The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” is playing as the lights go down and Jesse Malin is ushered onstage. “Make way for the mayor,” bass player Johnny Pisano says under his breath. “Mayor of the East Village” has become Malin’s moniker around his neighborhood. He purportedly dislikes the title but seeing his shadow doing a goofy little dance to the “wall of sound” masterpiece as he straps on his acoustic guitar and bides his time before the rest of the band is ready, it’s easy to see how this apparently easy-spirited guy might have earned such a tag. The adulation this crowd expresses and the love Malin returns to them is something to behold. He makes jokes, he tells stories, he brings his dad to the gig and introduces him to the room and ultimately bridges the chasm that so often separates the rock stars from the fans.
Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul Westerberg—they’ve all been said to have influenced Malin’s music. But quite honestly, two of them, if not all three at one time or another, have been cited as nearly every new songwriter’s source of inspiration, so this isn’t saying much—although Malin’s voice does bear a striking resemblance to Westerberg’s. But let’s forget about all that and focus on the actual music, not only what it reminds us of. And let’s also forget about Ryan Adams’ involvement with Malin’s debut album, The Fine Art of Self-Destruction. This was much-hyped but is truly irrelevant, especially in a live setting where Malin stands brilliantly apart from the bratty North Carolinian who is thankfully nowhere to be seen—we wouldn’t want a hissy fit to bum out the good vibes. Malin is here to raise some spirits with his confessional, autobiographical, melancholy and often rollicking music.
Malin’s most widely known song is “Brooklyn”—a sweet regret about a girlfriend moving away . . . to Brooklyn, no less. The idea to write a ballad was his dad’s idea: “You need a ballad”. Malin agreed that ballads were historically most popular: Kiss had “Beth”, Zeppelin had “Stairway to Heaven”, Jesse Malin has “Brooklyn”. Much like for those bands however, a ballad is not really the best example of Malin’s range; the almost eerie “Under My Thumb” guitar licks underpinning “Queen of the Underworld” and the rowdier, love-at-first-sight paean “Riding On the Subway” serve as better snapshots of his abilities. But, of course, the cheers are plentiful for “Brooklyn”. Can you go to a Mozart gig and not go nuts when he cranks out “Eine Kleine Nachtmuzik”? No, so you see what I mean. One of the early highlights of the show is Johnny Pisano’s “Vinnie Barbarino” T-shirt—this guy’s got a good self-aware sense of humor (an Italian from Queens with the last name Pisano! It does not get more classic than that.) and he can drop some serious bass lines, not to mention he is the inspiration for a new song about how everyone just wants to be loved. Malin tells it somehow through his own failed attempt at going to a prostitute—he ended up buying her dinner or something—as well as the story of Pisano’s experience working at a brothel where cops would show up, have their way with the girls, then whip out the badges and bust the joint. It almost doesn’t matter what the relation between the story and the song is because it’s Malin’s charisma and delivery that hold your attention, not necessarily the content of his words. Although it would be a mistake to disregard them—there are some great lyrics here.
“This song was written by Jello Biafra” is Malin’s intro to a down-tempo cover of “Hungry Heart” that almost gives Bruce a run for his money (a recorded version will be appearing on a forthcoming Bruce Springsteen tribute album). Halfway through he tells everyone to mosh—dry wit goes a long way to winning over jaded New York concert-goers. Which brings me to a second distinction between Malin and Ryan Adams: attitude. Adams has become infamous for his tantrums in response to, among myriad other things no doubt, the harmless and thoroughly hysterical requests for “Summer of ‘69” that have peppered his shows—my good friend Scott Waldman was one of said hecklers and I enthusiastically applaud him for it. I’m almost positive that if Malin were in a similar situation, he would accept the challenge with a smile on his face and rip into the best damn version of that song you ever heard. It is moments such as these that the true spirit of this whole mess called rock and roll appears and reminds everyone that yes, rock music is silly, sloppy—and if you’re lucky, well-crafted—but always intended to be fun and should never be taken too seriously. A Jesse Malin show is full of these buoyant moments. There is a synergy there that gives further credence to the Cars’ mantra: “Let the good times roll.”
Malin, of course, delivers the excellent album cuts “Cigarettes and Violets” and “Solitaire”, a gorgeous rendition of the former accompanied by affecting piano courtesy of Rob Clovis, and a particularly anguished rendition of the latter. He also introduces a new song about growing up in 1970s Queens with lyrics about a kid sister in love with John Travolta, a waitress mother and sneaking into clubs with his best friend. A cliché to some but a reality to Jesse Malin. He’s just a guy from Queens who wanted to play music and was given the gift he needed to arrive at his present station. Like Lou Reed, he’s a native New Yorker who has found a way to paint sonic pictures of his hometown and immortalize it for an international audience.
But just when you think you know what Malin is capable of, just when you think he’s shown you his whole spectrum, he drops a pink spot on himself and kicks out Lords of the New Church’s “Russian Roulette” and transforms himself into a goth madman right before your very eyes. There are plenty of hints throughout that Malin’s got a penchant for ‘80s punk, goth and guitar power-rock, as they are frequently incorporated into his melodious delivery to break up the sameness that plagues many songwriters in an attempt to maintain their identity. Malin manages to escape this trend by dabbling in many genres while staying true to himself in the process. He even has plans to release a spoken-word album of his stories backed up by music. This guy has only just begun his long journey of evolution. We’ll see how it all progresses but my guess is he’ll keep it up as brilliantly and honestly as he’s done thus far.