic horn section and Estes’ keening steel guitar, and a little dixieland break over a verse. The Lynchian Julee Cruise atmospherics in Land I Love, from the swooshes and gentle booms from the drums and the lingering pedal steel, are absolutely gorgeous, Niceley brooding over her pastoral imagery and how that beauty “is never coming back.”

What Wild Is This switches gears for a lushly arranged, bossa-tinged groove; then Niceley switches up again with a gently swaying western swing cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ Hard Times. She keeps the jazzy-tinged atmosphere going with a restrained version of Tom Waits’ You Can Never Hold Back Spring.

But’s Niceley’s originals that are the real draw here, like Goodbye Kiss, a wistful lament that along with Land I Love is the most plaintive, affecting track here: “Unfinished visions keep hanging around like fog in the trees,” Niceley muses. The album’s title track is a brief inetrumental, Niceley’s elegant guitar fingerpicking against washes of violin and accordion. She winds it up with the hypnotic, surreal Strange Times, whose wary psychedelics wouldn’t be out of place on a Jenifer Jackson record. Lean back with a little bourbon and drift off to a place that time forgot with this one: what a great way to stay warm on a gloomy winter evening.

December 24, 2014 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jenifer Jackson’s Latest Brilliant Album Follows Her Deeper into Americana

It’s hard to think of a more brilliantly chameleonic songwriter than Jenifer Jackson. She can switch from honktonk to bossa nova to oldschool soul to psychedelia and absolutely own all of those styles. Throughout her career – from the Beatlesque tropicalia of her first full=length album Slowly Bright, through her most previous, more mistily bucolic The Day Happiness Found Me – one constant has been how economically she writes. No wasted notes, no wasted words, always straightforward and direct with an unselfconsciousness that can be downright scary. The other constant is that she’s always had an amazing band. She did a long stretch in New York for about ten years, ending in the late zeros, before setting down new roots in Austin. The change did her good, inspiring her to follow the Americana muse that always seemed to be perched on her shoulder somewhere.

Her latest album, Texas Sunrise, is streaming at Bandcamp. Jackson opens it with the gently evocative title track, fingerpicking her guitar against the warmly wistful backdrop of Kullen Fuchs’ vibraphone and Chris Meitus’ mandolin, Tony Rogers’ cello adding a stark undercurrent. A Heart With a Mind of its Own goes deeper into 50s C&W, period-perfect down to the fluttery cello multitracks. By contrast, the album’s other vintage country tune, Sad Teardrops is a hard-hitting hard-honkytonk kiss-off anthem worthy of early Loretta Lynn. And Paint It Gold, a duet with co-writer Fuchs, takes the idiom forward twenty years to the early 70s proto-outlaw sounds of bands like the Flatlanders.

Jackson’s voice can be fetchingly poignant, as on the warily introspective ballad Easy to Live, or the evocative, balmy atmospherics of the nocturne When Evening Light Is Low. And her gently ambered, vibrato-tinged vocals on the dreamily regretful Ballad of Time Gone By will give you goosebumps. Yet her most nuanced and quietly impactful moments are actually on the more upbeat material here, particularly the Rosanne Cash-esque In Summer, a blend of Americana and the elegant pop tunesmithing of Jackson’s early days, lit up by Fuchs’ one-man horn section.

Similarly, the most energetic songs here are the real knockouts. All Around, with its windswept angst and desolate shoreline milieu, evokes Steve Wynn at his most haunting and wintry. Fuchs colors the uneasy Texas shuffle On My Mind with accordion washes and swirls and then a soaringly aching brass section. A Picture of May plunges more broodingly into southwestern gothic, a plaintively stately, bolero-tinged number. The most quietly devastating track here is White Medicine Cloud, a hypnotic, metaphorically bristling anthem with an understated antiwar message, Jackson painting a great plains tableau that’s genuinely touching.

On a more sobering note, over the past few weeks Jackson has been battling an injury that’s forced her to switch to piano. Although she’s a competent player, guitar is her main axe, and not being able to play it has thrown a wrench in her ability to just pack up and perform pretty much anywhere. She’s pretty tough, so the longterm prognosis is optimistic. But if there ever was a time to support this resolutely individualistic artist, now is it. You can pick up the album at Bandcamp or Jackson’s merch page.

December 12, 2014 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Brilliant, Sometimes Haunting Lapsteel Player Brings His Genre-Smashing Instrumentals to Freddy’s

To New York audiences, lapsteel virtuoso Raphael McGregor might be best known as a key ingredient in Brain Cloud, Dennis Lichtman’s western swing band. Before that, McGregor served as the source of the vintage country flavor in Nation Beat‘s driving mashup of Brazilian maracatu and Americana sounds. But he’s also a first-rate, eclectic composer and bandleader in his own right. In addiiton to his more-or-less weekly Monday 7 PM Barbes residency with Brain Cloud, he has a monthly residency at Freddy’s, where he’ll be on Nov 20 at 8 PM.

His most recent show at Barbes leading a band was a quartet gig with with Larry Eagle on drums, Jim Whitney on bass and Rob Hecht on violin. They opened with a moody oldschool noir soul vamp and quickly built it into a brooding rainy-day theme over Eagle’s tense shuffle beat. Hecht took his time and then went spiraling and sailing upwards. Why is it that blues riffs inevitably sound so cool when played by strings? McGregor had a hard act to follow so he walked the line between Lynchian atmosphere and an express-track scurry, then handed off to Whitney who picked up his bow and took the song all the way into the shadows.

McGregor began the night’s second number with a mournful solo lapsteel intro that moved slowly toward C&W and then shifted uneasily into moody swing. It was like a more animated take on the Friends of Dean Martinez doing oldtime string band music. After that, they put a swinging southwestern gothic spin on a Django Reinhardt tune.

They also did a couple of straight-up western swing numbers, a brisk trainwhistle romp and a fetching version of Waltz Across Texas With You: much as they were a lot of fun, McGregor was pleasantly surprised to find that the crowd was more interested in hearing his originals. They opened their second set with a piece that began as an Indian-inflected one-chord jam that morphed into a bluesy duel between violin and bass, followed by a Frisellian pastoral interlude and then back to trip-hop Indian funk – all that in under ten minutes. All this is just a small sampling of what McGregor could pull off at Freddy’s.

November 15, 2014 Posted by | concert, country music, jazz, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Night to Remember with Tift Merritt and Simone Dinnerstein

Earlier generations might not be able to handle the concept of of juxtaposing Appalachian and classical music on the same stage. But songwriter/bandleader Tift Merritt and pianist Simone Dinnerstein have their fingers on the pulse of the future. Thursday night at their sold-out duo performance at Merkin Concert Hall, they held the crowd riveted with an intense, intimate performance that put each musician’s strengths under the microscope as they made unexpected connections between traditions from throughout the ages on both sides of the pond, Dinnerstein’s fiery baroque and Romantic interludes juxtaposed against Merritt’s elegantly plaintive chamber pop. Most of the material was drawn from the two’s nocturnal song suite, Night, just released (and reviewed at Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily).

The stage set foreshadowed what the concert would be: a pair of comfortable padded chairs at either side of the stage in low light from a couple of floor lamps. Merritt teased the crowd – “We’re not going to talk to you …we’re still not going to talk to you” – as the two made their way from Schumann, through a solo acoustic version of Merritt’s  plaintive Only in Songs, then glimmering themes by Schubert and Purcell. Dinnerstein’s gravitas and flinty irony balances Merritt’s biting wit and mercurial persona: they are very different peas in the same pod and obviously good friends. Merritt has established herself as a southern intellectual in the tradition of Faulkner and Welty; Dinnerstein represents for the old guard. Of the many eye-opening moments at this concert, the most impressive were when the two ventured into jazz, with a take of Billie Holiday’s Don’t Explain that was so sensual it was lurid, and a bit later an expansive, commissioned work from Brad Mehldau, I Shall Weep. Swing is a rare quality in a classical musician, but Dinnerstein has it: both she and Merritt have futures in jazz if they feel like it.

But it’s more likely that they’ll continue to cross-pollinate. Dinnerstein revealed a fondness for George Crumb and played resonant dulcimer lines inside the piano behind Merritt’s finely nuanced, wary mezzo-soprano. Merritt told how Dinnerstein had introduced her to an operatic rendition of the English folk ballad I Will Give My Love an Apple that Merritt instantly recognized from its slightly less antique American folk version – and then they played it as moody, lingering  art-rock. The biggest hit of the night was Dinnerstein’s rapidfire romp through the Allemande and Courante (make that tres courante) from Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G Major. Although Merritt admitted to being shy about playing the piano in front of her bandmate, she impressed with her own tersely brooding, gospel-fueled take of Small Talk Relations.

Dinnerstein’s subtle dynamic shifts followed a trajectory from bittersweetly neoromantic to bracingly modern throughout Daniel Felsenfeld’s Cohen Variations, a suite based on Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne. After Merritt sang a rapt, quiet version of Patty Griffin’s Night, the concert reached its peak with the poignant, crescendoing, saturnine anthem Feel of the World, which Merritt had written for her well-traveled grandmother. The duo encored with a very clever mashup of Gabriel Faure’s Apres un Reve with La Vie en Rose, which Merritt sang in flawless French. The two are soon off on US tour; the schedule is here. Dinnerstein is also at the Greene Space for an on-air performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on March 28 at noon; the performance is free but tickets are required.

March 23, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, folk music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hee Hawk Bring Their Haunting, Gorgeously Tuneful, Eclectic Jazz to NYC

For years and years, jazz composers from Ellington to Armstrong embraced simple major and minor-key harmony. Then the bebop crew revolutionized things, but in so doing opened the floodgates for generations of snobs who sneered at anything that might dare to reach for discernable emotional content or a tune that you could actually hum. Thankfully, the new face of jazz is 180 degrees from that. Massachusetts group Hee Hawk are a prime example of this New Tunefulness, and they’re making an auspicious stop in New York for two shows, the first on 3/19 at around 10 at Two Moon Art House & Cafe, 315 4th Ave. in Sunset Park and the next day, 3/20 at 9 PM at the Parkside. They’ve got a richly melodic new album out which is streaming at their Bandcamp page.

Bandleader Adam Lipsky’s compositions embrace Americana as well as gypsy and film music, often going off into absolutely lurid noir territory. That mood is enhanced on the album by the simple fact that the piano he’s playing is just a hair out of tune: when he rides the pedal, murky saloon piano overtones rise like smoke from the ground.

The first track, Cover That Man (Basketball) is one deadly game of hoops, late 50s cool Miles through the prism of Angelo Badalamenti, shifting from a slowly lingering noir sway to swing and back again with a tinge of dusky Ethiopian spice, Lipsky’s tersely resonant gleam punctuated by the occasional menacing guitar chord from Niko Ewing. Wake is what you might get from Bill Frisell scoring a Roman Polanski film, a dirge taken in a rustic direction by Nina Violet’s viola in tandem with Ewing’s dobro, Lipsky channeling Ran Blake in gospel mode, Mike Marcinowski’s boomy drums building the mournful mood in tandem with Steve Tully’s elegaic tenor sax.

With its slow Fever sway, brushed drums and smoky tenor, Dress Hips is lo-fi David Lynch, a torchy minimalist blues, Mary Lou Williams gone to the liquor store instead of Sunday services. The band’s signature track evokes Beninghove’s Hangmen with its bouncy blend of gypsy jazz, noir soundtrack bite and irrepressible oldtimey swing. through an unexpectedly ominous breakdown to its forceful conclusion. Likewise, the catchy song without words Singing Partner, Violet refusing to accede to any country cliches, Tully’s bright soprano sax fueling its tempo changes. The longest and most stunning of all of the tracks is Emerald, an increasingly shivery, creepy bolero, Lipsky’s otherworldly piano handing off to Violet’s mournful lines before Tully adds an unexpected optimism on baritone sax before the shadows overwhelm it. Of the countless albums that have made it over the transom here this year, this is one of the best in any style of music.

March 11, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Good Diverse, Twangy Tunes from American String Conspiracy

American String Conspiracy’s new album Help the Poor has pretty much something for everybody, if you like Americana roots music. Whether they’re playing bluegrass, or oldschool soul music, or blues, or rock, it’s a smartly produced, rich feast of good guitar from frontman Gary Keenan and brilliant, eclectic lead player Shu Nakamura. Longtime standouts on the always fertile New York roots music scene, their colleagues on this album include Ernie Vega on electric bass, Suzanne Davenport on violin and cello, and Charlie Shaw switching between drums and upright bass.

Keenan’s laid-back baritone kicks off the opening, title track (a witty original bluegrass tune, not the old blues song) with his former mates in the haunting, excellent Nashville gothic band Bobtown – Jen McDearman, Karen Dahlstrom and Katherine Etzel – on backing vocals. “Whether by the will of god or your maxed-out credit card, that could be you someday,” Keenan offers, a friendly rebuttal to those NYC subway posters discouraging passengers from handing over a buck or two to those in need.

The first of the rock songs is Never Too Late. Like the others, it’s got tasty layers of electric guitar and a spiky solo from Nakamura, and a nice instrumental out, everybody – violin, guitars and Shaky Dave Pollack’s harmonica – firing on all cylinders. Freddy’s King, a tribute to the great Texas blues guitarist, is a spot-on shuffle instrumental, Davenport’s stark, memorable solo followed by an exuberant Freddy K. seance by Nakamura, who really nails the style, going all the way up the fretboard with some joyously slashing tremolo-picking.

My Guitar is a successful detour into countrypolitan, while Wrong Road is straight-up country and pretty hilarious: it’s amazing the things people will do after too much Jim Beam and V8. Keenan’s mandolin lights up Cherry Pie, a salute to the kind of food that really hits the spot after smoking a little weed. Crawl, a slow, bitter rock ballad, has the women from Bobtown again, an ominous violin-driven outro and a starkly chiming, simple guitar lead over lush, jangly Telecaster. They go into country gospel with Little Hymn, then back to the secular stuff for Leave It Alone, another wryly funny song, this one for the smokers: “There’s far too many ways to get stoned – just stick with reefer, it’s a whole lot cheaper.” N.O. Blues, a biting, funky minor-key number, bitterly references the Katrina disaster. “Singing Nearer My God to Thee on the banks of Ponchartrain,” Keenan intones, with Trailer Radio’s Shannon Brown guesting on a verse. They mix country, Beatles and Tex-Mex into Maybe, a duet between Keenan and Brown, and echo that vibe more quietly on the slowly swaying ballad that closes the album. It’s yet another excellent, cross-pollinated hybrid to sprout up in the greenhouse of the New York country scene. American String Conspiracy are at 68 Jay St. Bar on Jan 4.

December 15, 2011 Posted by | blues music, country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment