LIVE: Cuddle Magic & Friends @ Universal Preservation Hall, 10/26/14
Review by Greg Haymes
Photographs by Thomas Dimopoulos
The Brooklyn/Philadelphia-based band Cuddle Magic is a wonderfully unpredictable ensemble, whose musical style shifts gears effortlessly from song to song. In concert at Saratoga Springs’ Universal Preservation Hall recently, the six-member group spun from avant-garde percussion breakdown (“Margo”) to intimate chamber folk (“Expectations”) to deep-groove trip-hop (the pulsating “Spinning”) over the course of their two 50-minute sets.
The band’s musical line-up is equally eclectic. Although they primarily play guitar, drums, keyboards, vibraphone, trumpet and bass clarinet, the bandmembers like to shift around instrumentally speaking, and throughout the evening they also incorporated a stand-up bass, mandobanjo, toy drum, toy melodica, xylophone, woodblocks and a set of variously sized metal mixing bowls. Kristen Slipp and Benjamin Lazar Davis handled nearly all of the lead vocals, often featuring marvelous harmonies, especially during “Pretty Thing,” which sounded a bit like the Roches at their most esoteric.
Toward the end of the second set, they all left the stage and settled into seats in the audience for the hushed, unplugged and completely unamplified “Expectations,” sung by Alec Spiegelman, playing guitar rather than his usual bass clarinet. It was a haunting, hold-your-breath moment.
As captivating and surprising as Cuddle Magic was in concert, they were only part of the show. They also brought along a pair of friends – Phyllis Chen (toy piano virtuoso) and Rick Moody (novelist and short story writer best known for his 1994 novel “The Ice Storm”) – to share the stage with them. Both Chen and Moody had solo spotlight selections during each set, and Chen was particularly mesmerizing with “Untitled,” in which she played her bright red Schoenhut grand toy piano accompanied by a music box mash-up of a Strauss waltz and the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”
But it was during the unique and truly thrilling collaborations that the real magic of the evening was conjured. Moody’s reading of “Drummers of Europe” was a tour de force, accompanied by a dynamic tidal wave of polyrhythms. Likewise, “The Manson Variations” was a dark, willfully tumultuous performance with Moody leading Chen and three members of Cuddle Magic in unaccompanied, simultaneous readings of various different excerpts from the writings of Charles Manson.
A fundraiser for the renovation and restoration of the Universal Preservation Hall, the evening’s performance was something completely different, yet richly rewarding. It was, in fact, a kind of 21st century, post-modern variety show, and you never knew just what coming up next. That’s putting the fun in fundraising…
CUDDLE MAGIC SET LIST
Excerpt from “The Diviners” (Rick Moody)
An Extra Life (Cuddle Magic/Phyllis Chen)
Acquitted (Cuddle Magic/Phyllis Chen)
January 1863 (Cuddle Magic/Phyllis Chen/Rick Moody)
Untitled (Phyllis Chen)
Appointments 1994 (Rick Moody)
Handwrit (Cuddle Magic)
Appoinments 1995 (Rick Moody)
Margo (Cuddle Magic/Phyllis Chen)
??? (Rick Moody)
Spinning (Cuddle Magic)
Somebody’s Speaking for Me (Cuddle Magic)
A Lullabye (Phyllis Chen)
Pretty Thing (Cuddle Magic/Phyllis Chen)
A Love Song Seven Ways (Cuddle Magic)
The Manson Variations (Rick Moody/Cuddle Magic/Phyllis Chen)
Carousels (Phyllis Chen)
Three Poems from Emily Dickinson (Rick Moody)
Expectations (Cuddle Magic)
Drummers of Europe (Rick Moody/Cuddle Magic/Phyllis Chen)
Moby Dickless (Cuddle Magic)
Sow Rider (Cuddle Magic)