Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Notes from the Underground: Tammy Faye Starlite as Nico in “Chelsea Madchen”

by Serena Angelique Williams

I happen to be partial to divas, so it was with great fanfare and enthusiasm that I set out to see Tammy Faye Starlite’s new work, “Chelsea Madchen,” a self-styled performance piece she has put together from scratch. Though pleased that anyone had been brave enough to tackle the task of taking on the Teutonic temptress, and particularly a woman, rather than a drag queen, I was hesitant to believe that it could really be pulled off while eliminating the potential for excess camp. Impersonating Nico is a seemingly uphill climb for even the most accomplished actress. Were it not for Tammy Faye Starlite, a modern day diva in her own right, my skepticism may have won out – especially since my first attempt to see the show was thwarted. In true Nico style, it had been cancelled – in this case, on account of the unexpected October snowstorm of a few weeks ago.

I knew Tammy Faye Starlite from her noteworthy performances at Lakeside Lounge, fronting the Mike Hunt Band, the all-girl Rolling Stones cover group, as well as her hilarious turn as a country music songstress in Tammy Faye Starlite and the Angels of Mercy, where she croons original country songs as shocking as they are humorous. She has the chops to do many things very well, and had previously put this piece up at Joe’s Pub and Theater 80 at St. Marks Place. The Duplex’s cabaret is a much smaller house – it only seats 77 at full capacity – so I was aware that this would be a rare chance to see her perform in a more intimate venue, with hopes that it would add to the authenticity of the experience. It had long been my dream to see Nico, in whatever way I could get her, and I had never imagined my wish would ever surface as a reality. Still, I kept my expectations from brimming over, though I had read that Danny Fields, Nico’s former manager, had been impressed with Tammy Faye’s interpretation, a stamp of approval that carries considerable weight. In spite of this, I entered the cabaret more curious than hopeful, wondering how in the world she would manage to pull off this daunting task.

This piece could be described as a play within a play, though there are no programs distributed, which dispels the notion that we are seeing anything but a live and improvised performance. Tammy Faye cites that her inspiration to create this piece emerged in adolescence, listening to Nico obsessively as many a teenage girl (including myself) was wont to do before music so radically shifted gears. It was Nico who paved the way for many experimental musicians, a rare female innovator overshadowed by her predominantly male contemporaries. She was irreverent, an outlaw, a conjurer of emotionally charged sound from an era that unforgettably changed the way we perceive and listen to music. Yet she put out a relatively small body of work, and it still is a challenge to track down many of her more obscure recordings.

The band is onstage before Tammy Faye makes her grand, if understated entrance. They are a cohesive ensemble, and utterly faithful to reproducing the Velvet Underground’s signature sound. They start the set with the appropriately titled “Femme Fatale” while Tammy Faye as Nico quietly assumes her place, hesitating before beginning the set with an overlong pause, in character, while keeping everything in the moment. Then she starts to sing.

Though she resembles Nico, she is not a clone. Rather than attempting to present the “Dolce Vita” image of physical perfection that is characteristically associated with Nico, she seems instead to emulate Nico in her later life. This is a wise choice, although at that point, Nico had stopped dyeing her hair, and Tammy Faye retains the hallmark blonde tresses. In an all-black ensemble, wool sweater and heavily lined eyes, she is transformed into a version of Nico that is both aloof and believable, without inviting potentially unfavorable comparisons.

In fact, she is infinitely better-looking than Nico became in her hardcore junkie years, when her beauty was ravaged by self-destruction and bloated with excess. Tammy Faye’s voice is also stronger. However, it is not her intent to fall back on the timeworn stereotype of Nico as a drug addict – a wise decision, as it does not diffuse the focus of the work. Nico, as I’ve mentioned, is difficult, if not impossible to imitate, but the beauty of her vocals is also aided by certain imperfections, and a visceral, hollow resonance, unique unto her alone. Tammy Faye’s German accent, inflections, and phrasing are on point, her timing impeccable, but the better-known numbers from her days with the Velvet Underground lack the dark cultivation of Nico’s original recordings. Still, this does not seriously detract from the performance, and after the first song, she quickly settles into character. As the show progresses, her rhythm as Nico continues to gain momentum, and it is compelling to watch this transformation as it unfolds.

The premise of the piece is an interview – a skillfully assembled pastiche of actual Nico interview quotes from over the years – with a cheerfully inquisitive, if somewhat inept Australian (Jeff Ward deserves a big hand for this role) providing the necessary tension for Nico to play against. His queries are met with a series of blatant non-sequiturs and unabashed haughtiness, revealing an austere and singularly self-involved woman. Her intellect is equally apparent, despite many, many prejudices, echoed with a candid, sometimes beyond-the-pale precision that is surprisingly droll. Tammy Faye proves once again to be a gifted comedienne, and manages to balance these perceptions with such refreshing honesty that she is able to captivate the audience without alienating them with excessive arrogance or an obliquely slanted worldview.  We observe a Nico who is simultaneously astute, eccentric, opinionated, and flawed, a mosaic of contradictions which serve as the basis of her persona as blighted, yet gifted artist of infinite potential.

Nico was one of the great muses of her time. At one point, she explains that her one regret in life is that she “was born a woman instead of a man”. It may seem ironic that she would make such a remark, considering that her classically feminine style of beauty is so integral to her iconic status. She did not embrace feminism, yet she gradually cultivated a level of androgyny emphasizing her more masculine traits. She seems to have regarded her sex to be an extreme handicap, which she perpetually strove to overcome in spite of her attractiveness. She rebelled against her good looks, waging a later campaign that now seems a deliberate attempt to destroy them entirely. Her battle was a long-hidden struggle to desexualize herself in a quest for artistic self-realization. But equating creativity with masculinity, she fell victim to a rigidly established system of chauvinistic ideals. Consequently, nearly all of her work would become heavily influenced by the men in her life while she searched for her true voice as a singer. Handing over the reins, she allowed them to dictate and compose much of her material.

As Nico, Tammy Faye recounts her several collaborative efforts and relationships with Warhol, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Jim Morrison, and even Gordon Lightfoot (one of the most poignant, confessional songs in her repertoire, is her cover of Lightfoot’s “I’m Not Sayin’,” describing her view of herself in relationships with affecting accuracy). She trusted them more than she could trust herself, and in turn, they used her as an inspiration for their own work. There are traces of bitterness in Nico’s harsh delivery of her side of some of these stories, yet she never makes an appeal for our sympathy. In their respective ways, it could be argued that each used the other. The difference lies in that Lou Reed, for example, would have remained Lou Reed with or without Nico: he brought her into the Velvets to serve as eye candy as much as to sing. She would never again achieve the same level of fame as she’d enjoyed with them after going solo, most of her best-known work being laid out during her earlier sessions with the band. When she objectively recalls her problems with Reed, deducing that “he could never get over what my people had done to his people–I can’t make love to Jews anymore,” this is beyond a mere catty or oblivious indictment. Reed’s excuse that they separated under the premise of cultural differences is unlikely. What is more believable is that they could no longer work together because he felt her to be his creative inferior. She simply moved on, to Dylan, and later John Cale, and other musicians, placing them all upon pedestals, and following their respective leads. Forever searching out mentors, lovers, and assistants, she unfortunately undermined her own talent. Dominated by a string of more successful male artists, Nico was all but swallowed whole. She literally fell to the wayside, eventually dying much too early, impoverished, obscured by her more famous friends and colleagues.

And therein lies the true genius of Tammy Faye’s opus as Nico. Tammy Faye is able to vividly capture the woman’s genius, while exposing her weaknesses, providing a completely three-dimensional portrait of a woman often marginalized, and one who continued to persevere despite a long history of folly and failed relationships. She is unapologetic for all of it. Ultimately she ended up with a beautiful catalogue of material that defines her as a modern chanteuse. These songs are timeless. When Tammy Faye sings them, we are reminded of their lasting value as groundbreaking contributions to the evolution of postmodern trends in music, art and performance art. When she sits before the piano and begins the first strains of “Frozen Borderline” from The Marble Index, for all intents and purposes, we are seeing art that is as stunning in originality as it is arresting in its realism. Resurrected from the great beyond, this diva commands her audience with such mastery that by the time she launches into her haunting version of Jim Morrison’s “The End” I was no longer conscious of Tammy Faye “channeling” Nico; the two had harmonically converged.

The show ended all too soon, though it clocks in at nearly ninety minutes, without intermission.  Nico left the stage abruptly after delivering the explosive denouement, a vengeful rendition of Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for My Man,” a powerful statement to conclude this story. There was no encore. No introduction of the superb backup band – Claudia Chopek, Dave Dunton, Rich Feridun, Keith Hartel, Craig Hoek and Ron Metz, nor of the brilliant interviewer. No greeting of the audience after the show. Like a dream, she seemed to have evaporated almost immediately, leaving me feeling overexposed as the house lights turned on. What was left was the lingering sense that I had just experienced the rare good luck to have been transported through time to a place forever obsolete, in the supreme presence of a living phantom. Tammy Faye Starlite–singer, writer, performance artist, comedienne and actress extraordinaire, has offered us a glimpse into the past, giving us a final chance to pay homage to a spirit we should honor and respect. There is one last performance on Saturday, and it should not be missed. This diva will haunt you.

Tammy Faye Starlite is Nico in “Chelsea Madchen” at the Duplex, 61 Christopher St. at 7th Ave. South on Nov 19th at 9:30 PM. Tickets are $10; reservations are highly recommended to (212) 255-5438.

November 18, 2011 Posted by | concert, drama, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Burnt Sugar Play James Brown in Bed-Stuy

Most cover bands are either a disappointment or a joke. This being New York, there are actually some covers bands here who transcend the label: Tammy Faye Starlite’s brutally satirical Rolling Stones and Blondie projects; the sometimes 18-piece Main Squeeze Orchestra, who perform original all-accordion arrangements of pop songs; and Burnt Sugar. Of course, Burnt Sugar aren’t just a cover band: founder/conductor Greg Tate has been leading them through their trademark hypnotic, psychedelic, atmospheric, improvisational soundscapes since the 90s. But they’re also a mighty funk orchestra. Last night at Tompkins Park in Bed-Stuy, they played an all-James Brown program that did justice to the Godfather of Soul.

How do you cover Jaaaaaaaaaaaaames Brown without turning it into camp, or a parody? By doing the songs pretty much how he did them – and by not overdoing the vocals. A rotating cast of singers, both male and female, took turns on lead vocals (often in the same song), the main guy wearing a James Brown helmet wig. But as much fun as everybody was having, nobody went completely over the top: no cape trick, no Vegas showmanship, just a lot of good tunes and good history. The band was colossal, in both senses of the word: a five-piece horn section; five harmony singers (one of whom had to multitask on turntables, something they could have left in the rehearsal room and the music wouldn’t have suffered); three dancers, who mingled with the audience, as well as violin, keys, guitar, bass and drums. When bassist Jared Nickerson’s slinky Bootsy Collins lines were audible in the amphitheatre’s boomy sonics, it was clear that he was having the time of his life. The horns lept in joyously and disappeared in a split-second, just as Brown would have wanted, and the singers both in front and behind the band delivered the songs with a passion that wouldn’t let up. Just a few of the standouts from this particular lineup: violinist Mazz Swift, whose austere textures were a welcome anchor; Bruce Mack’s alternately funky and lush keys and organ, Paula Henderson (of Rev. Vince Anderson’s band) on baritone sax, and Imani Uzuri taking a couple of characteristically alluring cameos out in front when she wasn’t singing harmonies.

There was also a multimedia component that packed a surprising punch. A screen behind the band showed slides of various James Brown property (shades, stagewear, personal effects) auctioned off after his death, while an actor played the role of auctioneer between several of the songs or segues. The most powerful moments of the night were when Brown’s soul came up for auction, and later when the actor and the singer in the JB wig evoked the introduction of the famous Boston concert after the Martin Luther King assassination where Brown is commonly credited from saving the city from the rioting that was taking place all over the country; this particular interpretation had Brown ignoring the Boston mayor’s well-intentioned condescension with a casually stern but insightful exhortation to the crowd to chill out. Other segments played up Brown’s message of self-empowerment and defiant ambition.

And the songs were supertight: I Feel Good, Super Bad, a cheery singalong of Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud), a surprisingly upbeat It’s a Man’s World, a version of Please Please Please that played up its doo-wop origins, and a surprising amount of material from throughout his career, not just the classic hits from the 60s. Brown’s angel dust period was vividly evoked via a long, atonal instrumental – a good approximation of this band’s original stuff – backing a spoken-word piece about heroin delivered by the harmony singer/turntablist. The crowd, sparse as the sun went down, grew in numbers and enthusiasm as the night wore on, the band’s dancers getting a party going in front of the stage. They’ll be there tonight at 8 if you’re in the mood.

June 18, 2011 Posted by | concert, funk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Album of the Day 9/11/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #871:

Tammy Faye Starlite – Used Country Female

Today, the corporate media would have you believe that the entire world is wrapped up in a dour display of nationalism and anti-Muslim fervor to rival anything Hitler ever came up with. We know better. In honor of 9/11 we give you comic relief in the form of one of the most subversive performers to ever hit the stage. An actress and dramatist who got her start in Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatre, T. Debra Lang’s best-loved alter ego is Tammy Faye Starlite, a washed-up, drug-addled country singer who, in a desperate attempt to get back into the limelight, becomes a born-again. Her improv lampoons rightwingers, bigots, Christian extremists and pretty much everything you see on Fox News more entertainingly than you could possibly imagine. There are two Tammy Faye Starlite albums – the first, On My Knees, is straight-up country and contains Did I Shave My Vagina For This, the funniest feminist anthem ever written. This one, her second, from 2003, is a boisterous, twangy alt-country record expertly produced by Eric “Roscoe” Ambel and is a lot more diverse. The humor is all based in innuendo, and much of it is hysterical: the faux gospel of I’ve Got Jesus Looking Out for Me; the Doorsy highway anthem Highway 69; Ride the Cotton Pony, which is about menstruation; The Jim Rob Song, about a good Christian man who likes other Christian men (and boys too); and a sex-crazed cover of the bluegrass standard Hear Jerusalem Moan. Tammy Faye Starlite also fronts three irresistibly funny cover bands: the Mike Hunt Band, who do the Stones; the Stay-at-Homes, who do the Runaways; and most recently, the Pretty Babies, a Blondie spoof.

September 11, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Concert Review from the Archives: The John Kerry Fundraiser at Sin-e, 8/26/04

[Editor’s note – we’re still on vacation and raiding the archive for some fond memories. This is a particularly bittersweet one, from the days when every New York band, outside of Williamsburg, at least, was desperate to vote the Bush regime out of office…and for awhile it looked like it really would happen in 2004]

Randi Russo had organized this fundraiser for the John Kerry campaign, unsurprisingly drawing an A-list of New York rock talent who connected electrically with the audience: they may have been preaching to the converted, but this show left no doubt that New York is still a Democratic town. Literate songwriter Erika Simonian opened. Nuance is her defining characteristic, along with a deadpan, cynical sense of humor. The highlight of her set, for that matter probably the highlight of the night – at least from the crowd’s delirious reaction – was I’ve Got a Song (as in, “I’ve got a song, it goes FUCK YOU”), a kiss-off anthem that this time out took on extra significance when she dedicated it to Bush. Her band was tight, accordionist Paul Brady was incisive and captivating as always but the muddy sound mix sometimes deadened her vocals – the sound guy was obviously trying to fix it, with minimal results.

Paul Wallfisch of Botanica did three songs solo on his trust old Wurlitzer electric piano, one of them a Jacques Brel cover, before the rest of his band joined him for a spot-on, passionate version of The Flag (“When I stand and face the flag/I see my country wrapped in rags”), from their 9/11-themed album Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. They eventually did a stripped-down, careening version of the gypsy-punk title track from that album plus some more straight-ahead, rock-oriented new material. Guitarist Pete Min ably channeled their former axeman John Andrews’ reverb-laden parts and their new drummer locked with bassist Christian Bongers’ spiraling, melodic lines.

Interestingly, Melora Creager, frontwoman and first-chair cellist of goth-tinged chamber rock band Rasputina was the big draw of the early part of the night: the goth girls shrieked when she hit the stage, then exited en masse when she was done. Seeing her play solo for over 40 minutes was even more impressive than watching her with the band. She plays most of the leads herself and didn’t miss a beat while singing in her signature deadpan, vibrato-laden, oldtimey delivery. She went into character and stayed there, cracking everybody up: too many jokes to remember. The highlight of the set was her closer, A Quitter, an uncharacteristically direct account of teen suicide.

Russo would later release her set as the Live at Sin-e album (still streaming in its entirety at deezer after all these years). Happily, that recording minimizes the boominess that plagued her set. They opened with a bouncy, funky League of the Brigands, followed with a swinging cover of Merle Travis’ Sixteen Tons, a marauding blast through the Middle Eastern-tinged antiwar anthem Live Bait and a gently mysterious, warmly swinging version of the janglerock hit Get Me Over. A rapidfire, scurrying version of Parasitic People contrasted with the hypnotic, Smog-like ambience of Shout Like a Lady (title track to her 2006 studio album), a snarling version of the embattled workingwoman’s anthem Battle on the Periphery and a clattering take of the usually hypnotic, strikingly optimistic Ceiling Fire to close the set on a high note.

Tammy Faye Starlite headlined. Backed by just an acoustic guitarist, the fearless satirist/actress/comedienne ran through a pointed, typically hilarious mix of songs and spontaneous riffage on the Bush regime. She’s a potent voice for the Democrats this time around (if they can stomach her genuine punk rock attitude and take-no-prisoners commentary). The big showstopper this time out was I Shaved My Vagina for This, one of the most amusingly feminist numbers from her country-flavored first album. Matching the ferocity of Amy Rigby to the uninhibited, stream-of-consciousness hilariousness of Lenny Bruce, it was a girl-power anthem that anyone could sing along to if they stopped laughing long enough.

August 26, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Pretty Babies at Lakeside Lounge, NYC, Halloween 2009

by Heather M. Raphael

Halloween is by far my favorite holiday.  I don’t create wonderful and elaborate costumes myself, but I love to look at other peoples’ creative intoxications.  I was not let down by the Pretty Babies (insurgent comedienne/chanteuse Tammy Faye Starlite’s latest project) as Blondie, presenting the Parallel Lines album at Lakeside Lounge in the East Village on Halloween night.  We even had attendance by the current age Debbie Harry herself!  Was it really her or just a fabulous costume?  Unless she’s able to be in two places at once, the real Debbie Harry’s doppelganger had front row seats at our venue, while the real Blondie was playing Halifax, Nova Scotia.

My best laid plans for Halloween this year came crumbling down as the hours ticked away and my escape out of the city to a friend’s Halloween party was foiled by my love/hate relationship with technology.  Luckily a singer/songwriter friend came to my rescue, inviting me into her plans where we met up with some friends at the Lakeside.  It was empty and we scored a table right by the stage.  That’s when I learned about Tammy Fay Starlite and Linda Wynn, aka Linda Pitmon, one of the great female drummers (and also one of the great drummers, end of story).  We got to chat with Linda – very down-to-earth, instantly likeable – during set-up from our strategically placed table.

The Lakeside Lounge quickly packed in a crowd, some costumed, some not, as showtime was upon us.  Tammy…I mean, Debbie…I mean Blondie…oh whatever, gave several shout-outs to Steve Wynn, well known musician since the 1980’s for alternative and classic rock, who was there to see his lovely wife rock the drums.  And she kicked some butt up on that stage!  Not even an uncooperative snare could slow her down.  I’ve never been so mesmerized.  But let’s not forget the rest of the band that pulled this show together.  On bass was Sit n’ Spin’s Mony Falcone; on electric guitars were her bandmate Heidi Lieb and Jill Richmond of the Aquanettas; on keyboards was Bibi Farber; all dressed in black pants, white suit shirts and black skinny ties to boot.

The spot we had was perfect for viewing and listening.  Although Tammy’s mic could have been balanced louder, it did fit with how I always remember Blondie songs – missing half of the Debbie Harry vocals, whenever she sang in her lower, alto range.  At least it was authentic and a great ride down memory lane.  I don’t how the acoustics were for those on the side and and back to the bar: I can’t imagine they could see anything and since the visual aspects were as important as the music, those back there may not have gotten as much out of it.  Tammy Faye Starlite put on a fabulous performance, even getting up on a chair to reach out to her audience in back.  From what I hear, she is a crowd-pleaser, and was no less of one this night.

November 2, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 12/4/08

The top 666 songs of alltime countdown continues, one day at a time all the way to #1. Thursday’s is #600:

Tammy Faye Starlite – I Shaved My Vagina for This

The cult artist/comedienne/chanteuse/agitator is the closest thing to Lenny Bruce that we have today, someone who never fails to find her mark because she’s so damn funny. This one, from her first cd, is a typically clever, drop-dead hilarious feminist rant disguised as a country song.

December 4, 2008 Posted by | Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music | , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Prima Ballerina at Lakeside, NYC 10/25/08

This was the debut show for Tammy Faye Starlite’s latest rock project, in this case a New York Dolls cover band. As a solo performer, the insurgent actress/comedienne plays a gut-bustingly funny born-again, washed-up, recently rehabbed country singer, in the process shooting daggers at all things rightwing and stupid (much like the Inbreeds, whose Friday night show we just reviewed). She also has three rock acts. In addition to this group, the Mike Hunt Band – her first one – is a Stones cover band (she plays Mick). The Stay-At-Homes are possibly the world’s only Runaways cover band (she’s Cherie Currie). While both groups actually make an effort to be musically competent, they basically serve as an excuse for Tammy to do improv. There is no one funnier, not even John Monteith.

 

Prima Ballerina – if you know the Dolls’ songs at all, you get the reference –  is the Stay-At-Homes playing Dolls songs. Tammy had names for everyone in the band: Sit N Spin frontwoman/guitarist Heidi Lieb was Heidi Thunders; rhythm player Jill Richmond was Jillvain Jillvain; drummer Linda Pitmon (from her husband Steve Wynn’s band, the Baseball Project and Smack Dab) was Nolinda; what Lieb’s bandmate, bassist Mony Falcone was evades the memory (although Tammy had plenty of vitriol for her and bass players in general). Another woman stood in for Todd Rundgren on keys on a few songs.

 

“I’m Tammy Jo,” Tammy said in her best Queens accent. “This swong’s really about about a stwop on the Ell Oy Aw Aw,” she told the crowd as the band launched into a decently careening version of Babylon. The recurrent joke of the night revolved around universal healthcare: that was the premise of Pills, Tammy explained. Jet Boy had to do with Barack Obama (big round of applause) hopefully “not getting killed before he comes out of the clouds.” Stranded in the Jungle, she revealed, was a cover of a Vietnam-era soul song by the 60s group the Jayhawks (“Not the alt-country band, you know, the guy who married Victoria Williams. THEY SUCK!!!”).

 

When they reached the bridge during Trash, Tammy accosted a bewildered guy sitting at one of the front tables: “When you’re hanging out in Chelsea, how you call your loverboy?” When it came time to wrap up the set, she explained that during her tenure in the Ridiculous Theatre Company, Charles Ludlam had been her mentor, and that he had been known to accuse people of having a personality crisis. Dedicating the song to the one John McCain’s been having, the band did a spirited, serviceable version of what was the closest thing the Dolls ever had to a top 40 hit. Memo to Ms. Rundgren: you ought to try that piano hook, it’s easy and it really makes the song. So, what a great weekend –  funny band, intense band, funny band. Prima Ballerina’s next show is at the Cutting Room sometime in November: watch this space for details.

October 27, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Where was everybody last night?!?!?!

Did everyone decide once and for all that New Year’s Eve is amateur night and thus to be avoided? Has the last sophisticated New Yorker finally left the building? Do the people of the East Village now go to Times Square with the rest of the tourists? Or are the fun people in this town so broke now that nobody can afford to go out anymore? Last night at Lakeside, Tammy Faye Starlite played with her sick Stones cover band the Mike Hunt Band and while there were plenty of people there, it was nowhere near the mob scene that follows wherever she goes. It’s not like this generation’s answer to Lenny Bruce didn’t sell out the time before, or the time before that. The woman is an incorrigible exhibitionist, for god’s sake: you’d think that alone would have brought half the guys in town down to Avenue B.

This time, the band was actually good. When’s the last time you heard a Stones cover band play a song you didn’t know? They actually managed to stump me a couple of times. And at one time or another I’ve owned everything the Glimmer Twins ever did up until Steel Wheels (which actually has some good songs on it: Hold Onto Your Hat, anyone?). They didn’t do that, but they did Fingerprint File and a whole bunch of cleverly chosen clunkers. From what was on the set list last night, someone unfamiliar with the Stones would come away thinking that they sucked pretty badly. Which was the biggest joke of the night. But where the hell was everybody? Are there any stubborn old-school nightcrawlers left out there, or has everybody moved to Philly or Jersey City?

January 1, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Rant | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Inbreeds at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 12/9/07

The evening started an hour earlier across the street at Esperanto, where a forro band was playing unamplified in the window. Forro is Brazilian rainforest dance music, under ideal circumstances with acoustic stringed instruments like cuatro and guitar, and accordion. At its best, forro is the South American equivalent of Balkan gypsy music, as haunting as it is rousing. “What’s this band’s name? Mike’s band,” their leader, percussionist Nanny Assis joked. He’s been playing SOB’s for a long time: this is his weekly Sunday early-evening project, just two percussionists and accordion. They sound best at the bar where you can hear them over the yuppies chowing down on overpriced Spanish food. It was nice to be able to get out of the rain and hear this for an hour before splashing across the street. And it’s always fun to go out on a rainy night: you can always get a seat.

The Inbreeds played an absolutely hilarious set of country song parodies. It’s as if somebody in the band heard Tammy Faye Starlite’s Used Country Female album and said, hey, we can do this too. This show was that good. They’re very theatrical, and their act is very visual: imagine the best thing you’ve ever seen at Fringe Festival, only better. It wouldn’t be fair to give away their jokes, but over the course of an hour, they did spot-on spoofs of the country eulogy song, the American Idol ditzy country girl song, the dead dog song, the religious song, the Charlie Daniels clan-versus-clan epic, the sentimental those-were-the-days ballad, the one-night-stand song, the faux-country stadium rock song and finally the right-wing political song that closed the set, in which it was revealed at the end that the continued health of the American consumer economy is completely dependent on the availability of Chinese slave labor. Topics covered in the process include masturbation, teenage homosexuality, abortion, masturbation again, sexism, racist bigotry, religious intolerance and musicians’ inability to resist the urge to ham it up (one song featured banjo played with a bow like Jimmy Page used to play guitar). The material may frequently be sophomoric but the songs are very thoughtfully composed – whoever writes them obviously has the source material down cold. The humor extends to the music as well: even when nobody’s singing, the band is still trying to pull laughs and for the most part succeeded, even if the sound was as awful as it usually is here. Why the club can’t make it work in such a cozy, comfortable space is hard to understand.

The musicians in the Inbreeds are excellent. Haunting accordionist Annette Kudrak predictably steals the show, even if just she’s sitting in the back playing and contributing the occasional vocal harmony. There are two frontmen, one alternating between guitar and banjo, the other playing a standup drum kit. Both are a little stagy and very funny. The unit also has bass, violin (which was pretty inaudible throughout the show) and a woman on backup vocals who took a couple of breathtakingly good, twangy turns on lead vocals.

Where this really ought to be is Broadway: not off-Broadway, but in one of the big Broadway theatres, where wide-eyed tourists from the heartland can pay a hundred bucks a head so this talented crew can earn union scale and maybe teach the out-of-town crowd a thing or two. The ultimate irony here, of course, is that most country musicians go into music for the same reason that nonconformists in the Middle Ages did: to find a safe haven within an oppressive society. Just like five hundred years ago, most musicians, wherever they are, still swing hard to the left. Nashville included. The Inbreeds play Hank’s in Brooklyn on January 17 at 9 PM.

December 10, 2007 Posted by | concert, country music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Maul Girls Reunion at Crash Mansion; Ninth House at MI-5, NYC 9/8/07

There is hope. There are still pockets of coolness in this city, if you’re lucky enough to find them – vestiges still remain here from what was for a long time a vital, frequently exhilarating music scene. So good to be alive while the whole world is dying.

The first show of the night was part of the Howl festival, which seems to be an aging punk thing (nothing wrong with aging punks – many of them still rock). We got to the club (a somewhat swanky, spacious downstairs space that usually books hip-hop, all low lighting and black vinyl couches) to find a panel discussion onstage, wrapping up what they thought young artists should keep in mind. Their unanimous conclusion: DIY. I recognized the former Ramones manager; reputedly there was also an ex-Sex Pistol up there too, but I only know those faces from the albums and the documentaries and those were made a long time ago.

The Waldos opened, a long-running former Continental act fronted by ex-Heartbreaker Walter Lure, playing generic proto-punk in the style of, you guessed it, the New York Dolls. They weren’t painful, though everything they played sounded pretty much the same. But then they did Chinese Rocks, and the crowd was instantly energized: Dee Dee Ramone’s best hook ever is impossible not to like. And then they did Too Much Junkie Business, and even if Johnny Thunders wasn’t up there, it still rocked, authentically smirking punk defiance, even if the song endorses something that you should never do. In a once-proud city that kowtows to celebutards and office fascist types like Donald Trump, we need that defiance more than ever.

Reunion shows are a mixed bag. It’s always hard to get all the original members back together (the Guess Who, giving new meaning to their name, with NO original members in their “reunited” lineup), harder to find replacements (the Zombies, Sham 69) and next to impossible to get them all in the same room to play all the old songs. The Maul Girls had all of three rehearsals for this show yet played like they’d never been apart. As one band member noted afterward, they have an intuitive sense of what their cohorts are going to throw at them. What they threw at the audience was an amazing performance.

For a couple of years in the late 90s, the Maul Girls absolutely personified fun in downtown New York. In the true spirit of punk rock, their slightly askew mishmash of punk, funk and pop pulled an impressively mixed crowd, equal parts gay and straight, male and female, minority and caucasian. Everybody loved the Maul Girls because they rocked, they had absolutely no inhibitions and their songs were catchy as hell. Tonight the crowd was a roiling sea of dancing bodies, proof that they can still bring the party. Radiant in a sparkly dress and dramatic makeup, frontwoman Jenny Maul leaped and stalked the stage like a woman possessed. Unless you really had to watch what the musicians were doing, it was impossible to take your eyes off her, delivering as much irresistible allure as unleashed menace. “We’re here to maul you,” she growled as the show started, and she really got the crowd going when she jumped out into the audience. To find someone equally charismatic, you need to go back in history a ways: James Brown and Tina Turner come to mind. Among today’s performers? Maybe Tammy Faye Starlite in a particularly enraged moment.

They may not have always perfectly articulated it, but their message is still feminist and in your face, and they pull it off because they’re so disarmingly funny and fearless. The Spice Girls may have given lip service to “girl power,” but the Maul Girls made you want to dropkick Posh and her posse through the goalposts of Manchester United. Tonight they mixed up stuff from their lone album, Rump Roast along with some other choice, unreleased funk-inflected material. Guitarists Bobbie Maul and Leah Maul took turns and then traded off some searing wah-wah lines, drummer Stephanie Maul and bassist Anne-Marie Maul (who was the best musician in the band during their heyday) locked in and pushed the groove to the limit while their frontwoman reveled in showing off every wild timbre in her spectacular, four-octave range. They didn’t play their signature song Maul Girl Love, but the crowd was clearly gassed to hear Jenny Maul do a couple of rap numbers along with another big audience hit: “Whatchyou doing in this downtown underground with those clunky black shoes?” she snarled, more than a trace of a smile on her lips. Although they clearly had more material than they were given the chance to play, Jenny Maul told the crowd that they’d be doing another show in October. Stay tuned: although they’ve all become excellent musicians in the years since they initially went their separate ways, the Maul Girls showed tonight that they haven’t lost one iota of the reckless abandon that made them so popular.

We walked down to Chinatown, and then west to Tribeca to find the strangely named MI-5 (it’s the British designation for their equivalent of the CIA). Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were happily absent. This is a brand-new, cavernous, predictably expensive joint searching for personality before the Humvee stretch limo crowd with their parents’ credit cards discovers it and makes it their own. Until then, it’s an oasis in a weekend of hellholes. Tonight was goth night. Ninth House, who’ve received a lot of press here, have risen from the ashes once again: every time the band seems on the verge of packing it in for good, they bring in new blood. This time the transfusion is working out amazingly well. The new guitarist plays with a roar of distortion and a somewhat bluesy feel, although he’s quickly reining in the metal tendencies that reared their head in his first show with this band. They’ve also added the incomparable Susan Mitchell on violin, and although she was playing her first Ninth House show, she dazzled with her signature, evil gypsy flourishes. The new keyboardist is also the best they’ve had to date. They opened with a roar with Long Stray Whim, the first track from their new cd, which nicks a Stone Roses lick, later doing a pounding, desperate-to-get-home version of their drunk-driving anthem Follow the Line. But their finest moments were at the end of the ominously loping Jealousy and the best of their Nashville gothic songs, Mistaken for Love, where the band kept going after the final chorus while the guitar, violin and sometimes even the bass played off each other. Like a lot of art-rock units, the previous incarnation of this band brought out the epic grandeur in their songs, but with a clinical precision that sometimes felt cold and distant. This new version of the band may be a little rough around the edges, but with the newly improvisational vibe, they’ve added dynamics, making the crescendos all the more intense. The idea of a punk/art-rock/jam band may sound completely unappetizing, but Ninth House makes it work. Although the sound tonight was dodgy – the bar clearly wasn’t designed as a music venue, the sound guy quickly revealed himself as an amateur and the vocals became pretty much buried for the last half of the show – the floor space quickly filled up with dancers. Ninth House tapped a nerve tonight. And they’ll only get better.

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