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May 25, 2020
Live Review: David Olney at The Rodeo Bar PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 03 June 2008 09:55
do_guit.jpgBy Karl Greenberg - GJD
I asked Philippa Thompson, who plays fiddle and saw - and washboard and upright bass, for that matter - why her band is called M Shanghai String Band. Hell, I was expecting a an Asian fusion musical takeout that stir-fried maybe Chinese single-string violin with Puccini's Madame Butterfly. And I didn't know what to expect from the Rodeo Bar, where the band played an opening set for David Olney on May 14th in NYC.

So I rode my bike there, locked up, and thought to myself "this can't be it. This is a restaurant. Is this going to be some sort of chat n' chew with background music?" At first glance, the place looks like a typical 3rd avenue diner, except for the Georgia O'keefe bull's skull
silhouette projection.

But, once in the back, where a deconstructed bus serves as a bar, and there's a stage in the back, one is definitely in a road house. And M. Shanghai String Band doesn't play fusion music unless it's a fusion of traditional blue grass and something like blue grass but with some Williamsburg, Brooklyn sensibility. Maybe Blue GLASS, as an homage to the new phalanx of designer apartment buildings - sorry - "lifestyle residences" sprouting along the river front, and around the borough of hip.

Well, M Shanghai is named after a Chinese restaurant near where the band members hung out. Enough about that. The band was on fire. A slimmed down version of the normal nine-piece group, the evening's lineup had Thompson on bass, Austin Hughes on resonator, Matthew Schicele on guitar and vocals, Glendon Jones on fiddle, the astonishing, mad seer with hands like nervous moths Shakey Dave Pollack on harmonica and vocals, and John Shanchuk on banjo and vocals.

And one mike stand. The importance of that one mike stand can't be understated. As they worked up the voltage with songs like "You, me and devil on a bicycle built for three" and "Tick Tac Toe Chicken", they crowded around that mike like the faithful taking Communion, or like sharks smelling blood in the water, darting in for a moment to solo, or sing, then backing out, fading to the back ground and letting someone else take the mike.

Schicele and Hughes were masterful on blue grass guitar and resonator, with Hughes handling most of the vocal chores as well. My friend, an actor who came along to see the band made the point that the band played with total abandon and total control simultaneously. And we both thought that, as great as the all personnel were, Pollock came close to stealing the show with both a physical and aural performance on harmonica. Pollock, a human fire plug blew that thing like, slapped it, squeezed it, bent it, and moved around while he played like he was trying to physically squeeze his entire body into the harmonica.

During the final tune, an encore, the audience - and I should mention it wasn't a very big one - up came polymath of stringed instruments Sergio Webb, who would soon be backing up David Olney in the second set. Webb, who took his turn at the mike to let go with runs on ukulele would play a Telecaster in his set with David Olney.

Now, I have to put a disclaimer to bed here: By the time Olney and Webb took to the stage, I'd had a beer, margarita, a shot, and too much to eat, because my friend was having wife trouble and insisted I travel into that marital vale of sorrows with him on a river of booze. So, I was real tired when Olney came up, and there was no way in hell he was going to compete with M Shanghai. Why? It was not the time, or place for Olney's thing, which one might describe as a cross between Woody Guthrie and Cormac McCarthy. I know I'm supposed to write about Webb's playing, which was all over the wah wah peddle, and damned slick. And I mean that in the best way. He made things come out of that guitar that suggested there were a lot more than two musicians on stage.

But Olney, a late-fifties singer/songwriter with who's been in the business for nearly half a century, grabs you by the throat with songs that somehow manage to suggest Camus, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nietzche and Johnny Cash at the same time. His narrative music really should have been the soundtrack for "No Country for Old Men." Here's some of what i jotted down: "When the running starts, it never stops, so I'm gonna wait right here for the cops"; and - and I think this may be not quite how it's worded: "the highway comes, the highway brings people; when the people come, the people bring trouble; when the trouble comes, the trouble brings Jesus; when Jesus comes, Jesus brings rapture; when the rapture comes, the rapture brings highways." Sort of like that, but better. And he launched into one or two songs with an eerie, vengeful recitation of poems like Coleridge's "Ballad of Kubla khan."

I slunk out half into the set, desirous of my own stately pleasure dome: two pillows and a rack.

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