Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Song of the Day 5/1/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Friday’s song is #453:

The Moonlighters – Blue and Black-Eyed

From the longest-lived and arguably the best of the crop of oldtimey bands that sprang up throughout New York during the late 90s, this is an absolutely haunting, period-perfect,  original late 19th century-style ragtime song by bandleader Bliss Blood (formerly of teenage S&M hardcore band the Pain Teens). It’s the sad tale of a prostitute who hurls herself to her death from the fire escape at the notorious dive bar McGuirk’s Suicide Hall at 295 Bowery (now a complex of shoddy, hastily thrown up plastic-and-sheetrock “luxury” condos) when she discovers she’s pregnant. Henry Bogdan’s steel guitar solo will give you chills. From the Dreamland cd, 2000.

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May 1, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marni Rice, Bliss Blood and Dreamboat Live at Laila Lounge, Brooklyn NY 2/20/08

This is the kind of place where music is only an occasional thing, as evidenced by the chalkboard outside on the sidewalk which simply said “open mic.” As at innumerable other bars, the musicians who play here apparently also do all the promotion. Either the night was running ahead of schedule, or there had been a switchup after the email announcing the event was sent out, because by quarter after ten, accordionist Marni Rice was wrapping up her solo set. She’s excellent, a player who’s equally influenced by French chanson and American garage rock. Singing in a smooth, confident alto, her last two songs were both excellent originals, the last a new one perhaps titled Red Light, a scuffling, klezmer-inflected broadside about the New York subway system’s inability to treat their customers with even a minimum of respect. She’s playing another solo set at Hank’s this Saturday at about 9:30, opening for some garage-rock friends. Musically, it might not be the smoothest segue, but energy-wise it ought to be perfect: Rice has considerably more edge and originality than your typical accordion-playing chanteuse.

Bliss Blood is a one-woman time machine, a brilliant songwriter with breathtaking command of pretty much every oldtime blues, ragtime and swing style ever found on shellac or celluloid. Unsurprisingly, she’s a major force in the New York music scene, as leader of the wildly popular, lushly romantic Moonlighters, the sizzling barrelhouse blues act Delta Dreambox, macabre “crime jazz” trio Nightcall and swing dance band Cantonement (that seems to be all for the moment). A Bliss Blood solo show is so rare that it’s a can’t-miss event: even thought she got her start here in town playing solo, she virtually never gets a chance to do that anymore. In the Moonlighters, she favors lush, complicated, harmony-laden arrangements, so hearing her songs pared down to just vocals and chordal rhythm was a treat worth braving the cold and this somewhat suspect, frequently trendoid-infested venue. Accompanying herself tonight with just her trusty ukulele, Blood reaffirmed her status as one of the smartest, most captivating performers around. As a singer, she alternates between seduction and indictment. Her serenades were sweet and clear, but she put her fangs in for the sad, rueful ballads and politically-charged anthems. In the bar’s intimate confines, she transcended the dodgy sound and put on a riveting show, opening with a brief cover of the Goldfinger theme, then the explosively powerful Nightcall song Blackwater, a corrosive, spot-on critique of the mercenary company killing innocent civilians in Iraq.

Introducing the breezy, seemingly carefree hobo tune Ballad of a Gink, she explained that “gink” is Depression-era slang for someone who’s lost or homeless. Broken Doll, a stark narrative about a battered woman, was just as evocative as the version on the Moonlighters’ latest album Surrender. Blood also did a handful of covers of songs by her idol, Bessie Smith, and also debuted a touching new one entited Winter in My Heart (“and snow in my eyes,” she sang wistfully). It was hard to remain dry-eyed after that one.

Before launching into a tersely intense version of the Moonlighters classic Blue and Black-Eyed, she told the audience it evoked a different New York, one a little more dangerous, in this case the Bowery at the turn of the 20th century when prostitutes would drink carbolic acid and throw themselves off the fire escape of the recently demolished tenement that once housed the notorious bar McGuirk’s Suicide Hall. She wrapped up the set with a request, the charming Hello Heartstring and then her fiery, minor-key, tango-inflected maquiladora ballad Dirt Road Life, told through the eyes of a Mexican sweatshop slave.

Dreamboat, the headliners (no relation to Bliss Blood’s similarly-titled band) were terrific, the best new act we’ve encountered since unexpectedly discovering James Apollo back in December. This new trio features excellent acoustic guitarist/singer Craig Chesler, upright bassist Tony Masselli and a frontwoman who jokingly told the audience that she was Kelly Ripa. Iowa expat Kelli Rae Powell, alternating between a wink, a smirk and an occasional shit-eating grin, showed off a spectacular, vastly entertaining and delightfully witty ability to absolutely nail a range of styles from Bessie Smith subtle, to Shirley Bassey over-the-top, and seemingly everywhere in between. If this band stays together, they’ll be huge. Like the Moonlighters, there’s a fondness for harmonies and an unabashed romanticism in most of what they do, but playing for laughs is also part of it. Powell’s onstage persona is as devious as it is virtuosic. Their best song, appropriate for tonight’s chill, was a very pretty, soaringly optimistic ballad called When My Winter Turns to Spring. They’re playing the Jalopy Café on March 8 with the Moonlighters, well worth the B61 bus ride to Red Hook and back home again.

February 21, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

From the Archives: Nightcrawling 9/23/00

The night began with bluesy trio Gate 18 at the dreaded Orange Bear (a seedy old-man bar downtown in the financial district on Murray St. that hardly ever had anyone there, yet for some inexplicable reason could afford an expensive, state-of-the-art sound system). Instructive how a venue this wretched can still pull a quality act like Gate 18 for a Saturday night show with a $5 cover charge. Indicative of how the proliferation of venues has affected bands that don’t always pack the house. Sad to see frontwoman Lynn Ann (an amazing singer equally at home with searing blues, sultry jazz, twangy country and just plain straight-up rock) being harrassed about the volume of her Gibson Les Paul guitar when she wasn’t actually that loud at all. And she’s a big belter – there was absolutely no reason why the sound guy couldn’t have raised that powerful voice above the volume she was playing at. It was equally annoying to see the band being driven from the stage without giving their extremely enthusiastic audience the encore they were screaming for.

The band did their big college radio hit Nikki’s Tits early in the set, Lynn Ann not even trying to belt it (maybe they’re sick of playing it). The rousing Give Me a Reason, which could be a commercial radio hit, featured bassist Chris Witting playing excellent, melodic fills whenever and wherever he could fit them in. They closed with the swinging cover of the Billie Holiday hit Lover Come Back to Me that they always do. The band seemed in good spirits despite having been treated less than cordially by the club.

The Cooler was our next destination. This venue really shouldn’t exist. It’s on the edge of nowhere in the meatpacking district, draws a crowd of weirdos, is never open when it should be and is owned by someone with a reputation for treating bands – female artists, especially – with disrespect. Said disrespectful owner can’t even find a way to put together his own shows: the bands tonight were assembled by Moonlighters frontwoman Bliss Blood. Too bad the turnout was mediocre at best: perhaps this was a last-minute booking. This time, we’d come out to see the Dimestore Dance Ensemble (the former Devil’s Grimy Ascot, with Jack Martin on guitar), but given how early they’d gone on (10ish), there’s no way we could have made it up from the Orange Bear in time. As it turned out, we got there in time to catch the last song by the excellent bluegrass band Jim & Jennie & the Pine Tops (formerly the Pine Barons – that was before they moved to Pennsylvania from Brooklyn. Go figure). Their stuff fit perfectly on an old-timey bill like this. The Moonlighters followed with a brief, 50-minute set (this band will play all night long if you let them), with a standin standup bass player who was clearly lost when they launched into their best song, Blue and Black-Eyed. It’s a harrowing tale of a prostitute who kills herself by leaping from the fire escape at McGuirk’s Suicide Hall, a notorious early 20th century dive bar known for its suicide jumpers. The tenement that housed it still exists today just south of Houston [not anymore: it’s luxury housing now]. While Bliss Blood didn’t bring the musical saw or the train whistle she played at her most recent show, she did hum along as her second vocalist Carla Murray did a great job with their big audience hit Humming to Myself.

The next act, the Hank Williams Lonesome Cheatin’ Hearts Club Band is a Hank Williams cover band fronted by a young, clean-cut, articulate, educated, possibly very affluent East Coast-bred singer/guitarist who has less in common with Hank Williams than most people. But the band – including a standup bassist, and the Pine Tops’ violin player – is super tight, and it’s impossible to have any complaint about their choice of material. The high point of their set was Ramblin’ Man, which actually gave me the chills. Most sensible people would have called it a night at this point, but not us: we had lost a couple of people from the posse, but a couple of late additions re-energized us and we moved on to Finally Freddie’s around half past one in the morning.

It’s another impossible venue way over on Washington St. a couple of blocks south of 14th. There’s a small bar upstairs, an even smaller one down a flight via a tight, spindly staircase that seems ready to collapse. The bands play in the back of the narrow room, which has benches instead of chairs. But at least the air conditioning was blasting. Too bad the sound was awful, which didn’t help things because the band onstage, Cabana Rock, got very loud in the small space. Their frontman is Cuban-American; their metalish lead guitarist seems to hail from somewhere in Eastern Europe, and their bassist, wherever he’s from, is tremendous (a Latin McCartney, said one of our entourage, rapt). In addition to their two percussionists, they have a rock drummer, a local punk legend who’s played with everybody including the Ramones. He’s very busy, and took a ridiculously long, clattering, Mitch Mitchell style solo that wasn’t exactly right for the venue. But the band was good: while Santana is the obvious comparison, he doesn’t seem to be an influence. They fit in better with the current crop of Mexican rock en espanol stars like Jaguares and Maldita Vecindad, building their songs on folky, sometimes eerie acoustic melodies with psychedelic, electric flourishes and lots of energy. Their best original was a syncopated, swaying number in English called In Your Sanity. They also did a good, boisterous cover of the Beatles’ Why Don’t We Do It In the Road. Since the plan the next day was to get up relatively early in order to get to Hoboken by early afternoon for their annual Arts & Music Festival, I cut out after the band was done instead of stopping at the Fish on the way home for a drink or however many may have followed that.

[postscript: each of the venues here are now defunct, as is every band except Jim & Jennie & the Pine Tops and the Moonlighters. The former have achieved real stardom playing the indie rock circuit and backing Neko Case on her live album; the latter have gone through numerous lineup changes yet seem to get better than ever whenever they bring new blood into the band]

September 23, 2007 Posted by | concert, country music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment