Walter Ego played Otto’s Saturday night. The tourists hadn’t made it to the back room yet, so he kept the crowd entertained for the better part of an hour. New York is full of great little scenes: country and oldtime Americana at the Jalopy and 68 Jay Street Bar; gypsy music at Drom and Barbes; metal at St. Vitus and Tommy’s Tavern; and also what has become an elite songwriter’s salon that began at Banjo Jim’s and migrated to Otto’s after the bar on Avenue C closed down this past summer. The core is mix of veterans: Lorraine Leckie, LJ Murphy, J Wallace and Mac MacCarty along with up-and-coming talent like Drina Seay. And then there’s this guy: Murphy’s longtime bass player, who has now moved to centerstage, part Magical Mystery Tour era Beatles, part Elvis Costello, part Nick Cave maybe. Lyrics drive his songs, but his tunes can be more ornate and complex than you typically find in his kind of powerpop and janglerock.
As usual, there was a theatrical aspect to the show. This time he took a little time away from the set to make fun of juggling in general – or maybe just his own juggling. And then launched into a bright, sarcastically bouncy, vintage Kinks-style 60s Britpop number possibly called Satellites. As with all this guy’s songs, it’s loaded with metaphors, balls flying through the air: “If I am your gravity, what are you to me? You are a tiny, tiny satellite, I am the one who put you in the sky…you’re so far away,” he sang to these poor satellites, letting the cruelty of the lyric speak for itself. After that, he did a funk song, The Immorality Detection Machine, which manages to make fun of both right-wing hypocrites and lie detectors. “It’s the next best thing to time travel to the 50s, when men were men and women were girls,” he explained. The swaying, bluesy Don’t Take Advice from Me offered a killjoy’s irrepressible point of view: “What else is one more yeasayer boosting your esteem when I can give you the ugly truth that wakes you from your dream?” Later in the set he echoed that with The Magician, who will explain why that joke you just laughed at isn’t funny, and is so magic that he can make magic disappear.
But not all his songs are as direct, or as funny. Switching to piano, he brought out a biting, Lennonesque anthem that could have been encouragement to seize the moment…or it might have been making fun of people who think their lives are bigger than life. As usual, the highlight of the set was I Am the Glass, a goth-tinged, brooding, vindictive, metaphorically loaded ballad that he sang icily: “Whether you were cruel or oblivious, it didn’t have to come to this, instead of fragments I should still be one,” the broken glass tells its owner: a little later on in the song, there’s a car crash that brings everything full circle. The biggest surprise of the night was a casually riveting version of an obscure LJ Murphy song, Sunday’s Assassin, a searing chronicle of clinical depression: this killer still can’t drag himself out of bed or out of the house as he waits for the cops to haul him off while the tv cameras give him his fifteen minutes. The set ended with a funky number with a never-ending series of chord changes, more Beatlesque psychedelia and then an obligatory encore, in this case a terse piano version of Nowhere Man. Although Walter Ego has been writing songs since his days in Murphy’s band back in the 90s, he wasn’t playing out regularly until the past couple of years. For the moment, he seems to call Otto’s home when he’s not out busking; watch this space for upcoming dates.