Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Surprise Me Mr. Davis and Land of Talk at the Mercury Lounge

It’s 10:30 on Saturday night and outside the classic venue Mercury Lounge in Manhattan’s Lower East Side the energy is starting to build. Crowds of smokers are straddling the curb watching the city chic walk by on their way to barstool, dance floor, and comedy club while preparing for the sold out Surprise Me Mr. Davis/Land of Talk show that is set to begin at 10:45. Inside, the narrow front bar is packed and the intimate stage in the back room is starting to fill up to capacity. Among the crowd is Surprise Me Mr. Davis (SMMD) guitarist and vocalist Brad Barr talking to a friend before hitting the stage. For those that don’t know, SMMD consists of folk troubadour Nathan Moore (vocals, guitar), Slip members Brad Barr (vocals, guitar wizardry), Marc Friedman (bass) and Andrew Barr (drums and percussion), and Marco Benevento (piano). Sadly, Marco Benevento will not be playing with SMMD tonight because he is in Austin, Texas playing The Parish with Garage A Trois.

At 10:45 the band takes the stage wearing crisp suits and their Sunday finest. The three members of the Slip gather around a microphone and begin harmonizing while Nathan Moore begins a beautiful rendition of his song “Tombstone” and Brad Barr accompanies with a ukulele. After a couple of mellow songs, including the poetic “Summer of My Fall” the band breaks into the upbeat “I’m No Good At All” which sounds like something the Bowery Boys would listen to while getting into a barroom brawl. This really gets the crowd moving especially when Brad and Nathan begin rubbing their guitars together and working the audience. Riding this wave of energy the set continues with a soulful “When a Woman” and a classic “I Hate Love”. Next, the band slid into 50’s R & B mode with “That’s the Way” and then a little protest funk with “Sissyfus”. At this point Nathan shows off his magic tricks with a little sleight of hand while dancing around the stage to the rhythm of the beat while the crowd watches enraptured. The set slowed down with the heart wrenching “Joelle” that featured some amazing guitar work and won over some new fans in the audience. At this point Brad mentions that a few of the new songs they have been playing can be found on their new demo that can be purchased at the merch table. However he laments that they only have 4 to sell. The hour long set finishes off much as it began with the acapella “As the Crow Flies” which once again showcases the amazing vocals of Brad Barr and extraordinary range of the band. Though a great set, SMMD seemed hesitant to relinquish the stage just as they were about to really explode.
After witnessing this performance it’s easy to say that the music of Surprise Me Mr. Davis defies categorization. From tender ballads, to thrilling funk, to classic R & B the band traveled in and out of several genres while effortlessly maintaining the groove at the Mercury Lounge on Saturday night. Which is no surprise considering the pedigree of the band. In fact, the only surprise is that they are still playing shows at small intimate venues like the Mercury Lounge. As Nathan said at the end of the show, “We have big things planned for 2010; we will be back with Marco Benevento.” I for one will be there.
After a short set break Canada’s Land of Talk takes the stage a little after midnight to about the same size audience as SMMD. Frontwoman Elizabeth Powell (vocals, guitar) grabs the mic and exclaims, “We’re happy to be here” before ripping into “Corner Phone” and a high energy high tempo set propelled by the rhythm section and her beautiful voice. Staying behind the drumset is Andrew Barr from SMMD and on bass is Joe Yarmush while Michael Felber also appears on a few songs. Throughout the set Elizabeth pounds out notes on her guitar while she gleefully jumps around the stage and grins knowingly at both Andrew and Joe when things really click. After having vocal problems over the past year she is happy to be back in the thick of it, if she is a bit more modest about using the full power of her vocal range. The set included tunes from Applause Cheer Boo Hiss, Some are Lakes, and the new EP Fun and Laughter. Some highlights included “Gimme Back My Heart Attack, “Some are Lakes” and “Its Okay”.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The xx at Bowery Ballroom

The xx’s self titled debut album is one of my albums of the year and the Bowery Ballroom is one of my favorite venues in NYC…so why did the show last night seem a bit forgettable? Its not that I did not enjoy the music, in fact I thought they sounded good throughout the set, especially considering it was their first time playing NYC as a 3 piece. They took the stage at about 10:30 dressed in their standard black and played for an hour. Their set included most of the songs from their album and a cover of Teardrops by Womack & Womack. So what was wrong? Was it the crowd? Was it a lack of stage presence? From where I was the crowd seemed like they were into it although as usual there was a few people talking loudly. At one point the girl next to me said. “This may be my new favorite band!” She then continued talking loudly to a drunken Irish guy until she realized everyone was glaring at her. At that point I decided it was a good time to grab a drink and relocate. The band seemed pretty comfortable on the stage, mentioning at different points that NYC was starting to feel like there second home and they had just finished playing their first headline tour. Ultimately I think it’s just that the nature of the downbeat minimalist music they play does not quite translate to a live setting when people want to party. Often throughout the show I was wishing I could have been lying down. I thought they did a good job recreating the song as it is on the record. It’s just that it seems that is all they really do. I guess I could use a little more energy and fire in a live setting. Give the band some time though, they could figure it out. Until then I might as well just listen to the record.

I liked the opener Jon Hopkins. Pushed lots of buttons. Cool stuff.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Medeski at The Stone

Last Saturday night I went to The Stone to see a set with Tisziji Munoz (guitar) John "lam sobo" Medeski (keyboards) Ra-Kalam Bob Moses (drums) John Lockwood, and Don Pate (bass). Medeski is curating all the shows there this month, and he played every night last week 11/3-11/9. Though I love Medeski, I did not enjoy the show very much. I thought he would be leading the band but instead those duties went to the guitar player Tisziji Munoz. Therefore it seemed Medeski’s keys played more of a supporting role while the guitar work of Munoz was showcased. After a chaotic opening song that lasted about 25 minutes with swirling rhythms and Munoz’s assault on the guitar I realized that I was in for a set of free jazz with odd guitar phrasing and seemingly no structure. As the set continued there were a few bright spots and I found myself enjoying every new song a little more than the last. However it seemed the set was cut a little short and by the time I was starting to get into the groove the show was over. As far as The Stone, it’s a small space, and a nice venue to see a show…but it made me really miss the days of Tonic. The Stone felt like a museum where the music was on display and there definitely seemed to be a bit of a reverent tone to the place. While leaving the show my buddy called his wife and after she asked how the show was he replied, “It was your worst nightmare.” So the music definitely was not for everybody.