Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Coney Island Today and Tomorrow

Last night we went to see Taylor Swift at the Viagra Arena at Coney Island. Since they’ve shut down the subway and replaced it with the VIP shuttle from the Brooklyn, Brooklyn casino in the middle of Prospect Park, we all crammed into a friend’s battered Greatwall Gwperi, dodging sinkholes and potholes, finally finding a spot in the Russian mob parking lot by the water at the edge of the former Floyd Bennett Field. In the old days there would have been a city bus, or we could have walked, but it’s too dangerous now, so we had to wait in line for a cab. Because there wasn’t enough room in the rickshaw for all of us, a couple of us had to ride on top of the rickety canopy, clinging to the torn canvas as the contraption bounced along through the mudpuddles in what’s left of the tarmac from the days when there was a public infrastructure budget.

Outside the arena, Halliburton security were selling meth and ecstasy when they weren’t zealously feeling up tired ticketholders. After six additional security checkpoints, retina scan, DNA analysis, fingerprinting and a full-body search, we finally made it through to our seats, which had already been taken by a sinister-looking crew of crudely tattooed bodybuilders. So despite having paid three trillion renminbi per person, plus inconvenience charges, for our tickets, we had to head up to the nosebleed seats, hoping that another crew of bulked-up ex-cons wouldn’t show up and take those from us as well. After an hour of earsplitting, nonstop big-screen commercials for Lucky Oncology Centers, Finest Face Masks, Bedbug Busters, and of course Viagra, Swift finally was ushered onstage by a doddering, mumbling, ninety-year-old Marty Markowitz. Fully nude, for about ten minutes she gyrated and lipsynched to a medley of old Journey songs with a new, fully computerized arrangement. From the view on the big screen, it’s obvious that all the plastic surgery, and the already sagging boob job, make her look twenty years older than she is – and she’s not even thirty yet.

Oh yeah, all that was just a dream. Must have been reading too much Gary Shteyngart. Yesterday at Coney Island perfectly captured what this city stands to lose if or when the carnival atmosphere is replaced with a corporate one. It’s not a done deal: notorious landgrabber Joseph Shitt’s Thor Equities are demolishing buildings that in the pre-Guiliani era were on the fast track to landmark status, but when they’re reduced to rubble there’s no guarantee that anyone’s going to pay top dollar for the vacant lots where the Bank of Coney Island and similarly faded, once glorious buildings used to stand. In the meantime, there are fewer rides at the amusement park, but it’s still there, as are the grimy boardwalk bars, dodgy hamburger stands, Shoot the Freak, the Coney Island Museum and the ever-shrinking vestiges of the individuality that has made this neighborhood world-famous.

And appropriately, there was surf music on the boardwalk out behind the Wonder Wheel: Deb Noble of Blue Stingraye Productions emceed a whole afternoon worth of first-class bands assembled by Bill and Julie Rozar, creators of the Alien Surfer Babes (who headlined). The game plan was to get there in time to catch surf rockers Reverb Galaxy, but a two-hour subway ride from Manhattan nixed that. The second act, Sean Kershaw’s baritone voice still resonated all the way to the tables outside Ruby’s Bar and Grill: the Coney Island Cowboy was in his element and loving every minute of it. From a distance, he and the band sounded a lot like Ninth House, particularly on the darker numbers among Kershaw’s signature, surreal, carnivalesquely witty Americana songs.

Strange But Surf were next and were a breath of fresh air, just like the breeze that began whipping in from the water. The two-guitar instrumental band bring a tongue-in-cheek punk edge to surf music, and they mixed it up. A number possibly titled Beached Fish sounded like their version of California Sun; they turned Pipeline into a long, shuffling jam with fiery guitar solos and a Paint It Black quote at the end that got everybody smiling, even the band. Hey-Ho, a Ramones-ish stomp was “about my girlfriend,” grinned one of the guitarists. He and the drummer switched on a couple of tunes, including an amusing Link Wray-inspired number, The Martians Are Pissed. They wound up their long set with inspired, punk-flavored versions of the Bar-Kays’ Soul Seeker, the Addams Family theme, the Ventures’ Out of Limits and a really splendid, extended version of the Byrds’ Eight Miles High.

The Octomen appeared to be missing five of the guys, if there are in fact eight of them. If not, they still sounded good even though they could have used a rhythm guitarist to fill out the sound when the one guitar player they’d brought along was soloing. Because he was good, and left a lot of space rather than playing loud and mindlessly. A lot of their originals add eerie chromatic passages amidst all the twangy, upbeat good cheer. He used a flange on a couple of tunes, Link Wray’s The Rumble included, for a sort of 80s chorus-box feel. By halfway through the set, he was taking longer solos and really getting the pyrotechnics going with some long, blazing, sometimes bluesy, sometimes country-tinged excursions, particularly on a ghoulabilly-flavored song and then a 60s go-go instrumental with some ferocious blues playing.

In hindsight, it would have made sense to stick around for the rest of the surf bands continuing into the night. Randi Russo’s solo performance at a private party later in the evening was terrifically gripping and intense. But trading beautifully polyglot Coney Island – where latino and Asian kids swayed side by side with the older, mostly blue-collar white crowd who’d come out for the bands – for the uptight, privileged whites-only section of ever-more-hideously segregated Williamsburg, was a disaster waiting to happen, a sad reminder of where this city’s going if we don’t put a stop to it.

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August 22, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Sean Kershaw and the New Jack Ramblers – Coney Island Cowboy

Hard honkytonk doesn’t get any better than this. The band may be new jack but Sean Kershaw is definitely oldschool. One of the prime movers of the vibrant New York country/Americana scene, Kershaw led a fiery rockabilly band, the Blind Pharaohs back in the 90s and early zeros; this project grew out of an off-the-cuff jam session between some of the best players on the scene. Since they were always busy with gigs during the week, they could only get together on an off-day. But word spread and suddenly Sundays at Hank’s Saloon in Brooklyn was the place to be (free barbecue didn’t hurt). This is the band that sprang out of that jam, and it’s a damn good one: while Kershaw, true to form, performs live with a rotating cast of characters (he’s got a deep rolodex), this cd features the multistylistic Bob Hoffnar on pedal steel, the ubiquitous Homeboy Steve Antonakos on lead guitar plus a no-nonsense rhythm section of Jason Hogue on upright bass and Andrew Borger (of Norah Jones’ band) on drums. Recorded by the band’s longtime friend Rick Miller of Southern Culture on the Skids, most of this has a similar guitar-fueled burn, not to mention a sense of humor: some of these songs are hilarious, in a vintage 70s Moe Bandy way. Kershaw delivers them with a wink and a grin in a knowing, Johnny Cash-style baritone.

The funniest song on the album is The Trucker & the Tranny, ostensibly a true story – “Are you gonna tell him?” chuckles a friend at the bar as the two cavort. Or maybe it’s Bigshot of the Honkytonk, a downright vicious portrait of a bartender who’s a big fish in a little pond: “The jukebox plays his favorite song 25 times a night.” Crackerjack Delight echoes Orbison but with a surreal, contemporary edge, while Already Cheatin’ is a catchy shuffle: “There ain’t no fish scales underneath my fingernails, it must be the smell of cheating going on.” The Carl Perkins-inflected Moonlight Eyes -the Blind Pharaohs’ signature song – is redone here as a fetching duet between Kershaw and the golden-voiced Drina Seay. There’s also the eerie, completely noir, LJ Murphy-style Woke Up Dead, driven by a searing pedal steel solo; a western swing shuffle where Kershaw tries his hand at scatting, and actually pulls it off; a bizarre Split Lip Rayfield style number about doing battle with Satan; a SCOTS-style barn-burner with Miller guesting on guitar; and a remake of the folk song Old Hollow Tree, this one abruptly uprooted and transplanted to Brooklyn.

The title track is inadvertently sad, a vivid summertime oceanside scene populated with freaks and characters, complete with sound samples of the Cyclone rollercoaster. It’s a time capsule, and unfortunately the bumper cars aren’t bumpin’ to that crazy hip-hop beat anymore. The Astroland amusement park is gone, soon to be replaced by a parking lot since Mayor Bloomberg’s dream of driving out the blacks and Hispanics with casinos and “luxury” condos for rich white tourists doesn’t stand much of a chance these days – unless he funds it himself. Meanwhile, the neighborhood has pulled together and has been fighting it – unsurprisingly, when the band isn’t on the road they’ve been involved with the Save Coney Island movement, which deserves your support as well.

February 19, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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