New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: concert

Powerful Singer Kelsey Park’s New Song Cycle Tackles a Heartbreaking, Rarely Discussed Issue

Pianist Lana Norris put mezzo-soprano Kelsey Park in touch with composer Denise Mei Yan Hofmann, and the result was a meticulously poignant, painterly suite performed by all three along with clarinetist Artemis Cheung yesterday on the Upper West Side. It was probably the first public performance ever for any cycle of art-songs on the subject of battling infertility.

Park had written a series of poems as a way of dealing with the issue herself. To share them with Norris, her friend, was brave to begin with. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine any more soul-baring performance by any singer in front of an audience in this city in recent memory. And the material was worthy of the musicians’ emotional attunement to the music.

Beyond the ever-present, looming backdrop, the genius of Hofmann’s score to those poems was the choice of instrumentation. Pairing the rich, resonant lows of Park’s voice with close harmonies from the clarinet – whose range is almost exactly the same – made for a relentless unease. At times, Cheung’s airy, crystalline lines would either follow or foreshadow Park’s path as the music rose ineluctably from rainy-day plaintiveness to a short series of spine-tingling arioso crescendos.

As with the material, the program didn’t follow any any easily stereotyped format. Norris opened with a tensely spare Hofmann solo piano piece spiced with distant gospel allusions and vividly mournful belltone accents. Hofmann then played acoustic guitar through a Fender amp, maxing out the reverb, joining Park and Cheung for a trio of spacious, uneasily crescendoing, circling songs, ending with a delicate, somewhat wounded waltz.

Hofmann then had the trio of Park, Norris and Cheung play short excerpts from the suite before tackling the whole thing. Was Park going to be able to make it through the relentless angst of one of its most dramatic moments, using all of her impressive upper register with the phrase “Why me?” over and over again? Much as she visibly teared up, the power in her voice wouldn’t give in to defeat. Ultimately, both Park’s lyrics and Hofmann’s music were resolute in the face of challenges to faith and hope, pushing despair away and finally finding calm and sense of renewed optimism.

Water imagery, both musical and lyrical, was a central theme early on. Cheung shifted calmly from long, airy tones to brief, moody phrases in her midrange and lower: there were points at which she could have been playing a bass clarinet. Likewise, Norris walked a steady line between Hoffmann’s deft blend of terse neoromanticism and postminimalist acidity while Park held steady, only to rise to the rafters in three explosive peaks, the first to open the suite.

“Is motherhood selfish?” Park asked herself during a brief mid-concert Q&A. No, she’d decided. She didn’t address the idea head-on, but her concept of motherhood embraces children without Instagram status-grubbing or turning them into yuppie bling. 

While the struggle to beat physical challenges to become a mother is seldom publicly discussed, it’s very common. And it’s hardly an exclusively female problem. Since the first atom bomb tests over seventy years ago, mens’ potency in terms of ability to conceive has diminished by almost fifty percent on a global level: toxic radionuclides have had a devastating effect. While she didn’t get into any kind of trouble on the male side of the equation, Park deserves enormous credit for having the courage to tackle an issue which, even while it impacts literally millions of people worldwide, is still seldom discussed in public, let alone onstage.

Advertisements

A Spellbinding Downtown Show By Two of the Greatest Players in Middle Eastern Music

Time stood still last night in the financial district at the duo performance by Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor and Turkish baglama lute player Erdal Erzincan. They opened with a whisper, Kalhor bowing a barely audible mist until Erzincan responded with a single spare, plaintive, minor-key phrase. After the better part of two hours onstage, they ended cold with a single bracing cadenza. In between, they channeled mystery, and occasional horror, a little irresistible humor and some snark – and pretty much every other emotion in between.

Kalhor is often acknowledged as this era’s greatest Iranian musician, and might also be the most riveting composer of the late 20th and early 21st century as well. He is equally skilled as an improviser, as is Erzincan. In the crowd last night, one of the great impresarios of Turkish music called hin the world’s most innovative baglama player.

Slowly and methodically, Erzincan drew Kalhor from his deep-sky whispers into a brooding exchange of simple, warily allusive phrases. Soon after, Kalhor set the stage for the rest of the evening with a plaintive descending riff in the whole-tone scale. From there the show was a roller-coaster ride of several variations on that theme – four in particular stood out, although variations in Middle Eastern music can be pretty much infinite.

As was the epic scope of the concert. It was impossible not to get completely lost in the music. On one hand, much of it was Middle Eastern Twin Peaks themes, developing increasingly ominous melodies based loosely on the two musicians’ landmark 2006 album, The Wind. This was less a full-force gale – or uneasy breeze – than a series of storms punctuated by portents of more to come.

It’s impossible to remember Kalhor playing with more sheer ferocity than he did last night. His percussive attack seemed to be a new development: often he’d pluck out a galloping beat on his fingerboard, using his little finger on the bulb at the base of his fiddle for a striking, boomy impact, enhanced by the immense amount of reverb that both instruments benefited immensely from. His seemingly endless waves of practically supersonic sixteenth notes as the music reached full altitude toward the end of the show were literally breathtaking,  in terms of both raw speed and clenched-teeth emotional wallop. And he didn’t even introduce his signature echo effects – where he bows the same note and then gradually backs off – until at least the halfway point.

Erzincan’s technique and melody were just as riveting. His rippling, pointillistic volleys of chromatics underneath Kalhor’s aching, astringent washes seemed absolutely effortless. Likewise, there were several interludes where Erzincan put two hands on the fretboard and fired off long spirals of tapping that put just about any heavy metal guitarist to shame. For whatever reason, after Kalhor had introduced that first troubled central riff, it  was Erzincan who ushered in each of the others.

Perhaps because music from Iran and Turkey blends the microtones of classical Arabic maqam music with western tonalities, there were points where razors-edge Middle Eastern chromatics were front and center, and others – particularly during the lulls – where the ambience was closer to western classical, or even horror film music. There were also a couple of points where Kalhor threw a couple of absolutely buffoonish swipes at Erzincan, who passed them right back without missing a beat – was this to gauge how much people were paying attention? For what it’s worth, nobody laughed out loud,

The long upward sprint at about the ninety minute mark turned out to be just clever foreshadowing; the two suddenly backed away for a return to the introductory whispers before raising the energy toward redline again. And then suddenly the show was over. At that point, it was impossible to recall anything more than this, considering how much of a dream state the crowd had been drawn into. A cellist in the audience, sister to one of the great innovators in Punjabi and blues music, mused about what a privilege it had been to witness this. Her friend, one of New York’s foremost concert presenters, revealed that she’d spent the whole show with her eyes closed, letting the duo deliver a surrealist film for the ears.

This was the final concert of the year at Pace University’s Schimmel Center, but is typical of the programming here. A big shout to Isabel Sofer of Live Sounds, who booked this concert and has been one of the world’s foremost advocates for Kalhor and many similar artists from around the world since the 1990s.

The Bang on a Can Marathon 2018 – A Marathon Report

“I know so many of you have followed our nomadic trail to so many locations,” composer Julia Wolfe demurred, introducing today’s 31st anniversary of the Bang on a Can Marathon at NYU’s Skirball Auditorium. 

“Great to be in a space where we can all listen,” mused her fellow composer and husband Michael Gordon, possibly alluding to less sonically welcoming venues the annual New York avant garde music summit has occupied.

This year’s program was the most compact and New York-centric in a long time, and considering the venue, it’s no surprise that NYU alums mentored by the Bang on a Can composers featured prominently on the bill. Terry Riley’s influence circulated vastly throughout much of the early part of the show; the ageless lion of indie classical took a turn on vocals as the concert wound up.

“We have a duty to go up to the people who come in afterward and brag,” grinned Bang on a Can’s David Lang, referring to the afternoon’s first piece, Galina Ustvolskaya’s relatively brief Symphony No. 2. The NYU Contemporary Ensemble – with woodwinds, brass and percussion – negotiated it calmly but forcefully. David Friend’s steady hamfisted piano thumps ushered in and then peppered steadily rhythmic, massed close harmonies from the rest of the group, Vocalist Robert Osborne implored a grand total of three Russian words – God, truth and eternity – over and over in between pulses as the music veered between the macabre and the simply uneasy. The ensemble really nailed the surprise ending – gently.

Michael Gordon’s Sonatra, the composer explained, is the only solo piano piece in his repertoire, quite a surprise considering that he’s a strong pianist and the best musician among the Bang on a Can hydra. “Somehow Vicky Chow has learned how to play it,” he deadpanned. She made Gordon’s vast, subtly contrasting, rigorously crosshanded Terry Riley-like expanses of steady eighth notes seem easy, engaging every single one of the piano’s eighty-eight keys.

Murky faux-boogie woogie lefthand paired against relentlessly twinkling righthand riffage; that Chow could incorporate Gordon’s relentlessly tongue-in-cheek glissandos with as much aplomb as she did reaffirms her mighty chops as one of the world’s foremost avant garde musicians.

Chamber orchestra Contemporaneous tackled a carbonated, caffeinated, endlessly circling fifteen-minute slice of cellist Dylan Mattingly’s similarly daunting, epically ecstatic six-hour opera Stranger Love. The Bang on a Can All-Stars – as amazingly mutable as ever – made the first of their many appearances with Gabriella Smith’s Panitao, evoking the swoops and high swipes of whale song amid increasingly animated, rippling, sirening ambience. Then they pounced their way through the staggered math steps of Brendon Randall-Myers’ Changes, Stops, and Swells (For B).

A sextet subset of Contemporaneous returned for Fjóla Evans’s turbulent tone poem Eroding, an Icelandic river tableau. With its sharp contrasts – bass clarinet, cello and piano gnashing and swirling amid the flickers from violin, flute and vibraphone – and disarming trick ending, it was the first real stunner among the new material on the bill.

Purple Ensemble – a string trio augmented with vibes, viola and vocals – played three Yiddish songs from Alex Weiser’s cycle And All the Days Were Purple. Singer Eliza Bagg channeled joy shadowed by angst and longing, Lee Dionne’s piano beginning low and enigmatic and then slithering in a far more Lynchian direction over the strings.    

The All-Stars’ were bolstered by Contemporaneous’ strings and percussion for a trio of  commissions. Jeffrey Brooks was first represented by After the Treewatcher,  based on a trancey earlier work which was the composer recalled being vociferously booed when Gordon premiered it back in the early 80s. Guitarist Taylor Levine’s warily oscillating lines undulated amongst emphatic strings and rustling, peek-a-boo suspense-film percussion riffs, building a Riley-esque web of sound that was as gorgeously hypnotic as it was hard-hitting.

A second new work, Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, featured additional reeds and brass along with pointillistic twin electric pianos. A bustlingly circular, Bollywood-inflected theme gave way to austere, lingering ambience and then a wryly gritty Beatles guitar knockoff.

The Flux Quartet played their first violinist Tom Chiu’s Retrocon, a meteorologically-inspired, spiraling, Philip Glass-ine series of rising and falling microtonal cell figures. Violinist Mazz Swift and keyboardist Therese Workman juxtaposed electroacoustic string metal, new wave pop, a classic spiritual and faux-EDM in their mini-suite Revolution:House.

The big hybrid ensemble reconfigured for a final Brooks work, The Passion – the triptych “Reflects the kind of suffering that goes on every day, not the biblical kind,” the composer emphasized. Lavishly kinetic pageantry with wry Black Sabbath allusions shifted to dissociative, Laurie Anderson-ish atmospherics, Bagg narrating sobering advice from the composer’s terminally ill sister to her children. The leaping, trebly counterpoint of the final segment brought to mind My Brightest Diamond.

Sō Percussion took the stage for Nicole Lizée’s increasingly dissociative, gamelanesque electroacoustic instrumental White Label Experiment, echoed with considerably louder hi-tech energy later on by neosoul singer/keyboardist/dancer Xenia Rubinos and drummer Marco Buccelli.

Veteran new-music string quartet Ethel’s percussively insistent, clenched-teeth performance of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Balkan-infected Logbook, Part II took the intensity to redline in seconds flat: it was the highlight of the night. Fueled by cellist Dorothy Lawson’s darkly bluesy glissandos, their take of Jessie Montgomery’s rousing dance theme Voodoo Dolls was a close second. They wound up their trio of pieces, joining voices,instruments and eventually their feet throughout the bracing, allusively Appalachian close harmonies of Wolfe’s enveloping, driving Blue Dress for String Quartet.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars took back the stage alongside narrator Eric Berryman in a cinematic, suspensefully rocking arrangement of Frederic Rzewski’s Attica-themed Coming Together, cellist Ashley Bathgate and bassist Robert Black’s heroically furtive pedalpoint anchoring the story’s grim foreshadowing.

Cellist Maya Beiser and narrator Kate Valk teamed up for Lang’s pensively minimalist, gently amusing loopmusic piece The Day, its lyrics mostly a litany of tongue-in-cheek mundanities sourced off the web via a search on “I remember the day.” He explained that he’d deleted the product references and lewdness – a lot, he admitted. 

The night’s coda was Riley’s Autodreamographical Tales & Science Fiction, the composer joining the All-Stars on vocals. Chow’s bluesy Rhodes piano made a smooth segue out of the Lang work in tandem with Riley’s wry beat-poetry reminiscence. Levine’s Pink Floyd echoes added bulk and bombast; Bathgate’s powerhouse soul vocals were an unexpected treat. As was Riley’s turn solo at the piano, part Satie, part Tom Waits.

What’s the takeaway from all this? This year was less a sounding of what’s happening on a global level, as past years’ and decades’ marathons have been, than a simple celebration of the Bang on a Can inner circle, with a few tentative ventures outside. But that’s ok. They earned that a long time ago.

A Grand Finale From One of This Century’s Most Fearless String Quartets at the Met

How does a string quartet go out in style?  By grabbing Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132 by the tail and speeding it up at the end, a practice considered treyf in traditional classical circles, but a fearlessly stunning way to cap off an eighteen-year career.

Or by joining a bill spiced with the stern, stygian, somber sonics of a sextet of men in monks’ outfits singing variations on Gregorian chant. ‘

Or with the New York premiere of a major work by the timelessly vital Philip Glass.

In their final major performance, the Chiara String Quartet did all this and more, bowing out at the absolute peak of their powers on familiar turf at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since the early zeroes, they’ve championed obscure composers, brought standard repertoire to crowds in bars and jails, and played and recorded one of the most strikingly intuitive Bartok cycles ever released. Violist Jonah Sirota told the crowd soberly that everyone in the group found this concert moving beyond words – the three standing ovations at the end underscored this group’s potency and relevance. What a run they had.

They opened with Nico Muhly‘s Diacritical Marks, an impressively artful, distantly Balkan-tinged theme and variations that eventually circled back on itself – things coming full circle was a major theme throughout this show. Sirota, cellist Gregory Beaver, violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon juggled between flickering and starkly resonating motives as tectonically rhythmic variations rose and fell.

Making a dramatic march from the back of the auditorium, the Axion Estin Chanters delivered an alternately severe and triumphant triptych, working permutations on the same Gregorian melody on which Glass based his Annunciation piano quintet. At first, that piece came across as a magically direct, lushly glittering, Lynchian piano concerto – until Glass’ steady arpeggios shifted to the quartet, and then back and forth. The quartet really dug in for the triumph of the outro against pianist Paul Barnes’ incisively liquid cadences.

Sirota introduced Beethoven’s famous late quartet a the kind of crazy piece that “makes a person want to become a musician.” That made sense, considering how cohesive yet individually focused the performance was. Sirota’s insight into how the lachrymose, prayerfully changing melody of the third movement echoed plainchant and foreshadowed Glass’ work was spot-on. He also alluded to how utterly bizarre the shifts were between those variations and what in this context seemed to be the sheer snark of a courtly dance that leaps further and further toward satire. They took it out with sheer abandon at the end and contrasted with the encore, a mutedly elegaic take of the third movement of the Debussy string quartet. How much fun these four must have had onstage…and how sad that the ride together is over.

All four have plans that dovetail with their pioneering work together. Sirota’s Strong Sad album, examining themes of everyday loss, is due out early this summer. Fischer is moving on with The Afield, a new multidisciplinary duo project with visual artist Anthony Hawley. Beaver and Yoon’s careers continue as educator and impresario, respectively.

A Passionate Lincoln Center Debut By Charismatic Detroit Singer Thornetta Davis

What better place than Lincoln Center for Thornetta Davis, “Detroit’s Queen of the Blues,” to unveil her new horn section? “I just learned about her a year ago and had the great fortune to see her at B.B. King’s,” explained Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez, who programmed Davis’ impassioned, sweaty, unselfconsciously workmanlike performance this past evening.

Since the 80s, Davis’ career has taken a slow, steady upward tangent, to the point where she’s just as popular in Europe as she is in her hometown. Not bad for a woman who, as a single mom back in the 80s, considered herself lucky to be pulling in a couple hundred bucks a week singing with Motor City group the Chisel Brothers. Fronting her eight-piece band –  guitar, five-string bass, keys, drums, congas, tenor sax and trumpet – she put a fresh spin on a popular old sound. 

In just the first two minutes of the opening instrumental, the group swung their way from gritty Fender Rhodes funk into sunnier, trumpet-spiced soul ballad territory. Regal in a sparkly all-black outfit and a serious mane of an afro, brandishing a witchy peacock-feather fan, Davis took the stage with a cool but insistent take of I Gotta Sing the Blues, a pulsing vintage Tina Turner-style anthem. Guitarist Carlton Washington took a jaggedly tasty, clanking early-70s style solo before Davis drove the music upward, cutting loose with her vibrato.

Washington’s lingering chords against the steady thump of the congas lent some noir latin flavor to A Pretty Good Love, Davis reaching to the bottom of her formidable low register at the end. The band hit a no-nonsense vintage Chicago-style blues shuffle in That Don’t Appease Me, Washington’s purist riffage again matching Davis’ defiant delivery. Then his spare Smokey Robinson-like lines mingled with keyboardist Phil Hale’s spare gospel lines in the gorgeous vintage 60s-style soul ballad Am I Just a Shadow.

Hale’s scampering Rhodes added extra funk to When I’m Kissing My Love. “I wrote this song because this brother kept calling me, messing with my head,” Davis explained as the band launched into the slow, simmering blues ballad I’d Rather Be Alone. “That key in your hand don’t unlock my door,” she cautioned, building to a slow, impassioned peak along with the horns, Hale’s slinky, purist electric piano. and Washington’s shivery vibrato-toned lines. She brought it down at the end with a sly series of disses for a guy who’s too full of himself for his own good.

They got funky again with I Need a Whole Lotta Lovin to Satisfy Me – by this point, the dancefloor in front of the stage had filled up, kids on the Broadway side of the room, oldsters closer to the doors on Columbus Avenue. The the group ripped through the blues classic Further On Up the Road, Washington bobbing and weaving between the horns. 

Washington saved the night’s most intense pyrotechnics for a long solo in the lush ballad after that. “We need prayer every time we can get it in, especially these days,” Davis mused, introducing an elegantly fervent version of the B.B. King classic Please Send Me Someone to Love. She shimmied and took a couple of leaps to kick off the swinging shuffle Get Up and Dance Away Your Blues. After a Memphis-tinged take of Honest Woman, the optimistically swaying title track from her latest album, she closed with I Believe, a simmering, slide guitar-driven roadhouse blues.

In an era where the blues has become a legacy style, like bluegrass and roots reggae – and a lot of bands play it like it’s an artifact in a museum – Davis and her band are a blast of fresh air.

One particularly enticing, upcoming free concert at Lincoln Center’s atrium space just north of 62nd St. on Broadway is on May 31 at 7:30 PM with charismatic crooner Zeshan B “doing Memphis blues with a little Pakistani feel,” as Benitez put it. Get there early if you’re going.

Jamband Legends Leftover Salmon Reinvent Themselves at a Rare Small-Club Gig

What’s the likelihood of being able to see Leftover Salmon at the smallest venue the legendary jamband has probably ever played? It happened last night at Bowery Electric, a spot where you’d hardly expect to see these summer festival vets. For what it’s worth, this wasn’t the crew who made a name for themselves as jamgrass pioneers. Sure, many of the songs started out with a scampering bluegrass groove and then went further and further outside, but this new version of the group is more psychedelic than ever. Their brand-new album is aptly titled Something Higher, working an epically vamping, stylistically puddle-jumping blueprint that the Grateful Dead refined at their majestic, early 80s peak. Yet this version of Leftover Salmon are also a lot tighter than the Dead ever were.

The addition of keyboardist Erik Deutsch has completely transformed the band. He started out playing ragtime and honkytonk-influenced piano. By the time the set was over, he’d spun through lowdown clavinova funk, dub reggae, majestic art-rock synth vistas, swirly Doorsy organ interludes and a couple of wryly hobbity detours that wouldn’t have been out of place in early 70s Jethro Tull.

No matter what style they’re using as a lauching pad, this band has always been about the jam, and this show was a clinic. The trippiest, most adrenalizing tradeoffs were between Deutsch and Andy Thorn’s banjitar, which he was running through a delay pedal for a stunningly spot-on approximation of a steel pan. While Thorn’s rapidfire frailing fueled the most Appalachian-flavored moments, he was just as much a force throughout the show’s most ambitious, artsy points.

Bushy-bearded group partriarch and guitarist Vince Herman waited til the end of the set, during the cheery gospel-flavored singalong Let In a Little Light, before he fired off a series of breathtakingly effortless volleys of bluegrass flatpicking. Likewise, six-string bassist Greg Garrison hung back in the pocket for the most part, taking over lead vocals on the night’s two most vintage soul-oriented numbers. As it turns out, the band’s strongest singer is drummer Alwyn Robinson, who took over the mic on one low-key number and also harmonized with founding member/mandolinist Drew Emmitt (whose searing, tantalizingly brief Strat leads had every bit as much voltage as his endlessly machinegunning mando runs).

A Brooklyn violinist joined the group a few songs in and contributed bouncy bluegrass as well as more uneasy textures. The night’s most surreal song was House of Cards, a sticky tarpit of dub fueled by Deutsch’s tersely warpy, oscillating leads. The most exhilarating was Astral Traveler, which with its towering, gale-force chorus would have been a standout Bob Weir number in any 80s Dead second-setlist – it was easy to imagine that band taking a flying leap into it from, say, Saint of Circumstance as the show peaked out.

The new album’s title track was a launching pad for slashing Emmitt riffage and tight solos all around. The band opened both Foreign Fields and Game of Thorns as broodingly spiky, serpentine bluegrass and sailed into the clouds from there. And Burdened Heart was no less potent for being downbeat, the group eventually vamping out a long interlude midway through, Emmitt and Deutsch pawing the seeds and stems to uncover the sweetest, most pungent buds. Leftover Salmon’s endless tour continues; the next stop is this May 10 at 8 PM at the Boathouse, 11800 Merchants Walk in Newport News, Virginia; cover is $20.

Savagery and Transcendence From 80s Icons the Dream Syndicate in Hoboken

There was a point during the Dream Syndicate’s set at the Hoboken Arts and Music Festival last night when bandleader Steve Wynn took a split-second pause to adjust a pedal during a menacing, lingering Telecaster solo. Without missing a beat, lead guitarist Jason Victor stepped in with some steady, light-fingered jangle and clang. What could have been a do-over for a lot of jambands turned into one of the evening’s most sublimely unanticipated moments.

Later, during an epic take of How Did I Find Myself Here – the title track of the band’s new album  Wynn pushed Victor about as far as a bandmate could without crossing the line into sadism. Victor didn’t flinch, building a razorwire thicket of sound with his tremolo-picking over the relentless, spring-loaded pulse of bassist Mark Walton and drummer Dennis Duck. It was the most intense of many similar interludes throughout the show: he and Wynn probably dueled out more machete chords during that song than you’d get in an entire Dick Dale concert. After the show, more than one person in the crowd called it transcendent.

That a band as iconic as the Dream Syndicate would sound even better now than back in the summer of 1986 at Maxwell’s, where they careened through a roughly 90-minute set weighted heavily with material from their Out of the Grey album, defies logic. One explanation is the presence of Victor, Wynn’s longtime sparring partner from his Miracle 3 band. Another is that this rhythm section are a lot slinkier now than they were thirty years ago. When Duck took a tongue-in-cheek quasi conga line break during a swingingly reinvented take of Armed With an Empty Gun, the effect dovetailed perfectly with Wynn’s sardonic lyric. Likewise, Walton’s looping groove in How Did I Find Myself Here – which is the band’s Can’t You Hear Me Knocking – was the icing on Wynn’s vast black-velvet tableau.

They opened with Halloween, the macabre, pulsing closing track on the band’s 1981 debut album. Wynn took the first solo, shifting effortlessly between icepick harmonics and ominous washes of reverb. For the most part, they kept the solos and dueling tantalizingly brief, from a pounding, Stoogoid take of Out of My Head to the hypnotically circling encore, Glide.

The early favorite Definitely Clean was slightly less frenetically paced than usual but no less adrenalizing. Walton teased the crowd with the famous bass intro to That’s What  You Always Say, which when they got to it was more of a steady, satisfying upward climb than the time bomb of the album version.

Master of suspense that he is, Wynn found a new way to ramp up the intrigue in the frantically pounding would-be suicide jumper narrative The Days of Wine and Roses: he stopped it cold, midway through. And then surveyed the crowd, motionless with the rest of the band. A few laughs died away – how much more pregnant was this pause going to get? Triplets could have popped out in the time it took before Wynn leapt back in with a flash, the band finally taking it out in a blast of chord-chopping.

Another highlight was a stunningly restrained take of Filter Me Through You, from the new album, underscoring its bittersweetly elegaic imagery. Even in this band’s most exhilarating moments, the darkness never disappears: this song is one of Wynn’s most soulful. I won’t be here forever, he’s telling us: this is the beauty I’ve found here, and it’s yours if you want it.

Hot on the heels of this volcanic show, Wynn is characteristically flipping the script. His next gig is a solo acoustic house concert in Jersey City this Saturday, May 19, email for info.

As far as the rest of the festival was concerned, it was sad to miss the early afternoon set by incendiary Middle Eastern-inspired horror surf band Beninghove’s Hangmen. But it was fun to catch Richard Lloyd in “on” mode, making his way through a catchy mix of recent numbers and Television classics. Hometown guitar hero James Mastro – who seems to make it onto every single good bill here at the festival – held down the dirty rhythm while Lloyd spun out the hooks.

Guitarist Chris Jentsch Air Out His Latest Vivid, Cinematic, Politically Relevant Suite

Where so many jazz musicians write riffs and then jam them out, guitarist Chris Jentsch writes lavish suites – which he then plays with remarkable terseness and attention to detail. His narratives are vivid and often very funny. His latest, Topics in American History, couldn’t be more relevant. Leading his sardonically titled No Net in what was the final live performance of those songs last week at Greenwich House Music School, Jentsch played with his usual purposefulness. restraint and sense of the musical mot juste, joined by an all-star cast including Mike McGinnis on clarinet and bass clarinet, David Smith on trumpet, Brian Drye on trombone, Michel Gentle on flutes, Jacob Sacks on piano, Jim Whitney on bass and Eric Halvorson on drums.

Last-minute substitution Jon Irabagon did a heroic job reading his parts, as Jentsch acknowledged, adding both volleys of postbop purism on tenor sax along with wry, microtonally-tinged humor that dovetailed with the bandleader’s own sensibility.

The centerpiece of the show was Dominos, a forebodingly expanding tableau that brought to mind Darcy James Argue in particularly sinister mode. A sotto-voce, latin-tinged, quasi-Lynchian spy theme that explores Cold War-era paranoia, its high point was a distantly grim, hazily sunbaked Jentsch solo midway through.

The evening’s coda, Meeting at Surratt’s, was arguably even better. The band built hushedly marching, conspiratorial ambience around a wistfully folksy Ashokan Farewell-ish theme to commemorate Mary Surratt, the first woman in US history executed for a Federal crime. The proprietor of the Washington, DC boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators hatched the plot for the Lincoln assassination, she may well have been innocent. Ineluctably and somberly, the band made their way through its mighty, cinematic sweep, from southern gothic to Morricone-esque insistence, down to a single macabre swoop from Jentsch’s guitar, a body falling from the gallows.

The rest of the set was just as diverse and no less gripping. Tempest-Tost, inspired by an inscription on the Statue of Liberty, followed the steady if turbulent path of Ellis Island immigrants, Jentsch’s low, looming solo front and center. Smith and Drye’s irresistibly cartoonish dueling personalities brought jaunty banter to the New Orleans-tinged Lincoln-Douglass Debates. The uneasily expanding vistas of Manifest Destiny – with incisive solos from Whitney, McGinnis and Irabagon, the latter on soprano – grew more satirical in Suburban Diaspora, its vintage soul roots subsumed by blustery faux-optimism. And the night’s opening number, 1491, bookended a jaunty tropical-tinged shuffle with wryly jungly atmospherics – clearly, the continent was in a lot better shape that year than the next, when the slaver Columbus arrived.

A Shatteringly Relevant New Suite Casts a Cold Eye on Surveillance State Terror

“The last refuge of privacy,” is how the central object in The Secret Diary of Nora Plain was described by the song cycle’s lyricist, Lucky Fonz III at National Sawdust this past weekend. In their US debut, premiering this haunting, labyrinthine yet often shatteringly direct suite to a sold-out audience, Dutch ensemble the Ragazze Quartet were bolstered by the eclectic beats of percussionist Remco Menting.

In front of the ensemble, charismatic singer Nora Fischer channeled the increasing terror of being caught in the spycams’ deadly web, whether calm and stoic, shivering on the floor or twitching like a marionette, Ian Curtis-style.  “Let bygones be bygones,” she encouraged coolly during one of the early songs, hope against hope. At that point it wasn’t clear just what this story’s everywoman had done – if anything – to catch Big Brother’s merciless eye, a conclusion that the suite left hanging. That only raised the suspense, underscoring how anyone with an identifiable cellphone or a Facebook page  – or without one, conceivably – could be caught in the trap.

Fischer is force of nature. At her quietest, she brought a plaintive, sometimes prayerful quality to the narrative; at her loudest, she belted with a gale-force wail worthy of Aretha. Likewise, the quintet of musicians began with an atmospheric whisper and rose in a series of waves, through as many different styles as a string quartet augmented by a drummer with a full kit plus vibraphone could possibly play.

The stage direction was spare yet tightly focused on an ever-encroaching menace, pushing Nora further and further toward the edge. There were moments when the quartet drew ominously closer and closer to her; other times, they fell in line as good soldiers in a police state are required to. Menting took a couple of turns behind a small keyboard during quieter, more atmospheric interludes. Likewise, violinists Rosa Arnold and Jeanita Vriens shifted to Menting’s vibraphone and bowed icy, airy textures at a couple of the suite’s most whispery ebbs.

The songs, with music by Morris Kliphuis, rose and fell, akin to Elvis Costello’s Juliet Letters with music by Philip Glass and Caroline Shaw and played by Rasputina, perhaps. Cellist Rebecca Wise propelled those shifts with stark, raw washes along with elegantly incisive pizzicato; violist Annemijn Bergkotte was a spare, striking presence in both the low and higher registers as well. Stylistically, the segments ran the gamut from hypnotically circling, kinetic chamber rock – often spiced with allusively macabre, Glass-ine phrases – to an emphatic detour into funk, murky mood pieces, and a couple of rises to sheer terror, most grippingly in Rat in My Room. Whether that rat was the four-legged or two-legged kind was left to the audience to figure out.

Was Fischer’s final exit what it seemed on the surface, a coyly triumphant slip out the side door? Or was she going elsewhere? Readers of Lois Lowry‘s dystopic classic The Giver will get that reference. Anyone concerned with the perilous state of civil liberties should see this hauntingly enigmatic, rivetingly disturbing, potently relevant work. 

A Blazing, Psychedelic Night of Heavy Algerian Rock at Lincoln Center

“We love to present amazing work from around the world that reflects the population of this city as well,” Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal said with relish, welcoming Imarhan onstage this past evening. Imarhan – whose name translates as “the posse” – are Algerian, not to be confused with the similarly named Imharhan, who are essentially the electric version of Malian traditional group Tartit. With two vintage Gibson guitars, incisively trebly bass, thumping drums and calabash, Imarhan play a distinctly North African take on American psychedelic and garage rock that resembles its northern hemispheric influences a lot more than loping Tuareg duskcore. Their music is faster, and louder, yet just as trippy as the sounds coming from deeper into the Maghreb.

The catchy, snapping bassline that anchored their first song of the night could have been a Zombies riff, the two guitars flinging out shards of minor-key chords. The second number was sort of a mashup of Tinariwen and Brian Jonestown Massacre. When the wah-wah guitar kicked in after the second verse as the bass ran a bouncy six-note blues riff over and over, it was as adrenalizing as it was hypnotic – and then the band ended it suddenly, cold. After that, the snarling Brian Jones-style blues licks – a more focused Sympathy For the Devil, maybe – in the pounding, undulating song after that came as no surprise. What was unexpected was the long, gritty Haiballah Akhamouk guitar solo that took the song straight into a dust storm for extra unease.

Imarhan’s lyrics – in Tamasheq and Arabic – are brooding, pensive, often angry. They speak of longing, the exhaustion of war, the constant angst of life in exile, and once in awhile, guarded hope for a peaceful future. For those in the crowd unable to grasp those specifics, the group let the restlessness of the music speak for itself, particularly in the careening guitar lines of bandleader/Iyad Moussa Ben Abderahmane a.k.a. Sadam.

If there’s such a thing as heavy disco, it was the group’s fourth song, grounded by a bassline that at halfspeed would have been reggae but at this close-to-breakneck pace took on a snap and crackle beneath the radiant, ringing reverb of the guitars’ minor chords rang. They really went into overdrive after that, almost bluegrass speed, up to a big, defiant stadium rock chorus – by now most of the crowd, a mix of expats and the divergent demographics typically found at shows at the atrium space here – were on their feet and clapping along.

They flipped the script after that, bringing the music down, awash in resignation and regret before building back up to one of the night’s most ferociously bluesy crescendos, fueled by the bandleader’s offhandedly savage, heavy blues riffage on his old Gibson SG. From there the guitars spun out a sinister web over a lickety-split offbeat groove, then went in a psychedelic funk direction, almost an Algerian take on early Santana. Rhythms grew trickier and more traditional, bringing to mind Niger bands like Etran Finatawa, before the group picked up the pace again with a little sardonic hip-hop flavor.

The encores were an unexpectedly traditional, low-key duskcore tune that could have been a Tinariwen cover, and a ferocious final stomp with a grittily spiraling bass solo that was arguably the high point of the night. There have only been a few bands this loud at Lincoln Center in recent years – a reunion by legendary Detroit proto-punks Death, and an explosive early evening set by Moroccan rockers Hoba Hoba Spirit come to mind – but this was probably as heavy as any show anywhere in New York this evening. 

The next free concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space is next Thursday, May 10 at 7:30 with another powerful act, Detroit blues belter and bandleader Thornetta Davis. Get there early if you’re going.