Iranian Rock Rules at Lincoln Center

by delarue

Lincoln Center Out of Doors was packed this past evening. The message was clear: New Yorkers, or at least a large subset of us, love Iranian music. On a triplebill that began with a tantalizingly short set by all-female hometown crew Habibi and ended with crooner Faramarz Aslani and his band, rock band Kiosk played one of the best sets of any group in this city this year.

Frontman Arash Sobhani entertained the crowd with his sardonic sense of humor, edgy, mythologically influenced Farsi lyrics and slashingly individualistic Stratocaster chops. His fellow axeman Mohammad Talani wailed and slunk, a nonchalantly powerful presence on a big hollowbody Gibson while bassist Ali Kamali bubbled over the steady, funk-influenced beats of drummer Yahya Alkhansa.

The early part of the set was an update on the psychedelic “Farsi funk” that was all the rage in Iran prior to the 1979 Khomeini takeover, and brutally suppressed thereafter (Kiosk take their name from the kind of venues available for confrontational rock in their Teheran  hometown). Hits like Love For Speed (a sarcastic parable about Teheran traffic), the cautionary tales Everybody’s Asleep and Bulldozer each had a minor-key psych-funk feel grounded by a heavier than usual drumbeat for that style, Sobhani evoking peak-era Leonard Cohen with both his vocals and his chord changes. On guitar, he fired off purist, icepick Chicago blues leads but also slithery volleys of chromatics that were a dead giveaway for the group’s origins.

Talani hung back with his rhythm early on but once he got a chance to cut loose, he took a couple of the darker anthems to angst-fueled peaks with his screaming, anguished leads, like a Middle Eastern David Gilmour. Meanwhile, Sobhani led the group through an eclectic mix that included a pensively crescendoing contemplation of exile, then a rapidfire, punkish romp through a melody that he said was originally Iranian but eventually became a klezmer melody (it sounded Russian).

A couple of shuffling numbers after that could have been American ghoulabilly save for the linguistic difference. After a detour into what could have been dub reggae but wasn’t, and a tune that brought to mind Gogol Bordello, they did a silly faux Chuck Berry tune about a legendary Iranian bootlegger who got jail time for pirating AC/DC records. This group is huge in the Iranian diaspora but should be vastly better known beyond that world.

Habibi deserved more than fifteen minutes onstage. What they lack in tightness they make up for in originality. Lead guitarist Lenaya “Lenny” Lynch fired off needling tremolo-picked riffs over the tense surf-ish rhythm sectdion of bassist Erin Campbell and drummer Karen Isabel as rhythm guitarist Leah Beth Fishman added rainy-day chords that sometimes edged toward Lush dreampop, frontwoman Rahill Jamalifard singing coolly and matter-of-factly, mostly in Farsi. From their brief, Arabic-tinged instrumental intro through a mix of Breeders jangle, Ventures stomp and Farsi funk, they’re developing an intriguing, distinctive sound. Give the rhythm section a year to get their chops up to speed, and this band could be dangerous.

Backed by six-piece band including flamenco guitarist and musical director Babak Amini, Aslani got the crowd singing and dancing along to his allusively biting lyrics set to pleasant, flute-fueled Mediterranean and Brazilian-inflected acoustic ballads that often brought to mind the Gipsy Kings. An icon of Iranian music since the 70s, he’s a wordsmith and connoisseur of classical Persian poetry first and foremost.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues tomorrow night, July 29 with art-rock guitarist Jonathan Wilson – of Roger Waters’ band – doing his own material. Getting into the show this particular evening was easy, but you might want to show up before 7:30 PM showtime if you want a seat.