Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Make Music NY Review 6/21/08

What a beautiful summer day. There are plenty of beautiful days in New York, just hardly ever from June to late September. Saturday was what New York was supposedly like in the summer in the 70s, temperatures around 80 but with a nice breeze and hardly any humidity, a very auspicious way to start the second annual Make Music NY, the local version of the international outdoor street music festival la Fete de la Musique. In keeping with the Lucid Culture tradition of trying to cover as many performances in as many diverse styles as possible, a decision was reached. The all-day punk show on Governors Island was tempting, but didn’t make the cut (and as it turned out, this Sunday’s NY Times covered it, in which case a report here would have been at least somewhat redundant). Since this is an outdoor festival, with most of the bands shlepping their own primitive PA systems and portable generators, performances tend to run behind schedule, with the inevitable snafus. The game plan: start in Williamsburg, where there were several intriguing shows scheduled within a short radius; then, to minimize travel time, to the East Village; then back to the Burg for a final show. A single indulgence would be allowed, one favorite band who’ve been profiled here before. Otherwise, everything would have to be either a new discovery or at least someone who hasn’t been reviewed here yet. The best-laid plans, ad infinitum…

Saturday’s tour began in the belly of the beast, beneath the scaffolding at one of those shoddy new luxury condo firetraps that seem to spring up overnight, this one on North Tenth. A handful of kids passed by, the pile of amps and band gear drawing lots of looks, but nobody stopped. Then a couple arrived, both looking somewhat puzzled. “You wanna buy a condo, talk to Patrice inside,” a worker on the catwalk told them, looking just as puzzled as they were. “We DON’T want to buy a condo,” the guy replied, practically shuddering at the thought – apparently he was looking for a friend in one of the bands who were scheduled to play there. A little after one, the punkish Bronx group Diabolique started playing: just two of the band members, a guy on lead guitar and a woman on drums who later switched to rhythm guitar while stomping on a tambourine. A work in progress: they started out with a decently growling cover of the Rumble, which was a good sign (Link Wray covers are almost always a sign of good chops and good taste). The band has several intriguing mp3s (available for free download) on their website, one of which they played, not as punk as the snarling broadside online. The woman is the better of the two musicians; maybe it was the early hour or lack of rehearsal, but for whatever reason, the guy needs practice. But the two had good energy and enough of a sense of what they were doing to make them worth checking back with in a couple of months.

Next stop was McCarren Park, where a gamelan orchestra, Gamelan Dharma Swara were scheduled for 2 PM. You’d think that it would be pretty impossible to hide a gamelan orchestra in this park, but they were nowhere to be found. An hour into the festival, and Plan B was already in full effect, which meant that the next stop was 780 Lorimer St., where the marvelous oldtime French chanson revivalists les Chauds Lapins were supposed to play. As it turned out, the address is the entrance to McCarren Pool (one wonders how many more of the band’s fans would have showed up had the band, or Time Out, who were in charge of the festival schedule, made this known). But no matter: the group’s frontman and woman, Kurt Hoffman and Meg Reichardt stood resolutely in the hot sun and played a characteristically delightful set. As they serenaded the crowd gathered beneath the trees, a fenderbender between a couple of SUV’s was narrowly averted. A Mr. Softee truck circled the block: in an absolutely unexpected act of politeness, the driver turned off his jingle as he passed the second time. Hoffman sang and played banjo ukulele; Reichardt also began on banjo uke and then switched to lead guitar. What was most apparent was how much their repertoire has grown in the months since they were last reviewed here, and what a fine jazz guitarist Reichardt is becoming. She’s always been a smartly incisive, original blues player, so this new direction she’s taking makes perfect sense. French speakers will find their songs a lyrical feast, loaded with innuendo and clever wordplay; the somewhat stagy charm of the melodies has plenty of appeal for English speakers as well.

When they’d finished, the greenmarket a short walk away beckoned: fresh cilantro, mmmm! And across the way from the stalls with all that delicious greenery was Gamelan Dharma Swara! “New York’s own gamelan,” or at least this edition of it is a community group with what seems to be a revolving membership based on who’s available to play. With a total of 17 members at this show, most of them playing traditional Balinese gamelan bells with bright yellow hammers, augmented by a boisterous bongo drummer who seemed to function as the group’s conductor, a trio of dancers and two magnificent gongs lurking behind the group (nobody took the opportunity to ring them, at least during the orchestra’s last half-hour). The music is both brightly tingling and hypnotically psychedelic. Pretty much anybody who watches PBS has probably at least caught a glimpse of a gamelan orchestra at some point, but live and up close, this kind of music reveals itself as soothing as it is fascinating, its ebbs and swells incorporating the most minute rhythmic and melodic intricacies between the performers. One of the Lucid Culture crew, nursing a pulled wing muscle, had taken a certain narcotic preferred by a certain terminally obese extreme-rightwing AM radio host, and the orchestra had her on her back and somewhere way off in dreamland within five minutes of arriving.

Gamelan Dharma Swara’s music dates back to an age where the dividing line between audience and performer was nebulous at best, before the point in history where music became a commodity, when pretty much everyone could beat on a drum or sing along or even lead the band with a lyre or a fiddle or a flute. The woman who served as the group’s spokesman informed the crowd that the public is invited to participate in rehearsals, and from the likes of it, this is a crew that is strictly in it for fun: the guy who serves as what might be called the lead bell player looks to be all of 14. Yet the orchestra came across as completely professional, assured and far beyond mere competence, even more impressive when their spokeswoman finally told the crowd that they hadn’t really rehearsed for this performance and that they were now just basically going to jam. This is the kind of group that Dave Matthews or (is Phish still together?) ought to take on the road with them if they had any brain cells left.

After that, it was back to the original agenda, to the day’s one scheduled indulgence, Linda Draper at Like the Spice Gallery on the south side. Lucid Culture’s resident part-time pillhead, back from her hippie heroin coma, had left her sore subscapularis in dreamland and, reinvigorated, went off in search of pizza. The crew’s temporarily more sober member took the long way through the park to Roebling Street, passing a bunch of trendoids playing little more than random squalls of feedback, a laughably bad Bad Company imitation yowling away where les Chauds Lapins had been an hour before, and an equally silly Interpol wannabe band out in front of the tattoo store on Roebling. As expected, everything was running behind schedule at this point. At Like the Spice, a guy/girl trendoid duo called the Dead Batteries were preening, posing and making stilted, declamatory attempts at vocals while accompanying themselves on drums and a screechy old analog synth from the 70s. Draper asked the two if she could borrow the PA their parents’ money had gotten them, but they couldn’t be bothered, so she decided to do her set old-school, completely without amplification, even though she was playing with a bleeding finger – “That’s punk rock, right?” she laughed. Meanwhile, the neighborhood Jesus freak was blasting his weekly Spanish-language Saturday sermon, with musical accompaniment, on the next block. The gallery owner, a pretty brunette named Marisa, made several attempts to get him to shut up (he’s been a nightmare for her and several other neighborhood businesses), and finally succeeded, while a crowd of skateboarders passed by, screaming and hollering at a slow-moving car competing for with them for space on the street. And then the fire department showed up. But then they left.

Distractions finally out of the way, Draper finally pulled up a chair and sang to a crowd that had obviously come from all over to hear her. Like Nina Nastasia, Draper expertly plucks her guitar more than she picks it, singing with the quiet, full, round tone of the ex-chorister she is. She did a lot of new material including songs from her soon-to-be-released sixth album, and they were uniformly excellent. From this show it was clear that Draper has grown into one of the world’s elite songwriters, finally managing to weld her rich, utterly surreal lyricism to the catchy, equally incisive tunefulness that characterized her earliest work. Frustration and sometimes raw rage frequently factor into her tersely crafted lyrics. Double entendres and an often laugh-out-loud stream-of-consciousness humor abound. Her best songs were both new numbers, one with a sharp, minor-key garage rock melody called Bridge and Tunnel which turned out to be not a slap at tourists but at just assholes in general. The other was an equally catchy, slowly burning 6/8 broadside. She asked if anyone had any requests, and someone did, the opening cut on her first album, a terrific pop tune set to a circular four-chord melody. But halfway through, she forgot the words. So she made up some new ones on the spot:

My finger has finally stopped bleeding
My hair smells like barbecue
From the restaurant down the street
Which is really good if you’re not a vegetarian…
I’m not
I always had a fast metabolism

Draper also unearthed a cover by obscure 70s songwriter Kath Bloom, a plaintive number which meshed well with all the originals. Indulgences done with, the cilantro still looked fresh, but it was time to put it in the fridge, so it was over the bridge and then over to the park at First St. and Houston where the Main Squeeze Orchestra were playing. The full orchestra is seventeen women all playing accordion, making for a sound potentially even more psychedelic and captivating than the gamelan orchestra in the park. For the first time today, the pungent smell of ganja was noticeable, wafting across the park from the benches, a crowd of derelicts relaxing to what they could hear while leaning against the fence since the the ten group members (including conductor Walter Kuhr) who’d come out today were doing the show completely without amplification. A five foot one guy in an Iggy t-shirt stopping briefly as the haunting sound fluttered in and out. Because the breeze had picked up, the womens’ sheet music was fluttering as well, creating some long pauses between songs. One of the women sat behind the front line of accordions, playing oompah basslines on a big, beautiful, oversize keyboard. She also contributed vocals on a singalong of the Kinks’ cabaret-inflected Demon Alcohol. The group alternated between haunting, classical sounding material and the amusingly orchestrated pop covers that have become their trademark: among them, a strangely straightforward Beach Boys tune, a gypsyish St. James Infirmary and Mack the Knife, and a completely over-the-top version of Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean.

Perhaps frustrated by the windy conditions, the whole band took a lengthy smoke break – they all look like a bunch of party animals. So it was up to 14th St and the L, back to Williamsburg where melodic rock trio Violet Hour were supposed to play outside a bar. They had their equipment on the street, and after some lengthy soundchecking, it was apparent that they were waiting for the bar to start to fill up before playing their set. But that’s ok: Make Music NY is first and foremost for musicians. It wouldn’t make sense to fault them for not playing to a pretty much empty street where they could catch the beginning of the Saturday night bar turnout if they started an hour late. Or perhaps Time Out got their set time wrong, which would hardly be surprising. So perhaps at some point in the future Lucid Culture will cover one of their live shows. Til then, there are some good youtube clips of the band live at Trash Bar that you can listen to on their myspace.

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June 22, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Les Chauds Lapins – Parlez-Moi d’Amour

The most romantic album of the year, and, so far, the best debut as well. Questions of authenticity always arise when bands mine a foreign genre, so the stakes were pretty high for this bunch of New Yorkers playing innuendo-laden, jazzy French pop songs from the 30s and 40s. But their love of the music transcends any difficulty they might have had with the language. A purist – and the French are notorious purists – might fault them for the occasional lapse of accent, but they absolutely nail the style. This is lush, harmony-driven, gorgeously orchestrated, swoony bedroom music. At les Chauds Lapins’ cd release show earlier this summer, people were in tears, and it’s a safe bet that most of them didn’t even speak French.

The nucleus of this band is Roulette Sisters lead guitarist Meg Reichardt, who sings and plays banjo ukelele here along with her sparring partner (or, better put, dance partner) Kurt Hoffman, former leader of rustic New York art-rockers the Ordinaires. Accompanied by another Roulette sister, Karen Waltuch on viola along with Garo Yellin on cello, Andy Cotton on upright bass and Frank London adding some balmy trumpet to several of the songs, the band wrings every ounce of subtlety and nuance out of both lyrics and melodies. As in Reichardt’s other band, most of the songs here are about sex: “les chauds lapins” translates roughly to “the horny bastards.” With their breathy yet restrained deliveries, Reichardt and Hoffman are the perfect combination to sing this stuff.

French songwriters have always been held to a higher standard than their American Tin Pan Alley counterparts: from Charles Trenet (many of whose songs Les Chauds Lapins cover here) to Didier Barbelivien, they’ve virtually always been much more artisanal. Double entendres, historical and mythological references, social commentary and great wit abound in a vastly higher proportion of the French top 40 than what Americans have been subjected to over the last century. Les Chauds Lapins revel in this: Reichardt and Hoffman articulate the lyrics to these songs with exceptional clarity, so that any French-speaking person can understand them (in case this might seem a sine qua non, try making sense of French hip-hop if you aren’t up on the latest argot).

There are thirteen lucky tracks on this album, and you might well get lucky if you use them the right way, i.e. late at night with someone you’re looking to se coucher avec. The Edith Piaf hit J’ai Danse Avec l’Amour (I Danced with Love), the coy Il M’a Vu Nue (He Saw Me Naked), the rueful Swing Troubadour (written as anyone who could afford to flee Paris had already fled, days ahead of the Nazi invasion) and the album’s sly, seductive title track are all performed with wit, charm and a barely restrained delight: it’s obvious that this band had a great time making the album. Fans of this obscure (stateside, anyway) subgenre will not be disappointed and newcomers will be completely seduced. You don’t have to speak French, but it helps. Quel plaisir to see such good musicians resurrecting such deserving songs. Terrific album: five baguettes with fresh camembert, tomato and a bottle of beaujolais nouveau. As a bonus, the album is also available on vinyl, complete with lyric sheet and ukelele chord charts for the album’s fifth track, Mon Reve C’Etait Vous.

[editor’s note – apologies to all you Academie Francaise types for the missing accent marks – attempting to use anything more complicated than plain text on a WordPress page, at least in 2007, is flirting with disaster]

September 2, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment