Birthday concerts are usually good, whether you buy into the astrological theory that it’s the performer’s power day, or the simple logic that being surrounded by good friends and good cheer makes for lively entertainment. That was the case last night at Rachelle Garniez‘ show at Barbes. She’s not known as a guitarist, but she’s a good one: she started and ended her long, practically two-hour set playing six-string, snaking her way through a handful of nimble solos, hitting her bottom strings hard, oldschool blues style. She also played solos on piano, accordion and bells that were even more edgy and interesting. Lately she’s become a charter member of wild New Orleans/klezmer/reggae/jamband Hazmat Modine, so she brought along her guitarist bandmate Michael Gomez as well as her longtime bassist Dave Hofstra. Her duo shows at Barbes with Hofstra can be pretty hilarious, with as much surreal storytelling and free-association as music. With Gomez fleshing out the sound, this show gave her the chance to do as much playing as singing and flex her instrumental chops.
She did Luckyday (title track to her classic 2003 album) on piano, giving it a resonant Debussy-meets-Steely Dan gleam, along with a moody, expansively minimalist soul/gospel take of God’s Little Acre, cruelly exploring the dilemma of whether or not to reconnect with someone from the distant, distant past on Facebook. Playing accordion, she indulged a couple in the crowd with a sweet, torchy take of Broken Nose, from her first album, and later encored with Silly Me (from her 1999 Crazy Blood album), playing up its warm latin sway rather than the wary ambiguity of the lyrics. The jaunty Pre-Post Apocalypse had a narrator “maxin’ and relaxin’ on this morphine drip” while the water and the thermometer kept rising, while Jean-Claude Van Damme, which may or may not be a tribute to the action film personality (actor might be a stretch) and antidepressant pitchman, was a showcase for Garniez to air out her immense range with some joyous (or semi-joyous) operatics.
A couple of times she dropped the double entendres and the jokes and went straight for the jugular, which makes sense considering her teenage roots in punk rock. People Like You had less of its usual sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek bounce than raw uncut hostility, Garniez lashing out at the type of New York newbie who’s always looking over your shoulder to see if he/she should be talking to someone more popular. And After the Afterparty, as Garniez explained, took its inspiration from a high school classmate who went on from spending his wee hours at Danceteria to become some alternative kind of sex therapist (Garniez wasn’t clear on this, and maybe he isn’t either). Her sotto vocce “I can’t remember a thing, Captain” refrain is a Star Trek reference, a line that this time out made for a fleeting respite from the song’s terse, sullen, wounded beauty. Garniez will be back at Barbes on April 4, which is usually where she plays when she’s not recording with Jack White, playing with Hazmat Modine, or serving as the music director of the Citizens Band, among other projects.