Marianne Faithfull & Marc Ribot
Thursday, March 15
Better than: Stones tributes.
If the billing of a stripped-down duo performance between Marianne Faithfull, the 65-year old pop singer, and Marc Ribot, the master guitarist of the downtown jazz scene, seemed too good to be true, it was. Instead, those nestled in City Winery’s vibe vacuum—$70 for a barstool, $80 for a table—got something one player different than advertised. But probably most weren’t paying to see Ribot, anyway. “I always wanted to Ornette Coleman everything up,” Faithfull said midway through her set, during which she pattered with devastating charm, and sang with an emotional force underscored by a richly rasped voice that was never anything less than pleasure to listen to.
Ribot brought with him his Ceramic Dog comrade Shahzad Ismaily, who added bass, guitar, keyboards, drums, and lead laptop. And though Ismaily was wonderful, he provoked an entirely different kind of playing from Ribot, far from the promise of the spare, elegant duo that might’ve been. More a band, less a rare and austere one-vocal/one-instrument expression. Small beans. Ribot and Ismaily didn’t get anywhere near free jazz, but they made a nearly tactile path through Faithfull’s 40-year trail of collaborations, opening with “Strange Weather,” written by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan for Faithfull’s 1987 comeback album of the same name. Even more, the trio jumped from mood to mood with a force that clearly belonged to Faithfull, no matter who wrote the song she was singing.
The trio moved from Kurt Weill tributes (“Strange Weather”) to folk (“I Wish I Was A Mole in the Ground”), from collaborations with the Stones (“Sister Morphine,” for which she received a co-writing credit many years after the fact), Nick Cave (“Crazy Love”), and Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti (“Losing”) to vibey, cosmopolitan Euro-pop (“Broken English”) and beyond.
“I’m sorry, but I’m not all there today, if I ever am,” Faithfull apologized at one point. But the only time during the set that she seemed anything less than totally engaged was during “As Tears Go By,” the 1964 Jagger/Richards-penned hit that has followed her around ever since. Everywhere else, the music was alive, not quite improvised, and as vital an argument as any for the pleasures of life outside the buzzsphere. Faithfull herself seemed restless, eyeing and fiddling with pack of cigarettes (and occasionally lighting one up). Though she claimed aloofness, she was fully present in the music, her starting-to-crack voice painted with a tiny bit of reverb, the crowd all hers.
Everywhere, Ribot and Ismaily played on the fly, improvising rock codas (“Down From Dover”) filling spaces with occasional Albert Ayler vibrations and even less occasionally extraneous keyboard patches. A cabaret act in form, Faithfull’s set was anything but, her flightiness too genuine, emerging from her music like as a deeply encoded freedom, unsingable by anybody but Faithfull herself. She introduced a new addition to her repertoire, the folk song “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” recorded for Amnesty International’s recent Bob Dylan tribute. “I think it was written by someone else, but Dylan claimed it,” she said. “Like you do,” she added.
Critical bias: As a theme restaurant, City Winery could really use more flair.
Overheard: “He came for the music and not the food!” followed by obnoxious cocktail party giggles.
Random notebook dump: Woman reaches for earplugs as soon as Ribot steps on distortion pedal; volume change negligible.
Why Did We Have To Part?
Baby, Let Me Follow You Down
I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground
Down From Dover
Working Class Hero
As Tears Go By
Tower of Song
Marianne Faithfull, Marc Ribot, and Shahzad Ismaily play at City Winery again tonight.