Maya Beiser Brings Her Classy Cello Metal to Bleecker Street

by delarue

If a venue where Led Zeppelin or AC/DC were playing had a squeaky front door, would anyone have noticed? Wednesday night at the Poisson Rouge, cellist Maya Beiser played songs by both Zep and AC/DC from her cleverly inventive new album, Uncovered, while the downstairs front door creaked and screeched on its hinges throughout what appeared to be a sold-out show. At first that worked as a creepy horror-movie effect, underscoring Beiser’s alternately sultry and bluesily plantive version of Zep’s Black Dog and then an acerbically lingering, Janis Joplin-influenced instrumental cover of Gershwin’s Summertime. But by the middle of the set, people in the crowd were rolling their eyes, Beiser putting her hands over her ears in exasperation, and at that point it was hard to resist the urge to run up the stairs to the deli next door for a can of WD-40. If such a thing exists in the Poisson Rouge supply closet, no one working there saw fit to break it out.

Despite the presence of this unexpected fourth band member – along with Gyan Riley on bass and Matt Kilmer on drums – Beiser nimbly built a lush, often haunting intensity that pretty much didn’t waver even as she worked the dynamics up and down. Further complicating matters was that since her cello on the album is multitracked and processed to the nth degree, she and the band were playing along with a series of prerecorded tracks from it, leaving zero room for error or deviation from the script. But they pulled it off, the rhythm section playing heavy metal as elegantly as heavy metal can possibly be as Beiser – decked out in a tight gothic outfit that fit the music perfectly – swung through a sepulchrally mesmerizing version of Howlin’ Wolf’s Moanin’ at Midnight, arranged by Evan Ziporyn, as were the other numbers.

A mid-set diversion into the indie classical Beiser has made a name for herself met with mixed results. A new Glenn Kotche piece was more of a study in rhythmic horizontality than melody, and grew interminable: it would have been gone over better at, say, the Bang on a Can Marathon. But a David Lang tune employing Lou Reed’s lyrics from Heroin – sung in pitch-perfect Nico-esque by Beiser, if you can imagine such a thing – was a treat, and truer to the title of the song than the original. And the trio brought to life another premiere, David T. Little’s Hellhound – a vivid illustration of the Robert Johnson myth – with a diabolical franticness.

Beiser did Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here as a partita that grew more pastiche-like: here, especially, it was hard to distinguish what was being played and what was in the can without watching Beiser’s fingers. Kilmer’s spot-on Mitch Mitchell impersonation in places throughout Hendrix’s Little Wing contrasted with Beiser’s bittersweet approach, while the whole band took on the encores, a grinning, no-holds-barred attack on Back in Black and then a raucous stomp through Kashmir, with an unbridled ferocity. On album, Beiser reinvents these songs for the most part as art-rock, but this show was heavier on the metal. Raise your forefinger and pinky to that.