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