Sunday, December 28, 2008

Recreating the Studio Downtown at the 92Y Tribeca

In the late 1990s, the 92nd Street Y opened a venue near Lincoln Center called Makor, which featured a great variety of programming -- both musical and otherwise. The music was in a fairly intimate listening room (although some columns could cut into one's sightlines). And over the years, I saw a number of terrific shows there (e.g. Kate Rusby's American debut, where my parents and I sat with Jack Hardy and Frank Tedesso; a killer Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill set; and a fine night of music by the Krueger Brothers). The venue closed down in 2007, opening up a bit of a hole in the New York acoustic music scene.

The venue has recently been reborn as the 92Y Tribeca, which features a nice open-floor theatre-style performance space, which like Makor has a few sighhtline-blocking columns for charm.

A good friend of my girlfriend Sarah -- the lovely and talented Nadine Goellner -- has been involved with the booking, and so we have dropped by a few times to check things out. (The first show that we saw featured a pretty serious R&B review called The Sweet Divines and then a Boston-based ska group called Westbound Train.)

Yesterday, we rushed up from our holidays in Chester County, Pennsylvania, to check out a co-bill of Doria Roberts and Natalia Zukerman.

The show was a solid evening of entertainment. Doria Roberts opened up with a set full of hard-driving and occasionally angsty relationship songs. At times I was hearing Suzanne Vega, and at other times, I was moving rapidly toward Ani-land. Natalia joined her to play some slide guitar on one number, although the highlight during that piece was Natalia's scolding glance toward a talkative audience member. In her own set, Natalia offered up some imaginative, clever and emotive lyrical combinations and some really skilled guitar playing.

I was most intrigued, however, by Doria's use, during her set, of a loop recorder -- which she kept at the foot of its own microphone, such that she had two microphones in front of her throughout the set. The first time that I really noticed her using it, she recorded her vocals and a fingerpicked guitar accompaniment during the first verse of a dysfunctional-holiday-themed song. After having sung the second verse, she started the loop and returned to the first verse, harmonizing with her own vocals from minutes ago and riffing lightly over the prerecorded guitar before fading the song down.

This was nice and definitely striking, but I was really impressed with a spoken word piece-cum-song that she started by repeating a number of phrases in Japanese into the recorder until she had a loop of dozens of Japanese voices speaking around her, and then over this din, she began to tell the story of being in a Tokyo subway station one morning. The spoken word portion turned into song and then returned to where it had begun with the voices -- a whirlwind of her own voice -- swirling around her spoken vocals before eventually being faded down. (Doria had to stoop down to turn down the volume on the loop -- aesthetically, a volume pedal would be more pleasing, I think, but that is clearly a minor nit-pick.)

What was great about both of these songs was the clear live reproduction of studio techniques. Had I heard those songs on an album, I would have said, "OK. That's pretty well done," but getting to see the studio sounds recreated live on stage struck me as both meaningful and enjoyable art. It obviously happens not infrequently these days -- Patty Larkin altering her own voice on stage through a pedal or Janis Ian raging up the effects pedal on her guitar -- but Doria seemed to be taking it to a level beyond just altering the sound qualities of a single instrument, creating a layered and nuanced piece of music and letting the audience in on the production process.

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