A Rare Above-Ground Appearance by Dynamic, Edgy Groove Band SisterMonk

by delarue

Buskers are so good for a city for so many reasons: they lift your mood on the worst days, and they add urbanity to neighborhoods where urbanity is conspicuously absent (i.e. the Bedford Avenue strip). A city chamber of commerce couldn’t buy the kind of cred that this city’s buskers give to New York, despite orders from the robber baron speculators to the NYPD brass to put the clampdown on people playing in the subway. The theory seems to be that the ultra-rich driving the real estate bubble to ever more absurd extremes are threatened by anything more interesting than Kenny G, and that the bubble might burst if, perish the thought, they realized that some people here are actually forced to support themselves by playing music in public.

And this blog, representing New York, ought to give buskers more coverage, right? But who has the time, on the way to work or wherever, to spend more than a minute listening to Scottish Octopus playing their otherworldly bagpipe sounds? Or to veteran rocksteady singer Winston, with his battered electric piano and encyclopedic catalog of every Jamaican hit from 1975 and before; or incomparable accordionist Melissa Elledge, whose solitary performance of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 3 on the Second Avenue platform one dismal, drizzly night was the single most haunting piece of music witnessed by this blog this entire year.

That’s why it was a lot of fun to be able to spend a rare stressless half-hour or so in the LIRR terminal at Penn Station a while back listening to SisterMonk play their slinky, undulating, wickedly danceable punk-infused funk and Middle Eastern-inspired jams. There’s no band in New York anything like them, which might explain why the MTA’s Music Under New York program assigned them such choice spots: along with Penn Station, their favorite places seem to be upstairs from the N/R platform at Union Square, and west of the Grand Central shuttle platform at Times Square. They’re doing a rare above-ground show on Dec 11 at 9 PM at Shrine uptown, where you won’t have to deal with nasty turnstile or exit-door alarms – and you won’t get jailed for drinking.

Watching the band, it was impossible not to sway to the groove, but at the same time that felt unexpectedly weird – with Bill DiBloomberg in office, there’s no telling if dancing in the subway is another normal human behavior that’s been criminalized since the city has to get revenue from somewhere, considering that Goldman Sachs doesn’t pay tax. But that’s another story. Frontwoman/percussionist Kathy Deane played machinegun riffage on her djembe, alongside keyboardist Tani Tilsner, who was doubling on synth bass since their bassist was AWOL. Jody Rubel’s edgy, biting Middle Eastern-tinged guitar lines fueled their first number, followed by a similarly edgy, chromatically-charged, anthemic song that sounded like a guitar-driven version of Copal. Was the song about reincarnation? Given the sonics of the space, it was hard to tell. After that, they did a new wave-inflected tune that sounded like a funkier version of the Cure, then another Middle Eastern-flavored song with some tasty, judicious wah guitar from Rubel and a wild djembe solo on the way out. From there, they launched into a hypnotically clustering tune that seemed to indicate that somebody in the band is into indie classical music. They were still there, still playing about two hours later; by then, they’d been joined by another guitarist and Rubel had switched to bass.