Jason Trachtenburg kick started his career parodying other people's family vacations. So it makes sense that the guitarist's Saturday night show at Manhattan's Makor played out like a dysfunctional family dinner.
A slim, bi-spectacled singer-guitarist, who sports a Rick Moranis look of bewilderment, Trachtenburg talks just like any other member of the East Village's intellectual Hipster community. In fact, until just a few years ago, it looked like Trachtenburg was destined to be a footnote in the city's Lo-Fi, anti-folk community; a semi-successful songwriter loosely aligned with alt-rockers the Presidents of the United States. But, three years ago, Trachtenburg stumbled upon an unlikely pop hook: his six-year old drummer daughter.
Recruiting young Rachel as his drummer, and wife Tina as his projectionist, Trachtenburg turned himself into a cut-hero of sorts, writing short, quirky songs based upon a series of vintage slides his family acquired at local tag sales. A vaudevillian stage show in everything but name, The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow are, perhaps, the most unique trio touring today. Mixing Woody Allen-style comedy and stream of conscious pop, The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players craft bizarre, challenging songs that buzz like mainstream radio in everything but subject matter. Their songs are short, catchy and packed with hooks, yet Jason's words ramble like the most odd-ball Frank Zappa compositions. Packing Upper Manhattan's Makor with a nervous mix of music and comedy, The Trachtenburg's made it nearly impossible to distinguish between reality and fiction. In fact, given Makor's Jewish cultural center local, at times the trio's interaction played out more like a traditional, family dinner than a rock and roll concert. Throughout their hour-long performance, husband Jason narrated, taking himself out of the group's stage-show like setting. At times he seemed to interact with his audience like George Burns during his classic television program, poking fun at himself and helping move his concert through its various segments. Yet, the most endearing moments arrived when the trio stepped away from their shtick, interacting like, well, a normal Jewish family. Family members even manned the merchandise stand, selling home sewn Rachel dolls at a discount price.
Opening with a short ditty, appropriately dubbed the "Trachtenburg Family Slide Show Players Theme Song," Jason and his family fashioned themselves indie-rock's answer to the Partridge family. Only, unlike that fictional collective, the Trachtenburgs are, actually, a real family, living, breathing, and poking fun at life's little idiosyncrasies. So, while Jason spewed out short, amusing stories like "Eggs" and "Fondue Friends in Switzerland," it was easy to think of these bizarre asides as the random thoughts popping into a bored suburbanite as he strolls through a wholesome family vacation. As their theme song explains, the Trachtenburg's tour in an old '93 Suburban — a real family living out their bizarre tales. Joking about a poorly received radio performance from the night before, Jason set himself up as a perpetual loser turning his repressed thoughts into odd-ball musical moments. Where fiction and reality crisscross is truly convoluted.
Never one to play second fiddle to her husband, Tina Trachtenburg acted as a virtual musician, clicking her slides in time with Jason's bizarre guitar-and-piano jams. With a fondness for outdated 1960s and 70s slides, Tina pushed the Slideshow Player's musical envelope, making fun of the staged poses and odd objects that are often the subject matter of family photo albums. A rounded, unnatural red-head, whose style is strangely akin to Sharon Osborne, Tina Trachtenburg crafted her slides in the same genre of Jason's songs: lo-budget and at times out of focus. Sitting quietly at her drum-set, Rachel played sympathetically, with a style that recalled Meg White rather than the smart-pop players that her father favor's. Then again, at age nine, it's hard to criticize Rachel's solid rock performance.
Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the Trachtenburg Family's show was the evening's extended musical suite: a "rock-opera" based around a vintage set of slides from a 1977 McDonalds corporate meeting. A humorous parody of corporate America, the Trachtenburg's song titles provide a nice synopsis of the six-minute opera: "OPNAD Contribution Study Committee Report, June 1977," "What Will The Corporation Do?," "Wendy's, Sambos, and Long John Silver's," "Let's Not Have the Same Weight in 1978 – Let's Have More," "Why Did We Decide to Take This Decision to You?," and "Together As a System We are Unbeatable."
But, like the best reality television, the most fascinating element of the Trachtenburg's performance was their family interaction. In an odd way, the Trachtenburg's have found the endearing epicenter of reality-entertainment: a simple family trying to succeed in the music industry. Between Jason's nervous laugh and Tina's shameless merchandise plugs, the Trachtenburg's homegrown musical drive gave their show a tangible element of reality. Likewise, the trio's quirky performance approach has made them a natural fit at festivals like Bonnaroo. Perhaps, one day, the trio will most likely be the subject of a particularly revealing episode of Behind the Music. But today there is still comfort knowing that the Trachtenburg's will end their show with a closing theme song.