In the Room, the Women Come and Go: WOMANROCK.com Says Goodbye to the Summer, and Michal the Girl Says Hi to the Boys
Dateline: TriBeCa, New York City. It's been a nasty busy week on the fiery frontier of dotcom law. We had Honorable Justice Jed Rakoff (it took all of about five seconds before a buddy started calling him "Red Jakoff") opine that the Internet, which he seems to think is kind of like that knob on the toaster that makes the toast come out lighter or darker, is not a new medium but rather some sort of spiffy improved clever variant of the Post-It, or somesuch, and that thereby MP3.com owes the Universal Records Superconglomerate $118 million, or $180 million, or $250 million (depending on who's doing the math). Not a penny of which, by the way, will ever be paid to an artist.
And we had the Motion Picture Association of America, together with 19 other humane organizations including the National Basketball Association and the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, file a brief against Napster affirming that they are sure, absolutely sure, that if Napster doesn't stop what it's doing right now then they will not be able to afford any more of those white Hummer limousines. I'm not kidding about the NBA and the Commissioner of Baseball. I don't know about you, but when it comes to the fine points of copyright law that's where your Mr. Cyrano turns first for input and guidance. "He's safe! He's safe! No, Fanning has been called out at first, even though the ball is rolling listlessly in the outfield ... the umpire is now kicking Fanning, and a time out has been called. Now a message from our sponsor."
In a slightly less-attended story, a woman in Denmark willed 500,000 Kroner to the chimps in the Copenhagen Zoo. I mention this because the Judge who handled the estate took it upon himself to go to the Zoo, and to go into the chimp house, and to show the chimps the will and read them the pertinent parts of it. No, this is not a joke. They have these funny quaint ideas in Europe: that treatment of the Law is a sacred trust; that the gravity of the power imparted by the State is not to be taken lightly; that to be a Judge you have to be able to do more than spit into the garbage pail better than three times out of five. Huh. Imagine that.
Brenda Kahn: The Woman in Womanrock.com
Whatever. It's Thursday night down at Shine in chi-chi boholand and there are three guys with two radios manning the velvet ropes at the door -- a bad sign. Mr. Cyrano offers that he's on The List. Flip flip flip. Nope, sorry. Would it help if I told you my name? Uh, sure. Oh, yes, there you are. Have one of these (logo CD opener, rats, I thought it was going to be candy). This is not a neighborhood I frequent, and at $6 for a bottle of Sam Adams, as the kangaroo says, I won't be coming back real soon either. But we're here for the End of Summer Party thrown by WOMANROCK.com, the kind of dotmusic site that's about joining hands and hearts and minds and making a better world out of all the myriad wonderful pieces, without suing anybody along the way. It's worth a couple of overpriced beers.
WOMANROCK.com is the creation of musician Brenda Kahn, a two-time Lilith Fair alum and one of those strong (lucky?) souls who went through the music industry backward. After signing with Columbia Records in the early 90's, she was dropped scant weeks before the release of her second album, which ultimately came out on Shanachie Records. By the end of the decade she was working with her own independent Rocket 99 Records, reaching an active grab-bag of fans numbering in the thousands here and abroad. Taking firm grasp of the very Internet that Judge Ja^H^HRakoff and the Commissioner of Baseball are trying to nip long out of the bud, Kahn like so many others saw the potential of promoting music outside the traditional stifling channels of the large labels. She started by working with her own fan base, founded WOMANROCK.com in the spring of 1999, and now plans to press forward with Womanrock Records in the bright future. "WOMANROCK.com is a venue for things to happen," she tells us tonight, following an upbeat set by her Brenda Kahn Band aka BLISS.
Two's Company: Patti Rothberg (right) with Freddie Katz
Here are some things that are happening right here right now. I'm done gruntling about how much the beer costs (but really, folks, get a grip). Patti Rothberg, who has been sketching the early performers from a comfy loveseat vantage in front of the stage, is getting ready to play. I'm kind of missing the shabby but earnest New Music Cafe, which is what this place used to be and which had no velvet ropes at all (but certainly harbored pretensions to ropery). I'm getting very fond of the bartenders, especially that one. Over in our corner of what would be a VIP lounge if this were a VIP kind of event -- and I'm so happy it isn't -- Yahz of Red Betty has given up trying to figure out where the bass amp is going to come from when their set rolls along, trusting in the Slim Toned TriBeCa Powers that one will show up when it's needed.
Patti Rothberg, Rolling Herself on Down the Line
She's a Woman, and She Rocks: Since she shot to the charts with her 1996 album "Between the 1 and the 9" (with its commercial radio hit "Inside"), and then shot off them with the demise of her label, EMI America, Patti Rothberg has never given a inch. She's been on the inside track of the Fame Game and on the unwashed outer fringes of the East Village, and she's flown her frank, taut music both ways. Just about the only thing I ever won on the radio was an invite to see her play a lunchtime promo one-off at WNEW-FM, back when there was still music on that sad station and before Jerk and Jerkier took over the prime slots (a friend of mine won her annual salary not long ago from one of those phone-ins ... I'm thinking I got the lighter prize). With label money fueling the fire back then she was a charming thoughtful waif with a hard guitar edge fronting a seamless session band like, well, a Babe in Toyland. Over the past couple of years her regular downtown shows have been continual refinings of her stripped-down, post-band sound, a tougher and leaner approach with less frill but all of the lines drawn just as firmly. Freddie Katz partners on guitar and elusive details (he changed the mike stand bases at one Manitoba's gig -- he was right, they were wobbly, but who else would have thought of it?), and the two have moved her set by degrees from the last record to the next one -- which, she tells us, is at last being mastered. It's been a long wait, and we're betting a worthy one.
Patti's writing is simple and sensible, with an easy honesty that makes for unexpected impacts. Like a photographer trying to loosen up an icy model, she teases words into illuminating poses. Sometimes this is in the service of pop-emotional turns, and sometimes it's just fun. Her song "Inventory" sounds tonight like a mantra for all artists who've been recording a record spanning an arc of years: "Keep your eye on the task at hand / Keep your mind on the master plan / You take inventory just upon a whim / You invent any story / When you take inventory." Patti's placid vocals blend little-girl piping with a round and distinctive Plain-Jane solidity; her singing voice is very much an extension of her speaking voice, in the manner of Joni Mitchell, and her best numbers are as instantly involving as a good familiar chat with a friend who has a lot of interesting and sometimes plaintive stuff to tell you about what's been up since the last time you met.
This is Yahz. Who's Betty, and Why Is She Red?
Time is a Mocker: Things are running late and there's a Witching Hour in the works. An after-midnight crowd is expected, coming in to woo my bartender with big tips and no complaints about the quality and price of the beer, and they're expecting DJ's or somesuch. It's not seemly to have fashionable trendy people listening to live music in TriBeCa: how would they talk on their cell phones if that happened? So Patti's set is abruptly cut a bit short. But not as short as Red Betty's momentary four-song tease. The elusive bass amp potentiates from some idle pocket of goodwill, sure enough, but this Brooklyn-based four-piece scarcely has a chance to warm it up before it's time to say goodbye. And that's a real shame.
Red Betty kicked off a few years back as a layered and luxurious five-piece band, notable in part for the presence of John Ashton, ex of the Psychedelic Furs, on rhythm guitar (he also produced the band's debut indie release, "Sister Rubber Limbs," on the vanity Radio Room Records). One thing led to another, which is what happens with bands, and lead singer and songwriter Yahz now fronts a punchier poppier Red Betty, with less stress on lush and more emphasis on high-voltage jangle and sway. Yahz is an instinctive writer of soaring pop anthems, and a singer with the clean upper register to support them; of late she has been collaborating on songs with guitarist Chris Swope, and as a team the two are tending as much to the garage as to sultry afternoons on the verandah. It's a happy combination. With Nicholas D'Amato on bass and backing vox and Mat DeVeau on drums, the band is as strong as it ever was: even peeved at the short quarter-hour cameo, they are a spunky spurt of energy to close the WOMANROCK.com show on a point both short and high. Quit fooling around and record that "Stupid Kid" song already -- it's a winner.
Michal the Girl: Neurosis from the Heart
Girl in the House: Friday night at Luna Lounge, and the beer is back to its accustomed five-spot the pint. Ever since Mr. Cyrano has known Michal the Girl, she's been threatening to be in a band. Her solo shows downtown are smoothly twitchy affairs, in a chipper and mournful confessional vein. Basically, Michal's Life in Song goes something like this: I knew it wasn't going to work; it didn't work; what the hell has she got that I haven't got; why did I bother; what was I thinking; what were you thinking; what if -- nah; and well, that's not what I wanted anyway. She is utterly charming, brilliantly sardonic, and sweetly funny, and she sends the best gig emails on the block. An ex-expatriate from South Carolina and Nova Scotia, Michal (it's pronounced "Michael," and we're not going to get into it here) and her band Kudzu were doing very well up in Canada. So she decided, of course, to move to New York.
In the last few months Michal has gingerly tested the water with band members at last ("these are my boys," she'll tell you). Tonight is the third try by my count, with the third set of boys, and the groove is instant and startling. Gone are the navel-gazing recitations of mopery, swapped for an uptempo gleeful sharp rage; the self-deprecating lonesome kitty is history, and in her place is a hellion ready to tell you just where and when and how you fucked things up. The transformation is a delight. By the end of the show I'm thinking that they really ought to dig the old Max's Kansas City out of its dusty naphthalene for just one last splash, so Michal and the Boys can do a single clashy noisy ragy flingy slashy girly set there and wormhole us all back to 1979 for an evening of sightseeing. Or maybe this is just a lame attempt to try to get her into those old red Spandex one-piece ... er, never mind.
Michal the Girl's web site is particularly wry and fun, and (like Michal the Girl) very much to the point. Recommended.
Ahem. "Hey, how cool is this? Sam Adams for only six bucks a bottle! Woo hoo." Nah, it's never going to work, she won't buy it. See you in two.
Best next person who should file an amicus brief against Napster: Ralph Kramden ("One of these days, Napster!!").
Best next person who should file a brief in favor: Keanu Reeves as Neo ("I bet about now you wish you'd taken the blue pill").
Best name for one of the new Napster servers: metallic.napster.com (this is real).
Artist from this column who has tracks up on Napster by design: Michal the Girl.
Womanrock.com and Brenda Kahn:
Michal the Girl: www.michalthegirl.com
Red Betty: www.redbetty.com
Patti Rothberg: www.pattirothberg.com
Pierre Jelenc took the pictures of Brenda Kahn and Michal the Girl; Patti Rothberg and Red Betty photos by Linus Gelber.
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