Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Noisettes + URB ALT Grand Finale...you can make it if you try

And you should try even if it means having to take the F to the A to the 3 which was an Express (oops) to 96th to connect to the 2 which wasn't running and was replaced by the 5 (sort of). You can't always get what you want--for 135th to be an Express stop--but if you try, try, try...

There I was on the Boardwalk at Coney Island at The Village Voice Seventh Annual Siren Music Festival. I got there in time to see (The--sometimes it's there sometime it isn't) Noisettes on the Main Stage, but on the train I realized I had forgotten my camera. This turned out to be a good thing, but being a nut for documentation initially I was quite through. It was funny though, while there I must have seen at least $20,ooo worth of professional and pro-sumer camera equipment.

(The) Noisettes basically came out, did their thing and were off. Whatever happened to having an emcee to get the crowd energy revved? I'm all for having DJs spin between sets, but you can't cheat the performers and the audience by not having a host for the party, c'mon Village Voice. That pre-recorded voice actor thanking sponsors and urging the attendees to visit their booths really isn't the same deal. The trio, Dan Smith (guitar, backing vocals) Shingal Shoniwa (lead vocals, bass, rhythm guitar), Jamie Morrison (drums) are a lively, somewhat motley, stage presence: Shoniwa's firecracker explosions of sartorial color, mosh pit dancing, leaps off of drum kits, and scaling of stage platforms; Smith's rangy introverted guitar hero fixed at stage right; and Morrison playing with an abandon resembling a cross between Keith Moon and the Sesame Street muppet drummer Animal (unlike Moon's legacy no kit was destroyed, and Morrison reportedly practiced 11 hours a day when learning the instrument). Although Shoniwa has an electro-magnetic field of charisma, I couldn't keep my eyes off Morrison. Looking as though he was in another world and his full-body, windmill-armed drumming style was going to create a fusion reaction suitable for take-off, or at the very least he was going to keep playing after a song was long over, Morrison was completely focused and the three played as a tight unit. Shoniwa's throaty vocals were delivered with gleefully inspired intensity, her quick fire pegging of high notes reminiscent of Lene Lovich and Cindy Wilson (B-52s). Her bass playing is solid, creating a steady rhythm field with Morrison (but this probably gets overlooked with the emphasis on her lead vocalist persona). Shoniwa has an interesting loose fingered style that reminded me slightly of Barbara Lynn's lefty guitar playing (though without playing up the fretboard). Smith's playing is about power and well-placed distortion, a rhythmic-grunge soundbed alternating with wailing sonics. The guitarist was quirky and playful when he did speak, covering for Morrison's run for a break, a little less so when fulfilling an apparent contractual obligation for guitar product placement. But I think most of the audience was aware that Smith's guitar skills would make an electrified cigar box sound interesting, so there were a few audience moans, and then on with the 40 minute set. Sometime during the last 10 minutes I felt nostalgic for Sleater-Kinney, which was probably just a wish for a full concert and a smaller venue with greater performer-audience synergy (also lessening my experience of getting knocked about as people left early for the festival's Stillwell Street Stage). I debated heading to Central Park to see the SummerStage Concert of Music from the Sudan. (pictured left above: Sharhabil Ahmed; and below: Yousif El Moseley) My stomach got the better of me though; I got some much needed food and listened to LavenderDiamond. While absolutely no comparison can be made between the Los Angeles electro-acoustic band and the masters of Sudanese music, the quartet had an enjoyable impish and otherworldly pop sensibility with lead singer Becky Stark offering tinkerbell dance moves and some offbeat patter ("matter is an illusion"; diatribes on modern sewage systems) and newcomer Devon Williams (replacing guitarist Jeffrey Rosenberg) playing straightman to her age-of-aquarian. In retrospect, I probably could have made it over to Central Park and then up to Harlem, pero, no es possible saber todo.

I got to Harlem around 7:30pm not knowing if URB ALT was going to start at the listed 7pm hour, but knowing I didn't want to miss anything. I got to 135th just as a couple of hundred vendors were packing up the Harlem Book Fair. (Note to self: In New York you're always going to be missing something.) It was a low-key scene at the Shrine, with musicians in the midst of soundcheck and a few folks sitting at the bar. A performance space, the Shrine is also a neighborhood bar. They won't let you run a tab, but they'll make you a drink just the way you like it, and serve you some food from the Mediterranean and the African continent. At the bar I talked to a gentleman who had bought a Tuskegee Airmen T-shirt at the book fair, we exchanged the names of the living Tuskegee Airmen we each knew of, and I mentioned the Woodie King Jr. documentary, Segregating the Greatest Generation (I posted about it here). He told me about a family member who was a member of the Red Ball Express, a group of mainly African American soldiers who drove supply trucks over dangerous terrain to field outfits during WWII. I had never heard of them before. They weren't in Tom Brokaw's book or Clint Eastwood's movie either. Paging Mr. Lee, paging Mr. Spike Lee...

Around 8:15 the musicians started setting up after the drummer arrived, shaking his head; likely over the 2 to the 5 situation. MuthaWit played two sets, giving over two hours of music to an intimate and enthusiastically appreciative crowd, with guitarist Deborah DeSalvo and singer/guitarist Shena Varrett each guesting on a song during the second half. The crowd was a mix of folks from Harlem and throughout the buroughs, and some from out of state including Delaware; Phoenix, Arizona; and Philly. While my last writing on MuthaWit Orchestra reflected my mixed experience of that night's performance, I wasn't equivocal about their prowess as musicians which was quite in evidence that evening.

Tonight the audience got MuthaWit as a septet (Boston Fielder, "Little Bit of this, little bit of that," guitar, percussion, lead vocal; Benjamin Tyree, guitar; V. Jeffrey Smith of The Family Stand, tenor sax, alto sax, soprano sax, flute; Samuel Fernandez, bass; William Martina, cello; Jeremy Clemons, drums; Lou Rossi, guitar/effects mixing) which gave each of the players a little more room to breathe musically, and leader and frontman Boston Fielder more space to work as a performer of which he made expressive use. URB ALT events are family affairs with the Twin Brothers Fielder handling video documentation and projection, and on this night a special appearance by Mr. A.J. Fielder, "because without him there would be no other Fielders." This shout out was forwarded by emcee and singer/guitarist Shena Verrett (who may also be a blood relation for all I know) of Tenderhead. Verrett has positivity to spare, much love for all the performing artists on the URB ALT bill, and knows how to create and maintain an expectant audience vibe. Oh yeah, and she can perform a lead vocal with only 30 seconds notice, and, keeping with the family vibe, get her sister to back her up on harmony.

Here's when not having a camera paid off because I listen and watch differently than when I'm focused on documentation. I have to note here Fielder's way with mic technique for vocals. In a live setting this can be a particularly difficult skill to master. Beyond using the mic for amplification, Fielder manipulates it to achieve certain qualities combining room sound, early reflections and timbre. A lot of this is done with Fielder altering distance of mic to instrument, but also with determinations of vocal manipulations and spatial manipulations of the instrument--sometimes he sings with his throat fully open but a step away from the mic, sometimes full out with the mic a foot away and about six inches below his mouth, sometimes he sings through gritted teeth, or the barest parting of lips, altering his palate and/or jaw in order to achieve different sounds. These can look to be simple performative gestures, and they work as such, but incorporated seamlessly into them are various technical manipulations to particular sonic ends: growling, chanting, plaintive callings, crooning, full out howls, etc. I believe this was all done with a standard SM 58 mic. Fielder has a rich and flexible vocal instrument with hints of Bobby Womack's intonations, Bobby "Blue" Bland's willingness to put it all out there emotionally, and some sweet full tones harkening to Charles Brown appearing in the mix. Additionally, as he proved during the night's homage to Barry White, he can drop it when he needs to, sho you right.

Guitarists Lou Rossi and Benjamin Tyree took on alternating roles during the two sets. Of course the standard deal is having a one guitar on rhythm and one on lead. I wish I could have checked out both Tyree and Rossi's set ups. I could see that Tyree had quite a pedal collection including what looked to be a Boss Mega Distortion, and a host of other Boss or Digitech pedals. Rossi had a Digitech processing box, to which he regularly attended. But the point is they created some beautiful sounds. You can plug as many pedals in as there are satellite dishes in this country but if you haven't developed a voice, body to instrument, it really doesn't matter. Tyree had this way of evoking the most precise utterances, delicate yet so deliberate, it was sure-footed dexterity and then some. Simultaneously, Rossi often was weaving a layered tonal soundbed throughout each song, giving the mid-frequencies substance, and also offering melodic counterpoint at particular junctures--the sort of thing that can just be frequency mud if not done with a careful ear.

I was really pleased to have the opportunity to hear cellist William Martina in the sound mix. It might have been my earplugs or just challenges in mixing the front of house (FOH) sound in a small space with MuthaWit in orchestra form, but I couldn't really hear Martina at the last URB ALT. His tone was thoughtful, meditative, slightly, hmm, melancholic, although the cello's resonance lends itself to that characterization. But there was something there that was held back a little. It created this wistful sentiment under what he was playing. Special. There were also some tension-building accents he achieved through, I believe it's called ricochét or slapping, when the bow is bounced on the strings to rhythmic effect. Besides his arco tone (yes, I'm a freak for timbre), one of my favorite parts of Martina's performance was a section in one of the songs where he played near the frog of the bow (the thick part that's like a little handle), effecting a sensuous rasp that plaintively accompanied the colors of Fielder's vocals and V. Jeffrey Smith's horn playing, respectively.

Regarding the latter, I am kinda speechless thinking about Smith's horn work. He made me bust out in a Kool-aid smile when he was just warming up testing his reeds. I mean, there's a reason why just saying his name causes people to applaud and howl. He's just there. In one instance, Deborah DeSalvo was playing guitar on a deep blues that Fielder sprang on us near the midnight hour ("When It's Time to Go"--and DeSalvo was killing it with her sorrow song sonics, prompting Fielder to close his eyes and intone, "Oh, my Lord"). I watched Smith reach towards his row of horns. His middle and index fingers extended to one and then the other horn, which he then picked up, waited a beat, and started playing. From ten feet away I could feel that energy between him and the brass, a spark traveling from fingers to metal, as though horn and man were of a mind about which connection was going to add a sound that would most speak to the current mix. That was deep. That's a serious kind of musical knowledge and commitment.

The rhythm section of Samuel Fernandez and Jeremy Clemons was deeply grooved. There were so many times when I was just watching Clemons' hands and left foot (I couldn't see the right one), and listening to the kick drum. In the second set there was some great interplay between Fielder and Clemons when Fielder asked Clemons to double-time the rhythm. What was a bluesy melody became a driving punk song without missing a beat. Clemons has a really clean sound as does Fernandez, but there's definite flesh on those sleek bones. The reportedly shy bassist has a deceptively understated stage presence. Fernandez wended through each set with a beautiful full sound, controlled yet fluid, carrying the beat. Every time I focused on listening to him, I was just struck with that steady fluidity, amidst the accented notes, propelling the rhythm forward.

When MuthaWit was done, we weren't. So they gifted us with two more numbers. I can say a fantastic time was had by all. I had hardly slept the night before and was going to leave early to get back home before midnight, but I couldn't go--I had to see how URB ALT ended. So glad I stayed. Throughout the next day I found myself spontaneously singing Barry White, specifically, "I'm Gonna Love You Just A Little More, Baby" and "Never, Never Gonna Give You Up"...

Ain't URB ALT good to you, baby? Sho You Right.

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