Room With a Few: The Living Room Plays Favorites
and The Irreversible Slacks Play Surf
Dateline: The East Village, New York City. We're in a plane high above the East Village, and we're all about die. Nah, just kidding. But I have only one chance to use that line, and this is it. (Pause.) That was good. Got a cigarette?
Where we really are is the Living Room, one of the City's finest mostly-acoustic venues. The Living Room is about the size of one, if you live between the coasts; if you're from hereabouts, it's slightly bigger than your whole apartment, including the hallways and closets. Canny booking, friendly hands-on staff and a sweet sensible touch made this comfortable club a hit with the music community from Day One, and in just a couple of years the room has earned a heady rep as the kind of place where even a New York audience will gather to actually listen to quiet quality tunes instead of yapping over them. Still and all, it takes big balls for a youngish club to stand up in the overcrowded local musical moil and launch a Best-Of series of shows. Let it be said that the Living Room's Jennifer Gilson has big balls.
On All Other Nights, a Tip Jar: Tonight is the first night of the four-day Best of the Living Room Songpoets hoedown, and on this night we pay a cover at the door -- normally there's no charge for entry, and the fiery red tip bucket makes its rounds toward the end of each set. When your Mr. Cyrano turns up Jennifer is at the door, taking quiet measure of the regulars as we part with our cash up front. It doesn't hurt a bit. I fork over my eight spots and she blots my hand with a "Confidential" stamp (which comes out "Confident"). I guess I spend an overlong moment quizzically assimilating the red stain -- you get used to things downtown, and change comes grudgingly. When I look back up Jennifer is smiling at me, sharing the novelty. "That's how they do it, right?" she asks. Yup, that's how it's done.
Heather Eatman: Ready For Her Close-Up
The Living Room stage is about the size of your closet, if you live between the coasts, and on it is Heather Eatman, squooshed in with a four-piece backing band. Bone-thin, with van de Graaf short spiked hair and a Klieg smile, Heather twinkles with confidence and ease. She's heading down to Nashville in a few days to lay down her third album, and her set tonight is a fond bon voyage appearance, with a healthy tour through her familiar past material and teasing tastes of the songs to come. "This is a happy song about the apocalypse," she says, beaming with infectious bright-eyed mischief as the band strikes up a bouncy new number with a pushy drive that tastes a bit like the English Beat's "Stand Down Margaret." The words flash by fast, but the thrust seems to be that we might as well dance all day and see how things turns out.
Heather's music is seditious by degrees. She has a knack for the simple, catchy chorus and for straightforward pop melodies, and before you tumble to the big picture you'll find yourself singing cheerfully and cluelessly along to perky stories of grande broken-down movie dames ("Barbs"), streetwalkers with sweet pasts ("Nice Girl"), callous teen sexual encounters ("Great White Hope") and the jetsam of the darkening American Dream ("Miss Liberty"). It's not that Heather is especially drawn to seedy corners; rather, she is finely aware of the tension between simplified public faces and the humble realities that lie behind them, to the balance of pretty dreams against the bruised details that come up when we reach for those dreams. Her characters are victims, victims of their own machinery or the predations of others. She is fascinated by celebrity, and her first album, "Mascara Falls," is spattered with cinematic references, with thinly-veiled allusions to Marilyn Monroe and to the whole warped world of the silver screen.
In Concert: Real Life Becomes a Rumor
It's not until her second record, "Candy and Dirt," that Heather offers her best-realized vision of the Celebrity Victim, and she achieves her satori with the powerfully iconic figure of Elvis Presley. When she writes a memorial to The King ("Too Tired to be Elvis"), Heather doesn't offer a snapshot of the white-clad hip-driven sexual Presleybeast whirlwind. She gives us a moving, stained pastiche of an enduring image that far outpaced the man who wore it, a rumination on fame and its sharp inward arsenal. Her Elvis is a weary man still chasing after his own bright stars: "Captain America's idiot son / Is no longer pretty or young," she sings, in a voice husky with sympathy. "Sweet Southern Comfort in sad BVD's / Tear up the tickets, strip the marquee / Turn off the lights / I'm too tired to be Elvis tonight." The song ends with a slow and mournful round of "Be-Bop-A-Lula," repeated into a gentle fade.
Carnival of Sorts: Over the past several years Heather has shaped her songs to fit comfortably over the frame of a series of intricate backing players. When Mr. Cyrano first saw her she was a solo performer, with the firm-jawed conviction of an eccentric wordsmith and a guitar attack that was rhythmically fluent but unadorned. Tonight her ensemble is weighty, with a big piano-heavy breezy soft rock sound, and when she steps side of the mike and shimmies down to peer intently at the crowd -- a signature Eatman move that is two parts Elvis Costello and one part bemused cop-on-the-corner -- it feels quirky and natural. Her sprightly "Sympathy" ("Ain't nobody ever really free / Everybody needs some sympathy"), the lead song on her second record, is a high spot, as is my favorite of the new tunes, a coming-of-age carnival tale ("He gave me a ride on the roller coaster / The Tunnel of Love and the Tilt-a-Whirl / Made me a mixed up mixed up mixed up / Made me a mixed up mixed up girl"). Heather's new muse seems to be one of transformations and changes, and it's fertile ground. As an encore she plunges matter-of-factly into a cover of The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows," peppered with sharp tango riffs that sound strangely natural.
Both of Heather Eatman's CD's are impeccably rendered and lovingly detailed, although neither quite captures the cockeyed pleasures of her live shows: the second, "Candy and Dirt," is the more mature and sprawling of the two, packed with lines like "She's no vision in a magazine / She's not bad -- just in-between / She's a girl you think about when she's long gone / The kind that shows up in a three-chord song" (from "Some Girls"), and the first is essential for the unabashed New Wave splashes of "Barb" and "Used Car" -- a style that feels natural for her lyric-driven observations. Both albums also showcase Heather's precise distorted cartoonish artwork, more of which can and should be seen on her spiffy and well-maintained Web site. The new CD is due out in the spring of 2001.
Malcolm Holcombe: Gruff and Tender (with Valerie Miller, left)
It was just last April that we first heard Malcolm Holcombe at the Living Room, and in the time since he's become an essential stop every time he graces the City. This week he's in Manhattan twice, first in a two-set three-hour balls-to performance at the Rodeo Bar, and then again this night here at the Living Room, which was the first New York City venue to bring him up from Nashville way (I'm picturing Heather and Malcolm & Co. passing each other on some snaky interstate, heading different directions in so many ways, in one of those great unknown God's-eye-view moments). Singing solo, with just his acoustic guitar and his bootheels clocking out crisp time on the stage, Holcombe is as powerful and entrancing a performer as I've ever seen, and of late he's been touring through as head of a four-piece band; his deft players flesh out the spare songs and, remarkably, don't diminish Holcombe's emotional wallop in the least. They just set it in a fuller context, so that when he does let fly it's with the power of their harmonies and solo work behind him.
And Malcolm does let fly. He's a spitfire, ponytailed and headstrong and wiry with a dangerous glitter and a rare hardbit certainty in his moves and his music. As he downs coffee before his set, looking a bit the worse for the wear of a few days in Gotham since his Rodeo Bar gig, I pass along copies of our last coverage of him in this space (Malcolm's not an Internet kind of guy). He looks intrigued, then shakes his head firmly, squinting hard through long eyelashes. "I gotta tell you something," he says, thrusting the papers back. "I don't read shit written about me." Fair enough. He'll get a bit rowdy with the sound man too, wearing a "Do I really have to come over there?" expression until things get worked out. And then he begins to play. And the world stands still for a moment.
In the Grip of the Muse
When you see a lot of music, the whole form dims a bit; it's one of the ironies of working with something you love. Over time that first love is diminished, not ever satiated but attenuated, cut off from the early rushes of intense joy and longing and overwhelming power. Every so often someone comes along with the raw talent and energy to strip scales from the jaded ears. Malcolm Holcombe is one of those talents. His voice is a gruff burl of heartbreak, and his songs are spare and simple and ineffably true. Holcombe's writing is at times impenetrable, fragments of stories full of shadowy people you haven't met doing things that haven't been explained, but as disjointed as the most rambling pieces are they hang together with their own internal, elusive purpose. His more open songs are of longing, passage and thirsty-boots wandering. When he sings "Oh Lord, it's getting colder tonight / Oh Lord, the summer's 'bout all gone / Right behind you, my suitcase / Just follow me, boy, we're going home" here on the cusp of the change of seasons, it's impossible to miss the shiver of the world outside; in mind and memory there's a sudden flush of woodsmoke, the quiet sound of a long road passing through trees.
On stage, Holcombe writhes and pounds and grimaces like a man possessed, and in some ways he is. He's the manic partygoer who doesn't want the music to stop, the good-time momentary soulmate who throws himself into the instant and then throws himself out of it just as fast. In each song he gives you a glimpse of the shifting, whispering sands of his heart, and as each number fades he snaps shut again. It leaves me on the edge of my seat. Backed by Valerie Miller on stand-up bass and backing vox, Jared Tyler on slide guitar and backing vox, and Jelly Roll Johnson on harmonica, the Malcolm Holcombe Group should not be missed. After the Rodeo Bar set, MC Webmaster J commented that seeing the band in a small venue must be like seeing the young Howling Wolf in a tiny club back in the day -- a brush with future legend. The band opens for Merle Haggard and BR5-49 in early October at Irving Plaza.
The Irrepressible Irreversible Slacks
Another Night, a Different Venue: Sometimes you do the right thing for the wrong reasons, and it all works out in the end. We're about to leave Brownies after an appearance by Boston's Seks Bomba when we spot the gogo dancers for the next band; after a quick conference, we decide to stay. Purely for scientific reasons, of course.
As it turns out, the band is called The Irreversible Slacks, they hail from Brooklyn, they're back after a prolonged hiatus, they wear identical dark suits, and they play a delightful brand of clean and jouncy surf music that they mix with all of the stage moves you could ever desire. From unison dips to tag-team hops and jumps to macho-man poses, all with broad winks and showmen's strutting poise, the Slacks do just about every trick you can do with an instrument in your hands, and fold a lively music into a livelier stage show, coming up winners all around. Fronted by Skipper Slack on Danelectro bass, with Idlewild Slack and Circus Slack on the essential Fender guitars, Professor Slack on drums, and new member Havana Slack on sax and shades, the Irreversible Slacks mug and romp and caper and cavort and don't even seem to mind when you're staring at the gogo dancers instead of watching them. (Not that this ever happens.) Standout numbers were "Island of Large Livers," "The Shimmy" and "Bulgarian Yogurt Volcano," but their entire set was terrific. If you like this kind of thing, you'll love this kind of thing. If you don't like this kind of thing, by golly, why not? Their all-Flash Web site captures the mood rather well, and is worth a high-bandwidth visit. And congrats to Skipper Slack, who is about to be wed and coaxed the bride-to-be up on stage for a quick round of gogoing and grinding.
When in doubt, deflower the kid -- and Don't Take Drugs. (If you haven't seen "Almost Famous" yet, please do so immediately.) See you in two.
Number of hours the mentally ill gentleman has been standing outside my window bellowing about the B15 bus: Five.
Number of people who raised their hands in the Living Room when Malcolm Holcombe asked how many of us owned cars: Eight.
Odds that Mr. Cyrano will conceive a great crush on the lovely waitress at the Living Room in the course of a Malcolm Holcombe set: 100%.
Odds that Mr. Cyrano will turn in his column in the wee hours of the morning on deadline day: 75%. Too much time spent thinking about those damn waitresses.
The Living Room: www.livingroomny.com
Heather Eatman: www.heathereatman.com
Malcolm Holcombe/Hip-O Records (CD info, use the Search): http://www.hiporecords.com/
Malcolm Holcombe (Subway Guide interview): http://subway.com/e-guide/docs/october99/malcolm_holcombre.htm
Malcolm Holcombe (1997 Flagpole coverage): http://flagpole.com/Issues/12.03.97/Holcombe.html
The Irreversible Slacks: www.irreversibleslacks.com
All snaps this week by Pierre Jelenc. Living Room flag by the Living Room.
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