Cabinet Of Wonders feat. Milk Carton Kids & Southside Johnny

City Winery / New York, NY

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Photos by Leland Gorlin

The Ed Sullivan Show launched a thousand careers, from the Beatles to Señor Wences, but it’s been years since we’ve seen a variety show like the Cabinet of Wonders, a burlesque-style variety show featuring comedienne Janeane Garofalo, the Milk Carton Kids, Southside Johnny and poet Robert Pinsky, among others.

Show highlights were easy to predict for this writer: The Milk Carton Kids and Southside Johnny. The LA-based Milk Carton Kids performed a 15-minute, three-song set which highlighted their considerable talents: songwriting, flatpicking guitar and razor-sharp vocal harmonies. The duo, known for their dry banter between songs, held true to their model by going off on a lengthy discussion about the correct conjugation of “star struck” (“Isn’t that a past participle?”) and taking a couple of mild swipes at Janeane Garofalo’s “aging” career. Sure enough, it was a setup, and when Garofalo came onstage for her very funny one-woman routine, she brought the Milk Carton Kids back onstage to challenge them about ageism, with hilarious results. Bottom line: it was fun, but I wish the Milk Carton Kids had played longer. Their new album, Monterey, has some truly wonderful songs, as did their Grammy-nominated The Ash & Clay, and this brief performance whetted—but didn’t fulfill—the audience’s appetite for their vibe.

Poetry and pantomime, songs of protest, songs of humanity and some just good old funny stuff by several performers, among them the talented Josh Rouse, ensued for another hour, then the evening wound up with evergreen Southside Johnny.

Accompanied by two guitars, bass and drums, Southside kicked off his short set with Chuck Berry’s “Nadine.” He cranked up the band up after a few bars, corralling the crowd’s full attention. Southside’s voice has hoarsened slightly after years of balls-out concerts, but he can still sing and remains one of the most effective interpreters in rock and roll today. He delivered “Strange, Strange Feeling,” a rhythm-heavy number he co-wrote with fellow Asbury Jukes bandmember and go-to keyboardist Jeff Kazee, and immediately brought the Winery’s temperature up another ten degrees. The song’s topical and irreverent take on leaving these earthly woes (“Helicopter circling in the sky, must be the FBI / Take me for a ride into the great unknown”) fit perfectly with the political bent of the evening. The show closed with the Springsteen song that Southside has turned into a wrenching classic, “Hearts of Stone,” contributing the perfect degree of gravitas to anchor an evening made of parts.

– Suzanne Cadgène

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