BWW Review: REEVE CARNEY: A Spellbinding Jam of Intimate Creation at The Green Room 42
It's ten o' clock on 42nd Street. A corner just a little too off the beaten path to be completely safe or comfortable. The man in the black pork pie hat - red bandana slashed across his neck - picks up an electric guitar and slings it over leather suspenders. The oversized boot of his right shoe steps onto a tambourine - the left over the pedal of a side drum. He breathes. He strums. And then the voice. A wailing tenor. Like something of the gods.
Reeve Carney - whose soaring singing is only one of the many instruments unfurled during an intimate session Sunday evening at The Green Room 42 might easily be mistaken for a busker on a New York City sidewalk. Visually, a sort of hybrid cross between Buster Keaton, and say Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie Titanic, he's at first glance the kind of affable, unassuming chap that might turn a teen-age girl's eye while tuning a ratted guitar under a Central Park bridge. But make no mistake, when the voice roars, all bets are off. Time stops and where you are, in fact, is in the grip of a singular artist who uses every aspect of his being to paint a soundscape that for a moment you're lucky to get to bare witness to.
The chance to see such an artist in creation is a rare and beautiful thing and first thanks really must be for the daring The Green Room 42, who in granting residencies to the likes of Carney, and the sublime Frances Ruffelle (who's own show is not to be missed) is blazing trails in allowing audiences the privileged view of the process at work.
Reeve Carney, a rocker / songwriter whose journey as an actor and musician has traversed the famous (the television show Penny Dreadful on Showtime) to the infamous (Julie Taymor's ill-fated musical SPIDERMAN: TURN OFF THE DARK on Broadway) stepped onto The Green Room 42 stage Sunday night for what he described, with a grin and a shrug, as his 'tenth performance of the week." Eight of those (plus a full company put in rehearsal) were for his current gig in the musical hit HADESTOWN, where Carney plays, who else, Orpheus (he of the golden voice).
For this return to The Green Room 42, there would be no band. But then none was needed. For almost 90 minutes, Carney, who as it turns out can lull just about any sound from simply a guitar, a violin bow, a piano, a kazoo and a loop recorder, brought his audience into the intimate jam of his own musical formulation.
Unscripted and with a crumpled setlist handwritten on lined paper as only a thin suggestion, such an evening in less colossally talented hands could easily become an exercise in patience. But with Carney, who often comes across as a sort of impish pied piper tinker, it became carte-blanche for exploration through the familiar (the playful "Amelie," from his 2010 album, Mr. Green, Vol. 1 and the romantic ballad "Checkmate" from his five-time Independent Music Award-winning album, Youth Is Wasted) to the familiarly new (a heartfelt rendition of Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender" became a confessional as a first-time-ever-performed personal favorite). Such a free platform inevitably allows for unexpected twists: an audience request prompted a gleeful sidetrack for an impromptu performance of the driving "Mad Mad World", and a breezing-through-town visit by Carney's band mate, allowed the gifted Charles Jones to take the stage for a spontaneous (and soulful) cover of Leon Russell's "A Song for You."
But much of the evening was focused on material Carney is honing for the future. Upcoming Green Room 42 appearances will see Carney in musical exploration of his greatest musical influences: from Billy Joel to David Bowie to Elton John, and Sunday was a first chance opportunity to see Carney tackle with aplomb classics like Joel's "Vienna," and perhaps most impressively, John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" - the hook of which seems tailor made to Carney's vocal pyrotechnics. And indeed, even performing his own original material, in watching Mr. Carney behind his guitar or deftly at the seat of a piano, there is almost the inevitable sense he is channeling elements of these ghosts of music virtuoso slightly past.
But somehow in Carney's voice, the bygone comes together as something new: an artist painting with the sonic of his own creation. Eager to please and seemingly unaware of his prodigious talents, it would likely be impossible for Carney to ever completely convey with words the inner firings of the muses that converge and come forth from his being. But in the moments where Carney disappears trance-like into the musical abyss on self penned songs like the haunting "Up Above the Weather" or the stirring rock anthem "Testify" - his eyes closed, face in a mask, somewhere between pain and ecstasy - and that voice, climbing upwards ever towards nirvana - who he is seems entirely transparent. The constant urge to adjust a knob or tighten a string may remind us - he's only human. But for those intimately gathered, leaning forward in our seats (one of which on Sunday evening's performance belonged to HADESTOWN cast mate, Eva Noblezada) who Reeve Carney is becomes patently reflected in us. He is the siren; we the mere mortals lucky enough to hear his song.