Her Satanic Majesty’s Request
Devil went down to Georgia, my ass. The devil was buying rounds at a bar on Avenue C on August 24, and he’ll continue to haunt any venue that hosts the fury of a band called Brooklyn Browngrass. The crowd at the C-Note was climbing all over the barstools and tables and each other, trying to glimpse the Browngrass players’ merciless plucking and strumming and thwacking. By the end of the set it was a miracle the band hadn’t lost pints of blood and Guinness through their stripped-raw fingertips. The crooning was hypnotic, the harmonies contagious, and just walking into the flooded bar was like stepping into a fevered midcentury tent revival.
Concession: Hipsters playing purist trad music in the urban jungle still seem pretty alternative to alternative, and it’s astounding how young city crowds will swallow whole anything so unexpected as live bluegrass and country. It’s like a whoosh of cool oxygen in a vacuum of moldy indie rock and canned techno. When a band as passionate and energetic as the five-piece Brooklyn Browngrass takes root in this town—though it could hold its own anywhere from the hollers of Appalachia to the western cliffs of Ireland—well, New York is gonna stand on its hind legs and yelp. (They play every Monday at Stinger in Williamsburg.) Even the pierced and tattooed coeds sang along with Browngrass’s ultra-folk, ultra-riled-up rendition of the old gospel “I Saw the Light” like preachers shouting an exorcism. All these religious-upbringing escapees who’ve avoided church like the plague ever since they fled the suburbs weren’t immune to the musical hellfire. And the devil, perched on a high speaker, raised a toast and joined in the chorus. —Christina Rees
Anything She Could Do . . .
Pauline Kael once wrote that it takes a star to play a star. If that’s true, then Klea Blackhurst is a star. In “Everything the Traffic Will Allow: The Songs and Sass of Ethel Merman,” Blackhurst (appearing at Upstairs at Jack Rose, Saturdays and Sundays through November 11) takes on a healthy portion of the repertoire associated with Broadway’s most famous belter and reshapes it into her own showstopping format.
When, for instance, Merman got set to deliver the Dorothy Fields-Arthur Schwartz “This Is It” at the 92nd Street Y 30-some years back, she grabbed the mic stand by its long neck and moved it three feet to the left so she could sing out with nothing between her and her idolaters. When Blackhurst, whose mezzo is firm but considerably smaller, does “This Is It,” she’s quiet, reflective, and on mic. Occasionally, Blackhurst—mentioning she grew up in a Salt Lake City home where Merman was a god—unleashes a gravelly phrase or a yelp or hits one of those grace notes Ethel doled out. (“Ah-I got rhythm,” the stenographer-turned-legend might intone.) Every once in a while, Blackhurst does the one-foot-other-foot-one-arm-other-arm movement Merman affected when slamming the back wall with the Gershwin brothers, Irving Berlin, or Cole Porter, who’d dubbed her La Merman.
But more often she shrewdly appropriates the Merman catalog as a way of asserting her own refreshing personality. Intelligent, warm, and—from some angles—a near ringer for Bette Midler, Blackhurst has no need to replicate her predecessor doggedly. She takes amusing or touching liberties with the material, abetted by bassist Ray Kilday, drummer Steve Barosik, and especially pianist-arranger-alchemist Michael Rice. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” gets ragged, and “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” gets uked (with her strumming). Call her La Blackhurst. —David Finkle
Long Live Real Robots
While most dance music aims to be the next shit, electro remains in a state of arrested development. With kitschy humor and robot voices in place, the August 25 performances by DMX Krew and Mr. Velcro Fastener at 113 Ludlow solidified electro’s brat-boy image.
Dressed in button-up shirt, tie, and leather executioner’s mask, opener Le Syndicat Electronique bobbed his head and danced gleefully to his own music, bleeping out of a Mac. The incognito artist didn’t bother “playing” too much, focusing instead on hammy showmanship (thrusting his hands in the air, Saturday Night Fever-style) and taking advantage of the vocoder whenever possible.
Headliner DMX Krew (a/k/a Ed DMX, a/k/a Ed Upton), whose new wave record We Are DMX beat the ’80s comeback by two years, didn’t let up on the cheeky ‘tude. Upton started his set with a remix of “Eye of the Tiger,” lip-synched a rap over the top, and midway through addressed the audience in a demure English accent: “I’ve always wanted to do this,” he said tentatively. “Is Brooklyn in the place?”
Ed’s set was corny, lighthearted, and fantastical, with whiplash breaks—reminding you that electro can be evil when it feels like it. He worked an array of digital gadgetry (definitely live, not Memorex) for the packed crowd, which mostly consisted of smelly young trainspotter boys standing at attention. “It’s fine to face the front,” he implored, “but you will have to dance more.”
Mr. Velcro Fastener didn’t need to make any such requests: The crowd had thinned out a bit for this less-well-known Finnish duo, leaving wiggle room for the booty shaking that commenced while Tatu Metsätähti and Tatu Peltonen kicked DMX’s quirky behind. (Electro is fun and funny, but it rarely induces unabashed dancing, perhaps because it is so self-consciously cutesy.) They played their “hit”—the aptly named “Real Robots Don’t Die” from Lucky Bastards Living Up North—and unveiled tunes that were by turns ominous and sweet, sprawling and intricate, demonstrating that electro can be complex, chic, and still hang on to those silly robot voices. —Tricia Romano