Three things you can count on in this town: there will always be roaches under your stove, the train will be rerouted at the least opportune moment and the Reid Paley Trio will entertain you. Paley’s stock in trade, like so many other artists who play Thursday’s weekly Small Beast extravaganza at the Delancey, is menace. He understands absurdity, usually doesn’t like it very much and makes no secret of it, sometimes fending it off with a good joke. Characteristically charismatic in his black suitcoat and backed by his usual rhythm section of onetime Heroin Sheik Eric Eble on upright bass and James Murray on drums, Paley pretty much let the songs speak for themselves this time out. Much of the material was from his latest, excellent album Approximate Hellhound. With just a hint of natural distortion on his battered archtop guitar, Paley’s sound is part ghoulabilly without the schlock, part noir blues without the cliches, with a little vintage country or gypsy feel thrown in to shake things up. Live, he’s actually more of a singer than a rasper, sort of the opposite of what he is on album. “Gimme a chance, I’ll fuck it up,” went the refrain on his opening, slightly Cramps-ish number. Better Days, with its dread-filled “hangover sunrise Sunday morning, half dead on Bedford Avenue” was surprisingly subtle; a couple of the more countryish tunes from the cd got a bluesier, rawer treatment. Chanteuse Peg Simone eventually joined him for a slightly coy, seductive cameo on vocals; on the last song of the set, he ended it chopping at his strings as if he wanted to break them, then sticking his guitar into his amp where it started feeding back. Somebody cut the sound. Host Paul Wallfisch (who’d opened the evening) wanted it back: “That’s beautiful,” he leered. Meanwhile, the world’s #1 surf music impresario, Unsteady Freddie, wandered about, camera at hand. Who knew he was a fan.
Mattison frontwoman/keyboardist Kate Mattison brought down the lights, obscured behind the Small Beast (the 88 key spinet for which the night’s named), shadowy in the light of the candles above the keys and the disco ball’s twinkling swirls across the walls. And then played a show that made a perfect match with the ambience, soulful, smart retro pop, frequently over a live trip-hop beat pushed along by an excellent, terse rhythm section. The vocals started out somewhat disembodied and warmed up quickly, Mattison expertly shading her lyrics with a vintage soul feel, the occasional subtle blue note and just the hint of a rasp in places. Some of her songs had a pensive, almost minimalist sensibility in the same vein as Bee & Flower; others evoked modern artsy pop bands like For Feather or the Secret History, or that one great live album by Portishead. One began stately and beautiful in 6/8 time before morphing into a fast 4/4 hit; another built fetchingly and cajolingly into a “ringalingaling” chorus. Still another catchy pop number segued into a big, anthemic ballad with jazz-tinged vocals and gospel piano inflections. It was almost one in the morning by the time they wrapped up their too-brief, barely 40-minute set. They’re at Coco 66 at 8 on May 20.
By the way, in case you haven’t noticed, Lucid Culture reviews pretty much every Small Beast show. Pretty much a no-brainer, considering how it’s become simply the most vital, important music scene in town. So we’ve created a new category, Small Beast where we’ve archived all the other performers we’ve chronicled since the night first kicked off this past winter: click here or look toward top right here to that “A” right over the ARCHIVES section, click and scroll down to Small Beast to see what you’ve been missing.
The Supertones differentiate themselves from the legions of other bands in the thriving surf instrumental underworld in that they write excellent original songs. The long-running unit has been together since 1988; their weekly residency at the old Luna Lounge in the late 90s is the stuff of legend. But the band seemed to lose interest after that, phoning in covers of awful 60s pop hits like Georgie Girl on the increasingly rare instances that they played out at all. Although their drummer and rhythm player left shortly thereafter to form Mr. Action & the Boss Guitars, the rhythm guy is back, and their lead guitarist is better than ever, tremolo-picking furiously and really taking his playing to the next level. With Simon Chardiet from Simon & the Bar Sinisters on bass, way up in the sound mix, playing wildly furious, intense lines on an 8-string Hamer and then a vintage Rickenbacker, and a new drummer whose stock in trade obviously isn’t surf but proved up to the challenge, they immediately reclaimed their status as one of this city’s must-see live bands.
As usual, most of their set was originals. Stylistically, they take their cue more from the Ventures or the Shadows, jangling and clanging in major keys with a ton of reverb rather than doing the Beirut stomp a la Dick Dale. Of the few covers they did play, the best were a spot-on recreation of the old Lee Hazelwood classic Baja and the obscure, gently twanging Morgan, along with a driving take of Journey to the Stars. Their best original was a gorgeously melodic, nocturnal number introduced by Chardiet: “That one is dedicated to George Bush. It’s called Bushwacked. And this next one is dedicated to Rudy Guiliani’s prostate. It’s called Last Ride,” he gleefully told the crowd, as they launched into a swaying, spaghetti-western tune.
The show was put together by Unsteady Freddie, who is something of a legend in the surf world, a promoter who tirelessly travels the country, spreading the gospel of reverb and 2/4 time. The shows he puts together here on the first Saturday of every month are reliably good and sometimes absolutely transcendent. The latter promised to be the case tonight. It would have been awfully nice to have been able to stick around for the scorchingly powerful Coffin Daggers and another recently resurgent band, the Sea Devils, but by then it was already past one and time to nudge a handful of overindulgent people in the direction of home.
The night began at the Bohemian Hall out in Astoria. This is the big, outdoor, authentically Bavarian-style beer garden that you probably already know about, perhaps because there was a big article about them in this past Sunday’s Times. The beer is pricier than it ought to be, but it’s good. The music was not. A bunch of geezers on the big stage amid the picnic tables wheezed their way through rote covers of Dylan, Tom Petty and Bob Marley songs, the kind of stuff you learn in the first two months of taking guitar lessons. Then they took a break, probably smoked up some more and then came back and played Grateful Dead covers. The crowd got more into the music as the night wore on and the booze kicked in, even though the band was pretty out of it. And the no-see-ums were out in full effect: don’t anyone dare criticize Joba Chamberlain for throwing that wild pitch.
The game plan was to get back to town and head down to the Parkside where Love Camp 7 and Liza and the WonderWheels were playing. Each band played a fantastic set the last time we saw them, and odds are they did as well Saturday night. But the best laid plans, etc., etc., ad infinitum. We ended up at Otto’s where Unsteady Freddie’s monthly surf night was in full swing. This is reliably a good time, sometimes an absolutely transcendent one. Unsteady Freddie is a longtime Dick Dale fan who has done more to promote surf music on the east coast than anyone except NESMA founder and 9th Wave bandleader Mike “Staccato” Rosado. Rosado’s band was unfortunately absent from tonight’s bill, but there were other good ones. The big surprise was the Clams. They’re from Connecticut and have really pulled themselves together recently, with the addition of a new bass player. They did all covers, mostly standards, Out of Limits and Baja and Pipeline and the requisite Misirlou to close the set, but that stuff is not easy to play and they pulled it off. And they had a horn section, two women sax players, one of them being multi-instrumentalist Sandy from 9th Wave, and they were spot-on. Which you pretty much have to be if you’re the Clams’ horn section (that’s a joke: a flat note played on a horn is called a clam). The high point of their set was a surprisingly careening version of Mr. Moto, reminding a bit of the out-of-control version that the Coffin Daggers used to do. A lot of people think surf music is cheesy, including some of the people who play it, but not these guys. Surf music at its best is as haunting and gorgeous as it is danceable. Tonight the Clams grew legs, pulled themselves out of the muck and had the crowd hollering for more when they left the stage.
The Twangtones were next. This trio appears to be a pickup band with NY rockabilly/surf legend Simon Chardiet (of Simon & the Bar Sinisters) on bass and a guy who looks like Gaylord Perry (the way Perry looks now….which I guess is the way he’s pretty much always looked) playing guitar. Chardiet played with his eyes closed, lost in the music, the way he always does. He’s a virtuoso. He swings, he has impeccable touch and unimpeachable taste. Other bass players should watch him closely. The guitarist clearly knows his stuff as well. Like the Clams, they played Ventures covers and other classics, impressing with their ability to avoid replicating the previous band’s set. It would have been nice if I could have stuck around for the night’s final act instead of being pressed into emergency crisis mediation duty just when the night was starting to take off.