Wrapping Up a Good Month’s Worth of Shows
If you’ve been following this space over the last couple of weeks, you’ve probably been wondering where all the concert coverage went. That’s not to say that this has been a slow month for live shows – this is NYC, after all. To keep pace with what’s been happening, here’s a look at some of the highlights from the past month or so that didn’t get coverage here for one reason or another (the band just got written up here; the show wasn’t that good; it’s hard to come up with anything much to say about a performance where you show up late and only catch the last half hour).
After a long hiatus, a reconfigured version of psychedelic Greek surf/rebetiko rockers the Byzan-tones has made a scorching comeback in recent weeks. Their show at Otto’s in early August was off the hook and got a rave review here; a couple of weeks later at Zebulon, they were even better. The electric oud is sorely missed, but they’re incorporating more and more of the virtuosity of new guitarist Steve Antonakos into the show, a good idea considering his extensive background playing this kind of stuff with Magges. It was a feast of scary chromatics, and frontman/guitarist George Sempepos was getting all kinds of praise for his brooding baritone vocals.
Another first-rate instrumental unit that had been on hiatus for just as long, Dimestore Dance Band, is back together and has been playing a series of last-minute gigs as they reconfigure themselves (the drum chair has been rotating lately). They were a staple of the Tonic scene in the mid-zeros, and since guitarslinger Jack Martin and bassist Jude Webre decided to get back together, they’ve made Zirzamin - the closest thing to Tonic in New York these days – their new home. Like the Byzan-tones, their late July show at Zirzamin drew a rave here; their show there earlier this month was also arguably even better. Playing a borrowed guitar through a borrowed pedalboard, Martin broke a string on the first song, fueling a savage, volcanic performance that rocked harder than anything this elegant, cerebral gypsy/jazz/ragtime/jamband has done lately. Billing themselves as the Bob Dylan Deathwatch, they put Martin on vocals on a handful of searing, swampy, noir covers of Dylan, the Stanley Brothers and Martin’s old garage rock band Knoxville Girls. Sometimes musicians play their best when they’re pissed off: this show was a prime example.
One of the most reliably excellent free summer concert series in town is the jazz program put on by the Jazzmobile at a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces around the five boroughs. At the very end of last month, veteran pianist Barry Harris, who goes all the way back to the golden age of the 50s, played a suavely indestructible set of bop standards with a four-horn septet way up at Grant’s Tomb. Places to sit and watch (and try to figure out who the supporting cast was) were hard to come by: although the series’ site doesn’t list the concert, somebody must have spread the word because there was a big afterwork posse gathered around the monument with their picnics and lawn chairs. Does everyone in Harlem read the NY Jazz Record? It would seem like it.
Another enjoyable end-of-the-month show was Demolition String Band’s Friday night gig at Rodeo Bar. Frontwoman/guitarist Elena Skye has never sung better or with more nuance, and lead guitarist Boo Reiners remains one of the most soulfully pyrotechnic players in country music. He flatpicked and twanged and jangled while Skye led the band through a mix of well-received, biting twangrock and C&W originals from earlier in their career along with some more rustic material from their sensationally good new album Gracious Days, plus a handful of bluegrass classics.
Quirky instrumentalists This Spy Surfs, who’ve been around forever, made a return to the stage Labor Day weekend at Otto’s and proved no worse for a long layoff. The bass growled and popped, the guitar snaked and slashed and the drums switched from a new wave scamper to a surprisingly funky pulse. The band name is a misnomer: what they play is basically catchy 80s rock without the vocals. It’s good to see such an original band back in action.
One of the year’s most amusing concert moments happened about a week later at Tompkins Square Park, where David Peel forgot the lyrics to The Pope Smokes Dope. The original stoner freak-folk songwriter has only been playing the song for about 45 years – and he had to stop in the middle and then restart it when he remembered what they were. Maybe he’d had a marijuana….duh, of course he’d Have a Marijuana at a time like this. That’s the title of his John Lennon-produced debut album, which reputedly went multi-platinum despite being banned from radio and the Top 40 charts for obvious reasons. He sang that one, and a new song for the Occupy movement, and a handful of other singalongs. There seemed to be just about as many people gathered in front of the crowd, playing with Peel – there’s a reason why his scruffy band is called the Lower East Side – as there were watching. The band before Peel, a tunefully sludgy metal trio called the Aliens, who sounded like the Melvins doing Social Distortion, weren’t bad either. They’re also impossible to find online (try googling “aliens” and “Tompkins Square”…)
While the summer concerts are over, there’s still plenty of interesting free music around town. The series of ongoing performances of new music by an eclectic mix of European composers – primarily from Austria - programmed by the Austrian Cultural Center on 52nd Street got off to a good start Friday night at the Bohemian National Hall with the Talea Ensemble. The respected avant garde chamber group’s first piece was Ondrej Adamek’s Ca Tourne Ca Bloque, an electroacoustic work that had the ensemble mimicking spoken phrases in French and Japanese. There was clearly some improvisation going on along with what was on the scores; it wasn’t easy to figure out which was which, particularly when the piece began swirling as the laptop started spitting out random spoken phrases. Music is often described as having the quality of speech – emphatic, conversational, laughing, teary, you name it – and this was an interesting exploration of that concept, even if it went on a little long.
The group followed that with a percussive suspense movie for the ears, Pierluigi Billone’s Dike Wall, interspersing tense washes of sound from the strings amidst even tenser scrapes, scampers, suspenseful footfalls and the occasional ominous crash from inside the piano as well as from the vast collection of instruments employed by percussionist Alex Lipowski, who was given centerstage and got a real workout. The series at the Austrian Cultural Center is ongoing: reservations are required..
Much as it’s been a typically good month for concerts in this city, there were a few disappointments as well. That Summerstage show last month was a sad reminder that just because a girl has a southern accent and plays the banjo, it doesn’t make what she does any more interesting than what you’d hear in the dentist’s office. That classical pianist with the lovely musical name did her best with a difficult program, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the screeches of the security gates at that ill-advised anniversary tribute series way downtown. And that rock & roll reverend needs to drop that hideous hair-metal cover from the set list. It’s worse than a bathroom tune: it’s enough to clear a room.