Saturday, November 02, 2019

Shamans Of North Sixth

One night, two venues, and two very different approaches to channeling the charismatic in music.

Part One: Carolina Eyck at National Sawdust

Leon Theremin’s pioneering electronic instrument just hit its century mark, having made its debut in 1919, and there are probably only two or three people alive who both see beyond its novelty value and have the technique to exploit it fully. One of them is Carolina Eyck, who first came to my attention in 2016 on Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet, a collaboration with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. That remarkable album was a constant listen and found a home on my Best Of 2016 (Classical) list. 

However, while I’ve had the files for her latest album, Elegies for Theremin & Voice for some time in advance of its release about a month ago, I’ve been finding it hard to fully connect to the music. While the surface is shiny and bright and the textures - both electronic and vocal - are wonderful throughout, there also seemed to be static quality to the songs. Such is my respect for Eyck, however, that I jumped the chance to see her perform at National Sawdust on Friday, October 25th. 

The rows of seats were almost full when I arrived and sank into mine, already grateful for the intro music, which was Eno’s Music For Airports played on NatSaw’s superb sound system. Eyck’s theremin was center stage accompanied by a table with a laptop, an MPC, and some other gear. Her confidence immediately commanded my attention when she strode on stage, resplendent in crushed velvet and jewel tones, a touch of face-paint lending a ritual aspect to her appearance. 

She sat at her instrument and...made magic. The astonishing control of her right hand (which controls the pitch) allowed the notes to take shape in the air, becoming a physical as well as aural reality. The first piece had the sense of an overture, all swoops and glides and echoing drama. While I dismissed my mind’s initial attempt to place it adjacent to the fat analog synth tones of Steve Miller Band’s Space Intro in my mental library, as the evening progressed and Eyck put her humor and pop skills into the mix, I thought, Why not? 

When she played songs from the album, witnessing the layering and looping of her vocals exposed the solid architecture that I was having trouble discerning. She also gave a little background to some of the songs, such as Remembrance, which pays homage to a school friend who died too soon. But rather than just lamenting her death, Eyck celebrates her life with some light and playful sounds, sharing this special person with us. She also gave a brief tutorial on the workings of the theremin, describing how she visualizes a string in the air, which she plucks with her right hand, while the left hand controls the volume by gesturing around the looped horizontal element. 
Eyck getting into the rhythm of a new song
We were also privileged to hear a “very new” song called After The Sun Went Down, which, with its propulsive bass line and bright melody, is one canny remix away from the dance floor - it’s a banger in the making! After a brief interlude of “fairy” sounds and what sounded like another new song, Eyck ended the night with Commemoration from Elegies, its massed choir of her own voice sounding heavenly. Based on other reviews I’ve read of Elegies, it is unlikely that you will need a live performance to gain entry into its many charms. Either way, if Eyck comes to your town I would not hesitate to take advantage of an opportunity to spend some time in the presence of this supremely talented and heartfelt musician.  

Part 2: Starcrawler at Music Hall Of Williamsburg 

The night was still youngish when I left National Sawdust and ran into a friend who invited me to join him at the Starcrawler show. As this is a band I’ve wanted to see since last year, when I called their debut album, “Pure filth, sloppy, grinding, filth, but tuneful,” I jumped at the chance. A rigorous security check presaged the dramatically different experience I was about to have as we entered the familiar confines of MHOW. The opening act was still on, which I would have been happy to skip in favor of a drink in the basement bar, but my friend, having seen Starcrawler before, wanted to get prime position near the front of the stage.

I got a cup of Old Broadhorn for me and a water for him and met him in the main room. We listened to the opening band, a lumpy stew of psychedelia and The Clash, for just a few minutes before he turned to me and said, “This is really bad.” Indeed, it was. Everything about it was terrible, in fact, from their stage presentation and the over-miked drums, to the shit guitar tones and pretentious jamming. I worked mightily in my mind not to lose the mood of excellence imparted by Eyck, holding it in my cortex as these knuckleheads thrashed away. I was mostly successful and it was, thankfully, over soon. Bizarrely enough, they had fans, who had been dancing maniacally and singing along and were now calling for an encore. “The opening act does NOT get an encore,” I spat out loud enough for people to hear. That felt good!

We had a little time to wait so I caught up with my friend, whom I had never before met in person, and made some new ones. During the banter I was surprised that no one had heard of Frankie & the Witch Fingers, who are another band from L.A., very different but they rock just as hard as Starcrawler. Finally, just as we natives started getting restless, the house lights went down and Starcrawler’s drummer, Austin Smith, entered stage left, sat down at his kit and started pounding out the rolling glam stomp that opens Lizzy, the first song on their terrific new album, Devour You. The crowd started to move to the beat but it was when guitarist Henri Cash, looking fab in an imitation Nudie suit, came out and unleashed his wicked right hand that we exploded. It was like rock & roll lightning had struck us all, with Tim Franco’s bass the only thing keeping us from frying to a glorious crisp.

Then Arrow de Wilde, in the first of many well-informed theatrical gestures, oozed down the few stairs from the stage door before settling in a heap near her mic. The knowledge that the explosion was coming did nothing to reduce its effectiveness when she sprang up and began assaulting the mic with a variety of screams while showing off moves that found a through-line between Cotton Club shimmy dancers, ballet, and the snake-hipped antics of Iggy Pop and Jim Morrison. In short, de Wilde was a high voltage electromagnet for our attention, riveting in her every twitch. Her outrageousness only seemed to inspire Cash to his own pursuit of the guitar-player posture hall o’fame, which included pulling outrageous and hilarious faces.
The Cash and de Wilde show.
The amazing thing about both de Wilde and Cash as performers is that there was absolutely nothing studied about any move they made - everything they did grew organically out of the sounds they were making. As my friend warned me, de Wilde can also be a provocateur, flipping one fan’s hat off his head on more than one occasion, putting a foot on the shoulder of another, drooling fake blood, and inevitably leaving the stage to writhe on the floor and then be carried around by the audience. When we chatted with Cash after the show and wondered if she had ever gotten in trouble due to her behavior, he said no before explaining, “When Arrow is on stage, there’s nothing here” - he pointed at his forehead - “it’s all here” - he indicated his body. Fair enough! Cash also turned out to be an eager student of rock history. My friend had sent him a DVD of The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, which gave us a opportunity to geek out briefly about The Dirty Mac.

Cash's collection of guitars also betrayed a deep knowledge of the sounds he wished to achieve, including playing several songs on not one but two guitars with only three strings. The band’s energy never flagged as they thundered through their set like a runaway train. Even if only some of the variety and, yes, subtlety (There's a ballad!) of Devour You showed up on stage, as the first half of my evening proved, your recorded personality need not match what you do in a live setting. Another way to look at it is that it’s almost like having two Starcrawlers - to which I can only say: What a time to be alive. I’ll let more pictures tell the rest of the story - and I hope to see an even bigger crowd the next time Starcrawler swings through NYC. Will you be there?

Arrow de Wilde assaulting the mic.

Henri Cash, unleashing his right hand.

Austin Smith and Tim Franco, holding down the bottom.

Cash spraying notes from one of his three-stringed guitars.

Cash feeds off the energy of the crowd.

De Wilde becomes one with the audience.
Who was this guy? Unknown - but he finished the show!
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