Monday, June 28, 2010

Apples in Stereo @ South Street Seaport

Apples in Stereo
@ South Street Seaport
New York, NY - June 26, 2010

It figured that as the Apples in Stereo have been a kind of PG version of the Flaming Lips, that they would be ripe to cap off a kids day theme event. After playing their mix of 60's acid-free acid-rock and their new stabs at disco ("Dance Floor" is still killing after a few months) the band got together with the opening act, the Broooklyn Youth Chorus and some of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, for a version of "Energy". Chief Apple Robert Schneider was so touched by hearing children and strings accompany the song he wrote for his own child, he asked them to do it again without the Apples and it was a sweet moment. Then there were fireworks. That's how you do in this town.

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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Norah Jones @ Prospect Park

Norah Jones
@ Prospect Park
Brooklyn, NY - June 9, 2010

In June 2003, I saw Norah Jones for the first time in a soaking Philadelphia rain. Now, almost 7 years to the day, I see her in full concert for only the second time...and again in a steady, soaking rain. In between these gigs, Norah has done herself pretty well - becoming a music world heavy after her stunning debut record, settling into a popular but not overwhelming rhythm through a few more solo records, some major collaboration (including with some old schmo named Ray Charles), and a couple of side projects dabbling in country and some silly grungey punk-rock for the rock club crowd. Her last major solo record, last year's The Fall, was promised as a "Tom Waits"-y turn from her usual major sellers. Assuming that meant a more sinister hobo-ish facade to her Jazzy blues and country, Norah didn't deliver. But she did make a more modern sounding (and more guitar-based) record while retaining her delicate, sometimes almost too-good-to-be-true sense of what the music is all about.

Polka-dotted and flowered-haired, Norah fittingly kicked off Celebrate Brooklyn's 32nd season at the Band Shell in Prospect Park as a fairly new Brooklyn resident (she can stay, most of these chatty, "look I'm so funny I need to shout something out that I think is witty" yipsters can go, just leave the money). She showed some of that Brooklyn grit by playing most of The Fall (including "Back to Manhattan" which sounded beautiful despite ill-fitting). She ignored Come Away With Me till the very end, playing a sparse version of the Big One, "Don't Know Why", before concluding the set with "Lonestar" and the encore with the first LP title track. "Sunrise", "What Am I To You" and "Creep On In" were trotted out from Feels Like Home, and Not Too Late, a semi letdown that was also too quickly forsaken, wasn't entirely forgotten when Norah played the underrated "Sinkin Soon" which is way more Tom Waits-y than anything on The Fall.

Never content to just do her own work, even after three albums of almost all originals, Norah had her still newly revamped play some Cash ("Cry, Cry, Cry" for the Sun Records lovers) and Neil Young. She spent a lot of time on electric guitar but still looked to old country and the standards for inspiration. Norah is taking little pokes in progress as time goes on but she is still, and always will be, the gem of her generation, the great communicator of a variety of sounds, speaking to the music world on a plain and simple level. Like a Brooklyn girl should.

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Sunday, June 06, 2010

Camera Obscura @ One Hanson Place

Camera Obscura
@ One Hanson Place
Brooklyn, NY - June 6, 2010

All gigs should almost be like this. In the hallway of Brooklyn's landmark old skyscraper - a flea market full of cabana wear, old western pulp novels, Archie comic bottletop earrings, and live Lou Reed and Miles Davis records. Downstairs in the old vault of the old Williamsburg Savings Bank, Camera Obscura played a short set in prep for tomorrow night's sold out show at the Grand Ballroom. Free, with ice cream. What we could have done without were the stuffy heat and the lack of sightlines and the odd crowd too busy talking to notice that the band had come out and started playing. Regardless, the band sounded fine if a bit muted in the confines. But that didn't stop the run from "Let's Get Out of This Country" to "Eighties Fan" (with "French Navy", "Hey Lloyd...", and a couple others thrown in) feeling perky. Little things like this make me wish that of all the bands who actually DON'T live in Brooklyn, this band really probably should. Sigh.

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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Conan O'Brien (and many friends) @ Radio City Music Hall

Conan O'Brien; Reggie Watts
@ Radio City Music Hall
New York, NY - June 1, 2010

Just 200 feet from the scene of the crime, Conan O'Brien made his performing return to New York City via the Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour, a lengthy cross-continental romp designed to keep him fresh and in the public consciousness while Jay Leno entertains a couple million soft-headed old fuddy-duddies and Conan himself prepares for his autumn return on TBS.

The basic format of the live show was a drawn out, uncensored (but still fairly PG-13, TV-14 whatever) version of his television show. Andy Richter was back in his old sidekick role. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog appeared in a taped monologue which included an old Conan-era Simpsons bit - the dubbed-in specific proper noun to fit between the generic jokes. That bear who found onanistic pleasure (and whose original name may be the intellectual property of the guys across the street) was there.

Despite the old format, Conan relied somewhat surprisingly on musical numbers - including a poke at mundane upper class upbringing and ending the show with a cover of "The Weight" (snob moment: the version was clearly inspired by the Band's performance in The Last Waltz, what with the Cokettes singing verses). But Conan's emphasis on music was unnecessary as he continues to work with the once-upon-a-time Max Weinberg 7 (now known as the Legally Prohibited Band). The outfit, now officially led by Jimmy Vivino, remain the amazingly tight and talented troupe they have been for 17 years. How did Mark Pender hold that note?!?! Also none too shabby was the appearance of Vampire Weekend - playing a rocking version of "Wolcott" in the guest-band slot.

And in the stand-up guest slot was Deon Cole, a staff writer on the Tonight Show run, who relied on a narrative of surveying the audience for future material and racial difference humor (and who riffed on some hipster's pretty direct racial bait call-out). Good delivery, creepy eyes.

The big spectacle though were the marquee guests. Stephen Colbert appeared in character to question Conan's New York credentials and to challenge Conan to a dance-off. Stephen pulled his classic fake injury move in order to get a sub in. Who else but Jon Stewart - Conan's future 11pm rival - dressed in Mexican dance regalia to save his Comedy Central colleague? If that wasn't enough, Paul Rudd, John Krasinski, and Bill Hader all appeared to pull the lever for random Walker, Texas Ranger clips - the clips needing no celebrity cameos to be extremely awesome.

With all of this surrounding him, it was easy - and perhaps somewhat purposely so - to forget that Conan was the star of all this. As naturally funny as Conan is, the goofy, lanky, awkward geek always shined most when being in good company. That company includes the audience. Unlike any other late night host, Conan had a direct, almost intimate relationship with his fans. That intimacy carried over into the live show, specifically in a bit in which the crowd is supposed to respond in conversation with Conan. The crowd quickly caught on that they/we were supposed to be difficult and to make Conan feel inadequate. And everyone pretty much got the joke.

Conan's bitterness over the fiasco at NBC came up consistently throughout the show but it never dominated the set (despite the tour title and the crazily close surroundings of this venue). And the bitterness was tinged with that sweet sense of humanity this guy has always had. Conan made as much fun of his own expected, perceived despondency as he made of the suits (and The Chin) at the network. And his rant about living in a media world which has not one but two shows about guys who make cakes, maybe signaled that the future of Conan's comedy may be in the vein of a wise old salty crank.

Reggie Watts, a fast rising comedic/music talent, opened the night with the kind of skill at dissecting and reinventing the English language in ways not seen since the likes of Carlin. His explanation of music, and the balladry of how an owl eats, took apart both the art of description and the deceptive ease of how certain music feels. The parody on rap was biting and a bit heavy handed but was dwarfed by Reggie's actual ability to rap. His accent switching was an old trope but a well crafted one. Nothing proves the persnickety nature of the language like an Oxford accent.

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