St. Bernadette Packs the House in Their NYC Debut at City Winery
The debut of chanteuse Angela McCluskey and pianist Paul Cantelon‘s sophisticated new dancefloor project St. Bernadette packed the house at City Winery last night. They treated the crowd to a mix of songs as eclectic as you would expect from the the brain trust of popular 90s folk-rockers the Wild Colonials. They’re sort of a hi-de-ho swing or noir cabaret take on Beats Antique: if they want to take this act on the road, they could make a killing. It was rather incongruous watching the crowd sitting still, more or less, while McCluskey swayed animatedly across the stage, trading grins and the occasional riff with her bandmates, including a nimble bassist, jazz trumpeter and polymath multi-instrumentalist Rachelle Garniez, who doubled on accordion and claviola. Behind them, loops and a drum track swirled and thudded, Cantelon sometimes enhancing the textures with his own multi-keys.
McCluskey explained that she’d gotten the inspiration for this group after having done a session fronting a sixteen-piece jazz orchestra for a piece for the Boardwalk Empire soundtrack. Not having the full orchestra available, she decided to take matters into her own hands and bring them with her, even if that meant having them in the can rather than actually onstage.
Cantelon’s lustrously rippling piano in tandem with muted trumpet set the stage for McCluskey’s balmy, roots reggae-inflected take of her catchily vamping hit You and Me. McCluskey is a woman of many, many voices, depending on the song or the emotional content she’s putting across, channeling a completely different persona – a brassy seductress with a hint of smoke in her delivery – on the torchy swing number after that.
They revisited the vamping anthemic quality of the opening number, then brought a moody, Ethiopiques-tinged sway to the slow swing number after that: McCluskey is a far more nuanced song stylist than Amy Winehouse, but there were echoes of that singer’s sad, smoky delivery all the same. From there the band made their way through wary bossa-pop, the bittersweetly lowlit, accordion-fueled noir swing of What About Us, more Cab Calloway-inflected material and eventually the dreamy, narcotized boudoir disco hit In the Air. Garniez turbocharged the songs’ pulse with her rhythmic claviola lines, finally getting a solo on accordion and made the most of it with a torrent of low-midrange chords and rivulets
Late in the set Cantelon and McCluskey reprised their cover of Wild Is the Wind from their performance earlier in the week at Pangea – but where the version they did there was a glistening river of sound, this was pure high lonesome angst, echoing a chilling sense of abandonment. But Cantelon lept into that nocturnal sparkle on the ballad that followed that. The group wound up the set with a suspensefully subdued cover of My Baby Just Cares for Me – a surprising number of people in the crowd knew it and sang along. Or maybe that shouldn’t be such a surprise: you’d think that people who like Nina Simone would also be drawn to McCluskey’s work. She, Cantelon and Garniez continue their weekly Monday 10 PM residency at the third stage at the Rockwood; cover is $10 plus a $10 drink minimum.