Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Monica Passin/Sean Kershaw and the New Jack Ramblers at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 4/24/08

It’s no secret that New York has one of the most vital, thriving country music scenes anywhere. Forget any snide commentary you may have overheard about urban musicians playing country: if anything, the music coming out of the New York country scene is far more traditionally-oriented than most anything Nashville is producing these days. Tonight’s bill paired two of the more popular country acts in town. Monica Passin, frontwoman of long-running Rodeo Bar honkytonkers L’il Mo and the Monicats played mostly solo acoustic, with occasional help from a couple of women who sang harmonies, and the New Jack Ramblers’ amazing lead guitarist. She’s pretty much everything you could want in a country singer: pretty voice, good songs, good taste in covers and backing musicians. Her best song was a minor-key rockabilly number – the first one in that style she’d ever written, she said – possibly titled This Cat. The lead player used Passin’s ominous chord changes as a springboard for a riveting, intense, jazz-inflected solo that drew roars of appreciation from the crowd. On the last song, Passin invited Lisa, the bar owner up to sing harmonies, and as it turned out she’s actually good! Not since the days when Juliana Nash ran the show at Pete’s Candy Store has there been a bar owner who’s been able to show off such a soaring, fearless voice. Bands in need of a frontwoman ought to stop by the bar: she won’t embarrass you, and if all else fails you’ll always have a place to play.

Sean Kershaw and the New Jack Ramblers aren’t exactly under the radar, maintaining a hectic gig schedule in addition to the regular Sunday night residency they’ve been playing at Hank’s for what seems forever. They’re a rotating crew of some of the best players in town: the weekly Sunday show originated out of necessity, as this was the only night everybody in the band didn’t have a gig. Tonight, backed by just lead guitar and upright bass (their awe-inspiring pedal steel player Bob Hoffnar wasn’t available, and you really don’t need drums in a small room like Banjo Jim’s), Kershaw ran through a mix of what sounded like covers but probably weren’t. The guy’s a hell of a songwriter, a prolific, versatile writer as comfortable with western swing as honkytonk, rockabilly or stark, Johnny Cash-inspired narratives. Tonight’s show was the western swing show, driven by lead guitarist Skip Krevens, whose ability to burn through a whole slew of styles was nothing short of spectacular, everything from jazz to rockabilly to blues. He made it seem effortless. They gamely ran through the old standard Smoke That Cigarette in addition to a bunch of originals, some recorded, some not, closing the first of their two sets with what has become Kershaw’s signature song, Moonlight Eyes. Originally recorded with his first band, the fiery, rockabilly unit the Blind Pharaohs, it’s a genuine classic, something that sounds like a Carl Perkins hit from 1956. Kershaw has played it a million times, but still manages to make it sound fresh, the ominous undercurrent beneath its blithe romantic sway more apparent than ever tonight, stripped down to just the basics.

And what was even more apparent was that both of the acts on this bill would probably be big stars in a smaller metropolis: here, they’re only part of a widespread, talented scene.

April 25, 2008 Posted by | concert, country music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Die Hipster Scum: Simon and the Bar Sinisters Live at Lakeside, NYC 4/12/08

Simon Chardiet surveyed the packed house at Lakeside last night. “I’m always amazed that you come out,” he told the crowd.

“Because you’re good, Simon,” somebody in the back murmured. Understatement of the year. Chardiet and his rhythm section are a New York institution: they’re been playing as Simon and the Bar Sinisters since 1991. Chardiet isn’t just one of the best rock guitarists in town: he’s one of the best rock guitarists in the world. When you hear Simon, you know it could be nobody but Simon. Playing with his signature growly, distorted tone, he alternated between the big, expansive chords he loves so much, fast, precise chicken-scratch staccato solos and some awe-inspiring surf, rockabilly and jazz work. He’s a musician’s musician, the kind of player who, just for kicks, would take the time to score the entirety of The Planets by Holst for bass (true story).

He’s also extremely funny. “Never mind real estate, the oil companies, defense contractors: when it comes to craven greed, nothing matches mine,” Chardiet told the audience. “Somebody told me that I could make money being a guitar player,” he mused sarcastically as a young woman made the first of three trips through the crowd with the tip bucket. Someone had recently asked to be taken off his email list, offended by one of Chardiet’s famous anti-yuppie screeds, and in removing the guy, Chardiet accidentally deleted his entire email fan base. “Don’t sign the mailing list if you can’t handle sarcastic humor. I don’t mean to offend anyone, I just want to tell the truth,” he explained, and there was no sarcasm in that. Although along with his cds, he was also selling “Die Hipster Scum” bumper stickers, a welcome concept, especially in this day and age.

Chardiet may have assimilated every worthwhile retro guitar style ever invented, but ultimately he remains true to his punk roots. As wickedly smart and witty as his music is, his songwriting has all the good fun, fearlessness and in-your-face antagonism that made classic punk rock so great. Tonight it took him awhile to warm up, but once he got rolling he and the band were unstoppable. The surf interlude in the middle of the set was the best part of the show, all original songs, beginning with a surprisingly wistful, nostalgic one possibly titled Mr. Pickle, then a scorching, chromatically fired tune that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Dead Kennedys album. He took a few requests, including the amusing Bad Boy, an expansively jazzy, torchy tune about a lunatic. Later, he dedicated a rockabilly number to Eliot Spitzer: “I can’t believe this guy…I never paid more than $5 to get laid in my life” Then he changed the lyrics at the end of the verse into “I’m leaving town, gonna get me a $5 whore.”

Toward the end of his long set (over an hour and a half), he and the band played one of his best songs, the ruefully sarcastic rockabilly number Wooden Nickel, about meeting someone who doesn’t exactly turn out to be as advertised, using it to address first the women, then the men in the audience, leaving everyone in stitches (Chardiet’s comedic timing is just as spot-on as his playing). The rhythm section was excellent: the drummer is a hard hitter, but he swings like crazy; although he was playing bass guitar, the bassist frequently slapped at it, as if playing an upright bass, to create a boomy, low tone on the rockabilly songs. They’re back at Lakeside on May 10: be aware that since this band is very popular, you need to get here early if you want a seat. Lakeside shows usually start around 11 on weekend nights, but Chardiet would probably play four sets if they let him. Expect the festivities to start around quarter after ten.

April 13, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Catspaw Live at Hank’s Saloon, Brooklyn NY 1/3/08

It’s too easy to be jaded. It’s all too easy to say you’ve seen it all before. If you put yourself in a situation where exciting things can happen, they generally do. Case in point: tonight.

It was cold, sixteen degrees according to a digital readout visible from the Manhattan bridge. Returning from a long absence from the NYC stage, Catspaw shook off the rust, shed some sparks and got the crowd dancing. And they played Southbound Line. It’s their signature song, and it’s a classic, the kind of song that sends your adrenaline straight into the red when they play it live. The version they played tonight was somewhat offhand, kind of casual, but no less intense. It’s a fast minor-key rockabilly shuffle about a woman losing it in a hurry, on the train ride from hell. Or to hell – the southbound New Jersey Transit line runs in the opposite direction of Manhattan. Frontwoman Jasmine Sadrieh crams so many lyrics into the verse that it’s not easy to sing without losing your breath, but she did it, effortlessly. Random drunken kids asking her which way to the Jersey shore, a sketchy guy with a brown paper bag and toothpaste sitting across the aisle, and she doesn’t even know what train she’s on. When she gets to the guitar solo after the second verse, you can see what’s coming as soon as she starts with the deliberate, determined steps down the scale that she throws in between splashes of chords, but the reverb-drenched blast of guitar fury at the end is still the high point of a real thrill ride. Moments like these make a long walk in the cold and the always uncertain availability of a train ride home worthwhile.

Catspaw is pretty much defined by Sadrieh’s vintage Gretsch guitar sound and her deadpan sense of humor. One of the songs they played tonight, the darkly clanging Ancient Irish Ballad is a prime example. “We wrote this song….although I don’t think anyone in the band has Irish blood,” Sadrieh told the crowd. “But we are ancient.”

She was joking, of course. It was almost a year to the day since we saw them for the first time, seven years ago, playing one of their very first shows to an empty house on one of the last nights at the old Chicago Blues, opening for the Sea Devils (who also played to a pretty empty room). At the time, it was obvious that they had some good songs, but they weren’t very tight and as much as it was clear that everybody in the band liked playing rockabilly and surf covers, they didn’t have much of a feel for the music. How times change. In actuality, they got good in a hurry after that cold January night gig at 14th St. and 8th Ave. This time around they had their work cut out for them. On nights like this, guitars go out of tune fast and most people stay home (which is why it’s always fun to venture out on the coldest night of the year: you always pretty much have the whole place to yourself). But there was a crowd, maybe because Catspaw hadn’t played out in awhile, since their bass player left to join her husband in now-defunct garage rockers the Dark Marbles. It’s good to see that they’ve found a replacement as fluid and melodic as she was, and he was clearly having fun up there.

They opened with a couple of lively originals and then tackled a couple of rockabilly covers, 20 Flight Rock and Brand New Cadillac, staying impressively true to the originals. Sadrieh’s guitar was LOUD, so loud in fact that it wasn’t easy to hear the drums. Drummer Erica Golino is an equally powerful player. With her smart, rolling, Keith Moon-style barrage, she’s as good at building a crescendo and flying out of the chorus at full tilt as Joe Filosa (of Plastic Beef and Liza and the WonderWheels infamy). And she knows it, flinging her long hair back behind her at the end as if to say, GOTCHA.

They also did the tongue-in-cheek surf instrumental ABW, from their album Ancient Bateyed Wallman, which they were giving away for free to lucky fans tonight: “I’m sick of it,” Sadrieh winkingly told the crowd. They encored with Jailhouse Rock. It was a little incongruous hearing Elvis’ vocal delivered in Sadrieh’s carefree, unaffectedly pretty voice, but that’s how bands ought to play covers: if you can’t match the original, do it completely your way, and Catspaw did exactly that. They’re a lot of fun. It’ll be good to see them playing out more now that they have a bass player again.

January 4, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review from the Archives: The Cramps at the Academy, NYC 11/25/94

The concert was newer stuff bookended by old and perhaps someday canonical material: the original ghoulabilly band earned themselves a place in the pantheon a long time ago. They opened with Mad Daddy and Mystery Plane. Frontman Lux Interior appeared sober for most of the show, and even a little self-effacing; guitarist Poison Ivy played distorted rockabilly and hotrod rhythm without many solos. It seems that they’ve come to an uneasy grasp of the fact that this after all is show bizness and they’re in it for the money as much as anything else. Which is ok, because the Dead Boys were too and they also rocked incredibly hard live. So what if the Cramps are basically a 60s garage band with a lot of distortion and a mad Elvis fronting the unit. “Let’s take some drugs,” said Lux.

Let’s Get Fucked Up was one of the last numbers in the set but wasn’t as memorable as something with that title should be. They closed it with TV Set and The Crusher, the bass player using a slide on the highest registers, an attempt to replicate the sound Kid Congo Powers got on the records. An appropriately ominous Human Fly was the first of the encores, followed by She Said wherein Lux made a half-assed attempt to tell a story between choruses. Surfin Bird was the last song and quickly degenerated into a high-velocity, half-hour feedback jam. Lux put the mic in his mouth, climbed on top of the bank of amps to the left of the stage and made a variety of gross noises while Ivy stood with her guitar looking up at him anxiously as the bass and drums pounded and a high-pitched shriek blasted from her amp.

November 26, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 10/4/07

Strange things happen when you don’t see a band for a couple of years. Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. used to be a loose, improvisational unit playing old country covers. Good players, good choice of material, better than a lot of the competition, but otherwise pretty indistinguishable from the rest of the Pete’s Candy Store contingent. How times change. Fast forward to 2007: they’ve gone into a time warp and emerged in 1953, right before rockabilly took off. Now the band has matching suits, period set pieces with graphics and typefaces straight out of the early 50s and what sounds like cleverly scripted, faux-corny between-song banter. These guys put on a show and, mercy, they’re pretty darned good. Their originals sound like country standards from fifty years ago and the upright bass player swings like hell. He doesn’t push the beat like so many bluegrass and oldtimey cats do. The band doesn’t have a drummer but they don’t really need one. The lead singer (Amy Rigby’s brother, formerly of the Last Roundup) really has a handle on 50s hillbilly dance tunes, playing a lot of jazzy licks on his big beautiful hollowbody Gibson in addition to the expected country twang. And they’re funny: two of the originals they played tonight were titled Don’t Try This at Home (a bouncy, cornball number) and I Hate You (expansive and jazz-inflected, with a great lyric). And they clearly have a good time doing their shtick. See them at Rodeo Bar if you get the chance. You’ll get your money’s worth, no doubt about it.

October 9, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Rockabilly Night at Lincoln Center 8/18/07

The Dixie Hummingbirds opened, playing to a shockingly small crowd in the park out behind the concert hall complex. They were fantastic. Established in 1920, this gospel group gives new meaning to the term long-running. Their oldest member joined as a 13-year-old in 1938 and proved that he still has his pipes, even if he’s due for a knee operation. “You get old, it happens,” he waxed. Backed by a rock-solid rhythm section and a superb guitarist, the gospel harmonizers left no doubt where the soul stars of the 60s got their inspiration, their melodies and even their arrangements and choreography. They may have been playing religious music, but for them it is clearly a religion of passion. Their young bass singer stole the show with some low notes to rival Huun Huur Tu, and their guitarist wound up their set with a long, spectacularly good solo to rival any coda Tony Iommi ever lit into. One would have thought that the Harlem church contingent would have come out in full force, especially as this was a free show, but they didn’t.

Now who wants to hear about a bunch of old geezers playing stuff that every bar band in the country knows by heart. Yawn, right?

Was a time that this stuff was revolutionary. Hard to fathom in the gangsta rap age, until you realize that the songs they played tonight were just as much IF NOT MORE reviled than the raunchiest Fitty number you can imagine. And the guys onstage got it right, making sure they included plenty of R&B – real R&B, not the stuff that Macy Gray does – and gospel and blues and a Chuck Berry number to go along with the barrelhouse boogie and the country and the embryonic rock they played tonight. Half a century ago, racists across the country would stage bonfires of rock records because they were terrified that their precious, virginal children would listen to black music and actually prefer it to Pat Boone. Allen Freed ended up going to jail for playing rock music. Hard to imagine that happening today to, say, Funkmaster Flex. The songs the band played tonight may sound pretty tame to jaded late-zeros ears, but the band onstage wasn’t. Major props to these guys for taking stuff they must have played literally thousands of times, over and over again and giving it a defiance and passion worthy of players a third their age. It was as if they were just glad to be alive.

One of the reasons that a lot of 50s rock recordings sound pretty harmless compared to what came later is that the people who were making them were using such primitive instruments, amps and studio gear. As guest singer Dale Hawkins told it, in his native Arkansas there weren’t any recording studios. To make a record, you had to go to a radio station between midnight and 1 AM when they were switching between transmission towers. Tonight, with some big Fender tube amps roaring and screaming, it seemed that these musicians were finally giving voice to their songs as they’d originally envisioned them, wild and fiery and absolutely unstoppable.

Backed by a drummer who doubled on harmonica, a young bassist and aptly named piano player David Keys, 67-year-old baritone rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef ran through a whole lot of 50s favorites. While there were some excellent performances tonight, this was his cavalcade of stars and he was its leader. He’s a hell of a guitar player, equally adept at blues as rockabilly, and with his big beautiful hollowbody Gibson roaring with overtones and distortion, he wailed all night long. The songs were familiar: My Gal Is Red Hot, Waltz Across Texas, Polk Salad Annie and something of a surprise, These Boots Are Made for Walking. Keys dazzled on a brief Jerry Lee Lewis medley, and LaBeef did a great job with the Johnny Cash numbers. A couple of times, the band wound up the songs with trick endings followed by excerpts from surf songs.

After about half an hour, LaBeef brought up the night’s first special guest, blues guitarist Larry Johnson, whose amp was stuck on standby for awhile before the roadies finally got it to work. “I’ve had moments like this,” he told the crowd. “One time I got to a club and the mic didn’t work, so I got paid and left.” He then did Mystery Train and then the haunting, minor-key gospel tune Can’t You Hear the Angels Crying.

Philadelphia singer Charlie Gracie – “the only Yankee on the bill,” as he put it – sang Butterfly, the relatively innocuous pop single that knocked Elvis Presley off of #1 on the charts for the first time, and then delivered an absolutely sizzling guitar instrumental. If anything, he’s twice as good as he was fifty years ago: something to aspire to. Dale Hawkins reminded the crowd how important gospel was to early rock, leading the crowd in a singalong with a jaunty version of his signature song Susie Q (a gospel ripoff, he explained), strikingly similar to the Creedence cover. In a particularly talkative mood, he demonstrated how Willie Dixon turned a Sister Rosetta Tharp gospel number into My Baby Don’t Stand No Fooling (a hit for both Hawkins and Little Walter). He also led the band through a particularly soulful version of the Ray Charles classic I Got a Woman, complete with an excellent harmonica solo from the drummer and an even more energetic one from Keys.

The night’s only Branson moments came toward the end, when 60s Texas white funk singer Roy Head – who seemed pretty drunk – took the stage and did a forgettable James Brown impersonation. Naturally, it was this clown that the crowd decided to get up and dance to. At the end, the whole crew wrapped it up with a medley, Will the Circle Be Unbroken (a final nod to the bluegrass influence in early rock) and then a singalong on Amazing Grace. A clinic in American music from some of its more inspired practitioners.

August 19, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

CD Review: Big Lazy – Postcards from X

Their most cinematic album, on which the most mesmerizing instrumental band on the planet broaden their sonic palette from the usual charcoal and grey to include, perhaps, burnt ochre and dark olive. The album cover looks like a poster for a 60s spy film, with the shadow of a woman running with a briefcase. The case opens to show the woman’s ankle and the briefcase, but it’s not clear if she’s running alongside a wall covered with dying ivy…or if she’s lying on a path in the woods. The visuals couldn’t be more appropriate.

Big Lazy’s first two releases were all menace and suspense, conjuring up images of black-clad figures slipping in and out of the shadows in a 4 AM industrial wasteland, the pavement cold and luminous with late autumn rain. This one, their fourth, is much more diverse. Big Lazy unsurprisingly get a lot of film soundtrack work, and the songs on this album may well be destined for Sundance or Hollywood. Several of them begin menacingly and end on a sunny note, or vice versa, with innumerable twists and turns in between. The album opens with Thy Name Is Woman, virtuoso guitarist Steve Ulrich playing with distortion instead of his usual oceans of reverb. Essentially, it’s a 6/8 blues, propelled by brilliant bassist Paul Dugan’s staccato arpeggios. The next cut, by Dugan, is Walk It Off, opening with bowed bass playing the ominous melody as Ulrich plays the bassline on guitar. All of a sudden, on the second verse, Ulrich launches into some noir jazz as guest keyboardist Ed Pastorini’s Hammond organ kicks in. It’s very 60s. The following cut Glitter Gulch begins with a sexy bassline, like The Fever, with dark, quietly booming drum flourishes and eerie organ. Then it morphs into a Morricone-esque spaghetti western theme. After that, Ulrich returns with more guitar distortion on the brief, skronky Drug Czar.

The cd’s next track, France, is a very funny song, something akin to how Serge Gainsbourg’s 60s backing band might have covered Big Lazy. It’s an uncharacteristically bouncy number with just enough moments of incisive reverb guitar to give the listener pause. Drummer Tamir Muskat (ex-Gogol Bordello) spices the following cut, His Brother’s Wife, with all kinds of metallic percussive effects, with Ulrich and Dugan reverting to the dark, New York noir sound of their previous work until a country-inflected chorus with soaring lapsteel. After that, on Postcard from X, bowed bass carries the melody over plinky, ragtimish guitar. It’s an unusually wistful, pretty song, evocative of the great Southwestern gothic band Friends of Dean Martinez as the lapsteel flies in at the end of the song.

The best song on the album is the lickety-split, minor-key punkabilly theme To Hell in a Handbasket, another Dugan composition. Los Straitjackets or Rev. Horton Heat only wish they wrote something this adrenalizing. After Dugan and Ulrich play their fingers off for a couple of minutes, there’s a brief bass solo and then a gently happy ending. The lone cover on the album is an Astor Piazzolla classic, Pulsacion #4, which most closely resembles Big Lazy’s early work, all macabre chromatics and scary reverb. The cd’s next tune Naked begins with Dugan pedaling a single note over a suspenseful, steady beat, evoking a movie scene where the hero may be having second thoughts. You want to tell him (or her), don’t go back in the house, don’t get in the car with that guy and whatever you do, stay inside the tent. But they don’t, and all hell breaks loose. The album concludes with The Confidence Man, a total 60s spy movie theme, jazzy with staccato bass and tinny organ, its menace building gently at the end of the verse, then breaking through the door when the chorus kicks in.

If this album can reach the people who blast the Vampiros Lesbos soundtrack at parties, that’s where it needs to be. Inevitably, it’ll be a cult classic for decades to come. Be the first person on your block or in your dorm room to turn your friends on to this amazing band. And if you think the occasional lightheartedness of this album might mean that Big Lazy has lost any of the white-knuckle intensity of their live shows, not to worry: check our reviews page for a glimpse of the best show we’ve seen this year, Big Lazy’s cd release at Luna Lounge last month. Classic album, an instant contender (along with Jenifer Jackson’s new one) for best of the year. Five bagels. Pumpernickel (because that’s the darkest kind available).

June 6, 2007 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments