“You know Louisville is death
You have to up and move
Because the dead do not
-Silver Jews, “Tennessee”
The unifying trend of the music I saw that really affected me in NYC this past weekend was a grappling with tradition, and they either hit it dead on, they transcended, or they flared out in a ball of irony and slavish imitation.
The Nouvellas, still running hot on last year’s self-titled debut record, played the tiny tiki bar Otto’s Shrunken Head on a Wednesday night for the twice-monthly Copycat night, this one themed toward bubblegum, with a set of half covers and half their originals drawn from the record. On their originals they take a more muscular, rougher tack, a little bit Buzzcocks powerpop, a little bit early ‘70s Stax not unlike Columbus’ Nick Tolford, but always with a sassy tongue in cheek.
Watching them in this format you realize that they aren’t just two great voices, two engaging frontwomen, but they might have the best dance-party rhythm section I’ve ever seen, and a guitarist who plays just enough, no bullshit shredding but knows when to turn the sweetness up and when to punk-chop the chords up.And their own songs have the kind of instantly memorable hooks that can stand alongside the well-chosen covers, including “Indian Giver” by the 1910 Fruitgum Company, “Sausalito” by the Ohio Express and especially their closer, “Little Willy” by Sweet. Corny? No doubt, and done with an awareness of that, but the winking didn’t derail the delivery, bouncy good time songs done because they were bouncy, good time songs. And there were moments when I could’ve sworn I was seeing the best no-frills rock show I’d seen in maybe ever.
The next day I caught up with Mary Halvorson’s Trio in the Jazz Gallery with Ches Smith on drums and John Hebert on bass, mostly dipping into their debut record as a unit from last year and a couple of brand new pieces. Every time I see Halvorson- and I’ve been seeing her for 7 or 8 years – her guitar tone’s more assured, sharper and her melodies more focused. And this has now pulled past her duo with Jessica Pavone as my favorite format to see her in. This is without a doubt her band, but it never feels like one soloist and two accompanists. Hebert’s bass lines you could ski down and his harmonies you don’t expect, Ches Smith’s color in his cymbal work, the way he shadows Hebert by rubbing the head of his snare, and the way both of them create an ever-shifting tectonic bed of rhythm for Mary to glide around in the cracks.
Friday we missed the Jay Vons but got to Southpaw in time for Budos Band. 10-pieces strong, with fewer horn players than when they played Columbus a few years ago, but more percussionists. The sharpness of the horn section consisting of bari sax and trumpet gave the melodies more urgency, less of the sweeter ‘60s soul of last time I saw them and even more of the late-‘60s Ethiopian bar band, with trading solos like throwing gasoline on the flames the rhythm section got started. The bass player perfect on those circular lines, a river through the percussion that reshaped the rocks and filled in the gaps, and the guitarist right there with him, for these 4-15 minute songs that never turned into mere jams, as much of the packed crowd danced as could without smashing someone into a wall. Perfect, sweaty ecstasy, with where no one walked out unhappy or not sore. I started nodding off on the train ride back, it was so damn good.
Finally hit a sour note on Saturday with the Hold Steady’s just-announced-a –week-before sell out at Bowery Ballroom. And I have my qualms about the bands’ material, most of Stay Positive rubbed me the wrong way. but they destroyed me live a couple of years ago and I thought a hometown crowd might change my mind on the songs that tweaked me. Well, it didn’t happen.
The problem I have with Hold Steady songs that seem to focus on a particular kind of loser is that it’s almost always a particular kind of female loser. And I’ve known those people all my life, the people still stuck at the party years after it’s not funny anymore, the people who never do anything but tell the same stories in the same bars for decades. And I’ve seen as many men in those situations as women. But by the man always being the point of view character, and the man never having any culpability or responsibility for the situation, is at best lazy writing. At worst, and taken in toto, is a kind of insidious misogyny, made all the more insidious by the band putting themselves across as literate, smart guys and therefore a literate, smart alternative to other music.
Beyond the lazy writing of the lyrics, the music also over time has incorporated more and more classic rock tropes but done in an overdone, funny way. Which works if you do it on one song. But when every third song turns into a half-assed Thin Lizzy intertwining guitar lines pastiche but with a less throaty singer, the tension there isn’t interesting. It’s wanting to have your classic rock fist pumping cake but keep your ironic distance you’re clinging to like a lifeboat. And while it might be unfair to brand a band by its fans? The songs that are borderline at best don’t get any better by a sea of backwards-baseball-cap-wearing dudes singing along to “In the bar light, she looked all right / In the daylight, she looked desperate” or “There’s always other boys / There’s always other boyfriends”.
By the time we walked out, it was 9:45 and the next thing we had tickets for wasn’t starting till 11:30 so we needed to get the taste of that out of our mouths. So onto Rodeo bar, and one of the best rockabilly singers the 1980s, Barrence Whitfield. Kind of a dull band, certainly not up to the standards of his classic Savages, but the sax player was righteous and as soon as Whitfield opened his mouth all was right in my world, the shouting of Little Richard, the snarling sexiness of Don Covay, and that scream completely his own, not even Screamin’ Jay Hawkins had such a perfect scream. Enough time for a shot of whiskey, a bottle of Dixie beer, and half an hour of stone jump blues/rockabilly classics, before walking down to the Jazz Standard.
Last show of the night at Jazz Standard with Don Byron on clarinet and Jason Moran on piano in the Ivey-Divey Trio, featuring Charli Persip on drums instead of Billy Hart. Impression I got was that Persip was new to the group – or may have even been filling in – since he only took one solo in the hour-plus set, but great beauty and joy nonetheless in probably the loosest set I’ve ever seen Moran or Byron play. Their interplay ranged from children at play, giddy tumbling and trying to one-up each other to the seriousness of chess grandmasters.
Obviously inspired by the the Lester Young/Nat “King” Cole/Buddy Rich trio of the same name, this is the kind of tribute that takes great liberties but is also done with immense love, not the gloomy elegy I discussed in an earlier blog. The Byron/Young analogue is more apparent now than when I first saw this band several years ago as his tenor sax tone has risen to the level of his clarinet tone and it really sounds like one voice singing in two registers. And Jason Moran is Nat Cole the way Cezanne is Michelangelo, shared DNA, no doubt, with the broken chords and the sweetness of tone, but both more abstract and more invested in the internal landscape. What made this all the more delightful was, after a gorgeous solo clarinet piece, Byron called his father up to play bass, and he ended up playing the entire set. Like I say, fun, and smart, and everything I always wish more traditional jazz was.
Sunday was another lesson in wonderful contrast and the difference between a great genre act and an act that blows the doors off genre. Met a friend of mine, who’s a great jazz guitarist, at the Lakeside Lounge, for some jukebox and bullshit, and the Ramblin’ Kind started at 9:00. Pitch-perfect honky-tonk country with a singer with a great voice and a dead-on guitarist and a great selection of songs, including Billy Joe Shaver’s “Black Rose” and Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis” (Solomon Burke singing that is one of the 10 great pairings of singer and song in all history). Nothing new, but if you like that stuff they do it better than 95% of the bands I’ve ever heard do it and a totally satisfying time if you’re looking for it.
After leaving the Lakeside, I saw the Amir El-Saffar/Hafez Modirzadeh Quarter with Mark Dresser on bass and Alex Cline on drums at Le Poission Rouge, rapidly becoming my favorite room in Manhattan to really listen to music. The show divided into two halves of more or less equal length, the first 12 “facets” of Modirzadeh’s “Radif-e Kahyan” and the second the 8 parts of El-Saffar’s “Copper Suite.”
Both compositions seemed incredibly interested in a locus where the natural ranges of all four instruments coincided, creating an opportunity for these gorgeous whirlpool drones that you could barely see your way out of. Modirzadeh’s also seemed to get a lot of juice out of that moment where ecstasy overloads and turns into melancholy and vice versa. El-Saffar’s was a little spikier, thick with sharp thorns and beautiful melodies not showing up or resolving where your ear’s expecting them to, but once you got it it was like you’d run a mile for the first time, that full-chest gladness and exhilaration.
Taking the classic Ornette Coleman – or, if you’d like, John Zorn’s Masada – quartet format and its ability to contain Ginsberg-style long lines and messy beauty and four players more than equal to the task, the El-Saffar/Modirzadeh group laid waste to anything I’d seen before. Not just that weekend, but ever, for at least a minute. While I was watching it, I couldn’t come up with any comparisons, just drifting into the middle of the sound, and you can’t ask for any more than that.