Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Another Good Reason for the NEC to Celebrate

The New England Conservatory – the Juilliard of Boston – is always finding reasons to celebrate. What a bunch of party animals. This year their excuse is the 40th anniversary of the school’s contemporary improvisation program, springboarding a series of New York concerts that continue tonight starting at 7 at Barbes with Matt Darriau, Frank London, Ashley Paul, Mat Maneri and many others and winding up with an extravaganza on March 23 at 8 at Symphony Space with an enticingly eclectic jazz bill including Ran Blake, Dominique Eade, John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet, Sarah Jarosz and Anthony Coleman among others.

Last night at Symphony Space, the theme was Today’s Jewish Music: From NEC to the Downtown Scene, which is very specific. For years, a thriving  klezmer/jazz community here relied heavily on the NEC for a wealth of talent, most of which is still active. Most of the NEC alumni artists on this particular program, including pianists Coleman and Hankus Netsky, multi-reedmen Darriau, Greg Wall and Marty Ehrlich, violinist Deborah Strauss, guitarist/cantor-in-training Jeff Warschauer, bassist Jim Whitney and drummer John Mettam would have packed Tonic ten years ago.  Clarinetist Michael Winograd and chanteuse Lily Henley represented for newer generations, the former most notably with a thrilling, trilling, rapidfire solo clarinet improvisation and the latter with a torchily nuanced, murky duo with Coleman on a klezmer soul ballad.

A quintet that also included Darriau, Ehrlich and Winograd opened with a long, lingering, Steven Bernstein-ish partita on an old cantorial theme fueled by Coleman’s noirisms and Mettam’s artful shifts from clave to waltz time. They closed with a moody tango that kicked off with an intricately energetic, spiraling duel between Darriau (now on bass clarinet) and Ehrlich. In the night’s wildlest improvisational moment, Ehrlich’s spine-tingling microtonal clarinet swirls paired off against Coleman’s deviously resistant staccato. The  Strauss-Warschauer Duo made elegant acoustic art-rock out of the Jewish prayer for the new month, then a little later Warschauer sang an affectingly aching, irony-drenched solo version of the Mordechai Gebirtig klezmer classic Avremi the Pickpocket. Coleman reprised it and reshaped it as a haunting Middle Eastern vamp and then jaunty hi-de-ho jazz. One suspects that many of these suspects will be back at Symphony Space in a couple of days: tickets are still available.

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March 21, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Roger Davidson Hits the Klezmer Road

Whether Roger Davidson knows it or not, he’s just released an elegant gypsy punk record. It’s not likely that the eclectic composer, whose previous work spans the worlds of jazz and tango nuevo, launched into his new album On the Road of Life with that idea in mind. But that’s pretty much what he ended up with. “Pretty much,” because there are no distorted guitars or pummeling drums here – and also because Davidson’s intent was to write an original album of klezmer tunes. Whether this is klezmer, or Balkan music, or gypsy music is really beside the point – whichever way it falls stylistically, it’s a collection of memorably simple themes bristling with the scary/beautiful chromatics and eerie minor keys common to all those genres. Here Davidson is backed by what he calls the Frank London Klezmer Orchestra, an eclectic group with the great klezmer trumpeter alongside another klezmer legend, Andy Statman on mandolin and clarinet, plus Klezmatics drummer Richie Barshay, Avantango bassist Pablo Aslan and Veretski Pass accordionist/cimbalom player Joshua Horowitz.

Some of these are joyous romps. Freedom Dance has solos all around and some especially rapidfire mandolin from Statman. Dance of Hope is sort of a Bosnian cocek with mandolin and clarinet instead of blaring brass, and a tune closer to Jerusalem than to Sarajevo. There’s Harvest Dance, based on a crescendoing walk down the scale; Water Dance, with an absolutely ferocious outro, and Hungarian Waltz, which in a split second morphs into a blazing dixieland swing tune fueled by London’s trumpet. Yet the best songs here are the quieter ones. The title track is basically a hora (wedding processional) that builds gracefully from a pensive, improvisational intro to a stately pulse driven by Aslan’s majestic bass chords. There’s also Equal in the Eyes of God, which reaches for a rapt, reverent feel; Sunflowers at Dawn, which klezmerizes a famous Erik Satie theme; The Lonely Dancers, a sad, gentle Russian-tinged waltz, Statman’s delicate mandolin vividly evoking a balalaika tone; and the epic, nine-minute Night Journey, glimmering with suspenseful, terse piano chords, tense drum accents, allusive trumpet and finally a scurrying clarinet solo.

Davidson may be a limited pianist, but he’s self-aware – his raw chords and simple melody lines only enhance the edgy intensity of the tunes here. That he’s able to blend in with this all-star crew affirms his dedication to good tunesmithing, keeping things simple and proper, as Thelonious Monk would say. Fans of moody minor keys, gypsy music and the klezmer pantheon will find a lot to enjoy here.

August 23, 2011 Posted by | gypsy music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Les Chauds Lapins’ Amourettes Isn’t Just a Flirtation

Les Chauds Lapins are one of New York’s most refreshingly original, interesting bands. They specialize in cleverly lyrical, sometimes obscure, innuendo-filled, sweepingly romantic French pop songs from the 1930s and 40s. It’s been a delight watching them evolve and blossom over the past four years, which is not to say that they weren’t already in bloom when they released their 2007 debut Parlez-Moi D’amour (Let’s Talk about Love), which made our Best Albums list that year. Four years later, their new one Amourettes (Flirtations) captures them pursuing a vein that’s both more sensual and more diverse. Frontwoman/uke player/guitarist Meg Reichardt’s voice has taken on even more of a lush sultriness than she brings to her other group, coy oldtime Americana hellraisers the Roulette Sisters. Her French accent has also gotten stronger; her partner in song, talented multi-instrumentalist Kurt Hoffman’s, has not. But he gets all the funniest songs here and makes the most of them, absolutely deadpan: if this was acting, he’d be Marcel Marceau.

The opening track, Nouveau Bonheur sets the stage for what’s to follow, the distant reverb of Frank London’s muted trumpet followed by Karen Waltuch’s viola and then Reichardt’s own nimble electric guitar against the balmy wash of strings. Cette Nuit-Là (That One Night), ultimately a sad song about waking up alone, is a showcase for Reichardt’s pillowy Catherine Deneuvesque delivery. Le Fils de la Femme Poisson (The Fishwife’s Son), a playfully deadpan, carnivalesque Charles Trenet tune, begins with an intro nicked from the Pachelbel Canon. Hoffman takes the lead vocals with sweet chirpy harmonies from Reichardt – born into a family of freaks, he hasn’t got a prayer, and eventually runs off to play accordion in a whorehouse.

Based on the Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli classic, Je T’aime’s lyrics don’t add anything, but Reichardt sings it fetchingly with some deliciously bluesy viola from Waltuch, and another soulful guitar solo. A study in suspense, Presque Oui (Almost Yes – check out the cool surreal video) is enhanced by Hoffman’s clarinet and a tightlipped passing of the baton from Andy Cotton’s bass, to the uke, to the strings as they rise. A straight-up love song, Vous Avez L’éclat de la Rose (As Pretty As a Rose) gets an unexpected modulation and more genial muted trumpet from London. Next up is Charles Trenet’s Quand J’etais Petit, sung by Hoffman, a wry tale of a a childhood crush that may have an unexpected ending – or maybe not.

C’est Arrivé (It’s Happened) wryly follows a downward spiral from mutual attraction to mutual bliss and then less amicable moments, with some delicious tradeoffs between Hoffman’s clarinet, the strings and the bass. Voulez-Vous Danser, Madame has Hoffman following a similar theme over a gypsy jazz bounce; Si Je M’étais Couché caches longing and angst in a sweeping romantic narrative that floats on dreamy strings punctuated by a bouncy bass solo. A bracingly deadpan tale of a suicide in the making whose bitterness for the moment is satisfied by spitting on the fish in the river rather than diving in with them, Moi J’crache dans L’eau introduces a darker current, where the album unexpectedly ends, with the sad waltz, Pluie (Rain), sung by a bereaved lover. Ironically, singer Maguy Fred, who recorded the original in 1934, was murdered later that year by her boyfriend, who after sitting alone with her body for three days set fire to their apartment and then shot himself. It would make a great lyric for a song by Les Chauds Lapins. They play the cd release show for this one at the 92YTribeca at 10 PM this Friday the 25th.

March 21, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Hottest New Big Band in NYC

The Ayn Sof Orchestra and Bigger Band are the most exciting new development in big band jazz in New York. To call them the “Jewish big band” is to say that they play large ensemble jazz works liberally sprinkled with themes and motifs from Jewish music. Some of the compositions are jazz arrangements of folk songs; their originals, contributed by several members of the ensemble, draw sometimes deeply, sometimes loosely on klezmer or Middle Eastern melodies. The group, a mix of some of the most highly sought-after jazz talents in the city, has been playing together for about a year, with a monthly residency at bandleader/tenor sax player Greg Wall’s Sixth Street Synagogue. Monday night’s sold-out show at the Cell Theatre in the West Village was a revelation.

They opened with a lush, sweeping, bracingly layered number by former Lou Reed tenor player Marty Fogel, a showcase for a slinky, klezmer-tinged solo from trumpeter Frank London and a bit later a no-nonsense one from trombonist Reut Regev. A composition by guitarist Eyal Maoz was a characteristically surfy sprint, complete with his own joyously showy, increasingly unhinged solo and some effect-laden, shuffling B3 organ groove work from Uri Sharlin (who’d switched from piano, and would later move to accordion). Wall sardonically announced that someone in the crowd had promised their grandmother some klezmer, so they blasted through a towering, majestic Fogel arrangement of the traditional Kiever Bulgar dance, more jazz than klezmer, with long, expressive trombone and accordion solos and a tricky false ending. A tune by alto player Paul Shapiro worked a bouncy soul organ groove that took on a latin vibe as it motored along. Another Fogel original introduced the night’s most darkly bracing tonalities, a 6/4 stomp featuring a blazing Balkan solo by trumpeter Jordan Hirsch; trumpeter Pam Fleming’s Intrigue in the Night Market was downright sexy, her own slyly cosmopolitan solo growing more rootless, the band restlessly and suspensefully rising to a big crescendo out of it.

The second half of the concert began with jazz poetry on Talmudic themes, Wall or London offering energetic accompaniment for a series of animated spoken-word interludes, sometimes playing in tandem. The whole band joined in as they went along; some were wryly humorous, but ultimately they preached to the choir, if as heatedly as that hardcore punk band who celebrate the virtues of learning Torah. The band eventually wound up the show on a blissfully carnivalesque note with a humor-laden latin soul groove featuring an uninhibitedly buffoonish Maoz solo, a similarly amusing, blippy one from Sharlin on organ and a typical monster crescendo from London, who’d been doing them all night whenever the moment appeared. Watch this space for upcoming live dates.

September 29, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Album of the Day 9/9/10

Happy 5771 everybody! Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #873:

The Klezmatics – Possessed

The most celebrated if not exactly the first of the klezmer revival bands, the Klezmatics brought a gentle but firm punk rock sensibility to ancient Jewish songs that frequently got them in hot water in more conservative circles but won them a wide following outside the klezmer shtetl. This 1997 album is their darkest, a mix of gypsy-inflected dances, jazzy improvisation and a long suite which served as the score to the popular Tony Kushner drama, The Dybbuk, based on the famous ghost story of the same name. There’s a mournful forebearance to most of this, although the group raise the ante when least expected, particularly on a rousing, klezmer-jamband ode to marijuana: every day is Shabbos when you’re stoned. The individual Klezmatics: reed player Matt Darriau, drummer David Licht, star trumpeter Frank London, bassist Paul Morrisett, frontman/accordionist Lorin Sklamberg and fiery violinist Alicia Svigals all went on to do great things as solo artists and sidemen/women after the band broke up; they recently reunited, with a Brooklyn show coming up on 9/19 at Galapagos. This album was reissued in 2005 as a twofer with their far more upbeat debut Jews with Horns. Here’s a random torrent.

September 8, 2010 Posted by | folk music, lists, Music, music, concert, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Jim Guttmann – Bessarabian Breakdown

This album is really fun. Klezmer Conservatory Band bassist Jim Guttmann takes a bunch of klezmer and Balkan brass originals and has a great time rearranging them in a whole bunch of different styles, backed by an inspired, like-minded crew including trumpeter Frank London, guitarist Brandon Seabrook, pianist Art Bailey and eight more horns and reeds. Since the early days of the klezmer revival, guys like these have been putting a new spin on haunting, mournful old ideas: Guttmann’s are especially imaginative and playful. The melodies still resonate, but the good time the band is having is contagious – you can actually dance to a lot of this.

The boisterous version of the traditional Philadelphia Sher that kicks off the album has the horns punching hard up against Ted Casher’s soaring clarinet, a striking contrast with the blithely swinging piano trio version of the Johnny Mercer tune And the Angels Sing that they segue into. Guttmann supplies the energy in this one with a genially expansive solo. From there they take it to el Caribe with the slinky mambo Descarga Gitano and its lush, sensual horn chart, a London solo adding considerable cheer, Guttmann – who doesn’t waste a note on this whole album – bringing the sun down with one of his own before Seabrook’s electric guitar goes wild to kick off the night. Cuando El Rey Nimrod is rearranged tersely for just bass, acoustic guitar and percussion with echoes of a levantine oud instrumental, bass deftly carrying the melody over the judicious clatter and sway. Then they take the title track and turn it into a Jimmy McGriff style organ shuffle – and is that a Michael Jackson quote?

Sadegirer Chusidi (Take Off That Shmatte) motors along with Mimi Rabson’s violin on a casual, Balkan bounce. The albun winds up with a straight-up Balkan dance, a vertigo-inducing tangle of interlocking horns, and a stately, pensive solo bass version of Fim di Mekhtonim Aheym. There’s also a rousing suite of three violin-driven dances and another suite rustically enhanced with mandolin and accordion. And no disrespect to this crew’s inspired swing cover of Dark Eyes, but it’s impossible to top the Les Paul version.

March 29, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Frank London/Lorin Sklamberg – Tsuker-zis

Perhaps the greatest thing about Jewish music is that it’s so well-traveled. In a sense, it could be said that it embodies the best of all worlds. The new collaboration between the “legendary trumpeter of the klezmer underground,” as one recent concert flyer described Frank London, and former Klezmatics accordionist/frontman Lorin Sklamberg certainly could be categorized as such. With contributions from ex-Psychedelic Fur Knox Chandler on guitar and effects, Ara Dinkjian adding gorgeously clanging, plinking and plunking textures on Middle Eastern lutes including the oud, saz and cumbus, and world music percussionist Deep Singh on tabla and dhol, the cd – recently out on Tzadik – alternates between boisterous and haunting reinterpretations of traditional Jewish liturgical music. Is this klezmer? Folk music? Jazz? Rock? Well, it’s all of the above: the melodies are as rustic as would be expected, but the playing, the arrangements and the production all draw deeply on what’s happened in the hundreds or maybe even thousand years since these tunes first saw the light of day. This is a beautiful and plaintive album and it also really rocks from time to time.

A couple of the tracks here turn worship into slinky, undulating Levantine dances, bouncing along on the beat of the tabla. Another couple have an upbeat dance feel and a Celtic tinge to the melodies. Still a couple more could be called shtetl ska, even if they go back long before ska was invented. The album’s twelfth track, a lament about being overrun by invaders, showcases London’s facility for channeling diverse moods both with and without a mute. After that, Sklamberg gets to breathlessly rattle off a Hasidic acrostic for a lyric while the band scrambles to keep up – and then Chandler throws in a big blazing arena rock solo where London then picks up the melody again, seamlessly  yet exhilaratingly as middle-period ELO would do. The ambient final cut nicks the intro from Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond, an expansive showcase for the whole band and especially Sklamberg’s rapt, incantatory vocals.

London’s playing is characteristically soulful, whether swaying through a sly muted passage or with half-balmy, half-ecstatic clarity. It’s also particularly pleasant to see how well Sklamberg’s voice has aged: it’s lower than it was in his Klezmatics days, the petulance of that era replaced with an unaffected, very welcome gravitas. This album ought to appeal to a vastly wider audience than your typical collection of traditional Jewish ngunim, while providing a decisive answer to the age-old question, does Rabbi Saul of Mozditz really rock? Answer: an emphatic ja.

November 8, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Ljova and the Kontraband – Mnemosyne

As richly captivating as it is innovative, the only problem this New York band’s mostly instrumental debut cd poses is one of categorization. There’s a jazz rhythm section, accordion and layers of strings and melodies here that veer between classical, Russian dances, klezmer and Balkan traditional songs, many with a decidedly cinematic feel. All this should come as no surprise since frontman/violist Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin is a Russian-born composer who gets a lot of film work. In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne is the arch-muse and goddess of memory; there is also a river in Hades named Mnemosyne which serves as the opposite of the Lethe (from which dead souls were supposed to drink to forget their past lives).  While there’s certainly an otherworldly quality to some of this, most of it has an inspired improvisational vibe. This is a very playful group. There’s a great deal of communication and jousting between members, passing the baton, running relays and jumping out from behind things unexpectedly, and it sounds like everyone is having a great time.

 

The cd’s first cut, Mathias, seems to be a barnyard scene, opening with samples from a chicken coop and building to fast dance featuring Patrick Farrell’s accordion before an almost bop breakdown. The stately, accordion-driven title track features Ljova’s wife Inna Barmash (frontwoman of the wild Balkan party band Romashka) singing a nostalgic lyric by late 19th Century poet Trumbull Stickney, her voice ringing out with characteristic bell-like clarity up to big, lushly orchestrated crescendo. Walking on Willoughby effectively captures a bustling walk through downtown Brooklyn – or Paris, since Farrell approaches it as a musette, bassist Mike Savino walking a brisk 6/8 beat.

 

The most cinematic of the cuts here, Love Potion, Expired is a frenetic dance tense with anticipation that becomes evocatively furtive. Koyl (Yiddish for “bullet”) is a mournful, vengeful ballad sung by Barmash with some gorgeously restrained trumpet work from Frank London over a bed of strings and accordion ambience. The next two cuts, How Easily I Get Lost and Less both have something of a hypnotic afrobeat feel. The cd’s single best number is Untango, Uli Geissendoerfer’s piano’s vivid and rain-streaked with guest accordionist William Schimmel providing a perfect backdrop. There’s also a slow, percussive, haunting instrumental as well as a brisk klezmer dance, a mélange of latin and Balkan with a clever musical quote, and even a showtune (albeit one which doesn’t do the band or its singer justice). Live, the band definitely picks it up a notch, and has a considerably larger repertoire than this cd alludes to. If the members can find sufficient time to keep this band active – they’re all involved with other, excellent projects – the Kontraband’s ceiling is enormously high. They’re fun enough to win over the Gogol Bordello crowd, while their prodigious chops and imaginative genre-bending will draw in all the Kronos Quartet fans. Discover them before they’re samizdat. Ljova and the Kontraband’s next gig is Dec 13 at the Stone.

November 4, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Les Chauds Lapins – Parlez-Moi d’Amour

The most romantic album of the year, and, so far, the best debut as well. Questions of authenticity always arise when bands mine a foreign genre, so the stakes were pretty high for this bunch of New Yorkers playing innuendo-laden, jazzy French pop songs from the 30s and 40s. But their love of the music transcends any difficulty they might have had with the language. A purist – and the French are notorious purists – might fault them for the occasional lapse of accent, but they absolutely nail the style. This is lush, harmony-driven, gorgeously orchestrated, swoony bedroom music. At les Chauds Lapins’ cd release show earlier this summer, people were in tears, and it’s a safe bet that most of them didn’t even speak French.

The nucleus of this band is Roulette Sisters lead guitarist Meg Reichardt, who sings and plays banjo ukelele here along with her sparring partner (or, better put, dance partner) Kurt Hoffman, former leader of rustic New York art-rockers the Ordinaires. Accompanied by another Roulette sister, Karen Waltuch on viola along with Garo Yellin on cello, Andy Cotton on upright bass and Frank London adding some balmy trumpet to several of the songs, the band wrings every ounce of subtlety and nuance out of both lyrics and melodies. As in Reichardt’s other band, most of the songs here are about sex: “les chauds lapins” translates roughly to “the horny bastards.” With their breathy yet restrained deliveries, Reichardt and Hoffman are the perfect combination to sing this stuff.

French songwriters have always been held to a higher standard than their American Tin Pan Alley counterparts: from Charles Trenet (many of whose songs Les Chauds Lapins cover here) to Didier Barbelivien, they’ve virtually always been much more artisanal. Double entendres, historical and mythological references, social commentary and great wit abound in a vastly higher proportion of the French top 40 than what Americans have been subjected to over the last century. Les Chauds Lapins revel in this: Reichardt and Hoffman articulate the lyrics to these songs with exceptional clarity, so that any French-speaking person can understand them (in case this might seem a sine qua non, try making sense of French hip-hop if you aren’t up on the latest argot).

There are thirteen lucky tracks on this album, and you might well get lucky if you use them the right way, i.e. late at night with someone you’re looking to se coucher avec. The Edith Piaf hit J’ai Danse Avec l’Amour (I Danced with Love), the coy Il M’a Vu Nue (He Saw Me Naked), the rueful Swing Troubadour (written as anyone who could afford to flee Paris had already fled, days ahead of the Nazi invasion) and the album’s sly, seductive title track are all performed with wit, charm and a barely restrained delight: it’s obvious that this band had a great time making the album. Fans of this obscure (stateside, anyway) subgenre will not be disappointed and newcomers will be completely seduced. You don’t have to speak French, but it helps. Quel plaisir to see such good musicians resurrecting such deserving songs. Terrific album: five baguettes with fresh camembert, tomato and a bottle of beaujolais nouveau. As a bonus, the album is also available on vinyl, complete with lyric sheet and ukelele chord charts for the album’s fifth track, Mon Reve C’Etait Vous.

[editor’s note – apologies to all you Academie Francaise types for the missing accent marks – attempting to use anything more complicated than plain text on a WordPress page, at least in 2007, is flirting with disaster]

September 2, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Nightcrawling 5/11/07: Basement, Lenny Molotov, Les Chauds Lapins, Moisturizer

The evening began at with happy hour at Lakeside, a reliably good way to kick off the night. The scheduled band had apparently cancelled and had been replaced by a country/rock outfit called Basement who took the stage at 8 instead of the usual 11 PM. They were excellent: two guitars, rhythm section and keyboardist who played mainly organ fills, from what little we got to hear. The lead player, on Telecaster, seems to be more of a rock guy, but he still gave them a shot of adrenaline. The flyer in the club window described them as rockers with a lot of bluegrass and Irish influences: the latter was in evidence, not the former. But there’s only so much you can tell from the first fifteen minutes of a band’s set. They’re definitely worth checking out.

Next stop was Sidewalk, where by the time we arrived Lenny Molotov was already into his 45-minute set. Funny how times change: ten years ago, this place was Dork Central and now it’s one of the more prestigious places to play. Same shitty sound, but it’s become a sane alternative to the Living Room, cheaper and usually pretty much tourist-free. And apparently musicians who want to play there no longer have to subject themselves to waiting ten hours for a 3-song audition in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, subject to the ridicule of the Woody Allen wannabe who’s been booking the place forever.

Molotov (who also fronts the excellent delta blues outfit Elgin Movement, and plays mean lead guitar for Randi Russo) was without his usual collection of effects pedals, so with only the club’s weak PA to amplify his acoustic guitar, the brilliance of his spiky, fingerpicked melodies wasn’t always readily apparent. He played a lot of new material, accompanied by his Elgin Movement sidekick, Jake Engel, on chromatic harp and Karl Meyer on violin. Engel was in a particularly buoyant mood and got a lot of response out of the surprisingly sparse crowd. Molotov’s original songs typically set darkly witty, brilliantly literate, contemporary lyrics to oldschool delta blues melodies, and tonight he played one of his best originals in that vein, possibly titled Hard to be an Outlaw. It’s a bleak, black-humor-driven chronicle about a kid from somewhere sketchy in Brooklyn who a couple of years ago went out to buy some weed, may or may not have been entrapped into starting a fatal shootout with an undercover cop, and ended up blowing his brains out later that night in an ex-girlfriend’s project apartment. Later, Molotov told the audience that he was going to do a number he’d never before played live, and that he’d just found out why everyone else plays it. After working out who was going to take a solo and when, he launched into a fascinating open-tuned arrangement of St. James Infirmary Blues, barely recognizable save for the lyrics. He closed the set with a new original song, Luxury Blues: “You say you don’t have a woman/Well try having two.”

We cut out moments after he left the stage and went east to Banjo Jim’s for about 40 minutes where Les Chauds Lapins were playing. They’re Kurt Hoffmann on banjo uke and clarinet, trading vocals with Roulette Sisters lead guitarist Meg Reichardt, who alternated between guitar and banjo uke as well. They were backed by a rhythm section (bringing in a new upright bass player for the second set, as their first had to leave for another gig), along with violin, cello and Frank London blowing exquisitely balmy muted trumpet on a couple of numbers. Translated literally from the French, Les Chauds Lapins means “the hot rabbits.” What it actually means is “hot mamas.” It can also mean “pains in the ass.” They play vintage French pop from the 20s and 30s, Hoffmann’s urbane tenor playing off of Reichardt’s breathy, sensual vocals. Like the Roulette Sisters, Les Chauds Lapins’ specialty is sex songs, laden with double entendres, sung more or less sans accent Americain, in the language of love. Strange that the place wasn’t packed – sex sells, as everybody knows – plus, the band was playing two whole sets. Their musicianship is superb, and the songs are well-chosen. For decades, in fact until very recently, French assembly-line songwriters from Charles Trenet to Didier Barbelivien had little in common with their American Tin Pan Alley counterparts: in France, even pop songwriting is an art form. Clever lyrics, complex song structures and real artistic achievement abound. Even the much-maligned varietes folk-pop from the 70s frequently has great lyrics. Hoffmann and Reichardt mine the archive for every innuendo they can whisper. Their new cd, which they were hawking tonight, promises to be excellent. But we were off to Luna to see Moisturizer.

The new Luna Lounge (across the street from Black Betty, just off the corner of Metropolitan and Havemeyer in Williamsburg) tries very hard to be likeable and succeeds on most counts. Sizewise, it’s about the same as Bowery Ballroom without the balcony: it’s obvious that the walls and ceiling have been expertly tricked out for sound. The staff and bartenders are uncommonly nice and the drinks aren’t outrageously overpriced. Moisturizer is strictly an instrumental band, so getting the sound right for them should have been a breeze. It wasn’t. Baritone sax player Moist Paula, bassist Moist Gina and their drummer fought magnificently for almost 40 minutes, trying in vain to cut through a relentless, drum-heavy morass of sonic sludge. One has to wonder: was the sound guy stoned? Did they bring in a sub because the regular guy wanted a night off and there was a “local” band playing?

Despite the dodgy sonics, Moisturizer won over the crowd: what a surprise. They’re the closest thing we have these days to the Funk Brothers, who were Motown Records’ studio band throughout the 60s and subject of the terrific documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Moisturizer’s irresistibly fun, danceable tunes had everyone at least swaying in their seats. They gets a lot of ESG comparisons, and that’s not a stretch, although Moisturizer is (pardon the pun) more fluid and a lot more melodic. Frontwoman Moist Paula, who has played with everybody and also has a fine, jazzy side project called Secretary, draws on a lot of influences, from Lonnie Smith go-go to Motown to hip-hop. But her sound is unique and instantly recognizable, always coming back to the melody even if she’s known to take a noisy excursion to the outer reaches of jazz from time to time. Bassist Moist Gina is one of the best in the business, one of the hardest hitters around, a terrifically melodic, imaginative, fluid player (there’s that word again) whose flying runs up and down the scale are adrenalizing to say the least. They’ve been through a succession of drummers lately, but the latest one is working out well.

Moist Paula was the only band member who had a mic, and she didn’t talk to the crowd much: maybe they were trying to pack as much material into the allotted time as they could, an admirable goal if that’s what they were shooting for. Moisturizer has a lot of material (dozens and dozens of songs), all of them “true stories,” as Moist Paula will proudly announce from time to time, and because they don’t announce them frequently it’s hard to tell what they’re called. The Satie-esque, surreal wit of the titles carries over from the title to the music. Among the tunes they played tonight were an uncharacteristically haunting, gorgeously melancholy number about a child who was reunited with his/her mother in the wake of the Indonesia tsunami, as well as the current Moisturizer crowd-pleaser Enactuate Our Love which features a blistering, breathtaking solo from Moist Gina at the end of the song. By then she’d turned off the flange she’d been using through most of the set, giving her propulsive lines a watery, 80s tone.

Everyone’s entitled to an off night: it’s just too bad Moisturizer and their fans came out on the wrong end of this one. Maybe it’s just growing pains at a new venue: by all other standards, the new Luna is actually a welcome addition to Williamsburg. Can you remember the last time you could say that about anything new in the neighborhood? I can’t.

May 13, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments