Phoebe Nir At The Bitter End, Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017 Reviewed
While the late English director Ken Russell didn’t invent the music video, in movies such as “The Music Lovers,” “Litzomania,” and, of course, the baked beaned psychedelia of “Tommy,” he invented an over the top neon exulted vision of them as Id in osmosis . In 1971 Russell directed the movie version of Sandy Wilson’s wonderful 1954 West End hit musical “The Boyfriend”. In a wildly, weird decision, he had a big time director viewing a summer stock revival of the show and imagining it as a Busby Berkeley rmovie, and I mention this because that’s precisely what I did last night during Phoebe Nir’s EP release party at The Bitter End.
Nir is a gifted young writer, her book for the in development musical “”Diana & Navy & The Golden Tooth” is a young adult dreamland of the young and the strong and the scary, her first EP released last year, Side Hustle was very exciting, a freshly colored media in one extravaganza and Red Tape Nation, the EP whose release we were celebrating, peaks even higher. The video is a terrific ride and the EPhas a song that stands as one of the best of 2017.
But the thing is, Nir is such a visually arresting songwriter, such a performance artist performer, that you keep on seeing the entire enterprise the way it should be seen: at a huge arena in a Madonna like production. Last night the Madonna comparison became clearer. Like Madonna (and like Mick Jagger and like Prince for that matter), she sees life through a patina of sexuality. Sexuality is not just her primary subject matter, it is also her best subject matter. On stage she bottled up a cute as a button visage, with a vivacious, take charge, sense and sensuality. When she sings, she seems to be looking through her mind’s eye, she isn’t quite with us and there is a once remove, you can’t mistake her for Mick Jagger’s audience seduction, with Nir it is closer to fiction, an idealized story telling driving voice, all romance and its aftermath. So we move elsewhere, we see her the way we want her seen, and fill in the story scenes in our mind.
The set last night was maybe 15 minutes too short, and it took three songs to get warmed up, probably due to the strange decision not to open with (not to play at all) “Red Tape Nation” . Both of the opening songs are fine but neither are Nir being Nir, and while “you found the music in me” could well be her most accurate self-portrait, it is better in the context of her recordings while hewe don’t need everything lean. It isn’t till the fourth song, the Madonna copyrighted sex and Catholic girl and, lest we forget, guilt, “Holy Water,” that she really takes off –from here to the end of the evening, Nir and the extremely adept True Groove Allstars, don’t falter. Just as good was a The Sundays cover, James dellacoma performed a heavem;y solo (she’d end the night with an Iggy Pop song), and then the entire evening goes into high impact technicolor. The next two songs find Nir on a pop music genius sort of level. “The Goldberg Variations” is a dynamited fuse box of song as sexual seduction: “snuggled safely in your minuets” ? That line is so great you don’t know what to do with it, because it is so specific it is hard to steal and you want to. “The Goldberg Variations” starts with the variants and then pulls a variation on it as the sound explodes in guitar and drums. The song works in movements and it starts, explodes, and comes back. Nir’s performance runs the gauntlet as well, like an actress she starts with a coyness and builds upwards into an excitement quite thrilling and then flows back to its conclusion. Keyboard player Manu Koch was made for this gig and shined throughout the night and especially on this show stopper. The very next song was “Side Hustle” –I wonder why there is no video? The first time I saw Nir perform “Side Hustle” it threw me off balance it was so great and this time I was expecting it and it is still a case of a song that works on so many levels it makes you trip on your own feet as there is a hysteria on its edge, a Glenda Jackson over the top. Again, it is a song about sex and also, I think, about infidelity, “Just wait until you see me in my scarlet suit” is so evocative it is my favorite line this side of “raindrop drop drop…” Scarlet as a color puts me in mind of “The Scarlet Letter” and “suit” makes you think she is going to say Birthday Suit and so what you get is a song within a song about, ta-dah, infidelity. Nir takes the verses at a crash and burn Ramones speed, the words tumble out like a singing rap, and listening to her, you keep wondering if she is going to trip, you keep rooting for her all the way through, and she doesn’t trip at all. When Nor reaches its ends, the track is as exalted as the side hustle she is promising. I could have sworn Nir was gonna end with “Red Tape Nation,” but I guess you keep em guessing and so, after Nir asks us to tell the mayor to divest the city pension funds of fossil fuels, she dives into another fossil’s back catalog and we have a singalong to “Lust For Life”.
It was a dynamic performance, a fast paced, always thrilling dash through a handful of songs that added Broadway to pop, not a million miles away from the band fun., not a million miles away from Madonna, with a Dirty Mind like dirty mind, and an addition by addition way around a song -it is over the top the way Jim Steinman is, all out of control. Put it this way, if Kings Of Leon should never be seen in an arena, Nir would thrive in a place where her songs of lust and romance would take over on the biggest stage. If she wasn’t already working on a musical, I would recommend she did. Phoebe acts out by acting out, a face and body language so expressive she is like Craig Finn. Her lyrics are like Finn’s as well, precise and on point, at service to her story songs. This woman is big time… and Ken Russell would’ve known what to do with her.