Martin Longley’s New York Sounds: Live From The Allen Room

Martin Longley has made a pronouncement to the effect that The Allen Room boasts the best view from a New York City venue. It also plays host to some pretty hot music…

Thurston Moore
The Allen Room

It’s impossible to escape the aura of respectable tradition that surrounds Lincoln Center’s annual American Songbook series. The very concept evokes an established Broadway-and-beyond form that lies at the very heart of US popular music. The majority of the artists presented in Jazz At Lincoln Center’s Allen Room hail from the mainstream, whether it be jazz, cabaret, country or pop, but the series has regularly encouraged a slightly subversive element, where representatives from the alternative rock world are invited to tread the boards of NYC’s most impressively situated stage. St. Vincent made a relatively early-career appearance in 2010, and tUnE-yArDs was to follow a week after this Thurston Moore gig. It’s amusing to compare the ways in which performers respond to the twinkling vista that lies beyond the expansive behind-stage windows, overlooking the south-west corner of Central Park. Thurston Moore wondered why his band couldn’t face the other way, backs to the tiered audience, to drink in the uptown scenery. Of course, when the Sonic Youth frontman eventually ceased singing and flew off into the abstract guitar zone, his wish was granted, as most of the band members faced back towards the drumkit, layering waves of tone as they gazed across at the starry skyscraper shimmers.

Moore mentioned Sonic Youth in the present tense, wishing fellow guitarist Lee Ranaldo a happy birthday. It’s not yet clear whether the NYC noiseniks will continue working together following the recent announcement that Moore and his longtime lover Kim Gordon are now a sundered item. All the band members are presently operating solo projects, but probably no more than was ever the case. Moore has been recording and touring with his own band since the release of Psychic Hearts in 1995, although activity has increased following 2007’s Trees Outside The Academy. The recent concept behind Moore’s solo work has been to move within the semi-acoustic, psychedelic folk realms, post-Neil Young. Acoustic guitars and violin are prominent, but effects pedals are allowed, facilitating a thickening of textures beyond what would usually be expected from such instrumentation. The set drew from all of Moore’s solo albums, with an emphasis on the latest, Demolished Thoughts.

For much of the time, Moore strummed a 12-string guitar, its sympathetic string-vibrations adding to the jangle, drone and atonal options. Moore joked, as fellow guitarist Keith Wood re-tuned between each song, that he himself never needs to give his guitar such loving attention. Funnily enough, following this comment, Moore elected to undergo a few spots of late-set tuning-up. Wood is also known as Hush Arbors, releasing his own works under that name. The drummer John Moloney was a founder of Sunburned Hand Of The Man, a shape-shifting anarcho-improv cosmic rabble of an ensemble. Moore joked that Moloney shouldn’t have been allowed in the building. In fact, Moore is rarely known to orate so copiously during a performance. It turns out that he’s a master raconteur, with a sharp wit.

Moore was uncertain whether to continue with his original plan of reading his poems in-between the songs. It was fortunate that he was determined to go ahead, as this illuminated a hitherto underexposed aspect of his talent. Some of the poems boasted more vivid lines than some of his songs. All were read in a vibrant, communicative fashion, rather than the kind of oration where the listener ceases listening to the content, tuning into the vocal drone. Instead, Moore read them like he was visualising their content for the first time. There was an image-rich abstraction, an obsession with glorious nature, lowdown rutting, drugs, rock’n’roll and a pervasive sense of place and time. We won’t call it nostalgia, for the time when Moore first arrived in the city, we’ll deem it a living history, reeking of nowness. Moore was unusually adept at making his words sound freshly inspired, as if waking from a dream and spouting its contents, or coming ’round after an all night drink’n’drugs binge. Names were dropped: street names, poet names, punk rock names, from Allen Ginsberg to Lydia Lunch, Lou Reed to Richard Hell, the Bowery to 2nd Avenue (not so wide-ranging there). An effort was made to match the sense of occasion, Moore trussed up with a skinny tie, shirt, jacket and some slightly incongruous electric blue sneakers. Best described as the well-dressed new wave kid, even though he’s now comfortably into his 50s. By the time the encore arrived (the title cut of Psychic Hearts), tie and jacket were ditched, and Moore’s shirt was pulled loose into a more familiar flapping mode.

The remaining two band members are harpist Mary Lattimore and violinist Samara Lubelski. The triumph of the quintet is an ability to confuse the mind with its marriage of acoustic instruments and carefully applied electronic effects. It soon became apparent that a low-level semi-acoustic build-up of energy possessed an equal potential to excite, its dynamics operating with a similar force to a fully electric grouping, just as potent, but on a quieter sound-stage. When, periodically, Moore stepped sharply on a foot-pedal, he could activate a hellish feedback through his acoustic hollow-body, holding it aloft, angling gently to coax a deeper howling. At one point, during “Ono Soul”, it seemed like he might just hurl it through the double-layered Allen Room windows, down onto Columbus Circle. After these current dates, the acoustic guitar was going to be fed to the woodchipper, he quipped. Much of the tension was generated by a very precise cutting from verses to choruses, minimalist skeleton-forms to hard-strumming freak-outs, sudden switches of emphasis and equally sharp song-endings. I’m sure that we don’t want to wave farewell to the excessive wall-of-bursting texture-floods that characterise Sonic Youth, but Moore certainly established that he’s the master of an entirely different mode of communication, descended yet evolved into the toughest folk music we’re ever likely to experience.

The Allen Room

tUnE-yArDs Photo Credit: Kevin Yatarola

tUnE-yArDs Photo Credit: Kevin Yatarola

Despite his rock’n’roll extremity, Thurston Moore can now be considered a part of the New York musical establishment. The inclusion of tUnE-yArDs was easily the most adventurous choice in this year’s American Songbook season. Initially, the tUnE-yArDs guise was a direct alias of Oakland resident Merrill Garbus, but lately the name seems to have evolved to embrace her regular band of cohorts, now that they’ve grown into a stable touring unit. Garbus appears to be moving beyond solo bedroom cut’n’splice composition into a more collective style of songwriting. She has a penchant for painting her face with bright tribal-style streaks, to match the urban-hollering exultation of her somewhat robust singing style. This evening’s colour was yellow. Her bandmates also joined her with sympathetic slashes of brightness.

Whilst the tUnE-yArDs recorded works often conceal their sonic sources in a wild collage of cacophonous accumulation, the onstage experience reveals the Garbus creative methods, as her songs are necessarily performed in a more traditional fashion. Well, relatively traditional. The musical parts are all generated organically, in real time, but the cumulative results are far from commonplace, residing out at the sonic vanguard. Garbus has become adept at instant looping with her bare tootsies, setting up multiple percussion parts with a minimalist standing-kit, then adding vocal layers as she strums punky ukulele riffs. These mostly possess a compulsively atonal jaggedness, hurtling out of a no-wave time tunnel. A well-timed toe-tap could pause the percussion, then ram back in the song’s full complement a few bars later. There’s a pronounced field-recording intention, recalling Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica period, as well as the ethnic vocal capturings of New York composer Meredith Monk. It’s also possible that Garbus has simply experienced these methods at source, whether through the Baka pygmies, the far-northern Sami people or the indigenous Americans of her own land. Whichever way, she’s now expert at polyphonic hocketing, either via said tribal folks, or maybe just via The Slits.

Garbus looked behind her, observing that she could keep time during her set by glancing up at the huge CNN digital clock, looming outside, to stage right. The rapport between this frontwoman and her band has grown significantly during the last year or two. She favours the unusual line-up of just electric bass and a saxophone horn section, although Nate Brenner also shifts over to keyboards and occasional percussion. Matt Nelson and Noah Bernstein-Hanley are the tenor/alto twosome.

Garbus is surely one of the very few artists in this season to begin her programme notes by asking ‘what is American?’. Unsurprisingly, it was the more aggressively jittery ditties that rose up from the songbook, notably “Gangsta” and “Bizness”, but the calmer treacle-slow, reggae-oid “Powa” also had a bewitching pull. She’s perfected the ease with which the elements of her songs are re-created, built-up, then incorporated into the actual top-layer of ultra-live vocal delivery. Garbus manages to wed a primal raggedness to an always-on-the-mark, note-hitting swoop. The songs are radically experimental, but they still harbour old-fashioned bare-bone structures, rife with melodic content. Our young ears have become attuned to the instantaneous cutting-up that’s facilitated by the hard-disc editing process.

A casually informal attitude was maintained, but Garbus continually delivered some particularly complicated constructions, largely on the hoof. She even made the tired old audience participation routine into an invigorating experience, prompting the rows to mentally choose a note in advance, then sing it in a holding pattern, setting up a natural waxing and waning of tone, metamorphosing its shape with a collective spontaneity. She also demanded that the crowd pull extreme faces at her en masse. She returned the favour herself.

Garbus revealed her plans to appear down at Columbus Circle, 15 minutes after the Allen performance, mentioning that many of her followers couldn’t afford the ticket prices for this virtually sold out gig. In the end, she enacted an Occupy-inspired happening, draping black’n’yellow crime-scene tape around the base of the Circle’s golden statue, waving similarly-designed flags. There was minimal musical content, and the blog commenters were out in force the next day, dismissing the sincerity of her intentions. Nevertheless, the highly idealistic tUnE-yArDs heart was definitely beating in the right place.

John Mayall/John Hammond
The Allen Room

John Mayall
John Mayall

This meeting between two transatlantic blues greats wasn’t part of the American Songbook season, although this could easily have been the case. Even though NYC native John Hammond hardly ever pens his own numbers, he’s a master interpreter of the blues in its primal state. John Mayall, from Macclesfield, writes plenty of his own material, but also drops in strategic tunes from the old days of the music (he has a particular fondness for Otis Rush). With two sets over two evenings, there was a somewhat hurried vibe. Hammond came onstage promptly, trotting though an intense 20 minute introductory set. Every second mattered, as he edited his between-song tales into a concise form. Hammond is the epitome of the wandering blues troubadour, in the way that he unites voice, guitar-picking and harmonica-blowing into a tangled representation of his inner being. A howling porch songster. When it comes to a basic state being imbued with the highest artistic expressiveness, Hammond is the master. Despite mentioning an early 1960s television studio encounter with John Mayall in London, it’s a shame that Hammond didn’t end up joining the English blues-rock godfather during his following set. Passion infuses Hammond’s voice, phrasing is indispensable to his percussive string-striking, the pauses between notes just as important in emphasising each line, his harp squealing like an animal in agony. Hammond emits the authentic essence of the blues.

Like Hammond, Mayall is also a multi-instrumentalist, concentrating on the keyboard, but also slinging in frequent harmonica solos. Unlike Hammond, Mayall’s sound is firmly in the 1960s blues-rock tradition, with a typically British accent. Hammond is more of an authentic roots purveyor. It’s hard to believe that Mayall is pushing 80. His performing energy remains undiminished. There’s something about blues juice that rejuvenates the being, as Hammond is, also amazingly, on the brink of his 70th birthday. Mayall’s own career has retained its importance, but he can’t avoid being hailed as a mentor and talent scout, particularly during the 1960s, when his Bluesbreakers band was a hotbed of rising guitar talent. Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, just to name a few. The current four-piece features Rocky Athas, who contributed copious amounts of guitar frazzle. Praise must also go out to Mayall’s new bassman, who delivered an imaginatively funk-textured solo towards set’s end. Mayall played for little over an hour, and appeared slightly disorientated by this limitation. His accustomed haunt in NYC is B.B. King’s club near Times Square, where he’ll usually play a single long set. This didn’t stop him returning for an encore, with “Chicago Line” being a highlight of this early set. It was clear that his usual curve of excitement was interrupted by playing a shorter set, but Mayall still kept stoking regardless. Let’s hope he didn’t have to start from scratch with the second show.

Thurston Moore plays at CafĂ© Oto in London on Tuesday the 20th of March…
tUnE-yArDs plays a clutch of UK festivals in July…