Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Mark Sinnis at the Slipper Room, NYC 4/18/10

Mark Sinnis, frontman of Nashville gothic rockers Ninth House plays his solo acoustic show at least as frequently, maybe more than he does with his band. Celebrating the release of his third solo cd, The Night’s Last Tomorrow, he held the goth night crowd at the Slipper Room rapt Sunday night with his most energetic solo performance in a long time. Most recently, he’d been mining a quietly creepy, Leonard Cohen-esque, minimalist style. This time out, backed only by extraordinary string player Susan Mitchell – doubling on electric violin and electric cello – he alternated between a stygian croon and an unleashed roar, his acoustic guitar amped almost to the point of distortion. Still, the show maintained the same kind of nuance of his most recent acoustic gigs – it’s not often that you see a guy who plays with a band as loud as Ninth House projecting gently with a laid-back, black velvet Johnny Cash style delivery.

Fifteen Miles to Hell’s Gate, the opener, is a furious stomp when done by the band, a not-so-subtle swipe at a no-longer-edgy New York where the fashion-centric shallowness of indie rock overshadows the real thing. This one downplayed the local angle, an elegy for dashed hopes and dreams. Mitchell’s gracefully descending violin gave the offhandedly dismissive Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me considerable added poignancy; their version of Saint James Infirmary unleashed the song’s inner goth, culminating in a flurry of Balkan violin madness. Another new one, Fallible Friend, a catalog of disillusionments, flipped the script with a trick ending; the gospel-tinged That’s Why I Won’t Love You became more of a backwoods funeral, Mitchell again adding white-knuckle intensity. She switched to cello for a macabre janglerock version of the once-banned classic Gloomy Sunday. They encored with the Ninth House concert favorite Follow the Line, a characteristically passionate tribute to drinking and driving, “poison” becoming “whiskey” as Sinnis let the word slip out, Freudian style, on the second verse. Watch this space for a review of the album, his best solo effort to date.

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April 23, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Ninth House at Otto’s, NYC 1/9/10

By a quarter to eleven, the world’s most inept rockabilly band is finishing up. The bass player can’t figure out the chords to Mystery Train. But they have an excuse: they’re in high school.

Ninth House take the stage minus their keyboardist, but with the reliably intense Susan Mitchell on viola. Rightaway she finds her spot and holds it down, playing eerie washes of sound, doubling the vocal line, foreshadowing it or establishing a harmony since guitarist Keith Otten – the best six-string player this band’s ever had-  is wailing with a casually savage Jimmy Page-gone-terse vibe. They open with a new one, Fifteen Miles to Hell’s Gate, galloping along a la vintage Social Distortion. “Fifteen miles to Hell’s Gate, from New York City, the one that drags me into a hole,” roars bassist/singer Mark Sinnis in his sinister baritone.

They usually open with Long Stray Whim and its blast of guitar fury, but this time they play it second. Mitchell brings an eerie bluesiness to her solo and Otten follows her, even eerier. They should be at odds with the defiant, major-key triumph of the melody but they’re not.

Another new one, Funeral for Your Mind is a brutal anthem. Drummer Francis Xavier rides the toms to drive the chorus home, hard. When the time comes, another paint-peeling Otten guitar solo over Mitchell’s stark ambience.

Injury Home is a noir cabaret blues, and Mitchell takes the lead, giving it an oldtimey feel; they follow that with the catchy, poppy, swaying, mid-80s Cure-ish Down Beneath.

“That song is about dying. This song is about dying too,” Sinnis tells the packed house. And then launches into a fast country shuffle. “Death is your friend, in harmony.” The crowd loves it. They want more and they get it.

“Here’s another song about dying.”  This is a brand new one, “A world premiere,” as Sinnis cynically puts it. More pounding post-Social Distortion punkabilly. The guy wants to be buried “in a suit of black, with a bottle of whiskey at my feet.” That doesn’t exactly come as a shock.

They close with a pummeling punked-out cover of Ghost Riders, flying along until Sinnis ends it cold. The rockabilly kids have stayed; some have their phones out, taking pictures, making videos. They’ve just seen one of New York’s best bands for the last ten years at the top of their macabre game, most likely for the first time. They probably will again.

January 13, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Mark Steiner at Otto’s Shrunken Head, NYC 10/16/07

An exhilarating, powerful show. New York expat and former Kundera and Piker Ryan’s Folly frontman Mark Steiner had a great band behind him: brothers Peter and Christopher Mele on bass and drums, respectively, the incomparable Susan Mitchell on violin and a couple of excellent female backing vocalists joining him from time to time.

The band was loud, but as one A-list New York rocker, incognito in a maroon Midwestern windbreaker was heard to say, “I like the rock Steiner.” Both his former bands here were artsy, orchestrated units: tonight, they delivered a mix of big audience hits and new material with a roaring, passionate fury, as if this was CBGB, 1979. The sound mix was far from what it could have been: at one point, the aforementioned A-list rocker, disgusted, calmly walked to the stage and moved both vocal mics next to each other so that Steiner’s ominous baritone could be more audible than it was early in the show. In a world where good male singers are an increasingly rare commodity, Steiner is one of the absolute best, and he reaffirmed that tonight…when he could be heard. This place has a monthly surf music show in the corner back room here, and that sounds great, but bands with vocals are obviously an afterthought. The bass was too loud and the guitar went out of tune frequently (Steiner’s heavy use of the whammy bar requires that he retune after practically every song). Yet it didn’t matter. The songs were so good, the intensity of the performance so relentless and unselfconscious that they could have been playing in somebody’s garage and it would have been no less fun.

Steiner’s signature style is dark and menacing. He plays with a ton of reverb, frequently using his tremolo bar for an eerie, twangy bent-note effect. His melodies blend classical motifs with retro 50s chord changes, occasionally venturing into Irish ballad territory. The obvious influence is Nick Cave, but Steiner doesn’t play the balladeer, or affect any persona. His compositions echo an earlier era, around the time The Mercy Seat came out. Tonight’s only incongruity was between songs, as Steiner casually laughed and joked with the audience. It was a cd release show for his new album Fallen Birds, which he’s also released on 180 gram vinyl. “180 grams,” he mused. “Of what?” There was nervous laughter throughout the room: nobody was oblivious to what he was alluding to.

Early in the show, before they brought up the vocals, Steiner delivered one of his most powerful numbers, a slow, 6/8 tale of abandonment (he loves 6/8 time). Soon afterward Steiner turned up his amp to the point of distorting, and they followed with a supremely catchy, upbeat, staccato-driven tune that sounded like the great lost early Bauhaus track. After that, they played the haunting, 6/8 audience hit Now She’s Gone, then a very long cover of The Fever: “You never know how much I hate you, baby,” Steiner sneered as they launched into the song. A pretty young woman named Trisha came out of the audience to join the band, delivering a long, obviously desperate lyric that she read from a cheat sheet while the band pounded behind her like the Cramps. Given the sonics in the club, it was hard to figure out what she was singing, but eventually she was moved to the point of tears.

Then Bellmer Dolls lead guitarist Peter Mavrogeorgis joined the band for their last few songs. He’s a master of reverb-laden, dismissive, angry staccato wails, which interspersed within Mitchell’s lightning-fast, eerie gypsy runs and flourishes became the perfect complement to Steiner’s brooding, bitter melodies. Steiner warned the audience more than once that he wasn’t going to play an encore, but they still wouldn’t let him leave the stage so finally he indulged them with one of his most popular songs, Cigarettes, another trademark 6/8 number driven by reverb and tremolo chords.

This was the kind of show that you walk out of absolutely flying. It was like seeing the Clash, or the Church, or LJ Murphy for the first time. You feel bulletproof, able to ingest whole bottles of whiskey in a single gulp, stand up to any representative of the fascist machine no matter how outgunned you may be. Pure sonic adrenaline, and a reassuring reminder that music this powerful and invigorating is far, far from dead. Steiner doesn’t play a lot of US dates anymore – which undoubtedly explains why he was playing this one-off date at Otto’s instead of, say, Bowery Ballroom – watch this space for future NYC appearances.

October 17, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nightcrawling 8/17/07

The evening started at Barbes. If you’re thinking of hitting this cozy little Park Slope, Brooklyn backroom, take heed of the warning that reliably pops up on the weekly music calendar page here wherever there’s a Barbes listing: you simply have to get here way early. This Francophilic little joint is far too small for the acts they book, a sad testament to the state of the New York music scene: so many excellent acts pack this place week after week because they have enough of a following to sell out little Barbes but not enough to take it to the next level. A violinist was onstage when we arrived, and what was quietly wafting from behind the curtain sounded intriguing. But it was literally impossible to get inside.

Afterward, some of the crowd cleared out and former Rasputina multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost took the stage. Alternating between acoustic guitar, cello and piano, she and her inspired backing trio played a delightfully captivating set of hook-driven art-rock. The fun these players have onstage is contagious: drummer Rob DiPietro got his ride cymbal to make a big WHOOOSH with his brushes while guitarist Julian Maile punctuated the melodies with incisive, punchy, reverby fills from his Gibson SG. Upright bassist Rob Jost came close to stealing the show with his melodic, fluid playing, using a bow for some haunting cello-like tones when he wasn’t pushing the songs along with sinuous riffs and climbs. Although he and the frontwoman share the same last name – what’s the likelihood? – they pronounce it differently, she like the Milwaukee Brewers manager, he with a hard “j” as in journey.

Serena Jost writes cerebral, counterintuitive, incredibly catchy songs. Her vocals have a melancholy, sometimes dreamy feel, but the music is pure fun. She likes syncopation, bridges that appear seemingly out of nowhere and the occasional odd time signature. She’s been compared to Jeff Lynne here, and that’s accurate in the sense that she seamlessly merges classical and pop melodies. One of tonight’s best songs, Vertical World began with a slow, gospel crescendo at the beginning, just this side of sarcastic, morphing into a ridiculously catchy, bouncy piano-driven hit. I Wait, which came toward the end of the set also built slowly on the intro to a slinky snakecharmer melody, Maile taking a long, thoughtful solo, part surf and part skronk, like what Marc Ribot might sound like if he didn’t overintellectualize everything. Throughout the night, subtle interplay between the musicians abounded.

Serena Jost joked about people seeing her on the street with her cello case and calling her Yo-Yo Ma, or, “Pablo Casals for all you old school people.” It was that kind of crowd: most of her audience seems to be her peers, A-list New York rockers, by nature a pretty tough and critical bunch, and tonight she held them in the palm of her hand.

“You know what Pablo Casals said when he broke his hand mountain climbing?” Rob Jost asked the crowd. “Good. That means I don’t have to practice anymore.”

The East Village was our next stop, so it made sense to kill some time at Lakeside. Nice to be able to get a seat there on a Friday night (imagine doing that five years ago: impossible), but it was disheartening to see such a sparse crowd, even if it was mostly suburban tourists from the adjoining states. Goes to show that most real New Yorkers have given up on going out on the weekends anymore. The surf band Mr. Action and the Boss Guitars were playing, a whole lot tighter than they were last time we caught them here. According to the Northeast Surf Music Alliance, there are about sixty surf bands just in the Northeast alone: add the Eastern Seaboard, Florida and California and suddenly it becomes clear that twangy, mariachi- and Middle Eastern-inflected instrumental rock is probably bigger now than it was in the 60s. This band is the former Supertones rhythm section (Mr. Action is the drummer, “Long Island’s answer to Mel Taylor,” as the bassist called him) plus those two boss guitars. They all wear matching uniforms and if they have their act together, they probably make a fortune playing weddings and corporate year-end functions. But they’re also self-aware: “Continuing in the 1967 bar mitzvah vein,” the bassist joked as they launched into yet another instro version of a 60s pop hit. They did that for the first half of the show, and just as the early Beach Boys and Beatles tunes and stuff like It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To were starting to get old, they did a spot-on version of the obscure Ventures classic Ginza Lights, which was at one time the alltime bestselling single in Japan. Surf music fans are a notoriously obsessive bunch, and the crowd was clearly gassed: the Ventures virtually never play that song live, and until the days of file sharing it was extremely hard to find.

Then the band played Pipeline, and even if their version didn’t have the beautiful electric piano of the Chantays’ original, or the menace of the Agent Orange version or the evil cocaine intensity of the Heartbreakers’ cover (did I say something about how people become completely obsessed with this stuff?), it’s such a great song that pretty much anybody can play it and it still sounds good. They also did the requisite Wipeout, and I found myself wishing I’d picked up that live Surfaris album I saw in my favorite used record store a couple of months ago.

Then it was over to Banjo Jim’s to see Susan Mitchell play violin with Mark Sinnis’ trio. Sinnis is the frontman in Ninth House, who’ve received a lot of ink here lately. Although that band has gone further in the Nashville gothic direction that characterizes Sinnis’ solo work, they still have a 80s Joy Division/Cure/Psychedelic Furs feel. This unit, by contrast, plays what are basically country songs with a darkly bluesy feel. Mitchell, formerly with Kundera and currently playing in a number of good projects, is one of the most gripping soloists in New York: when she gets her swooping, sliding gypsy sound going, she is incredible. Tonight’s show, by contrast, was about interplay between her smooth legato lines and the biting, bluesy ferocity of Sinnis’ new guitarist the Anti-Dave (who also plays in Vulgaras). Sinnis gave the songs a heavy chassis with his ominous baritone voice and acoustic guitar, and his two soloists fleshed out the body, like an old black Cadillac filled with moonshine barreling down a back road somewhere near the Canadian border, its running boards whipping against the weeds and grass alongside the road. The best songs of the night were Sinnis’ original Mistaken for Love, with its brutal lyric and surprise cold ending; a new, slow shuffle with a 50s rockabilly feel, the drunk driving anthem Follow the Line with its fiery electric guitar, and the closer, a stark, surprisingly effective cover of the Sisters of Mercy song Nine While Nine that ended on an incredibly intense, haunting note as the electric guitar played half of the song’s eerie, reverberating central hook. After that, we closed down a couple of bars, watching crowds of tourists slowly stumble back to their stretch limos while we made sure the most inebriated among us didn’t lose their stuff. The sun came up as I made my way down Avenue A, the surprising chill of the early-morning air a final treat to cap off the kind of great night that only a few years ago could happen pretty much randomly at any time, but these days, all too seldom.

Maybe once oil really starts to run out and the peasants start to swarm back to the cities, just like in China, there’ll be a real urban contingent in the East Village again. A dangerous one, quite likely. Maybe then the tourists will stay in their parents’ McMansions – if they haven’t collapsed around them by then – instead of turning this city into a facsimile of New Jersey/Long Island/Los Angeles stripmall hell.

August 18, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments