|Shilpa Ray makes the harmonium and essential RAWK instrument...photo by RLC|
I use the term unhinged a lot when trying to describe certain artists. In the case of Shilpa Ray And Her Happy Hookers it is a clear use of the word. But, it’s a channeled chaos funneled through some very well-written and performed songs. I went into this show expecting something more reverential and "arty". I left being fully treated to a RAWK show on par with performance heavyweights like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Sonic Youth. The band has the ability to navigate between driving rock numbers like “Hookers” and “Heaven in Stereo” and the dynamic nuances inherent in those songs, with the more trance-inducing, raga-inflected vibe of a “Venus Shaver”. The through-line being the bluesy swagger and committed vocal delivery of Ray.
If the harmonium reached its peak in the early 20th century as a smaller scale pipe organ in churches, this common Indian instrument played by Ray re-constituted the Bottom of the Hill into a different kind of place of worship. The congregation was led through a mass of inventive and purposeful hymns to femininity, disease, and heartbreak. Despite the seemingly dark subject matter, Shilpa Ray And Her happy Hookers are a joyous live experience, a celebration of performance and craftsmanship. Shilpa Ray is like Patti Smith, just as unique, defiant, and powerful but remade for a generation in desperate need of a kick-in-the ass! Like Smith, Ray’s band is a ferocious contingent, particularly guitarist Andrew Bailey, who is the Lenny Kaye to Ray’s Smith. Bassist Nick Hundley provided the pulse and thunder playing off a fill-in drummer who was only playing his second show with the band – literally not missing a beat.
The interesting thing to watch was how inspired the young women looked in the audience. In Ray they could find someone whose talent and force of will was on full display, as she owned every inch of the stage. This seemed to be modeled back by the women in the audience, singly along with straightened spines, owning their femininity in the traditionally male world of rock. This band not only deserves attention, they command it – a rarer feat in the too-kool-for-school, ironical landscape of today’s “alternative rock”. I will be sure to re-beat the drum when Shilpa Ray And Her Happy Hookers come back to San Francisco in mid-May to play Bimbo's with Philadelphia’s RAWK circus Man Man. To hear and learn more about Shilpa Ray And Her Happy Hookers listen to this week’s “What Duvet Said…About Music” Issue 24 podcast, which will feature my interview with the band immediately following their show. The podcast can be found here on Wednesday. Below is some video taken LIVE and uneditied with my trusty FlipCam.