Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Live: Fiery Furnaces + Shilpa Ray

When: 12/12
Where: Bowery Ballroom

It's been a while since I've checked in with the infamous Ms. Shilpa Ray and her Happy Hookers, so I braved the chill to see her with Fiery Furnaces last weekend. First of all, I'd like to say this is one of the best opener-headliner pairings I've seen in quite a while. Ultimately, the two bands don't sound at all alike, but they have enough in common that I think each of their audiences would enjoy the other: strong female vocals, a certain pre-punk/60's influence and total insanity.

Ray and her Hookers were in fine form Saturday. They started off soft and built it up - a lot of bands try this and fail, but these guys are definitely good enough to pull it off, building suspense rather than failing to grab attention. Ray didn't even start yelling obscenities until about halfway through. Her songs are the same seamless combination of 60's psychedelic rock, blues, folk and soul that they've always been, expertly written and arranged. As always, the quality of the songs was consistently high.

Ray is backed by some of the best musicians in the Brooklyn indie scene. The rhythm section was actually entirely flawless throughout this set. I mean that! Really perfect. The guitar and keys didn't leave much to criticize either. Actually, the only negative thing I can say about anyone on stage is that the backup vocals by Andrew Hoepfner were way out of tune at the beginning of the set. If that was a conscious choice, it was a bad one for the style of music. However, the problem mostly resolved after the first couple of songs.

And Shilpa Ray is, as always, front and center, yelling, pogoing, flapping her arms around, cussing, giving people the finger and mumbling some completely illogical banter between songs. Even if you aren't that into Ray's music, there are a couple of things to be learned from watching her live. First, the songwriting and arrangements are exemplary. Second, she is one of the best examples I can think of of what makes a great frontperson great. She's not easily ignored or easily forgotten. [MySpace]

And then Fiery Furnaces took the stage. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I didn't know what instruments would be on stage, I didn't know if there would be anyone but the core brother-sister duo that make up the band, I didn't know what sort of music they might play. I was pretty surprised all around.

First of all, the instruments on stage were guitar, bass and drums. For some reason, I thought there'd be synthesizers and electronic insanity, but instead, it's just your rock'n'roll standard. There were more than two people on stage - two people joined the band to cover the rhythm section. The band also played a great cross-section of their music, from the early material to the most recent. Unsurprisingly, the band has reinvented their older songs. Some were recognizable, but others had morphed so that only the lyrics indicated to me I'd heard it before. The new versions weren't better or worse and didn't require knowing the originals to appreciate - which means, a good show for people who've never heard the band before and for people who know the albums by heart.

Fiery Furnaces are one of the most totally nutso bands I've ever heard. Every little piece of their music sounds quite normal, with the kind of pre-punk stylings even my parents would like. But when they string it all together, it's suddenly baffling. If someone with multiple personality disorder and severe ADD wrote music, it would sound like this - completely jumping styles every few bars. It does circle back to the same themes eventually, and though defying any conventional logic of composition, the arrangements don't seem arbitrary at all. Musically and lyrically, it's a sort of story-telling, though no one knows what the stories are, except that it were probably written by someone on a lot of acid.

Despite their self-deprecation in their band bio, Fiery Furnaces are extremely skilled musicians. Guitarist Matthew Friedberger can kill on guitar as he skips without self-awareness from jazz to metal to indie pop. And his sister Eleanor Friedberger can sing. I didn't realize the full strength of her vocals until seeing her perform live. Her voice is rich and controlled and well-suited for the band's strange story-telling ways. She seems most comfortable in jazzy and bluesy scales, but can pull of the rambling indie pop parts just as well.

The band's stage presence is a great fit with their music as well. Eleanor can be dramatic or coy or slightly awkward, but she is comfortable drawing the attention to herself, as it's clear her brother is less of a showman. She doesn't do anything particularly outrageous, mostly just wanders around the stage and semi-dances to the music when not singing. It's simple enough not to distract from the already schizoid music, but shows focus and passion, never detachment.

The band did play a bizarrely long encore, which seemed kind of presumptuous. It was nearly as long as the original set. On the other hand, they did use it as an opportunity to honor a request or two, which was pretty sweet and extremely rare to see a band do these days. So, it's hard to complain. [MySpace]

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