New York Music Daily

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Category: gypsy music

Epic, Spine-Tingling Spanish Dances and a Queens Show by Fiery Violinist Maureen Choi

Violinst Maureen Choi found her muse when she immersed herself in Spanish music. She likes epics and big, explosive crescendos: her music is not for the timid or people with ADD. Her new kick-ass album Theia is streaming at her music page – and it’s one of the most unselfconsciously adrenalizing records of the year. Her slashing, often Romany and Arabic-tinged compositions rise and fall and leap all over the place, and the fun her band has with them is contagious. She’s playing Terraza 7 on June 29 at 9 PM; cover is $15.

Choi flurries and flares over drummer Michael Olivera’s suspenseful flickers throughout the dramatic intro to the album’s first cut, Dear Paco (Cepa Andaluza); then bassist Mario Carrillo joins the party, pianist Daniel Garcia Diego firing off fiery, Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics.

Phoenix Borealis is a diptych of sorts, hushed luminosity bookending a ferocious flamenco dance with a big explosion of drums and some of the most savagely bowed bass in recent memory. Choi follows the same trajectory in Dance of the Fallen, painting plaintively resonatn lines over Garcia Diego’s elegant chromatic ripples and graceful chordal work.

Canto Salamanchino is a cheery number that shifts in and out of waltz time, between major and minor, with a deliciously pointillistic, chromatic piano solo midway through and an unexpected detour into Chinese pastoralia afterward. Silverio O. Garcia has a hushed, elegaic quality, violin and piano echoing each other’s plaintive riffs. Steady pitchblende menace gives way to acerbic Andalucian flair and a series of crashing crescendos in Sinner’s Prayer

Love Is the Answer is a somewhat muted, almost wrenchingly bittersweet ballad: imagine Chano Dominguez taking a crack at Schubert. Choi kicks off Bok Choi Pajarillo with a big solo that shifts cleverly between Romany intensity and the baroque; from there, it’s a flamenco rollercoaster.

The album closes with its two most towering epics. Septenber the First, the album’s most haunting number, has a persistently uneasy late-summer haziness, part Palestinian-flavored dirge and anguished string-jazz lament. Choi closes the record with Danza Ritual Del Fuego: from an allusive intro that could be Dave Brubeck, through a long Afro-Cuban-inflected interlude, it’s more simmer than fullscale inferno, with a coy false ending. Count this as one of the best albums of 2019 in any style of music.

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.

Sizzling Klezmer Jamband Yale Strom’s Broken Consort Get a Head Start on This Year’s Festivities

Violinist Yale Strom is the frontman of a sizzling klezmer group called Hot Pstromi. His new album Shimmering Lights, with his Broken Consort – streaming at Rockpaperscissors – is even hotter, a spine-tingling, dynamic, chromatically delicious mix of new arrangements of classic, un-cheesy Hanukah themes from across the diaspora. The Middle East and Andalucia are well represented throughout an album of what could be called first-class acoustic Levantine jamband epics.

Amos Hoffman’s oud taqsim, beginning with a distinctly funky Moroccan flair and spiraling upward, introduces the album’s bracing, opening epic, O Mighty Stronghold. When the sttrings come sweeping in after the first verse, the effect is visceral. Likewise, Alexander Greenbaum’s stark, stygian cello solo midway through, and the big, exhililating violin/cello duel between the bandleader and Greenbaum afterward. It’s yet another reminder of how rich the mutual source of classic Arabic and Jewish music is.

The Hanukah party anthem Khanike, Oh Khanike has a rustic, shapeshifting acoustic arrangement, frontwoman Elizabeth Schwartz’s assertive delivery over a spiky backdrop, mandolin contrasting with the rhythmic washes of the bass. Who except maybe Andy Statman would have expected the wry bluegrass breakdown midway through?

The ladino theme Bring Out the Tray is a stately processional: after seven more or less hypnotic minutes, the solos kick in, first the violin, then the oud, for a mighty payoff that winds up with another, slightly less ferocious duel for strings.

There’s a little guitar jazz from Hoffman to kick off Latkes, possibly the most exalted celebration of potato pancakes ever recorded: among the highlights are a doublespeed jam, biting cello giving way to bubbly electric guitar, a big violin crescendo, and some Eastern European flatpicking.

Azeremos la Merenda has a pouncing flamenco groove, wary echoes of Turkish music, and an adrenalizing cello solo. Beshir Mizmor gives Strom a stately backdrop for some stratospheric sizzle. Schwartz indulges in some scatting in Eight Little Brothers, a Djangoesque Romany jazz remake, while La Fiesta de la Hanukia has echoes of flamenco.

With a punchy bass solo, more searing violin and crackling oud, L’chod Chanukah mashes up a scampering shtetl party theme with Django Reinhardt and some newgrass. The final cut is The Fool Over Yonder, an antifascist anthem from a few hundred years ago reinvented as low-key guitar swing that’s just as relevant today as it was back when it was probably played on oud, and a lot more slowly. Look for this on the best albums of 2019 page at the end of the year. By the way – if you’ve read this far, would you still be here if the first sentence was something like “Here’s an album of old Hanukah songs that’s fun all year long?”

 

Bittersweetly Soulful, Eclectic Portuguese Ballads at This Year’s Fado Festival

Saturday night just north of Battery Park City, the Manhattan portion of this year’s annual fado festival closed with a performance by two very different singers, who in many ways represent both the music’s romantic past and newly reinvigorated future. For those who haven’t been drawn into it yet, fado is to Portugal what tango is to Argentina, or what reggae is to Jamaica. Like swing jazz in this country in recent decades, new generations have reclaimed fado’s emotionally fraught balladry for their own, partly as a source of Portuguese national pride, partly in response to English-language corporate musical imperialism.

The Spanish have duende; the Portuguese have suadade. They’re essentially the same thing: the soulful maturity that comes with having your heart ripped out at the roots. Although as singer Maria Emilia took care to explain, even though heartbreak is still the most common thene in fado, it’s hardly all sad songs. She and her fantastic all-acoustic band put that issue to rest with a lilting, bouncy singalong that energized the Portuguese speakers in the house.

Which relates to experiencing this music on only a surface level. The Portuguese take their lyrics very seriously, and fado often utilizes texts by famous poets. Throughout the show, the band were fantastic and the vocals were individualistic and often transcended linguistic limitatations.

André Dias played sharp cadenzas, triumphantly spiky flourishes and elegant broken chords on a small, ringing Portuguese guitar, which looks like a small mandola but sounds like an American Rickenbacker twelve-string acoustic model. Classical guitarist André Ramos showed off chops that drew equally on Romany swing, flamenco and straight-up four-on-the-floor rock: being a coastal nation, Portugal has always had sounds from all over the world coming in from across the waves. And Rodrigo Serrão, on acoustic bass guitar, was subtle but brilliant. Somehow he found space in between his steady, rhythmic accents to spice the music with all sorts of glissandos, some slow and dramatic, others coy and puckish, indulging in as many deft downward spirals as climbs to the far reaches of his axe’s G string.

Now in her mid-twenties, the Brazilian-born Maria Emília represents the new generation of fadistas, with a nuanced, subtly emotive delivery that looks back to iconic mid-20th century singer Amalia Rodrigues without being derivative. Sticking mostly in the lower midrange of her clear, expressive mezzo-soprano, she channeled lovestruck awe, righteous anger and wounded vulnerability along with a sense of humor that had the guys in the band cracking up from time to time.

While fado is traditionally sung by women, guys sing it too. Hélder Moutinho, the younger brother of famous fado crooner Camané, represented for the men. His vocals were more heavily ornamented, to the point where his melismas and throaty blue notes took on an Andalucian tinge, almost like a muezzin. He also took care to explain several of the numbers. Fado can be very self-referential, and several of his songs followed those themes: what makes a person sing fado, what the fado makes you do, even famous places where fado is or was made – even Lisbon has been infested with gentrifcation – figured in the narrative.

Impresario Isabel Soffer of Live Sounds gets credit for staging the festival, and has also done an impressively eclectic job booking CUNY’s Elebash Hall at 365 Fifth Ave. just north of 34th St., where the transcendent Kurdish kamancheh fiddle virtuoso and composer Kayhan Kalhor is playing a sold-out show tomorrow night.

Barbes: Home Base For NYC’s Best Bands

The problem with Barbes – and if you run a music blog, this can be a problem – is that the hang is as good as the bands. If you’re trying to make your way into the music room and run into friends, always a hazard here, you might not make it past the bar. Which speaks to a couple of reasons why this well-loved Park Slope boite has won this blog’s Best Brooklyn Venue award three times in the past ten years or so.

A Monday night before Thanksgiving week last year was classic. The scheduled act had cancelled, but there was still a good crowd in the house. What to do? Somebody called somebody, and by eleven there was a pickup band – guitar, keys, bass and drums – onstage, playing better-than-serviceable covers of Peruvian psychedelic cumbia hits form the 60s and 70s. The best was a slinky, offhandedly sinister take of Sonido Amazonico, the chromatic classic which has become the national anthem of chicha, as psychedelic cumbia is called in Peru. Where else in New York could you possibly hear something like this…on a Monday night?

On Thanksgiving night, the two Guinean expat guitarists who lead the Mandingo Ambassadors played a rapturously intertwining set that drew a more-or-less straight line back to the spiky acoustic kora music that preceded the state-sponsored negritude movement of the 1960s. Without the horns that sometimes play with the band, the delicious starriness of the music resonated more than ever.

The night after that, there was a solid klezmer pickup band in the house. The night after that – yeah, it was a Barbes weekend – started with pianist Anthony Coleman going as far out into free jazz as he ever does, followed by a psychedelic take on nostalgic 60s and 70s Soviet pop by the Eastern Blokhedz and then an even more psychedelic set by Bombay Rickey, who switched from spaghetti western to sick jamband versions of Yma Symac cumbias to surf rock, Bollywood and finally an ominous shout-out to a prehistoric leviathan that’s been dead for twenty thousand years.

Sets in late November and January left no doubt that Slavic Soul Party are still this city’s #1 Balkan brass party band, whether they’re playing twisted Ellington covers, percolating Serbian Romany hits or their own hip-hop influenced tunes. A pit stop here early before opening night of Golden Fest to catch the Crooked Trio playing postbop jazz standards was a potent reminder that bandleader Oscar Noriega is just as brilliant a drummer as he is playing his many reed instruments.

Who knew that trumpeter Ben Holmes’ plaintive, bittersweet, sometimes klezmer, sometimes Balkan tinged themes would blend so well with Kyle Sanna’s lingering guitar jangle, as they did in their debut duo performance in December? Who expected this era’s darkest jamband, Big Lazy, to take their sultry noir cinematic themes and crime jazz tableaux further into the dub they were exploring twenty years ago, like they did right before the new year? Who would have guessed that the best song of the show by trombonist Bryan Drye’s Love Call Trio would be exactly that, a mutedly lurid come-on?

Where else can you hear a western swing band, with an allstar lineup to match Brain Cloud’s personnel, swaying their way through a knowingly ominous take of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Look Down that Lonesome Road? Notwithstanding this embarrassment of riches, the best show of all here over the past few months might have been by Turkish ensemble Alhambra, featuring most of haunting singer Jenny Luna’s band Dolunay. Back in mid-December, they spun moody, serpentine themes of lost love, abandonment and desolation over Adam Good’s incisive, brooding oud and Ramy El Asser’s hynoptic, pointillistic percussion. Whether singing ancient Andalucian laments in Ladino, or similar fare in Turkish, Luna’s wounded nuance transcended any linguistic limitations.

There’s good music just about every night at Barbes, something no other venue in New York, or maybe the world, can boast.  Tomorrrow’s show, Feb 18 at Barbes is Brain Cloud at 7 followed at 9:30ish by ex-Chicha Libre keyboard sorcerer Josh Camp’s wryly psychedelic cumbia/tropicalia/dub band Locobeach. Slavic Soul Party are here the day after, Feb 19 at 9; Noriega and the Crooked Trio play most Fridays starting at 5:30. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Three Generations of a Russian Film Music Dynasty at Joe’s Pub

Sunday evening at Joe’s Pub, was pianist Alexander Zhurbin’s overture from the Russian musical Lips a pavane of lost souls, or a parody of a love song?

Both, actually. There are more optimal ways of recording a concert’s most memorable moments than scribbling in a darkened theatre and then trying to decipher those notes. And there was so much more, in almost two nonstop hours of music, than any hasty note-taking could cover. Shifting effortlessly through lush neoromantic themes, darkly gleaming art-song, bulgar punk and a few detours toward Brighton Beach piano-bar singalongs, Zhurbin and his singer wife Irena Ginzburg underscored their status as icons of Russian music over the past forty-plus years.

At this show, three generations of Zhurbins celebrated that legacy. Their son Ljova, the great violist, joined in on several numbers and contributed a couple of his own works. There was Garmoshka, a poignant, bittersweet theme whose title refers to a small Russian accordion. “Or anything you can squeeze – this song is almost about that,” he explained. The other was a stern, stripped-down take of By the Campfire, sung with bristling intensity by his wife, the riveting vocalist Inna Barmash. “The wisdom of our days teaches lies, deceit and hate,” she sang, in Russian, a perennially apt commentary from the 12th century Goliards which Ljova’s grandfather had translated.

The elder Zhubin has a vast body of work, both scoring and playing film and theatre music. Maybe because he’s been called on to write for so many different idioms, the songs and instrumentals on the bill evoked just about every emotion possible: depth and suspense and longing, but also sly wit and outright boisterous fun. Being set pieces, many of those numbers were tantalizingly brief. He built a swaying intensity using bell tones in a song from his 1975 rock opera Orpheus and Eurydice, the very first of its kind to somehow make it past the Soviet censors. Another theme, from the 1980 film Flying Hussars Squadron, had an even more ominously epic sweep. Often he’d begin a tune on a more lighthearted note before bringing in the clouds, as with many of the World War II-themed material from the popular Russian tv drama Moscow Saga.

Decked out as a punk cabaret star in a classy black top and leather pants, rocking a sharp blonde hairdo, Ginzburg channeled as just as broad a spectrum of feeling, unleashing her powerful yet often understated mezzo-soprano. The material ranged from the tender ballad Isn’t It Beautiful – a co-write with their husband – to more bittersweet, as in the Moscow Tram Song, dedicated to the popular Russian-Georgian poet and songwriter Bulat Okudzhava. After romping through a bouncy, theatrical medley of his songs, and then a similarly animated trio of tunes from Zhurbin’s 1987 musical Sunset, they closed with a reprise of their hit Life Is Like a Horse. At that point, everybody was onstage, the couple’s grandsons raising the vaudevillian factor a few notches at the end as the crowd clapped along.

Zhurbin and Ginzburg don’t have anything upcoming scheduled at the moment, although lately Joe’s Pub has been their home base. Ljova’s next New York appearance is with Barmash in their wild Romany/klezmer/rock string band Romashka at Flushing Town Hall on March 23 at 8 PM on a twinbill with similarly energetic western swing band Brain Cloud; tix are $16.

Golden Fest 2019: Still New York’s Wildest Concert Weekend After More Than 30 Years

The chandeliers at the gilded age wedding mansion were shaking. People were bodysurfing. As usual, the lines to all-you-can-eat buffet were insane. A lot of famliies brought their kids. How lucky those gradeschoolers were to be able to indulge their wildest inner animals at an evening of sounds that were “Alternately lyrical, mournful, ecstatic and spooky, that used to be the soundtrack of everyday life back in the day,” as one band playing Golden Fest last night put it.

Macedonian quartet Niva (reviewed here at the 2017 edition of the annual weekend festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music) get credit for that description, which pretty much speaks for the other seventy or so bands on the bill. Every January, many of the best groups from across the US and around the world bring everything from Serbian brass music to Ukrainian choral repertoire, Romany dances and Black Sea songs to Grand Prospect Hall in south Park Slope.

How does last night’s show compare with previous festivals? Same old. The big ballroom was a human kaleidoscope of linedancers, but people were cutting a rug in the somewhat smaller rooms too. The buffet was delicious (that garlicky skordalia – yum) and there were plenty of opportunities to grab a plate after the big lines had finally subsided. And the music was sublime.

That there would still be an audience in New York in 2019 large enough to fill a space the size of the Mercury Lounge to see multi-instrumentalist Amir Vahab play his haunting Iranian sufi songs goes against conventional thinking. But it’s further proof that if you give people good music, they’ll come out.

Likewise, watching the crowd converge on the stage and then the center of the ballroom like a giant accordion during whirlwind clarinetist Michael Winograd’s dynamically sizzling romp through a series of klezmer dances was viscerally breathtaking.

The other bands’ tightness and intensity were pretty much unrelenting, on the kind of daunting level that any musician would want to reach when playing to an audience full of icons from the worlds of microtones, minor keys and weird time signatures. Multi-reedman Greg Squared and trumpeter Ben Syversen matched meticulous articulation to raw redline power throughout Raya Brass Band’s torrentially bouncy attack – that’s where the bodysurfing started. Three flights up, a little earlier in the evening, the larger, more undulating Veveritse Brass Band played what also could have been the tightest set of their career – and they’ve been doing this for the better part of ten years as well.

The accordionist in the night’s first band, Cocek Nation – a motley assemblage of up-and-coming student musicians – took a solo that could have been Ray Manzarek. That’s cool in itself – what’s even cooler is that there are  kids in the group who haven’t yet made it to middle school who are expected to improvise, schooled by some of the best in the business.

Upstairs in the Mercury-sized room, singer Eva Salina parsed the most poignant corners of a tantalizingly brief set of reinvented Romany ballads and dance tunes, her longtime accordionist Peter Stan exchanging cascades and flitting riffs with her. It could well have been the night’s most conversational performance. No matter how many times you see so many of these bands, they never play anything exactly the same way.

Armenian jazz sage Souren Baronian may be best known for deep soul and long, mesmerizing solos, but this time out he was hilarious. After a characteristically serpentine, poignant soprano sax number, he picked up his duduk, then bubbled and burbled through a wry series of variations that just would not stop. These days more than ever, everybody wants to play with him: oudist Adam Good eventually relinquished his seat to another first-rate Middle Eastern lutenist. 

Slavic Soul Party’s weekly Tuesday residency at Barbes is a Brooklyn institution, and it gets loud there. As much as fun as those shows have been over the years, they don’t compare with last night’s constantly morphing, deviously funk-tinged, explosive performance in the big ballroom where they could really play to the rafters. A floor below, Szikra channeled otherworldly, rather stately centuries-old Hungarian themes, maxing out the moody lows with both cello and gardon (a percussion instrument that looks like a cello but functions more like a muted bass drum).

Back in the ballroom, Eva Salina took a rockstar turn on the mic front of Balkan organ band Choban Elektrik, a sleekly swaying presence: they were in more trad mode than usual, compared to their usual epically psychedelic sound. Saxophonist Ariane Morin of Amerike Klezmer Brass stunned the crowd with her poignant microtones, especially in the quartet’s opening number, over the pulse of accordionist  Ilya Shneyveys. And the bodysurfing reached critical mass with the night’s gargantuan headliners, What Cheer? Brigade. That the Providence street band were able to be so searingly tight as balloons bounced off their trumpets and tubas and the crowd around them squeezed closer and closer speaks to their fearlessness as much as their chops.

Watching from a comfortable balcony seat, nibbling on a choice morsel of salty kashkaval cheese, having switched by now from whiskey to coffee, it was impossible to think of a better way to end the best concert of 2019.

Except maybe by being down on the floor with the band. See you at Golden Fest 2020.

For those who want to brave tonight’s sinking temperatures, there’s a post Golden Fest Balkan blowout at the Jalopy starting at 6:30 with Cocek Nation followed at 7 by dynamic, subtle all-female klezmer band Tsibele, at 8 by the Romany-flavoed Sarma Brass Band and at 8 by the ferocious Novi Hitovi Brass Band, Cover is $10, there’ll be “nobody turned away,”and all  proceeds will benefit the Cocek Nation’s trip to the Balkans later this year. 

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!

The 25 Best New York Concerts of 2018

2018’s best concert was Golden Fest. For the second year in a row, the annual two-night Brooklyn festival of Balkan, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean music tops the list here. This year’s edition in mid-January began with the original gangsters of New York Balkan brass music, Zlatne Uste – who run the festival – and ended around two in the morning, 36 hours later, with Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions playing otherworldly, microtonal Turkish zurna oboe music. In between, there were equally haunting womens’ choirs, more brass than you could count, rustic string bands playing ancient dance tunes, the most lavish klezmer big band imaginable, and a searing Greek heavy metal group, among more than seventy acts from all over the globe.

And there was tons of Eastern European and Turkish food – every kind of pickle ever invented, it seemed, plus stews and sausages and dips and desserts and drinks too. Golden Fest 2019 takes place January 18 and 19: it’s a New York rite of passage. Pretty much everybody does this at least once. The festival is going strong right now, but perish the thought that Grand Prospect Hall, the gilded-age wedding palace on the south side of Park Slope, might someday be bulldozed to make room for yet another empty “luxury” condo. If that happens, it’s all over. Catch it while you can.

The rest of the year was just as epic, if you add it all up. That live music continues to flourish in this city, despite the blitzkrieg of gentrification and the devastation of entire neighborhoods to make room for speculator property, is reason for optimism. That’s a rare thing these days, but the immigrants moving into the most remote fringes of Queens and Brooklyn, along with many millions born and raised here, still make up a formidable artistic base.

On the other hand, scroll down this list. Beyond Golden Fest, every single one of the year’s best shows happened either at a small club, or at a venue subsidized by nonprofit foundation money.

OK, small clubs have always been where the real action is. And historically speaking, larger venues in this city have always been reticent to book innovative, individualistic talent. But there’s never been less upward mobility available to artists than there is now. Which mirrors the city’s changing demographics.

Recent immigrants face the same situation as the majority of New Yorkers; if you’re working sixty hours a week just to pay your share of the rent, where do you find the time, let alone the money, to go out? And the ones who have money, the privileged children moving in and displacing working class people from their homes in places like Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, don’t support the arts.

So here’s to small clubs, nonprofit money, hardworking immigrants and the superhuman tenacity and resilience of New York’s greatest musicians. The rest of this list is in chronological order since trying to rank these shows wouldn’t make much sense. If you or your band didn’t make the list, sorry, that doesn’t mean you don’t rate. There were so many good concerts this year that it feels criminal to whittle it down to a reasonably digestible number.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at the Miller Theatre, 2/3/18
High-octane suspense, spy themes, blustery illustrations of doom in outer space and an Ellington-inspired epic by this era’s most politically relevant large jazz ensemble

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble at NYU, 2/10/18
Just back from a deep-freeze midwestern tour, the trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s epic Middle Eastern big band jazz suite Not Two – which the group played in its entirety – was especially dynamic and torrential

Greg Squared’s Great Circles at Barbes, 3/1/18
Two long sets of eerie microtones, edgy melismas and sharp-fanged chromatics from these ferocious Balkan jammers

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz in the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession, 3/15/18
The pyrotechnic violinist and her pianist collaborator turned a mysterious, intimate underground Harlem space into a fiery klezmer and Balkan dance joint

Tarek Yamani at Lincoln Center, 3/23/18
The Lebanese-American pianist and his trio evoked peak-era 70s McCoy Tyner with more Middle Eastern influences, a confluence of Arabian Gulf khaliji music and American jazz with a healthy dose of Afro-Cuban groove

Dark Beasts at the Gatehouse, 3/27/18
The three young women in the band – Lillian Schrag, Trixie Madell and Violet Paris-Hillmer – painted their faces and then switched off instruments throughout a tantalizingly brief set of menacing, haunting, often environmentally-themed, often glamrock-inspired originals. What was most impressive is that nobody in the band is more than eleven years old.

The Rhythm Method Quartet at Roulette, 3/29/18
Magical, otherworldly wails, wisps and dazzling displays of extended technique in the all-female string quartet’s program of 21st century works by Lewis Neilson, Kristin Bolstad and the quartet’s Marina Kifferstein and Meaghan Burke. It ended with a swordfight between the violinists.

Hannah vs. the Many at LIC Bar, 4/4/18
Frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s banshee voice channeled white-knuckle angst, wounded wrath and savage insight as she delivered her torrents of puns and double entendres over a tight, pummeling punk rock backdrop. There is no lyrical rock band in the world better than this trio.

Klazz-Ma-Tazz at City Winery, 4/8/18
Violinist Ben Sutin’s pyrotechnic band transcended their klezmer origins and the early hour of eleven in the morning at this ferociously eclectic brunch show, reinventing classic themes and jamming out with equal parts jazz virtuosity and feral attack.

Shattered Glass at Our Savior’s Atonement, 4/13/18
The string orchestra stood in a circle, facing each other and then whirled and slashed through Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite for Strings, plus harrowing works by Shostakovich and hypnotic pieces by Caroline Shaw and Philip Glass. 

Yacine Boulares, Vincent Segal and Nasheet Waits at Lincoln Center, 4/19/18
The multi-reedman, cellist and drummer hit breathtaking peaks and made their way through haunted valleys throughout Boulares’ new Abu Sadiya Suite of Tunisian jazz nocturnes

The Chelsea Symphony at the American Museum of Natural History, 4/22/18
Other than a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, maybe, it’s impossible to imagine a more lavish, titanic concert anywhere in New York this year. The intrepid west side orchestra enveloped the audience in an environmentally-themed program: the world premiere of an ominous Michael Boyman eco-disaster narrative, a shout-out to whales by Hovhaness, and John Luther Adams’ vast Become Ocean, played by three separate groups in the cathedral-like confines of the museum’s ocean life section.

The Dream Syndicate at the Hoboken Arts & Music Festival, 5/6/18
That the best New York rock show of the year happened in New Jersey speaks for itself. Steve Wynn’s legendary, revitalized, careeningly psychedelic band schooled every other loud, noisy act out there with their feral guitar duels and smoldering intensity.

Rose Thomas Bannister at the Gowanus Dredgers Society Boathouse, 6/16/18
A low-key neighborhood gig by the ferociously lyrical, broodingly psychedelic, protean Shakespearean-inspired songstress, playing what she called her “bluegrass set” since drummer Ben Engel switched to mandolin for this one.

The Sadies at Union Pool, 6/30/18
A ringing, reverb-iced feast of jangle and clang and twang, plus a couple of trips out into the surf and some sizzling bluegrass at one of this year’s free outdoor shows

Charming Disaster at Pete’s Candy Store, 7/3/18
What’s most impressive about New York’s creepiest parlor pop duo is how much new material Jeff Morris and Ellia Bisker have – and how eclectic it is. Hints of metal, psychedelia and the group’s signature folk noir and latin-tinged sounds, with some of the most memorably macabre stories in all of rock.

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Big Lazy at Barbes, 8/24/18
The perennially tuneful, cinematic trumpeter/composer’s edgy Middle Eastern-tinged trio, followed by this city’s ultimate cinematic noir instrumentalists, who took a dive down to dub as deep as their early zeroes adventures in immersively menacing reverb guitar sonics.

Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes, 9/7/18
The ageless octogenarian multi-reedman and king of Middle Eastern jazz channeled deep soul, and Parker and Coltrane, and seemed to be having the time of his life throwing elbows at the music, and his bandmates. The older he gets, the more energetic he sounds. His gig a month later in midtown – which was videotaped in its entirety – was awfully good too.

Mohamed Abozekry & Karkade at Roulette, 9/21/18
The Egyptian oudist and his sizzling, eclectic band paid their respects to a thousand years of otherworldly, kinetic sounds while adding an individualistic edge equally informed by American jazz, psychedelic rock and even funk.

International Contemporary Ensemble playing Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up at the Miller Theatre, 9/26/18
An endlessly suspenseful, bloodcurdling, macabre New York debut for Mazzoli’s latest avant garde opera, a grim parable concerning the American Dream and how few actually attain it – and what happens when they don’t.

Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Ogresse at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 9/28/18
Everybody’s pick for this era’s best and most versatile jazz singer turns out to be as diverse and haunting a songwriter. Darcy James Argue conducted a mighty alllstar ensemble shifting between torch song, noir Americana and lavish, Gil Evans-like sweep throughout this withering suite, a parable of racial and gender relations in the age of Metoo.

Youssra El Hawary at Lincoln Center, 10/4/18
The Egyptian accordionist/singer and her fantastic band mashed up classic levantine sounds with retro French chanson and an omnipresent, politically fearless edge, no less defiant when she was singing about pissing on walls in the early, optimistic days of the Arab Spring.

The Ahmet Erdogdular Ensemble at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia, 11/13/18
The brooding, charismatic Turkish crooner and his brilliant band – featuring Ara Dinkjian on oud, Dolunay violinist Eylem Basaldi and kanun player Didem Basar – played rapt, haunting anthems, ballads and improvisations spanning three hundred years’ worth of composers and influences.

Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and many others at Symphony Space, 11/17/18
Giddens’ soaring wail, multi-instrumental chops and searingly relevant political focus was matched by powerful contralto singer, guitarist/banjoist and songwriter Kiah, who brought a similar, historically deep edge to a night of protest songs from across the ages.