Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Bad Weekend at the Blog

One of the few downsides of running a music blog is that concerts become less of a social event: if you’re going to write about them, you need to pay attention. Another downside is that your favorite bands get squeezed out. The freedom to go up to Rodeo Bar on the spur of the moment to see Demolition String Band quickly disappears as the calendar fills up. There’s no shortage of good music in this city, the corporate media couldn’t care less and most of the blogs as well – somebody ought to be paying attention, and that’s where we come in. It’s a big job, and somebody’s got to do it, or at least try to, because that’s where our roots are. We spent our first year chronicling great New York rock bands who were far too scary and intelligent for the bland, conformist Bushwick blogs and the corporate media they imitate. But, predictably, this blog didn’t really take off until we expanded our base and started covering other worthwhile artists who’d built a larger following than the obscure local acts we love so much. However, it’s always a bad thing to forget your roots: humble as ours are, we’re proud of them, and we made it a point to revisit them this past weekend. Big mistake.

Mistake #1 was going to Astoria on a Friday night. It didn’t seem that way in the beginning. Ninth House (whose frontman Mark Sinnis has a ghoulish new acoustic album out and a cd release show Saturday night at Duff’s) were in rare form in the middle of a sleepy residential block at an opulent Greek bar that seems…um…to have an alternate source of income, considering that the only people in the place were the 25 remaining goths in Queens (it was goth night). It’s no secret that this band’s days are numbered: since Sinnis’ solo career has taken off, the band has become more of a side project. They’re not playing any more gigs until the Coney Island rockabilly festival around Labor Day, and then that might be it for them. If so, they had a great run. This show mixed old classics like the swaying, Nashville gothic Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me with a tremendously poignant, restrained version of the big escape anthem Long Stray Whim and newer material like the cynical Fallible Friend, a showcase for guitarist Keith Otten’s surreal, maniacal post-Jimmy Page attack. Never mind that the sound was far from perfect and it was a slow night: they gave 200%, closing with an uncharacteristically lighthearted country drinking song from the new Sinnis solo record that got the crowd singing along (think for a minute about how hard it is to get goths to do anything in unison, let alone raise their voices).

By one in the morning, the place wasn’t exactly hopping, and it was time to head out. And there were no Manhattan-bound trains, which meant a 45-minute trip deep into Queens. Not so bad if you live there, but if it means having to turn around and go back to Manhattan, with two out of three subway lines out of service at this particular station, that’s a dealbreaker. Will we be back? Maybe, but not if it means a three-hour subway ride. Could something as mundane as bad subway service destroy what’s left of good live rock music in New York? You figure it out.

Saturday’s debacle was a different kind of scenario. If you’re in the right mood, Tompkins Square Park is a great place to be on a Saturday, whether for a punk show, or the Charlie Parker Festival. This past Saturday was the Howl Festival, a longrunning annual event in homage to Allen Ginsberg that ignores his NAMBLA affiliation. It’s basically amateur hour. There’s nothing wrong with setting up a neighborhood stage so that friends and neighbors can share songs, but it’s usually not something you would want to see unless you happened to be playing yourself, or have a friend who is. So it was a lot of fun to show up around three and discover a tuneful, hypnotic, psychedelic Afrobeat band onstage who call themselves Timbila (after the Zimbabwean proto-vibraphone that frontwoman Nora Balaban played nimbly and energetically). Singer Louisa Bradshaw joined voices with her for some often otherwordly harmonies, singing in Shona, while guitarist Banning Eyre jangled and tossed off one incisive riff after another over the trancey groove of bassist Dirck Westervelt and drummer Ed Klinger. On one long number, Balaban switched to a mbira (thumb piano) that she’d hooked up to an amp: because it’s tuned to a microtonal scale, the dissonances with the guitar made for some blissfully strange timbres and textures.

Eventually, a couple of neighborhood guys did low-key but inspired versions of an old Fugs song, and a William Blake poem set to a pensive minor-key guitar tune. LJ Murphy was next on the bill. He’s been on our radar since his long-running weekly residency at the old C-Note a couple of blocks east of the park about ten years ago. He’s amazingly charismatic: give this guy an audience, and he delivers. What mot juste would he pull out of his hat in front of this crowd? Nothing, as it turned out. His set was cut back to two songs, the second, Barbwire Playpen a ferociously pun-infused tale of a Wall Street swindler who can’t resist the lure of the dungeoness, “begging to be punished while he’s dancing like a jester,” as the song goes. And then he was off the stage. Their loss.

At least Randi Russo’s show at Matchless the weekend before last was problem-free. One of us first saw her play a songwriters-in-the-round type thing way back in 2000 and was intrigued by her lefthanded guitar style. Seeing her with a band for the first time at the old Luna Lounge that same year, we were absolutely blown away. Since then she’s become one of the endless succession of New York rock acts who’s popular in Europe (her new album Fragile Animal, which we’ve ranked #1 for 2011 ought to go over well there) but plays it pretty low-key here in town, probably because she never fit in with the zeros’ trendoid esthetic (they only like other boys) or with this decade’s doucheoisie invasion (she sounds nothing like Bon Jovi). And the average, intelligent rock music fan thinks to himself or herself: Williamsburg on a Sunday? Trains aren’t running, are they?

But they were running, and she made it worth the effort. From show to show, she thrives on the unexpected: her last show featured a full band, keyboards and two drummers, while this one was just Russo methodically strumming her Gibson SG, and drums. Behind the kit, Josh Fleischmann was just as interesting as she was: watching him build the songs, following and enhancing Russo’s lyrics, crescendos and quieter passages literally phrase by phrase was something you don’t expect to see from a rock drummer (this guy’s very diverse, it turns out). He gave the towering, angst-driven anthem Wonderland a lush bed of cymbals, brought out every bit of the funk in the biting, bitter workingwoman’s anthem Battle on the Periphery and then negotiated the endless tricky time changes of the playful, funky shuffle Parasitic People and made it look easy. And made it easy to forget that the act who’d preceded them was an American Idol wannabe.

And the next band, Bugs in the Dark were great too! Two singers, two guitars and drums. The first song sounded like a haunted Middle Eastern version of Sonic Youth crossed with My Bloody Valentine, with defiant, pissed-off vocals, scorched-earth guitars and gargantuan drums. The second song was more of a dreampop stomp. What a fun discovery they were: so many good bands, so little time to see them all.

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June 9, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment