Darkly Psychedelic Art-Rocker Ember Schrag Opens for a Horror Film Thursday Night in Gowanus
Every summer, Rooftop Films puts on as eclectic and interesting an indie film series as you can find in New York: dramas, documentaries, animation, shorts and student films are just a part of the picture. There’s a creepily enticing screening this Thursday, June 16 on the roof of the old American Can Company buildlng at 232 3rd St in Gowanus; the closest train is the R at Union St. Doors are at 8 PM and haunting, intensely lyrical psychedelic songwriter Ember Schrag plays at 8:30, followed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s creepy suspense thriller Tickled. Cover is $15; there will be beer afterward.
Schrag’s most recent gig was a secret show in Brooklyn earlier this month, a rare stripped-down duo set with guitar polymath Bob Bannister, in the middle of a triplebill that was pure magic. Witchily theatrical art-rockers Goddess opened the night with a gently twinkling pavane, then a spare, summery lullaby, then picked up the pace with an insistently mystical British folk-influenced anthem. Then the band played uneasy washes of ambience while frontwoman Fran Pado – making her stage debut as an instrumentalist on both keys and cuatro – related a spooky story about an evil old suburban New Jesey woman who snatches any and all balls directed, accidentally or otherwise, into her driveway. No spoilers here: suffice it to say that the child narrator of the horror story ends up in the old hag’s basement.
Pado went into her misterioso low register over more atmospherics on the next number as one-string violinist Tamalyn Miller added sepulchral, flitting swoops and dives. The band likes epics and suites, and kept going with a live loop of tradeoffs between Miller’s eerie wafts of sound, multi-instrumentalist Andy Newman’s glimmering minimalist keys, while Bannister – doing double duty this evening – held it down with terse fingerpicking. The latter part of the show drew on plainchant as much as Pat Garrett/Billy the Kid era Dylan, winding up with the bittersweetly optimistic folk-rock anthem Heaven, the title track to the band’s latest album, then a concluding benediction of sorts.
Schrag opened with an uneasily swaying blues, Bannister playing slide and then hitting his pedal for a vintage 60s reverb effect, almost like a repeater box. Schrag’s lyrics are enigmatic, packed with metaphors and allusions to literature, mythology and the Old Testament. All this carefully cached imagery may have been part and parcel of an upbringing amongst Christian zealots that she finally escaped, driving off into the sunset with little more than her collection of samizdat secular cassette tapes. She’s got an absolutely brilliant, Macbeth-themed album in the can, recorded last year, which if released then would have topped the list of the year’s beat albums here. She played several of those numbers, first a low-key take of the allusively venomous Lady M.
The crowd was silent and rapt as the duo jangled and slunk through Like Birds Do, a bouncy tune packed with literary allusions and the kind of muted wrath that pervades much of Schrag’s recent work, which she finally let loose at the end, sailing up to the top of her register. By contrast, The Real Penelope was a bittersweetly Beatlesque, epically psychedelic “love song in disguise,” as she put it: no spoilers here. The highlight of the night might have been Iowa, a starkly direct, hypnotically crescendoing singalong anthem that sort of turns its fire-and-brimstone imagery inside out: the true believers of the Midwest seldom get hit with a storm as mighty as this one.
Guitarist David Grubbs headlined. He’s got a brand-new vinyl album out, and played several numbers from it. He’s one of the most distinctive and individualistic six-string players out there. Solo on Strat, methodically and hypnotically, he made his way through a mostly instrumental set that drew on Indian ragas, film music and Americana as well as 20th century minimalism. The lingeirng, tersely echoing opening instrumental diptych set the tone for the rest of the night, a deep-sky high-plains raga with allusions to both the Beatles and Meddle-era Pink Floyd trailing like comet dust in the distance as a chromatic menace loomed in and finally took centerstage.
Grubbs’ music knows no limits, utilizing the totality of his axe’s sonic range, from the bottom to the very top of the fretboard, often at the same time. How he managed to get so many strange and disquieting harmonies without using an unorthodox tuning was a clinic in thinking outside the box: it’s hard to imagine a guitarist in the crowd not going home afterward, plugging in and trying to figure out what Grubbs was up to.
He built another deep-space tableau out of sparsely echoing variations on a single dramatic blues overture riff, then mashed up Yardbirds-era Jimmy Page with Steve Ulrich noir, no small achievement. From there he sliced and diced an anthemic Britfolk tune spun through the spacerock of the Church or Marty Willson-Piper. His lone vocal number blended catchy folk-rock with tinges of jazz. There’s more tha a little irony in that the best triplebill of 2016 was a private, by-invite-only, quasi house concert. Catch some of this and a promising movie too in Gowanus this Thursday night.