New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: rock music

In Memoriam – Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson

Funny how the Jefferson Airplane became the psychedelic band most imitated on film, but not by other musicians. Because they couldn’t. Jack Casady had done time with James Brown, and he brought that funk with him. And Paul Kantner was the rare rock guitarist who could fling dancing figures into the air and not sound cliched. And now he’s gone.

With the Airplane, Kantner quickly grew into one of the 60s’ most distinctive and interesting guitarists. He loved noise and feedback and was a prime mover experimenting with them. He didn’t waste notes and was content to fire off two or three notes where another guitarist would have automatically reached for a full chord. He didn’t invent psychedelia by himself, but he was one of the originators of the style. He swung like crazy. And now he’s gone.

Listen to what might be his finest moment on vinyl, Young Girl Sunday Blues, from the 1968 After Bathing at Baxter’s album. Without Kantner’s stinging rhythm, Jorma Kaukonen’s acidic leads would just evaporate. And as much as the 60s contained Kantner’s finest moments, when the Airplane reunited in the late 80s to tour, he reaffirmed that a starship hadn’t swooped down, loaded with cash, and stolen his edge.

In a creepy coincidence, the Airplane’s first frontwoman, Signe Anderson, died along with Kantner, many miles away, also on the 28th of this past month. When she was in the band, Grace Slick, then fronting garage band the Great Society, took notice and was significantly influenced by Anderson’s elegant, precisely articulated folk-rock style. That influence would cut through in the Airplane’s quieter moments after Slick took over on vocals.

What a horrible year it’s been for rock legends!

A Masterpiece of Noir and Southwestern Gothic by Bronwynne Brent

One of the best collections of dark Americana songwriting released over the past several months is Mississippi-born singer-guitarist Bronwynne Brent’s Stardust, streaming at Spotify. It has absolutely nothing in common with the Hoagy Carmichael song. What it does recall is two other masterpieces of noir, retro-tinged rock: Karla Rose’s Gone to Town and Julia Haltigan‘s My Green Heart. Brent’s simmering blue-flame delivery draws equally on jazz, blues, torch song and oldschool C&W, as does her songwriting.

The album’s opening track,The Mirror sets the stage, twangy Telecaster over funereal organ and Calexico’s John Convertino’s tumbling drums. “The mirror knows the cards that were dealt,” Brent accuses, “You were never there.” Keith Lowe’s ominously slinky hollowbody bass propels Another World, its eerie bolero-rock verse hitched to Brent’s dreamy chorus. She could be the only tunesmith to rhyme “felon” with “compellin’.”

The unpredictably shifting Don’t Tell Your Secrets to the Wind picks up from spare and skeletal to menacingly lush, with biting hints of Romany, mariachi and klezmer music: Nancy Sinatra would have given twenty years off her life for something this smartly orchestrated. By contrast, the banjo-fueled Devil Again evokes the dark country of Rachel Brooke. “You’re just a prisoner watching shadows dance, dancing to your grave,” Brent intones, then backs away for a twangy Lynchian guitar solo. She keeps the low-key moodiness going throughout the softly shuffling Dark Highway, Hank Williams spun through the prism of spare 60s Dylan folk-pop.

When You Said Goodbye brings back the southwestern gothic ambience, with artful hints of ELO art-rock. “When you said goodbye I knew that I would die alone alone,” Brent muses: the ending will rip your heart out. By contrast. Heart’s On Fire, an escape anthem, builds to more optimistic if wounded territory:”Well, you learn from your mistakes, sometimes the prisoner gets a break,” Brent recalls.

Already Gone builds shimmery organ-fueled nocturnal ambience over a retro country sway: spare fuzztone guitar adds a surreal Lee Hazlewood touch. Bulletproof gives Brent a swinging noir blues background while she shows off her tough-girl side: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Eilen Jewell catalog.

Heartbreaker leaves the noir behind for a spare, fingerpicked folk feel, like Emmylou Harris at her most morose. Lay Me Down blends echoes of spare Britfolk, mariachi, creepy western swing and clever references to the Ventures: “Distance grows between us, doesn’t that just free us?” Brent poses. She ends the album on a vividly Faulknerian note: “Guess I can’t stop drinking, not today,” her narrator explains,” You may think that I’m lonely and running out of time, but I’m not the marrying kind.” Add this to your 3 AM wine-hour playlist: it’ll keep the ghosts of the past far enough away where they can’t get to you.

