Transcending a Grim Era in New York with Pedro Giraudo’s Tango Quartet at Barbes

by delarue

Saturday night at Barbes, Pedro Giraudo thanked a small but raptly attentive audience for their bravery in coming out for his show there with his brilliant tango quartet. Pretty much everybody sitting at the bar drifted into the music room when the band started; not a single person in the crowd showed any sign of ill health.

Inevitably, everyone who writes nuevo tango gets compared to Astor Piazzolla, but Giraudo is the rare composer who’s earned that distinction. Over the past few years, his monthly Saturday night Barbes residency has grown to the point that this was an unlikely opportunity to actually be able to get in to see him at the moment the show began.

As intricately intertwining as his songs are, he’s a very terse bass player who’s more interested in melody and texture than flash, fingerpicking as well as bowing a handful of the more darkly luxuriant numbers. Violinist Nick Danielson swooped and dove, plucking out sparks of pizzicato along with stiletto minor-key riffs and contrastingly silky atmosphere in the quieter tunes. Bandoneonist Rodolfo Zanetti exchanged similarly dynamic, sometimes slashing, sometimes gently resonant washes of sound alongside the group’s spectacular pianist, whose rapidfire cascades and nimbly crushing chordal attack were understatedly spectacular to watch. Players who have that kind of raw power and precision to match are hard to find.

There was a lot of Piazzolla in the set, from the vivid, relentlessly leaping shark-fishing scenario Escualo, to a rapturous, moodily drifting take of Milonga Del Angel, to a considerably more biting, kinetic tune. But it was Giraudo’s originals that everybody had come out for. The high point of the night was Impetuoso,a relentlessly suspenseful, turbulently crescendoing depiction that the pianist finally brought to a searing, icepicked, percussive peak.

Cicada, complete with wry insectile calls from bandoneon and violin, was a lot more carefree and playful. The pianist’s pointillisms glittered most brightly in a newer, more serpentine minor-key tune; a bit later, Giraudo reminded how waltzes are a big part of the tango tradition, with both a strikingly spare, almost minimally elegant one of his own, along with a brief detour back to the early days of tango in Argentina. From there they picked up the pace to close the show with a couple of characteristically rising and falling originals.

Grim conjecture prevailed afterward at the bar. Giraudo spoke of hopefully resuming his residency next month. What’s the situation with the bar now? “Chaos,” as one insider somberly put it. Barbes has been booked so smartly over the years that nights which are slow at other venues are moneymakers here. The official response to the coronavirus scare forced the club to go dark, at least for the foreseeable future. How long can any other venue in town survive? How are all the people who work in any kind of service industry – living from paycheck to paycheck, piecing together shifts, dogwalking gigs and such – going to be able to make rent next month, let alone now? In hushed, serious tones, old friends weighed the odds of every possible dire scenario.

Barbes successfully got through a hard patch when hit with unanticipated building-related costs in 2017: more than eight hundred people contributed to their fundraiser and a benefit concert at Drom in June of that year. Saturday night, several customers enthusiastically considered another one. Others simply wondered how long they could stay here. “I think I’ve got about another month left in New York,” a famous immigrant novelist mused. Another patron contemplated making a new start, away from this climate of fear, with relatives who have a house further north. That we should all be so lucky.