New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: folk music

A Rare, Explosive New York Performance of Ancient Chinese Music and Puppetry

The manic energy of Chinese New Year in New York can’t compare with Saturday night’s performance by the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band with pipa virtuoso Wu Man at the Ethical Culture Society. Staged by the World Music Institute, the show featured not only hammering medieval battle songs to rival any Viking pageantry, but also boisterous, droll shadow puppetry. Wu Man wryly characterized it as “old Chinese rock and roll.”

As chronicled in the 2012 documentary film Discovering a Musical Heartland: Wu Man’s Return to China, the lute virtuoso has been on a crusade to preserve rapidly vanishing folk styles across her vast home turf. As you would imagine, Chinese sounds are every bit as diverse as American music. This concert was a rare opportunity to experience feral, centuries-old village traditions from a dynastic family band which has been active since the 1700s, updated with some spine-tingling 21st century improvisation. Wu Man is the first woman to ever play with this crew, which until recently had been strictly a family enterprise, run by the Zhang clan of farmers from a mountain village in Shaanxi Province.

One of their instruments was a robust handmade wooden bench that percussionist Dang Anhua had brought from home. His wife had sewed a pretty pink carrying case which typically draws mystified looks from airport checkin personnel across the globe, Wu Man explained. That bench absorbed several mighty whacks to cap off a battlefield scenario, and gave the floor of the stage several mighty thumps as well.

Wu Man opened the show with a couple of solo pipa pieces, a traditional number followed by an original, shifting sometimes elegantly and sometimes suddenly from lilting pastoral passages to fiery volleys of tremolo-picking and the occasional sparkling glissando.

A rustic, sawing quartet of erhu fiddles – one a low-register zhunghu model, akin to a Chinese cello – kicked off the first group piece, frontman and moon lute player Zhang Ximin leading the ensemble with his hearty, theatrical vocals. Many of the group numbers commemorated battles from the first century A.D. Others retold ancient fables, from a creation myth to a droll shadow puppet piece about a group of villagers fending off a voracious lion.

Wu Man is an irrepressible extrovert, a generous and insightful ambassador for traditional Chinese music and is also very funny, whether enumerating the difference in Chinese dialects, recounting the group’s adventures on the road or trading peek-a-boo riffs with various group members. Zhang Shinin played several percussion instruments including a small gong, and served as puppeteer as well. Zhang Qansi, Zhang Xinmin and Dang Guangdi played erhu, with Yuan Yuti on zhunghu, and Liu Xicang on banhu, a long trumpet.

The concert followed a dynamic path, with intricate pipa pastorales interspersed among the jubilant, catchy, pentatonoic anthems. Shivery fiddling, elephantine snorts from the trumpet and raucous percussion rose and fell, Wu Man a gentle but forceful, pointillistic presence with her rippling strings.

The World Music Institute’s next show is a  Middle Eastern-flavored triplebill of brilliant Middle Eastern and North African women performers at the Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this Saturday night, March 24 at 7:30 PM. Fiery Tunisian art-rocker Emel Mathlouthi, slinky, oud-fueled Middle Eastern/Nile Delta dance orchestra Alsarah & the Nubatones and Jordanian chanteuse Farah Siraj share the bill: tix are expensive, $35, but worth it.


A Wild, Astonishing Show in an Uptown Crypt by Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz

By the time Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz had finished their first number – an unpredictably serpentine Macedonian cocek dance arranged by Milica Paranosic – the violinist had already broken a sweat and was out of breath. That St. John and her pianist bandmate could maintain the kind of feral intensity they’d begun with, throughout a concert that lasted almost two hours in a stone-lined Harlem church crypt, was astounding to witness: a feast of raw adrenaline and sizzling chops.

There are probably half a dozen other violinists in the world who can play as fast and furious as St. John, but it’s hard to imagine anyone with more passion. A story from her early years as a seventeen-year-old Canadian girl studying in Moscow, right before the fall of the Soviet Union, spoke for itself. Determined to hear Armenian music in an indigenous setting, she and a couple of friends made the nonstop 36-hour drive through a series of checkpoints. “I’m Estonian,” she she told the guards: the ruse worked.

Although she’s made a career of playing classical music with many famous ensembles, her favorite repertoire comes from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This program drew mostly from the duo’s 2015 album, sardonically titled Shiksa, new arrangements of music from across the Jewish diaspora. The night’s most adrenalizing moment might have been St. John’s searing downward cascade in John Kameel Farah’s arrangement of the Lebanese lullaby Ah Ya Zayn, from aching tenderness to a sandstorm whirl. That song wasn’t about to put anybody to sleep!

Or it might have been Herskowitz’s endless series of icepick chords in Ca La Breaza, a Romanian cimbalom tune set to a duo arrangement by Michael Atkinson. Herskowitz is the rare pianist who can keep up with St. John’s pyrotechnics, and seemed only a little less winded after the show was over. But he had a bench to sit on – St. John played the entire concert in a red velvet dress and heels, standing and swaying on a 19th century cobblestone floor.

Together the two spiraled and swirled from Armenia – Serouj Kradjian’s version of the bittersweet, gorgeously folk tune Sari Siroun Yar – to Herskowitz’s murky, suspenseful, dauntingly polyrhythmic and utterly psychedelic rearrangement of Hava Nagila, all the way into a bracingly conversational free jazz interlude. They also ripped through the klezmer classic Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Reben, a Martin Kennedy mashup of the Hungarian czardash and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, and an elegant Kreisler waltz as the icing on the cake.

These Crypt Sessions, as they’re called, have a devoted following and sell out very quickly. Email subscribers get first dibs, and invariably scoop up the tickets. So it’s no surprise that next month’s concert, featuring countertenor John Holiday singing Italian Baroque arias, French chansons and a song cycle by African-American composer Margaret Bonds, is already sold out. But there is a waitlist, you can subscribe to the email list anytime, and the latest news is that the series will be adding dates in another crypt in Green-Wood Cemetery in the near future.

For anyone who might be intimidated by the ticket price – these shows aren’t cheap – there’s also abundant food and wine beforehand. This time it was delicious, subtly spiced, puffy Syrian-style spinach pies and vino from both Italy and France, a pairing that matched the music perfectly. Although to be truthful, barolo and spinach pies go with just about everything musical or otherwise.

Punjabtronix Put on a Pulsing, Hauntingly Hypnotic Dance Party at the Kennedy Center

UK Punjabi dance band Punjabtronix’s show last night at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC was a hypnotic, undulating, dynamically rich exploration of how far sounds from the rich melting pot around the India-Pakistan border can go. As the concert began, they took their time getting the groove up and running, the keening twin algoza flutes and tumbi lute of multi-instrumentalist Vijay Yamla set to a quasi trip-hop beat from Naresh Kukki’s big dhol bass drum in tandem with the thumps emanating from the mixing desks manned by DJ Swami and his co-engineer. What was live, what was being looped, and what was instrumental karaoke? It was hard to tell. As the textures mingled in the murky mist, that trance-inducing atmosphere set the tone for the rest of the night, John Minton’s shapeshifting projections pulsing in and out behind the band. You can watch most of the show here.

By all accounts, this show was better than the one in Queens the night before. Flushing Town Hall has a reputation for excellent sound, but word on the street was that Punjabtronix didn’t get to experience that (this blog wasn’t in the house for that one). Here, the mix had the clarity this band needs to create the full psychedelic experience. That first number was spiced with uneasy, lingering David Gilmour-esque lead guitar lines. Then sarangi player Dheera Singh took the stage for a take of the popular Punjabi folk song Jugni, Kukki’s hammering dhol polyrhytms veering close to the edge, singer Gurtej Singh energizing the crowd with his passionate, melismatic baritone.

The followed with Chhalla, the band’s frontman alluding that they were going to get this one in to pre-empt the inevitable audience requests. As Singh swayed and pounced, decked out in a regal blue-and-bold traditional suit and headdress, it was easy to see why people would want to hear the big, catchy anthem. They made moody, modal acid jazz out of another popular folk tune, Zindabad, the plinks of the sarangi and Singh’s insistent vocal riffs cutting through the blippy electronic backdrop, Yamla eventually taking a long, droll, warpy upper-register solo on the bugchu, a surreal stringed instrument that looks like a cross between an Ethiopian riti fiddle and a tabla drum.

Yamla switched to the stark tumba fiddle for an intense, rustic call-and-response duet with Pujabi “talking drum,” tuned to play stairstepping melodies much like a tabla. The cinematic epic after that celebrated the 70th anniversary of Indian independence, but also took a sobering look at the devastating effects of the British invaders’ partition of India and Pakistan. The uneasy east/west dichotomy was vivid, the traditional instruments solid and resolute against the techy beats.

Yamla gave the serpentine number after that a deadpan jawharp intro then a broodingly pulsing twin flute solo and rapidfire vocals as the the electronic storm loomed in behind him. The group’s final epic was a celebration of cross-pollination in the global Punjabi diaspora, an enveloping swirl of ancient organic textures mingling with the synthetic.

Punjabtronx’s US tour continues with a couple of stops at South by Southwest. Tomorrow night, March 14 they’re at Barcelona, 209 E 6th St, in Austin at 8 PM, then the next night, March 15 they’re at the Palm Door on Sixth, 508 E 6th St., also at 8.

Stephanie Chou’s Chinese Jazz Shifts the Paradigm at Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center booked Stephanie Chou and her quartet to celebrate International Women’s Day. They couldn’t have made a more imaginative choice. Chou is a strong singer with an unadorned mezzo-soprano, a strong saxophonist and a brilliantly individualistic composer who’s shifting the paradigm, blending Chinese themes from over the centuries with jazz, classical and more than a little rock in places. Her show last night drew heavily from her latest, innovative album, Asymptote. Her music is relevant, and lyrical, and amazingly eclectic, typical of the programming here lately.

The concert began with Isamu McGregor’s pointillistic, twinkling upper-register piano, joined by Andy Lin’s stark erhu fiddle. Then in a split second he picked up his viola and plucked out a spiky pizzicato riff before returning to the erhu as In the Moon You’ll See My Heart, a new version of the famous 1970s Teresa Teng Chinese pop hit, picked up steam.

Chou picked up her alto sax for General’s Command, reinventing an old Fujianese zither song as hard-hitting, kinetic postbop with more than a hint of gospel, Lin’s violin adding shivery ambience behind Chou’s calm, resolute melody.

“We’re gonna switch gears a little bit,” the college math major and bandleader explained, introducing the lustrous title cut from the new album. “The more you look the less you really see,” she sang: the enveloping, enigmatic sweep of the sax, viola, piano and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza’s muted mallets on the toms dovetailed with the philosophical paradox it alludes to, two lines converging infinitely but never reaching the same point.

Quiet Night Thought – a tropically-tinged setting of a Li Bai poem – followed a similarly lush, distantly brooding nocturnal tangent, Chou singing in Chinese. Then they switched gears again: Lin’ s solo version of an old folk song about birds flutttered, and chirped ,and soared, but with a fluidity that would make any feathered friend jealous.

Chou illustrated Odysseus’ arduous journey home to his true love with Penelope, a haunting, crescendoing backbeat rock ballad fueled by Lin’s aching viola and a spiraling, smoky sax solo. It would have been a huge radio hit for an artsy band like the Alan Parsons Project thirty years ago.

Chou returned to Chinese with her vocals in Making Tofu – inspired by a funny proverb about an only slightly less arduous process – a moody jazz waltz with a gorgeous, sternly crescendoing meteor shower of a piano solo and ominously modal sax work. Who knew so much energy was required to make those innocuous little cubes!

She led the crowd in a Chinese tongue-twister – the gist of it was, “If you eat grapes you spit out the peel, if you don’t eat grapes then you don’t” – then scatted it as Sperrazza rattled his toms and woodblock. She got serious again with the somberly verdant, astringently crescendoing tonalities of In the Forest, inspired by Johann Stolting, a 19th scientist turned hermit and something of a tragic character in her Irvington, New York hometown

Chou’s latest project explores the struggles of the women forced into prostitution by the Japanese in World War II. The world premiere of Manchurian Girl, a reworking of a 1938 Chinese pop song, had a sardonic martial beat: the longing and disillusion in Chou’s voice was visceral and transcended any linguistic limitations. She followed with a dramatic ballad, McGregor’s lingering glitter contrasting with Lin’s insistent attack and closed with a brief tone poem of sorts, part Debussy and part stately Chinese folk.

The next jazz show at Lincoln Center the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is an especially amazing one, with ageless latin jazz piano icon Eddie Palmieri and his band on March 16 at 7:30 PM The show is free so get there early or else.

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz Bring Their Dynamic Reinventions of Songs From Across the Jewish Diaspora Uptown Next Week

Violinist Lara St. John is the kind of musician whose presence alone will inspire her bandmates to take their game up a notch. Case in point: last summer in Central Park, where she played a picturesque, lyrical, alternately tender and soaring version of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. And this wasn’t with the kind of big-name ensemble St. John is accustomed to playing with: it was a pickup group. St. John’s dynamic focus may well have jumpstarted the group’s harrowing interpretation of Matthew Hindson’s Maralinga suite, a narrative about a 1950s British nuclear experiment in Australia gone horribly wrong.

St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz revisit that intensity and relevance with their program this March 14 and 15 in the crypt at the Church of the Intercession at 550 W 155th St in Harlem. The show is sold out – in order to get tickets to this popular uptown attraction, you need to get on their mailing list, who get first dibs before the general public and will often gobble them up. This isn’t a cheap experience, but if you look at it as dinner and a concert, it’s a great date night (it’s big with young couples). There’s an amuse-bouche and wines paired with the program: supplies are generous, there’s always a vegetarian choice and the choices of vintage can be a real knockout. And the sonics in the intimate but high-ceilinged stone space are as magical as you would expect.

Next week’s program is drawn from St. John’s most recent album with Herskowitz, wryly titled Shiksa, streaming at Spotify. It’s a collection of imaginative and sometimes radical reinterpretations of haunting melodies from across the Jewish diaspora and Eastern Europe by a wide variety of composers, as well as by the musicians themselves.

Among the album’s fourteen tracks, the Hungarian folk tune Czardas is reinvented as a scampering mashup with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Variaiuni (Bar Fight) is an old Romanian cimbalom tune as St. John imagines someone careening through it in the Old West. St. John learned the lickety-split klezmer dance Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Rebn from iconic violinist Alicia Svigals, while composer Michael Atkinson’s arrangement of the wildfire Romany dance Ca La Breaza is based on Toni Iardoche’s cimbalom version. And St. John picked up the elegant Romany jazz tune Kolo in a bar in Belgrade.

The most poignant track is the Armenian ballad Sari Siroun Yar, which gave solace to composer Serouj Kradjian and his family growing up in war-torn Lebanon. The most wryly clever one is Herskowitz’s jazz version of Hava Nagila, in 7/4 time. St. John also plays an expressive suite of solo ladino songs arranged by David Ludwig, along with material from Greece, Macedonia, Russia and Hungary. It will be fascinating to witness how closely she replicates the material – or flips the script with it – at the show next week.

Lavish Beauty, Depth and Relevance with Awa Sangho and the Brooklyn Raga Massive at Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center impresario Meera Dugal didn’t bother to hide how much she was looking forward to reveling in singer Awa Sangho fronting the Brooklyn Raga Massive last night. She was on to something. This show was part of Lincoln Center’s ongoing Outside India collaboration with the India Center and Brooklyn Raga Massive. Dugal promised beauty; Sangho and the band delivered their Malian/Indian mashup lavishly, poignantly and often mesmerizingly.

A moody Eric Fraser bansuri solo wafted over five-string bassist Michael Gam’s distant, low rumble as the show got underway, Sangho triumphantly raising a colorful mask to the heavens, warding off any evil spirits who might have snuck in. Violinist Trina Basu’s plaintive melody received a misterioso response from Fraser, Malik Kholy’s drums joining the nocturnal ambience along with Balla Kouyate’s slinky, chiming balafon. As the music leapt into a swinging, swaying, camelwalking groove, Kane Mathis’ spiky kora and guitarist Baba Kone’s incisive guitar joined the hypnotic mix. The instruments receded as Sangho intoned her terse, impassioned vocalese in a resonant, low midrange. A rippling balafon solo in tandem with percussionist Daniel Moreno brought the intensity higher as Sangho beamed and swayed in front of the band. That was just the first song.

Sangho dedicated her next number to her ailing mom back in Mali. Moreno opened it with a warpy wah-wah ngoni solo, the band slowly making their way in. An emphatic whack of the drums, a methodical volley of blues guitar riffs, growly bass and smoky bansuri led to a lingering Emilio Modeste tenor sax solo before the band backed away for Basu and Sangho to bring the pensive vibe back. As the waves of music rose again, the audience joined in a spontaneous clapalong.

“I’ve been fighting for 35 years for women’s rights and girls’ education,” Sangho explained, prefacing a protest song against what she termed “enforced marriage.” A resolutely vamping two-chord theme emerged as the singer’s voice grew more defiant. Pensive sax mingled with the sax and violins, Arun Ramamurthy positioned for stereo effect – and some sizzling, microtonal melismas – at stage right.

Fraser opened what he called a “condensed” duo version of Raga Yaman, establishing a suspenseful calm, tabla player Roshni Samlal raising the anticipation up to a tense, trilling peak. It was impossible to sit still. Mathis and Basu couldn’t resist joining in with their ripples and washes.

From there they segued into an animated, elegantly polyrhythmic duo piece by Mathis and Samlal with a rapidfire kora solo at the center. The cantering, vamping instrumental that followed brought to mind the Grateful Dead at their most epic, back in the 80s, For the rest of the night, the band followed Sangho’s lead meticulously, whether Kone’s aching, plaintive modalities in tandem with her exasperated “what now” delivery on a traditional tune, or Modeste’s smoky soulfulness alongside Sangho’s husky vocals in her original, Maman, which she said through tears was dedicated to mothers everywhere.

The group closed with an insistent, emphatic girl-empowerment anthem, Sangho’s uncanny ability to transcend language barriers in full effect. “Knowledge is power, stand up for your rights,” was the message. A sold-out house roared for an encore: they got a spiraling, undulating jam, an apt coda considering how close a match Indian modes can be for vampy, mostly two-chord Malian psychedelia. For Sangho and the band, it was a spectacularly successful mission.

And after a hellacious train ride, it was an awful lot of fun to cap off the evening with the tail end of Bombay Rickey’s similarly slinky set at Barbes. Frontwoman Kamala Sankaram reached for the rafters with her four-octave voice over Drew Hudgins’ slithery sax and Drew Fleming’s twangy southwestern gothic guitar, with a fat low end now anchored by former Chicha Libre bassist Nick Cudahy. Considering how much cumbia this band mashes up with Bollywood – a couple of pretty wild jams on Yma Sumac tunes, this time out – the group’s finally found their missing piece.

The Brooklyn Raga Massive plays Thursdays at around 8:30 at the Jalopy; advance tix, available at the theatre, are $10. And the next free show at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway north of 62nd St. is a dance party on Feb 15 at 7:30 with Tito Puente Jr. and many alums from his dad’s legendary salsa band.

Brilliant Violinist Alicia Svigals and Pianist Uli Geissendoerfer Reinvent Haunting Songs Rescued From the Holocaust

Moshe Beregovski was sort of the Soviet Alan Lomax. But there were a couple of major differences in the careers of the 20th century’s two greatest musicologists. Lomax received deservedly worldwide acclaim for sleuthing out folk tunes across the country, and eventually around the globe. And some of the artists he discovered, like Muddy Waters, became stars.

Beregovski, whose research and sense of adventure were just as keen, paid with his life, and most of the folk musicians he recorded were murdered. They were killed in the Holocaust; Beregovski, his health shattered after a long, brutal prison term in the gulag, died broke and virtually unknown in 1961. His crime? Recording Jewish music. 

Since Beregovski’s archives in the Ukraine were rediscovered in the 1990s, musicians from around the world have plunged into a world that was for a long time thought to have been lost forever. Now, iconic klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals – a founding member of the Klezmatics – and perennially eclectic pianist Uli Geissendoerfer have teamed up for a brand-new album, The Beregovski Suite, a frequently radical reinvention of a total of seventeen rare songs from the archive. The result is a gorgeous, chillingly bittersweet triumph of daunting scholarship and lyrical musicianship – if you think Svigals was pretty sensational in the Klezmatics, wait til you hear her now. They’re playing the album release show tonight, Feb 4 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub; cover is $20. With songs like these, who needs the Super Bowl?

These melodies leap out at you. We’re used to hearing poorly digitized , probably fourth or fifth-generation copies of this stuff, which was recorded on the fly  to begin with. This album  has a breathtakingly immediate, pristine quality. Although there’s accordion here – Iliya Magalnik is featured on several tracks – the presence of the piano adds considerable majesty and unexpectedly syncretic accents from around the world to the material.

The album – which isn’t officially out yet and hasn’t hit the usual online spots – opens with Lightning, a brisk minor-key dance. Svigals’ sinewy, bounding lines and shivery melismas soar over the pulse of the accordion, the piano anchoring the music with a heavy-spring bounce. Svigals throws off sparks of microtones throughout Dawn, a neoromantic waltz, Geissendoerfer switching between piano and toy piano to ramp up the surrealism. The brooding Lament For a King makes a good segue, Geissendoerfer’s low-key chords behind Svigals’ meticulous yet ferally tremoloing ornamentation.

By contrast, Iliyad, another waltz, has a playful, almost devious strut which becoms more wistful when the accordion kicks in; then the piano leads the rest of the group in an unexpectedly Lynchian direction. It will give you goosebumps.

The bracing Fugue for B has a cleverly acerbic baroque arrangement, Svigals digging in with a practically crushing intensity on the final verse, up to a spine-tingling coda. She reins in her melismatics somewhat for the quieter but no less plaintive, somewhat prayerful take of The Plea.

The surrealism reaches even higher with the disjoined intro of First Night, its uneasy close harmonies smoothing out into a jaunty, celebratory dance. The revelry continues with Market Day, with Vanderlei Pereira on pandeiro, Geissendoerfer adding an unexpected ragtime interlude. Getting groceries has never been so much fun! His jazz voicings contrast with Svigals’ mesmerizing, edgy chromatics and microtones throughout The Lover’s Dance, a slow, moody hora intro of sorts.

Rumshinky’s Bulgar, by Joseph Rumshinsky, comes across as a mashup of the early 20th century Jewish vaudeville that he made his name in and the darker – dare one say more relevant? – sounds of the old country. The duo go deep into that milieu with the plaintive Winter Dance, its wintry pizzicato and eerie belltone piano.

The duo follow Patshtants, an insistent, pulsing miniature in the Middle Eastern freygish scale, with the lively peek-a-boo phrasing of Kinder in Shul – yeah, these kids are up to no good. Svigals takes a rare turn on vocalese in Conversation With the Rebbe, s shapeshifting, pensively dynamic  minor-key song.

A Hero’s Report has an aptly emphatic intensity; after that, the unexpected Celtic tinges of Big Bear come as quite a surprise. The album concludes with a brief reprise of the opening tune. On one hand, this is the kind of salute that Beregovski deserves. Without him, these frequently heartwrenching melodies would no longer exist. And of course, the elephant in the room is how many more songs like this would we be able to enjoy if the people who played them into Beregovski’s wax cylinder recorder hadn’t been murdered?

The Black Lillies Rock City Winery With a New Lineup

The version of the Black Lillies that played City Winery last weekend was a lot different from the considerably larger version of the band who got a rave review here in the fall of 2013. Frontman/multi-instrumentalist Cruz Contreras has most recently pared the group down to a tight, lean four-piece. Drummer Bowman Townsend, who propelled the unit through this show with his usual blend of purist four-on-the-floor rhythm and vintage shuffle grooves, is the only holdover from that lineup.

But they still jam as psychedelically, if not as quite as much  as that incarnation. After a steady, upwardly driving hour and a half onstage, the takeaway was that this is as good a version of the Black Lillies as there’s ever been – Contreras has always drawn from a wide talent base, anyway.

The band’s not-so-secret new weapon is lead guitarist Dustin Schaefer. It was easy to see where his camaraderie with the bandleader comes from, considering the two’s encyclopedic appreciation of classic bluegrass, honkytonk, soul, stadium anthems and psychedelic rock. By the end of the night’s first number, Schaefer had cranked out two of his most sizzling solos of the night on his big vintage hollowbody Gibson, smoldering with chromatics and uneasy bluesy bends.

These Black Lillies rock harder than they ever have. Interestingly, the set had very little from the band’s most recent album Hard to Please. Instead, they focused on new material as well as a lot of the strongest anthems from 2013’s Runaway Freeway Blues, the band’s definitive statement to date.

Much as there were drinking songs, and band-on-the-road songs, and a handful of regretful ballads in the mix, the night’s central theme was the struggle to stay stay on solid ground in hard times. Maybe because of the current political climate, those songs of dashed dreams but also guarded hope resonated the most. In a revamped, amped-up take of Gold & Roses, Schaefer’s lead guitar substituted for the steel on the album version. Likewise, the band took Catherine – set in a surreal place with “nothing but blue skies and fire on the ground” – and made brisk bluegrass-inspired highway rock out of it.

The night’s longest number was a long, twisting psychedelic epic that went on for at least ten minutes, through a couple of false endings, part peak-era 1980s Grateful Dead and also Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd, a blend you might think would be crazy – but it worked. Contreras put down his Telecaster and played acoustic for most of the show, for one anthem after another. Matter-of-factly, the group followed a steady path through the exasperated 99-percenter tale All This Living, the cynical, honkytonk-tinged Two Hearts Down, and a terse version of Ruby, the group’s take on the old country blues standard Ruby, about a party animal who can’t stay out of trouble.

Contreras waited until the encore, a scurrying take of the old 70s Eddie Rabbitt radio hit Driving My Life Away, to take a solo on the Tele, but he made it count. And the best solo of the night was his two-handed, barreling charge down the keys of his piano on one of the new numbers. New bassist Sam Quinn played with a cool, low-key pulse, once in awhile rising to the top of the fretboard as a verse would turn around into a mighty chorus, and took over lead vocals on an unexpectedly Beatlesque new song.

The Black Lillies’ next gig is on Feb  15 9 PM at the Visulite Theatre, 1615 Elizabeth Ave in Charlotte, NC; cover is $14. For New York fans of similarly energetic if more lavish oldschool American sounds, crooner Brother Joscephus is bringing his New Orleans funk/soul orchestra there on Feb 6 at 8 PM. You can get in for $20.

A String-Driven Treat and a Park Slope Gig by Irrepressible, Fearlessly Eclectic Violinist Tom Swafford

Violinist Tom Swafford’s String Power were one of the most lavishly entertaining, surrealistically psychedelic bands to emerge in New York in this decade. Blending classical focus, swirling mass improvisation, latin and Middle Eastern grooves and jazz flair, they played both originals as well as playful new arrangements of songs from across the years and around the world. With a semi-rotating cast of characters, this large ensemble usually included all of the brilliant Trio Tritticali – violinist Helen Yee, violist Leann Darling and cellist Loren Dempster – another of this city’s most energetically original string bands of recent years. Swafford put out one fantastic album, streaming at Bandcamp, with the full band in 2015 and has kept going full steam since with his own material, notably his Songs from the Inn, inspired by his time playing in Yellowstone State Park. 

Over the last couple of years, String Power have been more or less dormant, although Swafford has a characteristically eclectic show of his own coming up on Feb 2 at 7 PM the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he’s a faculty member. To start the show, he’ll be playing Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano with pianist Emile Blondel. After that, he’ll be leading a trio with guitarist/banjoist Benjamin “Baby Copperhead” Lee and bassist Zach Swanson for a set of oldtime country blues and then some bluesy originals of his own. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The String Power album has a formidable lineup of adventurous New York classical and indie classical talent. On violins, alongside Swafford and Yee, there’s a slightly shifting cast of Mark Chung, Patti Kilroy, Frederika Krier, Suzanne Davenport and Tonya Benham; Darling and Joanna Mattrey play viola; Dempster and Brian Sanders play cello, with Dan Loomis on bass. The album opens with Tango Izquierda, Swafford’s shout-out to the Democrats regaining control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. Maybe we’ll get lucky again, right? This elegantly lilting number rises and falls with intricate counterpoint and a handful of frenetic Mik Kaminski-ish cadenzas.

The group reinvents new wave band the Stranglers’ synth-pop Dave Brubeck ripoff Golden Brown – an ode to the joys of heroin – with a stately neo-baroque arrangement. The Velvets’ Venus in Furs is every bit as menacing, maybe more so than the original, with a big tip of the hat to John Cale, and a Swafford solo that’s just this side of savage.

Swafford’s version of Wildwood Flower draws more on its origins in 19th century shape-note singing than the song’s eventual transformation into a bluegrass standard, with a folksy bounce fueled by spiky  massed pizzicato. Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic Azizah opens with her plaintive taqsim (improvisation) over a drone, pounces along with all sorts of delicious microtones up to a whiplash coda and an outro that’s way too funny to give away.

Likewise, the otherwise cloying theme from the gently satirical 70s soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman gets a trick ending. Charles Mingus’ anti-segregation jazz epic Fables of Faubus gets a fullscale nine-minute workout, heavy on the composer’s relentless sarcasm. In the age of Trump, this really hits the spot with its phony martial heroics and sardonially swiping swells, Chung, Krier, Swafford and finally Loomis getting a chance to chew the scenery.

The album winds up with Swafford’s own Violin Concerto. The triptych opens with Brutal Fanfare, a stark, dynamically rising and falling string metal stomp spiced with twisted Asian motive – it makes a good segue out of Mingus. The second part, High Lonesome explores the often fearsome blues roots of bluegrass, with some wickedly spiraling Swafford violin. The conclusion, simply titled Ballad, is the most atmospheric passage here: it sounds like an Anna Thorvaldsdottir vista raised an octave or two. 

The Fearlessly Relevant Kath Bloom Returns to a Favorite Brooklyn Haunt

Since the 70s, songwriter Kath Bloom has enjoyed a devoted cult following, especially among her colleagues. Her influence can be heard in the work of artists as diverse as Carol Lipnik and Larkin Grimm; both Linda Draper and Rose Thomas Bannister cite Bloom as an important early discovery. Beyond the reverence of her fellow songwriters, what’s most astonishing is that Bloom may be at her creative peak at this point, even with a vast back catalog of eighteen previous albums. Her voice may have weathered somewhat, but her writing is more harrowing and unflinchingly direct than ever. She’s making a stop at her favorite intimate Greenpoint venue, Troost on Jan 21 at around 9.

Her latest album This Dream of Life is streaming at her audio page. The sound is more full and lush than you would expect from a simple blend of acoustic and electric guitars: Red House Painters’ Mark Kozelek is there to parse the tunes, with frequent contributions from Avi Buffalo and Imaad Wasif.

The catchy, propulsive, anthemically bluesy title track, which could easily be a Draper number, opens the album:

Someone’s stepping on the gas
Someone’s crawling up your ass
Everybody wants to go back…
We’re all crying in our cage
We’re all using half our brains
Don’t you wanna be free?
Someone says we’re getting out
Tell me what it’s all about
Everybody’s lying to me
This dream of life is not for the faint of heart…

Then Bloom gets political in the second verse. It’s hard to think of a more aptly bleak, wintry commentary on our times.

The  intricately fingerpicked, country-tinged lullaby I Bring the Rains is 180 degrees the opposite. Then Bloom finds middle ground over a lively country gospel-inspired bounce in the death-fixated Reminds Me of It.

The lush, psychedelic sweep of At Last contrasts with Bloom’s starkly plainspoken, lamentful lyrics. The guys in the band add moody, gospel-tinged harmonies in the methodically swaying Oh Baby. With its surreal litany of images, the catchy, echoey Changing Horses in Mid Stream is Bloom at her aphoristic best: this caustic kiss-off anthem could be her Positively 4th Street.

This Love Has Got a Mind of Its Own makes a return to enigmatic psychedelic folk, the guitars rising to a jaggedly majestic peak. Bloom keeps that hazily lingering atmosphere going through the anxious I Just Can’t Make It Without You, then flips the script with the playfully edgy symbolism of the aptly titled retro 60s folk-pop of Let’s Get Going:

Come on, you Southern
And Northern
Maybe we can meet in the middle
Look around you
Doesn’t it astound you
Or maybe you recognize it a little?

Cold & Windy is as tremulous as its title, but also hopeful. Bloom examines good intentions gone drastically off the rails in How Can I Make It Up to You?, probably the only song ever to rhyme “drama with “Dalai Lama.” She closes this sometimes devastatingly straightforward album with Baby I’m the Dream You Had: “Though you don’t remember, this happened to you,” Bloom reminds.