Small Beast, May 7: Best NYC Rock Show of 2012 So Far

by delarue

If memory serves right, the legend of Small Beast first took root during CMJ 2007, when Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch – arguably the greatest keyboard improviser in rock music – played a one-off solo piano gig at the upstairs space at the Delancey. That stage had been more or less mothballed after the club’s first few months in business, but the show was a memorable one, and it struck a chord – a whole lot of them, actually. Wallfisch would go on to do a couple more equally intense solo gigs on it later that year, and then in the winter of 2008 founded the Beast (named after the club’s 88-key spinet piano). Over the next two years, Small Beast would become the live music event of the week in New York: it was the closest approximation to a genuine rock scene in this city since CBGB at the peak of the punk era. That this all took place on a Monday night rather than on a weekend says more about the state of New York nightlife in this depression era than pretty much anything else could. Last night, after a two-year absence following his appointment as music director at the Dortmund (Germany) State Theatre, Wallfisch made a triumphant return to that stage, playing for over four hours, first in a duo performance with a longtime collaborator, noir chanteuse Little Annie, then backing another noir rock legend, David J, and finally capping off the night with a tireless, often exhilarating solo set that went on until after two in the morning.

The night began with Bryin Dall doing Hank Williams covers from his Deconstructing Hank album, in a duo performance with Derek Rush on acoustic guitar. What Dall has done is taken Williams’ lyrics and set them to his own noir minor-key and chromatic melodies. Dall isn’t a strong singer, and his electric guitar work in this project is limited to scraping at the strings – often with what looked like a giant linoleum knife – for menacing white-noise effects. But it turned out to be a concept that, repeated over and over, set a horror-stricken ambience that lingered long after the show was done. Rush varied his approach from song to song, raising the suspense with unresolved, lingering open chords as well as the occasional horror-movie tonality. Taken as a whole, it was one of the most evocative portraits of complete, anguished isolation in recent memory: in his own twisted way, Dall did justice to the power of Williams’ unflinchingly bleak vision.

Other than a single drama-ridden appearance together in Germany, Little Annie and Wallfisch hadn’t played together for a couple of years. It was obvious how much the two missed each other: Annie went light on her signature acerbic stream-of-consciousness observations and occasional audience-baiting and sang her heart out. It wasn’t just her usual punked-out, smoky contralto Eartha Kitt growl and purr: who knew she had so much upper register? She started with a blithe, deadpan a-cappella verse of the old gospel song Life is a Ballgame, then a little later a casually savage version of her anti-gentrifier broadside Cutesy Bootsies and then the two went deep into the gloom for a series of requiems. Wallfisch’s moody, resonant chords on the elegy Dear John were one of the highlights of the night; he gave another one, Beside You, Beside Myself an unexpectedly psychedelic interlude. They reinvented the Tina Turner easy-listening hit Private Dancer as a grim Piaf waltz and closed with If You Go Away, the English version of Jacques Brel’s Si Tu Dois Partir, one of the covers she used to do back in her Tonic days ten years ago when her career as a singer (she’s also a very affecting visual artist) had taken a turn to dark cabaret.

Beyond his role as bassist in Bauhaus and then Love and Rockets, David J’s best work has been his own noir cabaret songs, both as a bandleader and solo act. This time out he was the former, backed by Wallfisch along with current Botanica bassist Jason Binnick, with Heather Paauwe characteristically eclectic and intense on violin. There were some covers: they turned St. James Infirmary into a torchy, breathy waltz, did a briskly deadpan take on Lou Reed’s NY Telephone Conversation, an unexpectedly drama-infused version of Bauhaus’ Who Killed Mr. Moonlight – lit up by Paauwe’s eerie swoops – and wound up the set with gleefully macabre romps through Tom Waits’ Dead and Lovely as well as what might be the prototypical noir cabaret song, Boulevard of Broken Dreams and finally Whiskey Bar, which went straight back to Kurt Weill with a blithe Weimar swing without any reference to the Doors. But the originals were the best, especially the poignantly matter-of-fact dirge Not Long for This World, the title track to David J’s forthcoming album, underscored by Wallfisch’s stoically resonant chords. The band also made their way through equally plaintive takes on a couple of songs written for David J’s new play about Edie Sedgwick, which he’s looking to bring to New York (any potential backers out there?) The first was soul music through the prism of Lou Reed, its foreshadowing visible miles away; the second worked a bossa theme for a more bittersweet and subtle look at her impending doom. David J has been a formidable presence in the darkest corners of the rock world for a long time: at this point, he may be at his peak.

Botanica has a poignant, brooding new album, What Do You Believe In, just out, inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s surreal Stalin-era parable The Master and the Margarita. Winding up the night with a long, extemporaneous set, Walfisch interspersed – and completely reinvented – some of its tracks along with a couple of older favorites and a dynamically charged, soul-infused version of Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man (which several audience members had to beg him to play). Alternating from ragtime to Chopinesque chords and ripples, menacingly cinematic, Ran Blake-esque noir flourishes and psychedelic sostenuto soul, it was a master class in how to evince an entire spectrum of emotion from a battered keyboard. Wallfisch gave an unexpectedly minimalist insistence to the elegaic reminiscence Park Bench, imbued Ball in Hell with a theatrical sway and a pinpoint ragtime solo, turned the assaultive Manuscripts Don’t Burn into leapfrogging gypsy rock and blended high romanticism with oldschool soul on the brooding nocturne Past One O’Clock. The highlight of the set, and maybe the whole night, was the album’s opening track, Judgment: the studio version with John Andrews’ classical guitar is good, but this was transcendent, Wallfisch mimicking its original flamenco feel with flickering intensity in the upper registers and several jagged Erik Satie allusions. And after more than four hours behind the keys, he still had the energy to coax, eventually bribe and then endlessly vamp behind a woman in the crowd (who suspiciously seemed completely prepared for the moment) as she stripped on the bar; then he fired off the lickety-split downward torrents in How, a big crowd-pleaser from Botanica’s earlier gypsy-punk days.