Friday, July 2, 2010

Getting Swept Away By Leah Siegel

Leah Siegel is plugged in, charged up and going for gold. The sultry lady of song has of late been going through a transitional phase with her music, one which she confesses she would’ve done six years ago if she’d had the money, the time and, well, the balls.

Well now she’s got ‘em. The last thing she seems, in fact, is scared. When she throws back her head, opens her mouth and releases sounds with such abandon and passion, she seems downright indomitable.

The new stage at Rockwood Music Hall was a jungle of twisting cords, plugs and pedals when Leah and her band took over on July 1st. The set was a mix of stirring new songs and reworked Leah Siegel classics, with techno beats, reverberating guitar chords and vocal looping thrown in. The sound was intoxicating, grabbing at heartstrings while also tempting feet to tap and heads to nod all of their own volition. The songs are more complex musically now, with layer upon layer of synthesizers, percussion, guitar lines and vocal echoes by way of a secondary small microphone and a mixing board. They are still dark and melancholy, full of irony and angst, but now there’s an element of groove where once there was mostly rock and blues.

But it is still Leah’s voice that makes your jaw drop and sends shivers down your spine. Her emotional purging is practically contagious, which is what makes her music so irresistible. It’s as if everything else disappears when she opens her mouth and wails. And yet she melts right in to the cacophony around her, building on its energy, its crescendos, its power. Like one organism, the band breathing and moving together, the sounds swelling and rolling off the stage.

Don’t be surprised when it sweeps you up in it, as it inevitably will. You may never be free of Leah Siegel again, and that is a good thing.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Secret No More

It was the early show on a Wednesday night at the Mercury Lounge. April Smith and the Great Picture Show were back home after an adventure-filled tour, playing to a room filled past capacity.

This is a band with gigs lined up at SXSW. This is a band with a song that was featured on’s “Song of the Day”. This is a band branded as “One of 30 Bands to Watch” at Lollapalooza by Rolling Stone. With all of these accolades, you may be wondering a few things about these Brooklynites: Where have they been hiding? How have I missed them? And where are they headed?

The band’s stylistic choice of suits, ties and fedoras compliments the swinging nature of their music, a throwback to days when cigarette smoke hovered everywhere and things looked better in black and white. Smith is notorious for flamboyant dresses with short ruffled skirts, but don’t be fooled by her coquettish wardrobe, her pixie cut bangs or her dimples. This little lady is a rockstar and boasts a voice you will not believe.

The band’s music has an alluring balance and use of minor notes, crescendos and staccato rhythms. Likewise, Smith colors her vocals with an occasional cry or slide, and there is a strange Gwen Stefani-like shade to her sound at times, particularly in the haunting ballad, “Dixie Boy” (although I have no doubt that Smith could sing circles around Stefani).

The vibrant complexity of the songs is rounded out by Nick D'Agostino (like a contemporary mobster) on drums, Brandon Lowry on keys and accordion, Stevens on bass (both electric and upright) and Marty O’Kane on lead guitar and mandolin (played with uncanny vigor).

Halfway through the set, Smith declared: “I think it’s time to dance. I think a Charleston is in order.” And it was. Until, that is, Smith unleashed that extraordinary voice with its soaring resonance and effortless power, which instantly stopped you dead in your tracks, sending shivers up your spine.

At the end of the set, I overheard a man comment: She was on fire tonight! Which begged the question in my mind: When is she not? I have a feeling that any time April Smith performs, no matter how many times you’ve seen her, she leaves you thinking the same thing: Damn. Who is this girl and where did she come from?

Photo by Gavin Thomas from a show at the Bowery Ballroom

Friday, March 5, 2010

Tally Hall. Unplugged.

“I don’t know if this helps,” Zubin Sedghi offers as he tilts the microphone towards Rob Cantor’s guitar.

“Probably not, since I played that wrong anyway,” Cantor replies.

(It also didn’t help because the mike wasn’t on.)

Halfway through their set at Bowery Ballroom, the men of Michigan band Tally Hall announced from the stage that the next song would be their last. People checked their watches; this seemed very odd. Concurrently, a man with a trumpet began making his way from backstage through the crowd and up to the balcony. Also odd. Three minutes later, the congenial musicians were following the trumpeter’s lead, as a recorded voice played over the sound system, gently encouraging the audience to take a seat on the floor. (And don’t think too much about how dirty it may be.) Murmurs and giggles broke out and the crowd obeyed, eagerly and earnestly. Amidst all the excitement, the band began setting up shop on the ballroom floor.

Illuminated by an array of floor lamps, four men of Tally Hall, along with special late addition and stand-in, Casey Shea, began the second half of their set tucked under the balcony on the side of the Bowery Ballroom floor. They were unamplified, whether they knew it or not (my bet is they didn’t), which required a greater focus from the audience and also allowed for every individual voice to be heard floating around the now intimate feeling space. Unexpectedly, the rock concert suddenly turned into a sing-a-long (with an occasional trumpet blasting from above). The only thing missing was the campfire.

Those of us unfortunate ones who didn’t know the songs or the words had to strain to pick up the complexity of the compositions, but the creative ambience made our efforts more than worth it. It felt as if these guys had invited hundreds of us over to sit in their living room while they played some ditties they’d been working on. Despite the technical difficulties (or perhaps thanks to them), the performance was a novel and singular experience of the band's contagious music that will not be easily forgotten or replicated.

Photo courtesy of the band's Myspace

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Good Graces of Grace McLean

Reclining on pillows at the foot of a grand piano, being serenaded by the ever impulsive yet soothing, honeyed voice of Grace McLean is one of the more perfect ways to spend a winter’s Sunday afternoon.

On Sunday, February 7th, for a piece aptly titled “Living Room Experience”, McLean had turned a black box theater into a space so warm and comfortable, complete with paper lanterns strewn across the floor and a floor lamp by the piano, that it was redolent of being in a friend’s living room. The show was part of an ongoing singer/songwriter series called Music with a View at the Flea Theater in Tribeca. The event is defined as a “lab-like space” that is “dedicated to nurturing new works and to the free exchange of ideas, thoughts and opinions between artists and the audience”.

McLean capitalized on this idea of a relationship with the audience by encouraging her attentive crowd to join her in breath exercises during her self-imposed “Intermission”, as well as asking them to close their eyes to let the images of a song titled “The Dream” wash over their imaginations. She also invited the eager young men and women to share a secret with their neighbor before launching into her “Secret Song” and the room momentarily erupted in whispers and giggles reminiscent of a child’s sleepover.

Her rapidly percussive songs, delivered with the utmost vocal control and perfect diction, were accompanied by Justin Goldner on bass and Hiroyuki Matsuura on percussion. The instrumentation of her music is subtle; a gentle background to her dynamic voice and clever, story-driven lyrics.

“I’m in love with my friend’s roommate/ I hope that he’s not gay/ Keep in mind it wouldn’t be the first time affections have wandered that way”

The series was the perfect forum for an artist like McLean who is an innately charming performer with sharp comic timing and an ease that makes her irresistible. One song flowed swiftly into the next, introduced by witty remarks and closed promptly with a simple ‘Thank you’. Her show left you longing to recreate those feelings of peace and bliss at home in your own living room. It would surely be much easier if Ms. McLean could be a permanent fixture next to the sofa.

Photo courtesy of artists' myspace page

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

ban*ter |ˈbantər|

There are moments in most live musical sets that more or less require some sort of dialogue, or banter, on the part of the musicians. The smaller the setting, the closer the audience, the more necessary the banter seems. The truth is that this act of bantering is almost as much of an art as the music-playing itself and yet many musicians seem to lack the requisite skills.

The Banter is important because it effects the momentum of the set: it can either interrupt it or it can drive it forward. It could be said there are even musical elements to it: a harmonious balance, a cadence, a duration. The problem many musicians run into is a lack of intuition with this bantering. They may talk too much, or not enough; they may tell random stories from their day or their lives that come across as purely irrelevant; worst of all they may try to make jokes and fail. There’s probably a reason you are a musician and not a comedian, my friend (Although, for the record, Steve Martin in the company of his Banjo Band has the art of Banter DOWN).

All that being said, when musicians rock the art of the Banter, they stand a cut above the rest. They are suddenly performers, not simply music-makers.

A prime example can be found in the trio that is The Spring Standards: James, Heather and James. The most impressive part of their relationship, and consequently their banter, is that it feels genuinely collaborative. No one seems to be the ring leader and no one is trying to steal the spotlight. It is Banter, in the true sense of the word. It is playful, relaxed, endearing, completely comfortable yet totally unplanned. They finish each other’s sentences and make impromptu puns off of each other’s remarks, as well as off of comments from the audience. They are in tune with one another’s senses of humor and at the same time it is clear that they respect and enjoy each other.

As a result, we, the audience are charmed by these three incredibly talented musicians. A wall is broken down that separates them, the rock stars, from us, the civilians. Our hearts open and we trust them. We want to hear every word they say and every note they play. Which is lucky for us because The Spring Standards’ music (around the Banter) is even more enchanting than the banter itself (hence our reason for being at a music set and not an improv show).

So can an excellent musician be terrible at banter? Or can a band with sharp and witty banter play unappealing music? Most likely. But without some level of proficiency in both, they may never be truly great performers.

**Don't miss The Spring Standards in action again at Rockwood Music Hall on Tuesday February 9 at 8 pm**

Photo credit: Jeffrey Augustine Songco, from the band's Myspace