Jerome O’Brien At the Top of His Game at Zirzamin
Jerome O’Brien has been one of New York’s most consistently interesting literate rock songwriters for several years. His mod-punk/vintage R&B-influenced band the Dog Show had a good run for the better part of a decade – back in the day, you could catch them at Tonic, or the C-Note, or Maxwell’s. One of the band’s main attractions was that you never knew who was going to be in it from one gig to another: good songwriters always have their choice of backing musicians, and O’Brien had a deep, rotating cast of players to choose from. But there was attrition, and changes in the New York rock landscape that were not favorable for a band playing just under the radar: the Dog Show played their last gig together under that name in 2007. Since then, O’Brien has been largely absent from the concert stage, but as a songwriter, he’s been anything but idle. A couple of days ago, he played an acoustic gig at Zirzamin, solo on twelve-string guitar, unveiling a lot of intriguing new material as well as reinventing several favorites from the Dog Show era.
As a lyricist, O’Brien’s stock in trade is simple phrases packed with wry, sardonic, loaded imagery. Your Home Will Come to You was a good example:
You were an angel at brunch
Conversation so brilliant
Now it’s a quarter to eight and you’re a little less resilient
Don’t want to keep you from nothing
I can see there’s somewhere you gotta be
Don’t want to tell you nothing you don’t know
Don’t want to show you something you can see
He began it by nicking the intro from Love Will Tear Us Apart, a characteristic touch. A more recent number, a steady, tense country murder ballad, referenced the Buzzcocks. The cynical Every Baby Boy, pondering how we all start out with clean slate and get damaged fast, got a halfspeed sway instead of the Dog Show’s tight mod pulse. “Do you burn your heart like a piece of meat?/Well folks like us don’t care about the heat,” O’Brien intoned casually.
He reinvented the metaphorically-charged Sin-Soaked Dish as a waltz, with a charming neo-Britfolk guitar intro: this particular dish has a “smile like a knife.” Hold Me Down opened with a laid-back riff evoking the old R&B hit On Broadway. Dating from the early Bush/Cheney era, the song set an apprehensive scene: “If you decide to head out west, my friend, you’re on your own..don’t know if I should be walking around with this face under the dangerous lights.” Likewise, Nicotene and Bluz opened with an understatedly caustic view of the smoking section outside a popular bar, pondering a future that’s a lot less than certain. After a nifty little ragtime-flavored instrumental, the most intriguing song of the afternoon might have been a brand-new one, a surreal Pete Townshend-esque epic montage of images from the subway. “The candidates keep running like there’s nowhere else to go…the commodore of looking cool just can’t find a date, and the personal trainer has just decided she’s the potentate.” It was hard to keep up with them. He closed with a couple of older numbers, This One Thing – another rapidfire litany of sarcastic imagery set to a plushly catchy post-Velvets groove – and Halcyon Days, a joyously latin soul-flavored view of life on the Lower East Side just at the moment before the hammer of gentrification lowered its deathblow on the neighborhood. O’Brien has been playing Zirzamin the second Monday of every month at around 7 PM; watch this space for another.