Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

John Kelly Winds Up His Memorably Tragicomic Performance Piece on Governors Island

The foreshadowing of Jarrod Beck‘s masterfully surreal, decaying, apocalyptic steampunk set design for John Kelly‘s latest performance piece, Love of a Poet, intimated a cruelly ominous fate for its protagonist. Based on Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe song cycle setting of lovelorn Heinrich Heine poems, Kelly’s piece is a grimly tragicomic study in self-absorption. In typical multimedia fashion, Kelly employed projections of an alter ego of sorts, ghostly images of a girl strolling through a black-and-white Blair Witch-style set, left and right of the stage while he sang and performed the suite with his usual nuance, operatic flair and lithely muscular grace.

Pianist Christopher Cooley opened with blackly menacing, minimalist motives, building to an aptly murky, riveting ambience from which Kelly arose, literally, from flat on his back, just beyond the sold-out crowd’s sightline. From there the two worked a dynamically rich tension, both singer and pianist sometimes veering into rubato, each following the other, raising the level of angst and fullscale alienation.

Kelly is an artist who likes to push himself to the limits of how he portrays a character, both physically and on an emotional level, and this performance was no exception. Tragic historical figures are favorites of his. This interpretation of the doomed poet offered suspense – was he going to bury himself alive, drown himself, stab himself, all of the above, or survive it all? – as well as Kelly’s signature wry humor. A brief, anachronistic bit involving a laptop was irresistibly funny. Even more so was the suite’s most vaudevillian number, a blackly droll little song whose gist was, in case any of you think that all this nonstop heartbreak is funny, it happens every day…and it’s gonna happen to you! There was a physical element to that which made it all the more priceless, but it’s too good to give away. Throughout the piece, Kelly worked from the soaring top to the eerily resonant bottom of his famously vast vocal range, singing in both the original German as well as in English, cautiously and then frantically weighing just how much torment an artist can take…or simply subject himself to.

Originally written to be performed at what is now the Governors Island ferry terminal, at the Battery, this new set took advantage of its new digs in the performance space on the lower level of the building just to the right of the Manhattan ferry landing on the island itself. The audience whisked themselves in, slowly, single file, being made to wade through gusty sheets of plastic. Was this more eerie foreshadowing? An immersive prelude to the struggle of the poor poet to maintain his santity?

Yesterday’s performance here was the final one, at least for now, although there are several other intriguing upcoming concerts on Governors Island, including the world premiere of a new large-scale composition by Serena Jost and Matthew Robinson for fifty-piece cello orchestra, outdoors on July 25 at 3 PM outdoors at the southwest corner of Fort Jay.

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June 29, 2015 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

John Kelly’s Escape Artist Cheats Death

John Kelly’s latest performance piece The Escape Artist, currently playing at PS 122 through April 30, is one of his most memorable, a depiction of an artist escaping into a dream world of Caravaggio imagery as he lies immobilized on a hospital gurney in the wake of a possibly catastrophic trapeze accident. As with Kelly’s recent portrayal of Egon Schiele, it’s imbued with Kelly’s signature blend of wit and darkness. Kelly’s initial inspiration for the piece was an encounter with a Caravaggio painting, and how the painter’s modus operandi was to find beauty in the most grotesque and macabre. Years later, Kelly’s own narrow escape from a potentially lethal trapeze accident provided the impetus to bring the work to completion. As Kelly took care to explain, this piece is more inspired by Caravaggio than any attempt to depict him, considering how little we know today about his life, plus the fact that Kelly alluded to not feeling particularly close to him, at least biographically.

What might be most impressive about Kelly’s performance here is that except for a single song, he sings the entire piece lying flat on his back (if you think that’s easy, try it and see how much luck you have hitting all the notes in the wide, three-octave range that Kelly explores, top to bottom, and nails every time). A lithe, well-muscled, youthful presence, his ability to transcend the terror of possible paralysis and maybe even death via an irrepressible joie de vivre and gallows humor as he stares at the ceiling is genuinely inspiring. Behind Kelly, Jeff Morey’s video design puts Kelly’s own face front and center, looking up, between two screens featuring a revolving cast of actors depicting gently playful homoerotic tableaux based on Caravaggio themes.

The narrative could be a lot of things – mawkish, terrified, tormented or even pathetic – but Kelly refuses to give in. As the torment grows, so does the surreal humor in his perceptions. Unable to see anything more than what’s above him, he grows to rely on his other senses to pick up on his grim surroundings: the drunks bleeding from the car crash, the nurse flatly trying to calm the demented senile patient as she may have done dozens of times before, the junkie in the adjacent bed who perhaps predictably has managed to draw everyone’s attention. Kelly intersperses a series of vividly plaintive songs, all but two of the originals with melodies by the queen of Coney Island phantasmagoria, Carol Lipnik, whose vocals also appear behind Kelly along with John DiPinto on piano, accordion and flute, Nioka Workman on cello and Justin Smith on violin.

The songs alone are reason to see this show. The Dazzling Darkness, with its eerie Pink Floyd piano gives Kelly a launching pad for his soaring upper register as a choir of voices echoes behind him hypnotically when it reaches its closing crescendo. The amusing yet disconcerting noir 60s pop of Cupid Song comes along just as Kelly looks up to see a strange figure – or hallucination – who’s just stopped in to say that he cares. Cara Vaggio brings back a hypnotic cello-driven ambience that leaps to an anthemic chorus; DiPinto’s austere arrangement of Oblivion Soave – music by Claudio Monteverdi, words by Giovanni Francesco Busenello – puts Kelly’s crystalline choirboy delivery front and center. The funniest of these is Kelly’s own Profit Blues, musing on what jobs – ones that pay, and ones that don’t – might be lost as a result of paralysis or convalescence. Eventually, a clever out-of-body experience materializes, captured as psychedelic piano pop: “I am the watcher,” Kelly muses.

The best of the Lipnik/Kelly collaborations is the unselfconsciously haunting All That’s Left, a September song set overlooking the Hudson (New York is a constant if frequently elusive presence here). The best of all of them is Kelly’s solo piece, a title track of sorts, which he plays solo on Stratocaster, an austere 1960s psychedelic folk melody filtered through a thick cloud of reverb and sustain. “When I hear all the shallow talk, should I aim or just should I just shoot the breeze…Could I leave this city island, penetrate its water wall?” he asks. By now it’s clear how this will end. There’s also a gloriously terse, noir version of John Barry’s You Only Live Twice that appears as something of a surprise. Directed starkly by Dudley Saunders, less Renaissance Italy than 80s afterdark New York, Saint Vincent’s style, it’s a must-see for anyone who gets that reference.

April 22, 2011 Posted by | concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 10/30/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #822:

Carol Lipnik – Cloud Girl

Those of you who follow this list as we count it down with a new album every day might have noticed how lighthearted it’s been in recent weeks. That was deliberate: we didn’t want to beat you to death with one shade of black or grey after another like we did with the Best 666 Songs list that we just finished this past July. But with Halloween coming up, we’re going back to the dark stuff. This one, for example. Coney Island born and bred, noir chanteuse Carol Lipnik walks a tightrope between sinister and sultry. The cover image of this 2006 cd, a shot of the rails of the Cyclone rollercoaster with its “REMAIN SEATED” sign, is apt. Celebrated for her bone-chilling four-octave range, she’s also a multi-instrumentalist songwriter and a regular collaborator with jazz piano great Dred Scott.This is her most phantasmagorical album. It’s got a couple of creepy waltzes – one about cannibalism, another about madness; the playfully lurid Freak House Blues; the macabre pop of Falling/Floating By, and the lushly moody, menacing Crushed. Other songs work dreamy atmospherics for a more distant menace: the lushly beautiful Traveling and the haunting, hypnotic, Radiohead-inflected title track. Lipnik’s been working lately with cabaret/avant garde star singer John Kelly , which gives them about eight octaves worth of vocals put together. Her first two albums before this one, My Life As a Singing Mermaid and the intense Hope Street are more stylistically all over the map – she’s terrifically adept at soul, blues and gypsy music – and also worth getting to know.

October 30, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Carol Lipnik – Cloud Girl

Every now and then something comes over the transom here that slipped under the radar when it first came out – or in the case of this album, predated this blog. This is one of the best of those – the cd cover image of the rails of the Cyclone rollercoaster with its “REMAIN SEATED” sign overhead is apt. Celebrated for her alternately soaring and piercing four-octave range, Carol Lipnik is also a uniquely gifted songwriter with a frequently sinister, otherwise amusingly carnivalesque edge. Lately she’s been pursuing what appears to be developing into an extraordinary collaboration with singer John Kelly (John Kelly and Carol Lipnik on the same stage – just think about the possibilities that conjures for a minute). For the uninitiated, this is Lipnik’s most recent album and comprises much of what she plays live. It’s a good an introduction to this indelibly New York, Coney Island born-and-bred artist.

The cd opens with Tom Ward’s noir cabaret waltz Freak House Blues, a playfully lurid tale bouncing along with horror-movie organ from keyboardist Dred Scott – a first-rate jazz composer in his own right – and violin by Jacob Lawson. The second cut, Lipnik’s own Falling/Floating mines the same kind of creepy noir pop vein that DollHouse or occasionally Blonde Redhead would pursue back about ten years ago.

Last Dance ( a co-write with Jane LeCroy) flirts with madness:  “I can’t forget the last dance, because I’m dancing it still.” By contrast, another Lipnik original, Traveling is a lushly beautiful and sensually atmospheric. Then it’s back to the macabre with another waltz, Where Are You Going, examining the relationship between conformity and cannibalism as Lawson’s staccato violin screeches along on the beat. Atmospheric and echoey, the menace of Crushed is understated and effectively so: “Do you want me to stand on my knees for you?” Lipnik asks – but it’s obvious that she’s not offering. “I’ll be back, but I’ll be changed,” she warns on the soaring, crescendoing Mermaid Blues. Morir Sonando (a Spanish pun – it’s an orange milkshake) is a big bolero, pretty boisterous for a tribute to the delights of dreaming and sleep. The cd winds up with the haunting, hypnotic, somewhat Radiohead-inflected title track. For those who can’t get enough after all this, Lipnik’s just back from Yaddo and working on a new one. Carol Lipnik plays the Howl Festival, 8 PM on Sept 15 at the 45 Bleecker St. Theatre in the West Village.

August 21, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment