Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Heather Holloway & the Heebie Jeebies Draw You Into Their Gently Haunting World

Nobody in New York sings I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with more subtly resigned, haunting resonance than Heather Holloway. And she does it with a gentle, wistful smile. With her serene, almost ghostly presence in front of her eclectic, simmering swing combo the Heebie Jeebies, she doesn’t fit the stereotype of your typical torch singer. She’s like a messenger from a lost era of smoky hotel bars and black-and-white film sets, quietly intimating that you should join her in a return to a more pleasant time when after work meant cocktail hour rather than trudging to the night job just to pay a share of the rent. She and the band have a Wednesday night 7 PM residency at the lobby bar at the Hotel Chantelle at 92 Ludlow St; they’re also at Radegast Hall, a regular haunt, on June 6 at around 8. If Lynchian sounds are your thing and you can handle the Ludlow Street strip – or, for that matter, if it breaks your heart to see how the area’s been devastated and turned into a playground for the entitled and pampered – her show might provide some solace.

She played at Radegast on a misty weeknight last month, the perfect ambience for her calmly bittersweet reinterpretations of a bunch of well-worn standards. Holloway’s delivery is disarmingly direct: she doesn’t use much vibrato, and then only at the end of a phrase, and there’s none of the over-the-top vampiness that so many other chanteuses work. Julie London comes to mind; so does Bliss Blood, although Holloway doesn’t have either singer’s sharp edges. What she does is more nebulous, and enveloping – and completely inscrutable. The band behind her provides the bite, particularly accordionist Albert Behar, whose terse spirals and fluttering lead lines added to the solitary Les Deux Magots atmosphere, matched by guitarist Adam Moezinia’s precise, distantly Django-influenced clusters and cadenzas. Meanwhile, bassist Joanna Sternberg showed off the same irrepressible sense of humor on bass that she does when she plays guitar and sings her front-porch folk songs, swooping up and down the scale and taking a couple of cheerily balletesque solos.

Maybe because the little front stage at the entrance to the big beerhall didn’t have room for everybody, Holloway placed herself out in front of them on the floor, almost motionless, but with the grace of a wirewalker or a mime. Even the upbeat material – Sunny Side of the Street and Blues Skies, for example – had an opaque quality and a distant unease. By contrast, she found deep-sky longing in When You Wish Upon a Star. St. James Infirmary was somewhere in the middle, part bitter blues lament, part confident self-penned requiem. With an understated confidence, Holloway has slipped into a niche just past the edge of the shadows before you hit girl-down-the-well Julee Cruise territory, and if you’re here in town you have plenty of chances to see her.

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May 26, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Celia Berk Thrills the Crowd in a Nuanced, Compelling Metropolitan Room Debut

Celia Berk’s website is gramercynightingale.com. It might just as well be seriouschutzpah.com. It’s one thing for a singer to namecheck the world’s best-loved songbird…but one with a key to the park, too? That takes some nerve. In her Metropolitan Room debut last night, the cabaret-jazz chanteuse packed the room and wowed the crowd with a richly dynamic, urbane, minutely jeweled performance. Elegantly backed by her pianist/musical director Alex Rybeck along with guitarist Sean Harkness and bassist Michael Goetz, Berk delivered a program studded with gems that she and Rybeck had rescued from obscurity. Fans of cosmopolitan songcraft ought to see this show, which repeats on November 30 at 7 PM and December 6 at 4 PM for $25: considering the turnout at yesterday’s show, reservations are a good idea.

As a singer, Berk revealed herself as a stylist with laser focus on meaning and subtext, with an irrepressible, sophisticated wit. As her domain name implies, she is New York to the core. Her expressive alto has some grain around the edges: it’s the voice of a survivor, though one who hasn’t lost her joie de vivre. She expressed this most forcefully, airing out her low register on a gale-force take of David Shire’s What About Today as the band took it up from a latin-tinged stroll to a gusty crescendo. That same bittersweetness resonated more quietly but no less potently throughout Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s This Dream, with its theme of hope against hope.

But Berk can also be very funny. The biggest hit with the crowd was a droll new translation of an early Irving Berlin vaudeville number, Yiddisha Nightingale, its centerpiece an excerpt from a Puccini aria that gave Berk a chance to go to the very top of her register for full-throttle thrills. The sly version of the Cliff Friend novelty song The Broken Record – recorded by Barbra Streisand, among others – made a good segue, with its metrically tricky choruses mimicking a needle stuck in a groove. The funniest of all the songs was Berk’s New York cabaret premiere of Tex Arnold and Lew Spence’s Such a Wonderful Town, a very sideways shout-out to a tonguetwisting Long Island burg, riddled with irresistibly amusing wordplay.

Berk channeled plenty of other emotions from across the spectrum. She bookeneded a luminous take of Stairway to the Stars (the showtune, not the Blue Oyster Cult hit) with a lushly evocative interpretation of Will Jason and Val Burton’s Penthouse Serenade, explaining how pefectly the song captures her feeling for her hometown, which turned out to be a mix of rapt appreciation, wistfulness and a tinge of angst. A recurrent theme was evoked poignantly via a lesser-known Alan and Marilyn Bergman number, I’ve Been Waiting All My Life: Berk is not new to this, as was immediately evident from her command of its nuances, and was on a mission to leave a mark as someone who’s no ingenue and has decided to embrace that role, one with the depth n0 ingenue could reach.

Many of the songs from this performance are on Berk’s new album You Can’t Rush Spring, with Rybeck and an expanded cast of musicians.

November 24, 2014 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

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

Torchy Surrealism from Rayvon Browne

Rayvon Browne is neither a rapper nor a rockabilly guy. Rayvon Browne is actually the rather charming, torchy, lo-fi duo of singers Cal Folger Day and Morgan Heringer. Heringer has the higher voice and more traditionally jazz-oriented phrasing; Day’s low soprano packs more of a wallop, with a flair for biting blue notes a la Jolie Holland. Songwise, the two are like no one else. While a lot of their album Companion flits from one style to another in the span of seconds, and it sounds like it was recorded in somebody’s bedroom (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), there’s a lot of sophistication here considering that they’re “swapping around on piano, uke, guitar, mandolin, melodica, Casio, & more.” Betty Carter is a possible influence; so is Laura Nyro. Then again, they may have never heard of either, considering how different this is.

“Having a boyfriend ain’t the Christian thing to do,” the two harmonize, deadpan, on the opening track, over swaying acoustic guitar with whispery traces of piano and Sarah Stanley’s flute. It’s a soul song, basically. The degree to which this is satirical is hard to gauge. Heringer sings the second track, Cocktease, bewildering swirly interludes juxtaposed with terse Fender Rhodes bossa nova that gets interrupted by buzzy overdriven electric guitar. She also takes the lead on a slightly less surreal number, Cat on Chest, seemingly addressed to a small friend uninterested in anything more than a warm place to sleep. You know how cats are, they run the show.

The fourth track, Queen sounds like a Joni Mitchell demo from around 1975 – again, not necessarily a bad thing. Where Is My Boyfriend begins with an out-of-tune piano playing Brill Building pop and quickly goes rubato: “Getting wasted on a Wednesday night, waking up to the cat…I lost my lover on the Long Island Railroad, now they’re burning Pennsylvania Station to the ground…where is my boyfriend, please tell me he’s coming,” Heringer sings with a pervasive, bluesy unease. Strange and bracing stuff. Day evokes another Lady Day on Having a Luv, in restrained but sultry mode over an unexpectedly shimmery backdrop of acoustic guitar, tinkly piano and Joel Kruzic’s terse bass. And Heringer’s swooping harmonies add a joyous energy to Day’s torchiness on Cocktail, over minimal guitar/bass backing. The last track on the album has a prosaic, nervous girl-writing-in-her-diary folk feel: the album would be better off without it. Otherwise, these unpredictable songs draw you in and then disarm you with their quirky charm. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp site; their next New York gig is on August 11 at 11ish at a Gathering of the Tribes, 285 E 3rd St. at around 11 PM.

July 27, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

Bliss Blood and Al Street’s Evanescent: One of the Year’s Best Albums

It’s always cool when a great artist decides to give away free tracks. When those tracks are among that artist’s best ever, it’s time to get busy downloading. Bliss Blood – New York’s reigning goddess of retro – decided to put the debut album by her new duo project Evanescent, with guitarist Al Street, up at reverbnation as a free download. Her Hawaiian swing crew the Moonlighters may be iconic among NYC artists, but they’re only her best-known group: in the last ten years, she’s also sung straight-up swing jazz, creepy cinematic noir songs, and barrelhouse blues (and S&M punk rock, if you count her teenage band the Pain Teens from the early 90s). But this flamenco-tinged unit with just ukulele, acoustic guitar, Blood’s lush, velvet vocals and a ton of reverb that amps up the lurid factor, may be her best yet. The joke here is that this music is actually the furthest thing from evanescent – it lingers and haunts. Blood has never sung better – the Moonlighters’ harmonies range from sensual to chirpy, but here Blood runs deep and dark with an unexpected gravitas and also a sultry allure that beats anything the Moonlighters have done – and they’re a great band.

The first track, Swallow the Dice, sets the stage, lowlit in red: it’s a menacing flamenco waltz, a defiantly metaphorical tribute to beating the system. Likewise, the steadily pulsing Liplock mines a series of double entendres, some of them ironic: play your cards too close to the vest and risk losing everything. Bulletproof is absolutely gorgeous, seductively bittersweet, all too aware of how invulnerability can be a double-edged sword:

Impervious to pain
I dream undaunted
Until I’m wanted and flaunted again
Bad bargain, maybe
I made it, unflinching
I keep it, bewitching
And blindly I see
It’s a barrier around me
Makes me bulletproof
Nothing can touch me
No one but you

The strongest track, lyrically at least, is Blackwater, a blistering broadside originally done by Blood’s “crime jazz” band Nightcall during the waning days of the Bush regime when mercenaries in Iraq were slaughering civilians left and right. Here it’s reinvented with a sarcastic rockabilly shuffle rhythm as Blood rails against the consciousless cynicism of the soldiers of fortune who think nothing of “blood spilled on the sand.” The sultriest track is The Palace of the Wind, its Dr. Zhivago ambience lush and pensive over Street’s agile broken chords. With just ukulele, bells and vocals for most of it, Butterfly Collector wouldn’t be out of place in an early 60s Henry Mancini soundtrack. There’s also the torchy, Freudian Legend of a Crime; the brisk, galloping Ella Es el Matador, the give-and-take of a hookup explained as a bullfight; the echoey, pillowy, sad guitar-and-vocalese instrumental Firefly, and the sly, reggae-tinged come-on Your Mayhem. One of the best albums of the year, for free. Evanescent play DBA at 113 N 7th St. (Berry/Wythe) in Williamsburg on 4/16; 4/22 they’re at Cin-M-Art Space, 43 Murray Street, (W. Broadway & Church).

April 12, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 10/15/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #837:

Everything But the Girl – Baby the Stars Shine Bright Tonight

Tracy Thorn and Ben Watt were stars in the UK ten years before the bastardized disco remix of Missing topped the US pop charts in 1994. Their torchy, jazzy 1983 debut was a big hit across the pond: this is their third album, from 1986, a lush, lavishly orchestrated collection of retro ballads, a perfect vehicle for Thorn’s anxious, wounded alto voice. She’s all longing and anticipation on the big 6/8 opening cut Come On Home, the irrepressibly swinging Don’t Leave Me Behind and the ethereal A Country Mile. Don’t Let the Teardrops Rust Your Shining Heart is a pretty successful stab at countrypolitan, as is Come Hell or High Water. Careless and Sugar Finney revert to a soaring, majestic jazz-pop vibe. The knockout punch here is Little Hitler, an understatedly towering 6/8 anthem written by Thorn: “Little Hitlers grow up to be big Hitlers,” she warns over the swell of the strings: “Every woman loves a fascist.” Part of that observation is sarcastic but part is not. If you like this one, their first two albums along with the mostly acoustic Amplified Heart and the charming acoustic ep (look for the red heart on a blue background) are also highly recommended; on the other hand, their explorations of trip-hop and proto-Portishead electronic pop are tepid and boring. Here’s a random torrent.

October 15, 2010 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