It’s a hot indian summer night outside Joe’s Pub, the shadows from the dark tower a block away just beginning to suck the light from the streets to the east of Astor Place. Inside, the man in the long black coat stretches out his legs underneath a table about twenty feet from the stage. With the back of his hand, he wipes his brow: he’s overdressed for this time of year. Across the table a couple beam and whoop it up. Somebody in the band – the drummer, as it turns out -is a friend, and they’re there to make sure he gets props.
Sweet Soubrette take the stage to what will be the most rousing applause of the night (Kotorino will play a ferocious, lustrously latin-tinged set of artsy, noir rock afterward). The man in the long black coat pulls his recorder from his pocket, presses a button and glances at it quizzically. As the lights dim, he pulls out his phone, illuminating the gadget’s digital display. Exhaling, dismayed, he clicks off both devices, pockets them in his coat and leans back to watch the show.
Frontwoman/ukulele player Ellia Bisker opens the set with a bouncy number, All That Glitters, her voice more weary than brassy as she channels the cynicism of a gold-digger working her latest mark. With NYU – where a thousand undergrad women have signed up as employees of an online prostitution ring in order to pay their tuition – a few blocks away, the song resonates in a new context. Next is Sweet Time, a soul ballad recast as oldtimey Americana on the wings of Heather Cole’s violin. “The song kind of undermines the message…just so you know,” Bisker tells the crowd coyly.
The man in the long black coat is restless, but Bisker is on a roll with her banter. “We have songs about a lot of normal things…like most bands,” she explains, deadpan and serious. “But we also have songs about books – a lot of books.” She explains that this one was inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, then launches into a propulsive take of the moody Burning City, the horn section – John Waters on trumpet, Cecil Scheib on trombone and Erin Rogers on alto sax- bobbing and weaving.
“So you have all these experiences…but you retain nothing, and you learn nothing, and nothing helps you,” the bandleader tells the audience, and then begins the achingly waltzing, saturnine Wake Up When, a chronicle of missed chances and lost hopes. By now the man in the long black coat is on the edge of his seat, watching as the lush wash of strings and horns rises.
“You come to a moment in your life, a crossroads…decisions, and you know what whatever you choose, you’re going to regret it,” Bisker continues – at this point, a pattern is clear, this concert has a theme and a trajectory:
The ghost ship of the life you didn’t choose
Is the one you know will never carry you
There are moments you get a glimpse
From the corner of your eye
And all you can do is watch it sail on by
Bisker misses a downstroke on her uke at one point; crushing poignancy, all the more so for not being part of the plan.
The show takes a turn into less harrowing territory with a sardonically pouting new soul ballad, (You Don’t) Talk to Me, awash in oldschool Memphis-style horns. Then drummer Darrell Smith hits a trip-hop beat as the group make their way through Big Celebrity and its sarcastic John Waters-esque allusions.
“We’re coming to the end, not just the end of our time here, but the end of our time at all, really. I’m just a truth sayer,” Bisker relates before Night Owls, another waltz. “Blow out the candle, we see in the dark,” she intones with a quiet defiance over the wash of orchestration. The concert ends with the Anais Nin-inspired anthem What’s My Desire: “She made the unspeakable speakable, and we admire her for that,” Bisker tells everyone.
Months later, the man in the long black coat reaches to his Macbook and types in Sweet Soubrette’s webpage. What might they be up to? As it turns out, Bisker is busy this month. Sweet Soubrette are at Rock Shop on January 14 at 10 PM for a $10 cover, with hauntingly anthemic folk noir/janglerock bandleader Jessie Kilguss opening the night at 8. Kotorino, to which Bisker lends her torchy harmonies, are at Barbes the previous night, the 13th, at 8. And her murderously entertaining parlor-pop murder ballad duo Charming Disaster, with Kotorino’s Jeff Morris are at Pete’s on the 9th, also at 8.
Clicking on the Sweet Soubrette music page, the man in the long black coat does a doubletake. That concert at Joe’s Pub was recorded and has been released as a live album, a name-your-price download at bandcamp! So much for not having enough memory in the recorder back in September! And the band also have a new single, Take It Easy, an ironically uneasy parlor-pop number.