The Tickled Pinks almost played Club Cumming. Ostensibly, lack of a liquor license derailed one of the few events that could have transcended any issue concerning tourist hordes in the East Village on a Saturday night. But the irrepressible underground swing jazz supergroup did get to play two iconic Brooklyn venues, Hank’s and Pete’s last month, in one of the funnest reunions of any New York band in recent years.
Among other harmony vocal acts, only John Zorn’s Mycale chorale have the kind of individualistic power and interplay that the Pinks showed off during what was a pretty good run. They made it as far as Joe’s Pub – and got the key to the city of Olympia, Washington on their most recent tour. Whether the key works or not is unknown.
It would be overly reductionistic to say that with her spectacular range, Karla Rose Moheno handles the highs, the more misty Stephanie Layton handles the mids and Kate Sland handles the lows – all three women can span the octaves enough to take their original inspiration, the Andrews Sisters, to the next level. Although that basic formula seemed to be the strategy for night one of a reunion weekend stand that began with an Elvis cover night at Hank’s.
The idea of three women harmonizing Elvis tunes is a typical Pinks move, although one they never did before. And they weren’t the only ones who sang. Guitarist Dylan Charles took a break in between elegant expanses of jazz chords, snazzy rockabilly and some machete tremolo-picking to narrate a tongue-in-cheek version of Are You Lonesome Tonight. There were also a handful of cameos from friends of the band invited up to do their versions of the hits.
Moheno switched out her trusty Telecaster for an acoustic guitar; Sland played snappy bass and Layton held down the groove behind the drumkit. John Rogers’ ornate electric piano and organ lit up several of the songs; trumpeter Mike Maher gave a mariachi flair to several numbers as well.
The set wasn’t just familiar favorites, either. As much fun as it was hearing what this crew could do with Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock and Suspicious Minds, the best song of the night was an obscure, ominous noir number, Black Star. On one hand, it’s hard to imagine that Elvis knew what kind of an end he’d come to when he sang this in the mid-60s…but this group’s stalking, low-key version left that question hanging. From this point of view, it would have been even more fun to be able to catch the whole set, but it was impossible to walk out of Moroccan saxophonist Yacine Boulares’ absolutely haunting Lincoln Center set earlier that night.
The Pinks wound up their weekend with a serpentine set of swing at Pete’s. Since they started in the late zeros, they’ve expanded their songbook far beyond 30s girl-group material to jump blues and beyond. Case in point: an absolutely accusatory version of Straighten Out and Fly Right. They went deep inside to find the bittersweetness in the Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon, then pulled out all the smoke and sultriness in Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby. And the old 20s hot swing standard Why Don’t You Do Right outdid both the Moonlighters and Rasputina’s versions in terms of both energy and righteous rage.
The Pinks are back on hiatus now while everybody in the group is busy with their own projects. Layton and Charles continue with their torch jazz band Eden Lane, with a gig on June 3 at 7 PM at Caffe Vivaldi, one of the Pinks’ old haunts. Sland continues to do unselfconsciously heroic work in hospice medicine in California. And Moheno continues with recording her next noir rock album, under the name Karla Rose – if the track listing remains as originally planned, that record would top the list of best albums of 2018 if she released it now.