It seems inevitable for music bloggers to start booking shows. In the case of this blog, that meant coming full circle. Where did New York Music Daily’s debut as live music promoter take place? At New York’s best new venue, of course: Zirzamin, the lowlit subterranean music parlor at the corner of Houston and LaGuardia. It was an aptly dark and stormy evening for what was billed as “noir night.” It wasn’t lucrative in any commercial sense, as the early part got more or less rained out, thanks to crazy winds and flying trashcans and intermittent explosions in the sky, two hundred years of CO2 emissions coming back to haunt us all. But the music was transcendent.
Elisa Flynn opened. With a polymath’s insatiable curiosity and a keen sense of history, she proved as knowledgeable about classic Americana roots as she is with indie rock, and it showed in her music. Armed with just her acoustic guitar, her trusty loop pedal and a richly nuanced voice that she let trail off with a suspenseful vibrato, she made her way through aching big-sky themes, a bitter returning Civil War soldier’s lament and a disarmingly pretty but grimly sarcastic Afghan War narrative told from a perspective looking out from inside an “iron galleon.” She reinvented the old folk standard Henry Lee as bitingly atonal, nimbly fingerpicked indie rock, underscoring the doom of the lyrics. A little later, she ran through a wistful high school reminiscence that referenced both Johnny Thunders and Ian Dury, which has got to be the only song in existence that does that. Moving from a catchy, simple, circular riff to fiery, anthemic minor chords, she brought a Marc Chagall picture to life, mixing gypsyish tonalities, enigmatic open chords and a little late Beatles. And just to prove that not all of her songs are dark, she played a new one that ended up hitting a bittersweet note despite itself: “Oh, won’t you tell me what drugs you’re on,” she sang, not a little jealous of how blithely some people carry themselves. Flynn has booked an intriguing show of her own on September 18 at the Way Station in Ft. Greene, where she and a parade of songwriters will be playing the entire Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music.
As eclectic as Flynn’s set was, Liz Tormes set a single mood and never wavered from it. That mood was menacing. Tormes makes it work because she does it so nonchalantly, and takes great pleasure it: when she described a song or two as murder ballads, her face lit up noticeably as the word “murder” crossed her lips. While between songs, bantering with her bandmates – Ollabelle keyboardist Glenn Patscha and guitarist/singer Fiona McBain – she broke character from the stoic, wounded femme fatale persona, it served her equally well throughout a mix of originals and classic country/folk covers, including understatedly haunting, gorgeously harmonized versions of Rosalie, I Never Will Marry and the old honkytonk hit Comin’ on Strong. The version of Read My Mind on Tormes’ brilliant 2009 Limelight album is a fiery rock song; stripped to its brooding acoustic roots, it was even darker. As is often the case with her, the subtext was crushing: “And I want you to read my mind. Dear,” she sang, with just the slightest hint that this was not exactly a love song. A bitter resignation and sense of all hell about to break loose dominated several other songs, including one hypnotic number that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Randi Russo catalog, and the steady, pulsing Maybe You Won’t, another track from Limelight. Eerily and methodically calm, the trio made their way through a troubled East Village nocturne that worked on a million different levels, and a Carter Family cover that could have been the Velvet Underground doing country gospel, with the piano in…um…western saloon tuning. Patscha would have been within his rights to have complained, but he didn’t. Toward the end of the set, Tormes catalogued a list of things that haunted her: “Nothing haunts you – I think it should,” she sang again and again as it wound out, raising her voice just enough to drive the point home, hard. There is no singer in the world who channels heartbreak or unconsummated rage more potently than Tormes.
By the time Beninghove’s Hangmen took the stage, the storm had subsided and a crowd had gathered to see saxophonist Bryan Beninghove and a six-piece version of his powerhouse noir soundtrack band careen through a wild, improvisational set. While what they’re playing is essentially film music, this time out they went deep into their diverse jazz roots, transforming the Neil Diamond cheeseball Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon into a Russ Meyer set piece. A little later, they rampaged through a practically twenty-minute version of Quatro Loko, an unexpectedly cheery number fueled by Beninghove’s jaunty soprano sax before going completely haywire, drummer Shawn Baltazor and bassist Kellen Harrison wailing on each others’ instruments, trombonist Rick Parker (also of the fascinating Bartok cover band Little Worlds) wailing on the out-of-tune piano for extra amperage.
Beninghove began a distantly apprehensive, swinging gypsy jazz tune on melodica, then switched to tenor sax and took it into more lurid territory, handing off to Parker, whose long, shivery, microtonal solo maxed out the menace. Guitarist Dane Johnson opened a horror-surf tune with some bracing, off-kilter grit, juxtaposing a klezmer-flavored dirge theme that shifted to a surprisingly warm, soul-infused chorus, Parker blasting over it with a coldly haphazard rage, Beninghove following with a long, electrically chromatic, achingly tense tenor solo. Their version of Hangmen’s Waltz took the macabre mood of the version on the band’s amazing, self-titled album from last year and expanded on it, polyrhythmic and hallucinatory. After diversions into calypso, samba and dixieland flair and then a morbid surf stomp highlighted by Johnson’s echoey, overtone-drenched intensity, they wrapped up the night at around half past eleven with another album track, Roadhouse, a surreal, volcanically Lynchian boogie. Beninghove’s Hangmen will be in residency several Mondays at 9 in September at Zirzamin; watch this space for details.