Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Valerie Kuehne, System Noise, Black Sea Hotel, Lenny Kaye and Paul Wallfisch 12/14/09

The last Beast of the decade (for us, anyway) was one of the best. That such a ridiculously spectacular display of talent doesn’t instantly leap to the top of our Best New York Concerts of 2009 list speaks to how good, and how essential, Paul Wallfisch’s weekly Small Beast concert at the Delancey has become. It’s like this every week.

This one was characteristic in that it ran the gamut from the avant garde to noise-rock (a welcome if unrelated excursion to the downstairs room) to Bulgarian choral music to powerpop to sinister gypsy rock played solo on piano: eclectic to the extreme. New music composer Valerie Kuehne opened the show on cello and vocals, backed by violin, upright bass, electric guitar and drums. Her shapeshifting songs stopped as fast as they started, went doublespeed, lept abruptly and then crept quietly, sometimes in the span of what seemed a few seconds. She sings with the wide-open belt of a classically trained singer, her vocals typically impatient and uneasy. “Do you believe in patterns? Patterns? Patterns?” she inquired accusatively, early on. Her second number, Now We Know set eerie tremolo guitar against jagged, disjointed rhythms that evolved out of the song’s initial stately 6/8 sway. She closed her brief set with a study in abrupt hard/soft contrasts with the vocals and also the stringed instruments. Not exactly easy listening, but then it wasn’t meant to be.

The next act had cancelled, so there was a long lull, long enough to head downstairs where art/punk/funk/noise rockers System Noise had launched into their own magnificent set, unrelated to what was going on upstairs, but it made a perfect segue (and because the next Small Beast act didn’t want to start early and be done by the time their fans had turned up, there was plenty of time to catch this one). Known for their assaultive, roaring guitar and vocal attack, they’ve never been more catchy and accessible, even if it’s a savage, cynical accessibility. A new one, Blame It on the Rain ran an absurdly catchy funk/blues phrase over a slinky groove while frontwoman Sarah Mucho gave it a characteristic sultry ominousness. Hair and Nails (the two parts of the body that continue to grow after death) followed in a similar vein; the best song of the entire night was another new one, a magnificently morbid epic that grew from apprehensive David Gilmour-inflected guitar arpeggios to an almost punk chorus, ending with a dramatic, classically infused buildup that would have been perfectly at home in the Procol Harum catalog. The even more punk number after that maintained the ornate intensity. It’s too bad that the band has since gone on what turned out to be a long-anticipated hiatus: what a run they’ve had, five years at least as one of New York’s best bands.

Upstairs, the four women of Black Sea Hotel assembled onstage. Their claim to fame – beyond having four of the most amazing voices of any New York group, in any style – is their innovative arrangements of traditional Bulgarian choral and folk music. Sometimes they’ll scale down a big, lavish chart to four-part harmony, other times they’ll embellish a folk song’s original single vocal line. Either way, the songs in their repertoire are hypnotic, otherworldly and haunting, but they’re also funny, ironic and sometimes completely absurd, and the crowd clearly got as much of a kick out of hearing the meaning of the Bulgarian lyrics as much as the band did relating them. A woman defiantly tells her guy that even if she’s wearing his clothes, he still can’t have her body; a (probably drunken) guy leaves home dressed in the garb of both his male and female relatives; a hot-to-trot single guy can’t make up his mind whether he’ll continue to court the women of his hometown or try his luck (not so good, so far) elsewhere.

Yet another advantage of Small Beast is that you get to watch the bands up close. Black Sea Hotel’s debut cd (look for it on our Best Albums of 2009 list) is gorgeous and swirling, but it’s impossible to know who’s singing what. Seeing them here, it was a lot of fun to discover that of the four, Corinna Snyder takes the biggest risks and the highest leaps, jumping octaves with split-second precision and losing nothing in pitch or power. Joy Radish is the smallest member of the group but sings with the most power. Willa Roberts has a stunning clarity and precision, and got to deliver the evening’s single most captivating moment,  ending a song about a soldier gone off to war with a final, poignant verse in English. Sarah Small, meanwhile, achieved the impossible by being simultaneously raw and intense yet hypnotically atmospheric, and this time out she was the one who got to add the striking, strange ornamentation that Bulgarian vocal music is best known for. The audience was awestruck. The group have a reputation for being a sort of punk rock version of le Mystere des Voix Bulgares – they’ll sing anywhere – but where they really ought to be is Carnegie Hall.

Putting legendary Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye next on the bill was a smart move – it completely changed the vibe yet maintained it, at least as far as smart songwriting is concerned. Kaye’s stock in trade has always been his guitar playing, but he’s also a formidable songwriter, a first-class powerpop tunesmith. Playing most of the show solo on Strat, occasionally joined by his old 80s bandmate Paul Dugan (of Big Lazy) on upright bass, he ran through a catchy, hook-laden set of mostly original tunes with lyrics ranging from sardonic to fearlessly political. In Style casually dismissed a tourist on the Lower East Side: “You must like that Def Leppard, I know you do.” A rueful garage pop ballad, and another big anthem, were dead ringers for Willie Nile tunes. A jangly ballad by the Weather Prophets – whom Kaye had produced in the 80s – was compelling and pretty, while The Things You Leave Behind – a dedication to Jim Carroll – managed to be both ominously wistful and sarcastic. The duo closed with a sizzling, completely off-the-cuff version of Gloria, Kaye finally cutting loose with a couple of leads, the first going over the edge into noise-rock (this is the guy who basically invented the style, on Radio Ethiopia) before bringing it back to a delirious audience singalong. The crowd wouldn’t let him leave, so he rewarded them with a nasty, sarcastic cover of Jesse’s Girl and then a dark, subdued, jangly meditation on distance and absence, Telltale Heart.

Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch usually opens these shows – the series started as just a way for him to work out new material in front of live audience – but this time he closed it. Because we’ve reviewed so many of these shows this past year, he’s gotten more ink here than anybody else, but it wouldn’t be fair to neglect to mention how intense his own set was. Shira and Sofia is a swinging, noir cabaret-infused Botanica number about two WWII whores – essentially, its theme is make love, not war. When Wallfisch got to the part of the lyric where one of the hookers can “suck your dick,” he screamed it as if was the last thing he’d ever say and the crowd didn’t know whether to completely crack up (it was hilarious, actually) or do something else. He also played a tango, a waltz, a couple of soul numbers, a whiplash version of his collaboration with Little Annie, Because You’re Gone, and an absolutely morbid, Satie-esque rearrangement of Nature Boy (retitled Nature Girl). And had the crowd dancing to pretty much all of it. Small Beast will be off for a couple of weeks and then back on January 10.

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December 22, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment