The Bowery Electric in New York City has got this cool vibe. Some say the venue has taken the spirit of the legendary CBGB's into it's walls. Well, it's literally a block or so away from where that original music hall resides (which in a rather surreal twist of fate is now a fancy clothing store).
So when Stephen Warwick told me he'd be performing there with his magical mystery shifting band The Secondhand Stories, on Friday July 9, I blew off all other events (do you hear me Grizzly Panda Riot Bear In Heaven?) to catch my first ever SW show.
I had been digitally enjoying his debut album "Talking Machine" for a while now. Ever since getting my hands on a just minted advance copy back in the latter part of last year. Being most impressed with Mr. Warwick's songwriting and sound construction abilities, I wrote a detailed review of that record. You can find a link to that review at the end of this feature.
However, this was a live show, so it was with a bit of curiosity and anticipation to discover how the songs would hold up under this less forgiving, more honest presentation.
Mr. Warwick's show was part of the DJ & Host Nicole Atkins Presents series at Bowery Electric. I am no stranger to Ms Atkins or her music, and have written more than a few reviews of her own live performances.
Opening the show with the first track off his album, "Golden" unfolds as an introspective acoustic guitar and harmonica number. Stephen is accompanied by a drummer and keyboardist, initially. "I have never had a way with words. I have never been a patriarch," he sings. Throughout this melancholy but ultimately uplifting musical journey, there is a warmth and spaciousness with each harmonica flourish. The lyrical conclusion is something of a fantasy and a dream."Maybe one day I'll get stolen and buried in the sea - and someone will see that it is me," he sings.
With Keyboardist/horn player, drummer and guitar
In keeping with the album sequence, next up was the bouncy "Circus By The Sea." A quicker rhythm brought to life by Mr. Warwick and his sidemen, the lyrics delve into a story about "a million eyes that try to guess the secrets that you keep," and how the waves "evaporate like mistakes that we have made." As the story progresses over a lifetime, a point is ultimately reached where "you see the empty shell of what was make believe inside," and how "the years went by as your sprits die, to a view of a brothel in New York." I've always found these lyrics to be mysterious and unique, underscoring a self-awareness and intelligence.
Still keeping with the album order, next up was the title track "Talking Machine"
"This time its the only thing you've ever heard before," is the hooky refrain. The chorus goes "words like birds, from the talking machine," which contain "fluttering notes and bended strings." Here in the live environment, shaker percussion enhance the rhythm, with rich, warm organ tones (reminicent of Crowded House and their most recognizable song "Don't Dream It's Over") providing sonic color.
Trumpeters appear as the artist seemingly fades into a gazey dream
Next up was the song "Unmade Bed," which certainly retained it's downhome, front-porch, shufflin' feel of a good-timey country atmosphere so apparent on the album. However, in this stripped down live setting, a single trumpeter emerged as a more dominant sound enhancement. With a story about a "sideshow beauty queen" now "drinking the barrels dry" culminating with the thought that "on the day your are (finally) dead - even then you'll keep an unmade bed." One can only wonder who exactly inspired this one.
Working his way through the album, Stephen played pretty much all of it - including this song here, which is titled on that disc as "Welcome Alive."
For this live presentation, Stephens vocal phrasing reminded me a bit of Steve Forbert (when that particular artist first broke onto the scene, three decades ago). That said, you can't help but appreciate the enthusiasm of this performance. It's also impressive how full the sound can be with only an organ, drums and acoustic guitar. Special mention certainly has to go to the keyboardist who played all these bass notes with his left hand (The Doors Ray Manzarek would be proud). Lyrically this song touches on how "you were raised on rock and roll and lemonade," and how "we come alive like devils in the street." Again, it's rock music with a down home, folksy flavor.
As I stated in my initial review of the album over a half a year ago, my favorite song on the record was (and still is) the heartbreakingly romantic "Keep On." I had discovered it was also Nicole Atkins favorite song on it as well.
In fact, the lovely Nicole would join Stephen on stage to perform it on this evening.
Nicole Atkins with Stephen Warwick
Listen here and tell me if you don't agree that this is a brilliant and beautiful song:
Nicole and Stephen in soft focus
Here in the live setting, Stephen introduces this one with just his acoustic guitar. Nicole joins in soon enough singing in tandem, while the trumpet plays that strong melody line. The song touches an emotional place that focuses on everything beautiful and sad. Together they sing Mr. Warwick's brilliant lyrics "though I never loved you, that doesn't mean that I can't love the way - the way that we danced in the parlor." With a chorus that goes "Keep on, keep on - the radio plays, the static fades and the volume wades, and I can't remember the way that it goes, singing songs from a decade ago". The emotional peak is struck with the lyrical sentiment "and I try to find the words that will make you feel like I haven't let you down. They're the same exact words from the song on the station that I can't remember right now."
A masterful piece of songwriting, and on this night, a most unique presentation of it.
One artist appreciating another's individual work
There is nothing more personal than a hand-scrawled set list
Seek out the music on "Talking Machine"
You'll be richer for the experience.
My Full Album Review of Talking Machine here:
To get the latest news on Stephen and his music: