Shelter From the Storm With the Dirty Urchins
The storm hit at about 7:30 last night. Watching the wind whip torrents of rain up Allen Street from behind the big plate-glass window at the Rockwood Music Hall’s original room, the question was whether that window would hold. Meanwhile, onstage, the Dirty Urchins were playing a song called Spare Me. They couldn’t have timed it better.
As it turned out, the window held – if it hadn’t, it would have been like a grenade had gone off in there. And it would have ruined the mood. The Dirty Urchins play charming, witty, unselfconsciously torchy acoustic songs with antique arrangements, yet those songs are also firmly rooted in the here and now. Perfect illustration: the last song of the set was a deadpan vaudevillian singalong called Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down, which would have made an apt concluding cut on a classic Kinks record. And while the band brought a late-night speakeasy atmosphere, it was one with bite – speakeasies were illegal, after all. Tenor sax player David Luther sang a wry blues about the new depression from the point of view of a guy who won’t let empty pockets get him down: his pickup line is, “I may be broke but I ain’t cheap.” And he didn’t use a mic. In fact, the only person in the band who used one was bassist Bennett Miller, who led the group through a breezy Beatlesque number, and another catchy one that wistfully observed how so many people we know used to play guitar and sing, but now have gone off to do more important things, the implication being that those more important things don’t include, say, shutting down nuclear reactors or overthrowing dictators.
And as it turned out, mics weren’t all that necessary: the crowd hung on the lyrics, letting the songs linger for a few seconds after they ended before breaking into quiet applause. Singer/guitarist Julia Haltigan, the latest addition to the band, brought her electric stage presence and powerful yet magically nuanced jazz and blues-infused voice to several songs, delivering a bitter version of Homesick for the Moon with an unselfconscious, understated brassiness. The implication of the song is that she wants to go straight to hell, because that’s where all the cool guys are – and at the end, again and again, she drove home the point that pretty much any destination is ok as long as it’s far from here.
Guitarist Freddie Stevenson opened the set with a gritty, tango-flavored number, The City Is King, duetting with Haltigan – who gets a little smoky, a little misty as she goes way up the scale. The rest of the set balanced poignancy with a more upbeat, humorous vibe. The Dirty Urchins have a new album due out momentarily (and a characteristically jaunty name-your-price ep up at their bandcamp); their next gig is at Littlefield in Gowanus on September 16.
By the way, if you’re reading this, Mr. Rockwood, it’s not your fault that your place was built before the effects of global warming started to get really grisly. But you might want to think about taking out that window and putting in a wall.