New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: folk music

Guitarist Derek Gripper Builds a Magical Sonic Constellation at Lincoln Center

Thursday night at Lincoln Center, guitarist Derek Gripper played a show that was as impressive a display of daunting technique and irrepressible individuality as it was an immersion in celestially kaleidoscopic glimmers and ripples. Gripper got his start as a classical guitarist and plays with the requisite precision and steely focus. But he also has an outside-the-box sensibility, not to mention a sense of humor, that transcend the limitations – at least the usual ones -in that demimonde. His claim to fame is reinventing centuries-old Malian kora music for the acoustic guitar.

Sending a shout out to a major influence, pioneering Malian kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate, Gripper opened with a steady, spiky, liltingly circling theme and closed with a jaunty, allusively tongue-in-cheek cover of fellow South African kora player Madosini’s I Like a Motorcar. In between, there were moments that echoed John Fahey, and Adrian Legg, and maybe Michael Hedges, but Gripper’s sound is unique. His dry sense of humor became apparent early on, when he explained to the crowd how he’d developed a new appreciation for an old guy named J.S. Bach, particularly that composer’s work for a “European ethnic instrument, the violin.” And then launched into a well-known diptych from that guy’s catalog, the first part reinvented with an idiosyncratically kinetic approach, the concluding fugue with an edge and bite to match Gripper’s emphatic attack on the strings. More guitarists should take chances like that.

The most fascinating of all the pieces on the bill was a number for two koras that he’d arranged for solo guitar. Employing carefree but minutely nuanced five-finger technique, he alternated between calm, minimalistically anchoring phrases on the low strings and subtly crescendoing flickers and pings on the higher ones. For a couple of other numbers, he tuned the two lowest strings to the same note – was that just a double low E? – for extra ballast,amplified by his relentless hammering, which sent overtones wafting throughout the space.

The most challenging number of the evening was a mashup of enigmatic indie classical tonalities, Steve Reich, the baroque, and West Africa. Solo gigs are always harder than playing with a group, and it’s harder still to hold a crowd’s attention, especially on an acoustic instrument. But a diverse, multi-generational crowd, most of them most likely not particularly versed in Gripper’s source material, remained fixated throughout his hour onstage. It was a subtle reminder that music, no matter where it’s from, belongs to all of us: where we take it is the challenge, and Gripper gave a clinic in how to d o it.

The next free early-evening concert at Lincoln Center’s atrium space just north of 62nd St. on Broadway is this Thursday, June 29 at 7:30 PM with Marc Anthony Thompson, a.k..a Chocolate Genius, who’s sort of the Gil Scott-Heron of newschool retro soul music. Show up early if you want a seat.

An Awesome New Album and an East Village Release Show by Ethio-Jazz Songstress Meklit

Multi-instrumentalist singer Meklit is one of brightest lights in Ethiopian jazz  But that’s just the starting point for the ex-Brooklynite songwriter, who springboards off that  into a high-voltage mix that also draws on classic soul, funk, rock and ancient Ethiopian folk music. Her Lincoln Center show back in April was off the hook. Now she’s got a new album, When the People Move, the Music Moves Too, soon to be streaming at Bandcamp, and a release show tomorrow night, June 21 at 8 PM at the old Nublu at 62 Ave. C.. Cover is $22.

Since she absconded for the west coast, she’s assembled a killer band. Their not-so-secret weapon is tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley. The rest of the vast cast on the album also comprises but is hardly limited to drummer Colin Douglas, percussionist Marco Peris Coppola and bassist Sam Bevan. The rest of the crew spans from Ethiopian masenko fiddler Endris Hassen to the Preservation Hall Horns.

The triumphantly bouncing, swaying opening track, This Was Made Here, celebrates a DIY esthetic, but there’s also a lot of defiance in the bandleader’s “I’m not gonna wait, no more!” as Tassew Wondem’s Ethiopian wood flute leaps and bounds overhead. The brightly circlingI Want to Sing For Them All also has a defiant undercurrent – on the surface, it sends shouts out to Meklit’s influences, from Prince to a litany of Ethio-jazz stars, but it’s also a reminder that pigeonholing is a big mistake. As Hannah Arendt liked to say, stereotyping is the worst thing in the world. Andrew Bird’s violin pairs with the masenko as the dance rises to fever pitch.

Meklit breaks out her krar harp for the album’s catchiest track, Supernova. Powerful low-register brass fuels a vast, pulsingly dramatic backdrop as Wiley goes into wary Ethiopian mode. The mantra is “Where did you come from,” the point being that everything we’re made of came in with a bang: don’t we owe it to ourselves to keep that going?

Likewise, the Preservation Hall Horns supply the bluster behind Kibrome Birhane’s spare, incisive piano in the funky anthem You Are My Luck. Bird brings his violin back to the subtly polyrhythmic, mutedly moody Yerakeh Yeresal. Then the band pucks up the pace with You Got Me: hearing the New Orleans brass sink their teeth into Meklit’s gorgeously biting, emphatic Ethiopian arrangement is a trip, and a revelation.

Yesterday Is a Tizita brings back the grey-sky atmosphere, a lament that rises to the point where the sky clears and Meklit announces that “Our mistakes became the sun” –  her loping triplet melody is one of the album’s most delicious moments.

Wiley’s catchy, ominous baritone sax riffage drives Human Animal, a straight-ahead mix of hard funk and Ethio-jazz, with hints of 80s new wave. Sweet or Salty maintains that balance of 80s British pop and rustic Ethiopian themes, with acidically swirling masenko against lushly enigmatic strings and understatedly jubilant rat-at-tat percussion.

Happy Birthday starts out as a cute attempt at a replacement for an all-too-familiar ditty that could really, REALLY use a replacement, then becomes an intricate thicket of melody, winding up with a jaunty conversation between Wiley’s tenor sax and one of the trombonists. The album closes with Memories of the Future, shifting back and forth between a majestic, distantly uneasy sway and a jubilant, cantering theme fueled by the New Orleans horns. Lots going on here, plenty to sink your ears into over and over again – one of the best albums of 2017, bar none.

Powerful Singers and an Iconic Band Celebrate Global Yiddish Music in Central Park

What’s the likelihood of seeing the Klezmatics not only slink, and barrel, and slowly sway through a gorgeous and often haunting blend of minor keys and punk-klezmer romps…but also  getting to see them back two of New York’s most powerful singers? It happened Wednesday night at Central Park Summerstage, where cantors Chaim David Berson and Yanky Lemmer got to take tantalizingly short turns on the mic in front of the band, along with other entertainment on a night celebrating Yiddish music from around the world.

There was a time when being a cantor was just as competitive as, say, African-American gospel music, or a jazz cutting contest. The cantor was the treasure of the temple, the guy you’d send on tour to represent you and thrill the people with his powerful pipes. That tradition has sadly fallen into disrepair in recent years, but it is alive and well on the Upper West Side, at the Jewish Center on 86th St. and also the Lincoln Square Synagogue, where Berson and Lemmer, respectively, hold court.

Berson has a vibrato wide enough to drive a truck through, with Little Jimmy Scott nuance but also Johnny Cash intensity, if you buy those references. He also turned out to be a fluent guitarist as well, adding poignant, purposeful jangle to one of the set’s early numbers. Lemmer’s baritone has a tinge of grit and a similarly steely resonance, opera without the buffo.

He immediately made an impact, sending a shout-out to the 99-percenters in the crowd (which seemed to be pretty much everybody) with a stern march through We’ve Got to Make a Living, an anthem for solidarity in hard times. Then he led the band through an increasingly dynamic, lickety-split, sardonically funny medley of drinking songs. “Drinking songs?” Lemmer deadpanned, “Jews don’t drink. We’re too busy suffering.”

But a little l’chaim never hurt anybody – they did that one, too toward the end of the evening. Berson opened his own set with an impassioned, broodingly rapturous, melismatic improvisation while the band built an ominous wash of sustain behind him. From there, he worked the corners for every bit of chromatic mystery in a mix of numbers that looked forward to messianic redemption and sought worldly solace, either through transcendence or libations.

The Klezmatics finally got a set of their own and reveled in it with the energy of a group, well, thirty years younger. The original rebels of the 80s klezmer revival, they celebrated all things treyf, sexually and foodwise and otherwise in the high-voltage, Romanian-tinged dance numbers, and kept an eye on history with the slower ones. There’s no small irony in that the high point of the evening might have been the slow, subdued dirge The Yoke, a Yiddish translation of a Catalan protest song from the 1960s.

Frontman Lorin Sklamberg played that one on piano rather than his usual accordion, like he did much of the rest of the material, and showed off similar chops: at one point, he hit an unexpectedly feral barrelhouse groove. Likewise, trumpeter Frank London spent much of the night behind an electric piano, constantly tweaking it to get the textures right when he wasn’t hitting ecstatic heights or firing off hundred-yard spirals on his horn. Bassist Paul Morrissett took a turn on tsimbl, the Ukrainian Jewish ancestor of the cimbalom, while violinist Deborah Strauss switched between icepick precision and stark, rustic, otherworldly sustain over Richie Barshay’s playful, jazz-inflected drums. When he wasn’t reaching the rafters on alto sax, Matt Darriau was adding ethereal flute textures or channeling grim Balkan tonalities on clarinet. 

As an encore, Daniel Kahn – star of the upcoming immigration-themed musical Amerike – came up to deliver a Yiddish version of Leonard Cohen song whose expiration date passed a long time, joined by the rest of the night’s performers, among them tongue-in-cheek a-cappella unit the Maccabeats. But then everybody segued into a rapidfire dance number every bit as fun as Man in a Hat, the title track from the Klezmatics’ cult classic 1995 Jews with Horns album, a wry salute to their home turf: “I’m a man in a hat, a Manhattan man,” Sklamberg reaffirmed.

The next Central Park Summerstage event of note starts at 5 PM on June 24, a night of Portuguese music with newschool fado star Sofia Ribeiro and assaultive goth/Stooges punk duo Dead Combo with special guest guitarslinger Marc Ribot. Get there early if you’re going. 

Paíto y los Gaiteros de Punta Brava Put on a Colombian Beach Party in Their New York Debut

The cumbia party at Lincoln Center last night started at about nine. For the better part of the previous ninety minutes, a vast expanse of bodies had been bouncing and swaying to the thunderous beats of Colombian gaita negra band Paíto y los Gaiteros de Punta Brava, who were making their New York debut. Introducing the group, Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez kept her cool, but she couldn’t hide how psyched she was to have booked them, current political climate be damned. “The music is deep, and goes way back,” she told an energized, sold-out crowd, and then let the music speak for itself.

Bandleader and wood flute player Sixto Delgado a.k.a. Paito hails not from the mainland but from Rosario Island off the coast of Cartagena. He’s one of very few remaining practitioners of gaita negra, a style that originated hundreds of years ago when slaves kidnaped from Africa began playing music with native Colombians. The result turned out to be as rhythmically sophisticated and eclectic as it is otherworldly. And as the group made clear, among the many grooves in their repertoire is the original cumbia. Even though they’re Colombian rather than Peruvian, if there’s ever a third volume of the Roots of Chicha compilation albums (which, if you love cumbia, you have to own), Paito needs to be on it.

It was a beach party night, and if there’s anybody who knows how to do it, it’s this group. The torrents of beats started very direct and matter-of-fact, then grew more complex and dynamic as the night went on, hitting a mighty peak, then down again and finally out with a lickety-split cumbia celebrating Colombian pride. Over the course of the party, the slinky, booming rhythms, played by two men and a woman on standup bass drum, conga and a surprisingly resounding hand drum, blended and alternated elements that can be heard in African Nyabinghi drumming, roots reggae, Cuban son montuno and Puerto Rican salsa, among other flavors.

Likewise, the fervent call-and-response of the vocals echoed African sounds that have spread around the globe, from American gospel and field hollers to the magical, ritualistic Moroccan trance music of Innov Gnawa. On their wood flutes, Paita and his counterpart played emphatic, gritty riffs based on the blues scale, the younger man keeping time all the while with a pair of shakers. The segues were clever, almost imperceptible, as the group would gallop along a triplet groove and then subtly make their way into straight-up 4/4, whether with a proto-reggae bounce, a slithery clave or the irresistible pendulum motion of cumbia.

One especially tasty subtlety turned out to be that the drums were tuned to a fourth interval, which enabled the drummers to interchange riffs with each other as well as with the flutes. By the end of the night, even the oldsters in the back were on their feet. The next dance party/global music event at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just south of 63rd St. is June 22 at 7:30 PM with South African guitarist Derek Gripper, who plays his own intricately virtuosic arrangements of ancient Malian music. 

And Paito and the band play a rare Brooklyn date on June 19 at 9:30 PM at Barbes; cover is $15.

Manhattan’s Best Venue Stages a Thunderous Benefit for Their Brooklyn Counterpart

The Barbes benefit concert at Drom Friday night wasn’t sold out, but the East Village venue was close to capacity. Big Lazy headlined. By then the dancers had been on their feet for the better part of four hours, yet didn’t seem the least bit worn out. So the shadowy, cinematic trio of guitarist Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion played their slinkiest stuff. Ulrich shifted eerily between desolate big-sky tableaux, furtively chromatic crime jazz, a wryly strutting go-go theme or two and red-neon roadhouse scenes while Hall spun his bass, supplying a tight rubber-band low end in tandem with Lion’s thicket of textures from every part of his kit. Gato Loco trombonist Tim Vaughn and Balkan Beat Box baritone sax player Peter Hess added extra careening, elusive textures at the end of their tantalizingly brief set, whose centerpiece was the title track from the band’s latest album Don’t Cross Myrtle, a muted bump-in-the-night theme that turned completely savage in seconds flat.

Ulrich dedicated the song to Barbes, the band’s embattled Park Slope home base, which serves the same purpose for many other artists, the rest of the night’s bill included. Considering the song’s title and its creepy themes (it’s an instrumental), on face value it seems to address deep Brooklyn nocturnal peril. But this time out, introducing the song, Ulrich alluded to a “changing Brooklyn,” and suddenly another meaning, 180 degrees the opposite, emerged: keep your wrecking balls and other weapons of mass destruction, your money-laundering, your swindler speculators and “luxury” condos, and the status-grubbing yuppies who move into them, out of our part of town. It may be sketchy, but it’s all we have left. There isn’t anyplace else in New York in 2017 where a working class person or an artist can survive.

The brain drain out of New York and the mass displacement of artists to the most remote fringes of the five boroughs aren’t the only reasons that Barbes is in trouble. Their building has been hit with a lien for city services, no fault of the venue; in the meantime, their Indiegogo campaign is almost eighty percent funded. “I can’t believe this place still exists,” marveled one patron under her breath at the bar Saturday night while Sean Cronin’s oldschool honkytonk band played in the back room. If there’s any Brooklyn venue that deserves support or patronage right now, it’s this one.

And they have a lot of overlap with Drom, their more spacious but similarly friendly Manhattan counterpart, where acts from around the world continue to make their North American debuts, month after month. It’s not clear whether MaracatuNY, who opened the benefit, had played there before; whatever the case, it’s probably safe to say that they’re the loudest band ever to play there. And they did it without amplification. Gathered in a semicircle on the floor in front of the stage, the roughly fifteen-piece drum troupe built a thunderous torrent of intricate Brazilian polyrhythms, turning on a dime as their conductor signaled changes with his whistle and hand signals in the eye of the storm. They’d return later on.

The Jazz Passengers were just as intricate and even more entrancing. Frontman Roy Nathanson played alto sax, soprano sax and on We’re All Jews, their most epic number, both at once, working his polytonal sorcery for extra overtones. Bass player Bradley Jones teamed with the drums for a serpentine groove and lowdown funk as vibraphone star Bill Ware took a rare turn on electric piano. Their first number was the most vividly murky exploration of the noir they’ve become known for; after that, Nathanson harmonized wryly with trombonist Curtis Fowlkes on a smoky take of the 70s soul standard Everybody Plays the Fool.

Romany chanteuse Sanda Weigl – who has a new album due out from Barbes Records this fall – went deep into her powerful alto for a couple of a-cappella Romanian songs. Then a three-piece version of the all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache, New York’s only all-female mariachi band, joined their soaring voices for a harmony-fueled, all-too-brief set that began like a Mexican-flavored Dixie Chicks and then went deeper into the tricky tempos and clapalong vigor of classic south-of-the-border string band sounds, with intertwining violin, cuatro and bajo sexto.

The next two bands each put their own rustic, exhilarating spin on ancient African call-and-response chants. Charismatic singer Carolina Oliveros’ Bulla En El Barrio led her ten-piece choir-and-percussion ensemble through a mesmerizingly kaleidoscopic series of Colombian bullerengue, which sounded like a South American take on African-American field hollers, the guys and women in the band taking turns spiraling and cavorting in front of the upraised voices.

Then Innov Gnawa – who brought the biggest crowd of the night – got the crowd bouncing with their trance-inducing forest of click-clack cast-iron castanets and sintir bass lute, first played by Samir LanGus and then bandleader, Moroccan expat maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer. Their first number kicked off a rousing Arabic welcome-to-the-party jam, with sub-Saharan rhythms from what could be two thousand years ago welded to undulating North African acoustic funk, infused with bracing, sometimes moody allusions to both Arabic music and the roots of the blues.

To keep the dancers on their feet, the massive Fanfare Brooklyn – a mighty twenty-plus piece Balkan brass band comprising most of Slavic Soul Party and Red Baraat – blazed through careening jams packed with some pretty unhinged soloing, drawing from both band’s catalogs of hip-hop-inspired Eastern European brass music and Indian bhangra.

All of these bands play all over town when they’re not at Barbes. Mariachi Flor de Toloache are playing an album release weekend for their new one, with shows on June 16 at 10 and the following night, June 17 at midnight at Joe’s Pub; cover is $25. Bulla En El Barrio are back at Barbes on June 26 at around 9:30. Innov Gnawa’s next big show is at Prospect Park Bandshell at 7:30 PM on July 21, where they open for intense, psychedelic Malian microtonal guitar band Amadou and Mariam. And Big Lazy return to their monthly Friday night residency at Barbes on July 7 at 10 PM.

A Tasty Guitar-Fueled New Album by Demolition String Band’s Americana Pioneers Elena Skye and Boo Reiners

One of New York’s funnest street fairs of the year actually isn’t in New York, it’s in Hoboken. This afternoon at 2:30 PM, Boo Reiners and Elena Skye – the brain trust of pioneering NYC urban C&W group Demolition String Band – are the main attraction at this year’s Hoboken Arts & Music Festival. It’s not the first time they’ve been the stars of this show and it probably won’t be the last. The stage is on the town’s main drag, Washington Street at 8th Street, just a short ten-minute walk from the Hoboken Path train station.

Elena and Boo also have a new album out, I Wait for the Light, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s the second one they’ve released under their own names, after four with Demolition String Band, and it’s notable for being their most rocking one so far. The lineup on this one is much the same as the original unit: Reiners wailing and flatpicking up a storm on Telecaster and banjo, Skye on mandolin, guitar and baritone guitar, with Kenny Soule on drums, Winston Roye and Mike Santoro sharing bass duties.

The album kicks off with the highway rock anthem I Don’t Know, I Can’t Say. With her forceful, soulful, twangy delivery, Skye has never sung better: this song is like vintage 90s Wilco with a woman out front. The second track, Sea of Pleasure has a dynamic the BoDeans used to work all the time –  hushed and muted, then richly clangy, with a tantalizingly  brief, biting Reiners Tele solo out.

The tender ballad Red For You has a hushed vintage 50s Kitty Wells sway with 21st century production values, and a rich web of guitars that build to an achingly sunbaked peak. The album’s mightiest track, the big anthem She’s Nobody’s Girl is the kind of snarling guitar rocker that someone like Miranda Lambert could only wish she’d written. The band follows with the lingering ballad Deep Cool Green Ravine, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Emmylou Harris catalog.

Then they pick up the pace with the burning acoustic-electric Every Day An Angel and its subtle Beatlesque tinges. The duo reinvent Elegant Wind, a familiar number to Demolition String Band fans, as spare Gillian Welch-style folk. By contrast, the blazing Sailor Girl is a mashup of Revolver-era Beatles and shuffling vintage 60s honkytonk.

“Jesus was a peace freak, he took care of the weak,” Skye reminds in the Ramones-influenced Jesus Was a Liberal, the album’s most ferocious and arguably best track. “if Jesus had a radio show, or a tv show, he’d been on after Randi Rhodes, or Rachel Maddow,” Slye asserts, something you might expect from a singer who in the past decade would make it a point to dedicate Demolition String Band’s snarling version of Creedence’s Fortunate Son to George W. Bush.

The lush blend of banjo, mando and guitar textures throughout the wounded ballad Scar on My Heart are among the album’s tastiest moments. They wind it up on an upbeat note with You Keep Me Up, which draws a straight line back to the Emmylou Harris/Rodney Crowell collaborations of about ten years ago.

Rachael Kilgour’s New Album Transcends Trauma

Rachael Kilgour is the rare artist who sounds perfectly good in the studio, but onstage takes her formidable vocal skills to a level that few singers even attempt, let alone reach. Her Lincoln Center show last year was absolutely shattering. She cried during one of that evening’s saddest songs – that’s how deeply she inhabits her characters. And she’s hilarious, too: few songwriters can be so much fun, and so insightful, pillorying rightwing hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance.

But most of the material at that show wasn’t the political satire she’s best known for. The majority of the set was Americana ballads from her latest album Rabbit in the Road, streaming at her webpage. She’s bringing that harrowingly melismatic voice and alternately plaintive and biting tunesmithing to a couple of New York shows this month. On May 12 at 7 PM she’s at the Commons Cafe, 388 Atlantic Ave.in Cobble Hill; take any train to Atlantic Ave; The following night at 8, she’s at Caffe Vivaldi preceded at 7 by another eclectic songwriter with a sense of humor, Orly Bendavid & the Mona Dahls.

And now that you know how ferociously political Kilgour’s previous output is, now’s the time to tell you that her latest release is far more personal. It’s a breakup album.

Aie aie aie.

Michael Franti used to write brilliant political songs and raps back in the day. Then he decided that schlocky top 40 love ballads were his thing – and fell off the map. Paul Weller once fronted one of the best and most political punk rock bands ever, the Jam…and never wrote a song worth hearing after they broke up. Did Kilgour run out of gas too?

As it turns out, no. Her lyrics on the new album can be just as incisive and edgy, and she can still write a catchy hook and an anthemic chorus with the best of them. It’s just her focus that’s changed direction. It seems that Kilgour got blindsided in a particularly messy divorce. She’s been outspoken about how she wants to break down the barriers between audience and performer, and that she sees the new material as being therapeutic for both sides of that equation.

So it’s comforting on more than one level that she’s succeeded at what she wanted to achieve: this is the rare heartbreak narrative that doesn’t come across as mawkish or cliched. The album opens with a soul-tinged, somewhat stunned miniature that sets the stage. Deep Bruises is where the shock sinks in, Kilgour trying to talk herself through an endless cycle of despair: It’s the one song that best evokes her soaring, Orbison-esque angst when she slides up to a note to drive a chorus home. Steve Wynn’s Tears Won’t Help You Now is a good point of comparison.

Ready Freddie is the ballad that Kilgour had the hardest time getting through at the Lincoln Center gig. It’s an attempt to cheer up her adopted daughter, someone she’s obviously close to and missed terribly when she wrote it. it’s a theme she revisits almost as fervently later on the record. By contrast, Up From Down is a kiss-off anthem, if a muted one, set to a pleasant if innocuous full-band folk-pop arrangement.

Anger rises in Still My Wife, the homey imagery that Kilgour opens with giving way to a cheating tale straight out of a classic country ballad. The dismissive patronizing title track is songwriter vengeance at its most subtle and satisfying: in case you haven’t already figured it out, never, EVER mess with one, they always get even in the end

Don’t Need Anyone echoes the defiance of Kilgour’s political work as much as her vocals echo Neko Case. “You think I need a lover to save me from my grief? I don’t need distractions, I don’t need your second hand relief,” she insists. Likewise, Hit By a Bus balances mixed feelings with vindictiveness: guess which one wins.

Kilgour has had great fun mocking Christian extremists (some people mistake her for a born-again because they don’t get the joke). So I Pray might seem like quite a departure, but it’s a wish, rather than a call to some patriarchal force, and a launching pad for vocal pyrotechnics in a live setting. Even here, Kilgour can’t resist a delicious dig: “I pray, to no one in particular, that they’ll help you find your way.” The album’s concluding cut, Break Wide Open is the only place where it feels overproduced: it doesn’t really add anything. Needless to say, it’ll be interesting to see what direction Kilgour goes in after this. We could use her stiletto wit and inclusive vision right about now.  

Stunningly Eclectic Singer Sofia Rei Radically Reinvents Violeta Parra Classics

Conventional wisdom is that if you cover a song, you either want to do it better than the original, or make something completely different out of it. The latter usually makes more sense, considering that if a song is worth covering at all, the original is probably hard to beat. Merle Haggard as shambling free jazz; Gil Scott-Heron as hard bop; Pink Floyd as dub reggae – all of those unlikely reinterpretations ended up validating the outside-the-box creativity that went into them. On the brand-new album El Gavilan (The Hawk), streaming at Bandcamp, pan-latin singer Sofia Rei – who’s never met a style she was afraid to tackle – puts a brave new spin on the songs of Chilean icon Violeta Parra. The Argentine-born songstress is currently on tour; her next New York concert is this coming June 2 at 8 PM at the Neighborhood Church, 269 Bleecker St. at Morton St. in a duo with the incomparable, more atmospheric Sara Serpa, her bandmate in John Zorn’s Mycale a-cappella project. The show is free.

On one hand, artists from across the Americas have covered Parra. On the other, it takes a lot of nerve to reinvent her songs as radically as Rei does. The album’s opening number, Casamiento de Negros begins as a bouncy multitracked a-cappella number, like Laurie Anderson at her most light-footed; guitarist Marc Ribot tosses off a tantalizingly brief, Hawaiian-tinged slide guitar solo. It’s a stark contrast with Parra’s allusive narrative of a lynching. 

Parra’s stark peasant’s lament Arriba Quemando El Sol is a march, Ribot opening with an ominous clang, then echoing and eventually scorching the underbrush beneath Rei’s resolute, emphatic delivery. It’s akin to Pink Floyd covering Parra, but with more unhinged guitars and more expressive vocals. She does Una Copla Me Ha Cantado as a starlit lullaby, killing softly with the song over Ribot’s spare deep-space accents.

Her wryly looped birdsong effects open a pulsing take of Maldigo Del Alto Cielo that rises to swoopy heights, spiced with wisps of backward masking, a curse in high-flying disguise. By contrast, the muted, bruised pairing of Rei’s vocals with Ribot’s spare chords gives La Lavandera the feel of a Marianne Dissard/Sergio Mendoza collaboration as it reaches toward a simmering ranchera-rock sway.

Rei makes a return to atmospheric art-rock with the lament Corazón Maldito, Ribot rising from shivery angst to menacing grey-sky grandeur, Rei parsing the lyrics with a dynamic, suspenseful, defiant delivery like Siouxsie Sioux without the microtones. 

The album’s epic title track clocks in at a whopping fourteen minutes plus, opening with atmospherics and Ribot taking a rare turn on acoustic, warily and airily. From there he switches to electric for cumulo-nimbus, Gilmouresque atmospherics behind Rei’s frantically clipped, carnatically-influenced delivery, following Parra’s anguished tale of abandonment.

The ambient Enya-like concluding cut is Run Run se Fue pa’l Norte, an apt song for our time if there ever was one, echoing with more Pink Floyd guitar from Los Tres‘ Angel Parra, Violeta Parra’s grandson. Whether you call this art-rock, jazz, or state-of-the-art remake of Chilean folksongs, it will leave you transfixed, especially if you know the originals.

It’s open to debate if the Trump administration would let an artist like Rei into the country these days, considering his commitment to kissing up to the non-Spanish speaking lunatic fringe.

Go See Michael Winograd at Barbes Again Tonight

You have to hand it to Michael Winograd. For his April residency at Barbes, he had the chutzpah to wait for a month with five Saturdays in it. The supersonic, dynamic clarinetist and esteemed klezmer composer/bandleader has one night left in that residency, tonight at 6. Miss it and you miss being in on what could someday be considered a series of legendary performances.

They’ve been that good. This blog hasn’t been witness to a series of shows this adrenalizing since Steve Wynn’s residency at Lakeside Lounge, and that was in another decade. Although Jewish music is Winograd’s passion, his writing and his playing transcend genre. His body of work encompasses circus rock, flamenco, noir cabaret, psychedelia, otherworldly old ngunim and sounds from the Middle East.

“Did you ever hear this guy back in the day, like, 2003?” the Magnetic Fields’ Quince Marcum asked the beer drinker to his right at the bar a couple of weeks ago.

‘No, I didn’t,” the drinker replied. The two sat silent, listening to Winograd and his large horn-and-piano-driven ensemble romp through a darkly vaudevillian melody. “I see what you mean, though. This reminds me of Luminescent Orchestrii.”

“Exactly,” replied Marcum. “Everybody was doing this back then.” And he’s right. The emergence of bands like World Inferno and Gogol Bordello opened up new opportunities for jazz musicians and players coming out of Balkan and klezmer music.

The first and third nights of Winograd’s residency here featured the big band. Opening night seemed like mostly original material – although with Winograd, it’s impossible to tell since he’s so deeply immersed in centuries’ worth of minor keys and slashing chromatics. Night three seemed to be more on the trad side.

Night two was a performance of a psychedelic, serpentine suite based on a Seder service. The clarinetist was joined on that one by keyboardist/singer Judith Berkson and Sandcatchers guitarist Yoshie Fruchter. Berkson channneled Laura Nyro blue-eyed soul and gritty Waitsian blues on her electric piano when she wasn’t venturing further into the avant garde. Fruchter wove a methodical, even darker tapestry of eerie Middle Eastern modes as Winograd shifted between conspiratorial volleys and a lustrous, ambered resonance. It was the quietest and most rapt of these shows so far.

Last week was arguably the best so far, which makes sense since a residency is supposed to be about concretizing and refining the music. For this one Winograd had a rhythm section and a not-so-secret weapon in pianist Carmen Staaf. Incisive, meticulous yet purposeful and unselfconsciously powerful, she brought a Spanish tinge to several of Winograd’s tunes – notably the angst-fueled waltz that opened the show – that brought to mind Chano Dominguez. Meanwhile, Winograd played with equal parts clarity and breathtaking, practically Ivo Papasov-class speed. It was one of the most thrilling shows of the year so far, something that Winograd could easily replicate tonight. See you at the bar at six:  Kate and Kat will be working and it’s going to be a wild night. The Dirty Waltz Project play oldtime Americana in 3/4 time afterward at 8.

The Skylark Vocal Ensemble Explore Harrowingly Diverse Reactions to War at the French Institute

Last night at the French Institute, the Skylark Vocal Ensemble sang a sometimes understatedly somber, often outright harrowing program that was as hubristic as it was relevant. Interspersing imaginatively arranged Civil War folk songs and hymns in between movements of Poulenc’s dynamic and rarely performed World War II-era Figure Humaine, the fifteen-piece choir voiced affectingly disparate reactions to wartime terror and the stress of living under siege.

Other choirs have mashed up iconic works from the classical repertoire with other styles, or with lesser-known pieces, with mixed results. Seraphic Fire‘s iconoclastic performance of the Mozart Requiem last year at Trinity Church, incorporating new compositions, worked swimmingly well. An attempt by another group to interpolate rather unrelated material into a dark and troubling Frank Ferko chorale, later in the year further uptown, was jarring and problematic.

In this case, the segues between calm, stoic American hymns or strikingly ornate arrangements of 19th century folk songs with Poulenc’s alternately starkly kinetic and acidically lustrous, Stravinskian themes didn’t make for easy transitions. But Poulenc probably wouldn’t have wanted any of this go to over smoothly: as a survey of human reactions to suffering, it packed a wallop, segues be damned.

Poulenc wrote his suite clandestinely with the hopes that it could be performed after an Allied victory. Turbulent, defiant cadenzas alternated with uneasy close harmonies and brooding atmospherics, all the way through to a triumphant coda fueled by soprano Sarah Moyer’s resolute intensity, just thisclose to a scream. She’d been tipping that pitch all evening long, the flicker of a smile often breaking into almost a smirk as she stood centerstage: she knew what was coming and reveled in it.

The rest of the group shone brightly in the Civil War material, as strikingly reflective of its time and place as Poulenc’s. In attempting to establish a distinctly American repertoire, choirs of that period often souped up folk tunes with elaborate and challenging arrangements. Some of these, like the stark rendition of Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye – the original Scottish version of When Johnny Comes Marching Home – date from then. Conductor Matthew Guard’s own arrangements –  a stately, hazily optimistic version of When This Cruel War Is Over, a plaintive take of Soldier’s Memorial Day and finally a Battle Hymn of the Republic that transcended schoolyard mockery – were true to the spirit of the times.

Likewise, the choir brought emotion, whether the savage cynicism – “Ridicule! Ridicule!” – in the Poulenc, or the funereal nebulosity of the hymn Abide with Me, into sharp focus. Crescendos were vivid and affecting: tenor George Case got plenty of time in the spotlight and rose to the occasion. Likewise, baritone Glenn Billingsley and the rest of the low voices offered endless, steady washes of circular breathing, lowlighting a couple of the folk tunes. Ultimately, the group delivered a message of hope: as much as we have suffered, even World War II didn’t last forever. In times like these, that message resonates just as powerfully.

This was it for this season’s characteristically eclectic series of concerts at the French Institute, but their similarly eclectic film series continues through May; there are also wine events, and a big Bastille Day bash this summer.