Baby's On Fire

"Brian Wilson wrote this song for me," Ronnie Spector said on Wednesday at her annual holiday party at Life, "but because of publishing and contracts and stuff, I couldn't record it then. But I can sing it now." And the woman who made mascara a rock'n'roll necessity launched into "Don't Worry Baby," a coupling of singer and song that should have been ordained. Like Spector's first Ronettes hit, "Be My Baby," "Don't Worry" 's chorus cascades into the most primal— downright infantile— of hooks-cum­terms of endearment. No one sings "baby" like Spector, whether she's breaking the first syllable in half or singing it river deep, as she did on Wilson's tune, sounding not like the ultimate girl-group singer, not like the original bad girl, but sounding like a man. Funny, since Wilson sang it in a falsetto.

Both songs represent more a stereotypical male perspective than female. Or maybe neurotic misfits want a woman in stiletto heels to bad-mama them. Phil Spector kept his wife shut up in a mansion, controlled her career, and pocketed the millions he made off her voice. But, looking great at 55 in a tight black feathered jacket and flared pants, the woman born Veronica Bennett still comes off as more of a tough cookie than a survivor. Lolita-like, she has always mixed innocence and guile, provoking desire that begs instant discipline. At Life, she shook her cleavage while singing "Frosty the Snowman."

Joey Ramone has in recent years been paying his debt to the Spector sound by championing Phil's ex. Plus, he and Ronnie can compare notes on being locked up by the mad producer. Joey, Lenny Kaye, Tom Clark, and D Generation's Jesse Malin all joined Spector at Lust for Life, where she was welcomed by the sort of queer crowd that has always adored Spector. A homeless-looking man with cornrow beads in matted gray hair and a deeply wrinkled face came up for the last two songs, greeted with cries of "Keef!" Apparently, "Keef" is one of those mad-genius bluesmen that people like Jon Spencer drag out of obscurity; his guitar leads on "Run, Rudolph, Run" and "Be My Baby" brought the house down. "It's not my party but happy holiday," Keef said. Spector was gone and didn't come back for encores, undoubtedly aware when a moment can't be topped. —Evelyn McDonnell

Ronnie Spector, still Lolita-like at 55, with mad-genius bluesman "Keef!"
Ebet Roberts
Ronnie Spector, still Lolita-like at 55, with mad-genius bluesman "Keef!"

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Season's Bleepings

Call it neotraditionalism, or Christmas caroling for the electronica age. Last Saturday, over 40 people assembled in Washington Square Park with boom boxes and tape players, joined by at least as many onlookers, to take part in the seventh annual rendition of composer Phil Kline's "Unsilent Night." Quietly, Kline passed out cassettes, each a variation on his electronic composition. With a quick nod, play buttons were pushed, yielding a delicate cacophony of crystalline tones that oscillated through the balmy night air. Sound ebbed and flowed as the "carolers" made their way across town through shopping-frenzied streets, an effect that was both ethereal and eerie. Was it me, or did the city become strangely muted, taxi horns and police sirens caught up in a diaphanous swirl of synthetic strings, iterating handbells, choral chants, and atonal drones?

Much of the event's charm came from watching people's reactions: a homeless dread popping out from under a pile of newspapers, head cocked in puzzlement; the bum who darted from the corner of Bowery shouting "Humbug!" The piece culminated in the center of Tompkins Square, filling the hollow where the bandshell once stood with what sounded like a thousand distant church bells chiming out of sync. Rollerbladers pirouetted and a guy held up his cell phone in tribute as waves of bells twinkled around us, recalling for a moment the televised images of firecracker bombs bursting over Iraq's sci-fi green skies.

"It's kind of like live-action painting," said Kline, echoing the aspiration of composers like Charles Ives and Henry Brant to construct symphonies of everyday life. "I'm just taking those ideas a little further, to the point where all matter sings, everything vibrates and sounds at once, and you're surrounded by this sort of cosmic harmony."

Besides, Kline added, "Christmas is kind of scary." Sarah Ferguson


In-Between Days

Robbie Fulks didn't have a lot going for him last Friday night at the Mercury Lounge. No band for this hastily arranged solo engagement. No guitar: those pesky new airline carry-on regulations had kept him from bringing his aboard, so he'd borrowed a Japanese metal-body acoustic from a pal in Five Chinese Brothers. Worst of all, if the emphatic whispers are to be believed, no record label— despite having released his major label debut, Let's Kill Saturday Night, on Geffen just three months ago. With Geffen itself being folded into Interscope after the Universal- Polygram merger, Fulks is stranded. Especially since this alt-country hero lost a chunk of his straitlaced following with the new album, which veers toward Elvis Costello­John Hiatt­Matthew Sweet­type bashed-out rock, though it's every bit as successful as his other albums song for song.

But there were no tears in the beer here. Fulks launched full bore into "Let's Kill Saturday Night," treating it as the anthem it's so far turned out not to be; picked through songs, his left hand a blur, with a deftness that might have made Alphabet City Opry leader Greg Garing glad that Fulks lives in Chicago; gave a tune about scrapple some rockabilly vocal clutches; and threw his elbows into the beat on "Little King" like a rock'n'roll guitarist should. In between songs, the tall, thin Fulks, who resembles a hard-partying young attorney (though he says he remembers the '60s), told shaggy jokes in a voice not unlike Jimmy Stewart's. One, about answering Nashville's demand that its songwriters collaborate by cowriting a ditty with a three-year-old, led to the crowd pleaser (may I never hear it on record) "Eggs Are Good." Another, about finding a song written for Glenn Miller by a relation of that Five Chinese Brothers friend, set up "Shh! It's a Military Secret."

Fulks can be a hateful fuck on his albums— it's a big reason I like him— but he warmed up in this setting, which suited his tendency to treat songwriting like a game more than a soul review. He may be out of a deal soon, but shows like this ensure that he won't be standing alone for long. —Eric Weisbard


Rhythm Nations

Performing on electronic percussion Sunday night at Experimental Intermedia, Lukas Ligeti seemed to draw inspiration directly from the peeling walls, precariously heaped boxes, nonexistent sight lines, and cheap (yet complimentary!) red wine that have made composer Phill Niblock's distressed loft a monument to inspired otherness. As a traps drummer, the Austria-born composer has worked extensively with African musicians in the Ivory Coast, Uganda, and elsewhere (1997's Beta Foly was the most riskily grooving cross-cultural collaboration heard in years) and he ran the voodoo down with Henry Kaiser and Leo Wadada Smith on Yo Miles!, a forward-looking tribute to the black magus's plugged-in era.

But if the beat of the traps runs on repetition and similarity, the music Ligeti makes on his electronic drumKAT— enhanced with Powerbook, sampler, Echoplex, digital delay, and oxymoronically named "virtual analog" system— is about anything but. "Stories of the Unknown," for instance, was inspired by the "rhythmic systems," and included samples of Zimbabwe's Tonga tribe. Another solo Ligeti performed after one of his longer breaks (turns out the time it takes to load programs is a rhythm too) began with a bluesy kora interval and a short whistled phrase (all sounds triggered by pads or pedals) steadily augmented by a rapidly thickening accrual of loops and delays that eventually suggested a casual summer's stroll gone horribly awry. Virtual church bells began to chime in the distance as abbreviated string samples dissipated a mood equally chaotic and symphonic.

I preferred Ligeti's solos to his improvisations with the technically bedazzling violinist Mari Kimura and saxophonist Ned Rothenberg, which sounded too much like work. Only in the final piece, when Ligeti reined in his pointillist energy and meshed held "beats" with Kimura's slow bowed slurs and Rothenberg's repeating cycles, did the audience seem to breath a collective sigh of relief. After an evening's worth of constantly changing tempos and transforming rhythms running from Africa to Asia and back, the common musical notion floating in the decentered Centre Street loft felt positively novel. —Richard Gehr


Blissed Out

You could go all rock-crit on Saint Etienne: "Since 1991, Sarah Cracknell, Pete Wiggs, and Bob Stanley (who doesn't appear live) have been creating a heavenly mix of '60s pop melodies and '90s dance-floor innovations... [drone, drone]" Or you could go sociological: "The Etiennes, as they're known to their devoted fans, unite club kids and pasty-faced indie geeks in a display of modern ecumenism... [zzzzzzzz]" Or you could go ga-ga— like I did. By the end of last Monday's show at the Bowery Ballroom, having forgotten all about note-taking and looming deadlines, I was jumping up and down spastically, shouting along to "He's on the Phone."

It had been over four years since the British band's last New York appearance, so expectations were running high. Backed by a tight band, singer Cracknell and keyboardist Wiggs effortlessly translated to a live setting the synthetic reveries of their early years, the disco-house anthems that made them heroes in Japan, and their latest guitar-accented gems. Alternating between perennial favorites like "Avenue" and material from their latest album, Good Humor (like "Lose That Girl," with its envious/stunned observation that "She, she looks good in purple jeans"), the band put on an assured show fueled by fantastic tunes.

Faced with growing hysteria, Cracknell maintained an unflappable poise, even though she was sipping from a potent-looking red cocktail. The Debbie Harry­next-door, the singer confirmed her status as music's most unprepossessing sex symbol: neither vapid sex kitten nor aloof ice queen, she's everybody's cool sister, the one who rides Vespas with men named Federico but also enjoys slumber parties with her girlfriends. On Monday, more than ever, Cracknell proved to be Saint Etienne's not-so-secret weapon. She gets to the songs' melancholic core, but has no patience for sentimentality, moving the tunes along with easygoing flair. "Like a Motorway," for instance, became a hypnotic Kraftwerkian ("Like an Autobahn"?) hymn to wistfulness, but still brought a grin to our faces— the crowd later filed out beaming, eyes wide in delirious bliss. Sarah Cracknell may have been the one holding the cocktail, but we were the ones drunk on pop. —Elisabeth Vincentelli

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