Pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album was #489:
Bee & Flower – What’s Mine Is Yours
The New York/Berlin band’s 2004 debut is a stark, often haunting mix of stately, slow-to-midtempo art-rock songs: some of them dirges, some more atmospheric, with slight variations on frontwoman/bassist Dana Schechter’s various shades of grey. The catchy, relentless opening track I Know Your Name sets the tone, followed by the aptly titled, glimmering Twin Stars and the menacing funeral processional Wounded Walking. The pastoral Carpenter’s Fern is as light as it gets here; On the Mouth the most upbeat, which is not really a lot. There’s also the sardonic Let It Shine and then anthemic, Joy Division-tinged closing cut, This Time. Everything else the band has released since then is worth a listen; here’s a random torrent via My Melomania. The album is still available from the band.
The big show happened at the Orensanz Center Friday night. Because the night had to end before midnight, it was like the Rolling Stones Revue, 2010 style: everybody got short sets but made the most of them. Spottiswoode opened, solo on piano. He’s never sounded better. He has a musical theatre production coming up in the fall and if the trio of brand-new songs he played are any indication, it ought to be good. Intense and pensive, he began with a gospel flavored number, following with one of the best songs of the whole night, a bitter, brooding wee-hours tableau possibly titled Wall of Shame. He then dedicated a passionate ballad to a pretty, short-haired brunette in the crowd named Nicole: “I would follow you to Philadelphia,” he intoned.
Barbez have never sounded better either – their set was amazing, maybe the best of the entire night, an offhanded reminder of how brilliant this band is. Even more impressive, when you consider that their van had just been broken into the previous night, most of their gear stolen (Williamsburg bands beware – this is the second one in two days). This was their instrumental set, all minor keys, erasing all cross-country and cross-genre borders with perfect effortlessness. Guitarist Dan Kaufman led the band into a Balkan surf groove in 7/8 time, building to a squall with the clarinet going full blast, down to a masterfully nuanced passage featuring the marimba, then bringing it up again and ending it cold. The next one had a tango flavor, more prominent marimba and tricky rhythms. After that, they worked down from a furious gallop to atmospherics and then more tango, then started the next one with an ominously funereal, minimalist rumble that picked up in a rawtoned Savage Republic vein, ending with a creepy, carnivalesque waltz.
Since Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch had booked the night, he was pulling triple duty onstage, his first set of the night being with his longtime sparring partner Little Annie Bandez. This was the cd release show for their new one, Genderful, arguably the high point of their career together up to now. The crowd was silent, rapt, amazed – as a raconteur, Bandez has no equal, but since time was tight she kept the songs tight and terse and absolutely haunting, beginning with Wallfisch on guitar and backed by the full band on a wistful, sad version of Billy Martin Requiem, a tribute not only to the fallen Yankee skipper but also that era’s AIDS casualties. “Thirty years in business to learn a word like ‘monitor,'” she joked as soundman Marco, on loan from the Delancey, made some expert adjustments (big up to Marco by the way – the sound was outstanding all night). The wee-hours lament Suitcase Full of Secrets was poignant and loaded with understatement, on the wings of Heather Pauuwe’s violin; they closed with a brand-new song, Dear John, a requiem for a suicide. Bandez looked up, then around at the majestic synagogue facade behind the stage and did a slow, thoughtful 360, leading the crowd’s eyes just as she’d led their ears.
Bee and Flower have been conspicuously absent from the New York stage, but they haven’t lost a step. Frontwoman/bassist Dana Schechter began their all-too-brief set as chanteuse, swaying and playing shakers on a particularly haunting version of the slowly sweeping, characteristically cinematic minor-key 6/8 anthem Homeland. They picked up the pace briefly with a bouncy number that saw lead guitarist Lynn Wright (leader of the amazing And the Wiremen) swooping on his low E string to provide a second bassline against Schechter’s slinky groove. Switching pensively from tango inflections to starlit wonder to a pounding, hypnotically intense version of Twin Stars, a standout track from their first album, the only thing missing was the epic suspense film for which the songs would have made the perfect score.
The crowd peaked for Botanica, who were serenaded on and then offstage, from the balcony overhead, with the exquisive and otherworldly Balkan vocals of two completely unamplified singers, Black Sea Hotel’s Corinna Snyder and her equally haunting pal Kelly. Wallfisch had just played keys for Bee and Flower, so he switched to his battered Wurlitzer-and-organ combo and then went into a zone. Guitarist John Andrews blasted out wild Dick Dale-style tremolo-picked passages, playing through a skin-peeling cloud of reverb and delay. He also sang what might have been the best song of the whole night, the menacing art-rock epic Xmas, opening with just guitar and vocals for a Beatlesque verse, finally exploding with a crash on the second chorus. Their opener, the title track to their new album Who You Are (whose release was also being celebrated this evening) moved from stately menace to unaffected, longing angst; La Valse Magnetique, sort of the title track to their previous studio cd, featured more insane surf guitar and a very pregnant pause. Monster surf met Elvis Costello on a pointed, relentless version of the gypsy-punk Witness. There were other acts on the bill, but after a set like this, anything that followed it would have been anticlimactic – after five bands, maybe more (this is just the highlights), it was time to take a break and enjoy what was left of the early summer evening outside.
So sold as we were on this show (in case you were away, we plugged it shamelessly for a week), it pretty much delivered on its promise. The weekly Small Beast concert upstairs at the Delancey – from which this sprang – is the closest thing we have these days in New York to what CBGB was in the 70s, or what Tonic was from 1995 to 2005: the most fertile, fearlessly imaginative rock and rock-oriented scene in town. And from a blogger’s perspective, it’s a dream come true – for the price of a few hours worth of an otherwise fairly useless Monday, it’s an absurdly easy way to keep in touch with some of the world’s most vital rock and rock-oriented acts. Shame on the other Manhattan venues for not doing something like this on a Saturday and promoting it to a wider audience.
Another year, another great album by Botanica. That the latest cd by the inimitably dark, gypsy-tinged art-rockers is their first American release in ten years says more about the state of the music industry than just about anything else. Consider: the 9/11-themed 2004 cd Botanica vs. the Truth Fish, the best single-disc rock album of the entire decade of the zeros, never saw an official US release (although like the rest of the Botanica catalog, it’s up at itunes). Fortuitously, the band will be celebrating this one at the Big Small Beast at the Angel Orensanz Center on Friday, May 21, a night that could be the single best rock show in New York this year, and which kicks off with an hour of free beer. This album will be available there not only as a cd but also on limited edition white vinyl.
Where does it fall in the Botanica pantheon? It’s one of their best, and it’s warmer than anything they’ve done before. There’s still layer upon layer of John Andrews’ otherworldly, echoing reverb guitar, Paul Wallfisch’s menacing, smoky organ, piano and vocals and uneasy, wide-awake worldview, but this one’s somewhat more inviting, less assaultive than their previous albums. One notable development is the inclusion of several outstanding songs by Andrews, who brings a highly individual, ornately Beatlesque, wryly lyrical sensibility. Another is the album’s more straight-ahead rhythmic feel. Previous incarnations of Botanica explored all sorts of tricky time signatures, but this one sticks pretty much with the 4/4 – and yet, the rhythm section, Dave Berger on drums and either Dana Schechter (of the majestically cinematic Bee & Flower) or Jason Binnick (of haunting noir Americana rocker Kerry Kennedy’s band) on bass is perhaps more subtle than this band’s ever seen.
The title cut opens the album. Underneath the stately sway of this beautiful, crescendoing anthem, the menace of the lyrics contrasts with the longing of the melody, for someone other than the gestapo to know exactly who you are and what you need. The second cut, Witness builds from noir Watching the Detectives-style reggae to a clenched-teeth gypsy dance with some savage tremolo-picking from Andrews. Cocktails on the Moon, by Andrews takes an artsy late Beatlesque melody and makes it sardonic and surreal – like several other tracks here, the band it most resembles is legendary Australian art-rockers the Church. By contrast, You Might Be the One is scorching and percussive, like the Church in a particularly violent moment, with lush vocals from co-writer Schechter. With its pensive Weimar cabaret sway, Anhalter Bahnof reflects on the reslience of the spirit in the midst of materialism. Xmas, a big psychedelic anthem, is an otherworldly cloudburst of guitars, strings and gorgeous vocal harmonies that float sepulchrally throughout the mix, followed by the much more straight-ahead Perfection, fast and scurrying with a rapidfire lyric: Elvis Costello in a gypsy disguise. The version of Because You’re Gone (also recorded by Wallfisch with Little Annie, who wrote the lyrics, on their new album Genderful) is all frenetic manic depression reverberating off the keys of the Wurlitzer. Then, turning on a dime again, Wallfisch offers what could be considered the centerpiece of the album, For Love, its hypnotic Moonlight Mile ambience gently crescendoing to an understatedly majestic soul ballad.
The understated epic grandeur continues with some soaring slide work from Andrews on Backlit (the title referring to the phone numbers of Wallfisch’s dead friends’ numbers on his crumbling old Nokia phone). “Don’t know what to do with the dead,” he rails. Whispers and Calls sets a 1950’s 6/8 doo-wop melody down in Beatle territory, toy piano carrying the tune out eerily at the end. The album ends with the ghostly and hypnotic yet defiant So Far from Childhood, which could be the great missing track from Heroes by Bowie. Best album of the year? Certainly one of them – and available on vinyl at the Big Small Beast.
The Big Small Beast happens at the Angel Orensanz Foundation, 172 Norfolk St. on the Lower East Side on Friday, May 21. It might be the best New York concert of 2010- and it starts with free good-quality Magic Hat beer for an hour if you have a ticket. Which alone might or might not make it the year’s best rock and rock-oriented show. Performing (in order) are Lapis Lazuli, Spottiswoode, Services, Barbez, Little Annie and Paul Wallfisch, Black Sea Hotel, Bee and Flower, Botanica, Savoir Adore and Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson. We spoke with Wallfisch, who’s doing quadruple duty, playing with Bee and Flower (whose keyboardist Rod Miller stayed in Berlin after the band’s sojourn there), Little Annie and Botanica (whose new album Who You Are is enjoying its official release) as well as curating the whole thing.
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: Are tickets still available?
Paul Wallfisch: Yes – you never know how long they’re gonna last. You can get them at the bar at the Delancey after 5 PM on any day, or at Other Music [15 E 4th St. just west of Lafayette]-, or ticketweb, (866) 468-7619. Seven bands, plus free beer from 7 to 8, plus an extra show, for $20. Music starts right away at 6:30, and after the show with a ticket you get free admission to the afterparty at the Delancey at midnight with the debut performance of Hallelujah, who are a 50/50 mixture of the Fever and the Flesh. Other Music – let’s hear it for Other Music! – is giving $3 off cds by all the Big Small Beast artists through May 21, plus the first two people who buy a pair of Big Small Beast tickets at other music get a free copy of the new Botanica cd Who You Are.
LCC: Is there a theme to the night or is this basically just an unusually good multiple-band bill?
PW: The theme is the eclecticism of what makes New York great. The artists range in age from twenties to fifties, but all produce unique music – dance, electronica, rock, instrumental, art-song. Most bills try to be as homogenous as possible. And many bands seeems to be more concerned with finding a retro musical niche to conveniently pilfer. That’s not the case here. And despite the incredible diversity of sounds, there’s at least a tenuous personal connection running through the entire lineup. Besides that, in curating the Small Beast at the Delancey on Monday nights and this Big Beast, I always try to get away from a focus on the singer-songwriter strumming the guitar. So that’s a theme – as little of that shit as possible. And the irony would be embedded in the intelligent lyrics and not the posturing of the performers. We’ve got that here too.
LCC: As someone who, other than putting together the weekly Small Beast show, is a working musician rather than a promoter, give us your perspective of the acts on the bill.
PW: In lieu of a dj, Lapis Lazuli will serenade the crowd as they enter. That’s Kurt Wolf – Pussy Galore, Boss Hog and Foetus are his pedigree. Go to lapislazulimusic.com to see one of the kick-ass best music websites ever! He’ll offer us between-act soundscapes as well. Spottiswoode is next, then Services.
LCC: Services used to be Flux Information Sciences, right?
PW: That’s correct. Trztn, from Services co-wrote and produced two songs that Karen O sang in Where the Wild Things Are. Then Barbez are going to play, then I’ll be playing with Little Annie…
LCC: The two of you have a new album, Genderful, just out, is that right?
PW: Yes, in fact this is the cd release for Genderful, the first day it will be available. It came out in the UK about a week ago. Andrew W.K. appears on it; Martin Wenk from Calexico also plays trumpet on one song as well as doing the same on Botanica’s new album. It’s also the cd release show for Botanica’s new album Who You Are, which will be available on limited edition white vinyl – it’s available at all the usual places like itunes and amazon.com but this will be Botanica’s first US release, stateside, in ten years, believe it or not. The official release date is May 25; you can pre-order it now.
LCC: Bee and Flower are playing after Little Annie, they haven’t played a US show in ages.
PW: This will be the only US show by Bee and Flower this year – their only 2009 show was at the Small Beast. In fact, this is the original B&F lineup, plus I’ll be playing keyboards, plus Danny Tunick from Barbez on drums. Black Sea Hotel will serenade the audience from the balcony before and after.
LCC: I really enjoy Black Sea Hotel’s otherworldly Balkan vocal music, but I don’t know the headliners, what can you tell us about them?
PW: Savoir Adore are a couple from Brooklyn, signed to the same label as MGMT. They sold out the Mercury last time they played there. They have a certain Stereolab quality, a pleasant chamberpoppy thing – but not like Vampire Weekend at all. Miles just made two really good records, he’s the youngest guy on the bill and the most oldfashioned fella of all of them. He has something of that plaintive yet thick sound that Black Heart Procession can muster at their finest, and also a Velvets thing, but more like their soul-informed moments. But really doesn’t sound like any of that – primarily due to his unique voice.
LCC: I’m amazed by the sheer number of good bands on the bill. Is everybody going to play a short set a la the Rollling Stones Revue, 1964?
PW: We have a soundscape by Lapis Lazuli, 45 minutes apiece from two headliners, about a half hour for everybody else, short sets from Services and Spottiswoode. The music and bar stops at 11:30: the Delancey is just around the corner, everybody’s invited to the afterparty there.
LCC: Why the Angel Orensanz Foundation? Do you really think that a crowd who’re used to old warehouse spaces and dingy former bodega basements will appreciate the old-world haunted-mansion beauty of this converted synagogue?
PW: No disrespect to, say, Cake Shop or Lit Lounge, but there’s such an element of struggle for bands, with little reward, that I thought it would be great to put on a “local” show in the best local venue possible, a venue we can all be excited about inhabiting for a few hours. Visually and sonically, the Angel Orensanz Foundation is such a spectacular place. We all settle for less so often that I think the beauty of the venue alone will inspire audience and artists to come together for a particularly special night. The venue, being one of the last examples standing of the hundreds of Lower East Side synagogues, is a great place to celebrate a night of timeless New York music. I’m an atheist, but the institution of religion has given us a lot of beauty over the ages.
LCC: Is this show, the Big Beast, the logical extreme to which the Small Beast can be taken? Or do you envision a Beaststock or Beastaroo at some point? Beast on the River? Beastsplash?
PW: Lollapabeasta! I can’t believe I’ve become an impresario. There will be a monthly Small Beast Germany for nine months while I’m over there – and maybe a one-off Small Beast in select cities – Paris, Berlin, London, Istanbul, possibly. Attractive as it is, it’s killing me. I’m being devoured by my own beast, I feel like Dr. Frankenstein, I’m being swallowed whole by my own Beast! Although I do derive a lot of pleasure from the evenings.
LCC: What reality tv stars will be there? What do we tell all the Lindsay Lohan wannabes out there who’re debating whether or not to get a ticket to the show because they don’t know if they’ll be able to tweet about all the celebrities they brushed elbows with on the way out of the bathroom?
PW: I like Lindsay Lohan! People have told me that celebrities come to the Small Beast. I wouldn’t know. I never recognize anybody.
Botanica are off on European tour starting February 16 (their myspace has the complete list of dates). Friday night’s show at the Knitting Factory went from incandescent to pyrotechnic, transcending a wretchedly muddy sound mix, leaving no doubt that they are still New York’s best band, possibly the best band in America right now. EU audiences are in for a richly melodic, menacingly hypnotic treat over the next couple of months.
Along with frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch (heavily duct-taped since he’d ripped his trousers earlier during the day doing only god knows what) were longtime guitarist John Andrews – equal parts Daniel Ash and Dick Dale – along with bassist Jason Binnick (of Kerry Kennedy’s band) and Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione propelling the juggernaut with a joyous, careening Tamir Muskat-esque intensity. Bee & Flower’s Dana Schechter lent her soaring wail to a mercilessly pummeling, murderously reverberating version of a new Andrews song, You Might Be the One. The title track from the new album Who You Are, a defiantly unfashionable, insistently soulful defense of all things passionate got an especially energetic treatment, keys and guitar refracting a pointillistic metal-in-the-microwave Moonlight Mile vibe on a long, extended outro.
Andrews turned into Mr. Moto, tremolo-picking the opening bars of their first number, What You Need with a casually macabre reverb-fueled menace that turned warm and soulful on the chorus, only to revert to haunting, cautionary mode seconds later. This is the most diverse – and inclusionary – version of the band so far, with songwriting contributions beyond the constantly deepening Wallfisch catalog: the Binnick song they played was a strikingly warm, upbeat 6/8 ballad imbued with a vintage sixties soul feel. But the old classics still resonated: the stately, anguished requiem for lost time And Then Palermo; the furiously scurrying, savagely lyrical gypsy rock hit How, and the towering noir cabaret blues anthem The Truth Fish, one of the few 9/11 elegies to effectively capture the outrage and horror that swept through New York in the weeks afterward. Kinetic behind his battered Wurlitzer, Wallfisch railed against the dying of the light, the absence of missing people and places and “the code orange bullshit of Machiavellian ideals” of the Bush years. Zef Noise guested on violin along with a trumpeter who, though they clearly were giving it their all, simply weren’t given the chance to cut through the sound mix. Knowing European sound guys for who they are, they’ll get it right in Bratislava and Berlin.
Three things you can count on in this town: there will always be roaches under your stove, the train will be rerouted at the least opportune moment and the Reid Paley Trio will entertain you. Paley’s stock in trade, like so many other artists who play Thursday’s weekly Small Beast extravaganza at the Delancey, is menace. He understands absurdity, usually doesn’t like it very much and makes no secret of it, sometimes fending it off with a good joke. Characteristically charismatic in his black suitcoat and backed by his usual rhythm section of onetime Heroin Sheik Eric Eble on upright bass and James Murray on drums, Paley pretty much let the songs speak for themselves this time out. Much of the material was from his latest, excellent album Approximate Hellhound. With just a hint of natural distortion on his battered archtop guitar, Paley’s sound is part ghoulabilly without the schlock, part noir blues without the cliches, with a little vintage country or gypsy feel thrown in to shake things up. Live, he’s actually more of a singer than a rasper, sort of the opposite of what he is on album. “Gimme a chance, I’ll fuck it up,” went the refrain on his opening, slightly Cramps-ish number. Better Days, with its dread-filled “hangover sunrise Sunday morning, half dead on Bedford Avenue” was surprisingly subtle; a couple of the more countryish tunes from the cd got a bluesier, rawer treatment. Chanteuse Peg Simone eventually joined him for a slightly coy, seductive cameo on vocals; on the last song of the set, he ended it chopping at his strings as if he wanted to break them, then sticking his guitar into his amp where it started feeding back. Somebody cut the sound. Host Paul Wallfisch (who’d opened the evening) wanted it back: “That’s beautiful,” he leered. Meanwhile, the world’s #1 surf music impresario, Unsteady Freddie, wandered about, camera at hand. Who knew he was a fan.
Mattison frontwoman/keyboardist Kate Mattison brought down the lights, obscured behind the Small Beast (the 88 key spinet for which the night’s named), shadowy in the light of the candles above the keys and the disco ball’s twinkling swirls across the walls. And then played a show that made a perfect match with the ambience, soulful, smart retro pop, frequently over a live trip-hop beat pushed along by an excellent, terse rhythm section. The vocals started out somewhat disembodied and warmed up quickly, Mattison expertly shading her lyrics with a vintage soul feel, the occasional subtle blue note and just the hint of a rasp in places. Some of her songs had a pensive, almost minimalist sensibility in the same vein as Bee & Flower; others evoked modern artsy pop bands like For Feather or the Secret History, or that one great live album by Portishead. One began stately and beautiful in 6/8 time before morphing into a fast 4/4 hit; another built fetchingly and cajolingly into a “ringalingaling” chorus. Still another catchy pop number segued into a big, anthemic ballad with jazz-tinged vocals and gospel piano inflections. It was almost one in the morning by the time they wrapped up their too-brief, barely 40-minute set. They’re at Coco 66 at 8 on May 20.
By the way, in case you haven’t noticed, Lucid Culture reviews pretty much every Small Beast show. Pretty much a no-brainer, considering how it’s become simply the most vital, important music scene in town. So we’ve created a new category, Small Beast where we’ve archived all the other performers we’ve chronicled since the night first kicked off this past winter: click here or look toward top right here to that “A” right over the ARCHIVES section, click and scroll down to Small Beast to see what you’ve been missing.
Their wildest album. What the Stones were to the 60s, what Pink Floyd was to the 70s, what the Church were to the 80s, what – good grief, who? maybe Pulp? were to the 90s – Botanica has been to this decade, simply the definitive rock band of our era. In their uncompromisingly lyrical, fiery, gypsy-flavored anthems, there’s a defiance against fascism, a raised middle finger at mindless conformity and the same unextinguishable passion shared by all the aforementioned bands. And as good as their studio albums are (look for more than one on our upcoming Best Albums of the Decade list), nothing beats a Botanica live show. Finally, here’s one you can take with you. Last and final comparison: as live albums go, this ranks with the best of them, right up there with Procol Harum Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, Night of the Living Dead Boys, and Metallic KO by the Stooges.
Frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch’s supporting cast this time out includes the equally powerful, melodic bassist Dana Schechter (of Bee and Flower), reverb guitar monster John Andrews, Mark Stepro on drums and Anne deWolff on violin. Unsurprisingly, this is Botanica’s loudest, most guitar-oriented album, Andrews in particularly savage mode from start to finish: even on the quieter numbers, he’s a threat to cut loose. The songs are a well-chosen mix of stomping crowd-pleasers and stately, ornate art-rock anthems. They’re off and running from the start with a particularly bruising version of Billboard Jesus, from their 2004 post-9/11 masterpiece Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. Concrete Shoes, anguished and stalking on the Berlin Hi-Fi cd, is transformed into a nightmare vision in a reverb tunnel. La Valse Magnetique, title track to the band’s most recent studio effort (currently unreleased in the US) sets gentle violin and organ over a rhythm section that carries it away into scurrying, swinging gypsy punk straight out of the Gogol Bordello songbook. Wallfisch takes a glimmering cascade of Wurlitzer piano down to pregnant pause, a slow interlude and a startling cold ending. “Il nous reste que la fierte.” Pas de question.
Shira and Sofia is noir cabaret swing with a brutallly dismissive vocal cameo by Schechter and an evil slide guitar solo. The caustic Sex Offender takes the band to the edge of metal, daring to question the age of consent: “As long as she’s the girl next door and I’m the guy in college reading Schopenhauer. Sweet sixteen? She’s a sex offender. Hallelujah!” Wallfisch croons at the end in tribute to the flock who do such a good job saving us from ourselves.
The best tracks here are a study in contrasts, and they’re both from Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. Swimming in the Ocean at Night is more evocatively, gleefully macabre than ever, shimmering with organ and reverb guitar, toy piano just enough out of tune to bring the menace to redline. The Truth Fish, Wallfisch’s ballistic response to the powers that be who let Ground Zero smolder for months on end, pulls out all the stops, building from noir bluesy stomp to whirling, apocalyptic gypsy dance ending with a wall of guitar feedback and then the outro that’s still pure redemption for anyone who lived and breathed through those horrible days: “Fires. No. One. Cares. To. Put. Out [pregnant pause] OOOOOOUT! ” The show ends on an equally relevant note with How, another fast gypsy rock number sarcastically contemplating the reasons why some people simply refuse to get it, complete with wild, swirling violin, a long Middle Eastern interlude and a violent, crashing conclusion. Don’t take our word for it: in a remarkable stroke of generosity, the album is streaming at Botanica’s site. Physical copies only seem to be available at shows, but all the tracks are up on itunes. Watch this space for live dates: in addition, Wallfisch plays at around 9 every week at his ongoing Small Beast salon/performance at the Delancey.
“I started doing this so I could see all my favorite bands play,” Small Beast impresario and Botanica bandleader Paul Wallfisch admitted to the assembled multitude. For regular readers of this space, the weekly Thursday Small Beast shows at the Delancey have within the span of only a few weeks become the most exciting musical event in New York, a throwback to the days when Tonic was still open and booking edgy, late-night shows. Wallfisch also started a club in Paris back in the day, which is still open and thriving: consider that an omen.
Even though Wallfisch runs the show – running himself ragged, it seems, on the prowl for cables, or duct tape, or whatever might hold the candles to the top of his piano so their light can be dispersed via the disco ball above – he doesn’t shortchange the audience, this time around playing more or less solo for an entire hour. Menace may be his usual stock in trade, but tonight the piano was in, um, roadhouse tuning. So he ran with it, delivering a set of mostly warm, thoughtful, major-key gospel and blues-tinged material, much of it obscure or unreleased. The gentle Botanica ballad This Perfect Spot was augmented with the playful faux-orchestrated tonalities of an Omnichord; And Then I Met her, another ballad, lacked only the Omnichord. He debuted a new number fueled by menacingly insistent, chordal piano; a bit later, the trumpeter from the evening’s headline act, And the Wiremen joined him on a song.
Pete Simonelli from the LA group the Enablers was next, doing a spoken-word set over buzzsaw guitar loops, Wallfisch, adding the occasional incisive upper-register tonality. The set evoked what it might have been like to have seen the Stooges’ legendary stage debut, Iggy and the rest of the guys slinging electric drills since they didn’t have any songs (they got a record deal out of it). You may be able to eventually hear this set and Wallfisch’s as well since a French radio station was there to record them.
With two guitars, keyboards, upright bass and trumpet, And the Wiremen (don’t bother googling to find where they got the name) closed the evening with a gorgeous, reverb-drenched set that mixed a couple of pretty standard indie rock songs in with a bunch of haunting, southwestern gothic compositions. Their first number held hypnotically on a single chord til its anthemic chorus kicked in, with an ominous, tremolo wail from the lead guitar. Frontman Lynn Wright has played with a million other good bands, including Rev. Vince Anderson, Bee & Flower and Cordero. In this unit, he’s taken on the role of bandleader and minimalist, darkly terse rhythm guitarist. Their brooding, pensive songs occasionally building to unbridled rage, they’re the kind of band that would be headlining Tonic on a Saturday night if a greedy landlord hadn’t put the club out of business.
The second song of the set was a beautifully eerie, bluesy southwestern gothic dirge, “sleeping while the world goes by,” trumpet floating over the ominous clang of the guitars, then building to a tastefully minimalist guitar solo. A couple of later numbers featured some spooky, pointillistic tremolo-picking. Wallfisch joined them on a slinky noir cabaret number and didn’t waste any time turning in the best solo of the night, a matter-of-factly macabre, flamenco-inflected descending progression that ended the song with particularly dark intensity. Such is the state of things on Thursday nights at the Delancey now: if your taste runs to adventurousness and darkness, there is no better place to be. Watch this space for upcoming shows by And the Wiremen; Botanica play Joe’s Pub, early, 7 PM on March 21.
“There is sometimes a band called Botanica,” the group’s frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch told the motley crowd gathered around the improvised stage upstairs at the Delancey Thursday night. This was CMJ week, and as usual this year’s Colossal Musical Joke had turned some of most unlikely spots into impromptu venues. Apparently the stage downstairs was taken, so Wallfisch had to make do with an alcove across from the bar. Botanica’s story is typical of many of New York’s best bands: popular in Europe but apparently unable to get a record deal here (no great loss, given the state of the industry: the band undoubtedly does better without than with). Apparently, Wallfisch’s mates couldn’t make it for this show, so he stepped up and did it himself with some soulful assistance from Jeff Pierce – playing beautifully retro, buoyantly swinging muted trumpet throughout the too-brief, barely 40-minute set – and Bee & Flower frontwoman/composer Dana Schechter, who supplied characteristically fluid, warmly melodic basslines during the second half of the show. Wallfisch opened with a stately new song with a contemplative, bluesy, somewhat Tom Waits feel, alternating between ambient, gospelish organ and piano, occasionally stomping out a few chords on the toy piano he’d brought along possibly for some comic relief.
