Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Curtis Eller at Highline Ballroom, NYC 1/25/09

This was one of those good-to-be-in-NYC days. A trip to the Met to see the retrospective for departing director Philippe de Montebello was worth the shlep. The theme is simply a selection of the best of what the museum has acquired during his long tenure there. Everything is out of context, medieval Indian silk battle portraits side by side with antique instruments, pre-Renaissance Italian paintings, firearms, a Vermeer and a Van Gogh, effectively engaging and challenging the viewer with a whirlwind of art forms so diverse that it’s impossible not to discover something new and intriguing. The exhibit is up through the end of the month: you should see it.

 

After that it was down to St. Thomas Church where the estimable John Scott delivered a rousing, heart- and soul-warming program of Mendelssohn organ works, closing with a particularly inspiring, energetic take of the Second Organ Sonata. To fans of organ music, Scott needs no introduction; much has been written about him in this space, all of it good. The afternoon’s program was yet another reminder of how brilliant and stylistically diverse he is.

 

Next stop was Highline Ballroom, where songwriter/banjoist Curtis Eller was scheduled to play. Seafoam and the Psychedelic Chain Gang opened. Maybe because 70s music is so easy to lampoon, there are a whole bunch of parody bands around town who make fun of various 70s styles, Rawles Balls, Van Hayride and Mighty High notable among them. This band not only spoofs the music but also the look. Their frontman, his shaved chest festooned with the silliest temporary tattoos you could possibly imagine, affects a swishy, flamboyant gay stereotype (a swipe at Queen or Judas Priest, maybe?). The rest of the guys in the band all have the dirtbag look straight out of Almost Famous. Their musical satire ranges from predictable and dumb – give them credit for really knowing how to write a REO Speedwagon/Styx power ballad – to laugh-out-loud funny. The rhythm section plodded along predictably with the occasional faux Led Zep drum interlude. The guitarist and violinist would each simultaneously take a garish, masturbatory solo without paying the slightest attention to what the other was doing. Compounding the tasteless 70s vibe were the troupe of strippers with hula hoops cavorting across the stage while the band played. They closed with their Stonehenge number, all phony suspense as the volume rose to a crescendo that never arrived.

 

Curtis Eller took the stage and immediately climbed up on his chair, raising his mic to about a ten-foot height. To call him a dynamic performer would be an understatement. He spun, kicked up his leg a la Dontrelle Willis (now THERE’S a Curtis Eller song waiting to happen: The Ballad of Dontrelle Willis, the suspense is gonna kill us), darted out onto the tables to sing unamplified and at the end of the show took several sprints along the perimeter of the space, running outside til he reached the limit of how far the wireless mic on his banjo would carry. Because of his choice of instrument and maybe also because his songs have such a rich historical sensibility, he typically gets lumped in with the oldtimey crowd. Which doesn’t really do him justice: while his melodies frequently have a dark, Tom Waits-y bluesiness, the vibe is pure punk rock, especially when the lyrics hit you. And they hit hard and unsparing, with an Elvis Costello/LJ Murphy style brilliance. Eller’s bullshit detector is set to kill, whether playing psychopathologist and making fun of twisted everyday people or holding politicians to a pre-Bush regime standard. “I was extremely disappointed that plane made it back to Texas,” he mused. “Now it’s not an assassination, it’s just a murder.”

 

He opened with the aggressive, characteristically sardonic title track to his 2004 cd Taking Up Serpents Again, following with a coal miner’s bitter lament and then John Wilkes Booth, a fiery, minor-key call to arms that made an awfully good anthem before that one Tuesday last November. Like so many of Eller’s songs, Come Back to the Movies, Buster Keaton worked on several levels, in this case as both a sly, tongue-in-cheek slap at the entertainment-industrial complex and a revealing connection between the curmudgeonly and the reactionary.

 

To his further credit, Eller got the surprisingly young, obviously moneyed crowd going, especially on a quietly harsh 6/8 ballad about pigeon racing. Introducing the song, he mimicked a pigeon call: “You can do it, just pretend you’re from Hoboken,” he deadpanned, and by the time he’d reached the middle of the song, the crowd was a chorus of rats with wings.

 

As much as he energized the crowd, he antagonized them. “You know who Jack Ruby was? Some of you?” And then followed with the best song of the night, a blazing version of the haunting Appalachian gothic number Sweatshop Fire, from his latest cd Wirewalkers & Assassins (one of our top 50 picks of 2008):

 

I’m going down to Antietam with a quart of bourbon in my hand

I’m going to kick the shit out of Vicksburg…

I’m gonna get fucked up like Ulysses S. Grant

Get as black as a Tuesday in 1929

 

He closed with the barely restrained rage of Sugar in My Coffin – “There ain’t no such thing as Elvis Presley from the waist down, that’s one thing I learned from tv,” and encored with an evocatively wistful cityscape, “Coney Island right where it should be.” For anyone with an appreciation for what New York has lost and might create again now that all the money for luxury condos has evaporated, this show was a hopeful summer breeze on a nasty cold night. Curtis Eller is at Banjo Jim’s on 2/26 and then at Public Assembly on 3/14 before going off again on European tour.

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January 26, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Concert Review: John Scott Plays Messiaen at St. Thomas Church, NYC 12/20/07

This review isn’t meant to be flippant: John Scott is a great artist, and he put on a masterful performance. Yet, it’s a wonder that at some point the church fathers didn’t convene and pose the obvious question: could it be possible that Messiaen was rooting for the other team? Note that the piece Scott played tonight is titled La Nativite du Seigneur (The Birth of the Lord, as opposed to The Birth of Christ). Could it be another Lord, one somewhat darker, that Messiaen was alluding to? This macabre, nine-part suite sounds nothing remotely like the typical Christmastime fare heard in churches across this city, and Scott was brave to play it. It would make a great soundtrack to a horror film. But not a Chucky movie – it would work best with something from Messiaen’s era, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Peter Lorre, perhaps. Satanists burn churches when what they should really be doing is sitting in the front row, rapt, as The Birth of the Lord roars from the pipes of the organ.

To add yet another element of the macabre, sirens wailed down Fifth Avenue during the two opening segments. As robustly constructed and insulated from outside noise as the edifice is, it was impossible not to hear them. If anyone had the presence of mind to record the performance, it could be astounding, a sort of accidental, highbrow counterpart to Simon and Garfunkel’s version of Silent Night, inevitably rooted in the here and now.

Scott is one of the world’s premier organists, an artist with an almost telepathic intuition for what he plays. La Natitive du Seigneur is not particularly melodic and quite difficult, yet there is substantial wit in this work and Scott treated the standing-room-only crowd to all of it. Olivier Messiaen was a strange bird, obsessed with the sounds of the avian world, and the greater part of his oeuvre is naturalistic to the point of being fussy and contrived. His organ works, especially the immortal L’Apparition de l’Eglise Eternelle (The Dawn of the Eternal Church) are anything but. Scott zeroed in on several themes that recur throughout the suite, including a fast upper-register flourish that he tossed off with unabashed glee, and brought out every bit of drama in an ominous, low-register pedal figure followed by a tritone (the so-called “devil’s chord”). The piece has two false endings, and Scott’s crescendos up to them were inexorably good. The final part of the suite ends almost as a mocking parody of the conclusion to Bach’s famous Toccata in D, this time a series of three rather than five chords, the last being a sustained major sixth that rattled the walls, ending the piece on a disquetingly unresolved note and earning Scott two standing ovations.

December 23, 2007 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment