Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Æ at the Delancey, NYC 3/8/10

Aurelia Shrenker had just graduated NYU earlier in the day; her musical cohort Eva Salina Primack looks about the same age. But their voices are the voices of old souls, wary, a little battlescarred, passionate with the knowledge that lack of passion equals death. Opening this week’s Small Beast gathering at the Delancey, the two women of Æ (pronounced “ash,” after the Saxon rune meaning “exactly two”) turned in a riveting, otherworldly performance of both Americana and exotic, bucolic songs from considerably further east of Appalachia. The two are like sisters – their camaraderie and shared intuition for tempos, harmonies and dynamics are as uncanny as the music they sing, strikingly evident from the first few slow swoops up the scale on the old Appalachian folk song Fly Away. Their voices are much the same as well – although the sound system tonight exaggerated the treble in Shrenker’s timbre while bringing out more of the lows in Primack’s register. Primack played accordion on a plaintive minor-key Balkan number from the band’s new album (recently reviewed here, enthusiastically); Shrenker strummed through the tricky changes on a handful of Georgian tunes – a genre she specializes in – on her panduri. She explained how she’d learned Across the Blue Mountains in the White River Junction, Vermont Greyhound bus station (for those who haven’t been there, it’s a place that quietly screams out for escape, just like the song). Primack did an intense a-capella version of a Yiddish ballad and swung it dramatically, even as she added all kinds of subtly luminous microtonal shades. They also steered their way through their trademark labyrinthine interpolations of Appalachian and Eastern European or Georgian folk tunes, an especially neat discovery since the two styles mingle far better harmonically than you might think.

Primack offered the insight that American singers who do as much foreign-language material as she does always look forward to the vocalese, because it’s there where a performer can express herself or himself most individually. Shrenker mused about living to see the day when one of their stark, rustic, obscure songs is one that everyone in New York knows. That’s a hope whose genuine audacity deserves to come true. Æ will be on Pacific Northwest tour for the rest of the month beginning on 3/15 at 8 PM at Cafe Solstice, 4116 University Way Northeast in Seattle, returning to NYC in April,watch this space for show dates.

March 9, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Small Beast 1/18/10

The whole town seemed to be partied out from the long weekend, so this Small Beast was a particularly intimate one. Monday was comfort night, comfort in darkness, in raw intensity and intelligence with a diverse quartet of acts who share the ability to bring all that for hours on end. Playing solo on acoustic, Elisa Flynn opened the night and immediately delivered chills with her plaintive, austere, broodingly nuanced vocals coupled to imaginatively scruffy guitar playing. She loves 6/8 time, and she knows how to use it, whether on an insistent, hypnotic tune about earth artist Robert Smithson (possibly the only song anyone’s ever written about the guy, she mused), a pensive sleeping-under-the-stars scenario, or a dark wintertime shipwreck tableau. And the single best song of the night, Timber. Others less subtle might be tempted to turn the towering, haunting yet wry ballad into grand guignol, but Flynn didn’t, holding back just a little on the pauses between verse and chorus to drive them home for all they were worth, tossing off a dirty, distorted solo, then hitting her pedalboard to crank up a sweet swoopy slide on her low E string. She closed with a gorgeously intense cover of Silver Rider by Low, wailing on the downstrokes.

Botanica keyboardist/frontman Paul Wallfisch – who as you probably know by now books Small Beast – quickly figured out that trying to outshadow Flynn would be a bad idea. So he played the fun set: a devious, sarcastic cover of Mack the Knife, musing on who the hell all those oddly named characters really are; an otherworldly version of Nature Boy retitled Nature Girl, which totally changed the song; a couple of soul-inflected new ones, Here I Am (with a lyric by Paul Bowles) and Hard to Cross; a hushed Marlene Dietrich homage, and a Vic Chestnutt cover that rhymes “paragon” with “Louis Farrakhan.” Wallfisch thought that particularly appropriate and wondered aloud what Farrakhan’s violin might sound like alongside Richard Nixon’s piano – paragons, both of them.

Inimitable art-rock songwriter/pianist Greta Gertler has a new kitten, who’d taken a swipe at one of her fingers: “Does anyone have a tampon at least?” she grinned. She’s got a new album, The Universal Thump, coming out. If you’re interested in getting in on the ground floor with it and whatever benefits come with being one of its sponsors, there’s still time: the cast of characters continues to expand. Her too-brief set offered an auspicious look inside, beginning with the bright, percussive, Kate Bush-inflected pop of Swimming with its murky, reverberating instrumental break; the resonant, sad 6/8 ballad Grasshoppers; a darkly dramatic take on the bustling title track to her previous album Edible Restaurant; the pretty yet uneasy, aptly titled Darkened Skies, and her best song, the richly melodic, crescendoing Teacher. When she took the vocals way, way up to the top of her range, i.e. the stratosphere, she pulled off the mic; likewise, she played it casually, letting the power of the chords speak for themselves. Then Wallfisch joined her for a couple of impromptu four-hands numbers, adding incisive upper-register rivulets and staccato over her catchy changes.

Kings County Queens were unfortunately missing baritone ukelele player/singer Daria Grace, but their two women – on piano and accordion – compensated well. Smartly, the band pulled out their dark set, frontman Chris Bowers in particularly bristly, quietly affronted mode. He even took a pointed southwestern gothic solo in the surprisingly bitter, tango-inflected opening number, and another later on, sailing plaintively over drummer Johny Rock’s hypnotic malletwork on a slow, catchy, nocturnal ballad. KCQ earned themselves plenty of cred around the turn of the zeros as one of the originators of the Pete’s Candy Store sound, i.e. urbanites playing low-key, harmony-driven country and Americana and they also provided plenty of that, notably the wistful waltz Magnolias. The warm, gentle insistence of the melody of that one and several similar numbers made for a perfect segue out of a long, crazy weekend into the sobering reality ahead.

Next week’s Small Beast on the 25th turns the lights way, way, way down. You want darkness? Besides Wallfisch, you get Kerry Kennedy, Marni Rice and Mark Steiner’s cd release show. Wow.

January 19, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: Greg Garing at the Delancey, NYC 1/4/10

The Monday night Small Beast show at the Delancey being New York’s most brazen display of good songs and good chops, the parade of talent that’s come through here over the last eight months or so far exceeds anything any other club in town has seen over that span of time. As far as pure talent is concerned, Greg Garing tops the list – and for anyone who was lucky enough to catch his solo show last night, that’s no disrespect to any of the other artists who’ve played here. If you can imagine Willie Nelson if his drug of choice was moonshine instead of pot, you’d be on the right track. Garing is the kind of artist who inhabits his songs – it’s impossible to separate him from them, seeing as he practically goes into a trance and becomes them. His guitar virtuosity, soulful terseness and stylistic chops are unsurpassed, matching a jazzy Chet Atkins-gone-punk countrypolitan feel along with a seemingly effortless whirlwind of flatpicking on a couple of bluegrass numbers, along with some judicious blues and country gospel work. As when Black Sea Hotel played a couple of weeks ago, the room was silent, absolutely rapt. Garing may have a four-octave vocal range – from Tennessee Ernie Ford bass to a falsetto and a heartwarming blue yodel – but he used all of those devices subtly. It would not be an overstatement to mention him in the same sentence as Jimmie Rodgers. And while he did play a few covers – a brisk, unadorned Deep Ellem Blues, a slowly smoldering take of the blues How Long and a Jerry Lee Lewis barrelhouse romp through Real Wild One (he also played pretty amazing piano on that one and a brief ragtime number that he seemed to make up on the spot), it was his originals that resonated most intensely.

The biggest crowdpleaser was a gentle ballad, a reflection on how nature has no preference for any season, with the refrain “We’ll be happy once again.” With the mercury outside below twenty, this hit the spot, along with a beautifully heartfelt gospel-inflected number possibly titled Teardrops Falling in the Snow. One of the more upbeat numbers sounded like a Hasil Adkins song; he also did a resonant cover of the #1 country single of 1968, the politically charged Skip a Rope, written by his old friend Henson Cargill. Garing admitted as his set got underway that he’s “a lucky boy,” having played with several original members of the Grand Old Opry as well as bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin (Garing was reputedly the only sideman that Martin would allow to drink with him, maybe because he could). And some years later, as leader of the Alphabet City Opry, he jumpstarted a fertile New York country scene that’s still going strong almost fifteen years down the road.

Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch played mostly solo on piano beforehand, covering Leonard Cohen, Serge Gainsbourg and then, with Bellmer Dolls frontman Peter Mavrogeorgis on guitar, the Stooges’ Gimme Danger (Paul sang) and a spine-tingling noir version of She Cried ( a Del Shannon cover that Peter, who sang, discovered via the late Roland S. Howard ). Wallfisch’s longtime onstage sparring partner Little Annie also contributed characteristically charming, smoky vocals on songs by Jacques Brel and Leon Russell.

Before Wallfisch, a boyfriend/girlfriend duo called the Pinky Somethings [wasn’t really paying attention] opened the night with carefree if barely competent covers of a lot of good songs: Warren Zevon, John Prine, George Jones, more John Prine. This is how you start out, playing your favorites. If they keep it up and reach the point where they’re writing songs like the ones they like so much, they’ll be really good too.

January 5, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Valerie Kuehne, System Noise, Black Sea Hotel, Lenny Kaye and Paul Wallfisch 12/14/09

The last Beast of the decade (for us, anyway) was one of the best. That such a ridiculously spectacular display of talent doesn’t instantly leap to the top of our Best New York Concerts of 2009 list speaks to how good, and how essential, Paul Wallfisch’s weekly Small Beast concert at the Delancey has become. It’s like this every week.

This one was characteristic in that it ran the gamut from the avant garde to noise-rock (a welcome if unrelated excursion to the downstairs room) to Bulgarian choral music to powerpop to sinister gypsy rock played solo on piano: eclectic to the extreme. New music composer Valerie Kuehne opened the show on cello and vocals, backed by violin, upright bass, electric guitar and drums. Her shapeshifting songs stopped as fast as they started, went doublespeed, lept abruptly and then crept quietly, sometimes in the span of what seemed a few seconds. She sings with the wide-open belt of a classically trained singer, her vocals typically impatient and uneasy. “Do you believe in patterns? Patterns? Patterns?” she inquired accusatively, early on. Her second number, Now We Know set eerie tremolo guitar against jagged, disjointed rhythms that evolved out of the song’s initial stately 6/8 sway. She closed her brief set with a study in abrupt hard/soft contrasts with the vocals and also the stringed instruments. Not exactly easy listening, but then it wasn’t meant to be.

The next act had cancelled, so there was a long lull, long enough to head downstairs where art/punk/funk/noise rockers System Noise had launched into their own magnificent set, unrelated to what was going on upstairs, but it made a perfect segue (and because the next Small Beast act didn’t want to start early and be done by the time their fans had turned up, there was plenty of time to catch this one). Known for their assaultive, roaring guitar and vocal attack, they’ve never been more catchy and accessible, even if it’s a savage, cynical accessibility. A new one, Blame It on the Rain ran an absurdly catchy funk/blues phrase over a slinky groove while frontwoman Sarah Mucho gave it a characteristic sultry ominousness. Hair and Nails (the two parts of the body that continue to grow after death) followed in a similar vein; the best song of the entire night was another new one, a magnificently morbid epic that grew from apprehensive David Gilmour-inflected guitar arpeggios to an almost punk chorus, ending with a dramatic, classically infused buildup that would have been perfectly at home in the Procol Harum catalog. The even more punk number after that maintained the ornate intensity. It’s too bad that the band has since gone on what turned out to be a long-anticipated hiatus: what a run they’ve had, five years at least as one of New York’s best bands.

Upstairs, the four women of Black Sea Hotel assembled onstage. Their claim to fame – beyond having four of the most amazing voices of any New York group, in any style – is their innovative arrangements of traditional Bulgarian choral and folk music. Sometimes they’ll scale down a big, lavish chart to four-part harmony, other times they’ll embellish a folk song’s original single vocal line. Either way, the songs in their repertoire are hypnotic, otherworldly and haunting, but they’re also funny, ironic and sometimes completely absurd, and the crowd clearly got as much of a kick out of hearing the meaning of the Bulgarian lyrics as much as the band did relating them. A woman defiantly tells her guy that even if she’s wearing his clothes, he still can’t have her body; a (probably drunken) guy leaves home dressed in the garb of both his male and female relatives; a hot-to-trot single guy can’t make up his mind whether he’ll continue to court the women of his hometown or try his luck (not so good, so far) elsewhere.

Yet another advantage of Small Beast is that you get to watch the bands up close. Black Sea Hotel’s debut cd (look for it on our Best Albums of 2009 list) is gorgeous and swirling, but it’s impossible to know who’s singing what. Seeing them here, it was a lot of fun to discover that of the four, Corinna Snyder takes the biggest risks and the highest leaps, jumping octaves with split-second precision and losing nothing in pitch or power. Joy Radish is the smallest member of the group but sings with the most power. Willa Roberts has a stunning clarity and precision, and got to deliver the evening’s single most captivating moment,  ending a song about a soldier gone off to war with a final, poignant verse in English. Sarah Small, meanwhile, achieved the impossible by being simultaneously raw and intense yet hypnotically atmospheric, and this time out she was the one who got to add the striking, strange ornamentation that Bulgarian vocal music is best known for. The audience was awestruck. The group have a reputation for being a sort of punk rock version of le Mystere des Voix Bulgares – they’ll sing anywhere – but where they really ought to be is Carnegie Hall.

Putting legendary Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye next on the bill was a smart move – it completely changed the vibe yet maintained it, at least as far as smart songwriting is concerned. Kaye’s stock in trade has always been his guitar playing, but he’s also a formidable songwriter, a first-class powerpop tunesmith. Playing most of the show solo on Strat, occasionally joined by his old 80s bandmate Paul Dugan (of Big Lazy) on upright bass, he ran through a catchy, hook-laden set of mostly original tunes with lyrics ranging from sardonic to fearlessly political. In Style casually dismissed a tourist on the Lower East Side: “You must like that Def Leppard, I know you do.” A rueful garage pop ballad, and another big anthem, were dead ringers for Willie Nile tunes. A jangly ballad by the Weather Prophets – whom Kaye had produced in the 80s – was compelling and pretty, while The Things You Leave Behind – a dedication to Jim Carroll – managed to be both ominously wistful and sarcastic. The duo closed with a sizzling, completely off-the-cuff version of Gloria, Kaye finally cutting loose with a couple of leads, the first going over the edge into noise-rock (this is the guy who basically invented the style, on Radio Ethiopia) before bringing it back to a delirious audience singalong. The crowd wouldn’t let him leave, so he rewarded them with a nasty, sarcastic cover of Jesse’s Girl and then a dark, subdued, jangly meditation on distance and absence, Telltale Heart.

Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch usually opens these shows – the series started as just a way for him to work out new material in front of live audience – but this time he closed it. Because we’ve reviewed so many of these shows this past year, he’s gotten more ink here than anybody else, but it wouldn’t be fair to neglect to mention how intense his own set was. Shira and Sofia is a swinging, noir cabaret-infused Botanica number about two WWII whores – essentially, its theme is make love, not war. When Wallfisch got to the part of the lyric where one of the hookers can “suck your dick,” he screamed it as if was the last thing he’d ever say and the crowd didn’t know whether to completely crack up (it was hilarious, actually) or do something else. He also played a tango, a waltz, a couple of soul numbers, a whiplash version of his collaboration with Little Annie, Because You’re Gone, and an absolutely morbid, Satie-esque rearrangement of Nature Boy (retitled Nature Girl). And had the crowd dancing to pretty much all of it. Small Beast will be off for a couple of weeks and then back on January 10.

December 22, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 20 Best Concerts in New York in 2009

Of all our year-end best-of lists (the 100 Best Songs of 2009 and 50 Best Albums of 2009 included), this is our favorite, because it’s the most individual (everybody has a different list) and it’s closest to our raison d’etre, live music in New York. Last year’s was difficult enough to narrow down to twenty; this year’s is criminally short. We could have put up a top 100 concerts list and it would be five times as good. 

This was the year of the Beast – Small Beast at the Delancey, New York’s most exciting weekly rock event. We caught onto this slowly – the concert series ran for about a month before we discovered it – but when we did we were there almost every week. Occasionally someone will ask, since you have a music blog, why don’t you start booking shows? With Small Beast, there’s no need: it’s your weekly chance to discover the edgiest, smartest rock-ish talent from Gotham and across the globe. You’ll see a lot of those shows on this list.

Yet 2009 was a weird year for us – running a New York live music blog and not being in town much of the time made it problematic, to say the least. Week after week, we watched from a distance, enviously as half the city got to see stuff we never did. In August, the Brooklyn What did a killer triple bill with Palmyra Delran’s garage band and amazing latin ska-punk-gypsy rockers Escarioka at Trash Bar, but we weren’t there. The second night of the Gypsy Tabor Festival just a few weeks later looked like a great time, but we missed that one too. As the year winds down and we finally (hopefully!) start to reap the rewards of a whole lot of hard work, it appears, pending some absolutely transcendent show exploding onto the radar, that this is it for our Best Shows of 09 list. Needless to say, we can’t wait for 2010.

Since any attempt to rank these shows in any kind of order would be an exercise in futility, we just listed them as they happened:

The Brooklyn What at Fat Baby, 1/15/09 – since we’d just reviewed a couple of their shows in the fall of 08, we didn’t even review this one, fearing overkill. But on what was the coldest night of the winter up to that point, they packed the club and burned through a characteristically fun, ferocious set, maybe fueled by the knowledge that one of their idols, Ron Asheton, had left us.

Kerry Kennedy at Rose Bar, 1/21/09 – the noir chanteuse was at the absolute top of her game as quietly resilient siren and southwestern gothic bandleader.

Paul Wallfisch and Larkin Grimm at Small Beast at the Delancey, 4/9/09 – the Botanica frontman (who books Small Beast) turned in a typically fiery set, followed by the avant-chanteuse who battled and finally lashed out at a crowd of clueless yuppie puppies who just didn’t get what the show was all about.

Kotorino at Pete’s Candy Store, 4/13/09 – the quietly multistylistic, gypsyish band filled the place on a Monday night and kept the crowd riveted as they all switched instruments, beats and genres over and over.

The New Collisions at Arlene’s, 4/23/09 – Boston’s best new band blazed through an early 80s inflected set of edgy powerpop.

Paul Wallfisch, the Ulrich-Ziegler Duo and McGinty and White at Small Beast at the Delancey, 4/23/09 – after Wallfisch had set the tone for the night, Big Lazy’s Steve Ulrich and Pink Noise’s Itamar Ziegler played hypnotic, macabre guitar soundscapes followed by the ferociously lyrical retro 60s chamber pop of Joe McGinty and Ward White.

The American String Quartet playing Irving Fine and Robert Sirota’s Triptych at Bargemusic, 4/26/09 – a sinister ride through works by one of the leading lights of the 1950s avant garde followed by a haunting, intense performance of contemporary composer Sirota’s 9/11 suite.

Paul Wallfisch, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble, Spottiswoode and Steve Wynn at Small Beast at the Delancey, 4/30/09 – after Wallfisch got the night started, Beren roared and scorched her way through a pummeling, macabre set. Then Spottiswoode impressed with a subtle set of nocturnes, setting the stage for Wynn, playing together with his friend and ex-lead guitarist Chris Brokaw for the first time in several years, a feast of swirling, otherworldly guitar overtones.

The Friggs and the Chrome Cranks at Santos Party House, 5/8/09 – a triumphant return for the popular 90s garage girl rockers followed by the equally triumphant, reinvigorated, snarling sonic attack of another one of NYC’s best bands of the 90s.

The French Exit at Local 269, 5/13/09 – NYC’s best new dark rockers playing one of their first shows as a four-piece, rich with reverb, tersely incisive piano, haunting vocals and defiant lyricism.

Chicha Libre on the Rocks Off Concert Cruise Boat, 5/15/09 – definitely the best party of the year that we were party to, a swaying excursion through psychedelic, surfy cumbia music, past and present.

Paul Wallfisch, Darren Gaines & the Key Party and Alice Texas at Small Beast at the Delancey, 6/4/09 – Wallfisch kicked it off, Gaines and a stripped-down trio impressed with gutter-poet, Lou Reed/Tom Waits style rock and then Alice Texas turned in a swirling, incandescent, gently assaultive show that reminded how much we miss Tonic, the club where she used to play before it was torn down t0 put up plastic luxury condos.

Paul Wallfisch, Marni Rice and the Snow at Small Beast at the Delancey, 6/22/09 – another Wallfisch night, this one featuring the great LES accordionist/chanteuse/cabaret scholar and then Pierre de Gaillande’s clever, haunting art-r0ck crew.

Ian Hunter at Rockefeller Park, 6/24/09 – the former Mott the Hoople frontman, at age 70, has simply never written, played, or sung better. This show was a real revelation.

Daniel Bernstein at Sidewalk, 7/9/09 – the underground songwriter/lyricist/tunesmith casually burned through one haunting, haunted, ridiculously catchy tune after another.

Randi Russo and the Oxygen Ponies at the Saltmines, 7/10/09 – another haunting show opened with the absolute master of the outsider anthem, who did double duty playing in Paul Megna’s equally dark, intense, lyrical indie band.

The Main Squeeze Accordion Festival: Musette Explosion, Suspenso del Norte, Hector Del Curto’s Eternal Tango Quintet, the Main Squeeze Orchestra, Roberto Cassan and John Munatore, Liony Parra y la Mega Mafia Tipica and Peter Stan at Pier One, 7/11/09 – squeezebox heaven.

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble and the Dave Brubeck Quartet at Damrosch Park, 8/5/09 – cutting-edge Middle Eastern-inflected jazz followed by one of the great ones, undiminished and still inventive at 89.

Jenifer Jackson at Rockwood Music Hall, 11/19/09 – the panstylistic rock goddess played several good New York shows this past year, but this one with Matt Kanelos on piano and glockenspiel and Billy Doughty on drums and melodica was pure transcendence.

Carol Lipnik, Bonfire Madigan, Rachelle Garniez, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble and McGinty and White at Small Beast at the Delancey, 11/23/09 – what seems at this point to be the single best show of the year (if only because it’s the most recent one on the list) matched Lipnik’s phantasmagoria to Madigan’s equally artful chamber pop, Garniez’ irresistible charisma and ferocity, Beren’s contralto classical punk assault and then Ward White took over where the sirens had been and sang what could have been his best show ever.

December 3, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Best New York Concert of 2009

It was at Small Beast, of course, the weekly Monday series at the Delancey booked by Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch, who usually hosts. This past Monday he was in Germany with Little Annie, so fellow dark rocker Carol Lipnik ran the show and opened it with characteristic noir panache. Small Beast being simply New York’s most exciting weekly rock event, it gets so much press here that we’ve tagged all the shows we’ve seen there (if you go to Categories, to your right and scroll down to Small Beast, you’ll find an embarrassment of riches). So it was no surprise that the best New York concert of 2009, barring something even more off-the-chart intense happening in the next month, would take place here.

Lipnik has a franchise on dark carnivalesque rock, more so than Tom Waits or anyone. This time out it was just as much about her four-octave voice – which she ran through two separate mics, one with a bullhorn effect – as it was about the songwriting. Climbing to the top of her stratospheric range, she whispered, purred and wailed, through a bunch of originals from her most recent cd Cloud Girl as well as an original setting of a Rumi poem, the hypnotic, raptly tense Your Pure Sadness. She also brought out every bit of surreal macabre in the Michael Hurley cult classic Werewolf (which you may know from the cover versions by Cat Power or Sarah Mucho). This was just the start of the night.

Next up was the self-described “baroque folk-punk” cellist/songwriter Bonfire Madigan, playing solo with the help of a loop pedal that she’d use to lay down a nimble pizzicato bassline over which she’d layer stark sheets of ambience along with some absurdly catchy pop melodies.She opened with a number based on a seditious seventeenth-century British play and followed that with a savage, two-chord Rasputina-esque chamber rock number. Several of the later numbers hitched Siouxsie-style menace to a clever pop sensibility. She closed with the dramatic, tongue-in-cheek grand guignol of a song titled The Lady Saved the Dragon from the Evil Prince and encored – the crowd wouldn’t let her go – with a somewhat pensive number that evoked Cat Power without the affectations.

Sporting a new Pat Benatar bob, Rachelle Garniez took the intensity to redline in seconds flat, playing solo and switching between accordion and piano. Even in the quietest moments she’s a charismatic performer, but this time out there was no doubt that she had come to conquer – the evening’s lineup had quickly turned into a Murderesses’ Row and Garniez was swinging for the fences. Just as Lipnik had done, she had the the vocal pyrotechnics going even before her first song, the wistful country ballad January Wind, had begun. She likes to jam out her intros and this was a prime example: “So happy to be here as the winter descends upon our town…your heart is cold and I wish mine was too, but instead the snow falls on my heart and creates a hissing sound.” After a long and very funny digression on frogs and their psychedelic properties, she sweated and sighed her way through the orgasmic vocalese of the noir cabaret Medicine Man with a passion that would do Millie Jackson proud. “I wish I’d written this and it was me performing,” one luminary in the crowd whispered to another.

The metaphor-laden 6/8 outsider anthem Tourmaline got the benefit of a gorgeously chordal accordion solo, then Garniez launched into a quizzically fierce new one inspired by someone from her past who’d recently found her online and was no less enamored for all the days between. As angry and dismissive as the song was – “you could have been anyone,” she raged – it also radiated poignancy. Garniez clearly left a mark during her early punk rock years and she makes no secret that she misses at least the fun parts of the pre-Rudy Mussolini era. She wrapped up the too-brief set with a defiantly jaunty version of My House of Peace, the new single she just did with Jack White: “Nobody gets away with murder in the House of Peace.” She’s at Barbes on Dec 3 at 10 if you’re cursing yourself that you missed her here.

Vera Beren also swung for the fences, but with an icy, unforgiving cool. Backed by a one-guitar version of her aptly titled Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble, she played more piano than she usually does, filling out the sound with a characteristically slashing, gypsyish chordal attack while bassist Greg Garing swooped, dove and pummeled the crowd with chords when Beren’s crushing, goth-inflected anthems would rise to a fiery crescendo. She showed off her punk roots with a noir blues in 6/8 (it’s hard to think of another songwriter who writes so many great songs in that time signature), a “careless evil lullaby,” as she put it. Her big crowd-pleaser The Nod was a typically roaring, furious, hypnotic gypsy stomp, Beren’s contralto a black river of venom. Another number paired off fast Siousxie-esque rock against a stately, Blue Oyster Cult-inflected 6/8 art-rock sway. “I should have held you, not repelled you,” she lamented. She wrapped up her too-brief set with an old song from the 90s, Baby, an indelibly New York, Jim Carroll-style tale of the cab ride from and maybe also to hell, pelting the crowd with white roses as she roared to the finish.

After all the sirens, it might seem that McGinty and White would be anticlimactic, but they weren’t, which speaks volumes. Ward White has always been a good singer – that he could hold his own alongside the women before him, let alone continue the vocal intensity, testifies to how good he’s become (his version of Life on Mars was the high point of a recent Loser’s Lounge evening). Playing acoustic guitar and accompanied by ex-Psychedelic Fur Joe McGinty on piano and Claudia Chopek on violin, he might have sung his best show ever. McGinty, by contrast, has all the vocal range of Lou Reed, but he’s all nuance anyway, on the keys and on the mic as well, contributing both his bubblegum pop satire Get a Guy and keeping the innumerable levels of the rest of the songs from ever going too far over the edge. Their playfully titled new album, McGinty and White Sing Selections from the McGinty and White Songbook is high on the Lucid Culture list of best albums of 2009. Unsurprisingly, the set list was full of those selections: the doomed romance of Everything is Fine; the sultry Big Baby, Chopek’s gently beautiful violin a study in contrast with McGinty’s jaunty piano; the ruthless kiss-off anthem Knees; the casual El Lay nightmare roadtrip ballad Stay In Love and the night’s closing number, Wichita Lineman, just White crooning over McGinty’s plaintive keys. By this point, it was almost two in the morning, most of the crowd had dissipated into the drizzle, but it was pure exhilaration for those who were sufficiently energized or unemployed to stick around. The next Small Beast will be December 7 featuring Wallfisch – back from Deutschland – along with the reliably charismatic Reid Paley and others.

November 27, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Randi Russo at the Delancey, NYC 11/2/09

An aptly timed post-Halloween solo show by the raven-haired master of outsider anthems. After spending the better part of the decade as the leader of a careening, somewhat shapeshifting electric band who toward the end were going deep into psychedelia, Randi Russo has in recent months been playing stripped-down solo shows. By the standard that if something sounds good acoustic, it ought to sound great fleshed out by an electric band, her gig Monday night at Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch’s weekly Small Beast extravaganza was full of good omens. Resolute with her guitar in the corner of the small upstairs stage in flickering candlelight, Russo ran through a mix of crowd favorites and intriguing newer material.

She started with a newly rearranged version of Invisible, a ridiculously catchy backbeat-driven outsider anthem that’s seen some revisions lately – a new intro, this time around. She followed that with the casually excoriating Venus on Saturn, a savage dismissal of a drama queen:

The cornerstones of her addictions are stored up in her own mind…

Without it she’d be boring and no one would listen

Now she’s just annoying, and she’s getting all the attention…

Now Freud and Picasso can hone in on your womanly being

And render you two-dimensional in an essay or a canvas painting

The rest of the set ranged between catchy consonance and the eerie overtones that resonate as she plays some of the more unorthodox voicings in her repertoire (she’s a lefty and plays upside down a la Hendrix). The big 6/8 ballad Push-Pull had a gentleness and warmth that a louder electric version might have burnt away; the Zeppelin-inflected, psychedelic Head High While You Lie Low got a surprisingly and very effectively sultry treatment, as did a hushed yet insistent take on the hypnotic Hurt Me Now and another resolute anthem, the defiantly feminist Shout Like a Lady (the title track to her most recent full-length cd). By contrast, the tongue-in-cheek, tricky Parasitic People scurried along like the parasites in the lyric.

By the time she got to the hypnotic escape anthem Ceiling Fire, the drape over Wallfisch’s piano (the Small Beast) started to slip and seconds after she reached the lyric, “any cloud that comes casts a shadow on the seat next to mine,” it fell off completely: another omen? She also debuted a memorably bluesy yet indie-flavored number, yet another anthem for someone trying to keep their bearings in a surreal world. Wallfisch followed, solo on piano, maintaining the warm, soulful vibe, playing with particular warmth and conviviality in a quasi-gospel vein. Turns out that Tuesday would be his wedding anniversary, so he played to his wife (an equally admired cult artist, painter Pat Arnao), who looked on with equal parts appreciation and amusement. It would have been nice to have been able to stay for more than just the obscure Dylan cover and the absolutely exhalted love song – “You gotta trade it all in for love” – that will soon serve as the title track from the forthcoming Botanica album. But there was another victorious event going on, in Philadelphia, to watch with bated breath.

Next week’s Small Beast is a particularly good one, featuring Wallfisch plus haunting, anthemic art-rockers Norden Bombsight.

November 4, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Typical Beastly Monday

So good to be back at Small Beast after a few weeks’ absence. Nothing has changed – New York’s most unpredictably fun weekly musical event was as edgy as always. This time around, Pete Galub opened the night while Botanica keyboardist and Small Beast impresario Paul Wallfisch furiously wrote out charts for his show later in the evening with Sally Norvell. Most solo shows are boring to the extreme, but Galub had brought along a gorgeous hollowbody electric guitar and gave a clinic in powerpop songwriting – and when the time came, guitar solos, playing along methodically as if he had his usual band behind him. Galub gets props for his playing, and deservedly so, but his songs are every bit as clever as his work as a lead guitarist for a cavalcade of A-list writers: Amy Allison, Serena Jost and others. He opened with a sardonic, Big Star inflected number possibly titled Exclusive Guest, following that with a gorgeously poignant, minor-key, somewhat Neil Finn-esque tune, Crying Time. A cover of the late former LA Trash frontman Alan Andrews‘ big 6/8 ballad Undiscovered Life maintained the poignant tone while adding a tongue-in-cheek vibe, segueing into a nasty, noisy riff-rocker that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Kevin Salem catalog – complete with an offhandedly savage solo. And then a real surprise, a pensive and heartfelt version of Any Major Dude by Steely Dan. When Galub opened his set, he’d hinted that he might take a detour into the Dan catalog, and this was a typically counterintuitive choice. Most solo shows are a clinic in how to bore an audience: Galub reaffirmed that if you have the chops, the material and a sense of humor, you don’t necessarily need a band.

Guitarist Thomas Simon and his drummer cohort were next on the bill, with a long set of swirling, atmospheric, effects-laden numbers that took the shape of a suite as they segued into one another. “A Spacemen 3 kind of thing,” one of the cognoscenti in the crowd murmured – this set had remarkably more aggression than Simon’s previous appearance at the Beast in July (very favorably reviewed here).

For one reason or another the women who play Small Beast turn out to be the night’s biggest stars, and an Austin punk legend, former Gator Family and Norvells frontwoman Sally Norvell maintained the tradition, backed by Wallfisch and erstwhile Big Lazy bassist Paul Dugan on a few numbers. Norvell is best known as a menacing noir cabaret femme fatale, but this set was a showcase in stylistic diversity, masterful subtlety matched by wrenching, raw intensity. Norvell can belt with anyone, but it’s how she holds back, how she works whatever emotion the lyrics call for that makes her such a captivating presence – and one sorely missed, at least around these parts. A few years back, right around the time that her duo with Kid Congo Powers, Congo Norvell was pretty much finished, she put out an amazing, sparsely beautiful album, Choking Victim, backed just by Wallfisch and occasional minimalist percussion or guitar. They opened with one of the songs from that one, One Gentle Thing, replete with longing and regret, Wallfisch obviously in his element and relishing the moment from its first few stately chords. A creepy, swaying Congo Norvell song pulsed along with a steady, ominous eight-note pulse from the bass. And then noir cabaret personality Little Annie joined them for an understatedly anguished version of her big audience hit Because You’re Gone – the contrast of Annie’s bitter contralto and Norvell’s breathy soprano, and the counterpoint between the two, was absolutely transcendent and the two women made it seem effortless. And unaffectly intense – it brought Norvell to tears. The rest of the set could have been anticlimactic but it wasn’t – a brief, menacing Paul Bowles song (Wallfisch worked with him for a time), a sad minor ballad in 6/8, a gorgeously dark lament, and then Norvell finally cut loose with a soaring version of the old spiritual Trouble in the World, imbuing it with a nihilistic fury. “You can’t have an apocalypse without Jesus,” she grinned gleefully.

Keyboardist and Americana soul stylist Matt Kanelos and then another keyb guy, frequent Thalia Zedek collaborator M.G. Lederman were scheduled to follow, but there were places to go and things to do. Next week’s Beast is a beauty, with Julia Kent, Carol Lipnik and Rebecca Cherry in addition to Wallfisch doing his usual set solo at the piano – if you’re in New York this coming Monday you’d be crazy to miss it.

October 7, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Paul Wallfisch, Lillie Jayne, Alice Texas and We Intersect at the Delancey, NYC 8/24/09

Small Beast #31 (could that be?) was at least from this perspective a little sad yet ultimately optimistic, equal parts fond evocation of a lost time in New York music history and auspicious preview of the future. With the depression in full swing, many of the rock clubs here still prefer to book acts numbering among the idle rich. But with the market for “luxury” housing in freefall and the crowds of tourists who once swarmed like flies on the carcass of the Lower East Side largely absent, we’re getting our city back and with it the music of its dark underbelly. Last night was beautiful example.

Ten years ago, both Small Beast impresario Paul Wallfisch’s band Botanica and also Alice Texas made Tonic their home when they weren’t on the road. But Tonic closed in 2006, driven out by rising rents: the building site is now a shoddy, mostly vacant multimillion-dollar Legoland condo project. But with Small Beast on Monday nights (moving to Thursdays in September) upstairs at the Delancey, Tonic has been reborn. Once again, New York has a home for fearless, dark, adventurous rock and related styles. Wallfisch, with his blend of gypsy, Romantic, blues and gospel piano, gets a ton of ink here so suffice it to say that last night’s show was typical. His bad mood from the previous week hadn’t dissipated, and this was a solo show, without the ringer percussionist who’d stood in with him, representing the youngest generation of rock fans (who stand to inherit an impoverished, probably vastly more dangerous yet also probably vastly more fertile scene than has ever existed here). “Why do you want to fight when you can fuck all night? I cleared the room!” Wallfisch added gleefully, as the logic of one of the whores in the Botanica song Shira & Sofia sent a posse of overdressed, fake-tanned bridge-and-tunnel girls stumbling up the stairs on their once-a-week high heels to the rooftop barbecue. In a set that went on barely a half-hour, he veered from seduction to wrath to regret, covering Leonard Cohen,Marianne Faithfull and his longtime noir cabaret partner Little Annie.

He was followed by a brief set by actress and Glass Lamborghini frontwoman Lillie Jayne and her pianist “Fagen Beauregard” performing songs from her current Fringe Festival show A Night with Poppy Bulova. Channeling an obliviously self-obsessed Eastern European chanteuse, the obviousness of some of the comedy at least proved how well Jayne has assimilated the style. A living legend takes herself seriously, after all – except at the end, this one didn’t, which was the funniest part of the act. Her show runs through August 29 at the CSV Cultural and Educational Center at 107 Suffolk Street.

Alice Texas’ show here back in June was transcendent. This time out wasn’t bad either, especially considering that she was essentially backed by Botanica, or portions of various Botanicas: Dave Berger on drums, Wallfisch on piano and Christian Bongers on a gorgeous vintage 60s hollowbody bass. It was a considerably different set, more upbeat, giving the noir Americana chanteuse the chance to cut loose and really wail on a couple of numbers. She led the band into a long, mesmerizing Moonlight-mile style outro and kept going. It was obvious that the crew wasn’t particularly well-rehearsed, not because they made mistakes – these guys are pros, after all. But she made it clear that she was the only one who knew when it was going to stop, keeping the suspense on a knife’s edge. Then she did it again on one of the later numbers, giving Wallfisch another, welcome chance to get expansive. They closed with maybe the most hypnotic song of the night, Permission, a beautifully relentless post-Velvets dirge.

We Intersect is the side project of the Sad Little Stars‘ Rachel McIntosh and Max Low. With their insistent, pitch-perfect harmonies and Americana-inflected melodies, they played an hour of alternately warm and wary Pete’s Candy Store piano pop (to those outside New York, Pete’s Candy Store is the little Brooklyn bar that spawned a million country and bluegrass-inflected indie acts back in the 90s and early zeros). McIntosh added gently ambient layers of synth on occasion alongside Low’s smartly chordal piano work. They opened with a deadpan version of the Ramones’ The KKK Took My Baby Away, eventually did an impressive and understatedly fresh version of Big Star’s terminally overplayed 13 and at the end of the set, a suitably haunted take of the Smiths’ There Is a Light That Never Goes Out. But the originals were the best, one an upbeat 6/8 gospelish number, a couple of pensive ballads and a matter-of-factly delivered nocturne: “You dim the lights when you’ve arrived,” the two sang with a meticulous certainty.

August 25, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Paul Wallfisch, Curtis Eller and Bliss Blood at the Delancey, NYC 8/17/09

It may have been a scorching Monday night in the dead of August, but Small Beast – the weekly salon/performance event we’ve been screeching about for the past six months or so – was pretty packed. The word of the night was charisma – reviled as passe in indie rock circles but as valid as ever for the other 95% of the world. This was simply one of the best triple bills of the year – although that possibility rears its head every week here. Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch (as regular readers of this space know, perhaps by heart) is a hard-rocking pianist who blends gypsy and classical motifs into his alternately ornate and austere art-rock songs. He was in a bad mood, brightened somewhat by the presence of a ringer percussionist, a tough-looking guy of about nine who contributed tambourine for practically the entirety of the set, demonstrating an appreciation for groove and an ear for creative rhythms that may develop into rock-solid timing if he keeps it up. He did a bunch of covers: a punked-out piano version of the Stones’ Faraway Eyes, a brief Paul Bowles song with a violent ending, a casually sultry take of Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man and a completely unhinged Why’d Ya Do It (the Marianne Faithfull rant from the Broken English lp). He closed on a raptly soulful note with the gentle, gospel-fueled title track to Botanica’s latest, forthcoming cd.

“This may be an asshole thing to say, but I didn’t expect him to be so good,” marveled the next act, banjo rocker Curtis Eller, without a trace of sarcasm. And then took the show to the next level. With his banjo hooked up to a wireless transmitter, Eller refused to stand in one place, alternating between a high-kicking Dizzy Dean stance and a righthanded Darryl Strawberry crouch, running the length of the floor past the bar, playing the piano with his ass and keeping the audience riveted. There may be no better lyricist out there right now – a set of Curtis Eller songs is just about as good and accurate a look at American history over the past two hundred years as A People’s History of the United States, and it’s a whole lot funnier. Referencing Elvis twice, Nixon several times, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the Las Vegas mob, Boss Tweed, doping in horseracing, Pentecostal rites and the death penalty, he ran through a mix of older songs and tunes from his most recent cd Wirewalkers and Assassins (which may prove over time to be a classic). Taking Up Serpents took a vividly literate look at how the ruling classes keep the lower ones divided and conquered; Sugar for the Horses examined the consequences of what happens when people like Boss Tweed and Elvis are separated at birth (that’s a quote). Three More Minutes with Elvis paradoxically worked equally well as wistful ballad and caustic portrayal of over-the-top idol worship; After the Soil Fails packed just about every contributing factor to the coming apocalypse into three furiously catchy minutes of minor-key noir blues. The crowd sang along on the bitterly tongue-in-cheek Come Back to the Movies, Buster Keaton and on the gently haunting closing number, Save Me Joe Louis, Eller sinking to his knees and whispering the outro like the song’s condemned man in the gas chamber.

Bliss Blood of the Moonlighters followed with a rare solo set of razor-sharp, period-perfect originals and a playful selection of covers from across the decades. A songwriter unsurpassed at evoking the subtle wit and exuberance of 1920s/30s swing, blues and Hawaiian music, her style is more cajolery than outright seduction, notwithstanding her stage outfit, in this case a vintage black slip over fishnets. “It’s like when the Moonlighters used to play Tonic, with industrial metal in the basement,” she sneered, as the thud from the downstairs room threatened to drown out her ukelele. “Let’s all stomp on the floor and scream!” The crowd was glad to comply. Her plaintive original Winter in My Heart (from the Moonlighters’ excellent new cd Enchanted) was inspired, she said, by an ex who refused her invites to join her on myspace and facebook – pretty cold, especially when you consider that there are guys out there who would probably be willing to pay to join Bliss Blood’s virtual circle of friends.

She worked every innuendo in Al Duvall‘s Sheet Music Man (also from the new album) for all they were worth, offered up cheerily swoony versions of the old jazz tunes Moanin’ Love and Fooling with the Other Woman’s Man, scurried through a fast, scorching take of the Moonlighters’ anti-maquiladora bolero Dirt Road Life as well as a trio of Kinks covers from Village Green. And then a request, Animal Farm (turns out she was a Kinks fan for a considerable time before she met the Davies brothers and Dave kissed her on the lips). “I could play all night,” she laughed before finally wrapping up her show with an original, the blithe hobo anthem Texarkana Bound, which is available as a free download. Comedic acoustic cowpunk Larry Bang Bang was next on the bill, which from what’s on his myspace could have been a lot of fun, but by then it was midnight on a work night and there were things to do, specifically, get home and stick a fan in the window before the place spontaneously combusted.

August 19, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment