Jonathan Toubin Benefit Show: Chain And The Gang, 5 Dollar Priest, Eleanor Friedberger, Nicole Atkins, Dorit Chrysler and theremin, Shilpa Ray, An American Dream, TWO TEARS
Music Hall of Williamsburg
Thursday, January 12
Jonathan Toubin plays rock and soul records, but unfamiliar ones, songs that have disentangled from the larger narrative. Simple, driving music, on its own. “The rock and roll people weren’t dancing at all in New York at the time and the club people were just playing music I don’t like,” Toubin says in a short documentary about his DJ series, New York Night Train. So he found a space in the middle, playing unknown records so that people can newly resonate with them. “I really just want to play any kind of music that’s really raw and immediate,” he says in the same documentary.
On December 8, Toubin was scheduled to DJ in a southeast Portland club. That morning, a taxi cab crashed into Toubin’s hotel room and pinned Toubin against a wall. Portland Officer Stuart Palmiter, interviewed by the Oregonian, described Toubin as “literally pinned under the front of the car.”
He has since recovered, speedily—he was discharged from the hospital on Friday, and is reportedly far ahead of the pace doctors thought he’d take—and on Thursday night, friends of his in the music community threw a benefit show for him, complete with a raffle where one of the prizes was a portrait of the man himself.
Thursday’s benefit was tightly constructed, people and bands flowing in and out chronologically, every band playing the same red drums. Shilpa Rey played harmonium and sang from a well in herself. Red and white light danced just beyond the stage, creating infared shadows. Nicole Atkins swung darkly through soul and r&b pastiches, and her two-person string section introduced a kind of buoyancy to her sound. Dorit Chrysler played theremin and gave off the general impression of pulling high frequencies from the air. Five Dollar Priest contained a clarinetist; guitarist Norman Westberg had his own clarinet and would play with him, in a whorl, against a kind of post-hardcore that had rejoined funk. DJs played sets in between, but none of their sets strictly orbited dance or rock—any literal techno was modified by jazz fusion or funk, making a disentangled space. Eleanor Friedberger, in between songs of contained toughness, told of how her and Toubin attended college together. There was audacity and weirdness in the air that seemed to realize Toubin’s idea. People danced with a looseness and danger.
Chain and the Gang were less reminiscent, more militant. Frontman Ian Svenonius (who had been scheduled to DJ with Toubin in Portland last month) asked the crowd to join him in a meaningful three-word chant: “Free. Jonathan. Toubin.” “…from his hospital bed,” Svenonius clarified. “In a way, Jonathan Toubin is kind of a pusher,” Svenonius said later, in his cadenced way. “Pushin’ those songs into the air. And you know what? Right on.” The band launched into a song called “It’s a Hard, Hard Job (Keeping Everybody High).”
Chain and the Gang play distantly perfected protest songs, and they’re a band that is better actualized live. To see them totally you have to see Svenonius, shuffling into these concepts, inhabiting them coolly and sardonically, then explosively. There are delayed shocks in this music, and you can feel Toubin in there, in the Motown shuffle, in the singularity. Just before the end of the show, Svenonius told the audience, or, rather, agreed with them, that “you can’t diminish the importance of music as a healing power.”
Critical bias: I attended a New York Night Train Soul Clap and Dance Off last year, on November 19. I participated, I tried to shake something off. There’s a challenge to it; he spins music that is hard to dance to well; so much of it is contingent on an unsustainable energy, heat and flash and gracelessness.
Overheard: “He sat in the back, I sat in the front. He always dressed up for class, like he was going out, and he sat in the back.”—Eleanor Friedberger on attending college with Toubin.