New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: anthony haden-guest

In the Studio with Lorraine Leckie

Lorraine Leckie and Her Demons are in the final stages of making a new record at Excello Recording in Williamsburg. The gothic Americana rocker’s previous album Martini Eyes was quite a change for her, a sparse, intimate solo recording with just acoustic guitar and Leckie’s voice in allusively nocturnal mode. This album is a collaboration with legendary bon vivant/journalist/poet Anthony Haden-Guest, the first time Leckie has ever worked with material other than her own. Watching the band pull the songs together, it’s obvious that this is going to be a hell of a record. Haden-Guest’s lyrics are like his prose in that they’ve got his signature bite and sardonic wit, and they make a good fit with Leckie’s tersely mysterious, frequently plaintive melodies. This particular album features two-thirds of the Demons – guitarist Hugh Pool and bassist George Jackson – plus Matt Kanelos (of the Smooth Maria and Carol Lipnik’s Ghosts in the Ocean project) on piano.

Watching the band as they recorded Sunday afternoon, what was most impressive is that they were doing this live. Most people don’t realize that rock albums these days aren’t just full of overdubs: they’re cut and pasted. Much of the corporate music you hear on the radio doesn’t even have instruments on it: it’s completely computerized, right down to the autotuned vocals. And for a band that actually plays instruments, digital recording enables them to lay down just a single verse or chorus, punch in and fix the mistakes, and then copy and paste those parts as many times as necessary rather than actually playing the song all the way through. But Leckie is oldschool and she’s recording this album live, including her vocals.

And the band was on top of their game. In under four hours, it took them four takes to get a first track, two takes (either of which could end up on the album – the band isn’t sure) to get the second and three to get a third song. Leckie had them in her fingers: in nine takes, her acoustic guitar was flawless and so was her voice (although she mixed and matched different vocal interpretations as the band worked out arrangements). Ironically, the one mistake she made is going to end up on the album: on the first song, she jumped into a verse a bar early after an instrumental break, but the band followed her seamlessly. It seemed that Jackson and Kanelos were at least familiar with Leckie’s chord changes, but Pool was coming into this cold, yet he came up with parts and had them down in literally minutes. Haden-Guest watched intently and approvingly as the band fleshed out the songs.

The first one was Rudely Interrupted. It’s got a catchy sway and a sarcastic, apocalyptic theme, with lyrics that suggest a hip-hop beat. But Kanelos got his fingers into it and swung it, first as neo-Debussy, then as soul with gospel tinges and some of the Debussy as well. Jackson latched onto that and gave it a slinky bounce full of cool slides and an apprehensive walk down the scale as an approximation of a chorus kicks in. Pool got into the soul vibe in a big way, reaching into his bottomless archive of licks for a Memphis feel that managed to avoid being a wholesale Steve Cropper ripoff, including some neat harmonies with the vocal line at the end. A lot of bands need four hours for a single song: Leckie and crew had this one in the can, ready for mixing and mastering, in less than one, arrangement included.

The second song was Little Miss X, a snarky, offhand dig at an ingenue from out of town who suddenly finds herself in the middle of her fifteen minutes, “wearing Alexander McQueen,” as the chorus goes (for those who aren’t dedicated followers of fashion, McQueen is iconic in gay circles and was the first fashion designer to get a career retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: one assumes his creations aren’t typically found at the back of the rack at the Salvation Army). This one’s a creepy waltz that Kanelos and Pool launched into gleefully and took in a totally noir direction. Both takes were flawless but considerably different. Kanelos gave the first one a lurid Henry Mancini noir feel while Pool went into reverb-drenched horror-movie territory and stayed there, over Jackson’s tensely steady, two-note pulse. The second was much more sparse, both the guitar and piano giving Leckie’s vocals considerably more space. It’ll be interesting to see which one they go with.

The last song was Bliss. This one’s a crushingly sarcastic, coldly perceptive vignette of an older couple who lost whatever magic they might have had decades ago, sitting across from each other in a restaurant and not saying a word. The same scenario could just as easily apply to a couple of yuppies texting and Facebooking, or for that matter, a couple of kids doing the same thing. Leckie’s carefully fingerpicked guitar parts are simple yet ornate, so to maintain that feel, Kanelos went back to wary Debussy mode. Pool sat out the first take and then decided that all the song needed was a few judicious washes of lapsteel on the chorus: he had those worked out down to a final, whispery filigree in less than ten minutes. Most bands would be thrilled to make this kind of progress; Leckie and her bandmates were nonchalant about it. This is how they roll. If the rest of the album is anything like this, it’ll be amazing.

Even More Live Chronicles

This is an attempt to get caught up on some of the more intriguing live shows of (relatively) recent days, beginning with the klezmerfest at Central Park Summerstage exactly two weeks ago. Why so late on this? Great albums have been coming in over the transom left and right. Besides, none of the groups chronicled here have broken up (let’s hope not, anyway), so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to see them if you’re in town and they’re your type of thing.

The klezmerfest, co-sponsored by the Workmen’s Circle, featured a mix of familiar and not-so-familiar faces playing Jewish music from across the diaspora and the decades that was alternately playful, haunting and powerfully insightful. The high point of the evening was Daniel Kahn, leader of klezmer group the Painted Bird, which in this particular instance was something of a pickup band. But they rose to the occasion. Kahn’s songs are intense, historically aware and rich with irony, and his brooding, sardonic delivery and stage presence enhance those songs’ power. He sang several numbers first in Yiddish and then in English, opening solo on pizzicato violin and harmonica with the first song he ever translated, an early 60s Broadside-style folk tune about “how we reap what greed is sowing,” taking considerable pride that the late musicologist Adrienne Cooper had given it her seal of approval. He switched to piano and was then joined by the band for a raging, gorgeously caustic tune about a “king of the thieves,” dismissing “all you people sick from being fed,” memorializing somebody “sick from the streets, sick from the prison walls,” but “on his gravestone etched in gold he should have his story told.” It was the high point of the night. Electric guitarist Avi Fox-Rosen then came up and added a scorching solo to a klezmer-punk song that Kahn wryly explained was about “the lumpenproletariat at odds with the petit bourgeoisie.” They closed on a bitter, elegaic note with Sunday After the War, a haunting, utterly defeated waltz, Kahn adding especially intense emphasis to the line “they always recruit after the war.” That song may have been written in the wake of the Iraq war, but its message was timeless. Kahn and band play outdoors on the back plaza at Lincoln Center on August 12 at 1 PM.

The Klezmatics preceded Kahn onstage. The original klezmer punks have a somewhat different lineup these days (and a monstrously good double live album from the Town Hall released last year), but their music is just as timeless. Trumpeter Frank London led them through a blazing, swaying minor-key opener, then accordionist Lorin Sklamberg – whose voice has mellowed like a good slivovitz over the years – took over the mic on a London arrangement of Woody Guthrie’s Mermaid Avenue, the Coney Island street where “the lox meets the pickle and the sour meets the sweet,” where you might see the occasional shark, but no mermaids. They wrapped up their unexpectedly short set with a sad, bitingly satirical number about how the Russian Tsar prefers his tea, then a lickety-split “antifascist love song” (he’s in Brooklyn, missing his sweetheart back in the old country) and then a rousing singalong with the message that we’re all brothers and sisters in this mess.

Strangely, at least as far as the first part of the show was concerned, the longest set came from the comedic Yiddish Princess, where many of the folks who’d backed Kahn switched instruments or styles and played satirical hair-metal versions of klezmer and old Jewish pop hits. Their frontwoman can’t really sing, but that’s part of the joke. Fox-Rosen paired off with fellow axemeister Yoshie Fruchter for an endless series of tongue-in-cheek twin solos and metal duels over the canned swoosh of the string synthesizer. Their incessant barrage drove a lot of the alte kockers out of the arena, but the kids loved them.

A theatre troupe opened the evening with a series of songs illustrating the deep cross-pollination between American black and Jewish music early in the past century. As educational as their presentation was – for example, you knew that Cab Calloway ripped off a klezmer hit for Minnie the Moocher, right? – the stagy presentation and generically legit, Broadwayesque vocals dragged down the eclectic mix of songs. And the headliner, a so-called rapper, seemed to be gung-ho on being sort of a Jewish-specific version of Beck. That we don’t need: the Scientologists can keep that guy.

A shout-out to Walter Ego, the sharp, cleverly lyrical rocker who played a solo show at Otto’s the following Saturday night, switching from guitar to piano and then back again in an often savagely witty mix of catchy, sometimes Beatlesque tunes. He surprised with a couple of new ones, one a Dead Kennedys-style punk number, another an uneasy minor-key blues, along with the chillingly metaphorical dirge I Am the Glass, the John Lennon-esque piano anthem Big Life and the LOL-funny Adventures of Ethical Man, a comic book hero hell-bent on doing the right thing…sort of.

And then this past Saturday, Kelli King and Lorraine Leckie treated the crowd at the National Underground to tantalizingly brief sets. King sang her bitingly catchy Americana rock and country/blues songs beautifully, in a nuanced voice that was equal parts jazz sophistication and country sugar, backed by an excellent lefty bassist and a guitarist whose uneasy psychedelic guitar chops made a great match with the songs even if he sometimes didn’t know where to stop. And Leckie – whom you’ll be hearing more about here shortly – took her time with a handful of coldly sarcastic Canadian gothic rock tunes that she played solo on guitar. Her collaboration with Anthony Haden-Guest is already starting to pay dividends in terms of songs, and she brought the characters twistedly to life – the alienated old couple in the cruelly titled Bliss, the starstruck ingenue Little Miss X, and the bewildered one-percenter of Rudely Interrupted, all of those brand-new tunes. At one point, when Leckie hit the end of a chorus, she simply refused to let go of the last note and sang it out to the point where she didn’t seem she’d ever let it go. It was an unexpectedly dramatic moment in an otherwise quietly intense set.

To wrap up the last couple of weeks, concertwise, not everything was this good. It would have been nice if those ageless reggae guys from the 70s had focused on their good songs instead of their poppy stuff at their outdoor concert downtown the day after the klezmer show; then again, once a cover band, always a cover band. And the day after that, it would have been ideal if the organizers could have moved the outdoor concert by that Ellington alum and his band indoors: those old vets still have their chops, but the heat stifled them. Then again, a group half their age would have been affected just as adversely.