Peter Himmelman, with Matt Thompson (left) and David Morgan (right), at The Loft at City Winery
Two things quickly stood out at Peter Himmelman’s Monday night show at City Winery’s intimate new second floor room The Loft (above the bigger regular venue), the first being that he was able to get so much sound and rock band drive out of his three core acoustic musicians: himself on guitar, Matt Thompson on upright bass, and David Morgan on upright piano.
The second was an unexpected geographical lesson after the first couple songs.
“This is not Iowa,” said HImmelman, bemused that his New York audience was so reverently quiet and attentive and perhaps a bit irritated to feel that he was “singing into a void.” Toward the end of the set, when he offered a choice between introspective solo songs and a “funk dance party” and the latter won, he demanded they first “get off your New York asses!”
Alas, the nature of The Loft doesn’t lend itself to the frenzied displays that Himmelman’s music is capable of unleashing, just as he can dive into the deepest spiritual realm, sometimes, as in the case of encore “Woman With the Strength of 10,000 Men” (about a severely disabled woman who could communicate only by eyeing a computer screen alphabet), in the same song. Then again, he came up in the same fertile Minneapolis music scene that also spawned the likes or Prince, and is no less adept a guitarist, songwriter and performer, not to mention soulful songwriter.
And when he’s accompanied by first-class musicians, Himmelman is exceedingly generous. He might let Thompson control the volume, or give Morgan another round to continue an exqusite solo. In fact, Morgan, who studied jazz in New Orleans with Ellis Marsalis,, took plenty more than sparkling piano solos: He followed Thompson to the stage at the beginning while playing a pro model melodica through a siphon, prompting Himmelman to observe, “Nothing sounds as good as a child’s toy in a man’s hands.”
Man-child Morgan would employ the melodica throughout the evening, turning Himmelman’s “Mission of My Soul” (like “Woman With the Strength of 10,000 Men” from his 1991 album From Strength to Strength), at his command, into a Dixieland-style exercise, additionally aided by New York-based Israeli alto saxophonist Uri Gurvich. Considering the respectfully sedate nature of his audience, he also pointedly selected songs like “For Wednesday at 7PM” (from his 2014 album The Boat That Carries Us) and “Time Just Flew” (Love Thinketh No Evil, 1998).
But as ever, Himmelman made ‘em laugh with his spontaneous compositions (one concerning a long-haired guy up front and his “Jewish dreads”), recital of professional performer rules (“Don’t turn your back on your audience unless you’re Miles Davis,” after which he permitted a female fan to bring her chair on stage and sit at the end of the piano for a frontal view of him performing a solo song), and giving everyone the option of hearing “love, hate or death songs” from his voluminous catalog.
And he went through the motions of entertaining audience requests before merrily shutting down the din with “you know I’m not going to do any of them!” Not true, though, for he did do the beautiful ballad “Shilo,” from Skin (1994), after explaining that one of his kids felt he should bring it back to the repertoire.
Most telling, though, was another fave, “Impermanent Things,” also from From Strength to Strength. Himmelman recalled how the first time he played it with Morgan, Morgan anticipated every change in the song and got there ahead of him.
“It was the night...we fell in love,” HImmelman said, then added, “If you can’t love your friends, what are you doing with them? Trying to get rich?”