Thursday night at Barbes Serena Jost played a concert to get lost in. “Night time and shade were never the same,” she sang, carefully modulated, nuanced, allusively, early on. If there’s anybody who knows what the difference between night time and shade is, it’s Serena Jost. This time out she and her band brought both, along with some sun as well. Like most artists whose main axe is the cello, her background is classical music, and as you might expect, she adds a classic pop feel to that – her songs are always about the melody. Her sound is one that first gained traction in the early 70s, when Genesis was a theatrical psychedelic band, and ELO played raw, apocalyptic, amped-up orchestral suites. But Jost’s melodies, and her vocals, go for plaintivess and an occasionally allusive wit instead of theatricality or fullscale epic grandeur.
Much of the set was new material from her forthcoming album A Bird Will Sing; Jost played acoustic guitar on the majority of those songs. One early standout had a distantly Brazilian flavor, Strat player Julian Maile shadowing Jost ominously, bassist Rob Jost (no relation) rising to meet a crescendoing wave head-on, nimbly filling in the spaces with some playfully sliding riffs. Another new one with a long solo cello intro followed by a brief fanfare, and then a march, sounded like a less caustic Rasputina. Drummer Rob DiPietro gave Almost Nothing, a track from her most recent album Closer Than Far, some marvelously funereal drumming that matched perfectly with her soaring vocals, stopping just this short of anguish. She also brought up her recent tourmate Robin Aigner to sing defiantly brassy harmonies on several songs.
“What’s the first thing you think of when you think of a deli?” Somebody in the audience nailed it. “That’s right! The cat!” she grinned, approvingly, and launched into a song inspired by a deli trip (and the furry friend she found there) that sounded something like White Rabbit done as chamber pop. The rest of the show was deliciously all over the map. The forthcoming album’s title track, a countrypolitan ballad, had Maile doing a spot-on imitation of a pedal steel with some nuanced slide work. Another new one, a gorgeous art-pop tune, had him running a fat Steve Cropper-style Memphis lick against the song’s balmy melody. They reinvented Doris Fisher’s Whispering Grass as a slow, sinuous funk groove, and then went into late 60s ye-ye pop on the “one song that sounds like a cover but isn’t,” as the bandleader took care to note. And Great Conclusions, another new track, was genuinely majestic, its slowly galloping chorus kicking in with an apprehensive power that wouldn’t be out of place in the Grieg repertoire.
Another excellent band, the People’s Champs, were scheduled to follow, but it was time to go home and pack for the Great Evacuation on Saturday (just kidding about that – but no trip to Barbes is complete without a visit to the totally oldschool 24-hour donut shop up the block on 7th Ave.).