Ezra Furman and Shilpa Ray, Bowery Ballroom

Shilpa Ray & Ezra Furman, Bowery Ballroom, September 14, 2019

When I travel, I always look for a possible concert, so I was happy to see that Ezra Furman was playing Bowery Ballroom while visiting New York. Tonight’s support artist, Shilpa Ray and her band are great. Ray has been a fixture on the New York/East Coast scene for a few years now and has worked with Nick Cave, but the big break hasn’t quite happened, which is baffling considering how compelling a live performer is and intriguing songwriter she is. I don’t know any of the songs, but I like them all. Her voice is tremendous, from honey-sweet to sandpaper coarse; she can whisper seductively and scream in anguish with the best of them. A bit of punk, a bit of cabaret, a bit of sea shanty and all done with heart and soul.

And then it’s time for Ezra Furman, who enters the stage with his band, all dressed in blue jumpsuits as if they’re going to work on a construction site rather than playing music on a stage. Ezra, of course, is wearing a dress as he usually (always?) is. Ezra straps on his guitar and attacks the microphone with intense gusto, lots of spitting when he sneers the words with angry precision, shedding a ton of nervous energy that translates into a stage presence that is tense and cool in equal measures. He’s a bit of a paradox, wearing his dress and makeup, but with quite manly mannerisms, singing his old school style rock and roll and punk songs, smearing them with his twist, taking total ownership of a music genre that’s been done to death. However, somehow there are still sonic treasures to be found when someone like Ezra Furman digs in.

He plays one of my favourite songs, Haunted Head, with evocative lyrics like, ‘I take these aimless drives, from 2 am to 4 I live these secret lives, Identities that all die off not one survives, By morning there’s nobody at the wheel’.

Two of my favourite songs from Furman’s latest album, Trauma and My Teeth Hurt are played in succession before one of many highlights; Body Was Made. A song about body shaming and the fact that our bodies are nobody’s business but our own. It’s a severe and poignant issue that nevertheless manages to be sexy and seductive.

After an energetic cover of The Equals’ Police on My Back, it’s time for the last song and the ultimate question: What Can You Do but Rock n Roll? In our current world, stuck in regression, we all have to do our bit to try and turn the tide. But when the weight of the world gets too overwhelming, perhaps the best thing to do is put on your dancing shoes and ROCK AND ROLL.

Ezra Furman setlist
(Intro song – Street Hassle, Lou Reed)
1. Suck the Blood from My Wound
2. Calm Down aka I Should Not Be Alone
3. Rated R Crusaders
4. Haunted Head
5. Trauma
6. My Teeth Hurt
7. Body Was Made
8. Psalm 151
9. In America
10. Maraschino-Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill
11. I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend
12. My Zero
13. Transition From Nowhere to Nowhere
14. No Place
15. Driving Down to LA
16. Love You So Bad
17. Evening Prayer aka Justice
18. Thermometer
Encore
19. On Your Own
20. Police on My Back (The Equals cover)
21. What Can You Do but Rock n Roll

Ezra Furman, The Barbican

Ezra Furman, The Barbican, London, July 13, 2017

Ezra Furman’s performance at the Barbican this evening is sold out. He has played in London before in sizeable venues and received good reviews, but this seems like the ‘big one.’ For starters, he’s without a band because ‘they’ve gone back to the States’ as he says without further explanation. Except for Ben, more of whom later, and some other assorted guests that join Furman later in the evening.

But for the first quarter of the two-hour concert, Furman is alone on stage, and it suits him – being alone. His songs about loneliness and awkwardness signify a lone person fighting back against the crowd. But Furman is not here to fight the crowd. Instead, he’s a gracious and friendly host to tonight’s audience, sharing his innermost feelings through his songs and balancing the heavy load of self-pity that some of those songs express with a heavy dose of self-deprecating humour.

He certainly has the ingredients required to pull a solo performance off. The too-many-cigarettes-gravel voice sounds like Tom Waits’ younger and slightly cleaner living brother. His guitar playing is raw rock and roll. Furman has proved to be a strong songwriter and has built up a repertoire of songs that can easily last him through a two-hour concert. Furman excels in the art of good banter, and he has no trouble keeping the audience entertained between songs.

Like all good performers, he knows how to spin an awkward situation in his favour, like the moment when his guitar makes no sound, and he tries to fix the problem, a roadie rushes to the stage to help, just as Furman sorts out the sound himself. As the roadie runs off stage again, Furman says, ‘Always test the crew.’

When he introduces a song as ‘This is for everyone who’s been depressed,’ a girl in the audience woo-hoos, to which Furman drily shoots back, ‘That’s not a sound a depressed person would make.’

When an artist performs a solo show, there’s always the danger that things will get boring. The best way to fix this problem is to invite guest musicians and dabble in the art of instrument-switching. Furman makes use of both ‘methods’ in tonight’s concert. Though mainly switching between two guitars, he also bangs a simple beat on a single drum while wailing out a song. And later, when Ben, the pianist, joins Furman on stage, the piano adds a variation to the mood of the songs that a lone guitarist wouldn’t be able to bring by themselves.

The piano parts work especially well as a sonic backdrop when Furman reads three poems, including one about a mail order bride that never arrives.

Then it’s time for another guest, Furman’s friend, Du Blonde, with whom he sings a subdued version of Haunted Head. For good measure, they also cover one of Du Blonde’s songs, Isn’t It Wild and finish off with a brilliant rendition of one of Furman’s heroes, Leonard Cohen’s So Long Marianne.

A string quartet joins Furman on stage for the last part of the concert. The quartet adds gravity and finesse to such songs as Day of the Dog and a new song, The Refugee, in which Furman imagines his grandfather’s struggle in escaping from Poland just before the outbreak of the 2nd World War.

Furman himself seems overcome with emotion and genuinely taken aback at how well the evening went, and he describes the audience’s appreciative applause as ‘encouraging.’

The final song is Wild Feeling, which is possibly how Furman feels at this moment. And I venture a guess that it’s also how the audience feels after a two-hour tour de force of an excellent songwriter performing his songs with the confidence and brilliance of someone who, despite his assumed reluctance, was born to be on stage.

Ezra Furman setlist
1. Cherry Lane
2. The Worm in the Apple (Ezra Furman & The Harpoons song)
3. Penetrate
4. The Queen of Hearts
5. Restless Year
6. Watch You Go By
7. Amateur
8. Hark! to the Music (drum solo – Furman banging on a drum)
9. Dirty Gutter
10. Hour of Deepest Need
11. That’s When It Hit Me (as a poem)
12. Cold hands
13. The Mail Order (Poem)
14. Bad Man
15. Haunted Head (with Du Blonde)
16. Isn’t It Wild (Du Blonde cover, with Du Blonde)
17. So Long Marianne (Leonard Cohen cover, with Du Blonde)
With a Bella Union string quartet
18. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
19. Down
20. Day of the Dog
21. Ordinary Life
22. The Refugee
Solo
23. Wild Feeling (Ezra Furman & The Harpoons song)