Photo by Meg Remy
All I want is a hot toddy, but the more patient half of me says now’s not the time to order one. Despite my polite efforts and hacking cough, something of greater urgency than a breathing statistic of flu season needs tending to.
The bartender zips along the length of the counter clamping a cordless phone between her ear and shoulder. Her bar back frantically cleans tumblers and disappears periodically. Meanwhile Max Turnbull and his wife Meghan Remy (aka Slim Twig and his wife U.S. Girls) are schlepping amplifiers through the front door of Cake Shop 20 minutes after opener Ryan Sambol-who is sitting right next to me-is supposed to start.
It’s been a rough night for everyone.
Things settle down. The bar is calm. I have booze; the warm, honey and lemon accessorized kind that allows you to be a lush and say “this is good for me!” at the same time.
I am now wedged between a Tinder date and a semi-bilingual French-lesson date (how you say, Tinder?) taking notes in my journal, which I’m sure doesn’t look odd at all. I might as well be chiseling a stone tablet and wearing badger fur.
Collecting cash and stamping hands for the evening is Cake Shop co-owner Andy Bodor, perched on a stool by the venue door. Ryan Sambol emerges from downstairs, despondently shaking his head:
“You know what man, I don’t even wanna play tonight.”
Bodor looks shattered.
“What do you mean???”
“Y’know, it’s just, I come all the way from Texas and I just don’t think….”
I realize that though the dust from earlier has settled, a whole new sandstorm is about to kick up; and then Sambol cracks a smile.
“I’m just kidding!!!” Bodor sighs: “Jesus man, you really got me there.”
Two warm alcohols deep I make my way to the show space. I’m met by a hush crowd politely watching the tricky Texan. It’s not easy to captivate audiences these days, and it’s even harder to do so with such modest and arcane things like a guitar and microphone, but Sambol seems to have this covered. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a good lookin’ boy from the Lone Star State with a voice like Nashville Skyline era Dylan.
His stage presence reminds me of a less-tortured Jeff Buckley…a more lighthearted, plucky Buckley, if you will. Buckleyness aside, Sambol’s ability to work a room makes sense: he’s been in the biz for over a decade. He helped form The Strange Boys as an eighth grader and subsequently toured with everyone from Julian Casablancas to Spoon. After Strange Boys dissolved in 2012, Sambol and co. reemerged as Living Grateful releasing two LPs in 2014. I’ve yet to find anything about a forthcoming solo record from Sambol, but if one ever surfaces it will probably sound like his live set: sweet, melty and melancholy.
Sambol played a mix of originals as well as a few covers, announcing them with familial ease: “You can thank Sly Stone for that one.” And I guess we can thank Mr. Sambol for coming all the way from Texas and playing after all.
During the set, I couldn’t help but notice Meg Remy and Max Turnbull at the end of the bar. It made me wonder if it’s difficult to tour with your spouse. Do you bicker over who’s headlining? Take turns on merch table duty? Get jealous when your better half’s record sells more copies than yours? I guess it depends, but judging by the highly collaborative artistic relationship Remy and Turnbull have had, they seem pretty supportive. They lugged the gear together, and played integral roles in each other’s performances for the night.
U.S. Girls was up next. For those unfamiliar with Remy’s music, it is paradoxical in many ways. She goes by a plural, so you’d expect a full band, or at the very least a duo. You wouldn’t guess it was just her by listening to GEM, her FATCAT release from 2012, which is full-bodied, textural and pleasantly schizophrenic.
The self-sufficient musical project is far more achievable these days given the ease of home recording and distribution, but it does make for an interesting dilemma; how does one perform live? According to Meg Remy: with a Moog and a microphone
It doesn’t sound great on paper, but it’s difficult to describe someone like Remy, who might be made of charisma. A bit dazed while performing, she is focused and calculated. Her body language and voice seem siphoned straight from the 1960s, and I wonder if she really is in trance-watching a mirage of Nancy Sinatra at the back of the room and mirroring her every shimmy.
An equally enigmatic musician, Max Turnbull recorded his sinister pop-opera A Hound at the Hem all the way back in 2010 as a contract fulfillment to Paper Bag records. Unfortunately Paper Bag deemed it too weird, causing Turnbull to shelve the LP and record Sof’ Sike instead. Hound did have a limited co-release via Pleasance Records and Remy/Turnbull’s own imprint Calico Corp, but it was reissued last year thanks to New York’s own DFA records. DFA saw the album’s brilliance and pressed 600 copies-100 of them on Pepto Bismol pink vinyl.
Hound is a complex and beautiful record. It’s been called chamber pop, psych rock and garnered many other comparisons. As an impulse evaluation I’d say there are heavy notes of Nick Cave and Van Dyke Parks throughout.
If you didn’t know the chronology of Hound’s lifespan, you might be surprised to see Slim Twig live. On the album’s sleeve is a clean-shaven kid with a pompadour. Behind the microphone at Cake Shop was a mustached matchstick with long tangled hair. Ever evolving, Turnbull’s look wasn’t the only thing drastically different from his Hound days. His set didn’t include any songs from the album, which I must admit bummed me out a little.
That’s not to say the music wasn’t exciting and well played, but it was much more straight-forward seventies rock n’ roll- a far cry from the bizzarro orchestra of Hound. That being said, I can sympathize with a musician not wanting to play songs written five years ago.
Slim Twig’s set was both humble and satirically contradictory. “This song’s about not fetishizing the past” was an intro that struck me as aggressively ironic, since fetishizing the past is what millennials, including myself-are best at.
Though the set was more melodic than I’d expected, there was no shortage of precision and energy. And fortunately, any deficit of strangeness was made up for by the little eccentricities that can only be experienced at a live show. While introducing one song Turnbull curtly quipped: “This song is about Jesus Christ.” To my left a middle-aged Hasidic man clapped and cheered in his seat, occasionally using his cocktail straw as a conductor’s wand; other times bringing it to his lips to take a long drag.
I guess the night was a success after all.