M Shanghai String Band Serenades Robin Hoffman’s Illustrations at the Jalopy
Great musical scenes usually get chronicled by their era’s most happening visual artists. Consider: Toulouse-Lautrec in the Paris cabarets in the 1800s; Bob Gruen in and around CBGB in the late 70s; and Robin Hoffman at the Jalopy in the late zeros and teens. If you’re a musician in the New York Americana roots scene, and lucky enough to have been in her illustrations- if you’ve played the Jalopy in the last three years, you probably have – you’ve seen yourself in action, intent on your craft, in motion. Hoffman is one of those artists who is able to perfectly capture the essence of a musician in just a few deft brushstrokes. The best of her pencil-and-watercolor sketches currently on display at the Jalopy – which just turned five years old - catches the Roulette Sisters in classic poses: resonator guitarist Mamie dipping just a bit, raising her eyebrows; guitarist Meg just thisclose to deadpan but having a great time; violist Karen unselfconsciously lost in the music, and washboardist Megan holding down the rhythm with a grin. Then there’s Craig Chesler smiling, chilling, playing ukulele; the Newton Gang in characteristically intense mode, even in a rare acoustic setting; Kelli Rae Powell off to the side while her band wails, wryly smiling as she hits what’s probably another devious double entendre; the Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues careening through yet another boisterous solo; and the M Shanghai String Band’s offhandedly excellent clawhammer banjo player/singer in a couple of characteristically intense moments. These are just a few of the many new drawings Hoffman has on display at the Jalopy (she’s offering any print from this series, signed, for $30).
Friday night, the M Shanghai String Band played the opening party for Hoffman’s show. They’re well known, well-loved and well documented via Hoffman’s art, and supposedly the other day on the cover of the New York Post. Hoffman started drawing at the Jalopy simply because she’s in the neighborhood and it was a cool way for her to perfect her craft while her baby slept; likewise, M Shanghai have a community feel, having taken their name from the now-defunct Chinese restaurant whose basement was their original home. They seem to be a mix of everybody in Williamsburg who really loved oldtime country songs and string band music and decided to get together to create it, without regard to age, or whoever’s trust fund was most extravagant, or who happened to have the lowest body-fat percentage or could go the most consecutive years without taking a shower. If you listen closely, you hear references to the Q train or other New York institutions in their songs: they’re literally taking oldtime acoustic country music to new places. Frontwoman Philippa Thompson played a neat solo on the spoons; resonator guitarist Austin Hughes turned in one casual, cool urban country tune after another, often punctuated by Jalopy regular Shakey Dave Pollack’s soulful, tersely bluesy harmonica. Because the show was right after work, they didn’t seem to have the full contingent onstage, but no matter: it was a trip to a different world.
So if you’re new to the Jalopy, prepare to enter that world. Let your guard down. It’s a good place. Forget the horrible experience you just had at Arlene’s, or at Pianos last week: the Jalopy is warm and welcoming. The moment you walk in the door, you could be making new friends. For the moment, Hoffman’s exhibit is still up the club, an extra good reason to make the trip.