Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Pre-War Ponies Bring Their Lush, Romantic, Warmly Nocturnal Swing Sounds Back to Barbes

Every time you turn around, another oldtimey swing band pops up somewhere around town. And venues have gotten wise: even grungy old Arlene’s has swing bands now! Ten years ago, who would have thought? One of the most original and distinctive groups in that feverishly followed demimonde is the Pre-War Ponies. Where most 20s hot jazz outfits play lickety-split, uptempo material, the Pre-War Ponies specialize in warmly swinging, mostly midtempo songs anchored by the plush, balmy, disarmingly clear vocals of frontwoman/baritone uke player Daria Grace (a founding member of another iconic New York swing band, the Moonlighters). And while many of the other swing crews in town play the same old standards, the Pre-War Ponies have been known to scour junk shops in search of rare gems from eighty and ninety years ago. They’ve got a fantastic new album, Get Out Under the Moon due out soon and a show on Sept 10 at 10 PM at Barbes. Auspiciously, Pierre de Gaillande (former frontman of brilliant New York art-rockers Melomane, with whom Grace played bass) debuts his new band, Open Kimono to open the night at 8.

The Pre-War Ponies’ Barbes show last month was as pillowy, and romantic, and fun as you could possibly want, enhanced by the erudite wit and groove of polymath latin jazz drummer Willie Martinez. Grace ran her uke through an effects pedal, adding subtle tinges of reverb as well as some psychedelically oscillating timbres on a couple of numbers. J. Walter Hawkes doubled on uke and trombone, alternating between boisterous – and sometimes droll – and comfortable, nocturnal ambience on both instruments. Martinez’s ambling brushwork and artful cymbal work propelled the forthcoming album’s 1928 title trac;, then he gave a lowlit slink to Grace’s subtly moody take of Irving Berlin’s Say It Isn’t So as Hawkes added shadowy resonance.

They played what’s more or less their signature song, Moon Over Brooklyn – a onetime Guy Lombardo recording – early in the set. Other than the Flatbush Avenue reference, it could be set pretty much anywhere, but as Grace sang it, it had a coyly strolling charm that was impossible to resist. From there they picked up the pace with a jaunty take of Fats Waller’s How Can You Face Me with Hawkes’ trombone front and center. Then they went back toward bittersweet territory as Grace’s expansive chords anchored a brooding shuffle take of The Lamp Is Low, a showcase for Martinez at his most articulate and expressive.

You wouldn’t think a band could raise the energy level with a suicide song, but that’s what they did, with a bouncy take of Jimmie Noone’s 1920s hit Ready for the River. Amapola, a tongue-in-cheek cha-cha shout-ou to a pretty little poppy (you do the math) was another springboard for Martinez’s spring-loaded subtlety behind the kit, Hawkes adding foghorn trombone ambience. Al Dubin and Harrry Warren’s risque swing tune Pettin’ in the Park bore a mysterious resemblance to Walking in a Winter Wonderland, with a pulsing Ian Riggs bass solo midway through. Hawkes’ eyeball-rolling muted trombone solo took centerstage in the Boswell Sisters’ Got the South in My Soul to wind up the band’s first set. The crowd responded warmly: it was date night, lots of couples, from their 20s to older Slopers out for a romantic evening in Barbes’ cozy back room. That’s probably the biggest reason behind the unwavering popularity of the stuff the Pre-War Ponies play.

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September 3, 2015 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Pre-War Ponies Summon the Ghosts of Old New York

Last night at Rodeo Bar the Pre-War Ponies played an irresistible, unselfconsciously romantic mix of obscure swing tunes. Frontwoman Daria Grace leads this unit when she isn’t playing bass in her husband’s Jack’s excellent country band, or in recently semi-resurrected art-rockers Melomane, which doesn’t give her a lot of time – this crew basically plays the Rodeo and Barbes and that’s about it. But her Rodeo gig has been a monthly residency for awhile now, and it’s one of New York’s obscure treasures – just like her repertoire. The songs she likes best are clever, urbane, and catchy, ranging from quirky to downright bizarre. Her voice is stunning, pure and clear but also a little misty, the perfect vehicle for tales of heartbreak and longing and hope against hope that everything will work out in the end. This time out she was backed by a rhythm section along with J. Walter Hawkes doubling on trombone and ukelele, and Mike Neer on acoustic lead guitar.

The best song of the night was a blithe suicide song from 1928, Ready for the River, by Gus Kahn and Neil Moret. “Gonna leave just a bubble to indicate what used to be me,” Grace sang with a carefree nonchalance as the band bounced along behind her. “Gonna keep walking til my straw hat floats.” Her version of Two Sleepy People, a Frank Loesser/Hoagy Carmichael hit from 1938, perfectly captured the hazy endorphin bliss of a couple who’ve run out of things to say (or brainpower to say them with) but can’t tear themselves away from each other.

The band’s second set of the night was both fetching and fun. Grace came off the stage to redistribute the bar’s supply of peanuts since a friend of hers needed a refill. Then Hawkes noticed that someone had left a guitar pick in the nose of the bison head to the right of the stage. “Probably your husband,” he told Grace.

“Probably was,” she sighed. She looked at the pick. “Nope. Not his brand.” And then picked up her baritone uke and launched into a tribute to every ukelele song ever written. She brought a distantly smoky charm to Connee Boswell’s All I Can Do Is Dream of You, Irving Berlin’s 1925 hit Remember, and later an understatedly plaintive version of It’s the Talk of the Town. The bouncy, shuffling lament Say It Isn’t So was a launching pad for a rocket of a solo by Neer that leveled off the second time through the verse, followed by a droll muted trombone solo by Hawkes that managed to be completely period-perfect and over-the-top yet poignant all at the same time. The torchy Take My Heart got a buoyant solo from Hawkes followed by more edgy incisiveness from Neer. On the innuendo-driven I Want a Buddy, Not a Sweetheart, Neer punched through the best solo of the night, a rapidfire series of chords with an Asian tinge, as if he was playing a koto. They also did a slinky, gypsy jazz version of Cole Porter’s Primitive Man, from the 1929 film Fifteen Million Frenchmen.

The 1947 tune Brooklyn Love Song has “hey” at the end of pretty much every phrase. Grace lost the second page of her sheet music, so she had to come up with some new lyrics: “Everything happens for a reason. Hey!” Hawkes finally found the missing page; without missing a beat, they jumped back in and wound it up as jauntily as it began.

November 23, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment