Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

Concert Review: The Zevon-athon at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 11/12/09

by Richard Wallace

Warren Zevon was an American songwriter whose vocabulary, both written and musical, earned him acclaim from the music press, his peers and his loyal following throughout a 30 year-plus career that ended too soon when he died after a short battle with cancer in 2003.  It may have been his Russian heritage that fueled many of his songs with an unforgettably rebellious, muscular, Cossack spirit.  

It must have been that same spirit that drove Nate Schweber to lead the cavalry into Banjo Jim’s on Thursday night for the very first Warren Zevon-athon. Schweber, frontman of the New Heathens, pulled together a band of stellar downtown Americana talent to perform a robust double barrel set of Zevon’s material. The audience that packed into Banjo Jim’s shared the small club’s confined, standing-room-only space with the dozens of musicians on the bill, and they reveled all night long, celebrating in the work of an indelible artist.

For this show, Schweber was joined by J.D. Hughes on drums, Alison Jones on bass, Rich Hinman (of the Madison Square Gardeners, among others) on guitar and Andy Mullen on piano, and together they were able to do an outstanding job of recreating the stylish west coast feel of Zevon’s early recordings.

Among the standup performances were Jesse Bates (“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”), Mr. Somebody (“I Was in the House when the House Burned Down”),  Mr. Somebodyelse (“Mr. Bad Example”) and Andy Mullen (“The French Inhaler”).  Schweber and his bandmates added “Frank and Jesse James”, “Mohammed’s Radio”, “Lawyers, Guns and Money” and of course the irrepressible “Werewolves of London.” In addition, Steve Welnter delivered “I Was In The House When The House Burned Down,” and Steve Strunsky performed “Mr. Bad Example”. 

But the highlights of the evening may have been the contributions of the female vocalists in the house:  Mary Lee Kortes of Mary Lee’s Corvette (“Desperados Under the Eaves”)  Charlene McPherson of Spanking Charlene (“Hasten Down the Wind”), Eleanor Whitmore (“Carmelita”), Monica Passin and Drina Seay (“Keep Me in Your Heart”).  Each one of these striking performances were done with a remarkable forthrightness and amazing compassion for the material. 

Leave it to Zevon. The Excitable One’s foot-stomping numbers are models of boyish swagger. A notorious womanizer, Zevon may have been dead for six years now, yet he can still charm his way through to all the female hearts in a room with his poignantly candid lyrics. 

And then Serena Jean Southam (of the Whisky Trippers) belted out “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” and the night was allowed to proceed to its fitful conclusion.   Leave it to Schweber, who’d courageously orchestrated the night, and yes, “His hair was perfect.”

November 19, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Amy Allison at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 5/30/09

In addition to being a great songwriter, Amy Allison is also one of the funniest performers around. Once she gets going it pretty much steamrolls from there, but this time out, playing solo for most of the show, she basically stuck to the set list without a lot of interplay with the crowd. Instead, it was a night of masterfully crafted, minute inflections that packed a wallop: she can say more with the careful twist of a phrase than most singers can in an album’s worth of songs. Most of the set was from her forthcoming, career-best cd Sheffield Streets (look for a review here toward the end of June when it comes out), including the title track. Allison lived in Sheffield, UK for a time when she was married, this particular number cataloguing some of the more amusing street names in the area: Spittle Hill and so forth. The song also sets up a joke, in that there are so many of them that they’re hard to remember. This time around (cheat sheet? – it was hard to see, there were so many people in the bar) she got through without a hitch.

Otherwise, it was a mix of styles: the rootsy, snidely cheery pop of Hate at First Sight; the gorgeously swaying country ballad Thank God for the Wine (what an appropriate song for the evening, from this perspective, anyway); an older tune, the catchy Everybody Ought to Know By Now, which she’d re-recorded for the new album as a duet with Dave Alvin, although she said wryly  that in retrospect, “It doesn’t work as a duet.”

 Toward the end of the set guitarist Rich Hinman of the Madison Square Gardeners, an occasional Allison sideman, came through the front door and immediately Allison did a doubletake. He’d been at one gig, he was about to play another, unbeknownst to the both of them, so he immediately plugged in his Telecaster, both she and the crowd immediately appreciative of his incisively thoughtful fills and a couple of brief solos. They ended with an audience request (Allison is always deluged with more than there’s time to play), her signature song, The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter, and with at least one member of her old band the Maudlins looking on, it was as fresh and funny as when she’d first debuted it some fifteen years ago. Watch this space for news of a cd release show somewhere.

June 2, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two LJ Murphy Sightings in One Week: Banjo Jim’s and Passout Records

The great New York noir rocker, like a lot of his colleagues, has been limiting his hometown shows lately. And why not? With the depression, you’d think more people would be going out, especially if a show is free, but so far, not so much. So, last week was a pleasant change of pace. In addition to LJ Murphy’s gigs at Banjo Jim’s on the 14th and at Passout Records in Williamsburg a week later, he’d also squeezed in another, completely unadvertised show at a gallery in Bushwick. Which is the wave of the future: as the crowds in the usual expensive places dry up, we’re going to see new ways of the music following the people and vice versa.

 

The Banjo Jim’s gig was a duo show, Murphy on acoustic backed only by a new piano player, obviously classically trained, playing mostly rhythm which added a nice textural feel to Murphy’s darkly blues-based material, especially on a remarkably bleak version of the soulful yet snide Falling Backwards Up the Stairs. The Weimar blues Mad Within Reason – title track to his latest cd – also benefit from the format. He pulled out a new one, This Is Nothing Like Bliss and gave a vintage Ray Charles feel to its sardonic narrative of a pickup scene gone horribly awry: “Beware the wages of sin get under your skin, oh beware!”

 

Beyond all the double entendres, the fearlessness and the flat-out charisma that Murphy brings to every gig, another factor that makes him worth seeing more than once is that he’s a compulsive rearranger. Let’s see: this makes the third time he’s reworked the melody to the classic afterwork anthem Happy Hour (“About young Republicans getting their freak on,” he explained). Likewise, the once stomping Bovine Brothers – about older Republican types getting their freak on in an entirely different way – is now a slow 6/8 blues, trading energy for extra breathing room for the song’s caustic lyrics.

 

Passout Records was a solo acoustic show, completely different crowd (why do you think musicians do this, anyway? To play to the same people time and time again?). To those who haven’t discovered this place, it’s time you did. It’s on the block on Grand between Beford and Berry in Williamsburg, one that doesn’t get as much foot traffic as those to to the immediate south, with all the shi-shi bistros etc. Lots of vinyl, not all of it punk, either: some choice jazz stuff, a generously stuffed dollar bin and cds too. And zero pretense. So Murphy fit right in. Without taking off the black hat or the black wraparound shades, he burned through many of the same songs as at Banjo Jim’s. The big audience hit, no surprise, was the wistfully chilling 6/8 ballad Saturday’s Down (keep your eyes out for this one on our Alltime Top 666 Songs list), a late afternoon McCarren Park tableau that pans to “buzzing buzzers, ringing bells and twisting little knobs.” Nice to see him pull out another old crowd-pleaser, the straight-up Blue Silence, which may have been in the shop. At least this guy maintains his songs on a regular basis. Maybe that’s one of the reasons they sound so fresh.

March 24, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , | 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: Amy Allison at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 10/13/07

Allison defiantly seems to enjoy playing without a net. New York is dotted with good musicians who’ve played with her over the last few years, and lately she’s been pulling them out of the woodwork one by one. Because her schedule is so hectic, there’s never much time to rehearse, so she usually shows up without a set list. A cult artist with a devoted following who seem to know every song she’s ever touched, outtakes and obscurities included, she’s constantly bombarded with requests. And the love goes both ways: she does her best to indulge them, even if this means tackling songs she hasn’t performed in long time. Not an easy task, and even more difficult for her backing musicians. To further complicate matters tonight, Allison eventually divulged that she was on her way back from a memorial service for a friend, and just getting over a cold. Somehow she reached back and found something extra, in fact more than enough to compensate for however miserable she might have been feeling. Her voice might not have felt completely there, but it was impossible to tell: she nailed every note she sang. Tonight’s show was a telling reminder of what a great song stylist she is, improvising a lot of harmonies against the melody with a tone that varied from hushed and troubled to soaring and sweet.

 

Which is no surprise, because Allison is a great performer, a very charismatic one at that, somebody who’s earned a place in the pantheon alongside Iggy and James Brown and Tammy Faye Starlite. But her charisma is completely different from theirs. It’s a lot quieter, and very endearing. Allison is the kind of performer you root for: you want her to remember what key that 15-year-old song is in and you hope she had enough coffee before the show so she doesn’t get a migraine. A lot of her songs deal with being alone, although Allison seems to be pretty adept at it. She laughs at herself a lot, when she’s not cracking jokes at the audience – when she’s at the top of her game, she’s one of the most hilarious performers you will ever see. On one song, she forgot the words and vocalised along with the melody until they came back to her. “I need to make room in my brain for new lyrics,” she explained.

 

Allison and her longtime pedal steel player Bob Hoffnar – who dazzled all night with his tasteful, understated playing – opened with the wry Garden State Mall, followed by Troubled Boy, from her most recent album Everything and Nothing Too. The set list, such that it was (mostly audience requests) mixed upbeat, sometimes drolly entertaining songs from her first two country albums, including the jazz-inflected Don’t Go to Sleep, the big audience hit Sad Girl (which is something of a signature song for her), This Misery and All the Pretty Things to Buy with a lot of more recent material, including several spectacularly good unreleased numbers. If Allison’s lyrics are to be taken on face value (a dangerous assumption, but what the hell), the last couple of years have been something of a dark night of the soul for her. “Should I play another I-just-want-to-sleep-or-kill-myself songs?” she mused aloud. To her credit, the recent past may have been a rough ride, but she’s mined the depths for the best songs she’s ever written, including a bunch she played tonight. The slowly lilting girl-power anthem Have You No Pride packed a punch, a vivid reminder that a woman doesn’t need to look to a boyfriend for validation. No Frills Friend, an ironically upbeat, catchy account of a woman so desperate for companionship that she’s willing to hang out with someone who won’t even say a word to her was nothing short of scary. The best of the new songs tonight was Dreamland, a perfect capsulization of where Allison’s writing is right now: she can’t resist the urge to tell a clever joke, even while darkness descends to completely engulf her. But not all is completely gloom in the new Amy Allison catalog, as she proved with a touching, wistful reflection on hope and renewal called Calla Lily.

 

Another new one, The Last Mardi Gras, with its amusing “doot doot doot” bridge and lyrics (“I hear the distant music of the band/I’m losing all the feeling in my hands”) worked both as evocative elegy for a lost city and smashing countrypolitan hit. She finally closed the long, 90-minute show with Turn Out the Lights, her best song, a suicide anthem that ranks with anything Joy Division or Phil Ochs did for its starkness and bravery, humming calmly while staring into the abyss. I’ll take Amy Allison at eighty percent over anyone else at a hundred. “I’ve had my fill of restless nights/I’d just as soon turn out the lights.” But leave the night light on, Amy, we need you more than ever in times like these.

October 15, 2007 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment