Thursday, December 24, 2009

Kirk Kelly, Go Man Go Antifest, December 19, The Studio at Webster Hall

I suppose I was seeking the holy grail of Antifolk the other night at Kirk Kelly's show recognizing the 20th anniversary of his record Go Man Go. The show on December 19 at Webster Hall's studio space, featured short sets from an extensive assortment of songwriters, including Kirk, Roger Manning, and Lach, who were among the crew of rejects from Folk City who in the mid 1980s came together around what they dubbed Antifolk.

However, it seems you can't go back in time. When I started coming around in 2004 and first became aware of the term Antifolk, to me it was connected to artists like The Moldy Peaches, Jeffrey Lewis, Major Matt, Nellie McKay, and Regina Spektor, where the seriousness of their songwriting was often balanced by a screwy, sideways perspective.

I always thought there was a straight line from those artists back to the early days of Lach, Kirk, Roger et al, but maybe that path wasn't as direct as I imagined. Much of what I heard the other night -- particularly from Kirk in the various configurations in which he played -- seemed tied more to traditional folk than to what I had associated with "Antifolk." Kirk's songs range over a variety of styles but two areas around which they tend to focus are labor and traditional Irish music. He expresses his political views fairly directly and I see connections to Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and others who were at the root of the "folk" genre. In fact Kirk covered a tune by another beloved "folk" stalwart, Phil Ochs.

One of the problems is that from the vantage point of today some of the distinctions in styles that were evident in the 1980s have blurred. Whatever was considered "folk" then very well must have clashed with the more strident, rebellious style of Kirk, Lach et al. But what happened after these antifolkers came together? Things centered around Lach's loft, then a variety of outposts such as Sophie's and the Chameleon. Then Lach went away for a year or something.

I have no way of really validating this but it is my sense that it was when he came back and established things at Sidewalk that a newer wave of songwriters associated with the later "Antifolkers" started forming. Now's the moment for that nagging "What is Antifolk?' question. It's really impossible to define what it was about that late 90s period that stands out so much and I hate lumping people together in categories. But without a doubt there was some kind of common sensibility running through the place that drew like-minded songwriters.

The differentiation was illustrated the other night when Jeff Lewis took the stage. For example, he played Will Oldham Horror one of his long, wordy patter-type songs, which mixes his ruminations about a life as an artist with a scene of being assaulted and raped by Will Oldham. What the fuck. To me this is a quite different angle than the kind of protest songs I heard from Kirk and the more straightforward styles of some of the other artists on the bill.

So, I'm suggesting there was a break in continuity between two periods, but in fact that's not entirely true, because, of course, the thread through it all was Lach. Lach created the atmosphere for all of this and with his personality and his own songwriting drew the people who came to play. So ultimately there IS a lineage to which we are all connected, one that continues today under the stewardship of Bee K. I still think it's a great scene and I'm glad to be part of the stream that runs from the 80s to now.

All that said, a bit more about what actually happened at the show the other night:

First off, I arrived early when some sort of filming of postmodern circus-y vaudeville performers was going on. All these slightly surreal yet spangly circus outfits clashed quite strongly with the rumpled Antifolk performers who were getting set up.

I quite enjoyed hearing Lach and Kirk play together (photo at right). They didn't quite announce themselves as The Folk Brothers, but I understand that's how they used to bill themselves. They gave a zesty performance with songs like Cigarettes and Whisky and a cool interpreation of the Velvet Underground's Femme Fatale.

There was a very solid sort of house band made up of John Kruth on mandolin and guitar, Dave Dreiwitz on bass, and Billy Figg on drums. They accompanied John S. Hall in what was essentially a cool country set, with songs like I'm Busted and Wallflower. I asked Lach if John had always been a country act and he sort of chuckled and explained that what he'd done with King Missile was more like spoken word over heavy metal. They also played with Lach and with Kirk and (I think) others throughout the night.

Erin Regan and Debe Dalton both played beautiful sets. Debe played a new song that she'd written during her time out of NYC. I have to hear it again to get the full gist--it has to do with missing her friends here in the City--and it seems as exquisite as anything else the young lass has written.

I really liked Kirk's song Go Man Go. He performs it with a ton of energy and chants out "Go Man Gooooouugghh" in this dramatic way. I will have to track down a copy of the disc.

Jeff Lewis did a couple of his illustrated movies--one about the Cuban Missle Crisis and another about the voyage of the Mayflower. He also played his "I Love Antifolk" song, sung to the tune of "I Love Rock n' Roll." I have to track down the lyrics to that. It was during Jeff's set that sloppy drunk girls started drifting in from Webseter Hall's upstairs rooms and disrupting things. Thankfully they soon moved on.

Kruth et al also played a set of their own which was pretty funky. Shows what you can do with a mandolin if you set your mind to it.

The complete bill--in the order they played as best as I recorded it, comprised: Roger Manning, Joe Hurley, Lach and Kirk, John S. Hall, Erin Regan, Kirk (solo), Debe Dalton, Lach (solo), Mike Rimbaud, Jeffrey Lewis, John Kruth, and Kirk again (with Paddy on the Railway[?]).

By the way, it was lightly snowing when we entered Webster Hall's studio around 7 p.m. There was a blizzard under way when we left well after midnight. A bunch of us ended up at a sports bar hunkering down with some fried food and beer.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Best ofs for Sidewalk Alums?

My survey is anything but comprehensive, but so far the only Sidewalk alum I've seen appear in a major best of list is Nellie McKay, whose album Normal as Blueberry Pie was chosen by Ben Ratliff in the Times.

Any others?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Stolen from Lastup Larry @ OJ Board - Monday Night Open Mic, December 14, 2009

I couldn't make it to Sidewalk last Monday. Lastup Larry wrote a report over at the OJ Board. Sounds like I should've been there....

LastUpLarry's Report

Monday, December 14, 2009

Kirk Kelly's Big Show at Webster Hall- Go Man Go 20th Anniversary

If you're interested in the heritage of our little community of songwriters, you can't do better than the event upcoming this Saturday at Webster Hall, which celebrates the 20th Anniversary of Kirk Kelly's record Go Man Go. The extensive bill includes performances by Kirk, Lach, and Roger Manning, three of the folks who launched the Antifolk movement in the early/mid-1980s. Also performing are our friends Jeff Lewis, Debe Dalton, and Erin Regan--as well as John S. Hall--a figure whose name I've often seen referenced but have never had a chance to hear perform. Others on the bill are Joe Hurley, John Kruth, and Mike Rimbaud, and I've heard mumbled gossip that other folks have been invited to play. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. The event benefits the Artist Worker Action League. It starts at 6:30 or 7 p.m., depending on which part of Webster Hall's web site you believe. For more info:

Monday Night Open Mic, December 7, 2009

Can you tell me why people from Holland are referred to as Dutch? Shouldn't they be Hollanders or something (see below).

Ben Krieger brought in a theremin and kicked things off by using it on a couple of his standard tunes..There's a Squid on My Head and Mom and Dad play Rock and Roll.

Brian Speaker played a cool song that was called something like "And God Said," which I think he might have writen for the Bushwick Book Club's Bible Evening.

Ariel Bitran asked Ben to join him and accompany him on theremin. They played Deep Blue Lake, one of Ariel's songs based on Zelda and another called (maybe) You're Mr. Right. Anyway--I think it was on the first song Ben played an awesome theremin solo and the theremin throughout the song was cool.

A group I'd never heard called Historic District Commission consisted of a lead singer with two acoustic guitarists backing him up. They were pretty good--nice work from the guy who mostly played lead guitar and a nice sound from the vocalist.

Jason Trachtenberg played--and spoke about his group called The Pendulum Swings--his new big band.

Domino--I loved her song about Mo Pitkins closing-- ah hah, ah hah, ah hah, ah hah, ah hah...

I performed in here somewhere--not sure of the order. It had been a while since I'd played on a Monday and I wanted to get out there a bit. On the spur of the moment I decided to use the theremin, which I worked into my song "Fishes." Although it might have gone better if rehearsed, I'm kind of glad to reach the point where I don't mind experimenting on stage. It's a long distance from where I started when I first played Sidewalk.

GI Dave-was back-hadn't seen him in a long while.

I still haven't been able to catch their names, but for the second time I noticed two sisters, who sing primarily in spanish--they started with a song called Baile (dance) in which one of the sisters accompanied the other on guitar-- and then the one who handled vocals on the first song played John Lennon's Imagine by herself on the piano.

Master Lee appeared with his backup group--comprised of Ariel Bitran and Touching You--who were introduced as "Chink Floyd." Many cracks from the audience followed, including something like Dark Side of the Sun Yung Moon, and playing the Great Wall.

For the next set an acoustic guitar sat on stage in a spotlight while Lach vocalized what the guitar might be thinking while waiting to be played--a fun anthropomorphic moment...Lach then appeared on stage and played This Ain't a Song and Men Don't Come Back.

Josh the magician--I was glad to hear there was a magician on the list. Josh was kind of goofy, reading this comedy stuff he'd written which featured a lot of words written backward. He did a trick with a dollar bill in which he transformed a normal bill into one which looked like it had been cut into quarters and reassembled with the sections scrambled. He then magically transformed it back to a regular dollar. Later Josh entertained with some trick at the bar and he and I got into a long conversation about magic. Glad to know there are still some magic, nerds, um afficionadoes, out there in the world. (

Two performers from Amsterdam, were, I think, possibly, the standouts of the night.

Lena--played a jazzy song about why she hates weddings. Nice jazzy guitar work and vocals. A light swing feel. There's not all that much of that around Sidewalk so it was good to hear.

The she was followed by Suzanne who played a song called "85" about being that many years old. Accompanied by a friend on trumpet. Really stellar stuff with an ethereal feel... especially on the trumpet parts.

Jon Berger entertained with some of his classier works, like Gussie Got Fucked and The Magical Negro

That's about the point I wrapped it up--or at least the point I went to hang out in the bar.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Jugglers, Clowns, Debutantes, Antifolk and Me

Somehow, unexpectedly, my weekend became filled with performances by clowns, jugglers, magicians and performers from the extended Sidewalk scene.

John Lennon Tribute at Symphony Space
First off, on Friday at the last minute I decided to go to a John Lennon tribute at Symphony Space. It was one of those evenings with lots of different performers singing one or two songs. I'm a huge John Lennon fan, of course but the bill also had a number of interesting acts, including David Bromberg, who I love. The discovery to me was Sonya Kitchell who sang This Boy. A very soulful, moody interpretation with a great, lurching kind of guitar solo by ...I'll have to fill in his name later. There were other very talented people on the bill. Betty LaVette stood out, as did Joan Osborne who sang I Am the Walrus.

However, most relevant to this blog was the appearance of Nicole Atkins who sang "Woman is the Nigger of the World." Nicole was very active at Sidewalk when I started hanging out there in 2004 and I remember seeing her at the open mic. I think the only time I saw her solo might have been the evening she arrived 45 minutes late to her show and ended up playing only a couple of songs. Anyway I always enjoyed Nicole's performances at Sidewalk and thought/think she has a great voice, but I have been intrigued that of all the people from around that time, she emerged with a record contract on Columbia (and a resultant American Express TV ad).

I find it so curious how it happens that some performers on the scene cross into a position of recognition/celebrity. And it's also interesting to look at where the dividing line is between average Joe performer and star. Some of my friends have started to get some decent press but don't really earn much money from what they're doing. Are the people I hang out with celebrities because they get written up in Time Out New York or New York Press? I'd love to have a conversation with Regina Spektor sometime to see how she has dealt with all the issues that come with the type of accomplishment she's achieved. But maybe in some ways it's better to be a Jeff Lewis type artist. It seems that Jeff gets to play as much as he wants, has a certain amount of positive attention, but also can go to the grocery store and the bank without being hassled. (Mind you I don't know if this is how Jeff feels about it--just my interpretation.) In any event, I am glad for Nicole's success. She is talented, but I wonder about all the other talented people I see all the time and why some emerge and others don't.

In the meantime, Friday's show also featured juggler Chris Bliss, who was a sensation on YouTube with his juggling interpretation of part of Abby Road's side 2. It is a spectacular performance and it was thrilling to see (although he did drop a few times--while recovering nicely).

Chris was the first of the juggler/variety artists I saw over the weekend.

Debutante Hour's Variety Show
The next night was the Debutante Hour's Variety Show at the Ukranian National Home. The evening was a five or six hour extravaganza of acts, all playing as part of a benefit to raise money for The Debutante Hour's next recording. Among the artists on the bill were musical groups and solo artists like Kung Fu Crimewave, Old Hat, The Wowz, Phoebe Kreutz, Corn Mo, opera singers, Annie from Opera on Tap and Marti Newland (who sang a great gospel piece as well as a Mozart aria); and comedians Victor Varnado and Rachel Feinstein. Jonathan Vincent did a great job as m.c. with his somewhat bizarre intros and commentary, and he also performed a solo set as the last act of the evening. Oh yeah the bill also included a mini reprise of the Susan and Herb Show performed by me and Susan Hwang. We worked in a version of "Let it Snow," which featured a dancing chorus line of the gals from the Debutante Hour and also played a cover of Prince's Darling Nikki. And of course we featured a magic trick, which involved pulling ropes through a volunteer from the audience. Throughout the evening Mike Richter performed various circus skills, including plate spinning and unicycle riding. Mike and I also whipped together a brief little juggling act which we performed at one point.

The Debutantes seemed to have a good turnout. The performers alone helped fill up the house but there also seemed to be a solid contingency of regular audience. There was also a silent auction with bidding slips positioned on tables with old Eastern European telephones that Maria Sonevytsky had collected. It was a fun night all around, well organized and executed by the Debutante Hour.

Finally, on Sunday, my place of employment (a well-known source of knowledge at 42nd & 5th) had a big open house that featured a wide range of performers, including more magicians and clowns (athough I didn't see any jugglers). And, I ran into Anna Leuchtenberger, a performer who is involved in the scene...if a bit peripherally....but it least it gives symmetry to my weekend to point out she was there.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tonight and Saturday

I am on the bill on two interesting shows this week.

The first is the Bushwick Book Club's year-end show, tonight at Goodbye Blue Monday.

As you undoubtedly know, each month the Bushwick Book Club shows are focused on songs inspired by a particular book. Tonight's show draws highlights from the whole year of performances.

I think I'm like most of the participants in the project who appreciate having an imposed deadline for writing a song. Sometimes you feel blocked or uninspired, but when that deadline rolls around somehow you manage to pull out some stuff. I know that I've always been surprised and pleased by what has emerged in response to the books I've read. I give Susan Hwang a lot of credit for starting and running the Book Club. A lot of cool things have come out of it, including many interesting songs.

Goodbye Blue Monday
1087 Broadway (JMZ to Myrtle or J to Kosciusko)

On the bill tonight are:
Ben Krieger, Dave Novak, Dibs, Jonathan Vincent, Toby Goodshank, Phoebe Kreutz, Dan Costello, Laura Brenneman, Rachel Devlin, Joe Crow Ryan, Herb Scher, Susan Hwang, Corn Mo, Maria Sonevytsky, Natti Vogel and Sweet Soubrette

Then, on Saturday, I'll be playing The Debutante Hour's Variety Show Telethon Bash

I am really looking forward to this evening, which is is a fundraising event to support The Debutante Hour's next recording. Susan Hwang and I are performing a mini-reprise of The Susan and Herb Show and there will be many other great acts on the bill, performing everything from accordions to comedy to bluegrass to juggling to opera to unicycling to ukulele-ing to magic.

Saturday, December 5, 7 p.m.
140 2nd Ave. (at 9th St.)
$!0 at the door
The performers: Corn Mo, The Wowz, Phoebe Kreutz, Sweet Soubrette, Rachel Feinstein, Herb Scher, Michael Richter, Victor Varnado, Annie from Opera on Tap, The Orange Teardrops (Amy Kohn and Finni Galdialo), Marti Newland, Kung Fu Crimewave, Old Hat, Grits and Harmony, Jonathan Vincent

Monday Night Open Mic, November 30, 2009

I will have to admit that I was a prettty unfocused in my attention to the music last night. I did keep poking my head in the back room and caught bits of performances by Ben K, Jordan Levinson, Brian Speaker, Charles Mansfield, Aaron Invisible, and some guy named Lach, However, I was mostly roaming and chatting with folks before taking off kind of early.

I hung out a bit with Lach and Brian as they got into their Scrabble game out front. Folks like Pablo Das and Jim Flynn gathered round as did Rebecca Seatle and Jon Berger. Just as I was heading out I got into an interesting conversation downstairs with Jason Trachtenberg. At last Monday's Open Mic Jason was playing some tricked-out piano parts and he mentioned something from the stage about how he felt he was channeling Peter Dizozza. I really enjoyed the Dizozza reference, especially since I figured there were only a few people around who would get it considering Peter hasn't been hanging out on the scene much lately. In any event, when I mentioned this to Jason we got into an interesting conversation about playing piano and about exactly how Jason got involved with and learned music as a kid.

Thinking about Peter Dizozza also got me nostalgic for the old "What the Fuck" game show segments that Lach used to do (which I mentioned to Lach last night). That used to be one of my favorite parts of the evening and I loved it when Peter would co-host at the piano. I took the trivia questions seriously and always tried hard to get to be one of the contestants. I think I only won a prize once though, which was a bag of drum tools and parts. Later on, when Peter wasn't around, Lach would ask me to co-host, but I was never as good as Peter and also I always kind of wished that I could still be trying to answer the questions.