Three by Three
Does Ani DiFranco ever believe in folk music. Anyone deliberately arriving late to her Avery Fisher Hall concert last Monday with Gillian Welch and Greg Brown missed most of the show. All three appeared in tandem, with Welch and Brown also bringing their own guitarists, David Rawlings and Bo Ramsey respectively. Things started with a group-crooning of Utah Phillips’s “Dump the Bosses off Your Back.” The three writers then passed off songs within a cute triplet-system where each artist proposed one joint topic: Brown said his best one, earlier in the tour, was “turgidity.” Nine songs later, they all sang “Do-Re-Mi,” which DiFranco does on a newly released Righteous Babe album of Woody Guthrie recordings. Then each did three songs of their own, with the subsequent artist returning on the third tune to sing backup. Another nine songs later, they encored with two more DiFranco songs, before closing with a group “Fever.” When a few Ani-mals squealed for her during a brief absence, she tearily admonished them: “You’re making me embarrassed to be me.”
The trouble is, DiFranco isn’t a folk musician; she’s a rock star with a guilty conscience. Her flamenco-funk guitar playing was more musical and original alone than either of the duos, themselves no slouches. And where Brown and Welch write tautly, almost academically conscious of the genres they belong to, her Songs of Myself extend like Whitman and then hit you with a punch line. Brown fought back. Donning shades and stripping down to a sleeveless T, seducing us with a 1981 tribute to his “Daughters,” he made like a bad-to-the-bone literary lion, helped by Ramsey’s outsize plucks, then became something akin to the Coasters’ comedic basso to deliver the “fuck you” chorus of DiFranco’s “Unforgettable Face.” Welch hated the themes part, since her songs are all identical: gloomy pseudo-Appalachia, enhanced only by the stridency of the strumming. But she took the “fuck you very much” kicker on DiFranco’s “Every State Line,” a new song included the words “fucking out of sight,” and she danced around during “Fever” like a person instead of a Dorothea Lange portrait. DiFranco doesn’t need to keep playing the folksy godmother, but she’s a good influence on the blue bloods. —Eric Weisbard
Something Wicked This Way Comes
March Madness is in full swing at the Metropolitan Opera, with all eyes focused on the top seeds, the topsy-turvy new Merry Widow (just ended) and the blockbuster Ring cycle (just getting under way). But last week belonged to a sultry, murderous Cinderella: Catherine Malfitano’s rock and roll reading of the title role in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
Katerina is the Russian exemplar of the male literary tradition of bourgeois housewife ennui, a sympathetic chain of antiheroines that runs from Madame Bovary to Hedwig. Shostakovich redeemed her from Nikolai Leskov’s grisly short story: To protect her affair with Sergei, a worker in the family business, Katerina poisons her lecherous father-in-law and strangles her husband. Soon after she and Sergei are arrested, he abandons her for another prisoner, and on the march to Siberia she drags the woman into a river, drowning them both.
Malfitano, who has been criticized for devoting as much energy to her acting as her singing, resolves the ambiguity of Katerina’s awakening—Sergei’s advances are forceful, to say the least—with a dominating vocal performance, rising from frustration and fear to a smoldering lust that could melt the gold leaf off the Met’s ceiling. Under the baton of principal guest conductor Valery Gergiev, the orchestra plays the “tragi-satirical” music for laughs, but Malfitano’s yearning Katerina is never less than human, an unapologetic lover doomed by her taste of freedom.
Lady Macbeth, which concludes its run March 30, will forever be known for receiving the worst review in musical history: In 1936, two days after Stalin walked out on it, Pravda denounced its graphic sexuality and dissonant score, signaling the beginning of a 50-year reign of terror. Graham Vick’s production, returning after its 1994 debut, is appropriately provocative, but more Pet Shop Boys than Proudhon, with speeding electric vehicles, a chorus of ax-wielding blood-soaked brides, and Keystone Kossacks. In a coup de théâtre, a massive wrecking ball turns out to be mirrored; it delicately illuminates Katerina’s wedding to Sergei. As the lights twinkle, Malfitano shows us a graceful killer, a true diva in both senses of the word. —Josh Goldfein
Master of Puppets
The convenient thing about Etienne Charry’s band is that they all fit in a box. As he played at NYU’s Thompson Center last Thursday night, a plastic head on a stick chattered between songs, two animatronic arms with cutout guitars strummed along, and the winking puppet with a tin-can drum kit on the video projection screen behind him kept remarkably good time (and even doubled on keyboards). Grinning and whacking big mushroom-shaped buttons that cued in the rest of his “group,” Charry looked like an even more impressive piece of animation. His own role was mostly limited to singing, trading licks with the disembodied guitarists, and attempting to teach the flummoxed but amused crowd a chipper singalong in French about people who get killed by cars; for his encore, he appeared only on the screen, in some kind of mock video game. Not surprisingly, he reproduced the tunes and tunelets from his album 36 Erreurs pretty precisely. The idea was high-density performance art, not rock.
Still, it wasn’t antirock, either—Charry’s crushed-bottle guitar sound added a savory streak of ugliness when his Comic Strip-via-Dust Brothers bloops and tippy-taps threatened to get too sugary. His songs all seem like they should end with a voice-over of “By Hasbro!” though they’re too benevolent to try to sell anything but themselves. Too airy to be kitsch, as perky and bold as colored plastic, they get straight to the hook, whack it in with the help of whatever crackly bits of AM-radio orchestration are lying around, and run away giggling. Their model is clearly TV jingles, which is a cute idea—nobody ever went aesthetically bankrupt underestimating the attention span of pop listeners. (At one point, the plastic head announced that he was bored and demanded to listen to the radio around his neck; it was a lead-in for another tune, of course, but it wouldn’t have been funny if it’d been possible that anyone was bored.) As inspired a joke as it is, Charry’s mechanized caricature of a beat group is also an irresistible piece of retro-futurist salesmanship, Reddy Kilowatt style. —Douglas Wolk