Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Bobby Radcliff Live at Lucille’s Bar and Grill, NYC 2/23/08

The joke was on the crowd tonight. There was a long line of New Jersey tourists upstairs waiting to pay $60 to get into the larger adjacent B.B. King’s to see a Journey cover band. The whole lot of them, obviously impatient to get out of the cold, could have gotten into the smaller space and seen Bobby Radcliff and they all would have been $60 richer. And would have had a far better time. Saturday night in New York City at a popular, spacious nightclub, and who’s playing the main stage? A Journey cover band. Just think about that for a second.

To steal a phrase from LJ Murphy, in case you don’t know what the blues is, it is the kind of music that has nothing to do with Eric Clapton. In case you don’t know Bobby Radcliff, he’s one of the world’s most exciting blues guitarists. The Washington, DC native, tonight looking something like Chewbacca the Wookie from Star Wars in a three-piece suit, has always had sensational chops, but in recent years he’s really come into his own. B.B. King is the obvious influence, but Radcliff has brought a multitude of other styles into his playing, from Muddy Waters to funk, and they’re all good. Although he still plays an awful lot of notes, like a funkier, more minor-key or jazz-inclined Stevie Ray Vaughan, he’s finally discovered space, making all those scales and riffs and licks actually count for something. Tonight he was accompanied by what seemed to be a pickup rhythm section, the drummer pushing everything along by playing just ahead of the beat. The bass player was using all kinds of unorthodox voicings for what were clearly pretty standard lines. Instead of staying in position and just playing the notes as they went up the scale and up the strings, he’d move further up his A or D strings, sometimes sliding to the notes, actually a very effective device. A closer look revealed why: his G string was missing. For awhile it was hard to resist the temptation to call out from the audience and ask how that happened. On second thought, it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do: losing one’s G string can be traumatic, something that isn’t easily discussed in front of a crowd.

Radcliff alternated originals with covers. To his immense credit, it was sometimes hard to tell which was which. Although his vocals were miked too low in the mix for his audience repartee to be audible to all but those at the tables closest to the stage, he was in a gregarious mood tonight, revealing how Lovesick Blues wasn’t written by Muddy Waters, but was actually a Memphis Minnie tune (blues fans are obsessive like that). Radcliff’s version was uniquely his own, although he added some low vibrato on his E string, mimicking Muddy’s ominous tonalities. His version of Muddy’s Honeybee was rich with vibrato as well.

He did a couple of ominous, hypnotic numbers that evoked Howlin Wolf’s Smokestack Lightning as well as something that sounded like a dead ringer for Otis Rush’s Lonely Man, right down to the fast boogie break on the chorus, but with different lyrics. Radcliff sang with a drawl, but a casually unaffected one, making it clear that he doesn’t take his blues vocal cues from Robert Plant. Guitarwise, he used pretty much every trick in the book: lightning-fast chord-chopping and tremolo-picking, sizzling sixteenth-note runs, long sustained notes and elaborate jazz chords, all with just a touch of natural distortion from his gorgeous Gibson Les Paul. At the end of the set he did an utterly macabre instrumental cover of Memphis, of all songs, and this was as effective as it was bizarre. Don’t let the fact that he’s white scare you away: the guy can flat-out play, as he reaffirmed tonight. He’s back here on March 15 at 8.

February 25, 2008 Posted by | blues music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

LJ Murphy and Myles Turney Live at Trash Bar, Brooklyn NY 1/23/08

I once dragged an acquaintance – I wouldn’t call him a friend – to see one of the great songwriters of our time. She was playing solo acoustic at a dingy little place, and even though the sound was lousy, she was great. I asked him afterward what he thought and he replied, “Yeah, one time I went to see a girl at a coffeehouse.” Obviously, he didn’t get it.

When producer Eric Ambel makes an album for someone, he doesn’t want to hear fancy, highly produced demos. All he wants to hear is voice and guitar. His reason is that if the song sounds good in its most basic, simple form, it’ll sound great once he builds something more complex around it. The reverse is true. And because of that, a lot of people shy away from acoustic shows, which is can be a mistake. The LJ Murphy fans who didn’t brave the cold tonight because, “oh, it’s just an acoustic show,” made a big mistake. The man wailed, as usual, even if it was just him and his guitar.

The best thing about acoustic shows is that you can hear all the lyrics. Murphy’s gruff baritone is a powerful instrument, but with the band roaring behind him it’s not always possible to make everything out, and with this guy, that’s what you want to do because that’s what he’s all about. Murphy has a vision: a dark, contrarian, stubbornly defiant vision. It’s often very funny, but it’s all about the here and now. There are other lyricists who will leave behind a chronicle of our time, should there be future generations, but it’s hard to think of anyone who paints a clearer, more concise picture than Murphy. Tonight, over an ominous E minor blues tune, he offered a look at the state of the nation from the point of view of an average working stiff:

Days of work and nights of fun
Shade your red eyes from the sun
Was it all a joke or were you mistaken
You stood pat while the world was shaken
Welcome to the golden age
Time to turn another page
Dreaming of the bells and towers
Pass the hat and send the flowers
When your life’s Geneva Conventional
From the hot bed to the confessional
Kiss the ground, dry your tears

See what’s come of your best years

Murphy wrote that a few years before 9/11, making it all the more prescient. Later he did a vividly surreal new number, Another Lesson I Never Learned, set to a deceptively simple, potently crescendoing post-Velvets melody:

The indiscretions of pillow talk
They don’t erase like limestone chalk
The broken wisdom was perfectly slurred
It wasn’t just your vision that blurred
Like the manuscript that refused to burn
Here’s another lesson I never learned

He also did the gorgeous, sad ballad Saturday’s Down, a requiem for the death of half the weekend (and for Williamsburg’s McCarren Park, soon to be surrounded by “luxury” towers made of plastic and sheetrock); the bouncy crowd-pleaser Midnight Espresso; the fiery blues Nowhere Now, and a newly reworked, 6/8 version of one of his most apt cautionary tales, Bovine Brothers:

The young girls and their brothers drink to victory in the bars
And a sermon blares out all night from the roof of a radio car
Now who’ll be left to be afraid when everyone’s so damn brave
Jump headlong into their graves, beware these bovine brothers

Since most clubs – this one included – usually don’t have a clue what the word “segue” means, most New York audiences reflexively get up and leave after the act they came to see leaves the stage. Which can be a big mistake (how do you think we discovered half the acts we’ve profiled here for the better part of a year?). Trash Bar is usually a rock venue, but tonight they were having acoustic performers. The sound was excellent as it always is here, but the following player had a hard act to follow in Murphy. And he absolutely kicked ass. Myles Turney played a passionate, virtuosic mix of acoustic delta blues along with a few choice Hank Williams covers, rearranged for slide and open tunings. Vocally, he’s not exactly overwhelming, but he’s a hell of a guitarist. Some players approach old Robert Johnson songs and the like tentatively, as if they’re in a museum, but Turney lit into them with absolute delight. All those old blues guys wrote those songs as dance tunes, and Turney completely understands that. Nobody left the room til he was done playing. As it turns out, he’s a guitar teacher: it’s not hard to imagine that his students have as much fun as he does.

January 24, 2008 Posted by | blues music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Will Scott Live at 68 Jay Street Bar, Brooklyn NY 1/16/08

Will Scott is a real find, with a very high ceiling. He’s been playing Wednesdays at around 8:30 at this remarkably comfortable little corner bar for awhile now. His stock in trade is Mississippi hill country blues, which doesn’t sound much like blues from the Delta: it’s deceptively simple and usually very hypnotic, often set to a fast 2/4 dance beat. Because there aren’t many (if any) chord changes, players color the music with subtle changes in the rhythm, accents and passing tones on the guitar. Scott has masterful command of the style. For an artist playing idiomatic music, to say that it’s hard to tell the difference between his originals and his covers is high praise, and sometimes it was hard to tell. Other times it wasn’t, because Scott uses the style as a springboard for his writing and adds a lot more chords (and a lot more tunefulness). Running his acoustic through a little Ampeg amp and backed by an excellent drummer with an equally good feel for this kind of music, if you closed your eyes, it was as if T-Model Ford and his sidekick Spam were holding down the beat in some rundown Mississippi shotgun shack. Except that it was really cold outside.

Scott opened with what sounded like a tribute to Junior Kimbrough, thoughtful and meandering but with considerable minor-key bite, in the late, lamented bluesman’s trademark style. Most of the songs he played afterward – again, it was difficult to tell what were his and what weren’t – were short and fast. Scott’s fingerpicking was fiery, fast and effortless, and so were his vocals. He sings with a drawl, but like his playing, it sounds effortless and authentic, not like the legions of trust-fund children from New Jersey playing Pete’s Candy Store, pretending they’re from the deep South. Maybe it works for Scott because his voice is strong: he’s not exactly afraid of the mic. “In case you were wondering, this show was brought to you by whiskey,” he joked. He was already working on his second glass of Jameson’s by the third song of his set. “It’s a multinational corporation.”

It’s not often that we run across someone who under today’s circumstances might actually be able to reach a national audience. At this point, even most indie labels are keeping nonconformist musicians at arm’s length. But there always seems to be an audience for the blues, even if it barely qualifies as blues and it’s played by beerbellied fifty-year-olds from Westchester who think Eric Clapton is a bluesman. Being white, Scott could probably make a living introducing sedate suburban audiences to the music he loves so much, for $25 a ticket, at places too fearful to book someone like, say, R.L. Burnside. He’d be perfect on that bill coming up at the Town Hall next month: he’s a whole lot more interesting than Cephas and Wiggins. When he moves on to that sort of thing, let’s hope he doesn’t forget he got his start in New York playing a midweek residency at a tiny, laid-back little place in Dumbo. That’s where he is for the moment. You should see him sometime.

January 16, 2008 Posted by | blues music, concert, Live Events, Music, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments