Denise Barbarita and the Morning Papers
The Bitter End
May 24, 2011
After a half day or so of wandering around the Javits Center during the first day of Book Expo America and checking out what other book publishers were doing – and shamelessly getting free stuff whenever I could, I wandered around my old stomping grounds in the West Village, near the NYU campus for a bit to kill time before Denise Barbarita and the Morning Papers’ set. Over the years, the West Village became an increasingly obnoxious parade route for douchebags so naturally after a while I avoided the area. Of course typical for New York, it’s often interesting to see how rapidly a neighborhood changes while simultaneously remaining the same. While walking east on Bleecker Street towards The Bitter End, I noticed that the cute little café with the outdoor seating (whose name sadly escapes me now) on the southwest corner of Macdougal and Bleecker Streets had become a chain Mexican restaurant, a store or two changed -– but the French bistro on the northwest corner where I wound up watching one of the disastrous games of the 2004 ALCS with a colleague I met at the Shecky’s 2005 Bar, Club and Lounge Guide release party is still there to possibly mock me. (But 2004 didn’t happen. It. Didn’t. Happen. Denial feels soooooooooo good.)
Interestingly, the last and only other time I had been to the Bitter End was several years ago. My friend, a friend I’ve known since kindergarten, had a client who invited him to come down and catch him play during one of the venue’s countless singer/songwriter showcases. The client wasn’t terrible, he did something similar in style to cats like Ben Folds and the like, but I can only say that dimly remember the set. So in some instance it felt like full circle when I was back there – for a singer/songwriter showcase. Now before the set, I wound up meeting a fellow music journalist and blogger Natalie Hamingson who was introduced to me through my good friend and blogger, Abdul Fattah Ismail. (As some of you more regular readers know by now, Natalie Hamingson shouted me and Abdul out on her blog, a few weeks back and I wanted to double the kindness. Plus, Natalie is a fantastic, talented writer whose blog is a must read. I personally think you should add it to your favorites or follow it through the RSS feeds or what-have-you.)
As Natalie noted on her blog post on the show, she was dealing with some health issues and wasn’t going to come out but she made a gameday decision and came out. When we walked into the venue, an earnest, soft-spoken singer/songwriter strumming her guitar was ending her set. The last time I saw Denise Barbarita and the Morning Papers was a couple of years ago at a random show at Brooklyn rockabilly/psychobilly super dive Hank’s Saloon (and they opened up for a punk band, The Fire Men whose last album I reviewed here) – but I did know that Barbarita and her band’s sound would be a loud, breath of fresh air. Certainly, seeing Barbarita play her guitar with a violin bow for the first song of their set would have to prove that to you.
What I will say is that in between that time, the band’s sound has grown and evolved in several different ways and it’s reflected on their latest album, A Beautiful Mess which dropped a few months ago, if I’m not mistaken. Sonically, the songs deftly bridge the gaps between straightforward pop and soul, punk and rock while revealing the occasionally bruised, prideful, stubborn, coquettish and mischievous psyche and personality of its creator. But what some of my fellow critics have missed is that the songs so strongly evoke the rhythms and musical language of New York in a way I haven’t heard in many years. (Off the top of my head I can think of Sting’s “Englishman in New York,” which has that old school boom bap, hip hop bridge, the Rapture’s Echoes album and a few others.)
Walk down Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, down Broadway, down Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue or wander around the Bronx’s Grand Concourse and you’ll hear pop, hip hop, rock, meringue, salsa and everything else under the sun. It’s messy, brash, excitable but very alive… But what it also says is that great music has this tendency to want to defy easy categorization while not desperately attempting to be all things to all people. (I sincerely think that one day in the future – thanks to the Internet and the demise of the major record labels – that genre will simply be forgotten, that there’ll be as Duke Ellington once joked only two sorts of music that matters to listeners, “good music and bad music.”)
Like all good art, the album and its resultant live set come from a deeply personal place – but a personal place that feels familiar and universal. How many of us have struggled through our moments of self-doubt and self-sabotage? Pushed, shoved and punched our way onto packed subway cars and buses like herded cattle to work as cubicle drones at jobs that eat away at our souls? From personal experience, I would bet it’s more of you than what you want to readily admit.
Now what I have to say before I somehow forget is this: live, the band is tight and they have a clean, polished sound. With some minor exceptions, it almost felt like listening to their album being recorded in front of me. As much as Barbarita’s soulful and at times seductive croon brought the lyrics to live, I have to admit that I thought the backing band was the standout star of the night. Their ability to switch gears from brooding, atmospheric rock to bratty punk and soul could turn heads quick enough to get whiplash.
Check out some photos from a fantastic set.
For these photos and the rest of the photos from this fantastic set, check out the Flickr set here: