Live: The Lowbrow Reader Presents Peter Stampfel, Larkin Grimm, and the Fiery Furnaces at Housing Works


Peter Stampfel, Larkin Grimm, and the Fiery Furnaces
Housing Works
Wednesday, July 22

“This one’s about traveling to a distant galaxy to bring back spirit orgasms for women on earth who’ve never had one,” Larkin Grimm said last night to a decent crowd at Housing Works, capturing the irreverent and earnestly bizarre tone of the evening. Grimm, an anarchist folk-rocker and former member of the Dirty Projectors, was one of five performers–three of them musical acts–that gathered to celebrate the seventh issue of The Lowbrow Reader, an excellent and actually quite high-minded comedy magazine edited by Time Out music writer Jay Ruttenberg.

Peter Stampfel and his Ether Frolic Mob kicked off the event with an eclectic set ranging from full-bodied Delta blues covers–e.g., Charlie Patton’s “Shake It and Break It”–to things a bit more in the Pete Seeger, if not A Mighty Wind, vein. Stampfel, dressed in Birkenstocks and a racy Hawaiian shirt, did some yodeling and frenetic banjo picking and gave props to the great jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke.

It was a jarring transition to Larkin Grimm. A stint as an infant in the spiritual cult-commune The Holy Order of MANS–which, according to its webpage, “no longer has a physical representation in the earthly plane”–seems to have left its mark on the statuesque Grimm’s songwriting and persona. With a peacock feather tucked into her hair, she wryly prefaced each song with stuff like “This one’s about the need to mature beyond God,” before adding, “It’s also about oral sex.” As her kneeling male bandmate plucked a dulcimer, Grimm periodically unleashed an ungodly Appalachian banshee howl, describing, for instance, trees filled with bloody cows in the chilling “Ride That Cyclone” from 2008’s Parplar. For a moment, Housing Works–with its incongruous Romanesque pillars, creaking floorboards, and caged lights humming like so many bug zappers–had all the atmospherics of a Kansas storm shelter in tornado season.

But after the Fiery Furnaces came on, the aura lightened into something more like a summer camp talent show. Matthew played an acoustic guitar and hummed as his sister, elegant in a long black dress and heels, sang brightly about love, family strife, and casual violence. “Even in the Rain” and “Cut the Cake,” unusually straightforward tracks off their newly released I’m Going Away, seemed all the more powerful live and unplugged. Stripped for once of their Casios and guitar pedals, the duo used the relative silence to highlight Eleanor’s soulful croonings and baroque lyrics about in-laws and wallpaper.

Before their set, Matthew had been holding a used copy (newly purchased?) of Leo Marx’ s The Machine in the Garden–a treatise on the dangerous collision of technology and pastoral life in America. Should this indicate a new rustic direction for the Fiery Furnaces, it’d surely be well received.