Archive for April, 2013

Art and Artifice on Avenue A

Posted on: April 30th, 2013 by Jon Berger No Comments

You have to watch out for Barton Lewis. His is a dangerous mind. Early on in the open mic, he approached the stage with less boisterous energy then usual, explaining, “I’ve been a little depressed, so I’m not up to my normal antics.”

He then began a song talking about his depression, and the fact that he hadn’t shaved in a while. The chorus proved the song was called “Depression Beard.”

Halfway through, a lovely young lady (Stephanie Jean) approached the stage with shaving cream and razor, and, while Lewis vamped on the keys, Ms. Jean proceeded to trim the dreaded beard of depression.

The audience howled, shocked and amazed at the conjunction of two things musicians love most: pianos and toiletries. Lewis, an admirable showman, took the audience’s goodwill and used it to promote his show this Friday, and got off the stage.

But not for long. I saw the great reaction Lewis got by becoming a prop performer; I had to get in on the action, and asked to borrow his tools.

When I got up to read poems and promote my own show at the Sidewalk this Sunday, I invited Mr. Lewis up to shave my back.

The audience screamed as I took off my shirt, laughed as my back was doused with water, and requested occasional status updates as to the state of my shaven back. The audience was captivated. I had won. But:

they weren’t listening to my words. The poetry I I recited was virtually ignored beside the spectacle of the shaving. Barton had done a great job. I had done a great job. The crowd had a great time. I had gotten what I wanted, but it wasn’t what I should’ve wanted.

The applause as I left was thunderous. No one could top my shaving escapades, of that I was certain.

A couple of artists later, a lady named Susanna walked to the piano. She sang a song which began, “I spend money like water / and I drink water like gin.”

It was minimal. It was low key. It was genuine.

Susanna used her material to speak for her, not props. Not brash, not boisterous. She used her natural skills, and she won the crowd over.

She didn’t get the big reaction that I had, but she deserved much more. She was Community. I was Dancing With the Stars.

Her second song, she backed away from the piano, and played a tambourine – and even that, minimally – to a song that began with the beguiling, “Let me be your housekeeper” and middled with the tambourine picking up speed to “Take me if you can fit me / and even if you don’t, I’ll be OK.”

She was OK. She was better than OK. She shamed me and my ostentatious overdisplay.

You can always learn something at the open mic.

He Stopped Loving

Posted on: April 28th, 2013 by Jon Berger No Comments

Junior Miss used to sign “He Stopped Loving Her Today” at the end of his shows. I’d never heard it before, and was pretty impressed with his big voice and emotional songwriting. I didn’t know that it was a George Jones song, and had recently been named somewhere as the greatest country song of all time. All I knew was that it packed a wallop when Junior Miss sang it.

Junior Miss soon began performing under his own name, J.T. Lewis, and founded the fanzine AntiMatters with Tom Nishioka. He stopped working on the AntiFolk fanzine pretty quickly, and released an EP, produced by Brenda Kahn, that featured (I think), that really great rendition of that really great George Jones song. That song resuscitated Jones’ career, which, after years of the star’s drug and alcohol abuse, had limping along on last legs. A couple of years after that song won Jones a Grammy, he began to slowly drop the substances from his system, and lived cleaner for the rest of his days.

George Jones just died, and J.T. Lewis left the scene years ago, when he formed his band Star City. Lewis has since become Jason T. Lewis, lives well outside the world of AntiFolk, and has a recent multimedia novel out.

Bragg’s Better Than You!

Posted on: April 27th, 2013 by Jon Berger No Comments

I originally published this on April 20, because that’s when I went down to see the show. It was the wrong day, I discovered, so I went slinking away from the club, and hid the entry for a week. Don’t ask me what I was doing on 4/20 to make such a mistake. Just… don’t. 

A decade ago, I wrote an entry for Brer Brian’s AntiFolk online bulletin board at damnfine.org. I called it Billy Bragg is better than you, and I tried to make a case of how the Brittish activist/songwriter was the epitome of AntiFolk. I remember at the time feeling it wasn’t a good piece, which was supported by the complete lack of comments it garnered.

The sentiment was true, though, particularly if you equate, as I am loathe to, commercial success with artistic superiority. I love Billy Bragg,  and believe he was the first AntiFolk music I was listening, long before I knew the phrase (Michelle Shocked, too, though maybe a little bit later). Bragg started his successful career playing solo electric guitar over plaintive love songs and plaintive screeds against the government. He was a folk singer transformed by the early eighties into something more significant than his sixties’ forebears. He got the kids involved – at least, the socially conscious nerd kids. He did what AntiFolk meant to do, an ocean away. Unaware of any scene he could be associated with, Bragg plugged away, making music for songwriters and romantics – and anarchists. He was great.

He still is. I’ll be seeing him when he comes to town – which is tonight.

If you were cool, you’d go with me…

Back in the Daze

Posted on: April 25th, 2013 by Jon Berger No Comments

As we waited for signup to begin, we started a conversation. She had the look of a newbie, and not just because I didn’t recognize her. I get the feeling I would have recognized her, had I seen her before.

 

“You’ve been here before?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I’ve been coming for a while.”

“Were you here when Nellie McKay played?”

“Sure.”

“Regina Spektor? Kimya Dawson?”

“Yeah,” I smiled, “I wasn’t necessarily tight with them, but they used to play here a lot.”

“What was it like?”

I kept smiling, but it felt a little different. Of  course, no artist who’s still doing art wants to have to talk about the semi-celebrities they know.  I certainly, would rather talk to her about how amazing and talented I am, rather than the people I’ve met along the way.

There’s another factor, though. I’ve seen lots of artists over lots of years, and the people that I’ve been amazed by are not consistently the ones that go on to spectacularly succeed. The first time I saw Nellie McKay, it was because my friend Hogan insisted I pay attention. When she finished her two songs, I didn’t know why I’d been told to be attentive. That was early days for the artist, she almost certainly has improved since then. Because I’ve seen so many acts in their formative period, I’m not necessarily as impressed when they’ve attained celebrity. It may help that even the most successful acts out of the Sidewalk has only reached such great heights.  Maybe if there was some career I could somehow leech off of, I’d be more amazed.

“They were good,” I told the girl, “I think I saw the first time Kimya played guitar in public.”

She seemed suitably impressed.

I didn’t have much more to say.

Just When You Think it’s Safe to go into the Water…

Posted on: April 23rd, 2013 by Jon Berger No Comments

I was having what I thought what was a perfectly kind conversation with my arch-nemesis Pinelawn Empire, wherein I thought we were getting past my undying enmity for this perfectly fine AntiFolk artist, when suddenly, hours after I’m doing trying to flirt with his girlfriend (she pretended she didn’t know what was going on, but she knew), I discover this scandalous caricature of me is plastered all over the internet.

 

This is the sort of insult that cannot stand. This is the sort of behavior that makes me swear that I shall go regularly to every Pinelawn Empire show that is convenient so that I may “boo” him under my breath, and clap at the end of his songs in the most desultory manner. Pinelawn Empire must be stopped, and I am just the guy to do is!

I’ll be opening for him at Kathleen’s birthday bash (5/5 at 55) on Cinco de Mayo. You should go.

Flo Knows

Posted on: April 22nd, 2013 by Jon Berger No Comments

Tonight, April 21 (it’s technically the 22nd now, but you get the idea), Rebecca Florence had her birthday show, featuring some of the brightest talents of today’s AntiFolk.

Everyone was grand, including Sidewalk stalwarts Charles Mansfield, Joe Yoga, John Murdock and Debe Dalton filling in for a virus-ridden Cannonball Statman. Phoebe Novak did that thing with the voice that she does. Jonathan Berger spoke of himself in the third person, as usual. And Soul Candy had their debut performance.

Rebecca Florence and Bob Black traded off  vocals over a big rocking sound with elements of funk. I was told the show would be good, but I was told that by band members, which seemed a little suspect. I didn’t realize how good strong Soul Candy would be out the gate.

You should see them while they can (whether because they explode and play expensive clubs or implode over drug addictions and endorsement deals, I can’t say).

And if you want a slight flavor of what you missed, check out the tweets.

Costellian Connections

Posted on: April 20th, 2013 by Jon Berger No Comments

I was at some other club last night, seeing the Loser’s Lounge tribute to Elvis Costello. Costello, meanwhile, was probably cross-town at his wife’s show. So everybody was disappointing someone else last night. That’s cool.

Elvis Costello doesn’t have a direct connection to AntiFolk, other than clear stylistic similarities and a quote at the top of a MuchMusic  documentary on our scene. Still, as I was at this most amazing show for that most amazing artist, some stray observations connected the evening with my typical topic. Some of the observations are stupid.

  • The first time I notice Dan Costello at the C-Note, I made a dumb joke about his relationship with his songwriter predecessor. He didn’t seem to appreciate it. It wasn’t funny.
  • The Loser’s Lounge prominently feature Tricia Scotti, who used to be very much a regular at the Sidewalk, before hooking up with Ronnie Spector, Wilson Pickett, and the Loser’s Lounge folk. In more distant connections, she also served as open mic host at Sidewalk’s SF-sister club Sacred Ground (I hope I have that name right). She even wrote about it in AntiMatters at some point. Scotti worked with Anne Husick in Shameless, and Anne worked with Tricia in her band. She had a huge voice back then, which hasn’t changed one iota.
  • Another former member of the Loser’s Lounge crew is Michal Friedman, known as Michal the Girl, the late great singer songwriter who was a Sidewalk regular in that 98-01 era. She was beautiful, talented, and wrote really great pop tunes. She died a year and a half ago in child-birth here in New York City. That sucks.
  •  Elvis Costello is one of those songwriter’s that thoughtful artists want to emulate. His refusal to be pinned by genre, label or band make him one of the premier artists around. Spiritually, Costello is one of those creators that the AntiFolk cognoscenti know and love.
  • The Loser’s Lounge strategy of selecting an artist and digging into their catalog through covers is a time-honored tradition, one that the Sidewalk replicates sporadically with their I Heart You series. I understand one’s coming up for an open mic at the end of May. That should be pretty cool. I may have to dust off my best Crabs on Banjo material.

The show was excellent. Elvis Costello’s an amazing songwriter, and his material was interpreted brilliantly.

Searching…

Posted on: April 18th, 2013 by Jon Berger No Comments

I just saw Searching for Sugar Man. You probably saw it a while ago. Movies are too rich for my blood; I’m not a rich man. Why do you have to rub it in?

I saw Searching for Sugar Man, and I saw in it our story.  All of us, here in the trenches of AntiFolk, struggling for art an d hoping for fame.

This probably isn’t unique. What unsuccessful artist doesn’t want to think the world will be sorry they didn’t appreciate him when he’s gone, only to discover that he’s right, they were, and the world begs him for his forgiveness? What artist doesn’t want to be redeemed with fame and appreciation? What artist doesn’t think that somewhere, just out reach, there are people adoring him? Is this really only me?

So the appeal of Sugar Man is universal, sure, but it speaks slightly more specifically to our East Village enclave. It’s about music – acoustic-oriented music, with a lyrical focus – that was thought to be original and good, but just didn’t budge the market an inch. At its center is a composer who doesn’t seem to get mired in sales concerns. He stays above the fray, and spends his forty years in the wilderness (or, if you count his little forays in South Africa, twenty five years in the wilderness. Whatever). He’s an artist who tries to be successful, but, when that doesn’t work out, he seems to shrug and get back to his life (Maybe; Rodriguez is such a cipher. He may have been steaming, striving to get his records re-released, over and over again, Who knows?). He makes his art, and then, wen the moment has passed, he moves on.

Of course, in excellent Hollywood style (Johannesburg style? What the hell is South Africa anyway?), Rodriguez gets rediscovered, and his brilliance is not lost at all. I want that life. I want people in Belize to rediscover my lost albums – or actually, discovered them at the time and bought them in record numbers (which, for Belize, is probably thirty) and I’m a household name. I want my outsized ego justified by a secret hidden audience. Rodriguez is the patron saint of failed artists. God Bless him, and may Rodriguez bless us.

Anyway, I saw Sugar Man. If you haven’t, already, you should too.

 

Heroes of AntiFolk: Bob Black

Posted on: April 17th, 2013 by Jon Berger No Comments

We recently spoke to the loud part of the Soul Candy band (Who’s we? There’s only one person writing this stuff…), but we (again with this? Jesus!) made no mention whatsoever about the reigning hardest working man in AntiFolk, Bob Black. He’s the other founder of the band that will debut this Sunday, April 21, during Rebecca Florence’s birthday bash. His presence on guitar and a vocal style that violently teeters between hard rock and sweet soul will be less in your face than Florence’s overt melodrama delivery, but he’ll hold down his parts, be sure of that.

(Is that it? His presence in a band that no one but the members has ever heard? That’s what makes him a Hero of AntiFolk?  Things have really started slacking since my day…) It’s not just his show this week that makes him special, or his delightfully voluminous hair. He’s been backing up others, playing in Cannonball Statman and for Trumpet Girl, and has recently begun working as sound dude at the club. He’s been busy. Of course, that says nothing about his role as instigator and uploader for Eye Love Media, where he’s put up what feels like hundreds of photos and clips of innumerable people’s shows.

His generosity and effort are extreme. He’s doing it for you, the public. This is what makes him a hero. That and the burning building…

4-8 Minutes of Fame: Rebecca Florence

Posted on: April 17th, 2013 by Jon Berger No Comments

Here’s the 411: Every now and then, an artist on the scene agrees to answer some questions posed to her by some other artists on the scene. It’s called 4-8 minutes of fame (though that really might depend on the reader’s actual speed of retention), and you’re reading one right now!

Perhaps you’ve seen Rebecca Florence around. It’s hard to miss her. She dresses provocatively, in tight black and flowing lace, a blindingly blonde head over a five foot tall girl. It’s harder to miss her on stage, where she howls and cries her series of songs about death, despair, and dudes who did her wrong. She’s got a show this Sunday, debuting her new band, Soul candy. It’s at the Sidewalk. You should come.

Jesse Statman

Do you have a spirit animal, and if so, what is it?

You’d be surprised. A friend of mine and I actually looked up different spirit animals trying to figure it out. I didn’t like any of the choices, so I made one up. Probably a wolf. I like wolves.

 
Apparently, there are approximately 1,000 bands called Soul Candy that already exist, or existed at some point. In your opinion, is your new band, Soul Candy, the best out of all of these bands? If so, why?

Well, the name came pretty organically when Bob Black and I started writing music. Yeah, the name seemed too good to be true, but so are we. Wink wink. I hadn’t heard of any other “Soul Candy’s”, nothing substantial, so hell. I think it’s fair game and does our sound justice. We’re better than the other SC’s because we have on secret weapon that no other Soul Candy band has. Mike mother-fucking Shoykhet in a grim reaper mask.

 What was the name of the first song you ever wrote? What was it about?

It was called, “Distressed.” I was 13 at a performing arts summer camp. I was already super angsty by then, (hence the title). It was about life, as it seems, being a pretty beautiful place. But then, moving into that state of questioning everything, even when things are going great. Causing, wait for it… “Distress.” I wish I wrote about rainbows and barbies when I was 13, but that wasn’t the case. Pre-murder ballad days. It was like a prequel. Like The Hobbit to my Lord Of The Rings.

 What is your favorite food/drink item you’ve ever had at Sidewalk, and why?

I have a pretty fond memory of one of the old servers, Brynn, making me my first Hot Toddy. For sentimental reasons, that’s my favorite. Favorite food: breakfast melt. Hands down. With avocado, fried egg, bacon. 3 of my favorite foods on a delish sandwich. What’s not to love?

 

Daniel Saftler

One of your songs posits the singer as a center of destruction, do you believe that describes you and if so, why?

What an eloquent way to describe it. Way prettier than what I would come up with. And yes, in a lot of ways, it does. I’ve had to deal with plenty of shitty situations in my life, and I’d like to believe I’ve come out on the other side as a better person for it. Could be wrong. Probably am. I’m constantly dealing with struggle, whether it’s financially, emotionally, physically or even with my friend’s struggles, amidst all of that “destruction”, there’s the eye of the storm where I can express it healthily, my music. It’s a calm place that I find a lot of solitude.

 Have you ever flirted with other instruments besides the piano?

I started out on bass guitar, actually. Wanted to learn guitar when I was younger, but my hands were too small. So I’d just pluck sick-nasty bass lines. Then, I eventually did pick up guitar. I can play some stuff here and there, but I’m not that great at it.

 
Is your new band of equal importance or greater to you than your solo career?

Definitely equal. I am recording a solo album at Speakersonic Studios (Which I highly recommend), so that does have quite a bit of my attention at the moment. But that being said, I take Soul Candy extremely serious, and am thankful to have such supportive/flexible bandmates that care just as much as I do. Makes it easier.


Brian Speaker

Why is such a lite and bubbly girl so dark in her music?

I’ve never in my life, been described as “lite and bubbly,” but that’s interesting you say that. Generally, I do flit around Sidewalk, I’m happy, I’m having a great time when I’m there. It actually has brought out a lighter side to me. I’m not one to usually dump my problems on other people, so I don’t really talk much about what going on with me. My songs, although some are semi-fictional, come from a very honest place. Either from personal experience, experiences I’ve witnessed, or stemmed from completely arbitrary ideas. My goal as an artist is to be as honest as possible, in hopes that someone can relate, feel comforted. Or amused.


Do you find yourself influenced more by your peers or by artist you grew up with?

Both, but more recently, my peers. I love the open mic at Sidewalk, because you have an opportunity to see loads of different acts, good and bad. What they’re doing right, what they’re doing wrong, how they’re improving, their songwriting styles, their influences. It’s like a big melting pot of ideas. I feel very lucky to be a part of such a diverse community that can push my songwriting abilities to the limit. It’s kind of transformed my music, but in the most positive way possible. It’s pushed me to be creative with my lyricism, and to cut the fat out of some of my songs. I like 7 minute songs. No one else does. I get it.

 What’s the appeal for someone like you to be a part of the scene at the Sidewalk Cafe over some place like Rockwood?

“I feel like we’re all a bunch of broken toys.” – Joe Yoga.

 Jonathan Berger

Your series of songs entitled “Murder Ballads”: should those around you be worried?


Absolutely. There are 5. Jon, if you piss me off bad enough, their will be 6.

What was your musical experience before New York City? After? 


I trained in Jazz with Marcus Printup, who plays trumpet for the Lincoln Jazz Center, and I trained in Opera with Ric Chiapetta, a retired opera singer. I’ve been singing since I was in 2nd grade, and didn’t really look back since. Did plays here and there, went to a few competitions in high school, kiddie stuff. I moved to New York to actually study acting at The New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts. I ignored my music for a while. Didn’t write one song while I was in school. Once I graduated, I started frequenting open mics, and found Sidewalk. I’ve written about 30 songs since.

 How old are you?

Old enough.

Luke Kelly

Who do you think you are?


Rebecca Florence, I think.

 What’s the big idea?

Marijuana legalization. That’s the big idea. That’s the plan.

 Where do you get off?

That’s an extremely personal question, sir. But if you must know, in my bedroom. Rude.