Ah, New York. The grit, the glam, the guitars. Rawk is as alive as ever, and our proud metropolis is once again a pulsating epicenter. But you wouldn’t know it from listening to the sounds emanating from the Knitting Factory on this warm June evening, as locals Tara Jane O’Neil, The Naysayer, and Dan Littleton took to the stage. Each set featured musicians who make Gotham feel less like a sooty culture machine and more like a pastoral artistic utopia, perfectly conducive to child-rearing and fireside jamborees. Even before the show commenced, the Knitting Factory went from downtown bar to family reunion as the space flooded with cheerfully chatting musicians, family members (also musicians), and at least one infant (who’s undoubtedly already taking guitar lessons).
The evening’s line-up was composed of various bands whose members have all been in bands with each other. O’Neil and Naysayer drummer Cynthia Nelson are the backwoodsy duo Retsin, and Naysayer occasional bassist Karla Schickele plays with Dan Littleton in softcore favorites Ida. O’Neil also recorded and mixed the latest Naysayer album, Heaven, Hell, or Houston. It’s a pleasantly incestuous operation, with seemingly every album a collaboration of various members of the family tree. The mélange of musicians, when recording, has even gone by the name “The Ida Retsin Family.” Tara Jane O’Neil and Dan Littleton are also about to release an album together called Music for a Meteor Shower, on Tiger Style records. It’s a very subdued collection of sparse improvisational guitar work, recorded by the duo in the Catskill Mountains. The songs employ a sort of environmental minimalism that reflects the circumstances of their creation.
The collaborative means of production carried over to tonight’s live performances. The stage resembled a transplanted practice space, cozily cluttered with various instruments and effects. The lines between performers sets blurred, with people exchanging instruments and bouncing on and off stage to assist each other. During the Naysayer’s set, there were frequent requests of “Hey Karla, do you know how to play bass on this?” followed by a casual “Uh, yeah, sure!” emerging from the crowd.
The first performer was multi-instrumentalist Dan Littleton, who could be called the Ida/Retsin family patriarch, if only the collective were less egalitarian. He played a not surprisingly quiet set of dirge-like songs, singing over guitar, piano, and harmonium. Littleton also squeezed in an eclectic group of covers, including songs from folkstress Sandy Denny and punkers the Minutemen, a selection that hints at Littleton’s reputed more hardcore musical past. The highlight was the final song of the set, which Littleton dedicated to his wife (Elizabeth of Ida) and baby, who could earlier be heard cooing along in the audience. It was a lush and pacific lullaby that highlighted Littleton’s clear, gentle voice and capable harmonium skills.
Next on stage was The Naysayer, the duo of Anna Padgett and Cynthia Nelson. Padgett does not “sing like a girl,” but with the kind of deadpan huskiness that might remind one of Liz Phair. Cynthia Nelson’s percussion is light and playful, and her sweeter vocals provide a melodic counterpoint to Padgett’s. Padgett’s guitar playing is clean, her tunes infectious, and her on-stage demeanor enormously approachable, even bordering on the apologetic. The opening number was a wry Naysayer tour anthem that Padgett warned the audience would be kind of silly. It included the lyrics “Please give us a chance / before you spear us with your glance / and please feel free to dance ”
But not all Naysayer songs are so straightforward and lighthearted. Rather, Padgett offered claustrophobic songs about being swarmed by cicadas, and an unassumingly dark song called “These Boys”, which describes slaving away at a country club and being mauled by boys. She also reveals her sense of humor with songs like “Things to Do”, which she announces is “about Williamsburg.” More specifically, it’s about the artful dodging that young hipsters do to avoid social interaction: “I’ve got so many intimate and beautiful and really small things to do / I’ve got so many things I really don’t have time to talk to you,” sings Padgett as Nelson appropriately drums in 2/4 time, marching band style.
Tara Jane O’Neil’s set was a bit of a surprise, in that it was less acoustic and countrified than her recordings tend to be. She used drum loops and swirling guitar samples to create a thick, atmospheric sound. The lyrics were essentially inaudible, but her singing approached an earthy resonance that was almost a howl. While the evening’s other performers were cool and casual with their instruments, O’Neil’s body grooved along with her guitar rockstar style, in a manner that’s so passionate it’s almost unsettling. One of O’Neil’s quirks while performing is that she’s a bit of a stickler for audio levels. She resembled a baseball catcher sending secret hand signals to the sound man in the balcony to request adjustments. But this behavior is mild considering what I witnessed on this stage last year during a Retsin performance; O’Neil was so unthrilled with the sound troubles they were having that she complained throughout the entire set and announced to the audience that someone should tell the sound man to get up there and “do his fucking job.” But for tonight O’Neil kept the moodiness in the music.
So, what to make of all this pastoral sweetness? I can say that for all the performative pomp now expected at New York gigs, it was refreshing to be at a show where the emphasis is on song rather than spectacle. It made me wonder whether the best way to be heard within the cacophonic chaos of New York City is not with a bang, but with a whisper.