Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Sean Kershaw and the New Jack Ramblers – Coney Island Cowboy

Hard honkytonk doesn’t get any better than this. The band may be new jack but Sean Kershaw is definitely oldschool. One of the prime movers of the vibrant New York country/Americana scene, Kershaw led a fiery rockabilly band, the Blind Pharaohs back in the 90s and early zeros; this project grew out of an off-the-cuff jam session between some of the best players on the scene. Since they were always busy with gigs during the week, they could only get together on an off-day. But word spread and suddenly Sundays at Hank’s Saloon in Brooklyn was the place to be (free barbecue didn’t hurt). This is the band that sprang out of that jam, and it’s a damn good one: while Kershaw, true to form, performs live with a rotating cast of characters (he’s got a deep rolodex), this cd features the multistylistic Bob Hoffnar on pedal steel, the ubiquitous Homeboy Steve Antonakos on lead guitar plus a no-nonsense rhythm section of Jason Hogue on upright bass and Andrew Borger (of Norah Jones’ band) on drums. Recorded by the band’s longtime friend Rick Miller of Southern Culture on the Skids, most of this has a similar guitar-fueled burn, not to mention a sense of humor: some of these songs are hilarious, in a vintage 70s Moe Bandy way. Kershaw delivers them with a wink and a grin in a knowing, Johnny Cash-style baritone.

The funniest song on the album is The Trucker & the Tranny, ostensibly a true story – “Are you gonna tell him?” chuckles a friend at the bar as the two cavort. Or maybe it’s Bigshot of the Honkytonk, a downright vicious portrait of a bartender who’s a big fish in a little pond: “The jukebox plays his favorite song 25 times a night.” Crackerjack Delight echoes Orbison but with a surreal, contemporary edge, while Already Cheatin’ is a catchy shuffle: “There ain’t no fish scales underneath my fingernails, it must be the smell of cheating going on.” The Carl Perkins-inflected Moonlight Eyes -the Blind Pharaohs’ signature song – is redone here as a fetching duet between Kershaw and the golden-voiced Drina Seay. There’s also the eerie, completely noir, LJ Murphy-style Woke Up Dead, driven by a searing pedal steel solo; a western swing shuffle where Kershaw tries his hand at scatting, and actually pulls it off; a bizarre Split Lip Rayfield style number about doing battle with Satan; a SCOTS-style barn-burner with Miller guesting on guitar; and a remake of the folk song Old Hollow Tree, this one abruptly uprooted and transplanted to Brooklyn.

The title track is inadvertently sad, a vivid summertime oceanside scene populated with freaks and characters, complete with sound samples of the Cyclone rollercoaster. It’s a time capsule, and unfortunately the bumper cars aren’t bumpin’ to that crazy hip-hop beat anymore. The Astroland amusement park is gone, soon to be replaced by a parking lot since Mayor Bloomberg’s dream of driving out the blacks and Hispanics with casinos and “luxury” condos for rich white tourists doesn’t stand much of a chance these days – unless he funds it himself. Meanwhile, the neighborhood has pulled together and has been fighting it – unsurprisingly, when the band isn’t on the road they’ve been involved with the Save Coney Island movement, which deserves your support as well.

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February 19, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Twilight Time

Fall is the most beautiful season. Spring slips away and before we notice, it’s gone. In this age of global warming, we take cover and burn while Brian Wilson’s dream – the endless summer – scorches the earth and fevers our minds to the point of delirium. We long for a respite, some karmic reward for the endless months of toil, sweat and forebearance while what’s left of the sky above us sizzles and disappears. And just when it seems that there will be no vacation and the summer is really going to last forever, we get a break. In the twilight of our lives, the twilight of life on earth as we know it, comes a respite. We can breathe again, and walk under the stars. We have been handed a reprieve.

And with this reprieve comes a renewed sense of hope, a hope against all hope that perhaps all hope is not lost after all. Autumn is for romantics – and Romantics. Count us in the latter category. All that is most precious takes on an even greater significance when you realize that it’s not going to last forever. Perhaps that’s why we evolved, or mutated, as we did: if we knew that there would be tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, then perhaps we’d have no reason to savor what we have, preserve what we were lucky enough to be born into, temporary as it may be. Armageddon would be meaningless if every day was Groundhog Day, always coming around again no matter how badly we fucked up.

Last night at Hank’s, in the disarming, dusky cool, Ninth House played an elegy for the human spirit. It was a swinging, relaxed requiem, part bitter and resigned yet possessed of a great power and generosity of spirit. As dark as this band’s vision is, they still find a way to have fun. What Ninth House does is completely anathema to the trendoid esthetic. Their songs are towering, majestic, passionate, in touch with everything that makes life worth living, driven by righteous anger, raging against the dying of the light. So many of their songs deal with death, but they’re not going out without a fight. Last night they fought and, for now, they won. They’ve been through several different incarnations, particularly recently – but this band has never sounded better. And they didn’t even have their most powerful weapon – brilliant violinist Susan Mitchell – with them tonight.

They opened auspiciously with Long Stray Whim, from their most recent album. It’s an uncharacteristically upbeat song, played in a major key, a pummeling anthem about escaping crushing, workday drudgery, going off to somewhere where hope exists. It could be the theme song for any kid stuck in a prison called public school, or anyone putting in meaningless hours for a minimal reward for people who couldn’t care less about anyone other than themselves. Later they played Mistaken for Love, a swaying, ferociously accusatory country song about the dissolution of a marriage, and extended it by several bars while their new guitarist took a long, fiery solo. He took an even longer, more searing one at the end of the slow, ominous Jealousy, building to the point where the song’s relentless tension built to where it could no longer be contained and exploded in a ball of flame. Drummer Francis Xavier played the best show he may have ever done with this band, swinging the beat like crazy. Ever since the band brought in the new keyboardist, guitarist and violinist, he’s taken it to the next level. No matter what happens to this band – knowing them, they’ll probably be around for another ten years – this guy will always have a gig. Too few rock drummers have his timing or his ability to flat-out groove.

The band gamely tackled the old Sisters of Mercy goth hit Nine While Nine, even though it didn’t seem that they’d had the chance to rehearse it much, and managed to pull it off, even if the song missed its poignant central hook. Their swinging version of the Nashville gothic song Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me replicated all the knowing, confrontational majesty of the version on their album Swim in the Silence. And their roaring, closing cover of Ghost Riders in the Sky got some unlikely dancers swaying and whirling in front of the stage. The audience refused to let them leave the stage, even though they’d run out of material that everyone in the band knew how to play, so frontman Mark Sinnis put down his gorgeous, black hollowbody Gretsch bass, picked up the guitarist’s Strat and played a beautifully plaintive, country-inflected new song called That’s Why I Won’t Love You. The bar – a usually raucous late-night rock n roll hangout – went completely silent. Nights like this are why people stay in New York even as rents rise, beloved city institutions are shuttered and torn down and the summers become ever more unbearable. We may not have many more nights like this, or autumns like this, to look forward to, certainly not in what remains of this city, physically and esthetically. Let’s enjoy them while we’re still here.

October 13, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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: Melomane at Hank’s Saloon, Brooklyn NY 6/7/07

Living proof that epic grandeur can be synonymous with great fun. This well-established New York art-rock unit is part eerie 60s garage band, part meticulously orchestrated symphonic rock. As much as it was a little incongruous seeing them in these surroundings – Hank’s is a wonderfully inexpensive, friendly, old-school place that usually features country music – it was a blissfully good show. They bookended the set with a cover of the old Lou Reed chestnut We’re Going to Have a Real Good Time Together, the only song on which the band lacked tightness, and in fact the only really lighthearted moment of the night. Melomane translates loosely from the French as “passion for fun,” and there was no lack of either, although since 9/11 they’ve become a very dark band with a remarkable political awareness, even for an age where pretty much everybody is united against Bush & Corp. Foremost among the songs they played tonight were a trio from their ongoing “disaster song cycle,” as frontman/lead guitarist Pierre de Gaillande put it. One of them was a bouncy pop song about the Vesuvius eruption that essentially cast the Romans as a bunch of fascists. Another was about a meteorite. Their global warming song, possibly titled This Celestial Orb was the best of the bunch, a gorgeous, minor-key number that began with de Gaillande’s guitar playing fast, biting broken chords while keyboardist Frank Heer did the same. It built to a haunting chorus, “gravity reverses and the sea and sky trade places.” After a spur-of-the-moment interlude in 7/8 time, they tacked on a sarcastic, poppy finale with a tricky false ending that caught the audience completely off guard.

This is a talented group of musicians. Heer doubled on lead guitar, and at the end of a slowly unwinding, overtly political number, played a perfect dual guitar solo with Gaillande. To their credit, it sounded absolutely nothing like Hotel California. Keyboardist Quentin Jennings played haunting cello on several numbers. It was also good to see nimble, inventive bass player Daria Grace (also of the Jack Grace Band and the Prewar Ponies) singing harmonies again. There was a time when she’d pushed her voice too far, and it took a long time to come back. The good news is that it’s back and as bright as ever.

The biggest hit with the audience was a request, Going Places, a spot-on parody of trendoids:

Let’s get stressed out to impress and then let’s go out
You have the best high-fashion bedhead to go with your sleepy mind
And if the night should segregate us you go your way and I’ll go mine

The song went doublespeed after the second verse and by the time they wound it up, it was completely punked out, Gaillande screamingly hoarsely.

Otherwise, the band displayed a welcome gravitas, most powerfully evoked with the two keyboards going at once. They’re playing mostly in minor keys, and Gaillande has become an excellent lead guitarist. Melomane’s show tonight was a reminder yet again of the uncontestable fact that the most transcendent, powerful moments of live music in New York aren’t found at Madison Square Garden or Irving Plaza or for that matter even the Annex. The good stuff, the really great stuff is happening at cozy little neighborhood joints like Hank’s.

June 9, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment