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The Song Retains the Name

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Simply Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad About the Loser's Lounge

(Zilcho)

Knitting on the Roof

(Knitting Factory Records)

By Josh Goldfein

The tribute album is the celebrity roast of recordings, with an equally ignoble history: inferior performers tackling undeserving subjects, note-for-note covers or pointless reinventions, star turns where the joke's over as soon as you've read the track listing. In recent years the concept has gained some measure of respectability, thanks to folks like Hal Willner and the Red Hot Organization, but some of the more successful tribute performances have never been documented on disc: Willner has pulled together artists from Bryan Ferry to Van Dyke Parks to DJ Spooky to Jarvis Cocker to perform works from Harry Smith's American folk anthology; performance artist John Kelly puts on a deft one-man Joni Mitchell concert; smug singer-songwriter Phranc has done a passionate re-creation of Neil Diamond's Hot August Night; and late last year Vernon Reid and the Roots paid their timely respects to Prince's 1999.

In celebrating popular artists, hipsters can have it both ways: they can reach a broader audience, since they're trading on the ubiquity of their subjects, and they can wink at stuff that's too familiar to be cool. On the other hand, sometimes pop takes over, wiping out the irony in one irresistible sing-along. Channeling Mitchell, Kelly answered a request for "Big Yellow Taxi" by retorting, "You wouldn't say to van Gogh, 'Hey, could you paint those sunflowers again? I really liked that one.'" But of course he couldn't avoid playing it as a finale, and it made my mother cry just like the real thing. According to the New York Times, Mitchell herself was brought to tears by one of Kelly's performances.

The fact is, no amount of ironic or critical distance can override the emotional response to a favorite song. My significant other's cousin Karin was "only 17" when "Dancing Queen" topped the charts; raised in Argentina by Dutch and Swedish parents, she found Abba a liberating force. So this past summer we took her to a bimonthly gig called the Loser's Lounge at the Fez, in Manhattan's East Village. Every few weeks lead Loser Joe McGinty and his expansive band, the Kustard Kings, celebrate 30 or so key moments in the career of a great songwriter. So far they've tackled Brian Wilson, Lee Hazlewood, Carole King, Burt Bacharach, Todd Rundgren, and Harry Nilsson, to name a few (for a complete list, check out www.loserslounge.com). Their current show is No Time for Losers, a celebration of Queen, but in June it was Bjorn Loser: A Tribute to Abba, and Karin dressed the part, in just the right white rainbowed jumpsuit--as if she knew the fourth wall would be coming down hard.

The Loser's Lounge began as a sing-along at an art opening, but it has evolved into a powerhouse showcase of increasingly outrageous proportions. While "downtown" has come to be associated with such pop-unfriendly scenes as no wave and the improv crowd at the Knitting Factory, it's also home to a candy-colored, cellophane-crinkly rock scene--just like on the sound tracks of Rent and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The Kustard Kings are drawn largely from this scene, and include members of the New York bands Lotion and Cardinal Woolsey as well as the more avant Ui. When the Kings take a break, you never know who else might show up: They Might Be Giants, Spacehog, and Beekeeper have each taken over the tiny stage at some point.

There's a different vocalist for every number, and in addition to the band's own singers, McGinty has regularly recruited the local heroes Amy Rigby, Lianne Smith, and Sophia Ramos. For male parts, he's brought in low-level luminaries like Jules Shear, Richard Barone, and Steve Wynn. There's often a ringer or two: past shows have included Andy Richter and his wife, Sarah Thyre, Deborah Harry, J Mascis, Bob Mould, Fred Schneider, and, for the Abba tribute, Meat Loaf chanteuse Ellen Foley. McGinty, obviously thrilled, introduced Foley as a woman who will forever be known for three words: "Stop right there!"

Foley blew the back out of the room with an arena-sized rendition of "The Winner Takes It All," but by that point cousin Karin was already in ecstasy. Dancing with joyous abandon from the first notes of "Waterloo," she enjoyed the between-song banter and costumes, but she wasn't focusing on them. She was swept up in the music, and she wasn't alone; I was amazed at how many people knew the words to every song.

I got the same kind of thrill out of the Queen show, although I probably haven't heard most of the songs in 20 years. Even the memory of Wayne's World can't spoil the joy of sitting in a cave with 200 other people waving candles and singing every word of "Bohemian Rhapsody." You don't have to wait for the classics to cheer: even the ridiculous stomper "Tie Your Mother Down" was a huge rush.

McGinty and company recorded highlights from past performances at a special show in July and have released them on their own Zilcho label as Simply Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad About the Loser's Lounge--the booklet art depicts McGinty being pursued by his musical victims. This survey ranges from the credible (David Terhune's take on Donovan's "Epistle to Dippy") to the impassioned (Joe Budenholzer inhabiting Neil Diamond for "Holly Holy," Rigby tearing up Michael Nesmith's "Some of Shelley's Blues") to the inspired (They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh shrieking the Zombies' "Butcher's Tale," Justin Bond's drag persona Kiki du Rain dramatizing Nilsson's "Coconut": "You don't understand! I feel like shit! How many times do I have to call you tonight? I've taken Advil, Mellaril, Vagisil, none of it is helping....What? No, I don't want to be medivacked off the island!"). Two performances transcend the material: Martha Wainwright's starkly emotional reading of Abba's "The Name of the Game" and Kris Woolsey and Debby Schwartz's rocking version of Mouth & McNeal's "How Do You Do?," from a Valentine's duet edition of the Lounge.

But the one that really gets me is a childhood favorite. I don't think I've heard Maurice Sendak and Carole King's "Pierre," from Really Rosie, since around the time I discovered Queen, but the Losers made me remember why I once listened to it every day. "Pierre," for those born too late, is the story of a stubborn boy who only would say, "I don't care." His exasperated parents leave him home alone, whereupon he is devoured by a penitent lion. As sung here by irrepressible Lotion and Kustard Kings guitarist Tony Zajkowski, the song requires the participation of a gleeful audience, and that's exactly what it gets.

Obviously not everyone will be so moved; we each have our own musical madeleines. Knitting Factory impresario Michael Dorf, for example, happens to be devoted to the sound track to Fiddler on the Roof, the musical that transformed Sholom Aleichem's Yiddish classic into the quintessential American immigrant tale. At the intersection of the old world and the new, between the Ukrainian writer's memories of his village and the myth machines of Broadway and Hollywood, Fiddler is a perfect vehicle for Dorf's pet project, the Jewish Alternative Movement. Dorf and his friends in JAM seek common ground between Jewish roots and avant stylings, a la Don Byron's recordings of works by Mickey Katz or Tzadik's "Radical Jewish Music" series. For its latest offering, Knitting on the Roof, a lineup from the Knitting Factory's eclectic family has recorded Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's songs from Fiddler. The idea is neatly summed up by the record's cover, which depicts the familiar silhouette fiddling atop New York's Flatiron Building.

Those naughty, rowdy new-klezmer types are probably the most successful manifestation of Dorf's vision, and on Knitting on the Roof they throw their weight around. The New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars lively up "Tradition," making explicit the connection between jass and the Jews; to be sure you don't miss the point, they sing, "At three I started Hebrew school / At ten I smoked some weed / I hear they picked a bride for me / I hope she puts out." There are also contributions from proggier klezmorim, including Naftule's Dream, the Paradox Trio, and Hasidic New Wave. Not all the participants are so tribal; in a distinctly goyish move, the Residents transform "Matchmaker" into a sinister lounge ode to pyromania ("Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match / Find me a flame to turn into ash") and Negativland disassembles "Tevye's Dream" without bothering to put it back together. Free jazz saxist David S. Ware has his way with "Far From the Home I Love," which is a lot better than Jill Sobule's straight take of the maudlin standard "Sunrise, Sunset."

There are contributions from the indie-rock camp too, but they don't seem to have much sympathy for the material. Come's Thalia Zedek and Chris Brokaw stage the duet "Do You Love Me?" as dialogue with just the barest hint of music, but Brokaw hardly knows what to do with a line like "Golde, I've decided to give Perchik permission to become engaged to our daughter Hodel." Stephin Merritt (billed as Magnetic Fields) takes the piss out of "If I Were a Rich Man" with a drony reading over solo ukulele, and not until he sings the very Merritt-esque lines "There would be one long staircase just going up / And one even longer coming down / And one more leading nowhere just for show" is it clear why he's been assigned this cut.

Pianist Uri Caine, by contrast, makes clear his investment in this story with a solemn and stirring version of "Sabbath Prayer" that features Lorin Sklamberg's Yiddish translation of the lyrics. And acid beatnik Eugene Chadbourne, on guitar and banjo, finds the sweet side of "Miracle of Miracles" with the help of a DJ, prepared piano, and a field recording from the shores of the Red Sea. These songs are the heart of the score; that the performers take them seriously makes all the difference.

Of course, if Fiddler doesn't mean anything to you, a tribute to it might not resonate any more than, say, a tribute to Oklahoma! (Me, I couldn't help noticing the lack of any reference to the pivotal character of Yussel the Hatmaker, whose sole line I performed the hell out of just around the time I was outgrowing Queen.) A tribute--as opposed to, say, a cover--carries a lot more oomph when you know the source material. Four months after the Abba shows at Fez, McGinty and friends reprised the set as an opening act for They Might Be Giants at another venue. The crowd seemed never to have heard "Dancing Queen" and despite an apparent median age of 17 was not thrilled to discover it. The kids used the Kustard Kings' set to finish their homework while Karin and I whirled about, singing the absurd lyrics at the top of our lungs.

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