Violinist Sarah Alden and Her Band Play One of the Year’s Funnest, Most Counterintuitive Shows at Barbes
Violinist Sarah Alden is a founding member of the late, great Luminescent Orchestrii, who were as definitive, and multistylistically amazing, as any New York circus rock band ever was. After that boisterous unit was pretty much finished, she put out a similarly brilliant 2013 album, Fists of Violets, her first as a fulltime frontwoman. Since then she’s been in demand in both bluegrass and Eastern European folk circles. She’s also got a long-awaited new album, Up to the Sky, due out momentarily. A copule of weeks ago at Barbes, she and the band treated the crowd to a sneak peek that was as eclectic and adrenalizing as any other project she’s been involved with up to this point, which says a lot.
With Rima Fand on violin and piano, Kyle Sanna on guitar, Matthias Kunzli on drums and Ben Gallina on bass, Alden opened with a reggae tune. Uh oh, was this going to be just a pale approximation, like the Zach Brown Band? Nopr. The rhythm section had a great time with it; it was like watching Bob Marley’s drum-and-bass team backing a spiky, kinetic chamber pop band. Sanna jangled enigmatically as the album’s swaying title track got underway, Alden leading the group up to a catchy, Talking Heads-like peak on the chorus, both the strings and vocal harmonies swirling with acidic, Bartok-like close harmonies that quickly turned out to be one of this group’s most distinctive traits. “Strangers are we,” Alden and Fand harmonized with a similar edge to kick off the number after that, a mashup of 70s folk-rock and indie classical.
Next was a funky, quirky song with Sanna playing a simple, catchy, circling guitar riff over a trip-hop beat, the violins stabbing at the melody with their pizzicato accents. Alden’s pensive rainy-day vocal intro after that hinted that the song would stay in pastoral territory; instead, the band took it up with a guitar-fueled art-rock gravitas; then the band gave it a doublespeed Keystone Kops scamper. Some of the material reminded of cellist Jody Redhage’s pastoral chamber-pop quartet Rose & the Nightingale; others, like the heartbroken, elegantly crescendoing number that came next, reminded of Tin Hat, when that group has vocals out front.
Fand’s wide-angle, Asian-tinged piano mingled with Sanna’s steadily austere strums under Alden’s airy vocals and violin on the night’s most anthemic tune. After a turn back in a catchy, cyclically bucolic direction, the band picked up the pace with biting, insistent, minor-key guitar funk, like ELO’s Evil Woman but with a better singer out front. Alden credited her childood trips with her grandmother, searching for the grave of a long lost relative in Sugar Grove Cemetery in Wilmington, Ohio, as inspiration for the plaintive, Appalachian-tinged Aunt Viola’s Waltz. From there the band blazed through a careening take of the noir guitar-driven title track from Alden’s previous album, ablaze with sizzling tremolo-picking and cascades from Sanna. Persuaded to play an encore, they did the reggae tune again. Watch this space for updates on the album and future gigs.