Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Steel Player Mike Neer Darkly Reinvents Thelonious Monk Classics

Any fan of western swing knows how cool a steel guitar can sound playing jazz. The great C&W pedal steel player Buddy Emmons knew something about that: back in the 70s, he recorded steel versions of famous Charlie Parker tunes. In that same vein, steel guitarist Mike Neer has just put out an even more deliciously warped, downright creepy, dare we say paradigm-shifting album of Thelonious Monk covers for lapsteel, wryly titled Steelonious and streaming at the band’s webpage. Neer’s playing the album release show on Jan 25 at 8 PM at Barbes. If you like Monk, steel, and/or darkly cinematic sounds in general, you’d be crazy to miss this.

The album opens with a tongue-in-cheek slide down the frets into a surf stomp, and the band is off into their tight version of Epistrophy, a devious mix of western swing, honkytonk and the Ventures. Neer is amped up with plenty of reverb and just a tad of natural distortion for extra bite. By contrast, he plays Bemsha Swing through a watery chorus effect against the low-key pulse of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Diego Voglino as pianist Matt King stays in the background.

The rest of the album is a mix of iconic material and deeper cuts. In deference to the composer’s purist taste, King’s piano keeps things purposeful and bluesy, with the occasional hint of New Orleans. Neer’s take of Round Midnight echoes the Hawaiian sounds he played for so long, first with the Haoles and then the Moonlighters. In its own twisted way, this simmering quasi-bolero is closer to the spirit of the original than most straight-up jazz versions. It’s easy to imagine Beninghove’s Hangmen doing something as noir as this with it.

Likewise, In Walked Bud gets reinvented with all sorts of slinky bossa nova tinges, Tom Beckham’s echoey, bluesy vibraphone over lingering organ. If Neer’s version is historically accurate, Bud Powell wasn’t just crazy – this cat was scary!

Bye-Ya has more of a western swing feel, partially due to Neer’s droll, warpy tones. I Mean You positions Neer as bad cop against purist, good cop King. Putting organ on Off Minor was a genius move – what a creepy song! Voglino’s surf drums provide an almost gleeful contrast. In the same vein, the band does Ugly Beauty as a waltzing, noir organ theme, Neer’s menacing solo echoing Charlie Rouse’s sax on the original before veering back toward Bill Monroe territory.

It’s amazing how good a country ballad Ask Me Now makes; same deal with how well Blue Monk translates to proto-honkytonk. Straight No Chaser is so distinctive that there’s not a lot that can be done with it other than playing it pretty much as written, and the band keep their cards pretty close to the vest. But their starlit waltz version of Reflections is anything but trad: it’s sort of their Theme From a Summer Place. It’s awfully early in the year, and much as it might be cheating to pick a cover album, this is the frontrunner for best release of 2017 so far.

Advertisements

January 17, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Pre-War Ponies Summon the Ghosts of Old New York

Last night at Rodeo Bar the Pre-War Ponies played an irresistible, unselfconsciously romantic mix of obscure swing tunes. Frontwoman Daria Grace leads this unit when she isn’t playing bass in her husband’s Jack’s excellent country band, or in recently semi-resurrected art-rockers Melomane, which doesn’t give her a lot of time – this crew basically plays the Rodeo and Barbes and that’s about it. But her Rodeo gig has been a monthly residency for awhile now, and it’s one of New York’s obscure treasures – just like her repertoire. The songs she likes best are clever, urbane, and catchy, ranging from quirky to downright bizarre. Her voice is stunning, pure and clear but also a little misty, the perfect vehicle for tales of heartbreak and longing and hope against hope that everything will work out in the end. This time out she was backed by a rhythm section along with J. Walter Hawkes doubling on trombone and ukelele, and Mike Neer on acoustic lead guitar.

The best song of the night was a blithe suicide song from 1928, Ready for the River, by Gus Kahn and Neil Moret. “Gonna leave just a bubble to indicate what used to be me,” Grace sang with a carefree nonchalance as the band bounced along behind her. “Gonna keep walking til my straw hat floats.” Her version of Two Sleepy People, a Frank Loesser/Hoagy Carmichael hit from 1938, perfectly captured the hazy endorphin bliss of a couple who’ve run out of things to say (or brainpower to say them with) but can’t tear themselves away from each other.

The band’s second set of the night was both fetching and fun. Grace came off the stage to redistribute the bar’s supply of peanuts since a friend of hers needed a refill. Then Hawkes noticed that someone had left a guitar pick in the nose of the bison head to the right of the stage. “Probably your husband,” he told Grace.

“Probably was,” she sighed. She looked at the pick. “Nope. Not his brand.” And then picked up her baritone uke and launched into a tribute to every ukelele song ever written. She brought a distantly smoky charm to Connee Boswell’s All I Can Do Is Dream of You, Irving Berlin’s 1925 hit Remember, and later an understatedly plaintive version of It’s the Talk of the Town. The bouncy, shuffling lament Say It Isn’t So was a launching pad for a rocket of a solo by Neer that leveled off the second time through the verse, followed by a droll muted trombone solo by Hawkes that managed to be completely period-perfect and over-the-top yet poignant all at the same time. The torchy Take My Heart got a buoyant solo from Hawkes followed by more edgy incisiveness from Neer. On the innuendo-driven I Want a Buddy, Not a Sweetheart, Neer punched through the best solo of the night, a rapidfire series of chords with an Asian tinge, as if he was playing a koto. They also did a slinky, gypsy jazz version of Cole Porter’s Primitive Man, from the 1929 film Fifteen Million Frenchmen.

The 1947 tune Brooklyn Love Song has “hey” at the end of pretty much every phrase. Grace lost the second page of her sheet music, so she had to come up with some new lyrics: “Everything happens for a reason. Hey!” Hawkes finally found the missing page; without missing a beat, they jumped back in and wound it up as jauntily as it began.

November 23, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Jack Grace Band – Drinking Songs for Lovers

It’s surprising that nobody’s done this yet, and it’s a good thing that the Jack Grace Band did it instead of, say, Jimmy Buffett. The country crooner’s new album Drinking Songs for Lovers is party music for smart people, and it’s definitely the funnest album of the year so far. For Grace, whose previous album The Martini Cowboy was surprisingly dark and serious, most of this is a defiantly unapologetic return to the party vibe of his 2005 cd I Like It Wrong, but with more swing. Credit his better half, bass player Daria Grace, for joining in on a groove with their jazzy drummer Russ Meissner. Jack handles most of the guitar work, with Mike Neer on lapsteel, Bill Malchow on keys and longtime Johnny Cash pianist Earl Poole Ball guesting on a couple of tracks.

The songs portray a wide variety of of drunks – the crazy neighborhood guy you run into at the bodega on a beer run right before four AM, the guys at OTB, the serious dude who watches his roommate drink himself into a dangerous state. These guys treat drinking as a serious business, a necessary alternative to some unthinkable alternate universe. Hangovers are a big part of it, an occupational hazard: it’s a tough job and somebody’s got to do it. Starting first thing with Morning Margaritas, a bracingly Tex-Mex way to kick off the album, featuring the Broken Mariachi Horns (J. Walter Hawkes on trombone and Rob Henke on trumpet). If You’re Gonna Raise a Drunk is one of those songs that needed to be writtten – beyond offering some useful tips, it manages to stick in a litany of favorite drinks and favorite places to drink them. I Drank Too Much Again vividly captures the grim aftermath – the headache pounding behind the late afternoon sunglasses is visceral. Drinkin’ and Gamblin’ is a surprisingly hard-rocking minor key banjo tune; a rapidfire honkytonk lesson in trucker lingo, The Worst Truck Driver in the World is a teens update on the 1976 C.W. McCall rig-rock classic Convoy minus all the CB radio references.

Jack Grace’s baritone is one of the most soulful voices in New York music, but the best vocals here actually belong to Daria, perhaps singing the apprehensive minor-key blues Drank Yourself into a Corner while Jack was on a beer run. Drink a Little Hooch is the album’s second tribute to drunken gamblers: “Is there something I’ve been missing out on?” the perplexed narrator wants to know. The album winds up with the surreal, heavily hungover-sounding, Tom Waits-ish Haven’t Had a Birthday Now for Years, the blazing lapsteel rocker So Ugly, a merengue number (the guy at the bodega, remember?) called It Was a Really Bad Year and a depressive, authentically retro 60s style country ballad that recalls Jack’s previous albums.

This cd isn’t for everyone. Country music fans will love it, as will drinkers of most every stripe. Serious-minded folks might object to how cavalierly and completely nonjudgmentally chronic alcoholism is portrayed here, but fuck them. They’re no fun. The Jack Grace Band will be at SXSW for a bunch of gigs including a show on March 19 at 4:30 PM at the Saxon Pub with Earl Poole Ball from Johnny Cash’s band on piano. Their next NYC show is April 2 at 10 PM at Barbes.

March 13, 2010 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Drew Glackin Memorial Concert at Rodeo Bar/The Deciders at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 1/17/08

Drew Glackin, who died unexpectedly earlier this month was honored tonight by a small handful of the literally hundreds who had the good fortune to share a stage or record with him. Like anyone else, musicians have different ways of coping with loss: usually, this boils down to disguising the pain with humor, drinking heavily or turning up really loud. Tonight there was plenty of all of the above. “This band will never be the same,” Jack Grace told the packed house, and he was right. Glackin was the baritone countrycrooner/bandleader’s lead player, on steel, and pretty much defined the sound of the band with his soaring, ringing washes of country soul and his fiery, terse, incisively bluesy solos. Glackin was not a nasty person, but his solos were. In country music, it’s so easy to fall into clichés, playing the same licks that have been Nashville staples for decades, but Glackin always avoided that trap. Taking his spot tonight on steel was Mike Neer, who to his credit didn’t try to hit the same highs Glackin would typically reach on a given night. The ex-Moonlighter is a purist and knew to hang back when necessary. Bill Malchow played honkytonk piano, and Grace’s wife Daria was at the top of her game, groovewise: it’s hard to think of a more fluid, spot-on country bass player. And she’s basically a rocker.

For some reason (a Glackin idea come to life?) the band also featured two drummers, Bruce Martin and Russ Meissner sharing what looked like a kit and a half. Grace is a great showman, and to his credit he played to the crowd as if this was a typical weekend at the Rodeo. The high points of his all-too-brief set came at the end where he went from absolutely white-knuckle intense, singing “angels, take him away” on the old John S. Hurt number Miss Collins, then bringing back the levity with his big audience hit Worm Farm. Grace explained that he’d written it during a period when pretty much all he could write was sad songs, and considering what the evening was all about, it hit the spot. In the middle of the song, Grace segued into a Joni Mitchell song for a couple of bars, complete with falsetto, just to prove that he hadn’t lost his sensitivity, and this was predictably amusing.

From the first scream from Walter Salas-Humara’s Telecaster, the Silos came out wailing, hard. Glackin’s replacement was Rod Hohl, best known for his sizzling guitar work, but as he proved tonight he’s also an excellent bassist. The band played a tantalizingly brief set of bristling indie rock, with Eric Ambel from Steve Earle’s band sitting in on second guitar. The high point was a thirteen-minute cover of a Glackin favorite, the Jonathan Richman chestnut I’m Straight, wherein the two guitarists faced off, trading licks throughout a blisteringly noisy duel every bit as good as anything Steve Wynn ever did. Nice to see Roscoe playing noise-rock again, something he’s very good at but hardly ever does anymore. His wife Mary Lee Kortes provided searing high harmonies on one tune with a recurrent chorus motif of (if memory serves right) “keep your dreams away from your life.” The band didn’t dedicate it to Glackin, but they might as well have: the guy never sold out. Which probably did him in. Very sad to say that if he’d been Canadian (or British, or Dutch, or French, or Cuban, for that matter), he would have had health insurance and the doctors would have detected the thyroid condition that went undiagnosed for too long.

Daria Grace’s band was scheduled to play next, but it was time to head east before the downtown 6 train stopped running (as it turned out, it already had), so that meant a 14-block walk south in the rain and a crosstown bus over to Banjo Jim’s for a nightcap. Which turned out to be a particularly good choice, because the Deciders were still onstage. They’re Elena Skye and Boo Reiners from Demolition String Band plus Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith’s band on pedal steel, plus a rhythm section. Tonight their bassist couldn’t make it, but that didn’t matter. Hearing Skye’s intense, emotionally charged voice in such small confines was a special treat, and watching Reiners and Kaye trade off on a bunch of DSB originals was fascinating to watch. Kaye’s guitar playing is edgy, incisive and potently melodic, but tonight he left that role to Reiners, instead playing fluid washes of sound in a call-and-response with the guitar. The high point of the night was a potently riff-driven new Skye song, Your Wish, from her band’s new album Different Kinds of Love, benefiting vastly from the energy of having two killer electric lead players sharing a stage. They finally shut it down after midnight. Just when it’s tempting to say that it’s time to stick a fork in New York and head out for parts unknown, the devil you know rears its head and reminds you why you haven’t left yet. Nights like this make it all worthwhile.

January 18, 2008 Posted by | country music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Moonlighters – Surrender

Another great album by the world’s most romantic band. While going to see the Moonlighters is something of an institution among young NYC couples, don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a sappy act. Their specialty is bedroom music, par excellence. This cd – their fourth – continues with more of the charming, effervescent Hawaiian and old-time music for which they’re best known. The cd cover, with its striking imagery of a flame-haired surfer girl trapped in a jar, staring into the mouth of a tiger while cowboys circle below and a vulture circles overhead, gives a hint of the uncompromising, politically-charged power of their live shows. Steel guitarist Henry Bodgan has been replaced on this album by Mike Neer, whose more traditional style lacks Bogdan’s sting but is probably a better fit with the fetching harmonies and strumming of frontwoman/uke player Bliss Blood and guitarist/singer Carla Murray. As with their live show, Blood plays the vivacious redhead, Murray the sultry brunette; the way their voices and personalities blend and contrast is nothing short of sexy. That’s not to say that the band puts style over substance: as a songwriter, Blood absolutely owns the nouveau-Gatsby-era genre. Foremost among her original songs here is the gorgeous, heartbreaking, minor-key Dirt Road Life, which works either as a contemporary maquiladora ballad or a lament by a 1920s sweatshop worker here in New York. Other originals here, including the cd’s bouncy opening cut Big Times and the unabashedly romantic Every Little Raindrop sound like authentic soundtrack material for some pre-code Mae West movie. There’s also the eerie Broken Doll, as well as Murray’s magnificently arranged pastiche Ziegfeld Doll, and the upbeat, old-timey hobo tune Boxcar with a View. The covers on the album are wisely chosen and beautifully performed, among them an airy, atmospheric take on the old Rodgers/Hammerstein chestnut Bali Hai, the novelty tune Makin Wickey-Wackey Down in Waikiki (a big hit at live shows), and the innuendo-laden Take a Picture of the Moon. Bliss Blood’s iconoclastic wit doesn’t shine through here quite as much as it does onstage, but that’s not what this cd is all about. Put it on the table by the bed with the Al Green and the Sade and break out the incense, wine and candles (just kidding – with this cd, incense, wine and candles are overkill).  The Moonlighters play June 1 at 9 PM at Barbes; CD’s are available at shows, at better record stores and online.

May 28, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments