Happy Talk Band: 01.26.2011

New Bywater bar Siberia hit the ground running when it opened in October.  Owned and operated by a group of former Mimi’s bartenders, it began hosting shows before the proprietors even settled on an official name for the place.  Fliers around the city and postings on NOLADIY appeared with more and more frequency, promoting performances at a venue known simply by its address, 2227 St. Claude.

The bulk of the shows lean heavily towards metal and punk, but the current schedule is augmented with an increasingly diverse collection of noise-pop, R&B and even bounce rap acts, adding to the bar’s bona fides as a dependable and well rounded music club.  And it was fitting that Happy Talk Band ushered me into Siberia for the first time, as the bar exists – both metaphysically and geographically – within Happy Talk lead singer and songwriter Luke Allen’s creative universe.

Luke Allen weaves the type of stories you may expect from Craig Finn if he grew up in the Upper Ninth Ward, but he tells them with Donald Fagen’s flair for identifying true beauty in nefarious characters and compromising situations – be it real or imagined – instead of simply describing them in graphic detail for dramatic effect.  These are not redemption songs, though.  Just as in life, everyone gets what they deserve and the only lessons learned are the ones you can figure out for yourself.  Still, Allen’s tales of suffering and loss are peppered with messages of acceptance and, sometimes, even hope.  While those messages seep out of the band’s recorded material, they are at the forefront of a Happy Talk live show.

In the confines of Sibera’s sparse but well proportioned bar room, the crack backing band – inherited from semi-defunct scuzz rock legends Morning 40 Federation as well as The New Orleans Bingo Show! – erupted behind Allen, punctuating his morose tales of junkies and pickpockets with incendiary guitar solos and funky, danceable bass lines.  Virtuosic performances and bold arrangements flip some of the songs and their underlying meanings on their head, “Pack Your Bags” from 2010’s Starve A Fever being a perfect example.  A line like  “Why don’t your pack you bags and go?” sounds more like a playful dare that a direct order when it’s complemented by bright, honky-tonk piano; but a question like “Who’s going to save me from myself?” sounds less like a desperate plea and more like a battle cry when delivered to the delight of the boozy crowd that was at once intently hanging on every word and bouncing around the room with reckless abandon.

But live shows are not merely opportunities to make old songs louder, even though the current line-up of Happy Talk Band does just that, to brilliant effect, on “Ash Wednesday” and “Giant”.  “Mugger’s Waltz” shows up even more stripped down and whimsical that the album version, as if Allen wanted to drive home the point that he is playing Devil’s Advocate in what could easily be a whiskey-addled argument between good friends at an old bar, not taking the pulpit to defend the petty criminals that terrorize French Quarter tourists.

This is the magic of seeing Happy Talk Band in person: the performance is more than just a collection of rollicking takes on the band’s diverse alt-country and punk inspired catalog (not that there would necessarily be anything wrong with that).  Luke Allen’s tales sweep across the broad spectrum of despair, and the full band’s nuanced and energetic performance bring the true, humanizing spirit of his wretched poetry into sharp focus.

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