Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Supertones Live at Otto’s, NYC 2/2/08

The Supertones differentiate themselves from the legions of other bands in the thriving surf instrumental underworld in that they write excellent original songs. The long-running unit has been together since 1988; their weekly residency at the old Luna Lounge in the late 90s is the stuff of legend. But the band seemed to lose interest after that, phoning in covers of awful 60s pop hits like Georgie Girl on the increasingly rare instances that they played out at all. Although their drummer and rhythm player left shortly thereafter to form Mr. Action & the Boss Guitars, the rhythm guy is back, and their lead guitarist is better than ever, tremolo-picking furiously and really taking his playing to the next level. With Simon Chardiet from Simon & the Bar Sinisters on bass, way up in the sound mix, playing wildly furious, intense lines on an 8-string Hamer and then a vintage Rickenbacker, and a new drummer whose stock in trade obviously isn’t surf but proved up to the challenge, they immediately reclaimed their status as one of this city’s must-see live bands.

As usual, most of their set was originals. Stylistically, they take their cue more from the Ventures or the Shadows, jangling and clanging in major keys with a ton of reverb rather than doing the Beirut stomp a la Dick Dale. Of the few covers they did play, the best were a spot-on recreation of the old Lee Hazelwood classic Baja and the obscure, gently twanging Morgan, along with a driving take of Journey to the Stars. Their best original was a gorgeously melodic, nocturnal number introduced by Chardiet: “That one is dedicated to George Bush. It’s called Bushwacked. And this next one is dedicated to Rudy Guiliani’s prostate. It’s called Last Ride,” he gleefully told the crowd, as they launched into a swaying, spaghetti-western tune.

The show was put together by Unsteady Freddie, who is something of a legend in the surf world, a promoter who tirelessly travels the country, spreading the gospel of reverb and 2/4 time. The shows he puts together here on the first Saturday of every month are reliably good and sometimes absolutely transcendent. The latter promised to be the case tonight. It would have been awfully nice to have been able to stick around for the scorchingly powerful Coffin Daggers and another recently resurgent band, the Sea Devils, but by then it was already past one and time to nudge a handful of overindulgent people in the direction of home.

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February 3, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Nightcrawling 8/17/07

The evening started at Barbes. If you’re thinking of hitting this cozy little Park Slope, Brooklyn backroom, take heed of the warning that reliably pops up on the weekly music calendar page here wherever there’s a Barbes listing: you simply have to get here way early. This Francophilic little joint is far too small for the acts they book, a sad testament to the state of the New York music scene: so many excellent acts pack this place week after week because they have enough of a following to sell out little Barbes but not enough to take it to the next level. A violinist was onstage when we arrived, and what was quietly wafting from behind the curtain sounded intriguing. But it was literally impossible to get inside.

Afterward, some of the crowd cleared out and former Rasputina multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost took the stage. Alternating between acoustic guitar, cello and piano, she and her inspired backing trio played a delightfully captivating set of hook-driven art-rock. The fun these players have onstage is contagious: drummer Rob DiPietro got his ride cymbal to make a big WHOOOSH with his brushes while guitarist Julian Maile punctuated the melodies with incisive, punchy, reverby fills from his Gibson SG. Upright bassist Rob Jost came close to stealing the show with his melodic, fluid playing, using a bow for some haunting cello-like tones when he wasn’t pushing the songs along with sinuous riffs and climbs. Although he and the frontwoman share the same last name – what’s the likelihood? – they pronounce it differently, she like the Milwaukee Brewers manager, he with a hard “j” as in journey.

Serena Jost writes cerebral, counterintuitive, incredibly catchy songs. Her vocals have a melancholy, sometimes dreamy feel, but the music is pure fun. She likes syncopation, bridges that appear seemingly out of nowhere and the occasional odd time signature. She’s been compared to Jeff Lynne here, and that’s accurate in the sense that she seamlessly merges classical and pop melodies. One of tonight’s best songs, Vertical World began with a slow, gospel crescendo at the beginning, just this side of sarcastic, morphing into a ridiculously catchy, bouncy piano-driven hit. I Wait, which came toward the end of the set also built slowly on the intro to a slinky snakecharmer melody, Maile taking a long, thoughtful solo, part surf and part skronk, like what Marc Ribot might sound like if he didn’t overintellectualize everything. Throughout the night, subtle interplay between the musicians abounded.

