Small Beast on Life Support: One of the Year’s Best Rock Shows

by delarue

If you’re starting a brand-new music blog, how do you choose the first concert to cover? You don’t mess around. You go for the creme de la creme: one of the best triplebills of 2011, Monday night at Small Beast at the Delancey.

As recently as last year, Small Beast was THE place to be for dark, intelligent rock in New York. But then impresario and Botanica bandleader Paul Wallfisch absconded to Germany – which is probably just as well, because as he said at the time, he was being devoured by his own Beast. With a few exceptions – when Carol Lipnik or Vera Beren book the bands – the weekly concert series upstairs at the Delancey hasn’t been the same since. But Monday night was a return to the glory days. The assaultively noir Dead Sextons had originally been scheduled, but had to cancel. Due to a fortuitous encounter at one of the city’s elite studios (Beren is also an engineer of note), Rachelle Garniez stepped in and delivered mightily.

Beginning on accordion and moving to piano a bit later on and backed only by the Microscopic Septet’s Dave Hostra’s tersely nimble upright bass, she opened with a signature song of sorts, Quality Star. The version on her Luckyday album is lushly psychedelic, and so was this one, awash in brooding, sustained chords, Garniez taking her time with a few tellingly allusive scenes from a marriage gone horribly wrong. When she got to the outro, she didn’t cut loose – she just let the lyrics fuel the payoff, “You couldn’t pay me to go back there again.”

The rest of the show was a lot more upbeat, but no less intense. Garniez draws you in with her sense of humor and then lets her quiet but sabretoothed charisma do the rest. Once she’d gotten her stream of consciousness up and running, the wry, deadpan observations wouldn’t stop. One of the stage monitors was crackling: she insisted that Pop Rocks were coming out of it. A bit later, she launched into a long intro to one of the piano songs, a bitingly dismissive account of someone from a long-forgotten past trying to reconnect with her on Facebook. No matter how alone you may feel, she explained, there’s always someone online who wants to be your friend when you least want it.

She also romped through the subtle, offhand, ragtime-fueled menace of Kid in the Candy Store, a surprisingly klezmer-inflected minor-key number possibly titled Just Because You Should Doesn’t Mean You Can, and a hilariously deadpan waltz dedicated to Jean-Claude Van Damme (who, if the song is to be believed, is hawking antidepressants now). At the end, Garniez went way, way up the scale to aria heights – part of it was a just plain breathtaking display of vocal chops, but it was also irresistibly funny. One of the cognoscenti in the crowd remarked how touring as Karen Elson’s keyboardist has gotten Garniez to take her stage presence up a notch, but the truth is that she’s always had that game down cold, since her residency at Terra Blues about ten years ago, maybe since her days as a teenager fronting one of the first worldbeat bands, one that came thisclose to being famous – or at least signed to a big corporate label.

Vera Beren has the same kind of charisma, but unlike Garniez, she hits you head-on. With her gale-force contralto, she’s impossible to turn away from. Between songs, when Beren chatted nonchalantly with the audience, the contrast was striking: it was hard to imagine that such a dramatic, powerful voice could come out of someone so down-to-earth. Like Garniez, Beren draws on a fearless, irreverent punk rock wit. “What if god and, what’s his buddy’s name, Lucifer, were lovers?” she asked luridly. She offered a few answers, some anguished, others droll, with her opening number, The Devil, backed by a four-piece edition of her aptly titled Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble. It set the stage for the rest of the show, a crescendoing anthem with roots in the High Romantic and swirling, funereal organ, Jon Diaz’ thick, sustained guitar lines shadowing it and occasionally moving in for the kill.

Blood of the Sun, a twisted waltz, gave Beren a launching pad for some effortless, double-octave vocal leaps. Baby shifted from an ominously atmospheric bass-driven intro to a methodically menacing Patti Smith-style spoken-word interlude, collapsing at the end into a volcanic metal mess. As usual, The Nod was a big hit with the crowd, with its slinky gypsy-punk groove, turn-on-a-ruble time changes and rumbling/searing twin guitar attack from Diaz and Mark Birkey, who throughout the show switched from piano, to trombone, to guitar and then back again.

With its foghorn trombone, Jay Cavanaugh’s booming bass chords and off-the-hinges guitar leads from Diaz, Priest Blues was like Blue Oyster Cult gone no wave up to a brief off-kilter punk-jazz interlude and then back again. The bitter, alienated Delirium, true to its title, changed tempos and meters endlessly – it was impossible for anyone but the band to keep up with it. Beren – who’d been busy pelting the audience with appeared to be a bottomless bagful of roses – finally went behind the keyboard and played organ on this one. Unlike a lot of musicians, she always sings best when she’s also playing. They closed with the fiery, ornate lament Is It Me, Diaz’ swoops and dives contrasting with the piano’s elegant astringencies.

The fun didn’t end there. Headliner Thomas Simon gets a lot of film work, so it’s no surprise that his shows have an enveloping, cinematic quality. This time he didn’t have electric djembe genius Alex Alexander to back him up, which meant that he had to spin with split-second precision through a small army of loops and effects (and a new set of Moog pedals that the musicians in the crowd were drooling over). Garniez pulls you in with her wit and charm, Beren with her powerful pipes; Simon does it with a swirling vortex of a million guitar, keyboard and percussion textures. More than just a one-man band, he was a one-man orchestra, shifting from slowly swaying, blacklit soundscapes aloft on endlessly oscillating sonic ebbtides, to several vocal tunes. One stomped along on a memorably savage series of distorted chords straight out of the Dead Boys or Sham 69 catalog. Other times, he’d introduce a hypnotic beat and then build it methodically, with layers of guitar that roared, clanged, howled and blended into each other, sometimes gracefully winding down to where the whole thing started. If there’s ever another Alien movie, this is the guy who should get to do the score.