Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Robin Hoffman: Artist to the Stars of the Brooklyn Underground

Robin Hoffman describes herself as “Brooklyn artist, mom, former ballet soloist and hanger-out at Jalopy.” With her second coffee-table book, Ukulele Chicken Sketchbook: Jalopy Bands, she continues the series of portraits begun in last year’s Live From the Audience: A Year of Drawing at the Jalopy. Perhaps inadvertently, she’s created a niche for herself as the documentarian of one of New York’s most vital music scenes, capturing the essentials of innumerable Americana roots artists in the span of a few lines and angles. Picture after picture, Hoffman gets it: the growling gravitas of the Little Brothers; the sprawl of the M Shanghai String Band; the Ukuladies with their Mona Lisa smiles; the Sweetback Sisters’ effortless competence and charm; the scruffy Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues; the unselfconscious joy of the Calamity Janes, and Balkan brass band Veveritse’s spring-loaded swirl. With her band the Hot Mess, Jessy Carolina is portrayed as a flapper. Kelli Rae Powell looks like Liza Minelli (she’d love that, no doubt), and especially tiny next to her rugged bassist husband. And Hoffman absolutely nails Maybelles frontwoman Jan Bell’s plaintive soul with just a few decisive strokes. Hoffman celebrates the release of the book with a party on February 11 at 6 PM at – where else – the Jalopy, 315 Columbia St. in Red Hook, very easy to get to via the F to Carroll St. She recently took some time out of an obviously busy schedule to answer some questions:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: When did you discover the Jalopy?

Robin Hoffman: I live in the neighborhood, and I found Jalopy in the summer of 2008. My husband and I began going out late in the evening to stroll our baby to sleep, and we discovered that Columbia Street had a whole night life going on that hadn’t been there before we had the baby. Then I found out that Doug Skinner was teaching ukulele there, and that was that.

LCC: How do you find the time to spend so much time there? Frankly, I’m jealous…

RH: It’s my dumb good luck to live relatively close by. The show usually begins at 9, and my son usually goes to sleep around 8:30. My husband, Ben, likes that time to write, so I grab my sketchbook and head over.

LCC: When did you start drawing there?

RH: The first show I attended and drew was September 25, 2008. The audience was very sparse, and the late Bob Guida was on stage. Here was this huge man, playing a huge electric guitar and singing like a great big fat angel. He was just wonderful. The second show I went to, Ernie Vega was playing. And he was great, and again the house was inexplicably sparse. Ben and I looked at each other and said, is it always like this? Jalopy is quite a welcoming, friendly place, so I soon felt fine about going there alone.

LCC: Does this relate to a career in commercial art for you?

RH: I studied Illustration and Cartooning at School of Visual Arts here in New York. I like illustrating performing arts particularly, because of my long background in dance. I’ve done a small amount of editorial illustrating, and I do a little other commercial illustration. Mostly, I seem to sell my pictures and reproductions to individual customers.

LCC: Why do you do this? It’s not like this is ever going to get any space at brooklynvegan or stereogum…

RH: For me it’s an active interaction with the music, like I am still dancing. I think that’s probably the hit! I love the way bodies arrange themselves in order to make music. I love to enjoy good music. The Jalopy Theatre itself is a muse for me – I’m fascinated with the way it works as an experience for performer and audience. There’s a proscenium, and enough separation, but also a close proximity. It’s kind of a perfect blend of formality and intimacy.

LCC: At what point did you realize that you had something here, that this was a scene that really deserved to be documented?

RH: By the time I’d filled the first sketchbook, I knew I was witnessing a special moment in a special place. Seats were filling up; talented, dedicated people were in the audience and on the stage, also hanging out and having dialogue, musical and otherwise. The Jalopy is really a pillar of my neighborhood and has a fantastic energy. It’s fun to be there. I’ve filled up some sixteen sketchbooks now almost entirely at Jalopy.

LCC: Action shots are tough. What Bob Gruen and Mick Rock and all those photographers from the 70s did is great, capturing the stars of the era and of the underground, but when you look at them, half of the people in the photos are passed out in the CBGB bathroom. That’s not a hard shot to take. You, on the other hand, draw what appear to be exclusively live action portraits – even your sketch of the Jalopy’s owners, Geoff and Lynette Wiley, shows her behind the bar, and him checking the sound on a crowded weekend night, from the looks of it. There’s so much activity in these portraits – and what appears to be very quick pencil strokes on your part. Are you one of those super fast artists? Is it a matter of catching what’s in the frame before it fades?

RH: At first I considered taking photos for reference, but I abandoned that idea pretty quickly. I’m not capturing a literal instant in time. I’ve learned to have the patience to wait for a gesture to happen again, and to invest in what might seem to be mundane details. Those details can ironically be what draws your eye through the picture. As I practiced patience I developed speed.

LCC: These portraits are incredibly kinetic – to what degree, if at all, does your dance background inform your art?

RH: My dance background definitely informs the way I observe. In that first sketch of Bob Guida, for instance: he was sitting quite still but he had this inner spark going on that was very, very active. Then, look at a band such as the M. Shanghai String Band, which sometimes has twelve or thirteen players moving in a complex dance around one another and the mics. That dance has a rhythm that I depend upon to decide where to place everyone in the picture. As a former performer of a very physical art I understand these things and they interest me, and then I have to credit my illustration training with helping me understand how to put it on paper.

LCC: You play ukulele also – are you in a band? Performing these days?

RH: I love playing ukulele and I play every day, but I’m only just getting confident enough to join in jams. Learning to play music has been another rich part of this adventure.

LCC: Who’s the guy in the lower left corner in a lot of these?

RH: That is a wonderfully campy bust of Thomas Jefferson that is always stationed downstage right – on the the audience’s left – on the Jalopy stage, appearing to be looking at the performers. He is part of the decor – I love putting him in the picture. I believe Geoff said he got it at a garage sale.

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February 2, 2011 Posted by | Art, blues music, country music, folk music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Robin Hoffman’s Timeless Images Capture New York’s Oldtime Music Scene

It’s funny how even though millions of bloggers and youtubers have documented live music over the past several years, there hasn’t been one particular photographer with a signature vision to emerge like Henry Diltz in the late 60s/early 70s, or Bob Gruen during the punk era. However, this era is fortunate to have Robin Hoffman, whose new coffee table book Live From the Audience: A Year of Drawing at the Jalopy Theatre vividly captures much of the magical demimonde of New York’s oldtimey and Americana music scenes. Interestingly, Hoffman is not a photographer but a painter, with a singular and instantly identifiable vision. She has an amazing eye for expressions: in a few deft strokes, she portrays banjo player Eli Smith in a characteristically sardonic moment, with a sly jack o’lantern off to the side of the stage. Her perfectly rendered portrait of Mamie Minch brings out every inch of the oldtimey siren’s torchy bluesiness, leaning back with her resonator guitar as she belts out a classic (or one of her originals that sounds like one).

Hoffman is a former ballet dancer and maybe for that reason she also has a finely honed sense of movement. A lot of these performers play sitting down and consequently don’t move around much. One particularly poignant painting shows the late Brooklyn bluesman Bob Guida jovial and comfortably nestled yet full of energy, seated with his hollow-body electric. The single most striking image here marvelously depicts the Jalopy’s Geoff and Lynette Wiley, Lynette behind the bar, warm and beaming triumphantly from the rush of a good crowd and a good show, bushy-bearded Geoff to the side up front, attentive as always, the audience ecstatically lit up in silhouette in the front of the house. Other artists vividly captured in the Jalopy’s magically wood-toned ambience include Ernie Vega, Feral Foster (being particularly Feral), the Maybelles, the Ukuladies and les Chauds Lapins.

These paintings induce synesthesia – you can literally hear the ring and the twang of the voices and the music. Hoffman has also included several equally captivating sketches and sketch collages, in the same vein as the ones she periodically posts on her excellent blog. It’s a wonderful portrayal of one of New York’s most vital music scenes, one frequently overlooked by the corporate media and the blogosphere. It’s also a valuable piece of history – although few of the artists here will ever be famous, the music they make deserves to be. The book is available online, but as Hoffman says, “It’s a lot more fun and a little bit cheaper to get one at Jalopy.”

July 11, 2010 Posted by | blues music, country music, Literature, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Kelli Rae Powell – New Words for Old Lullabies

This is an album of nocturnes, and it’s one of the year’s best. Haunting, often hilarious, wickedly lyrical and soaked in alcohol – Kelli Rae Powell is credited with inventing the drinkaby, a combination drinking song and lullaby – it’s only fitting that the only cover song on her new album would have originally been written for Mae West. On that lusciously innuendo-laden number, A Man What Takes His Time, Powell does her best Bessie Smith imitation, although she has many other voices up her sleeve, not all of them here. Powell sings in character: while her style evokes Smith as well as Blossom Dearie, she sounds like she could do pretty much any belter or chanteuse from across the decades – or be just herself. With Powell’s voice and her ukelele over a slinky acoustic groove colored with electric guitar in places, this isn’t your typical uke record: the production puts the instrument front and center with a full, round sound instead of the usual plink-plink.

“Some bridges are just better burning,” emphasizes the caption on the inside of the cd cover, Powell shooting a smoldering look from the corner of her raccoon eye. That’s the crux of one of the album’s best songs, a slow waltz that leaves no doubt that the wounds are still fresh:

Some lessons can’t hurt you

If you leave them unlearned…

Maybe in the end

We’ll grow to be friends

Maybe at my death

I won’t be holding my breath

That intensity comes up even further on Don’t Slow Down, Zachary. Even here, Powell’s characteristic understatement and irrepressible humor are overshadowed by the subtle, diabolical details of a road trip that quickly went straight to hell:

Remember how she touched your hand

Remember solemn passing bands

Of old men smoking Parliaments

Chicago was a challenge

Louisville nearly kills them – but she’s hell-bent on not going home because what’s waiting for her there is even worse.

The rest of the album is a lot funnier, and steamier. Lullaby for Bad Girls goes the anthemic route; The Cowboy Song susses out hot-to-trot guys for the clueless creatures they are. There’s a warm, hypnotic lullaby that segues into the devious barroom seduction scene Old Tom, and then the paradigmatic Drinkaby which is even funnier. Powell is joined by a whistle-stop choir of the Ukuladies and Jo Williamson on the swing-flavored Midnight Sleeper Train, maintaining the woozy after-hours ambience while taking it up a notch, then bringing it back down with the understatedly cynical, Amy Rigby-esque Even Trade. Powell’s an amazing lyricist: like LJ Murphy and Bliss Blood, she’s as adept at the vernacular of earlier eras as she is in her own. A fearless and charismatic performer, her ceiling is awfully high: if she could find some way to take her act on the road, find a Zachary who really won’t slow down to take her gig to gig while she slumbers in the back seat, she could connect with a nationwide audience who recognize her for the star she probably knows  she is. Kelli Rae Powell plays the cd release show for this one on October 30 at the Jalopy.

September 17, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment