Three gigs, three days. Not as rigorous a schedule as last years Conspiracy Of Beards New York jaunt, but I have not felt idle.
Friday we convened at a park near Nassau and Manhattan in Brooklyn for a warmup. We gathered in a circle beneath a tree and stopped to drink in the ambient sounds around us: kids, dogs, traffic, Mr. Softee trucks. Under Daryl Henline's direction, we sang our exercises as quietly as possible, aiming our voices at a tiny point in the center of the circle until we became one instrument. Sometimes the warmups are better than the gigs themselves; we transport ourselves mentally to sacred space and ego vanishes, leaving nothing but breath and focus. Of course, these moments last a split-second and we're back to being our ridiculous selves, but the more we can reach that point, the more the Beards become something more than a novelty act. Every second of singing is a tightrope walk to find that balance. Sometimes we get there. This weekend it felt like we achieved it fairly often.
After warmup, we headed to a trippy Polish restaurant flanked by suits of armor on either side of the entrance, where we chowed down on borscht, cabbage, pirogies and hot comfort food and presented Daryl with a birthday card signed by all of us and a new pitch pipe as a gift. Daryl's precocious 8-year-old daughter Lola was along for the trip and charmed everyone with the cool, outspoken matter-of-factness that only a child raised among the Cacophony Society can command.
Picasso Machinery is a house concert/artspace situation not too unlike the House Of Love in San Francisco where the Content Providers played years ago. The small room was packed with beautiful young Williamsburgers and San Francisco expatriates. An old local acquaintance Pete Simonelli (ex-Shotwell, currently fronting the Enablers) turns out to be one of the main instigators of the event, but he was on tour, so we didn't run into him. Got into a chat with a woman who used to live in the Mission and now resides in Harlem. Uh-oh, I said. Are the hipsters displacing the black people? No, she insists, it's become a nice harmonious mixed neighborhood full of families. Two people (including ex-Beard Evan Rehill) read from their works in progress, then we got up and sang sweetly. A good opening show.
Saturday I answered the call to meet at the Chelsea Hotel. They now have a plaque on the front dedicated to Leonard Cohen. Before I got a clue and made a phone call, I expected that the boys would be coming down to the lobby, so I waited there and picked up a Village Voice, opening to an article on the new horror movie The Human Centipede, which I will refrain from describing. Suffice it to say I am now SCARRED FOR LIFE. Thanks a lot, Village Voice.
Finally got the word that the action was upstairs, where a tenant was holding a sale on the rooftop. Took the elevator up and made my way to the room number I'd been given, navigating a stairwell covered in an astonishingly detailed collage of CD covers, nudes, and other photos, passed a very old and very sweet dog at the top of the stairs and met a woman on the sofa who kindly directed me to a ladder that led to the roof where various bags and things were being sold. Met a few colleagues and hung out, then I videotaped all the flights of stairs which were covered with one great painting after another, on the way to a room where some of the boys were staying.
The posse took off for Washington Square Park, where we'd planned to warm up. Colorful yes, but probably not suited to the purpose. Lots of noisy competition, including a pretty cool acapella (well, they did have one standup bass, but otherwise...) doo-wop group doing their thing under the arch. (I videotaped them and got a CD. Hell yeah, they belong on the radio station.) Nevertheless, the boys rose to the challenge, working on the subtle approach. I waved my camera around like a cinema verite goofball, hoping I wasn't too distracting. I got some great footage.
A brilliant, spontaneous plan materialized. Steve, one of our baritones, knew a friend on the Bowery who was having a party that very moment. They were watching the Kentucky Derby and drinking mint juleps. Wouldn't it be cool if we all just showed up and sang them a couple of songs? We jumped at the chance to crash the party. After a long walk we buzzed in and took the elevator up in smaller groups, piling into this really sweet penthouse apartment that probably used to be a seedy residence hotel for the down and out once upon a time. Mint juleps were mixed and distributed, and we filed out to the back deck, where parents were playing with babies and dogs, little girls twirled hula hoops and the remnants of a barbecue slowly cooled. Across the way, we saw other groups of people hanging out on their decks, drinking whatever they were drinking and enjoying the balmy New York heat.
The boys gathered and sang "So Long Marianne", with Steve taking the opening solo to entertain his friends further. I sat it out so I could film it, then joined the gang on "Bird On The Wire". Applause broke out high above us from the neighbors. Awesome.
The Bowery Poetry Club was our scheduled gig for Saturday night, but it wasn't time yet, so some of us decided to get some pizza slices. Ended up at Ray's Pizza, where we had a good conversation with ex-Beard Peter Whitehead, who is now doing music for a new Mikhail Baryshnikov solo piece. Talk turned to the very first Conspiracy Of Beards New York jaunt, before I joined, where the group was booked at a notorious place called The Box (nothing to do with the Box in Oakland), which has already gone down in history as one of the most disastrous gigs in the choir's history. The club was some sort of elite after-hours decadent cabaret for the ultra-rich, filled with swells lounging at tables full of cocaine and premium champagne. The group was mistreated from the start and not let onstage until around 2 AM, after being told that it was highly unlikely they would be allowed to play a full set. Before the curtain was raised, the MC announced that the Conspiracy Of Beards were convicted child molesters who had to sing all over the country as their punishment. Rather than laughing, the audience was silent, which just made an already awkward situation insulting and eerie. The boys launched into a snarling "Everybody Knows", aimed at the creepy venue and punters, and Jeff, the tall snarky Alpha-bass with the massive Rasputin beard, did the only sensible thing under the circumstances and went full Iggy Pop on the crowd, walking into the audience, helping himself to the champagne, and taking off his clothes, at which point the set was forcibly stopped by management. Damn, I wish I'd been there.
Just like last year, the Bowery Poetry Club was a much more welcoming affair. Steve's fiancee Abby was good enough to film the set for us, and we acquitted ourselves well. Some of the gang wanted to continue the revels afterwards, but I jumped in a cab and crashed at the hotel, and a good thing too, considering I woke up at 10:15, realizing we were supposed to be at the Highline Ballroom in 45 minutes.
Which brings us to today. The Highline has an amazing sound system and very kind staff, but the earliness of the past two shows we've done there is weird. Nevertheless, we warmed ourselves up and were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed by showtime at 1:40 PM. It was the debut of the octet version of "Anthem", which was my first-ever small group performance. I won't tell you if I made any mistakes or not. Esther Cohen, Leonard's sister, was there, a lovely 70-something woman who looks very much like her brother. The wife of the lead singer of the opening band brought an abandoned kitten with her that she had just rescued from her garden. He was absolutely adorable and clearly knew how lucky he was. Afterwards, we discovered the "highline" that the venue was named after, a former elevated railroad track that has been turned into a park that spans high above the meatpacking district. Another surreal New York treasure.
Oh by the way: I had to get a call from San Francisco to find out about the latest failed terrorist brouhaha in Times Square. Whatever that dumbass was trying to do, New Yorkers didn't even blink an eye. The residents of this fine city do not scare that easily.