If it seems odd that Sam Bisbee, a singer-songwriter whose pop-rock tunes have really only been publicly available through one album (2001’s Vehicle), should already have a live album out in his catalog, then the explanation actually lies with the label that released it, DCN, or Digital Club Network.
DCN itself is an interesting and innovative venture. Although certainly a record label, they are primarily known for recording, archiving and broadcasting live music performances through their website, www.dcn.com. In fact, they are well known as the world’s largest aggregator of live music, with international connections and distribution. In conjunction with their CD releases, DCN is an integration of various media technologies, new and old. Artists like Bisbee are particularly well-served by such an enterprise.
Sam Bisbee first came on the scene with a barely-noticed 1996 album, Snacks, under the simple moniker Bisbee. Now an all-but-lost album, Bisbee spent the next few years refining his songwriting skills and building a solid and dedicated fanbase in New York City. Deciding to return to the studio, Bisbee created a full-on studio effort, augmenting many of his tracks with computer programming, studio effects, drum machines, and the whole works. The results were solid enough that Vehicle received great press on its release and the disc helped expand Bisbee’s range to wider audiences. Now a singer-songwriter whose slow emergence is garnering greater and greater attention, Live at Arlene Grocery might be the thing that Bisbee needs to break into bigger territory.
The live version of Sam Bisbee is an interesting footnote as well. After working hard on an album full of production trickery, Bisbee faced the challenge of re-translating the songs into his live show and promoting Vehicle on stage. Assembling a backing unit that comprised of Mike Levesque, Peter Adams, and Dan Green, all of whom had significant experience working as backing musicians with other bands (David Bowie, Tracy Bonham, and Juliana Hatfield among them), Bisbess was able to translate the often-electronic Vehicle into something much more organic, without losing the spirit of the originals. That’s what DCN and Live at Arlene Grocery were able to capture and make available as a recording. Catching the June 20, 2002 show at the venerated Arlene Grocery in Bisbee’s home base of New York City made it even more appropriate.
What Live at Arlene Grocery says of Bisbee is basically the same thing that fans of Vehicle would have told you. He’s a breezy pop songwriter with a great sense of composition and who can rock out when he’s in the mood. There’s a certain lightheartedness to Bisbee’s songs and his voice that gives even his sadder songs a fun lilt. He’s got the chops and the songs and the skill to be a radio success along the lines of Josh Joplin or even John Mayer, and Vehicle‘s stand-out track, “Miracle Car”, features guest vocals from Leona Naess. He’s previously been compared to artists such as Michael Penn and Ron Sexsmith, both of which are accurate in their attitude and approach if not their individual styles. Yet Bisbee has a sense of musical cool, as evidenced in Arlene Grocery‘s two covers, a note-for-note rendition of New Order’s “Age of Consent” and a low-key but funky run through De La Soul’s “Eye Know”. If you have any love and/or respect for warm, melodic pop singer-songwriters, you’d be missing out to ignore Bisbee.
Live at Arlene Grocery is, of course, mostly comprised of tracks from Vehicle and existing fans might only see the disc as a novelty, or something to listen to for comparisons. People who let Vehicle pass them by will discover these songs for the first time as whole songs, unburdened by the sparse and sloppy playing that sometimes goes hand in hand with live recordings. There are three non-Vehicle tracks on the disc (aside from the covers) that are captured here for the first time (well, actually, you can find a shorter, older version of the closer, “Weightless”, on Snacks, but the Billy Joel-grandeur of Adams’ piano playing on this live version is one of the discs’s true highlights and closes things on a brilliant note). However, the best reason to own Live at Arlene Grocery is that the live performance highlight’s Bisbee’s easy-going nature and sense of humor. Although those already familiar with “Cubicle Love Song” know that it’s tongue is securely planted in cheek, the friendly laughter that Bisbee introduces the song with adds to its charm.
Live albums can sometimes be a dicey thing, revealing the holes in an artist’s armor more than anything else, but here Bisbee is captured at his best, and the wonderful job that his band does in transporting the songs from the disc to the stage keeps everything on track, earning their Bisbee-given moniker of Incredible Band. The folks at DCN really know their stuff, and manage to capture and engineer solid live albums that don’t suffer from the usual sound problems. All in all, it’s a good disc whether or not you’re familiar with Bisbee already or are just interested in learning. Check it out.