Les Chauds Lapins sing about drunk couples emerging disheveled from the bushes, expats missing Paris during the Nazi occupation, and sex. Lots of that. “You told me yes, you told me yes, you told me yes,” frontwoman Meg Reichardt sang in insistently cheery, carefully enunciated and pretty damn good French at the band’s most recent show at Barbes last month.
The material they cover – old French swing and chanson, mostly from the 30s and 40s, emphasis on the Charles Trenet catalog – is pretty radical compared to American pop from that era. Even today, these songs are racy. And as funny and clever as the wordplay is, the band’s sound is lush and swoony. if you’re looking for a place to take your boo this Friday night, April 14, there’s no better place than Barbes at 8 PM where Les Chauds Lapins (“The Hot Rabbits,” as in “hot to trot”) will be picking up where they left off.
The music matched the lyrics, full of chipper, strutting, swinging tunes, glimmering strings from cellist Garo Yellin and violist Karen Waltuch and a wry basketball-courtside “let’s go” riff from clarinetist/frontman Kurt Hoffman at one point. And yet, there’s an underlying cynicism, and frequent yearning, in the lyrics, that often rears its head, just as the music isn’t all just soft edges either. Hearing the occasional austere minor-key blues phrase from either Waltuch or Yellin was a treat. Reichardt fired off a couple of stinging blues guitar solos when she wasn’t holding down rhythm on her hundred-year-old banjo uke and adding to the oldtimey atmosphere.
As the show went on, shivery strings paired off with a plaintive clarinet intro, there was an unexpected detour into quasi-funk fueled by a cello bassline, and eventually a long interlude straight out of Mood Indigo with a lustrous, moonlit clarinet solo from Hoffman. For those who don’t speak French, the show is best enjoyed as a long, sweet suite. As date-night music in New York in 2017, it’s unsurpassed. Without crossing the line into TMI, let’s say that after the show, the person you bring might be more likely to tell you, “Je t’adore,” instead of just a plain old “Je t’aime” See,“Je t’aime” doesn’t amount to much more than a peck on the cheek. “Je t’adore” is where the tongue gets involved. Just saying. Bonne chance à tout le monde demain soir.
Long before the Squirrel Nut Zippers were a gleam in anybody’s eye, or there was such a band as the Flying Neutrinos – remember them? – Paris Combo were swinging the hell out of a sound that was part 20s, part 30s and part 80s, at least when they started. Since then, they’ve maintained a devoted fan base on their side of the pond, but they make it over here too infrequently. Their French lyrics are sardonic, playful and funny; likewise, their music has a lot more edge and bite than your typical goodtimey swing band, which makes sense considering that they got their start when punk rock was still current. These irrepressible, ever-more-eclectic Parisians are making a rare New York stop at City Winery on Feb 21 at 8 PM; $22 admission is available, meaning that you can stand somewhere within shouting distance of the bar and not feel stressed about buying expensive drinks.
Paris Combo’s latest album Tako Tsubo – a Japanese term for the very real cardiological effects of heartbreak – is streaming at youtube. The opening number, Bonne Nouvelle (Good News) is a real stunner, part tarantella rock, part Romany swing. Frontwoman/accordionist Belle du Berry understates the narrative’s ominous undercurrent: it’s about playing with fire, more or less.
Pianist David Lewis opens Je Suis Partie (I’m Out of Here) with an uneasy minor-key glimmer, du Berry channeling moody angst as the band leaps into a bouncy groove from bassist Benoît Dunoyer de Segonzac and drummer François Jeannin. Then Lewis supplies balmy trumpet over guitarist Potzi’s breezy, cosmopolitan swing shuffle in the album’s title track, with a droll, tongue-in-cheek hip-hop interlude.
Anemiques Maracas is one of the album’s funniest numbers, part Morricone soundtrack spoof, part yuppie satire. Profil does double duty as balmy, vampy retro 60s ye-ye pop and snide commentary on internet dating. Notre Vie Comme un Western (Our Life As a Western) opens as a surprisingly uneasy waltz and then takes on a cynical bolero-tinged atmosphere, Europeans equally mesmerized and mystified by American cultural imperialism.
Part Django swing, part tongue-in-cheek spy theme, D’Heidi has a wide-eyed sarcasm that recalls the group’s Dutch 80s/90s contemporaries Gruppo Sportivo. The slashing wordplay of Specimen comes across as a French counterpart to New York murder ballad duo Charming Disaster. Just title of Mon Anatomie Cherche un Ami – part Doors, part Chicha Libre – takes that cleverness to to the next level,
Vaille Que Vaille (Somehow) follows a pretty savage faux-Spanish waltz sway: it’s an oldschool existentialist cautionary tale. The faux-reggae Cuir Interieur (Leather Seats) is just plain hilarious: if the Tubes had been good French speakere, they might have sounded something like this. The album winds up with Orageuse (Stormy), which is funny because it’s hardly that – it’s a balmy before-the-rain scenario, at best. Every time you listen to this, you discover something new and amusing, which might well be poking fun at you too. Count this as one of the best albums to come over the transom here in the past several months.
Saturday night at Barbes the room was packed. Once Les Chauds Lapins began their set, it was literally impossible to get inside to see them playing their pillowy, bittersweet original arrangements of jazzy French pop songs from the 1930s and 40s. Like Les Sans Culottes, Les Chauds Lapins (literally, “The Hot Rabbits,” 30s French slang for “hot to trot”) occupy a significant slice of the demimonde of Americans playing French music. Over the years, hotshot guitarist/singer Meg Reichardt’s French accent has gotten pretty good. Co-leader Kurt Hoffmann distinguishes himself with his meticulously witty new arrangements as well as his agile clarinet playing. But in this band, both musicians play banjo ukes on most of the songs, this time backed by a swoony string section with bass, cello and viola. So these new versions are considerably different from the original piano-and-orchestra or musette-style recordings.
Les Chauds Lapins further distinguish themselves by performing a lot of relatively obscure material, not just the best-known hits by Piaf, Charles Trenet and so forth. The chirpy sound of the two ukes enhances the songs’ droll, deadpan wit: both Hoffman and Reichardt have a thing for bouncy romantic ballads about affairs that start out looking just grand but by the second verse or so have gone straight to hell. And Hoffman had the strings punching and diving and dancing with a verve to match the songs’ lyrics.
They opened with Vous Avez L’Eclat de la Rose (a free download), about a girl who smells like jasmine but may not be so sweet after all. A little later on they did one of their big crowd-pleasers, Le Fils de la Femme Poisson (The Fishwife’s Son): he’s in love with a circus freak, but if that doesn’t work out he’s always got a gig waiting for him playing accordion at a relative’s country whorehouse. Reichardt sang another surreal number from the point of view of a girl who gets trashed beyond belief early in the evening, hooks up in the bushes with some random guy and then starts to lose her buzz, realizing that she might have made a mistake. But, what the hell: “Let’s dance,” she tells him as she straightens her dress. Hoffman’s bubbly, precise clarinet added a cheery dixieland flavor; Reichardt, who’s a mean blues player, showed off her increasingly impressive jazz chops on one of the songs midway through the set. A lot of the material this time out was relatively new, at least for them, one of the most interesting numbers being a vocal version of Django Reinhardt’s Swing 33.
And most everybody listened through all the puns, and the innuendo, and the double entendres. OK, there was one gentrifier boy, or maybe not a boy, whatev, in the back of the room, hell-bent on impressing everyone within earshot with how blithe and fey he was, and he WOULDN’T SHUT UP. But nobody paid him any mind. People like that don’t usually go to Barbes anyway. Les Chauds Lapins will be there again on Valentine’s Day at 8.
Marianne Dissard’s latest Album Paris One Takes is deliciously intense, a noir cabaret-tinged mix of southwestern gothic and snarling post-new wave guitar rock. Thursday night at Barbes, backed by an inspired pickup band featuring an slinky, jazz-trained rhythm section as well as piano and accordion, she affirmed that she’s also a tremendously captivating performer, as slyly funny as she was intense. She’d just made friends with Birds Are Alive, a French blues band who happened to be in town, so she had their guitarist open for her, backed by the bassist and drummer who would accompany her later on. He was interesting to hear, enough to hold Dissard’s crowd for an hour while he turned up again, and again, and again, to the point where he no longer had any competition for loudest act to ever play Barbes’ little back room (that includes Slavic Soul Party and their blaring horns). He’s got an individual style, part hypnotic R.L. Burnside hill country rumble, part Stevie Ray Vaughan, with a little Billy Gibbons and Ali Farka Toure thrown in for surprise factor. The rhythm section shifted quickly along with him as he segued from Big Boss Man, to some more psychedelic one-chord vamps, to a Muddy Waters tune, a little electrified Robert Johnson and finally a rolling and tumbling original to wrap up an hour’s worth of roar and crackle from his overdriven, buzzing little Peavey amp.
Dissard is also on the New French Chanson: Eight for Matisse compilation just out from Barbes Records. She brought up a friend to join her on her contribution Les Draps Sourds (The Drunken Sheets), a duet that turned out to be amusingly seductive, by contrast with the frenetically passionate, hard-rocking studio version. She’d opened with a slinky, accordion-driven version of Sans-Façon, a sultry yet ominous contemplation of a summery “boy season,” everybody taking off their clothes at the water’s edge, her breathy vocals less world-weary than eagerly anticipating whatever suspense lay in store. Her accordionist switched to piano for a beautifully nuanced yet straight-ahead take of the bitter backbeat rock song Les Confettis. The wickedly catchy, new wave-infused La Peau du Lait (Porcelain Skin) turned out to be a slap at French radio, its characteristically clever, pun-laden French lyrics resonating with the big crowd of French fans who’d come out to see her. She also did a dramatic, flamenco-inflected 6/8 ballad along with a single song in English. Dissard is in New York doing some movie work (her new film L’Abandon premiered in Tucson, the place she’s most recently called home, earlier this month) – so she’ll no doubt have other shows like this one coming up in the near future.
This might be the best world music album of the year, a frequently haunting, unabashedly romantic collection of popular acoustic songs from Iran from the era before the mullahs took over after the fall of the Shah in 1979 (to call what happened there a revolution is revolting). New York-born Monika Jalili comes from a musical theatre background, which makes sense when you hear her clear, minutely nuanced soprano, to which she’s expertly added the trademark ornamentation of Iranian classical song, using a delicate vibrato which often trills off at the end of a phrase for emphasis. The songs, mostly dating from the 60s and 70s, combine the austere microtonality of traditional Iranian music with the vivid emotionality of French chanson and a lush Mediterranean romanticism. Jalali sings in Persian and Azeri as well as English and French on two songs. The musicianship is equally nuanced and haunting: for this album, her second collection of songs from Iran, she’s enlisted the extraordinary New York-based oudist/composer Mavrothi Kontanis as well as his bandmate Megan Gould on violin, Erik Friedlander on cello, Riaz Khabirpour on acoustic guitar, Marika Hughes on cello and Silk Road Project percussionist Shane Shanahan. To call their performance inspired is an understatement.
Jalili communicates an intense sense of longing on the opening track, Ghoghaye Setaregan (Dance of the Stars), a jangly cosmopolitan ballad in 6/8 with incisive violin. Arezooha (Wishes) evokes 60s French folk-pop with sparse violin and cello behind Jalili’s subtle vocals. Gonjeshgake Ashi Mashi (Little Sparrow) is not a Piaf tribute but an upbeat take of an old folksong, done anthemically with some stirring oud work by Kontanis and the string section.
Ay Rilikh (Separation) is masterfully evocative, Gould’s violin dark and distant with reverb, a chilling contrast with Jalili’s warm interpretation. The upbeat, happy medieval folk dance Evlari Vaar (To Bemaan) has an almost Britfolk feel; by contrast, Biya Bare Safar Bandim (Let’s Be on Our Way) has a slightly Asian tinge, especially on the vocals. Kontanis’ oud holds it to the ground as Gould’s violin soars skyward, Jalili following in turn and then adding some spectacularly flashy vocalese at the end.
Peyke Sahari (Messenger of Dawn) builds to a crescendo with a haunting three-chord descending progression at the end of the verse, illuminated by a beautiful string chart that grows more insistent. The mood turns in a considerably brighter direction with the coy, percussive, bolero-ish Bia Bia Benshin (Come Sit by Me), Kontanis and Gould again taking brief but memorable turns on the bridge. The cd ends with its best song, the darkly swaying, dramatic Ay Vatan (Oh, My Homeland):
Freedom’s here, not in the distance
Oh, my land…
You’re the hero, oh this madness
Oh, my land,
Jalili wails delicately over Kontanis’ eerily swooping oud riffs. The ensemble takes it out with an elegantly fluttering, understatedly chilling conclusion. With the people of Iran uniting against the repression of the past thirty years, there could not be a more auspicious time for this album to come out: the anthem for the next real Iranian revolution could be on it. Watch for this high on the list of the best albums of 2009 here at year’s end.
It was both impressive and heartwarming to see how this band has grown. Les Chauds Lapins means “hot rabbits,” literally – in the vernacular, the connotation is a guy who’s hot to trot. Their shtick is reviving old French chansons from the thirties and forties, predominantly from the Charles Trenet catalog. A Gallic icon, Trenet was flamboyant, frequently annoying but also very witty. His repertoire ranged from the odious Douce France (sort of the French equivalent of God Bless America) to dozens of vastly more entertaining and clever songs with a jazzy, theatrical feel, sometimes going completely over the edge into camp. Les Chauds Lapins play them with a knowing, tongue-in-cheek appreciation: former Ordinaires frontman Kurt Hoffman on banjo ukelele or clarinet; ex-Roulette Sister Meg Reichardt on guitar and banjo uke, sharing vocals with Hoffman; Andy Cotton on upright bass, Garo Yellin on cello and a ringer on violin adding a gypsy flair to several selections. The result was as lush and romantic as it was funny: Les Chauds Lapins prefer songs with multiple layers of meaning and they brought all of them out.
What was most impressive is how much their repertoire has expanded since their first album (which made the top 20 on our Best Albums of 2007 list). This time they opened with the coyly swinging Il M’a Vue Nue (He Saw Me Naked), Reichardt managing to hold herself back from completely hamming it up. The high point of their first set was Je Crache Dans L’Eau (I Spit Into the Water), a character study chronicling one unique and peculiar response to rejection, taking it out on fish in the river and marveling at all the ripples a mouthful of saliva can create. The band clearly had a great time with an even more bizarre chronicle, le Fils de la Femme Poisson (The Fishwife’s Son) when it came to the bridge, which is a dead ringer for the Pachelbel Canon. The song was written forty years before Oprah rediscovered it and put the Canon back in the canon (ouch – sorry) – was this a case of reinventing the wheel or a very clever case of theft? Appropriate something previously unknown and you have a perfect crime.
As a guitarist, Reichardt just gets more interesting, more incisive. Having honed her blues chops in the Roulette Sisters, she’s worked up her jazz side in this project and where she used to comp chords on banjo uke on most of the songs, she’s playing guitar with the same clever incisiveness and love for the low registers that’s so apparent when she plays blues. It was also nice to see Hoffman cut loose with a fiery clarinet solo toward the end of the set – it would be good to see those chops in action more often. And it would have been fun to stick around for a whole second set , but there were drunk people to watch over, the price of some pretty hard pregaming.
An imaginative and inspired program including both iconic and obscure Piaf songs. To her credit, classical soprano Eunice Poulos didn’t try to out-Piaf Piaf. The Little Sparrow imbued most of what she did with a lot of brass and sass; Poulos’ interpretation required that she simply remain in legit mode, which she did with a pure, clear tone if not a lot of emotional variation from one song to another. But her unabashed enthusiasm for the material, and her terrific backing band, were impossible to resist. Pianist Mitchell Vines turned in a marvelously nuanced and sensitive solo reading of Poulenc’s Improvisation No. 15 in C Minor (which the composer dedicated to Piaf), along with an absolutely riveting take on the somewhat noir cabaret number Padam Padam and the other upbeat numbers that closed the show – in fact, by the time they’d reached that point, the whole band was just as caught up in the drama and emotion of the songs as the crowd. The rhythm section of Rex Benincasa on drums, percussion and bells and bassist John Loehrke was poised and subtle, with accordionist Uri Sharlin (of Pharaoh’s Daughter and others) gracefully supplying the afternoon’s most haunting tonalities.
Billed as “La Mome Piaf [Kid Piaf]: The Life and Work of Edith Piaf,” the vividly narrated program didn’t follow any kind of career trajectory, although related songs were frequently paired. Je T’Attends (Waiting for You), the Charles Aznavour cabaret song, stopping just short of camp, was paired with a stripped-down, almost whispery La Vie En Rose, just voice and accordion. The sarcastic come-on Milord paired off with one of Piaf’s more iconic numbers, La Foule (The Crowd), which closed the show on a rousingly dramatic note. For an encore, Poulos and Vines had selected the strikingly brief, impressionistic La Grenouilliere (The Frog Pond), a pensive ode to an island in the middle of the Seine that served as a popular date spot during the 1930s. Francophones might take exception to Poulos’ delivery – she rolls her R’s, a l’espagnole – but the performance was rich with the longing that sometimes spills over into outright anguish, which continues to earn Piaf new devotees with every passing year.
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 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.
This is the kind of place where music is only an occasional thing, as evidenced by the chalkboard outside on the sidewalk which simply said “open mic.” As at innumerable other bars, the musicians who play here apparently also do all the promotion. Either the night was running ahead of schedule, or there had been a switchup after the email announcing the event was sent out, because by quarter after ten, accordionist Marni Rice was wrapping up her solo set. She’s excellent, a player who’s equally influenced by French chanson and American garage rock. Singing in a smooth, confident alto, her last two songs were both excellent originals, the last a new one perhaps titled Red Light, a scuffling, klezmer-inflected broadside about the New York subway system’s inability to treat their customers with even a minimum of respect. She’s playing another solo set at Hank’s this Saturday at about 9:30, opening for some garage-rock friends. Musically, it might not be the smoothest segue, but energy-wise it ought to be perfect: Rice has considerably more edge and originality than your typical accordion-playing chanteuse.
Bliss Blood is a one-woman time machine, a brilliant songwriter with breathtaking command of pretty much every oldtime blues, ragtime and swing style ever found on shellac or celluloid. Unsurprisingly, she’s a major force in the New York music scene, as leader of the wildly popular, lushly romantic Moonlighters, the sizzling barrelhouse blues act Delta Dreambox, macabre “crime jazz” trio Nightcall and swing dance band Cantonement (that seems to be all for the moment). A Bliss Blood solo show is so rare that it’s a can’t-miss event: even thought she got her start here in town playing solo, she virtually never gets a chance to do that anymore. In the Moonlighters, she favors lush, complicated, harmony-laden arrangements, so hearing her songs pared down to just vocals and chordal rhythm was a treat worth braving the cold and this somewhat suspect, frequently trendoid-infested venue. Accompanying herself tonight with just her trusty ukulele, Blood reaffirmed her status as one of the smartest, most captivating performers around. As a singer, she alternates between seduction and indictment. Her serenades were sweet and clear, but she put her fangs in for the sad, rueful ballads and politically-charged anthems. In the bar’s intimate confines, she transcended the dodgy sound and put on a riveting show, opening with a brief cover of the Goldfinger theme, then the explosively powerful Nightcall song Blackwater, a corrosive, spot-on critique of the mercenary company killing innocent civilians in Iraq.
Introducing the breezy, seemingly carefree hobo tune Ballad of a Gink, she explained that “gink” is Depression-era slang for someone who’s lost or homeless. Broken Doll, a stark narrative about a battered woman, was just as evocative as the version on the Moonlighters’ latest album Surrender. Blood also did a handful of covers of songs by her idol, Bessie Smith, and also debuted a touching new one entited Winter in My Heart (“and snow in my eyes,” she sang wistfully). It was hard to remain dry-eyed after that one.
Before launching into a tersely intense version of the Moonlighters classic Blue and Black-Eyed, she told the audience it evoked a different New York, one a little more dangerous, in this case the Bowery at the turn of the 20th century when prostitutes would drink carbolic acid and throw themselves off the fire escape of the recently demolished tenement that once housed the notorious bar McGuirk’s Suicide Hall. She wrapped up the set with a request, the charming Hello Heartstring and then her fiery, minor-key, tango-inflected maquiladora ballad Dirt Road Life, told through the eyes of a Mexican sweatshop slave.
Dreamboat, the headliners (no relation to Bliss Blood’s similarly-titled band) were terrific, the best new act we’ve encountered since unexpectedly discovering James Apollo back in December. This new trio features excellent acoustic guitarist/singer Craig Chesler, upright bassist Tony Masselli and a frontwoman who jokingly told the audience that she was Kelly Ripa. Iowa expat Kelli Rae Powell, alternating between a wink, a smirk and an occasional shit-eating grin, showed off a spectacular, vastly entertaining and delightfully witty ability to absolutely nail a range of styles from Bessie Smith subtle, to Shirley Bassey over-the-top, and seemingly everywhere in between. If this band stays together, they’ll be huge. Like the Moonlighters, there’s a fondness for harmonies and an unabashed romanticism in most of what they do, but playing for laughs is also part of it. Powell’s onstage persona is as devious as it is virtuosic. Their best song, appropriate for tonight’s chill, was a very pretty, soaringly optimistic ballad called When My Winter Turns to Spring. They’re playing the Jalopy Café on March 8 with the Moonlighters, well worth the B61 bus ride to Red Hook and back home again.