Is it possible to be nostalgic for something that happened just four years ago? Is nostalgia a healthy emotion to begin with? Probably not. But with this week being the four-year anniversary of Small Beast, seeing that date memorialized Monday night upstairs at the Delancey brought back fond memories of the weekly series’ glory days here in New York. Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch – this era’s finest rock keyboardist – founded the night in 2008 as a solo residency, followed by an endless cavalcade of some of New York’s, and the world’s, finest and darkest rock acts. This evening was a fond reminder of what an amazing run Small Beast had up to the summer of 2010, when Wallfisch took his show on the road to Germany. He now runs the State Theatre in Dortmund, which also serves as the European base for the Beast.
The night opened explosively with Valerie Kuehne. She’s part punk classical cellist, part performance artist, but her performance art isn’t the foofy, mannered kind – it’s oldschool 80s style and it has fangs. And it’s hilarious. Whether or not Kraft pasteurized processed American cheese qualifies as food, or how yoga has been transformed from oasis of relaxation to yuppie clusterfuck, might seem obvious. But Kuehne’s rapidfire rants about both were irresistibly funny all the way through to the punchlines…and then she played a roaring solo cello piece that became surprisingly lyrical, as violinist Jeffrey Young strolled in through the audience, and then she and accomplice Esther Neff donned masks and handed out instructions to the audience. Which turned out to be a cruel kind of dada – watching the crowd make fools of themselves, looking up at them from the floor of the club (music bloggers aren’t immune to being spoofed) was almost as funny. Then she and Neff ran off to Cake Shop, where they were doing another show.
Martin Bisi cautioned before his duo improvisation with fellow guitarist Ernest Anderson that it might be “sleepy.” Nightmarish, maybe, but definitely not sleepy: fifteen seconds into it, and Bisi hit a ringing tritone and then sent it spiraling devilishly through the mix as Anderson anchored the ambience with keening layers of sustain from his ebow. Meanwhile, Bisi slammed out chords when he wasn’t building a murky, echoey cauldron of implied melody. And then in a raised middle finger to the sound system, he stuck his guitar in his amp and mixed the noise through a labyrinth of bleeding, pulsing effects. Although he’s not known as a jam guy – epic dark songcraft is his thing – he’s actually a tremendously entertaining improviser who never plays the same thing the same way twice. Jamming out soundscapes is probably the last thing he or anybody who knows his music would expect him to be doing, but this was good trippy fun.
Roman Wallfisch was the star of this show. The guitarist son of the night’s impresario has been playing banjo for a couple of weeks now, and he’s already figured out all sorts of cool voicings mixing old folk tropes with new rock ones. He casually made his way through a couple of shambling narratives, Monsoon Season and Parts of Speech, both songs showing off a wryly surreal lyrical sensibility and a wicked sense of melody: the apple obviously didn’t fall far from the tree. Oh yeah – in case you’re wondering, Roman Wallfisch is fourteen years old.
And the Wiremen – in a duo performance with guitarist/bandleader Lynn Wright and violinist Jon Petrow – could have been anticlimactic, but they weren’t. Wright’s plaintive English/Spanish vocals over broodingly jangly, reverb-toned southwestern gothic melodies were as surrealistically dusky as ever. Wright held the crowd rapt with a quiet new song and ended the set with Sleep, which seems to be a cautionary tale, Petrow’s even more reverb-drenched lines raising the sepulchral ambience as high as anything sepulchral can go.
Guitarist Alexander Hacke and electric autoharpist Danielle Depicciotto treated the crowd to an equally brooding southwestern gothic ballad and then Cuckoo, the old Austrian folk song, complete with yodeling. Noir cabaret personality Little Annie was supposed to be next, but she was under the weather, so pianist Wallfisch was joined by another brilliant dark chanteuse, Sally Norvell, whose takes of three haunting tracks from her duo album with him a few years back were lustrous and riveting, running the gamut from joyously torchy and seductive to funereal.
Wallfisch wrapped up the night with the kind of intuitively eclectic mix that defined the Beast for a couple of years, capturing the raw innocence of the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset and the apprehension of Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell before a wry Little Annie Christmas song, the furtive gypsy punk of the Botanica song Money (from their latest, towering, intense album What Do You Believe In) and then the scorching gypsy punk of How, a crowd-pleaser from the old days. Petrow made another ghostly cameo or two. By now, it was after one in the morning, so Wallfisch wrapped up the evening with the nocturne Past One O’Clock (an audience request), the towering anthem Judgment (centerpiece of the new album) and a gorgeously brooding new number inspired by – among other things – the college kid in New Jersey who lept to his death from a bridge after being outed as gay. If there’s any lesson to take away from this show, it’s carpe diem: if there’s a scene this vital that you hang out in, don’t hide yourself at home, even if it’s Monday night. It could be gone sooner than you think.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #568:
Sally Norvell – Choking Victim
Recorded in an old church in Northhampton, Massachusetts, this 2002 noir classic pairs off cult heroine Norvell’s icy/sultry vocals with Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch’s plaintive, haunting, reverb-drenched piano. The pitch-black intensity never lets up, through the Marlene Dietrich-ish gothic waltz Blake in the Cake; the seductive Brecht/Weill-tinged One Gentle Thing; Big Louise, a sad ballad for an aging party animal; the blackly sardonic AIDS-era memoir November; the self-explanatory Goodbye Song; the gleefully opiated wee-hours madness of Murder, as well as a hypnotic setting of a Paul Bowles poem, Tom Waits’ Please Call Me, Baby done as noir cabaret, and the Appalachian gothic ballad Forgotten and Abandoned done as straight-up, creepy neoclassical. Surprisingly, it ends on a very funny note (alluded to by the album cover), complete with a deadpan, amusing cameo from Norvell’s old bandmate Kid Congo Powers, with whom she recorded more rock-oriented versions of some of these songs. This one’s very hard to find. The sharelockers have nothing; once in awhile copies will turn up in the used bins – check your local used record store, if one still exists.
[Editor’s note – we’re still on vacation and raiding the archive for some fond memories. This is a particularly bittersweet one, from the days when every New York band, outside of Williamsburg, at least, was desperate to vote the Bush regime out of office…and for awhile it looked like it really would happen in 2004]
Randi Russo had organized this fundraiser for the John Kerry campaign, unsurprisingly drawing an A-list of New York rock talent who connected electrically with the audience: they may have been preaching to the converted, but this show left no doubt that New York is still a Democratic town. Literate songwriter Erika Simonian opened. Nuance is her defining characteristic, along with a deadpan, cynical sense of humor. The highlight of her set, for that matter probably the highlight of the night – at least from the crowd’s delirious reaction – was I’ve Got a Song (as in, “I’ve got a song, it goes FUCK YOU”), a kiss-off anthem that this time out took on extra significance when she dedicated it to Bush. Her band was tight, accordionist Paul Brady was incisive and captivating as always but the muddy sound mix sometimes deadened her vocals – the sound guy was obviously trying to fix it, with minimal results.
Paul Wallfisch of Botanica did three songs solo on his trust old Wurlitzer electric piano, one of them a Jacques Brel cover, before the rest of his band joined him for a spot-on, passionate version of The Flag (“When I stand and face the flag/I see my country wrapped in rags”), from their 9/11-themed album Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. They eventually did a stripped-down, careening version of the gypsy-punk title track from that album plus some more straight-ahead, rock-oriented new material. Guitarist Pete Min ably channeled their former axeman John Andrews’ reverb-laden parts and their new drummer locked with bassist Christian Bongers’ spiraling, melodic lines.
Interestingly, Melora Creager, frontwoman and first-chair cellist of goth-tinged chamber rock band Rasputina was the big draw of the early part of the night: the goth girls shrieked when she hit the stage, then exited en masse when she was done. Seeing her play solo for over 40 minutes was even more impressive than watching her with the band. She plays most of the leads herself and didn’t miss a beat while singing in her signature deadpan, vibrato-laden, oldtimey delivery. She went into character and stayed there, cracking everybody up: too many jokes to remember. The highlight of the set was her closer, A Quitter, an uncharacteristically direct account of teen suicide.
Russo would later release her set as the Live at Sin-e album (still streaming in its entirety at deezer after all these years). Happily, that recording minimizes the boominess that plagued her set. They opened with a bouncy, funky League of the Brigands, followed with a swinging cover of Merle Travis’ Sixteen Tons, a marauding blast through the Middle Eastern-tinged antiwar anthem Live Bait and a gently mysterious, warmly swinging version of the janglerock hit Get Me Over. A rapidfire, scurrying version of Parasitic People contrasted with the hypnotic, Smog-like ambience of Shout Like a Lady (title track to her 2006 studio album), a snarling version of the embattled workingwoman’s anthem Battle on the Periphery and a clattering take of the usually hypnotic, strikingly optimistic Ceiling Fire to close the set on a high note.
Tammy Faye Starlite headlined. Backed by just an acoustic guitarist, the fearless satirist/actress/comedienne ran through a pointed, typically hilarious mix of songs and spontaneous riffage on the Bush regime. She’s a potent voice for the Democrats this time around (if they can stomach her genuine punk rock attitude and take-no-prisoners commentary). The big showstopper this time out was I Shaved My Vagina for This, one of the most amusingly feminist numbers from her country-flavored first album. Matching the ferocity of Amy Rigby to the uninhibited, stream-of-consciousness hilariousness of Lenny Bruce, it was a girl-power anthem that anyone could sing along to if they stopped laughing long enough.
Monday night at the Delancey is still the most happening night of the week for rock music in New York. Small Beast founder and Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch may have taken his act on the road to Dortmund, Germany for the next year, but the weekly series lives on. This must have been close to Beast #100 and it was characteristically fascinating. Black Fortress of Opium frontwoman Ajda the Turkish Queen opened. That band’s 2008 Martin Bisi-produced album is a highwater mark in recent dark rock, but hearing their singer play solo was a real revelation. Switching between mandolin and piano, she showed off a versatile, nuanced and even playful vocal style that with the band sometimes gets subsumed in the din of the guitars. On album, her song Ari is a slowly crescendoing, ferociously guitar-fueled epic; live, it was hypnotic and plaintive. As it turns out, it imagines the life of the son Nico had with 70s French actor Alain Delon. A new, ornate ballad featuring some unexpectedly nimble mandolin work followed an upward trajectory; another new one, Fata Morgana was lyrically charged, “shot down by a man with disillusion in his eyes,” she sang with a wounded understatement. A fragmentary piano sketch with a long, intense a-cappella passage was claustrophobic and intense, followed by a percussive, insistent requiem. Her band is back in the studio working with Bisi again, a collaboration that promises even better results a second time around.
Pete Galub followed with a clinic in great guitar solos. He’s reached the point where he ranks with Gilmour, Frisell, B.B., whoever you care to put in your guitar pantheon. Galub matches wit to intensity, surprise to adrenaline and does it over incredibly catchy changes. He’s a powerpop guy at heart, so there’s always a memorable tune playing underneath his rhythmically tricky, dynamically shifting solo excursions. Watching him with just his Telecaster running through a few off-the-shelf pedals, it was a chance to see those solos completely unadorned: you could imagine any backing you wanted and they’d still work, whether that might be the Undertones, Big Star or even ELO. He’s a maven of melodic rock, opening with a relatively obscure but typically tuneful Only Ones anthem, Woke Up Sticky, eventually running through a thoughtfully paced version of his 6/8 ballad Boy Gone Wrong (title track to his surprisingly quiet singer-songwriter album from a couple of years back), and two fiery, noirish, minor-key anthems, the second a bitter, metaphorically loaded kiss-off song. He wrapped up his set with a clever, somewhat tongue-in-cheek reworking of Steely Dan’s Every Major Dude Will Tell You.
Atmospheric, edgy guitar noir soundtrack guy Thomas Simon – whose new album Moncao is one of the year’s best – had booked the night and was next on the bill, but the trains were messed up so it was time to go. And he’s gotten plenty of ink here before.
The big show happened at the Orensanz Center Friday night. Because the night had to end before midnight, it was like the Rolling Stones Revue, 2010 style: everybody got short sets but made the most of them. Spottiswoode opened, solo on piano. He’s never sounded better. He has a musical theatre production coming up in the fall and if the trio of brand-new songs he played are any indication, it ought to be good. Intense and pensive, he began with a gospel flavored number, following with one of the best songs of the whole night, a bitter, brooding wee-hours tableau possibly titled Wall of Shame. He then dedicated a passionate ballad to a pretty, short-haired brunette in the crowd named Nicole: “I would follow you to Philadelphia,” he intoned.
Barbez have never sounded better either – their set was amazing, maybe the best of the entire night, an offhanded reminder of how brilliant this band is. Even more impressive, when you consider that their van had just been broken into the previous night, most of their gear stolen (Williamsburg bands beware – this is the second one in two days). This was their instrumental set, all minor keys, erasing all cross-country and cross-genre borders with perfect effortlessness. Guitarist Dan Kaufman led the band into a Balkan surf groove in 7/8 time, building to a squall with the clarinet going full blast, down to a masterfully nuanced passage featuring the marimba, then bringing it up again and ending it cold. The next one had a tango flavor, more prominent marimba and tricky rhythms. After that, they worked down from a furious gallop to atmospherics and then more tango, then started the next one with an ominously funereal, minimalist rumble that picked up in a rawtoned Savage Republic vein, ending with a creepy, carnivalesque waltz.
Since Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch had booked the night, he was pulling triple duty onstage, his first set of the night being with his longtime sparring partner Little Annie Bandez. This was the cd release show for their new one, Genderful, arguably the high point of their career together up to now. The crowd was silent, rapt, amazed – as a raconteur, Bandez has no equal, but since time was tight she kept the songs tight and terse and absolutely haunting, beginning with Wallfisch on guitar and backed by the full band on a wistful, sad version of Billy Martin Requiem, a tribute not only to the fallen Yankee skipper but also that era’s AIDS casualties. “Thirty years in business to learn a word like ‘monitor,'” she joked as soundman Marco, on loan from the Delancey, made some expert adjustments (big up to Marco by the way – the sound was outstanding all night). The wee-hours lament Suitcase Full of Secrets was poignant and loaded with understatement, on the wings of Heather Pauuwe’s violin; they closed with a brand-new song, Dear John, a requiem for a suicide. Bandez looked up, then around at the majestic synagogue facade behind the stage and did a slow, thoughtful 360, leading the crowd’s eyes just as she’d led their ears.
Bee and Flower have been conspicuously absent from the New York stage, but they haven’t lost a step. Frontwoman/bassist Dana Schechter began their all-too-brief set as chanteuse, swaying and playing shakers on a particularly haunting version of the slowly sweeping, characteristically cinematic minor-key 6/8 anthem Homeland. They picked up the pace briefly with a bouncy number that saw lead guitarist Lynn Wright (leader of the amazing And the Wiremen) swooping on his low E string to provide a second bassline against Schechter’s slinky groove. Switching pensively from tango inflections to starlit wonder to a pounding, hypnotically intense version of Twin Stars, a standout track from their first album, the only thing missing was the epic suspense film for which the songs would have made the perfect score.
The crowd peaked for Botanica, who were serenaded on and then offstage, from the balcony overhead, with the exquisive and otherworldly Balkan vocals of two completely unamplified singers, Black Sea Hotel’s Corinna Snyder and her equally haunting pal Kelly. Wallfisch had just played keys for Bee and Flower, so he switched to his battered Wurlitzer-and-organ combo and then went into a zone. Guitarist John Andrews blasted out wild Dick Dale-style tremolo-picked passages, playing through a skin-peeling cloud of reverb and delay. He also sang what might have been the best song of the whole night, the menacing art-rock epic Xmas, opening with just guitar and vocals for a Beatlesque verse, finally exploding with a crash on the second chorus. Their opener, the title track to their new album Who You Are (whose release was also being celebrated this evening) moved from stately menace to unaffected, longing angst; La Valse Magnetique, sort of the title track to their previous studio cd, featured more insane surf guitar and a very pregnant pause. Monster surf met Elvis Costello on a pointed, relentless version of the gypsy-punk Witness. There were other acts on the bill, but after a set like this, anything that followed it would have been anticlimactic – after five bands, maybe more (this is just the highlights), it was time to take a break and enjoy what was left of the early summer evening outside.
So sold as we were on this show (in case you were away, we plugged it shamelessly for a week), it pretty much delivered on its promise. The weekly Small Beast concert upstairs at the Delancey – from which this sprang – is the closest thing we have these days in New York to what CBGB was in the 70s, or what Tonic was from 1995 to 2005: the most fertile, fearlessly imaginative rock and rock-oriented scene in town. And from a blogger’s perspective, it’s a dream come true – for the price of a few hours worth of an otherwise fairly useless Monday, it’s an absurdly easy way to keep in touch with some of the world’s most vital rock and rock-oriented acts. Shame on the other Manhattan venues for not doing something like this on a Saturday and promoting it to a wider audience.
Another year, another great album by Botanica. That the latest cd by the inimitably dark, gypsy-tinged art-rockers is their first American release in ten years says more about the state of the music industry than just about anything else. Consider: the 9/11-themed 2004 cd Botanica vs. the Truth Fish, the best single-disc rock album of the entire decade of the zeros, never saw an official US release (although like the rest of the Botanica catalog, it’s up at itunes). Fortuitously, the band will be celebrating this one at the Big Small Beast at the Angel Orensanz Center on Friday, May 21, a night that could be the single best rock show in New York this year, and which kicks off with an hour of free beer. This album will be available there not only as a cd but also on limited edition white vinyl.
Where does it fall in the Botanica pantheon? It’s one of their best, and it’s warmer than anything they’ve done before. There’s still layer upon layer of John Andrews’ otherworldly, echoing reverb guitar, Paul Wallfisch’s menacing, smoky organ, piano and vocals and uneasy, wide-awake worldview, but this one’s somewhat more inviting, less assaultive than their previous albums. One notable development is the inclusion of several outstanding songs by Andrews, who brings a highly individual, ornately Beatlesque, wryly lyrical sensibility. Another is the album’s more straight-ahead rhythmic feel. Previous incarnations of Botanica explored all sorts of tricky time signatures, but this one sticks pretty much with the 4/4 – and yet, the rhythm section, Dave Berger on drums and either Dana Schechter (of the majestically cinematic Bee & Flower) or Jason Binnick (of haunting noir Americana rocker Kerry Kennedy’s band) on bass is perhaps more subtle than this band’s ever seen.
The title cut opens the album. Underneath the stately sway of this beautiful, crescendoing anthem, the menace of the lyrics contrasts with the longing of the melody, for someone other than the gestapo to know exactly who you are and what you need. The second cut, Witness builds from noir Watching the Detectives-style reggae to a clenched-teeth gypsy dance with some savage tremolo-picking from Andrews. Cocktails on the Moon, by Andrews takes an artsy late Beatlesque melody and makes it sardonic and surreal – like several other tracks here, the band it most resembles is legendary Australian art-rockers the Church. By contrast, You Might Be the One is scorching and percussive, like the Church in a particularly violent moment, with lush vocals from co-writer Schechter. With its pensive Weimar cabaret sway, Anhalter Bahnof reflects on the reslience of the spirit in the midst of materialism. Xmas, a big psychedelic anthem, is an otherworldly cloudburst of guitars, strings and gorgeous vocal harmonies that float sepulchrally throughout the mix, followed by the much more straight-ahead Perfection, fast and scurrying with a rapidfire lyric: Elvis Costello in a gypsy disguise. The version of Because You’re Gone (also recorded by Wallfisch with Little Annie, who wrote the lyrics, on their new album Genderful) is all frenetic manic depression reverberating off the keys of the Wurlitzer. Then, turning on a dime again, Wallfisch offers what could be considered the centerpiece of the album, For Love, its hypnotic Moonlight Mile ambience gently crescendoing to an understatedly majestic soul ballad.
The understated epic grandeur continues with some soaring slide work from Andrews on Backlit (the title referring to the phone numbers of Wallfisch’s dead friends’ numbers on his crumbling old Nokia phone). “Don’t know what to do with the dead,” he rails. Whispers and Calls sets a 1950’s 6/8 doo-wop melody down in Beatle territory, toy piano carrying the tune out eerily at the end. The album ends with the ghostly and hypnotic yet defiant So Far from Childhood, which could be the great missing track from Heroes by Bowie. Best album of the year? Certainly one of them – and available on vinyl at the Big Small Beast.
Little Annie AKA Annie Bandez embodies the definition of a cult artist. She’s been called “the white Eartha Kitt” and she does highly sought-after, colorfully trippy Frida Kahlo-influenced paintings. Something of a legend in New York’s underground music scene, she’s best known as a torchy noir cabaret singer whose smoky contralto and hilariously free-associative live shows have earned her an avid worldwide following, notably in Europe. She’s been making records since the 80s when she collaborated with everyone from famous dub producer Adrian Sherwood to ambient goth band This Mortal Coil. There’s nobody in the world better at September songs than Little Annie. This cd, her second collaboration with Botanica’s extraordinary keyboardist Paul Wallfisch is infused with characteristically dadaesque wit and a rich lyricism, and more luxuriant than her stage show. The duo used their the studio time to create a considerably lush, chamber-pop ambience, judiciously adding strings and brass in places along with frequently otherworldly layers of keyboards. It’s the best album of Annie’s shapeshifting career, and one of the best of this year.
The offhand classic here is Cutesy Bootsies, a savagely satirical anti-trendoid broadside set to a jaunty ragtime tune:
We do not read the papers because they are depressing
And they’re full of words we do not understand …
We’re not so much as boring, more like bland
And when we’re not spending money we’re running off to yoga
Talking loudly on our cellphones making plans…
Don’t hate us because we’re stunning, just because we’ve got you running
And your homes will now be ours to renovate
And it’s like it never happened, no tears will be shedding
As you’re quietly evicted to your fate
We’ll take Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island
Oh what the hell we’ll take Brooklyn too…
We squeal because we’re witty and we’re conquering your city
And we shake our Bootsy Collins in the sand
The elegaic feel rises to a crescendo on several of the songs, even as they’re imbued with a very dark humor. Set to a Wallfisch trip-hop guitar groove, Billy Martin Requiem eulogizes a better New York time and place where the Yankees won even as the Bronx burned, the boys partied along the Chelsea Piers like it would never end, and a star like Sylvester could be discovered riding the subway in his feathers and boa. Echoing with eerie Omnichord synthesizer, Tomorrow Will Be riffs on what we have to look forward to, whether it be t-cells going through the roof…or permanent summer, with no shade. The most intense of all of these, Because You’re Gone pulses with understated anguish on waves of austere strings, trumpet entering mournfully on the last verse. And the stately, soul-infused Carried Away memorializes someone who reached for the bottle instead of the stars.
The rest of the album is often devastatingly funny. Zexy Zen Zage, a live showstopper, comments on new age charlatanism (Annie can spot one a mile away – she’s also a minister). In the Bar Womb is all torchy wee-hours ambience through a bemused cabernet squint. And The God Song thanks a higher power for being “Teddy Pendergrass on a Friday night!” The cd is already out in Europe; the duo celebrate its US release at the Big Small Beast at the Angel Orensanz Foundation on Norfolk St. on the LES this Friday, May 21 – the show starts at 6:30 with an hour of free beer beginning at 7; Annie and Paul will probably hit the stage at around eight. But you should show up for the whole night.
The Big Small Beast happens at the Angel Orensanz Foundation, 172 Norfolk St. on the Lower East Side on Friday, May 21. It might be the best New York concert of 2010- and it starts with free good-quality Magic Hat beer for an hour if you have a ticket. Which alone might or might not make it the year’s best rock and rock-oriented show. Performing (in order) are Lapis Lazuli, Spottiswoode, Services, Barbez, Little Annie and Paul Wallfisch, Black Sea Hotel, Bee and Flower, Botanica, Savoir Adore and Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson. We spoke with Wallfisch, who’s doing quadruple duty, playing with Bee and Flower (whose keyboardist Rod Miller stayed in Berlin after the band’s sojourn there), Little Annie and Botanica (whose new album Who You Are is enjoying its official release) as well as curating the whole thing.
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: Are tickets still available?
Paul Wallfisch: Yes – you never know how long they’re gonna last. You can get them at the bar at the Delancey after 5 PM on any day, or at Other Music [15 E 4th St. just west of Lafayette]-, or ticketweb, (866) 468-7619. Seven bands, plus free beer from 7 to 8, plus an extra show, for $20. Music starts right away at 6:30, and after the show with a ticket you get free admission to the afterparty at the Delancey at midnight with the debut performance of Hallelujah, who are a 50/50 mixture of the Fever and the Flesh. Other Music – let’s hear it for Other Music! – is giving $3 off cds by all the Big Small Beast artists through May 21, plus the first two people who buy a pair of Big Small Beast tickets at other music get a free copy of the new Botanica cd Who You Are.
LCC: Is there a theme to the night or is this basically just an unusually good multiple-band bill?
PW: The theme is the eclecticism of what makes New York great. The artists range in age from twenties to fifties, but all produce unique music – dance, electronica, rock, instrumental, art-song. Most bills try to be as homogenous as possible. And many bands seeems to be more concerned with finding a retro musical niche to conveniently pilfer. That’s not the case here. And despite the incredible diversity of sounds, there’s at least a tenuous personal connection running through the entire lineup. Besides that, in curating the Small Beast at the Delancey on Monday nights and this Big Beast, I always try to get away from a focus on the singer-songwriter strumming the guitar. So that’s a theme – as little of that shit as possible. And the irony would be embedded in the intelligent lyrics and not the posturing of the performers. We’ve got that here too.
LCC: As someone who, other than putting together the weekly Small Beast show, is a working musician rather than a promoter, give us your perspective of the acts on the bill.
PW: In lieu of a dj, Lapis Lazuli will serenade the crowd as they enter. That’s Kurt Wolf – Pussy Galore, Boss Hog and Foetus are his pedigree. Go to lapislazulimusic.com to see one of the kick-ass best music websites ever! He’ll offer us between-act soundscapes as well. Spottiswoode is next, then Services.
LCC: Services used to be Flux Information Sciences, right?
PW: That’s correct. Trztn, from Services co-wrote and produced two songs that Karen O sang in Where the Wild Things Are. Then Barbez are going to play, then I’ll be playing with Little Annie…
LCC: The two of you have a new album, Genderful, just out, is that right?
PW: Yes, in fact this is the cd release for Genderful, the first day it will be available. It came out in the UK about a week ago. Andrew W.K. appears on it; Martin Wenk from Calexico also plays trumpet on one song as well as doing the same on Botanica’s new album. It’s also the cd release show for Botanica’s new album Who You Are, which will be available on limited edition white vinyl – it’s available at all the usual places like itunes and amazon.com but this will be Botanica’s first US release, stateside, in ten years, believe it or not. The official release date is May 25; you can pre-order it now.
LCC: Bee and Flower are playing after Little Annie, they haven’t played a US show in ages.
PW: This will be the only US show by Bee and Flower this year – their only 2009 show was at the Small Beast. In fact, this is the original B&F lineup, plus I’ll be playing keyboards, plus Danny Tunick from Barbez on drums. Black Sea Hotel will serenade the audience from the balcony before and after.
LCC: I really enjoy Black Sea Hotel’s otherworldly Balkan vocal music, but I don’t know the headliners, what can you tell us about them?
PW: Savoir Adore are a couple from Brooklyn, signed to the same label as MGMT. They sold out the Mercury last time they played there. They have a certain Stereolab quality, a pleasant chamberpoppy thing – but not like Vampire Weekend at all. Miles just made two really good records, he’s the youngest guy on the bill and the most oldfashioned fella of all of them. He has something of that plaintive yet thick sound that Black Heart Procession can muster at their finest, and also a Velvets thing, but more like their soul-informed moments. But really doesn’t sound like any of that – primarily due to his unique voice.
LCC: I’m amazed by the sheer number of good bands on the bill. Is everybody going to play a short set a la the Rollling Stones Revue, 1964?
PW: We have a soundscape by Lapis Lazuli, 45 minutes apiece from two headliners, about a half hour for everybody else, short sets from Services and Spottiswoode. The music and bar stops at 11:30: the Delancey is just around the corner, everybody’s invited to the afterparty there.
LCC: Why the Angel Orensanz Foundation? Do you really think that a crowd who’re used to old warehouse spaces and dingy former bodega basements will appreciate the old-world haunted-mansion beauty of this converted synagogue?
PW: No disrespect to, say, Cake Shop or Lit Lounge, but there’s such an element of struggle for bands, with little reward, that I thought it would be great to put on a “local” show in the best local venue possible, a venue we can all be excited about inhabiting for a few hours. Visually and sonically, the Angel Orensanz Foundation is such a spectacular place. We all settle for less so often that I think the beauty of the venue alone will inspire audience and artists to come together for a particularly special night. The venue, being one of the last examples standing of the hundreds of Lower East Side synagogues, is a great place to celebrate a night of timeless New York music. I’m an atheist, but the institution of religion has given us a lot of beauty over the ages.
LCC: Is this show, the Big Beast, the logical extreme to which the Small Beast can be taken? Or do you envision a Beaststock or Beastaroo at some point? Beast on the River? Beastsplash?
PW: Lollapabeasta! I can’t believe I’ve become an impresario. There will be a monthly Small Beast Germany for nine months while I’m over there – and maybe a one-off Small Beast in select cities – Paris, Berlin, London, Istanbul, possibly. Attractive as it is, it’s killing me. I’m being devoured by my own beast, I feel like Dr. Frankenstein, I’m being swallowed whole by my own Beast! Although I do derive a lot of pleasure from the evenings.
LCC: What reality tv stars will be there? What do we tell all the Lindsay Lohan wannabes out there who’re debating whether or not to get a ticket to the show because they don’t know if they’ll be able to tweet about all the celebrities they brushed elbows with on the way out of the bathroom?
PW: I like Lindsay Lohan! People have told me that celebrities come to the Small Beast. I wouldn’t know. I never recognize anybody.
“There’s Passover and there’s true spirituality,” Small Beast impresario and Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch reassured the assembled multitudes at Monday’s episode of his weekly residency/salon/talentfest. Whatever your feelings about missing a big holiday might be, there was a lot of soul on this particular bill. It seems that Wallfisch’s early 90s pal Mike Rimbaud was ill-fated to be coming up right when Graham Parker and Elvis Costello were at the peak of their popularity. Twenty years later, just like those songwriting icons, Rimbaud remains an equally vital force. Throughout his 45-minute set, Rimbaud particularly evoked Parker with his catchy, soul-influenced tunes, sardonically aware, pun-laden, aphoristic lyrics and rakish delivery. “Stimulate me, baby,” he railed, sarcastically referencing Obama’s trickle-down economics while the percussionist behind him rattled a museum’s worth of bangable objects from around the globe. His guitar running through a dense fog of reverb, Rimbaud shuffled his way through a couple of catchy new wave soul numbers possibly titled Dirty Little Bomb and Pretty Green Baby, the latter a sendup of “fashion fascists.” Diva in a Dive Bar was pretty self-explanatory; Mother Was a Punk was bracing, to say the least: “She had a mouth like a peanut and an ass like a rattlesnake.” One Way Ticket to a Vicious Circle might well have been an allusion to his career on a major label. By now, Rimbaud’s guitar had gone just enough out of tune to add a menacing edge. The rest of the set ran from bitterly hostile – a chronicle about somebody who’s “famous in Japan” – to doggedly persistent – the most Parkeresque number of the night, I’ll Follow Your Sidewalks – to unabashedly romantic.
Serena Jost has gotten a lot of ink here, not only because she manages to find herself in a lot of good places, but because in a lot of ways she exemplifies what we stand for, the idea that great art can be perfectly accessible to a mass audience. She’s been playing a lot lately with Amanda Thorpe, whose torchy intensity is unrivalled, and this time Jost pulled out some of her own with an absolutely sultry cover of Doris Fisher’s Whispering Grass, talking her way through the last chorus: “It’s no secret anymore – whispering grass, don’t tell the trees ’cause the trees don’t need to know.” Jost usually approaches a song a lot more obliquely – mystery is her thing, and she works it – so this was a welcome change. Julian Maile’s potently allusive electric guitar gave the lyrics a chance to resonate, a mode he’d remain in for the evening.
Jost went back behind the curtain, metaphorically speaking, for most of the rest of the show. Although she did throw in a mean glissando down the piano keys at the end of a particularly upbeat version of her impossibly catchy, bouncy pop hit Vertical World. She played guitar on a couple of upbeat, equally catchy janglerock numbers, switching to cello for the more pensive ones, including several new tunes. A nocturne worked minimalistic triplet arpeggios against Maile’s otherworldly flange voicings; another took on a southwestern gothic feel (this woman can write anything). They encored with a stately, enigmatic chamber-pop track from Jost’s latest album Closer Than Far.
Wallfisch was next on the bill. It used to be that a solo show by this guy was a rare treat – now it’s a frequent one. And since one of the nearby uptown trains was scheduled to turn into a pumpkin at midnight, it was time to exit into the mist and look forward to next week’s episode. Paul Wallfisch plays pretty much weekly at around ten PM at Small Beast; Serena Jost plays Lakeside on April 21 at 7 PM in a trio show with Amanda Thorpe and Mary Lee Kortes.