Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

CD Review: Ninth House – Realize and It’s Gone

The fourth and possibly final cd from this long-running New York “cemetery and western” unit. This isn’t a country album by any means: it’s a dark, desperate, angry rock record. Aside from some of the songwriting (frontman/bassist Mark Sinnis continues in this promising direction in his solo work), the only concession to Nashville is that the vocals are mixed noticeably louder than the instrumentation, in the style of country records from the 1930s and 40s. Ninth House bridge the gap between Joy Division and Johnny Cash. The production values are strictly punk/new wave: layers of distorted and watery electric guitars, ominous string synthesizer and organ, and melodic bass, usually set to a fast 2/4 beat. The cd opens with a roar, on the magnificently ferocious chorus of the single Long Stray Whim (a deliriously good live take of this song was previously issued on the band’s sadly out-of-print Aerosol album). It’s a transcendentally powerful escape anthem:

This morning I stopped
It’s boring, I strayed
I’m on a long stray whim
It started
For a moment I fought it
I couldn’t persuade me
I’m on a long stray whim

In a dark, passionate baritone, Sinnis – one of the greatest male singers in all of rock – builds his case for getting away from it all. It’s ELO’s Eldorado for a new generation. The band follows this with the wickedly anthemic Burn, about a cremation. Ninth House frequently get pegged as a goth band, and while they’re much more diverse, this song makes it easy to see how they got that label. The next two tracks, Stretch Marks and Quiet Change could easily have fit onto a mid-80s Cure album like Head on the Door, although they crunch rather than jangle. After that, the slow What Are You Waiting For builds to a soaring crescendo of vocals and guitars.

The following cut Mistaken for Love is one of two straight-up country songs on the album, although the band – particularly guitarist Bernard San Juan, who has since left – gives it a rock treatment. It’s a savage look back at a failed marriage: Sinnis’ cold ending will send chills down your spine. Similarly, the next track Skeletons has country swing but an 80s rock sound. The tempo picks up even more on the relentless, minor-key Out of Reach, a concert favorite. Then it’s back to Nashville gothic with When the Sun Bows to the Moon, a gorgeous, catchy country anthem, a broadside fired at point-blank range at somebody who can’t get over herself:

You live in your own atmosphere
You create your own demise
Breathe your own tainted air

It’s taken on a particularly poignant significance in the wake of 9/11. The next song Cause You Want To is a slow, crescendoing, death-obsessed number that belies its catchy, major-key melody. The album closes with a blistering rock version of perhaps the original Nashville gothic song, Ghost Riders in the Sky and then the epic title track, which builds from a catchy, thorny major-key first section into a hypnotically dark, crashing, descending progression. And then it’s over.

Sinnis’ lyrics are terse and crystallized, the band is tight and the overall intensity of the album never lets up. This is serious stuff, a good album to blast at top volume after a rough day at work or school. Definitely one of the best half-dozen albums of the year to date, as consistently good as Ninth House’s two previous studio records. Five shots of bourbon, no chaser. Albums are available online, in better independent record stores and at shows. Ninth House plays the cd release show on July 7 at Galapagos at midnight.

June 17, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Neither Super nor Fine

“Welcome to Superfine!” exclaimed the eager-beaver waitress with the microphone. “Tonight we have Blood Bliss and her new band Nightcall here for the first time!”

Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States, Hoobert Heever.

Superfine in Dumbo may be a fine drink destination late on a Saturday night if you’re in the neighborhood. They have random bands here, but as a venue it is suitable only for death metal. The roar of the yuppies and trendoids that greets customers as they enter is rivaled only by an indoor jet engine testing facility. Rush Limbaugh could have wandered naked among the tables handing out free Oxycontin while Paris Hilton shot up Roger Clemens in the ass with steroids onstage, and nobody would have paid the slightest attention.

We showed up to see Bliss Blood’s new project for the second time this week. Having anointed them the most exciting new band in town, it made sense to see if Nightcall could replicate the brilliance they showed at their previous show on Sunday. There was no way of knowing. Seated scarcely two feet from the stage, it was impossible to hear. The band seemed to be able to hear themselves to a certain extent, but when the loudest thing coming through the PA is amplified upright bass, you know something’s drastically wrong.

Which is too bad. Although the food is pricy, the waitstaff here is uncommonly nice – aside from the random server who appeared out of nowhere and stole an unfinished beer off our table. No doubt they’re used to people who order $12 cosmos and then don’t drink them.

June 15, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, Rant, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Concert Review: Melomane at Hank’s Saloon, Brooklyn NY 6/7/07

Living proof that epic grandeur can be synonymous with great fun. This well-established New York art-rock unit is part eerie 60s garage band, part meticulously orchestrated symphonic rock. As much as it was a little incongruous seeing them in these surroundings – Hank’s is a wonderfully inexpensive, friendly, old-school place that usually features country music – it was a blissfully good show. They bookended the set with a cover of the old Lou Reed chestnut We’re Going to Have a Real Good Time Together, the only song on which the band lacked tightness, and in fact the only really lighthearted moment of the night. Melomane translates loosely from the French as “passion for fun,” and there was no lack of either, although since 9/11 they’ve become a very dark band with a remarkable political awareness, even for an age where pretty much everybody is united against Bush & Corp. Foremost among the songs they played tonight were a trio from their ongoing “disaster song cycle,” as frontman/lead guitarist Pierre de Gaillande put it. One of them was a bouncy pop song about the Vesuvius eruption that essentially cast the Romans as a bunch of fascists. Another was about a meteorite. Their global warming song, possibly titled This Celestial Orb was the best of the bunch, a gorgeous, minor-key number that began with de Gaillande’s guitar playing fast, biting broken chords while keyboardist Frank Heer did the same. It built to a haunting chorus, “gravity reverses and the sea and sky trade places.” After a spur-of-the-moment interlude in 7/8 time, they tacked on a sarcastic, poppy finale with a tricky false ending that caught the audience completely off guard.

This is a talented group of musicians. Heer doubled on lead guitar, and at the end of a slowly unwinding, overtly political number, played a perfect dual guitar solo with Gaillande. To their credit, it sounded absolutely nothing like Hotel California. Keyboardist Quentin Jennings played haunting cello on several numbers. It was also good to see nimble, inventive bass player Daria Grace (also of the Jack Grace Band and the Prewar Ponies) singing harmonies again. There was a time when she’d pushed her voice too far, and it took a long time to come back. The good news is that it’s back and as bright as ever.

The biggest hit with the audience was a request, Going Places, a spot-on parody of trendoids:

Let’s get stressed out to impress and then let’s go out
You have the best high-fashion bedhead to go with your sleepy mind
And if the night should segregate us you go your way and I’ll go mine

The song went doublespeed after the second verse and by the time they wound it up, it was completely punked out, Gaillande screamingly hoarsely.

Otherwise, the band displayed a welcome gravitas, most powerfully evoked with the two keyboards going at once. They’re playing mostly in minor keys, and Gaillande has become an excellent lead guitarist. Melomane’s show tonight was a reminder yet again of the uncontestable fact that the most transcendent, powerful moments of live music in New York aren’t found at Madison Square Garden or Irving Plaza or for that matter even the Annex. The good stuff, the really great stuff is happening at cozy little neighborhood joints like Hank’s.

June 9, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment