New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: folk music

Partying Around New York with Mames Babegenush

Danish klezmer band Mames Babegenush played Drom Friday night at around midnight. Saturday they were at Mehanata, the notorious Lower East Side Bulgarian bar, until the wee hours. Sunday they played an afternoon show in the basement of Gustavus Adolphus Church in Gramercy, then took the party a few blocks north to the Carlton Arms Hotel. They’d played the church in the past, beginning with the day after the honcho there had seen them late one Saturday night at the old Zebulon in Williamsburg – and invited them to play the next day. And they took that gig. Fatigue and alcohol do not seem to affect these guys at all.

Bracing Jewish minor-key folk dances are the loosely connecting thread among the band’s often exhilarating catalog of originals and popular standards from throughout Eastern Europe, Spain, the Middle East and the Balkans. Throughout about three hours of music yesterday, there were all sorts of wry conversations, lots of sparring, spine-tingling solos and a couple of sprints to the finish line. One of the best of the solos was a slinky, bristling chromatic series of climbs and descents, using a horn voicing, and played by bassist Andreas Mollerhoj. Bass solos are usually a bad idea; this guy got all of two throughout the afternoon and left you wanting more.

One of this band’s most distinctively unorthodox features is drummer Morten Aero’s kit. He kept a steady thud going with his right foot on a kickdrum, a snare and hi-hat set up to his left where he’d rattle off vaudevillian rimshots, often using his hands for hypnotic Middle Eastern beats. Straight in front of him was a tsmibl, the Ukrainian Jewish zither that may be the forerunner of both the Hungarian cimbalom and the Iraqi santoor. As he hammered the strings, they seemed both a little muted and a hair sharp, consistently across the scale, adding a subtle and absolutely otherworldly edge, especially in the music’s quieter moments.

Clarinetist and bandleader Emil Goldschmidt matched precision to dynamics, whether soloing or harmonizing with the sax and flugelhorn. Lukas Bjorn Rande shifted between a welcome, smoky grit on tenor sax and a gorgeously plaintive tone on alto, obviously influenced by the great Bulgarian player Yuri Yunakov, a guy he’d had the good fortune to study with. On flugelhorn, Bo Rande reached for the rafters with imploring, searing cadenzas and a handful of slithery, electrifying trills, often matched by accordionist Nikolai Kornerup.

Throughout the set, influences from Romanian brass music, to Andalucian balladry, Turkish laments, suspenseful Ukrainian horas and relentlessly flurrying Greek hill country music filtered through the songs, seldom staying in one place for long. Maybe the greatest thing of all about Jewish music is that it’s so well-traveled, and this group completely get that. The only weird thing was that nobody other than the band members were on their feet dancing (although this generation’s most dangerous American klezmer clarinetist, Michael Winograd, was in the house and bouncing in his seat). Mames Babegenush are at Golden Fest this coming Saturday night, Jan 18 at 8:55 PM (they run a tight ship there) in the big ballroom, among dozens of similarly high-voltage bands from across the Balkans, Mediterranean and Middle East.

The 50 Best Albums of 2019

This is a playlist, plus one last record at the very end that can’t be heard anywhere online but might be the best of all of them. You can listen to everything else here, almost all of it ad-free: it couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

Lots of triage was involved. A very ambitious listener with a dayjob that allows for multitasking can hear maybe eight or nine hundred new albums a year, all the way through. An insanely dedicated blogger can hear bits and pieces of maybe five thousand more. That’s about the limit of what one human can do. You may see a few stragglers here which were technically 2018 releases but got overlooked that year. If your favorite album from 2019 isn’t here, that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good…and it might just turn up here next year.

Other than the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Being chosen as the #50 band out of 50 is like getting picked last for kickball, and that’s kind of mean. Besides, if an album is one of the fifty best out of the literally hundreds of thousands released every year, it has to be damn good. Here we go!

Big Lazy – Dear Trouble
The subtlest, most desolate and ultimately most dynamic album from a group synonymous with cinematic noir menace. Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s sense of irony has never been more refined, and the rhythm section of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion has never been slinkier. Ulrich is the only musician in history who has been on three albums rated #1 for the year here. Listen at youtube

Changing Modes – What September Brings
Best album of the year with lyrics, the New York art-rockers’ finest, most cinematic, and most political release, a savagely lyrical, spot-on reflection on Trump-era narcissism and repression, laced with shapeshifting instrumentals and frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam’s disquietingly lush harmonies. Listen at youtube

The Bright Smoke – Gross National Happiness
The title reflects frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson’s signature, withering sarcasm. It’s the band’s most savagely political record, a grimly allusive measure of Trump-era inequality, despair and resistance against all that, with a haunting Joy Division undercurrent. Listen at Bandcamp

Karen Dahlstrom – No Man’s Land
The best short album of the year, with metaphorically-loaded, sharply picturesque narratives referencing apocalypse, smalltown anomie, late-night despondency and a ferocious, defiant anthem for the Metoo era from the powerful Bobtown alto singer and Americana songstress. Listen at her music page 

Hearing Things – Here’s Hearing Things
The best debut albun of 2019, by Brooklyn’s funnest dance band, mashes up horror surt, Booker T & the MG’s, twisted go-go music, Afrobeat, Ethiopiques and the Doors, with organ, sax and surf drums. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – These Times
Steve Wynn‘s iconic, feral, influential psychedelic guitar-duel band’s quietest, most allusively political and arguably most brilliantly lyrical album. Not bad for a group who put out their first record back in the 80s. Listen at youtube

Michael Winograd – Kosher Style
Unsurpassed for his sizzling clarinet chops, Winograd is also a very colorful composer. With sabretoothed chromatics and slashing minor keys, these new klezmer tunes run the gamut from blisteringly fun to mournful to sardonic, and the band is killer. Listen at Bandcamp

Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
Here’s another world-class clarinetist and ensemble playing an especially dynamic, inescapably vivid take on one of the most iconic, haunting pieces of classical music ever written (much of it composed in a Nazi prison camp). Riveting as it is, it raises questions as to how fair it is for this blog to rank it alongside the rest of the artists here. Listen at Spotify

Layale Chaker – Inner Rhyme
The brilliant violinist writes vivid, intense, often hauntingly beautiful compositions built around the rhythmic sophistication of classical Arabic poetry, equal parts Lebanese, Egyptian and western classical music, with occasional detours toward jazz or film score atmospherics. Listen at her music page

Los Wembler’s de Iquitos – Vision Del Ayahuasca
With almost all of their original members, this iconic psychedelic cumbia jamband from the heart of the Peruvian Amazon are as wildly trippy and original as they were fifty years ago. Along with Hearing Things‘ debut, this is the best party record of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

Miguel Zenon and the Spektral Quartet – Yo Soy la Tradicion
The formidable alto saxophonist teams up with one of the world’s edgiest string quartets for a mix of acerbic works with an unselfconsciously Bartokian intensity Listen at their music page

Rev. Screaming Fingers – Music for Driving and Film, vol iII (The Desert Years)
Dusky, loping southwestern gothic tableaux, twangy noir Americana, a little horror surf and ominous big-sky themes from these great guitar instrumentalists. Listen at their music page

Girls on Grass – Dirty Power
Like a female-fronted Dream Syndicate, guitar goddess Barbara Endes’ band rips through paisley underground psychedelia, spaghetti westen themes, snarling new wave and garage rock, with a defiant, politically fearless lyricism Listen at Bandcamp

Russ Tolman – Goodbye El Dorado
Jangly, vividly lyrical western noir rock: disappeances, shattered Hollywood dreams, dead-end kids who don’t have a prayer, and roadtrip anomie from the leader of 80s legends True West. Listen at youtube

Julia Haltigan – Trouble
Turns out that the torchy mistress of Manhattan noir is just as fluent with new wave and vintage CB’s-style powerpop, throughout these tales of nocturnal prowling in the East Village before it was yuppified and whitewashed. Listen at Bandcamp

The Felice Bros. – Undress
This could have been the great lyrical, populist record that Springsgteen made in between Born to Run and Darkness: surreal political broadsides, down-and-out characters and death lingering over everything. Listen at Bandcamp

Jay Vilnai – Thorns All Over
Poet Rachel Abramowitz supplies the lyrics for this haunting, mysterious collection of new murder ballads, over the guitarist/bandleader’s cold starscapes, Lynchian dirges and a relentless, lingering guitar menace. Listen at Bandcamp

Karine Poghosyan – Rachmaninoff & Stravinsky
Nobody plays the Russian Romantics with as much insighful flair as this irrepressible virtuoso. As with Raphael Severe above, it is fair to rate this ravishingly intuitive, picturesque performance of achingly beautiful Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableaux and punishingly difficult Stravinsky piano transcriptions against the current-day artists here? Listen at Spotify

Dina Maccabee – The Sharpening Machine
Epically eclectic, trippy art-rock, chamber pop, pastoral themes and occasional coy new wave from this shapeshifting violinist and songwriter. Listen at Soundcloud

The Sirius Quartet – New World
This adventurous, microtonally-inclined string quartet’s collection of original compositions is a fierce concept album in defiance of the current fascist climate in the US. Listen at Spotify

Yale Strom’s Broken Consort – Shimmering Lights
The un-cheesiest Hanukah instrumental record ever made, the violinist-bandleader’s new arrangements blazing with ferocious solos and bracing Middle Eastern modes. Listen at rockpaperscissors

Eleni Mandell – Wake Up Again
The iconic dark Americana and torch singer’s most hauntingly political album is a series of narratives set behind bars, inspired by her experiences teaching songwriting in the prison-industrial complex. Listen at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Spells & Rituals
The constantly shapeshifting murder ballad and dark rock superduo dive further into latin noir, 60s Britrock and even garagey psychedelic sounds, all with their colorfully dark lyricism. Listen at Bandcamp

Noctorum – The Afterlife
Lush, characteristically lyrical, jangly art-rock from iconic twelve-string guitarist Marty Willson-Piper – late of Australian psychedelic legends the Church – with a similarly allstar backing band. Listen at Bandcamp

Laura Carbone – Empty Sea
Bleak, Lynchian panoramas, highway-of-death narratives and some guitarishly snarling gutter blues from one of this era’s great noir singers. Listen at Bandcamp

Unnatural Ways – The Paranoia Party
A grimly surreal, volcanically noisy, rhytmically disorienting concept about contact with aliens from guitarist Ava Mendoza’s searing doom/art-rock power trio. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Maureen Choi Quartet – Theia
Epically twisting, high-voltage, flamenco and Romany-inspired string band music from the violinist and her equally eclectic ensemble Listen at Bandcamp

Budos Band – V
The imaginative Afrobeat and Ethiopiques instrumentalists’ most doom metal-inspired album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

JD Allen – Barracoon
A big comeback of sorts for this era’s most potent tenor saxophonist, scorching his way through a Zora Neale Hurston-inspired mix of ominously modal, tersely evocative protest jazz tunes with a new trio. Listen at youtube

Nancy Braithwaite – To Paradise For Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway
The classical clarinetist and her dynamic, nuanced chamber ensemble explore stunningly imagistic, darkly clever, tersely crafted pieces by a now Rhode Island-based, nonagenarian composer whose work has never been released on album before. A major rediscovery. Listen at Spotify

Fabian Almazan – This Land Abounds with Life
A glittering, epically cascading eco-disaster themed concept album from one of this era’s most tunefully virtuosic jazz pianists and his dynamic rhythm section Listen at Bandcamp

Doomstress – Sleep Among the Dead
Pervasive gloom, minor keys, purposeful guitar and unusual elegance from frontwoman Alexis Hollada on the Texas doom metal band’s debut album. Listen at Bandcamp

Bobtown – Chasing the Sun
Bewitching three-part harmonies from Katherine Etzel, Karen Dahlstrom and Jen McDearman and folk noir songwriting that’s just a hair less relentlessly dark than the material that put them on the map. Listen at Bandcamp

Petros Klampanis – Irrationalities
Slinky, brooding, Middle Eastern and Greek-inflected ballads and more kinetic, pulsing material from the eclecic bassist and his excellent trio. Listen at Spotify 

The Well – Death & Consolation
Grim, Sabbathy dirges, paint-peeling Stooges sonics and ornately macabre heavy psychedelia from this Texas band. Listen at Bandcamp

Jason Yeager – New Songs of Resistance
A short parade of first-class pan-latin singers deliver the pianist’s protest jazz reinventions of classic nueva cancion from across the Americas in the 70s, alongside some chillingly lyrical, politically-fueled instrumentals. Listen at Bandcamp

Amy Allison – Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun
A characteristically bittersweet, brilliantly crystallized, lyrical collection of rarities and outtakes by the inimitable Americana singer. Listen at youtube

Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith – Mummer Love
Rousingly hypnotic North African grooves and immersive atmospherics behind acerbic, often savage poetry by Patti Smith and one of her big influences, Arthur Rimbaud. Listen at Bandcamp

Andplay – Playlist
The meticulously focused, tightly intertwining, colorful violin/viola duo negotiate the dynamic twists and turns of pieces by David Bird, Ashkan Behzadi and Clara Iannotta on their debut ep. Listen at Bandcamp

The Shootouts – Quick Draw
Spot-on, classic 1965-style honkytonk, hard country, Bakersfield twang and a little rockabilly from this slyly aphoristic Akron, Ohio band. Listen at Soundcloud 

The Ragas Live Retrospective
Members of the paradigm-shifting Brooklyn Raga Massive, who put all kinds of radical new spins on classic Indian raga themes, captured live in the studio over more than sixteen hours worth of music. Most of it is sublime; nobody at this blog has listened to the entire record yet. You can start at Bandcamp

Sarah Pagé – Dose Curves
Hypotically shimmery electroacoustic psychedelia and an Indian raga performed on the concert harp. Unselfconsciously magical,  cutting-edge stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Zosha Di Castri – Tachitipo
Vocal ensemble Ekmeles, the Jack Quartet, pianist Julia Den Boer, percussion ensemble Yarn/Wire  and a chamber orchestra join the thoughtfully eclectic pianist/composer in a diverse mix of acerbic, socially relevant compositions and art-songs. Listen at Bandcamp

Funkrust Brass Band – Bones & Burning
Sizzling Balkan chromatics, undulating New Orleans grooves and a pretty relentless sense of doom on the theatrical, sprawling brass band’s latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

Castle Black – Dead in a Dream
The ferocious female-fronted power trio look back to the most darkly ambitious of the first wave punk bands with their surreal, often haunting latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Manimals – Multiverse
Crunchy, catchy powerpop and a darkly pervasive Bowie influence on the new album from New York’s’ most entertainingly theatrical band. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 compilation
Digitized and somewhat sonically tweaked field recordings of icons like Howlin’ Wolf and cult figures like Magic Sam, shredding and wailing in their element onstage, captured by a college kid with a cheap tape recorder. Listen at Bandcamp

Beat Circus – These Wicked Things
One of the first and best of the carnivalesque rock bands of the 90s, back and revitalized with a lavish, darkly picturesque southwestern gothic concept album. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Sometime Boys – The Perfect Home
A characteristically enigmatic mix of distantly Americana-influenced, slinky originals and imaginatively reinvented covers from New York’s most charismatic, kinetically psychedelic band. Listen at Bandcamp

Locobeach – Psychedelic Disco Cumbia
Truth in advertising: trippy chicha, serpentine highway themes and some woozy dub from this tropical supergroup led by members of Los Crema Paraiso and Chicha Libre. Listen at Bandcamp 

Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee – The Newest Sound You Never Heard
Recorded live and in the studio for Belgian radio in 1966 and 1967, these radical reinventions and a handful of originals by the iconic noir pianist and the shatteringly subtle jazz singer rival the brilliance of their iconic 1961 debut. Not streaming anywhere but available on vinyl.

The 30 Best NYC Concerts of 2019

Enormous triage was required to trim this down to a manageable number. Despite a desperate climate where practically every corner property in this city is being removed from the stock of housing and commercial space and handed over to speculators, thousands of stubborn musicians and patrons of the arts won’t leave this sinking ship.

Time to celebrate that tenacity! Consider this an informed survey rather than a definitive statement:  this is the most personal of all the year-end lists here. It’s impossible to count the number of shows over the past several years where this blog was in the house even though most New Yorkers couldn’t get there (or, more likely, couldn’t get home from there) because of the subway melting down at night and on the weekend. The reverse is just as true. You want FOMO? Move to Brooklyn.

The best show of 2019 was Rose Thomas Bannister‘s wedding, at Union Pool in late September, where the Great Plains gothic songstress sang her heart out on a killer festival bill which also included her polymath guitarist husband Bob Bannister, her bagpipe wizard dad Tom Campbell jamming with the mesmerizingly trippy 75 Dollar Bill, plus sets by psychedelic indie rockers PG Six and delirious Afrobeat crew Super Yamba. For anyone who might consider it pretentious to pick a private event as the year’s best concert…it wasn’t really private. Anybody who was at the bar, or just randomly walking by, could have come in and enjoyed the music – and as the night went on, a lot of people did.

Here’s the rest of the year, in chronological order:

House of Echo at Nublu 151, 1/15/19
French keyboardist Enzo Carniel’s hauntingly improvisational quartet built Lynchian ambience throughout a smoky, hypnotic series of cinematic tableaux.

Golden Fest, 1/18-19/19
Night one of the annual blockbuster South Park Slope festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music was a delirious dance party with brass band Zlatne Uste, their smaller spinoff Kavala, pontic lyra player Dimitrios Stefanides and otherworldly Turkish oboe band Zurli Drustvo. Night two went for about nine hours with about a hundred bands. Some highights: chanteuse Eva Salina fronting the Balkan Doors, Choban Elektrik: Amir Vahab‘s plaintive Iranian ballads; Raya Brass Band‘s chandelier-shaking intensity; Souren Baronian‘s deep, soulful Near Eastern jazz; clarinetist Michael Winograd‘s lavish klezmer orchestra; and thunderous Rhode Island street band What Cheer Brigade closing the festivities

Ethel at the Jewish Museum, 2/28/19
It’s shocking that it took twenty years before there was ever a world premiere performance of the complete, witheringly intense Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle…and it’s a good thing these champions of 21st century music took the job

Hearing Things at Barbes, 3/1/19
Slinky, allusively sinister, Balkan and Doors-tinged organ-and-sax grooves with a surf beat: the crowd danced hard at this wild post-happy hour gig

Josh Sinton’s Krasa at Issue Project Room, 3/15/19
Seated with his back to the audience, pushing his contrabass clarinet to its extreme limits through a huge pedalboard, Sinton’s solo show was one of the most deliciously assaultive sets of the year, over and out in less than 40 minutes.

Girls on Grass and the Sadies at Union Pool, 4/2/19
Luscious clang and twang, some Nashville gothic and surf and a little punkgrass from the legendary, jangly psychedelic band who got their start in the 90s, with a similarly brilliant, psychedelic act they highly influenced opening the night

The Juilliard Trombone Choir at the Greene Space, 4/3/19
NY Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi‘s explosive, wickedly tight band of future classical stars ripped and pulsed through irresistibly imaginative, sometimes amusing arrangements of works from Gabrieli to Beethoven to Warlock

Mary Lee’s Corvette at the Mercury, 4/13/19
With former Pogue Cait O’Riordan bopping and slinking around on bass, Mary Lee Kortes’ rivetingly lyrical, multistylistically jangly band brought equal parts ferocity and fun

The Coffin Daggers at Otto’s in the wee hours of 5/5/19
The undisputed kings of horror surf were as loud as ever and maybe even more murkily, assaultively psychedelic

Lee Narae at Lincoln Center, 5/9/19
Backed by a terse psychedelic folk band, the individualistic pansori singer unveiled a withering, provocatively feminist remake of the ancient Korean epic Byeongangsoe-ga, told from the long-suffering bride’s point of view

Greek Judas at Niagara, 5/9/19
A great night – this is the first time there have ever been two separate shows from a single evening on this list. Guitarists Wade Ripka and Adam Good sparred through one sinister chromatic Greek rembetiko metal hash-smoking anthem after another, over the supple groove of bassist Nick Cudahy and drummer Chris Stromquist

Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, 5/10/19
Kalhor is the renowed, intense master of the Iranian kamancheh fiddle; this evening was a very rare performance on setar lute, building serpentine, hauntingly relevant epics with his protege

Loreto Aramendi at Central Synagogue, 5/14/19
In a rare US appearance, the pioneering Spanish organist played wickedly imaginative arrangements of Rachmaninoff’s iconic C# Minor Prelude, Saint-Saens’ Halloween classic Danse Macabre and pieces by Buxtehude, Liszt and Ligeti

Bobtown at Rockwood Music Hall, 6/9/19
The iconic folk noir harmony band cheerily harmonized, slunk and bounded through a mix of somewhat less creepy material than usual, with lots of tunes from their new album Chasing the Sun, plus a brooding cameo from cellist Serena Jost

The New York Philharmonic in Prospect Park, 6/14/19
In his Brooklyn debut, maestro Jaap Van Zweden led this country’s flagship orchestra through a stunningly vivid, resolutely vindictive performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 6/26/19
The psychedelic cumbia legends reunited and warmed up for a South American tour with a couple of shows on their home turf. This was the second night, the one this blog didn’t review, and it was even better than the first, beginning with the gleefully uneasy Papageno Electrico and closing after midnight with the group’s creepy electric bolero version of Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1

Nashaz and Gato Loco at Barbes, 7/5/19
Oudist Brian Prunka’s undulating Middle Eastern band jammed out both otherworldly Egyptian classics as well as similarly edgy, entrancing originals; afterward, multi-saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk’s mighty noir mambo band burned through an even more towering, angst-fueled set

Hannah vs. the Many and the Manimals at the Nest, 7/11/19
The most entertaining show of the year began with charismatic frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s withering, torrentially lyrical noir punk band and ended with catchy powerposters the Manimals’ incendiary bandleader Haley Bowery skidding to the edge of the stage on her knees, seemingly covered with blood. Costumes and a quasi-satanic ritual were also involved.

Michael Winograd at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/19
The supersonic klezmer clarinetist and composer defied the heat, leading a similarly sizzling band through wildly cinematic originals from his new album Kosher Style

The Drive East Festival, 8/5-11/19
NYC’s annual celebration of traditional and cutting-edge Indian classical arts featured rapturous ragas from sitarist Hidayat Khan, hypnotic soundscapes by saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan, spellbinding violinists Trina Basu & Arun Ramamurthy’s Carnatic-inspired Nakshatra Quartet, and a sardonically riveting Metoo-themed dance performance by Rasika Kumar, festival creator Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek, with a dynamic live score by Roopa Mahadevan

Looking at You at Here, 9/6/19
Kamala Sankaram and Rob Handel’s new opera, billed as a mashup of the Edward Snowden affair and Casablanca, is a satire of Silicon Valley technosupremacists falling for their own bullshit. It was as chillingly Orwellian as it was hilarious, with a subtly immersive live score .

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Combo Lulo at Barbes, 9/14/19
The dynamic, resonant, klezmer and noir-inspired trumpeter, guitarist Brad Shepik and drummer Shane Shanahan built darkly chromatic mood pieces and more jaunty, acerbic tunes; it was a good setup for the organ-driven psychedelic cumbias, edgy Ethiopiques and trippy dub sounds afterward.

Wajde Ayub at Roulette, 9/28/19
The powerful Syrian baritone crooner – a protege of legendary Syrian tarab singer Sabah Fakhri – led a lavish, kinetic orchestra through a mix of harrowingly vivid, socially relevant anthems and ecstatic love ballads.

Nights one and two of the Momenta Festival, 10/15-16/19
To open their annual festival of underperformed and brand-new string quartet music at the Americas Society, the perennially relevant Momenta Quartet played a haunting Julian Carrillo microtonal piece, premiered a fierce, allusiveley political Alvin Singleton quartet as well as a more elegantly circling one by Roberto Sierra plus works by Ligeti and Mario Lavista.

The Takacs Quartet play the Bartok string quartet cycle at the 92nd St. Y, 10/18-20/19
A revelatory, slashingly energetic, insightful tour of some of the most harrowing, intense work for string quartet ever written

Big Lazy’s album release weekend at the American Can Co. building, 11/8-9/19
Bandleader and guitarist Steve Ulrich had lost his mom the night before the sold-out two-night stand started. He’d played Cole Porter’s I Love You to her that evening, and reprised the song on night one with his cinematic noir trio, bolstered by organist Marlysse Simmons, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and baritone saxophonist Peter Hess. Night two’s music was less mystical and pensive, more thrillingly, grittily menacing and macabre – when it wasn’t slinky and cynically playful.

Hamid Al-Saadi and Safaafir at Roulette, 11/23/19
The gritty, impassioned Iraqi crooner and this hemisphere’s only ensemble dedicated to classical Iraqi maqam music were tighter and more electric than they’d been at Lincoln Center in the spring, through a mix of metaphorically charged, socially relevant themes and more lively, traditional repertoire.

The Grasping Straws and Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons at the Mercury, 11/24/19
For anybody who might have missed seeing Patti Smith back in the 70s, or Jimi Hendrix in the 60s, this was a good substitute, the openers’ elegant, incisive lead guitarist Marcus Kitchen contrasting with the headliners’ feral, Hendrixian Hugh Pool

Karen Dahlstrom at Scratcher Bar, 12/8/19
The powerful, gospel-inspired singer and folk noir champion held the crowd rapt through brooding Old West narratives, wryly torchy blues, gorgeously plaintive laments and the fierce Metoo anthem No Man’s Land, the title track from her brilliant new album.

A Characteristically Rich, Diverse Year of Shows at Manhattan’s Best Venue for Acoustic and Folk Music

The American Folk Art Museum won the annual award for Best Manhattan Venue here back in 2016. It would be just as easy to say that again in 2019. Impresario Lara Ewen‘s mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series is still the most transit-accessible way to discover new songwriting and traditional music talent in this city, artists from all over the world covet playing in the museum’s rich natural reverb…and you can get a glass of wine here for a third of what it would cost you at Rockwood Music Hall.

As you would expect at a museum whose equally amazing exhibits document folk art and outsider art spanning the past few centuries, there’s plenty of folk music here. But even the oldtime sounds extend well beyond the world of fingerpicked front-porch acoustic guitar tunes. The best traditional show here this year was by singer Vienna Carroll, a historian whose insights into a set of rousing blues, gospel and string band songs reflected the triumphs of African-Americans over 19th century slaveowner terrorism and racism rather than the more common narrative of endless suffering. Queen Esther, a Folk Art Museum regular, reaffirmed that same fearlessly subversive esthetic at a couple of shows in February and July, featuring both Eastern Seaboard blues and soul-tinged originals.

Other entertaining oldtime folk shows included sets by the harmony-driven Triboro in May, as well as Irish tunesmith Brendan O’Shea (whose defiant, populist originals were even better) in July. Of all the original songwriters here, the most shattering was Karen Dahlstrom, whose November set featured a lot of material from her latest release No Man’s Land (a lock for best short album of 2019).  With her fearsome but meticulously nuanced alto, she aired out the fiery, gospel-infused title track, a Metoo-era broadside, as well as the metaphorically haunting After the Flood – a look at both personal and global apocalypses – and a new number, My Benevolent Destroyer, a chilling portrait of a broken marriage through the prism of imperialist domination.

Joshua Garcia, with his flinty voice and harrowing, Phil Ochs-inspired narratives, put the struggles of new immigrants and battered women in potently political perspective, along with the most chillingly allusive song about the Hiroshima bombing ever written. Miriam Elhajli sang in both English and Spanish, looking outward at the grim political climate as well as more inwardly, with intricate guitar fingerpicking and some intriguing jazz and Latin American riffs.

Niall Connolly held the crowd rapt with his brooding, tersely crystallized songs of struggle and emotional abandonment and rage against the Trumpies (a reaction that ran high at practically every show here this year). Soulstress Dina Regine, who played here in both April and June, was much the same, thematically, although her music draws more on classic 1960s American grooves.

How torchy singer Jeanne Marie Boes managed to get so much epic power and range out of her tiny keyboard is a mystery, although her towering, angst-fueled ballads and a couple of detours into darkly majestic blues had a relentlessly direct intensity. With her resonant chorister’s voice and deadpan surrealism, cellist/singer Meaner Pencil a.k.a. Lenna M. Pierce (she got her stage name the online anagram generator, she explained) was just as gripping, in a completely different vein.

Songstress/acoustic guitarist Kalyani Singh illuminated a dark inner world with a similar, often minimalistic focus, while southwestern singer Kate Vargas got the crowd going with singalongs and innumerable chances to have fun with beats. And Feral Foster – who runs the Jalopy’s longtime Roots & Ruckus series – didn’t let being under the weather get in the way of a characteristically haunted, expertly fingerpicked set of grim Nashville gothic laments and ballads.

The American Folk Art Museum’s Free Music Fridays series resumes January 10 at 5:30 PM with the soaring, brilliantly lyrical Linda Draper. There’s also an ongoing free series of guitar jazz concerts most every Wednesday at 2 PM with Bill Wurtzel and bassist Jay Leonhart.

Getting Lost with Gamelan Kusuma Laras at Roulette

Where do you go when over the past four decades, you’ve staged two thousand shows by artists from all over the world, all over New York? Robert Browning ended up at the most easily accessible venue in Brooklyn: Roulette. All trains lead to Atlantic Avenue, more or less; the space is two blocks away, maybe less depending on your exit.

Last month’s performance was an impassioned, intense concert by a legendary Iraqi singer backed by this hemisphere’s only traditional Iraqi classical maqam ensemble (there will be other potentially transcendent Middle Eastern bands here next year). This past evening’s show was completely different: New York’s own traditional Javanese-style bell orchestra, Gamelan Kusuma Laras building hypnotically starry ambience for the audience to get lost in. It wasn’t clear when the show started – were the two brief introductory numbers just a warmup, everybody running the riffs to make sure they were in tune? – nor was it particularly clear when it ended. But in between, time stood still.

Ironically, as the once-ubiquitous gamelan and shadow puppet spectacles in Indonesia seldom take place these days outside of weddings and other special occasions, gamelans have become a meme on college campuses across the US. I.M. Harjito is one of the main reasons why. If an American-based gamelan are any good, it’s likely that the now Connecticut-based Harjito trained them. Seated amid the group’s bells, gongs and gender xylophones, he began the show playing starkly keening, acerbic phrases on the rebab fiddle, then switched between a couple of double-barreled drums. Interestingly, the the smaller of the got the boomiest sounds.

In front of the ensemble, guest singer Heni Savitri was spellbinding, calmly and methodically working very subtle variations on riffs in a scale that wasn’t quite whole notes and wasn’t quite pentatonic either. With her austere, bitingly resonant, otherworldly voice, she sometimes exchanged brief phrases with either the rebab, or one of the flutes played by a member of the choir seated to her left. For all the innumerable variations, the music was incredibly catchy: several blues-tinged riffs, rising from and then returning to a central note, lingered long after the show.

Gamelans have enough bells to make Edgar Allan Poe jealous, and this group are no exception. Surrounded by banks of bright, shiny brass bonang and smaller kenong bells, the men and women in charge built a glacially shifting interweave of spare polyrhythms, rippling and pinging and glimmering into the night. Behind them, two of the group’s percussionists accented turnarounds, sudden tempo shifts and transitions with a big rack of gongs and a bass drum. Meanwhile, the higher-pitched tones of the genders glistened and clinked, adding an extra layer of celestial gleam.

Gamelan lyrics typically draw on ancient Javanese mythology; in addition, Harjito had come up with a couple of originals encouraging the musicians to reach greater heights. But the night was best appreciated as a cohesive whole, a chance to go completely down the rabbit hole that Claude Debussy discovered in 1889 at the Paris Exposition, where he decided that gamelan music was the future – and shifted the paradigm for music everywhere outside of Indonesia.

The next concert staged at Roulette by Robert Browning Associates is a flamenco festival on March 28 of next year: details are still being finalized.

The Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange Create the Newest Sound Around

Every month, the Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange plays the freshest material you can hear anywhere in New York. That’s because almost all of the Brooklyn collective’s songs are brand new. Ringleader Lorrane Leckie hosts a weekly salon where a rotating cast of some of the best songwriters you’ve never heard of – and some that you definitely have – workshop new material, then they take it to the stage in Williamsburg. Leckie in particular has been working on new material for her upcoming show on Nov 24 at 7 PM with her ferocious, psychedelic band the Demons at the Mercury. Fellow guitarslinger and charismatic singer Mallory Feuer’s equally ferocious band the Grasping Straws open the night at 6; cover is $10.

The October Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange lineup was typically diverse and just as interesting. Leckie debuted a forlornly strolling tribute to her recently departed French bulldog, Eloise, one of the more memorable musician mascots in this city in recent years. LJ Murphy, the group’s cleanup hitter, recast a couple of broodingly aphoristic older tunes as vintage soul music. Another first-class singer, Paul Anthony, went just as deeply into Sam Cooke-tinged soul.

The edgiest new material of the night was from Jeannie Skelly, one of the group’s strongest singers and guitarists. Her first number was a hilariously vindictive anti-fascist rant; the second was just as amusing, an apparently true story about an old friend who returns from his world travels a changed man: he’s become a vegetarian supremacist!

Carly Spell, a relative newcomer, held the crowd rapt with an allusively haunting chronicle of addiction and its most dire consequences. Likewise, Sara Hurwitz‘s poignant opening number, assesseddiminishing hopes for artistic community in a city completely devastated by gentrification. Lead guitarist Robert Troise added some neat bluegrass flatpicking on that one.

Eve Blackwater got everybody laughing and singing along to one of the funniest and most explicit fuck-you anthems written in recent months. Eric Richmond took the crowd back to a 1979 of the mind with a bleakly imagistic, tightly composed, Graham Parker-esque new wave tune. Teresa Toro, the latest and brighest addition to another collective, the Bushwick Book Club, brought down the lights with a couple of understatedly torchy, jazz-inflected numbers. Feuer also set aside her usual firepower for an enigmatic, more dreampop-flavored tune. And Sarah Murdoch, who might be the most powerful singer of the entire bunch, validated the argument that she’s just as nuanced and intense a blues singer as she is with jazz and Americana.

The Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange’s monthly show continues at Pete’s tonight, Nov 11 at 6 PM, so you won’t have to worry about the L train going down on your way home.

The Tune Have Fun Reinventing Ancient Korean Sounds at Lincoln Center

There’s been an explosion of psychedelic folk-rock coming out of Korea recently, and Lincoln Center has become one of the best places in New York to see it. Last night all-female quintet the Tune made alternately slinky, swaying and galloping themes out of ancient chants, dance tunes and peasant songs. Yujin Lee’s elegant neoromantic piano imbued the sound with a western classical lustre: there were times when the music sounded straight out of the UK circa 1974. But as translucent as their melodies are, the group have an enigmatic side: “Nobody knows us except us,” frontwoman Hyunkyung Go grinned. As the night went on, she turned out to be very funny: it’s been awhile since such an amusing band played here.

She opened the evening’s first song with a crystalline, quasi-operatic delivery over stagely, shapeshifting percussion and Lee’s piano ripples. With two small gongs, plus mallets on the drums, the polyrhythms grew more complex, the vocals considerably grittier as the thump picked up. Echoes of vintage American soul music, the witchy art-song of Carol Lipnik and maybe 70s art-rock like Genesis emerged.

A rhythmic, shamanistic invocation gave way to more moody classical lustre, percussionist Minji Seo’s thumb piano clicking along with the keys as their frontwoman wailed like a Korean PJ Harvey before backing away for Seo’s otherworldly taepyungso oboe. Then Go picked up her melodica as the band pulsed along gently, Seo’s piri flute adding austere color.

The shaman song after that had an imploring edge, shreddy taepyungso and a galloping triplet beat: that one really woke up the crowd. Lee switched to a vibraphone setting as the thicket of percussion – Haneol Song on drumkit, Soungsoun Lee on janggu barrel drum and Seo on a medium-sized gong – grew more hypnotic.

The song that followed, Port of Strangers had an unsettled, even aching quality, the unease of immigrants on new land transcending any linguistic limitations even as Go reached out her arms as if to welcome everyone there. But when she picked up a kazoo, she couldn’t keep from cracking up on the first verse of Youth Song, an undulating, minor-key workingperson’s blues (and drinking person’s blues) lowlit by echoey Fender Rhodes piano. Yet it wasn’t long before she got serious, singing in passable Spanish, going down on the the floor to get a clapalong going.

Go messed shamelessly with the audience, who’d been handed branches to keep time during a lively round that finally wound up with a mighty dancefloor thump and a wild taepyungso solo. The encore was a rousing mashup of oldschool 60 soul and Korean polyrhythms.

The next free concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is Nov 14 at 7:30 PM, where wildly popular india classical composer, violinist and singer Caroline Shaw joins forces with the Attacca String Quartet. Get there on time if you’re going.

A Haunting, Politically Fearless Solo Acoustic Album From Folk Noir Supergroup Bobtown’s Karen Dahlstrom

Karen Dahlstrom may be best known as one of the trio of brilliant songwriters in the three-woman frontline of folk noir supergroup Bobtown, but she’s no less haunting as a solo artist. Her 2011 debut solo release, Gem State is a concept album set in frontier Idaho – and may be the only record of its kind. Dahlstron’s long-awaited follow-up, No Man’s Land – streaming at her music page – is the best short album of 2019 by a country mile. Dahlstrom’s vocals, sometimes stark, sometimes plaintive, sometimes completely devastated, are nothing short of shattering. If anything, they’re even more nuanced than the harmonies and gale-force gospel wail she’ll cut loose with Bobtown from time to time (for a serious thrill, dial up Dahlstrom’s gospel noir tour de force Battle Creek). Likewise, she paints a relentlessly dark series of tableaux equally informed by oldtime blues, gospel and bluegrass. But this is a distinctly 21st century record, relentlessly bleak yet defiant. Dahlstrom’s next New York gig is. Nov 15 at 5:30 PM at the American Folk Art Museum.

Although the record is just guitar and vocals, that’s all these songs need. Dahlstrom’s imagery in the first track, After the Flood packs a potent a political message as a personal one. Set in a post-Katrina New Orleans, Dahlstrom sets the scene at an old cathedral that managed to survive, then she shifts to the old quarter:

Over a bottle of Four Roses in a bar on Saint-Louis
We trade our stories and compare our scars
The deepest wounds will never show
Wonder if we’ll ever know
If our disasters are written in the stars
He shows me the numbers tattoed on his chest
With a look he meant to bring me to my knees
But he don’t know the half of it
More than I would dare admit
I’ve weathered storms worse than these

Cottonmouth Blues, a muted minor-key sway with more than a hint of St. James Infirmary doesn’t seem to be about the aftereffects of smoking weed; it’s a metaphor for shyness. It’s classic Dahlstrom, deviously working an oldtime sex-and-drugs vernacular in the here and now.

The delicately fingerpicked Goodbye, Espanola is a more pastorally bluesy tale of hope from escape from a dead end-southern town where pollution hangs in the air and “The hot rod kids keep low to the ground, never seem to go anywhere.”

The sleepless, despondent narrator of the gentle, mournfully waltzing final number, Broken Golden pleads for the nameless tunesmith she’s stuck on to give her

…something I can cling to when night gets cold
Put words in my mouth and thoughts in my head
Paint me a picture and send me to bed

But it’s the album’s gospel-tinged title track that’s the best of all of them here – and might be the single best song of 2019. The album version on Bobtown’s latest release has mighty harmonies from Dahlstrom’s bandmates Katherine Etzel and Jen McDearman. But there’s more seething anger and resolute determination in this spare, all-acoustic take of Dahlstrom’s fearless feminist anthem. In the year of Metoo, it transcends gender boundaries:

No man’s words can still my voice
No man can tell me where I stand
No man’s will can take my choice
I am no man’s land

You’ll see this ep on the best albums of 2019 page here, too.

Karen & the Sorrows Celebrate Their Excellent, Eclectic New Americana Album at Littlefield This Week

Over the last few years, Karen & the Sorrows have individualistically skirted the fringes of the New York Americana scene. Not all their songs are sad, and frontwoman Karen Pitttelman has no fear of mashing up different styles. Their debut album was a creepy New England gothic suite. Their second ome was a country-tinged janglerock record. Their latest album. Guaranteed Broken Heart – streaming at Bandcamp – is even more eclectic, featuring some of New York’s most electrifying musicians. Pittelman’s vocals are more dynamic and diverse than ever as well. She and the band are playing the album release show on Oct 18 at around 10:30 PM at Littlefield. Nimble, pensive acoustic guitarist/songwriter Genessa James‘ Onliest open the night at 8:30, followed by the exhilarating, fearlessly political, historically inspired Ebony Hillbillies, NYC’s only oldtime African-American string band. Cover is $10.

The title track opens the album: it’s a briskly brooding southwestern gothic shuffle with some cool tradeoffs between lead guitar and pedal steel. Cole Quest Rotante’s lingering dobro spices the loping second track, There You Are, blending with the pedal steel, mandolin and Rima Fand’s plaintive fiddle.

The band go back to darkly shuffling desert rock with the organ-driven Jonah and the Whale, Girls on Grass guitar goddess Barbara Endes winding it up with a deliciously slithery solo. Why Won’t You Come Back to Me has an even more haunting, spare, 19th century African-American gospel feel: “Oh my little angel, send me back to hell,” is the closing mantra.

Bowed bass, mandolin and banjo mingle with Fand’s mournful fiddle in the similarly rustic Appalachian gothic ballad Your New Life Now. Drummer Charles Burst gives the sad, lingering ballad Far Away a muted country backbeat: “Some people you can love up close, some from afar/The trick is knowing which they are,” Pittelman observes.

Third Time’s the Charm is an upbeat, pedal steel-fueled honkytonk number: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” sets up the chorus. Then they bring it down with the mournful Queen of Denial.

When People Show You Who They Are is a subdued, downcast, hypnotic folk-pop tune in Americana disguise. The group mash up electric Neil Young with tinges of oldschool soul in It Ain’t Me, then quietly shuffle through the melancholy Something True, with tantalizingly brief mandolin and fiddle solos. They close the album with a love ballad, You’re My Country Music. It’s inspiring to see a genuine New York original taking her sound and her songwriting to the next level.

Folk Noir and Fearlessly Political Songwriting: Still Going Strong in the East Village

Sunday night at Scratcher Bar in the East Village, Lara Ewen and Niall Connolly strung together a couple hours worth of memorably surreal narratives and catchy acoustic guitar tune with a crafty expertise that’s become increasingly rare in this city.

Ewen, who is probably best known as the founder and fearless impresario of the mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum, is also a distinctive tunesmith in her own right and opened this particular show. There was a lot of fresh new material in her set, an auspicious preview of her long-awaited new album, mostly likely due out sometime next year. This time out, there was more bluesy grit in her voice than usual, and she fingerrpicked a lot more as well.

“I don’t write political songs,” she told the crowd, “Politics is something we tend to do in every moment of our lives,” she explained, prefacing a witheringly sarcastic new number about an sexual assault survivor, and then a kid who narrowly misses getting shot by the cops, each emphasizing how incredibly lucky they are.

Another aphoristic, darkly sparkling new song concerned a guy who manages to dig himself into a hole where he’s comfortable, way down in the dark. In the final verse, he brings a length of rope down there, although Ewen never reveals what exactly he does with it. Her other character studies, some new and some older and full of strange, unresolved chords, had similarly lingering imagery, situated among the down and out, or the about to be down and out. Like hell Ewen isn’t political: she just doesn’t preach.

Watching Connolly parse a series of terse, judiciously picked tunes, it’s obvious that he’s a rock guy: it was easy to imagine him playing those lines on a Strat with a rhythm section behind him. He’s more overtly political than Ewen, with an unassuming, raw, often melancholy vocal delivery. The big audience singalong was a soaringly anthemic portrait of the last days of Irish Revolutionary hero James Connolly (an ancestor, maybe?): “Lily, don’t you cry, I’ve lived the fullest of lives” was the chorus.

The best of the new ones was a spot-on, strange account of a late-night Rockaways bus ride (interrupted for Miller High Life and a shot of well whiskey at a watering hole along the way), and the kind of weirdos you meet there, everybody sharing the near dream-state surrealism of outer-borough afterwork fatigue.

Connolly is also a great storyteller without his guitar (Ewen said that she’d stolen all her stage banter from him: not a bad place to start). The funniest tale of the night concerned a bus driver who pulled to the curb for a second, exited the vehicle and shouted his order for fried rice to the Chinese restaurant cook taking a break across the street. Connolly, a populist to the core, explained that he has a special appreciation for any employee who likes to bend the rules.This particular takeout joint’s fried rice is apparently worth a risk.

Connolly’s next gig is Oct 17 at 8:30 PM at the Hunterian at 413 E 70th St. between First and York Aves.. Theres also an excellent bill coming up at the Folk Art Museum on Oct 18 at at 6 PM with  Sharon Goldman – one of the great tunesmiths to come out of the NYC acoustic scene since the turn of the century – and dark, brilliantly lyrical oldtimey songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Pete Lanctot.