Even More Live Chronicles
This is an attempt to get caught up on some of the more intriguing live shows of (relatively) recent days, beginning with the klezmerfest at Central Park Summerstage exactly two weeks ago. Why so late on this? Great albums have been coming in over the transom left and right. Besides, none of the groups chronicled here have broken up (let’s hope not, anyway), so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to see them if you’re in town and they’re your type of thing.
The klezmerfest, co-sponsored by the Workmen’s Circle, featured a mix of familiar and not-so-familiar faces playing Jewish music from across the diaspora and the decades that was alternately playful, haunting and powerfully insightful. The high point of the evening was Daniel Kahn, leader of klezmer group the Painted Bird, which in this particular instance was something of a pickup band. But they rose to the occasion. Kahn’s songs are intense, historically aware and rich with irony, and his brooding, sardonic delivery and stage presence enhance those songs’ power. He sang several numbers first in Yiddish and then in English, opening solo on pizzicato violin and harmonica with the first song he ever translated, an early 60s Broadside-style folk tune about “how we reap what greed is sowing,” taking considerable pride that the late musicologist Adrienne Cooper had given it her seal of approval. He switched to piano and was then joined by the band for a raging, gorgeously caustic tune about a “king of the thieves,” dismissing “all you people sick from being fed,” memorializing somebody “sick from the streets, sick from the prison walls,” but “on his gravestone etched in gold he should have his story told.” It was the high point of the night. Electric guitarist Avi Fox-Rosen then came up and added a scorching solo to a klezmer-punk song that Kahn wryly explained was about “the lumpenproletariat at odds with the petit bourgeoisie.” They closed on a bitter, elegaic note with Sunday After the War, a haunting, utterly defeated waltz, Kahn adding especially intense emphasis to the line “they always recruit after the war.” That song may have been written in the wake of the Iraq war, but its message was timeless. Kahn and band play outdoors on the back plaza at Lincoln Center on August 12 at 1 PM.
The Klezmatics preceded Kahn onstage. The original klezmer punks have a somewhat different lineup these days (and a monstrously good double live album from the Town Hall released last year), but their music is just as timeless. Trumpeter Frank London led them through a blazing, swaying minor-key opener, then accordionist Lorin Sklamberg – whose voice has mellowed like a good slivovitz over the years – took over the mic on a London arrangement of Woody Guthrie’s Mermaid Avenue, the Coney Island street where “the lox meets the pickle and the sour meets the sweet,” where you might see the occasional shark, but no mermaids. They wrapped up their unexpectedly short set with a sad, bitingly satirical number about how the Russian Tsar prefers his tea, then a lickety-split “antifascist love song” (he’s in Brooklyn, missing his sweetheart back in the old country) and then a rousing singalong with the message that we’re all brothers and sisters in this mess.
Strangely, at least as far as the first part of the show was concerned, the longest set came from the comedic Yiddish Princess, where many of the folks who’d backed Kahn switched instruments or styles and played satirical hair-metal versions of klezmer and old Jewish pop hits. Their frontwoman can’t really sing, but that’s part of the joke. Fox-Rosen paired off with fellow axemeister Yoshie Fruchter for an endless series of tongue-in-cheek twin solos and metal duels over the canned swoosh of the string synthesizer. Their incessant barrage drove a lot of the alte kockers out of the arena, but the kids loved them.
A theatre troupe opened the evening with a series of songs illustrating the deep cross-pollination between American black and Jewish music early in the past century. As educational as their presentation was – for example, you knew that Cab Calloway ripped off a klezmer hit for Minnie the Moocher, right? – the stagy presentation and generically legit, Broadwayesque vocals dragged down the eclectic mix of songs. And the headliner, a so-called rapper, seemed to be gung-ho on being sort of a Jewish-specific version of Beck. That we don’t need: the Scientologists can keep that guy.
A shout-out to Walter Ego, the sharp, cleverly lyrical rocker who played a solo show at Otto’s the following Saturday night, switching from guitar to piano and then back again in an often savagely witty mix of catchy, sometimes Beatlesque tunes. He surprised with a couple of new ones, one a Dead Kennedys-style punk number, another an uneasy minor-key blues, along with the chillingly metaphorical dirge I Am the Glass, the John Lennon-esque piano anthem Big Life and the LOL-funny Adventures of Ethical Man, a comic book hero hell-bent on doing the right thing…sort of.
And then this past Saturday, Kelli King and Lorraine Leckie treated the crowd at the National Underground to tantalizingly brief sets. King sang her bitingly catchy Americana rock and country/blues songs beautifully, in a nuanced voice that was equal parts jazz sophistication and country sugar, backed by an excellent lefty bassist and a guitarist whose uneasy psychedelic guitar chops made a great match with the songs even if he sometimes didn’t know where to stop. And Leckie – whom you’ll be hearing more about here shortly – took her time with a handful of coldly sarcastic Canadian gothic rock tunes that she played solo on guitar. Her collaboration with Anthony Haden-Guest is already starting to pay dividends in terms of songs, and she brought the characters twistedly to life – the alienated old couple in the cruelly titled Bliss, the starstruck ingenue Little Miss X, and the bewildered one-percenter of Rudely Interrupted, all of those brand-new tunes. At one point, when Leckie hit the end of a chorus, she simply refused to let go of the last note and sang it out to the point where she didn’t seem she’d ever let it go. It was an unexpectedly dramatic moment in an otherwise quietly intense set.
To wrap up the last couple of weeks, concertwise, not everything was this good. It would have been nice if those ageless reggae guys from the 70s had focused on their good songs instead of their poppy stuff at their outdoor concert downtown the day after the klezmer show; then again, once a cover band, always a cover band. And the day after that, it would have been ideal if the organizers could have moved the outdoor concert by that Ellington alum and his band indoors: those old vets still have their chops, but the heat stifled them. Then again, a group half their age would have been affected just as adversely.