New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: July, 2013

John Hodel Wraps Up the Final Sunday Salon at Zirzamin

It’s fitting that the John Hodel would headline the final Sunday Salon at Zirzamin. Salon #36 began with intriguing cameos from Walter Ego, who played a contrasting couple of songs: a subway motorman’s chilling narrative about hitting and killing someone on the tracks, and the amusing Stupid Song, which turned out to be part pop parody, part insight into the kind of dilemmas that songwriters face. Lorraine Leckie followed, totally unplugged, with one of her best new songs, a snarkily insightful, anthemic reminscence of visiting Jim Morrison’s grave before the Pere Lachaise cemetery keepers fenced it off.

If there’s anybody who was a fixture of the Zirzamin scene, beginning with the very first gathering of songwriters the week after the hurricane last year, it was Hodel. He opened his set with the cruelly metaphorical, bitterly Dylanesque waltz Love Has No Bed and encored with Lay On the Rain, a thoughtfully warped country ballad. In between, playing solo on acoustic guitar and singing in a gravelly, whiskey-tinged baritone, he drew surreal portraits of babies and then a little later, a midget woman who likes Johnny Cash, John Coltrane and “rocket fuel perfume.”

A racist uncle who tinkered with his car in the gleam of a dim flashlight was remembered as an “inconceivable pain.” A pampered “white bread boy” made an easy target for all kind of amusing invective: he’s the kind of guy who “gives a bad name to a pocket comb.” But the song everybody wanted to hear, and expected to hear, was Tuesday Morning in a Bar. It’s a classic of its kind, as vividly memorable as anything Shane MacGowan ever wrote. Hodel surprised everybody by playing it second instead of as an encore, feeding off the singalong energy as he fleshed out the surreal, dimlit scene, menace mounting as it went along:

He’s polite early on, but later his graces grow pale
With his name on a chair in the early morning air
The Daily News, 7:30 AM in the barstool
Breakfast in a bar comes with its own set of rules

So Zirzamin is now closed, although the bar Hodel describes in this song is real and is still open – and if you see him play it live, and he’s in the mood, he’ll tell you which one it is. As it stands, this blog’s Sunday Salon is on hiatus. If it ever finds a new home, there’ll be plenty about it here. If not, it was 36 weeks worth of good tunesmithing, good lyrics and frequently heated banter. On one hand, it’s kind of a relief to be able to take a break and get a Sunday off for once. On the other, a lot of people are going to miss it. If you were part of it, thanks for helping to make it so much fun.

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Good Cop and Bad Cop Review Red Baraat in Central Park

[Good Cop and Bad Cop are quite possibly fictitious. However, all dialogue other than theirs is guaranteed overheard. Setting: rear section of the Summerstage arena at Central Park, to the left of the sound board in front of the bleachers, a little after 3 PM on July 14, 2013]

Good Cop: I think we’re here to stay now. I can’t imagine why we’d be assigned to cover what might be the best show of the year if the blog didn’t have plans for us. Why else would we get to review Red Baraat and Fanfare Ciocarlia?

Bad Cop: Because a sane person wouldn‘t be out in heat like this. Notice how easy it was to get in? And how few people are here right now? And I’ve got some bad news for you.

Good Cop: What?

Bad Cop: We have to leave before Fanfare Ciocarlia. Work, you know.

Good Cop [stunned] You’re kidding.

Bad Cop: Told you there was a catch. We’ll be back on the Columbus shuttle before you know.

Good Cop: You mean Scranton. That’s terrible. I love Red Baraat but I was so looking forward to this. Fanfare Ciocarlia are from Romania. They’ll never be back.

Bad Cop: Don’t worry. They’re tight with the New York Gypsy Festival people. They’ll be back. And that’s a show we’re never gonna see.

Good Cop: Oh well, at least we have Red Baraat to look forward to…

[Good Cop is interrupted by a college-age kid in a red shirt with the word USHER emblazoned in black lettering on the back]

Usher: You need to move forward, this is the fire lane, we have to clear this space.

Good Cop: Excuse me?

Bad Cop: Fire lane? There hasn’t been a fire lane in this space, ever. I know people at the Fire Department. If there had been a change in fire code I would have heard about it and I didn’t.

Usher: You need to move forward, past the yellow line [motions with his hand, agitated]

Bad Cop: That isn’t a fire lane. That’s just your excuse to keep the people who got in for free away from the morons in the corporate seats who pay to get in.

Usher: Sir, I’m just doing my job. You have to move, past the line [motions violently].

Good Cop: Do you get off on hassling people? We’ve always stood in this space. It’s always been open to for standing room. Why not now?

Usher: We have to keep it open, to maintain an orderly space. You have to move, now.

Bad Cop [laughs] ORDERLY? Central Park, orderly? In your dreams, Bloomberg.

Good Cop: Oh well, there’s a little room [pulls on Bad Cop who reluctantly moves forward a couple of feet].

Bad Cop: I’ve always been a big fan of privatization.

Good Cop:  Now you’re not so sure, huh? The idea of ushers in Central Park is pretty funny, I have to say.

Bad Cop: The funniest part is that it’s true. Next: ushers on the subway. Can’t you see it? “Excuse me, you can’t sit there, subway seats are reserved for American Express cardholders.”

[another usher interrupts them]

Usher #2: Excuse me, someone asked me to tell you to move, you’re blocking their view.

Bad Cop: Then let them move! There’s plenty of room here.

Good Cop: You’ve got to be kidding. Who? Let me talk to them.

Usher #2: I’m not meaning to smartmouth you, I’m just telling you, you need to move.

Bad Cop [explodes]: WHERE? WHERE? There’s nowhere to go. I’m not standing in the sun and I’m not sitting on this hot astroturf!

Usher #2 [clearly embarrasssed]: Um….over there, there’s some space….

Good Cop [again pulls Bad Cop]: C’mon, let’s grab that space before someone else does.

Bad Cop [resists] This is bullshit. I’m leaving.

Good Cop: C’mon, you can’t abandon me now

[Red Baraat take the stage. There are at least ten members: several drummers, a brass section, tuba and soprano saxophone. The bandleader stands and wails on a big bass drum strapped around his waist. They launch into a funky vamp driven by a fat tuba riff, trumpets blasting a minor-key hook, the group chanting a mantra of some kind].

Bad Cop: I can’t get into this. I’m too pissed off.

Good Cop: You have to. We have to do this. Besides, Red Baraat are fun. They’ll cheer you up. See? It sounds kind of like Indian dixieland, doesn’t it?

Bad Cop: Yeah, the soprano sax player is good. Really, really good. A jazz guy, obviously. You know, I respect this music a lot more than I actually like it, for taking the idiotic electronic aspect out of bhangra. Bringing it back to the roots.

Good Cop: If there was room, I’d be dancing. Their music is so hypnotic, but so energetic and fun…

Bad Cop: There is room. Up front, in the sun.

Good Cop: I draw the line att standing in the sun on a day like this.

Bad Cop: Ha, better tell that to the ushers.

[The first usher comes over to Good Cop and Bad Cop, looking sheepish]: I just wanted you to know I agree with everything you were saying. I don’t enjoy making people feel bad. I’m just doing this for ten dollars an hour.

Bad Cop: OK, I know it’s hard to get a job these days. [Usher looks nervously for approval; Bad Cop nods and grunts at him. Usher goes back to his original spot behind the sound board].

Good Cop: How about this next song? It’s kind of Middle Eastern, isn’t it? Cool and slinky and a little creepy!

Bad Cop: Sounds Afghani or something. Blues bassline, Middle Eastern sax. A little hip-hop. You know, this is just the wrong place for this. I’d be into this if it was at night, indoors. It’s too hot out here for this kind of music. We should all be lying down listening to Brian Eno. Or Ida.

Good Cop: It’s hot. But don’t forget, where this music comes from, it’s hotter than this. Now this song sounds kind of a mix of Indian and New Orleans. I love how the trumpeter does the fake backward masking thing with his mute. And how they speed the songs up at the end to get everybody to go nuts.

Bad Cop: You’re better at this than I am. What can you possibly say about a dance band? The percussion clatters. They kind of scurry a bit, shuffling. The tuba guy is doing oldschool funk, James Brown stuff. And sometimes he does these little accents, overtones, like you would expect from a dj in a hip-hop group. And there he goes – have you ever heard a tuba solo that WASN’T funny?

Good Cop: Notice how the drums have picked it up? It’s like an earthquake.

Bad Cop: I don’t understand how anybody can dance in this heat. Feel my shirt.

Good Cop: No thanks. A lot of people are loving this. Maybe I should go up front.

Bad Cop: Hey, help me out with this. Two more songs and we gotta go.

Good Cop: Oh, all right. I like how they do that cinematic, anthemic theme, then they get the funk going.  And now it sounds like qawwali but with a groove. What did the drummer say? “Sending out peace and love from here to Florida?”

Bad Cop:  Yup. Zimmerman got off.

Good Cop: NOOOOOOO!

Bad Cop: I hear he needs bodyguards. Maybe I should apply.

Good Cop: Not unless you want to get paid in Klan money.

Bad Cop: Even I draw the line there. OK. Let’s get going.

Good Cop: Oh, I know this song! I think it’s called Baraat to Nowhere. This is great. Kind of a reggae tune but with that clip-clop groove. Hey – did you know that Red Baraat used to be called Red Baraat Parade?

Bad Cop: Parade, I wish. Easy job plus overtime.

Good Cop: Wish we could have stayed for Fanfare Ciocarlia…

Bad Cop: Not me. It’s hot and miserable and this is no fun [raises both middle fingers in the direction of the bleachers as they leave].

Good Cop: Maybe we’ll get lucky and see them somewhere else. There’s no way I’m coming back here this year. Have you seen a show here recently?

Bad Cop: Nope. I won’t be back for awhile. Maybe ever.

Good Cop: Didn’t you pretty much stop coming here a long time ago?

Bad Cop: Yes and no. Back around the turn of the century, when they had all this electronic disco garbage here and people were dying here, there wasn’t much worth seeing anyway. And they put in all these wire-fence holding pens, like what you see now but with real wire. So it was no wonder that people were dying – they got pinned in by the crowd. But then they got rid of all that and I thought this place was out of the woods, so to speak. Guess not. That’s what happens when you privatize a park: the corporate schmucks get the seats and they squeeze the 99% into 1% of the space. We can thank Rudy Giuiliani for kickstarting all of that.

Good Cop: I thought you liked Giuliani?

Bad Cop: I loved Giuliani! That’s because I was getting away with murder back then. Woops, you didn’t hear me say that.

Cheap Trick at Coney Island: Still Vital, Still Fun

Would you stand in the rain for an hour and a half, in 2013, to see Cheap Trick? Last Friday, an energetic crowd of about 400 – a mix of diehards in ancient tour t-shirts, curious locals and a scattering of expensively dressed trendoid kids – didn’t let the seaside deluge at the old Steeplechase Park space at Coney Island deter them from witnessing an unexpectedly ferocious show by the powerpop cult favorites. For those who remember back far enough, or listen to “classic rock” radio in the car, Cheap Trick got pigeonholed as a top 40 band, and still do, and that‘s too bad. The American Badfinger; the prototype for Guided by Voices; the hitmakers that Big Star should have been – a strong case can be made that Cheap Trick were all those things. After their signature, Spinal Tap style intro, they ambushed any skeptics in the crowd right off the bat with another cult favorite, their cover of the Move’s California Man, complete with the recurrent heavy metal riff from another Roy Wood tune, Brontosaurus. And then followed immediately with the sad Abbey Road powerpop elegy Oh Candy, the best song on their debut album.

Rick Nielsen must be seventy by now, with a curmudgeonly presence to match, but his fingers on the fretboard are still fast. Robin Zander – the model for Robert Pollard, vocally at least – is past sixty, but still has the snide, sarcastic faux British accent and rockstar moves down cold. Tom Petersson supplied the occasional growly bass break, and Nielsen’s son Daxx made the absence of Bun E. Carlos behind the kit easier to forget. They followed the Alladin Sane-ish glamrock of another early track, He’s a Whore, with the crunchy Downed and its delicious Do Ya broken chords, reminding just how much ELO kiddies these guys were from day one. Zander’s tongue-in-cheek vocals on the equally gorgeous 1983 album track Borderline echoed the late, great Carl Wayne. They blasted through the blatant Beatles ripoff Taxman Mr. Thief and the distantly Blue Oyster Cult-ish On Top of the World before coming back to the gorgeous, Move-esque Voices, The House Is Rockin’ – Chuck Berry as done by the Boomtown Rats, maybe – and then the band’s last recognizable radio hit, If You Want My Love (You Got It). Baby Loves to Rock and its sardonic sex lyrics still screams out “college radio hit.” There were only a couple of tracks more recent than 1980s vintage, one a forgettable film theme, the other an impressively fresh take of Sick Man of Europe with its evil, stairstepping chorus.

After all that, it was easy to forgive them for the cloying, annoying radio hits I Want You to Want Me and Dream Police. They wound up the set with a long, extended version of Surrender, Nielsen finally breaking out his five-necked guitar but only playing a few riffs on it before handing it back to his roadie, who was obviously working overtime in the rain. They did the famous outro and that was it, no encore, but that was to be expected considering that the rain still hadn’t let up.

Good Cop and Bad Cop Review Sallie Ford at Pier 84

Good Cop: Wow! Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside! No more reviewing children’s bands and organ jazz records!

Bad Cop: Don’t hold your breath, we’re not off the Columbus shuttle yet.

Good Cop: You mean the Scranton shuttle.

Bad Cop: Aaah, you’re right. Scranton used to be a Phillies farm team. They made Red Baron beer there.

Good Cop: Red Baron Beer?

Bad Cop: It had cherry syrup in it. An early alco-pop. Before your time.

Good Cop: I see. So here we are at Pier 84, it’s Thursday, July 11, the sun is going down, it’s going to be a beautiful cool night on the water and we’re about to see a great band from Portland.

Bad Cop: That’s Oregon. Portland, Oregon. More than one Portland in the world. Portland cement doesn’t come from Oregon, either.

Good Cop: Where does it come from?

Bad Cop: I dunno. Is there a Portland, Jamaica?

Good Cop: I dunno. Google it. Speaking of which, I can’t find the opening act.

Bad Cop: What are they called?

Good Cop. Waxahachie. It’s a Dallas suburb.

Bad Cop [types on his phone]: I can’t either. Unless they’re an Indian band.

Good Cop: Nope. Did you try Soundcloud?

Bad Cop [typing again]: Nope. [continues typing] No Bandcamp, no Youtube, no Reverbnation. Um, not even a Myspace. Facebook isn’t gonna get me anywhere. Nice branding, dudes.

Good Cop: All that’s coming up is the Texas stuff. And they just got back from a European tour.

Bad Cop: Nothing on the web and they get a European tour. I don’t get it. I mean, I do. I hate indie rock.

Good Cop: Yeah, I know you do. But I like this band. The singer has a pretty voice, she can write a catchy tune and play real guitar chords too.

Bad Cop: Big deal. That should be a sine qua non. All the songs sound the same. I’m bored.

Good Cop: Don’t use Latin words, nobody will know what you mean. You should give this girl some credit, she can actually carry a tune and you know that’s not an indie rock thing.

Bad Cop: Ooooh, I can actually play a few cowboy chords that any eight-year-old can learn, that makes me a real rebel! I might get banned from all the trendy boutiques in Bushwick!

Good Cop: C’mon, all the songs don’t sound the same, She just hit her distortion pedal.

Bad Cop: Five songs too late. And the rhythm section is awful. The drummer is stiff and the bassist can barely play.

Good Cop: At least he isn’t trying to be Geddy Lee.

Bad Cop: The absence of pain does not equal pleasure.

Good Cop: Well, I still think the songs are pretty. And she sings on key…for the most part.

Bad Cop: That’s what pisses me off about indie rock. You’re right, she does have a perfectly good voice. And then she does that dumbass, blase, Lana Del Rey, “I’m going to sing flat because daddy’s going to put the production of my new ep on his credit card whether or not I can hit the notes, and I really can, but I’m too chickenshit to try because that might make me different from the rest of the lame-ass spoiled brats I hang out with.”

Good Cop; OK, that’s it. Look at how many people are leaving.

Bad Cop: Their loss. I’m psyched for Sallie Ford.

Good Cop: You’re out of character. You’re supposed to hate everything.

Bad Cop: I sort of do. But I like that record she put out.

Good Cop: I wonder if you can get a real record.

Bad Cop: I’ll bet you can get it on vinyl. I’d actually buy it if there were any record stores left. Ooh, here she comes. [gleeful grin] WARDROBE MALFUNCTION!

Good Cop: [disdainfully] Pig. What’s that guitar she’s got?

Bad Cop: A Fender Jaguar. 1960s guitar. Cheap back then but sounds great. Look, the lead player, whatshisname, he’s got a Gibson SG. This is gonna be fun.

Good Cop: That’s Jeffrey Munger. Wow, that guy is fast!

Bad Cop: Sallie Ford isn’t bad either. And she’s prettier than that suburban Texas girl.

Good Cop: Don’t be a sexist pig. What’s this song?

Bad Cop: I dunno. Takes balls to open with an instrumental. Damn, did you see that tremolo-picking? That guy Munger can really play. Reminds me of the guy in Julia Haltigan‘s band…

Good Cop: Dick Dale, wouldn’t you say?. How would you describe this music?

Bad Cop: Hey, don’t make me do all the heavy lifting. How would YOU describe this music?

Good Cop: I’d say it’s catchy, and fun, and you can dance to it. It has a 60s biker movie thing. Very retro. Kind of like the Cramps, but not kitschy. And surf music. And soul music. Old soul music, like Sharon Jones, but played rock style. What would you say?

Bad Cop: Dark garage rock with surf and soul influences. I like how she references old styles but isn’t reverential. That girl who opened was scared to death up there, afraid she might do something that might make her stand out from the crowd. Sallie Ford couldn’t care less.

Good Cop: I love how she takes an oldtime gospel song and makes a rock song out of it. What’s this one called?

Bad Cop: It’s called Devil. You’ll like this one. This is They Told Me. Link Wray all over the place.

Good Cop: That line is great. “They told me I shouldn’t be so intense, how the hell would that make any sense?”

[midway through the song, a Circle Line harbor cruise boat approaches the dock, blasting cheesy corporate hip-hop. The band notice this and look at each other quizzically]

Jeffrey Munger [from the stage, motions to the boat]: They should come over here.

[Bad Cop and Good Cop are at a rare loss for words. Bad Cop shakes his head, disgusted]

Munger [to the audience, laughing]: We were going to play on the boat but they offered us more money here.

Good Cop: At least you can’t hear the boat when the music’s loud.

Bad Cop: Yeah, good thing they decided to do this one electric. On the record it’s acoustic. Sounds like Mamie Minch.

Good Cop: What song is this?

Bad Cop: This is Paris. It’s a pun. Paris, short for “parasite.”

Good Cop: OK, what about this oldtime swing tune? Is this a cover?

Bad Cop: No, it’s an original. It’s called Do Me Right. You know, hokum blues, innuendo, PG-rated sex tune. Next time you’re doing the homework and I’m showing up late.

Good Cop: OK, deal.

Bad Cop: This rhythm section really swings. Who are these guys?

Good Cop: That’a Ford Tennis playing the drums and Tyler Tornfelt playing bass.

Bad Cop: That’s funny. Sallie Ford and Ford Tennis. What’s the likelihood? I wonder if he’s related to Whiting Tennis. All the Tennises have funny names.

Good Cop: Who’s Whiting Tennis?

Bad Cop: He’s a songwriter. From Seattle. A very good painter too.

[a few songs later] Bad Cop: Well, did you have fun?

Good Cop: I did. I can’t wait to see another show with you. Maybe we can do this as a regular thing. I mean, the blog wouldn’t have sent us to such a good show if they weren’t planning to use us again, you think?

Bad Cop: Be careful what you wish for [pulls a spring water bottle with a faded label out of his backpack and takes a swig].

Good Cop: Hey, can I have some of that?

Bad Cop: Sure! [hands bottle over to Good Cop, who uncaps it and takes a quick drink. She gasps, spits and begins coughing, bent over at the waist. Bad Cop also bends at the waist, laughing uncontrollably. Good Cop recovers, looks down at the bottle and hurls the bottle at Bad Cop. The bottle hits him in the ribs, splashing him, then falls to the concrete and rolls away].

Bad Cop [bent over, gasping]: Aaaaah, my eye! Do you have any water?

Good Cop [furious]: NO! That’s why I asked you. And what did you give me, on a hot summer day? PURE VODKA! Bastard!

Bad Cop [rubbing his eye]: Dumbass rent-a-pigs. You could bring an entire distillery in here and they wouldn’t notice.

Next up: Good Cop and Bad Cop review Red Baraat.

Recent NYC Concerts: Clearing the Decks

A cynic might ask why a music blog should cover concerts at all. After all, who cares, other than the band, and the people who were there?

Consider that whether we admit it or not, everyone who runs a music blog is an advocate: for themselves, maybe, or for a particular style of music, or for certain artists. The point of this blog is to keep an eye on the most intelligent things happening under the radar in what’s left of the New York rock world, without losing sight of what’s happening outside. Obviously, if Radiohead comes to town, that’s news – but everybody else is going to cover it, so New York Music Daily probably wouldn’t. Good acts with a global fan base have thousands of advocates; good acts with a smaller following deserve one. That’s where this blog comes in. And while it may be true that the death of the album turned out to be an old wives’ tale, it’s still true that there are many more great artists who aren’t making albums, or at least as many of them, as those who are. And you can go see them! That’s the point of all this.

Jerome O’Brien may not be making albums, but he’s making singles: elegant acoustic remakes of songs originally done by his well-loved band the Dog Show, as well as new material, all up at his Vibedeck page. Beginning in July of last year, he had a monthly residency at Zirzamin. His next-to-last show, played solo on acoustic twelve-string guitar,  was characteristically intriguing. He began with a spiky, puckish, fingerpicked instrumental inspired by the late, great Joe Ben Plummer, for whom O’Brien played bass in Douce Gimlet. Plummer was a hell of a guitarist (and no slouch on keyboards and saxophone either), and a diehard believer in the theory that the ability to fingerpick a guitar separates the men from the boys.

From there, O’Brien moved through a mix of old Dog Show favorites. The venomous, bluesy 6/8 kiss-off anthem Diamonds and Broken Glass, the caffeinated, politicallly-fueled mod rock broadside Hold Me Down, the apprehensive pre-election reflection Black Eye and a similarly wary, similarly catchy new song were highlights of the set. With Zirzamin shuttered as of last night, a small army of good veteran New York rockers have been left without a musical home. Where they’ll end up, and where O’Brien’s residency might pick up, remains to be seen.

A couple of weeks after that, one of several versions of Maynard & the Musties played Hank’s. Joe Maynard has played with a lot of people over the years, both here and elsewhere and consequently has a big address book. This particular version of the band, one part outlaw country and one part darkly twangy rock band, featured excellent lead guitarist Mac Randall and a new rhythm section. Much as Maynard’s most recent material can be very dark, he’s an awfully funny guy and this show featured more of that kind of material, including a song told from the point of view of a guy who’s psyched that his ladyfriend has hit menopause, since he no longer has to use protection. Maynard’s most recent album was recorded with the west coast version of the band; his next one will be with the New York crew, produced by Eric “Roscoe” Ambel.

A couple of weeks after that, the Howl Festival took over Tompkins Square Park for a couple of days. Day one featured a lot of solo sets at the bandshell. As usual, it was disorganized, with not much regard for holding to the schedule of which acts were supposed to perform when. Hoping to be able to catch a performance by Ward White turned out to be a debacle, but it was still good to see a solo set by Marni Rice. The accordionist/chanteuse did her usual mix of dark, original, punkish cabaret as well as a Piaf classic or two. Another even more punk cabaret personality, singer/bandleader Anna Copacabanna followed. Early on in her brief set, she did a snarling number about gentrifiers taking over her beloved adopted East Village turf, expected to hear roars of applause from the crowd and was nonplussed when she didn’t. How quickly times change. The rest of the set alternated between screaming punk rock and coy, innuendo-fueled, new wave-ish stuff, Copacabanna adding a nimble, tongue-in-cheek edge with her glockenspiel work.

The following week, Carolyn Mark played Rodeo Bar, vigorously strumming her acoustic guitar and backed by the Jack Grace Band, which was as fun and entertaining as you would expect. “Get it up, stick it in, pull it out,” went the chorus on the night’s big singalong number. A posse of Mark’s drunken fellow Canadians filled the floor in front by the tables as the band careened through a haphazard take of These Boots Are Made for Walking, Jack Grace quoting liberally from Led Zep. His wife and bass player Daria teamed up with the frontwoman for some soaring harmonies as the band made their way through Memphis soul and a couple of Texas shuffles. But the show wasn’t all oldschool party music. “Everybody’s so young,” Mark sang pensively on the night’s opening number. A little later, she led the band through a darkly skeletal number possibly called Scarecrows, then a soul-tinged kiss-off anthem. Mark plays the Rodeo every few months; let’s hope that Grace is in town next time around to back her.

Sunday Salons and Unusual Suspects

Today is time to finish catching up on shows by the acts who’ve made the weekly Sunday Salon at Zirzamin so much fun, week after week. If you run a music blog the right way, you walk a fine line. On one hand, it’s important to keep up with the important artists in your scene, or from your era. On the other hand, nobody wants to hear about them over and over again. By the same token, this is a new mix of old favorites: because this blog casts such a wide net, it’s never safe to assume that you’ll be running into the same old faces.

Pete Galub headlined Salon #28. He’s one of the great lead guitarists of our time. In the era of indie rock, that may be a lost art, but it’s not lost on him. As a songwriter, powerpop is his thing. Humor is very important, and always present, in his writing, but at this gig, solo on electric guitar, there wasn’t any. He was pissed. He’d played the album release show for his long-awaited, absolutely brilliant new album, Candy Tears, to a packed house at Littlefield a couple of weeks previously. This time out was a wash as far as turnout was concerned. If that was the issue, Galub took it out on his Telecaster, squalling and wailing, sheets of paint-peeling noise juxtaposed against the richly tuneful jangle that defines many of his songs. At Littlefield, Jason Victor from Steve Wynn’s band squared off against Galub for a memorable duel; by himself, Galub didn’t need a sparring partner to rid himself of his demons, or at least to battle them. The 9/11 reflection I Plead the Fifth Dimension echoed the angst and uncertainty of the weeks following that horrible day; 300 Days in July made a slow, sun-drenched, less angst-fueled but sardonically bittersweet seaside tableau. It was a clinic in technique: thoughtful, judicious fingerpicking, searing blues lines, resonant jangle and clang and scorching noise that throws a vicious lateral pass over to Steve Wynn.

Phil Shoenfelt and Pavel Cingl, the brain trust of anthemic Czech rockers Phil Shoenfelt & Southern Cross headlined Salon #29. Southern Cross is huge in Europe: where was this festival favorite playing in New York? Zirzamin. Although there were just the two musicians onstage, they had the lush, majestic sweep of a full band, in the same vein as their recent Live at the House of Sin album but even more epic. Shoenfelt’s rhythm guitar playing is tremendous: they didn’t have drums, but they didn’t need them. Running his acoustic guitar through an obscure effects pedal for a deliciously reverberating, practically orchestral sound, Shoenfelt unleashed a river of jangle and clang underneath Cingl’s terse, gorgeously incisive violin and electric mandolin leads. It was like watching the Church, or Nick Cave, from the first row. In his resonant baritone, Shoenfelt painted gloomy, sometimes portraits of life among the down-and-out in Berlin, New York and elsewhere, gambling with one’s own life and paying the price, as Cingl colored the music with elegant violin lines and ringing, soaring mandolin that sounded more like a twelve-string guitar.

SLVPistolera frontwoman Sandra Lilia Velasquez’s sultry new trip-hop/downtempo project – headlined Salon #31. She was a good singer in that band and she’s a great one in this project. She joked about being liberated from behind her guitar, and there might be some truth to that: she’s the closest thing to Sade that we have in New York right now. Bassist Mark Marshall played slinky, serpentine grooves as drummer Sean Dixon colored the music with counterintuitive jazz flair, using his rims and hardware as well as the cymbals to create a backdrop that was as energetic as it was misty. And he managed to stay on top of the atmospherics and synth orchestration on the laptop without missing a beat. While the strongest songs were Velasquez’s own, the biggest surprise of the night was a politically-fueled, obscure early 80s Genesis song reinvented as stripped-down, funky art-rock. In front of the mic, swaying, eyes closed, she channeled minute fractions of the spectrum between boudoir seduction and full-blown angst and every emotion in between. It was a clinic in subtlety and nuance, a side that Velasquez has always had even while it often got lost in the jangle and clang of the guitars.

At Salon #33, the headliner was the sound guy. As a bass player, he’s familiar with several different styles, as most bassists are. As a pianist and singer, he’s a work in progress, right now a stronger sideman than frontman. His lyrics are narrative, stringing images together and employing a lot of double entendres and the occasional pun, although his music is fueled more by anger than by humor. Apocalyptic imagery, references to global warming and the Iraq war recurred frequently throughout the songs. His melodies gave away a fondness for chromatics, frequently referencing the Balkans and the Middle East along with some classical flourishes. The piano was in pretty bad condition, tuningwise and otherwise: for someone who’s spent as much time onstage as this guy has, he should have been prepared for the challenge of having to maul that damaged beast and he wasn’t. It would have been interesting to see how this performance might have gone had the instrument been in something approximating working condition.

The New Documentary Brasslands Chronicles the Woodstock of Balkan Music

Every year the small town of Guca, Serbia hosts what’s more or less a Woodstock for brass bands, over a hundred thousand spectators drawn to witness what might be the world’s most exciting music festival, a battle between groups from throughout the region as well as from around the world. The Meerkat Media Collective’s new documentary, Brasslands traces the journey by New York’s first Balkan brass band, Zlatne Uste (fractured Serbian for “golden lips” – as viewers find out early on, it actually translates as “golden mouth”), relative upstarts competing against acts born and raised on this music. The documentary is beautifully filmed, funny and insightful even as it fails to deliver much of the very thing it promises: exhilarating Balkan music. For that, fans should be directed to the soundtrack, a mix of some of this era’s most explosive brass tracks.

Somebody, maybe several people in the collective – who wear pretty much every hat in the filmmaking process – has a spot-on sense of irony, especially when it comes to American cultural imperialism. This is driven home via unstaged sight gags, many of them priceless. One particularly cynical comment by a member of Zlatne Uste concerning the implications of the new international competition, in which the band will participate, comes true. Zlatne Uste’s self-effacingly slim hopes contrast with the edgy charisma and gallows humor of South Serbian trumpeter Dejan Petrovic, standard bearer of a four-generation Balkan brass legacy who at 25 leads the festival’s current champion ensemble. What does he sound like? “Fast…like a motherfucker,” a Zlatne Uste member says with as much respect as jealousy. Getting less camera time is Demiran Cerimovic, whose Western Serbian Romany music is considered, as one commenter puts it, to be keeping it real while the “white” bands are commercializing the genre.

In many respects, this is a standard band-on-the-road doc. Viewers get an overview of Zlatne Uste’s career: their origins in Balkan music camp here in the US, their early travels to Guca, and brief cameos by several band members, all of whose connection to Balkan music exists strictly out of love of it rather than via any ancestral or linguistic background.

Political context is sometimes addressed head-on, sometimes glossed over. Still-simmering ethnic tensions, fueled by enormous amounts of alcohol – at one point, a participant points out that everyone at the festival is completely loaded – sometimes spill over. The Clinton administration’s 1999 involvement in the Yugoslav civil war, raining down bombs packed with depleted uranium, lethal for millions of years – is still widely resented throughout the region, and Zlatne Uste are sympathetic. Prejudice against the region’s minority Romany population is addressed early on and then pretty much skimmed over, and that’s too bad: Cerimovic is an intriguing personality who deserves more screen time.

It’s good that Petrovic gets plenty. An intense, thoughtful and relentlessly driven individual, he spends most of his time on the road and has dreams of getting off the wedding circuit and taking his show to the next level. Fittingly, his most riveting moment on camera is during a trumpet solo, delivered with stunning delicacy and nuance in contrast to the music’s typically riotous sound.

Maybe because there were so many people involved in the direction of the film, it has a scattershot, uneven quality, a movie made by committee rather than the realization of a single, purposeful vision. As a result, much of it is compromised, likely in the literal sense of the word. Early on, there’s footage from Golden Festival, the annual concert that Zlatne Uste puts on at Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn, which draws an international cast of bands and participants and is arguably the most exciting New York concert of the year. The film doesn’t even bother to mention it. As the competition draws near, the story could be gaining momentum, but the focus jumps from one topic to another like a VH1 episode trying to cram as much as possible into three minutes thirty seconds before the commercial. Time spent watching Zlatne Uste goofing off during a break in rehearsal could have been utilized for an actual song by the band, or maybe some background on the history and state of the music today, neither of which is addressed at all. That the winning song at the festival would be presented not in its entirety but as an excerpt is execrable. The filmmakers’ most baffling decision is to include their own utterly forgettable, minimalist musical score, which makes for several jarring segues.

Given the opportunity to dive into their subject matter – and who wouldn’t want to? – the collective seldom ventures far beneath the surface. As an introduction to the music, it’s fascinating, but Balkan brass fans are left wanting a whole lot more. A DVD is available; the film will also be screened on September 22 at 7 PM at Drom as part of this year’s NY Gypsy Festival.

Alluringly Torchy Retro Sounds from Miss Tess and the Talkbacks

So many singers in retro music mimic their influences, but Miss Tess has her own nonchalantly warm voice. She’s got a little grit and she bends the blue notes, but not too hard. You can tell she’s listened to Billie Holiday, but she’s not trying to be anyone other than herself. Miss Tess doesn’t sound like anybody else; in fact, maybe someday other singers will be imitating her. And she’s an excellent guitarist, too. Likewise, she writes songs that sound like classics from the 1930s through the 1950s. Her latest album, Sweet Talk, with her killer backing band, the Talkbacks – Will Graefe (also of the brilliant dub reggae band Super Hi-Fi) on lead guitar, Larry Cook on upright bass (with Danny Weller on the album tracks), and Matt Meyer on drums – also might be her darkest yet. She’s gone on record as saying that she wanted to record the album “slow and strange” and a lot of that comes through.

To her further credit, all but one of the songs – other than the Ink Spots’ Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, redone as a fetching ballad that reminds of Daria Grace – are originals. Don’t Tell Mama starts out on a sultry tone with just guitar and vocals: “I see your glass is empty, hows about another round, what a sentimental feeling we have found,” Miss Tess cajoles, Graefe following with a searing bent-note solo, taking the song forty years forward into 1970 or so. The band follows that with the pedal steel-driven honkytonk of Never Thought I’d Be Lonely and then the haunting suicide bolero shuffle Adeline, Graefe once again taking the spotlight with his creepily surreal solos over blippy funeral organ.

If You Wanna Be My Man, a midtempo swing blues, brings back the low-key, sultry, jazzy vibe. It could could be Rachelle Garniez at her most nonchalantly upbeat: hokum blues humor, urban sophistication. People Come Here for Gold swings along on a brisk backbeat swamp rock groove – it might be a subtle anti-gentrification polemic couched in an oldtime vernacular. This Affair kicks off with a long bass solo and then morphs into a noir bossa nova tune with yet another brilliant, spiraling, Jerry Miller-esque guitar solo.

The slow, pretty country waltz Save Me, St. Peter has fun with Biblical metaphors, a dark song with playful imagery. Likewise, Everybody’s Darling contrasts Meyer’s vaudeville rimshots and Graefe’s lively, Matt Munisteri-ish solo with a brooding, bittersweet lyric and vocals. And New Orleans, upbeat as it is, keeps the bittersweet saloon jazz feel going. Miss Tess and the Talkbacks are at the big room at the Rockwood this Tuesday, July 16 at 8 PM; the similarly torchy but more pop-oriented Sophie Auster (Paul’s kid) plays afterward.

New York Music Daily’s Sunday Salon: Blowing Our Own Horn

Sooner or later, every music blog seems to get into the business of booking bands. For this blog, that means coming full circle, having come out of booking into blogging and then back again. It makes sense: if you do your homework, you’re connected to a vast musical network. Some blogs do it for the money, booking acts everybody else does. The indie rock blogs do it for status. New York Music Daily does it to be part of history. That’s ultimately what this blog is about, anyway: an attempt to chronicle some of the most important musical things happening right now. Unlike the Bushwick blogs’ loft shows, the weekly 5 PM Sunday Salon at Zirzamin isn’t a clique. Quality artists are always welcome to participate, and anyone is welcome to watch the show. Today’s review is a shout-out to the core of brilliant New York artists who’ve kept the Salon going since its debut right after last year’s hurricane, with a look back at the last few weeks of shows by those acts and some others who’ve been featured on this page in recent months as well.

The Salon typically finishes with a 7 PM set.  Sunday Salon #27 was a cancellation, so the acts took turns working out new material and showcasing a few audience favorites. Acoustic blues singer/guitarist Lola Johnson was a highlight of this show, joined by her excellent washboard player, whose custom-built instrument had bells and all sorts of other percussion built into it. Working her way from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago, Johnson impressed the most with a gospel-fueled version of Fred McDowell’s You Gotta Move that was a lot closer to the original than the famous Stones cover. Songwriter Tamara Hey – who’s playing the 7 PM set on August 11 – also wowed her fellow songwriters with her wry, bittersweet, vividly detailed, quintessentially New York tales of playing gigs in Lower East Side dives and metaphorically-charged explorations of the dilemma between gluttony and self-discipline, with soaring, maple sugar vocals and intricate guitar fingerpicking. And Kelley Swindall treated the crowd to yet another creepy new murder ballad, this one a purist, oldtime country blues.

At that show, Lorraine Leckie did what she often does, opting to sit on a table with her acoustic guitar and belt to the audience without any amplification. A founding member of the salon, she’s never stopped growing as a songwriter. Her show here the first week of May spotlighted her elegant, brooding chamber pop songwriting, including many of her collaborations with journalist/gadfly/social critic Anthony Haden-Guest from her album with him, Rudely Interrupted. Her following two shows here, at Salons #30 and #34, featured her scorching rock band the Demons. Whether she’s playing ornate art-rock, Britfolk-influenced open-tuned pastoral themes, snarling retro glamrock or the Steve Wynn-esque Canadian gothic she made a name for herself with in the late zeros, there’s no one more interesting, or more at the top of their game as a songwriter than she is right now. Her band has been solidified by the addition of a regular bassist; her vocals, stronger than ever, have been bolstered by the amazing Banjo Lisa and her spine-tingling high harmonies. Her not-so-secret weapon is guitarist Hugh Pool, whose maniacal yet nuanced, Hendrix-inspired lead playing gives the songs a volcanic intensity.

Walter Ego is another songwriter who’s never sounded better. A mainstay of the Salon since it began, he likes to challenge himself, whether that’s playing solo on drums (an instrument he’s just picked up), or taking a stab at playing totally unamplified at Sidewalk after Salon #30. And it turned out to be a format that works for him. Without a mic, he had to pick up his cool, crisp vocals a little; his sardonic humor and tuneful songs, played both on acoustic guitar and piano, spoke for themselves. A couple of his best, recent numbers reminded of vintage Ray Davies. The most haunting one was 12/9 (subway code for “passenger under the train”); the funniest one was Mitterand’s Last Meal, a cruelly detailed account of the late French President’s final supper whose final course was an endangered species which in France is illegal for human consumption. Double entendres, puns and clever jokes met with catchy, sometimes Beatlesque changes throughout a mix of upbeat and more pensive tunes.

Chanteuse Carol Lipnik has also been a mainstay of the Salon. Since the late 90s, her four-octave voice has been stunning audiences across this city, yet she’s also grown in the past year: there is simply no diverse or captivating singer in New York right now. Her work spans the worlds of noir cabaret, the avant garde, British folk and art-rock. Her headlining set at Salon #32 featured her Ghosts in the Ocean project with pianist Matt Kanelos, mixing haunting, raptly atmospheric songs with more aggressive material including a machinegunning cover of Nick Drake’s Black Dog Blues. A couple of weeks before that, she treated the crowd at Barbes to over an hour and a half of her Coney Island phantasmagoria, backed by her band Spookarama with jazz pianist Dred Scott (Kanelos was also summoned from the crowd for a couple of unexpected and very welcome contributions). She’s been busy this year, with several shows at Joe’s Pub and le Poisson Rouge; she’s also appearing with her frequent collaborator, crooner John Kelly, at Joe’s Pub this Sunday, July 14 at 7:30 PM.

And the guy who’s arguably been the Salon’s most reliable anchor, John Hodel – the Bukowski of the New York acoustic music scene – plays a full set at 7 PM this Sunday the 14th.

Sly and Robbie Bring It Down to the Roots

Sly and Robbie played a deep, purist set of roots reggae grooves at Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn yesterday, arguably the highlight of an otherwise lacklustre, ostensibly “R&B” themed weekly summer series booked by BAM. What kind of axe does legendary roots reggae bassist Robbie Shakespeare play? A standard issue Fender Jazz model. He stuck to the hooks he’s famous for, holding down the low end, a couple of times reaching down for boomy chords during one dub interlude. No slapping, no Jaco-style showboating, just soul. Behind his drum kit, Dunbar was much the same. He kept the one-drop going, having fun during the dub sections firing off hypnotic, steady volleys of eighth notes rather than any kind of gratuitous showmanship. No wonder these guys are considered one of the greatest rhythm sections ever.

They opened with a long series of instrumentals, backing a simple, direct, rock-solid trio of musicians: a trombonist who doubled on vocals and dancehall toasting, harmonizing with the keyboardist and edgy guitarist who contributed a single aching, searing, sustain-driven solo early in the set. They went down into dub a lot, oldschool style, dropping instruments out of the mix and back in again, pushing the echo fader up and down again, the keyboardist adding the occasionally blippy flourish. The band stuck mostly with minor keys, enhancing the dark, hypnotic ambience. The best of the early grooves first sounded like a dub of Burning Spear’s Old Marcus Garvey but then turned out to be On Broadway: it’s amazing how far you can get with just two chords. The biggest hit with the crowd was a long, murky jam on Dawn Penn’s reggae noir hit No, No, No. The high point of the show, with its gorgeous bassline, was a dub take on Freddie McGregor’s Revolution.

Third World’s 66-year-old frontman Bunny Rugs, who spent five years driving a cab in Brooklyn before joining that band, came up to sing for the remainder of the show. Third World were in the studio with Gregory Isaacs during his last session, so they played Night Nurse as a tribute to the late crooner. Rumors of War morphed into a scattering of bits and pieces from Third World hits like Reggae Ambassadors, Now That We’ve Found Love and Committed. Surreal moments abounded.

Bunny Rugs told the crowd that since he’d forgotten the lyrics to a number from his solo album, he was going to make some up on the spot, but that didn’t matter, he explained, since “Di riddim wicked!” The second he sang the line “this chair is empty now,” a concertgoer abruptly stood up from his and left it for someone else – thanks, guy! In the middle of a long, dissociative cover of Randy Newman’s Baltimore, Bunny Rugs turned “hooker on the corner” into “cop around the corner” and then went off on a long, rambling shout-out to Jamaica, where he, Sly and Robbie were when all this stuff gained critical mass. His comment about the music reaching a global audience without any help from big corporations was wrong. Columbia Records spent a fortune promoting Bob Marley, just not when he was alive. The crowd reflected how far reggae has come since it was the first world’s favorite esoterica: daycamp kids and their caretakers in the back, a sleepy lunchtime office crowd nodding their heads and swaying in unison, with the hippies and a small but vocal Jamdown posse up front. For a country of 144 square miles, at least for a couple of decades, they turned out more great musicians per capita than anywhere else in the world.