Lucid Culture


Concert Review: Mark Steiner, the Crass Brass and Ingrid Olava at Small Beast at the Delancey, NYC 3/19/09

You’ve heard it before, you’ll hear it again, get used to it: Small Beast is the best weekly music event in New York, as much in the spirit of an Enlightenment-era salon as it is a concert. Thursday nights, the Delancey is where the cognoscenti hang out, and host Paul Wallfisch (of Botanica, who are playing Joe’s Pub tonight at 7 with a string section!) always brings a fascinating and eclectic group of edgy acts to fill a bill that runs from about nine to midnight.


Thursday’s Small Beast was one of the best. Former Piker Ryan and Kundera frontman Mark Steiner now makes his home in Norway; his debut solo cd made Lucid Culture’s Top Ten Albums of 2007 list. Casually blasting away on a Strat through a fiery wall of distortion and reverb and accompanied only by the incomparable Susan Mitchell (who plays with everybody: Magges and Mark Sinnis, to name a couple) on viola, he ran through a set auspiciously loaded with new material, dark, haunting, dramatic but sometimes unexpectedly funny. From the tempo of the new ones, it was clear that he’s still a big fan of 6/8 time.  One was a hypnotic two-chord minor-key vamp with some characteristically eerie pizzicato work from Mitchell (who’s been working with Steiner for fifteen years, she said); another built slowly and ominously with an anthemic Nick Cave feel to a repetitive, ringing chorus that saw Mitchell slashing against it with some fiercely staccato runs. Steiner was in his usual wiseass mood, eventually revealing that the Icelandic word for toast (as in prost, nasdarovye, l’chaim, cheers) is pronounced “scowl.”


Wallfisch joined the duo for a cover written by a mutual friend, now deceased, providing the most compelling solo of the night, a moment that was nothing short of heartwrenching. It was clear that both he and Steiner had lost a good friend. Starting with a little honkytonk (didn’t know he had that in him!), he took it down the scale with a restrained anguish. They closed with an old Piker Ryan song, the tongue-in-cheek Weimar blues Devil in the Bottle.


The Crass Brass were next. This is saxist/guitarist Tony Jarvis and trumpeter Jeff Pierce’s jazzy project. They were making their live debut, at least in this particular configuration with an excellent pianist and tight rhythm section featuring ex-Botanica bassist Christian Bongers. Most of the set was occasionally sloppy but playfully fun trip-hop instrumentals with inspired playing from all members: once they get the songs in their fingers, or get the solos worked out, they’ll be fine. The only drawback was a guest singer who surprisingly nailed Crying (the Orbison tune) with some spot-on falsetto but couldn’t rise above a generically showy 70s Bad Company style on the bluesier songs.


Norwegian chanteuse Ingrid Olava closed the night, having wrapped up the last of her three-day stand headlining at Cake Shop just minutes earlier. Although she confessed to being a little buzzed from the booze (and promptly took up Wallfisch on his offer of more wine), it didn’t show. She explained that she wanted to do something different, a wee-hours show. Instead of playing her standard set of originals, she treated the crowd to an intriguing and intensely passionate mix of covers along with a couple of her own. No matter that the piano, having been used by all four of the acts on the bill (Wallfisch had opened the night solo, as usual), was going further and further out of tune. Opening with the old blues Nobody’s Fault but Mine, she wowed the crowd with her powerful vocals, proving as much a bonafide oldschool soul belter as sultry noir cabaret stylist. An original set to a staggered tango beat began as a caution to stay away but quickly took on a compelling, longing tone: “We’ve just begun,” she intoned, equal parts hopefulness and dread.


After a couple of heartfelt diversions into the Tom Waits and Gillian Welch songbooks, she told the crowd that she was going to do something “unbelievably pretentious,” but it was the furthest thing from that. With perfect recall of the song’s epic lyrics, she dove into It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding and played it all the way through, her piano giving it a gorgeously noir edge, bringing out every bit of anguish and intensity in Dylan’s classic lyric. By the time she got to “It’s all right, ma, it’s life and life only!” and then an ominously perfect little outro, the once-chatty crowd was rapt. No doubt Olava will be playing a considerably larger space the next time she’s in town. Shows like this make a walk across the Williamsburg Bridge in chilly 2 AM drizzle worth every step.  

March 21, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Paul Wallfisch at the Delancey, NYC 10/23/08

“There is sometimes a band called Botanica,” the group’s frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch told the motley crowd gathered around the improvised stage upstairs at the Delancey Thursday night. This was CMJ week, and as usual this year’s Colossal Musical Joke had turned some of most unlikely spots into impromptu venues. Apparently the stage downstairs was taken, so Wallfisch had to make do with an alcove across from the bar. Botanica’s story is typical of many of New York’s best bands: popular in Europe but apparently unable to get a record deal here (no great loss, given the state of the industry: the band undoubtedly does better without than with). Apparently, Wallfisch’s mates couldn’t make it for this show, so he stepped up and did it himself with some soulful assistance from Jeff Pierce – playing beautifully retro, buoyantly swinging muted trumpet throughout the too-brief, barely 40-minute set – and Bee & Flower frontwoman/composer Dana Schechter, who supplied characteristically fluid, warmly melodic basslines during the second half of the show. Wallfisch opened with a stately new song with a contemplative, bluesy, somewhat Tom Waits feel, alternating between ambient, gospelish organ and piano, occasionally stomping out a few chords on the toy piano he’d brought along possibly for some comic relief.


Then he and Pierce tackled the opening cut from Botanica’s most recent US release, Berlin Hi-Fi, the hauntingly regretful Eleganza and Wines. Not content to let the crowd merely observe, Wallfisch made a loop of the song’s beautifully restrained piano hook, then climbed on top of the bar and led the crowd in a clap-along in 7/8 time. And then he added a counter-rhythm. Sophisticated stuff for a rock crowd, but they were game. The rest of the show was a clinic in darkly terse keyboard artistry. Much of Botanica’s work has an unleashed menace, and this raised its head in places, but Wallfisch was more in a noir cabaret mood. He did a rustic new one in waltz time which he sang in French, then Three Women, its melody evoking the Strawbs’ classic apocalypse anthem New World, then a suspensefully quiet version of the creepy Shira and Sofia (see the band’s myspace page). He closed the set with the big Botanica crowd-pleaser How, bouncing along on the pulse from Schechter’s bass, tossing off a sardonic Riders on the Storm-style run down the scale toward the end. The crowd wanted more but there wasn’t time. Watch this space for future NYC shows by Botanica; Wallfisch plays piano with the incomparable, darkly torchy September song chanteuse Little Annie at Santo’s Party House on Nov 6 at 9.

October 25, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment