Polymath Louche

by Lorna Lentini

As playwright-turned-statesman Vaclav Havel once moved easily between the proto-punk club CBGBs and the Public Theater, so too has the pluralist pair of musicians coalescent as Polygraph Lounge lately shifted uptown and off the Bowery, to Joe's Pub.

While the room's a faux joint -- it's theatre, after all -- it may well be the closest thing to a classic mid-century (that's twentieth century, the last millennium) New York night spot on current offer, artfully nourishing a craving for flattering low light and unembellished whiskey. Except tonight I've got a clear view of the stage over the heads of two or three 8-year-olds sucking back a round of sodas. Real 8-year-olds, with buzz-cuts and pants that fit and baseball caps worn the right way around, like snap-brims. So what gives?

Witnessing top-shelf sessionmen Rob Schwimmer and Mark Stewart steal their own show as "Polygraph Lounge" is curiously reminiscent of squabbling over the TV, pre-remote: when there was generally just one set per home, which entailed sharing; and you actually had to get up and cross the room to "spin the dial." Older siblings routinely imposed their program preferences as a tag-team, keeping the punier ones at bay with any and all means at hand -- and both hands were free to administer a series of head noogies, half-nelsons and hammerlocks, not to mention a devolving repertoire of Sunday afternoon wrestling moves ("Killer Kowalski's Clawhold" comes, indelibly, to mind).

Eventually, that satisfying burp of the television dial produced a bona fide, straight jump cut, while a brisk series of them conjured up a homemade shotgun montage. In retrospect, this was far more intriguing than the intangible suspension, equivalent to "dead air" on the radio, we currently endure between channels; the intrinsic digital hang, that lack of ? snap.

At one time, like it or not, you could see -- and hear -- what you were missing en route to where you were going, and these are the preferred, discursive byways of Polygraph Lounge. Stewart, when he's not delivering lyrics in a mellifluous tenor primed for the musical-comedy stage, pitch-perfectly wails on a series of vintage heavy-metal guitar riffs; while Schwimmer channels and champions the lower-registered Randy Newman, Eric Burdon, Joe Cocker -- John Carradine, for all I know. To hell with the New Media. This is very old media: showbiz.

Mix one part Melvilliana ("Herman, that is") to the tune of The Beverly Hillbillies and, uh, "Whiter Shade of Whale," then cut to the chase in Tommy -- "Pinball Wizard," convincingly rendered by Johnny Cash under the influence of "Folsom Prison Blues." Got that? The act is one long overture. An arsenal of familiar, extended intros combusts into astounding musical conclusions. At full sail, Polygraph Lounge tends to tack hither and yon, variously tilting at and colluding with the winds of several generations' worth of popular culture, from Edvard Grieg to Edgar Winter. And that's just for starters.

Above and beyond their bait-and-switch playbook, the stagecraft itself is all sharp elbows and silken segues (a mild, brief, yet sadistic smile flickers across Rob's lips as Mark bogarts an extended percussion solo popping -- no, pounding -- his cheeks. Rob's shadow of a grin says it all: "That's gotta smart. Great."), the interplay hovering like "thought" balloons over comic-strip characters in a plume of diminishing bubbles ? or a mute rendition of Bugs Bunny's Borscht-Belt to-camera asides. This is wonderfully evident at Joe's Pub, since there are actual lighting cues at work here (as opposed to the sole, presumably overwhelmed, sound person on tap at CB's Gallery).

It would be understatement verging on disinformation to tag Rob Schwimmer as a keyboardist, or reduce Mark Stewart to designated ax-man, since at last count, they played 104 different?things; and while the level of sheer musicianship is impeccable to the point of improvidence, their humor somehow remains palpably verbal.

To wit, the duo even manages to redress a psychotic episode induced by a series of electroshock jolts (administered via theremin), and contrives to "bring Rob back" from his inadvertent transformation into an ill-tempered rodent with a nagging falsetto ("I just want to sound like Barry White, but I'm Alvin, I'm pissed, and I bite!") by invoking an audience-participation move lifted from Peter Pan. What's really interesting is not so much that we swallow this bunch of hooey, but that we do so with great gusto -- even though Rob-as-rogue-chipmunk may be about as funny as it is humanly possible to get.

But then, you've got to breathe sometime. I could consider the deft, sly bricolage construct of the work, but let's not and say we did. The pleasure of all this context lies in leaving it up to Stewart and Schwimmer to analyze, synthesize and let it rip. They do not disappoint. The thematic compression is blistering; its effect akin to experiencing Soupy Sales, Danny Kaye, and Ernie Kovacs performing simultaneously, duking it out for supremacy on the same bill -- with Shirley Bassey, the Tijuana Brass and Led Zeppelin backing them up. The notion of "sampling" does not apply here. Make no mistake: these are serious analog guys.

This team gives the notion of "transposition" a whole new twirl across the dance floor; they can't resist a secondary character, and no good tertiary reference goes unturned. On the other hand, if Elmore Leonard is on target with his observation that writing fares best once you "leave out the part that readers tend to skip," then Polygraph Lounge is certainly on-track to triumph, since they proceed to work almost everything that's been published, hummed, recited, composed, projected, performed or otherwise bandied about in public for the last couple of centuries -- and then lose just about all of it.

"We play the tunes man," Mark Stewart claims, "and you even get "Swan Lake"! We change it a little bit harmonically, to totally give it to you, because Tchaikovsky's a little more subtle about it. We give you that one extra note to get you in there even more, because we don't have time to do the whole damn thing for you -- when you see "Swan Lake," you hear that theme constantly, you're only gonna hear it once with us. Or twice. ? Fast. And loud."

Polygraph Lounge ropes an audience with a single tune, hog-ties them with a couple more, and winds up selling them still another -- somewhat startling -- bill of goods. It's not spin, it's torque. The house is exhausted, yet rapt. No one gets up to go to the washroom. Folks sit tight for multiple sets. The waitstaff has a hard time of it hustling drinks. People go away happy, and they come back for more; they will be fooled again.

Stewart shrugs, "You give someone the opening to "China Grove," that Doobie Brothers tune? That's all you've got to hear. And isn't that all we want to hear?"

He's probably right.

"Especially," according to Schwimmer, "in New York, where, you know, a tree is representative of 'trees.' It's kind of like, you've got one tree and you're good."

© Lorna Lentini
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