New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: psychedelic rock

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 by . 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.

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Vast, Hypnotic Asian Psychedelic Jams and a Rare Bushwick Show by the Drunken Foreigner Band

The Drunken Foreigner Band play epic, uneasily mesmerizing psychedelic rock jams on old folk tunes from Laos and Thailand. They’re sort of the Chicha Libre of music from that part of the world – or imagine a more atmospheric, enveloping Kikagaku Moyo. The Drunken Foreigner Band are playing a rare live show on Feb 8 at 8 PM at Secret Project Robot; the cover charge is also a secret, but’s probably a safe bet to assume that it’s ten bucks.

The band’s 2018 release White Guy Disease – a second sardonic reference to musical tourism by a bunch of Brooklyn stoners who couldn’t resist these exotic sounds – made the Best Albums of 2018 list here. But there’s another Drunken Foreigner Band album that fans of the best psychedelia should own. It’s the band’s 2015 debut, a live ep that’s almost shockingly still available as a free download at Bandcamp. The shock is that it’s still out there, considering that almost every time this blog has plugged a Bandcamp freebee, it’s disappeared soon thereafter. So grab it now!

They open it with “a new song we’ve just learned,” electric phin lute player Jim McHugh kicking it off with a catchy pentatonic wah-wah riff. He raises the surreal energy as the song goes on, organist Dave Kadden adding keening, funereal washes over the tireless pulse of drummer Jason Robira and bassist Peter Kerlin.

There’s a sax on the wild, sprawling, almost fourteen-minute second track, Molam Molam, spiraling over the rhythm section’s spring-loaded pulse. To call this an Asian take on 1967-era Country Joe & the Fish-style acid rock assumes that Country Joe & the Fish were this good. There are also very energetic vocals: one assumes that “Wah ah ya ah ya ah ya” means about the same thing in Thai and Khmer as it does in English. The third song is basically a throwaway, but what the hell, it’s a free album.

A Tantalizingly Enigmatic Trio Album From Ambitious Keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch

Multi-keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch is the not-so-secret weapon in psychedelic noir surf band Hearing Things, who are playing a welcome return gig at Barbes on March 1 at 10 PM. Previously, he distinguished himself as the only pianist to record an album of solo transcriptions of Bill Frisell works. His latest release, Visitors – streaming at Bandcamp – is an intriguingly uncategorizable trio record with guitarist Jonathan Goldberger and drummer Jim Black. The three don’t have any gigs coming up together, but Schlegelmilch is playing with psychedelic lapsteel monster Myk Freedman‘s band at Barbes on Jan 30 at 8. Goldberger will be leading one of his groups at Pete’s on Feb 2 at 5 PM followed by drummer Tim Kuhl, whose pointillistic soundscapes shift from Claudia Quintet tableaux to trippier, more hypnotic vistas.

The not-so-secret weapon in Schlegelmilch’s trio is a vintage Yamaha organ, popular with 70s bands and a favorite of Sun Ra. Here, it’s used more for atmosphere and as an anchor rather than as a lead instrument. Schlegelmilch’s eerily keening, Morricone-esque textures don’t come to the forefront of the first song, the title track, until Goldberger has done some enigmatic scenery-chewing over Black’s cascading waltz beat.

Goldberger introduces the second track, Chiseler with a gritty, syncopated pedalpoint as Schlegelmilch and Black build rhythmically shifting variations, part Sonic Youth, part Raybeats, part downtown 80s guitar skronk, up to a neat squirrelly/atmospheric contrast. The album’s most transparent track, Ether Sun has a slow, anthemic Frisellian bittersweetness, with lingering spacerock ambience. Corvus hints at mathrock and then Big Lazy noir cinematics, Goldberger finally cutting loose with some jagged tremolo-picking over the organ’s waves as Schlegelmilch builds increasingly icy textures.

Lake Oblivion is a diptych. Imagine a more rhythmically challenging, Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth with an organ: that’s the first part, decaying to a grim drone and then back. The second has an altered motorik drive, Goldberger’s lingering phrases and dying stompbox flares and flickers beneath the organ’s steady, blippy riffs until it coalesces as a postrock anthem.

The album’s most epic track, Terminal Waves has a vast windsweptness punctuated by a bell-like dirge melody, Goldberger’s resonant lines building to a frenetic, metallic scream. The closing miniature shows how versatile the Yamaha can be, in this case both a mellotron and a vibraphone. Whether you consider this jazz, postrock, psychedelia or film music, it’s all good.

Multistylistic Defiance, Protest Songs and a Populist Film Score by Polymath Guitarist Marc Ribot

Once or twice a year, there always seems to be a brief series of shows aired by John Schaefer’s New Sounds on WNYC from the World Financial Center atrium where the Bang on a Can marathon took place for so many years. This year’s inaugural New Sounds theme is live film scores. The movies and music are free; showtime is 7:30 PM, but get there early if you want a seat. The first one is Jan 30 with Marc Ribot playing a live score to Charlie Chaplin’s silent film The Kid.

Ribot has toured this score before. What’s most unusual about it is that it’s solo acoustic. Then again, Ribot hardly needs amplification to validate his status as one of the world’s two greatest jazz guitarists (Bill Frisell is the other: that both are individualists who have never embraced straight-ahead postbop speaks for itself). Reviewing the score in the spring of 2015, this blog reported that “The opening theme here was a characteristic mix of jarring close harmonies and a little Americana. As the characters were introduced, Ribot hinted at flamenco and then ran the gamut of many idioms: enigmatic downtown jazz, oldtime C&W, plaintive early 20th century klezmer pop and eerie neoromanticism, to name a few. Familiar folk and pop themes peeked their heads in and quickly retreated.”

Needless to say, Chaplin’s populism dovetails with Ribot’s role as one of the most active musicians in the current wave of protest jazz. One recent album that personifies that description is his latest release YRU Still Here with his punkish project Ceramic Dog. Streaming at Bandcamp, it’s completely different from the Chaplin film score – or is it?

The album’s opening track, Personal Nancy is a mostly one-chord no wave stomp, a catalog of ways of having “the right to say fuck you.” Pennsylvania 6 6666, a vemomously cynical latin soul groove, speaks grim truth to white Christian power in the ostensibly idyllic town of Danville. And that’s Ribot on the horn solo too!

Agnes is a mashup of no wave and 13th Floor Elevators psychedelia, with a wry wah-wah interlude. Oral Sydney with a U is a wryly skronky funk instrumental with snappy bass, echoey organ and ridiculous over-the-top faux Hendrix riffage. The cynicism simmers just beneath the surface in the album’s title cut, rising to a deliciously noisy cauldron of guitar multitracks as the bluesy shuffle beat goes doublespeed.

Fueled by Ches Smith’s pummeling drums, Muslim Jewish Resistance is a broodingly anthemic, seethingly atmospheric shout-along in solidarity with both populations, equally divided and conquered by fascists over the years: it’s the album’s first moment where Donald Trump gets namechecked. Shut That Kid Up is the almost nine-minute Sonic Youth collaboration Neil Young could only dream of, while Fuck La Migra is a punk rap that needed to be written…and it’s a good thing that this guy did it, with a little Texas blues thrown in for maximum context.

Orthodoxy, featuring sitar from bassist Shahzad Ismaily (or is that Ribot playing through a sitar patch?), is the missing link between Kraftwerk, Ravi Shankar and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Freak Freak Freak on the Peripherique – a snarky over-the-shoulder look at Ribot’s Live in Japan disco album with Mary Halvorson – might be a shout-out to the Gilets Jaunes and their struggle to depose their own Trumpie president. The album’s closing cut is a ridiculous, barely recognizable psychedelic remake of Rawhide, complete with vocoder, keening funeral organ and a 80s guitar interlude nicked from Public Image Ltd. Say it one more time: this guy can literally play anything and make it interesting.

Towering, Hypnotic, Psychedelic Korean Postrock Majesty from Black String at Lincoln Center

Korean postrock band Black String’s show at Lincoln Center last night seemed much more terse and minimalist than their feral set last year at Flushing Town Hall. Yet while the songs this time out seemed more focused and stripped-down, the music was no less psychedelic. There, bandleader Yoon Jeong Heo was all over the place on her geomungo bass zither, delivering every texture and timbre that can possibly be plucked – with a stick! – from that magical instrument. Here, she was more percussive, and in that sense, hypnotic, and the band followed suit.

At that Queens gig, guitarist Jean Oh let loose majestic, David Gilmour-esque flares and got lowdown with some gritty Marc Ribot skronk. Here, he played mostly big, icy, resonant block chords, adding contrasting delicate flavor via flickering electronics. Last night, it seemed more than ever that multi-reedman Aram Lee has become the group’s lead instrumentalist, switching between wood flutes of various sizes, running endless variations on simple pentatonic riffs, often with a bluesy majesty. Drummer Min Wang Hwang made the tricky time signatures and metric shifts look easy, whether adding marionettish cymbal accents, fullscale stomp on a couple of floor toms, or with the thump of his janggu barrel drum.

The enveloping, persistent unease brought to mind the insistent, grey grimness of Mogwai, Godspeed You Black Emperor at their most focused…or Jethro Tull playing a Glenn Branca symphony (that’s where the flute comes in). To max out the psychedelic factor, the band rode the sonic rollercoaster, often bringing the music down to a simple pairing of instruments: there seemed to be fewer moments when everyone was charging along in unison.

At one point, Heo marvelled that the ancient Korean folk themes which the group use as a stepping-off point seem absolutely avant garde today. She could just as easily have said no wave. Black String’s most hammeringly emphatic instrumentals would have been perfectly at home in the early 80s downtown scene.

The most poignant moment of the night was a gently imploring prayer of sorts wafting up from Lee’s flute: here as elsewhere, the electronics (when they were working) added subtle echo or sustain effects. The most explosive interlude was a ferocious geomungo-drum duel: it was astonishing to witness Heo snapping off so many volleys of notes against a single, pulsing low pedal tone.

They closed the set on an insistent, triumphant note with Song of the Sea, a mini-suite of ancient fishermen’s songs that Hwang delivered in his powerful pansori baritone, modulated with a wide-angle, Little Jimmy Scott-style vibrato.

What’s become most clear after seeing this band in two very different spaces – each with an excellent sound system – is that they need better gear. The guitar rig Oh was using delivered a cold, trebly, flat, transistor amp sound that died away too soon. And Heo needs some custom pickups for her geomungo. She was out of breath at the end of several numbers, yet there were too many places where her riffs got lost in the mix. A performer so mesmerizing to watch deserves to be heard.

The next free show at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is their more-or-less monthly salsa dance party. This time the featured band is oldschool Cuban-flavored charanga Son Sublime. Showtime is 7:30; the earlier you get there, the better the chances of getting in.

Winter Jazzfest, New York, January 11, 2019: Tantalizing, Changing Modes

For this blog, night one of this weekend’s Winter Jazzfest marathon, as it’s now called, began with Big Heart Machine at the Sheen Center. Multi-reedman Brian Krock’s careening big band reflected the zeitgeist in more and more large ensembles these days – Burnt Sugar’s unhinged if loosely tethered performance at Lincoln Center Thursday night was much the same. Miho Hazama’s conduction in front of this group followed in what has become a hallowed tradition pioneered by the late Butch Morris, directing dynamic shifts and subgroups and possibly conversations, especially when she sensed that somebody in the band had latched onto something worth savoring.

In the first half hour or so of the band’s set, those included long, sideswiping spots from trombone, trumpet and Olli Hirvonen’s fearlessly noisy guitar. Vibraphonist Yuhan Su launched many pivotal moments with characteristic vigor and grace. Otherwise, methodically blustery upward swells contrasted with tightly circular motives that would have been as much at home in indie classical music, if not for the relentless groove. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for the whole set.

Winter Jazzfest is a spinoff of the annual booking agents’ convention, from which they have parted for the most part (there was a mini-marathon with a bunch of big names for the talent buyers last weekend). Crowds on the central Bleecker Street strip last night seemed smaller than in years past, although that might been a function of all the stoner fratboy faux-jazz being exiled to the outskirts of Chinatown, and the craziest improvisers being pushed to the edge of SoHo. And a lot of people come out for that crazy improvisational stuff. It also seems that a lot of fratboys get their parents to buy them weekend passes (cost – over a hundred bucks now) for the fusion fodder.

At Zinc Bar a little further west, it was a treat to see trumpeter Ingrid Jensen playing at an early hour, in front of a quintet including the similarly luminous, glisteningly focused Carmen Staaf on piano. It was the best pairing of the night. Jensen has rightfully earned a reputation as a pyrotechnic player, but her own material is more lowlit, resonant and often haunting, with profound roots in the blues. Her technique is daunting to the point that the question arose as to whether, at one point, she was playing with a mute or with a pedal (the club was crowded – it was hard to see the stage). No matter: her precision is unsurpassed. As was her poignancy in a circling and then enveloping duet with Staaf, and a blissful, allusively Middle Eastern modal piece, as well as a final salute with what sounded like a Wadada Leo Smith deep-blues coda.

At the Poisson Rouge, pianist Shai Maestro teamed up for a similarly rapturous, chromatically edgy set with his trio, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ofri Nehemya. Maestro represents the best of the current vanguard of Israeli pianists, with as much of a gift for melodic richness as Middle Eastern intensity. It’s rare to see a piano-led trio where the rhythm section, per se, are so integral to the music. Barely a half hour earlier, Jensen’s guitarist had launched into a subtly slashing, feathery passage of tremolo-picking while the trumpeter went into vintage Herbie Hancock-ish blues. Roeder did much the same with his fleet volleys of chords, way up the scale, while Maestro built levantine majesty with his cascades. Yet there was no way the two acts possibly could have heard each other do that…unless maybe they share a rehearsal space.

With Rachmaninovian plaintiveness, Wynton Kelly wee-hours bluesiness and finally some enigmatically enveloping, hypnotic, reflective pools of sound common to other pianists who have recorded for ECM (Maestro’s debut album as a leader is on that label), the trio held the crowd rapt. And all that, despite all sorts of nagging sonic issues with the stage monitors. It’s not often at the Poisson Rouge that you can hear a pin drop.

Back at the Sheen Center, a tantalizing half hour or so of Mary Halvorson and her quintet reprising her brilliantly sardonic Code Girl album validated any critics’ poll that might want to put her on a pedestal. What a treat it was to watch her shift through one wintry, windswept series of wide-angle chords after another. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill served as the light in the window, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara each kicking in a series of waves, singer Amirtha Kidambi channeling sarcasm and wounded righteousness along with some unexpectedly simmering scatting.

A couple of doors down at the currently reopened Subculture, pianist Aaron Parks packed the house with his Little Big quartet, featuring Greg Tuohey on guitar, Jesse Murphy on bass and Tommy Crane on drums. Hearing Tuohey bend the wammy bar on his Strat for a lurid, Lynchian tremolo effect on the night’s third number made sense, considering the darkly cinematic tangent Parks had been taking. The first half of the set was a mashup of peak-era 70s Pink Floyd, late 60s Santana and P-Funk that grew more devious and metrically challenging as the night wore on. A slow, distantly ominous, methodically swaying border-rock theme – Lee Hazlewood via the Raybeats, maybe? – was a highlight. From there they edged toward Santana as Weather Report might have covered him, complete with all sorts of wry Bernie Worrell-ish synth textures.

And that’s where the night ended, as far as this blog is concerned. The lure of Miles Okazaki’s solo guitar reinventions of Thelonious Monk, or psychedelic Cameroonian guitarist Blick Bassy’s reinventions of Skip James were no match for the prospect of a couple of leisurely drinks and some natural tetracycline to knock out the nasty bug that almost derailed this report. More after tonight’s big blowout – if you’re going, see you at six on the LES at that hastily thrown up new “luxury” hotel at 215 Chrystie for clarinetist Evan Christopher’s hot 20s jazz quartet.

Epic, Fearless, Funky Orchestral Jamband Burnt Sugar Celebrate Twenty Years at Lincoln Center

Burnt Sugar hold the record for the most performances at Lincoln Center’s atrium space, impresario Jordana Leigh enthused moments before the mammoth ensemble took the stage there this past evening in celebration of their twentieth anniversary. “I can’t think of a band that more encapsulates New York…and the talent, and the energy, and style!”

“If you’ve seen us before, you know that we alternate between the raw and the cooked,” founder and conductor Greg Tate grinned, referring to the band’s penchant for swinging wildly between reinventions of others’ music and their own serpentine, tectonic, often thunderous mass improvisations. If memory serves right – there were a LOT of people onstage – this version of the collective had four singers, four guitarists, a horn section, rhythm section and keys in addition to plenty of beats and maybe atmospherics stashed away in somebody’s pedal.

From behind his Strat, Tate directed rises, falls, signaled for solos and for specific groups of instrumentation to punch in or out, in the same vein as the inventor of “conduction,” the late, great Butch Morris. The evening’s sprawling opening instrumental rose and fell with all sorts of sudden shifts, punchy and lyrical solos from JS Williams’ trumpet, V. Jeffrey Smith’s alto sax and Paula Henderson’s smoky baritone sax.

With former member Rene Akan’s Wretched of the Earth, Page 88, they made squalling, careening, Rage Against the Machine metalfunk out of a grim account of a city under fire in Frantz Fanon’s classic antiglobalist manifesto. This may be the performance where Burnt Sugar set another record, as the loudest band ever to play this space, a possibility reinforced by another Akan number that sounded in places as if the Bad Brains had cloned themselves.

“Rome burned while freedom lurked, masquerade and misdirection, incantations hide intentions,” singer Lisala Beatty mused over Leon Gruenbaum’s percolating, slinky Fender Rhodes groove a bit later in the set. It was akin to symphonic Gil Scott-Heron: “Young, black and vague, now you gotta ride the future shock wave.”

Smith’s disarmingly beautiful sax swirls spun over a slow, hypnotic beat as a wryly funny duet between Beatty and fellow vocalist Mikell Banks got underway – it could have been a joint homage to Sun Ra and Prince. The vocal version of Chains and Water – the opening track on Burnt Sugar’s 2009 album Making Love to the Dark Ages – had a subdued, hypnotic sway that masked its ferocious look back at the legacy of the Middle Passage, at least until the guitars flared up. They took it down with a rather chilling chain gang-style contrapuntal vocal outro.

Smith and bassist Jared Nickerson dedicated Naomi, a tender yet lively duet, to Nickerson’s aunt. It brought to mind Kenny Garrett back in the 90s in a particularly sunny mood. Then the group completely flipped the script with Ride Ride Ride – complete with sarcastically loopy faux-anthemic organ and a singalong chorus that went “Ride ride ride, everybody gonna get gentrified.” Henderson’s snarky, honking, repetitive solo offered momentary relief from a scenario where everyone’s “Homeless and boneless, your judgment an eternal curse.”

Tate might laugh if he heard this, but at this show he was the best guitarist onstage, plucking out sparse, enigmatic chords that resonated far more than any Eddie Van Halen squeals and divebomb effects could have. The group wound out the night with a nebulous backbeat-driven examination of racism in the early Bush/Cheney war era, an oldschool disco tune, and a gritty, atmospheric, Nina Simone-tinged ballad sung with considerable gravitas by Meah Pace.

Burnt Sugar are at the Brooklyn Museum on Jan 31 at 7 PM; cover is $16 and includes museum admission. The next show at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is Jan 17 at 7:30 PM with the amazing and only slightly less epic Black String, who blend stormy art-rock, mesmerizing Korean traditional music, opera and hip-hop. Get there early if you’re going.

The Best Concert of 2019 Is Just a Week Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Potently Relevant Pancho Villa-Themed Song Cycle at the Prototype Festival

Can you imagine Pancho Villa in Brooklyn in 2019? Considering how central the democratization of land was to his platform, it’s not hard to figure how the archetypal Mexican revolutionary would respond to the mass displacement of so many longtime residents to make room for “luxury condo” speculator property that no one will ever inhabit.

Last night at Bric Arts, keyboardist/composer Graham Reynolds led an energetic, supremely talented Austin band through what he termed a “multi-media theatrical concert,” exploring Villa’s life and myth via dark, ornate, Mexican-flavored rock interspersed with stormy, immersively cinematic interludes. Considering that so much of the action in the songs takes place on the US-Mexican border, there’s crushing irony in that the premiere took place in Marfa, Texas the day before the fateful 2016 election.

And there’s no small irony that the New York premiere – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – was staged in Brooklyn, less than a block from the property that corrupt former Borough President Marty Markowitz and his cronies conspired to turn over to to a out-of-state developer to sell at a ridiculous profit.

Reynolds’ music draws equally on ornate 70s rock like Pink Floyd and the Alan Parsons Project as much as mariachi, rancheras and boleros. Beyond the songs’ sheer catchiness and potent contemporary relevance, what’s best about this nonlinear suite of sorts is the vocals of tenor Paul Sanchez and mezzo-soprano Liz Cass. Most of the lyrics – a team effort by Mexico City-based collective Lagartijas Tiradas Al Sol, drawing deeply on history and many quotes from Villa himself –  are in Spanish But each singer articulates them with a resolute determination to drive them home. No gratuitous, over-the-top arioso diva BS here: even a non-native speaker can easily follow along. As a bonus, there are English supertitles for the Spanish and Spanish supertitles for the occasional English interlude. The translations, both ways, are excellent.

Towering angst, hope against hope and imminent doom interchange over an elegantly dynamic backdrop. Reynolds leads the band from behind the keyboard, shifting between neoromantic piano, gothic organ and smoky electronic battlefield swaths. Bassist Utah Hamrick (who also doubled on tuba) took the single most breathtaking solo of the night, channeling lurid Lynchian noir. Violinist Alexis Buffum got centerstage in the most Tex-Mex flavored numbers, cellist Henna Chou bolstering the lows in tandem with the eclectically textured drumwork of Grupo Fantasma’s Jeremy Bruch. Mexican heavy psych titan Adrian Quesada played guitar, finally getting to cut loose with some toothsome metal on his Telecaster after many uneasily jangly southwestern gothic moments.

Was Villa a man of the people, a careless womanizer, an avenger archetype getting even for hundreds of years of conquistador evil…or a smalltime bandito hell-bent on the bigtime? At the very end, Cass reveals that all of the above and more may be only a small part of a very complex character who’s no less controversial almost a hundred years later. As this version of the story goes, Villa’s almost stubborn inability to read people translated to a series of increasingly poor alliances that eventually cost him his life. 

The title of the suite – Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance – is sarcastic to the extreme. It’s reference to how the El Paso Hotel Del Norte advertised its comfortable rooftop picnic area as the best vantage point in town for watching the carnage going down across the river. The concluding performance is tonight at 7:30; if you are a fan of history or artsy, ornate 70s rock, you would be remiss to miss it.

Globalfest 2019: Esoterica Rules, Again

Special thanks to Globalfest staffer Neha Gandhi, whose quick thinking, quiet diplomacy and efforts beyond the call of duty (and complicity in trying to create a teachable moment) made it possible for this review to appear

The premise of Globalfest in its early days was to connect talent buyers with booking agents representing acts from around the world. Youtube may have rendered that innovation obsolete, but every January, both crowds get together in New York to party on the company dime….and see some great music. The public comes out too. “I didn’t expect to see you here!” draws a response of “I didn’t expect to see you either!” Friends from the swing jazz or country blues scene discover a possibly secret, shared love for middle eastern music, and so forth. In 2019, more than ever, esoterica rules.

Sets are staggered in different areas of the venue throughout the night so that everybody can get a little taste of everything. As usual, last night’s show had more flavors than Dosa Hut (in case you haven’t already been seduced by the New York area’s most ambitious purveyors of sublimely delicious, crunchy Indian wraps, you are in for a treat).

Over the last couple of years, the artists on the bill have often represented a forceful backlash against anti-immigrant stridency, and last night was no exception. Both the whirlwind Palestinian rap-rock-reggae crew 47SOUL and magical Mexican chanteuse Magos Herrera – backed by string quartet Brooklyn Rider and drummer Mathias Kunzli – articulated fierce responses against wall-building.

But that issue was just a small part of each act’s many-faceted performance. 47SOUL spoke not only for the rights of Palestinians and Syrian refugees but for full-scale global unity against encroaching tyranny, through a blend of Arabic hip-hop, surreal dub reggae and keening, synthy habibi dancefloor pop. Likewise, Herrera drew on practically a century of pan-latin balladry, protest songs, classical and indie classical music, over a backdrop that was as propulsive as it was lustrous. It’s rare to see a string quartet play with as much sheer vigor as violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicholas.

It would have been fun to have been able to catch more of the spectacularly dynamic Debashish Bhattacharya, who alternated between rapidfire raga intensity on veena, and some unexpectedly balmy, twinkling slide guitar work in a Hawaiian slack-key interlude, joined by his similarly masterful daughter Anandi on vocals along with a first-rate tabla player.

Likewise, it was tantalizing to watch from behind the drums, relying on the monitor mix, throughout most of the night’s best-attended set, by theatrical Ukrainian band Dakh Daughters. The theatrical all-female group came across as a Slavic gothic mashup of the Dresden Dolls and Rasputina. In matching white facepaint and forest-spirit dresses, they paired ominous cellos against creepy piano chromatics and spritely flute over slow, ominous beats, switching off instruments frequently. As with so many artists whose cultures have been under attack, there’s no doubt plenty of grim subtext in their phantasmagorical narratives.

Since headliner the Mighty Sparrow had cancelled, the night’s largest ensemble were oldschool Cuban salsa band Orquesta Akokán, shifting through sparsely pummeling charanga-style passages, slinky mambos at various tempos, a lickety-split tonguetwister number and a machinegunning timbale solo that might have been the most adrenalizing moment of the entire night.

Playing solo a floor above, guitarist/banjo player Amythyst Kiah held the crowd rapt with her powerful, looming contralto vocals, her tersely slashing chops on both instruments and unselfconsciously deep insights into the melting pot of Appalachian folk music. Blending brooding, judiciously fingerpicked originals with a similarly moody choice of covers, she went as far back as 18th century Scotland – via 19th century African America – and as far forward as Dolly Parton, with equally intense results.

The evening ended with an apt choice of headliner, Combo Chimbita, who kept the remaining crowd of dancers on their feet throughout a swirling tornado of psychedelic, dub-inspired tropicalia, merengue and cumbia. Frontwoman Carolina Oliveros, a force of nature with her shamanic, hurricane-force roar and wail, circled the stage as if in a trance. Behind her, guitarist Niño Lento, bassist/keyboardist Prince of Queens and drummer Dilemastronauta built smoky ambience that rose to frenetic electric torrents and then subsided, a mighty series of waves to ride out into an increasingly chilly night.