A Month on the Town

The man who's reviewed 12,000 records reviews 32 shows in 30 days

Beirut, !!!, and Be Your Own Pet mounted the kind of hot gigs where the passions of the pit radiate out into Zone Two—the indie ideal, at once communal and exclusive. The Arctic Monkeys started like that three years ago, building word of mouth with free demos, till now there's nothing exclusive about them, nor communal if by communal you mean as small as Northsix. But I got more fellow feeling and a better high out of their big square Roseland crowd. The smart money claims, plausibly, that their Brit provincialism will cost the band Coldplay numbers stateside, but these bridge-and-tunnel concertgoers were bigger than that. Mouthing the lyrics the Arctic Monkeys are one of the few bands to post, they were aesthetes, relating to the songs as songs, with "image" secondary. Just standing there and playing their songs in the classic indie manner—an ethos long since eroded by avant-garde theatrics and populist carnivalesque—the Arctic Monkeys locked down their scrawny sound, pushed the tunes halfway, and got their party started.


Gogol Bordello are less cool about their carnivalesque, for good reason— carnival is the essence of their being. For 90 minutes at Irving Plaza, they kicked out the jams, and the rabble they roused roused me. By last November's Gypsy Festival, where they put on an even bigger and longer show, their drum-surfing encore was legendary. This time, watching two dozen willing hands hold the giant parade drum aloft as Pamela Racine and Eugene Hutz clambered on, I recalled the heyday of the New York Dolls, when I assumed unthinkingly that this gift would always be mine. It should be no surprise to anyone that I loved loved loved their show. But next time they interrupt their perpetual world tour, you go catch it anyway.

I just wish I'd memorized their lyrics.


With their micro labels and long history on the local circuit, Gogol Bordello are indie rock, but they're also the odd band out so far. It isn't that they're mostly immigrants, or that they're not really a guitar band. It's that they're OLD old: graybeard violinist, middle-aged accordionist, haggard human dynamo (Chernobyl survivor Hutz, who I fear could keel over anytime). This also goes for their audience, which while mostly under 30 was strikingly mixed agewise. I'd cherished the simple hope that Be Your Own Pet and some tyros to be named later would give me a new lease on ye olde vitality. But generational details kept butting in as I followed my druthers.

I caught roughly eight old headliners, at least three older than I am. Five of these were tops by me, only one a floppola, and even he offered unique entertainment: saxophonist Anthony Braxton, who summoned 100 tubas to open River to River's free Bang on a Can Marathon and got maybe 65. What a spectacle—shiny and dull, pristine and dented, tarnished and in one case rusted, white and nickel-colored and brassy gold, and if there were two alike they were far apart. But gradually a fascinating piece about timbre and volume, with ambient aircraft comping sharp-pitched against the prevailing rumble, became a minimalist endurance contest. "Couldn't they produce a different type of sound?" asked a young professional woman taking the Financial Center air. "More celebratory—faster, maybe?"

Sixteen years Braxton's senior, Ornette Coleman did just that. By now his alto sax is as dulcet as a French horn, and in a sonic innovation that shamed Excepter's synth foofaraw the night before, he set a bowed bass to stating tenor themes on ballads. His blue silk suit was smooth too. But when the moment came for the new-thing chestnut "Turnaround," he ripped Carnegie Hall up. At the other end of the old scale—only two of them are 50 yet—Sonic Youth sounded equally beautiful playing Rather Rippedin order. You can say it was just that I knew it by heart, but I was critical enough to notice "Turquoise Boy" meandering. The indie-rock godparents encored with Kim singing the 23-year-old "Shaking Hell." That ripped CBGB up.


Take my word, young'uns—age seldom sorts out neatly. "Can you fathom that I do this for a living? Forty-two years," boasted fedora-sporting, braided-bearded National steel whiz Baby Gramps directly after dedicating "Dream a Little Dream of Me" to Cass Eliott and shortly after declaring himself an "honorary teenager" in lieu of actually performing "You Can Throw Me in Jail but You Can't Stop My Face From Breaking Out." Yet Gramps's eccentric virtuosity and old-as-the-hills laugh lines reminded me of no one so much as 21-year-old Nellie McKay. Both even did Dylan imitations. Difference was, McKay had better songs, jokes too—where Gramps is a wonder, she's already a substantial artist. Also in the wonder category is onetime Stones piano man Jim Dickinson, only he's straddled generations since before he produced the Replacements—and proved it by encoring with something from Big Star's Third, also his record. Like Gramps, Dickinson is a songster who knows blues, but where Gramps is a genre crank, Dickinson just shares a lingua franca with his backing band, a/k/a the North Mississippi Allstars—one of his tradder production credits, but hey, they're his sons. Of the few guitar solos I heard (though they're less verboten now than in Fonarow's period), Luther Dickinson's slide work was up there with Lee Ranaldo's avantisms. But when the tireless Peter Stampfel sought a similar injection from 17-year-old Walker Shepard, son of Stampfel's old bandmate Sam, the kid didn't have his parts down, and it hurt. Stampfel's set was never more vital than when the senior partner followed a whispered "I want you" with an intense, high-breaking "so bad" on Dylan's "I Want You."

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