New York Music Daily

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Tag: rembert block

Rare Intimacy with the King of Calypso, the Mighty Sparrow at Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center impresario Viviana Benitez introduced Thursday night’s show by the Mighty Sparrow with a quote from a recent interview he’d given to Vivien Goldman. The octogenarian king of calypso had explained succinctly that singularity is no longer the order of the day, and that if there’s ever been a time for the people to unite, this is it.

That’s as political as he got. With his powerful, protean baritone as colorful as ever and his usual outrageous sense of humor, he led an exuberant, eight-piece New York backing unit through a set of classics from throughout his seventy-year career. Calypso and soca lyrics often have a powerful social awareness, but this show was packed mostly with scampering, irrepressibly devious, innuendo-driven dance tunes. It’s hard to imagine Bob Marley’s 1970s work, dancehall reggae toasters like Yellowman, or for that matter a lot of hip-hop, without Sparrow paving the way.

The brief Q&A before the show set the tone. With his signature blend of sagacity and deadpan wit, Sparrow was as funny when he deflected a question as when he was willing to offer an answer. “I remember your music being very sexual for that time,” a Caribbean woman a few decades younger asserted, before inquiring whether or not he writes his own songs. Sparrow didn’t answer, didn’t move a muscle, as chuckles broke out among the crowd. Later, asked if he had a favorite song, he declared he didn’t think he’d ever done one he didn’t like, which spoke volumes for the performance.

The night’s funniest number was Pussycat, with harmony singers Erica Smith and Rembert Block coyly punching in on the refrain “Afraid pussy bite me.” The song is all the more classic for being completely G-rated. Sparrow’s so afraid of this little kitty that he’s never going to touch pussy again – but wait, some pussy doesn’t have teeth. And by the way, who got the scissors to cut pussy’s whiskers?

The salsa-spiced Sparrow Dead was just as amusing in a completely different way, flipping the script on anyone who’d dare hate on a legend. Thinly veiled, suggestive references were everywhere, from the tongue-in-cheek Mr. Walker,, to the sardonic No Money No Love, to the thunderingly macho Congo Man. and finally the witheringly cynical, anti-imperialist 1956 hit Jean and Dinah. The whole massive knew the words and sang along lustily.

The band rose to the occasion, bouncing and bubbling. Pianist Phillip Nichols provided some lushly neoromantic solo intros along with a lot of driving, Cuban-influenced lines alongside lead guitarist Lane Steinberg,, acoustic guitarist Dave Foster, Louis Fouche on sax, Tom DeVito on drums and reggae legend Larry McDonald on percussion. The womens’ harmonies – Smith’s jazz nuance and megawatt smile contrasting with the more cabaret-influenced Block’s calm but brassy presence – raised the music’s steamy energy to tropical temperatures.

The Mighty Sparrow’s next New York appearance is at Joe’s Pub on Dec 7 at 7 PM; tix are $25. The mostly-weekly free concert series at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues with a rare Tuesday show tomorrow night, Nov 26 at 7: 30 PM featuring Afro-Cuban pianist Dayramir González & Habana enTRANCé. Smith and Foster are also playing with one of their other projects, the Gershwin Brothers, opening for a concert performance of Block’s new opera at the Treehouse at 2A at 9 PM on Dec 8.

Shattering Acoustic Songs and Defiant Rock Anthems Side By Side on the Lower East

“The most depressing music ever!” That’s how one of the members of high-voltage rockers Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts introduced his bandmate, singer Erica Smith at the Treehouse at 2A a couple of weekends ago. But much as Smith’s shattering, nuanced voice and painterly lyrics deal almost exclusively with dark topics, her songs actually aren’t depressing at all. She’s all about transcendence. Which is what dark music is all about, right? If everything was hopeless, why bother? The real torment is the lure of something better, and Smith channels that hope against hope better than just about anyone alive.

Her career as one of the leading lights of a still-vital Lower East Side Americana scene in the late zeros took a couple of hits, first with the loss of her drummer, the late, great Dave Campbell, then the demands of job and motherhood. Since then, she hasn’t exactly been inactive, but her gigs have been more sporadic: we can’t take her for granted anymore. Playing solo acoustic, she was all the more unselfconsciously intense for the sparseness and directness of the songs.

As usual, her imagery was loaded. Glances exchanged, unspoken, almost buckled under the weight of a pivotal twist of fate. A surreal, dissociative stare up into bright lights could have been a prelude to a grisly interrogation…or just a particularly anxious moment as seen from a hospital bed. That reference came early during the night’s best song, Veterans of Foreign Wars, a brooding waltz ending with a scenario that could have been either an Eric Garner parable, one with broader, antiwar implications, or both. Otherwise, she strummed and nimbly fingerpicked her way through styles from austere front-porch folk to vintage soul to minimalist rock.

But Smith is hardly all about gloom and doom: she has a fun side. The solo set made a stark contrast with her turn out in front of the band, through a smoldering take of group leader/guitarist Pete Cenedella’s mighty, steamy oldschool soul ballad, Hand to Lend, which quickly became a launching pad for belting and torchy melismatics to rival Aretha. Nobody sings a soul anthem like Smith: we may have lost Sharon Jones, but we still have this elusive performer.

Cenedella got his start fronting the highly regarded American Ambulance, whose ferocious populism and interweave of Stonesy rock with what was then called alt-country won them a national following. But musically speaking, this latest group’s musicianship rivals any outfit he’s been involved with.

Drummer David Anthony’s matter-of-factly swinging four-on-the-floor groove and bassist Ed Iglewski’s trebly, melodic lines underpinned lead guitarist Rich Feridun’s incisively terse fills and Charly CP Roth’s rivers of organ. Alongside Cenedella, the harmony vocal trio of Smith, Lisa Zwier and Rembert Block spun elements of Motown, Tina Turner soul and Balkan gothic into an uneasily silken sheen.

The songs in the group’s first set (this blog went AWOL for the second one) rock just as hard as Cenedella’s most electric earlier material, and if anything, are more anthemic than ever. The addition of the organ along with a frequent 60s soul influence often brought to mind peak-era Springsteen at his most ornate: Gaslight Anthem, eat your heart out.

The catchiest and most danceable number was a slinky go-go-strut, The Getaround. The most straightforwardly poignant, in a mix of songs with persistent themes of heartbreak and crawling from the wreckage afterward, was the imagistic Skies Can’t Decide. Setting the stage with the catchy, defiant Down Harder Roads and Turning of the Wheel worked out well, considering the fireworks, both loud and quiet, which followed.

Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts are currently in the midst of recording a lavish double album, so they ought to be playing out a lot more. And Smith is at Otto’s on Nov 1 at 7 PM with Beatlesque soul band Nikki & the Human Element