Guitarist Aram Bajakian is in the midst of a weeklong stand at the Stone, with a revolving door of downtown jazz and rock talent. His late set last night was a rare performance with his wife, singer Julia Ulehla, playng what could be characterized as Balkan psychedelia from their magical Dalava album from late last year. Although both artists are respected in their individual fields – Bajakian was Lou Reed’s lead guitarist, did a turn in Diana Krall’s band and is one of John Zorn’s first-call guys, and Ulehla is in demand as a classical and indie classical singer – they haven’t worked together a lot, at least in public. And they should – this set was transcendent. They’re doing it again tonight, May 23 at 8 with a full band; at 10, Bajakian leads a “punk Armenian folk” group playing songs off his fantastic 2011 Kef album.
Bajakian wryly explained to the crowd that they shouldn’t expect note-for-note versions of the songs on the album, considering that the Stone is a place for improvisation, and that the two were dead set on playing without a net. They opened on a feral note, establishing a recurrent dynamic, Bajakian’s savage tunefulness counterbalanced by Ulehla’s precisely modulated, alternately wailing and misterioso delivery. All the material save for one song, if memory serves right, was taken from the Dalava album, based on a collection of folk songs passed down from Ulehla’s Moravian great-grandfather. Ulehla sang in perfectly unaccented Czech, providing English translations before pretty much every number.
And these songs are crazy, and fun, and had a sardonic humor worthy of the best American C&W. In more than one instance, Ulehla voiced both the clueless guy and the unattainable girl who puts him down. Together they played everything you could possibly want: fire-and-brimstone Slavic gospel; an airily skeletal horizontal mood piece; and a clanging, roaring, angst-fueled, Lynchian post-Velvets guitar number to open the show, Ulehla matching her husband for breathtaking intensity, if a little more low-key. Bajakian alternated between Telecaster and a hollowbody model that he played with a muted attack, but with the reverb turned up all the way to max out the ghostly factor.
Ulehla’s great-grandfather Vladimir believed that songs were like living beings (ask any musician – they are!) and that they could be reanimated at any future date, with whatever new life musicians could breathe into them. Bajakian turned an early number into a careening blues, and later shifted with deadpan aplomb between searing, cliffhanger noiserock and a tiptoeing waltz, drawing plenty of chuckles from the crowd. Meanwhile, Ulehla held her plaintive ground, whether with a soul-infused grit, an enigmatic resonance or operatic flair.
There’s an aasumption – grounded in decades of pretty irrefutable evidence – that people who play edgy music tend to be difficult and troubled. You certainly don’t expect them to be warm. But that’s how Bajakian and Ulehla came across, exchanging glances, as if to say to each other, “Isn’t this cool? I know you give everybody else goosebumps, but tonight the two of us can double that and then some!” Believe it or not, last night’s show wasn’t sold out. Tonight’s your chance to catch magic in a bottle.