New York Music Daily

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Category: rock music

Amy Rigby Can Write Anything – Even Psychedelic Rock

On one hand, Amy Rigby might be the last person you’d expect to make a psychedelic rock record. On the other, she’s been fluent in an amazing number of styles – honkytonk, classic Brill Building pop, countrypolitan and garage rock, among others – for so long that her new album The Old Guys shouldn’t come as any surprise. While the presence of her husband Wreckless Eric – a guy who knows a thing or two about psychedelia – probably makes a difference, Rigby doesn’t need outside help. She’s playing the album release show, kicking off her latest American tour at El Cortez, 17 Ingraham St in Bushwick this Saturday night, Feb 24 at around 8. Patti Smith lead guitarist Lenny Kaye opens the night with relatively rare set of his own acerbic powerpop. Cover is $tba; take the L to Morgan Ave.

As the title implies, the album – which isn’t officially out yet and consequently hasn’t hit the usual online spots – weighs a lot of heavy questions, including but not limited to aging, death and the viability of being what’s charitably known as a “legacy act” out on the road. The opening cut is From philiproth@gmail to rzimmerman@aol.com. It’s Rigby at her slashingly surreal best, a stomping, clanging backbeat anthem and a sardonic look at the ups and downs (some might say the curse) of celebrity.

She keeps the hypnotic ambience going with the more subdued, nostalgic Are We Still There Yet. The title references one of her cult classics, specifically a hellish family drive scenario. Musically, the gently swaying opening chords look back to her ever-more-relevant Summer of My Wasted Youth, a bittersweet snapshot of early 80s pre-gentrification New York. This one has a lush, spacerock feel not unlike the Church at their dreamiest.

“I’ve been running out of time to do the little things I want, too much shit to get through,” she muses in Back From Amarillo over a gentle late 60s Jimmy Webb-style country shuffle backdrop. Somberly and soberly, she contemplates the grim realities facing veteran songwriters: “I hope it’s ok that I still drink.”

Playing Pittsburgh, a shout-out to Rigby’s adolescent stomping ground, has a slinky Chicano Batman psych-soul groove and some wry, satirical tropes pilfered from six decades worth of psychedelic rock. She follows that with Leslie, an echoey, drifty salute to an indomitable scenester with “fringe in your eyes to hide the lines.”

“Had my eyes on the prize when it was time to revise,” Rigby laments in the title cut, sort of a mashup of Cheap Trick and Brian Jonestown Massacre. “Bars are all closed ‘cause nobody goes…I raise a glass to the old guys, had a blast did the old guys.” Who’s playing that deliciously sinewy bass solo?

On the Barricade is classic Merseybeat gone psychedelic, an allusively pissed-off protest anthem that’s over too soon. “I’ve been known to turn the other cheek, but that was in a different place, a simpler time,” Rigby rails in New Sheriff, over a savage, noisy Ticket to Ride swing – it’s a coming-of-age song for any embattled liberal who’s been pushed over the edge.

“Built a city of sandcastles in the time it takes to swim from Malibu,” Rigby intones in Robert Altman, raising a glass through the mist to the late, great American film auteur. Slow Burner, the album’s most enigmatic number, has a starry, hypnotic jangle. Its most elegaic is Bob, a catchy, wistful recollection of the guy who taught her about Lou Reed – in the key of E. The final cut is One Off, an early Who-style stomp and the album’s most directly philosophical track. Nice to see someone with such a formidable back catalog still at the top of her game. If you want to learn how to write a song, this is as a good a place to start as any.

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Tasty Psychedelic Tropicalia and a Union Pool Album Release Show by Renata Zeiguer

Renata Zeiguer sings in a balmy, dreamy high soprano and writes tropical psychedelic rock songs that often slink their way toward the noir edges of soul music. Yet as Lynchian as the guitar textures can be, her music isn’t gloomy – if there’s such a thing as happy noir, it’s her sound. And her new album, Old Ghost – streaming at Bandcamp – sounds like she had a great time making it. She’s playing the release show this Feb 23 at 11 PM at Union Pool; cover is $12.

“You’ve got a grip on consolation, a heavenly whip, I know,” Zeiguer intones cajolingly in the album’s opening cut, Wayside, which rises from a simple, catchy bossa-tinged vamp to a catchy, anthemic backbeat sway. Once you get past the jarring out-of-tune guitars and lo-fi synth on the intro to Bug, it morphs into a starry, ELO-ish romp with a gritty undercurrent. That uneasy catchiness pervades Below, from its Ellingtonian intro, to its lemon-ice chorus-box guitar riffs and gently pulsing samba rhythm.

After All comes across as a noisier take on Abby Travis-style orchestral noir – or 90s cult favorites Echobelly at their noisiest and dirtiest. Zeiguer’s coy melismas over the altered retro 60s noir soul backdrop of Dreambone evoke Nicole Atkins at her most darkly surreal – Zeiguer’s fellow Brooklynite Ivy Meissner also comes to mind.

The swaying Follow Me Down, awash in uneasily starry reverb guitars, depicts a lizard “Steadily slithering, steadily, patiently swallowing me whole.” The song’s mix of guitar textures – burning and distorted, keening, and lushly tremoloing – is absolutely luscious.

Neck of the Moon contrasts insistent syncopation and offhandedly noisy, flaring guitar work with Zeiguer’s signature starlit sonics. The dichotomy is similar in They Are Growing, pulsar guitar twinkles and pulses lingering over a brisk new wave shuffle beat. The album winds up with its title track, Gravity (Old Ghost), a steady, bittersweet lament about something that’s “only dissipating over time,” set to a catchy, Motown-inflected groove.

This is a great playlist for hanging out with friends on a smoky evening, adrift in the bubbling, percolating textures of the guitars and keys, Zeiguer’s comfortingly calm yet irrepressibly soaring vocals percolating through the haze. It would make a good soundtrack to that Netflix show about the weed delivery guy – now what’s that called?

Prolific Britrock Polymath Edward Rogers’ Latest Album Is His Best Ever

In 1976, the face of the next decade, if not the decades after was profoundly altered by the UK punk rock explosion. But does anybody remember what the bestselling UK album of 1976 was? It sure wasn’t by the Sex Pistols. And it wasn’t by David Bowie, or Pink Floyd, or Led Zeppelin either. It was a compilation by Americana hack Slim Whitman sold exclusively via tv infomercial. That paradox capsulizes the thought-provoking, sweepingly elegaic esthetic of Edward Rogers’ latest album TV Generation, streaming at Soundcloud. The epic fourteen-track collection chronicles the grim decline of a society that ignored digital intrusions on their privacy and their freedom until it was too late.  He’s playing the Cutting Room on Feb 22 at 7:30 M, opening for the world’s foremost twelve-string guitarist, Marty Willson-Piper, a similarly brilliant, acerbic songwriter and former member of Australian psychedelic legends the Church. Cover is $20.

Originally a drummer, Rogers narrowly escaped a grisly death in a New York City subway calamity that cost him the use of two of his limbs. But he persevered, reinvented himself as a crooner and songwriter and nearly twenty years down the line,  has built a formidable body of work that draws on classic glam, art-rock and psychedelic styles from the 60s and 70s. This latest album is his tour de force: in context, it’s his Scary Monsters, his Message From the Country, his London Calling, simply one of the best and most relevant albums released this decade.

“Are you wake it awake yet…let’s move along! Turn ont the tv!” Rogers hollers as the album’s tumbling, hypnotic, Beatlesque opening track,gets underway:

So many stories
Too many black holes
Keep you hypnotized
As they take their toll

With James Mastro’s simmering Mick Ronson-esque guitar paired against terse sax, 20th Century Heroes could be the great lost Diamond Dogs track, an enigmatic chronicle of corporate media archetypes whose fifteen minutes expired a long time ago falling one by one as the years catch up with them. Rogers follows that with No Words, a Bowie elegy set to a lush, elegantly fluttering  contrapuntal string arrangement.

The savage kiss-off anthem Gossips, Truth and Lies chimes along on a gorgeous twelve-string guitar arrangement capped off by a tantalizingly brief solo. By contrast, it’s easy to imagine ELO’s Jeff Lynne singing Wounded Conversations, a sunny, jazz-tinged 70s Stylistics-style soul-jazz ballad grounded by fluid, resonant organ.

The album’s centerpiece – and one of the most haunting songs released in the last year – is Listen to Me. Over a brooding wash of mellotron and moody acoustic twelve-string guitar, Rogers offers a challenge to the distracted millions to escape the surveillance-state lockdown:

Voices we hear all around us
Are out to control
Don’t wait for a postmortem
No one wants to know about
Isn’t too long til lost promises
Is this what you want for your future
More lies than we can count
…written by me through your own peephole

Rogers goes back to rip-roaring Stonesy early 70s Bowie for Sturdy Man’s Shout. On This Wednesday in June begins spare and reflective and then explodes, recalling the 1989 Montreal Ecole Polytechnique mass shooting – how sad that this song would be so relevant at this moment in history.

The austere baroque-tinged Terry’s World sends a shout-out to one of Manhattan’s last newsstand owners – an endangered job, “a life denied.” Rogers follows that with The Player, a sardonic, Kinks-style ba-bump portrait of an old codger who can’t take his eyes off the girls he probably wouldn’t have kept his hands off a half-century ago.

The Kinks in baroque-psych mode also inform Alfred Bell, a brisk stroll through a burnt-out schoolteacher’s drab day. The question is, should we be feeling sorry for this poor sap, or the kids who get stuck in his class?

With its gloriously acidic lead guitar, the album’s catchiest and hardest-rocking number is She’s the One, a portrait of a girl who gets what she deserves since she nothing’s ever good enough for her. The album closes with the wryly titled TV Remixxx, a goofy psychedelic mashup of themes from the title track. If you wish that Bowie was still alive and making great records, get this one.

A Lavish, Ambitiously Orchestrated Twinbill at Symphony Space Last Night

“How many of you have been to a classical concert before?” Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner asked the packed house at Symphony Space last night. From the response, it didn’t appear that many had. Which makes sense if you consider that the average age at the big Manhattan classical halls is 65. But what Wasner’s band were playing, bolstered by the Metropolis Ensemble and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, wasn’t the kind of classical you’d typically hear at those venues. It was a brand new kind of music: epic post-minimalist sweep matched to rock edge and attack.

Wasner spoke of being humbled in the presence of eighty other musicians of such a high caliber, but she has fearsome chops herself. She began the show on bass and proved herself more than competent, then moved to guitar and gave a clinic in shiny, emphatic, shimmery phrasing. Drummer Andy Stack pushed this mighty beast with a supple drive, shifting constantly between tricky meters. At one point, Wasner suddenly realized that her bass had gone out of tune, then didn’t miss a beat or a note, hitting her tuner pedal and then fixing everything even as the tempo and syncopation changed in a split second behind her. Tuning while playing is a rare art; it’s a whole other thing to tune and sing at the same time!

Throughout the show, whether singing her own material or William Brittelle’s restless new song cycle Spiritual America, there was considerable contrast between Wasner’s cool, concise, understated vocals and the orchestra’s leaps and bubbles. Guitarist Ben Cassorla added flaring cadenzas and carefully modulated sheets of sustain. frequently playing with an ebow. When Wasner was on bass, Metropolis Ensemble bassist Evan Runyon frequently teamed with her for a pulse that wasn’t thunderous, but close to it. Keyboardist Erika Dohi added warpy, new wave-flavored synth, wafting synthesized strings and on a couple of occasions during Brittelle’s suite, wryly blippy, EDM-tinged flutters.

In a context as orchestrated as this was, Wasner’s songs came across as very similar to Brittelle’s, Both songwriters’ lyrics are pensive, direct and don’t follow either a metric or rhyme scheme. Likewise, they both gravitate to simple, frequently circling phrases that went spiraling or bounding from one section of the ensemble to the next. Brittelle’s big crescendos tended to be more flamboyant, and more evocative of 70s art-rock like Genesis or Gentle Giant, with the occasional reference to coldly bacchanalian dancefloor electronics. Wasner’s tended to be more enigmitically reflective if no less kinetic, and more influenced by 80s new wave pop. Are both fans of Carl Nielsen’s playfully leapfrogging symphonic arrangements? It would seem so. 

The night’s coda, Wasner’s cynical I Know the Law, was a study in the utility of self-deception as well as its pitfalls. As with the rest of the material in the night’s second set, the chorus punctuated the music’s many splashes of color with steady, emphatic, massed polyrhythms and occasional moody ambience. Wasner joked that one of Brittelle’s more nostalgic numbers would be something that these kids would understand in about ten years, which could prove true. What they will remember is being on this stage with a hundred other musicians, and getting a huge standing ovation from an audience of their peers.

Metropolis Ensemble don’t have any upcoming New York concerts for awhile, but their violinist – and Mivos Quartet co-founder – Olivia DePrato is playing the album release show for her auspicious solo debut album, Streya, at 1 Rivington Street on March 13 at 7:30 PM. Tix are $20/$15 stud.

A Characteristically Creepy New Album From the Great Kotorino

You could make a very strong case that Kotorino are the best New York band of the last ten years. Combining circus rock and latin noir, with frequent detours into gothic Americana, their sound grew more lavishly orchestrated as the group expanded. Their new album Sea Monster, streaming at Bandcamp, brings the band full circle to their earliest years in quietly uneasy parlor rock, a vehicle for frontman/guitarist Jeff Morris’ allusively grim narratives. Kotorino don’t have any shows coming up, but Charming Disaster – Morris and singer/uke player Ellia Bisker’s devilish murder ballad side project – are playing Pine Box Rock Shop this Friday night, Feb 16 at 11:30 PM.

“Like a broken calculator, they tried, and tried, but never got her number,” Morris and Bisker harmonize over an unexpectedly funky strut as the new album’s opening track, Hell Yeah, gets underway. The horn section kicks in, then there’s one of the misterioso interludes the band love so much. As usual, there are as many levels of meaning here, a sideways shout-out to an enterprising girl in the 21st century Manhattan gig economy:

Downtown to the tarpits
Where the hedge funds employ mystics
She said it’s been real in the abstract,
But I want to break out of this contract

Now That I’m Dead, a slowly swaying, crescendoing soul ballad, is next. The glockenspiel against Morris’ grittily clanging old Gibson hollowbody is a typical, neat Kotorino touch. The band shift between a muted, suspenseful pulse and bright, horn-spiced flair in the increasingly ominous travelogue Daddy’s on the Road: all those doppler effects are irresistibly fun.

Rags to Riches is classic Kotorino, a creepy circus waltz: without spoiling the plot, the theme is be careful what you wish for. Likewise, Breakdown has a darkly jaunty, brassy oldtimey swing: it’s part escape anthem, part dayjob hell story.

Too Bad (You Haven’t Eyes Like Us Owls) is the album’s most haunting track, a brooding noir mambo ablaze with brass, pouncing along on the slashes from Morris’ guitar, with a succession of surreal vocal cameos from the women in the band (who also comprise violinists Molly White and Estelle Bajou, tuba players Jeanie Schroder and Liz Prince, and singing saw player Caroline Ritson).

Patricia Santos’ mournful cello infuses the brooding, metaphorically charged waltz Planes Land:

The higher you go
The thinner the air
Head in the clouds
Spoils the view

Right Way Wrong has an emphatically jagged latin soul groove that rises to a moodily lush chorus, an allusively imagistic criminals-on-the-run tale with a cynically gruff Stefan Zeniuk bass sax solo. Fall Asleep But Don’t Let Me Go isn’t the only shipwreck tale Morris has written, but it’s the gloomiest, rising out of hazy ambience to a towering, 6/8 sway and then back, with an absolutely delicious contrapuntal vocal arrangement.

The title cut closes the album, Mike Brown;s chugging quasi-ska bassline giving way to a surreal, tropically psychedelic interlude with coy allusions to the Beatles and maybe the Boomtown Rats. Name another band alive who can do all this and a lot more in the span of just this many songs, You’ll see this here on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

20 Years of a Legendary Venue and a Legendary New York Punk Band

Is punk nostalgia an oxymoron? Or is a band’s refusal to calm down and be quiet something we should all aspire to? Gogol Bordello’s latest album, Seekers and Finders – streaming at Spotify – doesn’t pose those questions, but it offers a mighty, roaring answer.

Twenty years ago, the self-described gypsy punks – a term which ironically has become outdated – were a cult band playing midsize venues across the country. Since the band hadn’t yet embarked on their seemingly endless, global stadium tour, frontman Eugene Hutz frequently spun vinyl on Friday nights at Mehanata, the Bulgarian bar that was then located in a second-floor space at the corner of Canal and Broadway.

Those nights were insane – not just because of Hutz, or because it was the best dance party in town, but because in the early internet era, it was pretty much the only place in New York where you could hear Balkan turbo-folk music, at least playing over a good PA. Who would have thought that two decades later, Mehanata would still be in business – relocated to the Lower East Side – and that Gogol Bordello would still be together, let alone still vital?

The band don’t have any New York gigs coming up – their most recent was at a hideously overpriced corporate venue at the far fringes of Williamsburg – but Hutz is playing a very rare acoustic gig to celebrate Mehanata’s 20th anniversary on Feb 13. Doors are at 6, the party goes all night, Hutz is theoretically headlining – in a duo set with his Gogol Bordello bandmate Sergey Ryabtsev. Also on the bill are klezmer trumpeter Frank London with percussionist Deep Singh, Bulgarian sax titan Yuri Yunakov, accordion wizard Yuri Lemeshev and oudist Avram Pengas; other special guests are promised. Cover is $20; the first 200 through the door get a free Mehanata 20th anniversary t-shirt.

What does the new album sound like – in case you haven’t heard it? It’s a throwback to the2005 classic Gypsy Punks, arguably Gogol Bordello’s definitive statement (even though the word “gypsy” now has a connotation akin to “colored” – we are all better off saying “Romany”). The opening track, We Did It All comes across as a stomping Balkan brass number transposed to the electric guitars of Hutz and Boris Pelekh, with a characteristically surreal Hutz stream-of-consciousness lyrical interlude before the band explodes again.

Walking on the Burning Coals is a classic, metaphorical GB anthem spiced with brass, Sergey Ryabtsev’s violin and Pasha Newmer’s accordion over the guitar fury and the surprisingly slinky rhythm section: bassist Thomas Gobena and Alfredo Ortiz.

Break Into Your Higher Self is closer to 90s Warped Tour punk, with a typical Hutz exhortation to get with the revolutionary program. Harmony singer Vanessa Walters duets with Hutz on the singalong title track, followed by Familia Bonfireball and its unexpected spaghetti western tinges. Ryabtsev’s slithery violin pans the mix as it winds out.

Clearvoyance has a sotto-vocce bounce: “It’s like running from my prison of your mind,” resolutely solitary Hutz insists. Then the band picks up the pace with the album’s best track, the magnificently scorching, chromatically charigng Saboteur Blues. They keep the energy at redline with Love Gangsters, which begins as reggae tune as the Clash would have done it and builds from there. If I Ever Get Home Before Dark follows the same blueprint but more quietly.

Pedro Erazo-Segovia’s trippy, echoing charango kicks off You Know Who We Are before the big guitars kick in. The album ends with Still That Way, the band taking a stab at a big, dramatic Celtic ballad. After all these years, Gogol Bordello haven’t lost sight of a message that’s more relevant than ever: it’s never too late to party for our right to fight.

Another Clinic in Searing Lead Guitar and a Williamsburg Show From the Great Eric Ambel

Eric Ambel is an artist who ought to be playing record stores – because he makes vinyl records. Spectacularly good ones. His most recent studio album, Lakeside, sent a ferocious, guitar-fueled shout out to his beloved East Village club, Lakeside Lounge, forced out of business in 2014 in a blitzkrieg of gentrification. His latest record, Roscoe Live, Vol. 1 – streaming at Bandcamp – captures him in his element, onstage at a summer festival in upstate New York in 2016. The backing band is obviously psyched for this gig: alongside Ambel, there’s Spanking Charlene’s Mo Goldner on rhythm guitar, Ambel’s old Yayhoos bandmate Keith Christopher on bass and Phil Cimino on drums. Ambel’s playing an unlikely early weekday show tomorrow, Feb 6 at 8:30 PM at Rough Trade; cover is $10.

Ambel has a vast bag of hot licks, but most of them are his own. If you asked him to play like Neil Young, or Buck Owens, or Ron Asheton, or David Rawlings, he would, but he’d rather be himself. And although he’s a connoisseur of every possible sound you can get out of a guitar amp, he’s got a noisy side too. There’s pretty much all of that on the live record.

Just the way that he edges his way into the set’s opening number, jabbing around the harmonies of the first chord of the brisk shuffle Girl That I Ain’t Got is typical. As are the nasty, string-stretching first solo and a tantalizingly slashing second one. Here Come My Love, by his Del-Lords bandmate Scott Kempner, comes across as an amped up Jimmy Reed number. The blend of the two guitars is especially tasty; Ambel’s solo out is unexpectedly carefree and chill.

Hey Mr. DJ, a sarcastic dig at the kind of clown who’d pay a cover charge to hear some other clown plug his phone into the PA, is a co-write with the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Jimbo Mathus and one of several tracks from the Lakeside album. Over the slow, slinky beat and a buzzsaw backdrop, Ambel turns the sarcasm loose: “Crank the drums, crank the bass, crank that shit all over the place.”

The slow waves of the warped blues Don’t Make Me Break You Down keep the smokering intenstiy going, through lingering phrases that Ambel takes into the grimy depths, then up again.

“Just to show you I’m not anti-cisco, I have a disco song,” Ambel tells the crowd, then launches in to the strutting Have Mercy, which is actually more of a simmering take on vampy early 70s psychedelic soul.

The band follow Let’s Play With Fire, a shuffling mashup of honkytonk and Lynchian Nahville pop with a slowly crescendoing take of the David Rawlings/Gillian Welch hit Look at Miss Ohio, a staple of Ambel’s live show back in Lakeside’s glory days in the 90s and zeros.

Massive Confusion, the loudest track on the Lakeside recod, is a more swinging take on a familiar Ramones formula. Ambel then closes the show with two of his best songs. Buyback Blues, the centerpiece of the Lakeside record, is a slow, evil rollercoaster in a Cortez the Killer vein. The night’s last number is Total Destruction to Your Mind, the Stonesy Swamp Dogg cover that was Ambel’s signature song as a solo artist for years. For anybody who got to hear Ambel blast his way through this one back in the Lakeside days, Christopher making his way up the fretboard as the chorus kicks in, it’s a real shot of adrenaline. How long do we have to wait until the real estate bubble finally bursts so somebody can open up a place like Lakeside, with cheap beer and great bands every night? The closest thing we have to that in New York these days, Barbes, won’t last forever,

The Black Lillies Rock City Winery With a New Lineup

The version of the Black Lillies that played City Winery last weekend was a lot different from the considerably larger version of the band who got a rave review here in the fall of 2013. Frontman/multi-instrumentalist Cruz Contreras has most recently pared the group down to a tight, lean four-piece. Drummer Bowman Townsend, who propelled the unit through this show with his usual blend of purist four-on-the-floor rhythm and vintage shuffle grooves, is the only holdover from that lineup.

But they still jam as psychedelically, if not as quite as much  as that incarnation. After a steady, upwardly driving hour and a half onstage, the takeaway was that this is as good a version of the Black Lillies as there’s ever been – Contreras has always drawn from a wide talent base, anyway.

The band’s not-so-secret new weapon is lead guitarist Dustin Schaefer. It was easy to see where his camaraderie with the bandleader comes from, considering the two’s encyclopedic appreciation of classic bluegrass, honkytonk, soul, stadium anthems and psychedelic rock. By the end of the night’s first number, Schaefer had cranked out two of his most sizzling solos of the night on his big vintage hollowbody Gibson, smoldering with chromatics and uneasy bluesy bends.

These Black Lillies rock harder than they ever have. Interestingly, the set had very little from the band’s most recent album Hard to Please. Instead, they focused on new material as well as a lot of the strongest anthems from 2013’s Runaway Freeway Blues, the band’s definitive statement to date.

Much as there were drinking songs, and band-on-the-road songs, and a handful of regretful ballads in the mix, the night’s central theme was the struggle to stay stay on solid ground in hard times. Maybe because of the current political climate, those songs of dashed dreams but also guarded hope resonated the most. In a revamped, amped-up take of Gold & Roses, Schaefer’s lead guitar substituted for the steel on the album version. Likewise, the band took Catherine – set in a surreal place with “nothing but blue skies and fire on the ground” – and made brisk bluegrass-inspired highway rock out of it.

The night’s longest number was a long, twisting psychedelic epic that went on for at least ten minutes, through a couple of false endings, part peak-era 1980s Grateful Dead and also Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd, a blend you might think would be crazy – but it worked. Contreras put down his Telecaster and played acoustic for most of the show, for one anthem after another. Matter-of-factly, the group followed a steady path through the exasperated 99-percenter tale All This Living, the cynical, honkytonk-tinged Two Hearts Down, and a terse version of Ruby, the group’s take on the old country blues standard Ruby, about a party animal who can’t stay out of trouble.

Contreras waited until the encore, a scurrying take of the old 70s Eddie Rabbitt radio hit Driving My Life Away, to take a solo on the Tele, but he made it count. And the best solo of the night was his two-handed, barreling charge down the keys of his piano on one of the new numbers. New bassist Sam Quinn played with a cool, low-key pulse, once in awhile rising to the top of the fretboard as a verse would turn around into a mighty chorus, and took over lead vocals on an unexpectedly Beatlesque new song.

The Black Lillies’ next gig is on Feb  15 9 PM at the Visulite Theatre, 1615 Elizabeth Ave in Charlotte, NC; cover is $14. For New York fans of similarly energetic if more lavish oldschool American sounds, crooner Brother Joscephus is bringing his New Orleans funk/soul orchestra there on Feb 6 at 8 PM. You can get in for $20.

A String-Driven Treat and a Park Slope Gig by Irrepressible, Fearlessly Eclectic Violinist Tom Swafford

Violinist Tom Swafford’s String Power were one of the most lavishly entertaining, surrealistically psychedelic bands to emerge in New York in this decade. Blending classical focus, swirling mass improvisation, latin and Middle Eastern grooves and jazz flair, they played both originals as well as playful new arrangements of songs from across the years and around the world. With a semi-rotating cast of characters, this large ensemble usually included all of the brilliant Trio Tritticali – violinist Helen Yee, violist Leann Darling and cellist Loren Dempster – another of this city’s most energetically original string bands of recent years. Swafford put out one fantastic album, streaming at Bandcamp, with the full band in 2015 and has kept going full steam since with his own material, notably his Songs from the Inn, inspired by his time playing in Yellowstone State Park. 

Over the last couple of years, String Power have been more or less dormant, although Swafford has a characteristically eclectic show of his own coming up on Feb 2 at 7 PM the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he’s a faculty member. To start the show, he’ll be playing Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano with pianist Emile Blondel. After that, he’ll be leading a trio with guitarist/banjoist Benjamin “Baby Copperhead” Lee and bassist Zach Swanson for a set of oldtime country blues and then some bluesy originals of his own. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The String Power album has a formidable lineup of adventurous New York classical and indie classical talent. On violins, alongside Swafford and Yee, there’s a slightly shifting cast of Mark Chung, Patti Kilroy, Frederika Krier, Suzanne Davenport and Tonya Benham; Darling and Joanna Mattrey play viola; Dempster and Brian Sanders play cello, with Dan Loomis on bass. The album opens with Tango Izquierda, Swafford’s shout-out to the Democrats regaining control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. Maybe we’ll get lucky again, right? This elegantly lilting number rises and falls with intricate counterpoint and a handful of frenetic Mik Kaminski-ish cadenzas.

The group reinvents new wave band the Stranglers’ synth-pop Dave Brubeck ripoff Golden Brown – an ode to the joys of heroin – with a stately neo-baroque arrangement. The Velvets’ Venus in Furs is every bit as menacing, maybe more so than the original, with a big tip of the hat to John Cale, and a Swafford solo that’s just this side of savage.

Swafford’s version of Wildwood Flower draws more on its origins in 19th century shape-note singing than the song’s eventual transformation into a bluegrass standard, with a folksy bounce fueled by spiky  massed pizzicato. Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic Azizah opens with her plaintive taqsim (improvisation) over a drone, pounces along with all sorts of delicious microtones up to a whiplash coda and an outro that’s way too funny to give away.

Likewise, the otherwise cloying theme from the gently satirical 70s soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman gets a trick ending. Charles Mingus’ anti-segregation jazz epic Fables of Faubus gets a fullscale nine-minute workout, heavy on the composer’s relentless sarcasm. In the age of Trump, this really hits the spot with its phony martial heroics and sardonially swiping swells, Chung, Krier, Swafford and finally Loomis getting a chance to chew the scenery.

The album winds up with Swafford’s own Violin Concerto. The triptych opens with Brutal Fanfare, a stark, dynamically rising and falling string metal stomp spiced with twisted Asian motive – it makes a good segue out of Mingus. The second part, High Lonesome explores the often fearsome blues roots of bluegrass, with some wickedly spiraling Swafford violin. The conclusion, simply titled Ballad, is the most atmospheric passage here: it sounds like an Anna Thorvaldsdottir vista raised an octave or two. 

Black String Play a Riveting, Hauntingly Epic, Sold-Out Show in Queens

Last night at Flushing Town Hall, four-piece Seoul band Black String left a sold-out crowd awestruck and blown away with a vast, oceanic, often thunderingly intense set of darkly picturesque, suspensefully and often plaintively shifting themes that transcended any kind of label. The four-piece group improvise a lot, but they’re not a jamband, at least in the hippie sense of the word. They can rock as hard as any group alive, but they’re not a rock band per se. Although traditional Korean themes are central to much of their music, their striking riffs and hypnotically pulsing, kaleidoscopic waves of sound draw just as deeply on the blues, and possibly early heavy metal. They use folk instruments, but their themes evoke vast continental expanses far more than remote villages. In 2018, this band has a franchise on epic grandeur.

Guitarist Jean Oh’s Telecaster sent an icy shimmer wafting through his vintage Fender amp, then bandleader Yoon Jeong Heo responded with an offhandedly savage flicker from the strings of her low-register geomungo lute, and then they were off. Throughout several long interludes, including the night’s opening number, Aram Lee breathed and vocalized through his daegeum flute, adding another layer of surrealism to the mix. Drummer Min Wang Hwang began with washes of cymbals contrasting with a couple of booming floor toms, later in the set switching to doublebarreled janggu drum, then coloring a couple of the quieter numbers with sepulchrally dancing accents on a couple of small hand-held gongs.

Yet for all the band’s titanic sound, their riffs are catchy and anthemic to the point of minimalism. Oh’s majestically sustained flares. awash in digital reverb and delay, often brought to mind Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. Otherwise, he built dense atmospheric clouds, with a couple of vividly furtive detours into Marc Ribot-ish skronk.

Hwang drove the music from ominous valleys to majestic peaks with a dynamic attack that was more distant thunder than lightning directly overhead. He also turned out to be a powerful, charismatic singer, ranging from insistent and shamanistic, to angst-fueled, melismatic pansori drama on one of the night’s most fiery numbers.

Lee built mournfully expansive ambience with his solos on a couple of the quieter songs, including the aptly titled closing epic, Song of the Sea. With a steely focus, Heo displayed breathtaking speed on the strings, especially considering that the geomungo is plucked with a stick rather than fingerpicked, By the end of the show, she was drawing on all kinds of extended technique, evincing all kinds of ghostly overtones out of an instrument more commonly associated with magically warping low riffage. Throughout the set, she’d spar with the drums, or the guitar, when she wasn’t anchoring the long upward climbs with pulsing pedal notes or octaves.

The rhythms shifted as much as the music. The first number was in 7/8 time; a later song galloped along with a groove that almost could have been qawwali. Arguably, the high point of the night could have been a new, as-yet untitled number with savage salvos from flute and guitar. Black String have been making waves in this country; it seemed that the Korean expat contingent constituted only about a quarter of this crowd. Watch this space for at least one Manhattan appearance this summer. And you’ll find this show on the best concerts of 2018 page here at the end of the year, if we make it that far.

This is typical of the kind of show that you’ll see at Flushing Town Hall this year: their 2018 season is pretty amazing, Barbes/Jalopy/Lincoln Center-quality. The next concert there is on Feb 2 at 7:3 PM at with the Queens Symphony Orchestra playing works by Villa-Lobos, Tschaikovsky and the Beatles. What’s even better is that the show is free; if you’re going, get there early.