The best show of 2016 in New York – at least the best one where this blog was in the house – was in mid-October at Barbes, where guitarists Mamie Minch and Steve Ulrich played a live score to silent films supplied by filmmaker Russell Scholl. And it was unquestionably the the year’s most cinematic, which makes sense considering both the context and the artists involved. Ulrich gets lots of work for film and for PBS, when he’s not fronting his slinky, Lynchian reverb guitar band, Big Lazy. Minch plays her own darkly individualistic, wit-infused take on classic country blues and Americana when she’s not running New York’s only woman-owned instrument repair store, Brooklyn Lutherie,. Both players have shows coming up. On Dec 6 at 6:30 PM, Minch is part of an excellent triplebill with fellow oldtime country blues purveyor Eli Smith and rustic 19th century style string band the Four O’Clock Flowers at the American Folk Art Museum, playing songs on the time-honored theme of death and mourning to coincide with the museum’s latest, wonderfully creeyp exhibition. Then she’s at Barbes at 8 on Dec 16. Ulrich is at Spectrum on Dec 10 at 7:30 PM with his Big Lazy bandmate, drummer Yuval Lion, where they’ll join Bob Dylan keyboardist Mick Rossi, Barbez‘s Peter Hess and Zion80‘s Jon Madof for a night of similarly creepy improvisation; cover is $15.
The night’s first movie at Barbes was a surrealistically nostalgic Coney Island tableau by Scholl, Minch singing a sad waltz that she’d originally written as a member of the badly missed oldtime harmony quartet the Roulette Sisters. Low and somber, she built a similarly moody Brooklyn oceanside scenario, the amusement park as a metaphor for passion that could go drastically wrong. It’s her Wall of Death.
Then Ulrich joined her for a brief set of his own shadowy film noir compositions while another Scholl pastiche – a defiantly individualistic, snidely anti-authoritarian work, like a Donald O’Finn mashup without the endless parodies of oversexed tv – flickered on the screen behind them. The two musicians have collaborated a lot over the past couple of years. Hearing Minch play Ulrich’s signature, menacing chromatics on her resonator guitar was a real treat, Ulrich supplying his usual macabre, resonant twang through a skeletally dancing number with hints of Romany jazz, then a morose graveyard stroll, Ulrich’s angst-fueled insistence against Minch’s steady, mournful chords. They wound it up with tricky syncopation and more rain-drenched chromatics that gave way to reflecting-pool psychedelia as the film hit a comedic coda.
Minch scored the night’s final film, Windsor McCay’s pioneering 1921 early animation flick The Flying House, chronicling the adventures of a man who motorizes his home and then takes it up into the clouds in order to escape the evil bankster who wants to foreclose on it. You want relevance? Minch switched slowly and masterfully from one oldtime blues tuning to another. interpolating those graceful blue notes into the score as she retuned, moving seamlessly through gemtly waltzing, pastoral passages, bouncily romping interludes, elements of psychedelic folk and 70s British art-rock, hardly styles that you would associate with someone regarded as one of this era’s great blueswomen. After the movie. the two treated the crowd to a cover of Johnny Cash’s Committed to Parkview – a Hollywood nuthouse if there ever was one – as well as a take of the Beatles hit Girl that really brought out all the menace in a femme fatale. They closed out the night with a solo Ulrich jazz tune and then Minch’s funereal rendition of the Bessie Smith murder ballad Sing Sing Blues. Only in New York, folks.