NEW YORK — Friends and fans of Ivan Julian — a co-founder of the seminal punk group Richard Hell & the Voidoids and a member of many notable New York and New Jersey bands — gathered to hear him perform songs and tell stories about his life in his show titled “Working Without a Net: An Evening of Songs and Stories with Ivan Julian” at City Winery, Dec. 5. It was a thrilling evening of inventive music and evocative songs spanning his more than 45 years as a performer.
Seated at a table that touched the stage, I felt uncomfortably close to the performers, occasionally feeling their breath, but I benefited from catching their nuanced signals to each other. To take photos, I had to look up like a child at a dinner table, sitting low in her chair. When I finally relaxed into my seat, I felt enveloped by the amazing musicianship of Julian and the musicians in his band. If music can make you holy, I felt like I was sitting up front near the rabbi, in a synagogue.
Guitarist and pianist Julian assembled James Mastro and Al Maddy on guitars; Florent Barbier on drums; Jared Michael Nickerson on bass; Mike Ratti on percussion; and Debby Schwartz and Judy Ann Nock on vocals. Guests included Richard Barone, Vernon Reid of Living Colour, Steve Wynn of The Dream Syndicate, David Amram, Glenn Mercer of The Feelies, and Julian’s son Austin Sley Julian.
The show celebrated Julian’s life as well as his recovery from cancer that was first diagnosed in 2015, and recurred in 2020. His medical condition has improved, with the cancer in remission, and this concert proved that he is back and ready to make music. (He has recorded an instrumental album, Speechless, and plans to release it soon.)
When the full band was joined by Mercer and Reid, my close, low seat required that I stare up at the musicians, creating a fully immersive experience. I was astounded by the mesmerizing and visceral sounds of rock ‘n’ roll and the guitar prowess on display. It almost made my stiff neck worthwhile.
Julian, who toured with The Foundations in the ’70s, entertained the crowd early in the show with their song “Build Me Up Buttercup” and then performed his own “Can’t Help Myself” from his powerful 2020 album Swing Your Lanterns (released in Europe and awaiting release in the United States).
We were treated to our first guest when Wynn took the stage to perform the Kinks song “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” an anthem to non-conformity that blended well with Julian’s theme, referenced throughout the show, of working without a net or a linear path.
Next up was 91-year-old David Amram, who appeared on a large screen via Zoom and recited lyrics from Richard Hell & the Voidoids’ “Blank Generation.”
Julian, on piano, led a gorgeous and melancholy rendition of The Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light” with Schwartz and Nock adding their warm harmonies (see video below). It’s a song of great compassion, sung to someone who has hit rock bottom (“drunk in the alley … with your clothes all torn”), and Julian delivered it with sensitivity and beauty.
Listen to the band’s dramatic performance of “Cut Me Loose” from Swing Your Lantern in the video below. Mastro and Julian looked like they were enjoying their guitar interplay; they have played together over the years in various bands and made a sizzling pair throughout the evening. When they face each other playing, it’s hard not to stare at their fingers flying.
Barone, the next guest to join the band, used his cellphone to call Matthew Sweet from the stage and put him on speaker phone so the audience could hear him address Julian. Barone then led the band in a playful rendition of Sweet’s “Girlfriend,” placing the phone onstage for Sweet to listen (see video below).
Julian played his haunting song “Cazalla” (see video below), also from Swing Your Lanterns, afterwards, and told the audience that he wrote it while on tour with Sweet when he was stuck in a hotel room due to a snowstorm. He played his eerie instrumental “Her Last Breath” with Austin Sley Julian, plus “Tell Me Lies,” “Love Is Good” (one of my favorites, reminiscent of John Lennon), “Voodoo Christmas” and the title track from Swing Your Lanterns. His songs touched on themes of love, loss, passion and challenges. (The catchy “Voodoo Christmas,” he said in a prior interview, describes having a difficult day and serves as an ironic holiday song).
Julian and the band played a rousing rendition of “Hardwired” from his 2011 album Naked Flame. I was hoping to hear the title track and Lucinda Williams’ “Broken Butterflies” (also on Naked Flame), but there are only so many songs that can be played in one night. I thought it might also have been fun to hear the band play The Clash’s “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe” or “The Call Up”; Julian inspired some of the lyrics to “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe” and played guitar on the recording of “The Call Up.”
The full band, including Reid and Mercer, performed Shriekback’s “My Spine Is the Bassline” with Julian joining Schwartz and Nock on vocals. Mercer also played “Walk on the Water,” a Creedence Clearwater Revival song that Richard Hell & the Voidoids covered.
Julian has said that he, like most of his friends in the music industry, is working without a net. And truly, most of us are also working without knowing what troubles and gifts await us. Julian has negotiated his illness and life’s changes in a way that has kept the passion in his music. It’s still fiery and wild and that is a gift for all of us.
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