"The difference between doing rock shows and cabaret shows is that at rock shows, the microphone smells like old beer and spit, while at cabaret shows, it smells like Chanel No. 5, and it's caked with red lipstick," singer Lee Ann Westover explained on Monday night at Makor, the midtown nightclub run by the 92nd Street Y. She's probably one of the few performers in a position to know, since the band she fronts, the Lascivious Biddies, has played its share of both kinds of gigs. I'd admired this group for some time now, based on its two studio albums filled with memorable pop tunes, angelic three- and four-part vocal harmonies, jazzy instrumental chops and a generally playful character. All four members have a knack for penning memorable songs with clever lyrics, and the group's recent DVD, Live in New York City, provides a glimpse of its onstage charm. But only live do you really get a full sense of the chemistry between these four performers.
Guitarist Amanda Monaco and pianist Deidre Rodman are both serious jazz musicians who lead bands of their own. At last count, Monaco leads three different small groups; her first CD, The Amanda Monaco 4, demonstrates an avant-bop sensibility, and there's another one in the works. Rodman steps out as a solo act on occasion, and leads a large ensemble that's still called the Alphabet Lounge Big Band even though it long ago relocated its sporadic activities to Barbès in Park Slope. The members of that group attest to Rodman's skills: saxophonists Roy Nathanson and Donny McCaslin, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and singer Kate McGarry are all at least semi-regulars. She's played with, and arranged for, Elvis Costello and Darius de Haas. Twin Falls, her recently issued third CD, is a gorgeous duet session with electric bass guitarist Steve Swallow, which I wrote about in TONY (and also in one of the footnotes to this post).
Juilliard-trained bassist Saskia Lane has a day job at a P.R. firm, but by night, you might find her on all manner of bandstands; Monday night, she was still a bit dazed from having played with Jay-Z and Beyoncé the previous evening at Radio City Music Hall. She plays with rock-solid time and gorgeous tone, and she improvises like a champ. The group is fronted by Westover, whose brassy voice and sassy demeanor has won over countless lovers of pop, jazz and, yes, even cabaret. (Just ask Terry Teachout, one of the biggest Biddy boosters.)
Monday night's set opened with "Famous" -- which might well be the Biddies' theme song, were it not so hard to imagine four such personable, seemingly well adjusted women easing into a life of pampered, debauched celebrity -- and included most of their catchiest originals, among them the twangy "The Truck Song," plaintive "Wichita," sly "Intellectual" and "Neighbor," no doubt the sexiest paean to Mr. Rogers anyone has ever penned.
And, like all good jazz and cabaret performers, the Biddies also have a way with recasting covers in their own image. "Think of Jimi Hendrix in Peggy Lee's dress," Westover suggested, before slinking into a slow-burning take on Hendrix's "Fire." A standard more familiar in piano-bar circles, "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," was renamed "Bling" in honor of Lane's Sunday night playmates; Monaco gamely tossed in the handful of hip-hop licks she claimed to know. The encore, "Ask" by the Smiths, was mandated as much by Monaco having lugged 35 pounds of effect pedals on the subway to the gig as by the enthusiastic response of an audience that clearly included a number of regulars.
The original songs are reason enough to admire the Lascivious Biddies. So, too, is the group's instrumental prowess; during several tunes, Westover stepped away from the microphone while Monaco, Rodman and Lane locked into lithe, elegantly arranged instrumental counterpoint. But the thing that really cinches the deal is the obvious camaraderie between these four performers, whose mutual supportiveness clearly transcends the bandstand. Glamorous, feisty and demure all at once, the Biddies could almost be the cast of Sex and the City tranformed into the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Sunday night's show by Hatfield and the North -- a New York City debut some three decades after the band's brief heyday -- got off to a slower start, and took a bit longer to coalesce despite a set front-loaded with the songs that open each of the band's two studio albums: "Big Jobs / Walking Up to People and Tinkling / Calyx" (from 1974's self-titled debut) and "Share It" (from 1975's The Rotter's Club). The scene was the Bowery Poetry Club, the sound was loud and remarkably clear, and most members of the standing-room-only crowd appeared to range in age from 35 to 55: old enough to have bought the band's albums when they were new, or, soon thereafter, to have traced some arcane prog-rock genealogy backward: Robert Fripp to Bill Bruford to former Hatfield keyboardist Dave Stewart, for instance. (That was my route, anyway.)
And this, I thought, was a shame, because a new potential audience for this band is as yet untapped: the jam-band crowd. I'm no expert, but it's not so hard to imagine that Hatfield and the North's pastoral British vibe, the band's intricate meters, ellided songs, lengthy improvised stretches and general whimsy could easily appeal to admirers of Phish and its ilk. But that would also likely require the sort of regular road work that Hatfield managed to miss out on during the last 30 years of inactivity, and that it probably isn't equipped to undertake at this point.
While the three veterans (bassist-vocalist Richard Sinclair, guitarist Phil Miller and drummer Pip Pyle) and their new keyboardist Alex Maguire played well enough from the start, the set took some time to gather steam. It probably didn't help that the two opening numbers were followed by a set long on latter-day material that postdated the original band. "Seven Sisters" was a relatively straightforward ballad, inflated to an almost Genesis-style grandiosity at its climax. "Licks for the Ladies," from the debut LP, segued into "Finesse Is for Fairies," a funk-bop riff that brought forth a burning solo from Miller, as well as torrents of tripping notes and watery chords from Maguire. (It might have gone over exceedingly well at Bonnaroo.) "Psychic ED," a hymnlike ballad written by Maguire and Pyle, paid tribute to the late Soft Machine saxophonist Elton Dean, in whose band the keyboardist had previously played. "What's Rattlin'," by Pyle and Sinclair, waxed poetic over the tattoo of an insistent march. "Take Your Pick," a loosely swaying instrumental, segued suddenly into a one-two punch of vintage compositions "Aigrette" and "Rifferama," and it was here, at last, that the set built up an imposing momentum that led to a towering climax.
Had that been the end of the show, the report would clearly have been mixed despite all best intentions. But after a short intermission, the band picked up right where it left off, a reprise of "Calyx" leading directly into "Underdub" and a pair of tunes by Miller's pre-Hatfield band Matching Mole, "Godsong" and "Lything and Gracing." Sinclair took a slinky extended solo over Maguire's church-organ chords and Pyle's marching beat in "What in the World." The second set culminated in four more Hatfield standards in quick succession. "Halfway Between Heaven and Earth" and "Giant Land Crabs in Earth Takeover Bid" had room to spare for instrumental excursions; the plaintive "Fitter Stoke Has a Bath" segued into the gentle resignation of "Doesn't Matter Anyway." The last song might well have ended the evening on an impressive mellow note, but the crowd wouldn't hear of it; the encore was a fiery take on another Matching Mole instrumental, "Nan's True Hole."
The prospects of a return visit in less than 30 years isn't actually out of the question: Sinclair twice mentioned that Hatfield and the North will be playing Montreal in September. Outside after the show, the lanky, congenial veteran spent time surrounded by enthusiastic fans, several of whom urged Sinclair to contact this local club or that local promoter. If only the New York live-music business -- and life in general -- could be that easy.
At the show, I picked up a copy of Hatwise Choice, the first volume in a planned series of archival releases, compiled by Dave Stewart with the cooperation of his former bandmates. While none of the titles on the disc are familiar (for what turns out to be a fairly obvious reason), the recordings feature embryonic versions of many songs and instrumentals that would later turn up on the two studio albums. The demos sound surprisingly good for their age and provenance; live tapes from BBC performances are better still, and reveal what a ferocious beast this band was in its heyday. Most Hatfield and the North fans probably already own this; if not, it's a mandatory purchase. (You'll find more information and ordering instructions here.)
Hatfield and the North - Hatwise Choice, Vol. 1 (Hatwise Choice)
Robert Fripp - Exposure (DGM)
Ljova - Vjola: World on Four Strings (Kapustnik)
Easy Star All-Stars - Radiodread (Easy Star)
Radiohead - OK Computer (Capitol)
Jeff Buckley - Grace (Columbia)
Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere (Downtown)
Os Mutantes - Tecnicolor (Universal)
Bang on a Can & Don Byron - A Ballad for Many (Cantaloupe)
Iron Maiden - Iron Maiden (Sanctuary)
Hüsker Dü - Flip Your Wig (SST)