Serena Jost joked about people seeing her on the street with her cello case and calling her Yo-Yo Ma, or, “Pablo Casals for all you old school people.” It was that kind of crowd: most of her audience seems to be her peers, A-list New York rockers, by nature a pretty tough and critical bunch, and tonight she held them in the palm of her hand.

“You know what Pablo Casals said when he broke his hand mountain climbing?” Rob Jost asked the crowd. “Good. That means I don’t have to practice anymore.”

The East Village was our next stop, so it made sense to kill some time at Lakeside. Nice to be able to get a seat there on a Friday night (imagine doing that five years ago: impossible), but it was disheartening to see such a sparse crowd, even if it was mostly suburban tourists from the adjoining states. Goes to show that most real New Yorkers have given up on going out on the weekends anymore. The surf band Mr. Action and the Boss Guitars were playing, a whole lot tighter than they were last time we caught them here. According to the Northeast Surf Music Alliance, there are about sixty surf bands just in the Northeast alone: add the Eastern Seaboard, Florida and California and suddenly it becomes clear that twangy, mariachi- and Middle Eastern-inflected instrumental rock is probably bigger now than it was in the 60s. This band is the former Supertones rhythm section (Mr. Action is the drummer, “Long Island’s answer to Mel Taylor,” as the bassist called him) plus those two boss guitars. They all wear matching uniforms and if they have their act together, they probably make a fortune playing weddings and corporate year-end functions. But they’re also self-aware: “Continuing in the 1967 bar mitzvah vein,” the bassist joked as they launched into yet another instro version of a 60s pop hit. They did that for the first half of the show, and just as the early Beach Boys and Beatles tunes and stuff like It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To were starting to get old, they did a spot-on version of the obscure Ventures classic Ginza Lights, which was at one time the alltime bestselling single in Japan. Surf music fans are a notoriously obsessive bunch, and the crowd was clearly gassed: the Ventures virtually never play that song live, and until the days of file sharing it was extremely hard to find.

Then the band played Pipeline, and even if their version didn’t have the beautiful electric piano of the Chantays’ original, or the menace of the Agent Orange version or the evil cocaine intensity of the Heartbreakers’ cover (did I say something about how people become completely obsessed with this stuff?), it’s such a great song that pretty much anybody can play it and it still sounds good. They also did the requisite Wipeout, and I found myself wishing I’d picked up that live Surfaris album I saw in my favorite used record store a couple of months ago.

Then it was over to Banjo Jim’s to see Susan Mitchell play violin with Mark Sinnis’ trio. Sinnis is the frontman in Ninth House, who’ve received a lot of ink here lately. Although that band has gone further in the Nashville gothic direction that characterizes Sinnis’ solo work, they still have a 80s Joy Division/Cure/Psychedelic Furs feel. This unit, by contrast, plays what are basically country songs with a darkly bluesy feel. Mitchell, formerly with Kundera and currently playing in a number of good projects, is one of the most gripping soloists in New York: when she gets her swooping, sliding gypsy sound going, she is incredible. Tonight’s show, by contrast, was about interplay between her smooth legato lines and the biting, bluesy ferocity of Sinnis’ new guitarist the Anti-Dave (who also plays in Vulgaras). Sinnis gave the songs a heavy chassis with his ominous baritone voice and acoustic guitar, and his two soloists fleshed out the body, like an old black Cadillac filled with moonshine barreling down a back road somewhere near the Canadian border, its running boards whipping against the weeds and grass alongside the road. The best songs of the night were Sinnis’ original Mistaken for Love, with its brutal lyric and surprise cold ending; a new, slow shuffle with a 50s rockabilly feel, the drunk driving anthem Follow the Line with its fiery electric guitar, and the closer, a stark, surprisingly effective cover of the Sisters of Mercy song Nine While Nine that ended on an incredibly intense, haunting note as the electric guitar played half of the song’s eerie, reverberating central hook. After that, we closed down a couple of bars, watching crowds of tourists slowly stumble back to their stretch limos while we made sure the most inebriated among us didn’t lose their stuff. The sun came up as I made my way down Avenue A, the surprising chill of the early-morning air a final treat to cap off the kind of great night that only a few years ago could happen pretty much randomly at any time, but these days, all too seldom.

Maybe once oil really starts to run out and the peasants start to swarm back to the cities, just like in China, there’ll be a real urban contingent in the East Village again. A dangerous one, quite likely. Maybe then the tourists will stay in their parents’ McMansions – if they haven’t collapsed around them by then – instead of turning this city into a facsimile of New Jersey/Long Island/Los Angeles stripmall hell.

August 18, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments