New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: August, 2011

Roman Hurko’s Requiem for Chernobyl: Even More Relevant Today

New York Music Daily is a week old today, and so far, there has been no coverage of albums here. After all, albums are out of fashion, particularly in the rock world. And that’s probably a good thing. Many songwriters who have a good song in them don’t have another ten, and those who do often take several albums to get all of those songs out. Yet there’s no reason to discredit the idea of an album-length artistic work, or a successful collection. One such work is Roman Hurko’s Requiem for the Victims of Chornobyl [to be consistent, the transliterations from the original Ukrainian used here are the same ones used by the composer in the cd art and album notes, i.e. “Chornobyl” for Чернобыл].

Why is this ten-year-old album still relevant? For one, 2011 is the 25th anniversary of the disaster it commemorates, one which most likely killed a million people worldwide from radiation poisioning, cancer and birth defects. 2011 has also been the year of the probably far more lethal catastrophe at Fukushima – since there has never been a waterborne nuclear disaster, the ultimate toll in terms of human lives is unknown, next to impossible to predict, and could exceed the 1986 catastrophe by a factor of ten or even more. And taken simply as an artistic statement, an expression of grief and remembrance, Hurko’s Requiem is as memorable as it is important.

It is a work of the utmost solemnity and somberness: the music is as heavy as the lethal metals expelled in the nuclear inferno that followed the failed safety test (arguably the cruelest irony in human history) the night of April 26, 1986. It’s sung by the Frescoes of Kyiv Chamber Choir conducted by Oleksandr Bondarenko, who publically premiered it in that city fifteen years later. The lyrics are an Orthodox Catholic requiem, sung in Ukrainian specifically for the disaster victims. The music, in fifteen sections, begins very low, still and funereal, gradually grows more radiant, a balance of extreme lows and highs. A bass soloist appears on the third track and sings his most melodic part – since this is mass, much of the rest of his assigned passages are practically spoken, more an invocation than a melody. Throughout the suite, the tempos range from glacial to barely largo. And the melody itself resists resolution, and other than a small handful of anguished crescendos, doesn’t move around very much. Which it shouldn’t: there aren’t many shades of grief. That’s what makes this such a universal work. In ten years’ time, it will tragically be as appropriate a requiem for the victims of Fukushima as it was and remains for their counterparts thousands of miles away.

Who is the audience for this album? Fans of heavy, dark music – it doesn’t get any more gothic than this. And fans of the darker side of pre-baroque choral music, specifically composers like John Sheppard. Those who prefer the pyrotechnics of gospel music, or more avant garde outfits like Conspirare, may find this claustrophobic and monochromatic. Which, again, it’s supposed to be. Ten years after it was released, it still packs a wallop.

In the years since, Hurko – a Canadian of Ukrainian descent – has continued to compose: his most recent work is a richly dynamic setting of the complete Orthodox/Byzantine Catholic Vespers for choir and soloist. A search of the sharelockers and free music blogs didn’t turn up anything – it’s surprising that even now, this album remains so obscure. Copies and downloads are still available from Hurko’s site.

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African Revolution in Central Park

Yesterday afternoon Tiken Jah Fakoly strode onto Central Park’s Summerstage looking triumphant but haggard. Maybe all the years battling the gestapo in his native Ivory Coast are weighing on him…or maybe it was the fact that he’d just played well into the morning the same day at SOB’s. In a world where stardom is an antiquated concept, Fakoly is one. Not because of marketing, or some evanescent cosmetic appeal – Fakoly is a freedom fighter, the real deal. The part of the show that resonated the most with his fellow Africans was a tantalizingly brief medley of hits, including a barely thirty-second chorus of Quitte Le Pouvoir (Leave Power), his signature song. That one got him banned from the radio and it also almost got him killed. “African revolution” was his mantra here, that phrase being an instant recipe for confrontation with dictators and thugs throughout the world. He wants them gone, to “sweep them away,” as one of the songs in the medley put it.

And it’s not just sloganeering. What’s made him such a thorn in the side of the fascists is that he won’t settle for anything less than a revolution, “An intelligent revolution,” he told the crowd more than once, reminding that liberation can’t happen without both political and economic self-determination. Undoubtedly he would have elaborated further if his English was better. Most of the songs in this particular set were sung in French, some in his native dialect, his terse, aphoristic lyrics immersed in a dry, biting sense of humor that evoked Peter Tosh. And as much as Fakoly has a message, like the Wailers, he leads a kick-ass reggae band. Early on, they broke it down into a completely unexpected, echoey dub vibe; later on, the eight-piece group’s keyboardist used the rapidfire microtonal quaver of a ney flute setting for added menace. The band’s acoustic rhythm guitarist played virtuoso, spiky kora (West African harp) on several numbers, including an offhandedly ferocious anti-imperialist number: “They divided Africa without consulting me,” Fakoly sang nonchalantly, sardonically, in French. “We gotta get up!” The three-piece horn section soared and wailed as Fakoly stalked across the stage, once or twice summoning the energy for some unexpectly energetic dance moves.

And while Fakoly disdains most African regimes, he’s a great ambassador for the continent. Viens Voir (Come See) wasn’t just a wickedly catchy anthem: it was a fervent reminder that Africa, like everywhere else, is far more complex than it’s portrayed by the slavish corporate media. It’s not all suffering, misery and poverty. That song could be do for African tourism what Bob Marley’s Smile Jamaica did for that country. Yet he closed the show on a down note: essentially, what he told the crowd during his final fiery anthem is that his country was doing perfectly fine until the imperialists got there and fucked everything up. Nobody disagreed: half the crowd was too stoned to complain, the rest raising their fists in solidarity.

It was an unexpected treat to be able to catch a half-hour of New York roots reggae sensation Meta and the Cornerstones’ opening set: unexpected, because the last time Summerstage booked an African reggae artist, the lines to get into the arena stretched thousands of feet beyond the entrance. Where Fakoly speaks to global revolution, this band’s Senegal-born frontman reflected on a more front-and-center reality, police brutality against entrepreneurial if slightly illegal Brooklynites, and the hardships expatriate Africans have had to surmount since the Bush regime’s crackdown on immigration ten years ago. Like Fakoly, he’s got an amazing, eclectic band behind him: two horns, a keyboardist whose tantalizing allusions reach to both classical and jazz, and a lead guitarist who didn’t waste a single note through three long solos, equal parts purist Chicago blues, jazz and Al Anderson-style reggae.

The Ebony Hillbillies: Historically Aware Fun at Lincoln Center

[republished from New York Music Daily’s older sister blog Lucid Culture]

To say that the Ebony Hillbillies played a fun set at Lincoln Center out of Doors earlier this month might be a little bit obvious: by definition, bluegrass is fun. The Ebony Hillbillies’ version is a little more raw, and rustic, and when you think about it, authentic than a lot of bands playing that style of music. That’s because New York’s only black bluegrass band draws on a tradition that started before Emancipation, when part of a slave’s job was also to entertain the slavemasters. The band doesn’t belabor that point, but they also know their history: “There was a lot of music to learn,” violinist Henrique Prince explained to the crowd, elaborating on how slave musicians suddenly found themselves immersed in German or Irish music. One thing he didn’t say is that it’s more than a little ironic that bluegrass, commonly known as music played by caucasians, is performed entirely on instruments which originated in Africa.

Prince is the lead player in this band, with a briskly exuberant, fluid style, backed by the steady, clanking chords of clawhammer style banjo player Norris Bennett. Bassist Bill Salter (co-author of Grover Washington Jr.’s biggest hit, Just the Two of Us) slipped and slid gracefully, adding a little funk to the last song, a singalong/clapalong dance number called the Broke Leg Chicken. A rattling dance beat was delivered by Newman Taylor Baker, who played washboard with metal strikers on his fingers rather than with a metal brush, along with singer Gloria Thomas Gassaway, who added to her “reputation of working the audience [as the band’s website states]”  while playing bones and then leading the crowd in a couple of singalongs. In that crowd was jazz piano legend Barry Harris, who interrupted Gassaway briefly during the funny blues tune Big Fat Daddy to remind that skinny guys (who happen to like big women) have also got it going on.

And the crowd ate it up. A woman with a video camera began trailing a little redheaded girl (who appeared to be her granddaughter) and then persisted in filming individual members of the band in close-up for almost the entire duration of the show. But they didn’t let it phase them. Everyone listened attentively as Prince sang a desperate but ultimately triumphant tune told from the point of view of a slave running off to Georgia to get away from a speculator who planned to auction him off; then they danced and swayed as Prince led the group through an Irish reel and more traditional, Appalachian-flavored stuff. At the end, after the Broke Leg Chicken, they wanted an encore, and the band would clearly have played it if the promoters had let them.

Shelter From the Storm With the Dirty Urchins

The storm hit at about 7:30 last night. Watching the wind whip torrents of rain up Allen Street from behind the big plate-glass window at the Rockwood Music Hall’s original room, the question was whether that window would hold. Meanwhile, onstage, the Dirty Urchins were playing a song called Spare Me. They couldn’t have timed it better.

As it turned out, the window held – if it hadn’t, it would have been like a grenade had gone off in there. And it would have ruined the mood. The Dirty Urchins play charming, witty, unselfconsciously torchy acoustic songs with antique arrangements, yet those songs are also firmly rooted in the here and now. Perfect illustration: the last song of the set was a deadpan vaudevillian singalong called Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down, which would have made an apt concluding cut on a classic Kinks record. And while the band brought a late-night speakeasy atmosphere, it was one with bite – speakeasies were illegal, after all. Tenor sax player David Luther sang a wry blues about the new depression from the point of view of a guy who won’t let empty pockets get him down: his pickup line is, “I may be broke but I ain’t cheap.” And he didn’t use a mic. In fact, the only person in the band who used one was bassist Bennett Miller, who led the group through a breezy Beatlesque number, and another catchy one that wistfully observed how so many people we know used to play guitar and sing, but now have gone off to do more important things, the implication being that those more important things don’t include, say, shutting down nuclear reactors or overthrowing dictators.

And as it turned out, mics weren’t all that necessary: the crowd hung on the lyrics, letting the songs linger for a few seconds after they ended before breaking into quiet applause. Singer/guitarist Julia Haltigan, the latest addition to the band, brought her electric stage presence and powerful yet magically nuanced jazz and blues-infused voice to several songs, delivering a bitter version of Homesick for the Moon with an unselfconscious, understated brassiness. The implication of the song is that she wants to go straight to hell, because that’s where all the cool guys are – and at the end, again and again, she drove home the point that pretty much any destination is ok as long as it’s far from here.

Guitarist Freddie Stevenson opened the set with a gritty, tango-flavored number, The City Is King, duetting with Haltigan – who gets a little smoky, a little misty as she goes way up the scale. The rest of the set balanced poignancy with a more upbeat, humorous vibe. The Dirty Urchins have a new album due out momentarily (and a characteristically jaunty name-your-price ep up at their bandcamp); their next gig is at Littlefield in Gowanus on September 16.

By the way, if you’re reading this, Mr. Rockwood, it’s not your fault that your place was built before the effects of global warming started to get really grisly. But you might want to think about taking out that window and putting in a wall.

Meah Pace at the National Underground: Better Than Adele

The little brown rat in the corner at the National Underground upstairs Wednesday night was full of energy. He (or she) went into somebody’s gym bag, then back out, scampering around intently. Maybe it was because the rat was young, or hungry – or maybe, on a rodent level at least, he or she could feel the intensity coming from the stage. And the band was cooking – waves of echo from the Fender Rhodes piano, fat, reverberating, tastefully bluesy lines from the guitar and a sultry, oldschool soul groove from the bass, drums and baritone sax. Meanwhile, singer and bandleader Meah Pace sized up the situation in a split second and made her move. A graceful whirlwind, she took over centerstage and then moved out into the crowd, pouncing and seizing the first few feet in front of the stage as her own, as if in a ballet choreographed by Tina Turner.

A very smart move, because with a few exceptions, the expensively dressed, drunken gentrifier crowd had not come to hear music. Tbey’d come out to talk loudly and languidly with their fellow suburbanites. But Pace not only got them to shut up – by the time the show was over, many of them were singing along. She owned them. The transformation was astonishing. Then again, Pace has the kind of charisma that only comes along every few years. Forget Adele – Meah Pace is the real deal. Her style is strictly oldschool, mid-60s soul, from all over the map – Memphis, Detroit, Chicago, it doesn’t matter, she goes there. Her voice has a sharp edge that reminds a little of a young Aretha Franklin, but it’s different, a lot sweeter and warmer. A little like Tammi Terrell – how she moves so effortlessly between the high and lows is absolutely breathtaking. Yet that warmth also carries a 100-proof punch. Best of all, in an hour onstage, Pace wailed, and murmured, and seduced, but she never once lapsed into cliched, fake, over-the-top American Idol theatrics. Then again, American Idol didn’t exist in 1967.

The band was like the Dap-Kings on steroids. Brisk, two-chord King Curtis vamps; bouncy, syncopated Memphis grooves; slow, slinky ballads – they could do them all. In front of them, Pace mixed it up – other than the obvious covers (a funked-up version of Your Cheating Heart that got everybody singing along), it was pretty much impossible to tell her originals from the classics. She opened with one of hers, a potently catchy number: “You can dance to the music – you gotta dance through the fire,” she wailed, and she danced along, but as if she was fireproof, or part of the flame. They reinvented the oldies radio hit I Got You Babe with a Sergeant Pepper-style intro and turned it into a hypnotic soul/funk tune, with a split-second breakdown to just the drums and vocals. A considerably slower, warm, Bill Withers-style song fueled by cascading waves of electric piano was even more hypnotic, like a soul classic the Rolling Stones might have ripped off around 1968. They went deep into Chicago-style blues with a song-length intro to a swinging organ tune (by Etta James, maybe  Telephone Blues?) lit up by a methodically crescendoing, soulful guitar solo and an even longer one from the organ, baritone saxophonist Paula Henderson stepping on it playfully with a deliciously torchy one of her own. They wrapped up the set with a Memphis-flavored tune and a surprisingly blistering rock version of High Heeled Sneakers, Pace’s wordless vocal outro just as full of longing as ecstasy. Which is pretty much what soul music is all about, isn’t it? She plays here pretty much every Wednesday at 9 or so (the club plays pretty fast and loose with set times).

In case you’re wondering about what happened to the rat, that’s a mystery. A customer told the waitress (yeah – they serve food here), who told an official-looking guy who may have been the manager. His response? He dimmed the lights in the back, so if the rat came out for an encore, nobody would have noticed. Who knows. Maybe the guy just likes animals.

Bachata Heightz Uptown Tuesday Night: Practically Unstoppable

A little over half an hour into Bachata Heightz’ concert at Highbridge Park uptown Tuesday night, a muffled voice came over the PA. The words weren’t clear, but the band looked surprised and disappointed. “We’ve got, um, two more songs,” frontman Jerry Garcia a.k.a. Jay Heightz told the crowd. Up to that point, the group had been on fire: for a crew who use modern bachata romantica as the stepping-off point for their own original style, they really rock live, not surprising since they make their living on the club circuit. Now why would anybody want to take such a hot band off the stage, especially when they were just taking their game to the next level? Maybe it might have meant some overtime for the crew, but watching Bachata Heightz isn’t exactly work – it’s fun.

This was the band’s home turf. Born and raised in Washington Heights, of Dominican heritage, Garcia and his harmony singers Jeffrey Cruz a.k.a. Jru and Aneudy Hernandez a.k.a. Chino were confident and relaxed, Jru and Chino with their split-second choreography down cold. Garcia has the same kind of gentle, suave delivery as Raulin Rodriguez and Antony Santos, but his songs transcend the style, with moody hip-hop and ecstatic merengue tinges as well. The band behind them was phenomenal, pun intended – Jerry Garcia’s big brother, Jonathan a.k.a. Da Phenomenon lived up to his name with an endless stream of lightning-fast, inspired, wickedly precise acoustic lead guitar lines over the hypnotic shuffle of the guacharaca and drums while bassist Diego Capellán maintained a low-key pulse. A jazzy keyboardist added an equally eclectic blend of piano and synth textures to the mix.

They kicked off the show with the straight-up bachata of No Sabes Del Amor, Da Phenomenon firing off some sizzling tremolo-picking right before it wound down. From there they dove into an unstoppable merengue groove that went on for more than ten minutes, the lead guitar at one point playing a lickety-split series of swirling licks typically done by the accordion (and much, much easier to play on a keyboard than a guitar!). Interestingly, the crowd – a big but sleepy posse that filtered into the park on the way home from work – decided forcefully that they wanted to hear oldschool stuff rather than new bachata, when asked by the band. So the band went deep into that groove as well before returning with more up-to-the-minute stuff, including the band’s latest single, Contra El Mundo, with its brooding reggaeton-style keyboard intro. And even when they got the signal that it would be time to quit soon, they didn’t let up. What they do is dance music, after all. They’ve got a South American tour in the works: as their frontman defiantly told their hometown posse, they’re out to “conquer the world.”

Small Beast on Life Support: One of the Year’s Best Rock Shows

If you’re starting a brand-new music blog, how do you choose the first concert to cover? You don’t mess around. You go for the creme de la creme: one of the best triplebills of 2011, Monday night at Small Beast at the Delancey.

As recently as last year, Small Beast was THE place to be for dark, intelligent rock in New York. But then impresario and Botanica bandleader Paul Wallfisch absconded to Germany – which is probably just as well, because as he said at the time, he was being devoured by his own Beast. With a few exceptions – when Carol Lipnik or Vera Beren book the bands – the weekly concert series upstairs at the Delancey hasn’t been the same since. But Monday night was a return to the glory days. The assaultively noir Dead Sextons had originally been scheduled, but had to cancel. Due to a fortuitous encounter at one of the city’s elite studios (Beren is also an engineer of note), Rachelle Garniez stepped in and delivered mightily.

Beginning on accordion and moving to piano a bit later on and backed only by the Microscopic Septet’s Dave Hostra’s tersely nimble upright bass, she opened with a signature song of sorts, Quality Star. The version on her Luckyday album is lushly psychedelic, and so was this one, awash in brooding, sustained chords, Garniez taking her time with a few tellingly allusive scenes from a marriage gone horribly wrong. When she got to the outro, she didn’t cut loose – she just let the lyrics fuel the payoff, “You couldn’t pay me to go back there again.”

The rest of the show was a lot more upbeat, but no less intense. Garniez draws you in with her sense of humor and then lets her quiet but sabretoothed charisma do the rest. Once she’d gotten her stream of consciousness up and running, the wry, deadpan observations wouldn’t stop. One of the stage monitors was crackling: she insisted that Pop Rocks were coming out of it. A bit later, she launched into a long intro to one of the piano songs, a bitingly dismissive account of someone from a long-forgotten past trying to reconnect with her on Facebook. No matter how alone you may feel, she explained, there’s always someone online who wants to be your friend when you least want it.

She also romped through the subtle, offhand, ragtime-fueled menace of Kid in the Candy Store, a surprisingly klezmer-inflected minor-key number possibly titled Just Because You Should Doesn’t Mean You Can, and a hilariously deadpan waltz dedicated to Jean-Claude Van Damme (who, if the song is to be believed, is hawking antidepressants now). At the end, Garniez went way, way up the scale to aria heights – part of it was a just plain breathtaking display of vocal chops, but it was also irresistibly funny. One of the cognoscenti in the crowd remarked how touring as Karen Elson’s keyboardist has gotten Garniez to take her stage presence up a notch, but the truth is that she’s always had that game down cold, since her residency at Terra Blues about ten years ago, maybe since her days as a teenager fronting one of the first worldbeat bands, one that came thisclose to being famous – or at least signed to a big corporate label.

Vera Beren has the same kind of charisma, but unlike Garniez, she hits you head-on. With her gale-force contralto, she’s impossible to turn away from. Between songs, when Beren chatted nonchalantly with the audience, the contrast was striking: it was hard to imagine that such a dramatic, powerful voice could come out of someone so down-to-earth. Like Garniez, Beren draws on a fearless, irreverent punk rock wit. “What if god and, what’s his buddy’s name, Lucifer, were lovers?” she asked luridly. She offered a few answers, some anguished, others droll, with her opening number, The Devil, backed by a four-piece edition of her aptly titled Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble. It set the stage for the rest of the show, a crescendoing anthem with roots in the High Romantic and swirling, funereal organ, Jon Diaz’ thick, sustained guitar lines shadowing it and occasionally moving in for the kill.

Blood of the Sun, a twisted waltz, gave Beren a launching pad for some effortless, double-octave vocal leaps. Baby shifted from an ominously atmospheric bass-driven intro to a methodically menacing Patti Smith-style spoken-word interlude, collapsing at the end into a volcanic metal mess. As usual, The Nod was a big hit with the crowd, with its slinky gypsy-punk groove, turn-on-a-ruble time changes and rumbling/searing twin guitar attack from Diaz and Mark Birkey, who throughout the show switched from piano, to trombone, to guitar and then back again.

With its foghorn trombone, Jay Cavanaugh’s booming bass chords and off-the-hinges guitar leads from Diaz, Priest Blues was like Blue Oyster Cult gone no wave up to a brief off-kilter punk-jazz interlude and then back again. The bitter, alienated Delirium, true to its title, changed tempos and meters endlessly – it was impossible for anyone but the band to keep up with it. Beren – who’d been busy pelting the audience with appeared to be a bottomless bagful of roses – finally went behind the keyboard and played organ on this one. Unlike a lot of musicians, she always sings best when she’s also playing. They closed with the fiery, ornate lament Is It Me, Diaz’ swoops and dives contrasting with the piano’s elegant astringencies.

The fun didn’t end there. Headliner Thomas Simon gets a lot of film work, so it’s no surprise that his shows have an enveloping, cinematic quality. This time he didn’t have electric djembe genius Alex Alexander to back him up, which meant that he had to spin with split-second precision through a small army of loops and effects (and a new set of Moog pedals that the musicians in the crowd were drooling over). Garniez pulls you in with her wit and charm, Beren with her powerful pipes; Simon does it with a swirling vortex of a million guitar, keyboard and percussion textures. More than just a one-man band, he was a one-man orchestra, shifting from slowly swaying, blacklit soundscapes aloft on endlessly oscillating sonic ebbtides, to several vocal tunes. One stomped along on a memorably savage series of distorted chords straight out of the Dead Boys or Sham 69 catalog. Other times, he’d introduce a hypnotic beat and then build it methodically, with layers of guitar that roared, clanged, howled and blended into each other, sometimes gracefully winding down to where the whole thing started. If there’s ever another Alien movie, this is the guy who should get to do the score.

New York Music Daily Launches 8/16/11

“Never launch a new product in August.”

Andrew Card, White House Chief of Staff during the first years of the Bush regime, alluding to why 9/11 didn’t happen a month earlier.

Introducing a new music blog, New York Music Daily – in August, just to be counterintuitive. This blog draws inspiration from an older, edgier and sometimes more dangerous New York City – and likewise, the city’s future as an edgier and undoubtedly more dangerous place. Unlike most other New York blogs, New York Music Daily will focus on intelligent, challenging, emotionally impactful music from the city’s five boroughs as well as from around the world.

Every day there’ll be new reporting here – maybe a song, or an album, or a concert. Since, despite all attempts to whitewash and gentrify it, New York remains a defiantly diverse, multicultural place, New York Music Daily will celebrate that diversity. Because music is a reflection of society and doesn’t exist in a vacuum, New York Music Daily won’t shy away from that reality, as ugly or difficult to face as it may be.

Music gives us the strength to laugh at authority figures who try to make our daily lives a living hell. It inspires us to question their authority, and to overthrow them and replace their bankrupt system with an honorable and fair one if they disrespect us, pollute our environment, steal from us or threaten our personal liberty. In 2011, people of all ages, from all walks of life, united more powerfully than ever before, are driving a global revolution to create a better world. New York Music Daily will be part of the soundtrack. As Chuck D of Public Enemy said, it’s time to party for our right to fight.

Check back tomorrow and see what’s happening.