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No New Abnormal

Category: greek music

Beware of Greeks Bearing Loud Guitar Amps

Balothizer are among the most recent heavy psychedelic bands to realize how delicious haunting old Greek folk tunes sound when you crank up the volume and hit the distortion pedal. The obvious comparison is New York’s own Greek Judas, who, like Batholizer, are one of the few rock acts releasing new material these days. Check out the Brooklynites’ latest single, Snakey Song, which is probably the most succinct number in their repertoire of heavy metal versions of hash-smoking and protest songs from the 1920s and 30s..

Balothizer have a whole new album, Cretan Smash, streaming at Bandcamp. The eerie Arabic-influenced chromatics and fearless pro-freedom content of music from Crete are everywhere here, starting with the epic, defiant first track, Jegaman, kicking off with a slashing cadenza from guest violinist Stratos Skarakis. Frontman Nikos Ziarkas multitracks sizzling electric lute riffs over Pav Mav’s gritty, galloping bass and Steve J. Payne’s pummeling drums as the song veers between speedmetal and a slow, relentlessly doomy sway.

The second track is Peace, a slow, grimly stomping anthem until the shreddy stampede out. You want grim? The third number, Aleppo – a bitter exile’s tale – gets reinvented as sort of Greek Motorhead, but with more of a hypnotically propulsive drive, while the fourth, Ponente Levante, a vengeful chronicle of finding nothing but trouble in the world, has an even faster, circling attack.

Foustalieris, a popular tune with a witheringly metaphorical revolutionary message, has elegantly echoey acoustic twin lutes to kick things off, then the band barrel through to a long wah-wah stoner jam. They close the record with their most epic number here, Anathema, a shoegazy slowcore tune. Watch for this on the best albums of 2020 page at the end of the year.

Greek Judas – Snakey Song

Elegant, Intricate, Individualistic Guitar Instrumentals From Duo Tandem

Duo Tandem play gorgeously interwoven, largely minor-key acoustic guitar music with elegant climbs, moving basslines, exchanges of roles and lead lines. Their new album Guitar Duos of Kemal Belevi is streaming at Spotify. Guitarist Necati Emirzade is typically in the right channel, his bandmate Mark Anderson in the left.

They open the record with the first of a handful of Cyprian Rhapsodie, a steady, brooding, briskly strolling minor-key blend of Romany jazz, the baroque and rembetiko. It’s essentially an overture to the triptych which follows. The first part is slower, with a spare Emirzade solo and a little more counteproint; the second is more sober and austere, with some magically nuanced echo phrases from Anderson over walking bass figures. The conclusion comes across as a sunny Mediterranean bouzouki tune with an unexpectedly moody bridge, the lead shifting from Emirzade’s precise walks and chords to Anderson’s bracing tremolo-picking.

The two slowly shift Valse No. 1 from melancholy to somewhat more animated terrain, with more of the album’s initial Greek Django atmosphere. The album’s sixth track, another rhapsody, has some coy call-and-response amid the Mediterranean baroque phrasing.

Valse No. 2 is more wistfully reflective, with lots of gentle twin lead lines. The three-part Turkish Suite begins with an enigmatic circular theme and variations, shifts to a slow, spacious, mutedly saturnine midsection and winds up with the album’s most intensely crescendoing, chromatically biting coda.

Romance has the most traditional baroque counterpoint on the record. The next rhapsody reprise makes a good segue, adding a little beachy Greek flavor to what otherwise could be Telemann or Handel. The album’s final suite, Three Fragments begins with could be a Django Reinhardt reinvention of Duke Ellington’s Caravan, continues with echoes of Debussy and Satie and concludes with surreal baroque Romany swing.

Likewise, the album’s epic closing number shifts from brooding chromatics to Bach-like interplay. This is a richly melodic showcase for Belevi’s distinctive, elegant compositions, which deserve the inspired interpretations they get from Emirzade and Anderson.

Edgy, Upbeat, Relentlessly Uneasy Greek Psychedelia From Trio Tekke

Trio Tekke play Greek psychedelia that looks to the Middle East as much as it does to the first wave of Greek psych-rock bands from the 60s. Zola Jesus‘ most straight-up psychedelic adventures are a point of comparison, as are the first wave of 90s revivalists like Annabouboula, although Trio Tekke have a sparser, less dance-oriented sound. Their new album Strovilos – meaning “whirlwind” – is streaming at Bandcamp.

The first cut is Tempest of the Dawn, a spare, Middle Eastern-tinged melody emerging from Antonis Antoniou’s echoey, allusively Middle Eastern flavored tzouras lute, Lefteris Moumtzis’ guitar, Colin Somervell’s bass and Dave DeRose’s drums. The lyrics are in Greek, although the album comes with translations: this one is a trippy bacchanal narrative. That’s a common theme throughout the rest of the album.

Electric bouzouki clangs and Farfisa organ blips in and out in the similarly spare, more mysterious On the Street, pulsing along on a tricky 10/4 beat with fuzztone bass. Then the band work their way up out of a pensive lauto intro to a creepy, watery, hypnotic groove in Rotten Luck

Fueled by a piercingly gorgeous, chromatic electric bouzouki melody from Antoniou, the rembetiko art-rock drinking anthem I Erase the Day has a slow, syncopated pulse: imagine Greek Judas without the heavy metal thump. Moumtzis’ lingering guitar contrasts with the ring of the bouzouki over a muted, dancing beat in the album’s title cut: it’s anything but stormy.

The band go back to strangely altered, more optimistic rembetiko atmosphere with The First Day, echoing the days when prisoners of the brutal dictatorship of the 30s languished in jails, plotting their escapes. In Breathless Shriek, the band continue that theme more darkly, without the metaphors, over balletesque syncopation with starry, incisive guitars and keys.

The album’s poppiest and most playful number is the taverna dance tune Shooting Star. With its incisive riffs, Karmic is the closest thing here to classic 70s British psychedelia: think early Genesis with Greek fretted instruments instead. The trio close the record with Electric Sighs, a Romany-tinged waltz with dub echoes. Further proof that the best psychedelia these days comes from places far from where it was invented.

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.

Haunting New Interpretatations of Ancient Greek Tunes on the Upper East Side

Last night at Holy Trinity Cathedral on the Upper East Side, clarinetist Petroloukas Halkias and lauto player Vasilis Kostas treated a sold-out crowd to a rare, exhilarating, frequently haunting performance of centuries-old repertoire from the Epirus region of northern Greece.

It was astonishing to witness how much vigor and vitality Halkias, now 85, can still bring to the material. Employing round after round of circular breathing, he most frequently channeled a woody, otherwordly, resonant tone that evoked a duduk. In those instances, his steady, unwavering, meticulous control, typically playing moody, often plaintive variations and melismatic microtones against a low, central note, were absolutely spellbinding.

The scion of a legacy of virtuosos that dates back to the 1880s, Halkias also displayed an American jazz influence…but with airy, purposeful, pensive lines rather than endless volleys of postbop. Kostas, his protege, often picked out clarinet voicings on his lauto, sparkling with hammer-ons and pull-offs. It was a clinic in individualistic interpretations of an ancient tradition.

Kostas said that violinist Beth Bahia Cohen’s similarly spellbinding, ominously chromatic voicings would be difficult to find among musicians from Epirus today, let alone here in the US: he was clearly psyched to have her in the band. His fellow lautist Pangiotis Sakkoulas played steady, jangly rhythm, often holding an enigmatic, open minor sixth chord for minutes on end while his bandmates exchanged solos. Percussionist Pangiotis Georgakopolous may only have been playing the defi hand drum for a few months – he’s a jazz drummer by trade – but had masterful touch and sublety, especially when it came to coloring the lows.

The material was as dynamic as the performance. Kostas sang in expressive Greek throughout a mix of lively drinking tunes, resonant love ballads and several plaintive laments. The best number of the night was a moody minor-key ballad based on a four-chord descending progression, featuring some of Kostas and Halkias’ most poignantly incisive soloing. Several of the numbers began with undulating, brightly major-key verses before taking a turn toward stormier, more ominous Balkan terrain. Both musicians took turns opening songs with tantalizingly brief, woundedly vivid solo improvisations. There was no encore: after almost two nonstop hours onstage, the group got a lengthy standing ovation.

Halkias and Kostas also have a rapturous new duo album, The Soul of Epirus, a more intimate, intertwining approach to many of these songs.

Greek Judas Headline One of the Year’s Best Twinbills in the East Village

When Greek Judas took the stage at Niagara at a little after eleven a couple of Thursdays ago, everybody in the crowd suddenly had their phones out. Maybe that was because three of the five guys in the band were wearing animal masks. But it’s more likely that nobody in the audience had ever seen a Greek metal band.

And in that space, they were louder than ever. Singer Quince Marcum projects as well as any other frontman in town, but this time he was low in the mix. When the band got their start, guitarist/lapsteel player Wade Ripka and guitarist Adam Good would typically take long, careening, Middle Eastern-tinged solos. And that worked; both guys love their creepy chromatics, and they can get totally symphonic without being boring. Times have changed: instead of jabbing at each other to pull a song back on track, there’s a lot more interplay and at least semi-controlled chaos now. Ironically, the tighter they get, the more psychedelic the music is.

Bassist Nick Cudahy downtunes his axe now, for some serious tarpit sonics. Meanwhile, drummer Chris Stromquist makes the songs’ tricky rhythms look easy: the way he plays, no matter how bizarre the underlying beat is, you can stand and sway from side to side and not feel any more stoned than you might already be.

Obviously, you don’t have to be high to appreciate the band. One of the reasons why they’ve tightened up the show is that they have a lot more songs and they don’t have to stretch them out so much. They’re all covers, from the 1920s to the 1960s, most of them from the criminal and revolutionary underworld who fought against dictatorial terror and then a British invasion after World War II. Many of those tunes were written by ethnic Greeks who’d escaped persecution in Cyprus and Turkey, only to find themselves second-class citizens in their ancestral land.

The best song of the night was I’m a Junkie, which might have just been a shout-out to good hash, or something stronger – Marcum sings everything in the original Greek. The most lyrically innocuous love song of the night was also one of the most macabre. Police brutality, heavy partying, black humor behind bars, trans-Mediterranean drug smuggling and crack addiction were some of the other topics Marcum addressed – he almost always gives the audience a little translation for just about everything. They’re back at Niagara (Ave. A and 7th St., the former King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut across from the southwest corner of Tompking Square Park) this Thursday at 10. As a bonus, the excellent Trouble with Kittens – who play similarly edgy if somewhat quieter and faster, new wave-influenced songs – open the night at 9. Noir cinematic trio Sexmob‘s brilliant drummer, Kenny Wollesen is sitting in with them this for this show. It’s a pass-the-tip-jar situation.

Atlas Maior Bring Their Intoxicating Middle Eastern and Greek Jams to Fort Greene

Austin band Atlas Maior play an exhilarating blend of Middle Eastern and Greek music that often looks further north to the Balkans. With oud, violin, sax and a rock rhythm section, they play driving, rhythmic instrumentals which veer from rampaging Macedonian-tinged jams, to sunny Aegean grooves and haunting Turkish-laced themes. Their new album Riptide is streaming at Spotify. They like epics: imagine a more organic version of the New York Gypsy All-Stars and you wouldn’t be far off. Atlas Maior are playing Sisters Brooklyn at 900 Fulton St., just north of the Cinton-Washington stop on the C train on May 14 at 8 PM. Cover is $10.

The album opens with The Curse, Joshua Thomson’s blippy alto sax in tandem with Charlie Lockwood’s oud over drummer Ted Camat’s allusively rat-a-tat Balkan rhythms. The buzzy microtonal oud solo out is killer. The title track, Riptide, is a hypnotically vamping platform for a long sax solo; likewise, Cumbia Raposa, which turns out to be anything but a cumbia.

Nastaran begins with a quote from the surf classic Misirlou and stomps along from there with a tireless Macedonian pulse: the shift from major to minor is sudden and breathtaking. Chamber of Mirrors rises from a long, acerbically crescendoing chromatic violin solo from Roberto Riggio over a droning backdrop. Then the rhythm kicks in and the sax comes dancing in, and the band pounce up to a simmering roadhouse oud solo. If psychedelic Middle Eastern sounds are your thing, this is your jam.

Oryx, a suspenseful bluel-flame sax-and-buzuq intro, segues into Trata, a briskly pulsing, wickedly catchy Turkish-inspired number. If surf rock had existed on Cyprus in the 1920s, it might sound like Idda!!, the sax sailing over tight, catchy, minor-key buzuq/bass riffage.

Huzzam Hive, a diptych, begins with a tricky, dancing theme, some neat echo effects between sax and oud, and a tantalizing, careeningly haphazard Aegean solo from Lockwood. The second half is more distinctly Greek-sounding, carefree and hypnotic all at once.

The band give the album an epic coda, Osman Pehlivan, opening with an edgy Turkish hook and eventually take it breathlessly doublespeed,, a deliciously rapidfire oud solo bookending somewhat less ferocious chromatics from the sax. Speaking of which, sometimes that instrument seems superfluous:. Admittedly, it takes daunting technique to ride off the rails into microtonal territory, but if Thomson would go there, that would put some otherworldly (and regionally appropriate0 icing on this sonic confection.

A Wild Dance Party to Kick Off Golden Fest 2019

“What else are you doing tonight?” the bartender at Barbes asked his friend early yesterday evening.

Golden Fest. I’m going both nights.”

“Tonight’s quiet night,” the bartender mused.

When there’s so much natural reverb in the room that Dimitrios Stefanides’ raw, leaping pontic lyra sounds like an entire Greek gangster orchestra from the 1930s, quiet is a relative concept. Quiet, maybe, by comparison to the rat-a-tat bursts from the trumpets and trubas and the rest of the brass in the mighty Zlatne Uste, New York’s original Balkan brass band, who created Golden Fest more than three decades ago and have kept it growing stronger throughout an era where the arts and live music scenes are contracting and vanishing at a record pace.

In fact, last night seemed to have a greater percentage of dancers on the floor, in proportion to viewers on the sideline, than at any time in the past ten years. While tonight’s big blowout has about seventy bands playing music from the Mediterranean to the Middle East and pretty much all points in between, spread throughout several rooms at Grand Prospect Hall, the south Park Slope mansion, last night was confined to the ballroom, the balcony and the kitchen.

Again, small by comparison. The night began with about an hour and a half worth of short sets of whirling, constantly shifting, upbeat material, the majority of it from Greece, while a couple of dance instructors led a concentric series of circles around the dancefloor. And these people were good! For most of them, it looked more like a refresher course or a warmup – although by the time the night really got cooking, there were plenty of newbies out there too.

Last year, the bands came out swinging right from the opening bell. This time, it felt more like past years when the dance lessons were just as much of a warmup for the musicians. But when Zlatne Uste hit, they came to slay. They may be American, but their original tunes could just as well be Serbian. Sharp staccato bursts from the horns matched the meticulous rattle and thwack of the tupan barrel drums, the seventeen-piece band situated smack in the middle of the floor as the dancers slowly undulated their way around. Minor keys subtly shifted to major, and back and forth; long, sinewy trumpet solos contrasted with momentary dips to just the volleys of beats. Zlatne Uste’s lineup may have shifted a bit over the course of three decades, but it’s hard to think of another band who can conjure up this much passion more than a quarter century after they started.

Drummer Jerry Kisslinger must own some sort of ironman record for number of sets played at Golden Fest: last night, he was in six all of them. How does this guy keep his chops sharp? He never stops playing! After a turn with Zlatne Uste, he joined Stefanides up on the big stage for the night’s longest set. Not only is Stefanides an incisive and often breathtaking string player; he’s also a powerful baritone crooner. In between long, sometimes achingly intense solos, his vocals would add an extra level of low lushness. In moments like that, it feels vicarious to the extreme to be drawn in by the music despite having absolutely no idea of what the lyrics are about. Then again, most of the audience probably weren’t Greek or Macedonian speakers either.

The shortest set of the night was by the trio Zurli Drustvo, who played bracingly trance-inducing Macedonian dances with zurla oboes and drum. In this case, the two zurla players alternated between playing unearthly drones and hauntingly keening melodies overhead, via visibly strenuous circular breathing, akin to a giant human bagpipe. The zurla is one of the most distinctively eerie – and loudest – reed instruments in the world, and these guys, holding fort in the middle of the floor, were as loud as the rest of the bands despite the lack of amplification.

Kavala – a slightly smaller spinoff of Zlatne Uste – ended the night at around half past midnight with a set loaded with greatest hits from the Aegean. A lot of people sang along. It was amazing to watch Catherine Foster switch effortlessly from trumpet, to clarinet, to flugelhorn and back, adding microtonal shiver over the fleet rivulets of Morgan Clark’s accordion as the songs bounced along. Amid the rhythmic complexity, hits by both the Skatalites and 80s new wavers the Boomtown Rats came to mind. Were Tommy McCook or Bob Geldof influenced by Balkan music? Borders may have been a lot more porous back then than conventional wisdom says they were.

See you tonight in the big ballroom at 6 for rising star brass band Cocek Nation!

The Best Concert of 2019 Is Just a Week Away

You don’t have to stay at Golden Fest until two in the morning. But pretty much everybody does. And an awful lot of those people are still dancing, eight hours after the festivities started. In terms of raw thrills, year after year, there is no other New York concert that can match this blissfully entertaining annual weekend festival of Balkan, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Slavic music and food. Golden Fest 2019 is this January 18 and 19 at the magnificent, old world Grand Prospect Hall on the south side of Park Slope, Brooklyn, just up the hill from the Prospect Ave. R station.

If doesn’t take much effort to discover a dozen or more acts you’ve never heard before, especially if you spend time in the smaller upstairs rooms rather than the big ballroom where most of the big brass bands play. You can also catch just as many of the best New York Balkan bands, or mix it up. At any moment, there’s always something worth seeing on at least four or five different stages spaced throughout all four floors of the mansion.

If the festival has one defining qualtiy, it’s that the earliest acts on the bill are just as good as the headliners, even if they tend to be little quieter. For this blog, the game plan for last year’s big Saturday night Golden Fest blowout as well as the year before was to see as many new acts as possible. Both times, the lure of some of this city’s most explosive bands proved too much to resist.

In their own quiet way, the Slaveya Women’s Choir – whose muted, otherworldly close harmonies spanned from Bulgaria to the Caucasus – were every bit as captivating as New York’s own Romashka. It was frontwoman Inna Barmash’s birthday, and she put on a party for the ages, with strings and guitar and tuba blasting behind her blissfully edgy wail, through one minor-key romp after another. That group had a great run back in the zeros; fifteen years or so later, they sill kick out the jams. Happily, their set was recorded; you can download it for free, and read a more detailed review here.

Where the Slaveya Women’s Choir had migrated so enigmatically between notes, the Istanbul Trio – fretless guitarist Ertugrul Erkisi, singer/percussionist Aslihan Erkisi and oudist Fatih Bayram – did the same, with even more edgy intensity and a classical Turkish focus. They would play an even more haunting show a couple of days later at Barbes under a different name.

The rest of the night was a crisscross between intended destinations and diversions. So many good bands, so little time. Here was where the hardcore triage set in. Kavala – a livewire Macedonian/Greek spinoff of Zlatne Uste, the festival’s founding icons – or Loza, a relatively rare meeting between the haunting oud of Adam Good and the similarly poignant vocals of Corinna Snyder? In this case, Loza won out.

How do you choose between the slinky, epic Dolunay and a rare New York appearance by the more cinematic Wind of Anatolia? In this case, the latter, a no less intense Turkish band won out. As the night went on, Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat wove plaintively undulating, trickily syncopated melodies, oudist Scott Wilson and Efendi put a twisted psychedelic rock spin on many of those same sounds and the nine-piece Novi Hitovi Brass Band made crazed jams out of searing minor-key Serbian riffs for the better part of an hour.

The loudest band to arguably ever play the festival was psychedelic rembetiko band Greek Judas, who reinvent the Middle Eastern-flavored sounds of the Greek gangster underworld and antifascist resistance movements in the 20s and 30s. The twin guitars of Adam Good and Wade Ripka (who doubled searingly on lapsteel) pummeled the crowd in one of the smaller side rooms, frontman Quince Marcum channeling a mad Dionysis in front of the band.

After midnight, the option to simmer down just a little with the elegant jazz of Tavcha Gravche – guitarist Dan Nadel, clarinetist Vasko Dukovski and bassist Daniel Ori – was a welcome chance to sit down and get lost in their improvisations, the night’s closest approximation of an American idiom. Zurli Drustvo -Tamberlaine and Drew Harris with percussionist Jerry Kisslinger – and Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions provided a surreal blast of fresh air with their microtonal zurla oboes

By the way, this is not how most people do Golden Fest. The big crowd hangs out by the big stage and gets down with a ferocious brass band lineup (clarinet wizard Michael Winograd’s titanic klezmer orchestra seemed to be the biggest hit – and largest ensemble – at this past year’s festival). And here’s a secret about the food: wait til midnight, you’ll be shocked by the quality and the quantity of what’s left over after the lines and lines of hungry dancers have finally satiated themselves. Although there are a lot of talented people circling the room and cutting a rug, there are no judgments if you’re a first-timer. Golden Fest 2019, here we come!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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