pic by On View Brooklyn
This was, more or less, the dynamic of the whole night: rapt concentration in the front half of the café, and loud inattention from the back, with the music stranded alone on the island stage. But in a way, that’s ok. After all, Zebulon is, first and foremost, a bar. Shows are always free (which is something, by the way, I admire), and the cabaret-like setting encourages the audience to take the live music as background, rather than the main attraction, of their night. Unfortunately, those who were there for the music might have found it hard to hear the relatively quiet singer/songwriter acts that played on Tuesday night. Like Brooklyn Bowl (but with a completely different vibe), Zebulon is a really great place to hang out, but not such a great venue if you’re mostly interested in the music.
Out of the three acts that played last night, Michael Leviton aka The New Jerk Times was best served by the venue. His 50’s rock, electric R&B tunes were easy to get into, even if you couldn’t hear exactly what was going on. He made his guitar sing, bringing old bluesy riffs you’ve probably heard a million times to life. The familiar song forms allowed the audience to concentrate on his lyrics, which were disarmingly (sometimes hilariously) pessimistic. “You’re Somebody Even if Nobody Loves You,” turns the old Dean Martin number on its head; in another Leviton sings that “You’re the kind of girl who goes crazy for me.” The chorus of my favorite song of his set goes “Solitaire: the game you lose before you start.”
"Walden" and Owens's Arm
Sunlover (aka Grady Owens) was the first act, and he suffered the most from the background noise. His opener, the fragile, beautifully woven “Perilous Dance,” was played to the quietest crowd of the night, and it was absolutely captivating. He picked his nylon string guitar in harp-like arpeggios, creating a low, warm buzz to cushion his voice. Behind the stage, a projector played scenes from a 1969 film entitled “Walden,” vignettes of rivers, bright sun, beautiful hippies.
But once the first song ended, the spell was broken, and the noise started up again. The intersecting lines and delicate picking was largely lost, and – perhaps in an attempt to catch the audience’s attention – Owens’s voice became over-emotive, forcing it to do more than it needed to. His lyrics had the same over-emphasizing effect: taken apart, there were many interesting turns of phrase and sentiments, but strung together, especially in Owens’s long song forms, they seemed airy. The cliches stood out, unfortunately, more easily than his inventive metaphors.
Shilpa Ray was the last set. Ray plays the harmonium, a small, hand-pumped reed organ. It sounds like a cross between a mini church organ and an accordion, and has the accordion’s “in-and-out” pumping action. They way Ray uses it, its stuttering accents sound broken and slightly drunk, a perfect counterpoint to her rough, penetrating, far-older-than-her-age voice. Last night the harmonium was on a short stand, and Ray hunched over it, rocking back and forth as if throwing up, or praying.
Ray was plagued by the loudest audience of all. Even with her booming voice and powerful stage presence, it was hard to focus on her music. Seeing her play in any venue, in any situation is a deep pleasure, but I found myself desperately wishing I had seen her at Pianos back in February.
Crazily enough, Shilpa Ray is playing Shea Stadium on Thursday the 28th. You can see her there, and in the meantime you can check out two awesome albums of hers, Teenage and Torture and A Fish Hook / An Open Eye, and her myspace page for even more music. Sunlover’s got a myspace page, and for more of The New Jerk Times’s hilarious snakiness (as well as some weird and interesting "Obsessions,"), check out their website.