Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Moonlighters Live at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 3/14/08

This band may be something of a New York institution, but if you haven’t seen the Moonlighters lately you definitely should. There’s been considerable turnover: of the original quartet, only bandleader/ukulele player Bliss Blood remains. This latest incarnation harks back to the original unit: they’ve reverted to the quieter, more overtly romantic style they mined so well on their first album. Their latest steel guitarist Mark Deffenbaugh plays Blood’s absolutely authentic-sounding 20s and 30s style torch songs, blues and Hawaiian swing with taste and sensitivity, the new bass player’s impressive jazz chops are on par with those of their original 4-string guy Andrew Hall, and guitarist/harmony singer Cindy Ball (who handled a lot of the lead vocals tonight) not only has a soaringly beautiful, jazz-inflected delivery, but also great retro fashion sense. Though Blood was considerably under the weather (“Never go to a 1-year-old’s birthday party,” she cautioned the packed house), it was impossible to tell from how she sang, her vocals perfectly clear, warm and cheery as always.

The set also looked back to the band’s turn-of-the-century sound: the surprisingly cheerful, bouncy hobo anthem Ballad of a Gink; the lushly beautiful Dreamland (the title track from their first album, taking its name from the legendary Coney Island amusement park), a couple of similarly swoony new songs, and the minor-key Blue and Black-Eyed, an account of the sad demise of one of the prostitutes who would throw themselves from the fire escape at the notorious late-1800s Bowery saloon McGuirk’s Suicide Hall (the building that housed it was razed a couple of years ago to make space for highrise plastic-and-sheetrock luxury condos). This version of the band played it with less overt intensity than previous incarnations did, making it more of a seamless fit with the rest of the material.

Bliss Blood’s songwriting is undiminished. It’s hard to think of anyone else who can so effortlessly evoke the playfully literate, sometimes innuendo-laden wit of 1920s and 1930s pop as well as she does, and to her credit she’s once again assembled a crew who can do justice to it. Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of couples in the audience: this was clearly date night, and everybody seemed happy with the outcome. At least while the band was playing. The Moonlighters are back at Barbes at 10 in the 19th.

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March 15, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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