Saturday evening at Barbes, it was an awful lot of fun to witness the contrast in styles between guitarists Jeremiah Lockwood and Steve Ulrich. Lockwood, who’s one-half of Book of J and also leads the Sway Machinery, is a live wire, tremolo-picking sharply feathery flurries, plucking out jaggedly incisive phrases and plaintive blues licks on his vintage National Steel model. Ulrich, the film composer and Big Lazy leader was a predator waiting for his prey, cool and calm and distantly resonant, then in a flash going in for the kill with his Les Paul.
He was the special guest at Book of J’s weekly 6 PM Saturday residency at Barbes this month, which is no surprise considering that he and Lockwood have been conjuring up plenty of sinisterly spiky sounds in an on-and-off collaboration that dates back to the early zeros. Rocking a classic punk rock mohawk, Book of J frontwoman Jewlia Eisenberg joined them for one of several lesbian Jewish ballads – “There’s lots of them,” she grinned, singing with triumph and passion over Lockwood’s gritty, chromatically-fueled chords and Ulrich’s signature, lingering noir accents.
Classic Barbes moment. There aren’t many venues left in New York where you can see this kind of cross-pollination creating deliciously new musical hybrids, even if they only last for a few minutes.
The rest of the set was just as diverse. Watching Ulrich play spare, purposeful, purist oldschool Chicago blues was an unexpected treat; then again, the guy can play pretty much anything. Likewise, Lockwood moved methodically from hypnotically emphatic, Malian-inspired phrasing to a ripsnorting cadenza or three and gentle, poignant jangle. The two guitarists went into allusive noir with Mood Indigo, then took another stab at the Ellington catalog, edging their way into a take of Caravan that was more of a slow, wary procession through the desert, keeping an eye out for US drones and Soviet warplanes. Their version of an uneasy Big Lazy big-sky theme had the same menace just over the horizon.
Eisenberg and Lockwood’s most riveting number together was a gorgeous klezmer tune in the Middle Eastern freygish mode, written by a famous Argentine singer and member of what was for a long time the largest Yiddish-speaking community outside of Europe and later, Israel. Lockwood introduced a slower, more allusively rapturous number as being written by an early 20th century cantor who’d chosen his daughter as his successor. That move didn’t go over with the synagogue elders, so the cantor quit. “When somebody dies, where do you say kaddish?” a friend once asked the guy. “In my garden,” he replied.
Book of J return to Barbes tomorrow night, July 20 at 6 with special guest Brian Chase on drums, playing from a new song cycle based on the work of Yiddish poet Celia Dropkin. Big Lazy are back at Barbes as well on July 26 at 10; Singer/guitarist Pierre de Gaillande’s edgy parlor pop band Bad Reputation – who continue to build a rich catalog of English translations of songs by badass 1940s-70s French songwriter Georges Brassens – open the night at 8.