Cheese Steak in Arctic Paradise? It's Philadelphia
Dateline Philadelphia. Note to self: think twice before going to another music convention north of Mason/Dixon in January. I'm at the Philadelphia Music Conference and it's snowing cats and bigger cats and my feet are frigid, the streets are rigid, and my collection of T-shirts and vests and sweatshirts and overshirts and scarves and the leather jacket and the bunny hat make me look like Good Will's best customer on a klepto spree. At least nearly everything is black, so I occasionally match. (Slogging through Center City tundra one afternoon my friend Ziggy shakes his head: "You look so New York.") And dragging this stuff around from panel to panel must be nearly as good as doing free weights. Sort of. In some alternate ragtag bone-pile universe. Hey, a guy can dream.
What better way to launch a column on life and music in New York City than by starting in Philadelphia? It seems appropriate somehow. Here's the conference in a nutshell: dotcom, dotcom, e-commerce, mp3, SDMI (ho ho ho ho), dotcom. (I once tried to register dotdotdot.com, but it was already taken by a company called Ellipsis, which is impossibly cool.) If I hear the phrase "online community" one more time I suspect I'm going to shriek. Which is odd, because that's part of what we're trying to build here. There's a very faulty assumption lurking at the heart of that phrase: if you're doing something, it says, and if I'm doing it too and we're doing it at roughly the same time, then we must be a "community." Admittedly I've had some dates like that, but that don't make it right.
So you're in your chair somewhere, and I'm here on Horse, the doughty plucky 486. Horse is not long for this world, truth be told. I've been poking around in Napster these past weeks learning a new language in the chat rooms -- honestly, I don't think I ever said "Where are you?" until the late '90s. Time was, back when we were simple folk, unless you were playing hide and seek you knew where the other guy was. He was right over there, and you would have sounded mighty silly asking unless it was plenty dark. Now in the salad cell days of the new e-age that's one of the first things that comes up ... anyway. W/e. Welcome to our little community, whatever that means and wherever you are, here on this warm corner of the Web. We're in Philadelphia today. And this week it's about singer/songwriters.
Pat DiNizio writes great songs. He's spellbinding. He's probably most familiar as That Guy From The Smithereens, who in turn are probably most familiar as Those Guys Who Do That Song (probably "Blood and Roses"), and if you're like a lot of people you've got some Smithereens records stuck somewhere on a neglected shelf. Maybe you've seen them one of the times they were famous. I hadn't (I hear they're a blast), but come late the Thursday night when it was merely Bloody Cold, my pint of Yards ESA and I bellied up to the rail at the Tin Angel for a sublime all-request set with Pat, his guitar, and his Jim Beam. (Commercial break: DiNizio is one of the sponsor figures in the Jim Beam songwriting project, which was a partial sponsor of the evening's music. He describes himself as the Ed McMahon of Internet music. Judging by his Web site, he's also running for Senate in New Jersey on the Reform ticket. Symbol: a rhino.)
Industry types always tell you that it's all about the songs. This usually comes up right before speculations about Britney Spears (real, or what?) and a spirited defense of the Backstreet Boys (who are more than just pretty faces, really), so you take it as jabber and palaver. Pat's set was about the songs. He's not much of a guitar star, just sort of saws away at the thing until it does as it's told; his voice, a cozy mellow Elvis Costello burr, is magnetic and personal. In the spareness of the solo arrangements his direct, confessional lyrics stand up front and naked, trembling with emotion. There's a seductive suppleness to his writing ("Yesterday Girl" was a real gem), and if he shares themes as well as vocal qualities with Costello his style is stripped-down Americana rather than baroque heartbreak. This was a star-turn set done with friendly ease, satisfying on every level. DiNizio ("Are you here to see Pat Dinunzio?" asked the sweet pretty woman at the door, to whom I'm afraid I was brusque -- sorry, it was late and I was cold) is doing a clutch of living room concerts in unusual venues, and if you're tired up to here of the Latest Thing and need a bit of faith renewed in the racks and pinions and nuts and bolts of craft and good writing you'll do well to catch him on this pass. Back in the City after PMC I dug out some Smithereens discs; those songs are on there, all right. But you haven't really heard them until you've heard DiNizio do them solo.
Earlier in the evening I caught the tail end of Peter Mulvey's showcase, also at the Angel. I've seen Peter a few times in the past, opening for Dan Bern and doing his own solo wanderings, but it had been a year or more since the last. He's been relentlessly on the road, here and in Europe, and it certainly shows: what was always a clever and wryly entertaining set has grown into a serenely-confident run of observant and wordsmithy tunes both topical and eternal. His guitar is intricate and nimble, his lyrics precise and satisfying, his rapport with the audience instant and open, and he's developed that magical quality so important for a hard-working road-show musician: he sweats prettily. Peter is itinerant, so check his Web site for upcoming appearances.
Jump cut: it's Saturday now, and it's Really Really Cold. Friday was a blurry haze: partial showcases, the late-night steak sandwich at Jim's (it's the law), a further exploration into the fulminous mysteries of Yards delightful Old Bart beer (don't try this at home), sore cold feet and a rousing set by Philadelphia's Stinking Lizveta at The Khyber. Stinking Lizveta is a local culty instrumental trio extraordinaire (guitar, bass, drums). The Khyber crowd was reminiscent of audiences at Residents shows back in that band's heyday, without the gabbling and with a sense of rhythm and reality. The ambient sound was a patchwork of joyous shrieks, the vibe was weird chic, the music was intense and trippy and fast and tight. Think Soft Machine at 78 with no vocals playing manic surf jazz out of an ELP fever dream, with a look somewhere between Zappa and Nektar and ZZ Top. That'll get you to the right neighborhood; Stinking Lizveta will give you all the directions you need from there. Recommended. Bring bread crumbs so you can find your way home; or don't.
As I was saying, it's Saturday now. I'm scraped down to a nub, I've already worn everything I brought with me at least once and I'm not leaving until tomorrow, so it's out to the Tin Angel and I'm not moving unless someone drives a car service vehicle right up the stairs and carries me to a bucket seat. This didn't happen, so I was there for the duration, and well pleased about it.
Disclaimer: I know Sam Shaber. Not well, but she's a friend of a friend. She's on the road a lot of late and is based out of New York; I've seen her perform occasionally but, as it turns out, not to advantage. Tonight at the Angel she practically glows. Sam has described her music as "acoustic soul," which works but doesn't say the half of it. She's an incisive and friendly and slightly-goofy presence, with a bright cutting edge and eyes you know are missing nothing, and her songs range from uptempo cityscape snippets on life, the universe, and everything, to precise and powerful stories of loss and denial that raised hairs on Mr. Cyrano's arms and left him a little damp around the eyes. The title track of Sam's new CD, "PerfecT," is a softsung lover's plaint of frustration that stopped the chatty audience in just a few bars and faded out in a house that was rapt and spellbound; later her heartbreaking "Rain and Sunshine," a wise meditation on deep loss, was instantly memorable and has been a humming favorite in these parts since. Her good humor and perky solo arrangements filled out a set that was simply delightful. She was bound for a Sunday-night live appearance on WXPN, and has a thorough tour schedule posted on her Web pages. Sam's Brand New Band is playing in New York on February 8th, so you missed it, but yr. faithful correspondent will be there and I'll let you know how it went next time around.
Followed Providence's Erin McKeown, all sly spritely smile and musical mastery. This was my first time seeing her, and I was mightily impressed. Her Web page gives us this comment from Dar Williams: "Don't let anyone tell you that Erin McKeown is the next anyone. She's the very first Erin McKeown, and she's great." I'm not sure I can put it a lot better than that. Erin is a strange and wonderful stylist, romping from striding bluesy downside folk so tangy you can smell the gumbo to odd and almost campy off-kilter jazz. Both Leo Kottke and Leon Redbone came to mind; her voice is equal parts confidence-whisper and affected soulful trill, and the songs range as far and as widely as the styles she dresses them in. Her first album, "Monday Morning Cold" (the new CD is in process), is a completely solid collection of demos and other compiled recorded moments from the last couple of years, both solo and with a band, and it goes a long way to capturing the feel of her live show. It's not where she's going, I'll guess, but it's a great snapshot along the way. Erin is also touring, and her Web site is up to date with all the details.
Fast forward: it's snowing again but this time the PMC is over, we're back in The City, and it's Not Quite So Damn Cold. And by the pricking of my thumbs, something wacky this way comes. Another disclaimer: guitarist Mark Stewart (Bang on a Can All-Stars, Paul Simon, Polygraph Lounge, Fred Frith, etc.) is a good friend, and I'm here to hear him at the Merkin Concert Hall backing Australian poet Chris Mann on daxophone and on his new creation, the youboingy. Mark is polymathic with instruments, from his usual axes (electric guitar, cello) to the forgotten (mandocello) to the truly obscure (daxophone) and now to this one, which he designed with a luthier friend down south.
Chris Mann's work is fascinating, a thick soupy deconstruction of meaning in which he reads complex and interesting screeds on language and life at such high and floppy speeds that only the occasional clot of content splashes out and whacks you upside the head. The rest dissolves into pure sound. But to tell the truth I'm really here for the youboingy, which is a guitar-shaped metal armature with a guitar neck mounted in it; within and along the armature is a clatter of springs of various shapes and sizes, amplified through a piezo-mike mounted on the frame. The youboingy had arrived only the night before and Mark was just beginning to tame it, and its early range of sounds is glorious. Basic boings (apart from the guitar bit) overlap and pulse and color and shade one another, and when played with an egg whisk the contraption puts out a meaty raspy scrape that resonates into metallic shades. It's a lovely machine to look at, and we're looking forward to hearing more, and more, and more. There's something new in the world.
See you in a few. a/s/l?
Best Phrase Heard Today: Rap Impresario
Favorite Waitress in Philadelphia: the dark-haired woman at the Tin Angel
Second Favorite Waitress in Philadelphia: the girl from Boston at Griffin's
Best-Loved Item of Clothing in Philly, 1/00: the Warm Bunny Hat
Philadelphia Music Conference - www.gopmc.com
Pat DiNizio - www.psycholaborations.com
Peter Mulvey - www.petermulvey.com
Sam Shaber - www.samshaber.com
Erin McKeown - www.erinmckeown.com
Photos by Pierre Jelenc
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