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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Steve Wynn and the Dragon Bridge Orchestra: Live in Brussels

For a lot of artists, a show like this would be the high point of a career. For Steve Wynn, it’s just another night on the road. This lush, richly beautiful live album is notable for the fact that the noir rock legend plays it not with his usual backing band the Miracle 3 but instead with much of the crew on his most recent studio cd Crossing Dragon Bridge: Chris Eckman from iconic art-rockers the Walkabouts on guitar (who makes a formidably terse sparring partner with Wynn on several noise jams), former Green on Red keyboardist Chris Cacavas, bassist Eric Van Loo, the irreplaceable, Keith Moon-inspired Linda Pitmon on drums and violinist Rodrigo D’Erasmo, who does a mighty job standing in for the full orchestra behind Wynn on much of the cd. After practically thirty years playing ferocious guitar-driven rock, he went deep into ornate art-rock, and this maintains that feel.

Ornate though it may be, it rocks almost as hard as his hardest stuff: the stark violin tones of the intro, Slovenian Rhapsody Pt. 1 something of a false start, though it sets an ominous tone very effectively. Then everything picks up with a particularly menacing version of the SoCal car cruising anthem Bring the Magic, the Beach Boys through a twisted minor-key funhouse mirror. He gets even more menacing with an almost tongue-in-cheek version of the come-on God Doesn’t Like It, then insistent and down-to-earth with the wise existentialist ballad Here on Earth As Well. With D’Erasmo’s violin leading the way, Tears Won’t Help (opening cut on Wynn’s first full-length album, Kerosene Man) takes on a gorgeously rustic country flavor. The best song on the cd is the one we rated as best song of 2008, the anguished, bitter I Don’t Deserve This. This time, the band does it as a whirling, psychedelic dirge including a screaming noise rock solo from Wynn into the bridge, where suddenly he has an epiphany and then it winds up with another swirling cauldron of noise.

From there, the album could be anticlimactic, but it’s not, testament to the depth of Wynn’s catalog. Punching Holes in the Sky is just Wynn on acoustic and the violin, riveting and intense. “Some things just get better and better/Some things don’t – whatever!” the stalker disingenuously grins to the clueless chick he’s trying to pick up on the ragtime-inflected Wait Until You Get to Know Me. Among the best of the other cuts here – there are too many to enumerate – are a suspenseful solo acoustic version of the classic Silence Is Your Only Friend, a rare version of the blistering anthem 405 with a brutal duel between Wynn and Eckman and the last of the encores, Amphetamine, reinvented as less of a noise jam than full-on orchestral maelstrom, something akin to the Doctors of Madness on…um…take a guess. What else is there to say – put this one in the pantheon and look for it on our Best Albums of 2009 list at the end of the year. Until Wynn decides to bring the equally extraordinary but completely different Live Tick cd from 2006 back into print, this one will do just fine.

June 19, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Steve Wynn – Crossing Dragon Bridge

Like his colleagues Richard Thompson and Elvis Costello, Steve Wynn has a richly prolific body of work, dating to the early 80s and the pioneering noise-rock band the Dream Syndicate. Although Wynn rocks harder than those other two artists, he’s equally competent at darkly gentle acoustic stylings and slashingly lyrical songwriting. Whenever he puts out a new cd (almost every year, it seems), it’s always amusing to read the reviews: everything seems to be Wynn’s best in a long, long time. Well, his most recent solo studio cd before this one was …tick…tick…tick (reviewed here in our earliest days last year) and that one was killer. So is this. While not everything Wynn touches – from Danny and Dusty, his wildly carousing duo project with Green on Red founder Dan Stuart, or the Baseball Project band he has with Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey – is visionary, this cd is. It seems that every great songwriter eventually ends up playing orchestrated rock, and Wynn’s first venture into this kind of uncharted territory ranks with his finest work. Time may judge this a classic.

 

In a drastic departure from Wynn’s usual MO in the studio, producer Chris Eckman (leader of another extraordinary, long-running band, the Walkabouts) was insistent on getting Wynn to play as many instruments as he could by himself, rather than utilizing the skills of his snarling backup band the Miracle 3). The result here blends lot of acoustic guitar and some electric piano with lush, epic string arrangements that take Wynn’s dark, frequently ominous songs to new levels of majestic grandeur. Perhaps in keeping with the time-honored tradition of 70s art-rock, the cd begins and ends with a “Slovenian Rhapsody.” “On my own again, haunted by the rain,” is the opening line of its second part, encapsulating Wynn’s signature style with characteristically terse understatement.

 

The first full-length song on the cd is Manhattan Fault Line, a false start of sorts: it’s an attempt to transpose the ever-present LA earthquake threat to the opposite coast, and ultimately it sinks under its own gravitas. The rest of the cd, however, is another story. Driven by a relentless minor-key groove, Love Me Anyway gets thisclose to desperation without falling over the edge. Then there’s a subdued cover by a Slovenian folksinger that sounds like something Wynn could have written in his early post Dream Syndicate days, and the strikingly optimistic When We Talk About Forever, a big acoustic ballad in 6/8 with those gorgeous strings. Wynn’s vocals have never been stronger than they are on this cd, and this song resonates confidence, yet with apprehension lurking in the background.

 

The next track, Annie & Me is just acoustic guitar and drum machine, sort of Kooks by Bowie updated for an older couple a decade or three later. The noir cabaret number Wait Until You Get to Know Me is Wynn at his menacing best, the leering tale of a sinister would-be ladykiller who won’t take no for an answer. The levels come down a bit after that but the darkness remains with Punching Holes in the Sky, sparse minor-key acoustic guitar playing against the orchestra:

 

Strip away the mystery

Lash out at the night

Strip away the storyline

But can I make it right?

 

Wynn picks up the pace after that with the equally menacing, somewhat hallucinatory Bring the Magic and the strange God Doesn’t Like It (is the song’s bullying narrator to be taken at face value, or is this satire?), then brings it down again with the somewhat breathless, plainspoken nonconformist anthem Believe in Yourself. As Wynn frequently does, he saves the best for last here with I Don’t Deserve This, a big, brooding, absolutely sinister epic building from eerie tremolo guitar and electric piano to mammoth proportions. It’s a bitter, anguished tale of being unable to get away from the enemy, whoever that may be, literal or figurative, and it’s simply one of the three or four most exhilarating, resonant songs released this year. “Violence tricks my ears,” Wynn notes matter-of-factly as the second Slovenian Rhapsody brings the cd to a close.

 

Like most New York-based artists, Wynn’s shows here in town have become infrequent: like everybody else, he makes his money on the road. For those in LA this weekend, Steve Wynn plays the Cinema Bar, 3967 Sepulveda Blvd. in Culver City, 310-390-1328 on Nov 29. 

November 26, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Steve Wynn at Lakeside Lounge, NYC 11/11/08

A characteristically fiery, exhilarating show by the Carl Yastrzemski of rock and his scorching band, this time with some unexpected special guests who were swept up in the maelstrom. From one show to the next, nobody takes more chances than Steve Wynn (which would make him more Freddy Lynn than Yaz – you’ll get the picture soon if you haven’t already), and on the rare occasion that he doesn’t land on his feet the effect is still adrenalizing. Steve Wynn & the Miracle Three never play the same song remotely the same way twice. Yet they are an extraordinarily tight band playing extraordinarily terse, lyrically-driven noir rock songs. There’s never been anyone like this and there probably won’t be again. Guitar duels are their speciality, Wynn and lead guitarist Jason Victor wrestling with the most evil tonalities they can conjure. This time they were joined by a violinist – who supplied most of the dueling with Victor – as well as the bass clarinetist and percussionist from an out-of-town group called After Hours on their two last songs.

 

The set mixed songs from Wynn’s latest cd Crossing Dragon Bridge with a few canonical earlier tunes. What was most apparent was how vastly superior this band’s rhythm section is compared to just about anybody else. Drummer (and Mrs. Steve Wynn) Linda Pitmon’s tom-tom rolls recalled Keith Moon, but with just enough restraint to give them some real menace, especially when she’d follow them with a dramatic, stormy ride across the cymbals. Bassist Dave DeCastro was at the top of his game, as smooth as he was aggressive: nobody plays more fluid hammer-ons, or for that matter more flat-out interesting basslines than that guy.

 

The band did the pensive new Manhattan Fault Line pretty much straight-up, leaving it to the violin to build the ambience. By contrast, another new one, Love Me Anyway was pure groove, Wynn and DeCastro in lockstep. The best of the new ones, Wait Til You Get to Know Me was Wynn at his best, a snidely menacing, minor-key noir cabaret number that he said perfectly capsulized the East Village. If you consider how much it’s become a pickup scene for clueless, unsophisticated girls from central Jersey, the song rings absolutely true. The slowly crescendoing, complex The Deep End gave Victor a chance to do a David Gilmour séance and add some magnificently beautiful, upper register shades before stomping on his repeater pedal and picking up the pace. The band also ran through a terse version of the Dream Syndicate classic That’s What You Always Say (how they manage to make that one sound fresh every time is a mystery) and then brought up the bass clarinet to add a Springsteenish tinge to the great backbeat-driven Van Morrison tribute Boston (which actually became something of a trainwreck, but even this band’s trainwrecks are worth watching).

 

They closed with a scorching version of the LA-Woman-on-hot-rails-to-hell anthem Amphetamine, Wynn firing the first shots of a savage if brief duel with Victor, and then 1000 Girl Mornings, a brutally pounding dismissal of what becomes a literally endless series of one-night stands: “Hey can I look in your eyes again,” is the mantra on the chorus, sung sarcastically from the girl’s point of view. 

 

Perhaps to compensate for the substantial amount of Wynn back catalog that’s currently out of print, there’s a vast amount of spectacularly good live stuff online. Wynn’s own site is currently streaming an amazing full-length concert with the Dragon Bridge Orchestra; there are also over forty (40) incredible shows featuring both Wynn solo and with the Dream Syndicate at archive.org. That’s not even counting what’s on youtube. And keep your ears peeled for an upcoming Steve Wynn appearance on NPR’s World Café on Nov 20.

 

In case you didn’t get the baseball references above, they relate to Wynn’s latest related group, the wonderfully nostalgic Baseball Project band he has with REM’s Peter Buck and the Young Fresh Fellows’ Scott McCaughey: if the Mets’ pathetic demise (and the Red Sox’ similar season ending) have left a bad taste in your mouth, their new cd will have you salivating for spring training.

November 12, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | , , , , | 2 Comments