From Oddball Country to Underbelly Cabaret:
In New York (Part 8142)

Martin Longley takes in skewed country, intensoid rock'n'roll, showbiz surf, all-nite Senegal and pumping New Orleans street bands in his final report of 2007 from New York's live music circuit

By Martin Longley

 Photo showing Bonerama.
The final quarter of 2007, around New York City. Where shall we go, picking from the unutterable abundance? To witness one of the most skewed country songsmiths from down south? To stare at a tall, demonic German woman sprawling over not only her piano, but her audience? To cast any questions we ever wanted at our chosen performer, filling his onstage glass jar with screwed-up notes, which he'll burrow into, between songs? Well, as it happens, all three lusts could be fulfilled at a single venue: Joe's Pub, which is quite close to Astor Place, a cosy carbuncle on the side of The Public Theater, replete with ambient subway subsonics.

For most of his set, Lubbock resident (that's in Texas, cowherders!) Terry Allen kept things even more minimal than usual, singing and playing pseudo-piano with just his multi-instrumentalist son Bukka for company. Actually, he's now only found in Lubbock sporadically, but it sure feels good when it rolls off the tongue. With between-numbers rambling japery, and the storytelling that goes on inside his actual songs, Allen has no trouble with varying the tone of his superbly entertaining tales, using his keys as an extension of his voice, Bukka fibrillating busily on the accordion. For the climax, David Byrne hops up onstage, he who gave Allen an introduction to many folks worldwide, with his inclusion in the True Stories movie experience, back in 1986. Not many cowboys are also conceptual artists, and I'm not referring to Byrne here...

Cabaret singer Ute Lemper had been playing a few gigs in town recently, as part of Carnegie Hall's Berlin In Lights season, necessarily highlighting the seedy Weimar Republic side of her repertoire. For her Joe's Pub shows, she took a swerve towards the French café side of the rue, though these songs are thankfully just as decadent. An imposing figure indeed, Lemper towers over the lesser mortals in her band (and in the audience), declaiming across an abyss-like vocal range, projecting so powerfully, but in her own mind, maybe not, as Ute feels the urge to more intimately commune with her crowd, swishing out to have dialogue, sitting on unknown laps, lashing her crimson boa with dangerous intent (an amusing portion of the set is taken up with the imagined, nay, surely authentic, history of said article, the notorious hands it's grubbily passed through down the decades).

For those who have thrilled to Soul Coughing, one of the most individualist combos active during the 1990s, it was beneficial to seek out their chief composer, M Doughty, who's been touring and recording as a solo artist over the last decade. In the UK, his profile hasn't seemed so significant, but here in New York, Mike (for that is his full forename) carries a hearty fan-base, openly acquainted with his oeuvre. He keeps it simple, just voice and guitar, partnered by Scrap Livingstone, who mostly sticks to cello. The soundscape is completely different to that of the old, densely-sample-loaded Soul Coughing, completely singer-songwriter in its orientation. But Doughty keeps the kinks present via his wordage, which is still operating out in unlikely directions. The songs would be sufficient, but Mike adds nightly interest by touring as The Question Jar Show, which allows him to field a loopy Q&A session with his friendly gang of followers. They just bung their queries in his onstage jar, and M will either answer from the heart, or screw 'em up and fling 'em.

Of course, there are other haunts in NYC, besides Joe's Pub, and The Knitting Factory is another frequent choice. Fans of German improvisatory rhythm-loopers Can (from the days before today's looping began) might be slightly wary of checking out old vocalist Damo Suzuki, whose latterday activities have seemed a touch variable. This was the first occasion that I'd sought out his live presence, and I was (perhaps surprisingly) not disappointed. On the contrary, I was elated. From city to city, this shag-maned shaman seeks out sympathetic souls with whom to improvise. He has a band in every town, it seems. Fortunately, Suzuki's NYC combo benefited from the presence of two Akron/Family players in its already super-charged ranks. Talk about repeated climaxing! They kept it tumescent all nite long, scaling up to a zombie riff, towering, then juddering down into a slumbering psychotic prowl, before (yes!), building it all up again, this time even higher. It seemed like three hours, and it nearly was. Ample time to quaff Belgian beer and ponder upon 1972.

On another night, at said venue, it was possible to catch two gigs at once, by careening up and down the stairs that separate its Main Space from its Tap Room. The lower latter had R Stevie Moore already ensconced, opening up for Jad Fair, he previously of naive-tantrum-as-profundity post-punks 1/2 Japanese. Moore's a geezer who I was only dimly aware of, but undoubtedly he's the grizzled mentor-figure of mind-off-the-leash types like Jeffrey Lewis and Daniel Johnston, holding court behind his cranky plastic keyboard, strumming guitar too. He's the complete antithesis of what many folks would believe to be harmonious, loosely venting, with the kind of backwoods charisma that obviates the need for conventional things like being 'in tune'. Over the decades, Moore has been an obsessive releaser of cassettes (and lately CD-Rs). He succeeds by completely defining his own subjective universe, and this ends up being an inviting porch indeed.

But, 'twas Jad Fair I came to see, now operating in duo form with the marvellously versatile Lumberob. At first, their only weapons are microphones, but what an apeshitty din they can make! Fair splutters his forever-teenage lyrics, whilst Lumberob vocally beatboxes, doing his own spluttering, in an excessively agile fashion. He's sampling as he goes, setting up repeat-beats over which he layers up more. As if this wasn't resourceful enough to take up the whole show, Lumberob then straps on a guitar, and the duo's joined by a drummer, suddenly swerving from avant hip hop into staccato punk. Eventually, Jad steals his own guitar and things get closer to the old 1/2 Japanese. His every mannerism beautifully communicates a restless sharing of knowledge with the audience regarding the innate stupidity of live performance. They rock in unstoppable fashion. Heads fly. Upstairs, there's even more bangin' goin' down, but of a very different kind. Marc Ribot has played guitar for The Lounge Lizards, Tom Waits and John Zorn, but he's obviously feeling a burning desire to re-awaken the overloaded spasming of his punk youth, sculpting Ceramic Dog as one of several alternative outlets, in this case, designed for unleashing the savagely primordial and bruisingly loud end of his rectal scope. So wide is Ribot's sonic taste, he can also be found acoustically clanking and clunking on the recent collaboration between Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. This Ceramic Dog guitar/drums/bass (doubling ripping Moog) trio doesn't so much offer any headbanging opportunities, but more of a stunned staring into the pirouetting white noise abyss, frozen in terror at their hyper-complex routines.

Speaking of our ten favourite axemen, trust Robert Fripp to winkle out a highly unlikely venue, in which to bring forth his League Of Crafty Guitarists. He's chosen the Concert Hall, at the New York Society For Culture (a humanist religious community), right adjacent to Central Park. It's a beguiling old building with wondrous acoustics (and woodwork), all the better for Fripp to bounce around his abstract soundscapes, with which he opens this evening. Certainly, this descendant from his Frippertronics techniques seems to dominate Robert's live appearances these days, but tonite he's presenting the League Of Crafty Guitarists, a gathering that used to give the impression of serving under his leadership, but who now appear to have a more independent existence. They file on, and take their seats in a neat semi-circle, sending waves of neck-gesturing around their ranks as they dance out silvered acoustic cascades of closely-nestled rhythm phrases. Fripp tantalises by actually playing some electric guitar lines (or even riffs), something which he so rarely favours nowadays. Beaming and avuncular, Bob gives the impression that he's really enjoying playing right now, and we, of course, definitely enjoyed receiving him.

A few less axes are involved in The Ventures, but these old Americans still qualify as a bit of a guitar band. Almost all of the original 1960s line-up is intact, and they're holding court in a full-up BB King's Blues Club, not so very far distant from Times Square. They were the kings of instrumental surf, and they rattle through most of their hits, with none lasting more than one minute and forty-two seconds. Unfortunately, it's difficult to sandblast thoughts of Dick Dale and Link Wray from the cranium, players of similar age and style who maintained a severe sonic chunder right into their oldest days. The Ventures sound comparatively polite, but it's still an honour to be in the same space as this iconic twangerama. Dale and Wray sported torn leather. The Ventures have flowers on their Hawaiian shirts.

Still a stone's throw from Times Square, it was quite odd to find the Nokia Theatre (one of New York's 'biggest' venues, turning out fairly cosy, once inside) transformed into a micro-Senegal for its almost all-nite Youssou N'Dour gig. In most European cities, we'd have found a multi-hued audience that wavered predominantly towards the whitey side, but here it's clear that almost all attendees are representatives of the NYC Senegalese community. Mister N'Dour isn't even speaking in English. He must be finding this a strange experience too. This is as close as we'll get (outside of Dakar) to seeing him sing in club-sized quarters, and his usually vast voice flies even higher inside these smaller walls. Just when ear-fatigue is growing after a couple of hours, I glide frontwards, and the the whole atmosphere is (subjectively) recharged. Dancing ensues, and Youssou heads towards his final climax, topping three hours, but not quite reaching the full Senegalese definition of 'all-nite'.

Walk up Broadway, and we can step down to the basement haunt of Iridium, finding Elliott Sharp's Terraplane hard at work, delivering their own slant on the blues. Sharp is a guitarist usually found in the freely improvising corner, but he's also been running this combo for a decade or more, shafting rock, blues and jazz up the same sphincter, also playing alto saxophone and pedal steel. The ace in this band's hole is having Eric Mingus as one of its singers, who must surely be nearly as threatening as his father Charles, possessing a huge onstage mien, an emotionally searing voice with a massive range. Meanwhile, Sharp provides the always-hooking riffs. This was a difficult night, in terms of audience attendance, but by the second set, Terraplane had managed some kind of triumph.

Down some stairs again, at Club Midway in the Lower East Side, Sunburned Hand Of The Man were beginning their hippy happening. Don't you just loathe it when a band (or mixerman) can't get their act together in time, and consequently subject the audience to a gratingly endless soundcheck? Well, this shadowy collective did just that, but there was little in the way of a break as they metamorphosed into their improvised set-proper (heh heh). Yes, when compared to the experienced noise-shapers of a free jazz combo, this bunch of ill-disciplined rockers seemed quite slack, but then after a while, they'd lock into a turbid riff, and the ceiling would begin to quake. The vocals might be too dominant, too uninventive and too flat, but there were soon to be some consolations in terms of guitar freak-out gradients and locked-jaw rhythm cycles.

On a lighter note, December peaked out by providing two consecutive nights of New Orleans street bands, both stepping indoors. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band are the best-known of all such combos, but every time I catch them, they seem more removed from their heritage, less jazzy, and more rock festival orientated. This might not be such a bad state of affairs. We can't have a band locked into stasis, but here at the Highline Ballroom, everything seems a touch too slick, as if the guys are just steamrollering through their pre-programmed moves. The New Orleans base is inflated by strong funk, hip hop and rock elements, all expertly played, but something was missing, at least until their last dash towards the finish. The Dirty Dozen had better watch their butts. The following night, at The Lion's Den in Greenwich Village, the mighty Bonerama were hefting their weights over two spectacular sets, demonstrating how to keep hold of the greasy New Orleans root at the same time as whipping out unlikely cover versions of Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Black Sabbath and The Beatles. Yes, believe me: the Crescent City aroma is still pungent, regardless, which is some mean feat. Four trombones are hoisted high, a sousaphone harumphing behind, with colossal guitar solos torn out by Bert Cotton. Bonerama are currently one of the best thinking person's (and unthinking too!) partying outfits on the planet, but their gigs seem to be puzzlingly sporadic outside of New Orleans itself...
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