Heather Christian and the Arbonauts know how to put on a good show. Playing through their new album, live at Joe’s Pub for their record release, there was an immediate dichotomy between the all black, classic attire of the seven piece band and the non-traditional sound of their music. The roots are firmly planted in blues and jazz, but where Christian will go from there is anyone’s guess. She likes to sneak up on a listener, to surprise and tickle them as she bleeds together the whole spectrum of musical genres. There is a tension to the songs, like pulling on a piece of taffy, which bounds and tumbles and melts into perfectly composed musical climaxes, breaks and accents.
The connection amongst those charming Arbonauts radiates off of the stage; they all seem an integral part of the ensemble and they clearly respect and enjoy one another. Yet Christian is at the center of it all, perched behind the piano. The other instruments have a way of tip-toeing around her on piano until the inevitable explosion in each song, at which point the sound floods the room like a deluge.
Adding to the deluge, and the element of surprise in this set, was an exuberant four piece horn section who came cascading through the audience or planted themselves proudly on the stairs for several songs. The presence of these men, the Dirty Birds of local band Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, instantly turned the concert into a rollicking party; “Hambone” called to swinging with the Fitzgeralds, and “Mama Said” teased of grooving down Bourbon Street.
Christian, spunky and frisky, in a long black gown, bare feet and with feathers in her hair, is becoming somewhat notorious for her eclectic vocal style (it has been appropriately compared to a goat’s bleating in certain moments). The way she handles the words often makes it difficult to understand what she is saying; indeed, sometimes it isn’t English or even real words for that matter. Nevertheless, she seduces the audience with her textured melodies and her commanding yet humble presence onstage. There is an intriguing intimacy to her performance, and it was heart-warming to watch her check in across the piano with singer Chris Giarmo as they delicately shared the harmonies of songs like “Mama Said”. There was a palpable love between them, not one of romance, but one of utmost respect and admiration and pure trust.
This strong foundation, both musically and interpersonally, is what gives Heather Christian and the Arbonauts their freedom. The control underneath all of the thrilling improvisation makes a listener feel taken care of even as they’re being taken on a wild ride.
Video from a performance at Rockwood Music Hall, CMJ, 2011