Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Serena Jost and Matt Kanelos at le Poisson Rouge, NYC 4/29/09

A particularly well-conceived art-rock doublebill. Both performers are people whose music lives between the lines, thriving on subtlety, understatement and ellipses rather than grand gestures. Serena Jost, when she’s not dabbling in modeling or getting work as a sidewoman (she’s a classically trained cellist who did time in Rasputina), leads a semi-rotating cast of characters through a vast landscape that spans the world of classical balladry, artsy pop, surf music, no-wave funk and straight-up rock. Wednesday night at le Poisson Rouge she had the benefit of keeping things fairly austere and low-key since she had a great sound system at her disposal. This time out she had the melodic Rob Jost on electric bass, multi-instrumentalist Rob DiPietro playfully and artfully handling the drums and in place of her regular axeman Julian Maile she had Pete Galub (just reviewed here leading his own band) handling lead guitar duties while she alternated between cello, piano and acoustic guitar.

Galub transformed the group, bringing the melodies front and center while adding an artsy, early 70s tinged bluesy feel that ran the gamut from plaintive to towering and majestic. The most dramatic moment came on the bridge during the long partita I Wait where Galub took Maile’s Dick Dale-ish lines deep into the Middle East, tossing the baton to Jost with a flourish where she grabbed it, held on for dear life and kept the revelry going. Then he took the usually stark Almost Nothing and added a vivid solo, part fiery blues and part big ornate ballad, that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Ian Bairnson playbook. Jost had been singing with her usual full, round and inscrutable clarity – she’s so direct that it would be impossible for there to be no subtext – but picked an insistent new ballad to cut loose and wail, as she did on another new one which she played on cello. Cellists don’t usually let their hair down to this extent, but Jost did.

By the time frequent Jenifer Jackson collaborator Matt Kanelos and his band the Smooth Maria hit the stage, the tables had all filled up, depression or no depression, a heartwarming sight. Nice to hear him cut loose on vocals, too, unadorned, casual and unaffected, much like the opening act. Backed by an excellent lead guitarist with a noisy edge as well as a subtle, swinging rhythm section, he alternated between acoustic guitar and piano, playing mostly new songs from the band’s brand-new cd Silent Show. While Americana is his fallback space, many of his songs have an undercurrent alternating between tastefully jazzy complexity and an almost minimalist, purist classical sensibility. The influences combine to create a dreamy yet focused, frequently poignant late summer atmosphere, replete with longing for something that doesn’t always overtly make itself known. Like Jost, Kanelos can be hard to read, all the more reason to listen closely. 

The big 6/8 piano ballad Rain evoked early 70s Pink Floyd (circa Obscured by Clouds), hypnotic and eerily edgy, Kanelos going completely rubato as it built to a big crescendo and then subsided to the point where he could step back in without any altercations. The night’s opening number, Abandoned Town reminded of middle-period Wilco with its “we won’t go back, we won’t go” insistence and noisily ringing crescendo of guitar chords. Another number felt like Chet Baker doing southwestern gothic, Kanelos and his lead player taking turns playing off and then on the beat as it wound down at the end. The crowd, quietly attentive to the end, went crazy for an encore and after a wait that didn’t bode well, were rewarded with a nostalgic ballad that Kanelos played solo on piano.

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May 4, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Serena Jost Live at Joe’s Pub, NYC 3/3/08

The adrenaline was flowing. Walking up Fourth Avenue at about half past ten, it was impossible not to be moving with a defiant bounce, humming Our Town, the stomping Iris DeMent cover that Serena Jost and band had just played to close their set at Joe’s Pub. And it wasn’t even all that good, mostly drums and hardly anything else in the mix. Not that the band played it badly, and drummer Colin Brooks was just doing his job. This was strictly a sound issue: Jost’s music is all about dynamics, tension and resolution, and this was their big crescendo of the night. It just must have caught the sound guy off-guard.

Between everybody who contributes here, we see scores if not hundreds of concerts, openings and movies every year. Serena Jost has been a fixture on the Lower East Side music scene for awhile. She’s been featured here before, and her new album Closer Than Far has been in heavy rotation here in Lucid Cultureland. Familiarity usually brings with it a certain comfort and ultimately a ho-hum factor, but not tonight. It was impossible not to be moved, tickled and sometimes even left spellbound by this show.

They opened with the absolutely, ridiculously catchy, bouncy Vertical World, an artsy pop song that serves as something of a centerpiece within the new album. It’s something that could become iconic if someone with good ears working on an indie film has the brains to run the whole song over the closing credits. The band followed that with another pretty, upbeat new one, In Time, which made a good segue. Jost moved around the stage a lot, beginning the set on keyboards, then switching to acoustic guitar, then cello, then back to keys. Her onstage persona is deliberately inscrutable. She often sings with a full, ripe, somewhat heartbroken tone, but she’s actually most mysterious when she’s having fun. The high point of the night as far as the audience was concerned was Jump, a playful straight-up 70s disco number driven by Brad Albetta’s stone-cold authentic, tongue-in-cheek bassline. But the melody gives the listener pause: it’s actually pretty dark. And why jump, anyway? This wasn’t exactly Van Halen. But the audience reveled in it. Jost and crew – once-and-future Mary Lee’s Corvette bassist Albetta holding pushing the rhythm along with Brooks, Julian Maile on electric guitar, and also guests Rob Jost (no relation) on French horn and Greta Gertler, contributing ethereal high harmonies on one song – were having the time of their lives. There was a lot of baton-tossing – Maile would fire off a solo, pass it along to the horn, then to the cello and so on – along with tricky time changes and clever wordplay. They encored with a song solo on cello, plumbing big, dark chords from the depths of the instrument: “her first love,” she reminded everyone. This is the kind of band, and the kind of show that would resonate especially with the latest yearly crop of 16-year-olds who have just discovered Pink Floyd: the passion, wit, melody and sheer intelligence that Jost and crew put into their music makes a good match.

March 4, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a 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