Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Pre-War Ponies Summon the Ghosts of Old New York

Last night at Rodeo Bar the Pre-War Ponies played an irresistible, unselfconsciously romantic mix of obscure swing tunes. Frontwoman Daria Grace leads this unit when she isn’t playing bass in her husband’s Jack’s excellent country band, or in recently semi-resurrected art-rockers Melomane, which doesn’t give her a lot of time – this crew basically plays the Rodeo and Barbes and that’s about it. But her Rodeo gig has been a monthly residency for awhile now, and it’s one of New York’s obscure treasures – just like her repertoire. The songs she likes best are clever, urbane, and catchy, ranging from quirky to downright bizarre. Her voice is stunning, pure and clear but also a little misty, the perfect vehicle for tales of heartbreak and longing and hope against hope that everything will work out in the end. This time out she was backed by a rhythm section along with J. Walter Hawkes doubling on trombone and ukelele, and Mike Neer on acoustic lead guitar.

The best song of the night was a blithe suicide song from 1928, Ready for the River, by Gus Kahn and Neil Moret. “Gonna leave just a bubble to indicate what used to be me,” Grace sang with a carefree nonchalance as the band bounced along behind her. “Gonna keep walking til my straw hat floats.” Her version of Two Sleepy People, a Frank Loesser/Hoagy Carmichael hit from 1938, perfectly captured the hazy endorphin bliss of a couple who’ve run out of things to say (or brainpower to say them with) but can’t tear themselves away from each other.

The band’s second set of the night was both fetching and fun. Grace came off the stage to redistribute the bar’s supply of peanuts since a friend of hers needed a refill. Then Hawkes noticed that someone had left a guitar pick in the nose of the bison head to the right of the stage. “Probably your husband,” he told Grace.

“Probably was,” she sighed. She looked at the pick. “Nope. Not his brand.” And then picked up her baritone uke and launched into a tribute to every ukelele song ever written. She brought a distantly smoky charm to Connee Boswell’s All I Can Do Is Dream of You, Irving Berlin’s 1925 hit Remember, and later an understatedly plaintive version of It’s the Talk of the Town. The bouncy, shuffling lament Say It Isn’t So was a launching pad for a rocket of a solo by Neer that leveled off the second time through the verse, followed by a droll muted trombone solo by Hawkes that managed to be completely period-perfect and over-the-top yet poignant all at the same time. The torchy Take My Heart got a buoyant solo from Hawkes followed by more edgy incisiveness from Neer. On the innuendo-driven I Want a Buddy, Not a Sweetheart, Neer punched through the best solo of the night, a rapidfire series of chords with an Asian tinge, as if he was playing a koto. They also did a slinky, gypsy jazz version of Cole Porter’s Primitive Man, from the 1929 film Fifteen Million Frenchmen.

The 1947 tune Brooklyn Love Song has “hey” at the end of pretty much every phrase. Grace lost the second page of her sheet music, so she had to come up with some new lyrics: “Everything happens for a reason. Hey!” Hawkes finally found the missing page; without missing a beat, they jumped back in and wound it up as jauntily as it began.

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

CD Review: Ticklin’ the Strings Presented by the Sweet Hollywaiians

This is arguably the funnest and most romantic album of the year. Japanese retro Hawaiian swing band the Sweet Hollywaiians have earned rave reviews, including one from Hollywood film director Terry Zwigoff, and the hype is deserved: they can flat-out play. With Tomotaka Matsui’s Hawaiian steel guitar, Nobumasa Takada‘s ukelele, Takashi Nakayama’s acoustic guitar and Kohichi Tsutsumishita on standup bass along with mandolin, violin and cameos from Robert Armstrong and Tony Marcus of R. Crumb’s Cheap Suit Serenaders, they run through a 1930s jukebox worth of jaunty instrumentals and period-perfect vocal numbers. It’s a feast of spiky string textures, dazzling virtuosity and inspired musicianship, not to mention scholarship – along with the standards, they’ve unearthed some real gems. But more than anything else, this is great makeout music.

The title track and Wasting My Love on You are well-known, covered by New York Hawaiian swing institution the Moonlighters along with plenty of other bands; the Sweet Hollywaiians’ versions are impressively purist, hewing close to the originals, the former blissfully upbeat, the latter quite dark in the same vein as Brother Can You Spare a Dime. The Hawaiian Beach Combers’ My Girl from the South Sea Isles and the Dallas String Band’s Chasin’ Rainbows totally nail the originals’ ambience right down to the vocals, whether Tin Pan Alley or hillbilly swing. The tango La Rosita works its major-to-minor mood shift with a marvelous ominousness; perhaps the prettiest melody of all the tunes here is Giovanni Vicari’s Nostalgia, a beautifully wistful, gypsy-inflected waltz featuring steel guitar and violin from Armstrong and Marcus. The band’s latin-inflected original Oh! Caroline is gorgously dark and spiky – one wishes they’d included more of their own stuff here. There’s also plenty of more lighthearted material here including the novelty songs Ten Tiny Toes and Singin’ in the Bathtub (a 1930s precursor to the Lyres’ garage rock hit Soapy!). Steampunks of every stripe will go crazy over this album once they find out about it. Maybe if we’re lucky here in the US we can get a Moonlighters/Sweet Hollywaiians tour!

October 30, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Moonlighters Live at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 3/14/08

This band may be something of a New York institution, but if you haven’t seen the Moonlighters lately you definitely should. There’s been considerable turnover: of the original quartet, only bandleader/ukulele player Bliss Blood remains. This latest incarnation harks back to the original unit: they’ve reverted to the quieter, more overtly romantic style they mined so well on their first album. Their latest steel guitarist Mark Deffenbaugh plays Blood’s absolutely authentic-sounding 20s and 30s style torch songs, blues and Hawaiian swing with taste and sensitivity, the new bass player’s impressive jazz chops are on par with those of their original 4-string guy Andrew Hall, and guitarist/harmony singer Cindy Ball (who handled a lot of the lead vocals tonight) not only has a soaringly beautiful, jazz-inflected delivery, but also great retro fashion sense. Though Blood was considerably under the weather (“Never go to a 1-year-old’s birthday party,” she cautioned the packed house), it was impossible to tell from how she sang, her vocals perfectly clear, warm and cheery as always.

The set also looked back to the band’s turn-of-the-century sound: the surprisingly cheerful, bouncy hobo anthem Ballad of a Gink; the lushly beautiful Dreamland (the title track from their first album, taking its name from the legendary Coney Island amusement park), a couple of similarly swoony new songs, and the minor-key Blue and Black-Eyed, an account of the sad demise of one of the prostitutes who would throw themselves from the fire escape at the notorious late-1800s Bowery saloon McGuirk’s Suicide Hall (the building that housed it was razed a couple of years ago to make space for highrise plastic-and-sheetrock luxury condos). This version of the band played it with less overt intensity than previous incarnations did, making it more of a seamless fit with the rest of the material.

Bliss Blood’s songwriting is undiminished. It’s hard to think of anyone else who can so effortlessly evoke the playfully literate, sometimes innuendo-laden wit of 1920s and 1930s pop as well as she does, and to her credit she’s once again assembled a crew who can do justice to it. Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of couples in the audience: this was clearly date night, and everybody seemed happy with the outcome. At least while the band was playing. The Moonlighters are back at Barbes at 10 in the 19th.

March 15, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Moonlighters at Barbes 6/23/07

For awhile the Moonlighters were ubiquitous on the NYC club circuit.  In case you haven’t seen them lately, you should. This is basically a brand-new band: of the pioneering old-timey quartet’s original members, only frontwoman/ukelele player Bliss Blood remains. Yet they’re better than ever. The new Daria (as denizens of the scene might say) is singer/guitarist Cindy Ball, whose harmony vocals and playing are spot-on, and she has the Gatsby-era look down cold. Upright bassist Peter Maness is a concise, incisive cat, especially when he solos. But their best acquisition is guitarist/banjoist/baritone sax player Ken Mosher, late of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. He’s brought back the fire that was missing since the Moonlighters’ original steel guitarist Henry Bogdan left for Hawaii and then the Helmet reunion tour.

They opened their first set with a typically charming version of Big Times, the two women in the band blending voices exquisitely. “Let’s do a tango,” smiled Blood, and they launched into the haunting Dirt Road Life, a day in the life of a sweatshop worker. “I’ve tried to wash it off, I’ve tried and I’ve tried, but it’s stuck there inside like a scar in my side,” went the refrain: though they’re best known (and rightfully so) for their authentically retro, romantic stylings, the Moonlighters have a social awarness to rival that of the Clash. They followed with Broken Doll, from their most recent album Surrender, the first of several “snuff torch songs” that Blood has been playing with this unit and another project, the deliciously sinister Nightcall. Then they picked up the pace with the sprightly hobo tune Special Cannonball and the wistful melancholia of Every Little Teardrop. Mosher punctuated the following tune, Never Be the Same with a sizzling, jazzy electric guitar solo as the band took it to warp speed.

Mosher switched to banjo for the swinging, jauntily optimistic Farewell to the Blues, and for a minute it was as if the little back room had become a speakeasy circa 1928 – or sometime before the crash, anyway. There are innumerable other old-time bands out there – basically everybody who plays Pete’s Candy Store these days – but the Moonlighters were one of the first and remain just about the best. Maness took a decisive little stroll to open the next number, the sprawling, crescendoing, multi-part Ziegfeld Doll, written by their former guitarist/singer Carla Murray. After an innuendo-laden 6/8 pop tune from the 20s with another blazing Mosher guitar solo, they closed their first set with a crowd-pleaser from their early period, Makin’ Wicky-Wacky Down in Waikiki. The audience – especially the young couples – loved it. New York crowds take this kind of show for granted: see this band now while you can before the only venues left standing are VIP DJ lounges in luxury hotels.

June 29, 2007 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

CD Review: The Moonlighters – Surrender

Another great album by the world’s most romantic band. While going to see the Moonlighters is something of an institution among young NYC couples, don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a sappy act. Their specialty is bedroom music, par excellence. This cd – their fourth – continues with more of the charming, effervescent Hawaiian and old-time music for which they’re best known. The cd cover, with its striking imagery of a flame-haired surfer girl trapped in a jar, staring into the mouth of a tiger while cowboys circle below and a vulture circles overhead, gives a hint of the uncompromising, politically-charged power of their live shows. Steel guitarist Henry Bodgan has been replaced on this album by Mike Neer, whose more traditional style lacks Bogdan’s sting but is probably a better fit with the fetching harmonies and strumming of frontwoman/uke player Bliss Blood and guitarist/singer Carla Murray. As with their live show, Blood plays the vivacious redhead, Murray the sultry brunette; the way their voices and personalities blend and contrast is nothing short of sexy. That’s not to say that the band puts style over substance: as a songwriter, Blood absolutely owns the nouveau-Gatsby-era genre. Foremost among her original songs here is the gorgeous, heartbreaking, minor-key Dirt Road Life, which works either as a contemporary maquiladora ballad or a lament by a 1920s sweatshop worker here in New York. Other originals here, including the cd’s bouncy opening cut Big Times and the unabashedly romantic Every Little Raindrop sound like authentic soundtrack material for some pre-code Mae West movie. There’s also the eerie Broken Doll, as well as Murray’s magnificently arranged pastiche Ziegfeld Doll, and the upbeat, old-timey hobo tune Boxcar with a View. The covers on the album are wisely chosen and beautifully performed, among them an airy, atmospheric take on the old Rodgers/Hammerstein chestnut Bali Hai, the novelty tune Makin Wickey-Wackey Down in Waikiki (a big hit at live shows), and the innuendo-laden Take a Picture of the Moon. Bliss Blood’s iconoclastic wit doesn’t shine through here quite as much as it does onstage, but that’s not what this cd is all about. Put it on the table by the bed with the Al Green and the Sade and break out the incense, wine and candles (just kidding – with this cd, incense, wine and candles are overkill).  The Moonlighters play June 1 at 9 PM at Barbes; CD’s are available at shows, at better record stores and online.

May 28, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments