Titter to a Screech
“View of Chinaman using flatiron” hardly sounds like the pinnacle of yuks, but according to the meticulous, gag-by-gag “Lafometer” that silent-comedy star Harold Lloyd produced after a showing of his 1928 film Speedy, that shot drew the picture’s heartiest response. As popular as Chaplin or Keaton in his day, Lloyd also pioneered the art of test-screening films, reshooting or cutting as required; for Speedy, shot on location in New York, a somewhat subjective scale runs up one side of the Lafometer (Titter, Chuckle, Laugh, Outburst, Scream, Screech), with hundreds of “Humorous High Spots” (e.g., “Harold rubs Bert’s neck”) listed along the bottom. The jolly Asian’s heated derriere-branding is the finale to a battle royale between hired hoods and sporting-goods-wielding codgers (a Gangs of New York parody before the fact)—and the only joke to penetrate the second-loudest category.
Seventy-five years later, the gag still kills, to go by this correspondent’s Lafometric approximation at a Town Hall revival on March 23—but so do plenty of others. With the three-piece Alloy Orchestra providing supple accompaniment, the charms of Speedy (Lloyd’s last silent film) were translated effortlessly across the decades, packed with glimpses of pre-Depression New York (especially in the generous Coney Island sequence) and physical comedy of Rube Goldberg intricacy. Aptly titled, Speedy is as fast-paced as it is genial, a dozen-laughs-a-minute valentine to the city’s incomparable energy.
The Alloy Orchestra’s original score featured the sort of junkyard percussion (manned by Ken Winokur and Terry Donahue) that would do Tom Waits proud, including a bedpan conscripted as a gong. Synth master Roger C. Miller turned on a dime, stride-inflected runs switching to frantic to crackerjack organ when Lloyd enters Yankee Stadium. (Babe Ruth has a cameo.) The Alloy’s augmentation notwithstanding, the best sound of the city that Sunday was the delighted shrieks of children, piercing the room and floating off the charts. —Ed Park
Whether it was just wishful thinking or a sarcastic in-joke, the title of the Warp records showcase at Webster Hall last Wednesday—the Ultradance Tour—was worth a good giggle. After all, fans of the experimental U.K. electronic-music label are better known for chin scratching than rump shaking. And sure enough, at 10 p.m. a third of the dancefloor was occupied by cross-legged ravers, apparently musing to the twisted breakbeats of Ned Brackett, a skinny young man with a laptop.
The crowd rose, however, when beatmaker Prefuse 73 (a/k/a Scott Herren) took the stage, his face nearly obscured by Liebeskind-like glasses and a voluminous cap. Recently transplanted from one Dirty South (Atlanta) to another (Barcelona), Prefuse 73 works at the nexus of bump, blip, and glitch. His neck-snapping hiccup-hop didn’t exactly invoke full-on bump ‘n’ grind, but rather a vigorous head-nod ‘n’ shuffle.
In the past, Prefuse 73 has proved his indie-rap cred by touring with Mr. Lif, but this was a solo outing, so the only visual excitement was Mr. Herren pounding the pads of his MPC-like tiny bongos. The music had enough micro-composed details, however, to make up for his lack of onstage presence. Previewing cuts from his upcoming One Word Extinguisher, Prefuse 73 deftly tossed together Native Tongues’ jazziness, beatbox boogie, and stuttering needle drops into woozy cuts that sounded like hip-hop eating itself.
More single-minded was the hour-long DJ set from Brit Andrew Weatherall, whose stark dance music added up the dark edges of electro, techno, and acid into an elegant proof. After Weatherall’s hypnotic minimalism, the more-is-more approach of the U.K. duo Plaid was a mood-killer: Their jittery, crystalline beats and eerie, circus melodies quickly emptied the room. Still, a few hardcore dancers remained, trying to trace the rollercoaster beats with their fingertips. —Michael Endelman
The Back 40
Somewhere between burlesque and Beethoven, there’s Dave Douglas. The trumpeter celebrated his 40th birthday at the Jazz Standard last week in an autobiographical showcase featuring 10 of his previous bands. Douglas kicked things off with an acerbic tone, turning a Latin thing into a lazy thing and back again, without diluting the ginger guitar or tin-heavy drums. On night two, he orchestrated a few 30-second tunes with viola and cello that managed to sound both chilling and cute. Your faithful reviewer slept on night three, but the fourth found pianist Uri Caine bringing syncopation—a pounding left hand and tumultuous right—and Monk-like color to uncluttered chords, producing a gray, dirty sound that swung sharply as Greg Tardy tweezed sweetness from a cornet. Caine was joined on night five by tenorist Seamus Blake who pleaded vigilantly as the pianist funked a Fender against Douglas’s shrill triads and cascading whines.
Even when Douglas’s attempts to micro-divide notes in his quick runs seemed labored, the friction was haunting. During several choruses, he dissembled his trumpet and produced a shallow wheeze. Whether these antics got in the way of this music or were the music, listeners lapped it up. “Every night, a different crew—all equally insane,” Douglas said before tenderizing Mary J. Blige’s “Crazy Games.” Insane, but not inane, gimmicky, indolent, or any of the other pagan paradigms some had predicted. And though Freak In, Douglas’s acrid and loopy new laptop-driven jazztronica album, did not propel when he performed it live the final night, it still reeked of salty innovation. —Daniel King
The snow prior to Turbonegro‘s March 30 performance at the Mercury Lounge seemed a friendly enough omen for the recently regrouped Norwegian death punks on tour in the U.S for the first time since 1997; but less than 10 minutes into the night’s pageantry, vocalist Hank Von Helvete was pegged in the head by a beer bottle. Bleeding heavily, he left the stage and didn’t return. There were shouts of “Respect the Vikings!” and tales of how David Yow would’ve kept it real, but the crowd’s disappointment was most plaintively externalized through a misleading chant of “I Got Erection.”
Currently laying low as the supporting act for Queens of the Stone Age, Turbonegro, formed in 1989, are top-billed at a few one-offs to promote Scandinavian Leather, their follow-up to 1997’s Apocalypse Dudes, which was recently reissued along with 1996’s Ass Cobra on Epitaph Records. To make room for Sunday’s ticket holders, Monday’s show was moved to the Bowery Ballroom, a space well suited to a group whose vocalist is known to end sets by sticking an ignited sparkler up his ass.
So for the second time in two nights the comeback kids emerged to raised fists and the pre-recorded strains of “The Age of Pamparius,” a song about multi-instrumentalist Pai Pot Pamparius’ pizza shop in Oslo (“Gonna bake a motherfucking pizza tonight!”). Only this time they got to keep going.
A shirtless and powerfully hirsute Von Helvete chocked up his quick recovery to his “good head,” explaining, “I used to have a Mohawk, I used to throw bottles, then I realized what kind of demon I was—I was a denim demon!” Indeed. A daunting re-envisioning of the Village People as fans of the Stooges, the band blazed through the set list they’d intended to play the night before. Von Helvete dripped Alice Cooper face paint; bassist Happy Tom, the flaxen-haired sailor, fellated a microphone; the helmeted Pamparius engaged in phallic “Prince of the Rodeo” piggybacking with guitar prodigy Euroboy, who nailed a solo while crowd surfing (“His magic fingers can find every G-spot in the universe!” Helvete enthused). The encore, which included “Get It On” and “Denim Demon,” was capped with an endlessly riffed version of “I Got Erection,” offering Helvete the opportunity to play AT stadium rock, dividing the audience in two for a sing-along of the eponymous chorus. And while the band continued to trot through a number of double entendres, Happy Tom led a cheer of “H-A-N-K.”
Before leaving the stage with the rest of his Tom of Finland crew, Von Helvete grabbed the microphone and offered a “Thank you, good night, I forgive you all.” His absolution made it seem, in a way, like we were each atoning for something different. —Brandon Stosuy
Hip-Hop You Sorta Heard
Jean Grae and the Juggaknots is the type of show that I root for. The Juggaknots lead MC, Breezly Brewin, spits so effortlessly that he makes MC’ingsound like his first language. Grae is hip-hop’s reigning black humorist. At her best, she plays the dozens with misogyny and gender. If she isn’t unfurling a list for some herb on how to lose his girl (“Number eight: Masturbate but only with her and only in public/In romantic restaurants, baby rub it”), she’s swilling 151 and turning lesbian at the sight of the apocalypse.
March 18 at the Knitting Factory, with Iraqi endgame approaching, Apocalypse was not out of the question. A seamless exhibition of talent, however, was. This was, unfortunately, the underground show at its most cliché. There were too many cameos by unknowns. The audience brimmed with NYU white dudes. The women could be counted on one hand. Onstage a huddled mass of MCs and hangers-on milled back and forth. When a mic was passed, freestyles meandered out of speakers addressing nothing particular. Nothing happened on time.
The stars of the evening got by—and not much more—on talent alone. Breeze’s butter flow took him through “Troubleman,” “Clear Blue Skies,” and a randy rendition of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” But in between songs, he worked out some issues, noting that underground cats never have groupies and then instructing the crowd to yell “Breeze gets no ass!” Grae, humorous as always, was the only act who offered anything resembling charisma. Still her records skipped, and she forgot whole verses. At the end, she laughingly asserted that this was the worst show ever. It was sort of funny, and then sort of not. —Ta-Nehisi Coates