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The dark inspires Charming Disaster in ‘Musical Tarot Show’

Sep 25, 2021

The name, Charming Disaster, would seem to explain everything. But I’ll go ahead with this review anyway.

And as it turns out, first impressions built on titles drawn from cute dichotomies (Led Zeppelin!), and a studied attention to Goth eveningwear (Lady Gaga!), are no way to judge a band.“Charming Disaster’s Musical Tarot Show” is a schtick, but the music of the Brooklyn duo is legit.

Charming Disaster’s late-night Thursday show at the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival was a perfect fit for The Spirit Room. Songs about murder, spies, various aspects of the occult, and schizophrenia — “I am the nemesis of my better half” — work well in a room filled with skulls. And as said by Ellia Bisker, the ukulele half of the duo, this is music “inspired by the dark.”

And as they also admit, inspired by cartoonist Edward Gorey (master of Victorian darkness!) and filmmaker Tim Burton (“Beetlejuice!” “Edward Scissorhands!”).

Charming Disaster's Jeff Morris introduces a tarot theme before playing a song at The Spirit Room on Sept. 23, 2021.
Credit Ashleigh Deskins / WXXI

Bisker offered a very quick primer on how tarot cards work, although very few people in the intimate, packed room — maybe 40 or so — seemed to need the introduction. The other piece of the duo, acoustic guitarist Jeff Morris, prefaced each song with a tarot theme such as “What Crosses Us,” and then supposedly selected the next tune by offering a member of the audience the opportunity to pull a tarot card from a black bag.

And so the show-opening theme of “The Present” was defined by the tarot’s “The Sun Card.” To Charming Disaster, that called for a song called “Artichoke,” and the line “Your prickly spines conceal a tender heart.”

How Charming Disaster went from “The Present” to a vegetable metaphor for thorny relationships is a trade secret, but it was all loopy fun. And with the introduction of each tarot card, the knowledgeable crowd whooped with appreciation.

To spiritual outsiders, tarot cards seem to offer a big, open window to interpretation. The theme of “What Crowns Us” could be aspiration, Bisker said, or what looms overhead, about to crush us. In other words…something good, something bad, whatever you want it to be.

The message of some tarots is more direct. “The Strength Card,” Morris pointed out, seems to feature an illustration of someone attempting to pill a cat. “I think we all know,” Bisker said, “how much strength that requires.”

Well, Bisker clearly has gone places some of us dare not go.

Ellia Bisker plays during Charming Disaster's Musical Tarot Show at The Spirit Room on Sept. 23, 2021.
Credit Ashleigh Deskins / WXXI

Sometimes accented with kazoo or a kick drum constructed from a dusty old suitcase, Charming Disaster's songs led the audience through minor-chord dissonance and themes of “our basic instincts” conducted through “urges from the reptilian brain.”

There was excellent imagery, such as, “The smell of smoke is on your breath, though I’ve never seen you smoke a cigarette.” Or the sage advice behind the theme of “temperate,” which Bisker warned could run both ways: “Moderation in all things, including moderation.”

With its sweet harmonies, Charming Disaster is the dichotomy of light and dark. “Make a wish at a shooting star,” Bisker sang, "and I hope it’s not aiming at you.” Bandanas are a useful thing, she noted, “if you need a tourniquet or a mask.” A song about a famous spirit medium conceded that the woman was a fraud; and yet, “a cold wind emanated from a hole in her head.” The couple in “Driving to Idaho” had a body stashed in the trunk of the car.

Each song was like drifting through a dream, or a nightmare.

But even a graveyard can be a lovely walk.

In the daytime.

Charming Disaster plays one more sold-out Spirit Room concert Saturday afternoon, at 5 p.m., with the venue offering another show later that night featuring “8 Chamber Hunger Orchestra.” The 12-day Rochester Fringe Festival draws to a close Saturday, highlighted by the Joywave concert at E. Main Street’s Parcel Five — or The Five, or the Place Where We Were Going to Put a Performing Arts Center, whatever it’s called.

The complete festival schedule is available atrochesterfringe.com. Go to “Find a Show,” create a list of events by date, venue and genres, then hit the “Filter” button. Tickets to each event are available at the web site, by calling (585) 957-9837, or at the venue one hour before the start of the show if they are still available.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org. Feedback on this article can be directed todkushner@rochester-citynews.com.