On the cover of their brand new CD, Steam Ship Killers, there is a portrait of a multi-tentacled sea creature, ominous and threatening. But the curiously inviting keyholes at its base suggest that if one has the necessary fortitude, one might unlock its secrets. The same could be said of its protectors, Walter Sickert & The Army Of Broken Toys. A ‘Toys’ virgin might well be confounded and overwhelmed at first – what to make of this motley gathering? Marionette and puppetmaster, musicians and dancers, a bawdy and boisterous mistress, the uke player with the filthy mouth… At the center, the master of ceremonies himself, Walter Sickert, who, on this special night, took us on a shamanistic journey. It was an inspired extravaganza. It was also my opportunity to finally see Jaggery, and they were every bit as marvelous as I thought they would be. With their orchestral gothic brilliance, Singer Mali’s ethereal and acerbic vocals, and a dark, extra menacing rendition of “O Scorpio”… what’s not to love?
It didn’t take long to realize this was to be a special evening. Cafe 939 was transformed into Boston’s own Coney Island boardwalk circa 1880, with curious characters (audience member or entertainer? hard to tell), signs hawking everything imaginable, a fortune teller, roving carnival workers handing out noisemakers and bubbles, and even a bake sale (proceeds to benefit TAOBT’s auto mishap). A Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys show isn’t an event; it’s a lifestyle.
The wonderful thing about Jaggery is that while they have their influences, they’re so accomplished at their art that they respectfully pay tribute to, inhabit, dance around and through, poke fun at, and experiment with those influences, creating something uniquely their own. Clearly they’ve listened to some 80’s goth in their time (god bless ‘em), but bassist Tony Leva and drummer Daniel Schubmehl have a jazz sensibility that’s evident in the way they interact with each other and in their style of playing. Guest violist Rachel Jayson (borrowed from the ‘Broken Toys’) brought an unhinged avant garde classical vibe, and harpist Petaluma Vale, as her name would suggest, something mythical, magical and otherworldly.
Meanwhile, Mali Sastri’s vocals veer wildly from soft, sweet whispers to low, dark taunts – quite often in the same song. Her tremendous range is not just in tone, but in the emotions she conveys. Dramatic and beautiful and yet, while this all sounds quite heady and serious, there’s a thin wisp of self-effacing humor floating around which makes the entire presentation just perfect. Take for example the dark, pretty, and hilarious “O Scorpio,” with is both delicious gothic comfort food and campy fun.
Among the songs they performed were the gorgeous “Petaluma” from their album Polyhymnia: The Muse of Song”, “Funny Faces” (from their new single), and a brand new song they had just written the previous evening. Mali introduced that last one, saying she usually didn’t want to play songs they hadn’t rehearsed many times, but that the others were “more ambitious.” It’s incredible to think they threw this together the night before, as it’s beautifully constructed in a classical sense, with separate movements and varying moods. From what I can tell from snippets of lyrics I caught (”Can’t you see the sign, it says off limits… leave me alone, leave me alone…,” “I’m checking out of the human race…”, “please end it, end it, end it”), it’s a little ditty of self-imposed exile, angst and possibly contemplations of suicide, moods which are mirrored in the complex, unsettled and shifting musical elements. It’s majestically grand and sweeping, and incredibly lovely.
They ended their set with a song that might be titled “Two Shot.” Included this evening was at least one song from their forthcoming new album, and another from their new 2-track single. They’ll be performing at an after-party at the House Of Blues Restaurant on June 19, after the final show of Evelyn Evelyn’s world tour.
Lainey SchoolTree, who produced and engineered TAOBT’s new Steam Ship Killers album, did a few-song set of her own, and wow, was she wonderful. The sole notes I took this evening before my brain was sent packing reads “out of the way, Liza Minnelli.” As half of the comedy duo The Steamy Bohemians, she’s also a lover of “cheesy musical theater,” and with a voice that’s perfectly well-suited for it and quite accomplished, she pulls it off with aplomb and managed to transport the rapt audience, with just a few songs, to a Broadway stage. In yet another moment of serendipity, I see now that she regularly performs with Bent Wit Cabaret.
Walter Sickert & The Army Of Broken Toys
What an amazing band. No, not band – performance art ensemble; traveling band of carnival sideshow gypsies; askew and off-kilter dinner theater burlesque troupe. Visually, there’s a lot to take in – The imposing ‘Madame of Ceremonies’ Edrie, with her accordion, melodica, assorted noisy toys, and tremendously yang vocals and presence. Jojo the Burlesque Poetess, with her ukulele and ‘lewd little girl’ persona. Rachel Jayson, quietly elegant and then a manic storming fury on viola (”not a f*cking violin” as Walter repeatedly pointed out during the band introduction). Meff on “guitar and mustache,” acting as a kind of ‘Laurel’ to Walter’s ‘Hardy’. Kevin Corzett blazing on his clarinet and looking like a well-dressed train conductor. Plastic Lady marionette (Amy Roeder) and her puppetmaster. Buxum beerhall dancer (Katrina Galore) illustrating the songs with her body from the front of the stage. And oh yes, I nearly forgot the striptease, straight down to seashell pasties (after which Walter lamented that he didn’t make the song just a bit longer)… Out in the audience, there are others – a Victorian Era matriarch poised up on a box; a well-dressed couple, adventurers from the turn of the century. Drummer TJ Horn and stand-up bassist Mike Leggio providing a sturdy platform from which everything and everyone precariously balances. But never mind all that. Listening to their incredibly brilliant new CD, Steam Ship Killers (which they performed in its entirely this evening, from top to bottom), I want to talk about the music.
Things kick off with the piano, viola and accordion-driven macabre tale, “A Friend in Goddamn.” A man being led to the gallows, with Walter’s fire and brimstone grand bluesmaster vocals. His voice alone is so compelling, if that’s all there was, it would be enough to be interesting. But oh no, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “Cataclysm” and “Planet Killer” follow, lyrics dark and foreboding, with everyone weaving a rich and earthy musical tapestry around an evangelical preacher’s wail. Complex and multi-layered, it’s an orchestral soundtrack suitable for a huge theatrical production, but with music that’s friendly and inviting (though in a morbid and slightly scary sort of way), beckoning to take you on a strange journey.
“No Room” is a personal favorite. A melancholy, sad dirge, it draws itself out with creepy little sounds that somehow evoke for me the Black Plague… I don’t know why. Things pick up considerably (but are no cheerier) for their wonderful rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Sam Hall” (”I killed a man, they said an’ smashed his head, An’ I left him layin’ dead, damn his eyes.”), with Kevin Corzett’s wild clarinet summoning spirits of the Wild West.
“Heroin Pig” is a terribly depressing ballad sung to, I’m guessing, a junkie friend or lover? And then, “This is a song about… the sea! This is a song about… the sea! This is a song about… the sea! This is a song about… the desert” ushers in “Sea Song (Mare Carmen),” with its wistful regrets, a sinking boat, accordion and clarinet accompaniment. Their “Pale Horse” rides in with vague whinnying on a carpet of orchestral strings and Walter’s sorrowful storytelling prowess.
“Revenge of the Rats” makes good and furious use of the noisy toys passed out before the show. Slow, sad and weepy in the verse, building into rodent mania for the chorus, at Edrie’s not-so-gentle insistence. You do as she tells you to.
Another standout, in an album full of them – “Hole in the Boat.” It’s just so damn whimsical and twisted. “There’s a hole in the boat, and now we can never go home.” Musically it’s a happily turning ferris wheel or pony ride at the carnival, but lyrically? Perhaps a ride that you can never get off of. “Feathers” is a great treat, featuring Mali Sastri on ethereal and otherworldly backing vocals (which she performed live with them this evening… breathtaking). “Off With Her Head” is a rollicking fun audience “shout-a-long” (egged on superbly by the take-no-prisoners Edrie); happy to hear they incorporated what sounds like something from a live show into the recorded version. Acoustic guitar, soft-spoken vocals and a subdued but lush soundtrack bring this amazing album to a close in “Viktagraph.” The album as a whole feels like a giant, sprawling theatrical production. So, so beautiful. Back at Cafe 939, we were treated to a luscious dessert, the always appreciated crowd favorite, “Ghostbusters,” which capped off the evening in grand style.
And now for the news that led me to shake my head in awestruck disbelief: Walter Sickert and his Broken Toys will be opening up for Evelyn Evelyn on June 19 at their Grand Tour Finale, ending where it all began. Well, not exactly. It began at the left-fringe-leaning bohemian enclave Oberon in Harvard Square, People’s Republic of Cambridge; and it ends at the decidedly less so House of Blues on Lansdowne Street in Boston. Singer Mali announced that Jaggery would be performing at a (free) after-party in the HOB Restaurant after the show (good heavens!), pointing out the great humor in this event, perhaps serving also as a warning to attendees of potential “culture shock.” If just a few mainstream rock HOB regulars check out this show, even if out of curiosity, it’ll be worth dealing with Lansdowne Street for one night. Obviously this is one not to be missed.