New York Music Daily

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Category: noir music

80s Psychedelic Rock Cult Hero Russ Tolman at the Top of His Uneasy Game at Pete’s Last Week

It feels so good to be alive.

That’s the punchline of a song called Shot You Down. In context, it’s one of the most vengefully delicious lyrics ever written. It’s arguably the best track on True West’s 1982 cult classic Drifters album. In his Pete’s Candy Store debut Thursday night, such that it was, True West bandleader Russ Tolman didn’t play that one. But he did play Hollywood Holiday. That’s the title track of the group’s first ep, a snarling mashup of post-Velvets rock, Americana and psychedelia.

The music media at the time called that stuff “paisley underground.” It’s a horribly inaccurate term. True West and their contemporaries the Dream Syndicate, Long Ryders, Green on Red and a whole bunch of other great bands weren’t exactly underground. As the mergers and acquisitions of the deregulated Reagan 80s devastated the radio waves, college radio suddenly was the closest thing to Spotify available at the time. All those bands ruled the college charts. 

And fashion had nothing to do with it. While most kids of the era were bopping to the cheesy sounds of DX7 synthesizers, these groups clanged out a gritty, sometimes trippy sound with the volume and fearlessness of punk but also a country twang and a willingness to go beyond punk’s three-minute marker.

The original incarnation of True West didn’t last long – they broke up in 1985. Tolman reunited the band for a memorable couple of  tours in the late zeros, and most auspiciously, joined forced with his old guitar sparring partner Richard McGrath and a series of collaborators for a well-received west coast tour last year.

Tolman’s a band guy – solo acoustic isn’t his default setting. But with one anthem after another, he reaffirmed that if anything, he’s an even better songwriter than he was thirty-plus years ago. On the surface, Hollywood Holiday is about a sleazy hookup. But it also might be about a murder. In very few words, Tolman built a series of scenarios which could have gone any number of ways: it’s up to the listener to figure out how they resolve, if at all.

And the tunesmithing was sublime. As with his lyrics, an unease and a frequent gallows humor pervade his music. The breakup tune Marla Jane and the wryly boisterous Something About a Rowboat – which as it turns out recounts a thwarted booze-fueled pickup scenario – were among the catchiest. Several others, notably the surrealistically apt Two Drinks From Genius brought to mind Tolman’s old college bandmate Steve Wynn, who was in the house. Was Tolman going to go up the fretboard for those two evil little chordlets as the chorus of Hollywood Holiday turned around? Yesssssss! He closed with a vicious, 60-style garage-psych number: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking To It: “You can sign my name to the story, because I won’t,” he intoned over its minor-key changes.

Shows like this you walk away from thinking to yourself, damn, after all these years, it still feels so good to be alive. Not to give anything away, but we may be seeing a lot more of Tolman in New York in the coming months: watch this space!

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A Barbes Residency This Month by Intense Jazz Passengers Leader Roy Nathanson

When you think of solo saxophone, do you get shadowy visions of some guy leaning against a brick wall, playing desolate, mournful phrases that linger in the mist somewhere on upper Broadway in the wee hours? Or is that just a personal observation?

Roy Nathanson played something like that late in a very rare solo show at NYU this past spring, but he also played a lot of much more kinetic material, in a spellbinding display of extended technique. It’s not likely that the Jazz Passengers bandleader and onetime Lounge Lizard will be playing much if any solo material during his ongoing Sunday evening 5 PM Barbes residency this month, but it’s possible. That’s what famous touring artists like Nathanson do here: work up new material and push the envelope outside of what pricy jazz clubs around the world expect from them.

For example, in the summer of 2016 Nathanson played a one-off Barbes duo show with pianist Arturo O’Farrill that was a feral blast of fun, a mix of Carla Bley-esque wildness and some of the (increasingly brooding) jazz poetry that’s helped raise Nathanson’s standing as a connoisseur of New York noir. The NYU show was a showcase for what a ferociously interesting and dauntingly virtuosic player he is. The Jazz Passengers are a song band with the kind of interplay that comes from three decades worth of gigs, but Nathanson doesn’t get enough props for his technique.

Alternating between alto, soprano and baritone sax, he switched reeds in and out of his various axes, explaining his fascination with getting just the right amount of smoke or nebulosity or brightness depending on what the song calls for. The evening’s most spectacular moment was when he played alto and soprano at the same time – with equal parts squall and melody. It was also very cool to hear him play baritone: a lot of alto players double on baritone to get more gigs, but Nathanson made it clear that he was just as much at home in the growly lows as the upper midrange where he’s usually found.

The material was mostly new and unrecorded, along with the first number Nathanson ever wrote – or was at least comfortable enough with to bring to the stage. There was anger, and rigor and intensity in that one – if memory serves right, he wrote it in the wake of his brother’s death. Many of the new compositions explored Jewish themes, although the echoes of both Eastern European Jewish folk music and liturgical melodies were distant and allusive. Nathanson also treated the gathering to some poetry: the most memorable piece pondered what the hell we’re going to do and where everybody’s going to go until the real estate bubble finally bursts and this endless blitzkrieg of gentrification collapses with it. Obviously, Nathanson said all that far more imagistically and succinctly. You might get some of that at Barbes this month.

Nicole Atkins Brings Her Noir Soul to an Intimate Mercury Lounge Gig This Saturday Night

Here’s how to survive at the top level of what’s left of the music business. You tour constantly – summer festivals, rock venues, jazz clubs, house concerts, whatever’s available for the cash. You crowdfund your album, then record it live to two-inch analog tape with people who get what you do and can wrap it up in less than a week. Meanwhile, you bombard your fan base with everything from Spotify playlists of your influences to limited-edition concert recordings.  And the social media treadmill – one goofy pic after another, oy. That’ll drive you to drinking.

So maybe you quit for a bit. Nicole Atklns did that since booze has been her muse long before she wrote The Worst Hangover in the World. But while her latest album Goodnight Rhonda Lee – streaming at Bandcamp – has a requisite boozy song, the central theme is musical rather than lyrical, a spectacularly successful attempt to bring Dusty Springfield-style late 60s Memphis soul into the here and now. Atkins is bringing that to the Mercury on Sept 9 at 8 PM. General admission is $15, and since it’s a small venue for her, it couldn’t hurt to get there early.

The album opens with A Little Crazy, a co-write with Chris Isaak, a female take on classic early 60s Orbison noir. That crowdfunding campaign must have brought in a ton of dough because the production is lush: pedal steel, piano, shivery strings and Chris Vivion’s snappy hollowbody bass behind Atkins’ impassioned, soaring vocals.

Drummer Josh Block’s whipcrack soul/funk drums push Atkins’ Springfield evocation in the Darkness Falls So Quiet – it’s almost cute that the string section is more country than symphonic, maybe because the album was recorded in Austin.

Listen Up, inspired by a near-disastrous fall into a sinkhole after a gig in Knoxville, has a similarly funky snap. The way the organ voices a popular soul-gospel riff is awfully cool, as is how guitarist Austin Jenkins plays the In the Midnight Hour hook on the chorus at halfspeed. Lots of old ideas here, but they’re twisted into all sorts of imaginative new shapes.

The album’s title track opens as a dead ringer for an early Laura Cantrell favorite and then turns into a mashup of Tex-Mex and Everlys, with some neat staccato surf guitar for extra carbonation. Masking a recycled Brill Building riff behind sheets of sustained reverb guitar doesn’t work so well in I Could, but Colors, with its wary, surreal lyric and rich, string-heavy parlor pop ambience, is Atkins at the top of her moody game.

Brokedown Luck slowly coalesces with trippy quasi-barrelhouse piano and then a stark funk groove, peppy horns spicing Atkins’ narrative of frustration in a dead-end scene. The album’s best song is the slow-simmering, crushingly sarcastic, angst-driven piano-and-horns anthem I Love Living Here: “Nobody knows the real you, just the character you play…burn it to the ground,” she intones

Sleepwalking nicks a famous Marvin Gaye vamp and a slightly less famous new wave hook, but this elegant period-perfect early 70s-style soul anthem is irresistible. With A Night of Serious Drinking, Atkins puts her angst-fueled noir spin on what the Three Degrees would have done as a charmingly twinkling nocturnal vamp, complete with low-key brass and steel guitar lingering in the distance: “You and I are not like that legendary  bird that rises from the ash/ We burn and crash.”

The album ends with a slightly more optimistic one of Atkins’ towering, doomed signature anthems, A Dream Without Pain. “May the path be lit up by the bridges that I’ve burned,” she wails: things may be good at the moment, but how long will they last? Good to see Atkins still battling demons and making expertly catchy, smart music out of them.

Greg Lewis Brings His Harrowing, Haunting, Elegaic New Protest Jazz Suite to Bed-Stuy

Greg Lewis is one of the world’s great jazz organists, best known as a radical reinterpreter of Thelonious Monk. But Lewis hardly limits himself to reinventing the classics. His latest album The Breathe Suite – streaming at Spotify – is just as radical, and arguably the most relevant jazz album released in the past several months. Lewis dedicates five of its six relentlessly dark, troubled movements to black Americans murdered by police. There’s never been an organ jazz album like this before: like Monk, Lewis focuses on purposeful, catchy melodies, heavy with irony and often unvarnished horror. If this isn’t the best album of 2017 – which it might well be – it’s by far the darkest. Lewis and his Organ Monk trio are making a rare, intimate Bed-Stuy appearance on August 26 at 8:30 PM at Bar Lunatico.

A long, astringently atmospheric intro with acidic, sustained Marc Ribot guitar gives way to a stark fanfare, much like something out of the recent Amir ElSaffar catalog, as the suite’s epic, nineteen-minute first movement, Chronicles of Michael Brown, gets underway. Lewis’ ominous, sustained chromatics introduce a slinky, moody nocturne with a cinematic sweep on par with Quincy Jones’ mid-60s film music, Reggie Woods’ bright tenor sax and Riley Mullins’ trumpet contrasting with a haunting undercurrent that drummer Nasheet Waits eventually swings briskly.  From there Lewis and Ribot edge it into  simmering soul, then Waits leads the drive upward to a harrowing machete crescendo. Lewis’ solo as the simmer returns is part blues, part carnivalesque menace. When the fanfare returns, jaggedly desperate guitar and drums circle around, Lewis diabolically channeling Louis Vierne far more than Monk.

The second, enigmatically shuffling second movement memorializes Trayvon Martin, Lewis alternating between Pictures At an Exhibition menace and a chugging drive as guitarist Ron Jackson’s flitting solo dances in the shadows. The third, Aiyana Jones’ Song eulogizes the seven-year-old Detroit girl gunned down in a 2010 police raid. It’s here that the Monk influence really comes through, in the tersely stepping central theme and Lewis’ creepy, carnivalesque chords as the piece sways along. The altered martial beats of drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons’ solo lead the band upward; it ends suddenly, unresolved, just like the murder – two attempts to bring killer Joseph Weekley to justice ended in mistrials.

The murder of Eric Garner- throttled to death by policeman Daniel Pantaleo in front of the Staten Island luxury condo building where he’d been stationed to drive away black people – is commemorated in the fourth movement. Awash in portentous atmospherics, this macabre tone poem veers in and out of focus, the horns reprising the suite’s somber fanfare, Jackson’s guitar circling like a vulture overhead, then struggling and shrieking as the organ and drums finally rise.

The fifth movement, Osiris Ausar and the Race Soldiers opens with a conversation between pensive organ and spiraling drums, then the band hits a brisk shuffle groove, horns and guitar taking turns building bubbling contrast to Lewis’ angst-fueled chordlets underneath. The final movement revisits the Ferguson murder of Michael Brown with an endless series of frantically stairstepping riffs, Lewis finally taking a grimly allusive solo, balmy soul displaced by fear. Fans of good-time toe-tapping organ jazz are in for a surprise and a shock here; this album will also resonate with fans of politically fearless composers and songwriters like Shostakovich and Nina Simone.

A Brooding New Album and a Brooklyn Show from Dark Country Band the Whiskey Charmers

Ann Arbor dark country band the Whiskey Charmers made a big splash with their 2015 debut album. Their new one, The Valley – streaming at Bandcamp – takes their Lynchian twang and shuffle and raises the energy: this is much more of a blue-flame electric rock record. They’re making a rare New York appearance tonight, August 18 at 8 PM at the Way Station, making the trek out to the fringes of Bed-Stuy worth your while.

Lawrence Daversa’s bone-bleached slide guitar builds lingering menace throughout the album’s opening track, Desert, frontwoman/guitarist Carrie Shepard voicing an understatedly lurid scenario that probably doesn’t end well: it’s up to the listener to solve this mystery.

Brian Ferriby’s boomy drumbeat and Daniel “Ozzie” Andrews’ tesely slinky bass propel the defiant, honkytonk-flavored title track, about banishing an evil spirit who could be either dead or very much alive. The simply titled Melody is a straight-up, morose oldschool C&W shuffle: Shepar turns the art of crafting a tune into a metaphor for a relationship that probably won’t go anywhere.

The band returns to loping desert rock in Meet Me There, Shepard’s understatedly simmering vocals channeling hurt and abandonment: “Don’t you care that I was falling down the stairs?” she wants to know. Then Daversa detours into snarling Nashville noir in Dirty Little Blues: that creepy little ch-cha of a bridge is killer.

The band slow things down with the low-key Americana rock burner Fireproof and then bring back the luridly longing ambience in Full Moon, lit up by Daversa’s slashing, vintage elecric Neil Young riffage. And his sinuous, resonant country lines in the bittersweet Songbird might be the the album’s most gorgeous moments, anchored by David Roof’s vividly murky organ.

“Been looking for you lately on my lawn…been looking for you in the back of my car,” Shepard muses in the swaying, melancholy Red Wine. The album’s most epic track is Coal, a majestically gloomy, metaphorically bristling anthem that could be the Dream Syndicate at their countriest, capped off by a searing, careening Daversa solo. The album winds up with Warnings, an Americana-pop song in Halloween disguise. You have been warned: this band is going places. Catch them now before it costs you big bucks at a venue like Bowery Ballroom.

Algiers’ Enigmatic New Album Looks at Current Day Perils Through a Glass, Darkly

Algiers are one of the world’s most individualistic, relevant bands. Their 2014 debut album was a grim, confrontational mashup of oldschool soul, new wave and postrock, with a fiery populist, anti-racist sensibility. Their latest release, The Underside of Power – streaming at Spotify – is more Sandinista than London Calling . It’s a jaggedly interconnected suits that owes as much to the 80s film scores of Brad Fiedel and RZA’s lavish 90s Wu-Tang Clan sample collages than it does to rock or soul music. Informed by the Black Lives Matter movement, hip-hop, oldschool gospel and Albert Camus, it demands repeated listenings. Like Joe Strummer, frontman Franklin James Fisher is a fiery vocalist but often obscured in the mix to the point where the repeat button is required. But it’s worth the effort. 

Fisher’s fervent gospel-influenced vocals rise over a trip-hop beat and Lee Tesche’s war videogame synth on the opaquely defiant opening track, Walk Like a Panther: Rev. Sekou meets Portishead. With its watery Siouxsie guitar, loopy backdrop and dark cinematic cloudbanks, Cry of the Martyrs gives Fisher a launching pad for fire-and-brimstone imagery with current-day resonance. The equally catchy title track, a hit in camo disguise, is dark Four Tops Motown through  prism of postrock: “t’s just a question of time before we fall fall down,” is the mantra.

Death Match blends Unknown Pleasures Joy Division with Depeche Mode darkwave, building an allusively apocalyptic scenario. With its toxic post-battle ambienceA Murmur a Sigh  echoes that gloom.

Ryan Mahan’s austerelly waltzing piano in Mme. Rieux – a reference to a minor character in Camus’ novel The Plague – adds Botanica plaintiveness to its towering Pink Floyd grandeur. A mashup of dark gospel and trip-hop, Cleveland is a fierce yet enigmatic anti-police violence anthem :

In Jackson Mississippi they don’t have to hide…
We’re coming back…
The hand that finds you behind and ties the the thirteen loops…

The question is who’s making the comeback here, the Klan, or the people? The answer is far from clear.

With its brisk motorik rhythm,  Animals is Wire crossed with the Bomb Squad  The band follows that with the slow, ominously atmospheric  instrumental Plague Years and then the broodingly crescendoing A Hymn For an Average Man, its horror movie piano loops setting the stage for mighty Floyd guitar crunch.

The echoey soundscape Bury Me Standing segues into the final cut, The Cycle the Spiral Time to Go Down Slowly, a pulsing noir soul song awash in sweeping war movie sonics. Spend some time with this album in the dark and then figure out where we’re going to go from here. 

Nina Diaz Brings Her Relentless Angst and Catchy 80s-Influenced Tunesmithing to Wlliamsburg

Nina Diaz is best known as the frontwoman and guitarist of Girl in a Coma. Without knowing her background, you might swear that many of the songs on  her debut solo album The Beat Is Dead – streaming at Spotify – were relics from the 80s. Synthesizers pulse and swirl; the guitars and basslines are as dry as they are precise and catchy. Otherwise, the record sounds like a sleeker take on her main band, a series of angry anthems that would make a great soundtrack for a sequel to or remake of Fatal Attraction. You know – rain-slick streets, Soho lofts that you take the freight elevator up to since the real estate bubble hasn’t started to blow yet, and everybody’s wearing black eyeliner. 

Some of the songs here also recall Nicole Atkins, right down to the the brooding minor keys, slightly throaty vocals and noir tinges. Diaz’s next New York gig is at Rough Trade on August 17 at 9 for ten bucks in advance.

The album opens with Trick Candle, propelled by a dancing octave bass riff and spiraling synth, like Missing Persons without the metal buffoonery. With its darkly irresistible chorus, the album’s title track, more or less, is Queen Beats King.”All he seems to care about is fame… in the silence you create your own violence to turn and kill,” Diaz accuses.

Rebirth begins as syncopated cabaret-punk and then follows a trip-hop slink that eventually straightens out: “I will not love you until you are my enemy,” Diaz says perversely. With its doomed, angst-fueled major/minor changes, January 9th is a dead ringer for Atkins: “I don’t wanna be the bad one, I don;t wanna be the sad one that you find,” Diaz insists, althogh her voice can’t disguise that she knows what’s coming.

Fall in Love keeps that same wounded atmosphere going, awash in starry omnichord synth over a trip-hop groove: “Sometimes I speak too quickly, end up inside another shell…how would you know yourself, if you were never to fall in love…”

With Young Man, Diaz goes back to icy, stainless-countertopped new wave that explodes into Billy Idol bombast. She opens It with a tricky intro that artfully morphs into strutting, defiant ba-BUMP new wave noir cabaret. Then she hits a vengeful, sequencer-fueled motorik punk drive with Screaming Without a Sound. 

Its wryly blippy synth contrasting with big stadium rock guitars, Down continues the 80s vibe, this time going up into the attic for a Siouxsie-esque menace:: “I know all your secrets, I will push you to the ground, and you say, oh, why’d you kick me while I’m down?”, Diaz recounts.

She hits a creepy peak with Dig, its guitar chromatics fueling a lurid tale of abandonment and lust, and follows that with Star, a titanic, blue-flame 6/8 anthem, a counterpart to Atkins’ signature song The Tower.

Stark, starlit guitar builds a moody noir ranchera backdrop behind Diaz’s melancholy vocals in For You, a sad waltz. The album winds up with Mortician Musician, a bitter soul anthem recast as Orbison noir: “I’m not a fool for writing melodies, I’m just a fool for trying to make you see what I see,, ask me what kind of coffin I’d like, it’s the one you picked out for me,” Diaz rails..Dudes, get your skinny tie on; girls, feather your hair and take the subway to Bedford Avenue on the 17th because there was no Uber back when it sounds like this unselfconsciously brilliant album was made.

Dalava Hauntingly Reinvent Grim, Timelessly Relevant Slovak and Czech Folk Songs

Dalava reinvent dark, often grim, centuries-old Slovak and Czech folk tunes as intense, dynamically shifting psychedelic rock. Guitarist Aram Bajakian is arguably the greatest lead player ever to pass through Lou Reed’s band: only the late Robert Quine and Mick Ronson compare. Bajakian also plays with numerous other outfits including lavish Hungarian folk/art-rock band the Glass House Ensemble.

His wife, singer Julia Ulehla, is the scion of an important Moravian musicological legacy. Her great-grandfather Vladimir, a colleague of Leos Janacek, was a major player in that discipline and as she tells it, a pretty amazing guy. His exhaustive fieldwork and research would make a good movie all by themselves. You can read a lot more about that in the extensive liner notes to the latest album The Book of Transfigurations, streaming at Bandcamp.

Bajakian isn’t coming through town this month to play this amazing, haunting music, but he will be at the Stone on both August 19 and 20 at 8:30 PM with John Zorn’s quasi-horror-surf band, Abraxas; cover is $20.

Like the duo’s 2015 debut album, this latest one radically reimagines a series of picturesque tunes from the family collection.Its central theme is change: as Ulehla puts it, “Girl into speckled bird, girl into married woman, boy into soldier, girl into mother, mother into widow, boy into ghost, vibrantly strong soldier into wounded corpse, and man into murderer.”

The album is bookended by mid-century field recordings of her grandfather Jiri singing with spare cimbalom accompaniment by Antoš Frolka. The senior Ulehla’s voice is raw, strong and impassioned as he sings of departure and no return: a soldier off to war, possibly. The band – Bajakian on guitar, Peggy Lee on cello, Tyson Naylor on multi-keys, Colin Cowan on bass and Dylan van der Schyff on drums – then make relentlessly prowling Velvets rock out of it.

The album’s second song, Grass, offers delicate, airy contrast, a vignette that captures the literally crushing poverty faced by peasants across Europe for thousands of years. Bajakian plays jagged minor-key slashes over a careening, bolero-ish beat behind Ulehla’s accusatory wail in The Rocks Began to Crumble, a soldier sent off to war bitterly telling his true love that she might as well marry somebody else.

Lee’s cello builds distantly claustrophobic ambience in Iron Bars, Iron Lock, illustrating an age-old mother-daughter conflict: mom wants to keep her kid away from the guys. The Bloody Wall allusively recounts a murder victim haunting the scene of the crime over lushly crescendoing, anthemic art-rock. It’s one of the album’s most gorgeous melodies, the strings matching the intricate Czech ornamentation of Ulehla’s voice.

That narrative is echoed with a more spare, atmospherically crescendoing approach in You Used to Look Like a Lion, a gruesome lament for a dying soldier. Then the band laps into Red Violet, a stormy, syncopated 1-chord jam in 7/8 time. Bajakian and Ulehla slip back into the shadows for Souling, a love song set to an uneasy fingerpicked acoustic backdrop.

The album’s starkest, most riveting song is War, Ulehla’s wounded melismas soaring over Bajakian’s sparse, lingering minor-key broken chords and Lee’s washes of cello: it’s another vivid soldier-going-off-to-war scenario. Then Lee and Ulehla flicker through the anguished medieval magic realism of Mother Gave Away Her Daughter,

He’s Bringing Something For Me, a veiled account of love and abandonment, has an even more sepulchral atmosphere that winds out with an ominous rumble. The terse murder ballad Carnival is awash in creepy wind-chime ripples and Ulehla’s phantasmic vocals. The album’s closing cut, Sell Us Your Shirt mashes up the vocals of grandfather and granddaughter Ulehla over the cimbalom, a cruel encounter with thieves who’ll literally steal the shirt off an unlucky peasant’s back. How little things have changed over the centuries: this magical, mysterious, imagistic album will entrance anybody who likes dark, brooding music: you don’t have to speak Czech to appreciate it, although that helps.

Big Lazy at the Peak of Their Darkly Cinematic Power in Brooklyn This Saturday Night

Friday night at Barbes the room was packed and the girls in the front row were dancing up a storm through two slinky sets by Big Lazy. Less than 24 hours later, seeing Los Straitjackets – a similarly twangy, virtuosic guitar instrumental band who go far deeper into the surf than Big Lazy but are nowhere near as picturesque – raised the question of how many other bands are actually better now than they were twenty years ago.

The New York Philharmonic, maybe?

Big Lazy had already earned iconic status in noir music circles before the end of the 90s, and continued that streak with a reverb-drenched series of albums that combined elements of crime jazz, macabre boleros, Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock themes, horror surf, ghoulabilly and bittersweet big-sky tableaux. But this current edition of the band is their classic lineup. If you were around when they were playing Friday nights at midnight at Tonic during the early to mid-zeros, and you haven’t seen the band since, you’re missing out  on the best part of their career.And you have a rare chance to see a very intimate show when they play this August 12 at 8:30 PM at Bar Lunatico in Bed-Stuy.

Drummer Yuval Lion can be combustible, but Friday night he was in misterioso mode. These guys haven’t had someone so colorful, who can build suspense with every part of the kit as subtly as this guy does, since Willie Martinez left the original lineup when his latin music career got in the way. Bassist Andrew Hall co-founded the Moonlighters and plays with western swing band Brain Cloud, so he swings, hard. And he’s also the funniest bass player this band’s had. He’ll sometimes fake a charge into the crowd, or do a wry faux-rockabilly slap thing, and he likes glissandos and swoops and dives. He always seems to be at the center of the eye-rolling “gotcha” moments.

Guitarist/bandleader Steve Ulrich can also be hilarious, notwithstanding how bleak most of the band’s music can be. But they never play the same thing remotely the same way twice. This time out the recurrent, unexpecr\ted quotes he’d randomly slip in were from My Funny Valentine and It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To. A couple of months before, it was Mission Impossible. And just when it seemed he’d go off on a couple of long, savage scenery-chewing chord-chopping interludes, he stopped both cold, in midstream: he spars with the crowd as much as he does with his bandmates.

This was one of the band’s best setlists ever: top ten, by this blog’s standards, and this blog and Big Lazy go back to the very beginning. The lingering chromatics and morose washes were balanced by a droll go-go strut, lickety-split artful-dodger escapades and matter-of-factly perambulating but increasingly grey western sky pastorales. As much jagged menace as they brought to Skinless Boneless, one of their signature songs, the two best songs in the evening’s two full sets were both brand new. The first was awash in distant longing and echoes of sad Orbison noir pop, the second a bloodstained bolero and a platform for both some nimbly creepy tumbles from Lion, and sniper-in-the-shadows fire from Ulrich. Because the Bar Lunatico gig is happening so fresh on the heels of this one, you’re likely to hear all this and more this Saturday night.

It’s a Great Summer for Middle Eastern Music in New York

While much of the New York City parks system is on the highway to privatized hell – both Central Park Summerstage and the Prospect Park Bandshell series are selling ticketed seats to free concerts now – we haven’t yet reached the point where free summer concerts here have been whitewashed and yuppified to the point of irrelevance. Meanwhile, serendipitously, there have been some new publicly accessible concert series popping up, keeping the hallowed tradition of free summer concerts here alive.

One public space that’s been flying more or less under the radar until recently is Bryant Park. It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the transcendent performance by slinky Middle Eastern ensemble the Bil Afrah Project, who opened the final night of this year’s Accordions Around the World festival there. Obviously, it would have been fun to stick around for the whole night, which ended with a wall-to-wall sea of revelers celebrating Colombian Independence Day.

The park’s overseers had the good sense to put the festival in the hands of tireless, intrepid impresario Ariana Hellerman (publisher of the irreplaceable Ariana’s List of free summer events). Over the course of the month, she drew from her roster of two hundred of New York’s finest accordionists (yes, there are that many) for a series of performances that reinforced the instrument’s portability across cultures, a powerful if compact vehicle for musical cross-pollination. 

In barely a half hour onstage, the Bil Afrah Project – who dedicate themselves to recreating Ziad Rahbani’s iconic 1975 Bil Afrah suite of reinvented Lebanese and Egyptian love and love-gone-wrong ballads- raised the bar for the rest of the evening dauntingly high. Rahbani has since gone on to be called the Lebanese Bob Dylan, although many others, none of whom sound anything like the American Nobel Laureate, have been given that label. Rahbani – son of famous chanteuse Fairouz and songwriter Assi Rahbani – was nineteen when he pulled a band together to record it. The suite doesn’t have much of the acerbically fearless political sensibility that characterizes his later work: its populist message is much subtler, grounded in its achingly wistful, sometimes melancholic, sometimes bucolic themes.

Group members, notably oudist Brian Prunka, accordionist Simon Moushabeck, ney flutist Bridget Robbins and violinist Sami Abu Shumays took turns playing plaintive taqsims as segues between songs. The most incisive, intense of these was from buzuq player Josh Farrar, who remained very prominent in the mix. John Murchison, a connoisseur of Middle Eastern bass, made his debut concert on kanun a memorable one as well. And riq tambourinist Michel Merhej Baklouk, who played on the original album, was present and added an almost defiantly crescendoing solo toward the end of the suite as the edgy chromatics, uneasy microtonal modes and graceful sweep of the music rose and fell over the pulse of Sprocket Royer’s bass and Jeremy Smith’s darbouka. Then emcee Rachelle Garniez took the stage and treated the crowd to some similarly incisive banter and her own noir-tinged material.

The performances on the festival’s next-to-last night fit in perfectly with its eclectic sensibility as well. Over the course of the early part of the evening, Erica Mancini played jaunty oldtimey swing, then made noir mambo out of the old standard St. Louis Blues. Shoko Nagai began with airy, austere Japanese folk themes and then went deep into the dark, kinetic chromatics of the klezmer music she loves so much.

Will Holshouser, best known for his exhilarating speed and high-voltage solos, flipped the script with his own thoughtful, methodically shifting originals, occasionally alluding to Indian modes: as a pioneer of the pastoral jazz revival, he deserves far more credit than he’s been given. And a beautiful blue-eyed blonde in the crowd called out Eduardo de Carvalho for the masculinity of his playing. That’s not to say that the other performances weren’t strong, but there was plenty of muscle in his confident, impassioned, unselfconsciously soulful, rustic runs through a mini-set of forro and tango.

Circling back to the Middle Eastern theme, there are a couple of upcoming shows that shouldn’t be missed. On July 29 at 8 at the Lynch Theatre at 524 W 59th St., haunting Lebanese oud-playing brothers the Trio Joubran  perform a homage to their late collaborator, the incendiary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish as part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival; $30 tix are still available. And on August 10 at 10 PM, legendary, ageless Armenian-American jazz reedman Souren Baronian leads his amazing band at Barbes.