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