Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Typical Beastly Monday

So good to be back at Small Beast after a few weeks’ absence. Nothing has changed – New York’s most unpredictably fun weekly musical event was as edgy as always. This time around, Pete Galub opened the night while Botanica keyboardist and Small Beast impresario Paul Wallfisch furiously wrote out charts for his show later in the evening with Sally Norvell. Most solo shows are boring to the extreme, but Galub had brought along a gorgeous hollowbody electric guitar and gave a clinic in powerpop songwriting – and when the time came, guitar solos, playing along methodically as if he had his usual band behind him. Galub gets props for his playing, and deservedly so, but his songs are every bit as clever as his work as a lead guitarist for a cavalcade of A-list writers: Amy Allison, Serena Jost and others. He opened with a sardonic, Big Star inflected number possibly titled Exclusive Guest, following that with a gorgeously poignant, minor-key, somewhat Neil Finn-esque tune, Crying Time. A cover of the late former LA Trash frontman Alan Andrews‘ big 6/8 ballad Undiscovered Life maintained the poignant tone while adding a tongue-in-cheek vibe, segueing into a nasty, noisy riff-rocker that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Kevin Salem catalog – complete with an offhandedly savage solo. And then a real surprise, a pensive and heartfelt version of Any Major Dude by Steely Dan. When Galub opened his set, he’d hinted that he might take a detour into the Dan catalog, and this was a typically counterintuitive choice. Most solo shows are a clinic in how to bore an audience: Galub reaffirmed that if you have the chops, the material and a sense of humor, you don’t necessarily need a band.

Guitarist Thomas Simon and his drummer cohort were next on the bill, with a long set of swirling, atmospheric, effects-laden numbers that took the shape of a suite as they segued into one another. “A Spacemen 3 kind of thing,” one of the cognoscenti in the crowd murmured – this set had remarkably more aggression than Simon’s previous appearance at the Beast in July (very favorably reviewed here).

For one reason or another the women who play Small Beast turn out to be the night’s biggest stars, and an Austin punk legend, former Gator Family and Norvells frontwoman Sally Norvell maintained the tradition, backed by Wallfisch and erstwhile Big Lazy bassist Paul Dugan on a few numbers. Norvell is best known as a menacing noir cabaret femme fatale, but this set was a showcase in stylistic diversity, masterful subtlety matched by wrenching, raw intensity. Norvell can belt with anyone, but it’s how she holds back, how she works whatever emotion the lyrics call for that makes her such a captivating presence – and one sorely missed, at least around these parts. A few years back, right around the time that her duo with Kid Congo Powers, Congo Norvell was pretty much finished, she put out an amazing, sparsely beautiful album, Choking Victim, backed just by Wallfisch and occasional minimalist percussion or guitar. They opened with one of the songs from that one, One Gentle Thing, replete with longing and regret, Wallfisch obviously in his element and relishing the moment from its first few stately chords. A creepy, swaying Congo Norvell song pulsed along with a steady, ominous eight-note pulse from the bass. And then noir cabaret personality Little Annie joined them for an understatedly anguished version of her big audience hit Because You’re Gone – the contrast of Annie’s bitter contralto and Norvell’s breathy soprano, and the counterpoint between the two, was absolutely transcendent and the two women made it seem effortless. And unaffectly intense – it brought Norvell to tears. The rest of the set could have been anticlimactic but it wasn’t – a brief, menacing Paul Bowles song (Wallfisch worked with him for a time), a sad minor ballad in 6/8, a gorgeously dark lament, and then Norvell finally cut loose with a soaring version of the old spiritual Trouble in the World, imbuing it with a nihilistic fury. “You can’t have an apocalypse without Jesus,” she grinned gleefully.

Keyboardist and Americana soul stylist Matt Kanelos and then another keyb guy, frequent Thalia Zedek collaborator M.G. Lederman were scheduled to follow, but there were places to go and things to do. Next week’s Beast is a beauty, with Julia Kent, Carol Lipnik and Rebecca Cherry in addition to Wallfisch doing his usual set solo at the piano – if you’re in New York this coming Monday you’d be crazy to miss it.

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October 7, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review from the Archives: Les Sans Culottes, Satanicide and Big Lazy Live in NYC 11/22/02

[Hope everybody had a good Thanksgiving! We’re digging into the archive til we’re back from the holiday next week. Hard to believe that it’s been five long years since this particular show – ed.] 

Went to Gwynne Duncan’s art opening in the afternoon in the wilds of Fort Greene. Actually, the space was just a few blocks off DeKalb Ave., but it felt like a long ways since it was pouring rain and pretty cold out. As expected, there was hardly anybody there. Duncan is excellent, paints in a whole mess of styles with strong command of all of them: gentle pastels, trippy psychedelic oils with tendrils of plants with eyes, social realism studies imagining evening subway commutes in the 30s and a ship named Ego adrift on the ocean. Ran into a friend who promised me a copy of the Robyn Hitchcock Royal Albert Hall Dylan cover show but still hasn’t delivered – we agreed that I’d give him a copy of the Mary Lee’s Corvette Blood on the Tracks show in exchange. Looks like somebody’s getting a way better deal here and that person isn’t me.

We waited a long time for the G train back to the F, then to CBGB where the Coffin Daggers had just left the stage. Bad information, lamented one of the band members. By now my companion was drunk on wine from the opening; we grabbed seats on a bench located comfortably in front of the sound board and were pleased to see some other friends come join us for the duration of the show. Les Sans Culottes have been around forever, since the late 80s. They’re a very good garage band playing a mix of Gainsbourg covers, some other French pop from 60s and their own faux-French originals. Everybody in the band has a silly French or franglais name: Clermont Ferrand, Jean-Luc Retard, Kit Kat Le Noir, ad infinitum. Frontman Bill Carney, whatever his nom de plume is, stays in character, affecting a French accent even while addressing the audience. They did their usual stuff, bolstered by a good, loud sound mix: Ecole de Merde (French for school of hard knocks), a few covers and a disco song that might or might not have been an original. It’s a tribute to these guys that it’s sometimes hard to tell.

Satanicide were next and also got good sound: people forget just how good the sonics at CB’s are. What Spinal Tap were to 70s British metal, Satanicide is to 80s American hair metal. They absolutely nail it, and the lack of a second guitarist doesn’t hurt them. Unsurprisingly, their one spandex-clad axeman didn’t do a lot of soloing. Dale May AKA Devlin Mayhem is actually an excellent singer, with a perfect take on the completely over-the-top Motley Crue thing. Sample song title: Pussy and Ice Cream. They also did a very funny one about a NJ metalhead girl that began as a sensitive power ballad that crescendoed predictably as it went on [most likely the title track to their hilarious cd Heather –  ed.]. After the show our crew scattered in different directions, so I went next door to the gallery to hang with another friend, who was closing, so on the spur of the moment I decided to catch Big Lazy at Tonic on the way home.

Timed this one pretty perfectly, as they went on about five minutes after I got there, about half past midnight. Technical difficulties abounded with the mix and the monitors on bassist Paul Dugan’s side of the stage. Victoria Hanna was in the house, and she eventually contributed delicious vocalese on the cinematic Tel Aviv Taxi, which the band played mid-set. Otherwise, they were somewhat subdued, at least by comparison to their usually scorching live sets, benefiting greatly from some unexpected restraint on the part of drummer Tamir Muskat. Which gave guitarist Steve Ulrich a chance to back off a little bit and use some wild fills as punctuation rather than wailing nonstop all night with descending runs, slides and his trademark eerie chromatic hooks. Most of their noir instrumentals were done very tersely, including the absolutely macabre Theme from Headtrader, the multi-part spaghetti western theme Our Lady of the Highways, a cover of an Astor Piazzolla tango, the pitch-black Amnesia, the lickety-split, rockabilly-inflected Princess Nicotine and finally the hourlong set’s closing number, the hilarious heavy metal parody Starchild. What’s the likehood of seeing two drastically different bands both do killer heavy metal sendups in one night? The band didn’t encore, and by now I’d reached the point where continued alcohol consumption would have required more energy than it would have been worth to reach any state of inebriation, so I went home.

[postscript: Les Sans Culottes – who will probably be around forever , continue to do what they do best, which is play live shows. CB’s and Tonic are both sadly defunct; Satanicide, true to its metal roots, plays the occasional reunion show, while Big Lazy are on indefinite hiatus.]

November 23, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: Big Lazy at Luna 5/20/07

A luminous, mesmerizing performance. It’s impossible to imagine a more exciting band right now. The crowd was rapt. Many of the songs segued into another, but whenever the sound stopped, there was a noticeable moment of silence before the applause began. This was a particularly terse show for New York’s most exhilarating rock instrumentalists. Improvisation is usually the game plan for guitarist Steve Ulrich, upright bassist Paul Dugan and their impressively smooth new drummer. Tonight, it was all about the compositions throughout their tantalizingly brief 50-minute set: extended intros, outros and solos were kept to a minimum, which on one hand is too bad since that’s their meal ticket. No other band takes so many chances (unless maybe you count what’s left of the Grateful Dead) and flies without a net to the extent that these reverbed-out, surf and rockabilly-tinged noir soundtrack rockers do. The upside was that they got to show off a lot of new material from their brilliant new album Postcards from X along with a bunch of proven crowd-pleasers.

Ulrich and Dugan share a fondness for (some would say an inability to resist) haunting chromatics and menacing chordal work, so it was unusual for them to open with the uncharacteristically cheerful, major-key highway tune Junction City, from their first ep. A bit later, they played the opening cut on their classic, self-titled second album, Skinless Boneless, with Ulrich taking the solo of the night, an all-too-brief, screaming series of minor-key hooks, constantly shifting tones and textures by mixing up the pickups on his Gibson Les Paul and alternating between effects pedals. On a new song, Glitter Gulch, a loping spaghetti western number, Ulrich switched to baritone guitar.  Then it was Dugan’s turn to stun the audience with a sprinting, Ron Carter-ish solo on the lickety-split Princess Nicotine. As great a composer as Ulrich is, Dugan’s signature style of aggressively propulsive, melodic fingerpicking on his bass, along with a great deal of eerie, cello-style bowing is as essential to their sound as Ulrich’s trademark reverb attack.

Naked, another song from the new album, proved that they can play noise rock with anybody, although Ulrich reverted to melodic, melancholy mode at the very end. On Just Plain Scared, from the band’s second album, someone missed a cue, extending the lightning-fast drum intro and for awhile it wasn’t clear if the drummer was going to be able to make it into the song at that breakneck pace. Happily, he did. Toward the end of the set, Ulrich picked up his lapsteel and played an unreleased song, Black-Eyed Susan, on which he picked arpeggios and melody lines rather than creating washes of sound or chords, with a slide, as the instrument is typically played. He was in typically witty form between songs, telling the audience how a nasty disagreement between bandmates during a Yoko Ono performance at one of Tonic’s last shows resulted in Big Lazy not playing on the bill that particular night: “Yoko almost broke up another band,” Ulrich deadpanned. They wound up the set with a Paul Dugan composition, Hell in a Handbasket, with screechy, pizzicato bowed bass pedaling the same note and building tension while Ulrich supplied the firepower.

Happily, the sound in the club was superb, perhaps because Big Lazy’s studio engineer from the new album was on the sound board. Strangely, there was no band playing afterward, especially considering how Big Lazy seemed constricted to less than an hour onstage. Another set – or at least a longer set – would have been nice, but it was obvious that this was something the band had no control over. Even if they’d played longer, they still would have left the crowd wanting more.

May 21, 2007 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment