As someone always on the lookout for budding musical stars, the last place I would look is Fox TV’s “American Idol”, a show whose contestants all seem bent on doing Mary J. Blige or Justin Timberlake imitations. My most cherished memory is seeing Bob Dylan invited up to the stage at Bard College in 1964 at the behest of his friend John Hammond Jr. that night. Everybody knew about John Hammond Jr., a blues musician and son of Columbia’s legendary A&R man, but who was the skinny kid with the reedy voice? Ten years later I would drag a couple of friends to see this guy Bruce Springsteen play at Liberty Hall in Houston.
That’s exactly how I feel about seeing Lora Faye perform at The Living Room in New York, a nightclub on NY’s Lower East Side. I don’t go to see live music much nowadays since I don’t want to go without my wife whose quest for tenure forces her to sit in front of her computer most nights staring at Latin American banking statistics. “Come on”, I told her, “Lora is the niece of my old friend Sidney Whelan and music is part of the Whelan clan’s DNA.”
Like her uncle, Lora is a genuine innovator. When her set was about to start, I asked Sid to describe her style to my wife. His answer: “Tom Waits mixed with Patsy Cline”. That’s a pretty good description but I would go further and say that Lora Faye’s style is mostly her own. She takes a song like “Trouble in Mind” and puts her unique stamp on it, making it possible to hear the words of this blues warhorse as if for the first time. It is equivalent to seeing the dust removed from a Picasso etching.
I’m gonna lay, lay my head
On some lonesome railroad line
Let the 2:19 train
Ease my troubled mind
As you might expect, the voice is the bottom line. That’s where Lora makes her mark with the raw power of Janis Joplin mixed with the silky-smooth timbre of Stevie Nicks. What’s more, she is a terrific guitar and banjo player. On the latter instrument, she led her fellow musicians last night in a couple of kick-ass numbers that made the banjo look like an unaccountably neglected instrument in rock-and-roll. It was as if Pete Townshend possessed Pete Seeger.
Besides Lora, the band consists of four really talented folks: Nick Lerman – Lead Guitar, Danny Fisher-Lockhead – Alto Sax, Jeff Koch – Electric and Upright bass, and Brett Chalfin – Drums. The band was accompanied on several numbers by vocalists Grace Davenport and Rachel Brotman.
Lora will be performing at The Living Room on Mondays this month. Since there is no cover charge and only a one-drink minimum per set, this is about as fantastic bargain you are going to encounter in an overpriced New York. Check Lora’s website (http://www.lorafaye.com/) or Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/lorafayemusic) for the latest scheduling information, as well as The Living Room’s. (http://www.livingroomny.com/)
Unlike most young musicians, Lora engages with her audience between songs with some really amusing patter, often self-deprecatingly playing off her stunning beauty. She made fun of her leather hot pants, saying that they were the only thing she could afford in Williamsburg, the gentrified neighborhood in Brooklyn that has replaced all the Living Room type places with Starbucks. Her exact words: “Everything out there had a $700 price tag or bedbugs.”
I chuckled at this and turned to Sid to tell him that he had to see “Gut Renovation”, the funny but angry documentary on Williamsburg that I reviewed last week. I told him that he had to see it since it was all about real estate, Sid’s current profession.
When I first met Sid he was trying to make it as a full-time musician with Afroblue, a band that I wrote about in 1998.
Economic realities eventually forced Sid to explore other avenues, first as an agent for musicians and now as a realtor. A few months ago Sid showed my wife and me some apartments on the Upper East Side when we were exploring the possibility of making the golden parachute I got from Columbia University a down payment on our own place. We finally decided that we would wait until she got tenure.
As should be obvious from what I had to say about Sid in my 1998 article, he is not your typical realtor making the reality TV stars of “Million Dollar Listing” appear even more cretinous than usual.
Guitarist Sid Whelan’s roots in African culture, including the music, revealed themselves in a recent phone conversation. He was first introduced to African rhythms while growing up on Manhattan’s patrician upper Fifth Avenue. Most high-rise denizens regard the Black and Latin percussionists of Central Park as a nuisance, but young Sid Whelan loved these sounds. Also, his father was a financial officer at the Museum of Natural History and visits there were often an occasion for exposure to non-Western cultures and an invitation to learn more.
When he arrived at Oberlin College in 1984, he decided to major in African-American studies. One day as a professor explained the connections between boogie-woogie piano styles and the African kora, Whelan decided to learn as much about African music as he could. He had already mastered the jazz guitar and this seemed like the next logical step in his artistic evolution. As a deejay at Oberlin’s radio station, he spun African and Caribbean records on a popular show and educated his own ears as well as his audience’s.
It was only after moving to North Carolina, where his wife was attending graduate school, that Whelan finally learned how to play in the Congolese style. (Guitar Player magazine gives him credit for having the “elusive soukous style down cold.”) After placing an ad in a local newspaper looking for someone with an interest in African music, he struck gold. Living in Raleigh in a large expatriate Zairean community was Joe Konde Kuvuna, a guitarist who played in Abeti Masekini’s band. He was happy to take Whelan on as a student. (Abeti was one of Zaire’s most famous female singers. Ironically, some of the most inventive music from the Congo is being produced by the women, including Abeti, Tshala Mwana and Mbelia Bel. Gender oppression might undercut the tendency to produce shallow dance music, the bane of less ambitious Congolese popular music.)
My advice to people looking for a NY apartment is to contact Sid at SWhelan@Halstead.com. Even if he doesn’t find you a place, your time will be well-spent with a most charming and intelligent human being.