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Category: southwestern gothic

Yet Another Brilliant, Shadowy Album and a Gowanus Release Show From Noir Instrumental Icons Big Lazy

Big Lazy are the world’s most menacingly cinematic instrumental trio. They’re also the world’s darkest jamband, one of Brooklyn’s most popular dance bands…and they keep putting out brilliant albums. The cover of their long-awaited new one, Dear Trouble, has a 1972 Ford Country Squire station wagon off to the side of a desolate road somewhere in the midwest, facing a tower along the powerline as the clouds linger and the sun sets. That says a lot. They’re playing the album release show this Nov 8-9 at 8 PM at the old American Can Company building at 232 3rd St. in Gowanus. Night one is sold out, but night two isn’t yet; you can get in for $20. They’ll be joined by three of the special guests on the record: Sexmob‘s Steven Bernstein on trumpet, Slavic Soul Party’s Peter Hess on saxes and Miramar’s Farfisa sorceress Marlysse Rose Simmons. Take the F or the R to 4th Ave/9th St.

Interestingly, this turns out to be the band’s quietest, most desolate album. It begins with The Onliest, a loping, skeletal theme slinking along on Andrew Hall’s hypnotically bluesy bassline. They hit an interlude bristling with bandleader/guitarist Steve Ulrich’s signature, macabre chromatics, then eventually a false ending. It’s a good introduction to where the band are at now: there are echoes of horror surf, Angelo Badalementi David Lynch soundtracks, Thelonious Monk and Booker T. & the MGs in the rhythm, although Big Lazy’s sound is inimitably their own.

The album’s title track has Ulrich’s melancholy, resonant lead over a sardonically strutting blend of Nino Rota tinged with early 60s pop: if Tredici Bacci wanted to get really dark, they might sound like this. As is the case with so much of Ulrich’s catalog, the song takes on many different shapes, textures and guitar timbres and winds up far from where it started.

Ramona, with dubby accents from Simmons organ, is one of the spare, overcast bolero-ish tunes that Ulrich writes so well. Cardboard Man features Marc Ribot, a rare guitarist who can go as deep into noir as well as Ulrich, adding eerily flamenco-tinged touches. The exchanges between the two, switching in a split-second between styles, are expertly bittersweet.

Sizzle & Pops – referring to the imaginary roadhouse that Ulrich and his wife would be running in an alternate universe – is a rare moment of straight-up levity for this band, part Booker T, part pseudo Bill Black Combo 50s cheese. Bernstein adds distantly muted New Orleans flavor, both jaundiced and jubilant, on the group’s cover of the Beatles’ Girl: who knew what an ineffably sad song this was!

Drummer Yuval Lion takes the loose-limbed slink of the opening number and raises it several notches with his flurries in Dream Factory as Hall runs another trancey blues bassline, Ulrich’s baritone guitar pulling the song deeper into the shadows. Consider how the title of Cheap Crude could mean many things, and its sardonic rockabilly makes even more sense.

Exit Tucson, another tense, morose quasi-bolero, has all kinds of neat, rippling touches pinging through the sonic picture around Ulrich’s sad broken chords, disconsolately reverberating riffs and long, forlornly shuffling solo. The arguably even more gloomy Fly Paper has a deliciously disorienting blend of tone-bending lapsteel and furtive guitar multitracks: with its trick ending, it’s the most Twin Peaks of any of the songs here.

Ribot returns for Mr. Wrong, a disquietingly syncopted stroll: it’s amazingly how chameleonic yet grimly on task both he and Ulrich are here. The album’s final cut is Sing Sing, Peter Hess’ baritone sax adding extra smoke beneath Ulrich’s lingering, macabre tritones. The album hasn’t officially hit yet but is due up at Big Lazy’s music page.

Ulrich and Big Lazy are no strangers to the best albums of the year page here. He took first place back in 2012 for the Ulrich Ziegler record, a quasi-Big Lazy album with guitarist/bassist Itamar Ziegler, which turned out to be a one-off project before he reformed the group.. And Big Lazy’s big comeback album, Don’t Cross Myrtle, was #1 with a bullet for 2014. As far as 2019 is concerned, no spoilers, check back here at the end of December…

A Purist Retro Rock Record and a Bushwick Release Show From New York Noir Icon Julia Haltigan

These days Julia Haltigan may be best known for her work as an actress in Sleep No More, the gothic Macbeth. But she’s never let the demands of her stage career derail her role as one of New York’s most torchily captivating singers and bandleaders. She can be lurid, seducive and downright macabre, frequently in the same song. Her lyrics paint uneasy urban tableaux, usually set somewhere on the Lower East Side where she was born and raised. She’s alaso a hell of a tunesmith, with a taste for retro sounds. Her latest and hardest-rocking album, Trouble, isnt up at her at Bandcamp page yet, but a bunch of the singles from it are. She’s playing the album release show at around 11 on Oct 24 at the Sultan Room (the old Starr Barr space at 234 Starrr St. in Bushwick). Cover is $10.

The core of the band this time out is longtime Jessie Kilguss sideman John Kengla on lead guitar, Andrew Raposo (who also produced) on bass, Morgan Wiley on B3 organ and  Caito Sanchez on drums. Haltigan opens the record with Earthquake, a Manhattan rooftop party senario set to a chugging Nick Lowe-style pub rock tune. “I don’t give a fuck, I’m tired of being hustled – is it something in the air or is it that we’re jaded?” she ponders. “if we don’t do it, who’s gonna run this city?”

The oldschool soul anthem You Don’t Even Know It is soberingly set in the here and now: “They raised your rent, but the neighborhood’s the same….You don’t even kow that they follow your feet, you don’t even know that the temperature’s rising”

Wool is a hazy. slowly swaying, noir-tinged nocturne where you can “Lose your mind in the summer heat, waltz yourself down the broken street…passing through scenes that I know too well.” Then Haltigan gets even more cynical, mashing up Blondie with Rockpile and some tasty, swirly organ in Debris of Love

With its layers of icy electronic keys and Wiley’s epic Jungleland piano at the end, Thunder is a surreal mix of third-gen Casket Girls new wave and imagistic Lynchian torch song.“You can watch me walk away, I’ll even let you hold the door,” Haltigan announces in Walk Away, another late 70s-style pub rock/new wave hybrid.

With Kengla’s spaghetti western guitars and the starry constellation of keys and percussion, Bad Habit is a noir soul tableau, Haltigan at her Lynchian best; Amy Winehouse’s shadow hangs over this one. Skeleton Dance is a spare, soul-infused requiem that wouldn’t be out of place in the Nicole Atkins catalog.

“I don’t even wanna stay connected,” Haltigan sings in Mind Eater, the most new wave of all the songs here, a relentlessly troubled look at a world on the express track to self-destruction. “Just like that, it’s gone,” she half-whispers in the synthy, Cure-influenced nightscape Be With You: from a heartbroken perspective, the personal really is political these days. There’s also a bonus track, Cindy, a wickedly catchy, sympathetic powerpop shout-out to a girl from out of town struggling to keep herself together in a new metropolis. Not a single weak track on this album: you’ll see it on the best records of 2019 page if we make it that far.

Karen & the Sorrows Celebrate Their Excellent, Eclectic New Americana Album at Littlefield This Week

Over the last few years, Karen & the Sorrows have individualistically skirted the fringes of the New York Americana scene. Not all their songs are sad, and frontwoman Karen Pitttelman has no fear of mashing up different styles. Their debut album was a creepy New England gothic suite. Their second ome was a country-tinged janglerock record. Their latest album. Guaranteed Broken Heart – streaming at Bandcamp – is even more eclectic, featuring some of New York’s most electrifying musicians. Pittelman’s vocals are more dynamic and diverse than ever as well. She and the band are playing the album release show on Oct 18 at around 10:30 PM at Littlefield. Nimble, pensive acoustic guitarist/songwriter Genessa James‘ Onliest open the night at 8:30, followed by the exhilarating, fearlessly political, historically inspired Ebony Hillbillies, NYC’s only oldtime African-American string band. Cover is $10.

The title track opens the album: it’s a briskly brooding southwestern gothic shuffle with some cool tradeoffs between lead guitar and pedal steel. Cole Quest Rotante’s lingering dobro spices the loping second track, There You Are, blending with the pedal steel, mandolin and Rima Fand’s plaintive fiddle.

The band go back to darkly shuffling desert rock with the organ-driven Jonah and the Whale, Girls on Grass guitar goddess Barbara Endes winding it up with a deliciously slithery solo. Why Won’t You Come Back to Me has an even more haunting, spare, 19th century African-American gospel feel: “Oh my little angel, send me back to hell,” is the closing mantra.

Bowed bass, mandolin and banjo mingle with Fand’s mournful fiddle in the similarly rustic Appalachian gothic ballad Your New Life Now. Drummer Charles Burst gives the sad, lingering ballad Far Away a muted country backbeat: “Some people you can love up close, some from afar/The trick is knowing which they are,” Pittelman observes.

Third Time’s the Charm is an upbeat, pedal steel-fueled honkytonk number: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” sets up the chorus. Then they bring it down with the mournful Queen of Denial.

When People Show You Who They Are is a subdued, downcast, hypnotic folk-pop tune in Americana disguise. The group mash up electric Neil Young with tinges of oldschool soul in It Ain’t Me, then quietly shuffle through the melancholy Something True, with tantalizingly brief mandolin and fiddle solos. They close the album with a love ballad, You’re My Country Music. It’s inspiring to see a genuine New York original taking her sound and her songwriting to the next level.

Guitarslinger Phil Gammage Goes Back to His Dark Blues Roots Again

Phil Gammage may be best known as the lead guitarist in legendary CB’s era postpunk band Certain General, but he also has a substantial body of work as a bandleader. Over the years, he’s done everything from dark Americana to electric blues. With his latest album, It’s All Real Good – streaming at Spotify – the guitarslinger/crooner revisits the spare acoustic sound of his Live at Little Water Radio ep from a couple of years ago. He’s playing the release show tomorrow night, Sept 5 at 9 PM at 11th St. Bar. Then on the 9th he’s at Shrine at 9, and on the 30th he’s at Cowgirl Seahorse in the South Street Seaport at 7.

The album’s opening track, Naked in the Rain is a stripped down acoustic bossa, Kenny Margolis’ accordion and Michele Butler’s backing vocals filtering through a song that’s kind of low-key considering that it’s about dancing around nude.

With David Fleming’s chuffing, reverbtone blues harp, the title track is a sarcastic, bawdy blues that draws a straight line back to Sonny Boy Williamson – or even further. Likewise, Dancing on Top of the World is a sardonic, Waits-ish barhopping narrative. Luck Don’t Pass Us By comes across as an acoustic take on the apocalyptic gutter blues of 80s bands like the Gun Club.

Fueled by Margolis’ darkly bluesy spirals, Hellcat Magpie is a colorfully creepy circus-rock waltz. Then skinny Elvis meets Jimmy Reed in the muted, crepuscular Second Time Around.

Wandering Stars has a slow southwestern gothic sway, while Give Away is slow, spare and Orbisonesque. Gammage closes the album with Let Love Begin, his counterintuitive chords over Tony Mann’s shuffling drums. Gammage’s voice has grown a little flintier over the years, and the music here is quieter than most of his back catalog, but he can still conjure up as much distant menace as ever.

A Lusciously Jangly, Ferociously Relevant Masterpiece From Girls on Grass

Girls on Grass’ latest album Dirty Power – streaming at Bandcamp – has everything you could possibly want from a great rock record: slashing lyrics, soaring vocals, gorgeous harmonies, layers and layers of luscious guitar jangle and clang and roar, and tunesmithing that draws on styles from the 60s through the 80s. It’s fearlessly political, and it might be the best record released so far this year. Frontwoman Barbara Endes is on the shortlist of the best guitarists in all of rock – and she’s a great bassist too. Imagine the Dream Syndicate fronted by a woman, and produced by Eric Ambel (who was actually behind the board when this was made, and it’s one of the best projects he’s ever worked on). Girls on Grass are headlining one of the year’s best triplebills on May 12 at Coney Island Baby at around 9. Catchy, fun guy/girl indie soul band Sunshine Nights open the night at 7, followed by wickedly jangly surf/twang/country instrumentalists the Bakersfield Breakers at around 8. Cover is a ridiculously cheap $8.

The new album opens with Down at the Bottom, the harmonies of Endes and drummer Nancy Polstein rising over a soul-clap beat, spiced with icy twelve-string guitar jangle that’s part 60s Merseybeat, part 80s paisley underground psychedelia. Second guitarist David Weiss adds country-tinged twang as bassist Dave Mandl holds down an insistent groove, Endes reminding that all the best things are in the shadows and in the deepest waters. In status-grubbing real estate bubble-era New York, that subtext screams.

Street Fight is a cynical, sarcastic stomp, Weiss channeling Mick Taylor in simmering post-Chuck Berry mode, up to a slashing chromatic run. Friday Night is an indelibly simmering tableau, capturing the energy and anticipation of meeting a crush at what promises to be a hot show, chilling back by the soundboard, passing around a joint. The ending is an unexpectedly different kind of crush.

Got to Laugh to Keep From Crying, a bittersweet account of betrayal and stalker behavior, is one of the album’s most gorgeous songs, Endes’ clang against Weiss’ country twang. Two Places at Once shifts between amped-up. briskly shuffling Morricone spaghetti western and an eerily surfy Radio Birdman highway theme. Then the band burn through the garage rock riffage of the escape anthem Into the Sun, with a searing, chromatically-fueled guitar solo midway through: it sounds like that’s  Endes, but it might be Weiss too.

“Capitalism ruins everything worth doing,” Endes intones to a guy who’s only in it “For the cash, and the underage ass” in the album’s most overtly political track, Because Capitalism: the rhythm section hits a fast Motown beat as the guitars stab and burn. Endes got the inspiration for the wounded, crescendoing anthem John Doe  from the time the X bassist wrote a carpe diem message in her journal, with a “We gotta stick together” mantra that works on more than one level.

The loping desert rock instrumental Asesino sends a shout-out to an iconic Ventures hit, with hints of vintage Public Image Ltd. at the very end. “I come from superior genes,” the narcissist-in-charge brags over a swaying Flamin’ Groovies drive in Commander in Thief: the faux bombast of the guitars matches Endes’ sardonic lyric. The band wind up the album with Thoughts Are Free, with a slow, richly lingering Dream Syndicate-style intro, then picking up with a brisk country shuffle beat. “Got my money, never mind what’s happening behind the scenes,” Endes sings sarcastically. Look for this on the best albums of 2019 page at the end of the year.

Pan-Latin Surrealism and a Jersey City Gig By the Individualistic J Hacha de Zola

“Is it dark enough for you?” J Hacha de Zola asks. “This singular sensation, this odd delegation, it never made any sense.” That’s a line from a smoldering, spacy Brian Jonestown Massacre-style soundscape on his new album Icaro Nouveau, streaming at Bandcamp.. Most of the other tracks on the eclectic bandleader’s record are a lot more rhythmic, ranging from salsa-rock to latin soul and what.could be south-of-the-border Nick Cave, to Tom Waits circa Rain Dogs, at his most boisterous. A lot of this album follows the same kind of  psychedelic tangents another New York tropical eclecticist, Zemog el Gallo Bueno, indulges in. Hacha de Zola’s dayjob is biochemistry: presumably, that pays for the lavish production and army of musicians (uncredited) here, horn section and all. He’s playing the album release show with his band tonight, April 18 at 9 PM at FM Jersey City; cover is $8

The first track, Anarchy, a swaggering,, sutrealist strut sets the stage for the rest of the album. El Chucho (Hooko) is a rapidfire, similarly anarchic Balkan cumbia, aswirl with brass, guitars, and noisy piano. On a Saturday has a vintage 70s latin soul groove: the bandleader’s energetic croak brings to mind Australian legend Rob Younger’s more recent projects on the mic. Interestingly, the next number, Juan Salchipapas, reminds of Younger’s original band, Aussie psychedelic punks Radio Birdman, at their most slinky and starry

A Song For Her is a staggering shot at tremoloing retro-Orbison Twin Peaks pop, bolstered by guitar overdubs bristling in both channels. The brooding, echoing, swaying, Doorsy bolero rock ballad A Fool’s Moon is the album’s strongest track. Ode to Ralph Carney – the late, lamented ex-Tom Waits saxophonist who was Hacha de Zolla’s “secret weapon” in earlier versions of the band – takes shape as a fond, slow New Orleans funeral march.

The band take a stab at oldschool soul wiht Super Squeaky (titles don’t seem to be anything more than random here) and close with Hacha’s Lament, a return to vintage latin soull If real oldschool surrealism – we’re talking the early 20th century kind – is your thing, along with umpteen retro styles, J Hacha de Zola is your man.

Janglerock Heaven at Union Pool This Week

Last night at Union Pool was a feast of jangle, and clang, and twang, with enough reverb to lower the air a few degrees, it seemed. Girls on Grass frontwoman Barbara Endes was especially psyched to be opening for her favorite band, which speaks volumes about how she writes and plays. Few acts have someone out front who can not only sing and put a tune together but also play as ferociously eclectic lead guitar as she did throughout a set that could have gone on twice as long and everybody still would have wanted more.

Although Endes is a generation younger, her band often sounds like the Dream Syndicate with a woman out front. Her band doesn’t duel like Steve Wynn’s group, but the songs have a similarly edgy blend of Americana and riff-driven rock, and a psychedelic side. This particular version of the group switches out Sean Eden on second guitar for David Weiss, whose honkytonk and blues licks made an incisive, burning counterpart to Endes’ slithery, precise cascades and chordlets on her lefty model Fender Jazzmaster. Bassist Dave Mandl got all of two bars in one of the later songs for a solo but made the most of his rise out of the murk. Drummer Nancy Polstein swung hard and traded coy beats on her crash cymbal with the bandleader on the intro to one of the early numbers.

Much of the set was drawn from the band’s forthcoming album Dirty Power, due out momentarily. From its soul-clap intro, through a surreal blend of honkytonk and Dream Syndicate stomp, Down at the Bottom spoke for a generation of displaced artists trying to not to lose hope (and their homes) amid a blitzkrieg of gentrification. And did Endes change the last chorus from “Come hang with me” to “Don’t hang with me?” Just how much of a cautionary tale is this?

The rest of the set was just as catchy and compelling. The slowly crescendoing, anthemic Friday Night perfectly captured the electricity of being “in like with a chick who likes good music” at a good show. The opening number, Father Says Why had a deliciously watery, careening clang, while Drowning in Ego evoked a jaunty late 80s vibe with Endes’ meticulous, lickety-split quasi-bluegrass riffs. Although Endes’ vocals had their usual crystalline bite, one of the best tunes of the night was the spaghetti-surf instrumental Two Places at Once, with a remarkable similarity, stylistically if not melodically, to the headliners’ adventures in surf rock. Endes has obviously listened deeply.

The Sadies have gotten a lot of ink here. And why not? Who wouldn’t want to go see a band with two brilliant lead guitarists – brothers Travis and Dallas Good – and who came out for what could have been a single encore but ended up playing a total of eight songs that went on for as long as Girls on Grass’ set. Drummer Mike Belitsky’s funereal accents on his cymbal bells lowlit one of the handful of the band’s brooding, Americana-flavored waltzes, Cut Corners. Bassist Sean Dean plays an upright so, this time, he unfortunately wasn’t very present in the mix beyond a low resonance.

Counterintuitively, the best song of the night was the quietest one, the band hauntingly shuffling through The Good Years, a crushingly ironic tale of a mismatched couple’s tragic miscommunications: “She never asked him, he wouldn’t say,” Travis Good intoned.

The rest of almost two hours onstage featured everything from bouncy, reverbtoned surf rock, to punkgrass – a lickety-split remake of the old folk song Pretty Polly included – to waves of Brian Jonestown Massacre-tinged psychedelia and a handful of garage rock covers including a slamming remake of the Jay Walkers’ I Got My Own Thing Going. The Sadies are back at Union Pool tonight, April 3 at around 9:30, then they’re playing two sets tomorrow night, April 4, starting about an hour earlier. Cover is $20 and worth every bit.

Edgy Southwestern Rock and Existentialist Anthems with Tom Shaner in Long Island City

“I see a parade of people coming down the road,” Tom Shaner sang, cool and low, as the band behind him jangled and clanged through a catchy series of minor chords over a slow, undulating beat at LIC Bar Wednesday night. “All of those people are more or less alone.”

That song, Lake 48, goes back to the late 90s, when Shaner was leading a richly dusky desert rock band called Industrial Tepee. It was slower and slinkier then; over the years, Shaner has tightened it up a bit. The procession in the song hasn’t changed: all of those people are slowly making their way down to a place “Where the great spirit waits,’ and it seems they’re pretty determined to get there because if they miss their exit, they might end up at Lake 47.

“The number doesn’t matter,” Shaner ad-libbed. “But we won’t get there together,” he added.

There was also a parade in the slowly swaying, distantly spaghetti western-flavored opening number, another Industrial Tepee tune, along with several other slightly less gloomy existential moments. “It’s the wrong kind of silence here, like everybody wants to disappear,” he intoned in Viva Las Nowhere, pianist Mary Spencer Knapp adding twisted tango glitter. She calls herself an accordion shredder, which is true, but here she was just as colorful, shifting effortlessly and intuitively through two-fisted chords and jaunty riffage that drew as much on stride piano and oldtime blues as they did cabaret and circus rock.

“There were more trees here,” Shaner recounted, explaining to the crowd that he’d envisioned the drum sound in New York City Is Paradise Number 2 – a place you either eat, or it eats you – to evoke the echo of something being hit in the woods, rather than amidst concrete and steel. He’d grown up in Queens hearing both sounds, the latter more and more frequently.

Not everything in the set was as ominous. Shaner has written a lot of funny, theatrical numbers about she-devils, and the latest one, Carol’s House of Cruelty was an especially lurid, over-the-top tale about the unlucky guys who don’t have the sense to stay out. He also led the band through a pulsing take of Groove Queen, a cynically anthemic mashup of 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelia and Tom Waits blues. The rest of the show was a little more subdued, a chance for his purposeful bassist, drummer and lead guitarist to add subtle hints of oldschool soul and a little C&W.

Beyond sheer songwriting prowess, Shaner is an anomaly in what’s left of the New York rock scene. He doesn’t tour a lot – LIC Bar is his home base, more or less – but he gets a lot of high-profile film and tv placements and puts out the occasional excellent album. Watch this space for upcoming shows. If smart tunesmithing is your thing, LIC Bar has been on a roll with a lot of that lately: Melissa Gordon, frontwoman of the brilliant, new wave-ish Melissa & the Mannequins has a Monday night 10 PM residency there this month, including tonight, Feb 18. Another songwriter who has a lot in common with Shaner, the southwestern gothic-influenced Miwa Gemini, opens at 9.

Haunting Film Noir and Desert Rock Themes from Reverend Screaming Fingers

Reverend Screaming Fingers’ cinematic, surfy instrumental themes don’t often scream, but boy do they resonate. And there are no doubt films in development screaming out for these songs. The guitarist (real name: Lucio Menegon) layers colorful multitracks over a steady, low-key rhythm section for a mix of creepy noir themes, spaghetti western tunes and midtempo surf rock. The Desert Years, his new third volume in his series of Music for Driving and Film, is streaming at Bandcamp. Big Lazy’s highly anticipated new album isn’t out yet, but until then, this twangy, dusky masterpiece will do just fine. It’s a lock for one of the best albums of 2019.

Here Menegon is supported by a rotating rhythm section: Wally Ingram on drums, with Danny Frankel, Damian Lester, Kip Powell and Janie Cowan sharing bass duties.The opening track, No Destination starts out with a fleeting, insistent new wave guitar riff but quickly slinks into the shadows with a southwestern gothic ambience capped off midway through with a little Tex-Mex. Then the bandleader completely lfips the script with the tender, oldtimey country ballad Chapparal Kiss, with low-key mandolin over a graceful 6/8 sway.

Dream of the Desperado comes across as a mashup of rapt Japanese temple music mingled with slow-burn Black Lodge guitar that finally coalesces as a creepy slide guitar blues: it would be a solid track on any Big Lazy album. Monsoon Gully has snarling, distorted, serpentine guitar leads set to a gently tumbling cha-cha beat: Beninghove’s Hangmen are a good point of comparison.

Spare, spaciously fingerpicked guitar figures mingle above a backdrop of rain and tree frog samples throughout Funereal. Speaking of funereal, the organ beneath the loping, savagely crescendoing desert theme Dance of the Dust adds immensely to the ominous ambience.

Delicate tremolo-picking beneath lingering reverbtoned riffs raises the suspense in Yuma Interlude, up to a tantalizing exchange of riffs in both channels, then back down again. Lost Alien Highway slowly builds into a simmering roadhouse blues. Almost Home is a lively blend of Buck Owens twang and roller-rink organ theme. The final cut is Rattler Ranch, an upbeat, catchy, woodsy groove for guitar and bass.

Winter Jazzfest, New York, January 12, 2019: Late Start, Early Departure

The new “luxury” Public Hotel at 215 Chrystie Street in Chinatown was constructed so cheaply that they didn’t even spend the two hundred bucks it would have cost them to put a sink in the men’s latrine.

The exit door swings open to the inside. There are also no paper towels.

Meaning that if you want to leave, you have to use your bare hand to yank something that many other dudes have yanked earlier in the evening, presumably with bare hands as well.

What relevance does this have to night two of the big marathon weekend of Winter Jazzfest 2019? You’ll have to get to the end of this page to find out.

For this blog, the big Saturday night of the increasingly stratified annual event began not in Chinatown but at the eastern edge of the Bleecker Street strip, which has traditionally traded in its cheesiness for a couple of nights of jazz bliss to accommodate the festival. Less so this year.

What’s the likelihood of seeing a band playing spaghetti western rock two nights in a row? It happened this weekend at Winter Jazzfest. Guitarist/singer Markus Nordenstreng, co-leader of the eclectic Tuomo & Markus took an early stab at defusing a potential minefield. “I know we’re pushing the limits of what you can do at a jazz festival. But we’re Finnish, so we don’t have to play by the rules,” he grinned. The group had just slunk their way through a triptych of slow, lurid, Lynchian soundtrack instrumentals in front of an aptly blue velvet backdrop. Trumpeter Verneri Pohjola took centerstage in a mashup of Angelo Badalamenti and late Bob Belden noir, with a couple of departures into Morricone-esque southwestern gothic. After that, Nordenstreng sang a new wave-flavored tribute to Helsinki pirate radio and then took a turn for the worse into Americana.

In past editions of the festival, the thrill of getting into a coveted set has too often been counterbalanced by the failure to do the same: a festival pass doesn’t guarantee admission, considering how small some of the clubs are. Down the block from Zinc Bar, it was heartwarming to see a long line hoping to get in to catch darkly tuneful pianist Guy Mintus with explosive singer Roopa Mahadevan. It was less heartwarming to have to go to plan B.

Which meant hunkering down and holding a seat for the better part of an hour waiting for Jen Shyu to take the stage at the rundown venerable cramped intimate Soho Playhouse. Shyu’s music inhabits a disquieting dreamworld of many Asian languages and musical idioms. She’s a talented dancer, a brilliantly diverse singer and composer. At this rare solo gig, she played more than competently on Taiwanese moon lute, Japanese biwa, Korean gayageum, American Rhodes piano and Korean soribuk drum, among other instruments.

Shyu’s themes are often harrowing and fiercely populist; this show was a chance to see how unselfconsciously and bittersweetly funny she can be, via a retelling of an ancient, scatological Taiwanese parable about the dangers of overreaching. “Cockfighting,” she mused. “You can laugh. It’s a funny word.” It got way, way funnier from there, but a dark undercurrent persisted, fueled by the devastating loss of a couple of Javanese friends in a brutal car crash in 2016.

Back at Subculture, it was just as redemptive to watch Dave Liebman challenge himself and push the envelope throughout a mystical, hypnotic trio set with percussionists Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake. Liebman’s meticulous, judiciously slashing modal work on soprano sax was everything a packed, similarly veteran house could have wanted. His trilling wood flute, adventures plucking under the piano lid, and unexpectedly emphatic, kinetic tenor sax were more of a surprise from a guy who’s in many ways even more vital than he was forty years ago – and that says a lot. Rudolph wound up the set playing sintir – the magical Moroccan acoustic bass – and looping a catchy gnawa riff as Drake boomed out a hypnotic beat on daf frame drum.

Even better than two successive nights of spaghetti western music was two nights of Carmen Staaf compositions. The poignantly lyrical pianist shared the stage with the similar Ingrid Jensen on Friday night; last night, Staaf was with polymath drummer Allison Miller and their wryly titled Science Fair band with Dayna Stephens on tenor sax, Jason Palmer on trumpet and Matt Penman on bass. Staaf proved a perfect, hard-hitting rhythmic foil throughout Miller’s compositions, which are as restless as Miller’s drumming would have you believe. We’re not just taking A and B and C sections; we’re talking M and N and maybe more, considering how many fleeting ideas were flickering through her metrically glittering tunes. Palmer started out as bad hardbop cop but got lingeringly Romantic, fast; Stephens stayed in balmy mode, more or less. And Miller’s hyperkinetic, constantly counterintuitive accents added both mirth and mystery to Staaf’s methodically plaintive balladry, a richly bluesy Mary Lou Williams homage and a final, broodingly modal latin-tinged anthem.

That’s where the night ended for this blog; much as it could have been fun to watch tenor sax heavyweights JD Allen and David Murray duke it out, or to hear what kind of juju trumpeter Stephanie Richards could have conjured up alongside reedman Oscar Noriega, sometimes you have to watch your health instead.

Now about that bathroom and how that factors into this story. According to the printed festival schedule, there was a whole slate of hot swing jazz scheduled in a downstairs room – hidden behind an unmarked, locked doorway, as it turned out – at the “luxury” Public Hotel. According to a WJF staffer, a last-minute change of venue two train stations to the north was required when the hotel suddenly cancelled because someone had offered them more money to do a wedding there instead. The result was a lot of mass confusion.

And the Public Hotel staff did their best to keep everybody in the dark. None of the support people seemed to have been briefed that such a room existed, let alone that there was any such thing as Winter Jazzfest – notwithstanding that the hotel had been part of the festival less than 24 hours before. Those who knew that there actually was such a room gave out conflicting directions: no surprise, since it’s tucked away in an alcove with no signage.

It is pathetic how many people will not only kiss up to those they view as bosses, but also emulate their most repulsive characteristics. Cornered by a posse of a half dozen of us, the Public Hotel’s front desk people on the second floor wouldn’t make eye contact. Despite repeated entreaties, they pretended we didn’t exist. Entitlement spreads like herpes.

A floor below, the bar manager couldn’t get his story straight. First, there was no way to the downstairs room other than through the locked outside door. Then, woops, it turned out that there was an elevator, but that we weren’t “allowed to use it.” Likewise, he told us that the venue – whose website didn’t list the night – also didn’t have a number we could call for information.

“A Manhattan music venue without a phone, that’s a first,” a veteran in our posse sneered.

The simpering manager finally copped to the fact that there was in fact a phone, “But it’s private.” Would he call it, or get one of his staff to call it for us and find out what the deal was? No.

“The hotel and the venue are separate places,” he confided – and then enumerated the many types of information the two share. What he didn’t share was what would have sent us on our way. And maybe he didn’t have the answer. What was clear was how much he wanted us to abandon our search, and stay and pay for drinks amidst the Eurotrash.

One tireless member of our posse went down into the basement and opened one of many, many doors marked “private.” Behind it was the kitchen. One of the cooks, a personable individual eating a simple plate of what appeared to be Rice-a-Roni, volunteered to help. First, the cook suggested we go up to the front desk and ask. After hearing how all we were getting was the runaround, the cook was still down for finding an answer: “Let me just finish this and I’ll come up with you.”

As welcome as the offer was, one doesn’t drag people away from their dinner…or into a fiasco that clearly was not going to be resolved. But it was reassuring to know that in the belly of the beast, surrounded by Trumpie Wall Street trash and their enablers who mistakenly think they can get ahead by aping them, that good people still exist.