New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: stoner music

Purposeful, Darkly Heavy Psychedelia and Blues From All Them Witches

Nashville hasn’t historically been a rock hotspot, but there’s been a lot of good stuff coming out of there recently without the hint of country twang. Heavy psych band All Them Witches are at the front of the pack. Their latest album, ATW, is streaming at Bandcamp. Their riff-rock is more minimal than Led Zep, less envelopingly hypnotic than the Black Angels, although there are moments where these guys very closely resemble those two very different groups.

The album’s first track, Fishbelly 86 Onions is a circling, staggered riff-rock mini-epic. “Never thought he would wake up from a fistfight,” frontman/guitarist Charles Michael Parks Jr. intones. “Never thought he would get knocked down,” he adds. Finally the cuts loose with the vibrato on the guitar; the bass doubling Jonathan Draper’s reverbtoned Fender Rhodes electric piano lines add to the smoky atmosphere. All of a sudden, six minutes in, it hits you: these guys haven’t changed chords yet!

“Like a warhorse caught in the stable,” Parks explains as the band builds a darkly rustic, 19th century blues-influenced groove in Workhorse.  “They want to feel the wheels of control…they wanna see me work in a cage, see me bleed.” It could be a heavier take on the kind of ferociously populist gutter blues the Sideshow Tragedy were doing a couple of years ago.

Drummer Robby Staebler steers the band through the tricky changes of the vintage Zep-flavored 1st vs. 2nd with a nimbly crushing attack. “I’ve been counting the seconds, I’ve been waiting too long,” is the mantra.

The brooding Half-Tongue is a gorgeously spare heavy blues, Parks’ jagged Chicago guitar lines over Draper’s smoky Hammond organ. The album’s darkest number, Diamond is almost as stark, finally building to a menacing, chromatic drive fueled by Parks and fellow guitarist Ben McLeod before returning to a deadpool ambience that sounds like the Black Angels covering Blue Oyster Cult.

The band go back to slow, heavy minor-key blues for album’s longest epic, Harvest Feast, which is definitely a feast of clanging, echoing, wailing and burning guitar textures, orchestrated with immense subtlety for a band this heavy. The way they edge toward Grateful Dead territory without losing focus is an especially cool touch.

The band turn on a dime from a drony jet engine intro to a shamanistic pulse as HJTC gets underway: it could be the Black Angels reduced to simplest and darkest terms. They wind up the album Rob’s Dream, a slow, spare, eerily warpy minor psych-blues tableau that finally rises to a scorching peak: British legends the Frank Flight Band come to mind. Despite a recent lineup shuffle, this captures one of this country’s most individualistic psychedelic bands at the top of their uneasy game.

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Menacing Full-Throttle Instrumentals From the Death Wheelers

Today’s Halloween album, streaming at Bandcamp, is I Tread on Your Grave, by instrumentalists the Death Wheelers. The album cover and bandname are a little misleading: what they play isn’t really biker rock. It’s closer to the growling SoCal ATV themes that Agent Orange played on the River’s Edge soundtrack (now there’s a great Halloween movie!). Pat Irwin’s eclectic 80s scorpion rock band the Raybeats also come to mind, although the Death Wheelers are a lot louder. more metal-oriented and distinguish themselves with downtuned bass. In the same vein as another legendary instrumental rock band, Man or Astroman, the group like to open their songs with snippets from cheesy 50s horror flicks.

The album opens with the title track. Max Tremblay’s doomy, gleefully tremoloing Sabbath-esque bass riff kicks it off, then the band – who also comprise guitarists Sy Tremblay and Hugo Bertacci, plus drummer Richard Turcotte – take it on a weirdly syncopated tangent with keening slide guitar.

13 Discycles is a metalflake take on horror surf: when the band go halfspeed, then quarterspeed on the long outro, it could be Pantera playing Beware the Dangers of a Ghost Scorpion. The furthest they go into the surf is Moto Vampiro, but even that takes a detour into vintage 70s riff-rock: the flange and the distorted bass add skunky contrast.

Where so many of these tracks careen from one style to another or mash them up, Roadkill 69 is the closest thing to 60s biker theme here, but with metal sonics. The album’s best track, Sleazy Rider Returns, is also its creepiest, a Frankenstein gallop that starts out as the most horror surf-oriented number here, then slouches toward Sleep and then pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd.

Death Wheelers/Marche Funebre begins all sludgy, with some tasty machete tremolo-picking, then the band put the rubber to the road: it could be the Coffin Daggers with grittier bass. They launch into a nazgul gallop in Black Crack, a wry update on a classic Led Zep stomp; then, in Backstabber, they weld more of that vinyl-cracking sunburst slide guitar to a chugging, vintage Motorhead-style riff. 

If Iron Maiden had been an instrumental band during their earliest days back in the 70s, they might have done RIP (Last Ride) – the sample that introduces it is a real hoot. The brief Purple Wings sounds like an unexpectedly swinging, funk-tinged rehearsal jam that the band decided to keep and maybe work up later.

The album’s final cut is Moby Dick – an original, not the Led Zep monstrosity -where they nick an old Sonny Boy Williamson riff that the Allman Brothers infamously ruined, and do it justice. Guess these guys figured they couldn’t nick the title as well if they didn’t put in a really funny Spinal Tap drum solo as well. It’s hard to think of a more interesting, original heavy band out there. 

More Brown Acid For Halloween Month

Halloween month this year is turning out to be a long, strange trip around here. In celebration of the creepiness coming up at the end of the month, there’s a sixth compilation in the Brown Acid series of obscure proto-metal and heavy psych treasures, most of them from the 60s and early 70s.

Most of the dozens of bands anthologized in the series never made more than a few singles at best. Many made only one. Some of those 45’s sell for thousands of dollars on the collectors market, but the Brown Acid folks have made them available for people who don’t have hedge funds or trust funds. And they actually pay royalties to the surviving artists. Imagine – buy the vinyl and you’re actually helping support some old weedhead.

The most recent vinyl release Brown Acid: The Sixth Trip – streaming at Bandcamp – is the most R&B, psychedelic soul and funk-influenced volume to date. It kicks off with No Parking, by San Franciso band Gold, which welds frantically scampering Blues Magoos garage rock to amped-up R&B. Like a lot of these singles, it’s mixed in mono, an effect which actually helps hold the convulsive outro together.

Inferno, by Canadian group Heat Exchange, comes across as a more nimble version of Cream, with tasty twin leads from guitar and organ and a shockingly good, biting alto sax solo before the wah-wah kicks in. Lovin’ You, by Travis (not the late 90s British arena-rock band) is a slinky,psychedelic soul groove that could almost pass for very early Hendrix. Enoch Smoky’s It’s Cruel distinguishes itself with one of the tastiest, fattest basslines in the entire series: don’t let the fact that it’s basically a supercharged Brill Building pop tune scare you off.

Backwood Memory’s Give Me Time is a vintage psychedelic soul nugget: it’s too bad the band never connected with a record label that could buy some airplay. One of the funnier titles in the collection, Luvin, Huggin & More, by Flight, sounds like a prototype for Bachman-Turner Overdrive recorded on somebody’s home stereo, guitars pinned in the red. Which comes as no surprise – six years after “releasing” this in 1974, bandleader Victor Blecman had a left-field new wave hit with Space Invaders.

Midnight Horsemen, by Truth & Janey, has a loping, funky beat and a doublespeed bridge that almost falls apart: if REO Speedwagon had started out in the 60s, they might have sounded something like this. My Life, by West Minst’r, is the most generic riff-rock track here, although the befuddled lyrics are really funny.

Purgatory’s Polar Expedition is a hippie blues bounce that could be Brownsville Station covering the Doors. Boston hippie Johnny Barnes’ Steele Rail Blues could be early Thin Lizzy. before the label censors edited out the weed references: it’s the one track here that could have been edited down to two minutes fifty seconds without sacrificing anything. The album winds up on a high point with Chicago rockers Zendik’s wickedly catchy, 13th Floor Elevators-tinged There No Peace. The biting diminished chords and “god is dead” mantra make you wish there was more material from this talented, insightful crew.

Devil’s horns raised to the skies for the tireless playlisters here who’ve dedicated literally thousands of hours to giving this music the audience it’s deserved for decades but never reached until recently.

What Would Halloween Month Be Without Brown Acid?

What’s more Halloweenish than LSD? If you’re lucky, you associate it with laughing fits and the ability to consume ridiculous amounts of alcohol without feeling it. But anyone who’s experienced knows the flipside, which can be the distilled essence of macabre. Very few of the songs in the Brown Acid compilations actually reference the drug, pro or con. Do these playlists, whose raison d’etre is to exhume buried treasures from the 60s and 70s at the magic moment when psychedelia got really heavy and started to morph into metal,  actually make a good soundtrack for tripping? Depends on your taste – or maybe your condition.

There are now six Brown acid collections available for stoners and fans of what was called hard rock back in the 60s and 70s. Each compilation is very eclectic: there’s doom metal, stoner boogie, a surprising amount of psychedelic soul, and heavy psych. The fifth one, which is streaming at Bandcamp and available on vinyl, turns out to be more garage and Britrock-influenced.

Track one is No Reason, by Captain Foam, a catchy piece of tumbling Dave Clark Five Britpop turbocharged with fuzzy guitars with the reverb turned all the way up, in the same vein as Spooky Tooth or the Move at their heaviest. The spacy instrumental bridge leaves you wanting several minutes more.

George Brigman’s Blowin’ Smoke is a Hendrix knockoff without the Hendrix – they could have left this one in its dusty sleeve. But Nothing in the Sun, a 1968 rarity by Milwaukee rockers Finch, is a post-Velvets gem: it’s more proto-glam than proto-metal, cheap amps driven to deliver every ounce of buzz and feedback they can as the lead guitar goes up the scale.

The smoky organ over the trebly, jagged heartbeat bassline in Cybernaut’s instrumental Clockwork sounds like Uriah Heep with a Ph.D. – the rhythmic changes are a neat psychedelic touch. The album’s A-side ends with Fargo’s Abbadon, its weirdo religious imagery and twisted early Moody Blues-meet-the-MC5 vibe.

Side 2 opens with Mammoth, by Mammoth (yup), adding a wild, woolly edge to what would otherwise be a mostly one-chord, early Kinks-ish R&B vamp. Icky Blicky, by Flasher opens with the turn of a key in the ignition and then hits a psychedelic soul pulse: Rare Earth comes to mind in this surreal tale about a guy so high he apparently can’t move his car. Fireball, by obscure Canadian band Lance, is a grittier take on what Bowie was doing on Aladdin Sane, while Zebra’s cover of Helter Skelter goes in a psychedelic soul direction and is a little slower than the original (how did the compilers afford what it must have cost to license this?!?!)

The album’s final cut is Lick It, by Thor – keep in mind that this was made long before Spinal Tap, and before gangsta rap made coyly smutty rock innuendos seem like a quaint artifact. Cowbell and fuzztones rule here, a growling lead track half-buried in the mix. The song isn’t quite as funny as Be On My Side, by Fragile & the Eggs, but it’s close. Further proof that the major label history of rock music only tells a tiny fraction of the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dustlights Build a Catchy, Ethereal Sonic Cocoon

Dustlights’ enveloping debut album In a Stillness – streaming at Bandcamp – has a vastness you’d never expect from just a trio of sax, bass and drums. Part trip-hop, part stoner soundscape and part postrock, like Tortoise at their most concise, it’s music to get lost in. Yet bandleader/saxophonist Joe MF Wilson’s riffs have a purpose and directness that matches the material’s deep-space proportions, beefed up with layers of echo, reverb and other effects. The trio are playing the album release show tomorrow night, Aug 6 at around 10 PM at Wonders of Nature. Gritty, guitar-fueled postrockers Star Rover play beforehand at 9; cover is $10.

The album’s opening cut, Stolen Treasures and the Sea sets the stage for the rest of the album, bassist Ran Livneh (of amazing Ethio-jazz jamband Anbessa Orchestra) and drummer David Christian maintaining a litheness under Wilson’s catchy, subtly wafting hooks. Livneh’s hypnotic looping melody underpins the plaintive rainy-day melody, lingering ambience and hints of Ethiopiques in the second cut, Lifeworld

Throught Awoke, ghe rhythm section build a subtly echoing trip-hop groove beneath Wilson’s washes overhead. Blades That Bend has tastily astringent hints of Afrobeat contrasting with its balmy, low-key, minimalist pulse, while Tea Wars, with its flickering drum hardware and contrasting bass multitracks, is hardly bellicose.

The aptly titled, spare yet spacious Empty Porch Chairs floats along slowly; it’s arguably the album’s most nocturnal piece. Then the group pick up the pace – at least as much as they do here – with Night Tide, an echoey, rather wistful theme grounded by the rhythm section’s tight persistence, rising to a very unexpected peak.

Heart Counts begins as a ballad in disguise, featuring Wilson’s warmest phrasing here, then becomes a battle in disguise – more or less. With its dub reggae echoes, the album’s most animated, catchiest track is Shaken. The group wind it up with the epic Inner Stillness, practically ten minutes of spare, misty tectonic shifts over mystical, spacious djembe and bass pulses. Put this on and drift off to a better place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grex Bring Their Irrepressibly Amusing Ersatz Psychedelia to Brooklyn and Queens This Month

Grex are a more epic, cohesive counterpart to Parlor Walls. The California band’s previous album was a screaming, guitar-fueled cover of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. It’s true to the spirit of the original in that it’s highly improvised. Yet Karl Evangelista’s guitar, Rei Scampavia’s keys and guest Dan Clucas’ cornet channel much more angst in the face of trying to connect with some type of higher power, compared to Coltrane’s fervent reverence. In a very hubristic, punk-inspired way, it’s a twisted masterpiece. They’re on tour this month, and they’re bringing their gritty assault to a couple of New York shows. On July 11 at 7 PM, they’ll be at Holo in Ridgewood for $10; then the following night, July 12 they’ll be at Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick at 10:30 PM for the tip jar.

Their new album Electric Ghost Parade – streaming at Bandcamp – is completely different. It’s a sardonically noisy psychedelic rock record with a little free jazz thrown in to keep you guessing. And it’s an awful lot of fun. It opens with Quicksilver, a cantering early 80s-style no wave vamp through the prism of Sonic Youth. By the time it’s over, the band have touched on punk soul, stoner metal and 60s psychedelia. Interestingly, the vocal harmonies bring to mind Dennis Davison of brilliant retro 60s psychedelicists the Jigsaw Seen.

Scampavia sings the grisly lyrics of the faux glamrock anthem TM26 completely deadpan, up to an irresistibly funny ending. Her vocals in Martha, sung to the last of the passenger pigeons, “caged in a past you can never appease,” are a lot warmer. Behind her, the band do a funhouse mirror take on Chicano Batman-style psychedelic soul, with a tasty, surprisingly straightforward chorus-box guitar solo from Evangelista.

Mal & Luma – about a couple of pet rats – begins as a disorienting mood piece, juxtaposing Robert Lopez’s spare, echoey cymbal work with squiggly electronics, some jagged guitar flickers and low-register ominousness, then morphing into a big, sarcastically garish guitar raveup. Then Evangelista has fun with phony Hendrix and phony soul in the carefree, haphazardly kaleidoscoping Feelin’ Squiddy.

Husk sounds like Mary Halvorson covering something from Sergeant Pepper. Road Trip, a duet, veers suddenly between stoner boogie, breezy folk-rock and wry noiserock freakout – it seems to be a chronicle of a doomed relationship. Scampavia plays bad cop to Evangelista’s good one in the even more cinematic Saints, which is like Charming Disaster on acid.

The album’s most straightforwardly tuneful number is Quincy, a wistful, pastoral lament – at least until Evangelista hits his distortion pedal, Scampavia hits her electric piano patch and they make lo-fi Pink Floyd out of it. Similarly, ersatz 70s stadium bombast sits uneasily alongside 90s riot girl chirp in Transpiration, before everything falls apart. The swaying, stomping Bad Cop is an unexpectedly direct sendup of religious nutjubs: “Better to die a martyr than raise a song or daughter.”

The album’s most epic, apocalyptic number is Mango Mango – with its echoey stoner sonics, off-kilter squall and allusions to artsy metal, it’s a good synopsis for the album. The album concludes with the squirrelly miniature Old Dogs, who “die slow,” according to Scampavia. This precariously funny blend of parody, assault and oldschool rock erudition will no doubt be on a lot of best-of-2018 lists – watch this space at the end of the year.

Deliciously Dark Heavy Psych Sounds in Gowanus Saturday Night

This Saturday night, June 23 starting at 8ish there’s a monster heavy rock triplebill at Lucky 13 Saloon in Gowanus. Deliciously dirgey, hypnotic Brooklyn doom metal band Neither God Nor Master open the night, followed by darkly artsy boogie band Hogan’s Goat and then haunting heavy psych band Matte Black. The venue’s calendar page doesn’t list a cover charge, but it’s usually ten bucks here. 

Much as the night’s two later bands are excellent, the most intriguing act could be Brooklyn’s own Neither God Nor Master. When’s the last time you heard a doomy heavy psych band with a cello and a woman out front? Their debut release – you could call its two epic tracks either an ep or a maxi-single – is up at Bandcamp as a free download.

As the nine-minute dirge The Weedeologue gets underway, guitarist Mike Calabrese looms ominously, throws bloodsplatters of blues in between his chords a la Tony Iommi and lets the feedback grow and then recede over the slow, unstoppable wave motion of bassist Paul Atreides and drummer Angela Tornello. Singer Valerie Russo walks a steady line between echoey clarity and mystery, a somber, distant presence.

The second song is Who Placates the Fire. The rhythm section sway along, driven by Atreides’ Electric Funeral chromatics and cellist Chelsea Shugert’s creepy fuzztones, Russo’s voice slowly sliding around the midrange. Calabrese eventually hits his wah pedal and channels Ron Asheton at halfspeed. Fans of classic and newschool doom, from Sabbath and Sleep to Electric Citizen, will love this band. If they get a chance to hit the road, they have a global audience waiting for them, lighters raised, reeking of weed.

A Transcendent, Trance-Inducing Night of Psychedelic Indian Soul at Zeshan B’s Lincoln Center Debut

In his Lincoln Center debut last week, Chicago soul singer Zeshan B delivered one of the most rivetingly psychedelic, impassioned, fearlessly relevant performances at any New York venue this year. Introducing the Chicago-born singer/harmonium player and his fantastic band, Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal enthused that he “Encompasses every yummy kind of music there is,” which wasn’t a stretch. In over an hour onstage, he and his slinky, surreal, spot-on four-piece backing band opened with some chill funk, closed with a spine-tingling oldschool soul anthem, in between shifting between new psychedelic arrangements of ancient Indian ghazals, some Bollywood, Sufi balladry, hints of hip-hop and even a couple of sublimely expert detours toward medieval Jewish cantorial music. Is there anything this guy CAN’T sing?

Writer Amy Schiller, ensconced in the front row of the VIP area, quipped that Zeshan B’s brand-new signature style should be called “ghazpel.”

The group’s vampy, impassioned opening number, Breaking Point, rose to a brief guitar solo from the brilliantly incisive Samuel Moesching over the serpentine pulse of bassist Jeremiah Hunt and drummer Greg Artry. The frontman’s harmonium added a trippy, trebly texture, mingling with Rob Clearfield’s blippy electric piano.

Zeshan B isn’t the only brilliant Indian-American singer fronting a psychedelic band – Kamala Sankaram does the same thing in front of the similarly surreal, amazing Bombay Rickey. But it’s hard to imagine anyone else in this hopefully expanding subgenre to channel as much wrenching angst or passion as this guy did with his melismatic baritone. He and the band held the crowd transfixed with their first swaying, gorgeously moody minor-key ghazal, singing in Urdu, rising to an angst-fueled peak, Moesching adding a subtly brooding a wah-wah guitar solo before the bandleader went deep into the grit. Then he went up into the rafters with his powerful falsetto. As he mentioned in passing later in the show, Urdu soul is a real genre. He credited his journalist dad, who reported on African-American music and culture in the 60s and 70s, as a major influence.

The group didn’t waste any time flipping the script, reinventing the Jimmy Cliff ballad Hard Road to Travel as indomitable oldschool Smokey Robinson soul in 12/8 time. Watching a Punjabi-American bring a Jamaican reggae hit full circle, back to its original inspiration, was a real trip; Zeshan B used the outro to air out his falsetto again. A dramatic, mystical invocation that drew on his time as a teenage muezzin at the neighborhood mosque served as the intro to the brisk, anthemic Lonely Man.

Zeshan B has a powerful populist streak. Chicago has been blighted by gentrification almost as devastatingly as New York, and he related how his old neighborhood has been decimated to the point of unrecognizability, just like Williamsburg and Bushwick. He underscored the aftereffects in the longing and nostalgia of a lilting ballad that segued into a slowly crescendoing, echoey interlude. Then with a slow, misty resignation, he and the band built a long launching pad for a big vocal crescendo in Jaane Man, spiced with alternately oscillating and searing Moesching riffage and some wry wah-wah keys from Clearfield.

Zeshan B’s take of Otis Redding’s You Don’t Miss Your Water, just vocals and Clearfield’s piano, took everybody to church. The best song of the night was a brooding minor-key ghazal-rock number, Clearfield’s bitingly trebly keys slithering over a muted swing and Moesching’s jagged accents. Their full-band take of George Perkins’ 1970 cult favorite protest-soul anthem Cryin in the Streets was unexpectedly brief, although the group raised the the rafters with Brown Power, Zeshan B’s affirmation of solidarity among brown-skinned people around the globe. Moesching chopped his chords with a ferocity to match Zeshan B’s insistence that “We ain’t gonna take it no more from the ivory tower – Brown Power!” 

After a stop at Bonnaroo, his next show is a hometown gig on June 22 at 8 PM at the Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W 111th St. in Chicago; tix are $27. And the next free concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is tomorrow night, June 7 at 7:30 PM with another fearless firebrand singer and bandleader, Mauritania’s Noura Mint Seymali. Get there early if you’re going.