New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: pop music

Moody, Goth-Tinged Duo the Smoke Fairies Play a Rare Free Show in Williamsburg

British duo the Smoke Fairies set unpretentious vocals with low-key harmonies to attractive, tersely constructed, subtly orchestrated keyboard melodies with a typically shadowy, nocturnal ambience. A lot of Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire’s songs bring to mind Blonde Redhead at their most darkly shoegazy. The Smoke Fairies have a new self-titled album, their third, streaming at Spotify and a free, full-band show coming up on Sept 1 at Rough Trade in Williamsburg at 7 PM.

It’s a change of pace – is the heavy use of synths and piano this time around an attempt to replicate a mannered, campy Lana Del Rey faux-noir vibe? Happily, no. What most of these songs are is 90s-style trip-hop pop, very cleverly disguised and arranged. There’s more than a hint of classic 70s Britfolk in the vocals, and a nod to 80s goth-pop and darkwave in the background. The opening track, We’ve Seen Birds has the synth imitating a guitar tremolo – “Did you think we could exist like this?” the duo ask enigmatically. Eclipse Them All reaches toward a funeral parlor organ sound with the occasional lingering cry from the guitar – it’s a shot at seductively anthemic, Goldfrapp-style atmospherics.

Shadow Inversions works a more anthemically ghostly ambience, swirling over a simple, rising bassline with distorted, echoey guitars and drums. The slowly vamping Hope Is Religion builds to a hypnotic, Indian-flavored string ambience. Waiting for Something to Begin, a pulsing, angst-ridden escape anthem, blends distant Beatlisms into its nocturnal downtempo groove.

Your Own Silent Movie is another slow, angst-fueled anthem, sort of a mashup of 80s goth-pop and teens chamber pop, the dynamics rising and falling: “Each room of your house a drama you’ve been staging, but I will never let the curtains unfold,” the two insist.

Guest Andy Newmark’s tumbling, artsy drums raise the energy of Misty Versions above by-the-numbers folk noir, building to an icily seductive mix of crackling guitar noise and dreampop vocalese. Drinks and Dancing is hardly the bubbly pop song the title would suggest – instead, it’s a more hi-tech take on torchy, wounded Amanda Thorpe-style balladry. Likewise, Koto is not a Japanese folk song but a simple, tersely crescendoing two-chord trip-hop vamp.

Want It Forever takes an unexpected detour into garage rock, souped up with layers of keys and guitars. The Very Last Time ponders a torrid but impossible relationship that sounds like it was doomed from the start, set to what’s become an expectedly echoey, minor-key, hallucinatory backdrop. The album ends with the haunted, bitter, defeated Are You Crazy,opening as a regretful piano ballad and growing to a swaying, deep-space pulsar ambience. It’ll be interesting to see how much of all this orchestration and atmospheric hocus-pocus the band can replicate onstage.

Summer Memories: A Great, Obscure Show by SLV

SLV are one of the most entertaining bands in New York to watch. They’re all about textures, meaning that everybody in the band is constantly shifting from one thing to another. Frontwoman/multi-instrumentalist Sandra Lilia Velasquez’s other band, Pistolera, plays pretty straight-up jangly rock with a Mexican folk edge. This band is a lot more complicated. Velasquez writes very simple, catchy, direct themes, then builds them kaleidoscopically with an endlessly psychedelic stream of timbral shifts and exchanges between instruments over a hypnotic groove that sometimes rises with a completely unexpected explosiveness. Portishead and Stereolab seem to be strong influences, as is Sade (a singer Velasquez has grown to resemble, but with more bite and energy) and possibly artsy pop bands from the new wave era like ABC and Ultravox.

SLV played a big gig earlier this summer at South Street Seaport that was reputedly very well-attended (this blog wasn’t there). Hot on the heels of that one, they played another one at a small venue way uptown that was not. From the perspective of one of maybe two customers in the entire house, it was like getting a personal SLV show, and that was a lot of fun. Velasquez sang in both English and Spanish with her eyes closed, lost in the dreamy wash of textures floating over the groove – except when she was trading animated riffs with guitarist Mark Marshall, bassist/keyboardist Jordan Scannella and drummer Sean Dixon.

The show was more of a single, integral experience than a series of songs. Marshall kicked it off with with a hammering drum duel with Dixon before the bandleader took the song in a hazy, Sade-esque direction – her moody alto delivery has never been more expressive or enticing. They kept a similarly gauzy/jaunty dichotomy going through the next song, then Velasquez switched from guitar to keys for a number something akin to a funkier update on Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill. From there they made their way through an intricately rhythmic, swaying number that contrasted ambient atmospherics with Marshall’s incisive, stabbing lines.

The most intense number of the night was the most stripped-down one, History, Marshall playing its brooding Neil Young-esque changes as Velasquez intoned the lyrics – a caustic commentary on media duplicity – with a muted anger. Through a Pink Floyd-ish interlude with a spine-tingling, Gilmouresque Marshall guitar solo, an artsy 80s-tinged trip-hop number, and a Beatles/tango mashup with some deliciously icy vintage chorus-box guitar, the band kept up the endless series of elegant handoffs and exchanges. They closed with a jangly, biting version of Never Enough, the opening track on the band’s Meshell Ndgeocello-produced ep, sounding something like a trip-hop version of the old Golden Earring hit Twilight Zone. SLV are back in the studio now; keep your eyes posted for some of this new material to surface sooner than later.

Changing Modes Bring Their Kinetic, Intense, Wickedly Tuneful Art-Rock to Spectrum

Art-rock band Changing Modes play some of the catchiest songs of any current New York band, plus they’re a lot of fun to watch. Part of that is because their musicianship is on such a high level, on par with a jazz or classical group. In the past, they’ve had as many as three keyboardists. The latest edition of the band has bandleader Wendy Griffiths sharing lead vocals with co-keyboardist Grace Pulliam while Yuzuru Sadashige switches between guitar and bass over drummer Timur Yusef’s undulating, shapeshifting groove. The album release for their new one, Traveling Light, at Bowery Electric last month was one of the best shows of the year. They’ve got another gig coming up at Spectrum, the sonically delicious, comfortable Ludlow Street space on August 23 at 9 PM for $15.

At the Bowery Electric gig, just when it seemed that Griffiths was going to be playing all the elegant, plaintive, classically-tinged piano lines and Pulliam was in charge of supplying an endlessly kaleidoscopic series of synth and organ textures (and synth bass when Sadashige played guitar) , the two would switch roles. On several songs, Griffiths emerged from behind her keys to play bass, bopping animatedly along with Yusef’s irrepressible drive. He and Pulliam were all smiles; Sadashige seemed to be the calm center of the storm while Griffiths played the role of mystery girl, deadpan and serious in contrast to her animated vocals and harmonies with Pulliam.

Guest Vincent Corrigan took a handful of cameos on vocals, on a duet of the briskly pulsing, sardonic breakup narrative Red and then Ship, a swaying disaster tale, which he brought to a climax with a long bellow worthy of Bruce Dickinson, or David Lee Roth for that matter. That contrasted with his stately, expressive crooning on the chamber pop piano ballad Sycamore Landing.

What was most striking about the show was that some of the strongest songs in the set weren’t from the new album. Too Far Gone, with its clave beat and Police-like hooks, turned into a springboard for savage tremolo-picking, eerily dancing postpunk riffs and bluesmetal spirals from Sadashige. And Shangri-La juxtaposed chromatically-charged X guitar riffage and a menacingly cinematic guitar/keys interlude with a telling Leonard Cohen reference. The songs from the album were just as memorable: the apocalyptic, Rasputina-esque piano-pop opening track, Dinosaur; the slyly feline narrative Jeanine; an understatedly creepy take of the darkly enigmatic, rhythmically shifting In June and Fly, a bitter, even creepier escape anthem.

A Transcendent Americana Show at Lincoln Center Out of Doors Saturday Night

Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale opened the show Saturday night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, backed by an inspired band including a mysterious longhaired guy in dark shades doubling on pedal steel and fiddle along with the rhythm section who played on Robert Plant’s most recent album. This blog recently characterized Miller as an American version of Richard Thompson, although it would make as much sense to call Thompson the British Buddy Miller (in a bit of serendipity, Miller produced Thompson’s latest album). Lauderdale played rhythm guitar and sang in his masterfully modulated baritone while Miller channeled a century’s worth of country and blues guitar. Delivering his signature, virtuosic ferocity and nuance, Miller started in Nashville, then took the band on a few side trips to Memphis, New Orleans and the Florida swamps.

On Looking for a Heartache, he alternated between droll and ominous with spare lines on his Danelectro baritone guitar. He switched to acoustic for a plaintive take of It Hurts Me before a jaunty electric version of South in New Orleans. He got to cut loose with a long, wailing, searing electric solo on the darkly rustic country gospel tune Wide River to Cross; a bit later, Lauderdale brought the lights down with a rapturous solo acoustic performance of a new song: the crowd (among them a who’s who of New York guitar talent) were spellbound. From there the band picked it up, through a Tony Joe White cover, some honkytonk and finally Hole in My Head, a rousing late 80s-style alt-country romp that would have been a standout track on a Del-Lords record.

“George Gershwin played Rhapsody in Blue on this stage,” headliner Rosanne Cash told the crowd. Being a longtime New Yorker, it was only natural that she’d be proud to have also played on it. Considering that Cash wrote her brilliant latest album The River & the Thread while traveling throughout the south, it’s no surprise how bluesy it is. Cash’s husband and lead guitarist John Leventhal gave a clinic in uneasily resonating, lingering noir phrasing, beginning with the sepulchrally whispery intro of A Feather’s Not a Bird, anchored by Glenn Patscha’s ominous organ and drummer Dan Rieser’s anxious pulse. “Everybody around here moves too fast/It feels so good but it’s never gonna last,” Cash intoned with an understated dread.

The Long Way Home put a folk noir spin on a late 60-s style soul-rock tune centered around a riff suspiciously like the Classics IV’s Spooky: “”Dark highways and the country roads don’t scare you like they did,” Cash offered, but that turned out to be a false start in one of the album’s many contemplations of loss and getting lost. Land of Strange Design, true to how she’d explained it beforehand, broodingly contemplated a southern upbringing, harsh reality jarring with superstition, pedal steel player Kevin Berry offering a temporary reprieve with a brief, soaring solo. Night School was even more nocturnally apprehensive than the album version, its ambience punctuated by creepy glockenspiel accents by the percussionist.

50,000 Watts, Cash explained, was dedicated to the Memphis blues and R&B radio station where B.B. King got his start, which proved to be so influential on the Sun Studios artists, Cash’s famous dad among them. They kept a wary stroll going with When the Master Calls the Roll, a vivid Civil War reminiscence nicked from the Rodney Crowell catalog that Cash grabbed when it got dropped from an Emmylou Harris record.

Leventhal evoked his brilliant Mojo Mancini noir soundtrack project with his spare, sinister phrasing on Money Road, an evocation of Mississippi Delta desolation. Then they reinvented Ode to Billy Joe as folk noir – a pity Bobbie Gentry couldn’t find a guy of Leventhal’s caliber for the original.

They brought the energy to redline with a briskly motoring take of Radio Operator, from Cash’s classic 2006  Black Cadillac album, with a long, burning pedal steel solo, following that with a swinging, halfspeed, blues-infused take of Hank Snow’s I’m Moving On. So it was weird after all that gravitas and intensity that she’d close with a nonchalant version of the innocuous new-wave-disguised-as-country hit Seven Year Ache. But she brought back the roots flavor with a rousing version of Ray Price’s Heartaches by the Numbers,  joined by Lauderdale and Miller (who got to take one of the night’s best solos on it). It’s hard to think of a better concert to wind up this blog’s coverage of this summer’s typically amazing outdoors festival here.

The Minetta Lane Theatre Stages a Sinister, Politically Spot-On New Rock Musical

“If we act like we know what we’re doing, people will think we know what we’re doing,” Marrick Smith’s tirelessly ambitious yuppie character announces at a particularly pivotal juncture in Ivar Pall Jonsson‘s surrealistically sinister, fearlessly relevant new rock musical, Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson, Furniture Painter, currently playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre. Inspired by the Enron-like run on the Icelandic krona by currency speculators in the wake of the 2008 global financial collapse, the musical is a cruelly telling parable of how the ruling classes and those elected to represent them manipulate the rest of us – and convince us that their failures are somehow ours instead. As both political and musical satire, it’s surprisingly subtle, considering how much dramatic fireworks take place and how over-the-top the parody gets in places. With roots in hippie agitprop, glam rock and George Orwell, it’s well worth the price of admission and with better branding would have a very high upside on Broadway.

The story is simple. Elbowville is a sleepy town full of people situated deep in the titular laborer’s body, south of Mombreast and north of Knee York City and its trendy suburb, Hipburg. As befits satire, the characters are all pretty broad. Cady Huffman’s Manuela, the mayor, starts out egocentrically brassy and gets increasingly diabolical as the plot unwinds. Smith’s Peter, inventor of the Prosperity Machine that brings the town great joy and hilariously spoofy bodily “enhancements,” is insatiable in his quest for more and more until the whole scheme seems on the brink of collapse (a crisis that resolves itself via flashback early on). Jesse Wildman methodically emboldens the persona of Brynja, the ingenue who can’t decide between bossy Peter and his shy, good-hearted brother (Graydon Long). Brad Nacht is exasperatingly unwavering and amusing as doofy third-wheel brother Stein, who will avoid a decision at all costs just to get along. Kate Shindle lends an acerbic fire to his status-grubbing but increasingly suspicious wife Asrun, while Patrick Boll is wickedly perfect as Manuela’s sneaky, kiss-ass straight man, Kolbein (which sounds suspiciously like “Cobain” throughout the performance).

The satire goes beyond politics to Broadway spectacle itself. A good portion of the action unfolds during song sequences, and not a single character bothers to imbue his or her vocals with anything other than a rote, smiley-faced, Disney-approved cheer (which seems to be a directorial decision, a very effective one). The music, also by Jonsson, is catchy and tuneful, drawing heavily on Aladdin Sane-era David Bowie as well as the more anthemic side of 80s new wave pop, with a bit of metal crunch or goth horror in the tenser moments. The band – Matt Basile on bass, Bryn Roberts on keyboards, John Kengla and Rob Ritchie on guitars plus a terse, swinging drummer who somehow managed not to let an injured leg in a thigh-high boot stop him – play with dynamics and intensity.

Interestingly, the narrative positions the local powers that be as the villains, without taking into account external factors conspiring against them – there are a couple of very amusing repo man/woman scenes, but that’s about it. As the bank or its facsimile gets run on, pandemonium ensues and it looks like somebody’s going to get strung up. The sudden ending packs an unexpected wallop. This show succeeds on all levels: as comedy, as corrosively cynical political commentary, as a rock show. And there’s a soundtrack album – sung by the actors and band in the original Icelandic production – that you can listen back to.

Back to that title: it’s got to go for this to succeed on any sizeable level in the US.  A show this accessible yet this impactful could have a real future on Broadway (that Fela managed to last as long as it did is good reason to believe the time is ripe for a similarly edgy 99-percenters’ tale). But xenophobic American tourist audiences won’t buy Ragnar whateverhisnameis. Elbowville would work just fine.

Tift Merritt and Eric Heywood Play Intimate, Gorgeous Existentialist Americana at Lincoln Center

The last time Tift Merritt played a hometown show, she sold out Rough Trade in Williamsburg. Thursday night at the Lincoln Center Atrium, the seats were full, and there were plenty of people lined along the wall toward Columbus Avenue watching her take a break from the ongoing Andrew Bird tour for a rare duo show with guitar genius Eric Heywood. Where was everybody else? For most people in this city, Lincoln Center is a lot easier to get to than Williamsburg.

Whatever the case, the show was in a lot of ways a reprise of Emmylou Harris’ concert across the street the previous night. Where that one was a launching pad for innumerable, soulful, intense solos from guitarist Jedd Hughes and pedal steel player Steve Fishell, this one gave Heywood a platform for his purist, incisive, similarly lyrical chops, on both pedal steel and acoustic guitar. It helped that he had Merritt’s equally intense, tuneful songs to play those solos on.

Merritt has never sung better, varying her delivery from the angst-ridden, throaty chirp she’s been relying on over the last few years, to every possible shade of crystalline and clear. Midway through the show, she and Heywood moved to a central mic, then backed away from it and the volume actually rose as Merritt leaned back and belted. Admitting to being especially wired on caffeine, she made good on a promise to chat up the crowd. Some of her banter coyly hinted at background on her vivid yet enigmatic storytelling. She explained how the friend whose North Carolina beach house Merritt had rented had misidentified herself in one particular balmy, summery number. And Spring, Merritt’s hauntingly insistent anthem about living at peak intensity (this one lit up by Heywood’s creepy, smoky pedal steel) turned out to be inspired by the tree outside Merritt’s apartment window. But her most revealing comment was that “no song is about any one thing,” which capsulizes her m.o. as a writer.

Sweet Spot revealed itself not as a love song but as an individualist’s forlorn lament, longing for an escape to where she can be finally be herself. Moving to the piano, Merritt described Small Town Relations as “vicious,” and sang that portrait of smalltown nosiness with a dismissive vengefulness that hit a cruel, whispery sneer on the final verse while Heywood matched her simmering rage line for line. Later on, he colored the all-acoustic songs with elegant flatpicking, tersely bending leads that mirrored his work on the steel, and even flickering Pat Metheny-esque pastoral colors on a hypnotic, vamping number toward the end of the set. Merritt sent a graceful, Aimee Mann-tinged shout-out to buskers with one anthem, weighed existential angst versus contentment on Traveling Alone and Still Not Home, hit a plaintive, wistful peak early on in a raptly gorgeous take of Feel of the World and encored with a quietly triumphant version of Feeling of Beauty. Merritt and Heywood have since returned to the Andrew Bird tour (which, judging from their Central Park Summerstage show in late June, is amazing); the remaining dates are here.

Ester Rada Plays One of This Summer’s Most Interesting Shows at Madison Square Park

What’s the likelihood that an Ethiopian-born Israeli singer would have internalized oldschool American soul, funk and jazz to the point where she could pass for a star in any of those styles from the 60s or 70s? Ester Rada is exactly that. Her concert earlier this summer at Madison Square Park with her brilliant Israeli band revealed her every bit as adept at her native Ethiopiques as well as a whole bunch of western idioms. After an intro medley from Rada’s dynamic six-piece group –  three-piece horn section, lead guitar, keys, bass and drums – spanning from Ethiopian to American funk, she launched into a wryly catchy ba-BUMP soul tune punctuated by tersely growling baritone sax and ringing guitar riffs. Throughout the set, Rada sang in perfect English in a resonant, measured, dynamic alto, rising and falling with a constant sense of suspense.

She followed with a slinky, moodily vamping, minor-key Bill Withers-tinged anthem that picked up steam ominously as it went along. The band took the next tune from Afrobeat to pulsing roots reggae in seconds flat and then very subtly brought it back to middle ground between a summery, rootsy groove and a frenetic 1970s-style Nigerian club theme. The tenor sax player gave a briskly strolling Ethiopiques number a long, lithely spiraling, apprehensively dancing, Middle Eastern-flavored intro before Rada picked it up with an indomitable, nonchalantly insistent Amharic vocal. Mysterious cinematic, bass-driven pedalpoint gave way to a wickedly catchy, backbeat-driven anthem that hit an unexpected and wickedly fiery Ethiopiques crescendo at the end.

Rada reinvented Nina Simone’s Four Women as a brooding tune that moved uneasily between clave funk and a soaringly dancing African bounce that went doublespeed as it wound up. She paired off dramatic vocals with blippy Baba O’Reilly keys on the Afrobeat number that followed – there was a psychedelic aspect to a lot of the show, and this was the peak. The concert followed a familiar trajectory of call-and-response with the crowd, band intros, expansively funky jamming and a return to oldschool soul and otherworldly Ethiopian riffage at the end.

Let’s hope for another NYC engagement from Rada sooner than later, notwithstanding all the troubles in Israel. The next Madison Square Park concert is tonight at 7 PM featuring one of New York’s most energizing jambands, charismatic singer Arleigh Kincheloe and her group Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds.

An Ecstatic, Celebratory New York Debut by the Jones Family Singers

Texas gospel family band the Jones Family Singers‘ new album The Spirit Speaks positions them as a gospel version of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, more or less. Which they can be, and makes them a lot of fun, to say the least. Their New York debut at Lincoln Center Wednesday night revealed that’s only a small part of the package. “People say, ‘You could play rock music, and be stars,'” frontwoman Alexis Jones told the mostly sold-out crowd, a mix of Harlem and Brooklyn churchgoers and neighborhood people. Without a pause, she offered a righteous response.. “We do play rock n roll. We’re rocking for Jesus!”

And from there the group launched into an ecstatic vamp that would have been perfectly at home in the most ornately arranged Harlem or Brooklyn gospel tabernacle. The five women, her cousins, singing harmonies along with her, stepped and twirled with the bouncy beat as her brother Fred Allen Jones Jr. played some of the most exhilarating, eclectic guitar anybody’s played on a big stage in this city this year. Moving methodically from big, expansive soul/jazz chords to sizzling Freddie King-inspired blues clusters, to Motown and Stax-Volt and even a little metal, he would have stolen the show if not for his sister. Their debonair father, Bishop Fred Jones channeled Wilson Pickett, blurring the line between the sacred and the secular with a come-hither growl, “Say it again!” as he punctuated a clever remake of the hauntingly imagistic gospel classic Bones in the Valley. Behind them, bassist Kenneth Jones held down a fat, booming low end in tandem with the twin drummers (one on congas and a standup percussion kit, the other playing his kit behind a plexiglass shield) for a double-barreled propulsive boost.

And with her insistent, no-nonsense alto delivery, like Tina Turner and Mahalia Jackson wrapped into one, Alexis Jones left no doubt that this was a party. Even the band’s two gritty minor-key Texas blues tunes were far less angst-ridden laments than celebrations. Encompassing a hundred years of African-American gospel inspiration, the band worked the crowd up into a sweat and got everybody on their feet in a joyous call-and-response, through long, hypnotically crescendoing two-chord jams punctuated by the split-second timing of the harmony singers, towering, suspenseful swells building to mighty peaks. Surprisingly, their set incorporated a lot less of the oldschool soul tunesmithing that’s on the new album.

The guitarist came front and center for the blues as well as for some unexpected but period-perfect metal-tinged, Fame-style 80s anthems. One of the backup singers, as well as the group’s matriarch, Sarah M. Jones, each got to take a turn out front toward the end of the show (high voices are not this band’s distinguishing feature: they have a deep sound and obviously like it that way). And for a few striking seconds, mid-song, Bishop Fred Jones hinted at the speaking-in-tongues ecstasy that the group’s Pentecostal Church of God in Christ has been known to inspire. In an era where organized religion is so often employed as a means to divide and conquer, it was inspiring to say the least to hear such an indomitable message of love and unity and resilience in the face of hardship (Markham, Texas, the Houston suburb that the band calls home, is not one of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods). As Alexis Jones affirmed, “The family that prays together, stays together.”

John Otway Provokes Laughter On the Big Screen and Onstage

As John Otway self-effacingly explained to the crowd at his Sunday concert at Theatre 80 St. Marks, he’s a “microcelebrity” in his native England. He was Spinal Tap before Spinal Tap existed. As documented in Steve Barker’s fascinating new documentary film Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure: The Otway Movie, Otway was on the receiving end of a multimillion-dollar 1977 recording contract from Polydor Records, resulting in little more than a couple of minor UK hits. Apparently the label’s view was that Otway’s exuberant/buffoonish rockstar persona would put them in position to compete with the era’s foremost stadium rock buffoons, the Bay City Rollers. The deal may not have exactly worked out the way the label wanted it to, although there’s no question that today, Otway is more popular than the Bay City Rollers.

As both the movie and Otway’s show revealed, he was always ahead of his time. He was doing crowdsourcing and creating flashmobs before anyone else. His shtick may well have given Christopher Guest the inspiration for Spinal Tap. At this particular concert, he didn’t have his band, but he did have a roadie who did triple duty as offstage chorus, as shill hollering suspiciously well-timed repartee from the aisles, and on one number, as fill-in keyboardist. Much of Otway’s comedy draws heavily from oldtime English vaudeville in the same vein as Monty Python or Neil Innes, especially when baiting the audience is concerned. Another weapon in Otway’s arsenal is improv. His deadpan parody of rockstar narcissism – and the public’s cluelessness about it – is stingingly accurate and often gut-bustingly (and potentially head-bustingly) funny even if it’s sometimes a little obvious. And while the lovably inept one-hit wonder character he channels can’t resist taking a leap of faith and landing on the “fail” button every time, what becomes clear early on is that Otway is actually a decent tunesmith, a perfectly adequate guitarist and in a lot of ways an utterly original if utterly devious creative genius.

Much as his parodies of 70s stadium anthems, by-the-numbers punk rock, disco and heavy metal all had their moments, it was between songs that Otway was funniest. He related how “some people actually come to see me more than once,” that he recalled (accurately or not) being “in the loo and overhearing guys talking about where my guitar capo was, on this fret at one show but on another at the next.” That set up one of the night’s most irresistible musician-insider jokes, concering the challenges of playing solo versus playing with a band.

Otway’s most exuberant comedy is very physical: pratfalls, a ladder and the endangerment of expensive instruments are involved. His funniest is surprisingly subtle. The film goes into more detail than the stage show did about how Otway led a write-in campaign resulting in the BBC putting their imprimatur on his ridiculously absurdist psych-pop song Beware of the Flowers Cause I’m Sure They’re Going to Get You, Yeah as one of the seven greatest lyrics ever written. Because Otway’s humor is not for everyone, he sometimes gets heckled. His solution? Book Abbey Road Studios for a recording of House of the Rising Sun and invite a crowd to come heckle him. “I had to tell them that the crowd was a choir,” he confided, “Abbey Road is a proper studio, you know! And you know that everyone who’s on the record would want a copy for themselves and the mum!” Otway related the incident’s logical Top of the Pops conclusion with a smirking triumph that the crowd couldn’t resist.

At the concert, there was a special bonus, a stripped-down, mostly acoustic opening set by janglerock songwriter Richard X. Heyman and his trio including his wife Nancy on bass and a lead acoustic guitarist playing nimble, bluegrass and blues-infused fills. With richly intertwined, catchy guitar and vocal interplay and soaring harmonies, Heyman led the group through biting, defiant anthems, crescendoing  powerpop and some richly tuneful Britfolk-infused numbers in much the same vein as what Otway probably drew on for his initial inspiration.

A Killer Andrew Bird Concert Sets the Stage for a Similar Show from Tift Merritt

What’s the likelihood of seeing Andrew Bird and Tift Merritt on the same stage, let alone in the same band? It happened at Central Park Summerstage this month when the two Americana music icons joined forces, Bird on violin and a little guitar, Merritt on rhythm guitar as part of a dynamic five-piece band with pedal steel, bass and drums, jauntily exchanging verses with the Chicago songwriter in a set heavy with Handsome Family covers from Bird’s new album Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of.

“In my opinion, Brett and Rennie Sparks are the greatest living American songwriters,” Bird told the sold-out crowd, and he could be right. And Bird, whose own songs are as haunted, and morbid, and literate, and relevant as the Handsome Family’s catalog continues to be, is the ideal person to cover them, if anybody is. Bird and Merritt continue on Bird’s summer tour; Merritt gets a momentary break for a rare, free duo show of her own with Americana guitar genius Eric Heywood coming up on August 7 at 7:30 PM at the Lincoln Center Atrium. Early arrival is a must: 6 PM wouldn’t be too soon since she’s one of the rare artists who still sells out pretty much every room she plays.

Bird opened his show with a handful of intricately rhythmic, solo songs, fingerpicking his violin like a mandolin, his Spinning Double Speaker Horn behind him providing spooky, keening effects as he built layers of loops that spun back hypnotically through the mix. From there the band joined him, eventually gathering in a circle around a central mic before dispersing as the concert built momentum. They moved methodically through a nonchalantly bouncing take of the Handsome Family’s Danse Caribe, a moody, allusive version of Sifters, all the way through to the first encores, the fire-and-brimstone cautionary tale MX Missiles, which made a creepily apt segue with Handsome Family’s Cathedrals. On the way there, the young, touristy crowd were treated to uneasy versions of Tin Foil, Dear Old Greenland, Effigy and the understatedly savage post-9/11 anti-Bush/Cheney parable When the Helicopter Comes. The group also took their time through a lingering, ominous version of Pulaski at Night and the sardonic Something Biblical. With his wary, precise vocals matching the incisive focus of his violin playing, Bird was an intense presence, holding the group together as if they were on a secret mission. Merritt’s indomitable energy and soaring harmonies made a strong complement, livening the more upbeat, country-flavored numbers with her smoke-tinged wail.

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