The Undigables Bring Back a New York That Time Forgot
Hard to believe that it’s been over a year since the Undigables played their old stomping ground, 55 Bar. Sly, irrepressible singer Ollie Boy Lester’s popular saloon jazz combo had a monthly residency at that venerable West Village watering hole for what seems like forever, for all we know since Jack Kerouac ruled the roost there. And it’s good to see them back: their next gig there is on August 13 at 7 PM for a couple of sets, and there’s no cover.
What did their gig there last time out sound like? Lester is a gregarious, perennially young guy, a character who’s impossible not to like, a proud throwback to a largely vanished New York. In an unvarnished Brooklyn accent, he regaled the crowd with tales of growing up as a cool kid in the late 50s and early 60s, smoking weed and listening to Symphony Sid play Stan Getz, Cal Tjader, Morgana King, Charles Mingus and King Pleasure on the radio. After a brief jump blues intro from the band – Stew Cutler on guitar, Jan Kjaer on piano, Roy Holland on bass and Nat Seeley on drums – Lester recalled walking to school in midtown, waving to Walter Winchell and Jack Dempsey, then launched into a shuffling, Mose Allison-inspired take of Broadway. The band gave it a characteristically droll outro as they segued into On Broadway for a second.
They did Horace Silver’s Sister Sadie as a swinging blues romp fueled by jaunty, spiraling triplets from the guitar. Then they went into the originals, which sound like classics from the 50s. Most of these were upbeat swing tunes and jump blues, spiced with Lester’s clever, torrential rhymes and hepcat puns. On You’re the One, Kjaer took a tumbling solo and then handed off to Cutler, who followed with an incisive, purist Chicago-style blues lead. Next was a a swinging take of another original, Later For Straighter, poking fun at killjoys who can’t bear to take a break from the nine to five: “Gimme a woman, some music, a little reefer, that’s all I need for my reliever,” Lester sang breezily. In a stroke of irony, Cutler shifted from surreal skronk to pretty straight-up blues
A pulsing, straight-ahead blues number, Mood You’re In kept the good-natured, altered vibe going, this one more of a drinking song with burning slide guitar at the center. One More Love Affair had an optimistic Rat Pack flair, with a purposeful Kjaer solo midway through. Then they took the energy even higher with the latin-tinged party anthem This Is Livin’, a shout-out to all the would-be Coney Island party animals in the crowd. They closed with the irrepressibly bouncy Better Days Ahead, then a hard-funk salute to the cowboy shows that Lester used to watch as a kid, and closed with the Symphony Sid theme song – and that was just the first set. So before 55 Bar turns into a Starbucks or a 7-11, go see this magical band and revisit a long-gone New York that won’t be coming back anytime soon, maybe ever.