The Ballad of Low Cut Connie

Some people want to die so they can be free.

The Ballad of Low Cut Connie

“Get to where you need to be,” invokes Adam Weiner near the start of most shows he performs. Weiner is the lead singer / majordomo / band leader of the group known as Low Cut Connie, who performed a free show last Thursday in Battery Park, in a bucolic, park setting that made me murmur, “If I told them once, I told them a thousand times, Spinal Tap first, puppet show second,” as soon as I walked onto the grounds. The stage was backed up against the Hudson River with views of Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, the Staten Island Ferries coming and going, and just to the north, Jersey City. “Backstage” was two white tents stageside, open to the water. The result was that, minutes before showtime, the entire band walked out dressed and ready: “The entire band has to pee,” Weiner told me in greeting, “And the only bathroom is… over there,” pointing towards the park’s entrance structure.

I wanted to respond with We hope you enjoy our new direction, but thought better of it.

It started to rain lightly at about 6:45, and the band came onstage shortly after that, the thought being that the show might have to be cut short for inclement weather. Weiner steps to the front, and immediately starts gesturing at the crowd to move closer. About a dozen and a half folks oblige, but that’s not enough for Adam. He keeps gesturing, making individual eye contact, waving, come closer, come closer, and then that admonishment: Get to where you need to be. I’ve always interpreted that line literally – find where you need to be in the crowd to be able to experience the performance that’s about to follow – but in a week where the President of the United States had gone full-on Goebbels (amongst everything else that is going wrong, including the insane heat, which miraculously disappeared for these few hours), and I took it as more of a mental challenge--get to where I need to be to be able to experience this performance.

Weiner is full on, always full on, whether it’s a showcase or New Year’s Eve or crammed onto the stage at a dive bar somewhere out in these United States. His battle gear of choice is always the same, a uniform of tuxedo pants, suspenders over a white ribbed tank top, and some delightful garish baseball jacket, gold lame threads and bold patterns, with a giant gold necklace--of late, a lion’s head. It’s an outfit that has its roots deep in rnb, 70’s and 80’s Elton John, and the Borscht Belt; when the band appeared on Seth Myers’ show last year, the jacket Adam had made for the appearance featured gold Stars of David. I think of this now, again, after this week, and here, with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island just over Weiner’s shoulder.

There is a lot going on up there, and we have barely gotten started.

I came slowly to Low Cut Connie. I really, really, really, hated the name, and I couldn’t completely connect with what was going on until the release of 2017’s Dirty Pictures Part I. it was a deeply soulful and polished effort, and not “polished” in a way that means forced or contrived or airless, but rather, great songs being executed and presented in the way they deserved to be. I still hate the name, but the music and the live show are tremendous. Dirty Pictures Part II, out later that year, is (to my mind), even better than the first volume, “Beverly” sounding like a song you’ve been listening to forever. There are many of those haunting familiarities scattered through the songs, not derivative but recontextualized and reimagined. “All These Kids Are Way Too High” should not work--the title does! not! scan!--and yet it’s irresistible.

The last time I saw Weiner onstage was April when I was in Seattle for the Pop Music Studies Conference, and they happened to be in town just up the road at my dearly beloved Sunset Tavern, which is not the same Sunset where I used to see the Supersuckers or Mudhoney jammed onto a tiny stage shoved up against the middle of the side wall. But it was still the hot, sweaty Sunset I remembered, and old, weird Seattle showed up, selling out two nights in a row. Like most Connie crowds, there were young and old and lots of women and grizzled biker types in denim jackets, and everyone, everyone, dances. Seattle is a tough crowd to get a reaction from, and the “Seattle freeze” has flummoxed many a touring musician. There’s just no chance at a Low Cut Connie show; Weiner chips away, note by note, song by song, gesture by gesture. It is astoundingly hard work.

Tonight, here in this New York City Parks Department setting, Weiner sees everything. He makes eye contact. He keeps pulling people forward, with words, with gestures, with movement. He stalks the stage. He dances on the piano bench. He plays the piano in his trademark gesture, standing on the bench and lifting one foot behind him, as he plays (and he actually does play). He shakes his ass. He directs his band, a quartet of competent musicians, three of which are brand new to me from the last time I saw him in April. Low Cut Connie is less a band in the way we think of bands, that comradeship of lost boys and girls kicking against the pricks, but rather Weiner and whoever he drafts into service, based on availability or need. When the band played the Van Morrison tribute in March, where Weiner absolutely slayed “Here Comes The Night,” the delightful Cat Popper came along on bass because the current bass player couldn’t make it.

There’s this rockist concept of “a Band” that is still not outdated, fans wedded to a particular lineup or having an affinity for the bass player or the drummer or the lead guitarist. That dynamic still persists in the world, because usually it’s that camaraderie that is the special sauce that transforms a group of musicians from a pleasant listening experience to that emotional maelstrom that is so addicting. There’s a quote from Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography that made me shriek out loud the first time I read it, heavy underline and highlighted, that makes me think of Weiner’s skill as a band leader:

People always asked me how the band played like it did night after night, almost murderously consistent, NEVER stagnant and always full balls to the wall. There are two answers. One is that they loved and respected their jobs, one another, their leader, and the audience. The other is… because I MADE them. Do not underestimate the second answer.

(emphasis mine)

A Connie gig is a tough show, it is a commitment, it is hot, it is physical. It is not going to be the right situation for a lot of people. And you would think that the work of finding people and working with people would present an inconsistent scenario that would be impossible to control. What I realized on Thursday is that it doesn’t matter who’s onstage with Weiner (although the current musicians are delightful, especially backing singer-cum-fiddle-cum-rhythm guitarist Abigail Dempsey, whose voice melds wonderfully with Weiner’s) because he is pulling it all together with sheer force of will, or belief, or magical thinking, or something I haven’t figured out quite yet. (Full disclosure here that I am working on some concept of a larger writing project around Adam, the shape of which is still to be determined, and the reason for that is everything I’ve just explained.)

And then, of course, there is the rest of the show, the music, the performance. 20 songs start to finish, including an encore that possibly broke through whatever curfew the puppet show park had in place. There is a structure to Connie sets, you can see Weiner’s thought process in action as he slots songs together, when he works in the Prince cover (“Controversy,” almost always white-hot, and an act of resistance in these modern times), when he decides to pull throw in the better known songs, (“Boozophelia,” which made it onto President Obama’s summer playlist back in 2014), when to add a new song from an upcoming album, which had shades of Leon Russell (a friend at the show leaned over and said, Tumbleweed Junction, which is the same thing, really). It was the same show that you’d see them do at the Bowery Ballroom or the TLA or the 9:30 Club, which should always be how it goes, and yet we know that sometimes--oftentimes--it does not.

It isn’t less of a show because a bunch of tourists wander through with their GoPro and other people are clearly there because they heard loud sounds and came walking in to see what was up. I watched one tourist come up front with her camera for half a song, before tucking it away and staying almost until the end. Then there were the finance bros, all button-down shirts and chinos, the one guy who was clearly the instigator and got there early, while his pals showed up after clocking out wherever. They crept forward ever so cautiously and were visibly bummed that Weiner’s sorties into the audience did not come their way, and stayed until the last note. There were couples boogieing with various levels of rhythm, parents who knew all the words balancing their kids on their shoulders, joyful young women dancing by themselves. Weiner steals a Cubs hat off of someone’s head before returning it as he heads back to the stage.

It is gorgeous, it is life-affirming, it is an absolute delight. It is a no-irony zone, too; Weiner means it. He has to mean it, because it would be a lot easier to stop doing this thing, or do it differently, or give it less of everything. I am reminded last summer’s Clash tribute put together by Jesse Malin. It was a very, very long night--the running joke is that it was longer than Sandinista--and towards the end of it I had dropped back to the bar to get some water and find a wall to lean against. The familiar chords of “Train In Vain” came out of the PA as the performer slated to sing this particular song walked out. I was in the back and didn’t have my glasses on, so I couldn’t really see, but I was struck how this guy who came in on the very end of the night was attacking the song like he wrote it. And then, a split second later, I realized it was Adam Weiner, and thought, “Oh. Of course.” I told Adam this story later, and his response was, “That’s the job.”

Low Cut Connie should be a bigger band at this point, larger, more successful, better opportunities, more of an audience. I don’t quite understand why they aren’t, which is why I am following along so closely, because there’s a story that needs to be told, and I want to be the one who gets to do the job. My friend Marisa, who is new to Connie fandom, but is one of the biggest pure music fans I know, told me breathlessly after the show last Thursday that she feels like she needs to see them as much as she can now before they explode. I hope she is right on the money.

p.s. if you’ve read this far, bonus Obama / Prince / Connie discussion well worth your click