Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

LJ Murphy and Curtis Eller: On the Same Stage At Last

The crowd at Banjo Jim’s Saturday night was stomping, clapping, making pigeon noises and singing “I’m gonna burn like a sweatshop fire” over and over again. In other words, pretty much what you would expect at a show featuring two of the world’s most charismatic rockers. LJ Murphy and Curtis Eller may not be household names, but each has a cult following that spans the globe, and legendary status as live performers. Murphy has been playing regularly here; Eller was up from his new home in North Carolina for a gig in Queens and then this one. It was sort of the underground lyrical rock equivalent of an Iggy Pop/James Brown doublebill, and it’s likely the two had never shared a stage before. They’re very similar: both draw deeply on the blues and write catchy, torrentially lyrical songs full of puns, double entendres and historical references. Murphy played with an acoustic trio featuring Tommy Hoscheid on second rhythm guitar and Patrick McClellan on piano; Eller’s show afterward was a solo performance on banjo. With his signature hundred-yard stare, Murphy and his band were tight beyond belief; Eller’s show afterward saw him going up on one foot, wielding his axe like a cross between Dontrelle Willis and Darryl Strawberry, wandering out into the crowd and engaging them in a series of animated singalongs.

Murphy opened with a tight, intense version of Geneva Conventional, a swaying minor-key blues about the consequences of selling out, McClellan’s rippling attack set against the lush backdrop of guitars. They steamrolled through the snide, angst-driven Imperfect Strangers, a twisted, Costelloish look at a failed hookup, then took the theme to its logical extreme with the resolute, morose oldschool soul ballad This Is Nothing Like Bliss. Long Way to Lose, Murphy’s most successful venture into vintage C&W, was especially amped, with the audience spontaneously getting involved. From there, Murphy careened through a scathing take of the cabaret-tinged blues Mad Within Reason (where “The music was sampled from Bach to James Brown/They saddled the mistress and lowered her down”), then a sun-speckled version of his biggest hit, the plaintive lost weekend scenario Saturday’s Down. Murphy took Barbwire Playpen, his sendup of Wall Street swindlers who spend more time in the dungeon than on the trading floor, down to just the vocals at its most vicious moments and closed with an unexpected choice, the quiet, Orwellian nightmarish Bovine Brothers. McClellan followed Murphy’s ominous revelation that “a sermon blares all night long from the roof of a radio car” with some spot-on gospel fills. And then it was over.

Intentionally or not, Eller continued the religious allusion with the surreal Nashville gothic Taking Up Serpents. Where Murphy’s everyman battles the system and encroaching fascism, Eller employs actual historical figures and events. The recently commemorated Triangle Shirtwaist Fire gets a sideways reference in Sweatshop Fire (that was the singalong), a grimly metaphorical evocation of all hell breaking loose. The brooding slow waltz Last Flight of the Pigeon Club offered a bleak outer-borough scenario: “If they find someplace better to die than New Jersey, I’ll probably go there myself,” the song’s eccentric hobbyist laments. An even more surreal, menacing minor-key blues number chronicled black crows circling the North Pole, satellites gone haywire and a storm outside unwilling to break (an ironic touch, with the torrential downpour outside the club). The most richly satisfying song of the night was Eller’s best one, the apocalyptic After the Soil Fails, creepy and terse with just the banjo and Eller’s chronicle of CIA-sponsored assassinations and third world misadventures. “The drinks are getting weaker with every round they serve: the way they keep us sober is getting on my nerves,” Eller snarled on the sarcastic Sugar in My Coffin; he closed the set with a hushed, chilling singalong of Save Me Joe Louis, based on what were supposedly the last words of the first man (who may well have been innocent) to be executed in the gas chamber. “Everybody is gonna have that moment when they step in front of a taxi, or fall down the stairs…or the gas chamber, and you’re gonna have your guy you call out for. And it’s gonna be a surprise for you…how many of you are going to be surprised to say, “Save me, Obama?” Eller asked the laughing crowd. “So when you’re singing, just think of your own Joe Louis – it could be Buster Keaton, Amelia Earhart, Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon…” From there, he let the audience whisper the chorus along with him. It’s hard to think of a more intense, memorable end to any doublebill in New York in recent memory.

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April 18, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

LJ Murphy and Willie Davis Tear Up Banjo Jim’s

Last night was New Orleans pianist Willie Davis’ last gig with LJ Murphy for a while – at least til Murphy gets down to Louisiana for some shows there. It figures – the buzz in the audience afterward was that in the year-and-a-half or so they’ve played together, this was their best show. Murphy kicked it off with his usual thousand-yard stare, shuffling Chuck Berry style out into the audience. He didn’t do the splits, but maybe that’s the next step. The New York noir rocker was in rare form, even for someone whose stage presence is notoriously intense. It brought to mind the famous incident where Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Rex Barney, who’d just walked a bunch of guys, received a visit on the mound from Burt Shotton. When Barney didn’t even acknowledge his manager’s presence, Shotton was angry at first, but then realized that Barney was so intently focused on the game that he was essentially in a trance. So when the crowd clapped along with the stately Weimar pulse of Mad Within Reason – which Davis had kicked off with a neatly ominous, rubato blues piano intro – Murphy didn’t seem to notice.

Like the oldschool jazz and blues players Murphy so obviously admires, there’s no telling what his songs are going to sound like from one show to another. The defiant Another Lesson I Never Learned used to be a hypnotic Velvet Underground style rock song; this time out, he’d reinvented it as a snaky, slashing minor-key blues. On Skeleton Key, the surprisingly sympathetic account of a stalker who doesn’t seem to know he is one, Murphy took it down very quietly at the end where the poor guy “received a letter from the courthouse yesterday: if I even try to talk to you, they’re gonna put me straight away.” Davis’ richly wistful chords gave the bitter lost-weekend chronicle Saturday’s Down a stunningly sad soulfulness; Murphy wound up a swinging boogie version of the surreal, menacing Nowhere Now with a furious whirl of guitar chord-chopping. But the best numbers were the newest: the vividly evocative Edward Hopperesque overnight scenes of the bluesy countrypolitan ballad Waiting by the Lamppost for You (originally written for Cal Folger Day), and a fiery, indomitable version of the anti-gentrifier broadside Fearful Town, its perplexed narrator “sitting on a bonfire in a night that never ends,” where “grandmothers go dancing in high heels and castanets.” For anyone who misses the old, more dangerous and vastly more entertaining New York as much as Murphy does, it struck a nerve. The duo closed with a brisky bouncing version of Barbwire Playpen, a characteristically savage chronicle of a hedge fund type who can’t resist the allure of the dungeoness: it could have been written for Eliot Spitzer.

After a long pause, an excellent accordion/clarinet/cello trio played klezmer, Balkan and Middle Eastern-flavored material: it would have been nice to have been able to stick around for their whole set (and it would have been nice if Banjo Jims’ calendar listing for the show hadn’t disappeared so we could find out who they were). Up the block and around the corner, Spanking Charlene were kicking off frontwoman Charlene McPherson’s annual birthday show at Lakeside: the place was packed, and the band was smoking or so it seemed. All the gentrifiers haven’t driven good music of the East Village, at least not yet.

November 21, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: LJ Murphy at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 4/24/10

LJ Murphy’s set last night started out incisive and sometimes menacing, picked up the pace and ended on a defiantly ecstatic note, the crowd afterward murmuring bits and pieces of whatever song lingered most resonantly to them. Murphy’s signature style is a noir, literate blend of oldschool blues and soul with a punk rock edge, sometimes venturing into other shades of Americana as with the gorgeously sad, swaying country song Long Way to Lose. Audiences frequently mistake that one for a classic by Hank Williams or someone similar – this crowd didn’t because it was obviously all fans.

Like the old blues and jazz guys Murphy admires, he’s been playing with a rotating cast of musicians lately. This time out featured first-rate New Orleans pianist Willie Davis and a drummer supplying a mostly minimalist beat on kick drum and cymbal. They set the tone with the ominous Weimar march of Mad Within Reason, the surreal, apocalyptic title track to his classic 2005 cd, kept the cynical double entendres going with the fast soul shuffle of Imperfect Strangers and then went deep into vintage blues with a more recent one, Nothing Like Bliss, a bitter chronicle of seduction gone hopelessly wrong: “Now that your train’s left the station, you might as well go home,” he reflected. The high point of the evening, at least the early part was Fearful Town, a minor key East Village nightmare of tourists and trendoids displacing all the familiar haunts, Davis throwing off a casual trail of sparks with his solo as he’d do all night.

Happy Hour, a savage afterwork Wall Street chronicle of young Republicans getting their freak on, took the intensity up, then Murphy brought it down with a cover of Doc Pomus’ Lonely Avenue (he’d learned it from Ray Charles and Van Morrison, he said), then his biggest hit, the gorgeously brooding Saturday’s Down and then brought the volume up again with the ferocious bluespunk of Nowhere Now. He closed with a couple other equally ferocious blues numbers and encored with a singalong of Barbed Wire Playpen, yet another swipe at Wall Street, in this case a hedge fund type who visits his favorite dungeon one time too many. Murphy dedicated that one to Goldman Sachs. The worse the depression gets, the more relevant Murphy becomes – it’s hard to imagine a more catchy chronicler of life among those of us whose Christmas bonus is simply having any job at all.

April 25, 2010 Posted by | blues music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Rebecca Turner at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 2/9/10

Tuesday night Banjo Jim’s still didn’t have its liquor license back (it does now), but the bar was covered in homemade goodies. Lemon snickerdoodles, chocolate cayenne cookies and a peanut butter cheesecake induced an instant sugar buzz. And there was also Rebecca Turner, a whole lot of catchy Americana songs, an excellent band and her exquisite voice. There are tens of thousands of women with good voices out there: Turner’s is something special, warm and crystalline without being saccharine, moving toward and then away from a Nashville twang depending on how hard the song rocked. With Skip Krevens on pedal steel, John Pinamonti on twelve-string guitar, Scott Anthony on bass, a new drummer and Sue Raffman soaring on harmony vocals for about half the set, she held a tough crowd (most of them actually big fans) silent and bordering on spellbound for the better part of an hour.

She stayed pretty much in major keys, playing mostly newer material from her most recent album Slowpokes. Turner’s turns of phrase are subtle and understated, sometimes wryly funny, often vividly aphoristic. Her hooks are just the opposite: the tunes get in your face, linger in your mind, notably the insanely catchy, metaphorically Tough Crowd with its delicious, syncopated riffs that slammed out into one of her most memorable choruses. It’s a good song on record; it’s amazing live. She’d opened with Listen, a contemplatively jangly country-pop number about intuition (Turner is a reliable source) that would be perfectly at home in the Laura Cantrell songbook, right down to the hushed, gently twangy nuance of the vocals. The Way She Is Now picked up the pace, a swinging, upbeat country-rock song sweetened with swells from the pedal steel. The Byrds-inflected Insane Moon gave Pinamonti the spotlight – his chiming twelve-string style is competely original, more of a incisive lead guitar approach (think Roger McGuinn on Eight Miles High instead of Turn Turn Turn).

Then she did Brooklyn. It’s one of the great Gotham songs, not just because it’s catchy but because it has so much depth. To paraphrase Turner, Brooklyn is so big because it has to deal with so much bullshit and yet so much transcendence: credit goes to the people who live there. She wrapped up the set with Baby You’ve Been on My Mind, the opening cut on Linda Ronstadt’s first album, where she admitted to finding out only later that Dylan had written it. With a gentle insistence, she made it her own, matter-of-factly warm rather than straight-up come-on. She’s back at Banjo Jim’s on 2/21 at 8:30 as part of ex-Monicat Monica “L’il Mo” Passin’s reliably good Americana night.

Erica Smith and the 99 Cent Dreams followed on the bill with their first New York show in awhile, a relatively brief set of jazz standards. Smith’s equally nuanced stylings moved from Julie London somber (Cry Me a River) to unselfconscious Ella Fitzgerald joy (Everything I’ve Got) to a deadpan version of One for My Baby, lead guitarist Dann Baker going back in time for a vintage 50s vibe while drummer Dave Campbell swung casually with the occasional Elvin Jones flourish or Brazilian riff.

February 12, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Amy Allison at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 1/23/10

Amy Allison is all business tonight. She usually has a running conversation going with the audience by the second song of the show, but this time it’s all about those songs. That there’s as much talent in the crowd (a cellist, pianist and chanteuse all arriving within the span of about a minute) as there is onstage says a lot about the quality of the music: Allison’s biggest fans are her peers. Behind her are Lee Feldman on piano and Jon Graboff on acoustic guitar. Both are making up most of what they’re playing as they go along – jazz musicians do this all the time, but to see Allison’s wry, gemlike country and Americana-pop songs serve as a launching pad for this kind of interplay is pretty special. The two guys watch each other: Feldman hints at honkytonk but doesn’t really go there, landing instead on a richly chorded, somewhat noir early 60s pop style (what Roy Orbison would have done with that guy in the band, one can only wonder). Graboff has done stretches in Allison’s band and has some parts worked out – when he doesn’t, he’s adding a bassline as a countermelody when she goes up the scale, or weaves in between piano chords. With Allison playing rhythm guitar, it’s a textural feast.

The sound is great: she can relax and use every nuance, pull back a little and say a lot. And she does. The best song of the night is Dream World, beautiful, bittersweet and awfully dark. In the crowd, the cellist leans over and whispers to the adjacent bass player: “Half of her songs are about sleep!” Those songs are actually about escaping – and that’s what Allison is offering tonight, lots of solace, some knowing vocals and songs that the crowd can sing to themselves on the way home.

Craig Chesler has assembled seemingly half the talent on the Lower East Side to play his new album all the way through afterward. But we’ve already reviewed it – it’s good – and as claustrophobia sets in with every new arrival, it’s time to head west toward Lakeside.

January 24, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Jenifer Jackson at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 1/21/10

Back from a trip to Austin, Jenifer Jackson’s got a band together again: Greg Wieczorek on drums and Jason Mercer on a gorgeous Danelectro SG copy bass. A couple of songs into the set, beaming, she announces that she’s rediscovered that she actually likes music. She should, with this band. Her songs are pretty and haunting when she plays them solo; with a rhythm section behind her, they are transcendent. She’s a pretty intense guitarist, and this comes across especially on the Ticket to Ride-inflected Down So Low as she wails on the downstrokes, on the beat. The band has re-energized her.

But this is Mercer’s night. Choice, tasteful pieces of broken chords on the slower, country-flavored ballads; slinky slides and bends on the more rocking songs, and every now and then he winds up a crescendo with few sweetly, quietly boomy chords. It’s a clinic in how to play bass and it’s free.

Boo Reiners from Demolition String Band gets cajoled into playing Telecaster on a handful of numbers and the effect is the same. He knows every country lick in the book, but instead he goes counterintuitive with bends and passing tones and immediately the songs go to the next level, and it’s effortless, or at least it looks that way.

The songs, as they always do, run the gamut – the joyous white soul jangleforest of Suddenly Unexpectedly; the practically noir, nocturnal pop of Maybe; a new country song that would elevate Carrie Underwood’s game to the big leagues if she or someone like her could find it and cover it; and a couple of big, hooky, upbeat rockers to close the set. The unrestrained joy shining in Jackson’s voice makes the contrast even more striking when she turns down the lights. Suddenly it doesn’t matter that it’s cold outside and that there’s a long train ride lurking ahead. In a word, transcendence.

January 23, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Monica Passin/Sean Kershaw and the New Jack Ramblers at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 4/24/08

It’s no secret that New York has one of the most vital, thriving country music scenes anywhere. Forget any snide commentary you may have overheard about urban musicians playing country: if anything, the music coming out of the New York country scene is far more traditionally-oriented than most anything Nashville is producing these days. Tonight’s bill paired two of the more popular country acts in town. Monica Passin, frontwoman of long-running Rodeo Bar honkytonkers L’il Mo and the Monicats played mostly solo acoustic, with occasional help from a couple of women who sang harmonies, and the New Jack Ramblers’ amazing lead guitarist. She’s pretty much everything you could want in a country singer: pretty voice, good songs, good taste in covers and backing musicians. Her best song was a minor-key rockabilly number – the first one in that style she’d ever written, she said – possibly titled This Cat. The lead player used Passin’s ominous chord changes as a springboard for a riveting, intense, jazz-inflected solo that drew roars of appreciation from the crowd. On the last song, Passin invited Lisa, the bar owner up to sing harmonies, and as it turned out she’s actually good! Not since the days when Juliana Nash ran the show at Pete’s Candy Store has there been a bar owner who’s been able to show off such a soaring, fearless voice. Bands in need of a frontwoman ought to stop by the bar: she won’t embarrass you, and if all else fails you’ll always have a place to play.

Sean Kershaw and the New Jack Ramblers aren’t exactly under the radar, maintaining a hectic gig schedule in addition to the regular Sunday night residency they’ve been playing at Hank’s for what seems forever. They’re a rotating crew of some of the best players in town: the weekly Sunday show originated out of necessity, as this was the only night everybody in the band didn’t have a gig. Tonight, backed by just lead guitar and upright bass (their awe-inspiring pedal steel player Bob Hoffnar wasn’t available, and you really don’t need drums in a small room like Banjo Jim’s), Kershaw ran through a mix of what sounded like covers but probably weren’t. The guy’s a hell of a songwriter, a prolific, versatile writer as comfortable with western swing as honkytonk, rockabilly or stark, Johnny Cash-inspired narratives. Tonight’s show was the western swing show, driven by lead guitarist Skip Krevens, whose ability to burn through a whole slew of styles was nothing short of spectacular, everything from jazz to rockabilly to blues. He made it seem effortless. They gamely ran through the old standard Smoke That Cigarette in addition to a bunch of originals, some recorded, some not, closing the first of their two sets with what has become Kershaw’s signature song, Moonlight Eyes. Originally recorded with his first band, the fiery, rockabilly unit the Blind Pharaohs, it’s a genuine classic, something that sounds like a Carl Perkins hit from 1956. Kershaw has played it a million times, but still manages to make it sound fresh, the ominous undercurrent beneath its blithe romantic sway more apparent than ever tonight, stripped down to just the basics.

And what was even more apparent was that both of the acts on this bill would probably be big stars in a smaller metropolis: here, they’re only part of a widespread, talented scene.

April 25, 2008 Posted by | concert, country music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Real Live Bluegrass in New York City? Yee Ha!

All you out-of-towners might be shocked to know that there’s a vibrant bluegrass scene in New York. The Dixie Bee-Liners, whose new album just hit #1 on the Roots Music Report got their start here. Since they left town, the best band around these parts is Straight Drive, whose gorgeously soulful performance of old-time, old school style bluegrass at Banjo Jim’s Saturday night would have made Bill Monroe proud. A lot of new bluegrass bands give off a coldly sterile, fussily technical vibe, but not this crew. Fiddle player Ronnie Feinberg made his marvelously precise runs look effortless. Banjo player Terry McGill was even more impressive when not soloing than when he was. He has great technique and a terrific way of building to a crescendo, but when he plays rhythm, he doesn’t just comp chords: he uses the whole fretboard, toying expertly with the melody. He threw everybody for a surprise by ending one song with a couple of high chromatics, and then bent the neck of his banjo ever so slightly to raise the pitch. Their new mandolinist is a vast improvement over the guy he replaced, the bass player pushed the beat along and frontwoman Jen Larson was brilliant as usual. Incongruous as it may seem, the most striking and haunting voice in maybe all of bluegrass belongs not to someone south of the Mason-Dixon line, but to this casually captivating architecture historian originally from Boxford, Massachusetts.

But she didn’t do the haunting thing tonight. This was Straight Drive’s fun set. This crew knows that a lot of bluegrass is dance music, and while they didn’t get the crowd on their feet, everybody except the trio of trendoids in the corner yakking away, oblivious to the music, were swaying back and forth and clapping along. Their version of Bill Monroe’s (Why Put Off Til Tomorrow) What You Can Do Today had fire and bounce; their cover of Hank Williams’ Blue Love was nothing short of sultry. The best of the vocal numbers, which they interspersed among the instrumentals, was a warmly swaying 6/8 number written by Larson that wouldn’t be out of place on a Dolly Parton record from the mid-sixties. Larson can give you chills but tonight’s show proved she can also make you smile and keep your head bobbing in time with the melody. Like most of the best New York bands, they don’t do a lot of shows here because the money is on the road, where audiences are used to lousy cover bands, and a show by a group like Straight Drive is a special treat that you can’t just see any old day.

February 11, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: Serena Jost at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 12/21/07

Arguably the best show we’ve ever seen her do. We’ve given Serena Jost a lot of space here this year, because she’s earned it. A cellist by trade, she did a long stretch in Rasputina before hanging out her own shingle. Tonight she started out on acoustic guitar, then switching to piano, then to cello and so forth. The songs in the set, a mix of new material and stuff from a long-overdue full-length cd were a richly melodic grab-bag of styles, from jazz to chamber-rock, with bits of gospel and surf music added for extra spice. Jost’s work is very intricate and very playful, and it was clear that the band of Julian Maile on reverb-drenched Fender guitar, Rob Jost (no relation) on upright bass and Rob DiPietro on drums were having a great time up there (after a crowd of fans, the bartender and another great songwriter each took a turn at the sound board, trying to get it working properly – the sound is always hit and miss here).

One accident of having dodgy sound was that it forced Jost to run her acoustic through the club’s little Peavey amp which was turned up to where it was about to break up into distortion. How fortuitous that was: suddenly the songs had a grit and a growl they’d never had before, and they liked it! One of the highlights of the night was the bouncy, irresistibly catchy piano pop hit Vertical World, which as it turns out may be about how New York is changing for the worse – Jost’s lyrics are very subtle, so it’s hard to tell – but at the end of the second verse, she ends up sardonically grinning, “here I am, in Krispy Kreme!” Another tune, I Wait, is something of a mini-epic that turns into a surf instrumental about halfway through. Maile played a mix of finely refined skronk and classic Ventures licks, ending his solo with some fast tremolo picking a la Dick Dale. Serena Jost jumped in and continued the solo, playing the same lick staccato on cello and the effect was mouth-watering. Her almost-namesake on bass (whose name is pronounced with a J instead of a Y) played sinuous, fast fills, sneaking in effortlessly to make a contribution to the melody whenever he had the chance. DiPietro felt the room perfectly and didn’t hit too hard, although he had plenty of opportunities to contribute to the songs’ crescendos and nailed all of them. It’s always more fun when the band themselves are clearly having a good time: tonight was a prime example. Serena Jost is doing a cd release show early next year, watch this space for details.

December 22, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: James Apollo at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 12/20/07

“They should do at least one song in Spanish,” remarked one of our crew. What a great discovery. James Apollo and his terrific band sound exactly like the late, great NY band Industrial Tepee in their more subtle moments. They do one thing and one thing only, and they absolutely nail it. They’re Southwestern gothic, with haunting, mariachi-inflected melodies, the occasional tango beat and a quietly dusky, otherworldly feel. We’d stopped in for a drink, still flying from another concert we’d just seen, feeling cynical to the point that we were all dreading whoever might be playing here tonight. Although Banjo Jim’s has had a good run lately – they’re picking up a lot of the spillover from the songwriters who are leaving the Living Room in droves – their stock in trade is still generally the kind of generic lite FM songwriters you hear piped over the PA in shopping malls.

Apollo sang and played acoustic, backed by an excellent lead player who played lush washes of sound on lapsteel, and occasionally on a Telecaster, using an ebow for sustain. From time to time, he’d flick on a percussion device that looked like a kick pedal but sounded like a rattle. Apollo’s rhythm section didn’t waste a single beat all night. His upright bassist delivered a pulsing, propulsive groove and his drummer, playing with metal brushes, set the haunting, hushed tone from which they never strayed. Every now and then he’d throw in a couple of judiciously placed thumps on the kick and the snare, or a rimshot or two, to keep things interesting, and he made them all count. Tonight was a great example of the best that can happen when guys with jazz chops decide to play rock: it was a clinic in subtlety and counterintuitive, smart musicianship.

With admirable restraint, they resisted the urge to turn one of the songs they played mid-set into straight-up rockabilly. The following cut, I’ve Got It Easy, from Apollo’s latest album Hide Your Heart in a Hive could have been early Calexico, or Friends of Dean Martinez with a vocal track, all sunburnt and slightly hallucinatory. They wrapped up the set – ten songs, all of them good – with a couple of numbers with a somewhat Tom Waits-ish, bluesy feel. Check out this band and share our delight in running into them, completely by accident.

[postscript: Banjo Jim’s happily grew edgier in the time since this review appeared, the Lite FM singer-songwriter types apparently staying home in Long Island or going back to the Living Room. We rated Banjo Jim’s Best Manhattan Venue in 2010]

December 22, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment