Syd Straw’s Heartwreck Show
Mercury Lounge, New York, February 14, 2003
I didn’t know Syd Straw’s work or much about her when I went to see her Valentine’s Day Heartwreck show. All I knew was that she had a cool name, and has been around a while, and there’s some kind of credibility and hipness about her aura – you know how you pick all this up from the zeitgeist. But I was totally unilluminated about the actual talent and brilliance of Ms. Straw. Prepare to fall on your knees, as I did! (Figuratively. Actually I stood, painfully, for 4 1/2 hours.)
Syd walked onstage looking disguised, in a shapeless coat, brimmed hat and heavy glasses. She had a frail, scattered demeanor, like Elaine May’s in A New Leaf. I love Elaine May, but Syd Straw’s look was the kind of get-up that signals its wearer is a ‘character’ and ‘kooky,’ and it can be very tiring to watch someone be zany all night, as I recently found at a show by Tulip Sweet. Ms. Straw hoisted a drink and peered at the audience. “It’s Valentine’s, let’s all get really tipsy,” she suggested. “Syd, you’re such a freak,” a fan behind me kept saying in a proprietary voice, not filling me with confidence. But then Syd launched into a song. Her voice is dusky and strong and can go from a tender croon to a yearning wail in a heartbeat. She dropped all joking when she sang, committing herself body and soul to the music. And the song was great. Impressed and encouraged, I turned to my friend and nodded hopefully.
However, Syd then proceeded to wander off the rails, telling meandering anecdotes and showing a complete lack of interest in her set list. A group of patient and gifted musicians sat ranged behind her, ready to back her on any song of her choosing, but she refused to choose, and their expressions became glazed. “Let’s do something we didn’t do in rehearsal,” Syd suggested to the band, and their unenthusiastic faces might have daunted a less spontaneous individual. But not Syd. “Let’s do one I just wrote!” she cried, strapping on a guitar while her drummer picked up his brushes with a look of grim resignation. Syd then actually played a song she’d just written and not yet finished. It was a good half-song and is going to be a great whole one. But I was wondering what we were in for. Would she waste time all night? Was she another performer whose mental health you had to monitor throughout the performance?
No, it turns out. Syd took off the hat, coat and glasses and revealed herself as one of the smartest, funniest, most original people I’ve ever listened to the banter of. She’s hilarious. Someone gave her a jar of plankton (I know, odd in itself) and she gave a speech honoring things that float without aim, like plankton. At one point she strapped on a lustrous fur tail (apparently an annual tradition) and sang a song about a squirrel while bobbing the tail behind her. “This is what I’ve always been missing – a little tail!” she cried joyfully. Richard Buckner came up to play with her and she started a story about how he’d stolen all her canned goods one night at a party in Chicago. He interrupted her: “Syd, you can’t even get the lie right. What happened was, someone took all the labels off your cans and you thought I did it.” “Oh,” she said, losing interest. “Does anyone have any pot? Because Richard and I really want to get high after the show.”
Maybe you had to be there. I was so glad I was. For this (annual) Heartwrecker show on Valentine’s Day, she created an informal party atmosphere that dispelled, in a big gust of southern-tinged warmth, any New York hyper-cool bullshit (though her fans look to be types who don’t go in for that, anyway). Syd had assembled a stellar list of guests, including R. Buckner (“Dickie B,” Syd called him), Jane Siberry, a soul singer called Beehive who was unbelievable, Don Piper, Marc Ribot, David Schramm, and a few others I think – I didn’t take any notes, it was a night to be in the moment.
Syd sang with each of her guests, and it was the best thing about the night – hearing her sing with so much joy with musicians she obviously, visibly adored. Her harmony singing was perfect – sensitive, never overpowering, but totally committed. When each guest finished, Syd went over to them and enfolded them in her arms, clearly genuinely moved. (She actually failed to embrace Richard Buckner, perhaps because of some slightly barbed jokes they exchanged. Not the canned goods stuff, something else. He seemed hurt by the omission, and made a wistful joke about needing approval like anyone else. But I saw him in the bar later, tossing back some drinks and looking amazingly strapping and healthy – he’s huge! Anyway, he seemed all recovered.)
There were no seats and it was tiring standing all night. But we couldn’t leave, not with the talent on hand. Jane Siberry was one of the last performers, and she swept up onstage in a long white gown looking like a Nordic goddess, with her hair in a pigtail arrangement that slightly resembled some kind of Viking headdress. She seemed stunned by the nonstop verbiage and brilliance Syd had effortlessly put forth all night. “Syd,” she said helplessly. “Syd, you are so funny. You are so, so funny.” “Jane!” Syd cried. “You are so, so beautiful.” “You are too, Syd.” Actually, Syd is. She looks sort of like indie actress Catherine Keener. She contributed gentle, respectful backing vocals to Siberry’s clear, spellbinding alto voice. It was a lovely mini-set. Then Marc Ribot came up. He played in a heartbreakingly beautiful, harshly simple yet eloquent (argh, if only I had the vocabulary to really describe music) style on acoustic guitar and sang a love song. It was almost too much. It was so much beauty in one night. And I haven’t even mentioned Don Piper, who knocked me out with his gorgeous, melodic, original, sensitive songs. My friend and I promptly became fans of his band, A Don Piper Situation, because of Syd’s fervent recommendation. Then again, if Syd had told us to walk into the East River, we probably would have set out to do so. She was the best. She is my queen, and if you go see her, she’ll be your queen too. She’s just one of those forces of nature. That’s the word on Syd Straw.