The grand and emotional stellastarr* broke out of Manhattan’s Lower East Side earlier this decade with their self-titled debut LP and its classic single “Sweet Troubled Soul”, but after finishing their last tour for follow-up Harmonies for the Haunted in early 2007, they took time off to work on their next record – and that time has gotten longer and longer, with only a handful of dates on the East & West Coasts in the intervening year and a half, as they recorded and looked for a new label. But the record’s done, and should be out early next year, so stellastarr* decided to hit up that & everything else in their playlist in a five-night series back on the Lower East Side at Piano’s, starting on Tuesday, December 2nd.
The choice to play at the small Piano’s (QRO venue review) was an interesting one for the band, considering that their last New York dates have been at places like Blender Theater at Gramercy (QRO venue review – actually opened that venue, back before Blender Magazine bought the naming rights) and Central Park Summerstage (QRO venue review). And while Piano’s isn’t quite the old Luna Lounge, where the band got their start (and has since decamped over to Brooklyn – QRO venue review – and closed once again…), it’s still a small Bowery haunt, something not even five sold-out nights (QRO Concert calendar week), a higher-than-usual ticket price for the place, and surprisingly strong openers in Princeton (QRO photos) and The Picture (QRO photos), can change.
But the band didn’t pretend like this was some ‘regular old show’, as they varied up their set list with not just new numbers and old classics, but also b-sides & hidden tracks, starting with opener “Bloated Wife”, “the first track we ever wrote” (singer/guitarist Shawn Christensen – QRO interview). Sharper, but also with some jangle and bass, the piece (the hidden track on Harmonies) wasn’t quite fully seasoned, but stellastarr* knew how to play it well. Moreover, it was a great introduction to what the band was going to be doing that evening, mixing things up “Off our first record, second record, third record, fourth, fifth…” And shift they did, going from their first-ever piece to the new “The People”, which brought an expansive plea and scope even to the small Piano’s.
But don’t think the group forgot the ‘old standards’. Harmonies’s “In the Walls” reverberated well off of Piano’s four-square, while ’s “Damn This Foolish Heart” is just as evocative, if not more so, up close and personal. There were some minor problems with the levels for their guest keyboardist Ben (“That’s the problem with doing these things at the last minute…” – guitarist Michael Jurin), but all was right with the world when stellastarr* hit up “Sweet Troubled Soul” – is there a better lyric than “I want to see your face / In the reflection of my bedroom stereo”?
stellastarr* playing "School You" live at Piano’s in New York, NY:
Returning to the more unexpected picks with the new “Freakout”, the piece had some sharp-dance elements to it, but Ben’s keys brought a strong haunt. And then things got sad and grand with “School You” (the b-side to their “Somewhere Across Forever” single), and pushing plea that slid seamlessly into the new “Graffiti Eyes” and its epic upswing & steady beat. The pressing stellastarr* staple “Jenny” and new staple “Tokyo Sky” mixed things up even more – at previous shows over the last year & a half, “Tokyo” has often been the opener; considering that the stratospheric number might be the best of the new bunch, it’s better if left as a prize for later to carry you along, and put amongst older pieces like the preceding “Jenny” and the subsequent “The Diver” and “Somewhere Across Forever”. The juxtaposition of quiet and loud “Diver” held well in Piano’s, while the driving and energetic “Somewhere” drove you even harder.
stellastarr* playing the new "Robot" live at Piano’s in New York, NY:
Finishing out (“We’re not doing encores – just really long sets” – and it would be pointless in Piano’s, considering it lacks a backstage…), stellastarr* hit up the very new “Robots”: it was written only a month ago, hasn’t been recorded, and hadn’t even been played live until that night. Almost an instrumental, even the vocals on “Robot” were more restrained-high, making the piece sort of a stella-jam. Then the band dropped the newest rival to “Tokyo”’s throne, “Numbers”. Recently added to their MySpace page, “Numbers” jumps up and rocks with a strong underlying rhythm. But they closed with stellastarr*’s single and fan-favorite “My Coco”, which is still as awesome as ever.
stellastarr* playing the new "Graffiti Eyes" live at Piano’s in New York, NY:
stellastarr* has always had a particularly strong female following, and there were the requisite attractive ladies in what was a pretty good-looking crowd (pretty sure Nick Thornburn of Islands – QRO album review – and Syd Butler of Les Savy Fav – QRO album review – were in the audience as well…) – though it did include the larger, older, balding gentlemen who seems to be at every stellastarr* date in New York, always up front and on bassist Amanda Tannen’s side (but can you really blame him – or any man?…). And the band informed any who might be coming again that each night’s set list will be different, a major plus. Of course, every night is sold-out (though you can try your luck at the line at the door) – and every night should be exciting…
stellastarr* playing "My Coco" live at Piano’s in New York, NY: