Sunday, November 16, 2008

Benefit for Threads that Teach, November 15, 2008

I think it's cool that Ben has decided to turn some Sidewalk nights into benefits for local organizations. It is very easy to be righteous about the importance of helping other people or creating change, but it is hard to actually do something about it. I was glad to have had the opportunity to help this group a little bit last night.

Emily Hope Price
I arrived at the end of Emily Hope Price's set. She uses one of those digital loop machines that let you record a little phrase of music and then instantly turn it into a loop. The loop becomes like an accompaniment to whatever you want to play on top of it. I've always been skeptical about the idea of using recorded music as a backing to live performance, but these machines do allow for some interesting possibilities, and it's a little different than using a straight backing track. I think, for example, it would be cool to build up layers and layers of percussion. So, getting back to Emily, she plays the cello and was able to loop a phrase that became like a bass line to her song. She also played a song on the accordion, which she said was the first time she'd played the accordion in a show. I'm sorry that I didn't get to hear more of Emily and that I was sort of settling in during what I did hear. She has a nice sound and has an interesting approach to the cello. More at a later time.

Jason Trachtenburg
Jason Trachtenburg came on stage with a scarf wrapped around his head, kind of like those bandages you see in old pictures after people left the dentist's office. Jason is very funny and usually spends a lot of time on stage setting up and joking around, which is really part of his act. Last night he said he was going to read some poems, which turned out to be a couple comedic bits, including one about trying to find his chapstick. The shows I've seen of Jason's lately have all featured this song "Everybody Loves the Clown." It's kind of a take off on "Make Them Laugh" from "Singing in the Rain." He'll usually perform it in English and then in some kind of awkwardly rendered translation in another language. After having heard this numerous times now I must say the whole thing is a bit surreal, which come to think of it, maybe is part of the point. Jason also played "All for the Sake of Art," and the ultra-catchy "I Don't Want to Tempt Time," plus a song he wrote with Julie LaMendola called "Giving Kisses." I like the idea of "giving kisses like it ain't nothing."

The Fools
I truly love The Fools, both as a group and as individuals. I must admit that when they first started hanging out at Sidewalk two or three years ago, my expectations of how they would sound, based on seeing them around, were totally off base. I think I expected some sort of raging punk act, but found instead a repertoire of delicate, beautiful, heartfelt songs. One of them, "Even Fools Know," which they played last night perfectly captures how I feel about many aspects of life today. There's a great line "you can't grow a tree by screaming at seeds." Their songs are short, but they say a lot. I also have always loved that they play a song in appreciation of mothers (and fathers too), another that they did last night. There is something very lovely about Jen's voice. It's a little husky and has a hint of a twang to it, but suits her songs just right. I think that Uchenna's bass lines mostly come from instinct and messing around, but whatever the case, what she's doing is very musical and melds really well with Jen's singing and playing. Last night The Fools tried a couple new songs, which they aborted mid-stream. I think the same thing happened when they launched into them the other night at the Open Mic. Looking forward to hearing those songs in their entirety soon. One of my earliest photo sessions was with The Fools, and I have always loved the pictures that came out of it. Plus we had a lot of fun that day. The one of them nested in the yin and yang pose is still a favorite of mine, but I also like the one of them with their dog. You can see them here: Foolish Photos.

The Venn Diagrams
I have enjoyed The Venn Diagrams on many levels when I've seen them previously. They perform a number of cover tunes, many of which are drawn from the musical theatre or related areas. The group usually comprises a duo, but last night it was just Jeffrey, who mostly accompanied himself on ukelele. Jeffrey is a very talented guy with a beautiful voice that can soar when he wants it to.  He played one of my favorite songs last night, "That Man That Got Away," a Harold Arlen/Ira Gershwin song from the movie "A Star is Born." He also played some songs on piano, including one or two originals. A related story: when my twelve year old nephew visited me about a year ago, I took him straight to Sidewalk (literally it was our first stop from the airport). I'd been talking to him about the place a lot and he is into performing himself so wanted to see it. We came in during the middle of a Venn Diagrams set in which Jeffrey was wearing something like a man's shirt and tie, and a dress and women's high heels. My nephew took it very much in stride, I must say. Also playing that night was Dan Fishback among other acts. The next day, while touring around New York, we went to the Tenement Museum, and as we walked into the gift shop, the first person we saw was Jeffrey, who works there at the ticket counter. And (drum roll) that night we went to see Avenue Q and Dan Fishback was sitting two rows behind us with his parents.

Elastic No No Band
Next up last night Elastic No No Band, that is. I thought the set went pretty well. There was a lot of good energy and things held together decently. I thought my piano playing came together ok, even with Preston Spurlock's arm pit in my face for much of the show. One thing about Elastic No No that's been good for me is having the opportunity to learn how to be part of a rock band. I never was in bands when I was younger or had much instruction in this style of playing so I have to figure things out as I go. Part of it is just having the confidence to go for something without really knowing if it's "right" per se. We did a lot of the usual ENB tunes although Justin added a cover of Warren Zevon's Excitable Boy, which was a lot of fun to play. I have to give a lot of credit to our drummer Doug Johnson for helping to raise the energy. So far I don't think Justin has been reading these posts, but there's one thing I do have to discuss with him, which has to do with his song Manboobs. Somehow the guy has written like four or five verses on the subject. I do appreciate the depth of his interest in the topic, but that is just a little too much manboob for my taste. Justin I think it's time to cut one of those verses.

Holy Ghost Tent Revival
We were followed by The Holy Ghost Tent Revival, a group on tour from North Carolina. They featured a guitarist who played acoustic, a guy on banjo who seemed to take the lead on most of the vocals, a trombonist, a bass player and a drummer. There was a bit of a retro feel to their look and their music but not as much as you'd expect from their name. They played rock with a kind of frenetic energy that had people up and dancing at one point. But even with all the energy I had a bit of a hard time connecting to the heart of their songs (although that may take some further listening). The house at Sidewalk was pretty full last night and I get the sense that much of the audience was made up of their fans.

The Telethons
I am a big fan of  The Telethons. They have some superior songs, plus I am always impressed how well they work as a duo. Having played with John Telethon a bit I know that he has some of the most robust musical skills of anyone on the scene, and Mark is a solid and creative drummer. Of the songs they played last night, I really like "Chord Chord (or whatever that one is really called), "Never Satisfied," and the part of "I am not the Expert" where he's going over and over "it's getting to the point, where I can't tolerate myself." I'll have to write about The Telethons in a bit more depth some time, because I think there is a lot that's interesting about what they do, particularly their reflection (conscious or not) of a kind of nerd rock, punk, new wave thing. I must say that John knows how to build tension by letting his glasses slip perilously close to the end of his nose before pushing them back up. After several rounds of this last night he finally flung them off and they stayed on the stage where the next level of tension came from whether he would step on them or not (he eventually picked them up before any irreversible crunching occurred).

Jeffrey Lewis
It was nice to see Jeffrey Lewis as the "special guest" who closed last night's show. Jeff played some newer songs and also performed three of his large comic book movie things. He said that from the songs he'd planned on playing that people were going to think he was more depressed than he really was. One of them was about eating alone in a restaurant and another about what happens after you die. His comic movies were his biography of Barack Obama, a film noir detective movie, and a very interesting history of Korea. I was impressed with the detail in that last one, and I also learned a lot from it. It only goes up to 1949 although Jeff indicated he still wanted to develop it further. Of the handful of folks who started at Sidewalk and ultimately developed successful careers in music Jeff is the only one who still comes back to play and hang out regularly. I wasn't around during the heyday of Jeff's time at Sidewalk so I've been absorbing his stuff more recently, but it's easy to see how he's developed a following. I've also been enjoying the pieces on songwriting that he's been writing for the New York Times blog Measure for Measure.

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