Sarah Nisch

Backscratch XV at Rockwood Music Hall

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Last night was the 15th Backscratch show, hence the fancy XV in the title. We missed the first 12 (I blame all of you!) and caught the last two (three including XV). Backscratch is the brainchild of Martin Rivas and Craig Meyer. Six or Nine performers, depending on whether they can book two or three hours (last night was at Rockwood Music Hall). Each performer sings three songs. Traditionally, one original, one cover, and one backscratch, a cover of one of the other performers from that evening, randomly assigned to them in secret (in other words, no one knows who will be covering whom).

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Recent performances have included two originals plus the backscratch. Both ways work well. The evening moves very quickly, even the three-hour shows. The banter is usually worth coming out for, independent of the music. Most of all, the camaraderie. While there are a lot of musicians in the audience (by definition), the fans are not made to feel like outsiders. It’s a beautiful thing and if you come, you’ll feel like family, right away.

The idea is spreading. There will be a Backscratch I (1) in the UK next month! I think there was one already in Boston (if not, it’s coming soon). If you don’t live in NYC, look for one in your town, or better yet, clamor for one! Smile

Last night was six performers, from 9-11pm. First up was the only rookie Backscratcher.

Sarah Nisch sang two originals accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. For her backscratch she did a Patryk Larney number (pretty well in my opinion). She has a lovely voice.

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Her name sounded familiar to me, but I didn’t think we’d ever seen her before and I admit she didn’t look all that familiar. Everything is contextual. It’s true that we never saw her as part of the LES (Lower East Side) scene. Two years ago (7/27/2009 to be exact!) we saw her perform at the equivalent of an organized open mic show called The Set NYC.

I had mostly flattering things to say. I concluded with:

Still, she’s a talented singer/songwriter, and I’m sure Lois and I would be happy to catch her again at one of these shows.

I’m glad to see that she’s persevered and gotten into this circle and places like Rockwood.

Kate Branagh sang an original, a cover, and her backscratch, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. I could go on and on praising Kate, but let me list the highlights:

  • Fantastic voice. I felt like I was listening to a real Nashville pro, like Kathy Mattea
  • Good accompaniment on acoustic guitar
  • Excellent songwriting (lyrics, structure, melodies)
  • Quirky but superb stage presence
  • Unbelievably funny (NSFW or kids, not just the words, but the subject matter was often crude)

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She covered Caleb Hawley for her backscratch, rightfully noting how difficult it would be. She did a very nice job.

One example of her humor. She just released a CD she’s been working on for six years. It’s called Minutia. She has a CD Release Show at The Living Room on September 9th, 2011 at 9pm. She asked the crowd who knew what Minutia means? (She didn’t spell it, and I admit to thinking it was a made up word, spelled: Manusha). In any event, no one volunteered.

Kate said: Obviously, I’m a lot smarter than the rest of you (as she went on to define Minutia). But, she reminded us that we were lucky to be seeing her perform, so that she could share her knowledge with the rest of us. Smile

I’m a fan of dry, sarcastic humor, and Kate’s delivery is excellent!

After her set, Lois bought the CD. It’s really good, so get it. Better yet, get to the show next Friday (we can’t make it, unfortunately) and get yourself one directly from Kate!

On the negative side, Kate’s site (linked to her name) is way out of date. Hopefully, in conjunction with this CD Release, she’ll find the time and energy to update it. In the meantime, here’s a link to her MySpace page, to listen to a few of her songs.

Caleb Hawley sang two originals and his backscratch accompanied on his brand new guitar. I’ve written about Caleb a number of times. He’s an unreal talent (in the sense that he’s so good at so many aspects of writing and performing that it’s hard to wrap your head around it all!).

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He writes great songs. He is an exceptional guitar player, in particular for accompanying his singing (though I could listen to him play for hours even if he didn’t open his mouth). He has an excellent voice. He’s funny and engaging on stage. His warmth is contagious (avert your eyes if he smiles in your direction, or you’ll be forced to follow him anywhere).

So, why did I bother to mention that he was playing a new guitar? Because he just recently won it, by capturing the Song Competition at this year’s Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. This netted him the guitar and an appearance on the Main Stage next year!

Caleb’s backscratch was a Kate Branagh song, so they ended up playing each other’s numbers. He chose Dandelion Lovers (the first cut on her new CD) and did a beautiful job. I listened to the CD version this morning (with full band) and it’s stellar.

Next up was our fearless leader, Martin Rivas. This evening was very difficult for Martin. I want to explain why, but I will fist mention his incredible performance, especially in the face of what I will describe afterward.

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Martin Rivas sang an original, his backscratch and a cover, accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar. All three were excellent performances. His original is a new song which will be on his upcoming CD (released in 2012). His backscratch turned into a little behind the scenes look at how backscratch works.

Typically, each performer submits a list of their songs that they might play at the show, so that whoever gets them for the backscratch portion won’t duplicate a song they intend to play. Since Sarah Nisch was new to backscratch, or for any other reason that I am unaware of, some signals got crossed.

She opened her set with the song Paper Bag Heart. That’s the same song that Martin had picked for his backscratch. Martin joked that at least we’d have an A/B comparison. Both were well done, so no harm, no foul. In fact, since the song was new to me, hearing it twice in one night wasn’t a bad thing at all.

Martin closed his set with a cover from one of his songwriting heroes, Nick Ashford, who passed away last week. Martin played Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. The entire audience sang along to each chorus, it was gorgeous and moving. Of course, for Martin, it had an even deeper meaning (as you’ll see next).

On to more somber matters. Martin spends a lot of time in Middleburgh, NY, Schoharie Country. While many NYC folks escaped serious damage by Hurricane Irene (we have to remember that’s not true for all NYC residents!), the devastation in upstate NY (and many other places north and south of NYC) is not getting enough attention.

Martin was having a hard time being in the moment at Rockwood last night, as his heart was breaking from all the pictures and video that was coming in from Schoharie County. Amazingly, it didn’t affect the quality of his performance. I was going to post a before and after photo of the valley (it’s mind-boggling how a valley can turn into a giant river/lake overnight). Instead, I see that Christina Morelli of NYC Arts Scene has written an article which includes that photo in it.

I urge you all to read that article and help in any way that you can!

Patryk Larney sang two originals and his backscratch, accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar. He also invited up Ben Morgan to play piano on all three numbers. Ben sang light harmony as well (very nicely). Patryk (and Ben) did an excellent job. I was particularly impressed by his backscratch of Bri Arden’s song, Sink Down Under. Bri is a tough act to reproduce. Kudos to Patryk.

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I’ve only seen Patryk do one cover before last night (at a Benefit Concert). He continues to impress. I’m going to catch a full set of his music tomorrow night (Wednesday, 8/31/2011) at Rockwood 1, 9pm. Come join me and see if you agree with my assessment of his talent.

After the show I walked over to Ben to ask him his last name. When he said “Morgan”, I said, oh, I just saw you on video. It turns out that he was accompanying The Vanity Belles when they were interviewed and performed on MNN (Channel 56 on Time Warner Cable in NYC) on Sunday night. We watched the show (and enjoyed every second of it, including Ben’s keyboard play). Patryk played on one song as well. He produced the Vanity Belles current album. They will be singing a bit with Patryk tomorrow night. Just a little extra incentive to come see Patryk’s show!

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Last, but certainly not least, Bri Arden.

I’ve seen Bri a number of times. She has impressed each and every time (last night included). The performances have ranged from acoustic (Bri singing, accompanied by a single acoustic guitarist) to nine people on stage (full band plus two backup singers). In all those shows, Bri sang without playing any instruments.

She teased me last time, playing the piano during sound check (at the acoustic show). Last night, she finally played the piano for real, during her two originals. She was very self-deprecating about her ability, joking that she was prepared to declare herself the best piano player of the show, until Ben Morgan was invited up by Patryk. Smile

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Bri played very nicely indeed and I’m sure she will continue to improve the more she chooses to play in public.

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That said, it was her backscratch that was the highlight of the show (to me, and I presume to many others). Keep in mind that she chose it before any of us knew what was (or would be) happening in Schoharie Country!

Bri came out from behind the piano to sing a cappella. Everyone knew she was going to cover Martin (the math was no longer hard at that point). She chose one of his iconic numbers, North.

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North was actually written with Schoharie County in mind, with happy thoughts of a destination that Martin loved to go to. When your heart swells so much with joy, the heartbreak is equally unimaginable when that place is laid to waste. You can listen to the song and read the lyrics at Martin’s Bandcamp Page. You can buy the download there as well.

Bri was awesome. The audience sang large swaths of the song with her, since we all know it so well. For the finale, Caleb Hawley and Patryk Larney came up and kept the chorus going while Bri sang in and around them. Stunning. Of course, Martin was triply moved. There was a long hug and private words exchanged between Martin and Bri on stage when she was done.

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Another successful Backscratch show. There’s a special magic to them. Come find out for yourself at the next one, Monday, October 24th, 2011 at Rockwood Music Hall.

Different than most shows at Rockwood, there was no tip jar passed around for the performers. Instead, Rockwood Music Hall makes a donation and all of the musicians donate their time. Last night’s donation will be made to help the people of Schoharie County.

Thanks to everyone at Rockwood Music Hall for this very generous act!

Another theSetNYC Show

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Three weeks ago, we attended our first theSet NYC show, documented here. While the show was a little choppy, we really liked the place, Le Poisson Rouge (specifically, the Gallery Bar). We think the people behind theSet are wonderful, and we believe in their vision for showcasing upcoming talent.

So, when I saw that they had another show scheduled in the same place last night, and I knew that it was our only free night in an 11-day run of social commitments (all fun, so don’t feel badly for us), instead of using the one night off to collapse (a very tempting choice), I really wanted to support their efforts.

Oh, and the fact that the Kobe Sliders (Sloppy Joe’s) and Spicy Tuna Roll (and the Edamame for Lois) were beckoning to me, didn’t hurt either. 😉

While there was a nice crowd the first time we attended (July 6th), it was a holiday weekend (duh) so I shouldn’t have been surprised (pleasantly!) that there were probably nearly twice as many people last night. It will still comfortable in the space, but it was much closer to a practical limit than the first time.

There were also more performers last night (nine in total), but again, the host Kai Raziq (the only repeat from the last show) kept things moving along very nicely.

Since I’ll cover each artist separately, in at least one paragraph, this will be another long post. For those who are more interested in my overall impression of the night, and theSet NYC in general, I’ll get that out of the way now, so you can skip the individual comments, and my summary.

To repeat from my intro above, I really like what theSet NYC is doing. We thoroughly enjoyed last night’s show (more than the first one), even though there were definitely some lulls in the action (low points).

It’s not fair to judge or criticize any of the performers by the same standard you’d use if you went to see a full set by a professional comedian or singer, especially one you’d pay top-dollar for. The point of these shows is to see up-and-coming talent, hear something fresh (hopefully), and watch people try to hone their craft.

So, bottom line, a very entertaining evening that we’ll be sure to repeat again!

Last general note about theSet. They go out of their way to create a safe atmosphere for the performers. We love that! It’s OK not to like a performer or their material. It’s not OK to heckle them, be rude in other ways, disrupt their performance, or ruin other people’s opportunity to enjoy a routine you might not be enjoying. Bravo for that!

Normally, we put up at least one photo of each performer. For whatever reason, every picture Lois took last night came out so dark, that I decided not to post any, since each performer is  linked and you can see a ton of information about them (including photos). Sorry.

Last night there were seven comedians and two singers. I’ll cover the comedians first, in a block, in the order that we liked them (like last time), then the singers (so don’t assume that all seven comedians were better than either singer).

Harrison Greenbaum closed the show, but we both considered him the most consistently funny and polished. Tons of self-deprecating humor. Very comfortable delivery. Interacts with the audience well. He clearly already performs at a professional level.

He finished the show with a magic trick that was clever, engaging, funny, and left the crowd laughing hard (and a little amazed) as they walked out. theSet was correct to put him up last!

Dan Nainan bills himself as a 100% clean comedian. Lois prefers that greatly. I don’t mind stooping to a lower level, if the muck ads comedic value. Most often it doesn’t, so I admire Dan (and the likes of Jerry Seinfeld) who have to work a little harder to make us laugh, without having the shock value to work with.

For the most part, Dan was terrific. Like Harrison, he’s already a pro, no doubt. The difference in the ease in delivering the lines between a pro and an amateur is painfully obvious.

He took one trip off the rails (in our opinion only, as the audience was going crazy for it, so keep that in mind!). He did a George Bush imitation. He had it down pretty well, and the few lines were funny enough. But, because he’s an easy (and in our opinion a tired) target, Dan continued too long. Making fun of different words that Bush flubbed isn’t a new joke, so after a few, that’s enough.

He had an opportunity to be let off the hook. One of the security walkie talkies interrupted him in mid-routine, and he stopped to comment on it. Then he said “Where was I?”, and after a pause, jumped right back into the Bush routine.

As opposed to Harrison, to us, that meant Dan peaked earlier, and ended on a weaker note, which isn’t the way to leave your audience. Still, we’d happily go see him again. He’s funny, and has an excellent delivery!

Sam Morril has a completely self-deprecating style. For the most part, his material is fresh and funny. On occasion, his delivery is a bit inconsistent. Sometimes, total comfort to great effect, at other times, reasonably awkward. Even in the awkward moments, you can see the content peek through, but if Sam raises his game just a bit, he has what it takes material-wise.

Sean Donnelly was very different than Sam, but essentially as good overall. Lois’ instinct was to list him above Sam, barely, and mine was to list Sam first, barely. Sean opened the show, which can be brutal or great. You don’t have to be better than anyone else, yet, but you also don’t have a warmed-up crowd, and you have no clues as to what they like and don’t like.

From that perspective, Sean did an excellent job. He too is very comfortable on the stage, and has a quality delivery for the most part. Like Sam, a few times, he lost focus and had a little trouble getting back on track. He’s not afraid to engage the audience, and was reasonably adept at it.

For the most part, his routine was quite clean. So, when he launched into one vulgar joke, he got a little more mileage out of the f-word, since he hadn’t used it yet. The joke itself was reasonably funny. Ironically, while his use of the f-word was in context, and not gratuitous, it was also totally unnecessary.

There were many other words that would have substituted well (I think better), and added euphemistic color to the joke. Oh well, I don’t write ‘em, I just judge ‘em. 😉

Nore Davis is an inventive, comfortable comedian, who loses his way a little too easily. I’ll give two specific examples in a minute, but first I’ll make the generic point. Nore’s delivery is terrific. He has command of the crowd, and has a smooth delivery that was consistent. His content is pretty funny. So, what’s the problem?

When he came on stage, he had that quality that immediately grabs your attention. When he started his routine, he (and we) realized that there was a ton of reverb left on the mic, since he followed a singer. The person handling the sound (Pim, filling in for Leo) had stepped away, so Nore was on his own.

While waiting for Pim to return, he made a very funny, and very vulgar ad-lib (about feeling like he was trapped in a cavernous vagina). It was funny, so I’m fine with that. But, he couldn’t help himself (in my opinion), and he pushed the joke too far, and ended up saying and doing some over-the-top crude things to keep that one clever (and quick!) line alive…

One more example. He told an excellent joke about getting a portable CD player for his birthday (the very last one every sold, and he told that part really well too!). He said that everyone made fun of him because he could only carry around 12 songs at a time, all from the same artist. Even grandma laughed at him, telling him that she had 15,000 songs on her new iHear hearing aid!

Funny, right? Indeed! And, his delivery was flawless. We were laughing our heads off, until he couldn’t stop himself from immediately saying “what a bitch!”. He then cursed grandma a bit more. Bottom line, that is for shock value only, hearing someone calling their grandma a bitch. It didn’t add a single thing to the already wildly successful joke!

Anyway, not to beat it to death, but he overuses that specific word, along with other (potentially) equally offensive ones. Yes, yes, it makes me sound like a prude, but like I said already, the vagina ad-lib was hilarious (until he pushed it too far).

I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see Nore Davis become a very big name in comedy in the years to come (even if he doesn’t change his act), but, if he finds a slightly cleaner style, I’ll bet his appeal will be that much broader.

Brandon Greenspan has some clever material, buried in a consistently poor delivery. His style is self-deprecating, so it’s possible that he tries intentionally for a specific delivery style (like Woody Allen does, or Steven Wright), but in my opinion, it isn’t working (or it isn’t deliberate). He simply comes across as not self confident, and easily distracted on the stage.

Both he and the next comic had to refer to their notes a few times. That’s really not a big deal, but we’re talking about 7-10 minute sets here, which isn’t all that much to memorize, so either he/they aren’t working hard enough to prepare, or they’re overly nervous (I’ll have a bit more to say about that in my summary).

To repeat, I think he’s a clever guy, with some interesting comedic insights, which felt fresh (so he’s writing interesting material at home), but he needs lots of practice delivering it. For that, shows like last night are perfect. I would see him again, willingly, so I don’t want you to read this and think it was hard to take.

Scout Durwood was not originally listed on the schedule for last night’s show. On the other hand, two other comics were listed that didn’t show, so getting Scout at the last minute was good for their lineup, timing-wise. Unfortunately, as you see her listed last on our list, she didn’t add too much to the comedy…

I would have listed her above Brandon, but Lois felt more strongly about the order than I did, so I swapped them (like I did in the last review when Lois felt strongly about one of the comics).

Like Sam above, her delivery is inconsistent. On some jokes, she’s a complete pro (delivery-wise). On some, she comes across as a rank amateur. She too needed to consult her cheat sheet. Again, no biggie, but she looked at her sheet before telling a single joke! Really? Couldn’t she have snuck a peek right before stepping on the stage?

She told a few funny jokes, and quite a number that just lay there. She has the style to be a lot funnier, if she works on her consistency, but I don’t know whether she has enough material to fill more than these 10-minute slots.

On to the singers, then a summary.

Sarah Nisch sang and accompanied herself on an acoustic guitar. She did two numbers, both originals. She has a really good voice. Both songs were good (though both of us vastly preferred the second one, which Sarah described as a bit more uplifting, rather than the first, which she described as wrist-slitting inducing). 😉

Sarah plays the guitar reasonably enough (mostly strumming, straightforwardly), but, oddly enough, it didn’t work for me at all in terms of accompanying her voice and lyrics. In other words, her guitar playing was more of a distraction.

Still, she’s a talented singer/songwriter, and I’m sure Lois and I would be happy to catch her again at one of these shows.

Jamie Alimorad sang, backed by a CD playing through the speakers. Before I cover the performance, I want to compliment Jamie’s stage presence. Since Leo wasn’t there to operate the laptop and the sound system, there was quite a bit of trouble getting the background CD to start, and when it did, it was a whisper in the background. Jamie never lost his cool, and even though he isn’t a comedian, he handled himself and the situation well, and kept the crowd relaxed and interested.

Unfortunately, I don’t have all that much else to say that is very complimentary. He has a pleasant enough voice, but he did two covers, starting with Bryan Adams Summer of 69. If his voice were spectacular, OK. But, everything about his performance was more Karaoke than professional singer. Good Karaoke, to be sure, but compared to all of the other original works (Sarah included), it felt completely out of place. Sorry Jamie…

I realize that many (most?) who get this far will simply label me/us as prudes, and say that we simply don’t get the humor in raunchy jokes. If you knew me, you’d know how ridiculous that is, but I totally get how I’m coming off.

One of my all-time favorite comedians is Buddy Hackett (I can recite dozens of his jokes verbatim, including some very long routines). They are mostly filthy (dick jokes, etc.). Not only do the jokes kill me each time I hear them, I love telling them, so I have no trouble delivering those words. But, they are integral to the jokes, not gratuitous.

A number of the comedians we’ve seen at the two theSet shows used their words as crutches. What happens in that situation is that the audience is focused on the crutch, not the joke, or the person. If a person walks into the room on actual crutches, you’re less likely to remember other things about them, because it steals your focus. The same is true in comedy.

So, while I’m but one voice, I’ll continue to hammer away to these very talented up-and-coming comedians, that they need to hone their craft better by concentrating on the actual joke, not on using vulgarity for the pure shock value of it. Follow my advice or not, it’s your careers. 😉

As for theSet, one of the things that the host (Kai Raziq) has done at both shows (repeatedly) is attempt to get anyone from the audience to come on stage and tell a joke, a story, anything. His point is that it’s harder than it looks, even for 30 seconds, and of course, he’s right!

In the first show, no one took him up on the offer, even though he tried hard. Last night, no one took the bait either, for the first few times that he tried to get someone on the stage. Then finally, one woman got up for 30 seconds. She had no idea what to do, but turned it into an amusing physical bit. We all appreciated her courage and effort nonetheless.

I don’t really have a need, nor even an interest to try that out, but out of curiosity, one of these days, I might just have to find out how awful/hard it is to stand up there, and perhaps I’ll be a bit less harsh on the real comedians after I do that. 😉