NEW YORK Composer-saxophonist Roy Nathanson brought his concept album Fire at Keaton's Bar and Grill to the stage this weekend, simultaneously offering improvisational passion and multimedia splendor.
Rock icons Elvis Costello and Deborah Harry, along with singers Richard Butler,Reuben Wilson, David Driver, Darius de Haas, Babi Floyd and Juan de Jesus Coco joined Nathanson and his band onstage at St. Ann's Church, a 19th-century fixture in Brooklyn Heights. They reprised their roles from the album, released in March on Six Degrees Records, which tells the story of the patrons of a mythical bar and their varying degrees of loneliness, ecstasy and despair.
"Won't you gather with me tonight," Costello, the piece's narrator, sang Saturday as he set the scene during the third of three performances in two days. He deviated little from his recent Burt Bacharach phase as he performed "Fire Suite 1" (RealAudio excerpt), keeping his lyrics whimsical and his appearance dapper and refined. He wore a black suit, brown fedora and a red shirt. He closed his eyes as he sang several times. Yet he also smiled this was a piece, after all, that suggested hope may exist even amid self-destruction.
As Costello and the other singers performed to the music of a 16-piece jazz band, a large screen flashed a series of striking images, from the glow of a puddle of water during the ballads to the blurry, distorted images of city lights and bar tops during the wilder selections.
The dominant image, though, was rising smoke, a fitting tribute to the mythical Keaton's, which could be described as Any Dive, U.S.A. The emotional dynamics of Nathanson's live arrangements encapsulated the unpredictability of an unstable bartender, of a jilted malcontent who's had one too many beers.
Blaze Of Glory
Fire at Keaton's Bar and Grill began by finding kinship with the torch songs of Cole Porter. It then climbed into crashing riffs, shifted back to lovely balladry, blasted into a jam session, then hushed into catharsis and rocked out as the climax, the fire, raged. The bandleader established the tension with a series of deliberate but complex four-saxophone arrangements.
This was masterful, whacked-out stuff. Nathanson, most famous for his work with the Jazz Passengers, was hip enough to evoke Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix Jimi Hendrix? and Motown in his music. It helped also to have Harry, of Blondie fame, in his corner.
The young, urban crowd erupted as Harry walked onstage. She proved she's lost none of her iconoclasm, playfully engaging the audience with her eyes as she played Cups, Keaton's bartender. She wore a red dress with a charcoal summer top. The shock of white hair at the front of her head was, well, shocking under the stage lights.
She ripped into her lines with conviction. "I'm so tired of extremes/You go to extremes/ And an imitation of romance," she sang on a tune not on the album, a song that detailed her angst in a strained relationship.
"She just has the most beautiful voice," Kristin McElroy, a fan from Brooklyn, said.
Not all was bad or downtrodden in the land of Keaton's before it burned to the ground, that is. Driver and de Haas provided the piece's most gorgeous heights on "A Bend in the Night," relating romanticism to the elements.
"I'm charmed like a choir/ You're a curve in the sky/ And a bend in the night," they sang on the duet's chorus.
Costello, Harry and songwriters Ray Dobbins, Ivan Marcano and David Cale collaborated with Nathanson on the lyrics. Susan Feldman, the founder and director of Arts at St. Ann's, said Nathanson wanted badly for months to perform his album live. She said she felt the church, a huge, antiquated and charming building with oak woodwork, would help boost the performance, which is why she pushed for this past weekend's dates.
"It's a very inspiring structure," she said. "What goes in here has to fit this space."
Francesca Connolly, another fan from Brooklyn, said she was most struck by how well the video presentation integrated with the music.
"That was just amazing," she said.