Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Paul Wallfisch, James Ross and Joe Benzola, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble and Elisa Flynn at the Delancey, NYC 6/29/09

Small Beast has taken to Mondays like a vulture on a carcass. The beef carcasses, i.e. hamburgers and hotdogs at the upstairs barbecue now carry a $5 pricetag, although it’s a fill-your-plate type deal (and the totally El Lay crowd up there looks like they can afford it). Botanica pianist Paul Wallfisch, opened the night in the cool, darkened ground-level space as he always does, solo on piano. Since Small Beast is his event, he’s gotten a ton of ink here. Suffice it to say that if dark, virtuosic, unaffectedly intense piano with a gypsy tinge is something you might like, run don’t walk to this Monday night extravaganza. Although last night it wasn’t, it’s usually over before Rev. Vince Anderson gets going across the river, so if you’re really adventurous you can hit both shows. This time out Wallfisch ran through a rather touching Paul Bowles song about a fugitive, in French; a lickety-split version of a noir cabaret tune by his longtime collaborator, chanteuse/personality Little Annie; a Crystal Gayle cover done very noir, and Shira and Sofia, a Botanica tune about the original Joy Division, a couple of WWII era whores. Make love, not war is what the two are encouraging in their own completely over-the-top way, and a few in the audience did a doubletake when Wallfisch got to the chorus.

Multi-instrumentalist James Ross and percussionist Joe Benzola were next, playing hypnotic instrumentals that sounded something akin to the Dead jamming Space with Electric Junkyard Gamelan, with Benzola using a multitude of instruments including wooden flute, recorder, kazoo, and a small series of gongs in addition to his drum kit and then layering one loop on top of another for a Silk Road feel. They took awhile to get going, Ross playing a zhongruan, a Chinese lute with a biting tone like a higher-pitched oud. This was an improvisation, and when they hit their stride the crowd was very into it – avante garde though it was, there was a repetitive catchiness to it too. Ross eventually switched to electric guitar, winding up their brief set with a trancelike, drony number where he built a small wall of feedback as if to hold off the relentless procession of beats.

Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble then grabbed the crowd by the back of the neck and spun them in the opposite direction with a ferocity that was even more striking in contrast to the previous act’s quiet psychedelica. To find a worthy comparison to Beren, the former Die Hausfrauen frontwoman, you have to go into the icon section: Iggy Pop, Aretha, Umm Kalthum or Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello are a few who can match the raven-haired contralto siren’s unleashed, menacing intensity. Backed by two lead guitarists, a trombonist who doubled on keys and a pummeling rhythm section, Beren opened the set with anguished vocalese, part scream and part very reluctant acquiescence. There was no turning back after that. The band name is apt in that their grand guignol attack can be bluesily hypnotic, tinged with classical motifs (Beren played macabre piano on a couple of numbers) and if you take it to its extreme (this is very extreme music), there’s nobody more goth than this crew. But these goths don’t put on batwings and hug the wall, they come to pillage and avenge. A couple of their heavier, stomping numbers bore a little resemblance to Blue Oyster Cult, but Beren’s writing is more complex and cerebral, expertly switching between tempos, building inexorably to a roar of horror. Their last song grew ominously with a whoosh of cymbals and some beautifully boomy chord work on the intro by bassist Greg Garing into a careening, crashing gallop that ended with a noise jam, Garing throwing off a nasty blast of feedback.

That Elisa Flynn wasn’t anticlimactic playing in the wake of Hurricane Vera speaks for itself. In her own moody, pensive and equally dark way, she proved a match for Beren, in subtlety if not sheer volume. Flynn’s new cd Songs About Birds and Ghosts is one of the year’s best, and that comprised most of what she sang, playing solo on guitar, expertly working the corners of a compelling, wounded delivery that she’d occasionally turn up to a fullscale wail when she needed to drive a point home. Her guitar playing proved as smartly matched to the songs’ emotion as her vocals, alternating between hammering chords and stark fingerpicking, sometimes building an eerie undercurrent of overtones using her open strings. Her songs have considerable bitterness but also a wry wit, as well as a frequently majestic, anthemic feel that comes to the forefront when she uses 6/8 time (which is a lot). I’m Afraid of the Way I Go Off Sometimes, she said, took its title from an email she’d received from a friend a week before he went into rehab. She warned that a cover of The Pyramid Song by Radiohead might be awkward, but it was anything but, in fact even more haunting than the original with something of a Syd Barrett feel. A brand-new one called Shiver was potently angry, building to a tastily macabre chorus. She followed that with an understated version of the opening cut on the new album, Timber, a towering anthem (with a cool Blair Witch video up on youtube). She closed with No Diamond, something of a lullaby “to send you off to sleep,” she said, another pensive number in 6/8. By now, it was approaching one in the morning; had she kept playing, no doubt the crowd would have kept listening.

Small Beast continues next Monday, July 6 with Wallfisch, Spottiswoode and Pete Galub; Beren plays goth night at the Slipper Room on September 20; Flynn is at Sidewalk on July 14 at 8.

June 30, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Paul Wallfisch, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble, Spottiswoode and Steve Wynn at the Delancey, NYC 4/30/09

An appropriate way to end a grade-A grey day, to steal a phrase from the Wade Schuman songbook. This being a Thursday, that meant Small Beast, Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch’s weekly upstairs show at the Delancey and this was the best ever, no question, in fact arguably the best show of the year so far. Maybe because the quality of the talent on the bill was so obscene, Wallfisch brought his A-game – not that he doesn’t typically put on a good show, but one of the reasons the Beast came to exist was to give him a chance to work out new material solo on piano in a live setting. Consequently, sometimes his set is more akin to a view of an artist’s studio rather than a gallery view of the finished product. Finished or not, the songs resonated with characteristic noir glimmer: the savagely beautiful Botanica concert favorite Three Women; a new one, Waits-ish and gospel-inflected; a towering, majestic new 6/8 ballad that could be the band’s Eldorado; a super-fast romp through the Little Annie noir cabaret hit Because You’re Gone and then the Botanica show-closer, How, a galloping, unstoppable gypsy caravan blazing with torrents of piano and eventually a satirical Riders on the Storm quote, held on a steady course by Linda Pitmon (the best rock drummer on the planet, from Steve Wynn’s band) on tambourine.

Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble was next, the band spilling over onto the floor in front of the stage. Their name is well chosen. There was an offhandedly menacing look to the whole black-clad crew, and they were tight beyond belief, their bluesiness most vividly visible in their dramatic, stately noir cabaret numbers. With roaring, punk-inflected guitar, keyboards, rhythm section and guest accordionist Marni Rice supplying the night’s most haunting tonalities behind her, Beren was an avenging angel. Her powerful, anguished contralto wail going full throttle, she radiated intensity throughout a ferocious 45 minutes of big anthems, mostly in 6/8 time. “I’ve seen the lights beyond, I’ve seen the lights that could have gone on if I’d demanded,” she reflected with a passion only enhanced by longing and regret. The high point of her set was the relentlessly haunting gypsy vamp The Nod, her keyboardist opening the song with a murky Balkan trombone riff. Beren opened and closed the set at the piano, playing with a restrained savagery. But it was Rice who stole the show, her wrenchingly sad, poignant tones a stark contrast with Beren’s righteous wrath.

Spottiswoode was next. His myspace shows him in faux-mugshot pose, shades on, a homemade Marseille police department clapboard in hand, a persona that earlier in his career sometimes overshadowed his music. The persona is still there, but he’s grown into the old rake he always wanted to be, albeit with a strikingly politically aware sensibility – Marty Willson-Piper is an apt comparison. He started out solo on guitar with a bawdy English dancehall number, That’s What I Like, imbued with characteristic boozy sarcasm. Then he went to the piano and got serious, resulting in an often riveting show, the rest of his songs imbued with a woodpaneled, rain-soaked, early 70s European ambience. His best number was a big, somewhat anguished ballad with some tasty major/minor changes: “Save up the days until the war begins,” he cautioned. It’s still sometimes hard to tell whether he’s being satirical or not, but this show was a revelation.

Steve Wynn headlined, playing with his longtime lead guitarist Chris Brokaw for the first time in eight years. Wynn’s stock in trade is menace, but this show had an especially warm, intimate feel, not only because the two guys were jammed up there on the little stage with Pitmon looking on warily, tambourine in hand, but because this was all about joy and rediscovery. Their guitar duels, both on record and onstage, are the stuff of legend: get your hands on a classic like Melting in the Dark or Here Come the Miracles (both of which you’ll find on our upcoming Best Albums of the Decade list), or spend an hour or two (you’ll probably be there that long) at archive.org. This time it was about trading off, about getting back in touch with the songs, stripping them to nothing but the shell (they played that one, sorry, couldn’t resist) to see what they were made of. More often than not, it was lush, jangly melody, without hardly a hint of the noise or unrestrained wrath you’d expect from a full-band show by these two.

An unexpected cover of Waiting for the Man was every bit as tense and nervous as Lou Reed should have made it. The big, grim suicide anthem Southern California Line was transformed into a terse, minimalist dirge. The menacing Morning After – the best song ever written about perjury – segued into an even more menacing, skeletal Silence Is Your Only Friend. Then they took it up, transforming the darkly galloping Death Valley Rain into a swaying, hypnotic clinic in harmony and overtones before bringing it all the way down with a slow, evil version of the Dream Syndicate classic When You Smile. How cruelly ironic that the only place in town you could see a show this good this year would not be at Madison Square Garden, where by all rights all these acts deserve to play, but upstairs at the Delancey on a little stage half-occupied by the Small Beast, an 88-key spinet piano.

And walking across the bridge after the show, it was impossible not to smile seeing all those HIPSTERS GO HOME stencils on the pavement. In fact, in every case they all happened to be very close to stencils for THE BROOKLYN WHAT FOR BOROUGH PRESIDENT, and in the exact same spray paint color.

May 6, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments