New York, I Love You (And You’re Bringing Me Up) Part 2
MORE NOTES FROM A BUSMAN’S HOLIDAY BACK IN THE BIG APPLE
(Part 1 is here)
11) Free Concerts
One of the greatest things about summer in New York City is the wealth of free outdoor concerts, from the familiar big guns – Summerstage in Central Park, Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park – through to newer series like the River to River or Folks on the Island festivals. Then there’s the venerable City Parks Concerts of 33 shows across eleven different inner-city “parks” that, this year, includes bringing the Delfonics to Bed-Stuy, Dead Prez to Red Hook, Kurtis Blow to the Bronx, Roy Ayers to Queens and Slick Rick to Harlem. The average summer in New York City now sees 500 such free outdoor shows – approximately four a day for four whole months – which is why most residents take them for granted. No longer being a resident, I took in three of the free shows in well under 24 hours of almost perfect summer weather, beginning with…
12) Fujiya & Miyagi at the South Street Seaport
The Japanese-named English trio of Krautrock enthusiasts would surely have gotten an American release without the aid of the iJamming! Pub. However, it would probably not have been on Deaf Dumb & Blind, whose label boss Michael C found the act upon po1ntman’s recommendation in the Pub. It seemed appropriate then, that for my own live introduction to the act, whose stature as Britain’s coolest new electronic-styled act was verified by this high-profile Friday evening booking at one of the city’s most beautiful locations, I assembled a group of iJamming! pubbers for a rare communal night out. Sadly, neither Michael C (promoting his football movie in Israel) or po1ntman (presumably at a record store in London) could join us. Even more sadly, someone forgot to book a decent sound system, rendering the show frustratingly quiet for such wide open surroundings. It hardly helped that the trio, in best British laid-back style, barely spoke to the crowd, minimized their onstage movements, and started their set with the quietest and slowest of their generally restrained grooves. The only good thing about this undeniably disappointing beginning was that things could only get better, and as our gang of eight gradually pushed ever closer to the low-slung stage, we finally caught some bass in the mix and were able to get our groove on.
Those who’d seen the trio at the Mercury Lounge a couple of months back assured me that F&M are more forthcoming in a dark sweaty club, and while I have no doubt that this is true, and guess that they may have been overwhelmed by the Sea Port surroundings, I’m equally sure they must have played a few outdoor festivals in Europe last summer in which to acclimatize to such shows. If not, then they need to get used to these gigs and quick, because there’s a balance to be found between modesty and showmanship, and Fujiya & Miyagi failed to tap into it on this occasion.
The limitations of their bare-bones presentation and the sound system notwithstanding, it turned into a fun show, the band taking the DJ approach both in the way they gradually increased tempo and volume, and also by reworking songs on the fly: ‘Collarbone’ (known in America from a Jaguar commercial), ‘Ankle Injuries’ and the delicious ‘Reeboks in Heaven’ all seemed different from the album Transparent Things. By set’s end, keyboard player Steve Lewis, guitarist David Best and bassist Matt Hainsby looked like they all wanted to get footloose and fancy-free, especially as a large number of teenagers in the audience (the group’s natural demographic or just local under-age residents keen to see some live music for free?) were already cutting the concrete. An encore then took what I believe to be either ‘Cassettesingle’ or ‘Conductor 71’ and worked it up into an extended instrumental jam, with many nods to New Order in the guitar riffs. The point at which they left us was the point at which many would like to have jumped in, but maybe we should not expect such permanently heady grooves from such a generally understated act. ‘Nuff said: we love the music, dig the vibe, and will look for them in more intimate surroundings next time.
13) Governor’s Island
You know that old adage, If you open it they will come? All the years I lived in New York City, Governor’s Island was a white elephant, 175 acres of prime real estate in the middle of New York harbor that the coast guard no longer wanted and nobody else knew quite what to do with. Eventually, it was sold back to the city for a buck, and someone – let me not give Mayor Bloomberg more credit than he’s already taking – figured to spruce the place up, turn it into a sorely needed island park and a beautiful natural museum, run some free ferries, invite people to bring picnics and bicycles and, while at it, promote some conerts to create a theme out of it all. The outcome? I joined several hundred others Saturday lunchtime for the ten-minute free ferry to this devastatingly beautiful island with arguably the greatest views of lower Manhattan (a view that will, sadly, never be the same without the Twin Towers). I didn’t have a bike and I didn’t bring a picnic, but I appreciated the offer of the free tours, I loved that the old buildings had been preserved around their former communal park, I was grateful that the old fort walls were still intact, I appreciated that it was all low-key (with just the one hot dog stand), and I thank the volunteers who helped ensure the old folks had a pleasant experience of it watching a particularly beloved old folkie:
14) Odetta at Governor’s Island
At 77, she’s been singing songs longer than any folk musician still alive, Peter Seeger excepted, and though she comes and goes from the stage in a wheelchair, her voice remains in perfect condition: there are few other people I’ve heard who can encapsulate the blues at base/bass level, and yet sound simultaneously operatic when reaching for higher ground. There’s also an authority to Odetta that is positively regal, but is not, I should note, empirical: she’s a Queen not so much in a sense of distance or dictatorship, but in the way she exudes command of her music and generates the love of her audience. Accompanied only by a grand piano player, I caught Odetta as she was introducing a medley of ‘Alabama Bound’ and ‘Boil Weevil,’ songs that, like the later ‘Rock Island Line,’ she credited to Leadbelly – if not necessarily for writing them, then for initially introducing them.
There was something about her performance of the latter song – made famous in turn in the UK by Lonnie Donegan – that struck at the very core of my emotions. Maybe it was the refrains of the “here we go loop di loop,” maybe it was the younger couple in front of me putting their left legs in and their left legs out, maybe it was the older audience members sitting in rapt, sun-drenched attention and clapping along as innocently as the young children they once would have been, or perhaps it was just that sense of history and authority prevalent in both her voice and the occasion… any which way, the end result was that I welled up behind my shades. There you go. Music does that at times.
Odetta concluded with another song she brokered from folk-blues history to the top of the charts: ‘House of the Rising Sun,’ in her case rendered a 6/8 fugue with a definite nod to Bach in the piano part. Eric Burdon and his ongoing Animals are coming to the Bearsville Theater in a couple of weeks; we’ll see if the man who took it to the top of the pop charts can still sing it as well. Odetta is a national treasure. I am so glad that I finally got to see her perform.
15) Subway Snafus
New York felt near enough perfect over this tourist weekend. But not entirely so. Dealing with subway station closures, line closures, re-routings, express trains running on local tracks and so on made my journey from South Ferry to Central Park a miserable 90-minute experience – and that’s someone who knows the system. I could have run it in half the time. The ongoing repairs to New York’s subway system presumably have an end in sight, but for those who have to endure the almost comically complex redrawing of the map every weekend, that moment seems a long way off. I therefore second the local politician who suggests we hold off on the congestion charge until we have a Mass Transit system in place to handle the additional demand – because it’s clearly struggling to cope with what it’s already got.
16) Giant Step at Summerstage.
What better way to spend a steamy Saturday afternoon than relaxing at Central Park’s Summerstage with suitably uplifting but relatively downtempo music courtesy of Giant Step? The New York promotion company is now into its 18th year, with my old English-born, Park-Slope living pal Maurice Bernstein still at the helm, still enthused, still loving what he does. Respect due. The subway snafus meant that I missed almost all of the reformed Ramp’s set, which didn’t seem to be the greatest loss: getting a one-album act back together after thirty years on the basis that one of your tracks was once used as a classic hip-hop sample (‘Daylight’ for A Tribe Called Quest’s 1989 hit ‘Bonita Applebaum,’ seeing as you were asking) seems spurious at best. Then again, that comment indicates the extent to which I feel a medium-size step removed from the whole rare groove/acid jazz scene. I had better luck with the Cinematic Orchestra, whose ambient electronica freeform chamber jazz was topped off on several songs by Patrick Watson’s falsetto vocals, of which I know I’m not the first to have noticed the resultant Coldplay comparisons. For the most part, though, the Cinematic Orchestra’s set was instrumental, with Brit-born group founder and bassist and new Brooklyn resident Jason Swinscoe holding the soundscapes together as, most notably, pianist Nick Ramm and saxophonist Tom Chant took the head arrangements into previously uncharted space. I found myself a solo spot on the field, and followed the example of many others in attendance by just laying back, closing my eyes and soaking up the sun’s warm rays with the music’s cool vibes. I couldn’t ask for more – especially at the price.
17) Habana Outpost
Back in Fort Greene, I met my Brit friend and former Park Slope neighbor Paul and we headed to the Habana Outpost for drinks and a bite. I’ve raved about the original Habana before: it’s in the middle of the trendier-than-thou NoLiTa part of Manhattan, where the texture of its spicy corn-on-the-cob covering is matched only by the beauty of the waitresses. Its year-old Outpost on the corner of Fulton and South Portland is something altogether else, arguably the greatest single drinking-dining-lifestyle addition I’ve seen in New York City since leaving the place two years ago. One part Cuban fast food restaurant, one part outdoor English-style pub, one-part flea market and several parts sustainable green lifestyle experiment, the Habana Outpost exudes peace, love and understanding. This, in large part, is down to its location: while every last corner of New York City, Red Hook included, falls prey to gentrification, Fort Greene doesn’t need saving, especially from Manhattan restaurants. It has long been known as the Brooklyn base for artsy African-Americans, who ensure that the place grooves to a particularly funky black beat but that white people with open, progressive attitudes are welcome at all times.
All these qualities come together at the Habana Outpost, where the English pub bench style seating soon saw us making a friends with Monica from Mitcham (yep, a Brit!), herself a Giant Step fan, and then, by chance, her own new neighborhood friend Lloyd, who owns a café called, wait for it, Bread Stuy (Boom! Boom!) and who turned out to have an intimate knowledge of Phoenicia. Had I not had a nighttime appointment, I’d have kept drinking the $2.50 locally-brewed Six Points brews until I either ran out of cash or of serendipitous encounters.
As it was, I came back the next lunchtime, where a camera crew was busy at work noting the Outpost’s self-sufficient innovations: solar-powered electricity, picnic tables made from recycled plastic bottles, kitchen canteen insides a restored US postal service truck, biodegradable compostable place settings made from sugarcane and corn, rainwater collected from the drainpipes for use on the garden plants, and a bicycle-pedaled smoothie machine: pedal it yourself and save a buck on your drink. I rode my own mango-strawberrry-banana-soy smoothie and then perused Masani’s jewelry stand, where someone nipped in just before me to pick up the necklace I’ve been looking for all my life. An exchange of numbers with Masani herself and by Thursday morning, my own personal necklace had arrived in the mail in Phoenicia. Habana Outpost could, in theory, exist in several other places in New York City. But in nowhere but Fort Greene would it exude such charm. It’s the kind of place that makes spending summer in the city a positively soul and body-warming experience.
18) Simian Mobile Disco at Studio B.
Living in NYC, especially once you’re thirty and/or have kids, you put off late Saturday night club gigs as readily as you do Saturday afternoon free concerts in Central Park: like the museums and the Statue of Liberty and, once upon a time, the view from the top of the World Trade Center, you assume they will always be there for another day. Hitting town as a tourist over July 4 weekend, I refused to succumb to such comforts, and though I had trouble finding a date – I had to borrow Matt’s girlfriend for the night – I found myself taking the once-dreaded G Train up to Greenpoint, where the nine-month old Studio B and its Saturday night party Fixed were holding court for English new ravers Simian Mobile Disco.
The club itself is refreshingly unpretentious: a minimally renovated warehouse done up with two bars, a dance floor, a booth and a stage, all painted, if that’s the word, industrial black. There’s a certain thriftiness to this approach which was revealed in the so-so sound and the embarrassing lack of lights, and there was one design fault that drove me crazy: at least on this occasion, with the stage set up for Simian Mobile Disco, people could not walk around the dancefloor from entrance to far bar, but had to walk through it. Add in that fewer than a handful of this all-white hipster audience have any experience with proper nightclub etiquette and there was far more bump-and-grind than I like.
Still, such inconveniences were rendered moot when James Ford and James Shaw hit the stage at precisely one am and proceeded to design a better techno version of the mousetrap. On the face of it, what they do is, 20 years after the rave revolution, almost embarrassingly unoriginal: working with pre-programmed beats and grooves, they twist knobs, turn dials, push faders and hit buttons to make the music as live-and-improvized as possible. But by stacking their equipment pyramid like in the middle of the stage, and then revolving – even racing – around it according to whim and fancy, Ford and Shaw have hit on the first new way of presenting such a show since Orbital’s Paul and Phil Hartnoll donned their light-glasses and played from alongside the sound board.
Equally refreshing was the duo’s totally up-for-it attitude, which was more than matched by an exuberant, whooping crowd that took me right back to 1992 and made me temporarily forget my dreaded location. The day-glo pink LCD lights behind them added to the high, the sheer volume and energy emanating from that stage rendering the act’s recordings almost embarrassingly tepid by comparison. As much as I felt like I’d heard it all before, I loved every minute of a set that included ‘Tits and Acid,’ ‘The Hustler’ and ‘I Believe’ alongside any number of pure flashback stonkers.
The hour-long show then segued effortlessly into an astonishingly aggressive techno set by DJs Dave P and JDH, the likes of which I genuinely didn’t think white Greenpointers and Billyburgers would possibly stick around for. Indeed, some of them didn’t, but that just opened up the dancefloor for those of us balding 40-somethings who love the sound of deep, dark, headnumbing techno and could dance to it all night – or at least to the point that it morphs off into Daft Punk and the Gossip. A superb night out and one of the better reasons to venture to the home of the permanent hipsters.
19) The Staten Island Wedding
Finally, where would New York City be without Staten Island? Well, Mayor Dinkins would have been re-elected in 1993, for one thing, which means the whole gentrification of the city might never have happened and you wouldn’t be looking at Mayors Guiliani and Bloomberg each making a run for President… Be that as it may, after four days of living it up in the real New York City, I headed to the other side of the Verazanno Bridge for the beach-side wedding of our close friends Tom and Kristin, the former of whom occasionally pops into the iJamming! pub under the name of Bennyjoy. In a car park out back of the Staten Island Hilton I met my wife and younger son, both looking beautiful, and after some temperature-necessary modifications to my usual wedding outfit – I never knew surf clothes could look so formal – we headed off towards what was, quite possibly, the loveliest wedding I’ve ever attended.
The location was at a historic house on the north beach, looking back at Manhattan, 100 yards from Tom’s office on a nearby boat (he pilots ships in and out of the harbor for a living), and it was rendered all the more beautiful for the fact that the couple wrote their own service, including Tom’s tear-stained vows to Kristin’s 11-year old daughter Ruby and the presence of the couple’s three-month old twins, Jack and Marlowe.
The food too was superb, with plenty vegetarian options among the bowls that were placed table center, minimizing the usual wedding waste; the bar was well-stocked with Tom’s preferred Portugese red wine (difficult though it was to drink red wine on such a hot day, I was determined not to let him suffer alone); and the wedding band was, appropriately, for Tom’s tastes, a rockabilly quartet.
But two guest appearances took the whole event a serious step higher. Ruby, who attended nursery school in Brooklyn with Campbell (in case you’re wondering how we all got to know each other) stopped to the mike to sing Sarah McLaughlin’s poignant ‘Angel’ with almost pitch-perfect precision, leaving barely a dry eye in the house. And then, in front of our very eyes, wedding guests Boz Boorer (yes, he of Morrissey right-hand man fame), fellow Londoner and drummer Woody (not of Madness fame but maybe once, like Boorer, of the Polecats) and an equally renowned bassist (for those of you who know your rockabilly, that is; I forgot to make my introductions) took over the instruments and, with the power that separates men from boys (or at least professional musicians from wedding bands) delivered a slamming twenty-minute set of rockabilly classics highlighted by the groom’s own rendition of the Pirates’ ‘Shakin’ All Over.’ I enjoyed a similar thrill, on a similarly hot day 14 summers ago, playing and/or singing ‘Teenage Kicks,’ ‘I Met You’ and ‘I Can’t Explain’ with my own wedding band, Rogues March, and know that nothing can match that feeling. The party wound down around 10pm and as the proud family prepared for their Fire Island honeymoon, I headed back to the Hilton for my fifth different ‘bedroom’ in six nights – the first in months to include both a mattress and an air conditioner. Noel laid down in his carry-cot and slept a solid eighth hours. I did almost as well, myself. When even Staten Island provides the perfect day out, New York you know I love you.
20) It’s inexpensive
Admittedly, I crashed with friends rather than at hotels (exluding our wedding night) but paying for everything in cash as I did, my several concerts, couple of nightclubs, various bars and taxis and food and everything else ran me barely $200 for the four days and nights. It may have been a busman’s holiday, but it certainly didn’t break the bank.