Kill Henry Sugar’s cabaret rock
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., February 24, 2003) – Rock music doesn’t have to be loud, obnoxious and muscular to be effective. The New York duo Kill Henry Sugar, whose name belies its gentility, proved that at Club Helsinki on Sunday night with a captivating set of its lean, minimalist cabaret rock.

Accompanied only by drummer Dean Sharenow and his own guitar and banjo, singer-songwriter Erik Della Penna played and sang his vivid song-sketches that connected the dots between Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon, Tom Waits and Cole Porter. He sang about dictators, psychics, economics, and cultural and ecological devastation in a crystal-clear voice in songs that were at once melodic and bouncy enough for at least a couple of concertgoers to strut it on the dance floor for much of the night.

Della Penna’s subtle wit ran through his songs like an invisible thread. “Indiana,” for example, was about a white Midwesterner confused about the difference between being from his state and being a Native American. Della Penna introduced “Little Faker” as being about a lawyer, but it could have been about any cold business relationship gone badly.

Della Penna opened “Mussolini” in a frenzy of banjo noise right out of the Doors’ “The End,” before stating a simple, bluegrassy riff that moved the song along to its denouement, with the fascist dictator hanging “like clothes on the line.” Accompanying himself on amplified dobro, Della Penna sang an anti-income tax song called “Rodeo,” which he followed with a number that found common ground among Mormons, Disney and McDonald’s.

“Beekeeper” was a noirish jazz ballad which made the most of the central metaphor of taking care of someone who could sting you, and “His Trumpet’s Gone” took on the demise of jazz to a delicate shuffle beat.

Resonant lyrics popped out of every number Della Penna sang. “The psychic hotline gave bad advice,” “throw the Christians to a rabid lion king,” “it’s been a difficult winter with no insurance plan.” These could be idle jottings from a notebook, but Della Penna built well-crafted songs around them and performed them with understated flair.

Della Penna was a casual frontman, peppering his show with asides and engaging in plenty of good-natured give-and-take with his enthusiastic audience. Sharenow was a delicate accompanist, often using mallets and brushes to underline and punctuate the singer’s whimsical narratives.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 26, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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