Then he and Pierce tackled the opening cut from Botanica’s most recent US release, Berlin Hi-Fi, the hauntingly regretful Eleganza and Wines. Not content to let the crowd merely observe, Wallfisch made a loop of the song’s beautifully restrained piano hook, then climbed on top of the bar and led the crowd in a clap-along in 7/8 time. And then he added a counter-rhythm. Sophisticated stuff for a rock crowd, but they were game. The rest of the show was a clinic in darkly terse keyboard artistry. Much of Botanica’s work has an unleashed menace, and this raised its head in places, but Wallfisch was more in a noir cabaret mood. He did a rustic new one in waltz time which he sang in French, then Three Women, its melody evoking the Strawbs’ classic apocalypse anthem New World, then a suspensefully quiet version of the creepy Shira and Sofia (see the band’s myspace page). He closed the set with the big Botanica crowd-pleaser How, bouncing along on the pulse from Schechter’s bass, tossing off a sardonic Riders on the Storm-style run down the scale toward the end. The crowd wanted more but there wasn’t time. Watch this space for future NYC shows by Botanica; Wallfisch plays piano with the incomparable, darkly torchy September song chanteuse Little Annie at Santo’s Party House on Nov 6 at 9.
A triumphant homecoming. Although Botanica has done a lot of European touring in the last several months, it had been about a year since they last played New York. Transcending the limitations of an awful sound mix and a bizarre crowd situation, they reminded how badly they’ve been missed here: there is simply no darker, sexier band anywhere.
This was a drastically revamped version of the band: of the crew who last played here, only frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch and guitarist John Andrews remain. Losing a bassist the caliber of their longtime four-string guy Christian Bongers would ordinarily cripple a band, but they’ve replaced him with one of the world’s best, Bee & Flower frontwoman Dana Schechter, whose fluid, slide and chord-driven lines were unwaveringly brilliant, even though half the time it was hard to hear her. This was also the debut show for their new drummer, and if it was any kind of audition, he passed it with flying colors, particularly on the hauntingly swinging, 7/8 anthem Eleganza and Wines from their most recent American release, Berlin Hi-Fi. The woman playing violin stole the show half the time – a hard feat to pull off with this band – with her searing, incisive flights and fills.
They opened with a pop song: while menace is still their defining undercurrent, they’ve diversified their sound in the last couple of years, and this particular number was quite the surprise, albeit a successful one. Andrews picked another new number, a slowly crescendoing, Procol Harum-inflected, organ-driven art-rock number as the launching pad for a majestic, roaring slide guitar solo. Wallfisch sang the next song in French over a slowly circular, 6/8 melody with a rousing gypsy dance at the end. He then handed over vocals to Schechter, who was sadly almost completely inaudible, delivering a rapidly shuffling, macabre new tune that could have been vintage, mid-80 Siouxsie & the Banshees.
Then they launched into The Truth Fish, the (sort of) title track from their classic 2004 album, Wallfisch wandering offstage and into the audience with a bullhorn while the band swung the song’s noir cabaret melody around by the tail. Andrews and the violinist joined in a scorching crescendo as they wound up the the dance that builds up to the conclusion, wailing furiously until Wallfisch launched into the song’s ominous outro, the memory of the smoking pit at Ground Zero still fresh in everyone’s mind:
No one cares
To put out
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE TRUTH FISH!!!!
“That was amazing,” Wallfisch exclaimed, and nobody was arguing with him, up front, at least. Unfortunately, the sound in the club was quieter than it’s possible to imagine it ever being here, making it very difficult to hear the band for anyone any further than, say, twenty feet from the stage. Compounding the bad sound was the fact that to celebrate the reopening of the club’s rooftop barbecue (which used to be free but now costs $5), they were serving free drinks at the bar in the back, where a loud crowd of yuppie puppies from out of town had congregated, bellowing at each other, oblivious to the music. Occasionally, a fratboy would drag his sorority girlfriend up through the crowd to see what all the fuss was about, only to stand there mystified for a few seconds before retreating back to the bar. Which was hardly a surprise: what Botanica does isn’t exactly safe or suburban, only underscoring the division between the throngs of amped-up fans at the front, and the New Jersey contingent in the back slurping down the free vodka.
They closed with another gypsy rocker, How, and then, counterintuitively, the quiet, slightly anxious This Perfect Spot. With Andrews punching his hammer-on chords over a swinging soul beat, it was totally 60s Stax-Volt. Wallfisch told the crowd he’d written it in Berlin, feeling good about the fact that he missed his wife, and the song hit the spot like a fine wine, rueful around the edges yet glad to be firing on all cylinders. So good to be alive while the whole world is going to hell. At least we have Botanica to provide a good soundtrack.