Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Adam Schroeder’s Baritone Sax Blows a Cool Breeze

The most recent jazz album we reviewed was aggressive, urban jazz. This one is mellow and breezy – but it’s hardly elevator jazz. Adam Schroeder is the baritone saxophone player in the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. So it’s no surprise to see that he’s got his bandmates, one of the current era’s great jazz rhythm sections, John Clayton on bass and Jeff Hamilton on drums along with the group’s superb guitarist, Graham Dechter, on this session. It’s Schroeder’s first as a bandleader. Clint Eastwood is a fan, which means something because Eastwood is a connoisseur. Schroeder combines a Gerry Mulligan geniality with bluesy Harry Carney purism as well as a remarkable ear for space, something you have to learn in a big band – or else.

The album, titled A Handful of Stars, begins anticlimactically: you won’t miss much by fast-forwarding past their version of I Don’t Want to Be Kissed. But the first of sadly only two originals, Midwest Mash is great fun, a casual blues/funk bounce hitched to Hamilton’s clave beat, good cheer all around, particularly when it comes time for a subtly amusing Clayton solo. Neal Hefti’s Pensive Miss is a clinic in terse, mimimal playing, done as a wee-hours ballad, Dechter adding a slowly bright Barney Kessel-ish solo followed by a quietly pointillistic one from Clayton. A matter-of-factly swinging version of Jessica’s Birthday, by Quincy Jones has Hamilton stepping out playfully this time. The Cole Porter standard I Happen to Be in Love gives Schroeder a rare opportunity to build some actual tension here, then it’s back to Dechter taking one of his characteristically richly chordal excursions.

The other original here, Hidden Within begins with a vividly whispery I-told-you-so conversation between Schroeder and Clayton and grows more expansive yet more spacious: the silences are as meaningful as the notes themselves. Understatedly jovial, the Barry Harris bossa tune Nascimento has Dechter moving from blues to sheer joy, Schroeder moving back toward more pensive terrain followed by a tricky polyrhymic solo from Hamilton. They do the title track, a Glenn Miller hit, as a brisk, snappy pop song, much as Paula Henderson might have arranged it. They end with a purist take of Ellington’s Just a Sittin’ and A-Rockin’ and a bustling version of Cole Porter’s It’s All Right with Me, Hamilton taking it up all the way with a Gene Krupa gallop. It’s out now on Capri Records.

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August 13, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Douce Gimlet Outside Art Fiend Gallery, NYC 11/24/99

[Editor’s note – during our first year, to keep the front page fresh over a long vacation weekend, we’d dip into the archive for a blast from the past like this one. We plan on resurrecting the tradition at some point.]

Seemingly an impromptu outdoor performance on the sidewalk in front of this new Ludlow Street gallery as an enticement to draw people in street to see what’s on display and drink Dixie cups of Guinness. No joke. Bet the band will be around longer than this place will [editor’s note: the band is long gone and so is the gallery]. They did two sets punctuated by the arrival of a police cruiser which by some lucky stroke of fate pulled up while the band was taking a break. The cops sat there for a couple of minutes, then left and didn’t return. Douce Gimlet opened with frontman Joe Ben Plummer and baritone sax player Paula Henderson marching in from the carpark across the street, both playing sax, unamplified, while the rhythm section played on the sidewalk. Then Plummer picked up his guitar and they followed with a bunch of his superbly surreal, actually very moving country ballads, among them Little Lovers’ Society (about dwarves in love), along with the eerie Dark Eyes soundalike mariachi-rock tune The Wounded Burro with excellent violin work by new addition Josh Diamond. They also played a raw but wrenchingly beautiful version of their best song, the haunting, jangly midtempo Destitute and their big, swinging country hit Blue Chippie, on which Plummer tossed off the hook from the intro to Destitute right before another soaring solo from Diamond. Nice way to kick off a long Thanksgiving weekend.

November 25, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

It’s Raining Moisturizer: Moisturizer Live at Black Betty, Brooklyn NY 10/10/07

Three reviews of Moisturizer and a side project in two weeks here: isn’t that sort of overkill? Consider this: critics said a lot about Miles Davis at Birdland in 1957. The media went ga-ga over the Ramones at CBGB twenty years later. Ten years after that, it was Yo La Tengo at Maxwell’s that everybody was talking about. Similarly, this is a band at the absolute peak of their career so far. Moisturizer has come to the point where they’ve become a band you absolutely have to see. And it’s not because of their anger or earsplitting volume, nor does Moisturizer have anything to do with a trend, a fashion or a fad. Moisturizer is pure, unadulterated fun.

 

Tonight they played two delirious, sweaty sets, all original instrumentals except for a very cleverly rearranged cover of the Burt Bacharach latin-pop classic The Look of Love. Special guest David Smith joined with the band to play ebullient, ecstatic trombone on the sultry, swinging, newly rearranged Unhaveable Blues, and joined with baritone saxist/frontwoman Moist Paula to bring the house down with a wild, clattering, practically heavy metal outro on one of the last songs of the night. Otherwise, the night belonged to Moist Paula, bassist Moist Gina and drummer Moist Yoshio. The latter is the most compelling evidence for Moisturizer’s ascendancy from merely good to absolutely transcendent: he swings, has command of what seems to be any time signature and can play anything from punk to funk to swing with an effortless, uncluttered grace. He’s given the rest of the trio the groove they always were going for but never had the drummer behind them to hit until now.

 

Moist Gina’s basslines are potently percussive, richly melodic and very hard to play. She makes it seem effortless even though she probably lost five percent of the weight on her strong, slender frame by the time the show was over. Her voicings are often completely unorthodox: watching her fingers swoop and slide up and down the fretboard was a clinic in how to play bass with an idiosyncratic, uniquely personal yet musically brilliant approach. To drive a point home, she’d slam on the occasional chord, slide with split-second timing up to a high note and punctuated a charming, catchy new one with gentle octaves and arpeggios. If there were Moisturizer action figures – in a more perfect world, every little kid would have their little plastic Moist people – Gina would be the one who packs the heat.

 

Moist Paula would be the one with the magic sax, whose keys she presses in order to create a secret Moist universe where the party is everywhere and everyone is invited. It’s her crafty sense of humor and surreal wit that makes Moisturizer’s songs as fun as they are, from the tricky time stop-and-start time changes of Actually I’m So Busy to the triumphantly buoyant Moisturizer Takes Mars. Yet it was their more serious songs that impressed most tonight. Their second set was the best series of segues I’ve seen this year: the sad tango Girl in the Goldfish Bowl, then a haunting, swinging, relatively new number about a baby lost in the Indonesian tsunami, and an irresistibly propulsive song called I Will Unmagic Your [something – the title is a long, complicated Salman Rushdie quote] with a crescendo capped by a wild, flying Moist Gina solo. It was after one in the morning when they finally closed the show with a boisterous take on their big audience hit Mission: Moisturizer.

 

The crowd wasn’t dancing this time, probably because of the nature of the crowd itself (the venue itself is charmingly laid-back and unpretentious, in stark contrast to trendoids who hang out here), and because a breakdancer had taken over the small space in front of the stage, frenetically flipping and twirling, effectively creating a barrier between band and audience. Yet there was a lot of chair-dancing: as hard as some of the crowd may have been trying to sit still, they didn’t exactly pull it off. How the audience reacts with their bodies is a reliably indicator of a band’s performance: the more people move, generally speaking, the better the music is and tonight’s show validated that theory. Miss seeing this band live and risk your health. 95% of all doctors recommend Moisturizer to cure any uptightness you may have. The other 5% are uptight themselves.

October 14, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Secretary Feat. Big Boss/Nina Nastasia & Jim White at Mercury Lounge, NYC 10/3/07

Secretary is Moisturizer frontwoman and baritone sax player Paula Henderson’s Hollywood soundtrack side project. Or at least that’s what it sounded like tonight, like Angelo Badalamenti covering Moisturizer. Hollywood would do well to seek her out. As she made a point of reminding the audience, everything she writes is a true story. The resulting compositions, whether the utterly unique dance-rock that she plays with Moisturizer or the quieter, more atmospheric works she played tonight, all have a narrative feel, and it’s often very compelling. Or very funny. Or both simultaneously.

 

Although for Secretary gigs she hides behind a pair of spectacles and a vintage secretary suit, Henderson didn’t bother trying to shed the slightly coy, deviously witty Moist Paula persona that she assumes at Moisturizer shows. Maybe that’s just who she really is. Big Boss is a new addition, a sharp-dressed man busily multitasking on a laptop and mixer, occasionally contributing trombone, keyboards and even turntable scratching on one song. Although Moisturizer is defined by playfulness and fun, and that sensibility isn’t lost here, the quieter, more downtempo tunes Henderson does in this project afford her a chance to explore more thoughtful, pensive terrain. Tonight she played lead lines on her bari sax as Big Boss ran the tracks, most of which are on the excellent debut Secretary album. They opened with a sultry, jazzy, unreleased number perhaps titled 37 Again, Henderson’s achingly torchy, jazzy melody playing against a dense mix of textures created by playing sax through a bunch of garageband patches and then mixing everything. Later she did the balmy, ambient South Carolina Holiday, the long, playful Mouse (which is actually about chasing a mouse around the apartment), the catchy Latin dance tune Mofongo Raincheck and a somewhat classically-inflected fanfare, live sax playing call-and-response with harmonies using several different textures. Toward the end of the set, she did a lively new number called Mushrooms with Strangers that wouldn’t be out of place at a Moisturizer show. The evening’s most amusing moment was another new one called The Perfect Boss. Henderson played repetitive, staccato riffs while the computer run a shrieking, metallic wash of noise that sounded like Suicide or something from Metal Machine Music. If that’s the perfect boss, one can only wonder what the boss from hell sounds like.

 

Nina Nastasia sold out the room. It had been ten years since she’d played here, she said, “When I was…18.”

 

“Not,” she said under her breath, barely audible. She may wield an acoustic guitar but she hardly fits the singer-songwriter mold. You’ll never hear a Nina Nastasia song in a credit card commercial. Tonight she played mostly new material from her album with Dirty Three bandleader/drummer Jim White, her only backing musician. He was amazing: no wonder everyone wants to work with him. Using a flurry of rimshots, cymbal splashes and boomy tom-tom cascades, he orchestrated her often grimly minimalistic songs with both precision and abandon. Often he’d leave Nastasia to hold the rhythm as he’d accelerate or slow down, or play deftly off the beat. There are only a few drummers in rock who are in his league, perhaps Dave Campbell of Love Camp 7/Erica Smith renown or Linda Pitmon from Smack Dab and Steve Wynn’s band.

 

In the years since she first played here, Nastasia has developed a seemingly effortless fingerpicking style on the guitar. Hearing the new songs stripped down to just the guitar and drums was a revelation: it was instantly clear where the melodies for all the layers of strings and keyboards on her albums come from. I found myself playing orchestrator, imagining violin, viola and cello parts. One of the great keyboardists of our time was in the audience and was overheard raving about how good the piano on the new album is.

 

Nastasia has also become an excellent singer. That creepy little voice she had when she put out her landmark 1999 debut, Dogs (whose title track she played tonight, to much applause) is still there when it needs to be, but in the intervening years she’s learned how to belt. And project, with an anguished wail that serves her songs, particularly the new ones, spectacularly well. Her earlier material was typically noir urban tableaux; now, she’s taking on more abstract, universal emotional territory, though her vision remains the same, as bleak, angst-driven, desperate and sometimes exasperated as it’s always been. The dark glimmer has become a gleam. If this show is any indication, the new album is a must-own.

 

The only problem tonight (one hopes uncharacteristically) was the sound. The sound guy was playing annoying, effeminate computer-disco over the PA before Secretary went on, and predictably mixed the backing tracks from the laptop louder than Henderson’s sax. Bad mistake. Then Nastasia’s guitar started to generate a lot of low feedback, perhaps because it needed to be amped high in the mix and she didn’t have one of those little rubber thingys that fits into the sound hole. Where was Freddie Katz when we needed him.

October 8, 2007 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review from the Archives: Mary Lee Kortes, LJ Murphy, the Dog Show, Douce Gimlet, the Scholars and Steak at the C-Note, NYC 9/8/00

[Editor’s note -during our first year, when we found ourselves in a particularly slow week, we’d put up an article or two from the exhaustive archive we’d inherited a few months earlier from our predecessor e-zine. In those days we didn’t know how easy we had it.]

This was an ass-backwards night. By all rights, the opening act should have headlined, but acoustic acts tend to play here earlier in the evening. The later it gets, the louder it usually is here. Mary Lee’s Corvette frontwoman Mary Lee Kortes held the crowd rapt throughout her 45-minute solo acoustic set: you could have heard a pin drop. Plainly and simply, there is no better singer out there right now. Her favorite vocal device is to leap an octave or more, in a split second, always landing like a cat. Tonight she made it seem effortless, even if her songs, and her vocals, tend to be white-knuckle intense, her steely wail soaring over her subtle, judicious guitar playing. And there’s no better songwriter out there right now either. The songs she played tonight, a mix of concert favorites and new material, are striking in their craftsmanship. The French word for it is travaille, something Kortes would understand and probably agree with.

She opened with a quiet, almost skeletal version of the unreleased Redemption Day, radically different from the blazing riff-rock smash she plays with the band. Still, the anguished intensity of the lyric was undiminished. Later, she did several swinging, country-inflected songs from the band’s most recent, panstylistically brilliant album True Lovers of Adventure. She closed with Lost Art, a ballad from the album, that she sang a-capella, forgetting the words to the last verse for a second and then recovering, to the crowd’s clear delight. I haven’t seen an audience so riveted in a long time.

Another first-class songwriter, LJ Murphy followed. He’s also a band person at heart, although he’s been doing a weekly solo acoustic residency here for over a year now. Residencies can be a dangerous thing for a musician: they’ll wear out your crowd quickly. But there was a vocal contingent here tonight that clearly knows his material well, and he rewarded them by playing mostly requests. He cuts a striking figure with his immaculate black suit, porkpie hat and gravelly baritone. Like Kortes, many of his blues and soul-inflected songs have a stinging lyrical edge, including his minor-key opener, Geneva Conventional, a withering broadside about selling out. His best song of the night was St. James Hotel, a catchy, crescendoing tale of a drunk in a Times Square welfare hotel who hopes he’ll fall asleep “before this bottle’s empty.”

The Dog Show brought a small but enthusiastic crowd. Tonight was lead guitarist Jack Martin’s turn to shine. He plays pretty straightforward lead guitar in Knoxville Girls, but in this project he plays with a slide, and tonight saw him doing his best Mick Taylor impression, all scorching leads and wailing excursions to the uppermost reaches of the fretboard, giving a vintage, Stonesy edge to the band’s lyrical, Costello-esque songs. They wailed through the 6/8 blues Diamonds and Broken Glass (with a long guitar solo), the quietly excoriating Saturday Nights Are for Amateurs, the joyous, Latin-inflected Halcyon Days and a ska number called Back to the Mine which the backup singer (the frontman’s wife) punctuated with percussion on a cooking pan.

Douce Gimlet packed the place. They’re a kitchen-sink band: frontman/guitarist Ben Plummer can literally write anything. Tonight they did a mix of silly instrumentals that could be tv show themes, a handful of aching country ballads (Plummer excels at these) and their best song, a haunting janglerock number called Destitute. This band is a magnet for talent: Martin joined them on slide, Dog Show frontman Jerome O’Brien is the bass player, and they have Moisturizer frontwoman Moist Paula Henderson on baritone sax. She and Plummer began and ended the show with a New Orleans-style march on which he joined her on saxophone, walking up to the stage to begin the set, and then, at the end, the two somehow made way to the door through the throngs of people as the rhythm section kept playing onstage. The crowd roared for more but the club wouldn’t let them do an encore.

The Lower East Side bands that play here are a closeknit scene, many of them sharing members. The Scholars’ drummer had already played a tight set with the Dog Show, and held down a slow, smoldering groove with this electric Neil Young-inflected quartet. They had a guest cellist, who played haunting washes that fit in perfectly with this band’s dark, glimmering, rain-drenched Pacific Northwest gothic vibe. Finally, after their set, the crowd started to trickle out and I wasn’t far behind. Steak, which is Jack Grace’s Denver jam band relocated to New York, have a very Little Feat sound: lots of improvisation (Grace is a terrific guitarist who blends country with jazz licks on his big Gibson hollowbody), and the band swings. But they drove me out of the club when the rhythm guitarist started bellowing “Steve McQueen” over and over again while the band turned it up as loud as they could behind him. But all in all, a rewarding evening for anyone (and there were a few) who’d had the stamina (or alcohol tolerance) to stick around for the whole night.

[postscript: Mary Lee’s Corvette continues to record and tour, with a cameo in the film Happy Hour. LJ Murphy’s solo residency at the C-Note ended later that year – since then he’s been recording and playing with his band. The Dog Show hung it up in 2007, although frontman Jerome O’Brien remains active in music. Douce Gimlet broke up in 2002; their frontman died under suspicious circumstances shortly thereafter, although no one was ever charged in his death. Scholars frontman Whiting Tennis still records and will from time to time play a live show with the Scholars, although in recent years his focus has been mainly on his critically acclaimed, hauntingly intense visual art. While Steak is for all intents and purposes defunct, Jack Grace continues to enjoy a successful career as a country bandleader and booking agent]

September 8, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Secretary – Secret Life of Secretary

This is the solo project by Moist Paula Henderson, frontwoman and baritone sax player from New York’s terrific all-instrumental trio Moisturizer (Moist Paula from Moisturizer: get it?). On the album, she plays all the instruments, meaning lots of bari sax, sometimes played through Garageband patches so they sound like other instruments. This could be the soundtrack to a really cool indie film. Let’s make some pizza bagels and watch the movie. Are you down?

The movie’s first scene is South Carolina Holiday. It’s a balmy, beachy day, not a cloud in the sky and not even hungover, listening to some dreamy, ambient sax lines. Suddenly it’s almost 5 in the morning and the scene shifts to a Dominican restaurant: you can almost smell the spices rising in the steam from the rice and beans and fresh chuletas. Mofongo Raincheck, which sounds like a song from Paula’s band, is playing: a catchy, sexy vamp set to a Latin beat with bongos and surprisingly authentic-sounding upright bass patches. It builds to a wild little interlude as a couple of scary-looking, drunk dudes enter the joint but ultimately nothing bad happens.

After the restaurant, suddenly it’s a crowded mini-mall somewhere in the Midwest except that it’s way after it should be closed and the sketchy dudes from the Dominican place are back and suddenly they’re running after somebody. It’s Instant Messenger Dream, bari sax grating through a distortion pedal, disquieting and weird, pairing what’s essentially a classical melody with a heavy metal feel against layers of ambient sax washes.

Just outside the mall at the edge of the parking lot, a girl is looking at her reflection under the lights in a shop window and rehearsing what she’s going to have to say to get Daddy’s Approval. Tastily doubletracked saxes play over weird, out-of-time electronic blips and bleeps.

Suddenly a Mouse appears and moves its mouth. It sounds like low bass synth with someone having fun with the portamento lever, holding down the low notes as attractively thoughtful, upbeat sax flies overhead. It’s Moist Paula the jazzcat. This a long scene, it gives the mouse a chance to go for an Oscar and the sax player to show off her great chops and sense of melody.

Then the New Age Ladies enter. This part of the soundtrack could also be a Moisturizer song if it had a real rhythm section behind it, layers of ambience over a percussion loop, what sounds like string synth and then a cimbalom. Where did that come from. And why are those women on the yoga mats wearing Hungarian capes and have all those rings on their fingers?

Jump cut to the inside of some tourist trap in Chelsea, a mob scene packed with fat old Wall Street guys in fancy suits smoking cigars and hitting on high school girls from central Jersey with big hair and way too much foundation. I guess they call this 10 Sex. One of those obnoxious drum machines is going whoomp whoomp whoomp whoomp. Ugh. Time for a bathroom break. Fast forward to the next scene, would you please?

OK, we’re back. This is where Moisturizer can be seen in the background if you look closely: I’ll bet the girls would love to play this one live. This must be Risk Failure, which starts with a snapping funk bass line, then a super catchy sax melody. When the camera pans to the Vietnamese Restaurant at the corner, the waitresses have all gathered around an older Arab gentleman who’s playing backgammon by himself while the waitresses sway in time and yet more sax hooks kick in over what sounds like gamelan percussion. Then an oud begins to play, the Arab gent gets up and opens his suit coat. Inside there is a leather holster with a spatula inside.

All this is Not It Vain (as opposed to Not In Vain). Right about here the movie gets very 80s. Is that Scott Bakula? He looks exactly like he’s always looked (just like every annoying boss I ever had). Didn’t know he was still acting. There’s a synthesizer, the images speed up early MTV-style, then suddenly slow down. There’s a gorgeously melodic bluesy sax way in the background. Something is going on here, you have to look very closely and suddenly it’s very different, very bleak. Someone has a Decrepit Heart. A dancer enters the frame, swaying sadly to a trip-hop beat, layers of synth chorus singing a sad refrain as she moves all by herself to an imaginary band.

And then the movie is over. The credits roll against a montage of of mountain and riverbank images. A tall, beautiful, raven-haired woman is messing with her cellphone and not hearing anything. Must be No Service in the Poconos. Layers of saxes play against each other, rubato. It’s completely random yet melodic at the same time.

So there you have it, a delightful, utterly surreal sound movie. Sundance, are you listening? This further solidifies Paula Henderson’s reputation not only as a rocker and a frontwoman but also as a bonafide, serious composer with jazz chops and a completely unique sense of humor. It will lift your mood and make you see a lot of things you probably never imagined before. Great album.

May 17, 2007 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Nightcrawling 5/11/07: Basement, Lenny Molotov, Les Chauds Lapins, Moisturizer

The evening began at with happy hour at Lakeside, a reliably good way to kick off the night. The scheduled band had apparently cancelled and had been replaced by a country/rock outfit called Basement who took the stage at 8 instead of the usual 11 PM. They were excellent: two guitars, rhythm section and keyboardist who played mainly organ fills, from what little we got to hear. The lead player, on Telecaster, seems to be more of a rock guy, but he still gave them a shot of adrenaline. The flyer in the club window described them as rockers with a lot of bluegrass and Irish influences: the latter was in evidence, not the former. But there’s only so much you can tell from the first fifteen minutes of a band’s set. They’re definitely worth checking out.

Next stop was Sidewalk, where by the time we arrived Lenny Molotov was already into his 45-minute set. Funny how times change: ten years ago, this place was Dork Central and now it’s one of the more prestigious places to play. Same shitty sound, but it’s become a sane alternative to the Living Room, cheaper and usually pretty much tourist-free. And apparently musicians who want to play there no longer have to subject themselves to waiting ten hours for a 3-song audition in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, subject to the ridicule of the Woody Allen wannabe who’s been booking the place forever.

Molotov (who also fronts the excellent delta blues outfit Elgin Movement, and plays mean lead guitar for Randi Russo) was without his usual collection of effects pedals, so with only the club’s weak PA to amplify his acoustic guitar, the brilliance of his spiky, fingerpicked melodies wasn’t always readily apparent. He played a lot of new material, accompanied by his Elgin Movement sidekick, Jake Engel, on chromatic harp and Karl Meyer on violin. Engel was in a particularly buoyant mood and got a lot of response out of the surprisingly sparse crowd. Molotov’s original songs typically set darkly witty, brilliantly literate, contemporary lyrics to oldschool delta blues melodies, and tonight he played one of his best originals in that vein, possibly titled Hard to be an Outlaw. It’s a bleak, black-humor-driven chronicle about a kid from somewhere sketchy in Brooklyn who a couple of years ago went out to buy some weed, may or may not have been entrapped into starting a fatal shootout with an undercover cop, and ended up blowing his brains out later that night in an ex-girlfriend’s project apartment. Later, Molotov told the audience that he was going to do a number he’d never before played live, and that he’d just found out why everyone else plays it. After working out who was going to take a solo and when, he launched into a fascinating open-tuned arrangement of St. James Infirmary Blues, barely recognizable save for the lyrics. He closed the set with a new original song, Luxury Blues: “You say you don’t have a woman/Well try having two.”

We cut out moments after he left the stage and went east to Banjo Jim’s for about 40 minutes where Les Chauds Lapins were playing. They’re Kurt Hoffmann on banjo uke and clarinet, trading vocals with Roulette Sisters lead guitarist Meg Reichardt, who alternated between guitar and banjo uke as well. They were backed by a rhythm section (bringing in a new upright bass player for the second set, as their first had to leave for another gig), along with violin, cello and Frank London blowing exquisitely balmy muted trumpet on a couple of numbers. Translated literally from the French, Les Chauds Lapins means “the hot rabbits.” What it actually means is “hot mamas.” It can also mean “pains in the ass.” They play vintage French pop from the 20s and 30s, Hoffmann’s urbane tenor playing off of Reichardt’s breathy, sensual vocals. Like the Roulette Sisters, Les Chauds Lapins’ specialty is sex songs, laden with double entendres, sung more or less sans accent Americain, in the language of love. Strange that the place wasn’t packed – sex sells, as everybody knows – plus, the band was playing two whole sets. Their musicianship is superb, and the songs are well-chosen. For decades, in fact until very recently, French assembly-line songwriters from Charles Trenet to Didier Barbelivien had little in common with their American Tin Pan Alley counterparts: in France, even pop songwriting is an art form. Clever lyrics, complex song structures and real artistic achievement abound. Even the much-maligned varietes folk-pop from the 70s frequently has great lyrics. Hoffmann and Reichardt mine the archive for every innuendo they can whisper. Their new cd, which they were hawking tonight, promises to be excellent. But we were off to Luna to see Moisturizer.

The new Luna Lounge (across the street from Black Betty, just off the corner of Metropolitan and Havemeyer in Williamsburg) tries very hard to be likeable and succeeds on most counts. Sizewise, it’s about the same as Bowery Ballroom without the balcony: it’s obvious that the walls and ceiling have been expertly tricked out for sound. The staff and bartenders are uncommonly nice and the drinks aren’t outrageously overpriced. Moisturizer is strictly an instrumental band, so getting the sound right for them should have been a breeze. It wasn’t. Baritone sax player Moist Paula, bassist Moist Gina and their drummer fought magnificently for almost 40 minutes, trying in vain to cut through a relentless, drum-heavy morass of sonic sludge. One has to wonder: was the sound guy stoned? Did they bring in a sub because the regular guy wanted a night off and there was a “local” band playing?

Despite the dodgy sonics, Moisturizer won over the crowd: what a surprise. They’re the closest thing we have these days to the Funk Brothers, who were Motown Records’ studio band throughout the 60s and subject of the terrific documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Moisturizer’s irresistibly fun, danceable tunes had everyone at least swaying in their seats. They gets a lot of ESG comparisons, and that’s not a stretch, although Moisturizer is (pardon the pun) more fluid and a lot more melodic. Frontwoman Moist Paula, who has played with everybody and also has a fine, jazzy side project called Secretary, draws on a lot of influences, from Lonnie Smith go-go to Motown to hip-hop. But her sound is unique and instantly recognizable, always coming back to the melody even if she’s known to take a noisy excursion to the outer reaches of jazz from time to time. Bassist Moist Gina is one of the best in the business, one of the hardest hitters around, a terrifically melodic, imaginative, fluid player (there’s that word again) whose flying runs up and down the scale are adrenalizing to say the least. They’ve been through a succession of drummers lately, but the latest one is working out well.

Moist Paula was the only band member who had a mic, and she didn’t talk to the crowd much: maybe they were trying to pack as much material into the allotted time as they could, an admirable goal if that’s what they were shooting for. Moisturizer has a lot of material (dozens and dozens of songs), all of them “true stories,” as Moist Paula will proudly announce from time to time, and because they don’t announce them frequently it’s hard to tell what they’re called. The Satie-esque, surreal wit of the titles carries over from the title to the music. Among the tunes they played tonight were an uncharacteristically haunting, gorgeously melancholy number about a child who was reunited with his/her mother in the wake of the Indonesia tsunami, as well as the current Moisturizer crowd-pleaser Enactuate Our Love which features a blistering, breathtaking solo from Moist Gina at the end of the song. By then she’d turned off the flange she’d been using through most of the set, giving her propulsive lines a watery, 80s tone.

Everyone’s entitled to an off night: it’s just too bad Moisturizer and their fans came out on the wrong end of this one. Maybe it’s just growing pains at a new venue: by all other standards, the new Luna is actually a welcome addition to Williamsburg. Can you remember the last time you could say that about anything new in the neighborhood? I can’t.

May 13, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments