Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Steel Player Mike Neer Darkly Reinvents Thelonious Monk Classics

Any fan of western swing knows how cool a steel guitar can sound playing jazz. The great C&W pedal steel player Buddy Emmons knew something about that: back in the 70s, he recorded steel versions of famous Charlie Parker tunes. In that same vein, steel guitarist Mike Neer has just put out an even more deliciously warped, downright creepy, dare we say paradigm-shifting album of Thelonious Monk covers for lapsteel, wryly titled Steelonious and streaming at the band’s webpage. Neer’s playing the album release show on Jan 25 at 8 PM at Barbes. If you like Monk, steel, and/or darkly cinematic sounds in general, you’d be crazy to miss this.

The album opens with a tongue-in-cheek slide down the frets into a surf stomp, and the band is off into their tight version of Epistrophy, a devious mix of western swing, honkytonk and the Ventures. Neer is amped up with plenty of reverb and just a tad of natural distortion for extra bite. By contrast, he plays Bemsha Swing through a watery chorus effect against the low-key pulse of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Diego Voglino as pianist Matt King stays in the background.

The rest of the album is a mix of iconic material and deeper cuts. In deference to the composer’s purist taste, King’s piano keeps things purposeful and bluesy, with the occasional hint of New Orleans. Neer’s take of Round Midnight echoes the Hawaiian sounds he played for so long, first with the Haoles and then the Moonlighters. In its own twisted way, this simmering quasi-bolero is closer to the spirit of the original than most straight-up jazz versions. It’s easy to imagine Beninghove’s Hangmen doing something as noir as this with it.

Likewise, In Walked Bud gets reinvented with all sorts of slinky bossa nova tinges, Tom Beckham’s echoey, bluesy vibraphone over lingering organ. If Neer’s version is historically accurate, Bud Powell wasn’t just crazy – this cat was scary!

Bye-Ya has more of a western swing feel, partially due to Neer’s droll, warpy tones. I Mean You positions Neer as bad cop against purist, good cop King. Putting organ on Off Minor was a genius move – what a creepy song! Voglino’s surf drums provide an almost gleeful contrast. In the same vein, the band does Ugly Beauty as a waltzing, noir organ theme, Neer’s menacing solo echoing Charlie Rouse’s sax on the original before veering back toward Bill Monroe territory.

It’s amazing how good a country ballad Ask Me Now makes; same deal with how well Blue Monk translates to proto-honkytonk. Straight No Chaser is so distinctive that there’s not a lot that can be done with it other than playing it pretty much as written, and the band keep their cards pretty close to the vest. But their starlit waltz version of Reflections is anything but trad: it’s sort of their Theme From a Summer Place. It’s awfully early in the year, and much as it might be cheating to pick a cover album, this is the frontrunner for best release of 2017 so far.

January 17, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Horror Surf Slaughter at Spike Hill

Ever find yourself in the position of really wanting to go to the bar for a drink, but unable to pull yourself away from the band onstage because they’re so good? That’s what kind of show Boston surf rockers Beware the Dangers of a Ghost Scorpion put on at Spike Hill last night. They’re as amazing live as their name is…um…long. With two ep’s and a single out, they come across as something of the missing link between Los Straitjackets and New York macabre surf legends the Coffin Daggers.

Not knowing the band, it wasn’t possible to tell who was playing the Strat and who was playing the Fender Jaguar, Vince Vance Delambre or Professor Coyote Science. Snakeboy Henry played his Fender Jazz bass with pick, wailing hard and tunefully, a couple of times trading riffs with the guitars, as Glotch the drummer gave the house kit a Mel Taylor-on-steroids workout it’s probably never had before. What sets them apart from the typical horror-surf and ghoulabilly crowd is that their songs aren’t cheesy. In their too-brief half-hour onstage – which they had timed down to the second, it seems – they played just about every style of surf music ever invented: a riff-rocking hotrod number, creepy minor-key spiderwalks, relentlessly stomping Dick Dale style attacks and suspensefully jangly noir themes that would hint at a grisly ending but wouldn’t usually go that far over the top. They’re more Blue Velvet than Friday the 13th.

The two-guitar attack was intense to the extreme. Both guitarists can tremolo-pick like crazy and blast through a solo when the moment is right. The Strat player took most of the leads for the first half of the show, turning them over to the guy with the Jaguar who proved just as fast and slashing, particularly on one tune that sounded like Dick Dale doing Journey to the Stars (surf music fans will get the reference). One of their songs gave a Ventures-style swing to a brooding spaghetti western melody; another, a mini-suite of sorts, saw the guitarists dueling atonally way up the fretboard, then pouncing on the melody again in a split second. Shifting from major to minor, up and down the chromatic scale, fast to halfspeed and back again, they managed to energize the lethargic bar crowd and get everyone clapping along, no small feat for an out-of-town band on a lazy Sunday in the bowels of trust-funded trendoidland. Watch this space for future NYC dates; Boston fans can catch them upstairs at the Middle East on 4/14.

March 28, 2011 Posted by | concert, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment