The point of this blog’s Sunday Salon at Zirzamin is to create a scene. There are other good scenes in New York: all the good things happening at Barbes; oldtime Americana at the Jalopy; latin jazz at the Jazz Gallery, Jan Bell’s country and blues thing at 68 Jay St. Bar, Alexandra Joan‘s thematic classical series at WMP Concert Hall. But there’s no central rock scene in New York, unless you count the loser indie rock thing, whatever that is, in bush-WECK, as the gentrifier children there say in their funny accents. Because this blog’s focus is global, it’s been awhile since there’s been any report here on all the under-the-radar happenings at Zirzamin and elsewhere around town. So here we go!
Eclectic Canadian songwriter/chanteuse Lily Frost and her brilliant multi-instrumentalist husband Jose Contreras (not the guy who inadvertently springboarded the phrase “evil empire“) began their most recent show at Zirzamin by cranking up Contreras’ phone, setting the mood with a delicious mix of vintage Hawaiian guitar tunes. Much as Frost had her sultry voodoo lounge voice in full effect, she was a whirlwind onstage, alternating between vocals, guitar, keys, percussion and theremin. She and Contreras gave a southwestern gothic menace to hazy Mazzy Star jangle, did Billie Holiday as gypsy jazz and Pink Floyd’s San Tropez as the cruel proto-Margaritaville satire that Roger Waters didn’t have the range to pull off. But Frost’s originals were the most memorable: lush Gainsbourg/Birkin style psychedelic pop, the deceptively biting if sugary bounce of Do What You Love and an especially menacing, noir cabaret-infused take of Grenade, the darkest song on her latest album. At the end of the set they channeled the Dream Syndicate and encored with an unexpectedly carefree Buddy Holly cover. Frost has been making frequent return trips here: let’s hope she makes it down again soon.
The featured artists at Sunday Salon 17 were Black Sea Hotel and they were as breathtakingly haunting and otherworldly as always. The trio of Sarah Small, Corinna Snyder and Willa Roberts have made a name for themselves in Balkan music circles for their original arrangements of large-scale Bulgarian choral works: that these Americans were invited to perform at the Bulgarian consulate pretty much speaks for itself. Small’s register-smashing range, Roberts’ wild ornamentation and Snyder’s powerful, soul-mutating wail matched against each other with eerie close harmonies, minutely gleaming microtones, rapidfire lyrical gymnastics balanced by lushly sustained passages. When Roberts announced that one of their songs had been featured in a horror film, that came as no surprise. They took care to explain the songs’ topics, from the idea of shoes as ghetto bling among the peasantry, to strange, shapeshifing, lethal dragon-men, to the town of Zborinka which apparently drew all the guys in centuries past since it was rumored you could always get a girl there. The more things change, etc. The trio closed with a new song which included a verse translated to English, and a brand-new arrangement with slinky polyrhythms and interwoven harmonies so tight they could have been a string section. Their debut album from a couple of years back is amazing, and they’re working on a follow-up. Canadian gothic songstress Lorraine Leckie – who’s been the most consistent star of the Sunday Salon since it debuted right after the hurricane last year – kept the lushly haunting intensity going with a stripped-down trio performance highlighted by several numbers from her most recent chamber pop album, Rudely Interrupted, a collaboration with social critic/journalist/personality Anthony Haden-Guest. And she and her band the Demons are back at Zirzamin on May 5 at 7.
The following Saturday at the National Underground, powerhouse ragtime pianist Jack Spann opened with a sizzling solo set of originals ranging from the haunting Roly-Poly Man – a chilling story of murder and karmic payback – to an unexpectedly pensive, catchy ballad written by his wife. Spann then joined lyrical rocker Walter Ego, amping up one of his bluesier numbers. Walter (to call him “Ego” just doesn’t sound right) was similarly on his game, running through a set that ranged from a morbid art-rock piano number told from the point of view of a subway motorman who’s just hit someone on the tracks, to the gorgeously, cruelly metaphorical I Am the Glass, to a couple of catchy guitar tunes that evoked influences as diverse as the Kinks, Elvis Costello and of course the Fab Four (this guy knows the Beatles like few others). The best of these – it’s hard to choose – could have been a sardonically catchy, jangly number about minimizing one’s life, to the point where the womb and points even lower on the evolutionary scale begin to look appealing. Walter Ego is at Zirzzmin after the Salon on Apr 28 at 7.
Raquel Bell headlined Sunday Salon 18 with her Mesiko bandmate, guitarist David Marshall joining her for a characteristically uneasy, electric Neil Young-flavored tune. Bell has a history of brilliant collaborations: she co-led Norden Bombsight, an art-rock band who will be legendary someday when they’re rediscovered; lately she’s been singing and playing keys with violist Jessica Pavone in Normal Love, as well as fronting Mesiko with their dusky Americana menace. Bell has grown into an adept guitarist, playing solo on electric, shifting from distant jangly ominousness to an unexpectedly cheery, funky pop song titled Harry Partch. Then she switched to her vintage analog synth, sounding like a young Patti Smith backed by Tangerine Dream. The occasional moments where the synth went out of tune only added to the creepily carnivalesque atmospherics. Her voice lept and dove as the loops pulsed; she ended her set with a brooding, Marble Index-ish tone poem of sorts. She and Mesiko are at Zirzamin every Sunday for the remainder of April at around 10:30 PM.