The big show happened at the Orensanz Center Friday night. Because the night had to end before midnight, it was like the Rolling Stones Revue, 2010 style: everybody got short sets but made the most of them. Spottiswoode opened, solo on piano. He’s never sounded better. He has a musical theatre production coming up in the fall and if the trio of brand-new songs he played are any indication, it ought to be good. Intense and pensive, he began with a gospel flavored number, following with one of the best songs of the whole night, a bitter, brooding wee-hours tableau possibly titled Wall of Shame. He then dedicated a passionate ballad to a pretty, short-haired brunette in the crowd named Nicole: “I would follow you to Philadelphia,” he intoned.
Barbez have never sounded better either – their set was amazing, maybe the best of the entire night, an offhanded reminder of how brilliant this band is. Even more impressive, when you consider that their van had just been broken into the previous night, most of their gear stolen (Williamsburg bands beware – this is the second one in two days). This was their instrumental set, all minor keys, erasing all cross-country and cross-genre borders with perfect effortlessness. Guitarist Dan Kaufman led the band into a Balkan surf groove in 7/8 time, building to a squall with the clarinet going full blast, down to a masterfully nuanced passage featuring the marimba, then bringing it up again and ending it cold. The next one had a tango flavor, more prominent marimba and tricky rhythms. After that, they worked down from a furious gallop to atmospherics and then more tango, then started the next one with an ominously funereal, minimalist rumble that picked up in a rawtoned Savage Republic vein, ending with a creepy, carnivalesque waltz.
Since Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch had booked the night, he was pulling triple duty onstage, his first set of the night being with his longtime sparring partner Little Annie Bandez. This was the cd release show for their new one, Genderful, arguably the high point of their career together up to now. The crowd was silent, rapt, amazed – as a raconteur, Bandez has no equal, but since time was tight she kept the songs tight and terse and absolutely haunting, beginning with Wallfisch on guitar and backed by the full band on a wistful, sad version of Billy Martin Requiem, a tribute not only to the fallen Yankee skipper but also that era’s AIDS casualties. “Thirty years in business to learn a word like ‘monitor,'” she joked as soundman Marco, on loan from the Delancey, made some expert adjustments (big up to Marco by the way – the sound was outstanding all night). The wee-hours lament Suitcase Full of Secrets was poignant and loaded with understatement, on the wings of Heather Pauuwe’s violin; they closed with a brand-new song, Dear John, a requiem for a suicide. Bandez looked up, then around at the majestic synagogue facade behind the stage and did a slow, thoughtful 360, leading the crowd’s eyes just as she’d led their ears.
Bee and Flower have been conspicuously absent from the New York stage, but they haven’t lost a step. Frontwoman/bassist Dana Schechter began their all-too-brief set as chanteuse, swaying and playing shakers on a particularly haunting version of the slowly sweeping, characteristically cinematic minor-key 6/8 anthem Homeland. They picked up the pace briefly with a bouncy number that saw lead guitarist Lynn Wright (leader of the amazing And the Wiremen) swooping on his low E string to provide a second bassline against Schechter’s slinky groove. Switching pensively from tango inflections to starlit wonder to a pounding, hypnotically intense version of Twin Stars, a standout track from their first album, the only thing missing was the epic suspense film for which the songs would have made the perfect score.
The crowd peaked for Botanica, who were serenaded on and then offstage, from the balcony overhead, with the exquisive and otherworldly Balkan vocals of two completely unamplified singers, Black Sea Hotel’s Corinna Snyder and her equally haunting pal Kelly. Wallfisch had just played keys for Bee and Flower, so he switched to his battered Wurlitzer-and-organ combo and then went into a zone. Guitarist John Andrews blasted out wild Dick Dale-style tremolo-picked passages, playing through a skin-peeling cloud of reverb and delay. He also sang what might have been the best song of the whole night, the menacing art-rock epic Xmas, opening with just guitar and vocals for a Beatlesque verse, finally exploding with a crash on the second chorus. Their opener, the title track to their new album Who You Are (whose release was also being celebrated this evening) moved from stately menace to unaffected, longing angst; La Valse Magnetique, sort of the title track to their previous studio cd, featured more insane surf guitar and a very pregnant pause. Monster surf met Elvis Costello on a pointed, relentless version of the gypsy-punk Witness. There were other acts on the bill, but after a set like this, anything that followed it would have been anticlimactic – after five bands, maybe more (this is just the highlights), it was time to take a break and enjoy what was left of the early summer evening outside.
So sold as we were on this show (in case you were away, we plugged it shamelessly for a week), it pretty much delivered on its promise. The weekly Small Beast concert upstairs at the Delancey – from which this sprang – is the closest thing we have these days in New York to what CBGB was in the 70s, or what Tonic was from 1995 to 2005: the most fertile, fearlessly imaginative rock and rock-oriented scene in town. And from a blogger’s perspective, it’s a dream come true – for the price of a few hours worth of an otherwise fairly useless Monday, it’s an absurdly easy way to keep in touch with some of the world’s most vital rock and rock-oriented acts. Shame on the other Manhattan venues for not doing something like this on a Saturday and promoting it to a wider audience.
The whole town seemed to be partied out from the long weekend, so this Small Beast was a particularly intimate one. Monday was comfort night, comfort in darkness, in raw intensity and intelligence with a diverse quartet of acts who share the ability to bring all that for hours on end. Playing solo on acoustic, Elisa Flynn opened the night and immediately delivered chills with her plaintive, austere, broodingly nuanced vocals coupled to imaginatively scruffy guitar playing. She loves 6/8 time, and she knows how to use it, whether on an insistent, hypnotic tune about earth artist Robert Smithson (possibly the only song anyone’s ever written about the guy, she mused), a pensive sleeping-under-the-stars scenario, or a dark wintertime shipwreck tableau. And the single best song of the night, Timber. Others less subtle might be tempted to turn the towering, haunting yet wry ballad into grand guignol, but Flynn didn’t, holding back just a little on the pauses between verse and chorus to drive them home for all they were worth, tossing off a dirty, distorted solo, then hitting her pedalboard to crank up a sweet swoopy slide on her low E string. She closed with a gorgeously intense cover of Silver Rider by Low, wailing on the downstrokes.
Botanica keyboardist/frontman Paul Wallfisch – who as you probably know by now books Small Beast – quickly figured out that trying to outshadow Flynn would be a bad idea. So he played the fun set: a devious, sarcastic cover of Mack the Knife, musing on who the hell all those oddly named characters really are; an otherworldly version of Nature Boy retitled Nature Girl, which totally changed the song; a couple of soul-inflected new ones, Here I Am (with a lyric by Paul Bowles) and Hard to Cross; a hushed Marlene Dietrich homage, and a Vic Chestnutt cover that rhymes “paragon” with “Louis Farrakhan.” Wallfisch thought that particularly appropriate and wondered aloud what Farrakhan’s violin might sound like alongside Richard Nixon’s piano – paragons, both of them.
Inimitable art-rock songwriter/pianist Greta Gertler has a new kitten, who’d taken a swipe at one of her fingers: “Does anyone have a tampon at least?” she grinned. She’s got a new album, The Universal Thump, coming out. If you’re interested in getting in on the ground floor with it and whatever benefits come with being one of its sponsors, there’s still time: the cast of characters continues to expand. Her too-brief set offered an auspicious look inside, beginning with the bright, percussive, Kate Bush-inflected pop of Swimming with its murky, reverberating instrumental break; the resonant, sad 6/8 ballad Grasshoppers; a darkly dramatic take on the bustling title track to her previous album Edible Restaurant; the pretty yet uneasy, aptly titled Darkened Skies, and her best song, the richly melodic, crescendoing Teacher. When she took the vocals way, way up to the top of her range, i.e. the stratosphere, she pulled off the mic; likewise, she played it casually, letting the power of the chords speak for themselves. Then Wallfisch joined her for a couple of impromptu four-hands numbers, adding incisive upper-register rivulets and staccato over her catchy changes.
Kings County Queens were unfortunately missing baritone ukelele player/singer Daria Grace, but their two women – on piano and accordion – compensated well. Smartly, the band pulled out their dark set, frontman Chris Bowers in particularly bristly, quietly affronted mode. He even took a pointed southwestern gothic solo in the surprisingly bitter, tango-inflected opening number, and another later on, sailing plaintively over drummer Johny Rock’s hypnotic malletwork on a slow, catchy, nocturnal ballad. KCQ earned themselves plenty of cred around the turn of the zeros as one of the originators of the Pete’s Candy Store sound, i.e. urbanites playing low-key, harmony-driven country and Americana and they also provided plenty of that, notably the wistful waltz Magnolias. The warm, gentle insistence of the melody of that one and several similar numbers made for a perfect segue out of a long, crazy weekend into the sobering reality ahead.
The Monday night Small Beast show at the Delancey being New York’s most brazen display of good songs and good chops, the parade of talent that’s come through here over the last eight months or so far exceeds anything any other club in town has seen over that span of time. As far as pure talent is concerned, Greg Garing tops the list – and for anyone who was lucky enough to catch his solo show last night, that’s no disrespect to any of the other artists who’ve played here. If you can imagine Willie Nelson if his drug of choice was moonshine instead of pot, you’d be on the right track. Garing is the kind of artist who inhabits his songs – it’s impossible to separate him from them, seeing as he practically goes into a trance and becomes them. His guitar virtuosity, soulful terseness and stylistic chops are unsurpassed, matching a jazzy Chet Atkins-gone-punk countrypolitan feel along with a seemingly effortless whirlwind of flatpicking on a couple of bluegrass numbers, along with some judicious blues and country gospel work. As when Black Sea Hotel played a couple of weeks ago, the room was silent, absolutely rapt. Garing may have a four-octave vocal range – from Tennessee Ernie Ford bass to a falsetto and a heartwarming blue yodel – but he used all of those devices subtly. It would not be an overstatement to mention him in the same sentence as Jimmie Rodgers. And while he did play a few covers – a brisk, unadorned Deep Ellem Blues, a slowly smoldering take of the blues How Long and a Jerry Lee Lewis barrelhouse romp through Real Wild One (he also played pretty amazing piano on that one and a brief ragtime number that he seemed to make up on the spot), it was his originals that resonated most intensely.
The biggest crowdpleaser was a gentle ballad, a reflection on how nature has no preference for any season, with the refrain “We’ll be happy once again.” With the mercury outside below twenty, this hit the spot, along with a beautifully heartfelt gospel-inflected number possibly titled Teardrops Falling in the Snow. One of the more upbeat numbers sounded like a Hasil Adkins song; he also did a resonant cover of the #1 country single of 1968, the politically charged Skip a Rope, written by his old friend Henson Cargill. Garing admitted as his set got underway that he’s “a lucky boy,” having played with several original members of the Grand Old Opry as well as bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin (Garing was reputedly the only sideman that Martin would allow to drink with him, maybe because he could). And some years later, as leader of the Alphabet City Opry, he jumpstarted a fertile New York country scene that’s still going strong almost fifteen years down the road.
Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch played mostly solo on piano beforehand, covering Leonard Cohen, Serge Gainsbourg and then, with Bellmer Dolls frontman Peter Mavrogeorgis on guitar, the Stooges’ Gimme Danger (Paul sang) and a spine-tingling noir version of She Cried ( a Del Shannon cover that Peter, who sang, discovered via the late Roland S. Howard ). Wallfisch’s longtime onstage sparring partner Little Annie also contributed characteristically charming, smoky vocals on songs by Jacques Brel and Leon Russell.
Before Wallfisch, a boyfriend/girlfriend duo called the Pinky Somethings [wasn’t really paying attention] opened the night with carefree if barely competent covers of a lot of good songs: Warren Zevon, John Prine, George Jones, more John Prine. This is how you start out, playing your favorites. If they keep it up and reach the point where they’re writing songs like the ones they like so much, they’ll be really good too.
Concert Review: Valerie Kuehne, System Noise, Black Sea Hotel, Lenny Kaye and Paul Wallfisch 12/14/09
The last Beast of the decade (for us, anyway) was one of the best. That such a ridiculously spectacular display of talent doesn’t instantly leap to the top of our Best New York Concerts of 2009 list speaks to how good, and how essential, Paul Wallfisch’s weekly Small Beast concert at the Delancey has become. It’s like this every week.
This one was characteristic in that it ran the gamut from the avant garde to noise-rock (a welcome if unrelated excursion to the downstairs room) to Bulgarian choral music to powerpop to sinister gypsy rock played solo on piano: eclectic to the extreme. New music composer Valerie Kuehne opened the show on cello and vocals, backed by violin, upright bass, electric guitar and drums. Her shapeshifting songs stopped as fast as they started, went doublespeed, lept abruptly and then crept quietly, sometimes in the span of what seemed a few seconds. She sings with the wide-open belt of a classically trained singer, her vocals typically impatient and uneasy. “Do you believe in patterns? Patterns? Patterns?” she inquired accusatively, early on. Her second number, Now We Know set eerie tremolo guitar against jagged, disjointed rhythms that evolved out of the song’s initial stately 6/8 sway. She closed her brief set with a study in abrupt hard/soft contrasts with the vocals and also the stringed instruments. Not exactly easy listening, but then it wasn’t meant to be.
The next act had cancelled, so there was a long lull, long enough to head downstairs where art/punk/funk/noise rockers System Noise had launched into their own magnificent set, unrelated to what was going on upstairs, but it made a perfect segue (and because the next Small Beast act didn’t want to start early and be done by the time their fans had turned up, there was plenty of time to catch this one). Known for their assaultive, roaring guitar and vocal attack, they’ve never been more catchy and accessible, even if it’s a savage, cynical accessibility. A new one, Blame It on the Rain ran an absurdly catchy funk/blues phrase over a slinky groove while frontwoman Sarah Mucho gave it a characteristic sultry ominousness. Hair and Nails (the two parts of the body that continue to grow after death) followed in a similar vein; the best song of the entire night was another new one, a magnificently morbid epic that grew from apprehensive David Gilmour-inflected guitar arpeggios to an almost punk chorus, ending with a dramatic, classically infused buildup that would have been perfectly at home in the Procol Harum catalog. The even more punk number after that maintained the ornate intensity. It’s too bad that the band has since gone on what turned out to be a long-anticipated hiatus: what a run they’ve had, five years at least as one of New York’s best bands.
Upstairs, the four women of Black Sea Hotel assembled onstage. Their claim to fame – beyond having four of the most amazing voices of any New York group, in any style – is their innovative arrangements of traditional Bulgarian choral and folk music. Sometimes they’ll scale down a big, lavish chart to four-part harmony, other times they’ll embellish a folk song’s original single vocal line. Either way, the songs in their repertoire are hypnotic, otherworldly and haunting, but they’re also funny, ironic and sometimes completely absurd, and the crowd clearly got as much of a kick out of hearing the meaning of the Bulgarian lyrics as much as the band did relating them. A woman defiantly tells her guy that even if she’s wearing his clothes, he still can’t have her body; a (probably drunken) guy leaves home dressed in the garb of both his male and female relatives; a hot-to-trot single guy can’t make up his mind whether he’ll continue to court the women of his hometown or try his luck (not so good, so far) elsewhere.
Yet another advantage of Small Beast is that you get to watch the bands up close. Black Sea Hotel’s debut cd (look for it on our Best Albums of 2009 list) is gorgeous and swirling, but it’s impossible to know who’s singing what. Seeing them here, it was a lot of fun to discover that of the four, Corinna Snyder takes the biggest risks and the highest leaps, jumping octaves with split-second precision and losing nothing in pitch or power. Joy Radish is the smallest member of the group but sings with the most power. Willa Roberts has a stunning clarity and precision, and got to deliver the evening’s single most captivating moment, ending a song about a soldier gone off to war with a final, poignant verse in English. Sarah Small, meanwhile, achieved the impossible by being simultaneously raw and intense yet hypnotically atmospheric, and this time out she was the one who got to add the striking, strange ornamentation that Bulgarian vocal music is best known for. The audience was awestruck. The group have a reputation for being a sort of punk rock version of le Mystere des Voix Bulgares – they’ll sing anywhere – but where they really ought to be is Carnegie Hall.
Putting legendary Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye next on the bill was a smart move – it completely changed the vibe yet maintained it, at least as far as smart songwriting is concerned. Kaye’s stock in trade has always been his guitar playing, but he’s also a formidable songwriter, a first-class powerpop tunesmith. Playing most of the show solo on Strat, occasionally joined by his old 80s bandmate Paul Dugan (of Big Lazy) on upright bass, he ran through a catchy, hook-laden set of mostly original tunes with lyrics ranging from sardonic to fearlessly political. In Style casually dismissed a tourist on the Lower East Side: “You must like that Def Leppard, I know you do.” A rueful garage pop ballad, and another big anthem, were dead ringers for Willie Nile tunes. A jangly ballad by the Weather Prophets – whom Kaye had produced in the 80s – was compelling and pretty, while The Things You Leave Behind – a dedication to Jim Carroll – managed to be both ominously wistful and sarcastic. The duo closed with a sizzling, completely off-the-cuff version of Gloria, Kaye finally cutting loose with a couple of leads, the first going over the edge into noise-rock (this is the guy who basically invented the style, on Radio Ethiopia) before bringing it back to a delirious audience singalong. The crowd wouldn’t let him leave, so he rewarded them with a nasty, sarcastic cover of Jesse’s Girl and then a dark, subdued, jangly meditation on distance and absence, Telltale Heart.
Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch usually opens these shows – the series started as just a way for him to work out new material in front of live audience – but this time he closed it. Because we’ve reviewed so many of these shows this past year, he’s gotten more ink here than anybody else, but it wouldn’t be fair to neglect to mention how intense his own set was. Shira and Sofia is a swinging, noir cabaret-infused Botanica number about two WWII whores – essentially, its theme is make love, not war. When Wallfisch got to the part of the lyric where one of the hookers can “suck your dick,” he screamed it as if was the last thing he’d ever say and the crowd didn’t know whether to completely crack up (it was hilarious, actually) or do something else. He also played a tango, a waltz, a couple of soul numbers, a whiplash version of his collaboration with Little Annie, Because You’re Gone, and an absolutely morbid, Satie-esque rearrangement of Nature Boy (retitled Nature Girl). And had the crowd dancing to pretty much all of it. Small Beast will be off for a couple of weeks and then back on January 10.
An aptly timed post-Halloween solo show by the raven-haired master of outsider anthems. After spending the better part of the decade as the leader of a careening, somewhat shapeshifting electric band who toward the end were going deep into psychedelia, Randi Russo has in recent months been playing stripped-down solo shows. By the standard that if something sounds good acoustic, it ought to sound great fleshed out by an electric band, her gig Monday night at Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch’s weekly Small Beast extravaganza was full of good omens. Resolute with her guitar in the corner of the small upstairs stage in flickering candlelight, Russo ran through a mix of crowd favorites and intriguing newer material.
She started with a newly rearranged version of Invisible, a ridiculously catchy backbeat-driven outsider anthem that’s seen some revisions lately – a new intro, this time around. She followed that with the casually excoriating Venus on Saturn, a savage dismissal of a drama queen:
The cornerstones of her addictions are stored up in her own mind…
Without it she’d be boring and no one would listen
Now she’s just annoying, and she’s getting all the attention…
Now Freud and Picasso can hone in on your womanly being
And render you two-dimensional in an essay or a canvas painting
The rest of the set ranged between catchy consonance and the eerie overtones that resonate as she plays some of the more unorthodox voicings in her repertoire (she’s a lefty and plays upside down a la Hendrix). The big 6/8 ballad Push-Pull had a gentleness and warmth that a louder electric version might have burnt away; the Zeppelin-inflected, psychedelic Head High While You Lie Low got a surprisingly and very effectively sultry treatment, as did a hushed yet insistent take on the hypnotic Hurt Me Now and another resolute anthem, the defiantly feminist Shout Like a Lady (the title track to her most recent full-length cd). By contrast, the tongue-in-cheek, tricky Parasitic People scurried along like the parasites in the lyric.
By the time she got to the hypnotic escape anthem Ceiling Fire, the drape over Wallfisch’s piano (the Small Beast) started to slip and seconds after she reached the lyric, “any cloud that comes casts a shadow on the seat next to mine,” it fell off completely: another omen? She also debuted a memorably bluesy yet indie-flavored number, yet another anthem for someone trying to keep their bearings in a surreal world. Wallfisch followed, solo on piano, maintaining the warm, soulful vibe, playing with particular warmth and conviviality in a quasi-gospel vein. Turns out that Tuesday would be his wedding anniversary, so he played to his wife (an equally admired cult artist, painter Pat Arnao), who looked on with equal parts appreciation and amusement. It would have been nice to have been able to stay for more than just the obscure Dylan cover and the absolutely exhalted love song – “You gotta trade it all in for love” – that will soon serve as the title track from the forthcoming Botanica album. But there was another victorious event going on, in Philadelphia, to watch with bated breath.
Next week’s Small Beast is a particularly good one, featuring Wallfisch plus haunting, anthemic art-rockers Norden Bombsight.
So good to be back at Small Beast after a few weeks’ absence. Nothing has changed – New York’s most unpredictably fun weekly musical event was as edgy as always. This time around, Pete Galub opened the night while Botanica keyboardist and Small Beast impresario Paul Wallfisch furiously wrote out charts for his show later in the evening with Sally Norvell. Most solo shows are boring to the extreme, but Galub had brought along a gorgeous hollowbody electric guitar and gave a clinic in powerpop songwriting – and when the time came, guitar solos, playing along methodically as if he had his usual band behind him. Galub gets props for his playing, and deservedly so, but his songs are every bit as clever as his work as a lead guitarist for a cavalcade of A-list writers: Amy Allison, Serena Jost and others. He opened with a sardonic, Big Star inflected number possibly titled Exclusive Guest, following that with a gorgeously poignant, minor-key, somewhat Neil Finn-esque tune, Crying Time. A cover of the late former LA Trash frontman Alan Andrews‘ big 6/8 ballad Undiscovered Life maintained the poignant tone while adding a tongue-in-cheek vibe, segueing into a nasty, noisy riff-rocker that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Kevin Salem catalog – complete with an offhandedly savage solo. And then a real surprise, a pensive and heartfelt version of Any Major Dude by Steely Dan. When Galub opened his set, he’d hinted that he might take a detour into the Dan catalog, and this was a typically counterintuitive choice. Most solo shows are a clinic in how to bore an audience: Galub reaffirmed that if you have the chops, the material and a sense of humor, you don’t necessarily need a band.
Guitarist Thomas Simon and his drummer cohort were next on the bill, with a long set of swirling, atmospheric, effects-laden numbers that took the shape of a suite as they segued into one another. “A Spacemen 3 kind of thing,” one of the cognoscenti in the crowd murmured – this set had remarkably more aggression than Simon’s previous appearance at the Beast in July (very favorably reviewed here).
For one reason or another the women who play Small Beast turn out to be the night’s biggest stars, and an Austin punk legend, former Gator Family and Norvells frontwoman Sally Norvell maintained the tradition, backed by Wallfisch and erstwhile Big Lazy bassist Paul Dugan on a few numbers. Norvell is best known as a menacing noir cabaret femme fatale, but this set was a showcase in stylistic diversity, masterful subtlety matched by wrenching, raw intensity. Norvell can belt with anyone, but it’s how she holds back, how she works whatever emotion the lyrics call for that makes her such a captivating presence – and one sorely missed, at least around these parts. A few years back, right around the time that her duo with Kid Congo Powers, Congo Norvell was pretty much finished, she put out an amazing, sparsely beautiful album, Choking Victim, backed just by Wallfisch and occasional minimalist percussion or guitar. They opened with one of the songs from that one, One Gentle Thing, replete with longing and regret, Wallfisch obviously in his element and relishing the moment from its first few stately chords. A creepy, swaying Congo Norvell song pulsed along with a steady, ominous eight-note pulse from the bass. And then noir cabaret personality Little Annie joined them for an understatedly anguished version of her big audience hit Because You’re Gone – the contrast of Annie’s bitter contralto and Norvell’s breathy soprano, and the counterpoint between the two, was absolutely transcendent and the two women made it seem effortless. And unaffectly intense – it brought Norvell to tears. The rest of the set could have been anticlimactic but it wasn’t – a brief, menacing Paul Bowles song (Wallfisch worked with him for a time), a sad minor ballad in 6/8, a gorgeously dark lament, and then Norvell finally cut loose with a soaring version of the old spiritual Trouble in the World, imbuing it with a nihilistic fury. “You can’t have an apocalypse without Jesus,” she grinned gleefully.
Keyboardist and Americana soul stylist Matt Kanelos and then another keyb guy, frequent Thalia Zedek collaborator M.G. Lederman were scheduled to follow, but there were places to go and things to do. Next week’s Beast is a beauty, with Julia Kent, Carol Lipnik and Rebecca Cherry in addition to Wallfisch doing his usual set solo at the piano – if you’re in New York this coming Monday you’d be crazy to miss it.
Concert Review: Paul Wallfisch, Lillie Jayne, Alice Texas and We Intersect at the Delancey, NYC 8/24/09
Small Beast #31 (could that be?) was at least from this perspective a little sad yet ultimately optimistic, equal parts fond evocation of a lost time in New York music history and auspicious preview of the future. With the depression in full swing, many of the rock clubs here still prefer to book acts numbering among the idle rich. But with the market for “luxury” housing in freefall and the crowds of tourists who once swarmed like flies on the carcass of the Lower East Side largely absent, we’re getting our city back and with it the music of its dark underbelly. Last night was beautiful example.
Ten years ago, both Small Beast impresario Paul Wallfisch’s band Botanica and also Alice Texas made Tonic their home when they weren’t on the road. But Tonic closed in 2006, driven out by rising rents: the building site is now a shoddy, mostly vacant multimillion-dollar Legoland condo project. But with Small Beast on Monday nights (moving to Thursdays in September) upstairs at the Delancey, Tonic has been reborn. Once again, New York has a home for fearless, dark, adventurous rock and related styles. Wallfisch, with his blend of gypsy, Romantic, blues and gospel piano, gets a ton of ink here so suffice it to say that last night’s show was typical. His bad mood from the previous week hadn’t dissipated, and this was a solo show, without the ringer percussionist who’d stood in with him, representing the youngest generation of rock fans (who stand to inherit an impoverished, probably vastly more dangerous yet also probably vastly more fertile scene than has ever existed here). “Why do you want to fight when you can fuck all night? I cleared the room!” Wallfisch added gleefully, as the logic of one of the whores in the Botanica song Shira & Sofia sent a posse of overdressed, fake-tanned bridge-and-tunnel girls stumbling up the stairs on their once-a-week high heels to the rooftop barbecue. In a set that went on barely a half-hour, he veered from seduction to wrath to regret, covering Leonard Cohen,Marianne Faithfull and his longtime noir cabaret partner Little Annie.
He was followed by a brief set by actress and Glass Lamborghini frontwoman Lillie Jayne and her pianist “Fagen Beauregard” performing songs from her current Fringe Festival show A Night with Poppy Bulova. Channeling an obliviously self-obsessed Eastern European chanteuse, the obviousness of some of the comedy at least proved how well Jayne has assimilated the style. A living legend takes herself seriously, after all – except at the end, this one didn’t, which was the funniest part of the act. Her show runs through August 29 at the CSV Cultural and Educational Center at 107 Suffolk Street.
Alice Texas’ show here back in June was transcendent. This time out wasn’t bad either, especially considering that she was essentially backed by Botanica, or portions of various Botanicas: Dave Berger on drums, Wallfisch on piano and Christian Bongers on a gorgeous vintage 60s hollowbody bass. It was a considerably different set, more upbeat, giving the noir Americana chanteuse the chance to cut loose and really wail on a couple of numbers. She led the band into a long, mesmerizing Moonlight-mile style outro and kept going. It was obvious that the crew wasn’t particularly well-rehearsed, not because they made mistakes – these guys are pros, after all. But she made it clear that she was the only one who knew when it was going to stop, keeping the suspense on a knife’s edge. Then she did it again on one of the later numbers, giving Wallfisch another, welcome chance to get expansive. They closed with maybe the most hypnotic song of the night, Permission, a beautifully relentless post-Velvets dirge.
We Intersect is the side project of the Sad Little Stars‘ Rachel McIntosh and Max Low. With their insistent, pitch-perfect harmonies and Americana-inflected melodies, they played an hour of alternately warm and wary Pete’s Candy Store piano pop (to those outside New York, Pete’s Candy Store is the little Brooklyn bar that spawned a million country and bluegrass-inflected indie acts back in the 90s and early zeros). McIntosh added gently ambient layers of synth on occasion alongside Low’s smartly chordal piano work. They opened with a deadpan version of the Ramones’ The KKK Took My Baby Away, eventually did an impressive and understatedly fresh version of Big Star’s terminally overplayed 13 and at the end of the set, a suitably haunted take of the Smiths’ There Is a Light That Never Goes Out. But the originals were the best, one an upbeat 6/8 gospelish number, a couple of pensive ballads and a matter-of-factly delivered nocturne: “You dim the lights when you’ve arrived,” the two sang with a meticulous certainty.
Grace McLean really opened some eyes: as a keyboardist and bassist, she’s still taking baby steps, in stark contrast to the richness of her songwriting and her sophistication as a jazzy song stylist. From the sultry soul number that she opened with, a-capella, it seemed obvious that she’s spent some time out in front of a jazz band – the nuances, the effortless leaps and the out-of-the-box playfulness of her vocals are dead giveaways. Likewise, her songwriting is packed with devious tempo shifts, rhythmic devices, wickedly clever wordplay and a laugh-out-loud sense of humor, sort of a Rachelle Garniez Junior. Her number about being in love with her friend’s roommate had the room in hysterics and was something of an indelible New York moment. Likewise, a smartly swaying breakup number worked both as triumph over heartbreak and savage dis. The funniest song of the set was a breathless, rapidfire cabaret number about being jerked around by a clueless guy, done like Streisand with a graduate degree. Give this woman a piano player or a band behind her and there won’t be a cabaret room in town that she can’t rock.
The brain trust of ferocious, artsy rockers System Noise wound up the evening with a fascinating, virtuosic, low-key acoustic show, the kind that VH1 tries to get to work and inevitably fails with. This was a triumph. With guitarist Kurt Leege on acoustic and frontwoman/all-purpose siren Sarah Mucho alternating between percussion, harmonica and guitar and backed by excellent upright bassist, they revisited a trio of slinky, acerbic numbers from their early zeros band Noxes Pond. One of them was reinvented as a something of a dirge with stark bowed bass taking the lead part. They found the inner pop gem in Jimi Hendrix’ Angel, added a sly Talking Heads-style funkiness to Aimee Mann’s Wise Up and recast the Kinks’ Death of a Clown as a raucous barroom singalong. But their best song of the night was a brand new one, a original fingerstyle Piedmont blues with a particularly chilling, anthemic lyric by Mucho, a reluctant embrace of angst and solitude to rival anything Ian Curtis ever wrote. It sounded nothing like anything System Noise ever did, and it’s a particularly promising new direction for them.
It may have been a scorching Monday night in the dead of August, but Small Beast – the weekly salon/performance event we’ve been screeching about for the past six months or so – was pretty packed. The word of the night was charisma – reviled as passe in indie rock circles but as valid as ever for the other 95% of the world. This was simply one of the best triple bills of the year – although that possibility rears its head every week here. Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch (as regular readers of this space know, perhaps by heart) is a hard-rocking pianist who blends gypsy and classical motifs into his alternately ornate and austere art-rock songs. He was in a bad mood, brightened somewhat by the presence of a ringer percussionist, a tough-looking guy of about nine who contributed tambourine for practically the entirety of the set, demonstrating an appreciation for groove and an ear for creative rhythms that may develop into rock-solid timing if he keeps it up. He did a bunch of covers: a punked-out piano version of the Stones’ Faraway Eyes, a brief Paul Bowles song with a violent ending, a casually sultry take of Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man and a completely unhinged Why’d Ya Do It (the Marianne Faithfull rant from the Broken English lp). He closed on a raptly soulful note with the gentle, gospel-fueled title track to Botanica’s latest, forthcoming cd.
“This may be an asshole thing to say, but I didn’t expect him to be so good,” marveled the next act, banjo rocker Curtis Eller, without a trace of sarcasm. And then took the show to the next level. With his banjo hooked up to a wireless transmitter, Eller refused to stand in one place, alternating between a high-kicking Dizzy Dean stance and a righthanded Darryl Strawberry crouch, running the length of the floor past the bar, playing the piano with his ass and keeping the audience riveted. There may be no better lyricist out there right now – a set of Curtis Eller songs is just about as good and accurate a look at American history over the past two hundred years as A People’s History of the United States, and it’s a whole lot funnier. Referencing Elvis twice, Nixon several times, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the Las Vegas mob, Boss Tweed, doping in horseracing, Pentecostal rites and the death penalty, he ran through a mix of older songs and tunes from his most recent cd Wirewalkers and Assassins (which may prove over time to be a classic). Taking Up Serpents took a vividly literate look at how the ruling classes keep the lower ones divided and conquered; Sugar for the Horses examined the consequences of what happens when people like Boss Tweed and Elvis are separated at birth (that’s a quote). Three More Minutes with Elvis paradoxically worked equally well as wistful ballad and caustic portrayal of over-the-top idol worship; After the Soil Fails packed just about every contributing factor to the coming apocalypse into three furiously catchy minutes of minor-key noir blues. The crowd sang along on the bitterly tongue-in-cheek Come Back to the Movies, Buster Keaton and on the gently haunting closing number, Save Me Joe Louis, Eller sinking to his knees and whispering the outro like the song’s condemned man in the gas chamber.
Bliss Blood of the Moonlighters followed with a rare solo set of razor-sharp, period-perfect originals and a playful selection of covers from across the decades. A songwriter unsurpassed at evoking the subtle wit and exuberance of 1920s/30s swing, blues and Hawaiian music, her style is more cajolery than outright seduction, notwithstanding her stage outfit, in this case a vintage black slip over fishnets. “It’s like when the Moonlighters used to play Tonic, with industrial metal in the basement,” she sneered, as the thud from the downstairs room threatened to drown out her ukelele. “Let’s all stomp on the floor and scream!” The crowd was glad to comply. Her plaintive original Winter in My Heart (from the Moonlighters’ excellent new cd Enchanted) was inspired, she said, by an ex who refused her invites to join her on myspace and facebook – pretty cold, especially when you consider that there are guys out there who would probably be willing to pay to join Bliss Blood’s virtual circle of friends.
She worked every innuendo in Al Duvall‘s Sheet Music Man (also from the new album) for all they were worth, offered up cheerily swoony versions of the old jazz tunes Moanin’ Love and Fooling with the Other Woman’s Man, scurried through a fast, scorching take of the Moonlighters’ anti-maquiladora bolero Dirt Road Life as well as a trio of Kinks covers from Village Green. And then a request, Animal Farm (turns out she was a Kinks fan for a considerable time before she met the Davies brothers and Dave kissed her on the lips). “I could play all night,” she laughed before finally wrapping up her show with an original, the blithe hobo anthem Texarkana Bound, which is available as a free download. Comedic acoustic cowpunk Larry Bang Bang was next on the bill, which from what’s on his myspace could have been a lot of fun, but by then it was midnight on a work night and there were things to do, specifically, get home and stick a fan in the window before the place spontaneously combusted.