By Philip Turner in: Music, Bands & Radio; Urban Life & New York City

Jill Barber and Plants & Animals in NYC–Romance and Rock ‘n Roll

Wednesday night was another great night for live music by Canadian artists in New York City. First stop on the evening’s program was Joe’s Pub to hear Jill Barber, a latter-day chanteuse who weaves a retro spell that even with her backward glances is always fresh and vibrant. She showed an enchanting stage presence, and her 3-piece band was superb, with Drew Jerucka on violin and clarinet; Robbie Grunwald on piano and accordion; and Steve Zsirai on upright bass. In addition to her vocals and songwriting, Barber also played a small guitar, left-handed.** She exuded a winsome charm, unselfconscious glamour, and improvised with light banter between songs. She sings in a distintive tone that is the aural equivalent of B Grade maple syrup–my favorite–sweet and smoky. After she sang “Chances”–with its lyric, “Chances, what are the chances/The chances that I’d find you/Stealing glances across a crowded room/And taking a chance or two“–against a backdrop of plucked violin, tinkling piano, and a strange rumbling that could only be heard in New York, Jill said, ”I can’t tell if that’s me trembling, or the subway.” Don’t fear, I thought to tell her, it is the #6 train. She continued, “I write a lot of love songs, I hope you like love songs.” The love song is indeed her milieu, and in her hands each one provides the listener a vivid romantic narrative. Among her most affecting numbers was “Measures and Scales,” with its minor key, old-world violin and accordion accompaniment, and haunted lyrics of a doomed love:  ”He plays piano in a jazz band/And I love him for the man that he could be/I asked him, if I let you, would you play me/Then delighted as he tickled every key . . . I am just a dreamer wearing sensible shoes/I still dream in colour even though I sing the blues . . . But it disappears somewhere when the music is done/Every song ever written has a final note“. Her show-stopper was “Oh My My,” with its invocation of a surgeon who may, or may not, be able to mend its narrator’s broken heart. This song had hot clarinet, piano boogie-woogie, and great sung-shouted lyrics.

Something I appreciate about Jill Barber’s musical enterprise is that though she’s cultivated this vintage atmospheric, she’s not playing it for camp humor or just capitalizing on some sort of Mad Men vibe; in fact she’s been working in this vein since her 2008 album, “Chances.” Her latest album “Mischievous Moon” has just been released in the U.S. and she traveled to this gig from Vancouver, British Columbia, where she lives with her husband, author and CBC Radio 3 host Grant Lawrence,*** to play shows in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Pittsburgh. Joe’s Pub, where I’d never been, is a handsome music room with great lighting and excellent acoustics. I had a nice time chatting with Jill and manager Evan Newman after her set, when I learned she’s also playing in New York City Saturday night in the Studio at Webster Hall. I’ll be eager to hear Jill Barber and her band again, whether it’s this weekend or another time in the future. I urge readers to seek out her music–she’s a unique talent as a singer and performer, and when I reflect that she also writes her own songs, it’s clear to me how special she is.

After that great set of music I quickly finished my drink and then–never able to get enough live music–taxied in the rain to the Mercury Lounge where the Montreal band Plants and Animals were due to go on at 11 PM. I just made it in and snaked through a full room to in front of the stage as they were strapping on their axes. The band has a lot of NY fans! Recognition applause and whoops accompanied the opening of many songs. They were tremendous, with great singing by Warren Spicer, energetic looping lead licks and great guitar tone from Nick Basque, and a terrific rhythm section anchored by drummer Matthew Woodley. Plants and Animals started out as an instrumental trio, and according to information on their website, lyrics and vocals came relatively late into their repertoire. As a residue of those origins, their songs are often longer than the usual pop standard of three minutes, stretching into the six and seven minute range. They really like to stretch things out and it makes for rewarding listening for the live music listener. As the last band of the night, there was no act following them, and the crowd soon picked up on the fact that they weren’t going to hustle off after a 40-minute set, as is often the case at tightly scheduled clubs. This was ideal given the band’s instrumental and orchestral instincts. With that in mind everyone relaxed and grooved to the abundance of tunes they rolled out. They played such songs from their 2008 album “Parc Avenue” as “The Mama Papa,” and “Bye, Bye, Bye,”–with a sweet autoharp bit played by Basque–and from their newest album, “The End of That” I recognized “LightShow,” “Why, Why” and the eponymous, “The End of That,” in which Grant Lawrence astutely hears a kind of Velvet Underground vibe. In short, they played a mess of songs from all their albums, and the set edged in to the 90-minute range. High fives were exchanged all around the dance floor when they finished the second song of their extended encore. Plants & Animals will be playing at NXNE in Toronto in mid-June, a festival I attended last year, and I hope to make it there again. When I do, I’ll be very excited to hear them play once more.

**Jill’s singer/songwriter brother Matt Barber, about whom I blogged after I heard him perform last year, also plays guitar left-handed.  Clearly, left-handedness and extravagant talent run in the family.

***Full disclosure: Grant Lawrence is a personal friend of mine, about whom I have previously written on this blog.
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