Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Erica Smith Brings Her Poignant, Spectacular Voice and Eclectically Shattering Songs to the East Village

Erica Smith is one of New York’s most distinctive and often harrowing voices in folk noir and Americana. But even in this city, Smith’s ability to shift effortlessly from style to style is pretty spectacular. In addition to performing her own music, she’s currently a member of both the Richard Thompson cover group the Shootout Band – in which she puts her own stamp on Linda Thompson’s vocals – and also the explosive gospel-rock band Lizzie and the Sinners. Smith can belt a blues ballad or deliver a plaintive Appalachian narrative with anyone. And she’s also a versatile jazz stylist. Her latest album, a jazz recording with her band the 99 Cent Dreams, is One for My Baby, streaming at Spotify. She’s got a gig coming up on an excellent twinbill at Hifi Bar on May 10 at 7:30 PM; similarly lyrical and somewhat sunnier Americana singer Rebecca Turner follows at around 8:30 PM.

There’s a tragic backstory here: as it turned out, this was the final recording by the great New York drummer Dave Campbell. Perhaps best known for his serpentine, turn-on-a-dime work with psychedelic rock band Love Camp 7, Campbell was also a terrific swing jazz player with a flair for Brazilian grooves, which comes across vividly on the more upbeat tunes here. This is a collection of counterintuitive versions of standards recorded with rock band instrumentation – electric guitar, bass, drums and Leif Arntzen’s soulful muted trumpet on two numbers – along with an obscure treasure by one of this era’s great lit-rock songwriters. It opens with The Very Thought of You, where Smith distinguishes her version from the famous Billie Holliday take with her inscrutable delivery, growing more playfully optimistic as she goes along. Guitarist Dann Baker (also of Love Camp 7) mashes up Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery as he follows Smith’s emotional trajectory.

Interestingly, there are a couple of songs commonly associated with Sinatra here. Smith does I Could Write a Book as ebullient, optimistic swing: the song feels like it’s about jump out of its shoes, but Smith holds it in check over a slightly ahead-of-the-beat bassline And she does the title track a tad faster than the Ol’ Blue Eyes original, echoing the bartender’s desire to call it a night as much as the wee-hours angst of the lyrics, Baker with her every step of the way through an alternately woozy and vividly brooding interpretation.

She does Rodgers and Hart’s It Never Entered My Mind as lingering, noir-tinged torch jazz, Baker’s gracefully stately chordal ballet in tandem with Campbell’s tersely slinky 6/8 groove. Smith’s careful, minutely jeweled, woundedly expressive vocals mine every ounce of ironic, biting subtext in the lyrics. Ain’t Misbehavin’ gets a hushed low-key swing treatment that builds to coyly nonchalant optimism, Arntzen’s trumpet following suit.

Campbell’s artfully acrobatic tumble opens Everything I’ve Got as an altered bossa before the band swings it by the tail, Smith leading the group on a long upward trajectory that far outpaces the Blossom Dearie original. The album’s most shattering track is a desolate, rainswept take of Cry Me a River, Baker shifting Kessel’s lingering lines further into the shadows over Campbell’s low-key, sepulchrally minimalistic brushwork. The band does the first recorded version of Livia Hoffman’s Valentine as a slow swing tune: “What are childhood crushes for? For crushing all your dreams forevermore,” Smith intones in a knowing, wounded mezzo-soprano. The album winds up with a wryly good-naturedly suspenseful, rainforest-swing solo take of Campbell’s drums on Everything I’ve Got: just wait til the hip-hop nation finds out that this exists. Throughout the record, Smith’s disarmingly direct, imaginative, emotionally vivid phrasing breathes new life into songs that other singers sometimes phone in, reason alone to give this a spin if classic jazz is your thing.

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May 8, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Edgy Songwriters Bare Their Fangs at the Parkside

Songwriters in the round. No, wait, don’t click off the page, it was like that but it wasn’t. From the first few seconds of the night, the three women onstage at the Parkside on Thursday made it clear that this would not be a G-rated evening of terminally pretty voices singing terminally pretty songs. Given a chance to not only sing but also discuss their material at length, Rebecca Turner, Paula Carino and Erica Smith vented about the thankless side of their profession: clueless audiences, backhanded compliments, and the sheer expense of it all. Why do they do it? Because they can’t imagine not doing it – which was encouraging to hear. Carino is a wordsmith who can’t resist a catchy hook. Turner is a specialist, one of the finest, most indelibly original voices in Americana rock; Smith, the star of Beefstock 2010, is the eclectic one: she can write anything. Asked to explain how it feels to be a performer, Carino responded that it was much like police work: “Hours of boredom, moments of sheer terror.” Smith saved her derision for clueless listeners, the kind of morons who say things like “That’s a pretty song – who wrote it?” Turner explained that she’d come to grips with dumb crowds, especially since she’s been playing more covers at a lot of New Jersey gigs lately (she hastened to add that there’s also a considerable audience for quality original music there). Here on their home turf, the four fed off each others’ energy and banter and turned in a fascinating show.

Solo on electric guitar, Carino jangled her way through a bunch of rare gems that she seldom plays live: Readers Digest, which uses bulimia as a metaphor for a host of other ills; the angst-ridden existentialist lament Waiting for You (“Then the river froze and I started skating/Of course I’d rather swim but I’m tired of waiting”), and Sensitive Skin, a metaphorically loaded “public service announcement for people not to get involved with people who are too sensitive.” She explained that she’d changed the gender of the song’s central character to a woman: if the guy with the bathroom full of extra-sensitive formula lotions knows it, he’s undoubtedly grateful she did.

The night’s most exhilarating vocal moment belonged, unsurprisingly, to Turner. As the third verse of her big crowd-pleaser Tough Crowd (a little irony there) kicked in, she took it up as far as she could, which is a long way. She’d explained how each of the verses tackles a different subject: friends, then family, then an audience, deftly linking how absurd it can be to try to communicate with any of them sometimes. As warmly memorable as her melodies are, there’s also usually an undercurrent of unease, most strikingly apparent on Knocks, a chronicle of a trip to Maine circa 2004: “Go on, grey sky, open up,” she sang, as much a dare as resignation to an unwanted fate.

Smith pulled out a lot of new material: she’s never written better. “I lost my job and wanted to write a song about how good freedom is,” she explained defiantly and then launched into a catchy Americana-pop number: “If you’re lucky you’ll never work again in this town.” The last verse of another new one, River King, she explained, came to her in a dream, ostensibly written by Adam Cooper and her lead guitarist, Dann Baker. For whatever reason, that’s where central character, on vacation and miserable, gets dressed up in her lacy things and goes down to the waterfront bar. She clarified that it’s probably the last thing either of those two would ever be likely to write. And another new one, a garage rock number, turned out to be a bittersweet but encouraging tribute to enduring friendships – that’s why acoustic shows can be so interesting sometimes, since the lyrics are audible. Watch this space for future shows by these artists, very possibly as a trio again.

August 1, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beefstock 2010 Day Two

Day One of Beefstock 2010 is covered here. Day Two began early in the afternoon with Peter Pierce and his jangly, two-guitar band, sounding like a tuneful cross between the Silos and Neil Young. They did a darkly clanging outlaw ballad early on, a couple of comfortably expansive, jangly paisley underground style tunes and some riff-rock featuring one of the festival’s hardest-working players, Ross Bonadonna on sax.

Erica Smith was next on the bill, but she was asleep, having been knocked cold by a morning yoga session with Paula Carino. Finally roused, she alluded onstage to still feeling the effects, but whatever other world she’d been in, she brought some of it with her in a brief but absolutely devastating solo set. With an otherworldly lushness added to a voice already steeped in an evocative brew of just about every emotion possible (especially the sad ones), she was the highlight of the festival, opening with an acoustic version of Firefly, an impossibly catchy, sunny pop hit on album but in this context bittersweet and plaintive. A new song, the vividly brooding vacation scenario River King, rivalled the Church’s classic Bel Air, its wounded narrator drifting defiantly down to the local watering hole in all her finery when the guys wouln’t let her sit in with them and sing. The song had come to her in a dream, she explained, ostensibly written by Adam Cooper and her bandmate Dann Baker; the joke is that the song sounds like nothing either one of them would probably ever come up with. She closed with a swaying yet intense version of her bossa nova-pop hit Tonight, an old folk song that she did a-capella and got lost in, taking the crowd with her, and a shattering version of the towering, anguished country anthem The World Is Full of Pretty Girls, from her classic 2008 album Snowblind.

This is where we dropped out – being part of the blogosphere requires a far closer-than-ideal umbilical cord to the web, especially in a place sans cellphone reception like this. So we missed Clancy’s Ghost and probably others but managed to get back in time for Rebecca Turner, her rustic, maple sugar voice, first-rate rhythm section, charming Americana-pop songs and Josh Roy Brown playing characteristically spine-tingling lapsteel. Turner swung her way through the ridiculously catchy, metaphorically charged Tough Crowd, a little later her signature anthem Brooklyn – probably the only song ever to namecheck McCarren Pool – and simultaneously indulged her Linda Ronstadt and Neil Young fixations with a rousing version of Love Is a Rose. She bookended these around a short set by Brown featuring a fiery, hypnotic open-tuned blues number.

Paula Carino, the hands-down star of Beefstock 2009 has a new yoga book coming out. Leading a session in the morning may have knocked the crowd out but it energized her. Carino’s new cd Open on Sunday looks like a lock for best album of 2010; like last year (hell, like always), this was Carino the hookmeister. Having the cd around is pretty cool: turns out that the ridiculously catchy new wave riff-rock of Mother I Must Go to Maxwell’s has an angst-driven undercurrent. Having Ross Bonadonna on lead guitar is just as cool. He’d spend much of the night onstage: his role in this band is lead guitar powerhouse, whether firing off a snarling Wes Montgomery-gone-to-Brixton solo on the indelibly catchy, dark Great Depression or a sarcastically animalian carnival of riffs on the snide Rough Guide. Carino debuted a punchy new one, Three Legged Race; she also went back into the archive and delivered the metaphorically loaded Venus Records with her best mentholated purr. A little later on, she brought the show to a peak when she kicked off a crescendoing version of Paleoclimatology with just her Strat and velvet vocals for a couple of bars. “Just let it go, that ancient snow, that wrecked Tyrannosaurus,” she intoned as the song took the intensity up into the rafters.

The Larch had a tough act to follow and they delivered. Bonadonna was on bass this time – a great lead guitarist playing a four-string is a treat (Marty Willson-Piper of the Church, on the occasions he does it, is a good comparison). Frontman Ian Roure has never written better – their seventh (count ’em) album, Larix Americana is coming out on May 22 (the cd release show is at the Parkside) and could well be their best if this show was any indication. Roure’s best known as a songwriter, these days sort of a missing link between Ray Davies and Robyn Hitchcock but as a guitarist he can shred with anybody and this was a shred-a-thon. Blending his wah-wah pedal with a watery chorus box effect, he blasted through one brief, maybe eight-bar, supersonic solo after another. Those catchy new wave-ish songs didn’t leave much room for stretching out, from the bouncy, Costelloesque powerpop of the Strawberry Coast, the funky, Taxman-ish In the Name Of or one of the best songs of the whole festival, the resolute anthem With Love from Region One. Roure explained beforehand that it’s his indelibly British tribute to all good things American: “People don’t realize that it’s not all Disney and McDonald’s here.” He mixed his tones for the longest and most savage solo of the night as Bonadonna ground out one boomy chord after another at the end.

Solar Punch were next, playing cheery, sunny, Grateful Dead-inspired songs on a small side stage since they’re a solar-powered band: lead guitarist Alan Bigelow had charged a battery with solar panels on the ride up from Manhattan, which gave them enough juice for a full 40-minute set with two electric guitars, bass, vocal mics and (one assumes) unamplified drums. Bigelow played through a piano patch on several of the songs; their best one was a boomy, hypnotic Indian-influenced psychedelic number most likely inspired by the group’s tour of that country a year ago. Plastic Beef’s Andy Mattina held down the bass chair as he would later with Paula Carino and others.

Brute Force was a trip, plain and simple. Seeing the singer/pianist and his band was a time warp back to the Summer of Love, because Brute was there, and soon thereafter would be signed to Apple Records. Copies of his signature song, the underground comedy rock hit The King of Fuh (he was the Fuh King – get it?) are prized on the collector market. They closed with that song, a tongue-in-cheek swipe at the censors that comes across as a lot tamer in the age of gangsta rap than it did then. Brute Force’s songs foreshadowed what Ragni and Rado would do with their musical Hair – anthemic and theatrical, often seemingly completely guileless, they also have a social conscience, topics ranging from a simple antiwar number to his famous Pledge of Allegiance to the Universe to a more anguished, newer one about global warming.

A completely different stripe of pianist/bandleader, Tom Warnick and World’s Fair brought the thunder after the sunshine. With just the hint of an evil grin, he and his now four-piece backing unit (featuring both John Sharples and Bonadonna, again on lead guitar, turning in his some of his most intense salvos of the night) romped and then raced through a noir-tinged, soul-inflected set including a lickety-split, Ramones-ish version of the Jersey Turnpike nightmare scenario How Do You Get to Ho-Ho-Kus, a ska-punk singalong, a Stax/Volt style soul jump and some wickedly catchy pop. They wrapped up the set with a particularly ecstatic version of what has become a sort of signature song for the band, Keep Me Movin’. The band was tight; despite the late hour, the bass player appeared sober – although jumping all over the stage and trying to steal the spotlight from a frontguy like Warnick doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Erica Smith may have turned in the most intense single set of the evening, but the best song of the night was delivered by her husband, John Sharples and his band. Taking his vocals down, down into the murky depths of his register, he and the band (Bonadonna up there yet again on lead guitar) made their way ominously through a spine-tingling, bluesily noir version of a pensive 6/8 Warnick ballad, The Impostor. Bonnadonna used it as a springboard for the most dazzling display of speed of the whole night, a firestorm of staccato madness that perfectly matched the Kafkaesque lyric. With Smith on harmony vocals, they stampeded through an inspired cover of Chinatown by the Move, a ferocious blast of powerpop with When Amy Says by Blow This Nightclub, a couple of pensive ballads where Sharples moved to piano, and a medley that uncovered the Thin Lizzy hidden inside Paula Carino’s tongue-in-cheek Robots Helping Robots.

The Nopar King is the latest incarnation of Plastic Beef, and the tightest one yet. By now the crowd was finally dancing as the band passed around percussion instruments to random drunks, some who still had their timing, some who didn’t. Drummer Joe Filosa and new (relatively new, anyway) singer Diane O’Connell traded soulful vocals as they made their way through some funky originals and a couple of covers. Billy from Norhmal joined them a little later on and brought the energy level up even higher. They wrapped up the set with a deliriously stretched-out version of their signature song, the latin-disco-jamband number The Pyramid Club, a wistful look back at a better time and place where a band could shuttle back and forth between that place and A7 up the block.

All-female trio Out of Order were the best conceivable headliner the festival could have had. With their ridiculously catchy postpunk songs, they’re part new wave throwbacks, part no wave (their guitarist is a monster noiserock player) and part straight up punk. They managed to keep a crowd who’d either been playing all day, drinking all day or both either completely rapt or on their feet and dancing (well, at least stumbling) throughout their almost hourlong set. As John Sharples observed, one of the cool things about this band is that not only do the songs disregard any kind of conventional verse/chorus structure, the melody weaves back and forth between the bass and the guitar just as unexpectedly. The guitarist’s chirpy, defiant vocal riffs punched and swung overhead as the drummer mauled her kit, whether hammering out a precise hardcore beat, a mammoth metal stomp or more energetic, intricate patterns. They roared and skittered through a couple of eerie ones fueled by chromatic riffs, a couple that reminded of the Slits, a couple of others that evoked the early B-52s but with balls. That a band this smart, fun and goodlooking (no intention to be sexist here, but they dress to kill when they hit the stage) isn’t famous says more about the state of the music business in 2010 than pretty much anything else could.

There was a jam afterward. Most of the people had cleared out by then; memory seems to indicate that they did Twist and Shout at some point and considering how the day’s overindulgence had by now become wretched excess, they probably shouldn’t have. Special shout-out to spoken-word artist Eric Mattina, whose wise, lucid, understated poem earlier in the evening spoke more eloquently about the perils of gentrification than any prose ever could: as Mattina asked, have you ever been happy in a bank?

There are multi-band extravaganzas this good in New York City – if the Gypsy Tabor Festival comes back to Brooklyn again, there’s a place where you can also see nine or ten first-class acts one after another. The annual all-day Main Squeeze Accordion Festival is the same way. The Brooklyn What often find a way to get three or four other similarly minded, kick-ass rock bands on the same stage on the same night. And then there’s always Make Music NY on June 21. But Beefstock 2010 was about as good as it gets.

April 16, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Concert Review: Rebecca Turner at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 2/9/10

Tuesday night Banjo Jim’s still didn’t have its liquor license back (it does now), but the bar was covered in homemade goodies. Lemon snickerdoodles, chocolate cayenne cookies and a peanut butter cheesecake induced an instant sugar buzz. And there was also Rebecca Turner, a whole lot of catchy Americana songs, an excellent band and her exquisite voice. There are tens of thousands of women with good voices out there: Turner’s is something special, warm and crystalline without being saccharine, moving toward and then away from a Nashville twang depending on how hard the song rocked. With Skip Krevens on pedal steel, John Pinamonti on twelve-string guitar, Scott Anthony on bass, a new drummer and Sue Raffman soaring on harmony vocals for about half the set, she held a tough crowd (most of them actually big fans) silent and bordering on spellbound for the better part of an hour.

She stayed pretty much in major keys, playing mostly newer material from her most recent album Slowpokes. Turner’s turns of phrase are subtle and understated, sometimes wryly funny, often vividly aphoristic. Her hooks are just the opposite: the tunes get in your face, linger in your mind, notably the insanely catchy, metaphorically Tough Crowd with its delicious, syncopated riffs that slammed out into one of her most memorable choruses. It’s a good song on record; it’s amazing live. She’d opened with Listen, a contemplatively jangly country-pop number about intuition (Turner is a reliable source) that would be perfectly at home in the Laura Cantrell songbook, right down to the hushed, gently twangy nuance of the vocals. The Way She Is Now picked up the pace, a swinging, upbeat country-rock song sweetened with swells from the pedal steel. The Byrds-inflected Insane Moon gave Pinamonti the spotlight – his chiming twelve-string style is competely original, more of a incisive lead guitar approach (think Roger McGuinn on Eight Miles High instead of Turn Turn Turn).

Then she did Brooklyn. It’s one of the great Gotham songs, not just because it’s catchy but because it has so much depth. To paraphrase Turner, Brooklyn is so big because it has to deal with so much bullshit and yet so much transcendence: credit goes to the people who live there. She wrapped up the set with Baby You’ve Been on My Mind, the opening cut on Linda Ronstadt’s first album, where she admitted to finding out only later that Dylan had written it. With a gentle insistence, she made it her own, matter-of-factly warm rather than straight-up come-on. She’s back at Banjo Jim’s on 2/21 at 8:30 as part of ex-Monicat Monica “L’il Mo” Passin’s reliably good Americana night.

Erica Smith and the 99 Cent Dreams followed on the bill with their first New York show in awhile, a relatively brief set of jazz standards. Smith’s equally nuanced stylings moved from Julie London somber (Cry Me a River) to unselfconscious Ella Fitzgerald joy (Everything I’ve Got) to a deadpan version of One for My Baby, lead guitarist Dann Baker going back in time for a vintage 50s vibe while drummer Dave Campbell swung casually with the occasional Elvin Jones flourish or Brazilian riff.

February 12, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment