Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Smallz and Dwight & Nicole Live at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 1/24/08

The game plan was high-concept:  to review two New York sirens at the absolute peak of their powers. But like so many high concepts it backfired, courtesy of a lack of contingency for late trains, and the fact that Amanda Thorpe had started her solo set on time and didn’t play for very long. At the end, she indulged the audience with a request, the title track to her new cd Songs from Union Square – which you’ll be reading about, very soon – and held the audience in the palm of her hand, as usual. She hadn’t rehearsed the song for this show, and when she came to the chorus, she stopped playing and did it a-capella. Just hearing that soaring, starkly emotional voice by itself made the whole ordeal of getting to the club worthwhile.

Keyboardist/singer Greta Gertler’s new band the Smallz (which may be a shortlived name, considering that Edmonton punks the Smalls are something of a legend in the Great White North) was next. Gertler – whose song Edible Restaurant, the title track to her new cd, was NPR’s song of the day last week – is nothing if not imaginative, and this unit is clearly her fun project. It gives her a chance to be as devious as she can be, which is extremely. Sharing the stage were Groove Collective bassist Jonathan Maron, who plays his instrument like a great lead guitarist, and multi-instrumentalist Rob DiPietro who doubled on drums and guitar, sometimes playing both at once, guitar in hand and foot on his kick pedal. Maron stole the show tonight with several solos, one which ran for about five minutes during an instrumental late in the set, filled with chords, bent notes and finally a searing, incisive run where he hit his octave and distortion pedals to perfectly recreate a guitar sound. From what they played tonight, DiPietro’s thing appears to be ruminative, slightly jazz-tinged pop songs (which he played on guitar). With tongue planted firmly in cheek and a frequent smirk on her face, Gertler was clearly reveling in the chance to go wild with her space echo effect and play some real funk, neither of which she gets to do much in her regular band, which has been off on a terrifically authentic oldtimey tangent lately. They closed with a delightful number driven by Gertler octaves which could have been a spot-on parody of early 80s synth new wave, or it could have been an actual hit from the era: imagine Kim Wilde’s Kids in America with some actual substance and a real long, psychedelic outro. Maron went up and down on his octave pedal for a siren effect at the end. Shows like this bring back fond memories of the days when there was a pot dealer on every corner of Avenue C, from Houston up to 14th. With this band, there was no need for drugs: they were the drug. Let’s hope they keep this unit together and find a name that sticks.

Add Dwight & Nicole to your list of must-see acts: if you like real, passionate, old-fashioned soul music that works on your mind as much as your heart, you owe it to yourself to discover them. The obvious comparison is Ike & Tina Turner, but beyond the fact that the duo is a brilliant guitarist and equally brilliant soul singer, it doesn’t go any further than that. Tastefully and subtly fingerpicking his Gibson Flying V guitar, Dwight Ritcher showed off his impeccable, purist feel for vintage soul and blues, which Nelson shares. With a voice like maple sugar, sweet but crystal clear, her subtle phrasing reveals her jazz background. Their myspace page likens them to Ella and Jimmy Rushing: it would be interesting to hear them dive into that repertoire (they have a Blue Note show coming up in the spring – why not?). Dimes to dollars they’ll nail it. Tonight they played an absolutely riveting set of mostly originals. Their best song of the night, Johnny Gets High – basically a one-chord vamp that sounded straight out of the Bill Withers songbook – slowly built tension until an explosion of gorgeous harmonies on the verse, chronicling the tribulations of a guy who wants to keep his life together but can’t resist the pipe, or the needle, or whatever it is he does. A little later they did a completely unselfconsciously romantic take on the old Slim Harpo classic Hip Shake, Ritcher’s nimble, walking bass contrasting with Nelson’s warm, summery Sunday afternoon vocals. Nelson’s tribute to her grandmother, an impatient soul who just wanted to get off Staten Island and get away, was a honeyed, straight-up pop song. They closed with another original that evoked Little Wing, Nelson crooning over Ritcher’s gentle, sparsely Hendrixian chordal work. The two were followed by Gary Wright, who thankfully didn’t do Dream Weaver (sorry, Gary, we know you hear this all the time). Of course, it wasn’t the Spooky Tooth guy: this Wright is infinitely better, a lefty guitarist who contributed tasty blues licks on a Dwight and Nicole song and later did a set of his own, solo, eventually running through a long cover of what is arguably Bob Marley’s best song, Burning and Looting, a spot-on critique of how the persecuted beat up on each other rather than taking out their frustrations on those who persecute them. Ritcher played piano on that one, revealing that roots reggae is possibly the only style of music he doesn’t know like the back of his hand. Dwight & Nicole will be at Banjo Jim’s starting around 9 every Thursday, giving them a chance to build up the fan base here that they so much deserve.

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January 26, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Serena Jost at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 12/21/07

Arguably the best show we’ve ever seen her do. We’ve given Serena Jost a lot of space here this year, because she’s earned it. A cellist by trade, she did a long stretch in Rasputina before hanging out her own shingle. Tonight she started out on acoustic guitar, then switching to piano, then to cello and so forth. The songs in the set, a mix of new material and stuff from a long-overdue full-length cd were a richly melodic grab-bag of styles, from jazz to chamber-rock, with bits of gospel and surf music added for extra spice. Jost’s work is very intricate and very playful, and it was clear that the band of Julian Maile on reverb-drenched Fender guitar, Rob Jost (no relation) on upright bass and Rob DiPietro on drums were having a great time up there (after a crowd of fans, the bartender and another great songwriter each took a turn at the sound board, trying to get it working properly – the sound is always hit and miss here).

One accident of having dodgy sound was that it forced Jost to run her acoustic through the club’s little Peavey amp which was turned up to where it was about to break up into distortion. How fortuitous that was: suddenly the songs had a grit and a growl they’d never had before, and they liked it! One of the highlights of the night was the bouncy, irresistibly catchy piano pop hit Vertical World, which as it turns out may be about how New York is changing for the worse – Jost’s lyrics are very subtle, so it’s hard to tell – but at the end of the second verse, she ends up sardonically grinning, “here I am, in Krispy Kreme!” Another tune, I Wait, is something of a mini-epic that turns into a surf instrumental about halfway through. Maile played a mix of finely refined skronk and classic Ventures licks, ending his solo with some fast tremolo picking a la Dick Dale. Serena Jost jumped in and continued the solo, playing the same lick staccato on cello and the effect was mouth-watering. Her almost-namesake on bass (whose name is pronounced with a J instead of a Y) played sinuous, fast fills, sneaking in effortlessly to make a contribution to the melody whenever he had the chance. DiPietro felt the room perfectly and didn’t hit too hard, although he had plenty of opportunities to contribute to the songs’ crescendos and nailed all of them. It’s always more fun when the band themselves are clearly having a good time: tonight was a prime example. Serena Jost is doing a cd release show early next year, watch this space for details.

December 22, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nightcrawling 8/17/07

The evening started at Barbes. If you’re thinking of hitting this cozy little Park Slope, Brooklyn backroom, take heed of the warning that reliably pops up on the weekly music calendar page here wherever there’s a Barbes listing: you simply have to get here way early. This Francophilic little joint is far too small for the acts they book, a sad testament to the state of the New York music scene: so many excellent acts pack this place week after week because they have enough of a following to sell out little Barbes but not enough to take it to the next level. A violinist was onstage when we arrived, and what was quietly wafting from behind the curtain sounded intriguing. But it was literally impossible to get inside.

Afterward, some of the crowd cleared out and former Rasputina multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost took the stage. Alternating between acoustic guitar, cello and piano, she and her inspired backing trio played a delightfully captivating set of hook-driven art-rock. The fun these players have onstage is contagious: drummer Rob DiPietro got his ride cymbal to make a big WHOOOSH with his brushes while guitarist Julian Maile punctuated the melodies with incisive, punchy, reverby fills from his Gibson SG. Upright bassist Rob Jost came close to stealing the show with his melodic, fluid playing, using a bow for some haunting cello-like tones when he wasn’t pushing the songs along with sinuous riffs and climbs. Although he and the frontwoman share the same last name – what’s the likelihood? – they pronounce it differently, she like the Milwaukee Brewers manager, he with a hard “j” as in journey.

Serena Jost writes cerebral, counterintuitive, incredibly catchy songs. Her vocals have a melancholy, sometimes dreamy feel, but the music is pure fun. She likes syncopation, bridges that appear seemingly out of nowhere and the occasional odd time signature. She’s been compared to Jeff Lynne here, and that’s accurate in the sense that she seamlessly merges classical and pop melodies. One of tonight’s best songs, Vertical World began with a slow, gospel crescendo at the beginning, just this side of sarcastic, morphing into a ridiculously catchy, bouncy piano-driven hit. I Wait, which came toward the end of the set also built slowly on the intro to a slinky snakecharmer melody, Maile taking a long, thoughtful solo, part surf and part skronk, like what Marc Ribot might sound like if he didn’t overintellectualize everything. Throughout the night, subtle interplay between the musicians abounded.

Serena Jost joked about people seeing her on the street with her cello case and calling her Yo-Yo Ma, or, “Pablo Casals for all you old school people.” It was that kind of crowd: most of her audience seems to be her peers, A-list New York rockers, by nature a pretty tough and critical bunch, and tonight she held them in the palm of her hand.

“You know what Pablo Casals said when he broke his hand mountain climbing?” Rob Jost asked the crowd. “Good. That means I don’t have to practice anymore.”

The East Village was our next stop, so it made sense to kill some time at Lakeside. Nice to be able to get a seat there on a Friday night (imagine doing that five years ago: impossible), but it was disheartening to see such a sparse crowd, even if it was mostly suburban tourists from the adjoining states. Goes to show that most real New Yorkers have given up on going out on the weekends anymore. The surf band Mr. Action and the Boss Guitars were playing, a whole lot tighter than they were last time we caught them here. According to the Northeast Surf Music Alliance, there are about sixty surf bands just in the Northeast alone: add the Eastern Seaboard, Florida and California and suddenly it becomes clear that twangy, mariachi- and Middle Eastern-inflected instrumental rock is probably bigger now than it was in the 60s. This band is the former Supertones rhythm section (Mr. Action is the drummer, “Long Island’s answer to Mel Taylor,” as the bassist called him) plus those two boss guitars. They all wear matching uniforms and if they have their act together, they probably make a fortune playing weddings and corporate year-end functions. But they’re also self-aware: “Continuing in the 1967 bar mitzvah vein,” the bassist joked as they launched into yet another instro version of a 60s pop hit. They did that for the first half of the show, and just as the early Beach Boys and Beatles tunes and stuff like It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To were starting to get old, they did a spot-on version of the obscure Ventures classic Ginza Lights, which was at one time the alltime bestselling single in Japan. Surf music fans are a notoriously obsessive bunch, and the crowd was clearly gassed: the Ventures virtually never play that song live, and until the days of file sharing it was extremely hard to find.

Then the band played Pipeline, and even if their version didn’t have the beautiful electric piano of the Chantays’ original, or the menace of the Agent Orange version or the evil cocaine intensity of the Heartbreakers’ cover (did I say something about how people become completely obsessed with this stuff?), it’s such a great song that pretty much anybody can play it and it still sounds good. They also did the requisite Wipeout, and I found myself wishing I’d picked up that live Surfaris album I saw in my favorite used record store a couple of months ago.

Then it was over to Banjo Jim’s to see Susan Mitchell play violin with Mark Sinnis’ trio. Sinnis is the frontman in Ninth House, who’ve received a lot of ink here lately. Although that band has gone further in the Nashville gothic direction that characterizes Sinnis’ solo work, they still have a 80s Joy Division/Cure/Psychedelic Furs feel. This unit, by contrast, plays what are basically country songs with a darkly bluesy feel. Mitchell, formerly with Kundera and currently playing in a number of good projects, is one of the most gripping soloists in New York: when she gets her swooping, sliding gypsy sound going, she is incredible. Tonight’s show, by contrast, was about interplay between her smooth legato lines and the biting, bluesy ferocity of Sinnis’ new guitarist the Anti-Dave (who also plays in Vulgaras). Sinnis gave the songs a heavy chassis with his ominous baritone voice and acoustic guitar, and his two soloists fleshed out the body, like an old black Cadillac filled with moonshine barreling down a back road somewhere near the Canadian border, its running boards whipping against the weeds and grass alongside the road. The best songs of the night were Sinnis’ original Mistaken for Love, with its brutal lyric and surprise cold ending; a new, slow shuffle with a 50s rockabilly feel, the drunk driving anthem Follow the Line with its fiery electric guitar, and the closer, a stark, surprisingly effective cover of the Sisters of Mercy song Nine While Nine that ended on an incredibly intense, haunting note as the electric guitar played half of the song’s eerie, reverberating central hook. After that, we closed down a couple of bars, watching crowds of tourists slowly stumble back to their stretch limos while we made sure the most inebriated among us didn’t lose their stuff. The sun came up as I made my way down Avenue A, the surprising chill of the early-morning air a final treat to cap off the kind of great night that only a few years ago could happen pretty much randomly at any time, but these days, all too seldom.

Maybe once oil really starts to run out and the peasants start to swarm back to the cities, just like in China, there’ll be a real urban contingent in the East Village again. A dangerous one, quite likely. Maybe then the tourists will stay in their parents’ McMansions – if they haven’t collapsed around them by then – instead of turning this city into a facsimile of New Jersey/Long Island/Los Angeles stripmall hell.

August 18, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments