Friday night was a hurricane party. Everybody in town was out because by Saturday noon they’d be more or less housebound, since the subway was shutting down in anticipation of what reasonably-minded New Yorkers expected – a big rainstorm, nothing this city hasn’t seen before or won’t see again. It wasn’t exactly 1821 or 1938, the two most recent years that hurricanes hit the city. In a fortuitous if predictable stroke of fate, New York’s best music venue, Barbes, had a characteristically excellent triplebill.
Mamie Minch opened, a late addition to the bill. It would have been nice to have seen the eclectically oldtimey Roulette Sisters’ charismatic frontwoman/guitarist – she always puts on a good show. Greta Gertler was next. This time out the unpredictable pianist and art-rock songwriter had an acoustic rhythm section and a backup singer who doubled on glockenspiel when she wasn’t artfully switching between high and low harmonies. The set was a mix of greatest hits and new songs from her lush chamber-pop project the Universal Thump. She did the poignant, regretful 6/8 ballad Damien, the massive top 40 hit that should have been, early on. Anticipating a little rain, she segued from the aptly pensive Wrist Slasher into the bustling Bergen Street, a vivid Brooklyn thunderstorm scenario from her ragtime-flavored 2008 album Edible Restaurant album. The new songs included a gently majestic ballad (Gertler told the crowd that she was edging further and further toward “theatre music”) and a somewhat Peter Gabriel-esque Universal Thump anthem lit up by drummer Adam Gold’s hypnotically swirling cymbals and joyously thunderous, symphonic drumming.
“Party band” probably wouldn’t be the first way you might consider categorizing Piñataland. But that’s what they were. On their new album Hymns for the Dreadful Night, the chamber pop band’s rhythm section really amps it up – interestingly, this time out, drummer Bill Gerstel and bassist Ross Bonadonna kept the groove more low-key, sometimes gracefully ornate, probably just as well considering that they were playing Barbes. Violinist Deni Bonet stole the show with her fiery, gypsy and celtic-flavored lines when she wasn’t building an orchestral swirl with the guest accordionist, while bandleaders Dave Wechsler and Doug Stone joined voices vigorously with Robin Aigner (who was making it her second night in a row here).
They opened with a big-sky country waltz by Wechsler, got quiet and gospelly on the new album’s title track before a joyous version of the Irish rock tune Island of Godless Men, told from the point of view of a pre-Revolutionary War era religious zealot, Bonet bringing an especially exuberant edge to the closing reel. The gypsy-rock numbers were the high point of the show, especially the bitter, defiant Death of Silas Deane, a tribute to another Revolutionary era figure who was instrumental in generating support for his new nation, then took a dramatic and tragic fall from grace. The single most gripping moment was on the set’s weirdest song, Wechsler’s elegant country-gospel piano set against the unlikely backdrop of a Roswell incident engineered by the KGB, where the aliens are actually surgically modified Russian children. That one was told from the point of view of a real alien. They closed with another waltz, a country shuffle with another searing Bonet solo, a gypsy rocker about a 19th century anti-gentrification protestor of sorts, and the inexplicable but irresistibly catchy Border Guard, Aigner sliding and slinking through the melody Kitty Wells style.