Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

LJ Murphy and Curtis Eller: On the Same Stage At Last

The crowd at Banjo Jim’s Saturday night was stomping, clapping, making pigeon noises and singing “I’m gonna burn like a sweatshop fire” over and over again. In other words, pretty much what you would expect at a show featuring two of the world’s most charismatic rockers. LJ Murphy and Curtis Eller may not be household names, but each has a cult following that spans the globe, and legendary status as live performers. Murphy has been playing regularly here; Eller was up from his new home in North Carolina for a gig in Queens and then this one. It was sort of the underground lyrical rock equivalent of an Iggy Pop/James Brown doublebill, and it’s likely the two had never shared a stage before. They’re very similar: both draw deeply on the blues and write catchy, torrentially lyrical songs full of puns, double entendres and historical references. Murphy played with an acoustic trio featuring Tommy Hoscheid on second rhythm guitar and Patrick McClellan on piano; Eller’s show afterward was a solo performance on banjo. With his signature hundred-yard stare, Murphy and his band were tight beyond belief; Eller’s show afterward saw him going up on one foot, wielding his axe like a cross between Dontrelle Willis and Darryl Strawberry, wandering out into the crowd and engaging them in a series of animated singalongs.

Murphy opened with a tight, intense version of Geneva Conventional, a swaying minor-key blues about the consequences of selling out, McClellan’s rippling attack set against the lush backdrop of guitars. They steamrolled through the snide, angst-driven Imperfect Strangers, a twisted, Costelloish look at a failed hookup, then took the theme to its logical extreme with the resolute, morose oldschool soul ballad This Is Nothing Like Bliss. Long Way to Lose, Murphy’s most successful venture into vintage C&W, was especially amped, with the audience spontaneously getting involved. From there, Murphy careened through a scathing take of the cabaret-tinged blues Mad Within Reason (where “The music was sampled from Bach to James Brown/They saddled the mistress and lowered her down”), then a sun-speckled version of his biggest hit, the plaintive lost weekend scenario Saturday’s Down. Murphy took Barbwire Playpen, his sendup of Wall Street swindlers who spend more time in the dungeon than on the trading floor, down to just the vocals at its most vicious moments and closed with an unexpected choice, the quiet, Orwellian nightmarish Bovine Brothers. McClellan followed Murphy’s ominous revelation that “a sermon blares all night long from the roof of a radio car” with some spot-on gospel fills. And then it was over.

Intentionally or not, Eller continued the religious allusion with the surreal Nashville gothic Taking Up Serpents. Where Murphy’s everyman battles the system and encroaching fascism, Eller employs actual historical figures and events. The recently commemorated Triangle Shirtwaist Fire gets a sideways reference in Sweatshop Fire (that was the singalong), a grimly metaphorical evocation of all hell breaking loose. The brooding slow waltz Last Flight of the Pigeon Club offered a bleak outer-borough scenario: “If they find someplace better to die than New Jersey, I’ll probably go there myself,” the song’s eccentric hobbyist laments. An even more surreal, menacing minor-key blues number chronicled black crows circling the North Pole, satellites gone haywire and a storm outside unwilling to break (an ironic touch, with the torrential downpour outside the club). The most richly satisfying song of the night was Eller’s best one, the apocalyptic After the Soil Fails, creepy and terse with just the banjo and Eller’s chronicle of CIA-sponsored assassinations and third world misadventures. “The drinks are getting weaker with every round they serve: the way they keep us sober is getting on my nerves,” Eller snarled on the sarcastic Sugar in My Coffin; he closed the set with a hushed, chilling singalong of Save Me Joe Louis, based on what were supposedly the last words of the first man (who may well have been innocent) to be executed in the gas chamber. “Everybody is gonna have that moment when they step in front of a taxi, or fall down the stairs…or the gas chamber, and you’re gonna have your guy you call out for. And it’s gonna be a surprise for you…how many of you are going to be surprised to say, “Save me, Obama?” Eller asked the laughing crowd. “So when you’re singing, just think of your own Joe Louis – it could be Buster Keaton, Amelia Earhart, Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon…” From there, he let the audience whisper the chorus along with him. It’s hard to think of a more intense, memorable end to any doublebill in New York in recent memory.

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April 18, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

LJ Murphy and Willie Davis Tear Up Banjo Jim’s

Last night was New Orleans pianist Willie Davis’ last gig with LJ Murphy for a while – at least til Murphy gets down to Louisiana for some shows there. It figures – the buzz in the audience afterward was that in the year-and-a-half or so they’ve played together, this was their best show. Murphy kicked it off with his usual thousand-yard stare, shuffling Chuck Berry style out into the audience. He didn’t do the splits, but maybe that’s the next step. The New York noir rocker was in rare form, even for someone whose stage presence is notoriously intense. It brought to mind the famous incident where Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Rex Barney, who’d just walked a bunch of guys, received a visit on the mound from Burt Shotton. When Barney didn’t even acknowledge his manager’s presence, Shotton was angry at first, but then realized that Barney was so intently focused on the game that he was essentially in a trance. So when the crowd clapped along with the stately Weimar pulse of Mad Within Reason – which Davis had kicked off with a neatly ominous, rubato blues piano intro – Murphy didn’t seem to notice.

Like the oldschool jazz and blues players Murphy so obviously admires, there’s no telling what his songs are going to sound like from one show to another. The defiant Another Lesson I Never Learned used to be a hypnotic Velvet Underground style rock song; this time out, he’d reinvented it as a snaky, slashing minor-key blues. On Skeleton Key, the surprisingly sympathetic account of a stalker who doesn’t seem to know he is one, Murphy took it down very quietly at the end where the poor guy “received a letter from the courthouse yesterday: if I even try to talk to you, they’re gonna put me straight away.” Davis’ richly wistful chords gave the bitter lost-weekend chronicle Saturday’s Down a stunningly sad soulfulness; Murphy wound up a swinging boogie version of the surreal, menacing Nowhere Now with a furious whirl of guitar chord-chopping. But the best numbers were the newest: the vividly evocative Edward Hopperesque overnight scenes of the bluesy countrypolitan ballad Waiting by the Lamppost for You (originally written for Cal Folger Day), and a fiery, indomitable version of the anti-gentrifier broadside Fearful Town, its perplexed narrator “sitting on a bonfire in a night that never ends,” where “grandmothers go dancing in high heels and castanets.” For anyone who misses the old, more dangerous and vastly more entertaining New York as much as Murphy does, it struck a nerve. The duo closed with a brisky bouncing version of Barbwire Playpen, a characteristically savage chronicle of a hedge fund type who can’t resist the allure of the dungeoness: it could have been written for Eliot Spitzer.

After a long pause, an excellent accordion/clarinet/cello trio played klezmer, Balkan and Middle Eastern-flavored material: it would have been nice to have been able to stick around for their whole set (and it would have been nice if Banjo Jims’ calendar listing for the show hadn’t disappeared so we could find out who they were). Up the block and around the corner, Spanking Charlene were kicking off frontwoman Charlene McPherson’s annual birthday show at Lakeside: the place was packed, and the band was smoking or so it seemed. All the gentrifiers haven’t driven good music of the East Village, at least not yet.

November 21, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment