With irony now rotting in the grave, Uri Caine demonstrated a prescient sobriety two years ago when he recorded The Sidewalks of New York, which—adapted and abridged—received its New York debut November 3 at the Center for Jewish History. The disc is a moving audio kaleidoscope that convenes singers, spielers, musicians, and sound effects to create a sense of the city in all its ethnic motley as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. I know of no other album quite like it—a couple of 1950s re-creations of minstrel shows approximate its ambition, but not its reach or achievement. The absence of irony was especially notable at the time of its 1999 release. Caine made his name with Don Byron and Dave Douglas, frequent indulgers in musical caricature; and through adaptations of Mahler, Wagner, Schumann, and Bach that go as far afield as gospel singing and turntabling and serve, even at their most honestly affecting (the Mahler works, Primal Light and Mahler in Toblach) as discerning provocations.
Yet Sidewalks emerges as a heartfelt period piece that betrays hardly any interest in modernizing the material. Dedicated to Caine’s father, who had died the year the recording was made, its musical modesty is underscored by the absence of Caine’s name on the cover—inside he is listed among the musicians and as music director. The epoch he examines begins in the wonder year of 1892 (“Daisy Bell,” better known as “A Bicycle Built for Two,” “After the Ball,” “The Bowery”) and ends in the seminal era of 1914 and 1915, when the influences of minstrelsy, jazz, ragtime, and operetta produced a new hybrid in dance music (James Reese Europe’s “Castle Walk”), the first modern ballad (Jerome Kern’s “They Didn’t Believe Me”), and the wit and wisdom of Irving Berlin (“Cohen Owes Me Ninety-Seven Dollars” and “When I Leave the World Behind” are two versions of the same theme). The only conspicuous omissions are Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and songs pertaining to the First World War—the 1915 cutoff precedes America’s intervention.
If Caine and company were willing to fade into the mosaic of another age, they understood that reverence and humor are no less compatible than sentiment and technology. Sidewalks of New York is a powerfully funny record on several counts. First, there is the material itself: Berlin’s wonderful preemptive strike about money and Jews, in which an exceedingly long verse about the dying Old Man Rosenthal tumbles into the brisk punch-line chorus, “Cohen owes me ninety-seven dollars/And it’s up to you to see that Cohen pays”; Bert Williams’s more celebrated preemptive strike about blacks and victimhood, “Nobody” (“Who soothes my thumping, bumping brain? Nobody!”); a recitative of Charles Hoyt’s “The Bowery” (“I’ll never go there anymore”), a song so chillingly popular in its day it was blamed for the decline in Bowery realty; and Norworth and Van Tilzer’s “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in Yiddish. The one chink in the fourth wall is an amusing rehearsal for Shelton Brooks’s “Some of These Days,” followed by the finished performance; but of course, rehearsals were necessary in 1910 too, so this one does nothing to destroy the work’s bubble of illusion.
The most comical element is also the most dramatic, and one that lends cohesion, visual cues, and a raptly claustrophobic feeling to the whole work: the taped effects—the whinnying horses with their hooves echoing off cobblestones, crowd noises, kids playing in the streets, clinking barroom steins, storming rain, Coney Island in July, some of which I’m freely extrapolating from the constant obbligato of sounds, a singularly emotional use of musique concrète. During one seemingly pointless anecdote, “Sidewalk Story,” you hear in the background someone whistling “My Wild Irish Rose,” then a piano tinkling a couple of Joplin rags, then as the story reaches its point—how its teller came to play the accordion—a squeezebox player commiserating with “My Gal Sal.” Was there ever really a Manhattan neighborhood or vaudeville bill that encompassed an Irish mezzo beseeching, “Has Anyone Here Seen Kelly?,” a blues diva shimmying through “Some of These Days,” a band marching to “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and one soubrette insisting, “Everybody’s Doin’ It” while a trio of soubrettes ask, “How’d You Like to Spoon With Me?” Probably not, but as a melting-pot fantasy—”Boys and girls together/Me and Mamie O’Rourke/Tripped the light fantastic/On the sidewalks of New York”—you could scarcely hope for a finer hallucination.
So how does all this play live? Very well. The record works because Caine came up with an ideal cast, and he was able to bring most of it together at the Center for Jewish History—a superior new theater on West 16th Street with good acoustics and much potential for concerts that draw in the low hundreds. He excised a few numbers, rearranged the order, and focused on four vocalists, supported by his septet and the “sound design” (tapes) of Kyle Hartigan. In the blessed absence of costumes and stage props, the performers—wearing street clothes and climbing on- and offstage, stepping over wires and around mike stands—had to create the old specters with voice and attitude. Nancy Opel, a radiant mezzo and something of a vocal chameleon, was from time to time briny Irish, Ziegfeld warbler, and sashaying advocate of doin’ something other than the turkey trot. Barbara Walker, the piece’s red-hot mama, occasionally threatened to overdo the climaxes, but generally caught herself in time and controlled her inclination toward melisma. Saul Galperin, an elderly gent who I suspect is not a professional singer (Caine’s or his label Winter & Winter’s disdain of program notes does his cast and his work a disservice), handled the Yiddish with dry humor—and regularly announced the score of the sixth World Series game, eliciting many groans. Sadiq Bey walked onstage with what appeared to be three unfurled condoms hanging from his breast pocket; they turned out to be white gloves, which he wore for “The Bowery,” the best of his three quirkily dour recitations.
The first-rate band included trumpeter Ralph Alessi, who played a dynamic lead, and Greg Tardy, who demonstrated an unexpected panache for raggy clarinet wailing. Violinist Joyce Hammann filled out the front line, supported by banjoist David Gilmore, bassist Steve Beskrone, drummer Ben Perowsky, and Caine, with occasional accordion respites by Ted Reichman. A few different pieces were added to the mix, including “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” a whopping “Ballin’ the Jack,” and an unfortunate ringer, “I’m Gonna Move on the Outskirts of Town,” which was written more than 20 years after the others and didn’t belong, even if Walker’s growls and Tardy’s heavy metal clarinet seared it nicely. By contrast, Walker’s “Some of These Days” exulted in blues-diva authenticity even more splendidly than on the record. More disillusioning was Caine’s decision to modernize his solo numbers; he played a decent “Charleston Rag” on the album, but in concert elected to upend “Maple Leaf Rag” with dissonant chords and bass-clef clusters, sacrificing period feeling for anarchic spontaneity, not a good trade.
The taped street sounds were effective and helped tie the numbers together. Less successful were the tuning-up interludes, which suggested an abrupt switch from one genre to the next, as though we were being whisked from studio to studio as a succession of bands prepared for the ensuing songs. Some of those passages went on too long; I shudder to think that I’ve misread the intention and that all that noodling was supposed to represent an avant-garde commentary on the last century. A more insistent attempt to spike the sentiment occurred during a closing sing-along of “Sidewalks of New York,” which devolved into Art Ensemble of Chicago discursiveness before returning to the world of New York Dixieland. Most of the audience was too shy to sing, which was just as well. Still, one had to wonder if Caine’s distancing effects didn’t vitiate a powerful feeling of longing and community that subsisted just below the surface of the concert and proudly skims the waves on the album. This is a work that deserves more live performances. Its possibilities are limitless. But when in doubt, Caine might revisit the 1999 disc and go with his feelings.