The Cutting Room’s new Curry Hill space isn’t officially open yet, which is a good thing: at this point in the renovations, the sonics at that unfinished industrial basement at Kent and South First in Williamsburg are better than they are here. Last night Don Piper and his band, and then Edward Rogers (playing the cd release for his new one, Porcelain) battled those sonics. Both played magnificently; both lost the battle. Piper has never written better than he’s writing now, equal parts smart Neil Finn purist pop, thoughtful Mumford & Sons Americana and blue-eyed soul. His superb seven-piece band included Gary Langol on organ, Ray Sapirstein on cornet, Konrad Meissner on drums and Briana Winter on vocal harmonies. After the show, Sapirstein likened this group to a chamber music ensemble, a spot-on comparison: they have the easy camaraderie and expert chops you’d expect from a string quartet. And Piper’s slow-to-midtempo songs leave plenty of space for those virtuoso players to add their own inimitably terse, thoughtful ideas. In just under an hour onstage, they swung casually and methodically from artsy pop songs, to a little further out into the country and back again, with a couple of Bill Withers-ish numbers to turn the heat up a little. Piper’s an excellent singer, especially when he uses the top of his range: too frequently, those frequencies got lost.
‘”We start out at about 1972 and end around 1976,” Rogers told the crowd as he took the stage with his band: Piper, Pete Kennedy and James Mastro on guitars, Joe McGinty on keys, Sal Maida on bass and Meissner on drums again plus a parade of singers. The new album pays homage to the glam era, especially the opening track, The Biba Crowd, a look back at a boutique that served as a focal point for British musicians of that era much as Malcolm McLaren’s Sex did in punk’s earliest days. The band gave it a Celtic-fueled stomp, Mastro’s blazing Mick Ronson-esque lines mostly lost to the sound mix. At the end of a careening, intense version of the apocalyptic Topping the World, Rogers backed off, intoning the song’s mantra, ”Chaos rules your destiny” just a couple of times before letting the music fall away. Whether this was intentional, or only an indication that Rogers was sick of trying to holler over the band, the effect was powerful. They wrestled with a handful of big Bowie-esque rockers, as well as the plaintive drunkard’s lament No More Tears Left in the Bottle and then a real showstopper, Commodore Hotel, a poignant, unselfconsciously beautiful ballad sung by its author, George Usher over McGinty’s ornate yet judicious keyboards.
Passing the Sunshine, a catchy 60s psychedelic pop gem from Rogers’ previous album Sparkle Lane, was especially biting, a metaphorically-charged amble through a neighborhood in the process of being priced out of itself. When Rogers brought up Don Fleming to play lead guitar on Separate Walls, it was as if the ghost of Ron Asheton had taken over the stage – to say that Fleming raised the energy level was an understatement, but there was only so much he could do to cut through the mix. After a deliciously raw version of the album’s title track, a song that would have fit perfectly on a late 80s Church album, they ended the show with drony, Syd Barrett-influenced, Black Angels-style murk-rock, which might have been a brave move at another venue; here, it simply seemed that they’d finally found something that made sense in the room. McGinty worked a harmonium furiously as the guitars howled and shrieked and Rogers railed against posers in newly gentrified neighborhoods everywhere.
Morricone Youth, who are always a treat, were next on the bill. But as it turned out, there was one single bathroom serving at least a few hundred people, a prospect discouraging enough to make it an early night.