New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Month: June, 2015

This Year’s Bang on a Can Marathon Focuses on Its Core Talent

What better to jar a sleepy crowd out of a pre-noon summer torpor than a steel pan orchestra? Kendall Williams’ arrangement of a Lord Nelson calypso hit, with its exubertant resemblance to a ballpark organ version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, made an apt kickoff to this year’s Bang on a Can Marathon. The 2015 edition of the annual avant garde festival differentiated itself from previous concerts with its emphasis on larger-scale works, circling the wagons with a somewhat abbreviated list of performers. Past years featured an often exhilarating mix of global acts, frequently going on til almost dawn. This one was somewhat shorter, focusing more on a rotating cast of characters from the Bang on a Can organization and its triumvirate, composers David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe. The live stream is here; much of the concert will air eventually on John Schaefer’s New Sounds program on WNYC.

Pianist Vicky Chow tackled the challenge of an hour’s worth of staccato, motorik minimalism by Tristan Perich while variously processed electronic echoes rose and fell, sometimes subsuming Chow’s literally marathon performance. Echoing Brian Eno, the piece gave the rapidly growing financial district winter garden crowd a chance to sink back into a Sunday reverie before it unexpectly rose to a long series of demandingly energetic ripples. Chow probably welcomed several opportunies to pause and breathe when the machines took over completely. There was a clever false ending and a resonantly minimalist return to stillness and calm. Later in the day, bassist Florent Ghys followed a similar trajectory with a slinky noir groove and increasingly dancing, cinematic variations over kinetic, higher-register loops: a trippy, lively instrumental karaoke performance, essentially.

The Dither Guitar Quartet delivered a deliciously gritty, bitingly chromatic Lainie Fefferman Velvet Underground homage evoking Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth. Thanks to a few judicious kicks of a boot into a loop pedal, they had a stomping beat behind their savagely crescendoing forest of overtones and blistering roar.

Mighty six-piano ensemble Grand Band hit a similar peak a bit later on with Lang’s Face So Pale, a substantially slower reworking of a Guillaume du Fay renaissance composition that did double duty as a mass and a “pop song,” as Lang put it. The group meticulously synchronized its pointillistically hypnotic, staccato incisions with the same precision that the sheet music on each player’s tablet flipped from page to page. What a treat it was to be in the second row for a dreamy surround-sound experience of that one.

Asphalt Orchestra played three joyous reinventions of Pixies favorites, reaffirming how well that band’s output translates to brass band. Sousaphone player John Altieri anchored the music, alto saxophonist Ken Thomson and trumpeter Stephanie Richards providing some of the afternoon’s most unselfconsiously adrenalizing moments. Then the Crossfire Steel Orchestra returned for a dancing but bracing Kendall Williams composition, rising and falling insistently.

Within minutes, Thomson was back onstage, this time on clarinet with the house art-rock band the Bang on a Can All-Stars, playing material from their latest album Field Recordings. They did Wolfe’s lilting, Acadian-flavored Reeling to accompany a recording of Canadian “mouth music.” Arguably the high point of the festival, Johann Johannsson‘s Hz built a vast, ominously looming horizontal expanse punctuated by David Cossin’s creepily twinkling vibraphone and Mark Stewart’s mighty washes of distorted guitar chords. Anna Clyne‘s A Wonderful Day grounded a sunny African-flavored melody in the dark textures of Robert Black’s bass, Thomson’s bass clarinet and Ashley Bathgate’s cello. Composer Todd Reynolds introduced his gospel choir mashup Seven Sundays witih a shout-out to the victims of the past week’s South Carolina massacre. Fueled by Bathgate’s sinewy lines, it turned out to be a characteristically jaunty dance with stadium rock heft and trippy hip-hop tinges.

The group’s final performance of the night, written by the BOAC three in collaboration with composer Lao Luo, was backing Chinese theatre chanteuse Gong Linna, pulling out all the stops for a dramatic triptych based on ancient shamanic songs.. The first invoked a fertility god, rising from rustic bluesiness to a towering vocal crescendo. The second, directed in English to a destructive river god, built from shivery low-string menace to a big, looping gallop, eventually coming full circle wih a visceral menace. The finale was a tonguetwistingly rapidfire polysyllabic love song to the mountain spirit – “Everybody in China knows this one,” grinned Linna – the mighty goddess ultimately spurning the shaman’s entreaties. You could call it kabuki rock.

Pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama made her way energetically through a creepy, Philip Glass-esque series of cellular motives from Somei Satoh‘s Ostinato Variations and then his alternately neoromantic and resonantly minimalistic, dynamically shifing Incarnations.  Third Angle New Music tackled Julian Day’s electroacoustic cut-and-paste Quartz, veering from sputtery to atmospheric as the piece ostensibly incorporated passages from two famous unfinished works, Haydn’s String Quartet in D and Schumann’s Quartettsatz. As it went on, it echoed Wolfe’s ominous adventures in string music, notably her chilling Cruel Sister suite.

Playing in the center of the atrium, Asphalt Orchestra’s versions of a trio of tunes by the pyrotechnic magician of Bulgarian clarinet music, Ivo Papasov swirled and blended into the space’s echoey sonics to the point where it wasn’t possible to tell if the band was actually playing his signature, machinegunning volleys note for note, or whether they were just holding them. But either way, what a way to send the energy to redline in a split second. Wisely, they returned to the more hospitable sonics of the stage for the final barn-burner.

Grand Band returned for their bandmate Paul Kerekes‘ Wither and Bloom, a diptych illustrating decay and rebirth. The first section’s flitting motives shifting elegantly into more minimal terrain, the second going in the opposite direction. Their final performance was a sardonic commissioned work from Gordon informed by childhood piano lesson trauma, a percussive, polyrhythmic roller-coaster ride punctuated by the occasional etude-like cascade.

So Percussion, with guitarist Nels Cline, did Bobby Previte’s Terminal 3 and 4, the composer on drums. Cline’s reverb roar, skronky Keith Levene-esque whistles and wails and white noise on the first number, outdoing the Dither guys for sheer volume, echoed out over staccato drum volleys like the Grateful Dead’s Space on crack. The second was a shticky but mercilessly funny portrait of the kind of torture drummers suffer, as well as the ones they inflict on the rest of us.

Brazilian percussionist/showman Cyro Baptista, leading a trio with Brian Marsella on multikeys and Tim Keiper on second drumkit, got a loud, jungly drone going and then launched into an animated shuffle, using a thicket of offbeat instruments from a big gong to a jawharp. Spacy, frantic hardbop gave way to vaudevillian audience-response antics, lots of pummeling and a return to dissociative disco.

Glenn Branca wound up the marathon, conducting a band with four guitars – two Fenders, an Ibanez Fender copy  and something else – plus minimal bass and pounding drums. It’s not the first time he’s done it and it probably won’t be the last. Branca still air-conducts with a very physical, Jimmy Page-style presence, in contrast to the group’s low-key focus. They opened with German Expressionism, a slowly swaying exchange of disquieting tritone-laced riffs; Jazzmaster player Arad Evans played the solo part on Branca’s looming Smoke guitar concerto, a turbocharged look back at a time when New York acts like Live Skull pulverized audiences. The group wound up with a trio of the composer’s signature more-or-less one-chord jams, part no wave orchestra, My Bloody Valentine and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Although this year’s marathon was about as abbreviated – relatively speaking – as other recent ones have been, it felt even shorter. Maybe that’s because there were so few lulls, the music and performances being consistently strong almost all the way through.

Some random observations: a painfully precious spoken-word component ruined an intriguingly swoopy and spiky LJ White piece for violin and cello played agilely by a subset of Third Angle New Music. The upstairs food court drew all the rugrats and their parents, leaving the downstairs mostly to concertgoers. Joy! The grounds crew shut off that obnoxious alarm on the elevator at the rear of the area: double joy! The roof leaking rain, not so joyful – the pianos got it good but this blog’s laptop escaped undamaged.

Another marathon, this one on the Upper West Side begininng on Saturday and ending this morning, offered a more improvisational kind of fun based on Erik Satie’s Vexations. A creepy, loopy piece designed to be played over and over a total of 840 times, it inspired composers Randall Woolf and Art Jarvinen to come up with their own variations.  A relay team of pianists assembled by Jed Distler began the performance at 8 AM and were planning on finishing up 24 hours later: a stop in on them late Saturday morning found both a pianist and electronic keyboardist blending textures over a loop of the Satie, occasionally embellished by both players, including a droll quote from one of the Gymnopedies. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for more.

Nneka Brings Her Politically-Fueled, Eclectic African Reggae Sounds to the Mercury

Born in Nigeria, raised in Germany, Nneka has gone in many directions over the course of her relatively young career: through soukous-tinged African pop, roots reggae, stripped-down acoustic folk and more ornately jazzy stylings, all of them imbued with a fearless political sensibility. She sings her aphoristic, terse lyrics in a fervent voice that rises to a gritty, almost otherwordly wail when she goes up the scale. The effect is both ancient and in the here and now. She has a new album, My Fairy Tales – streaming at Spotify – and a show at the Mercury on June 23 at 7 PM. Advance tix are $15.

Nneka’s English is better than the songs on the album might have you believe (she titled her second album No Longer at Ease, after the classic Chinua Achebe postcolonial novel). And the songs are a stylistic grab bag, possibly due to having traipsed from studio to studio in making the album. This time out, her lyrics are more skeletal and opaque – several of them in her native dialect -and the revolutionary sensibility both more general than specific, and further in the background. The opening track, Believe System is something of a mashup of Afropop, roots reggae and Stevie Wonder. Likewise, Babylon builds a hard funk backdrop around some lively mid-70s SW-style riffage.

The reggae-lite My Love, My Love goes deeper into its roots on the reprise that follows it, while Local Champion works a trippy, techy vibe with layers of blippy keys. Pray for You takes a disco groove backwards from cold teens electronics to a biting, guitar-fueled 70s vibe. Surprise veers between a propulsive soca bounce and electro-reggae, while the morose impoverishment tale Book of Job is an attempt to make a roots song out of samples and cheap keyb settings. And the last song sounds like it was assembled with Garageband in somebody’s bedroom. On one hand, it’s authentically African – this is what people do when all there is to work with is a secondhand dollarstore Casio. On the other, Nneka is an artist with ostensible label backing and access to topflight recording situations and gear. But she’s also a charismatic performer with a strong back catalog and the ability to transcend the limitations of these recordings onstage.

Parlor Walls Entertain Bushwick, Then Hit Cake Shop with Their Goodies

Parlor Walls have a bracingly fun ep that for lack of a better word could be called noiserock, a free download at Bandcamp. But they’re way more than that – and they have a lot more material than just what’s up there. A couple of weeks ago at the laid-back new venue Alphaville in Bushwick, they did more onstage in barely half an hour than most bands could do in two. While there’s no predictable verse/chorus structure to their songs and they like noise as much as tunes, their material can be awfully catchy.: when they have to, they keep things simple. They’re playing at 9 PM on June 25 at Cake Shop; cover is $8 and worth it. They’re also at Trans-Pecos the following night, June 26 at 9, opening for no wave sax legend James Chance; cover is $10.

Even though the Bushwick gig was late on a work night, there was a good crowd in the house, and the band kept them there. Frontwoman/guitarist Alyse Lamb – better known as the leader of the very popular Eula – would switch in a split-second from throwing off shards of reverb, to apprehensive postpunk chromatics, a hint of Chris Isaak noir twang, and oldfashioned punk rock roar. Meanwhile, drummer Chris Mulligan held down a thunderously swinging pulse and anchored the songs with deep washes of organ at the same time. This band’s ancestor, lineupwise if not exactly stylistically, is cult classic dark blues duo Mr. Airplane Man.

Guest alto saxophonist Kate Mohanty added an element of surprise, switching between blustery postbop jazz clusters, trickily rhythmic indie classical circles, reverb-drenched no wave acidity, abrasive duotone washes and catchy, blippy, polyrhythmic phrases. There was a menacingly psychedelic, drony quality to a couple of songs, like the Black Angels on molly. Other songs introduced tricky tempos (if memory serves right, one was in 9/8), dreamy/biting organ/guitar contrasts; and half the time it was impossible to tell who was playing the high frequencies, Lamb or Mohanty, the sound was so immersive. Persistent Daydream Nation echoes surfaced and then resurfaced frequently, Lamb’s vocals somewhat less agitated than they can be in Eula. And the trio did all this within the constrictions of maybe three minutes per song at the absolute max.

And there were fringe benefits: Lamb had brought lots of delicious homemade oatmeal-banana cookies. A whole tupperware containerful! They were almost as good as the music. On a night when the trains were all messed up and there was no telling how long it was going to take to get home, and stopping at a deli might mean missing the last train and a long walk to Myrtle Avenue, that hit the spot. Not that there’s any guarantee that there’ll be free munchies at the Cake Shop gig, but…you never know. It is Cake Shop after all.

The Glass House Ensemble and Muzsikas Play One of the Most Haunting, Exhilarating Shows of the Year

For one reason or another, this has been an amazing year for doublebills. Arguably the best one so far was last night at NYU, where the trans-continental Glass House Ensemble teamed up with iconic Hungarian Jewish string band Muzsikas for a sizzling show that offered both homage and reinvention to themes that, without some heavy lifting on the archival side, would have disappeared forever.

The Glass House Ensemble, led by soulful polymath trumpeter Frank London and his Hungarian multi-instrumentalist pal Béla Ágoston, opened. This blog was there when the Hungarian-American collaboration made their sensational debut performance at Drom last year – without having rehearsed together! London always manages to have his fingers in a whole bunch of good projects simultaneously. Lately he can be found on chanteuse Shulamit‘s poignant, historically rich Women in the Shoah album, as well on the reputedly amazing forthcoming album by Romany song reinventor and singer Eva Salina and her band.

The Glass House Ensemble – named after a legendary Hungarian safe house for Jews in World War II – opened with the same wild suite they played in Budapest this past winter.  Miklós Lukács’ machinegun cimbalom riffage led the pack through lushly dynamic rises and falls, Agoston’s soprano sax trading riffage with London, violinist Edina Szirtes Mókus’ powerful alto voice building to a rapidfire crescendo in a rampaging, eerily chromatic call-and-response with the rest of the band. That was just the first number.

Throughout the rest of the set, drummer Yoni Halevy jumped at the opportunity to surprise the crowd with trick endings. Pablo Aslan, a major force in nuevo tango, provided a slinky, slithering low end when he wasn’t taking acrobatic leaps or providing stygian washes of sound with his bow. Guitarist Aram Bajakian channeled Jimi Hendrix on one intro, otherwise hanging back with a judiciously jangly approach that filled out the dips and swells beneath the lushness of the violins, Mokus in tandem or exchanging hooks with Jake Shulman-Ment. London imbued one lustrous, cinematic theme with a wrenching sense of longing, awash in plaintive harmonies, like an unanswered cantorial call. Later he led the band into a one of several fiery, bristling, minor-key romps where Lukacs took the wildest yet most meticulously intricate, rapidfire solo of the night. At the end of the concert, they joined forces with Muzsikas for a similarly jaunty yet bittersweet theme, a mighty dozen-piece ensemble intertwining with a triumphant expertise as the audience clapped and stomped along. Bands like this live for moments like this.

Where the Glass House Ensemble were an elegantly stampeding, slashingly artsy orchestra, Muzsikas’ set was feral and ferocious – but also brooding, wounded and often otherworldly. Charismatic violinist Laszlo Portleki explained in impressively good English that they’d often had to learn their repertoire of Jewish themes from Romany musicians, considering that the Hungarian Romany population hadn’t been quite as decimated by the Holocaust (maybe a hundred thousand Romany people, maybe half a million Jews – what’s that to Hitler?).

Singer Maria Petras matched Mokus’ role with her dramatic, often riveting delivery of several numbers, in a potent mezzo-soprano. Violinist Mihaly Sipos took many of the night’s most adrenalizing solos, when he wasn’t switching to gardon, the Transylvanian percussion instrument with a cello-like body that produces an ominous hum when you beat it with a stick (that’s how it’s supposed to be played).  They opened with a pulsing, almost frantic, rustic two-step dance, seemingly closer to southern Balkan music than Hungarian folk…but that’s why Jewish music is so rich, because it’s so syncretic.

In about an hour onstage, with insightful song introductions from Porteleki, Muzsikas gave the crowd a fascinating tour of prewar Hungarian Jewish music in all its deliriously fun, and ironic, haunting glory. One stark number drew on the gorgeous Middle Eastern freygish mode, but a rather sentimental number from close to the Austrian border bordered on German schmaltz. Like the opening band, Muzsikas worked the dynamics up and down, the tempos leaping to warp speed and then back, or dropping out completely for a mysterious, melismatic violin intro, a swoopily shapeshifting crescendo against a low drone, or a sad, steadily stomping march. Underscoring all these amazing songs was that if the group hadn’t searched for them high and low, among old musicians and archives, none of this music would exist anymore.

Catchy, Jangly, Propulsive, Afrobeat-Inspired Tunes from the Letter Yellow

Do you like the idea of Vampire Weekend but find the real thing impossibly insipid? If so, the Letter Yellow are for you. Frontman/guitarist Randy Bergida writes lithely dancing, catchy major-key tunes anchored by the rhythm section of bassist Abe Pollack and drummer Mike Thies. They’re playing the album release show for their new one, Watercolor Overcast at the Cameo Gallery tonight, June 18 at 10 PM; cover is $8.

Pollack’s trebly bass plays an Afrobeat groove underneath Bergida’s balmy but tensely anticipatory vocals on the opening track, Anytime of Day, a lush, dynamically shifting, artfully orchestrated anthem. Road to the Mountain has a loping Afropop groove with an unselfconsciously joyous flute flourish on the turnaround, hitched to a gospel-inspired vamp. Summer in the City isn’t the 60s pop hit but an enigmatically sunny, soul-splashed, strummy original that in another era would have been a monster radio hit.

Pain in the World blends an edgy minor bossa groove and biting roots reggae lyricism over an echoey minor-key melody with hints of that tune that every busker from Sydney to South Carolina knows. The album’s strongest track, The Light We Shed sets pulsar guitar multitracks to a steady marching beat, echoey jangle giving way to clang and resonance. Slow Down works a slowly swaying, hypnotically summery soul vamp lit up with some sparkly keygboard flourishes.

Cold Cold Night builds a fiery, galloping nocturnal ambience, far from the wintriness the title suggests. Likewise, the soul strut Downtown has a nighttime vibe, with a long, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking-style latin psychedelic outro.

Drifter shifts toward Americana, while the final track, Can I Get It Girl goes in a more straightforward hard-funk direction, with more than a hint that it’s the style of music where the band got their start. Maybe the coolest thing about the album is that it’s available on vinyl: if the band remembers to bring a box of records to their shows, it’s a sure bet that they’ll sell out. So far, it hasn’t hit Bandcamp or the usual sites, but the band’s previous output is streaming at their  audio page.

Summer Fiction Put an Original Spin on Gorgeous Britrock and Sunshine Pop Sounds from the 60s and 70s

Don’t let the band name give you the wrong idea: Summer Fiction are a lot more than just a beach read. On their new album Himalaya – streaming at Bandcamp – frontman/guitarist Bill Ricchini channels classic 60s Britrock with tighter teens production values. Much as you can hear all sorts of elements and references to the Beatles, Zombies, Big Star and plenty of other iconic and not-so-iconic bands, they have an original sound. One of their secrets is Jonathan Prestbury s 12-string guitar, the other the straightforward rhythm section of Alex Yaker’s bass and Adam Dawson’s drums. They’re playing the album release show tonight, June 18 at 10 at Union Hall in Park Slope; cover is $12.

The album opens with On and On, the early Beatles as covered by the early Kinks. Dirty Blonde has a similarly kinetic pulse, this time driven by BC Camplight’s piano, with a deliciously watery guitar solo midway through. Perfume Paper builds a lushly gorgeous blend of jangly, chiming guitars, like Big Star, but again, with a tighter, more straight-ahead beat.

The instrumental title track works a late Beatles/early ELO vamp with tasteful cello from Eric Stephenson. The psych-pop Lauren Lorraine has a dancing, pinging sunshine pop vibe – it would be a standout Jacco Gardner track. Genevieve takes the idiom ten years forward to catchy late 70s ELO bossa-pop, followed by Religion of Mine, shifting back toward Zombies Odesssey and Oracle electric piano-and-organ-driven lushness.

Manchester turns out not to be a bleak postpunk song but a wistful art-rock waltz. By My Side is an elegantly fingerpicked, pensively autumnal folk-pop number, followed by Cathedral, a baroque pop instrumental. The album also comes with acoustic versions of Perfume Pape, Dirty Blonde amd Lauren Lorraine, each of them underscoring how strong the tunes are with just just guitar and vocals. If these songs had been around in the radio-and-records era, they would have been hits then and would be staples of oldies radio now. That’s meant as a compliment in the purest sense of the word.

Powerful, Relevant Honkytonk Songwriting and a Rockwood Gig by the Honeycutters

More about that that really good Americana twinbill tomorrow night, June 18 at 7 at the big room at the Rockwood: Asheville, North Carolina’s Honeycutters are on it, along with the Hillbenders, who’ve gotten plenty of notoriety for outdoing the Who with their newgrass version of the Tommy album. The club’s webpage doesn’t say who’s playing first, but both bands are good and justify a $12 cover, which will probably double when the waitress swoops down on you and insists that you buy a drink.

Where the Hillbenders bring their sizzling chops to unexpected material, the Honeycutters are just as original, putting a current-day lyrical spin on classic honkytonk sounds. Their latest album, Me Oh My is streaming at Spotify. Frontwoman Amanda Anne Platt writes potently vivid narratives that mine the underside of hardscrabble rural America: her characters are people we all know. She sings in a purposeful, unaffected drawl over the twangy backdrop of multi-instrumentalist Matt Smith – who supplies guitar, dobro and pedal steel – along with Tal Taylor on mandolin, Rick Cooper on bass and Josh Miligan on drums. The playing and arrangements look back to a classic 60s Bakersfield sound, the mandolin adding a spiky Appalachian touch. The opening track, Jukebox, sets the tone, a swaying midtempo number with a cajoling cynicism: it’s sort of a “better enjoy this because this might be all we’ve got” scenario.

“They can lead you to the darkness but you don’t have to go quiet,” Platt reminds in the catchy, shuffling All You Ever Needed, a friendly warning to a pal who’s willing to settle for a place to sleep on the kitchen floor: it’s a potent portrait of dashed dreams and their consequences in Flyover America. “I had a baby but the Good Lord took her, she was an angel but her wings were crooked,” Platt observes in the slowly swaying, John Prine-inflected title track, a chillingly clear take on the downside of trying to start a family too young: “Some girls do better without that ball and chain,” her narrator explains.

With its hard-hitting beat, resonant organ and keening pedal steel, Edge of the Frame is a biting portrait of somebody who’s gotten too big for their britches. Ain’t It the Truth – which could be the Wallflowers with a pedal steel and a woman out front – is even grimmer, a study in the psychology of domestic abuse.

Carolina works another restless shuffle groove, while Texas ’81 paints a stark portrait of a relationship unraveling with the demands of family and responsibilities. The slow, moody Little Bird, with Phil Cook’s gospel-tinged piano, could be a prequel, a new bride pondering how long the honeymoon will last – or, more accurately, how long it won’t. Not That Simple keeps the slow-burning, morose vibe going, then Wedding Song brings some bluegrass-flavored optimism: “When you’re with me, honey, it’s like throwing loaded dice,” Platt’s joyous heroine exclaims.

Hearts of Mine opens with a similar acoustic atmosphere and then goes deeper into melancholy, swaying honkytonk. Then Platt flips the script again with the upbeat I’ll Be Loving, a dead ringer for Dylan’s You Ain’t Going Nowhere, with a delicious dobro/mando duel on the way out.

“I’ve got the mind of a junkie and you’ve got the heart of a child,” Platt muses on Lucky, a sobering but hopeful and propulsively crescendoing anthem. The final cut is the plaintive, guilt-stricken breakup ballad A Life For You. Fans of strong, insightful songwriting from Lucinda Williams, to vintage Springsteen, to James McMurtry will love this album – it’s more than a stealth contender for one of the best of 2015.

The Hillbenders Bring Their Imaginative Americana Take on The Who to the Rockwood

If you’re into bluegrass, you’ve probably heard Luther Wright & the Wrongs‘ 2001 cult classic Rebuild the Wall, an acoustic version of the Pink Floyd movie soundtrack album. In a similar vein, with considerably less of a mean-spirited satirical edge, the Hillbenders’ Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry, an impressively faithful newgrass take on the Who, is currently burning up the charts and streaming at Spotify. They’re bringing it to the big room at the Rockwood on June 18 at 7 PM on an excellent twinbill with honkytonkers the Honeycutters, Cover is $12; the venue isn’t clear on who’s playing first, but both bands are worth seeing if Americana is your thing. And if you feel like nursing your $15 beer and making a night of it, sardonic oldtimey swing guitarist/crooner Seth Kessel & the Two Cent Band play their jaunty, fun, original  tunes afterward at around 10:30.

It’s tempting to say that audiences in 2015 will probably prefer the Hillbenders’ version over the Who’s original. Forget for a minute that these days, bluegrass is a whole lot more popular than bombastic stadium rock. For starters. this bluegrass band has virtuoso chops and impeccable taste, recording the album to two-inch tape. While the Who obviously also recorded in analog, they were still a garage band at heart when they made the original. What’s most surprising about the new album is how well the incidental music between the radio hits translates to bluegrass – and, quite frankly, how much the band improves it. A prime example is Sparks, where the dobro and banjo really soar. What’s less surprising is how well the Hillbenders do the hits. For one, just the absence of Roger Daltrey’s florid vocals is a big plus. And while it’s probably unfair to weigh how much more texture, and dynamics, and flair guitarist Jim Rea, mandolinist Nolan Lawrence, dobro player Chad Graves and banjo player Mark Cassidy add, by comparison to all of Pete Townshend’s overdubs, the ultimate result is that the Hillbenders’ version is arguably even more epic. And what more could you possibly want from a rock opera? That probably explains why Townshend has given his blessing to the album.

The one thing that it doesn’t offer is a blockbuster rhythm section, which makes sense: Gary Rea is a perfectly good bluegrass bassist, eschewing John Entwhistle’s sinewy attack for a purist oldschool approach. And the band sidesteps the issue of trying to match any of Keith Moon’s contributions, probably a wise choice. They also don’t attempt to clarify or expand on the original’s bare-bones plot: best to look at this as a catchy collection of newgrass pop songs imbued with tongue-in-cheek humor and played with first-class chops, rather than any kind of profound statement. And the hits are a revelation. You can understand the lyrics to Pinball Wizard – how’s “Bally table king” for 60s cultural resonance? Go to the Mirror matches the junior existentialist angst of the original, and We’re Not Gonna Take It has even more defiance. After all this, ironically, the original seems pretty lightweight.

State-of-the-Art Big Band Jazz and a Shapeshifter Show by John Yao & His 17-Piece Instrument

John Yao is one of New York’s elite trombonists, and a frequent performer with both Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.Yao is also a first-class, ambitious and witty composer and leader of his own all-star large ensemble, John Yao and His 17-Piece Instrument. They have a new album, Flip-Flop, and a release show at 7 PM on June 17 at Brooklyn’s home for big band jazz, Shapeshifter Lab, with sets at 7 and 8:15 PM and an enticingly low $10 cover.

As you might imagine from a trombonist, the album is a big, bright, brassy extravaganza. But it’s also full of unexpected dynamics, dips and rises, imaginative voicings and occasional sardonic humor. The title track bookends punchy brass exchanges around a couple of long sax-and-rhythm-section vectors upward, John O’Gallagher on alto and Rich Perry on tenor, the two engaging in a genial conversation midway through. New Guy is Yao at his sardonic best: a moody, syncopated vamp with fluttery brass gives way to punchy swing with cleverly echoing voices, Andy Gravish’s stairstepping trumpet leading into to more serioso trombone from Yao and then a pugilistic exchange that builds to a hopeful crescendo and then a memorable punchline.

Slow Children at Play follows a bright, balmy clave stroll, echoing Yao’s work with the O’Farrill band, with a warmly considered Rich Perry tenor sax solo that builds to a lively exchange with the brass, followed by a summery trombone-and-rhythm-section interlude. It’s very New York. For that matter, the same could be said for the two “soundscapes” here, group improvisation in a Butch Morris vein, the first a luminously suspenseful intro of sorts with shivery violin at its center, the second with a similarly apprehensive, cinematic sweep.

With a blazing brass kickoff, impressively terse yet punchy David Smith trumpet solo and bustling Jon Irabagon tenor sax solo, the gritty swing tune Hellgate is the most trad and also the catchiest number here. Opening with Yao’s own moody trombone, Reflection shifts toward noir, its resonant, shifting sheets building a tensely expectant ambience with a lull for pianist Jesse Stacken’s brooding excursion and then a rewardingly brass-fueled crescendo. Yao’s sense of humor and aptitude for relating a good yarn take centerstage on Ode to the Last Twinkie, its playful echo effects and Jon Irabagon’s droll, eye-rolling tenor sax offering a nod to Arnold Schoenberg.

Illumination also features those echoes that Yao likes so much, a much more serious piece with Alejandro Aviles’ spiraling flute and Frank Basile’s energetic baritone sax over a tensely hypnotic piano riff, the brass falling into place with a mighty domino effect, Stacken adding a cascading, neoromantically-tinged break. The album winds up with the hard-swinging Out of Socket. Taken as a whole, it’s a tight, adrenalizing performance by a collection of first-call NYC jazz talent that also includes trumpeters John Walsh and Jason Wiseman; Luis Bonilla, Matt McDonald, Kajiwara Tokunori and Jennifer Wharton on trombones; Robert Sabin on bass and Vince Cherico on drums. As the album’s just out, it hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, but Yao has lots of good stuff on his music page including several of these tracks.

A Sizzling Hungarian and Balkan Twinbill Coming Up on the 17th

In a city where you can see incredible music pretty much any night if you want, for nothing more than a few bucks in the tip bucket, how do you justify dropping $36 on a ticket? With this video. If the haunting, bracing minor keys and chromatics of Balkan and Eastern European music, or just plain raw adrenaline are your thing, you’ll have a hard time resisting the amazing doublebill coming up on June 17 at 8 PM at the Skirball Auditorium at NYU at the top of LaGuardia Place with fiery Hungarian band Muzsikás and awesomely shapeshifting Hungarian/American ensemble the Glass House Orchestra.

The latter group have an interesting backstory: led by iconic trumpeter Frank London – an original Klezmatic – they came together to play a blend of indigenous and Jewish tunes as well as their own material. Although London is his usual intense, resonant, frequently wild self in this project, their not-so-secret weapon is cimbalom player Miklós Lukács (fast forward to 57:50 for his most spectacular solo of the night). And there’s no other band on the planet who sound anything like them. This blog raved about their show last year at Drom, but the video – a complete concert recording from the Budapest Music Center this past January – is even more intense. It’s worth releasing as a live album. What jumps out at you right off the bat is how amazing a jamband these guys and women are. In over seventy minutes onstage, they barely break a sweat, even while they romp through innumerable dynamic shifts and sizzling solos.

Sometimes the band will build a slow, suspenseful intro; other times they leap into a song with a flurry of violins or horns. Béla Ágoston is a one-man reed section on a whole slew of instruments, most notably the bagpipes. London trades riffage with just about everybody in the band, and Rolling Stones saxophonist Tim Ries comes up to guest on one long, phantasmagorically epic number. Violinists Jake Shulman-Ment and Edina Szirtes Mókus – who also provides spellbinding, otherworldly vocals – team up for shivery staccato crescendos, soaring upward flights and mysterious ambience. Bassist Pablo Aslan anchors the music with a dancing pulse as drummer Yoni Halevy drives the juggernaut with a carnivalesque, sometimes vaudevillian flair. And guitarist Aram Bajakian wails and slashes, threatening to fall off his chair as he blasts his way through searing volleys of tremolo-picking and downtown jazz skronk, or adds mysterioso glimmer with his Lynchian jangle, particularly in what could be the night’s best number, a creepy bolero. But there’s way more than just this here…and it’s the best possible advertising the show on the 17th could have. Props to the Balassi Institute/Hungarian Cultural Center for putting the bill together.