Recap: The Lowbrow Reader Variety Hour at Housing Works

In honor of Manhattan comedy journal The Lowbrow Reader’s new issue, Housing Works Bookstore hosted The Lowbrow Reader Variety Hour last night. Variety was indeed the key: the event featured musical performances, a reading, and a comedy routine.

The evening commenced with oddball musician Peter Stampfel and the Ether Frolic Mob. The farcical performance of the eponymous Stampfel, who howled and grimaced comically while playing souring notes throughout the set, made one wonder if Christopher Guest was filming a sequel for A Mighty Wind from somewhere in the back.

A reading by Gilbert Rogin followed the hokey folk trio. Rogin was published regularly in the New Yorker in the ’60s and ’70s, while concurrently acting as the managing editor of Sports Illustrated. He later founded the now-defunct Vibe Magazine alongside Quincy Jones. He has since fallen out of the literary scene. Now 79, Rogin’s revival is small but sweet – his out-of-print books will go back into production, and The Lowbrow Reader just published his first story in three decades.

“Can you be a writer if you can’t read your writing?” he commented, self-aware of his rusty performance. Nonetheless, the tenderness he felt for his subject, boxer Muhammed Ali, was obviously just as strong as when he’d written the piece ages ago.

Perky Larkin Grimm swiftly changed the tone when she took the stage next, showcasing a splayed peacock feather in her hair and a commanding stage presence. She encouraged audience participation during one of her songs, and easily contorted her loud clear voice into impressive animalistic sounds.

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John Mulaney, SNL writer and quick-witted commentator on weekly media ridiculousness for VH1’s Best Week Ever, followed her and nailed it. He claimed he’d been nervous — alleging that literary crowd at Housing Works was intimidating, and he’d been worried that he’d be bringing the bar down, “like drawing a dick on a Rothko.” Mulney shuttled between the subjects of Girl Scout cookies (thin mints – he loves them but feels uncomfortable harassing young girls in berets), Greenpoint, and the troubles of New York City real estate (the prison cell featured in the movie Public Enemies started looking good to him). His astute commentary never once veered into schticky or obnoxious, yet it wasn’t docile or predictable either.

Last in the line-up: sibling duo Fiery Furnaces. Eleanor’s stage presence was adorably skittish (she admitted to being a bit disconcerted by the quiet of the venue and stated “I’m used to doing more headbanging”) and hid behind her bangs. As she and Matt played songs from their new album, including “Cut the Cake,” and a hybrid of “I’m Going Away” and “Charmaine Champagne,” their performance was wonderfully pared-down and hushed, a simple showcase of two fine talents.

Overall, it was indeed a Variety hour – the inconsistencies were charming in their own, well, lowbrow way.