Rachelle Garniez Brings Her Harrowing Bon Vivant Existentialist Songcraft Back to Pangea Next Week
“The Ant and the Grasshopper fable made me cry, as a kid…it’s good I lived long enough to rewrite it,” Rachelle Garniez told the rapt, date-night crowd in the warmly lowlit, intimate piano room at Pangea last night. Her version of Aesop’s tale flips the script: the bon vivant grasshopper gets a second chance because the diligent, hardworking ant relents and realizes that her happy-go-lucky compatriot deserves it. Plus, she knows she’s been busted, since the grasshopper caught her dancing at the end of of a hard-earned day…just like a grasshopper would. Garniez played that song on accordion, as a tango, starting out darkly ambiguous and then brightening as the narrative went on. It dates from early part of her career and traces a familiar theme, optimism in the face of harrowing odds against it. She revisited that theme, playing both piano and guitar, throughout the show. She’s back at Pangea (Second Ave. between 11th and 12th Sts). at 7:30 PM on December 14; cover is $15.
Garniez’s raptly eclectic new album Who’s Counting is just out, so she played several cuts from it, backed by bassist Derek Nievergelt’s terse pulse. Much as there were a lot of jokes and a lot of laughter from the crowd, there was a persistent, dark undercurrent throughout this performance, consistent with the songs on the album. As she told it, Garniez was an existentialist by age eight, when she was riding her banana seat bike all over her old Upper West Side stomping ground. That song was a mix of barrelhouse piano blues and post Laura Nyro blue-eyed soul.
Garniez eaplained that she’d written the jaunty cabaret-blues Just Because You Can for jazz chanteuse Catherine Russsell, but then had second thoughts and decided to steal it back. “I asked for it first,” Garniez revealed. She reinvented the honkytonk waltz January Wind as a countrypolitan piano ballad and used a slinky, fingersnapping version of the stripped-down, blackly amusing bass-and-vocal number Flat Black as a platform for a snidely funny sendup of beauty products that promise immortality. The evening’s funniest tune was A Christmas Song, the new album’s coda. “People out here are dying of consumption, I mean the conspicuous kind,” Garniez deadpanned. “But if you got to shop, support the mom and pop!” Words of wisdom from a Manhattan-born and raised artist.
All that fun was anchored by just as much depth amidst the hostility of the world around us. Solo on acoustic guitar, Garniez took her time through the Elizabethan gothic ambience of Vanity’s Curse, arguably the album’s strongest track. On the surface, it’s a peek around a dotty old rich lady’s home. The subtext, which Garniez takes out of the shadows into the spotlight as the song goes on, reveals the sinister source of the wealth that bought all the tchotchkes and comfortable eccentricity.
The high point of the night, at least intensity-wise, was a hauntingly minimalistic take of A Long Way to Jerusalem, another song from the new album. It was the one point where Garniez let outright wrath into her voice, low and menacing as she put out an indictment for slavers and sex traffickers and clueless users who’ve bought into centuries’ worth of misogyny. And there’s a livewire political subtext: when Elijah arrives to show the daughters of Jerusalem the way out, he’s too hammered to find the door.
After the brooding existentialist art-rock soul of the album’s title track and the droll operatics of Jean-Claude Van Damme – a hilariously skewed look at this generation’s version of Mother’s Little Helpers – Garniez encored with a swinging, relaxed take of Silly Me, the warmly and guardedly optimistic opening track of her 2000 cult classic album Crazy Blood. “I never thought I’d live to see this century,” she intoned, gentle and balmy over guest guitarist Beledo’s elegantly picked flamenco lines. She was probably speaking for probably half the room, especially the black-clad oldschool neighborhood types who’ve been a mainstay of her downtown fan base for the better part of the past two decades. It’s hard to think of anyone who embodies the irrepressible spirit of those days in the here and now like Garniez does: you can find that in the welcoming back room at Pangea next Monday night.