Make Music NY: A Fool’s Errand
“I’m Julia Haltigan, and my feet are on fire,” said the blonde woman in the black dress as the sun burned down on the impromptu stage Thursday afternoon in front of the Walgreen’s on Astor Place. Stepping up and down in her sandals as if on a devil’s treadmill out in front of her six-piece band, firing off chords from a big, beautiful Gibson hollowbody guitar, she was obviously in pain. Haltigan’s powerful voice can be a lot of things – torchy, lurid, seductive, brassy, menacing or downright dangerous – and the element of danger in her vocals has never been more present than it was during her brief set that she shut down after only half an hour in the heat. Seriously – physical exertion when the temperature is in the triple digits is at best uncomfortable and at worst a genuine hazard. A generously sympathetic guy in the audience offered her a wet towel to put over her burning kicks, but it wasn’t long before she was improvising another stepdance while she played. It could be that the pain was pushing her to new levels of intensity, but realistically speaking, she’s always like this, indomitable and charismatic, refusing to concede defeat.
Yet Haltigan is only half of the story: the other half is her amazing band. Her lead guitarist fired off flurries of clenched-teeth jazz chords, psychedelic blues, swaying unhinged C&W and a literally searing, reverberating surf-drenched solo on the most intense song of the entire day, That Flame, a gorgeously noir, stomping tango. The single best one of the day was an expansively country-flavored anthem that hit a breathtaking crescendo as the chorus kicked in: “Here it comes, over the western plains, over the hills,” Haltigan belted, the band cooking up an unstoppably jangling, clanging, careening paisley underground pulse behind her, Haltigan’s dad Emmet adding an extra layer of bite with his electric mandolin (he also played smart, tersely wary blues harp on a handful of songs). My Green Heart showed off the frontwoman’s aptitude for southwestern gothic, in this case a blend of Tex-Mex, apprehensive blues and oldschool country. They turned the garage rock tune I Don’t Want to Fall in Love into something like the Yardbirds at their peak, then the bass player walked them slyly through a slinky come-hither jazz number: “I’m gonna take you way out, you won’t wanna come back,” the chanteuse purred. They swung their way soulfully through the latin-tinged, Henry Mancini-esque It’s a Trap and closed with a roaring southwestern gothic riff-rock song that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Steve Wynn catalog, the lead player veering from paint-peeling Dick Dale surf licks to concrete-smashing Poison Ivy riffage. Haltigan’s grandmother was one of the popular Larkin Sisters back in the 40s and that lineage is clear, but this singer takes the concept of torch song from that era and incorporates pretty much every era since then, including this one. Neko Case has nothing on her. Julia Haltigan and her band are at the big room at the Rockwood this Friday the 29th at 11.
Up at Calvary Church on Gramercy Park North, another singer and her band couldn’t have been more dissimilar. Luckily for them, Rachel Brotman and her subtle samba-soul quartet played under a canopy, and nobody seemed to want to move a muscle. The drummer flicked his brushes, the bassist kept to a smart, minimalist pulse and the pianist hung back with his quietly jazzy ambience while Brotman painted the corners of her moody songs with a gentle vividness a notch above Norah Jones. In a way, this performance was the perfect one for a groggy day, inobtrusive and contemplative – and a chance to let the impact of the express train that was Haltigan and her band sink in. Too bad that the space this band occupied was smack between two coveted parking spots, quickly taken by a restaurant equipment van and then an ambulette, both armed with ear-shattering reverse gear alarms. Of all the vocalists playing this year’s Make Music NY, Brotman deserved this sonic assault the least – and so did her audience. This year, if it wasn’t the heat, it was the sonics. There’s a good reason why buskers don’t typically occupy this particular slice of landscape.
Down at Washington Square Park, it was the relentless heat that did Ann Klein in. Playing a duo set with a melodic bassist, each performer’s amp powered by solar panels belonging to worldbeat jamband Solar Punch - who were scheduled to play later on- the guitar goddess shut down her set after just fifteen minutes since her acoustic kept going out of tune as the strings and the fretboard grew hotter. It was a tremendously good fifteen minutes, Klein channeling Hendrix in soulful, Third Stone from the Sun mode when she wasn’t firing off nimble blues, lickety-split bluegrass on her mandolin or snaking her way through suspensefully crescendoing, jangly country lines. But she’s a pro and she knew this was a battle she couldn’t win.
Each of these performances were held under the MMNY rubric, the NYC contribution to the worldwide Fete de la Musique held every June 21st. Conceptually, it’s brilliant: a nonprofit organization dedicated to obtaining permits for musicians to play a daylong festival of busking in city-owned and other public spaces. But weatherwise, this thing is pretty much dead in the water. Participation keeps going down, both in terms of actual performances and number of musicians involved, for obvious reasons, perhaps compounded by various venues offering their own MMNY shows independently of the organization. After all, what would you choose: an evening gig on an air-conditioned stage or a half-hour in the blazing sun with your guitar constantly going out of tune and the van backing into the parking space across the street making it impossible for you to be heard?
In a way, the day’s earliest show was the most enjoyable one. A series of vibraphonists around the world had taken it upon themselves to stage Erik Satie’s surreal, twisted Vexations, an eighteen-hour piece that loops a characteristically brooding melody that quickly takes on a macabre edge via a series of tritones. At a little past eleven in the morning, the New York contingent was represented by Matt Evans, who managed to keep perfectly precise time even while friends and random strangers tried to strike up conversations with him. As he ran the melody over and over again, quietly and methodically, it took on an even more claustrophobic, ineluctable sadness than Satie’s more famous Gnossiennes and Gymnopedies. Watching this from the shaded steps of the New York Mercantile Bank, it was an auspiciously introspective way to start the day – and in retrospect, it would have been a good way to end it. Many of the performances of this piece from last Thursday from around the world were recorded, and you can hear them here.
At 4 PM, the Chinese Music Ensemble of NY was scheduled to play Chatham Square, but was nowhere to be found: if they’d cancelled, or on the spur of the moment decided to move their performance elsewhere, they were entitled to. Up the block a little at Columbus Park, an impressive contingent of erhu and lute players were vying with each other sonically, including one who’d attached a battery-powered amp to the base of his fiddle and was able to overwhelm pretty much everyone around him – including his three bandmates, two on erhu and one on sanxian (Chinese banjo) – with his wickedly precise hammer-ons and glissandos. A lot of Chinese folk music sounds Celtic, and that’s what this crew played, drawing plenty of applause from the neighborhood crowd gathered in the shade under the trees.
And that’s where, at least as far as this blog is concerned, Make Music NY 2012 came to a close. A couple of attempts to keep the evening going turned out to be a waste of time: one act was a no-show and the other was still AWOL almost an hour after they were scheduled to hit the stage at one of the nicest, most powerfully airconditioned venues in town. A cynic would say, why not just stay indoors, go online and check out all these acts rather than playing hooky from work and running around all day, risking the same hazards and probably feeling just as sweaty and gross as the musicians playing the festival? Answer: because staying in is lame. It only reinforces the stereotype of the 400-pound music blogger living in his mom’s basement, pondering the merits of Stone Temple Pilots versus the Spin Doctors, only emerging when the pizza delivery arrives. And staying in eliminates any possibility of the kind of unexpected, random discoveries that make all this effort worthwhile.
But another equally valid stereotype also exists: the kids just in from Osaka, or Idaho Falls, or Rotterdam for the first and probably only time in their lives, breathlessly lost on the subway when not immersed in their festival guides, CMJ badges slung around their necks to prove for everyone to see that they’ve finally Made the Bigtime Now. In a way, that stereotype’s just as ugly as the first one. And it’s not one that anyone should aspire to, especially here. Global warming has won this war: it’s time to either move Make Music NY to a less climactically harsh time of year, or throw in the towel.