Live: What Happens When No-Wave Legend James Chance Plays in a Piano Bar

08/25/2011 2:50 PM |

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James Chance
Live at the Manhattan Inn, Greenpoint
Wednesday, August 24, 2011

James Chance — punk hero, disco terrorist — stood at the mirror and hairsprayed himself, copiously, to satisfaction. Being at the Manhattan Inn, a cozy, candle-lit Greenpoint piano bar with a sunken floor and a circle of booths around it, and not backstage at a proper rock club, Chance’s aerosol fog dissapated slowly in full view. There was no chance of that pompadour spontaneously contorting itself. (Ugh, sorry.) While this was happening, a non-descript warm-up player killed time behind the back room’s white grand piano, looking super bored. The crowd was far beyond what you’d expect on a typical night, 20-somethings sitting stadium style on the steps between booth and piano level, standing in any natural gaps. But nobody paid the warm-up guy much mind, holding our attention in reserve for what we assumed would be something rather odd.

It was odd, in a way, watching a man who’d made his name on chaos, who introduced the saxophone to punk rock 30 years ago (and decades ahead of 2011 trend pieces noting the horn’s indie resurgence), sit behind a grand piano and play a genteel mix of old standards and subdued originals. Kurt Weill, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus; a respectable smattering of acknowledged greats, selected by a man who’s obviously been to a few piano bars (or a few hundred). Original compositions like “Blonde Ice” from last year’s jazzy record The Fix Is In, didn’t feel out of place. Really, he acquitted himself well for his first time doing this in public. Attention waned, though. There was a microphone present, which he never sang into but used to announce what he was going to play. Occasionally he threw in some cryptic bits of inspiration. “This one’s for that French guy, you know…perp walk.” “I wrote one with Lydia Lunch” was never uttered, sadly. For a young crowd to whom he himself is an old master, attending his studious effort was a bit like sitting in for the fulfillment of your uncle’s New Year’s resolution. You did it, Jimmy!

After a 35-40 minute set, he took a short break, and most of the curious attendees politely filed out. It was a nice night, and a perfectly nice time listening to some snoozy music. (OK, maybe I’m kind of dumb, but it’s like those old jazz guys didn’t give a shit about choruses.) The notable player was sort of irrelevant to the simple pleasure in the end, which is likely how he wanted it. Honestly, it’s not why we showed up.

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Photos courtesy Devon Banks

One Comment

  • This is a great summary of the evening. I was thrilled to be in the same room with a legend, but what I got really wasn’t what I came for.