New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: psychedelic rock

Another Brilliantly Allusive, Eclectic Album From Haunting Singer/Multi-Instrumentalist Elisa Flynn

For over ten years, Elisa Flynn has been one of the most spellbinding and distinctive voices in New York music. Her songs are rich with history. They sparkle with images and tackle some heavy questions. Her melodies range from moody Radiohead complexity, to scruffy indie vignettes, to stark detours toward noir cabaret and 19th century art-song. Flybn’s vocals – full, meticulously modulated, often soaring, sometimes wrenchingly plaintive – are the shiraz that fuels the narratives on her latest album The World Has Ever Been on Fire, streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing Picasso Machinery, 43 Broadway at Wythe in South Williamsburg on April 27, time TBA. 

On the new record, Flynn is a one-woman orchestra, playing all the: guitars, banjo and drums. The Ballad of Richie and Margot rocks pretty hard, with a dreampop edge: spare, emphatic verse, big enveloping vintage Sonic Youth chorus, bitingly crescendoing stadium-rock guitar solo in the middle. She builds hypnotically ringing, pulsing grey-sky ambience with variations on a catchy, simple guitar hook in Before He Went Down – its doomed storyline ends suddenly, yet in the exact place where it makes sense.

Flynn picks out a spiky, distantly Middle Eastern-tinged vamp as Lost in the Woods shuffles along. “Maybe I’ll be addicted to those sleeping pills as well,”she muses in Syd, a catchy, darkly watery anthem. Paula Carino comes to mind: “I can only write these words in a kind of a trance…I can only feel like a girl when my lips are far too red.”

With its iush bed of multitracked, clanging guitars, the distantly tango-inflected escape anthem Wolves echoes the gloomy, anthemic intensity of Timber, the standout track on Flynn’s 2008 album Songs About Birds and Ghosts. The slowly swaying 6/8 ballad Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument – inspired by the Fort Greene memorial to the legions of US Revolutionary War soldiers who died in British captivity – is the album’s majestic centerpiece, a grim conflagration scenario. “Would you lend e your hand to climb out of the hold?” Flynn asks: the answer is all the more shattering for being left unsaid. It might be the single best song of 2018.

Veronica rises from a spare, rustic, allusively blue-infused one-chord banjo tune to a big, echoey, crashing full-band crescendo. The chiming, echoing No Diamond is even more hypnotic, an allusively wintry tableau capped off by an unexpectedly roaring guitar outro.

Sugar has a stomping, vamping mid-80s Throwing Muses vibe. The album winds up with Caution, a guarded love song that begins as a solo banjo number and then morphs into swirling, pouncing trip-hop. The contrast between sharp, translucent tunesmithing, Flynn’s enigmatic images and her strong, forceful vocals make this one of the best rock albums of 2018.

Fun fact: Flynn was a founding member of cult favorite kitchen-sink noiserockers Bunny Brains!

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An Early Morning Blaze From the Uncategorizably Brilliant Klazz-Ma-Tazz

Pianist Ben Rosenblum hit a sharks-teeth minor-key spiral, echoed with slithery precision by bandleader and violinist Ben Sutin. Meanwhile, bassist Mat Muntz dipped and swayed, a monster truck spring at peak tension crossing a ravine in some remote Chernobyl forest. Behind them, drummer Tim Rachbach worked tense variations on a clave groove as guitarist Rafael Rosa held back, deep in the shadows, saxophonist Elijah Shiffer waiting for his moment. That would come about fifteen minutes later. At this point, it was about quarter to noon on Sunday morning.

The album release show by Sutin’s phenomenal band Klazz-Ma-Tazz transcended a lot of things, including but not limited to genre specificity and time of day. While Sutin’s compositions and arrangements draw deeply from the vast well of classic Jewish folk music from east of the Danube, they’re hardly limited to that. What they play is jazz, but it’s also dance music. You could also call it film music, considering how deeply they can plunge into noir. But they didn’t stay there, or anywhere, for long.

Musicians tend not to be morning people. But watching this band blaze through two ferocious, sets made it more than worthwhile to sit there glassy-eyed after spending most of the previous evening at the Brooklyn Folk Festival. Interestingly, Sutin launched his epic Letting Go suite, from the band’s new album Meshugenah, just two songs in. Its allusive, chromatically electriified rises and falls foreshadowed the feral but expertly orchestrated intensity they’d save for the second set, veering from panoramic desertscapes to hints of samba and some Cuban flair.

Shiffer’s moment was a coda. Before then, he and Sutin had built a briefly heated conversation, but even that didn’t hint at what the saxophonist had up his sleeve. Working his baritione to what seemed the top of his register, he dropped it and reached for his alto. The choreography wasn’t perfect, but the effect was irresistibly fun as he went for the jugular…then put it down, picked up the bari again and took that big horn to heights nobody expected, or probably imagined were possible. Sure, it was a show-off move: to see somebody actually pull it off at such an early hour was really something else.

Sutin told the crowd that Sunrise, Sunset was one of his alltime favorite songs, then reinvented it as lush, plaintive, latin-tinged syncopated swing, a Lynch film set somewhere in the Negev. His version of In Odessa pounced and charged, possibly mirroring Putin-era terrorism there, Rosenblum’s bittersweet accordion holding its own against the stampede.

The second set showcased the band’s sense of humor as well as how feral they can get. Muntz’s quasi-Balkan dance Cyberbalkanization had a relentless, tongue-in-cheek faux EDM whoomp-whoomp beat, Sutin and Shiffer trading terse, acidic phrases overhead. From there they ranged from brooding and mournful to cumulo-nimbus ominousness in their version of Tumbalalaika, segueing into a majestically careening, turbocharged take of the classic Misirlou – but without much in the way of surf.

They saved the guest rapper and singers for the end. Sheyn Vi Di Levone is best known as a schmaltzy ballad, but singer Astrid Kuljanic worked its coy internal rhymes for all it was worth, the band making perfectly decent, uneasy midtempo swing out of it. Then guest Zhenya Lopatnik opened their version of Bei Mir Bist Du Schön with a suspenseful, moody rubato vocal solo before the band swung it, hard. Thank You, from the band’s sizzlingly good debut album, was one of the closing numbers, awash in slashing modal riffs and shifting meters. That the band managed to play one of the best shows of 2018 so far, so early in the day, speaks for itself. Sutin’s next gig is a low-key trio show tomorrow, April 11 at 7 PM at Sidewalk. 

The Irrepressibly Fun Klazz-Ma-Tazz Radically Reinvent Classic Yiddish Vaudeville Themes

Klazz-Ma-Tazz’s lusciously Lynchian 2016 album Tangibility was one of the half-dozen best releases of the year. Violinist Ben Sutin’s group bring fearless jazz adventurousness to an individualistic, darkly electric sound that draws equally on classic klezmer, Balkan and Middle Eastern sounds. Interestingly, their forthcoming album Meshugenah – streaming at Bandcamp  – is mostly reinventions of iconic Yiddish vaudeville tunes. Sutin’s objective here is to do with that repertoire what Charlie Parker and John Coltrane did with Broadway songs, in other words, establish a new Great American Songbook for future generations of jazz players. To say that the new record is as astonishingly original and irresistibly fun as the last one isn’t an overstatement. They’re playing the klezmer brunch at around 11 AM this Sunday, April 8 at City Winery; cover is $10, kids under 12 get in free and there’s no minimum. You better believe that this blog will be in the house.

Ben Rosenblum’s dark washes of accordion underscore Alec Goldfarb’s flickering guitar as the enigmatically tropical take of Alexander Olshantesky’s Mein Shtetele Belz gets underway; violin and guitar solos keeps the edgy bounce going, the latter edging toward Django Reinhardt territory. Elijah Shiffer’s clarinet veers from a party in the Pale to dixieland and then back. A Hawk and a Hacksaw and 3 Leg Torso come to mind.

Sutin’s arrangement of Svalava Kozatshok has a suspenseful trip-hop pulse anchored by Shifffer’s baritone sax, up to a shreddy fireball solo from Goldfarb; Sutin adds devious hints of bluegrass, then the band make Hava Nagila metal out of it. Are we having fun yet?

Drummer Tim Rachbach kicks into thumping techno mode in Cyberbalkanization, a suspensefully pulsing Turkish-flavored metal tune by bassist Mat Muntz, bristling with high-voltage tradeoffs and intertwining solos. They take it out with Beninghove’s Hangmen-style metal and then a psychedelic accordion outro

Sutin’s remake of the traditional tune Tumbalalaika has a desolate, glimmering poignancy, Rosenblum’s starry piano against Goldfarb’s languid Romany-tinged phrases, Sutin takes the energy up between a forlornly dancing Muntz solo and Rosenblum’s graceful, elegaic conclusion.

Astrid Kuljanic sings the first of two Joseph Rumshinsky numbers, Sheyn Vi Di Levone, a sardonic noir Vegas tango of sorts: her jazz kazoo solo has to be heard to be believed. Then they make Balkan metal out of Im Odessa – but with Rosenblum’s accordion, Shiffer’s airy alto sax and Sutin’s wild spirals interspersed up to a punchline that’s too good to spoil.

Sunrise, Sunset gets reinvented as a slinky, distantly lurid Twin Peaks Red Room theme, lit up with Rosenblum’s cascades, Shiffer’s summery alto trading off with Sutin’s knifes-edge violin before things get really crazy,

Pretty much every klezmer band does Rumshinsky’s Builgar; Klazz-Ma-Tazz’s epic version blends Hendrix, hints of an Appalachian dance and Balkan metal into a colorful salute to the song’s theatrical origins. And the take of Bei Mir Bist Du Schon is surreal to the extreme, balmy Rachelle Garniez-esque balladry bookending hard swing with Sutin at the center; Zhenya Lopatnik sings

Sutin’s only original here, the diptych Letting Go, is the album’s most cinematic track. A lushly vamping, edgy Middle Eastern groove gives way to a rippling Rosenblum piano solo, then Sutin gives the music in a brighter, more latin pulse, Golfarb’s icepicking signaling a return to an insistent attack. This band has a huge ceiling: fans of jazz, metal, Jewish folk, David Lynch soundtracks and all other things noir will not be disappointed. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2018 page if we make it that far.

Jazz Guitar Mastermind Mary Halvorson Embraces Lush, Uneasily Rapturous Improvisational Art-Rock

Mary Halvorson may be known as one of the world’s most brilliantly individualistic jazz guitarists, but some of her work skirts the edges where experimental rock and postrock spill over into jazz. She’s also a rare example of a world-class fret-burner who’s also an excellent singer. And she’s also an intriguing lyricist. For whatever reason, the words to the genre-defying songs on her new album Code Girl – streaming at Bandcamp – aren’t imbued with as much of the sardonic humor and stiletto wit that runs through her instrumental work. Amirtha Kidambi sings them with dynamics, drama and passion. The album title is ironic in the genuine sense of the word: it has absolutely nothing to do with tech worship. March tempos are everywhere here: a political reference, maybe? Halvorson and her quartet are playing the album release show tomorrow night, April 3 with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM at the Jazz Standard; cover is $25.

As usual, Halvorson’s compositions here go far beyond stereotypical verse/chorus/bridge architecture. The intro to the opening track, My Mind I Find in Time sounds like Bill Frisell playing calypso; then Halvorson shifts to a steady, pulsing drive with hints of Vegas noir. Drummer Tomas Fujiwara’s cymbals ice the backdrop, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire contributes wary resonance and then grit. Kidambi’s soul-infused mantra, “Reconstruction is required in time” has unexpected drama. Bassist Michael Formanek’s final flourishes close it deviously.

Fluttery arioso vocals contrast with the dark lyrical undercurrent of Possibility of Lightning, which morphs into a growling march capped off by some mean tremolo-picking, spins through a vortex of improvisation with Akinmusire anchoring the bandleader’s savagery, then the two themes merge.

The epic Storm Cloud begins as a spare, ominously tremoloing Lynchian set piece, then the whole band march it into moody pastoral terrain. Halvorson hits her pedal for Dave Fiuczynski microtonal warp and Akinmusire wafts as Fujiwara pushes the anthem’s methodical metric shifts:

The clearing of the storm
Finds extra ordinary lives
Pulsing behind the blood

Halvorson and Akinmusire work coy counterpoint over a steady backbeat in Pretty Mountain. The bandleader’s steady, twisted folk arpeggios hold the center; scatting vocals signal an implosion before this wistful travel reminiscence’s punchline kicks in.

Moving between staggered jangle and another march groove, Off the Record has unexpectedly tropical flavor.Formanek artfully hands off the broodingly terse melody to Halvorson as In the Second Before gets underway,Akinmusire and Fujiwara shifting gears from droll to stern. Halvorson builds a roaring crescendo from there, part doom metal, part frantic squall: it’s the album’s high point.

The bandleader has a lot of fun toying with the Orbison noir ballad melody of Accurate Hit, a twistedly spare nocturne for guitar and vocals. Her tantalizing latin noir allusions fuel The Beast, the album’s most picturesque song: is this a seduction or a murder in progress? That song foreshadows the album’s haunting centerpiece, The Unexpected Natural Phenomenon, shifting between atmospheric dark, bossa-tinged folk and a spare sway. Then the group give it a long, thorough, rather wry wringing-out:

Why
In the water
Does laughing make you sink

Rustling counterpoint over yet another march beat give way to a pensive Akinmusire solo and desolate, reverbtoned tremolo-picking from Halvorson in Thunderhead, the closest thing to Frisell she’s ever written.

Halvorson’s muted pulses and enigmatically lingering lines contrast with Kidambi’s majestic delivery and Akinmusire’s uneasy airiness in the simply titled And; the unexpected turn toward New Orleans and then Indian drollery is irresistibly fun. Unsettled yet steady, Deepest Similar is a bittersweet love song, guardedly weighing hope for the future while letting go of the past: perhaps instructively, Kidambi’s angst-fueled vocals rise to their most tortured point here.

The album winds up with an amusing miniature, Armory Beams and then Drop the Needle, where Halvorson manages to orchestrate a shift from tongue-in-cheek and techy to slowly shuffling, moody resonance punctuated by Akinmusire’s pensively sailing lines and Formanek’s steady, bluesy melismas. Much as Halvorson has always been on the cutting edge, this is her most ambitious album to date – and there’s irony in that, considering how catchy most of these tunes are.

Dark Beasts: Brooklyn’s Most Riveting, Relevant Young Band

The cold gaze of a black python greeted the crowd on their way up the stairs at the Gatehouse concert series in Fort Greene last night, where Dark Beasts played a tantalizingly short set of catchy, surreal, unflinchingly relevant songs that defy categorization. The band name suits the trio perfectly: their songs are dark, and they are definitely beasts.

Lead singer Lillian Schrag was responsible for that menacing creature and its removable green scales, in addition to the lowlit stage design and her band’s painted bestial faces. Their first song, The Python’s Lament, was more distantly sinister, Schrag’s torrents of lyrics over Trixie Madell’s enigmatically anthemic psych-folk guitar chords, violinist Violet Paris-Hillmer running an icy, creepy loop over and over.

Over the past couple of years, Dark Beasts have built a devoted following among their fellow musicians. Many of those fans are three or four times older than the group’s members. Each is a multi-instrumentalist. Schrag, the daughter of Rose Thomas Bannister – one of this era’s greatest songwriters – plays piano and bass, but in this group her main contribution is vocals. She’s also the primary lyricist. Whether on guitar or piano, Madell brings a deep David Bowie influence to the songs. Paris-Hillmer plays percussion in addition to violin, and has a background in classical music as well. Technique-wise, they’re a work in progress – although their proficiency continues to grow in all kinds of  unexpected ways. And their songwriting is astonishing. We give children too little credit for their depth and their insights. 

Madell switched to piano, balancing eerie highs against stygian lows throughout the second number, Soldier’s Song, a terse, brooding, mythologically-influenced antiwar anthem. Paris-Hillmer moved to frame drum for that one, where she’d remain for the rest of the set.

Standing tall – about four feet eight inches – in front of the band, Schrag was a somber, charismatic presence throughout the third song, Stop Polluting or the World’s Going to Die. Madell’s uneasy guitar vamps anchored Schrag’s clever wordplay in Night Animals, a Maurice Sendak-ish catalog of nocturnal wildlife. They closed with The Wolf, a brief, forlorn anthem

Schrag played the encore solo on bass, churning out a pitchblende drone beneath a lyric that seemed at least partly improvised. “If you’re smart enough to fire a gun, you should use your mind,” she cautioned. The crowd responded with a standing ovation. Afterward, the group signed balloons for the audience, then got into the ice cream.

Dark Beasts will probably be on hiatus until school vacation this June. In the meantime, at least one adult Brooklyn band has been playing Dark Beasts material. There are innumerable other children’s bands in Brooklyn, but most of them are cutesy, or at best they struggle to play cover songs. As Margaret Atwood once said – more or less  – compared to other little girls, Dark Beasts are lifesize. Watch this space for upcoming live appearances.

Populist Songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews Reinvents Classic Americana at the Mercury Tonight

Don’t let the hazy faux-70s Polaroid filter on the album cover of Courtney Marie Andrews’ latest album May Your Kindness Remain – streaming at Bandcamp – fool you. It isn’t dadrock. It’s a vivid, sobering collection of narratives set in a bleak, impoverished Trump-era milieu. The instrumentation behind the Americana songstress’ wounded wail is an unlikely blend of churchy organ and resonant, sometimes roaring washes of electric guitar. You might think that this mashup of oldschool soul, vintage C&W and psychedelia would be jarring to the extreme, but it works. Andrews is at the Mercury tonight, March 27 at 8 PM; cover is $12.

Andrews opens the record with the title track, a broodingly vivid 99-percenter ballad, hope against hope in a dingy blue-collar setting where kindness is “not something that can be bought or arranged.”

Lift the Lonely From My Heart is an oldschool country ballad reinvented as lingering psychedelic tone poem:  “Do you still see the good inside me or am I a shell of who I once was?” Andrews asks, dreading the obvious answer. The band – Dillon Warnek on lead guitar, Daniel Walker and Charles Wicklander on keys, Alex Sabel on bass and William Mapp on drums – pick up the pace with Two Cold Nights in Buffalo. “El Nino brought a blizzard…only the cheap motels were open, wrong side of the tracks,” Andrews recounts, ”That American dream dying, I hear the whispers of the ghosts.” As a paint-peeling indictment of real estate bubble era greed and despondency, it ranks with Jack Grace’s Get Out of Brooklyn for relevance and bite.

Andrews goes back to mashing up gospel and psychedelia in Rough Around the Edges: you could drown an entire congregation with the amount of reverb on that slightly out-of-tune piano. Fueled by echoey Fender Rhodes and sunbaked guitar, the southwestern gothic ballad Border salutes the resilience of Mexican immigrants: “You cannot measure a man until you’ve been down the devil’s road.:”

Andrews’ narrator manages to find solace amidst crushing poverty in Took You Up, another slow, enveloping psych-soul number. She keeps that ambience going with This House – hey, it’s a dump, but it’s home – and then lets the embers blaze through the wickedly catchy, embittered Kindness of Strangers. “How do you dive deeper in a shallow riverbed, when the current pulls your further?” Andrews wants to know.

The sarcasm in I’ve Hurt Worse is crushing: “Being with you is like being alone,” the woman in this relationship tells her abusive boyfriend. Andrews winds up the album with the swaying, summery, considerably more optimistic slide guitar ballad Long Road Back to You. Andrews’ previous album Honest Life was solid, but this is a quantum leap: fans of acts from Lucinda Williams, to Tift Merritt and Margo Price ought to check out Andrews.

Lyrical, Mesmerizing Psychedelia From Rose Thomas Bannister in Williamsburg Saturday Night

Psychedelic rock bands aren’t known for searing, literary lyrics. It’s even rarer to find a psychedelic group with a charismatic woman out in front. Likewise, it’s just as uncommon for a woman songwriter with an acoustic guitar to be leading a great psychedelic band. Saturday night at the brand-new Wonders of Nature in Williamsburg, the crowd got all that from Rose Thomas Bannister and her mesmerizing backing unit.

She and lead guitarist Bob Bannister are the closest thing we have to an American Richard & Linda Thompson – except that these two don’t hit each other over the head with things (or at least it doesn’t seem so). Her career dates back to the past decade in Nebraska, where she sharpened her hauntingly spare, broodingly allusive “great plains gothic” songcraft. His dates back a decade before to post-no wave bands like The Scene Is Now, who are still going strong.

With a wry grin, he bowed the strings of his Strat for “ambience,” as he put it, as the undulating, enigmatic opening number, Sandhll slowly coalesced, drummer Ben Engle’s subtle cymbals mingling with bassist Debby Schwartz’s nimbly melodic, trebly, punchy countermelodies and violinist Concetta Abbate’s ethereally tectonic washes. In this context, The Real Penelope and its achingly Homeric references were reinvented as a sort of mashup of the Grateful Dead’s China Cat Sunflower and Rubber Soul-era Beatles.

Appropriating religious imagery and turning it inside out is a device that goes back centuries – Rumi, for example – but Rose Thomas Bannister is unsurpassed at it. The best song of the night was a brand-new one, Heaven Is a Wall, a prime example. She opened it with a hypnotic, cirlcing fingerpicked riff, then it morphed into a sarcastic march as she let loose a litany of fire-and-brimstone imagery straight out of the Mike Pence speechbook. Likewise, the gritty, swinging In the Alley and its understatedly Tom Waits-like tableau.

The rest of the set rose and fell, from Sutherland, a misty, ominous murder ballad, to the jauntily sarcastic Like Birds Do (a subtle Macbeth reference); the grim, claustrophobic narrative Jephthah’s Daughter, and Houston, an escape anthem recast as late-60s blue-eyed soul. Terse, sinewy, slinky Strat lines blended with stately violin, leaping and swooping bass and Engle’s low-key propulsion. They closed with their one cover of the night, a pulsing, emphatic take of Ivor Cutler’s Women of the World: Bannister knows as well as anyone else that the future of this country is female.

Cellist Leah Coloff opened with an acerbic solo set of her own, a mix of stark blues phrasing, edgy Patti Smith-style anthems and bracing detours toward free jazz and the avant garde. Franklin Bruno and his power trio the Human Hands closed the night with a set of haphazardly punchy, catchy, sardonically lyrical tunes that brought to mind acts as diverse as Cheap Trick, Big Star and the Dream Syndicate. Afterward, Bob Bannister spun a mix of obscure 70s dancefloor tracks over the PA; everybody danced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magic Microtones and Modal Menace at Barbes

Was the Barbes show on the first of the month by Greg Squared’s Great Circles going to turn into a Balkan power play? That’s the Eastern European version of a jazz power play. The great saxophonist Bryan Beninghove came up with that one: it’s when there are more people in the band than in the audience.

By the time the quartet had wrapped up their set, there was a full house, who ended up being treated to one of the most exhilarating shows of 2018 so far. But things didn’t look promising at the start. Guitarist Adam Good sent a shout to his friend in the back, who was texting and looking pretty oblivious. Half of searing metal band Greek Judas – Good and drummer Chris Stromquist – were also onstage with bassist Reuben Radding and the bandleader. And that was pretty much it.

Great Circles is Greg Squared’s vehicle for his more expansive tunes that don’t fit with Raya Brass Band – the perennial star attraction at Golden Fest, New York’s legendary festival of Balkan and Middle Eastern music – or with the more vocally-oriented Sherita, who seem to be on hiatus at the moment. For most of the set, he ran through volley after volley of eerie microtones, edgy melismas and sharp-fanged chromatics. And he wasn’t even playing all that fast. Most of the tunes were slinky and upbeat – this is dance music after all – but for a guy who plays a ton of notes, this show was all about suspense and intensity stretched to breaking point.

Stromquist made all the tricky tempos look easy – a couple of numbers in 9/4 and one especially serpentine one with so much syncopation that it was impossible to count along. He does the same in Greek Judas,  but more subtly here, first with his rims and snare, then with a clave groove in a minor-key song that seemed like it was going to morph into a Russian tango but didn’t. He finally got to take a tumbling solo – something he doesn’t do in Greek Judas – trading eights with Good.

The guitarist also got to do the same with the sax for a bit, the two like a couple of wolves going at each other through a wire fence. Radding kept a fat, low-key end going for the first half of the set before cutting loose with a solo laced with horn voicings, then some booming chords and nifty slides to drive a chorus or a turnaround home. Most of the material was originals; at the end, the group did a couple of traditional Macedonian numbers, veering from tense and overcast to sunny and then back. A couple of the last tunes brought to mind the glory days of Ansambl Mastika, Greg Squared’s great Balkan guitar band from the late zeros, who put out two deliriously good albums. If you can, snag them.

You Can Lead a Bushwick Crowd to Water But…

The Man in the Long Black Coat turns through the entryway and enters the Bushwick bar. Other than a few gaggles of gentrifiers, it’s pretty empty. The walls are festooned with leftwing slogans, but the beer prices don’t match the decor. Nor should they, really. This is all for show, the man decides. It’s a Kafka short story, The Department of Protests. You see the bureaucrat, you sign up to rally about your favorite issue: the weather, catcalls, cruelty to pet marmosets. Anything you want, really, unless that might impede the steady flow of income upward from the working class to the gentrifiers’ parents.

This bar has a reputation for things starting late. Nublu late. Which explains why nothing’s happening yet. The man decides to take a walk around the neighborhood, a dubious choice considering that it’s nine in the evening. On his way out, he almost bumps head-on into a friend, who’s carrying her axe. They greet each other; he swings the door wide so that she can make her way in. “See ya in a bit,” he says brightly.

He’s lying. He has no intention of coming back til showtime. When he reaches the corner, he decides to take a left on Irving for once. Walking toward Myrtle, he stops in at a couple of delis to see if they have his favorite beer. But they don’t carry it.

The Man in the Long Black Coat doesn’t even like beer. But it’s cheaper than anything available at the yuppie wine stores – which at this hour are still open, even if nobody’s in there. Just as well, he thinks. The sidewalks may be deserted at this hour, but the cops always put undercovers out in front of the luxury condos.

Past the park, a guy with a backpack approaches from behind. Suddenly he’s a little too close for comfort. The man weighs the possibility of danger, pulls to the right, then with a quick backward glance takes his phone out of his pocket.  He puts it to his ear. “What?” he asks sharply.

There’s nobody at the other end. But that doesn’t matter. “I’m on Irving and, um, Hart Street,” the man says with a hint of aggravation. He prepares for plan B.

But there’s no need. The guy with the backpack – a blue-collar kid in cheap work boots, jeans and a vinyl winter coat – passes on the left. The man puts his phone back as the kid shuffles along.

As he gets closer to Myrtle, the man brightens as he passes a couple of lowlit Ecuadorian delis. Brightly colored bags of snacks, tropical fruit soda and dried chiles are visible from outside. The man considers going in – he’s running out of hot pepper at home – but decides it would look weird if he brought a bag of groceries into the bar. Out here the new arrivals don’t shop anywhere but Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, or from the expensive Korean delis.

He turns around when he hits Myrtle, retracing his steps, one eye over his shoulder. Luxury condos, undercover cops or not, this is still a dangerous neighborhood. But none of the delis have his first choice of beer – and by now he could use one.

Returning to the bar, his timing turns out to be perfect. The roughly eighteen members of Funkrust Brass Band file from the back room to the front: first the reeds, then brass, then the drummers. They all wear black costumes. The horn players’ valves are all lit up in white like little Christmas trees. Their frontwoman has a bullhorn and leads the band in a chant as the horns pump out a catchy march. They have a theme song! Slowly, one by one, they march back to the inner room.

Several of the customers from the front follow them in, mystified. If they’ve ever seen a street band before, they’ve never been this close. And this group is very theatrical. In formation like a phalanx of soldiers, they crouch, and leap, and strike poses. One of their trumpet players climbs way up by the PA system, balances precariously on something extruding and plays a mean solo. For a moment, the crowd is into it.

For a band who don’t tour much or even play out a lot, they’re very tight. Just as impressive, the man thinks, is that half of their members are women. Even by punk rock standards, that’s noteworthy.  Although they use a lot of minor keys, their songs are closer to punk than Balkan music – and they’re catchy.

The man finds himself nodding along as the trombones blaze and snort and the drums rumble. “Why are we alone?” the group sing in unison throughout one of the quieter vamps. Out of biological necessity, the man wants to tell them. If we were telepathic, it would kill us. If we could feel everyone’s pain, we’d be dead in a nanosecond. But he doesn’t say anything.

The novelty wears off, the crowd starts to filter out and two catchy, thumping numbers later, the band is done. Though what they play is obviously dance music – or at least you can march to it – nobody dances. Afterward, their singer mingles with what’s left of the crowd, handing out buttons and taking emails. The kids seems receptive – that’s a good sign, the man thinks.

Greek Judas play afterward and pretty much completely clear the room. The man finds this amusing, considering that they packed Hank’s the last time they played the place. But this is Bushwick, and the newcomers obviously have no use for loud heavy metal versions of Middle Eastern flavored crime rhymes from the 1930s Greek gangster underworld.

From the first few notes of the first song, it’s clear that singer Quince Marcum – who sings in Greek even if he doesn’t speak it – is way too low in the mix. Afterward, he turns up – and so do his bandmates. Wade Ripka eventually switches from guitar to lapsteel for extra marauding resonance while Strat player Adam Good plays gritty chromatics and some oud voicings – which makes sense considering he’s also an oudist. A mask hangs from the back of Marcum’s head; Good wears a Batman-style mask. Bassist Nick Cudahy plays simple, hypnotic intervals on a big, beautiful Gibson Firebird model and sports a deer mask. Drummer Chris Stromquist is also some equine creature, and makes it look easy as he follows the songs’ tricky meters. He should be the group’s Minotaur – he knows this labyrinth by heart.

Marcum gamely explains a few of the narratives – a guy lusting after a cute Romany girl in the adjacent public bath; two smalltime crooks planning on resuming their music careers once they get out of jail; and a crack whore on the streets of Athens in the 1920s. But there’s hardly anyone there to explain them to. The band soldier on, determined to have some fun even if nobody else is there to share it with them. That’s ok, the man thinks. This isn’t their turf anyway. Or mine either. After their last song, he exits without a word.