When this blog started, its raison d’etre was live music. Over the first two months, there were a grand total of four albums reviewed here: pretty much everything else was free downloads and concerts. But what happens at every music blog was bound to happen here: the PR machine discovered a brand-new place to send their stuff. Suddenly life got a little easier – a cynic would say, why keep going out night after night now that there’ll probably be some reasonably interesting content for the blog in the next day’s email? But just because every other blog does that doesn’t make it right – even considering how many great studio albums are still being released despite all logic and wisdom, at least commercially speaking. Therefore, here’s part two of a long-overdue rundown on some recent, noteworthy shows by artists you might know or might enjoy.
Exactly a week ago, Patti Smith and her band played upstairs at the Barnes and Noble at Union Square. She did a lot more talking than playing – along with a new album, there’s a new reprint of Woolgathering, her first published full-length prose work, a limited-edition chapbook originally issued in the early 80s. From the excerpts Smith read, it’s snarky and off-the-cuff and bitingly amusing in places, all qualities you would expect from her. The bookstore events person who interviewed her obviously didn’t have much familiarity with Smith’s work, but Smith was gracious, even when it came to deflecting questions that she didn’t want to answer. Much of her time onstage was spent telling a long story about searching for a Renaissance Italian painting that she’d fallen in love with after somebody sent her a postcard of it, which she promptly lost. For the better part of twenty years, she’d tried on and off to find out what the painting was and by whom. Then last year she found herself in a small town in Italy, fell asleep in her hotel room, then woke distraught from an apocalyptic nightmare. Trying to shake off the dread, she went down to the street, found a random church that happened to be open, went inside and was intrigued with the architecture and decor. Making her way to the back – you can see this coming a mile away – what did she see hanging on the far wall? The painting. Blissed out, she rushed back to the hotel, woke Lenny Kaye, and then dragged him to the church to show off her serendipitous find. What is the painting and who is the artist? Watch for a new Patti Smith song about it.
By then, there wasn’t much time to play. Smith only sang; she didn’t pick up her guitar, delivering three new songs and sounding as vital as she’s always been. The first was a soul ballad memorializing Amy Winehouse; the second a surprisingly lighthearted pop number that had Kaye playing nimble acoustic bass while bassist Tony Shanahan switched to electric piano (it was his birthday). The final one was a “world premiere,” as Smith called it, the title track to the new album, a punchy, singalong jam-based number inspired by the dog in the surreal, Stalin-era Mikhail Bulgakov parable The Master and the Margarita. That one could have gone on a lot longer than it did, but Smith graciously wound it up quickly.
The next night dub reggae band El Pueblo played Shrine. Drummer Lucas Leto and bassist Eli Sperling kept the grooves deep and slow while their frontman/alto saxophonist Jeremy Danneman lit them up with crystalline, slowly unwinding, hypnotically melodic lines. Electric pianist Marcelo Casagrandi would sometimes take an incisive, jazz or blues-tinged solo, sailing into the upper reaches of the keyboard, but for the most part he kept things simple and tuneful, as did Robert Julian, their excellent guitarist, who stuck to Chinna Smith-style rhythm for the most part. While a couple of their vamps went deep into echoey territory where it became hard to tell who was playing what – which is the point of dub, after all, to get you completely lost in the music – the majority of their songs sounded more like they were simply oldschool roots reggae songs without the vocals. That they held up as well as they did without any words speaks to how catchy and tuneful their songs are.
The next day Metropolitan Klezmer, another smartly jam-oriented band, played a daytime show on the Upper East Side. Drummer/bandleader Eve Sicular reminded the crowd how diverse klezmer music is, and how it keeps evolving. And then they pushed the envelope, not just with blistering dance numbers and plaintive introductory taqsims by accordionist Ismail Butera and clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Deborah Kreisberg, but with a slinky cumbia tune, a Yiddish movie theme, a Polish tango reworked by Russians and a ferocious Romanian medley to close the show. Bassist Dave Hofstra (of the Microscopic Septet) took only one solo but made it a darkly smoldering one, playing with a bow; chanteuse Melissa Fogarty delivered a handful of songs charmingly but with a knowing wink, particularly an irony-tinged version of Abi Gesunt. Sicular is a joy to watch and also a great wit behind the kit, switching effortlessly from suspenseful vaudevillian rumbles to a hypnotic gallop to artful pings and smashes on her hardware.
Then later that night the most cutting-edge show of the entire week took place in a new public plaza tucked away behind Fulton Street in Bed-Stuy, where rap star Yasiin Bey (f.k.a. Mos Def) teamed up with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Pierson. The first half of the showwas nothing special, pretty much what you’d expect at a summertime pops concert: a competent version of the finale from Beethoven’s Third Symphony (the “Eroica”), and a handful of lushly orchestrated versions of jazz-pop hits sung with plenty of drama by Leslie Uggams. After a pause, Bey came out front, saluted the crowd from his old hood and then proceeded to lead the ensemble through a mix of eerie, lushly orchestrated RZA-style straight-up hip-hop narratives, a pensive tone poem, and most impressively, a song that succeeded at the type of artsy, soaring soul-jazz that Elvis Costello was shooting for on his North album but couldn’t reach. Bey has always been a great lyricist, but as it turns out he’s also a first-class soul singer, with a plaintive upper midrange that brought out all the angst in that particular number. From the rear of the plaza, it wasn’t possible to get a decent-quality recording, but it’s safe to say that Bey’s lyrics were as enigmatic, incisively critical and spot-on as ever. They wound up the show with a rap tune that worked permutations on the second movement from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and then a brief, rhythmic, anthemic one by Bey. Blending classical and hip-hop may be nothing new – Bushwick Bill and the entire Wu-tang Clan were doing it as far back as the early 90s – and this was the third time that Bey and the Brooklyn Phil had collaborated live. Let’s hope it’s not the last.