City of the Sun

Last week, I abused my new magical intern guest list powers to score tickets to see City of the Sun over at Gramercy Theatre. Convinced by a friend to go along, I was skeptical. A headlining band consisting of nothing more than two guitars, a box, and some bells? No vocals at all? Not even some rhythmic ululations? What’s the point?

First, a note on the theater–this place has finally solved, in my opinion, the eternal question of what to do with audience members. Do we make them stand in a large, heaving frenzy, unfairly discriminating against Short-Americans? (I’m not bitter. Who? Me? Nah.) Or do we pin them undemocratically to seats, restricting their ability to go with the flow, roll with the punches (I’m talking real punches, here), lose themselves to the music with their sweaty, ecstatic fellow human beings? Answer: neither! The front of Gramercy is an open space, with raised seats in the very back, letting audience members move around as they please. Come on, people. It shouldn’t have taken this long.

But back to the band. A sold-out show for three dudes, not one of them a singer. A multicultural gang, the boys are from all over, and their style reflects this. The sound was unique, percussive, taking you to the streets of Eastern Europe, entreating you to get up and dance with gypsies, jokers, and midnight tokers. The music built an arc that lost you in time, beginning slow and rising to an electric, primal climax. The accompanying light show was a stoner’s dream come true, radiating to something beyond, entrancing you with the help of Avi’s virtuosic fingerpicking and the sharp, hungry rhythms.

What is the future of a band like this? A group that can have a dedicated fan base, but never a Top 40 hit? Does this mean that, to have a successful show without words to sing along to, it has to become an experience? Pretty, flashing lights, lots of potential for recreational drug use, a spectacle? Perhaps, from a commercial perspective. But even if it is… a sold out theater is a sold out theater. Lyrics or no.

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Summertime Carnivore

Remember The Hush Sound, legendary indie rock wunderkinds from the days when people still thought Fueled by Ramen was a pretty tongue-in-cheek label name? Well, let’s just say they’re my personal Where’s Fluffy? (Nick and Norah, anyone?). One of my all-time favorite bands, I have been on the hunt to track them down for years. My last chance came shortly before the crew vanished off the face of the earth a few years back. $15 tickets, and of course something had to come up. Let’s just say I was put out.

So a few months ago I check in to see what these guys are up to, and it turns out both of the band’s lead singers have recently embarked on new musical projects. Bob Morris is now Le Swish, and yes, the whole thing is about as douchey as it sounds, but the man still knows how to write a good song.

Greta Salpeter, on the other hand, has been touring as Springtime Carnivore, with a jazzier, more mature sound that really shows her evolution as a singer and songwriter. I was able to see Miss Salpeter at Mercury Lounge this past Friday, and while the venue was modest and the crowd lacked a certain violence I’ve become accustomed to (see my post on the Vaccines), I was very close to fangirling my socks off. She had the whole Midwestern down-to-earth charm thing down pat, and her stories were easily as entertaining as the songs themselves.

I spy a set list!

I spy a set list!

“If you’re leaving town, I wanna be the last one to know.”

The band played from their eponymous new album, and encored with a fun tribute to “the Boss” (direct quote), their rendition of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Salpeter’s website describes her music as, “ebullient pop and looming psychedelia,” and that would be an accurate–if mildly overdrawn–classification. It is new, it is niche, and everyone should listen to it. Enjoy.

My New Musical Girl Crush

Katrina Cunningham looks like a 1920s Marilyn Monroe… and she kind of sounds like it, too. I had the pleasure of stumbling upon a short set of hers at Duane Park-alias-Bowery Poetry Club last night, backed by a wizard with spacey Hendrix-esque hair–sorry, guitar. But also hair. Cunningham had a lot to say about her influences, which included everything from spoken word poetry to old blues to Lana Del Rey, all of which you can hear in her long, improvised refrains, fable-driven lyrics, and Edith Piaf vibrato. In my opinion, anyone who can rock on the same lyric for five minutes without boring me deserves an accolade.

She also had something interesting to say about songwriting–spoiler alert–as a queer artist, making the point that she wanted people to be able to appreciate a love song written by a woman for another woman in the same way that they would appreciate a love song written by a man for a woman. In addition to being a lovely sentiment, this brought a couple of questions to my mind: why, for example, did she compare her songs to ones about women by men, and not about men by women? Is a love song or a sexual song different if written by a man or a woman? While listening, I noticed that Katrina’s use of gendered pronouns is very minimal–she could be writing about either or both. But the tone was dominant, blisteringly sexual. I tried to compare it to songs I could think of by women for men, and I found very few. Whether in jazz, pop, or rock, men are usually the ones writing “come on” songs, where the object of the song is to entreat the audience, to bring them closer. From songs written by women, we usually expect a more passive approach, songs about breaking up (it happened) or falling in love (it’s happening). Not so much about the making it happen. Just think–for every “Call Me” we have ten “Moondances.” (Side note, gotta love those 80s music videos.) But why is this? Why is an active song still the birthright of a man?

I’ll leave you to ponder, and congratulate Katrina on breaking the barriers with songs like “Sweet Thing” and “Eve.”

You’ve had my two cents, I’ll shut up and put on the music now.

The New Cure

This week marks my first non-basement-oriented concert in Brooklyn, at the Polish community center/music venue Warsaw—and yes, I’ve never heard of anything more Williamsburg either. It was a pretty NYC night for me, all in all, as I shuffled to the concert from a Broadway show, the upbeat farcical melodies of “It Shoulda Been You” still reverberating in my head as I stepped into the thickening crowd at the very moment Matt Hitt opened his beautiful mouth and started singing.

Matt Hitt

Photo cred Caitlin Kelmar

For those of you who don’t know, the Welsh model-turned-Britpop poster boy is the frontman of the Drowners, a NYC-based rocker gang of the Smiths variety. They’re the kind of band that looks like they should only be shot in black and white, each one of them ripped out of a magazine for some American teen’s crush collage. And, plot twist, they’re good, too! If you’re into “sad pop music” and a lot of “schoolboy grinning,” I would suggest you run out and buy an album ASAP. I’ll save you some trouble and tell you that yes, they are on Spotify, but come on, chaps, do you want to save the music industry or don’t you?

So, of course the Drowners wasn’t just a randomly-selected opening act. As in the tradition of The Scene That Celebrates Itself, they got the gig not just on their looks, but on their connections. Matt Hitt and Justin Hayward-Young, frontman of the Vaccines, go way back—or at least, so their Instagram would lead you to believe.

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The Vaccines taking the stage had a similar effect as if Hayward-Young had casually tossed a lit cigarette in the vicinity of a ticking bomb. Maybe I’ve just been seeing too many folk acts, recently, but the sort of beating I received in the center of the crowd brought me back to my middle school Warped Tour days. Within the first number I had three beers poured on me and lost a shoe. By the time the third song rolled around I’d been elbowed upside the nose and offered illegal substances by questionable strangers. There was a sort of hypnotic mania in the crowd, an accidental violence. The West London indie rock demigods played with a smirky camaraderie, jamming to new hits like “Handsome” and “Dream Lover,” then taking a step back to previous albums. Their latest album, which still has that new car smell, follows a trend similar to that of their compatriots the Arctic Monkeys, amping for more seductive guitar riffs to complement the tongue-in-cheek lyrics. In fact, the riff for “Dream Lover” is almost identical to that of “Do I Wanna Know?” But who’s keeping track?

An acoustic version of “No Hope” replaced the wished-for “Post Break-Up Sex” as the toned-down encore, to much dismay. How could they dare deny us the chance to drown them out with our own beer-addled vocalizations of everyone’s favorite sad pop song? It seems like the answer is, “Sorry, not sorry.”

Much soul. No damns to spare. Photo cred Caitlin Kelmar.

Much soul. No damns to spare. Photo cred Caitlin Kelmar.

Well, if they won’t oblige, I will.

Your weekend car jams, provided by Cat Rickman. See you all soon.

Humor Me

It’s been awhile, ladies and gents, but get prepared for a summer of impulsive decisions, Manhattan humidity, and a lot of great music. Sunday was another spectacular night down by the Bowery with our hosts, John Arthur Greene and Ryan Vona. Special guest appearance by The Poet in New York host Nikhil Melnechuk, who slipped a little culture into our well-curated jam sesh. If you’re not familiar, Bowery Poetry Club’s weekly competition is a good excuse to drink on Mondays and listen to some sweet lines backed by a jazz improv trio.

Sunday’s “This is Your Song” was an absolute blast. It is a rare stroke of luck when hosts, audience, and venue manage to build a space like this–a modern-day salon-meets-cabaret, comfortable and stimulating at the same time. This month everyone was the Piano Man–or the Piano Woman, I should say. The winner of this month’s little competition? Ellen Winter, an Ingrid Michaelson-esque bespectacled beltress. She played up the humor in a fresh piece with powerful vocals, soulful piano, and lyrics that made you step back a moment. I’ve never heard the words, “I feel fuckin’ stupid, I feel fuckin’ dumb,” sound so classed-up. Check out her Soundcloud–I promise you won’t be disappointed. Each song will need your full attention to get through the clever lyrics and vocal acrobatics.

Funny was definitely the theme for the night, from a rainy day pick-me-up courtesy of Ryan Vona, to a cheeky boudoir ballad from UK visitor Patrick Black. Black strolled in, Peaky Blinders cap and all, to give us a taste of Birmingham snark, and my Jersey roots found a comic kindred spirit with all the tongue-in-cheek rapid-fire commentary I’d missed from the Old Country.

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Patrick Black, bringing it home. Photo credit to Judy Gu.

Now, Bowery Poetry’s the kind of place where you really have to stick around to find the after party, especially on a Sunday night. But the vagrants trudged on, determined to dissect the ideal length of a comedic tune and the difference between a New York joke and a Philly wisecrack. All in all? Best night I’ve had in quite a while. Friends, fellas, I’ll see you next month.

Broadway and Banjos

Pre-show class

Pre-show class

Do you like burlesque clubs that turn into dirty poet bars on Sunday nights? Well, I do. I’m talking, of course, about the Bowery Poetry Club, the one-time skid row dive that is now a venerated establishment of the arts, chandelier and all. And the last Sunday of every month, it becomes my favorite music open mic in the city, hosted by Broadway actors/singer-songwriters John Arthur Greene (Matilda) and Ryan Vona (Once). The two are a classic dynamic duo, each of them bringing their own special something to the table–Ryan, the wide-eyed sincerity, and John… well, let’s go with the hair.

These boys are only two of a surprising trend I’ve been seeing lately of Broadway actors-turned-singer-songwriters. (Because, hey, if you’re gonna pursue a career with little-to-no stability in the most expensive city in the world, you might as well light both ends of the candle.) The effect is intriguing, because in addition to the extra helping of showmanship (and the fact that Broadway actors are only getting better-looking), the pop opera vocal technique required of your standard musical theater BFA candidate is tenfold that of Joe Shmo jamming in his parents’ garage in North Jersey. End result? Singers who can harmonize on cue, work a crowd, and occasionally go a little overboard on the falsetto. (Don’t worry John, we still love you.)

So, we’ve got our charming hosts, our beautiful space, and a veritable wishing well of talented artists. Usually the line-up consists of a lot of dudes with guitars. This time, however, we were graced with the presence of one Anielle Reid, a one-woman banjo rock star who swooped up the grand prize at the end of the night–the opportunity to come back at the end of the year and record her winning song with Bowery Poetry and the rest of the year’s winners. I’ve gotta say, it was refreshing to see someone playing a banjo who wasn’t a white guy with some unfortunate facial hair. You can find her and her fabulousness at http://www.aniellereid.com/anielle-reid-americana-singer-songwriter-and-banjoist.

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Anielle and her mic stand, John

We also received a cameo appearance from one of the Bowery’s more notorious bartenders, Frankie, giving the rest of us a run for our money.

Bartender Frankie ("and the Momos") blowing our minds so we'll tip better

Bartender Frankie (“and the Momos”) blowing our minds so we’ll tip better

We closed out with a late-night jam, with our gracious hosts pulling performers back on the stage to see if they could still perform as well post-whiskey. Well, I guess you need something to oil up those pipes. Following the theme, John, never one to be outdone, gave us something to shake our bones to, so I’ll sign off with that.

Millennial Poster Boy

I’m a little late on this one, but last week I took a trip to the Sidewalk Cafe to check out Joe Redding, an Americana singer of the old style. Redding is the poster boy for Millennial Management, an NYU start-up that is part talent agency and part artist collective. Ironic how much of the New Music Order likes to tie itself to nostalgia, but I guess irony is the new black. Redding’s music, videos, and aesthetic are all empty roads, faded lovers, and whiskey benders, despite the fact that he hails from the Northeast. I’ve noticed similar trends with other locals like the Blue Eyed Bettys or Caroline Reese and the Drifting Fifth (who I talked about in my last post)–Northeasterners taking up banjos and broken guitars and writing about open fields. From my cosmopolitan Manhattan standpoint, it almost feels like we’re trying to culturally appropriate ourselves, or reclaim some sort of long-lost American identity.

The boy’s got talent, though, and looks too, at that. A voice I’d want to qualify as “gravelly,” if not for the word’s overuse. I did try not to laugh every time I heard the word “coyote” sung on an upswing, but I guess you can’t blame someone for using tropes of the genre.

“For Old Time’s Sake” is a gem, so check it out here:

Here’s to the new millennium!