Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Mark Growden – Saint Judas

File this one under “new noir songwriters” alongside Mark Steiner, the Oxygen Ponies and Mark Sinnis. Fans of those guys as well as the two who started it all, Tom Waits and Nick Cave, will enjoy Mark Growden’s new cd Saint Judas. Like Waits, Growden blends blues with a smoky noir cabaret feel; as with Cave, Growden projects a downtrodden yet randy gutter-poet facade. The Bay Area songwriter/accordionist/banjoist has a fantastic steampunk band behind him – recorded live in the studio, they turn in a passionate, rustically intense performance. Fiery blues guitarist/lapsteel player Myles Boisen, cellist Alex Kelly, horn player Chris Grady, bassist/organist Seth Ford-Young and drummer Jenya Chernoff all deserve mention here.

Most of this stuff, predictably, is in minor keys. The album’s second track, Delilah (no relation to Tom Jones) gets the benefit of a balmy trumpet solo from Grady that lights up the pitch blackness underneath. The title track is the best song here, an uncharacteristically jaunty, cynical, funny number which recasts Judas as a patron saint of the insolvent and dissolute: “Bottoms up to you, buddy, ’cause somebody has to take the blame.” They take it down after that with a slow country ballad as Nick Cave would do it: “If the stars could sing they would surely sing of you,” Growden intones.

They pick it up again after that with a swaying, stomping minor blues, Boisen’s electric slide guitar wailing against one of many tight, inspired horn charts here. Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man gets a slow, Tom Waits-ish blues treatment, followed eventually by a sizzling number that mingles fiery electric slide with Growden’s banjo, a mournful elegy told from the point of view of a coyote who lost his mate to a trap, and an extremely cool, thoughtful, Asian-tinged solo horn taqsim that gives Grady a chance to show off his mastery with overtones – it sounds like he’s playing a shakuhachi. They close with an ersatz gypsy waltz and a lullaby.

This album won’t be to everyone’s taste. As great as so many noir artists are, it’s a stylized genre. For vocals and lyrics, Growden doesn’t go outside the box – some will find his exaggerated drawl affected and his lyrics derivative and contrived. But the quality of the musicianship and the richness of the arrangements – the songs wouldn’t suffer a bit if they were simply instrumentals – offer considerable compensation. LA-area fans have the chance to see Growden play the cd release show for this one on March 16 at 8 PM at the Hotel Cafe, 1623 1/2 North Cahuenga in Hollywood.

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March 12, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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: System Noise and Across the Aisle at the Delancey, NYC 3/18/09

These two played here on the same bill back in November, and a return engagement proved much the same, only better. Both bands have received a fair share of ink here, System Noise especially (their most recent cd Give Me Power made our Top Ten Albums of the Year list in 2008). What else is there to say about them? Last night they delivered characteristic epic grandeur, sly funk, scorching noise-rock and wild intensity, except even more than usual: the whole band seemed in especially “on” mode. They put on a show ripe for photobloggers: Pouth the drummer wailing away on the kit in what’s left of his mohawk (it’s growing out); Kurt the virtuoso guitarist thrashing around and almost losing his glasses, and frontwoman Sarah Mucho stalking the stage with her usually evilly gleeful fifty-yard stare. She’d been under the weather, she said, and she took out her hostility on the mic. As usual, the big anguished ballad Daydreaming was the high point, Mucho pulling out all the stops on the chorus with a wail that was nothing short of primal. They also did the killer new song Hair & Nails, a sharp, typically snide minor-key pop hit with sarcastic, morbid lyrics and an absolutely gorgeous run down the guitar for a hook over the final measures. “It’s us against them now,” Mucho intoned hypnotically on the catchy political-funk anthem Shitkickers. They closed with a loose, careening cover of Rainy Day Women by Dylan, a counterintuitive choice, to say the least.

 

Across the Aisle could have been anticlimactic but weren’t at all. Megg their frontwoman displayed even more arrestingly powerful vocal chops than she did last time out here, and the rest of the band was especially energized as well. This time around, it wasn’t all catchy ska-rock: the band turned up their amps all the way for a couple of straight-up punk numbers including a hilarious hardcore one about Paris Hilton. Another new-ish and equally amusing one, Walk of Shame proved destined to be an anthem throughout dorm rooms worldwide. As usual, the horn section was so tight you couldn’t fit a piece of paper between them, fiery trumpet complemented nicely by slinky tenor sax (the tenor player also providing sly harmony vocals whenever called on: they ought to put her out in front of the band and let her take a long solo at some point).

 

From there it was over to Cake Shop to catch a glimpse of highly regarded, somewhat noir Norwegian songwriter/keyboardist Ingrid Olava, whose final songs of the night were auspiciously good (she’s playing tonight at half past midnight at the Delancey, upstairs). And then it was Mark Steiner, noir rocker par excellence, sadly missed around these parts (he’s in Norway most of the time now), but he did open his set with an offhandedly intense version of one of his classic songs, Cigarettes, violist Susan Mitchell providing her usual gypsy menace and fire. Angst has never looked so easy. Steiner didn’t have his trusty old Epiphone guitar with him, but he still got plenty of twangy, reverb-fueled menace out of a Strat (would have been nice to be able to stick around for the whole set, but the subway card was about to expire at midnight and a walk home would have been the proverbial straw that broke something). Steiner is also at the Delancey tonight around ten, all the cognoscenti will be there – today is Thursday and that means it’s time for Small Beast. 

March 19, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Top 20 New York Area Concerts of 2007

We’ve done the top 100 songs of 2007, and the top 20 albums of the year, and now it’s time for what we like best, the live stuff. Since any attempt to rank these shows by sheer exhilaration factor would an exercise in futility, they’re listed chronologically. If the show you saw, or the show you played isn’t here, that doesn’t mean it was bad, that just means that in all likelihood we didn’t see it. There are more live gigs in New York in one evening than we saw all year long, and we were trying hard to go out as much as possible and to see the most diverse range of stuff we could, for the benefit of all you readers. Also keep in mind that a pandora’s box of factors that have nothing to do with a band or artists’s performance come into play here, from the sound system to the general comfort level of the venue to how well a club treats the musicians onstage. As with our other year-end lists, take this with a grain of salt: consider it a sounding of sorts, a general indication of what was happening last year in one small demimonde.

Mary Lee’s Corvette at Rodeo Bar, 1/17/07
Two sets of old rarities and current classics from the greatest rock singer of our generation, and a scorching four-guitar edition of her band.

The Avengers at Bowery Ballrooom, 2/3/07
Classic punk done by the most crucial half of the original band (frontwoman Penelope Houston and guitarist Greg Ingraham), less of a nostalgia show than a clinic in good fun.

Justin Bischof at the organ at St. Thomas Church, 3/11/07
The scheduled organist cancelled at the last minute, so the former St. Thomas assistant organist did improvisations, including a symphony that he made up on the spot. Nothing short of phenomenal.

Big Lazy at Luna, 5/20/07
The cd release show for their latest album Postcards from X saw the band thrashing through the instrumentals on their most diverse album to date with predictably fiery, macabre results.

Melomane at Hank’s, 6/7/07
The art-rock band at their majestic, epic best, sounding crystal-clear through the excellent PA at this Brooklyn country music bar

LJ Murphy at the Knitting Factory, 6/12/07
The rock world’s reigning lyrical genius played a typically passionate, fiery show backed by a great Rickenbacker guitarist and rhythm section.

System Noise at Broadway and West 3rd St., 6/21/07
The high point of the first-ever Make Music New York citywide outdoor music festival – that we were able to see before the rain started – was these scorching female-fronted art/noise/punk rockers.

The Mingus Big Band and Orchestra at Damrosch Park, 8/26/07
The grand finale of the year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival was the single best show we saw all year, no contest. A dark, stormy, virtuosic and breathtaking performance by a crowd of great players who realize that Mingus might be the greatest American composer ever.

Amanda Thorpe, Randi Russo and Ninth House at Hank’s, 8/26/07
The haunting Britfolk chanteuse followed by the equally haunting, chromatically inclined indie rock siren, and then the Nashville gothic rockers who at that point had just discovered improvisation, and were having a great time with it.

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 9/29/07
A wild, danceable, completely psychedelic performance of brilliant obscurities from the Peruvian Amazon circa 1972, as well as some originals that sounded completely authentic

Moisturizer at Black Betty, 10/10/07
Two sweaty, bacchanalian sets by the funnest instrumental band on the planet.

Mark Steiner at Otto’s, 10/16/07
He may have played his one New York show of the entire year with a pickup band, but the chemistry of the group was adrenalizingly contagious to the point where the club’s dodgy sound became a moot point.

Golem and Rasputina at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Halloween
Deliriously danceable, oldtime orthodox Jewish dance music followed by a riveting show by the ever-darker, apocalyptically-minded chamber-rock trio.

Dina Dean at Rockwood Music Hall, 11/8/07
She’s always been an A-list tunesmith, but having a band behind her to passionately deliver her beautifully soulful songs is one of the best developments we’ve seen lately.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Plays Rimsky-Korsakov, Bruch, Lam and Richard Strauss at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, 11/18/07
A sweeping, majestic, virtuosic show by a world-class orchestra bringing out all the earthy danceability of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Easter Overture, the longing and anguish of Bruch’s Kol Nidre, and the fascinating timbres of a world premiere by Angel Lam. And then they pulled out all the stops for Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. And made it indelibly their own.

Paula Carino, Tom Warnick & World’s Fair and Erica Smith & the 99 Cent Dreams at the Parkside, 11/28/07
The brilliantly lyrical-minded, very funny Carino, the even funnier and inspiring Warnick and the ever-more-captivating, jazz-minded Smith played what was probably the best triple bill anywhere in New York last year.

The Inbreeds at Banjo Jim’s, 12/9/07
In a hilarious, somewhat stagy show that really ought to be brought to Broadway, the world’s funniest country parody band made fun of every conceivable style of country music.

John Scott Plays The Birth of Our Lord by Messiaen at St. Thomas Church, 12/20/07
Attuned to every emotion in this complex, absolutely haunting suite, Scott brought each and every one of them to life with verve and passion.

James Apollo at Banjo Jim’s, 12/20/07
The southwestern gothic songwriter impressed with a dusty, hypnotic set of one good song after another, not a single clunker. That doesn’t happen often.

Rachelle Garniez at Joe’s Pub, 12/22/07
The cd release for her new one, Melusine Years was a dark, terse yet devastatingly funny and entertaining affair. Just like the album

January 14, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, jazz, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Mark Steiner – Fallen Birds

A gorgeous collection of dark, quietly impassioned piano and guitar-based songs. Mark Steiner made a name for himself in New York as the leader of the popular art-rock bands Piker Ryan’s Folly (the “Folly” eventually fell by the wayside) and Kundera. Best known for his voice – Steiner’s casually ominous baritone is instantly recognizable, and has earned him well-deserved acclaim – he’s quietly built himself a cult following in Europe after having relocated to Norway a few years ago. Our loss is their gain.

Nisj, the opening track, harkens back to Steiner’s earlier, Nick Cave-influenced period, all shadow and tortured romance with its recurrent theme of “All I want, all I need is you.” The album’s second cut Unbearable, with its torchy, eerie intro is a dead ringer for legendary Pacific Northwest expats the Walkabouts, right down to the faux Carla Torgerson vocals that come in on the second verse. It’s a fast, relentless number that crescendos out of a tense, rapid verse to one of the catchiest refrains of the year. Wallspotting, driven by percussive piano, returns to the sexy desperation of the album’s opening cut. One can only wonder what a noir chanteuse like Little Annie or Neko Case could do with this one.

(Now She’s) Gone is a big audience favorite. Absolutely no one writes a haunting 6/8 ballad better than Steiner, and this is one of his best. Here, we finally get to hear his trademark reverb-laden, David Lynch-esque, tremolo-bar guitar, complemented brilliantly by Susan Mitchell’s sepulchral viola work. Drunk is another popular concert staple and also one of Steiner’s best songs, something akin to what Shane MacGowan might sound like had he grown up on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. Like most everything else on this album, the chorus is killer. The cd concludes with the “crooner version” of perhaps Steiner’s biggest hit to date, Cigarettes, another of his signature 6/8 ballads. As the title implies, this recording is more expansive and jazzier than the original, which makes it interesting, albeit not better than the absolutely riveting version Steiner plays live. To paraphrase B.B. King, sometimes a major or minor is all you need: this was probably a lot of fun to record, but it’s also kind of overkill. Still, as a whole this is an absolutely tremendous album, the finest work Steiner has done to date and based on his show here last month, his new material is just as good. A classic of its kind. Five bagels. Rye, which is probably pretty much all you can get in Norway. CDs are available in better European record stores and online. And like an increasing number of underground artists, Steiner has also released this on 180 gram vinyl. Given the cd’s tasteful production, one can only wonder how delectable the sonics on the record must be!

November 2, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: Mark Steiner at Otto’s Shrunken Head, NYC 10/16/07

An exhilarating, powerful show. New York expat and former Kundera and Piker Ryan’s Folly frontman Mark Steiner had a great band behind him: brothers Peter and Christopher Mele on bass and drums, respectively, the incomparable Susan Mitchell on violin and a couple of excellent female backing vocalists joining him from time to time.

The band was loud, but as one A-list New York rocker, incognito in a maroon Midwestern windbreaker was heard to say, “I like the rock Steiner.” Both his former bands here were artsy, orchestrated units: tonight, they delivered a mix of big audience hits and new material with a roaring, passionate fury, as if this was CBGB, 1979. The sound mix was far from what it could have been: at one point, the aforementioned A-list rocker, disgusted, calmly walked to the stage and moved both vocal mics next to each other so that Steiner’s ominous baritone could be more audible than it was early in the show. In a world where good male singers are an increasingly rare commodity, Steiner is one of the absolute best, and he reaffirmed that tonight…when he could be heard. This place has a monthly surf music show in the corner back room here, and that sounds great, but bands with vocals are obviously an afterthought. The bass was too loud and the guitar went out of tune frequently (Steiner’s heavy use of the whammy bar requires that he retune after practically every song). Yet it didn’t matter. The songs were so good, the intensity of the performance so relentless and unselfconscious that they could have been playing in somebody’s garage and it would have been no less fun.

Steiner’s signature style is dark and menacing. He plays with a ton of reverb, frequently using his tremolo bar for an eerie, twangy bent-note effect. His melodies blend classical motifs with retro 50s chord changes, occasionally venturing into Irish ballad territory. The obvious influence is Nick Cave, but Steiner doesn’t play the balladeer, or affect any persona. His compositions echo an earlier era, around the time The Mercy Seat came out. Tonight’s only incongruity was between songs, as Steiner casually laughed and joked with the audience. It was a cd release show for his new album Fallen Birds, which he’s also released on 180 gram vinyl. “180 grams,” he mused. “Of what?” There was nervous laughter throughout the room: nobody was oblivious to what he was alluding to.

Early in the show, before they brought up the vocals, Steiner delivered one of his most powerful numbers, a slow, 6/8 tale of abandonment (he loves 6/8 time). Soon afterward Steiner turned up his amp to the point of distorting, and they followed with a supremely catchy, upbeat, staccato-driven tune that sounded like the great lost early Bauhaus track. After that, they played the haunting, 6/8 audience hit Now She’s Gone, then a very long cover of The Fever: “You never know how much I hate you, baby,” Steiner sneered as they launched into the song. A pretty young woman named Trisha came out of the audience to join the band, delivering a long, obviously desperate lyric that she read from a cheat sheet while the band pounded behind her like the Cramps. Given the sonics in the club, it was hard to figure out what she was singing, but eventually she was moved to the point of tears.

Then Bellmer Dolls lead guitarist Peter Mavrogeorgis joined the band for their last few songs. He’s a master of reverb-laden, dismissive, angry staccato wails, which interspersed within Mitchell’s lightning-fast, eerie gypsy runs and flourishes became the perfect complement to Steiner’s brooding, bitter melodies. Steiner warned the audience more than once that he wasn’t going to play an encore, but they still wouldn’t let him leave the stage so finally he indulged them with one of his most popular songs, Cigarettes, another trademark 6/8 number driven by reverb and tremolo chords.

This was the kind of show that you walk out of absolutely flying. It was like seeing the Clash, or the Church, or LJ Murphy for the first time. You feel bulletproof, able to ingest whole bottles of whiskey in a single gulp, stand up to any representative of the fascist machine no matter how outgunned you may be. Pure sonic adrenaline, and a reassuring reminder that music this powerful and invigorating is far, far from dead. Steiner doesn’t play a lot of US dates anymore – which undoubtedly explains why he was playing this one-off date at Otto’s instead of, say, Bowery Ballroom – watch this space for future NYC appearances.

October 17, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment