Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Carsie Blanton Brings Her Sultry Southern Sound to the Rockwood and Elsewhere

[republished from New York Music Daily]

Torchy New Orleans chanteuse Carsie Blanton is doing a different kind of American tour this year, inspired as much by her wildly popular blog as well as her music. She’s playing clubs, but she’s also appearing at sex toy shops. Here in New York, her first stop is at Babeland at 43 Mercer St. on July 12 from 3 to 5 PM. Then she’s playing the third stage at the Rockwood at 8 PM on July 13 for $10 plus a $10 drink minimum. Her aptly titled new album, Not Old, Not New is up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download: you should grab it.

Is the album about sex? It’s more about innuendo. Blanton’s pillowy voice may be seductive, but in a genuine rather than campy or over-the-top way. She’s got a great, purist jazz combo behind her: Neal Caine on bass, Joe Dyson on drums, Rex Gregory on sax and clarinets, Kevin Louis on trumpet, Shane Theriot on guitar and David Torkanowsky on piano. The opening track, Azaleas sets the mood immediately, Blanton musing how “nothing evil can assail ya” against a sunmery backdrop of resonant piano, terse bass, brushed drums and balmy, muted trumpet. Blanton matches sly wit with southern charm on the slow, slinky Laziest Gal in Town, enhanced by a gently smoky bass clarinet solo. Then she and the band pick up the pace with the ragtime-flavored Heavenly Thing, a vibe they maintain on Two Sleepy People, a portrait of two lovers in the wee hours who’ve run out of gas yet can’t bear to part. It’s more coy than Daria Grace‘s unforgettably endorphin-infused version.

Blanton’s slow, wounded take of You Don’t Know What Love Is has a vividly stripped-down arrangement that contrasts brooding piano against fluttery tenor sax. Then she romps through a brisk take of What Is This Thing Called Love, spiced with a spiky Jason Marsalis vibraphone solo.

They go back to slow, low-key ballad mode for the picturesque Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans. Blanton offers Sweet Lorraine from the perspective of a woman who’s getting gaymarried, with a slow, soulful piano-based arrangement that mirrors the album’s first song.

The funniest, most innuendo-fueled track here is the swinging hokum blues tune Don’t Come Too Soon. Blanton brings down the lights again with a slow, warmly wistful version of I’ll Be Seeing You and winds up the album with the title track, a miniature for just solo voice and acoustic guitar. Fans of oldtime Americana and swing jazz are in for a treat with this one.

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July 8, 2014 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 8/11/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #537:

Mama Cass Elliot – Dream a Little Dream

What a voice.What soul, and longing, and sensuality. Some of the tunes on the 60s cult heroine’s torchy 1968 debut release, like Burn Your Hatred and Rubber Band, are a little dated, but those vocals are timeless. And it’s too bad she isn’t with us anymore (the story about choking on a sandwich is cruelly untrue – it was bad dope that did her in). As you would expect from the hippie milieu she inhabited at that point, a lot of usual suspects stepped up to help out. Steven Stills’ guitar spices up the surprisingly plaintive Talking To Your Toothbrush; the Band’s Richard Manuel contributes Blues for Breakfast; John Sebastian throws in the pensive chamber-pop Room Nobody Lives In; and Leonard Cohen – who knows something about sexy allure – gives her You Know Who I Am (and she reciprocates mightily). There’s also the heavily reworked title track, a Bessie Smith hit forty years previously; California Earthquake, a psychedelic pop period piece that still resonates;  the big ballads What Was I Thinking Of and Long Time Loving You; the blue-eyed soul of Sweet Believer, and the jokey but actually very spot-on Jane the Insane Dog Lady. Here’s a random torrent via Jensen Brazil.

August 11, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jazz Passengers and Deborah Harry Party Like It’s 1989

The Jazz Passengers are defined by their sense of humor. Even their name is sardonic, as if to imply that they’re just along for the ride, which of course they aren’t. It’s a deadpan, surreal kind of humor that strikes some people as ineffably hip when it’s actually just a shared cultural response common to most oldschool New Yorkers, and the Jazz Passengers are nothing if not oldschool New York. Last night at the Jazz Standard they brought bundles of that humor, and that’s what energized the crowd – that and special guest Deborah Harry. Yet for all the jokes and satire, they also showed off a vividly perceptive, sometimes plaintive, understatedly sympathetic social awareness: they’re not just a funny jazz/R&B band. Alto saxist/bandleader Roy Nathanson, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and drummer E.J. Rodriguez did time in a late-period version of the Lounge Lizards, so they got an early immersion in jazz spoofery; violinist Sam Bardfeld, vibraphonist Bill Ware and bassist Brad Jones reminded that they were just as in on what was happening half of the time. Sub guitarist Kenny Russell played it pretty straight, alternating between terse wah-wah funk and bright, slightly distortion-tinged sustained passages. Much of their set was taken from their superb, forthcoming album Reunited, their first in over ten years.

Their opening number shifted from ebullient straight-up swing to suspenseful, noirish interludes, Ware nimbly sidestepping Jones’ gritty chordal attack when they brought the lights down low. Fowlkes sang the jaunty early 70s style funk number Button Up with a casually thought-out determination, Bardfeld doing a spot-on imitation of the wah-wah of the guitar when Russell took a solo. Seven, another song from the new cd, held tight to a similar Headhunters/Quincy Jones vibe, Nathanson and Fowlkes moving judiciously from agitation to something approximating atmospherics. Then they brought up “The Baronness.” Deborah Harry has been in finer voice than ever on recent Blondie tours: the Jazz Standard’s crystalline PA system revealed a little more huskiness, a little more grit than typically comes across with a rock band behind her, not to mention a completely natural, slightly sepulchral swing phrasing. The band serenaded her with a creepy, carnivalesque intro that she shouted down. “Blasé was never a strength of mine,” she sang without a hint of irony on her understatedly torchy opening number – it was one of the funniest moments of the night, one that would recur a bit later.

Little Jimmy Scott’s Imitation of a Kiss saw her shift from torch-song angst to a sultry purr: although she wasn’t exactly wearing her heart on her sleeve, she made it clear that this was a welcome return to the good times she’d had with this band in the years between Blondie’s top 40 heyday and their revival on the nostalgia circuit. The opening cut on the forthcoming album, Thought I Saw the Wind, is sung by Elvis Costello with a detached buoyancy; Harry made its down-and-out cinematography austere and poignant, and the band matched her phrase for phrase, sometimes chillingly: “A dime’s not enough, can you spare a quarter?” Up to this point, Nathanson had repeatedly made fun of a pretentious review the band had just received in an Austrian jazz magazine, to which Harry eventually responded, “Does it mean anything?” The answer came in their final song, a shambling cover of the Peaches and Herb elevator-pop cheeseball Reunited, which pretty much brought the house down, and just when it was getting completely out of hand, Harry took it upon herself to sing straight from the review. They encored with an unselfconsciously intense, hypnotically evocative, swirling version of When the Fog Lifts, Bardfeld’s deft accents punching through the mist rising around him. The new album is out in October: watch this space.

September 29, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival 2010: Day Two

When this year’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival was first announced, the JD Allen Trio was listed for day two. The game plan here was to get back from vacation in time to catch Sunday’s concert at Tompkins Square Park: however, by the time the lineup was finalized, Allen had been moved to Saturday, with Little Jimmy Scott taking his place (more about him later: from the NY Times’ account, Allen turned in a characteristically gripping set).

Torchy singer (and NPR fave) Catherine Russell opened. Her band is capable of transcendence in pretty much any situation. In a set of familiar standards, this time out they didn’t, but considering the crushing heat and humidity, not to mention the early hour, that was almost to be expected. That they played as well as they did was an achievement. Maybe the festival’s producers should take that into account and schedule performers from Mali or Jamaica, or from anywhere this kind of climactic torture is an everyday thing, for the first part of the show.

The Cookers have a new album, Warriors, just out. Billy Harper and Craig Handy on tenor, Eddie Henderson and David Weiss on trumpet, George Cables on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and Billy Hart on drums have about a millennium of jazz experience among them and turned in a joyously expansive, mid 60s-flavored set that gave each performer a chance to pitch a tent front and center and pull the crew in his own preferred direction. It wasn’t just solos around the horn: there was push and pull, and conversations, roles and personalities all exerting themselves vividly. Handy answered Harper’s exuberance sauvely, even pensively, while Henderson pushed Weiss to fan the blaze even higher. They opened with a gorgeously murky, modal excursion with rich melodic overlays. Cables led the band through a beautifully lyrical, Brubeck-tinged jazz waltz featuring his own methodically crescendoing, eventually cloudbursting solo. They wound up their set with a number based on an emphatic, bouncy chromatic riff featuring a terse Hart drum solo contrasting with some meandering horn work.

What else could be said about Vijay Iyer that hasn’t been said already? That his originals are better than his covers, maybe. The pianist has gotten accolades here before and is as good as you would expect, live. But the heat was unrelenting, and comfortable, cool Lakeside Lounge around the corner was beckoning. See you somewhere down the line, Vijay.

By the time Little Jimmy Scott rode his little electric scooter onto the stage, it had cooled down a bit. He’s every bit as vital as he was fifty years ago, in fact, probably more so: it’s as if he was born to be 84 years old. He’s always had an otherworldly voice, years older than he was, so it only makes sense that his career would peak so late in life. Word on the street is that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, and the crowd adored him. Like Siouxsie Sioux, someone he’s probably never heard of, he works his own scale when he’s off in the blue notes, which is a lot, and which is so successful because he’s perfectly in tune with himself. He didn’t exhibit his wide-open, Leslie speaker-style vibrato until the middle of his set but when he did, it was every bit as jaw-dropping as it’s ever been. David Lynch knew what he was doing when he put Scott on the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Scott opened with a Summertime-inspired version of Nothing But Blue Skies, saxophonist TK Blue and pianist Alex Minasian shadowing him with finely attuned phrasing; on Your Turn to Cry, sirens from around the corner joined in with the music almost on cue during the first few bars of the intro, and Scott seized the moment with characteristic, gentle intensity: nobody gets so much out of so little as this guy. The showstopper was an absolutely devastating version of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, Blue’s anguished soprano sax interlude on the way out a perfectly appropriate touch, but as good as it was it was no match for what Scott had just done, silky but raw, nuanced but with a sledgehammer effect. He’s at the Blue Note tomorrow night and worth pretty much whatever they’re charging at the door.

And two big, fat, upraised middle fingers to the NYPD brass who embarrassed the beat cops at the local precinct by instructing them to kick out anyone who dared sit down at the tables with the chessboard markings at the park’s southwest corner if they then didn’t immediately break out a chess or checkers set. This has all the markings of a concession to the neighborhood’s yuppie newcomers who don’t like to be reminded that they live in a world where homeless people actually exist. The rookie cop assigned to do the honors couldn’t hide his boredom or embarrassment, mumbling to tired concertgoers to get up and leave after they’d found what looked like lucky seats in the midst of a sea of people. Police work is hard enough without subjecting members of the force to humiliation like this.

August 31, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Debutante Hour and Kelli Rae Powell at the Jalopy, Brooklyn NY 6/15/10

The trip to Red Hook to see if the Debutante Hour could duplicate the harmonically-charged excellence of their new album was worth it. Live, the trio’s roots in 1920s/1930s ragtime and pop really show themselves, in an irresistibly sassy, lyrical Nellie McKay kind of way. The group’s two frontwomen Maria Sonevytsky and Susan Hwang passed an accordion back and forth when they weren’t plunking on a baritone uke or teasing a cocktail drum with brushes, while cellist Mia Pixley held everything together, a casual but compellingly forceful presence whether coloring the songs with plaintive washes of sound or plucking out catchy, bouncy basslines. As expected, their live show brings out their theatrical side, the clever charm of their lyrics and their spot-on three-part harmonies. “You try hard not to be an asshole like the one that’s in your head,” they sang on the tongue-in-cheek, logistically challenged but philosophically apt Organizing My Planner for Next Week. Be Yourself – which encourages listeners to seek out their inner Jennifer Jason Leigh rather than Alyssa Milano – was delivered with split-second choreography from the trio in their matching outfits and hats. Best song of the night, no surprise, was the Nashville gothic ballad Galax, unsettling on album and downright creepy live. A deadpan, oldtimey style cover of TLC’s 1999 top 40 hit No Scrubs had the crowd laughing all the way through to the final “beeyotch,” while the bizarre Sunday in the Trailer got a lot of smiles as the women contemplated who might be an alien: Kate Bush? Maybe? Bjork? No question.

That Kelli Rae Powell’s performance wasn’t anticlimactic is an understatement. At this point in history, stardom as it existed ten years ago may be dead, and if it isn’t, it’s no longer desirable. But from the point of view of someone who saw Neko Case on the way up in 1997, and Amanda Palmer three years later, Powell has that kind of star power, white-knuckle intensity and raw charisma that you only see once every ten years or so. She joked with the crowd, glad to be back at the Jalopy, a trip back to a different time and place, “But with the good beer,” she took care to note. But when she stepped up to the mic she took on a larger-than-life presence. Her vocals have crystallized: she can still do a killer Blossom Dearie or Bessie Smith, but she sang mostly in an insistent yet brittle vibrato that’s as eerie as it is coy, Betty Boop with a Ph. D., but in fullscale needle park panic mode. That voice alone is arresting: what she sings with it makes her so impossible to turn away from. Toward the end of the set, she put down her ukelele, and backed by upright bassist Jim McNamara and blues harpist Dave Pollack at their most torchily bluesy, she went into full-bore sultry mode, contemplating a seduction just as much as she pondered the unlikely possibility of not being alone for once in her life. Like Case, Powell cultivates a raw, wild, inconsolably distant persona, bruised and embittered yet hot to try for a simple connection one more time – at who knows what price. And somehow she ends up laughing at pretty much everything.

Her opening track, The Craggy Shuffle most perfectly captured that:

She could settle for more
He couldn’t ask for less
Under a setting sun
Driving a Pontiac hearse
There’s nothing bad that can’t get worse

Powell hails from Iowa, and did a couple of wistful numbers dedicated to that state, the first a poignant floodwater requiem, the second a request to be buried there since such a bittersweet girl deserves a final resting place in the land of fireflies and tornadoes. The “drinkaby” (combination drinking song and lullaby – a Powell invention) Midnight Sleeper Train came across as far more of a lament than the opiated version on her phenomenal 2009 album New Words for Old Lullabies, while the tour-from-hell narrative Don’t Look Back, Zachary played up the song’s surreal humor in the midst of what must have been one awful road trip, a Midwest late summer tour in a station wagon with no air conditioning.

And when it came to the innuendo-stuffed A Man What Takes His Time (originally written for Mae West), she pulled out every lascivious stop she could find, as her bandmates did. After both McNamara and Pollack had brought the temperature up a couple dozen degrees, she reached to say something for a second, then held back, finally flashing a triumphant grin and a double thumbs up for the band. The audience roared in agreement. Kelli Rae Powell plays Banjo Jim’s on June 27 at 9 PM with another first-class singer, Jo Williamson opening at 8. The Debutante Hour return to New York with a show at Union Pool at 9 on June 30.

June 17, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CD Review: Whitney James – The Nature of Love

West Coast jazz singer Whitney James’ debut cd is auspicious because she sings nonstandard repertoire, she’s got a great band behind her, she embraces the role of band member rather than just having the other musicians back her up, and most importantly, she knows that less is more. Her voice recalls early 70s singers like Marilyn McCoo and Valerie Simpson, who made their careers in soul music using jazz chops. Yet James also bears some resemblance, if not timbre-wise, to another very popular singer, namely Karrin Allyson. James doesn’t go for Allyson’s fox-in-the-icehouse delivery, but like Allyson, she doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. When she’s at the top of her game she draws you in with her clear, vibratoless, sometimes subtly cajoling, sometimes distantly rueful style. That explains why she gets away with what she does here when she covers material that’s been done before by jazz sirens with bigger voices and bigger names. Alongsider her, pianist Joshua Wolff, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Jon Wikan work the corners for subtleties, with Ingrid Jensen adding characteristically terse, rich color, on trumpet and flugelhorn on five of the tracks.

James puts her own subtle (some might say tender) stamp on Tenderly, rather than trying to mimic the iconic Sarah Vaughan version – Jensen is there right off the bat with a smoky/steamy trumpet intro. Whisper Not was a hit for both Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day; here, James and the bass play a carefree game of tag until the swing kicks in. Then Jensen takes a sailing, breezily bluesy solo into a suspenseful spy movie-style bass/drums vamp out of which James bursts unexpectedly with a minor arpeggio. When you think about it, all the great jazz singers basically do horn lines, and that’s exactly what she’s up to here and elsewhere. Although on the intricate, expansive version of the obscure A Timeless Place (The Peacocks), she sings what’s essentially a righthand piano melody against Wolff’s expansiveness and gracefully terse, almost rubato accents by the rest of the band.

Long Ago and Far Away (Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin) was written for a man’s voice; the interpretation here is closer to Billie Holiday, James so comfortable over the bass and drums early on that when Wolff good-naturedly jumps in, the effect is startling. Abbey Lincoln’s My Love Is You hints at flying off the tarmac, suspensefully, with a neat bass solo; The Very Thought of You counterintuitively gets a dreamy ballad arrangement with romantic muted trumpet. Irving Berlin’s How Deep Is the Ocean gets a psychedelically percussive intro before it goes straight up into the air, as high and far as James and the band can take it. Then Wolff and James take it back down again with what might be the strongest song here, the vividly world-weary obscurity Be Anything. The only misstep on the album is In April, and not because the band does a bad job with Bill Evans’ tune, but because Roger Schore’s lyric has not aged well and at this point in history comes across as rather sexist. James recorded the album in Brooklyn, so a return trip shouldn’t be out of the question: watch this space.

March 4, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: The Snow – I Die Every Night

Here we are in March with the first classic album of 2010 (this one actually came out in mid-January). The Snow’s debut album True Dirt was good: this is a lushly arranged, thoughtful, funny, richly lyrical art-rock masterpiece. Bandleader Pierre de Gaillande has been writing good, frequently great songs for several years, throughout his days with Melomane, Sea Foxx and numerous other side projects (like his English-language Georges Brassens cover band Bad Reputation), but this is the strongest effort he’s been a part of yet. Putting keyboardist/chanteuse Hilary Downes out in front of the group was a genius move, even if it was only logical. She’s a torch singer straight out of the Chris Connor/June Christy mold (or a darker Nellie McKay) with an alternately coy and murderous way of sliding up to a note and nailing it. She also contributes half of the songs on the album, alternating with Gaillande from track to track, with an additional number, a rueful tango, written by multi-reed virtuoso David Spinley. The rhythm section of Christian Bongers (ex-Botanica) on bass and Jeffrey Schaeffer on drums slink through the shadows as the clarinet or saxes soar above the swirl of layers and layers of keyboards and the occasional snarl and clang of the guitar. There are other bands who leap from genre to genre as avidly as the Snow do here, but few who have such obvious fun doing it.

The opening track is Albatross, an ironically straightforward, metaphorically loaded ballad by Downes that makes stately art-rock out of a Gaillande garage guitar riff. Handle Your Weapon, by Gaillande, throws out a lifeline to a possible would-be suicide miles from civilization in a symbolic middle of nowhere, swinging along on the pulse of Downes’ electric piano. By contrast, The Silent Parade – sort of a signature song for the band – delivers the understated, menacing majesty of the snowstorm to end all snowstorms, the last way anyone would expect the world to end at this point in history. The warmly torchy, soul-inflected Fool’s Gold could be a requiem for a relationship – or for the promise that indie rock seemed it might deliver on for a moment but never did.

Undertow is a tongue-in-cheek clinic in jazzy syncopation, a showcase for Downes’ darkly allusive lyrical wit, matched by Gaillande on the wryly swinging, Gainsbourg-esque Reptile, a hot-blooded creature’s lament. The most menacing cut on the album is the hypnotic, woozy 6/8 masquerade-ball themed Slow Orbit. The album winds up with Downes’ understatedly bitter, minor-key chamber-rock ballad Shadows and Ghosts and Gailllande’s hypnotic, aptly titled psychedelic anthem Life Is Long and Strange, far more subtle than it might seem. Live, the band surprisingly manage to capture most of the atmospherics of their studio work; watch this space for NYC dates.

March 4, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Moonlighters – Enchanted

Fifth time’s a charm. The Moonlighters were among the first and remain the best of the oldtimey bands who started popping up around New York around the turn of the century. The last century, that is, although their sound has more in common with the one before that. Frontwoman/ukelele player and main songwriter Bliss Blood is the sole holdover from the band’s original 1999 incarnation, a torch singer par excellence and onetime college semiotics major who perhaps better than any other current-day writer captures the droll effervescence and innuendo-laden wit of classic ragtime, early 1920s swing and hokum blues. The clear, soaring beauty of her voice blends with the harmonies of another period-perfect singer, guitarist Cindy Ball, backed by the fluid bass of Peter Maness and Mark Deffenbaugh on fiery, incisive steel guitar. As consistently excellent as their first four releases – including the ecstatically good Live in Baden-Baden cd – have been, this looks like the album that’s going to put them over the top. This time out the band blends their irresistible Hawaiian-inflected makeout music with vintage-style ragtime, swing, a bouncy hobo song and even some vintage European film songs. It’s playful, sexy, often poignant and sometimes very subtly funny.

The cd’s opening cut sets the tone with Blood and Ball’s (Blood and Balls – now that’s a side project waiting to happen!) fetching harmonies, a winsome Hawaiian swing tale about breaking a hex and finding love at last. By contrast, Winter in My Heart is gorgeously plaintive yet ultimately optimistic. A couple of cuts, Blood’s Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love and Ball’s Don’t Baby Me channel a 1920s flapper vibe – those women reveled in their emancipation, and they weren’t about to take any grief from guys! The best single track on the album might be Night Smoke, written by Ball, a vivid Henry Mancini-esque salute to the pleasures of the wee hours. The cover are good too. They take the old Benny Goodman/Rosemarie Clooney standard It’s Bad For Me and reinvent it as a sassy Rat Pack-era come-on, jump into silent-film character for Fooling with the Other Woman’s Man and take their time, deliciously and tongue-in-cheek, with Al Duvall‘s Freudian innuendo-fest Sheet Music Man. The album closes with a medley of Marlene Dietrich songs, doubtlessly inspired by the Moonlighters’ success touring Germany over the past few years. Look for this on our best albums of 2009 list toward the end of December. The Moonlighters play the cd release show tonight, August 7 at Barbes at 10.

The Moonlighters’ new label, WorldSound has also brought Blood’s teenage S&M industrial punk band the Pain Teens‘ catalog back into print, a welcome development for people who were into Ministry and that stuff back in the early 90s. In case you’re wondering, they didn’t sound anything like the Moonlighters. But they could also be very funny.

August 7, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Jan Bell and Jolie Holland Live at Union Pool, Brooklyn NY 4/16/08

Pity the act who has to follow Jan Bell. Put aside any preconceptions you may have of sad-eyed ladies of the luxury highrises singing in an affected faux-Southern drawl at places like the Living Room: Bell is not one of them. She’s a true original, someone who seems to be right on the brink of something big. She reminded tonight how she got there, with uncommonly good original songwriting, smart guitar playing, a confidently swaying stage presence and a voice like hard cider, rustic and bittersweet but packing a knockout punch. Not bad for a “Yorkshire lass,” as the British expat bills herself. Imagine Kasey Chambers if she’d spent her teenage years hanging out after hours in bars with Loretta Lynn and her 1960s band instead of hunting kangaroos in the Australian outback with her dad, and you get a picture of what Bell is about. She got the chatty crowd to shut up, more or less, for the better part of forty minutes (a less impressive feat than it may seem, since a considerable portion of the sold-out house had come out for her and left after she finished). Accompanied only by Luminescent Orchestrii violinist Rina Fand (who proved as brilliant at vocal harmonies as she is at gypsy music), Bell ran through several numbers from her latest cd Songs for Love Drunk Sinners (which is an IMA finalist for best alt-country album of the year). The high point of the set was her big audience hit Leaving Town, a haunting, fast Texas shuffle that wouldn’t be out of place on a Patricia Vonne album. “They’re watching over you,” she cautioned at the end, all the more reason to leave. Although Bell’s strongest suit is dark minor keys, she also held up her end on a small handful of slow, melancholy waltz numbers. Fand’s violin work was amazing: from start to finish, she stuck with blues, eschewing any traditional country fiddle licks. Although she often went for the jugular, she didn’t waste a note all night. They closed with a fetching, evocative love song for New York.

“Thank you for putting up with my incompetence,” Jolie Holland told the audience, and there was considerable sarcasm in that because she’s perfectly competent at what she does, Tom Waits-style, alternately bluesy or country-inflected ballads. Completely self-aware, she turns any deficiency in her performance – forgetting lyrics, having to stop songs and start them over because she crunched a chord or forgot the tune – into an opportunity to make frequently laugh-out-loud funny repartee with the audience. “You know, I know the guy who invented the teleprompter,” she told the crowd, out of the blue. “He’s a bum on Haight Street.”

After playing an audience request, Old Fashioned Morphine, her popular tribute to the drug set to an oldtime, minor-key gospel tune, she explained how that song and the one that followed came about. As it happened, she’d had a dream that she was William Burroughs’ girlfriend, waking up next to him in bed and wondering what the hell she was doing there. When she suggested that they take a walk together, he growled, “Don’t treat me like an old man.” She then explained how she’d told a Lawrence, Kansas audience that story and that during the show, somehow, word had gotten back to Burroughs’ longtime boyfriend, who then came down to the show, introduced himself as Burroughs’ “wife,” and then kissed Holland on the lips. Then, a couple of years later, she was offered a part in a musical, which turned out to be the role of – you guessed it – William Burrough’s wife.

Holland was bedeviled by the sound, which had suddenly gone haywire after being impressively crystal-clear for Bell. She brought up her twin sister Sam Parton of the Be Good Tanyas, who contributed charming, spot-on harmonies just like she does in her own band. But ultimately, Holland got schooled by the New Yorkers. What she does is stylized: Billie Holiday did it, Rickie Lee Jones does it and they’re perfectly valid artists, as Holland is. But she didn’t vary her vocal delivery all night. When she invited up a bunch of A-list Brooklyn types to close the show with an obviously under-rehearsed set of country harmony tunes, the crowd finally started getting impatient and it fell to blues guitarslinger Mamie Minch to take charge. “Hush, now,” she cautioned and it was clear she meant business. Along with Parton and Bell, they brought up a couple of guys including another mean blues artist, Will Scott, whose distinctive baritone would have been a terrific addition to the mix had it been audible. Not to be jingoistic or disrespectful to Holland – who’s no dummy and makes excellent albums – but the story of the night here was the hometown acts.

April 17, 2008 Posted by | blues music, concert, country music, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Erica Smith & the 99 Cent Dreams Live at Parkside, NYC 1/25/08

The best show of the year so far. Erica Smith and her backing trio were celebrating the release of their long-overdue new album Snowblind, and rose to the occasion with a majestic, transcendent performance. Smith is one of those panstylistic rock goddesses like Neko Case, steeped in Americana but lately delving deep into jazz. Nonetheless, this is a rock band, and they rocked. Lead guitarist Dann Baker and drummer Dave Campbell are two-thirds of Beatlemaniac psychedelic rockers Love Camp 7, and they were at the absolute top of their game. Baker’s playful, frequently fiery virtuosity is the perfect complement to Smith’s wickedly catchy, jangly songs, and Campbell might well be the best drummer in rock, an Elvin Jones disciple who in all fairness really ought to be leading his own jazz group.

They soared through the opening track on the cd, the Merseybeat hit Easy Now, then lit into a 60s Memphis soul soundalike driven by a bass riff stolen straight from Duck Dunn. Baker took a screaming, noisy solo after the second chorus and really got the crowd going. They followed with the heartbreakingly beautiful The World Is Full of Pretty Girls, a rivetingly sad, swaying, country ballad, and the lush, romantic Brazilian-inflected Tonight, Campbell expertly conducting the band through a slow, hypnotic fade at the end.

Smith’s set of jazz reminded what a vividly instinctive feel she has for the genre, with a high-spirited version of The Very Thought of You, a very slow, haunting take of One for My Baby, a bouncy Ain’t Misbehaving with false ending and an effectively jazzed-up cover of Livia Hoffman’s sad, beautifully literate Valentine. Campbell brought it down to almost complete silence with a tensely minimal solo. He also got the crowd roaring on a careening, bluesy cover of the obscure Judy Henske/Jerry Yester song Snowblind, the title track from the cd. When the band does this live, they generally don’t give Campbell enough time to solo, probably because drum solos – on the rare occasion that any rock bands other than, say, Journey play them anymore – can take a song into Spinal Tap territory in a split second and leave it there for good. This time, Campbell got at least a couple of minutes to span the globe, throw out some summer snapshots of Bahia, a trip into the mountains of Morocco and then before anyone knew it, he was back on the Lower East Side again.

They saved their best for last, with a towering, nine-minute version of their epic parable All the King’s Horses. It’s a slow, 6/8 ballad, music by Smith, Sean Dolan’s lyric transposing all the deadly effects of post-WWII monopoly capitalism onto a medieval battlefield. Audience members were brought to tears. The bass player, clearly caught up in the moment, went off-mic and sang along with Smith as she brought it to a crescendo at the end of the last verse: “Do you have enough hours to bury your dead, or days in which to atone?” Except that he sang “bodies” instead of “hours.” And then missed his cue to join in with the band singing harmonies on the chorus. They encored with 31st Avenue, a haunting, melancholy track from her previous album, rearranged as a backbeat-driven, psychedelic, lushly romantic hit.

January 28, 2008 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment