Dec 2011 02

Philadelphia, PA, Johnny Brenda’s 10/30/2011


It was an unseasonably cold night in Philadelphia, with a freakish snowstorm ruining a lot of people’s Halloween plans in the Tri-State area. Still, the cozy establishment Johnny Brenda’s drew a respectably sized crowd, and if you made your way past some pool tables and up a staircase, you would be rewarded with an intimate recital. Without samplers, sequencers, drum machines, or any backing tracks, this assemblage of musicians set out to entertain the crowd with nothing but their talented fingers on strings.


One such player was Philadelphia’s own Daniel DeJesus. DeJesus joined Rasputina as a string player in 2008, and tonight in addition to Rasputina, he also was showcasing his own songs with TivaTiva. They took the stage as a two-piece, with DeJesus on cello and vocals and Darren Keith on percussion. The music sounded honest and passionate with DeJesus’ almost angelic voice filling the venue along with his skillful string playing. Keith’s precise, light handling of the drums was a perfect mix and helped add a delicate sense of drama. On the song “Endless Mercy,” DeJesus seemed to be looking towards the sky for forgiveness. His heartfelt singing and cello driven melodies won over the audience.


Next onstage was Eszter Balint, a solo musician from NYC who has also acted in films by Jim Jarmusch and Woody Allen, joined by guitarist Chris Cochrane. Although at times her music might have sounded like ordinary blues, her fragile voice and accompanying violin conveyed an artistic moodiness that was just angsty enough. On several songs, her tone deteriorated from smoldering resentment to rage as she slammed her violin bow on the strings. Cochrane used a series of guitar pedals to generate a foundation for Balint’s vocals that was minimalistic but essential, the overall effect having a kind of a ’90s vibe; not just in the grunge sense, but in the sense that the decade bore a wave of empowered and original female singer/songwriters.


Which leads us to one of the archetypes of original female singer/songwriters, Melora Creager. Probably the inventor of cello rock, more than a decade before steampunk was coined, Melora was blazing a trail all her own. With her self-styled Victorian/gothic fashion and distorted string playing, Rasputina was something the world had never seen before. Early in her career, she toured with the likes of Nirvana and Marilyn Manson, but Rasputina has since earned a own loyal audience with lots of touring and a string of albums. She may not be openly into gothic culture herself (just as Robert Smith of The Cure has said about himself), but with a few vampire themed songs, corsets, and melancholy melodies, Rasputina definitely has a lot of gothic fans.


Tonight however, the crowd was made up mostly of normal looking folks, with only one or two of Melora’s “children” with braided hair or fairy makeup. Rasputina quietly took the stage, politely thanking the crowd for coming, and filled the venue with the sweet sounds of strings. With “Hunter’s Kiss,” her distinctive voice related the ecstasy of being shot with an arrow. On the playful “Holocaust of Giants,” she lets us know that there used to a race of extremely large people living in Ohio. Watching the effortless way this talented group performed, you might think playing the cello was easy.


The drums on this current lineup of Rasputina are much more subdued than when Jonathan Tebeest was in the group. Dawn Miceli handles the drums as gently as a Victorian nursemaid, with percussion parts that are very sparse, just subtle accents at times. Daniel DeJesus skillfully and diligintly follows Melora’s lead on songs like “Watch TV” and “Wicked Dickie.” In between songs, Melora used a childlike voice to share the entertaining and often historical stories behind the songs. With “1816: The Year Without a Summer,” she even remarked that the volcano that caused the bizarre weather phenomenom could possibly erupt again… in 2012.


Unlike most concerts where you might dance or fistpump, all you can do at a Rasputina recital is stand there in wonder as Melora tells stories of starving people forced to eat rats, opium smoking, and a hot little mess called Gloria Vanderbilt. They treat the crowd to their much beloved version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedance Clearwater Revival before finally ending the night with their own “The New Zero.”


And then, unfortunately, as you exit Johnny Brenda’s, you realize you are back in the dreary modern world, with automobiles everywhere and litter on the city streets. But this time as you make your way home, you might find yourself daydreaming of Victorian days.


Lüke Haughwout (Mechanical_Harvest)
Photographs by Mandi Martini (Mandi_Martini)


    Rasputina – “The New Zero”

    Rasputina – “Secret Message”

    TivaTiva – “Endless Mercy”

    Eszter Balint

Video by Lüke Haughwout (Mechanical_Harvest)

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