Live from New York, it's Indie Round-Up! This week I'm taking a break from reviewing CDs to talk about some recent shows. First up: Second Dan, Tuesday night at Mercury Lounge. Led by Australian import Dan Rosen, whose Down Under vocals and bad-ass-Hebrew looks make for some notable charisma, the band played an energetic and enthusiastically received set mostly taken from their upcoming CD, Bringing Down Goliath. Lead guitarist Adam Lerner called on the U2 and Radiohead playbooks for evocative guitar sheen, and wild-man drummer Sonny Ratcliff provided the important role of second visual focal point (something a lot of bands could use).
With the faint, edgy raggedness of a band that's been rehearsing but not touring, the band wrung everything they could out of their most infectious rockers, "You Make We Want To" and "Running Out of Feelings." The brooding "Forget to Remember" was another highlight. And the band showed its political side in a couple of songs, including the punked-up, socially conscious "The Elephant Fell To Earth." Pumped up, skilled, and most of all, charging out of the gate with excellent songwriting, this New York City band stands out in the crowded League of Alternative Rock Gentlemen.
Next up: Johnny Irion, whose intriguing new CD I reviewed last week. His short, solo opening set at Joe's Pub last night proved that his best songs hold up well when stripped of the CD's artful arrangements. "Short Leash" was a strong opener, and "She Cast Fire" – though it didn't quite work as the sing-along he wanted it to be – brought back pleasant memories of grooving to CSNY. Other moments in the set evoked thoughts of the Allman Brothers, Donovan, and Jeff Buckley. In fact, the phrase "Jeff Buckley, but with songs," came to mind at one point. Like Buckley and many worthies before him, Irion mixes blue-eyed soul into his gentle hominess.
The evening's headliner was a band I've wanted to catch for years but never managed to until now, Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams. Though they live just north of the Big Apple, they rarely play here in the city.
In the late 1990s when all of us musician-types were first putting up websites, the Slambovians had the coolest band website in the world. It wasn't just some pages of information – it took you through a whole experience, like a dreamy game. (The current website is much more utilitarian, though still entertaining and creatively imagined.)
Their music is also entertaining and creatively imagined. But now I understand that you have to see them live to get the full impact. Songwriter and lead singer Joziah Longo has an incantatory presence that's 70% tongue in cheek and 30% sho'nuff spiritual. Like a benevolent wizard (think a less hyperactive Ian Anderson), he's the center of a huge, dark, invigorating storm of sound. During the gravely titanic "Sunday in the Rain," off the band's latest release, Flapjacks from the Sky, Longo used his reedy baritone first to glow like Neil Diamond, then to slice like James Hetfield.
The hilariously clever intro to the cool Americana love song "I Wish" mashed up a Johnny Cash hit with one by The Who. But the song itself, characteristically for the band, uses simple, common chord changes and plainspoken, intelligibly sung lyrics to create full-hearted, generous, but never aimless tours of the magical mystical musical cosmos.
Instrumental unison parts, subtly slipped into the arrangements, rap with the sung melodies and help build the simply structured tunes into major works. The songs are funny, deep, psychedelic, lyrical, and rootsy, and they don't need great length to make their statements. This is a band that earns its Floyd, Who, Beatles and Cash quotes.
Tink Lloyd played the theremin and accordion simultaneously on the inspiring title track. Lead guitarist Sharkey McEwen played something I've never seen before: lead slide mandolin. Drummer Tony Zuzulo's overhand style made his kit a churning perpetual motion machine. But if I had to pick the supreme moments from the set, they were those in which the content of the song fused completely with the band's expert collective musicianship. One such was the gorgeous waltz "Sullivan Lane," an ode to childhood imagination: "She wasn't one of the misscripted lovers/That moved with the others/She didn't know why/They would make fun of the way she would druther/Just float up and hover between earth and sky." Them's fightin' writin'.
A new song called "Tink" returned to the theme of love, as did "In Her Own World," which has a dancing classic-rock melody. Then came the other crest of the set, the long, mind-blowing "Talkin' to the Buddha," a slow-motion hurricane you want to run straight into. That's a pretty good description of the whole set, actually. Here's hoping the hoary winds of time blow Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams back my town soon, and to yours.
The band's website and CD Baby page only have very short bits, but you can listen to some full tracks at their Myspace page. They're on the festival circuit, playing upcoming dates in the Northeast and in California. Catch these Slambovian ambassadors if you can.