Each week, Lizzy Goodman guides you through the dirty streets of rock and roll.
Quirk has always been the hallmark of Regina Spektor’s brand. The first time I interviewed her we met, like two kids sent into the city alone with a Metrocard and a twenty dollar bill by our parents, at a very clean and well-lit Upper West Side café. She was coming from her family home in the Bronx, I was coming from my grandmother’s couch downtown. This was the early 2000s, and Spektor was just beginning to attract attention for her lighthearted, oddball piano-folk rock, which contrasted starkly with the imperious leather jacket cool of the downtown scene at the time. And when the Strokes, then rulers of the rock world, took her on tour with them in 2003 she met the Kings of Leon, who also adopted her as well. Her presence made these inhumanly cool bands seem secretly deep, like watching a boy you have a crush on take good care of his kid sister.
“The crowd ate this up as if they were being chastised by Iggy Pop; these aren’t people who scolded with any regularity and they like it.”
I haven’t seen Spektor perform live in quite a while, but as I walked down Bleecker street on my way to Le Poisson Rouge to see her play an NPR showcase the other night, I already knew not to expect a doe-eyed little girl. A classically trained pianist with musicians on both sides of her family, it hasn’t taken long for her precocious- but expertly executed songs to connect with an audience more well-versed in Chopin than the New York Dolls. As her contemporaries in the rock world have gone on to coolly disseminate their core themes of youth and abandon on big Summerstages, Spektor has become the delightfully bonkers must-have artist played on Bose stereos by nouveau yuppies the world over.
Wearing shimmering cocktail party attire and her trademark red lipstick, Spektor was seated at her piano surrounded by bandmates, her drummer encased in a plexiglass cavern so that the NPR techies could properly capture his sound. While well-heeled early 30s couples in J Press flannels munched on shrimp with chile oil, Spektor took us through her trademark combo story hour/concert. “A man inside a room is shaking hands with other men,” she sang, beginning “Ballad of a Politician” before stopping herself and announcing: “I love how you can be on NPR and people are still talking through your show.” The crowd ate this up as if they were being chastised by Iggy Pop; these aren’t people who scolded with any regularity and they like it. While the Lite Brite-ish backdrop flickered from cornflower blue to rosy pink Spektor cued up “Open” off her new album What We Saw From the Cheap Seats. “Potentially lovely/ Perpetually human/ Suspended and open,” she sang in her elegant, rich lilt, before hitting the chorus, a series of primal gasp-grunts.
As we all filed out into the unseasonably sticky early summer swampiness, I cued up “Poor Little Rich Boy” off Spektor’s 2004 major label debut Soviet Kitsch and heard coming back at me the same wacky chanteuse I’d just seen. Back then we loved her because she was different — an optimistic ingénue in a world of cynical cool. Now we love her because she’s different — a super-gifted eccentric in a world of artisanal sophistication.