Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Tris McCall at Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 3/30/10

Tris McCall was psyched to be playing the Rockwood, not only because of the great sound but because performers at the Rockwood don’t have to go through a metal detector. That’s what musicians and audience alike have to do at the Hudson County (NJ) Courthouse, where he’s played several times. McCall wears his New Jersey affiliation proudly on his sleeve; like most every other artist from there, his feelings for his home state are mixed. “I’m going to play a lot of wordy songs,” he warned the audience, but he held them rapt. McCall is just as good solo on piano as he is with a band, maybe even better, since his lyrics have more of a chance to cut through. And they cut and slashed with a wit and a poignancy on par with the one artist McCall covered, Elvis Costello (he snuck in a casually brilliant cover of All the Rage toward the end of the set).

As much as New Jersey is notoriously weird, dark, haunted and corrupt, McCall invariably sympathizes with his downtrodden characters, none of whom ever seem to be able to get out – his songs have a Ray Davies-class populism. The Ballad of Frank Vinieri recounted the sad end of a would-be housing preservationist’s political career, brought down in a witch hunt by greedy developers. An earlier song, We Don’t Talk About Teddy was a hauntingly allusive look at a convict abandoned in the prison-industrial complex, told from the point of view of his hopelessly scarred parents. “Ten different channels of cop shows to choose from, I’m gonna lock it up!” the father finally rages – meaning the tv.

The centerpiece of the show was the centerpiece of McCall’s new album Let the Night Fall (best album we’ve reviewed this year so far, by the way), the epic First World, Third Rate, a casually harrowing narrative of depersonalized stripmall hell. But McCall ended it on a passionately upbeat note: the mallrat at the center of the song isn’t about to go down with everything around him. By contrast, a ballad giving a glorious shout-out to “Hudson County by the sea” was not nearly that optimistic, its protagonist having “bartered away” his life in his own darkness on the edge of town.

Not everything in the set was that bleak. Musically, McCall mixed it up from his usual big, dramatic block-chord arrangements with a sarcastic state-of-the-economy minor-key blues, the joyous sixties soul of Baltimore (sort of an alternative to the Randy Newman song) and a vividly jazzy number about a housing inspector. And the song he soundchecked with, a deadpan, vaudevillian tribute to (or parody of) the New Jersey Department of Public Works made it impossible not to smile. McCall’s next gig is at Bruar Falls on April 1 – no joke – with his indie powerpop supergroup of sorts, Overlord.

In a welcome return to New York, Irish songwriter Andy White followed with a boisterous, tuneful set featuring some lushly processed twelve-string guitar work and White’s characteristically smart social awareness, best exemplified by his global-warning cautionary tale Last Long Night on the Planet.

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March 31, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Memoriam – Danny Federici

One of the greatest rock organists of alltime, Danny Federici of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band died this past Wednesday after a battle with melanoma. He was 58.

Originally an accordionist, Federici brought a sweepingly orchestral, haunting sensibility to Springsteen’s songs. Go to your favorite file-trading site and download the live version of Sandy from the live box set (you can also get the album version from The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, but the vocals aren’t nearly as good because Springsteen goes way out of his 2-note range). Listen to how plaintive and beautiful Federici’s accordion intro is.

While you’re at it, download the album version of Independence Day, from The River, if you don’t already own it. Federici plays the lead, a soaring trumpet melody, a particularly nasty Sunday morning wakeup call. This is one of Springsteen’s best songs, a vicious, offhandedly dismissive slap upside the head of a controlling parent, as resonant today as it was almost three decades ago, and it’s Federici who makes it work, his organ line hopeful, optimistic and brutally inevitable behind the Boss’ vindictive vocal.

Also download Point Blank, arguably the best song on The River. Federici doesn’t really contribute til about three-quarters of the way through, when his organ starts mingling with Steve Van Zandt’s distant, reverbed-out guitar in a devil’s choir of overtones. It’s a song about losing a girlfriend to either drugs or simply the call of the underworld, something that happens to a whole lot of people who have nowhere else to go. The brilliance of Springsteen’s lyric is its blunt opaqueness, leaving the listener guessing as to what horrible fate befell the woman. Federici offers more than a hint.

And since everything Springsteen is up online for download, Federici’s first solo album, Flemington is worth owning. It’s a thoughtful, pensive, ultimately optimistic bunch of soundtrack-style instrumentals, the title track a particularly standout cut.

Federici wasn’t a “chops” guy – tens of thousands of classically or jazz-trained keyboardists could play faster and more fluently than he did. Federici’s genius was a seemingly instinctive ability to find the underlying emotion of a song and channel it with a purity and clarity that bordered on the supernatural. If you’re a Springsteen fan, now’s the time to revisit his good albums – Nebraska and everything before that, along with his criminally underrated Live in NYC double cd set, featuring Federici at his understated, brilliant best. If not, you’re missing out on one of the most soulful players who ever sat down behind a keyboard.

April 19, 2008 Posted by | Music, obituary, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment