Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Erica Smith Brings Her Poignant, Spectacular Voice and Eclectically Shattering Songs to the East Village

Erica Smith is one of New York’s most distinctive and often harrowing voices in folk noir and Americana. But even in this city, Smith’s ability to shift effortlessly from style to style is pretty spectacular. In addition to performing her own music, she’s currently a member of both the Richard Thompson cover group the Shootout Band – in which she puts her own stamp on Linda Thompson’s vocals – and also the explosive gospel-rock band Lizzie and the Sinners. Smith can belt a blues ballad or deliver a plaintive Appalachian narrative with anyone. And she’s also a versatile jazz stylist. Her latest album, a jazz recording with her band the 99 Cent Dreams, is One for My Baby, streaming at Spotify. She’s got a gig coming up on an excellent twinbill at Hifi Bar on May 10 at 7:30 PM; similarly lyrical and somewhat sunnier Americana singer Rebecca Turner follows at around 8:30 PM.

There’s a tragic backstory here: as it turned out, this was the final recording by the great New York drummer Dave Campbell. Perhaps best known for his serpentine, turn-on-a-dime work with psychedelic rock band Love Camp 7, Campbell was also a terrific swing jazz player with a flair for Brazilian grooves, which comes across vividly on the more upbeat tunes here. This is a collection of counterintuitive versions of standards recorded with rock band instrumentation – electric guitar, bass, drums and Leif Arntzen’s soulful muted trumpet on two numbers – along with an obscure treasure by one of this era’s great lit-rock songwriters. It opens with The Very Thought of You, where Smith distinguishes her version from the famous Billie Holliday take with her inscrutable delivery, growing more playfully optimistic as she goes along. Guitarist Dann Baker (also of Love Camp 7) mashes up Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery as he follows Smith’s emotional trajectory.

Interestingly, there are a couple of songs commonly associated with Sinatra here. Smith does I Could Write a Book as ebullient, optimistic swing: the song feels like it’s about jump out of its shoes, but Smith holds it in check over a slightly ahead-of-the-beat bassline And she does the title track a tad faster than the Ol’ Blue Eyes original, echoing the bartender’s desire to call it a night as much as the wee-hours angst of the lyrics, Baker with her every step of the way through an alternately woozy and vividly brooding interpretation.

She does Rodgers and Hart’s It Never Entered My Mind as lingering, noir-tinged torch jazz, Baker’s gracefully stately chordal ballet in tandem with Campbell’s tersely slinky 6/8 groove. Smith’s careful, minutely jeweled, woundedly expressive vocals mine every ounce of ironic, biting subtext in the lyrics. Ain’t Misbehavin’ gets a hushed low-key swing treatment that builds to coyly nonchalant optimism, Arntzen’s trumpet following suit.

Campbell’s artfully acrobatic tumble opens Everything I’ve Got as an altered bossa before the band swings it by the tail, Smith leading the group on a long upward trajectory that far outpaces the Blossom Dearie original. The album’s most shattering track is a desolate, rainswept take of Cry Me a River, Baker shifting Kessel’s lingering lines further into the shadows over Campbell’s low-key, sepulchrally minimalistic brushwork. The band does the first recorded version of Livia Hoffman’s Valentine as a slow swing tune: “What are childhood crushes for? For crushing all your dreams forevermore,” Smith intones in a knowing, wounded mezzo-soprano. The album winds up with a wryly good-naturedly suspenseful, rainforest-swing solo take of Campbell’s drums on Everything I’ve Got: just wait til the hip-hop nation finds out that this exists. Throughout the record, Smith’s disarmingly direct, imaginative, emotionally vivid phrasing breathes new life into songs that other singers sometimes phone in, reason alone to give this a spin if classic jazz is your thing.

May 8, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Edgy Songwriters Bare Their Fangs at the Parkside

Songwriters in the round. No, wait, don’t click off the page, it was like that but it wasn’t. From the first few seconds of the night, the three women onstage at the Parkside on Thursday made it clear that this would not be a G-rated evening of terminally pretty voices singing terminally pretty songs. Given a chance to not only sing but also discuss their material at length, Rebecca Turner, Paula Carino and Erica Smith vented about the thankless side of their profession: clueless audiences, backhanded compliments, and the sheer expense of it all. Why do they do it? Because they can’t imagine not doing it – which was encouraging to hear. Carino is a wordsmith who can’t resist a catchy hook. Turner is a specialist, one of the finest, most indelibly original voices in Americana rock; Smith, the star of Beefstock 2010, is the eclectic one: she can write anything. Asked to explain how it feels to be a performer, Carino responded that it was much like police work: “Hours of boredom, moments of sheer terror.” Smith saved her derision for clueless listeners, the kind of morons who say things like “That’s a pretty song – who wrote it?” Turner explained that she’d come to grips with dumb crowds, especially since she’s been playing more covers at a lot of New Jersey gigs lately (she hastened to add that there’s also a considerable audience for quality original music there). Here on their home turf, the four fed off each others’ energy and banter and turned in a fascinating show.

Solo on electric guitar, Carino jangled her way through a bunch of rare gems that she seldom plays live: Readers Digest, which uses bulimia as a metaphor for a host of other ills; the angst-ridden existentialist lament Waiting for You (“Then the river froze and I started skating/Of course I’d rather swim but I’m tired of waiting”), and Sensitive Skin, a metaphorically loaded “public service announcement for people not to get involved with people who are too sensitive.” She explained that she’d changed the gender of the song’s central character to a woman: if the guy with the bathroom full of extra-sensitive formula lotions knows it, he’s undoubtedly grateful she did.

The night’s most exhilarating vocal moment belonged, unsurprisingly, to Turner. As the third verse of her big crowd-pleaser Tough Crowd (a little irony there) kicked in, she took it up as far as she could, which is a long way. She’d explained how each of the verses tackles a different subject: friends, then family, then an audience, deftly linking how absurd it can be to try to communicate with any of them sometimes. As warmly memorable as her melodies are, there’s also usually an undercurrent of unease, most strikingly apparent on Knocks, a chronicle of a trip to Maine circa 2004: “Go on, grey sky, open up,” she sang, as much a dare as resignation to an unwanted fate.

Smith pulled out a lot of new material: she’s never written better. “I lost my job and wanted to write a song about how good freedom is,” she explained defiantly and then launched into a catchy Americana-pop number: “If you’re lucky you’ll never work again in this town.” The last verse of another new one, River King, she explained, came to her in a dream, ostensibly written by Adam Cooper and her lead guitarist, Dann Baker. For whatever reason, that’s where central character, on vacation and miserable, gets dressed up in her lacy things and goes down to the waterfront bar. She clarified that it’s probably the last thing either of those two would ever be likely to write. And another new one, a garage rock number, turned out to be a bittersweet but encouraging tribute to enduring friendships – that’s why acoustic shows can be so interesting sometimes, since the lyrics are audible. Watch this space for future shows by these artists, very possibly as a trio again.

August 1, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 7/24/10

Our daily best 666 songs of alltime countdown is working its way through the top ten: just five days left before we reach the greatest song ever. Saturday’s song is #5:

Erica Smith & the 99 Cent Dreams – All the King’s Horses

“Until one among you burns to tell this tale, I’ll hear a lie in every word you utter,” the New York Americana chanteuse sings stoically and hauntingly over a lush, jangly bed of guitars in this nine-minute epic. Sean Dolan’s lyric casts a medieval travelogue as Orwellian nightmare:

Way down here the high sheriff
Keeps a list of names
And next to every one
Is the reason for their shame
Some were unwed mothers
Some were partners in crime
Some sold transport papers from paradise
Others just stayed high all the time
Some people get more than they need
Some people ain’t got enough
Some call it good fortune, some call it greed
Some call the sheriff when things get rough
Goddamn the hangman…

The procession marches on, through the shadows, as the atrocities mount. And how little has changed over the centuries:

Thirty pieces of silver is a paltry sum
For those who live inside the gates
Who still make their fortunes in slaves and rum
Precious metals and interest rates

And it ends in a refugee camp:

When the battles are over the father weeps
For children and mothers all alone
Do you have enough hours left to bury your dead
Or enough days in which to atone?

It’s the centerpiece of an unreleased ep. There are also a few live bootlegs kicking around – it was a showstopper during the days of the 99 Cent Dreams, the late Dave Campbell steering the juggernaut with characteristic agility behind the drum kit.

July 24, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Rebecca Turner at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 2/9/10

Tuesday night Banjo Jim’s still didn’t have its liquor license back (it does now), but the bar was covered in homemade goodies. Lemon snickerdoodles, chocolate cayenne cookies and a peanut butter cheesecake induced an instant sugar buzz. And there was also Rebecca Turner, a whole lot of catchy Americana songs, an excellent band and her exquisite voice. There are tens of thousands of women with good voices out there: Turner’s is something special, warm and crystalline without being saccharine, moving toward and then away from a Nashville twang depending on how hard the song rocked. With Skip Krevens on pedal steel, John Pinamonti on twelve-string guitar, Scott Anthony on bass, a new drummer and Sue Raffman soaring on harmony vocals for about half the set, she held a tough crowd (most of them actually big fans) silent and bordering on spellbound for the better part of an hour.

She stayed pretty much in major keys, playing mostly newer material from her most recent album Slowpokes. Turner’s turns of phrase are subtle and understated, sometimes wryly funny, often vividly aphoristic. Her hooks are just the opposite: the tunes get in your face, linger in your mind, notably the insanely catchy, metaphorically Tough Crowd with its delicious, syncopated riffs that slammed out into one of her most memorable choruses. It’s a good song on record; it’s amazing live. She’d opened with Listen, a contemplatively jangly country-pop number about intuition (Turner is a reliable source) that would be perfectly at home in the Laura Cantrell songbook, right down to the hushed, gently twangy nuance of the vocals. The Way She Is Now picked up the pace, a swinging, upbeat country-rock song sweetened with swells from the pedal steel. The Byrds-inflected Insane Moon gave Pinamonti the spotlight – his chiming twelve-string style is competely original, more of a incisive lead guitar approach (think Roger McGuinn on Eight Miles High instead of Turn Turn Turn).

Then she did Brooklyn. It’s one of the great Gotham songs, not just because it’s catchy but because it has so much depth. To paraphrase Turner, Brooklyn is so big because it has to deal with so much bullshit and yet so much transcendence: credit goes to the people who live there. She wrapped up the set with Baby You’ve Been on My Mind, the opening cut on Linda Ronstadt’s first album, where she admitted to finding out only later that Dylan had written it. With a gentle insistence, she made it her own, matter-of-factly warm rather than straight-up come-on. She’s back at Banjo Jim’s on 2/21 at 8:30 as part of ex-Monicat Monica “L’il Mo” Passin’s reliably good Americana night.

Erica Smith and the 99 Cent Dreams followed on the bill with their first New York show in awhile, a relatively brief set of jazz standards. Smith’s equally nuanced stylings moved from Julie London somber (Cry Me a River) to unselfconscious Ella Fitzgerald joy (Everything I’ve Got) to a deadpan version of One for My Baby, lead guitarist Dann Baker going back in time for a vintage 50s vibe while drummer Dave Campbell swung casually with the occasional Elvin Jones flourish or Brazilian riff.

February 12, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Bucketful of Beefstock

A teaspoon is more like it. Beefstock is an annual three-day music festival held at the Full Moon Resort in upstate Oliverea, New York, a relatively short drive from Woodstock. Dedicated to local musician Darren Bohan, a talented guitarist/bassist and fireman who was killed when the World Trade Center was detonated, the gathering, now in its eighth year, features mostly bands and songwriters from the Freddy’s Bar scene in Brooklyn, where Bohan was highly respected and served as the bass player in Livia Hoffman’s band. Other than a few shows at the now-defunct Blu Lounge in Williamsburg, her annual appearances here are the only ones Hoffman has played in recent years.

Hoffman is the best songwriter you’ve never heard of, flying so far below the radar she doesn’t even have a myspace. She plays what she calls “lit-rock,” catchy guitar-driven songs with frequently scathing, literate lyrics, spiced with references to literature from throughout the ages. Example: the opening song of her early Saturday evening set, a fiery, propulsive number called Infinite Jest. The title is the only David Foster Wallace-ism in the song: it doesn’t go on for a thousand verses. It’s the haunting tale of a road trip punctuated by a breakup, where the narrator finds herself wanting to get back into a café – by herself – but comes up against a locked door with a sign on it saying “back in five minutes,” as the outro raises the song’s emotional level to redline. Backed by filmmaker James Dean Conklin on lead guitar, Plastic Beef leader Joe Filosa on drums and Erica Smith’s bass player, Hoffman reminded how much she’s been missed on the scene, and how good her songs would sound if she and her crew had a chance to work them up: this was clearly a pickup band. They tentatively made their way through the elegaic U-Shaped Hole in the Universe, the title track from the ep Hoffman made as a tribute to Bohan, stabbed at the Badfinger hit Day After Day, and finally pulled it together on the brilliantly catchy, heartwarming major-key janglerocker Carry. They closed their brief, barely half-hour set with a rousing if loose version of Hoffman’s excoriating, bluesy Paper Bag, an anti-trendoid broadside if there ever was one, done as an attempt at an early Beatles-style R&B raveup.

After a break for dinner, the show continued with Erica Smith and most of her band, John Sharples sitting in impressively on drums, playing a bunch of songs from her new album Snowblind. The title track featured a woozy noise jam mid-song with lead guitarist Dann Baker (of Love Camp 7) trading off wails and roars with Sharples’ drum freakout. They also ran through a riveting version of The World Is Full of Pretty Girls, which could be the great missing track from American Beauty. Their take of the ridiculously catchy, all-too-brief 60s-ish hit Firefly, also from the new album, had bounce and swing; another brief number, the soul-inflected Who Are You was a study in contrast. They closed with the cover of One for My Baby that’s usually a centerpiece of their live shows, Smith’s heartwrenching vocals a big hit with the audience, a mix of fellow musicians and locals whom one suspects seldom get to hear material this good.

Paula Carino and her band were hands-down the stars of at least this part of the show, following with a blistering, upbeat, abbreviated set including the tongue-in-cheek Robots Helping Robots, a lickety-split version of the wrenchingly lyrical alienation anthem Grace Before Movie, and the spirited, Latin-inflected, sarcastic Rough Guide to You, a travelogue through a relationship where the road runs out, leaving the narrator wishing for a guidebook that obviously doesn’t exist. With its big stage and powerful sound system, the acoustics here are generally marvelous and they were tonight, Carino’s casual low soprano cutting through strong and clear. As a lyricist, she’s unsurpassed; one could also say that of the crystalline craftsmanship of her songs and the tightness of her band, Filosa doing what was probably sextuple duty this evening. Beefstock usually features a lot of jamming in the wee hours, with predictable focus and tightness issues, but Carino hit the ground running and burst through the finish line seemingly without breaking a sweat.

Kirsten Williams and then the John Sharples Band were next on the bill. Williams’ stock in trade is understatement and metaphor, and backed by bassist Andy Mattina (who was also doing multiple duty tonight, in Carino’s band and with others despite being under the weather) ran through a lilting, subtly smart set of catchy acoustic pop. Sharples’ trademark is playing well-chosen covers by obscure bands. Switching to guitar, he ran through a bunch including a countrified version of the Erica Smith janglerock hit Secrets, joined by Smith on backing vocals and guitar. Predictably, Smith stole the show with her spectacular, Aretha Franklin-esque vocals on a cover of the Beatles’ I’ve Got a Feeling. There’d been a whole slate of good bands including the Sloe Guns on Friday night and more coming up this evening, but the driving rain outside was turning to snow and the lights of New York, though invisible to the eye, were beckoning.

If you’re wondering where Beefstock gets its name, it’s because Plastic Beef usually provides the the rhythm section (and sometimes the whole backing band) for several of the artists who play here. Look for upcoming post-Beefstock shows at Freddy’s on March 22 as well as another coming up shortly at Hank’s.

March 10, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Erica Smith & the 99 Cent Dreams Live at Parkside, NYC 1/25/08

The best show of the year so far. Erica Smith and her backing trio were celebrating the release of their long-overdue new album Snowblind, and rose to the occasion with a majestic, transcendent performance. Smith is one of those panstylistic rock goddesses like Neko Case, steeped in Americana but lately delving deep into jazz. Nonetheless, this is a rock band, and they rocked. Lead guitarist Dann Baker and drummer Dave Campbell are two-thirds of Beatlemaniac psychedelic rockers Love Camp 7, and they were at the absolute top of their game. Baker’s playful, frequently fiery virtuosity is the perfect complement to Smith’s wickedly catchy, jangly songs, and Campbell might well be the best drummer in rock, an Elvin Jones disciple who in all fairness really ought to be leading his own jazz group.

They soared through the opening track on the cd, the Merseybeat hit Easy Now, then lit into a 60s Memphis soul soundalike driven by a bass riff stolen straight from Duck Dunn. Baker took a screaming, noisy solo after the second chorus and really got the crowd going. They followed with the heartbreakingly beautiful The World Is Full of Pretty Girls, a rivetingly sad, swaying, country ballad, and the lush, romantic Brazilian-inflected Tonight, Campbell expertly conducting the band through a slow, hypnotic fade at the end.

Smith’s set of jazz reminded what a vividly instinctive feel she has for the genre, with a high-spirited version of The Very Thought of You, a very slow, haunting take of One for My Baby, a bouncy Ain’t Misbehaving with false ending and an effectively jazzed-up cover of Livia Hoffman’s sad, beautifully literate Valentine. Campbell brought it down to almost complete silence with a tensely minimal solo. He also got the crowd roaring on a careening, bluesy cover of the obscure Judy Henske/Jerry Yester song Snowblind, the title track from the cd. When the band does this live, they generally don’t give Campbell enough time to solo, probably because drum solos – on the rare occasion that any rock bands other than, say, Journey play them anymore – can take a song into Spinal Tap territory in a split second and leave it there for good. This time, Campbell got at least a couple of minutes to span the globe, throw out some summer snapshots of Bahia, a trip into the mountains of Morocco and then before anyone knew it, he was back on the Lower East Side again.

They saved their best for last, with a towering, nine-minute version of their epic parable All the King’s Horses. It’s a slow, 6/8 ballad, music by Smith, Sean Dolan’s lyric transposing all the deadly effects of post-WWII monopoly capitalism onto a medieval battlefield. Audience members were brought to tears. The bass player, clearly caught up in the moment, went off-mic and sang along with Smith as she brought it to a crescendo at the end of the last verse: “Do you have enough hours to bury your dead, or days in which to atone?” Except that he sang “bodies” instead of “hours.” And then missed his cue to join in with the band singing harmonies on the chorus. They encored with 31st Avenue, a haunting, melancholy track from her previous album, rearranged as a backbeat-driven, psychedelic, lushly romantic hit.

January 28, 2008 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Erica Smith & the 99 Cent Dreams – Snowblind

Erica Smith got her start as a bartender at the old Fast Folk Café singing sea chanteys and similar ancient folk material after hours, and her first album reflected that, just stark acoustic guitar and a voice that could draw blood from a stone. Friend or Foe, her next one, was a lushly orchestrated affair, but the material was still mostly covers. This time around, Smith sings mostly her own material, a vastly diverse mix of retro styles. This is her quantum leap, an album which firmly places her in the top echelon of current Americana sirens along with Neko Case, Eleni Mandell, Jenifer Jackson et al. It may be early in the year, but if this doesn’t turn out to be the best album of 2008, something very special will have to come along to unseat it.

Although most of the album is recent material, everything here sounds like it was written no later than 1980. Both of the jangly Merseybeat numbers, Easy Now and Amanda Carolyn have an authentically mid-60s feel, as does the slinky samba-pop number Tonight. The tantalizingly brief Firefly bounces along on an impossibly catchy Carnaby Street melody. Feel You Go is a vehicle for Smith’s dazzlingly powerful soul vocals, snaking along on a Booker T riff. The best song on the album, the gorgeously swaying, country-inflected The World Is Full of Pretty Girls could be the great lost track on American Beauty, guest steel player Jon Graboff playing soaring, haunting washes against lead guitarist Dann Baker’s steady jangle. And In Late July, with its pastoral, hypnotic layers of vocals and organ would fit well on an early 70s, pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd album.

The title track is an authentically retro, completely psychedelic cover of the obscure Judy Henske/Jerry Yester blues/metal song, originally recorded in 1969. This version gives Smith a chance to do some goosebump-inducing belting, and lets drummer Dave Campbell – who may just be the finest drummer in all of rock – show off his devious, remarkably musical sensibility with a solo simmering with all kinds of unexpected textures. Guest organist Matt Keating spices the obscure Blow This Nightclub classic Where or When with weird, early 80s synth organ, as the bass player slams out a riff nicked directly from the Cure, circa 1980. And Smith’s lone venture into Nashville gothic here, appropriately titled Nashville, Tennessee evokes Calexico or the Friends of Dean Martinez with its eerie, tremolo guitar and haunting minor-key melody. The final cut on the album, a Beach Boys cover, may not be to everyone’s taste, but that’s beside the point. Recorded in analog on two-inch tape, Smith’s production gives this album the feel of a vinyl record, drums comfortably in the back, vocals and guitars front and center. In a particularly impressive display of generosity, the band will be giving away copies of the album to everyone in attendance at the cd release show this Friday, Jan 25 at 8 PM at the Parkside.

January 23, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Four Headliners for the Price of a Beer at the Parkside 11/28/07

It was Freddy’s Bar night at the Parkside. Since Freddy’s is doomed – failing an intervention from some deus ex machina, the encroaching Atlantic Yards luxury condominium/arena monstrosity is scheduled to engulf and demolish the building that houses the venue– several of the bands from what’s left of the scene there have started playing other places. This is the latest. One of the ways you can tell if a scene is real is if bands share musicians, and this crew takes that concept to an extreme. Lead guitarist Ross Bonnadonna played with Paula Carino, Tom Warnick and John Sharples. Sharples himself drummed for Warnick and then fronted his own band at the end of the night. Bassist Andy Mattina also did double duty with Carino and Sharples.

Carino has made a name for herself by writing heartwrenchingly lyrical janglerock songs, but tonight was her fun set. She has a thing for weird time signatures and did four of them in a row: the caustic Rough Guide to You (“Just take me home,” the narrator sighs at the end, exasperated); the crunchy Discovering Fire; the hilariously punk Old People (“Old people must go/Set them all on an ice floe/Make room for the new old people”) and the quirk-rock hit Robots Helping Robots. She and band burned through the rockabilly-inflected yet mournful Saying Grace Before the Movie, a potently metaphorical tale of a woman alone in a theatre in a No Exit situation, knowing the villain always returns. They dusted off her classic, victorious Venus Records (“You’re my alltime favorite lucky find”) and encored with the scorching Coming To Your Senses, one of her most slashing numbers. The crowd was ecstatic: for once, the sound here was excellent, Carino’s vocals like velvet cake with creme de menthe icing. She would prove a very hard act to follow.

But Tom Warnick was up to the challenge. He’s simply one of the most dynamic, effortlessly hilarious frontmen in all of rock. Marcellus Hall is a good comparison: both like their retro styles, have a great sense of melody and an equally sharp sense of humor. Waving a hammer at the audience and pounding his keyboard with it – from the back of the room, it looked like the real thing, not a prop – he gave his completely off-the-wall, stream-of-consciousness songs just enough menace to give the crowd pause. Warnick does the evil-eye thing as well as Johnny Rotten in his prime: it’s never certain whether he’s just goofing around or whether he really means it, and he clearly gets a charge out of messing with his bandmates just as much as he messes with the audience. His best song was a very funny chronicle about playing a gig later on a Monday night at a club where the promoter expected him and the band to bring at least forty people. He closed the song with a brief quote from the Mission Impossible theme.

He and band also ran through the fast, noir City of Women, which dates back to his days as a guitarist, along with a gut-bustingly funny, twisted travelogue through the south and back: “You always hit the bullseye when I go in the donkey tank,” he mused. Since it was Randy Newman’s birthday – “If it wasn’t for Randy Newman I wouldn’t have written a lot of these songs – it’s true,” Warnick told the crowd – they did one of his songs, a 6/8 number where the narrator gets “some whiskey from a barman, some cocaine from a friend” and sinks into something approaching wry despondency.

After Carino and Warnick, the Erica Smith Jazz Odyssey (as Carino playfully called them) should have been anticlimactic to the extreme. But Smith, radiant in a shimmery black dress, grabbed the crowd and they latched on for the ride. She and the band may play mostly rock, but jazz and soul is where her heart and especially her voice are at, and the band gamely played along while she delivered a goosebump-inducing Cry Me a River along with sultry versions of The Very Thought of You, Ain’t Misbehaving and One for My Baby. They also ran through several of her originals, ranging from the bossa nova soul of the soon-to-be-released Tonight, the backbeat-driven 31st Avenue and a practically heavy metal cover of the obscure Judy Henske classic Snowblind (the title of the band’s forthcoming album).

The evening closed with John Sharples, who as he told the audience is “the anti-songwriter” since he doesn’t write his own stuff, opting to cover his friends’ songs. Good taste is his trademark, as he and the band (with Smith playing rhythm guitar and singing harmonies) launched into the excellent, tongue-in-cheek Blow This Nightclub hit When Amy Says, along with a surprisingly good, bluesy, minor-key Dan Killian song and eventually something that sounded like Minor Threat at halfspeed which Smith sat out (just as well, considering how much louder Sharples was than any of the other bands: he’s pretty punk rock). They closed with Smith bringing down the house as usual with a blazing, passionate cover of the old Beatles tune I’ve Got a Feeling. What a treat for everyone who filled the back room here on a weeknight: four headline-quality acts for the price of a beer, arguably the best lineup in any club this year all year.

November 30, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, philosophy, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Concert Review: Tom Warnick & World’s Fair/The Saudi Agenda/Plastic Beef/John Sharples Band at Hank’s, Brooklyn NY 8/31/07

It was Freddy’s Bar night at Hank’s, in other words, a bunch of bands that usually play Freddy’s booked themselves into another neighborhood venue for the evening. This was particularly appropriate since both places are doomed: the scam developers of the Atlantic Yards luxury housing complex are poised to demolish the building that houses Freddy’s, and Hank’s owner has put the place on the block as a “development site.”

Tonight’s lesson was trust your friends. Living in New York, you run into the great minds of your generation. Like everyone else here, I count among my peeps some of the greatest rockers of our time. One of them was recently insisting that I go see Tom Warnick someday soon. Yeah, I told her, I know him. Good writer, dynamic performer, excellent guitarist on the eerie retro reverb tip, sort of Tav Falco without the glam. Throws confetti at the audience. Yeah, he’s worth seeing.

Uh-huh. This guy has made the jump from being someone who reliably puts on a good show to someone you absolutely have to see, now. He’s always written pretty funny, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, but the new stuff – and there is a lot of it – is funnier than ever. Tonight’s best song was an exasperated tale of getting a Monday night, midnight gig from a club manager who expected the band to bring at least 40 people. Warnick still does the googly-eyed lookit-me-I’m-insaaaane look, but there’s a newfound subtlety to it: it looks like he’s having more fun messing with the audience than he ever has. And mess with them he does, with false starts, false endings and just clever lyrical interpretations. At the end of the show, he got the crowd to boo his encore and of course they followed his order, and the joke was on them because it was a good song. And this is a guy who’s survived not one but two brushes with death recently. Since the muscles in his fret hand aren’t all the way back yet, he’s taken up playing keyboards and his melodies are as subtly ominous as always. The backing band feeds off his energy: lead guitarist Ross Bonnadonna played the show of his life, all eerie chromatics and firestorms of blues. Warnick was obviously the evening’s big attraction. By the time his set was over, half of the audience was gone, the area by the front of the stage predictably littered with confetti.

The Saudi Agenda were next, just vocals, drums and former Paula Carino guitarist David Benjoya playing politically charged ska-punk. Their best number was a diatribe about how everyone in the Bush regime, current and former operatives alike, is a piece of shit. The energy was good, they’re right on politically and Benjoya’s guitar didn’t immediately go out of tune the way it usually does. They closed their brief set with a number about how the singer would kill for a falafel. I know what you mean, bro, nothing beats deep-fried, tahini-soaked chickpeas falling out of a torn pita pocket and staining your trousers.

Plastic Beef were next. They’re a jam band who play mostly covers, a rotating cast of Freddy’s characters backed by arguably the most imaginative rhythm section in town. Drummer Joe Filosa and bassist Andy Mattina are sort of the New York version of what Sly and Robbie used to be, the rare bass/drums combo with an instantly recognizable, signature groove and a lot of work: lately they’ve been playing with Liza & the WonderWheels, Paula Carino and others. They’ve also been doing the free live band karaoke thing on Sunday nights at Kenny’s Castaways, which by all accounts is actually quite fun. Tonight they jammed with sort of a Grateful Dead feel, then did a disco number about old East Village clubs, as well as a couple of covers. They closed with an energetic take on the Echo & the Bunnymen goth standard The Killing Moon and arguably did it better than the original. Sensing that the rest of the band weren’t going to do the silly scale solo that the lead guitar plays at the tail end of the recorded version, the keyboardist – who was obviously unrehearsed and pretty clueless up to this point – decided to take it and pretty much nailed it, note for note with the record.

The John Sharples Band closed the night, surmounting some serious technical difficulties to play an inspired set of obscure covers. They opened with When Amy Says by Blow This Nightclub, building to a terrific crescendo before the first verse kicked in (that’s the Plastic Beef rhythm section for you: like a lot of players tonight, they were doing double duty). They’ve recently added Erica Smith on rhythm guitar and backing vocals, and her haunting harmonies took many of the songs to the next level, including a swinging, countrified version of her janglerock song Secrets. They closed with the Beatles’ I’ve Got a Feeling done as an oldschool soul number, and Smith brought the house down: she plays mostly rock, but she’s a soul/jazz cat at heart and she belted this one out of the bar, over the YWCA building across the street and probably over the Gowanus Canal. A walk-off home run to end a physically exhausting but ultimately rewarding evening.

September 1, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Concert Review: Erica Smith & the 99 Cent Dreams at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 7/9/07

The blonde bombshell – sort of New York’s answer to Neko Case, a master of every retro style she’s ever touched – has really come into her own as a frontwoman and bandleader. Tonight Erica Smith owned this place, every square inch (it’s cozy), blazing through a largely upbeat set of mostly unreleased material. They opened with the beautifully evocative, windswept cityscape 31st Avenue (the opening track on her last album Friend or Foe), lead guitarist Dann Baker taking a gorgeous bent-note solo like the one in Blindspot by That Petrol Emotion (does anyone remember That Petrol Emotion? Dollars to donuts Baker does). They followed that with the unreleased Easy Now, a tasty upbeat Merseybeat melody set to a swinging country groove. The next song, a funk number propelled by a fast, growling bass hook stolen straight out of the Duck Dunn catalog, showed Smith at the peak of her powers as white soul sister, circa 1966 maybe. At the end, the band went into a wild noise jam as drummer Dave Campbell (who,with Baker, propels psychedelic rockers Love Camp 7) went looking for the second stone from the sun, but it was clearly Smith’s soaring soprano that left the crowd silent for several seconds after the song was over.

The next tune was also a new one, an impossibly catchy, bouncy 60s-style Britpop hit possibly titled Firefly, guitars and bass weaving and bobbing, alternating between punchy staccato and smooth legato lines. Smith and band like obscure covers, and tonight they mined the 80s LA new wave scene for Where and When by Blow This Nightclub (who were fronted by filmmaker Dan Sallitt), opening the song with pounding chords and a bassline nicked from the Cure’s Killing an Arab. Then they brought it down with a sultry bossa nova song, picked up the pace again with the scorching, unreleased Neil Young-inflected rocker Jesus’ Clown, kept it up with a practically heavy metal cover of Judy Henske’s Snowblind (with a strikingly quiet, artful solo from Campbell), took it back down with the obscure Livia Hoffman gem Valentine (completely redone as a smoldering torch song, something Smith does extraodinarily well) and closed with the old Sinatra standard One For My Baby. Not as good as the Iggy Pop version, but not bad either.

Cangelosi Cards (the Cangelosi Cards? a reference to the diminutive former Mets outfielder, maybe?) followed, an aptly chosen oldtimey quartet: vocals, guitar, harmonica and upright bass, playing blues and pop hits from the 20s and 30s. The musicians have the songs down cold and the petite, retro-garbed singer showed off a spectacular, girlish upper register that seems to owe a lot to Blossom Dearie. “It’s easy to like this band,” remarked one of the musicians who had just played, and he was right.

July 16, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment