Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: The Bedsit Poets, Don Piper and the Oxygen Ponies at Luna Lounge, Brooklyn NY 6/3/07

The show probably would have sold out if not for the elements: torrential rain, umbrellas blown inside out, everyone in the house soaked to the bone. The marvelous Bedsit Poets opened. Their sound is totally late 60s/early 70s, windswept pastoral beauty in places, otherwise super catchy harmony-driven Britpop, the Kinks circa Arthur hanging out with the Fairport Convention crowd. Frontman Ed Rogers and rhythm guitarist/singer Amanda Thorpe blend voices beautifully. Both British expats, he has a classic pop delivery which pairs well with Thorpe’s soaring, passionate Britfolk style.

Thorpe was celebrating her birthday, and she held the audience in the palm of her hand, particularly on the sweeping, anthemic Reach for the Sky, from their well-received album The Summer That Changed (as in “changed our lives”). On the quiet, ethereal Chemical Day, Thorpe played a small keyboard that for a minute sounded as if it was producing some quiet, strategically placed layers of feedback. They closed their rousing 50-minute set with the title track from the album, a supremely catchy pop tune punctuated by lead guitarist Mac Randall’s swinging country licks. Rogers and Thorpe sang a round with each other at the end of the song: he launched into Mungo Jerry and she countered with Gershwin, the result being a typical Bedsit moment. They’re a very playful band. The audience wanted an encore but didn’t get one.

Singer/guitarist Don Piper and his band – including many of the people who would play later in the evening – followed with a painless set of slow-to-midtempo jangle and clang. At one point, guest guitarist Drew Glackin (who also plays with the Jack Grace Band and the Silos) took a slowly growling climb up the scale, turned around and came back down the way he went up. Against the steady wash of the two guitars behind him, it was almost as if it was 1984 and True West was onstage. But they never hit that peak again: Piper seems to be more interested in mood and atmosphere than saying anything specific. He doesn’t have the voice for rock – it’s a keening, high tenor – but to his credit he tackled a Curtis Mayfield number and absolutely nailed it. He has a real future as a soul singer if he wants it.

The Oxygen Ponies are basically songwriter Paul Megna and whoever he can rustle up for a show. Tonight he brought a whole herd, 11 musicians including a trio of backup singers, two guitarists in addition to Megna himself, lapsteel, rhythm section and two horn players. Megna comes from the gutter-poet school of songwriting, all bedraggled, depressed and chain-smoking. His melodies are contagiously catchy (think a less skeletal Leonard Cohen, or a more pop-oriented Nick Cave) and he can write a hell of a lyric, with a sometimes savagely cynical edge. And the band pushed him to project and sing, keeping his vocals at a safe distance from the dreaded cesspool of grunge. The band’s ability to hit a crescendo out of nowhere was literally breathtaking, especially on the final track from their new cd, The Quickest Way to Happiness.

What was perhaps most striking about their performance was that everyone onstage was clearly having a great time, and this carried over to the audience. What could have been dirges became anthems. The lead guitarist didn’t play much, but when he did, his slashing pyrotechnics never failed to ignite. The horns played in perfect unison with each other and the backup singers delivered joyous, heartfelt harmonies. Megna’s songs tend to go on for at least five minutes, sometimes much more, but they never dragged. And the sound system was crystal clear all night long. What fun.

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June 9, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Nightcrawling 5/11/07: Basement, Lenny Molotov, Les Chauds Lapins, Moisturizer

The evening began at with happy hour at Lakeside, a reliably good way to kick off the night. The scheduled band had apparently cancelled and had been replaced by a country/rock outfit called Basement who took the stage at 8 instead of the usual 11 PM. They were excellent: two guitars, rhythm section and keyboardist who played mainly organ fills, from what little we got to hear. The lead player, on Telecaster, seems to be more of a rock guy, but he still gave them a shot of adrenaline. The flyer in the club window described them as rockers with a lot of bluegrass and Irish influences: the latter was in evidence, not the former. But there’s only so much you can tell from the first fifteen minutes of a band’s set. They’re definitely worth checking out.

Next stop was Sidewalk, where by the time we arrived Lenny Molotov was already into his 45-minute set. Funny how times change: ten years ago, this place was Dork Central and now it’s one of the more prestigious places to play. Same shitty sound, but it’s become a sane alternative to the Living Room, cheaper and usually pretty much tourist-free. And apparently musicians who want to play there no longer have to subject themselves to waiting ten hours for a 3-song audition in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, subject to the ridicule of the Woody Allen wannabe who’s been booking the place forever.

Molotov (who also fronts the excellent delta blues outfit Elgin Movement, and plays mean lead guitar for Randi Russo) was without his usual collection of effects pedals, so with only the club’s weak PA to amplify his acoustic guitar, the brilliance of his spiky, fingerpicked melodies wasn’t always readily apparent. He played a lot of new material, accompanied by his Elgin Movement sidekick, Jake Engel, on chromatic harp and Karl Meyer on violin. Engel was in a particularly buoyant mood and got a lot of response out of the surprisingly sparse crowd. Molotov’s original songs typically set darkly witty, brilliantly literate, contemporary lyrics to oldschool delta blues melodies, and tonight he played one of his best originals in that vein, possibly titled Hard to be an Outlaw. It’s a bleak, black-humor-driven chronicle about a kid from somewhere sketchy in Brooklyn who a couple of years ago went out to buy some weed, may or may not have been entrapped into starting a fatal shootout with an undercover cop, and ended up blowing his brains out later that night in an ex-girlfriend’s project apartment. Later, Molotov told the audience that he was going to do a number he’d never before played live, and that he’d just found out why everyone else plays it. After working out who was going to take a solo and when, he launched into a fascinating open-tuned arrangement of St. James Infirmary Blues, barely recognizable save for the lyrics. He closed the set with a new original song, Luxury Blues: “You say you don’t have a woman/Well try having two.”

We cut out moments after he left the stage and went east to Banjo Jim’s for about 40 minutes where Les Chauds Lapins were playing. They’re Kurt Hoffmann on banjo uke and clarinet, trading vocals with Roulette Sisters lead guitarist Meg Reichardt, who alternated between guitar and banjo uke as well. They were backed by a rhythm section (bringing in a new upright bass player for the second set, as their first had to leave for another gig), along with violin, cello and Frank London blowing exquisitely balmy muted trumpet on a couple of numbers. Translated literally from the French, Les Chauds Lapins means “the hot rabbits.” What it actually means is “hot mamas.” It can also mean “pains in the ass.” They play vintage French pop from the 20s and 30s, Hoffmann’s urbane tenor playing off of Reichardt’s breathy, sensual vocals. Like the Roulette Sisters, Les Chauds Lapins’ specialty is sex songs, laden with double entendres, sung more or less sans accent Americain, in the language of love. Strange that the place wasn’t packed – sex sells, as everybody knows – plus, the band was playing two whole sets. Their musicianship is superb, and the songs are well-chosen. For decades, in fact until very recently, French assembly-line songwriters from Charles Trenet to Didier Barbelivien had little in common with their American Tin Pan Alley counterparts: in France, even pop songwriting is an art form. Clever lyrics, complex song structures and real artistic achievement abound. Even the much-maligned varietes folk-pop from the 70s frequently has great lyrics. Hoffmann and Reichardt mine the archive for every innuendo they can whisper. Their new cd, which they were hawking tonight, promises to be excellent. But we were off to Luna to see Moisturizer.

The new Luna Lounge (across the street from Black Betty, just off the corner of Metropolitan and Havemeyer in Williamsburg) tries very hard to be likeable and succeeds on most counts. Sizewise, it’s about the same as Bowery Ballroom without the balcony: it’s obvious that the walls and ceiling have been expertly tricked out for sound. The staff and bartenders are uncommonly nice and the drinks aren’t outrageously overpriced. Moisturizer is strictly an instrumental band, so getting the sound right for them should have been a breeze. It wasn’t. Baritone sax player Moist Paula, bassist Moist Gina and their drummer fought magnificently for almost 40 minutes, trying in vain to cut through a relentless, drum-heavy morass of sonic sludge. One has to wonder: was the sound guy stoned? Did they bring in a sub because the regular guy wanted a night off and there was a “local” band playing?

Despite the dodgy sonics, Moisturizer won over the crowd: what a surprise. They’re the closest thing we have these days to the Funk Brothers, who were Motown Records’ studio band throughout the 60s and subject of the terrific documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Moisturizer’s irresistibly fun, danceable tunes had everyone at least swaying in their seats. They gets a lot of ESG comparisons, and that’s not a stretch, although Moisturizer is (pardon the pun) more fluid and a lot more melodic. Frontwoman Moist Paula, who has played with everybody and also has a fine, jazzy side project called Secretary, draws on a lot of influences, from Lonnie Smith go-go to Motown to hip-hop. But her sound is unique and instantly recognizable, always coming back to the melody even if she’s known to take a noisy excursion to the outer reaches of jazz from time to time. Bassist Moist Gina is one of the best in the business, one of the hardest hitters around, a terrifically melodic, imaginative, fluid player (there’s that word again) whose flying runs up and down the scale are adrenalizing to say the least. They’ve been through a succession of drummers lately, but the latest one is working out well.

Moist Paula was the only band member who had a mic, and she didn’t talk to the crowd much: maybe they were trying to pack as much material into the allotted time as they could, an admirable goal if that’s what they were shooting for. Moisturizer has a lot of material (dozens and dozens of songs), all of them “true stories,” as Moist Paula will proudly announce from time to time, and because they don’t announce them frequently it’s hard to tell what they’re called. The Satie-esque, surreal wit of the titles carries over from the title to the music. Among the tunes they played tonight were an uncharacteristically haunting, gorgeously melancholy number about a child who was reunited with his/her mother in the wake of the Indonesia tsunami, as well as the current Moisturizer crowd-pleaser Enactuate Our Love which features a blistering, breathtaking solo from Moist Gina at the end of the song. By then she’d turned off the flange she’d been using through most of the set, giving her propulsive lines a watery, 80s tone.

Everyone’s entitled to an off night: it’s just too bad Moisturizer and their fans came out on the wrong end of this one. Maybe it’s just growing pains at a new venue: by all other standards, the new Luna is actually a welcome addition to Williamsburg. Can you remember the last time you could say that about anything new in the neighborhood? I can’t.

May 13, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments