New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: psychedelic rock

State-of-the-Art Americana Jamband Rock to Close Out This Year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival

Margo Price dropped a bombshell at Lincoln Center a couple nights ago. Taking her only turn of the evening at the piano for the Lennonesque ballad All American Made, she recalled how by 1987, the world had discovered that “Reagan was selling weapons to the leaders of Iran.” To any student of American history, the October Surprise and the Iran-Contra affair are old news. But for a self-described Midwest farmer’s daughter to mention the ugly truth about that President – who despite every shred of evidence remains a hero throughout parts of that world – it was a radical move.

As the song goes, it wasn’t the first time something like that has happened, and it won’t be the last. And the current blitzkrieg against immigrants makes her want to run for the border. That was Price’s only unvarnished political song in a set of high quality, deep-fried southern jamband rock. Unsurprisingly, it was also the number that drew the loudest roars of appreciation from a crowd who’d braved the threat of a torrential downpour to come out to see her.

Price’s music seems to be contrived to appeal to every single potential audience member on the summer festival circuit. As a fierce frontwoman with a big wail that with a few nuanced tweaks works equally well in classic honkytonk, 60s soul and bluesy rock, Price delivers for the ladies. The six hairy dudes working up a sweat behind her seem like they’d be just as much at home in many other styles beyond choogilng four-on-the-floor rock. The best and most epic of the big psychedelic numbers, Cocaine Cowboy, featured long interludes for Jamie Davis’ stinging electric blues guitar, Luke Schneider’s searing, noisy pedal steel  and the night’s most nebulous break, where keyboardist Micah Hulscher abandoned his judicious Rhodes chords for swirls and dips of string synth straight out of the early Genesis playbook – to the point where band members were exchanging “where the hell are we” grins with each other.

Price went behind a second drumkit for that one. She knows what she’s doing back there, and she flurried up a storm when she played acoustic guitar – which she did throughout the majority of a long set. She stayed behind that kit for the song after that, a wryly undulating take of the Grateful Dead’s Casey Jones, which the band ended with an irresistibly amusing stampede out. It never hurts to know your subject matter.

The rest of the show ranged from careening electric honkytonk numbers like Paper Cowboy and Put a Hurting on the Bottle – with spot-on detours into George Jones and Willie Nelson classics – along with a defiant,snarlingly amped oldschool C&W breakup ballad. The covers were a mixed bag: the band found soul-infused redemption for Tom Petty but could not do the same for Melanie Safka or Dolly Parton’s disco era. Throughout the night, individual band members kept solos short and sweet, often trading off, up to mighty peaks or descents toward suspense. Most of the crowd who’d stuck around gathered down at the front; at the end of the show, Price rewarded them by flinging roses from a big bouquet into the crowd, one by one.

Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real were a hard act to follow. It’s hardly an overstatement to rank Nelson alongside fellow Texas blues greats like Stevie Ray Vaughn and Freddie King. Yet Nelson kept his guitar solos much more concise than either of those two hotheads – maybe because he’d learned that trick playing with another great Texas guitarslinger, his dad Willie. This band is excellent: bassist Corey McCormick was a spring-loaded presence throughout the set and made his one long solo count, hard. Drummer Anthony LoGerfo swung like crazy alongside conguero Tato Melgar, and organist/pianist Jesse Siebenberg doubled on second guitar and lapsteel as well.

They opened with the spaciest number of the night, a multi-part epic about aliens that veered from post Neil Young electric intensity to echoes of Pink Floyd during a long, starry interlude. From there they blended oldschool soul, Texas shuffles and stark red dirt folk with a surreal humor that brought to mind Nelson’s famous dad as much as the vocals did. Yet Lukas Nelson’s voice is a lot bigger, even if he has that signature twang.

They brought the lights down for a pensive, solo acoustic take of Just Outside of Austin?and then what seemed like a rewrite of Gentle on My Mind – the younger Nelson clearly has just as much of a thing for classic Nashville songwriting as his dad. After a slight return to Led Zep-influenced riff-rock, Nelson encored with a brand-new acoustic number where he resolved to “turn off the news and build a garden.” Clearly, Price wasn’t the only populist on this bill.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors may be done for 2018, but there’s the annual Brooklyn Americana Festival, taking place all over Dumbo Sept 20-23, to look forward to.

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Welcome Sonic Improvements For Another Reliably Good Slate of Shows at Prospect Park Bandshell

The best news about this year’s free concert series at the bandshell in Prospect Park is that the sound is vastly improved. Last year’s booking was as good as the sound mix was awful: bass and drums, mostly. An admittedly small sample – two shows last month – revealed that somebody actually seems to care about giving the bands onstage at least baseline-level (pun intended) respect this summer.

The first of those shows opened with Combo Chimbita playing a typically ferocious scamperingly psychedelic set, followed by a lavishly augmented 22-piece version of second-wave Afrobeat pioneers Antibalas. Of all the bands here this year who could have really suffered from a bad mix, Combo Chimbita top the list because of how much of a swirling vortex of sound they can create. This time, when they finally got to that point – more than a half hour into their set – the dubwise effect was obviously intentional.

Otherwise, the clarity of Niño Lento’s vineyard lattice of guitar, Prince of Queens’ hypnotically pulsing bass and Carolina Oliveros’ powerful, emphatic vocals over Dilemastronauta’s flurry of drumbeats was as sparkling as anyone could have wanted. Toward the end of the set, Oliveros finally unleashed her inner metal animal, a truly fearsome moment. Although it wasn’t as feral to witness as the band’s most recent Barbes show, it was pretty close. The bookers here have never hesitated to draw on the vast talent base who make Brooklyn’s best fulltime music venue their home, so it was inspiring to see a whole park full of people beyond the band’s usual Colombian fanbase entranced by the show.

With all the extra firepower, Antibalas hardly limited themselves to two-chord, Fela-inspired minor-key jams. There were a handful of those, perfectly executed, bass and guitars running the same catchy riffs over and over again without a split second’s deviation while the brass punched in and out. Special guests on vocals and horns, plus a trio of women dancers, took turns taking the spotlight with solos that were sometimes resonant and floaty, or ablaze with jazz phrasing. Dynamics rose and fell with lavish abandon, often down from the full orchestra to just the rhythm section and a single soloist, then suddenly up again with a mighty sweep.

A second show last month was just as entertaining and stylistically diverse. The Kronos Quartet opened with a defiantly political set, beginning with a new arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’ take of the Star Spangled Banner that had the group keening, and leaping, and shrieking, a remarkable acoustic facsimile of guitar feedback and sonic protest iconography. From a stark, plaintive version of Strange Fruit, through mutedly bluesy takes of Summertime and House of the Rising Sun, to the spare anguish of John Coltrane’s elegaic Alabama, they kept the intensity simmering. The world premiere of Dan Becker’s No More followed an eerily circling path; then children’s artist Dan Zanes brought up his acoustic guitar and led the crew through a singalong of We Shall Overcome.

The second half of the program featured the string quartet – violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Sunny Yang – joined by Trio Da Kali, playing songs from their new collaboration, Ladilikan. It was fascinating to hear the strings playing loping, sometimes undulating Saharan riffs while Fode Lassan Diabate’s balafon rippled and pinged and Mamadou Kouyate played incisive, tricky syncopation on his bass ngoni, often adding an otherworldly, gnawa-like groove. Meanwhile, singer Hawa Kasse Mady Diabate delivered insistent, sometimes anguished lyrics addressing struggle against oppression and the omnipresent need for human rights for all people, regardless of gender, in her part of the world. The language, considering the venue, may have seemed exotic to most of the crowd, but the message was as resonant here as it would have been on her home turf in Mali.

The next free show at Prospect Park Bandshell is this Thursday, Aug 9 with noirish blue-eyed soul singer Fiona Silver and popular blues guitarslinger Gary Clark Jr. And Combo Chimbita are playing another free show, in the courtyard at Union Pool on Aug 11 at around 4 PM.

Barclay James Harvest at Lincoln Center!?!

It was great to finally get to see Barclay James Harvest at Lincoln Center Out of Doors this past evening. Now THAT’S one for the bucket list.

Barclay James Harvest got their start in the 70s as an uptight, tunefully deficient jamband, sort of a prototype for My Morning Jacket. Then they morphed into a competent artsy pop band best known for recycling other peoples’ ideas. The music media at the time called them on it; their snarky response was the song Poor Man’s Moody Blues, whose title perfectly captures their appeal. Their cult classic is Suicide, an actually very poignant ballad with a surprise ending. The rest of their material was not up to that level. Random song title: Galadriel. Genuine hobbit-rock!

OK, it wasn’t Barclay James Harvest who headlined last night. It was Jonathan Wilson. He’s a superstar lead guitarist, the best player to hold down that chair in Roger Waters’ band since Jeff Beck’s brief tenure in the group. He also writes artsy pop songs that recycle other peoples’ ideas. His influences are unimpeachable. The Beatles, and John Lennon especially…Pink Floyd, of course…Elliott Smith, all over the place…the Grateful Dead…Hendrix…Crowded House! Big Star! The Move! The Jayhawks, Marty Willson-Piper and Matt Keating, maybe. And also Neil Young and the Allman Brothers.

Wilson is a competent, unpretentious singer, doubles on piano and writes the occasional withering, cynical turn of phrase. His latest album threatens to descend to the level of James Blunt but doesn’t sink quite that far. Onstage, Wilson was a completely different animal, even though he tantalized the crowd by treating them to a grand total of four guitar solos. Each was scintillating; his long, achingly intense, Gilmouresque interlude midway through the set, over the changes to Pink Floyd’s Breathe, was the high point of the night.

His Telecaster player was just as good when he got the chance to cut loose, with a slide or with some stinging Chicago blues (props to Wilson for having the confidence to include a guy with similarly sizzling, eclectic chops in his band). The bassist doubled strangely on synth bass (why not just use a volume pedal?). The keyboardist used seemingly every patch ever invented, from squiggly vintage 70s Moog sounds, to vast washes of string synth, majestic organ and austere electric piano.

They opened with the fuzztone Carnaby Street psych-pop tune Trafalgar Square, elevated above Oasis level with an unexpected, spacy interlude. Over the Midnight came across as the Verve played by good musicians. Likewise, There’s a Light was a more glam Elliott Smith (or Oasis with a better singer covering Elliott Smith). They ended the show auspiciously with a long, vamping art-rock epic featuring one of two cameos by special guest Laaraji on zither and backing vocals.

One song they didn’t play was a sneering waltz from the new album, with its most relevant lyric:

We’ll be sucking, we’ll be fucking
While the other ones are posting
These kids will never rock again
A sign of the times

The opening act drew a few gaggles of awkward New Jersey high school girls, a few of whom had brought along their similarly unsure-looking pretend boyfriends. Years ago, there was a big market for indifferent, vaguely melancholy upper middle class white women who set their diary entries to music. In the years since, the corporate record labels, by their own admission, have lost 90% of their influence. Back in the day, Natalie Merchant used to play Madison Square Garden. The best this girl can do is open a show at Bowery Ballroom. Is that more a function of the death of the record industry, or the decline of the middle class?

Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues out back in Damrosch Park on Aug 2 at 7:30 PM with a high-voltage set by the Nigerian “Queen of Afrobeat” Yemi Alade. Get there early if you want a seat.

Iranian Rock Rules at Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center Out of Doors was packed this past evening. The message was clear: New Yorkers, or at least a large subset of us, love Iranian music. On a triplebill that began with a tantalizingly short set by all-female hometown crew Habibi and ended with crooner Faramarz Aslani and his band, rock band Kiosk played one of the best sets of any group in this city this year.

Frontman Arash Sobhani entertained the crowd with his sardonic sense of humor, edgy, mythologically influenced Farsi lyrics and slashingly individualistic Stratocaster chops. His fellow axeman Mohammad Talani wailed and slunk, a nonchalantly powerful presence on a big hollowbody Gibson while bassist Ali Kamali bubbled over the steady, funk-influenced beats of drummer Yahya Alkhansa.

The early part of the set was an update on the psychedelic “Farsi funk” that was all the rage in Iran prior to the 1979 Khomeini takeover, and brutally suppressed thereafter (Kiosk take their name from the kind of venues available for confrontational rock in their Teheran  hometown). Hits like Love For Speed (a sarcastic parable about Teheran traffic), the cautionary tales Everybody’s Asleep and Bulldozer each had a minor-key psych-funk feel grounded by a heavier than usual drumbeat for that style, Sobhani evoking peak-era Leonard Cohen with both his vocals and his chord changes. On guitar, he fired off purist, icepick Chicago blues leads but also slithery volleys of chromatics that were a dead giveaway for the group’s origins.

Talani hung back with his rhythm early on but once he got a chance to cut loose, he took a couple of the darker anthems to angst-fueled peaks with his screaming, anguished leads, like a Middle Eastern David Gilmour. Meanwhile, Sobhani led the group through an eclectic mix that included a pensively crescendoing contemplation of exile, then a rapidfire, punkish romp through a melody that he said was originally Iranian but eventually became a klezmer melody (it sounded Russian).

A couple of shuffling numbers after that could have been American ghoulabilly save for the linguistic difference. After a detour into what could have been dub reggae but wasn’t, and a tune that brought to mind Gogol Bordello, they did a silly faux Chuck Berry tune about a legendary Iranian bootlegger who got jail time for pirating AC/DC records. This group is huge in the Iranian diaspora but should be vastly better known beyond that world.

Habibi deserved more than fifteen minutes onstage. What they lack in tightness they make up for in originality. Lead guitarist Lenaya “Lenny” Lynch fired off needling tremolo-picked riffs over the tense surf-ish rhythm sectdion of bassist Erin Campbell and drummer Karen Isabel as rhythm guitarist Leah Beth Fishman added rainy-day chords that sometimes edged toward Lush dreampop, frontwoman Rahill Jamalifard singing coolly and matter-of-factly, mostly in Farsi. From their brief, Arabic-tinged instrumental intro through a mix of Breeders jangle, Ventures stomp and Farsi funk, they’re developing an intriguing, distinctive sound. Give the rhythm section a year to get their chops up to speed, and this band could be dangerous.

Backed by six-piece band including flamenco guitarist and musical director Babak Amini, Aslani got the crowd singing and dancing along to his allusively biting lyrics set to pleasant, flute-fueled Mediterranean and Brazilian-inflected acoustic ballads that often brought to mind the Gipsy Kings. An icon of Iranian music since the 70s, he’s a wordsmith and connoisseur of classical Persian poetry first and foremost.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues tomorrow night, July 29 with art-rock guitarist Jonathan Wilson – of Roger Waters’ band – doing his own material. Getting into the show this particular evening was easy, but you might want to show up before 7:30 PM showtime if you want a seat.

The All-Female NYChillharmonic Raises the Bar For Epic Big Band Grandeur

Finding twenty-two musicians capable of doing justice to singer/keyboardist Sara McDonald’s kinetic, stormy, intricately epic compositions is an achievement all by itself. Finding a night when they’re all available for a show in Gowanus raises that challenge exponentially. Now imagine leading that band on a broken foot.

That’s what McDonald had to contend with fronting her ensemble the NYChillharmonic back in May at Littlefield. Visibly in pain and steaming that she had to be helped onstage, she rallied and transcended the situation, singing with greater purr and wail than ever as the music rose and fell and turned kaleidoscopically behind her. Adrenaline can do that to you. She’s presumably in better shape now, and will be leading the group at Brooklyn’s best-sounding venue, National Sawdust, on Aug 2 at 7 PM. Advance tix are $20.

Unlike typical big band jazz, this unit is not a vehicle for long solos. Throughout the night, those moments tended to be cameos, an instrumentalist backed by just the rhythm section – Madgalena Abrego’s incisive guitar, Danae Greenfield’s spare piano, Adi Meyerson’s spring-loaded bass and Mareike Weining’s tersely inventive drumming. While much of the rhythm followed a slinky, swaying 4/4, sudden flares would erupt when least expected, sending the tempo and often the melody every which way. Occasionally these would take the form of clever, false endings McDonald loves so much.

The Radiohead influence that was so pervasive in McDonald’s earlier work is still there, intricately voiced, looping phrases and permutations filtering through every section of the orchestra. Yet throughout the set, from the tight sunburst pulses of Surface Tension through the mighty, cinematic closing number, Easy Comes the Ghost, the harmonies remained vastly more translucent than opaque. McDonald reached back for extra power in the gusting, crescendoing Blumen, in contrast with the smoldering lustre that peppered To Covet a Quiet Mind. With jazz inventiveness and spontaneity but also rock drive and raw power, McDonald’s music is its own genre.

McDonald didn’t address the issue that this was an all-female edition of the band until late in the set. “They’re great musicians,” she said, nonchalant and succinct, and left it at that. The lineup was a mix of established artists – notably Jenny Hill on tenor sax, Rachel Therrien on trumpet and Kaila Vandever on trombone – and rising star talent. The rest of the group, clearly amped to be playing this material, included Alden Hellmuth and Erena Terakubo  on alto sax, Emily Pecoraro on tenor and Mercedes Beckman on baritone with Leah Garber, Rebecca Steinberg and Kathleen Doran on trumpets; Nicole Connelly and Erin Reifler on trombones; Gina Benalcazar on bass trombone; and a string quartet comprising violinists Audrey Hayes and Kiho Yutaka, violist Dora Kim and cellist Jillian Blythe.

And a big shout-out to the sound guy. The latest Littlefield space is nothing like the old one: it’s a barewalled rock club, about the same size as the Footlight. Miking so many instruments with highs bouncing all over the place was a daunting task to say the least. That the guy managed to give the group as much clarity as he did was impressive all by itself, let alone without all sorts of nasty feedback. In the pristine sonics at National Sawdust next Thursday that won’t be an issue.

A Deliciously Psychedelic Album and a Saturday Night Barbes Show by One of New York’s Best Bands

Lately Bombay Rickey are calling themselves “operatic surf noir.” What’s coolest about that observation is that this irrepressible, individualistic group realize just how dark a lot of surf rock is – and how much grand guignol there is in opera. In reality, the only real western opera references in their music are channeled via frontwoman/accordionist/sitarist Kamala Sankaram’s spectacular, practically five-octave vocals. Otherwise the group transcend their origins as a Yma Sumac cover band, mashing up cumbia, Bollywood, spaghetti western, brassy Nancy Sinatra Vegas noir and even classical ragas into a wildly psychedelic, danceable vindaloo. Their new album Electric Bhairavi is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’re headlining their usual haunt, Barbes, this Saturday night at 10 PM.

The album title refers to the Indian goddess: Bhairavi is Lord Shiva’s squeeze, an eastern counterpart of sorts to Hera in Greek mythology. While the band can jam like crazy in concert, the new album is surprisingly more terse. The first track is a wildly psychedelic, Bollywoodized reinvention of the old Yma Sumac hit Virgenes del Sol, Sankaram vocalizing with tongue-in-cheek, pointillistic, Verdi-ish flair over Drew Fleming’s spiky guitar, alto saxophonist Jeff Hudgins adding a luscious solo packed with otherworldly microtones and chromatics.

The group kick off Frantic with a scream: from there, they veer from Fleming’s growling guitar against Sankaram’s flitting accordion, down to a pulsing, insectile, distangly bhangra-tinged interlude where drummer Brian Adler gets his hardware flickering, Hudgins’ sax channeling a neon-crazed moth. Kohraa, one of the band’s catchiest and most wickedly serpentine live numbers, has a slinky guaguanco beat and an uneasy interweave of surf guitar, accordion and sax. Sankaram blends allure and nuance in this beachy reminiscence.

Bhonkers – a typical title for this band – leaps between a wistfully opaque, accordion-fueled raga theme and tinges of sunbaked border rock. Likewise, Megalodon – saluting a sea monster who’s been extinct for forty thousand years – alternates between lush majesty and surf drive, Adler and bassist Gil Smuskowitz’s pulsing, syncopated riff signaling the charge.

Gopher is classic Bombay Rickey, a sly mashup of mambo, psychedelic cumbia and Bollywood. Sankaram’s droll Betty Boop accents bring to mind another  brilliant New York singer, Rachelle Garniez, in similarly sardonic mode, Hudgins and Fleming both kicking in with bristling solos. LIkewise, with Sa-4-5, they make dramatic raga-rock out of a spine-tingling, well-known Indian carnatic vocal riff.

Meri Aakhon Mein Ek Sapna Hai brings a purloined Meters strut back full circle from Bollywood: this band can really jam out the funk when they want, Hudgins pulling out all the microtonal stops as he weaves around, Sankaram reaching back for extra power in her vocalese solo during a long, hypnotic interlude over Adler’s tabla. 

The album’s most brooding track, Cowboy & Indian is a reference to band heritage – Fleming is a native Texan while the California-born Sankaram’s background is Indian. It’s an unexpectedly elegaic southwestern gothic ballad: “Midnight comes when you least expect it, but springtime will never come again,” the two harmonize. 

They wind up the record with the towering, epic raga-rock title track, rising from Sankaram’s mystical sitar intro to a mighty, guitar-fueled sway. Like the group’s previous release, Cinefonia – rated best debut album of 2014 here – this one will end up on the list of 2018’s best albums at the end of the year

More Searing Psychedelic Garage Rock From One of NYC’s Best Bands

Is this the great long lost Radio Birdman album? The Electric Mess don’t sound exactly like menacing Australian garage-psych legends, but the resemblance is luscious. If relentless punk cynicism, scorching fretwork, jugular-slashing pickslides, overdriven vintage tube amp sonics and wickedly purist, oldschool rock tunesmithing are your thing, you need to know this band. Their new album The Beast Is You is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing Coney Island Baby (the old Brownies/Hifi Bar space) on July 25 at 9 PM; cover is $12.

Their previous album House on Fire was a little heavier on the psychedelia; this one is leaner and more stripped down. The production is delicious: you can practically smell the scorch of vinyl insulation from the back of the amps, and the rhythm section are back in the pocket where they need to be, guitars and vocals out front with funereal organ tremoloing overhead.

The album’s opening cut, Disconnected kicks off with Alan J. Camlet’s machinegunning surf drum intro, hits a vampy 60s garage rock drive followed by a searing Dan Crow wah-wah guitar solo and a trippy early Pink Floyd interlude before the band blast out at the end. That’s about as ornate as the band’s songs get this time out.

‘I’m gonna crash about fifteen cars,” frontwoman Esther Crow announces as We’re Gonna Crash gets underway, Oweinama Biu’s jet-engine organ over the slashing guitars, looming bass and  four-on-the-floor GTO drums. Dan Crow pulls out his wah pedal on the launching pad again.

The snidely propulsive I’m Gone blends eerie Ray Manzarek organ, space acid Chris Masuak guitar and a kiss-off message directed at some kind of religious nut or new age freak. With twin guitars flinging bits and pieces of chords into the bonfire and Derek Davidson’s bass slithering upwards, the wry outer-space anthem You’re My Overdrive wouldn’t be out of place on Radio Birdman’s iconic Radios Appear album.

The guitars take that incendiary, chromatically bristling attack even higher in Snow Queen – Dan Crow’s cruelly spiraling, Deniz Tek-ish lead break is one of the album’s high points. The band keep the assault going in the gleefully apocalyptic No One Gets Out Alive; Dan’s tantalizingly brief solo sets up an unexpectedly funny vocal outro.

Seems like they turn up the reverb a little higher the title track, arguably the album’s most searingly tight number, Davidson’s bass building toxic waste bubbles underneath the guitars’ roar and slash. Then they get the wahs going again in You Can’t Hide, the most Stoogoid number here. “Let me your sloppy seconds, baby,” Esher leers over the organ’s evil oscillations. “Let me clean up every mess you make, I’ll keep away the promises you break.”

Things start to get a lot more eclectic starting with the Plastic Jack, which edges toward janglerock a la Plan 9. Fueled by retro organ, the regret-heavy It Happens All the Time is a rare midtempo garage rock number, while Mystery Girl is surprisingly Beatlesque.

Starry, Doorsy organ swirls through the pulsing vamps of Read You Your Rights; the band close out the album with Yes Future, a glamrock tune. House on Fire ranked high on the best albums of 2015 page here; check back at the end of the year for the 2017 list!

Two Great Psychedelic Bands, One Free Brooklyn Concert Series

Two Saturdays ago, Sadies guitarist Dallas Good thrashed and flailed and spun the headstock of his vintage hollowbody Gretsch, building a howling vortex of sound while his brother Travis stood more or less motionless as he kept a river of jangle and clang running from his Telecaster. In the middle of the stage, bassist Sean Dean held down a steady pulse while drummer Mike Belitsky kept a nimble shuffle beat.

This past Saturday, Songhoy Blues guitarist Aliou Touré did pretty much the same thing, building a screaming Chicago blues-infused solo, his fellow axeman Garba Touré running a loping Malian duskcore pattern off to the side, bassist Oumar Touré playing a serpentine, circular riff over drummer Nathanael Dembélé’s counterintuiitive flourishes.

On one hand, the Canadian and Malian bands couldn’t have less in common. On the other, both are as psychedelic as you could possibly want. And that seems to be the theme at this year’s free outdoor concert series at Union Pool. They’ve been doing free shows in the back courtyard there for the past couple of years, but this year’s series is better than ever.

There are a lot of acts more popular than you’d expect to see in at this comfortable, comparatively small space. This year, that started with the Sadies. The last time they played New York, it was at Webster Hall (if there ever was a New York venue that deserved to be turned into a luxury condo or a Whole Foods, it was that despicable stain on the East Village). The last time this blog was in the house at a Sadies show, it was May of 2014 at Bowery Ballroom and they were playing with the late Gord Downie.

This show didn’t feature any of their brilliantly ominous songs with the late Tragically Hip crooner, but they touched on every style they’ve ever played. Dallas Good broke out his violin for a lickety-split punkgrass romp about midway through the set, and also for the encores. He also delivered some seamlessly expert acoustic flatpicking on a couple of country numbers.

Travis Good seemed to be in charge of the more epic, tectonic solos, particularly during a mini-suite of surf songs, propelled expertly by Belitsky. They went back into the waves a little later with another instrumental that came across as a more bittersweet, southwestern gothic take on the Ventures’ Apache. But it was the brooding, uneasily clanging midtempo anthems that were the high point of the show. Afterward, Dallas Good took care to thank the crowd for coming out – for a free show, no less.

Songhoy Blues are probably the loudest and most eclectic of the Malian duskcore bands to make it to the US so far. They only played a couple of the loping Saharan grooves popularized by first-wave bands like Tinariwen and Etran Finatawa. They opened with a briskly stomping, only slightly Malian-flavored garage rock tune with a searing guitar solo from Garba Touré. Throughout the set, he and the frontman took turns with their solos – a lightning-fast, Blue Oyster Cult-ish run in one of the long, hypnotic numbers midway through was the high point.

After that, they slowed down for a moody minor-key blues ballad that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Otis Rush songbook save for the lyrics. “I know that 99% of you don’t understand a word I’m saying,” Aliou Touré told the crowd: the subtext was that the band’s lyrics are potently political. Then he settled for reminding everybody that music is a universal language. After a couple of numbers that shifted between looming desert rock and frenetically bopping, metrically challenging soukous-flavored rhythms, they closed with a mighty, rising and falling anthem and encored with their lone song in English, Together, a prayer for peace from a part of the world that really needs it.

And a shout-out to the sound guy: this may be an outdoor series, but the sonics in the backyard – a completely uninsulated space with highs potentially bouncing all over the place – were pristine. Few venues sounds as good indoors as at Union Pool outdoors the past couple of Saturdays. That’s a real achievement. The Union Pool free concert series continues this Saturday, July 14 at around 3 with jangly British “power trio” Girl Ray.

Thumbscrew Make Haunting, Thorny Music, and Play a Week at the Vanguard Starting July 17

The album cover shot for the first of Thumbscrew’s two simultaneous new releases, Ours, shows bassist Michael Formanek, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara standing motionless, backs to a wall, each holding a cactus. The two guys manage to half-conceal their grins, but Halvorson can’t. Does this ridiculous symbolism mean that they’re having a lot of fun playing thorny music? Hmmmmm……

The folks at the Vanguard, where the trio will be playing at 8:30 and 10 starting on July 17, seem to agree. You should see what they put on their calendar page: essentially, “This band won’t torture you, so if you like sounds that are just a wee, wee bit outside, come see them.” Halvorson – who’s finally getting the critical props she’s deserved for the past decade – has played there several times in the past, but this is the collaborative trio’s debut there.

The album – streaming at Cuneiform Records – opens with the aptly titled Snarling Joys, a furtively strolling, eerie quasi-bolero and a dead ringer for Big Lazy. Halvorson’s spidery noir evokes Steve Ulrich and Formanek’s deadpan, methodical basslines bring to mind Andrew Hall while Fujiwara finally abandons the racewalk for the shadows. It’s one of the best songs Halvorson has ever written.

Fujiwara’s Saturn Way has more spacious if similarly eerie chromatics set against a hypnotically circling web of polyrhythms, decaying to a sepulchrally flickering tableau, Halvorson’s funereal belltones hanging overhead. Formanek’s Cruel Heartless Bastards bookends a a dissociative round robin with grimly insistent waves of late 70s King Crimson, Halvorson painting a vast, echoey grayscale as Fujiwara tumbles and crashes

Smoketree, another Halvorson tune, alternates three themes. The trio open with spare, moody pastoral jazz, Formanek pulling the band into stalking King Crimson territory again before Halvorson hits her pedal for warpy, watery weirdness. Thumbprint, also by Halvorson, could be Gabor Szabo covering a Monk swing tune with an sardonically evil rhythm section: her wry quotes and space lounge sonics build contrast over Formanek’s loopy hooks and Fujiwara’s shifty shuffles.

The first of two consecutive Fujiwara tunes, One Day gives Halvorson a misty backdrop for desolate, spacious phrasing but also some hilarious, thinly cached quotes, Formanek adding simmering and then punchy melody when not harmonizing uneasily with the guitar. The second, Rising Snow wafts sparely and morosely toward waltz territory until Fujiwara hits some steady but impossible-to-figure syncopation – this also could be Big Lazy.

The album concludes with two Formanek numbers. The first is titled Words That Rhyme With Spangle (angle bangle dangle jangle mangel mangle strangle tangle wangle wrangle). It veers away from catchy, circular chromatic riffs as the rhythm falls away to a drifting wildfire, and then makes a slight return. Unconditional, the final cut, is a funhouse mirror version of a balmy ballad, lowlit by Halvorson’s distantly menacing tremolo-picking and Fujiwara’s cymbal drizzle.

Interplay and Halvorson’s usual sense of humor notwithstanding, this a pretty dark record – and it might be the best album of 2018. And there’s a companion release, Theirs, a covers collection. Watch this space for more about that one before the Vanguard stand starts.

A Killer Twinbill in Prospect Park on July 12 – If They Get the Sound Right!

It was fascinating to see some of New York’s most transcendent Indian music talent onstage at Prospect Park Bandshell last year, joined by harpist Brandee Younger and other jazz artists playing austerely enveloping new arrangements of politically-fueled John Coltrane classics.

It was maddening not to be able to hear much of the music, considering how bad the sound was. To make matters worse, these concerts used to be free for everyone, but now the venue is selling the seats closest to the stage. As usual, they were mostly empty, but remained roped off to anyone who didn’t pay the cover charge but might have really wanted to hear what the group were doing. During the set afterward by sax legend Pharaoh Sanders and his quartet, the sound was just as bad, bass and drums jacked to ridiculous extremes. It didn’t take long for word to get around: the sound here sucks!

But it didn’t used to. If the organizers would axe that bozo white kid from out of town who obviously grew up on phat beatzzz and thinks that Eminem is the epitome of sonic excellence – and then replaced him with a competent sound engineer – that would be reason for Brooklyn to celebrate. Because the lineup of free shows at the bandshell this year is really excellent, as enticing as it was last year.

One excellent Brooklyn band on the schedule who really need a good sound mix are the magically swirling Combo Chimbita. If they’re amped properly, as they were while playing to a packed house at Barbes back in April, they’ll build as wildly kaleidoscopic a sound as you’ll hear this year. If they aren’t, their set there at around 8 PM on July 12 will be a muddy mess.

Combo Chimbita are a supergroup of sorts who went through a long dormant period, so it’s good to see them playing out again. Frontwoman Carolina Oliveros keeps busy leading ancient-sounding, hypnotically raucous Afro-Colombian trance-dance ensemble Bulla en el Barrio. Drummer Dilemastronauta also plays psychedelic tropicalia with his own project, Los Sabrosos Cosmicos. The rest of the group includes guitarist Niño Lento – who is neither a kid, nor is he slow – and bassist/keyboardist Prince of Queens,

Their Barbes set was as hypnotic as it was short – under an hour, very brief by this band’s standards. The beats were slinky and constantly shifted, sometimes toward tango, other times toward reggae, and finally a more or less straight-up Colombian cumbia strut about 40 minutes into the set. There was a mixing desk in addition to the keys – whether the extraneous squiggles were coming from there or from the guitar pedal was impossible to tell because the room was so packed. A lot of Spanish was being spoken – it was a smart, young, energized crowd, a welcome change from the rich white kids from out of state who’ve blighted Park Slope so badly in recent years.

Niño Lento flung stinging minor-key guitar chords and chordlets into the mix, sometimes to linger and spiral around, other times to slash through the constantly shifting textural wash. Out in front of the band, swaying and scraping her guacharaca, Oliveros channeled otherworldly menace with her raw, throaty delivery. She has a background singing metal and this project really gives her a chance to go for the jugular. As a bonus, Antibalas will be playing after Combo Chimbita on the 12th in the park: the long-running Afrobeat revivalists are as strong now as during their long residency at the old Knitting Factory in Tribeca 20 years ago.