Chris Daly knows mallets don’t play unless you know “Bags’ Groove.”
The only people who will tell you that it’s easy to make a living making music are lying to you. Ask Sean McCaul, who has spent more than a decade busking on the streets and subways of NYC, an even more impressive feat when you consider his chosen instrument is the vibraphone, the red-headed stepbrother of the xylophone—essentially a giant, rolling box of pipes played with padded sticks.
Like a harp or baby grand piano, not what one would consider “easily relocatable.” The music speaks for itself, though, allowing the mallet man to sell thousands of self-produced CDs over the years to willing commuters as only a musical hustler can. McCaul trades the shadows of the F Train for the shadows of the recording studio on his stellar debut, Midnight at the Purple Palace, courtesy of the Sawyer.Gallery label.
Whether it’s McCaul’s relaxed musical stylings or the innate ability of the vibraphone to conjure images of overcrowded jazz cafes, Midnight at the Purple Palace soars above what in less capable hands easily could have come across as lounge club schlock. McCaul is a skilled mallet percussionist and composer, further aided by the musicians with whom he chooses to surround himself. Bassist Dave Johnsen’s time with Grandmothers of Invention is evident on the Funkadelic by way of James Bond interlude that is “Bob Harvey Oswald,” at times gloriously full of cosmic slop before dipping in and out of McCaul’s steadying percussion. While McCaul does brilliantly playing the solo virtuoso on jams like, “Freddy’s Prelude,” (his arrangement of Chopin’s “Prelude in E minor”), the album reaches its heights when SM dons the bandleader’s cap and interplays with his freak musicians. He locks into his most glorious grooves when Jordan Shapiro takes hold of the squeeze box.
With its brushed drums and sea shanty accordion, “The Way Out” is a stand-out track here, a midnight stroll along the beach but infinitely less cheesy than this sentence makes it sound. Along with “Newbest Friend,” which utilizes a more South France feel, McCaul and Shapiro give one another room to move in partnership, and this one-two punch should become their calling card. The album ends as all great albums should, with the listener wanting more. The enchanting “When I Say Cha-Cha” throws in just a snippet of gruff vocals at the tail end that deliberately betray an entirely different direction the music could have taken.
Midnight at the Purple Palace is elevated by the streetwise composure of its musicians who exude equal parts subway jazz, free form funk, and back alley shenanigans with just enough gonzo rock and drunken pirate sensibilities necessary to create this kind of underground masterpiece.