THE SINGULAR SYLVIA BLACK
By John Pietaro
“I didn’t know there were two 7 o’clocks”. Forgive the use of an old Pearl Bailey line in response to a morning record date, but it’s all too appropriate here. As per a Facebook event page, the January 15 performance of Lydia Lunch at City Winery was running from 4PM to 7PM. This time slot seemed as wrong for Ms. Lunch as the early call did for Ms. Bailey, but I scheduled my day around seeing the show and scoring even a brief interview. The no wave maven, underground poet, caster of downtown’s guttural cry was a must-see. Carrying my critic’s journal book, I left Brooklyn extra early and made my way into Lower Manhattan.
City Vineyard sits on a precipice at the edge of the Hudson River, a direct target for the gusts blowing vigorously off the water. Entering the club, the priceless water view so welcome on a summer evening seemed an ominous reminder of winter on West Street. But the cold dissipated as Lydia’s opening act, Sylvia Black, engaged in her sound check. The throbbing of her electric bass emoted throughout the room, a thick, droning line plucked percussively, cutting through spare harmonies and rhythm like a hot knife through ash. The bassist’s eyes were shut tightly as guitarist Avi Bortnick carefully dropped open, ringing chords into the sonic spaces, then alternately played unison with the bassline to create a massive soundscape. Drummer Aaron Johnson, making due with just snare drum with brushes and a conga drum on the tight stage, painted the air with a swirling shimmer, locking the pulsations subtly but with a firm solidity. Ms. Black leaned into the microphone with a deep audible breath, releasing a smoky alto laden with reverb. The kind of voice that long stays with you. Music writers of a certain age are reminded of Angelo Badalamenti’s brooding yet beautiful score to the original “Twin Peaks”; the overall effect, in both cases, is atmospheric, dark and utterly compelling. It was just about then that City Winery’s manager clarified that the show wasn’t scheduled for afternoon at all, but 8:30PM. I guess Pearl Bailey was right. She apologized for the error, heartily, especially when I said that I could not stay for the show as I had other commitments. But the sound check was so appealing, I chose to hang around at least for this.
Sylvia Black’s career has been varied and multi-faceted, split within genre, location and even personae. Residing now in LA, she had for some years performed in New York under the name Betty Black, holding court Friday nights at the Roxy Hotel. “It was a lounge act”, she explained. Perhaps, but rthis wasn’t one for the piano bar in a polite hotel, it was built on the raw energy of downtown. “I love standards, but am also very influenced by 1980s new wave, dance and punk songs too. So I began arranging all of this music in a new way”. Huey Lewis’ “I Want a New Drug” was dramatically stated when performed in a plodding, slow tempo as were pieces by the Ramones, Van Halen and Psychedelic Furs. And the old chestnut “Jezebel” was infused with changes of feel and vocal range. Such adaptations shared the bill with swing, R and B and originals. According to press on Betty Black, the Roxy shows, apparently echoed the heat of the moment, tagged ‘Blue Lounge’: diva kitsch theatrics and raunchy stage wear coupled with a powerful band of jazz musicians, guitarist Bortnick and drummer Johnson among them. Her bands always include a vibraphonist too, often horns. Bortnick has been working with John Scofield for the better part of the last twenty years, now preparing for an Asian tour; Johnson is just about to embark on a series of concerts with David Byrne. In the company of such musicians, Black has been recording the Blue Lounge repertoire for an album to be released soon, so those gigs were far from wasted on her. And of course, the Roxy is where she first encountered Lydia Lunch, one of Black’s iconic sheroes. The two have since become friends and are currently collaborating on an album. “Lydia heard my music at the Roxy and she said we must work together. My single “Walking on Fire” was released already but she heard it and recently overdubbed a vocal part”. Both the original version of the song and the no wave reimagining are available via Sylvia’s website. “But the album is a partnersip of new songs we are both writing. Lydia is headed to Europe after this and I’ll be working on the material in that period”. The new songs includes an array of music that swings and rocks with free improvisation, beat-driven spoken word and pop. The first taste of the album is “Sin City Salvation”, currently available as a download. The piece straddles no wave rawness and dance cool as it recalls a downtown lost to the passage of time.
The singer-bassist-songwriter now performs under the name Sylvia Black but current credits include both monikers connected by a slash. She insists that her actual first name is neither of the two, but no matter that. It may not make for good copy but adds a mysterious point of interest. Black was trained at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, the highly coveted college of jazz studies, graduating in 1999. In New York, she quickly became a part of the nightlife, moving easily through styles and sounds. She affiliated with the noted Black Rock Coalition and performed with the likes of Muzz Skillings of Living Colour before taking on the Roxy gig. As a composer Black wrote songs for high-level acts including Moby and Black Eyed Peas, and as an artist in her own right, recorded the 2016 album “Valley Low” as well as a variety of video releases. Concurrently, Black has been doing session work for the celebrated British producer Tony Visconti (David Bowie, Iggy Pop) who has called her “one of the most powerful bass players I’ve worked with” and “a groove master”. As a member of Telepopmusik she’s done a world tour and with Kristeen Young’s band she will be opening for the Damned in London next month. There has been critical attention, but still, she struggles. “It’s very exciting, yet I have a day job waiting for me in LA”, she stated. “I’m not marketable because I don’t have a singular style”, she explained in a tone of ironic resolve. “Music industry people have tried to get me to be one thing, but I can’t. I’m me”.