Brooding Folk Noir and Lynchian Janglerock from Jaye Bartell

Jaye Bartell plays spare, Lynchian folk rock. His album Loyalty – streaming at Noisetrade – poses more questions than it answers. Bartell sings in a clear baritone with a bit of a wounded edge, amplifying his enigmatic lyrics. He invites you into his brooding, allusive narratives, throws a series of images at you and lets you figure out what kind of trouble is going down, or went down ago; who’s dying, or maybe who’s already died. The songs trace the narrative of a doomed relationship, although not all of them may relate to that. What is clear is that all things dear die here.

There’s a lot of tremolo and reverb on Bartell’s simple, straightforwardly layered acoustic and electric guitar tracks; bass and drums are spare and minimal, enhancing what is often a bedroom folk-noir feel. Bartell really has his way with a catchy hook: the melodies look back equally to pensive 60s Laurel Canyon psych-folk as well as to 80s goth. Both the Velvet Underground ande the Smiths are obvious influences, but melodically rather than as an affectation.

The ominously twangy opening track, Lilly, situates Bartell’s narrator in a metaphorical cave:

It’s the best place for a bird
Who wouldn’t know what a home was
Even if you built him a birdhouse and filled it with string…
Miles of tissue and stitches
Which you can use on the days when I fell to the base of the cave
Lilly
I woke up screaming
Fuck ’em
I’ve got nothing
But I’ve got guts

The more enticing second track, Come See takes a classic 60s Jamaican rocksteady melody and makes Orbisonesque acoustic-electric rock out of it. The accusatory Dance with Me starts slow and then picks uip, then picks up – New York underground legend Dan Penta comes to mind. “Dance with me, so that all of the people see the bane and blame and reeling, dance with me,” Bartell taunts, quietly.

With its uneasily homey metaphors, The Face Was Mine could refer to a dissolved marriage, or possibly the death of parent, or a parent figure: like everything ehse here, the answer unclear. Bartell continues the theme with He Can’t Rise, slowly building out of hypnotic, echoey minimalism to an anthemic Jesus & Marcy Chain-ish chorus.

The Papers starts out as a noir strut and then swing, with a Tom Waits bluesiness – it’s another accusatory number:

You think that you feel bad because he is around
But you feel bad because you feel bad
He always took off his shoes when he walked on the grass
You feel bad because you feel bad

The album’s title track is its jangliest, most 80s-influenced moment. “To know the weight and length of snakes won’t bring sleep to a troubled evening,” Bartell observes. Your Eyelashes is where the story comes together; it’s both the most stark and angriest cut. Which contrasts with the album’s most ornate and anthemic, J&MC-like track, Oldest Friend, closing the album on a gospel-tinged, elegaic note. Put this on your phone and walk the perimeter of McGoldrick Park in Greenpoint some gloomy Sunday, where Bartell reputedly comes up with some of this stuff.

The Likely Final Release by Powerpop Icons Skooshny Goes Out Lushly and Gorgeously

Powerpop cult icons Skooshny‘s new single Saved by the Bell – streaming at Bandcamp – carries some sad history. It’s likely the final recording by the legendary studio-only project, whose lone concert appearance was at an Arthur Lee benefit. It’s not an original – it’s a cover of a 1969 British hit single by the BeeGees’ Robin Gibb. Frontman Mark Breyer channels a balmy Colin Blunstone-style unease as a lush web of twelve- and six-string guitars builds to symphonic levels, drummer David Winogrond adding some judiciously artful tumbles on the final chorus. “I died for you, I died for two,” Breyer croons. For those who might not be aware that the BeeGees’ lead singer had a solo career that went back a lot further than the disco age, is a history lesson – and if this is truly the final release by one of the best jangly bands of the last half-century, it’s as good an exit as any.

Breyer – an Elvis Costello/Steve Kilbey class songwriter – ncver stopped writing or recording after the band broke up. His albums as Son of Skooshny (the word sarcastically means “boring” in Russian) are every bit as good. There’s also reputedly long-awaited new Son of Skooshny album in the works.

Jessi Robertson Brings Her Otherworldly Intensity to the American Folk Art Museum

Jessi Robertson‘s voice looms out from a deep, otherworldly, often tortured place. Her singing has little in common with Nina Simone and even less with Little Jimmy Scott, but she channels the same kind of deeply personal yet unselfconscious torment and emotional destitution as both of those artists. That’s not to say that all of Robertson’s songs are sad – a handful are actually pretty funny – but that her slowly rising melismas and full-throated wail come from the same place: the blues. While Robertson isn’t a blues singer per sen, she uses blues phrasing with the same emotional wallop as any artist who grew up in that idiom. In a very auspicious move, Robertson has teamed up with fellow guitarist Rony Corcos, who has a similarly intense command of the blues, even though she ‘s also not a blues artist in the purest sense of the word. The two played their debut show together last month at Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick, and it was scary. They’re bringing that same intensity to the American Folk Art Museum for a show as part of Lara Ewen‘s fantasttic series of free afterwork concerts on February 19 starting at around 5:30 PM.

The tantalizingly brief Bushwick set featured mostly songs from Robertson’s latest album I Came from the War. They opened with a real showstopper, You’re Gonna Burn, Corcos’ lingering phrases underscoring Robertson’s ominous and eventually venomous insistence, finally rising to the top of her range for a long single note that seemed it would never stop. After that, they made Trouble a study in contrasts, enigmatically resonant verse against an anthemic chorus, Corcos’ spare, rainy-day phrases mingling with Robertson’s open chords, bringing to mind the Throwing Muses at their 80s peak.

They swung their way into a Breathe, another study in parallels: hypnotic verse, wickedly catchy, soaring chorus, contemplating “an instrument of beauty and sorrow”-  the same could have been said what both these musicians were channeling. Corcos shifted from shimmery raindroplets on that one to a wounded, deep delta blues hooks on the next: “How can I get high when you always bring me down?” Robertson intoned. Corcos went back to pointilllistic drizzle mode for the next number, a gorgeously crescendoing, bittersweet waltz, then delivered deep-space echo onYou Don’t Wany to Taste My Heart, told from the doomed viewpoint of a girl who sheds “her winter coat” at night and cuts herself. The two closed with a bitingly vamping minor-key breakup anthem. When Robertson wailed, “This is crazy, this is crazy,” the impact was visceral. It would have been interesting to see how many more people would have enjoyed it if the bar’s back room was more visible. If you think the back room at Otto’s seems forbiddingly off-limits to bar customers, you’ve never been to Pine Box Rock Shop.

Crime Jazz Themes for Running from the Law

[based on true events – details have been altered to protect the innocent]

It’s six in the morning, New Year’s Day, still dark, as the man in the long black coat looks across the park and sets a vector. He moves briskly, purposefully, but not quite in a straight line. Having walked this far after the previous night’s festivities finally broke up, the long way around the perimeter is not an option, even though the grounds are still legally closed til sunrise.

He never would have done this as a child. Even now, in this supposedly safe, yuppified, whitewashed city, if there’s one place to get mugged after a New Year’s Eve party, this is it. The man makes a fast, deliberate if less than steady path through grass and stands of maple. If there’s anyone else in the park at this hour, they aren’t making their presence known.

Right where the trees end and the lawn begins, about a hundred feet from the exit, the man sees the police in the 4X4 almost at the second that they see him. If he had been sober, he would have maintained a steady pace. But he flinches, and as he recovers from that split-second hesitation, the lights atop the 4X4 begin to flash and it slowly begins to advance. Without looking back, the man breaks into a sprint as the light ricochets off the remaining trees and the wall just past the park. There most likely won’t be any trains at this hour, but it he can make it out and down into the adjacent subway station, at the very least he can elude capture.

With a leap, he makes it over a low wire fence and keeps going. In the predawn silence, the muted engine and crackle of tires over soft, rocky ground are audible. When he reaches a second fence, barely twenty feet from the street, he’s watching the refraction of the lights closing in behind him. Weighed down just enough from the four-pack of Polish beer in his backpack – something he won’t discover until later – his foot catches the top of the fence and he goes down, twisting his knee as he lands, awkwardly.

The impact keeps him going, skidding across the grass. Scrambling to his feet, pushing himself upright with his hands and his other knee, he accelerates just as the jeep does, slows for a second, wincing and then resuming his pace as the subway stairs beckon. He descends rapidly, watching his feet this time, just as the cop car and its two occupants reach the exit and then pull to a stop.

Down in the subway, the token booth is closed. The man hesitates for a second, then reaches in his pocket for his subway card, quickly swipes it and pushes through the turnstile, wincing again. Briskly, but with a noticeable limp, he moves down the platform and pulls in close behind a pillar near the other exit. In a worst-case scenario, he can leave the station almost as fast as he came in. He wraps his coat tightly around his legs and leans against the pillar, motionless.

Upstairs, the officer behind the wheel of the 4X4 glances out, then gives a quizzical look to his partner in the adjacent seat. The other officer shrugs, takes a deep breath. “Nah,” he laughs. The driver smiles, pushes the gearshift up into reverse, and backs the car slowly into the park. The man in the long black coat isn’t the only person in the area who’s been partying.

About fourteen hours later, the man in the long black coat walks gingerly down Ninth Street as the sidewalk slopes south from Seventh Avenue. Cautiously, he uses his good knee to make the pivot as he reaches Barbes, pushes the door open and then slowly moves through the crowd, past the front bar.

The tall blonde bartendress in the back room greets him with a smile. She brings him a seltzer. They assess each others’ consumption the previous evening. Him: three bottles of wine, then beer when the wine ran out. Her: a whole bottle of vodka. They gaze at each other in muted appreciation, a mutual sense of pride in being back on their feet, more or less, so soon. “I’m not drinking tonight, either,” she confides.

It’s a Friday night, and for a New Year’s Day, the crowd is lively and all the seats are filled. In the front of the room, Big Lazy – guitarist Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion – make their final adjustments. The man in the long black coat slumps back against the room’s rear window ledge. A striking, statuesque brunette turns toward the back of the room; they see each other and embrace, his head against the waves of hair on her lustrous porcelain skin. She’s taller than he is. “What’d you do to yourself?”she asks,

“Running from the cops,” he says dryly, shifting his weight to the healthy knee. “Don’t worry, I didn’t hurt anybody.”

The brunette rolls her eyes. A man walks into the room and extends a glass of Maker’s Mark, neat. The man in the long black coat eyes it warily, then takes the glass, a tentative sip and then a slug. He leans back against the ledge, more relaxed now. This could be another long night.

Big Lazy begin their set building lingering, creepy chromatics around a spare blues riff. The man in the long black coat whispers something in the brunette’s ear. She cups her hand to his and whispers back, her dark eyes sparkling. She’s one of the world’s great blues players, and it resonates with her, as it does with the man in the long black coat – who is not, although he has some experience in that department.

The band makes echoey, uneasy, slowly swaying surf rock out of a bossa tune.They strut with an especially tongue-in-cheek energy through a big-sky theme that may or may not relate to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Lion is hitting harder than usual in this room; Hall, for his part, is dancing and slinking, then plays deep-space bowed lines against Ulrich’s switchblade staccato on an Astor Piazzolla song. Later they do a murky take on the early Beatles, with a nod to the Ventures.

Ulrich has his reverb turned way up, as usual. As a rule, he doesn’t play a lot of notes, and this set is especially terse. He tells some funny stories: the night’s most breathless sprint turns out to be an imaginary soundtrack for a 1920s surrealist short film; the creepiest number, Skinless Boneless, was inspired by the message board outside a 1990s Bronx Burger King.

One of the last numbers they play is a surprisingly lighthearted 60s go-go theme: Ulrich tells the crowd that it’s a new one titled Sizzle and Pops, named after an imaginary husband-and-wife bar and grill. It’s a funny way to end a night of crime jazz themes after a run from the law.

Big Lazy return to Barbes at 10 PM on Friday, February 5. You never know who will be there. If you see a NYPD 4X4, don’t flinch and just keep walking.

The South American Music Festival Winds Up Booking Agent Weekend on a High Note

For ambitious concertgoers with the stamina to stand for hours through band after band, the dozens of shows programmed around the annual January booking agents’ convention can be a real bargain. Aside from the handful of free concerts, Monday’s South American Music Festival showcase at Drom was among this year’s best, starting out a raptly low-key note and quickly growing into a big fiesta.

You might not expect a percussion-and-vocal duo to play lullabies, but that’s essentially what singer Sofía Tosello and innovative percussionist Franco Pinna’s hypnotic new folk-trance duo Chuño did to get the night started. In addition to his usual battery of south-of-the-border objects, Pinna played his new invention, the arpa legüera, a sort of cross between a hammered dulcimer and an Argentine harp. The sound was closer to the former than the latter, adding mutedly twinkling ambience under Tesello’s dynamically-charged vocals as she ranged from gentle and unadorned to more dramatic intensity where she aired out the lower-register power that distinguishes her work in latin jazz and tango. Guitarist Juancho Herrera – who is a real beast, and was vastly underutilized here – delivered a single, tantalizingly uneasy, punchy original number out in front of the band. Likewise, genre-defying singer Sofia Rei led the group through a coyly chirpy, polyrhythmic mashup of subequatorial jazz and John Zorn-ish indie classical, drawing on her background as a member of Zorn’s all-female a-capella quartet Mycale.

Electroacoustic avant garde singer Ximena was next on the bill, followed by irrepressible percussionist Cyro Baptista’s Banquet of the Spirits. For those unfamiliar with the latter’s celebratory sound, the blog most recently caught his act at last year’s Bang on a Can Marathon, leading a smaller group. What’s cool about these multi-act bills is that if there’s a lull in the action, or a band you’ve already checked off your bucket list, you can always go run errands. Who says multitasking is only something you do online? When you run a busy blog, sometimes that’s your only option.

Hints of an iconic art-rock epic wafted from guitarist José Luis Pardo’s loop pedal as his three-piece tropical psychedelic supergroup Los Crema Paraiso – with five-string bassist Bam Bam Rodriguez and Neil Ochoa, late of Chicha Libre, on drums – took the stage. This blog caught them most recently at Barbes, where they went on half an hour late since Pardo was busy loading that pedal with some of the overdubs from Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Part 1 – and then they played the whole thing, pretty much note for note. Getting to hear that this past August from the best spot in the house – the next-to-last seat at the bar, right under the air conditioning duct – was an awful lot of fun. Were they going to do that again here? Well, sort of. Rather than recreate an art-rock classic, Pardo stuck to playing the melody lines, using his wah to max out the psychedelic factor, Ochoa propelling the music with a lighter, more incisive touch than Nick Mason’s thud on the original. And they did cut it a little short.

From there, they picked up the pace, playing along to snippets of Venezuelan films from the past several decades, bringing a new dimension to several numbers from the band’s latest album De Pelicula and Pardo’s ongoing project of writing new theme music for his favorite old movies. Pardo blazed through furious volleys of crime-theme tremolo-picking juxtaposed with lingering, summery washes as the rhythm section took a comfortable Pacific coastal route. From there they mashed up galloping Pink Floyd psychedelia with bouncy Mexican themes, blistering 70s art-rock with Venezuelan stoner-folk riffage and balmy motorik interludes. You wouldn’t probably consider anything motorik to be the least bit balmy, but this band made it happen. And it’s a miracle that Pardo didn’t break any strings: the guy really punishes them, and on the coldest night of the year so far, he was drenched in sweat.

The Gregorio Uribe Big Band closed the evening with their high-voltage, original blend of just about every large-ensemble sound in the Western Hemisphere. Uribe distinguishes himself as a rare accordionist-bandleader and composer of intricately fascinating big band jazz equally informed by salsa, various latin folk styles and swing. In a way he’s sort of the Carl Nielsen of tropical music – and a hell of a crooner as well. The dancefloor filled in a second as he led the big sixteen-piece vehicle into a slinky cumbia, which they scampered out of at doublespeed. Unsurprisingly, the band’s biggest hit of the evening was another cumbia, Uribe really getting the dancers twirling when he hit an oldschool two-chord vamp on his accordion. Otherwise, he sent a lickety-split, punchy shout-out to his native Colombia as the band swelled and blazed behind him, then swirled and dipped through a couple of fiery salsa dance numbers.

It was a lot of fun to watch alto saxophonist Sharel Cassity think on her feet, judiciously weaving a lattice of post-Coltrane riffage out of a simple Afro-Cuban theme. Likewise, baritone saxophonist Roberto Bustamante contributed a couple of smoldering solos, as did trombonist Matt McDonald and trumpeter Sam Hoyt, among other group members. The audience screamed for an otra after the group had swung through a lively Caribbean cha-cha and band intros were done, and Uribe rewarded them with a final cumbia harking back to the glory days when Bogota bandleaders like Lucho Bermudez took coastal gangster rhythms and bulked them up for cosmopolitan dancefloor crowds. Uribe’s big band return to their regular home turf, Zinc Bar, at 9 PM on February 5.

A World of Great Music at Globalfest, and the Crowd Is Clueless

“Shhhh,” Simon Shaheen gently told the boisterous, largely daydrunk crowd crammed into an impossibly small ground-floor space at Webster Hall last night. Then he motioned for his nine-piece pan-Andalucian ensemble, Zafir, to stop. “I think this is disrespect,” he explained somberly, “To the people who are listening.”

That shut up the roar emanating from the back of the room for a minute or two, but then they were back at it. Which perfectly capsulizes both the lure and limitations of Globalfest.

This was the thirteenth anniversary of the annual multiple-stage festival of sounds from around the world, a spinoff of the annual January booking agents’ convention. On one hand, those guys – an older bunch whose general overindulgence at this year’s concert suggested that they haven’t been getting out much lately, at least to tie one on – can be interesting to talk to. It was lovely to be able to get Wayne Shorter biographer and NPR correspondenent Michelle Mercer’s inspiringly un-jaded take on changes in how music is being staged around the world (in Korea, promoters turn a daylong jazz festival into a picnic and in the process create thousands of new fans for the genre). It was less so to have to deal with the noise, and the overcrowding, and the most hostile security staff of any venue in the five boroughs. You usually have to go to New Jersey or Long Island for this kind of hell. How much this city has changed since the festival promoters figured out that they could make a few extra bucks if they opened the doors to the public.

Let’s be clear that the artists who play the festival don’t book themselves into it: they’re all invited. Many of them can be seen – and have been covered here in the past – in the summer at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Wild expat Ukrainian chanteuse/keyboardist Mariana Sadovska, the even wilder New Orleans Russian folk-punk band Debauche, hypnotically kinetic Ethiopian krar harp-driven dance band Fendika and Shaheen himself have all made appearances there.

Fendika’s distinguishing characteristic among similar Ethio-folk acts is their heavy, insistent western dancefloor beat: they switch out the frequently intricate rhythmic latticework for a more straightforward approach for the sake of western audiences who don’t have a feel for those ancient and sometimes tricky beats. The crowd of dancers onstage grew as the music followed a slow trajectory upward toward fever pitch as the krar fired off simple, catchy, upbeat major-key riffs. The dancefloor was pretty empty when they started; by the time they’d finished, the club’s big main room was packed.

In the small basement studio space, Sadovska and her multi-instrumentalist bandmate – who switched in a split-second between drums, keys, what looked like a tsimbl dulcimer and a mixing board – treated the crowd to a phantasmagorical, otherworldly mashup of ancient Carpathian folk songs and eerie electroacoustic art-rock. Sadovska shifted between her trusty harmonium and an electric piano as her voice lept, soared, snarled, snorted and screamed, through a series of pretty wild old folk narratives and finally, a somberly lingering dirge that eventually rose to fullscale horror as a depiction of war in general, and in particular, ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Unsurprisingly, even the wildfire noir cabaret punk antics of Debauche couldn’t upstage Shaheen. Equally erudite and thrilling on both oud and violin, he’s simply one of the world’s greatest musicians (in context: it’s probably safe to say that Kayhan Kalhor, Richard Thompson and JD Allen are operating on his level). This ensemble included oud, kanun, strings, multiple percussion plus flamenco and classical Arabic singing and dancing. Matter-of-factly and expertly, they made their way seamlessly and rivetingly through themes from Arabic, Jewish, flamenco and possibly Romany music, interwoven with biting minor keys, ominously elegant Middle Eastern modes, slowly slinking rhythms and frequent, exhilarating peaks. At the end of the show, after having to shush a disinterested crowd (that a crowd could possibly find Shaheen disinteresting speaks for itself), how did he respond to a two-minute warning from the sound guy? With one of the most bittersweetly beautiful violin solos of his life. OK, maybe not the very best one, but it was awfully good, and Shaheen showed not the slightest interest in cutting it short, going on for at least five minutes as his fan base at the front of the room looked on raptly. If that’s not punk rock, nothing is.

Although the acoustic Gogol Bordello-esque Debauche downstairs were pretty close (memo to the frontguy – that incessant wolf whistle has got to go). Ultimately, where all this goes down best is in more spacious confines..like Lincoln Center Out of Doors, where everybody seems to be a lot happier and a lot less cynical, an emotion that at this festival gets contagious real fast and shouldn’t be considering the quality of the music. It’s too bad that the overall experience, year after year, doesn’t measure up.

A Historic Marathon Weekend at Martin Bisi’s Legendary BC Studio

While booking agents clustered around the East Village at several marathon multiple-band bills this past weekend, another far more historic marathon was going on in a Gowanus basement. As chronicled in the documentary film Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio, Martin Bisi has been recording and producing some of New York’s – and the world’s – edgiest music in that space for the past thirty-five years. A couple of years ago, a dreaded upmarket food emporium moved in, sounding an ominous alarm bell. Like a smaller-scale Walmart, when that chain shows up, the neighborhood is usually finished. And with rents skyrocketing and long-tenured building owners unable to resist the lure of piles of global capital, what’s left of the Gowanus artistic community is on life support.

BC Studio’s lease runs out next year. The historic space is where Bisi earned a Grammy for his work on Herbie Hancock’s single Rockit, where Sonic Youth, the Dresden Dolls and innumerable other defiantly individualistic bands made records, and where a sizeable percentage of the foundation of hip-hop was born. If there’s any artistic space in Brooklyn that deserves to be landmarked, this is it.

This past weekend, to celebrate BC Studio’s 35th anniversary, the producer invited in several of the most noteworthy acts who’ve recorded over the years, to collaborate and record material for a celebratory anthology. Both a Sonic Youth (Bob Bert) and a Dresden Doll (Brian Vigliione) did and lent their eclectic pummel behind the drumkit to several of the acts. It was a quasi-private event: media was invited (look for Beverly Bryan‘s insightful upcoming piece at Remezcla). Bisi also spilled the beans and invited the crowd at his Williamsburg gig this past week, and from the looks of it, some of that younger contingent showed up to see some of the more memorable acts who’ve pushed the envelope, hard, over parts of the last four decades there. It wasn’t a concert in the usual sense of the word, but it was a rare chance for an adventurous crowd beyond Bisi’s own vast address book to watch him in action. And while he’d fretted out loud about keeping everything on schedule, that hardly became an issue, no surprise since he knows the room inside out. The most time-consuming activity other than the recording itself was figuring out who needed monitors, and where to put them.

Historically speaking, the most noteworthy event of the entire weekend was the reunion of Live Skull, who were essentially a harder-edged counterpart to Sonic Youth back in the 80s. One of their guitarists, Tom Paine couldn’t make it, but his fellow guitarist Mark C, bassist Marnie Greenholz Jaffe and drummer Rich Hutchins made their first public performance together since 1988, in this very same space. Methodically, through a series of takes, they shook off the rust, the guitar lingering uneasily and then growling over the band’s signature anthemic postupunk stomp. Watching Greenholz Jaffe play a Fender with frets was a trip: in the band’s heyday, she got her signature swooping sound as one of very few rock players to use a fretless model. In a stroke of considerable irony, Mark C’s use of a synth in lieu of guitar on one number gave the band a new wave tinge very conspicuously absent from their influential mid-80s catalog. Both four- and six-string players sang; neither has lost any edge over the years. Greenholz Jaffe ended their last number by playing an ominous quote from Joy Division’s New Dawn Fades, arguably the weekend’s most cruelly apt riff.

Of the newer acts, the most striking was guitarist Adja the Turkish Queen, who splits her time between her more-or-less solo mashup of folk noir and the Middle East, and ferociously noisy, darkly psychedelic band Black Fortress of Opium. This time, she treated the crowd to an absolutely chilling, allusive trio of jangly, reverb-drenched Lynchian numbers: a brooding oldschool soul ballad, an opaquely minimalist theme that could have passed for Scout, and a towering art-rock anthem. Botanica’s Paul Wallfisch supplied a river of gospel organ, elegant piano and then turned his roto to redline on the last number, channeling Steve Nieve to max out its relentless menace.

Dan Kaufman and John Bollinger of Barbez – who have a long-awaited, Middle East conflict-themed new album due out this spring – were first in line Saturday morning. Bollinger switched effortlessly between drums, lingering vibraphone and a passage where he played elegantly soaring bass while Kaufman jangled and then soared himself, using a slide and a keening sustain pedal. Togther they romped through apprehensively scrambling postrock, allusively klezmer-tinged passages and elegaic, bell-toned cinematics.

Susu guitarist Andrea Havis and drummer Oliver Rivera Drew (who made a tight rhythm section with baritone guitarist Diego Ferri, both of whom play in Bisi’s European touring band) backed Arrow’s soaring frontwman Jeannie Fry through a swirl of post-MBV maelstrom sonics and wary, moodily crescendoing postpunk jangle. In perhaps the weekend’s best-attended set, Algis Kisys of Swans jousted with ex-Cop Shoot Cop bassist Jack Natz and drummer Jim Coleman for a ferocious blast through a hornet’s nest of needle-pinning fuzztones and boomoing low-register chords, followed by a gorgeously contrasting ambient soundscape by Dave W and Ego Sensation of White Hills. It was the weekend’s lone moment that looked back to Brian Eno, who put up the seed money to build the studio.

There were also a couple of performances that echoed the studio’s formative role as hip-hop crucible. The first was when Tidal Channel frontman Billy Cancel channeled the inchoate anger of the Ex’s G.W. Sok over Genevieve Kammel Morris’ electroacoustic keyboard mix. The second was former Luminescent Orchestrii frontman Sxip Shirey‘s New Orleans second line rap over the virtuosic fuzztone bass of Don Godwin, better known as the funkiest tuba player in all of Balkan music. Wallfisch was another guy who supplied unexpectedly explosive basslines when he wasn’t playing keys.

The rest of the material ranged from industrial, to cinematic (JG Thirlwell’s collaboration with Insect Ark frontwoman/composer Dana Schechter, bolstered by a full string section and choir), punk (Michael Bazini’s wry gutter blues remake of an old Louvin Brothers Nashville gothic song) and to wind up the Sunday portion, an unexpectedly haunting, epic minor-key jam eventually led by Bisi himself, doing double duty on lead guitar and mixer.

Music continued throughout the afternoon and into Sunday night after this blog had to switch gears and move on to another marathon: the festivities included Bert backing Parlor Walls guitarist Alyse Lamb, an Alice Donut reunion of sorts and a set by Cinema Cinema. As much a fiasco as Globalfest turned out to be that night, the wiser option would have been to stay put and make an entire weekend out of it. As Kammel Morris put it, Bisi should host a slumber party next year.

Is It Safe to Say That Murder Ballad Mondays Are Killer?

It took four months worth of Murder Ballad Mondays before somebody played Rock Salt and Nails. It’s one of the real classics of folk noir. And it’s well known. Populist folksinger Nevada Smith gets credited for it, but it’s unlike anything else in his catalog and has a vernacular that looks back as far as the 1850s. And it’s as disconsolate as it is vengeful: the violence is implied, and even then, not til the last verse. Bobtown guitarist and songwriter Karen Dahlstrom channeled that sadness with distance and understatement, saving her powerful wail for a creepy a-cappella performance of her own grim Old West outlaw ballad Streets of Pocatello , from her brilliant Idaho-themed album Gem State. Then she picked up her guitar and did a new one that was a lot quieter but just as eerie.

That’s Murder Ballad Mondays in a nutshell: elite performers having fun with deadly tales from across the centuries and from their own repertoire as well. So far, the two most popular covers at this well-attended monthly extravaganza seem to be Delia’s Gone and Henry Lee, referencing both Johnny Cash and Gillian Welch. But the originals are what people come for: organizers Jeff Morris and Ellia Bisker, better known as torchily menacing parlor pop duo Charming Disaster, pack a lot into two hours. The next one is Monday, January 18 at 8 PM at Branded Saloon in Ft. Greene (closest stop is Bergen St. on the 2/3) featuring ominous baritone crooner Sean Kershaw and other similarly minded acts.

Charming Disaster have treated crowds here to short sets at previous Murder Ballad Mondays installments; last time around, they did just a single number, the allusively torchy Ghost Story (although they played a full set at Pete’s Candy Store this past Saturday night, packed the place and delivered an actually very funny show that included both a devastatingly tongue-in-cheek Led Zep cover and a new one about breaking strings onstage).

A duo version of phantasmagorical circus rock/noir cabaret band Orphan Jane – accordionist Tim Cluff and his trumpeter – also joined the festivities last time out, firing off a furtive number simply titled Murder as well as The Mansion Song, a menacingly vaudevillian narrative whose message seems to be that it pays to be cautious when seeking revenge against the one-tenth-of-one-percent: they can afford a bigger army than you.

Other artists included art-rock luminary and multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost, who held the crowd rapt with a typically allusive new tale about murder on the gallery floor, and an icily doomed cover from the current Nordic art-pop catalog. And singer Karen Poliski worked a similar intensity as she went to the well for a chilling Handsome Family cover.

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