Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Abbie Barrett and Her Band Wail at the Rockwood

Saturday night at the Rockwood, singer Abbie Barrett took a stab at explaining what she’s all about. She’d recently been asked by someone, maybe a promoter or a blogger. “I was supposed explain what my theme is. What’s my theme? Telling people off in a really obnoxious way.” Which isn’t exactly true. Her stage persona is hardly obnoxious, although she’s very, very good at telling people off, sometimes directly (one of her catchiest songs might have been called Fuck Off), more frequently in a subtle, vividly lyrical way. Barrett does it without cliches, a tinge of smoke in her soaring voice adding a plaintive edge to her country and vintage soul-inflected rock songs. As Mary Lee Kortes famously said, never mess with a songwriter. They always get even in the end.

She and her excellent band had just driven up from Boston. “This song is about road rage,” Barrett told the crowd, as they launched into Bang, the darkly bluesy soul shuffle that opens her most recent album Dying Day. After a surprise tempo shift, the Telecaster player switched to a distantly ominous, watery chorus-box tone for the rest of the song. They’d opened with a song possibly titled On the Range, blending 60s psychedelic folk with an anthemic, big-sky feel, a cynical account of a place where there are no jobs and not much of anything else. Barrett went deep into soul mode with a defiant shuffle, its narrator refusing to back down: she’s a soldier. A fast, potently jangly number sounded like the Grateful Dead classic Bertha done by another Barrett, Syd, bassist Alec Darien soaring into the upper frets over the apprehensive chord changes. They wrapped up their set with the suspenseful Kingdoms and Castles, seemingly a dis aimed at a would-be domestic goddess, its hypnotic, atmospheric intro building to a backbeat-driven stomp. As enjoyable as the acoustic/electric guitar textures were – the room doesn’t usually get as loud as these guys were – it would have been nice to have heard more of the lyrics cut through, especially considering how intensely Barrett was singing them. But that wasn’t the band’s fault. Barrett’s next gig is on June 11, outdoors at Union Square in Somerville, Massachusetts; watch this space for upcoming NYC dates.

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May 19, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Meklit Hadero Enchants the Crowd at the Skirball Center

In her interview here a couple of weeks ago, eclectic chanteuse Meklit Hadero affirmed her interest in cross-pollination, not only musically, but across cultural boundaries. At her show last Sunday at the Skirball Center at NYU (where she’s currently artist-in-residence), she reaffirmed her dedication to both goals. It takes nerve to open a show a-cappella, but Hadero pulled it off without breaking a sweat. There are plenty of women with beautiful voices out there, few who deserve comparison to Nina Simone and Hadero is one of them. Part oldschool soul, part jazz, part Ethiopian folk, her music defies category because it’s so different from anything else out there. Occasionally singing in Amharic, she charmed the audience with a jaunty proto-Afrobeat theme that translated loosely as “I like your Afro;” another, like a vocal counterpart to Hamza Al Din’s Water Wheel, celebrated bucolic Ethiopian farm life, in many ways unchanged from how it’s been for millennia.

Much of Hadero’s music is quiet, but it’s also unusually earthy and rhythm-oriented. She likes low tonalities, and it showed, with four incisive, sometimes sly bass solos from Keith Witty. Hadero also plays acoustic guitar more as a rhythm instrument, like her vocals, quiet and determined and steady. It’s always a treat to hear trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, who contributed characteristically spacious yet almost minimalistically jewelled lines, both with and without a mute. As she frequently does, Hadero put down her guitar and backed by just trumpet, bass and drums, ran through a mix of pensive yet warm material from her most recent album On a Day Like This…, including a jazzy, swinging version of the popular title track, the vividly sunny, funky Soleil Soleil – written after “forty days of rain,” Hadero told the crowd – as well as some unreleased material, including the unselfconsciously wry yet torchy Mixed Message Men that she used to close the show on a high note.

Other material took on a lush atmospheric vibe – “Like sleeping in the sun on a feather bed,” Hadero smiled – enhanced by some luscious arrangements for two-cello string quartet featuring both Analissa Martinez and Jennifer de Vore along with Tarrah Reynolds on violin and Eva Gerard on viola. It was the perfect vehicle for Hadero’s unselfconsciously warm delivery. Some singers work hard to engage the audience: with a jaunty blue note springing out of a velvety, hushed phrase, Hadero lets them come to her. She’s got an ongoing residency on Wednesdays at 4 PM this month at the Lincoln Center Atrium, where she’s engaging some eclectic artists (including members of ecstatically fun Ethiopian groove unit Debo Band on the 27th) in both music and conversation along with Q&A from the audience.

April 11, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, rock music, soul music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shenandoah and the Night Mix Intriguing Noir Styles

Dark pop/soul band Shenandoah and the Night’s frontwoman Shenandoah Ableman has one of those disconcertingly guileless indie rock voices. When she goes up high, she goes into falsetto rather than head voice, using the device effectively to add a creepy edge. Her band has a new four-song ep up at soundcloud that’s worth checking out if dark rock is your thing. The first track is a synth-pop number that intriguingly contrasts Ableman’s raw vocals with blippy keyboards and watery 80s chorus-box guitar. Ostensibly a traditional number, Dink’s Song is done here as David Lynch noir doo-wop with just the hint of eerie funeral parlor organ and an unexpectedly soulful, terse blues guitar solo from Sean Hutchinson toward the end. All the Beautiful Ladies seems to be an All the Pretty Horses shout-out,  a potent study in contrast, slowly brooding verse and swinging chorus, mariachiesque southwestern gothic with reverb-drenched guitar and Kenny Warren’s trumpet enhancing the spaghetti western vibe. Ableman sings the last song, a darkly swaying piano/organ tune, with a different backing unit: “These arms, these eyes will hold you when you come home” sounds more like a threat than a consolation. All this could be tremendously cool live. Shenandoah and the Night play the cd release show for this one at Spike Hill on May 28 at 9.

April 7, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dina Rudeen’s Common Splendor is Uncommonly Splendid

Dina Rudeen is the missing link between Neko Case and Eartha Kitt. The way she slides up to a high note and then nails it triumphantly will give you shivers. Her songs draw you in, make you listen: they aren’t wordy or packed with innumerable chord changes, but they pack a wallop. With just a short verse and a catchy tune, Rudeen will paint a picture and then embellish it while the initial impact is still sinking in. Musically, she reaches back to the magical moment in the late 60s and early 70s when soul music collided with psychedelic rock; lyrically, she uses the metaphorically loaded, witty vernacular of the blues as a foundation for her own terse, literate style. Some of the songs on her new album The Common Splendor sound like what Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks could have been if he’d had a good band behind him; the rest runs the gamut from lush, nocturnal oldschool soul ballads, to jaunty, upbeat, Americana rock. Behind Rudeen’s nuanced vocals, Gary Langol plays keyboards and stringed instruments along with Tim Bright on electric guitars, Tim Luntzel on bass, Konrad Meissner on drums, Jordan MacLean on trumpet, the ubiquitously good Doug Wieselman on baritone sax and clarinet, Lawrence Zoernig on cello, bells and bowls, Smoota’s Dave Smith on trombone, Lars Jacobsen on tenor sax and Jake Engel of Lenny Molotov’s band on blues harp. The arrangements are exquisite, with tersely interwoven guitar and keyboard lines, and horn charts that punch in and then disappear, only to jump back in on a crescendo. This also happens to be the best-produced album of the year: it sounds like a vinyl record.

The opening track, Hittin’ the Town is a sly, ultimately triumphant tune about conquering inner demons, driven by a defiant horn chart over a vintage 50s Howlin Wolf shuffle beat:

I hit a dry spell
I hit a low note
I hit the deck
But missed the boat
I hit the top, cracked the jewel in my crown
When it hit me like a ton of bricks that’s when I hit the ground
But now I’m just hitting the town

The second cut, Steady the Plow slinks along on a low key gospel/blues shuffle, Rudeen’s sultry contralto contrasting with layers of reverberating lapsteel, piano and dobro moving through the mix – psychedelic Americana, 2011 style. Safe with Me, a southern soul tune, wouldn’t have been out of place in the Bettye Swann songbook circa 1967. The lush, gorgeously bittersweet, Rachelle Garniez-esque Yvette eulogizes a teenage party pal who died before her time, maybe because she pushed herself a little too hard (Rudeen doesn’t say, an example of how the ellipses here speak as loudly as the words). Hold Up the Night succinctly captures the “beautiful, unfolding sight” of a gritty wee hours street scene; Blue Bird, a bucolic tribute to the original songbird – or one of them – has more of Langol’s sweet steel work. And Prodigal One, another requiem, vividly memorializes a crazy neighborhood character who finally got on the Night Train and took it express all the way to the end.

Not everything here is quiet and pensive. There’s also some upbeat retro rock here, including the sultry Cadillac of Love and a couple of rockabilly numbers: Repeat Offender, with its Sun Records noir vibe, and Gray Pompadour, a tribute to an old guy who just won’t quit. There’s also the unselfconsciously joyous closing singalong, On My Way Back Home, namechecking a characteristically eclectic list of influences: Bowie, Elvis, the Grateful Dead, among others. Count this among one of the best releases of 2011 in any style of music. Watch this space for upcoming NYC live dates.

April 6, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Jay Banerjee’s New Album Slashes and Clangs

Cynical janglerock heaven. Jay Banerjee may be best known at the moment as the creator of Hipster Demolition Night, arguably New York’s best monthly rock event, but he’s also a great tunesmith. On his new album “Ban-er-jee,” Just Like It’s Spelled, he plays all the instruments, Elliott Smith style (aside from a couple of a couple of harmonica and keyboard cameos, anyway). Drawing deeply on the Byrds, the Beatles, the first British invasion and 60s soul music, Banerjee offers a slightly more pop, more straightfoward take on what Elvis Costello has done so well for so long, crafting a series of three-minute gems with a biting lyrical edge. The obvious influence, both guitar- and song-wise, is the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn – like McGuinn, Banerjee plays a Rickenbacker. The tunes here are brisk, with an impatient, scurrying pulse like the Dave Clark Five, with layers of guitar that ring, jangle and chime, throwing off fluorescent washes of magically glimmering overtones as only a Rickenbacker can do.

Lyrically, Banerjee goes for the jugular, sometimes with tongue in cheek but generally not. These are songs for guys. Banerjee’s characters, if they are in fact characters, have no stomach for drama, no patience for indecisive girls holding out for men they’ll never be able to measure up to. And these women don’t get off easy. The funniest and most spot-on cut here is Long Way Home: what the Stooges’ Rich Bitch was to Detroit, 1976, this one is to Brooklyn, 2010, a brutal dismissal of a “dress up doll with a goofy drawl” who finds that she’s no match for New York heartlessness. By contrast, Just Another Day (not the McCartney hit, in case you’re wondering) is equally vicious but far more subtle. Banerjee lets the gentrifier girl’s aimless daily routine slowly unwind: finally awake by noon, “She tells herself if life’s a game, it isn’t hard to play/’Cause all you lose is just another day.”

A handful of the other tracks have obviously pseudonymous womens’ names. Dear Donna, the opening cut, sarcastically rejoices in pissing off the girl’s mother – via suicide note. Kate is rewarded for having “too many feelings” with a memorable Byrds/Beatles amalgam. Lindsay won’t be swayed by any overtures, and her shallow friends may be partially at fault: “They said you pray that I just find someone desperate/Lindsay, all that they say, already I could have guessed it.” Another cut manages to weld the artsy jangle of the Church to a Chuck Berry boogie, with surprisingly effective results. There’s also the early 60s, Roy Orbison-inflected noir pop of Leave Me Alone; See Her Face, the Byrdsiest moment here; and the clanging 60s soul/rock of No Way Girl. Fans of both classic pop and edgy, wounded rock songwriters like Stiv Bators have plenty to sink their teeth into here.

With his band the Heartthrobs, Banerjee rocks a lot harder than he does here: your next chance to see them is the next Hipster Demolition Night at Public Assembly on December 9, starting at 8 with the garage rocking Demands, then Banerjee at 9 followed at 10 by psychedelic rockers Whooping Crane and then oldschool soul stylists the Solid Set. Cover is seven bucks which comes out to less than $2 per act: did we just say that this might be New York’s best monthly rock night, or what?

By the way, for anyone lucky enough to own a turntable, the album’s also available on vinyl.

December 1, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Dina Dean at Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 11/8/07

A riveting performance by one of the best bands in town. Dina Dean’s backing unit was the story tonight. Their supple, subtle rhythm section features Botanica’s bassist (playing upright) and a drummer who didn’t waste a single brushstroke. Dean’s piano player was equally minimal and incisive, with a warm, gospel-inflected style, also doubling on lapsteel on the set’s last few numbers. Her lead guitarist embellished the material with style and substance, impressing with some particularly tasteful slide work on one of the songs. It’s always a treat to see a band having as good a time onstage as these guys did, quietly and efficiently: they’re the perfect vehicle for Dean’s richly melodic, slow-to-midtempo blend of 60s rock, old-school soul, gospel and country. And where was this terrific band playing tonight? Not at the horrid Living Room, at least: they were at the Rockwood. Nothing against the space: it’s a great place for listening. But it’s tiny. This band should have been headlining the Beacon or the Town Hall.

As a songwriter (although NOT as a singer), Dean most closely resembles the Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan, a rocker with an effortless fluency in pretty much every style of American roots music. Her lyrics are steeped in history, full of double entendres, clever puns and allusions. This is headphone music, and the sound in the room was thankfully up to its usual high standard so Dean’s casual, soulful alto could cut through over the band. They opened with The Same Grace, a song from her excellent recent ep, driven by gospel piano, and followed with another cut, the gorgeous, 60s throwback Radio Song with its catchy chorus: “She stays up, up, up all night.” The next song was a towering ballad, the Ma Rainey tribute Down in the Dust, chronicling the turbulent life of the legendary singer who found herself out in the cold “when jazz blew the fuse on the blues.” After that, they did a new one, a slow, pensive ballad that sounded like the great lost cut from Blood on the Tracks.

Introducing a rockabilly-tinged number about Billy Lee Riley, Dean explained how Sun Records had to choose between promoting Great Balls of Fire or Riley’s classic My Gal Is Red Hot. With a limited promotion budget, they chose the former and the rest is history. The song crescendoed nicely into a bluesy chorus. The next tune was the highlight of the night, a gorgeously vivid soul/jazz lament that wouldn’t be out of place in the Gil Scott-Heron catalog, pondering where New York’s own soul has gone. After that they did an impressively upbeat piano-driven jump blues song, and the slow, thoughtful ballad Walk Through the Rain, with the piano player switching to lapsteel.

This wasn’t a perfect show: intros and outros were tentative – the band still seems to be getting a handle on some of the songs – and there were guitar and lapsteel tuning issues toward the end of the set. Although that’s to be expected when a band brings their instruments in out of the cold on a night like this. Still, it’s a safe bet this was the best show you could have seen anywhere in New York tonight. Dean’s always been a decent songwriter, but in the months since she put this band together she’s become a must-see. Now’s your chance. Before she headlines the Beacon or the Town Hall.

November 9, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Dina Dean – 4 Songs

Her auspicious but all-too-brief debut. Always leave them wanting more, the saying goes and it’s never been more true here. Dina Dean is a lefthanded guitarist and in that tradition, she uses a lot of interesting, uniquely incisive licks and chordlets. She’s also a hell of a lyricist, a terrific storyteller with a fondness for weirdos and the down-and-out. And a hell of a singer with an alto delivery capable of minute yet very powerful subtleties. When she gets loud, which isn’t often, you know something’s up. These songs are all midtempo rock but draw deeply on classic 60s soul with a tinge of country here and there.

The album begins with Radio Song, a vivid late-night portrait of a neighborhood character who hangs out in the park with her radio amidst a whole lot of chaos

She’s counting down the top 10 from ‘65
When she should be counting sheep
Warming up some cold coffee
As she wonders why –
She can’t fall asleep

And then the chorus kicks in, driven by echoey Fender Rhodes piano, spiced with guitar and harmonica. The next track, Same Grace is a gospel-inflected tribute to street musicians everywhere:

Rivers rolling down your face
With an accent I could hardly trace
Singing about that Same Grace
That’s kept you here

Some of Them Days, with its swinging beat and soaring steel guitar has a warm, evocative summery feel. The cd’s final track Down in the Dust is a richly imagistic chronicle of an ancient dancer from the 1930s looking back on her trials and travails:

The queen madame of the minstrel
In my own travelin’ show
In the days of Silent Cal
And that no count Jim Crow
I was living high on the hog
In my ruby studded shoes
And went back to a hollow log
When jazz blew the fuse on the blues

Four songs, five bagels. Toasted with butter at some all-night joint. This cd is available for a ridiculously low price at shows.

June 5, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments