Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Curtis Eller at Highline Ballroom, NYC 1/25/09

This was one of those good-to-be-in-NYC days. A trip to the Met to see the retrospective for departing director Philippe de Montebello was worth the shlep. The theme is simply a selection of the best of what the museum has acquired during his long tenure there. Everything is out of context, medieval Indian silk battle portraits side by side with antique instruments, pre-Renaissance Italian paintings, firearms, a Vermeer and a Van Gogh, effectively engaging and challenging the viewer with a whirlwind of art forms so diverse that it’s impossible not to discover something new and intriguing. The exhibit is up through the end of the month: you should see it.

 

After that it was down to St. Thomas Church where the estimable John Scott delivered a rousing, heart- and soul-warming program of Mendelssohn organ works, closing with a particularly inspiring, energetic take of the Second Organ Sonata. To fans of organ music, Scott needs no introduction; much has been written about him in this space, all of it good. The afternoon’s program was yet another reminder of how brilliant and stylistically diverse he is.

 

Next stop was Highline Ballroom, where songwriter/banjoist Curtis Eller was scheduled to play. Seafoam and the Psychedelic Chain Gang opened. Maybe because 70s music is so easy to lampoon, there are a whole bunch of parody bands around town who make fun of various 70s styles, Rawles Balls, Van Hayride and Mighty High notable among them. This band not only spoofs the music but also the look. Their frontman, his shaved chest festooned with the silliest temporary tattoos you could possibly imagine, affects a swishy, flamboyant gay stereotype (a swipe at Queen or Judas Priest, maybe?). The rest of the guys in the band all have the dirtbag look straight out of Almost Famous. Their musical satire ranges from predictable and dumb – give them credit for really knowing how to write a REO Speedwagon/Styx power ballad – to laugh-out-loud funny. The rhythm section plodded along predictably with the occasional faux Led Zep drum interlude. The guitarist and violinist would each simultaneously take a garish, masturbatory solo without paying the slightest attention to what the other was doing. Compounding the tasteless 70s vibe were the troupe of strippers with hula hoops cavorting across the stage while the band played. They closed with their Stonehenge number, all phony suspense as the volume rose to a crescendo that never arrived.

 

Curtis Eller took the stage and immediately climbed up on his chair, raising his mic to about a ten-foot height. To call him a dynamic performer would be an understatement. He spun, kicked up his leg a la Dontrelle Willis (now THERE’S a Curtis Eller song waiting to happen: The Ballad of Dontrelle Willis, the suspense is gonna kill us), darted out onto the tables to sing unamplified and at the end of the show took several sprints along the perimeter of the space, running outside til he reached the limit of how far the wireless mic on his banjo would carry. Because of his choice of instrument and maybe also because his songs have such a rich historical sensibility, he typically gets lumped in with the oldtimey crowd. Which doesn’t really do him justice: while his melodies frequently have a dark, Tom Waits-y bluesiness, the vibe is pure punk rock, especially when the lyrics hit you. And they hit hard and unsparing, with an Elvis Costello/LJ Murphy style brilliance. Eller’s bullshit detector is set to kill, whether playing psychopathologist and making fun of twisted everyday people or holding politicians to a pre-Bush regime standard. “I was extremely disappointed that plane made it back to Texas,” he mused. “Now it’s not an assassination, it’s just a murder.”

 

He opened with the aggressive, characteristically sardonic title track to his 2004 cd Taking Up Serpents Again, following with a coal miner’s bitter lament and then John Wilkes Booth, a fiery, minor-key call to arms that made an awfully good anthem before that one Tuesday last November. Like so many of Eller’s songs, Come Back to the Movies, Buster Keaton worked on several levels, in this case as both a sly, tongue-in-cheek slap at the entertainment-industrial complex and a revealing connection between the curmudgeonly and the reactionary.

 

To his further credit, Eller got the surprisingly young, obviously moneyed crowd going, especially on a quietly harsh 6/8 ballad about pigeon racing. Introducing the song, he mimicked a pigeon call: “You can do it, just pretend you’re from Hoboken,” he deadpanned, and by the time he’d reached the middle of the song, the crowd was a chorus of rats with wings.

 

As much as he energized the crowd, he antagonized them. “You know who Jack Ruby was? Some of you?” And then followed with the best song of the night, a blazing version of the haunting Appalachian gothic number Sweatshop Fire, from his latest cd Wirewalkers & Assassins (one of our top 50 picks of 2008):

 

I’m going down to Antietam with a quart of bourbon in my hand

I’m going to kick the shit out of Vicksburg…

I’m gonna get fucked up like Ulysses S. Grant

Get as black as a Tuesday in 1929

 

He closed with the barely restrained rage of Sugar in My Coffin – “There ain’t no such thing as Elvis Presley from the waist down, that’s one thing I learned from tv,” and encored with an evocatively wistful cityscape, “Coney Island right where it should be.” For anyone with an appreciation for what New York has lost and might create again now that all the money for luxury condos has evaporated, this show was a hopeful summer breeze on a nasty cold night. Curtis Eller is at Banjo Jim’s on 2/26 and then at Public Assembly on 3/14 before going off again on European tour.

Advertisements

January 26, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

CD Review: Andrew Vladeck – The Magnet EP

Talented, popular Brooklyn multi-instrumentalist plying the oldtimey circuit. On this ep he shows off a fervently lyrical style over sparse, tasteful, mostly acoustic instrumentation. Andrew Vladeck packs a lot of words into a phrase in an almost hip-hop vein, with more than a little nod of the head to Dylan (specifically the fun, freewheeling, early Dylan). The five tracks here range from fast and fierce to slower and more contemplative. Hold Me Back is an up-to-the-minute frustration anthem lamenting the wretched state of the world: “Hard to sit here and watch them run us off the track…somebody better hold me back.”

 

You Can’t Kill Time is a dark, open tuned banjo blues, slide guitar ringing ominously in the background as Vladeck recounts the stark tale of a trip to nowhere. Magnet follows, a dexterously fingerpicked acoustic ballad and then the cd’s best cut, Chinatown. It starts off slow, eerily plinking banjo intro over slide guitar and eventually gets marvelously intricate, even psychedelic, with something of a Blonde on Blonde lyrical feel. The most rustic of the cuts here, The 21st Century is a bitter meditation on aging, death and soldiers gone off to war. Uncompromising as this album may be, it’s a very accessible cd: it could sneak its way into a lot of Jack Johnson fans’ hearts, a stealthy victory for smart songwriting.

December 6, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Al Duvall and Matt Keating in Concert 7/21/07

Al Duvall opened, playing a solo set to a small but enthusiastic crowd at a downtown tourist trashpit that shall remain nameless, and stole the show. He plays the banjo chordally, like a guitar, and writes authentic-sounding ragtime songs with thinly and not-so-thinly disguised dirty lyrics. Like the Roulette Sisters (with whom he sometimes performs), he’s an absolute master of innuendo. His biggest crowd-pleaser tonight was called Reconstruction, about a Civil War-era sex change operation. It’s funnier, and more grisly, than you could possibly imagine. Like the early 20th century songwriters he so clearly admires, he has a New York fixation, and a lot of the most evocative material he played tonight was set during that period here, including Steeplechase Bound, about a kid from Greenpoint going out to Coney Island for some R&R at the racetrack, and the predictably amusing Welfare Island (which is what Roosevelt Island used to be called).

Keating followed with an acoustic set, playing guitar and occasional piano, accompanied by upright bassist Jason Mercer (from Ron Sexsmith’s band). Keating’s most recent material has been on the Americana tip, and judging from the mostly unreleased stuff he played tonight, he isn’t finished with that genre yet. This may have been an acoustic set, but Keating made sure his guitar was good and loud in the mix, and wailed, leaving no one guessing how much of a rocker he really is. Of the new material, the most memorable tracks were Saint Cloud, his latest Bukowskiesque set piece, all loaded imagery; Before My Wife Gets Home, possibly the most ribald thing he’s done to date, an oldschool honkytonk cheating song that he played on piano; and the closing song of the set, the vivid Louisiana, inspired by a stop in New Orleans after the hurricane and Brownie’s masterful management of the disaster. He also played the intense, climactic Lonely Blue, which builds from a slow, deliberate series of screechy chords on the verse to one of his typically anthemic, major-key choruses and this went over especially well with the crowd. If the show was any indication, his next album will be as good as his last one, which was as good as the one before that, ad infinitum: living here in New York, we so often take for granted performers that people around the country wait for impatiently for months to see.

The reliably delightful Moonlighters headlined, but we had places to go and things to do; however, you can read a review of an excellent show they did at Barbes last month.

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

CD Review: Breadfoot Featuring Anna Phoebe – Tea with Leo

The heir apparent to the legacy of John Fahey teams up with an inspired violinist on this gorgeously rustic, fluid album of pastoral acoustic instrumentals. Like Fahey, Breadfoot blends 19th century folk, old-time country and delta blues influences but resists any impulse to be bound by the traditional constraints of any of those idioms. What results is equal parts great Sunday afternoon album and passout record: it’ll get you going as well as it gets you down for the night.

The opening track, A Hard Day in Manhattan wanders along with an understatement that would do Fahey proud, an exercise in subtlety and dynamics. It’s all melody, no garish flourishes or ostentation. The album’s second track, the wistful, 6/8 lament Hilary Rose is over too soon, barely into its sad, thoughtful testimonial. By contrast, the following cut, Polly Loved Me (I Know) is a rousing Appalachian dance, sparks flying from the frets of Breadfoot’s six-string banjo (!!) and the strings of the fiddle.

Of the other tracks on the album, the next one, International Esther is probably the most overtly Fahey-esque number and wouldn’t be out of place on Blind Joe Death. That’s high praise. Very nice hesitation time at the end of the tune. Kecha is guitar only, a brightly bouncing open-tuned Piedmont blues melody a la Pink Anderson. The album’s best single cut may be the thoughtful, gently pensive Smoking on the Stoop. The cd concludes with the 6/8 ballad On the Day that I Go, which would make a great soundtrack to that Twilight Zone episode – I think it was called Willoughby. You know the one, the guy takes Metro North from Manhattan, think’s he’s on the way home but he winds up back in the 1800s, watching thekids take hayrides through the dusty, unpaved streets of his town. There’s also a rousing bonus track that kicks in after what seems eternity.

Clocking in at under half an hour, this cd’s greatest flaw is its brevity: it leaves you wanting twice as much. And not that the violin isn’t a welcome accompaniment here, but for anyone who’s heard him live, Breadfoot’s idiosyncratic vision and brilliant melodicism come through clearest when he plays solo. See him when you can. When’s the last time you danced to a solo acoustic guitar instrumental, anyway? Cd’s are available online, at shows and better record stores nationwide.

April 22, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment