Of all our year-end best-of lists (the 100 Best Songs of 2009 and 50 Best Albums of 2009 included), this is our favorite, because it’s the most individual (everybody has a different list) and it’s closest to our raison d’etre, live music in New York. Last year’s was difficult enough to narrow down to twenty; this year’s is criminally short. We could have put up a top 100 concerts list and it would be five times as good.
This was the year of the Beast – Small Beast at the Delancey, New York’s most exciting weekly rock event. We caught onto this slowly – the concert series ran for about a month before we discovered it – but when we did we were there almost every week. Occasionally someone will ask, since you have a music blog, why don’t you start booking shows? With Small Beast, there’s no need: it’s your weekly chance to discover the edgiest, smartest rock-ish talent from Gotham and across the globe. You’ll see a lot of those shows on this list.
Yet 2009 was a weird year for us – running a New York live music blog and not being in town much of the time made it problematic, to say the least. Week after week, we watched from a distance, enviously as half the city got to see stuff we never did. In August, the Brooklyn What did a killer triple bill with Palmyra Delran’s garage band and amazing latin ska-punk-gypsy rockers Escarioka at Trash Bar, but we weren’t there. The second night of the Gypsy Tabor Festival just a few weeks later looked like a great time, but we missed that one too. As the year winds down and we finally (hopefully!) start to reap the rewards of a whole lot of hard work, it appears, pending some absolutely transcendent show exploding onto the radar, that this is it for our Best Shows of 09 list. Needless to say, we can’t wait for 2010.
Since any attempt to rank these shows in any kind of order would be an exercise in futility, we just listed them as they happened:
The Brooklyn What at Fat Baby, 1/15/09 – since we’d just reviewed a couple of their shows in the fall of 08, we didn’t even review this one, fearing overkill. But on what was the coldest night of the winter up to that point, they packed the club and burned through a characteristically fun, ferocious set, maybe fueled by the knowledge that one of their idols, Ron Asheton, had left us.
Kerry Kennedy at Rose Bar, 1/21/09 – the noir chanteuse was at the absolute top of her game as quietly resilient siren and southwestern gothic bandleader.
Paul Wallfisch and Larkin Grimm at Small Beast at the Delancey, 4/9/09 – the Botanica frontman (who books Small Beast) turned in a typically fiery set, followed by the avant-chanteuse who battled and finally lashed out at a crowd of clueless yuppie puppies who just didn’t get what the show was all about.
Kotorino at Pete’s Candy Store, 4/13/09 – the quietly multistylistic, gypsyish band filled the place on a Monday night and kept the crowd riveted as they all switched instruments, beats and genres over and over.
The New Collisions at Arlene’s, 4/23/09 – Boston’s best new band blazed through an early 80s inflected set of edgy powerpop.
Paul Wallfisch, the Ulrich-Ziegler Duo and McGinty and White at Small Beast at the Delancey, 4/23/09 – after Wallfisch had set the tone for the night, Big Lazy’s Steve Ulrich and Pink Noise’s Itamar Ziegler played hypnotic, macabre guitar soundscapes followed by the ferociously lyrical retro 60s chamber pop of Joe McGinty and Ward White.
The American String Quartet playing Irving Fine and Robert Sirota’s Triptych at Bargemusic, 4/26/09 – a sinister ride through works by one of the leading lights of the 1950s avant garde followed by a haunting, intense performance of contemporary composer Sirota’s 9/11 suite.
Paul Wallfisch, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble, Spottiswoode and Steve Wynn at Small Beast at the Delancey, 4/30/09 – after Wallfisch got the night started, Beren roared and scorched her way through a pummeling, macabre set. Then Spottiswoode impressed with a subtle set of nocturnes, setting the stage for Wynn, playing together with his friend and ex-lead guitarist Chris Brokaw for the first time in several years, a feast of swirling, otherworldly guitar overtones.
The Friggs and the Chrome Cranks at Santos Party House, 5/8/09 – a triumphant return for the popular 90s garage girl rockers followed by the equally triumphant, reinvigorated, snarling sonic attack of another one of NYC’s best bands of the 90s.
The French Exit at Local 269, 5/13/09 – NYC’s best new dark rockers playing one of their first shows as a four-piece, rich with reverb, tersely incisive piano, haunting vocals and defiant lyricism.
Chicha Libre on the Rocks Off Concert Cruise Boat, 5/15/09 – definitely the best party of the year that we were party to, a swaying excursion through psychedelic, surfy cumbia music, past and present.
Paul Wallfisch, Darren Gaines & the Key Party and Alice Texas at Small Beast at the Delancey, 6/4/09 – Wallfisch kicked it off, Gaines and a stripped-down trio impressed with gutter-poet, Lou Reed/Tom Waits style rock and then Alice Texas turned in a swirling, incandescent, gently assaultive show that reminded how much we miss Tonic, the club where she used to play before it was torn down t0 put up plastic luxury condos.
Paul Wallfisch, Marni Rice and the Snow at Small Beast at the Delancey, 6/22/09 – another Wallfisch night, this one featuring the great LES accordionist/chanteuse/cabaret scholar and then Pierre de Gaillande’s clever, haunting art-r0ck crew.
Ian Hunter at Rockefeller Park, 6/24/09 – the former Mott the Hoople frontman, at age 70, has simply never written, played, or sung better. This show was a real revelation.
Daniel Bernstein at Sidewalk, 7/9/09 – the underground songwriter/lyricist/tunesmith casually burned through one haunting, haunted, ridiculously catchy tune after another.
Randi Russo and the Oxygen Ponies at the Saltmines, 7/10/09 – another haunting show opened with the absolute master of the outsider anthem, who did double duty playing in Paul Megna’s equally dark, intense, lyrical indie band.
The Main Squeeze Accordion Festival: Musette Explosion, Suspenso del Norte, Hector Del Curto’s Eternal Tango Quintet, the Main Squeeze Orchestra, Roberto Cassan and John Munatore, Liony Parra y la Mega Mafia Tipica and Peter Stan at Pier One, 7/11/09 – squeezebox heaven.
Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble and the Dave Brubeck Quartet at Damrosch Park, 8/5/09 – cutting-edge Middle Eastern-inflected jazz followed by one of the great ones, undiminished and still inventive at 89.
Jenifer Jackson at Rockwood Music Hall, 11/19/09 – the panstylistic rock goddess played several good New York shows this past year, but this one with Matt Kanelos on piano and glockenspiel and Billy Doughty on drums and melodica was pure transcendence.
Carol Lipnik, Bonfire Madigan, Rachelle Garniez, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble and McGinty and White at Small Beast at the Delancey, 11/23/09 – what seems at this point to be the single best show of the year (if only because it’s the most recent one on the list) matched Lipnik’s phantasmagoria to Madigan’s equally artful chamber pop, Garniez’ irresistible charisma and ferocity, Beren’s contralto classical punk assault and then Ward White took over where the sirens had been and sang what could have been his best show ever.
We do this every Tuesday. You’ll see this week’s #1 song on our Best 100 songs of 2009 list at the end of December, along with maybe some of the rest of these too. This is strictly for fun – it’s Lucid Culture’s tribute to Kasey Kasem and a way to spread the word about some of the great music out there that’s too edgy for the corporate media and their imitators in the blogosphere. Every link here except for #1 will take you to each individual song.
1. The Ulrich/Ziegler Duo – Since Cincinnati
2. Don Chambers & Goat – Open up the Gates
Dark garage rock with a banjo. They’re at Spikehill on 9/6.
3. Quixote – Hubris
Lo-fi noir cabaret with ornate flourishes from these edgy rockers. They’re at Trash on 8/11 at 8.
4. Mrs. Danvers – Wicked One
Slinky lesbian dance-rock with a trumpet, lots of fun. They’re at Trash on 8/11 at 10.
5. Bacchus King – Sub Prime
Math rock with a social awareness. They’re at Trash on 8/8 at 8.
6. The Warm Hats – Underground
7. The Grendel Babies – Penelope
Eerie gothic art-rock with piano and violin. They’re at Fontana’s at 9 on 8/4.
8. The Fox Hunt – Suits Me Fine
Minor key original bluegrass – good stuff. At Caffe Vivaldi, 8 PM on 8/25, also at Arlene’s on 8/26 at 10 and at the National Underground on 8/27 at 9.
9. Glasspipe – Hands
Garage punk. They’re at Trash on 8/4.
10. Verismo – The Lorax
Dr. Seuss thrash metal. Priceless.
Concert Review: Paul Wallfisch, the Ulrich/Ziegler Duo and McGinty and White at the Delancey, NYC 4/23/09
Small Beast is rapidly becoming a New York institution. The kind of thing you’ll look back on and tell your kids assuming you live long enough to have them and they live long enough to understand you when you talk about how in the spring of 2009 you spent Thursday evenings upstairs at this one Lower East Side bar, in a space that by all rights shouldn’t even have music at all because it barely has a stage. But it does. And the shows just get better and better. It started midwinter when Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch’s desire to work up new material and collaborate with what seems an ever-expanding cast of quality players from some of music’s darker enclaves. It’s not limited to rock, either: there’ve been shows by jazz, classical and gypsy acts here too.
Thursday’s was maybe the best to date. Or maybe not, there’ve been transcendent moments practically every week. Wallfisch opened as he always does, solo on piano, Chopinesque (in that his style blends the Romantics and the gypsies) and upbeat this time with almost a sprint through the Little Annie noir cabaret gem Because You’re Gone, a brand new tango and a ballad in French. His collaborator onstage this time was cellist Rubin Kodheli from the brilliant chamber rock group Edison Woods and the artsy, ambient Blues in Space. Despite a total lack of rehearsal, the two matter-of-factly made their way through a wrenchingly beautiful version of the subtly and brutally sarcastic Three Women and the stately, equally haunting Eleganza and Wines, Wallfisch as usual getting the crowd going in a clapalong in 7/8 time – the premise seems to be that if the Arabs and the Bulgarians can do it, we should be able to follow along too. Then they brought Kerry Kennedy up onstage and did Because You’re Gone again, halfspeed, her bruised velvet vocals giving the lament special poignancy.
The Ulrich/Ziegler duo were next, supplying the requisite transcendence, boiling over with chilly reverb instrumental soundscapes evoking images of Tribeca alleyways in grim, rain-drenched late autumn predawn, black and silver but not in a Blue Oyster Cult way, not unless you count the two guitars. With Big Lazy on the shelf at the moment and what seems an endless series of film and tv projects going on, frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich has been lately been playing duo shows with Pink Noise guitarist Itamar Ziegler. This team is a winner, part Mingus, part Ventures and part Morricone but with a savage, often macabre wit that transcends any of those styles and at times, unsurprisingly, sounds almost exactly like Big Lazy. Ziegler was a human metronome, holding the songs together while Ulrich played sharpshooter, alternating between ominously minimal tremolo licks, ominous washes of sound, reverberating chordlets and dirty skronk. They opened with a vintage Big Lazy song, following with a plaintive waltz and a surprisingly bluesy, minor-key one loping along on a garage rock beat. A new one, Since Cincinnati proved to be Ulrich’s most haunting lapsteel song, sort of a more noir, cinematic twist on the old Big Lazy hit Junction City. They wound up the set with a swinging, chicha-esque version of Caravan lit up with a long, blacklit solo from Ulrich in place of where the Ventures would have put the drums.
McGinty and White were a good segue because while many of their songs have a subtle menace, there was no resemblance between them and Ulrich and Ziegler other than that they could be competing offices of obstetricians. This was ostensibly the first live show together for the former Psychedelic Furs keyboardist and the “tippling gadabout [NOT]” who’s been putting out excellent, darkly lyrical janglerock albums since before the turn of the century. Occasionally putting down his acoustic guitar, White proved equally adept as a crooner while the backing band did a picture-perfect evocation of late 60s psychedelically-inclined chamber pop. Watching them was like being in the audience at Ed Sullivan, 1968 – and putting violinist Claudia Chopek out in front of the stage, on the floor, where her warmly compelling lead lines could resonate was a smart move. The title of their new cd McGinty and White Sing the McGinty and White Songbook is characteristically tongue-in-cheek. McGinty is no slouch at sardonic humor, offering a vivid reminder with the deadpan Get a Guy and the haunting, atmospheric ballad that closed the show. They’d opened the show with the sarcastic Everything Is Fine, punctuated by a surprisingly over-the-top metal solo from their lead player, later delivering the self-effacing Big Baby, McGinty’s effortless rivulets threatening to erode the piano keys. The savage Knees, written by White finally unleashed the demons: “You can keep my heart, bitch, just give me back my knees.” There’ll be a review of the album here closer to the date of the cd release show in May.
Super duper orange alert: unless people start dropping like flies in the streets, Lucid Culture has no intention to stop reviewing concerts, frequenting public places or riding the train. This “flu outbreak” has all the earmarks of hysteria (remember Y2K?). Mexico City has awful sanitation and services, it’s overcrowded, polluted and the most impoverished Mexicans suffer from malnutrition. In other words, it’s a prime spot for an outbreak of something. You could say the same about New York except that as bad as things can get it’s not that bad here. Yet. Keep your eyes open this fall and see if the bug mutates into the black plague.