A Fond Look Back at a Brooklyn Show by Noir Chanteuse Gemma Ray

by delarue

It’s hard to fathom that Gemma Ray hasn’t played a New York show since a tantalizingly brief, luridly delicious set at Rough Trade about a year and a half ago during Colossal Musical Joke week. While it would be understandable if CMJ turned her off to this city, the now Berlin-based noir chanteuse/guitarist was originally scheduled to make an auspicious return this April 9 at the new Owl in Lefferts Gardens. Unfortunately, that gig has been cancelled. Stepping in to fill the slot is none other than Patti Smith’s lead guitarist and powerpop mastermind Lenny Kaye. Botanica pianist/frontman Paul Wallfisch is booking the venue that night, and the rest of this week with some of the best acts from his deep address book, both from playing and booking artists at his long-running Small Beast night at the Delancey a few years back – one of the very few genuinely essential weekly rock events this city’s ever produced.

The grim, overcast, rainy atmosphere outside the venue set the tone for Ray’s set that September day. Inside on the high stage, backed by just a drummer, the black-clad, leather-jacketed, raven-haired singer brought down the lights and turned the venue into a sonic Twin Peaks set, opening with a mutedly percussive ghoulabilly number. Ray has a very distinctive, terse guitar style, flinging bits and pieces of chords in between strums, not wasting a note – Randi Russo comes to mind. Ray also had fun teasing the crowd by leaving her loop pedal going in between songs, a red herring of a segue machine.

Ray’s vocals rose from an icepick alto to a wounded upper register on the shuffling, staggering noir blues The Right Thing Did Me Wrong. She brought things down low with a skeletally creepy 6/8 soul ballad, adding a nonchalantly chilling guitar solo full of murderous passing tones midway through. Ray and her drummer swayed their way through the doomed, starlit, Lynchian number after that, her reverb turned up all the way. The two then made a return to shuffling, anguishedly bluesy terrain with There Must Be More Than This, Ray punctuating it with a series of tremoloing, gutpunch chords midway through. Then she fingerpicked her way through the folk noir gloom of If You Want to Rock and Roll. She closed with a cantering, low-key take of the Gun Club’s Ghost on the Highway, a slow, elegaic dirge and then a more direct, guitar-fueled number that was part Spector pop, part Julee Cruise. Ray has a new album in the works, and hopefully a return engagement here some time after that.

In the meantime, if noir is your thing, New York’s state-of-the-art noir band, Karla Rose & the Thorns are at the big room at the Rockwood on April 14 at midnight.