by Steve Nardoni
The other night I kinda had a Midnight in Paris experience. Unlike in the Woody Allen film, I was not whisked away in a 1920s four-cylinder Peugeot, but merely had to walk down Second Avenue below 14th Street.
From Second Avenue in the East Village, August, 2016, I walked into Pompie’s Place, the pop-up blues club at the back of Pangea at 178 Second Avenue.
I entered a dark, sultry, candlelit café and I could’ve been in a boozy blues club 60 years ago. The candlelit—and cramped (all the more fun and authentic, elbowing with the glitterati)—space with no more than 20 tables was packed with people eating the fine Pangea cuisine or slurping from pretty glasses. The only things really missing were plumes of cigarette smoke and bathtub gin. Greeted by the host, Arthur “Pompie” Pomposello, the patrons were gently and amusingly transported by his tongue-in-cheek speakeasy banter.
But it was the compelling talent that moved the charade from fiction into firm fact and feeling: they were serving “top-shelf blues.” The featured singers—silky soprano Tanya Holt, and Lezlie Harrison, who evoked Nina Simone in her playfulness—both in blues, sang the tunes with pathos, clarity and enthusiasm. These sophisticated ladies nailed down and cemented the aura of that age with many songs that contained the rueful, wistful pleas of women wanting better men. Things have not changed that much, I guess.
No trouble here seeing Lezlie on the corner of 12th Street and Vine with her “Kansas City baby and a bottle of Kansas City wine” as she plaintively sang her rendition of “Kansas City” (Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller). And Tanya whispered “Ill Wind” (Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler) as if she were trying to soothe herself and the audience from “ . . . troubles that creep up from out of nowhere, when love’s to blame.” The eleven songs performed, from “St. Louis Blues” (WC Handy), “When I Get Low I Get High” (Chick Webb And Ella Fitzgerald) to “Blues in the Night” (Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer) filled the café with maudlin melodies and memories.
Ehud Asherie on piano and Ken Peplowski on jazz clarinet and tenor saxophone skillfully evoked the era of swing, blues, and jazz (stage direction by Gregg Goldston). The camaraderie among the musicians was sweet. After a riff by Ehud and Ken, Lezlie purred, “I want what they’re drinkin’.”
Despite a cutesy distraction of a contrived shootout in the alley behind the “speakeasy,” the fantasy remained intact, artfully maintained by the ensemble of soulful singers and right-on musicians. The evening flew by, and I, somewhat regretfully, had to re-enter the bland world of Second Avenue in 2016, but with a smile on my face and a song in my soul.
Pompie’s Place has one remaining show, Wednesday, August 10 at 7.30 PM at Pangea (178 Second Avenue, between 11th and 12th Streets). www.pangeanyc.com or www.pompiesplace.com for tickets and information.
Photos: Lou Montesano