Thursday, May 15, 2008

First Look: Bill Bartholomew: Live at Pianos

First Look: Bill Bartholomew: Live at Pianos
by Jesse Schmitt

My first encounter with the upstairs lounge/performance space at Pianos (158 Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side) was to recently check out a solo-acoustic-guitarist Bill Bartholomew ( with accompaniment by Quinton Gelderman on assorted percussion as part of the Jezebel Music Resonance Series! ( Bill Bartholomew is a singer and songwriter but his band is a six piece ensemble with a three piece percussion section as well as a piano and bass to add to the singer’s guitar.

However this is a review of the solo artist and his percussion accompaniment. Apparently the Bill Bartholomew name brand is had in a variety of different ways. According to the bands website, they play in three different formats; solo acoustic, duo (as I saw tonight) and the full six piece ensemble. So the joy in that is walking into a venue where the Bill Bartholomew crew is playing and never knowing what you are going to get.

This show was fairly low key; there were scarcely inches and wires separating the band and the audience. This is always an interesting dynamic and one which the Bill Bartholomew outfit played to their advantage in a strange way. When I saw them begin their set in near pitch black in the upstairs venue with its cobbled seating and low ceiling, I thought maybe the lights would come on. But they played the entirety of their set in a dark red glow which ran congruent with the aggressive edge which was paramount in the set.

Bill Bartholomew seemingly finds his essence in his physicality; the way he twists and squirms at the microphone comes through in his vocals which are at times whiny and struggling to get out of his throat and are at other times commanding and decisive. The bloody fingers pounding he gives his guitar obviously allows the edge to come through.

The first song was a solo track and began in nearly all black. He gave a droning, haunting message of despair which may just be his Achilles heel. More about that later. Once Mr. Gelderman joined the ensemble for the remainder of the show, his big, open barreled djembe playing gave the tunes a steady through line.

Here is my biggest crank on the show that I saw. Remember that this is the first time I have ever seen these two and I got a copy of their CD which I will be reviewing shortly; so my instincts could be flawed by the facts, but this is just my opinion. These two guys played in total 9 or 10 songs. I remember feeling, as the set began to wind down, a somber sort of melancholy. Yes, a few of the lyrics were spirited and yes one or two of the melody was bright and yes the lively percussion playing did leave me rhythmically satisfied. But by and large the tunes were dark. Moody, ethereal, stock, contrived. The lyrics seemed despondent and most of the time it felt as though a great deal of craftsmanship and labor had gone into the construction of the very predictable elements; I saw some band members across from me mouthing the words to some of the songs and in my mind, I mouthed right along with them.

So I felt that I had seen all I needed to and I questioned whether or not I would even write this review at all. Bill Bartholomew crashed down his guitar at the end of this very labored song, number 7 or 8 in the night, and Quinton splashed his splash cymbal to a joyous conclusion.

Then they were told they could play two more. This is the spot where if these guys were some of the overpaid by millions famous RAWK musicians, they would all run off stage for a hot toddy and triumphantly return to play some fan favorites that, while the band may have tired of them, they would elicit the strongest roar of applause and fainting women and all that.

Bill Bartholomew got on the mic and said “these last two songs are older ones; they’ve been around for three or four years,” dismissively. Almost as though he were ashamed of them in lieu of the more challenging, downtrodden, calculated music they were playing now.

The last two songs were the highlight of the evening, for me. They were decidedly more upbeat, had a big, airy, open melody which was much more conducive to the inclusive sound that rang around in the percussive melodies, and they were arranged better. Now, yes, you could say that because they are four year old songs, they have obviously had a longer period of time to gestate into a pair of gems. But, it seems that if the crown melodies are going to be something of an afterthought; almost not included due to time constraints, and you’re barraging your audience with this edgy, aggressive sound, then it is the latter that you are going for.

Even Rush has “Fly by Night.” It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a radio hit; it’s catchy; people sing it. They also have all that synthesizer crap they did in the 80’s. Then they came back with "Roll the Bones". Encapsulating your very short career into some thirty years time may not be the most fair thing, but it is possible to do challenging music that is not ailenating.

I don’t want to pretend to be an expert and Bill Bartholomew and his band obviously know their own sound scores better than this casual, first time observer, but it was such a noticeable difference that even my spouse, who was there with me, agreed. She was walking to the subway, humming that next to last song, indulging in the thrill of great live music, happy and dancing all the while. A skilled singer who obviously has control of his facilities, Bill Bartholomew should figure out which road he is headed down and ask himself if that is where he’d like his sound to go.

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