New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: Uncategorized

An Intense, Mesmerizing New Album From the Mehmet Polat Trio

The Mehmet Polat Trio are one of the world’s most distinctive and cutting-edge groups in Middle Eastern and Turkish music. Their songs are epic and picturesque, incorporating elements of West African, Andalucian, Romany and Balkan sounds as well. Bandleader and oud virtuoso Polat can play with blazing speed if he wants, but he typically prefers a dynamically charged approach. His compositions have a cinematic sensibility that gets very dark on occasion. In this group he’s joined by kora player Dymphi Peeters and ney flutist Sinan Arat. Their show last summer at Lincoln Center was one of the most compelling concerts of the year; their latest album Ask Your Heart is streaming at Spotify.

This is deep, rich, impeccably crafted music that demands repeated listening. The opening epic, Untouched Stories, builds out of an enigmatic intro with echoes of Indian baul minstrelsy to a catchy, verdantly anthemic sway, It wouldn’t be out of place on an early 80s Pat Metheny album, but with organic production values. Arat’s balmy flute solo eventually gives way to Polat’s low, suspenseful oud solo over a syncopated strum, a high-spirited highway theme of sorts that calms as the rhythm drops out and segues into the second track, Dance It Out. Hazy ney over a hypnotically leaping, circular hook rises to a gently triumphant chorus, then a waterfalling kora solo and an unexpectedly insistent, enigmatic coda that Polat steers back toward the Levant. All this brings to mind the most energetic original work of fellow Turkish composer/oudist Omar Faruk Tekbilek.

The trio open Sandcastles as a pouncing, bristling, modal suspense theme with flamenco and Romany echoes, then the bandleader takes it into more pensive terrain with an insistent, minimalist solo, rising and falling. Neset quickly becomes even more insistent and imbued with longing, the kora at times supplying ripples akin to a kanun or santoor in Egyptian or Iraqi music while Polat essentially plays a bassline, ney wafting mournfully overhead.

Likewise, a muted, wounded sensibility pervades the beginning and end of Whispering to Waves, a brooding interweave of oud and kora falling away for a shimmering. crescemdoing kora solo and then desolate solo ney.

With its implied melody and pensively dancing syncopation, the album’s title track lives up to its name. Polat plays melismatic, sitar-like low-register lines, then guardedly picks up steam. Arat’s gentle rhythmic puffs add a hypnotic element.

Evening Prayer, with allusively heartbroken lyrics by Leyla Hamin and melody by Turkish oudist Kazanci Bedih, is more gently sprightly than you might expect. although the catchy tune grows more pensive as the band builds variations on it. A brooding solo by Arat bridges into the more anthemic and also much darker Everything iIs n You as it rises from the lows (Polat plays a custom-built oud with extra low register). His aching, angst-ridden solo midway through could be the high point of the album.

Serenity opens with stately, starry kora, but the band picks up the pace, taking it down into murkier depths via a syncopated take on a familiar Middle Eastern progression. The band double their dancing lines and then dig in hard in Simorgh, an altered waltz, hypnotic kora anchoring Polat’s pulsing solo. The album ends with Mardin, a lilting flute tune by Turkish oudist Ahmet Uzungol. Meticulous interplay, striking tunes and a fascinatingly unorthodox lineup of instruments make this one of the best albums of the year.

Potent, Evocative New Vocal Jazz: Helen Sung with Words Last Night at the Jazz Standard

On one hand, Helen Sung with Words last night at the Jazz Standard was a chance to hear both multi-reedman John Ellis and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen blaze together in front of a tight latin-flavored rhythm section, a treat not to be missed. On the other, it was an opportunity to witness the most cutting edge of vocal jazz, a tantalizingly eclectic, often harrowingly relevant work in progress bookended by a couple of real burners.

Singers Christie Dashiell, Carolyn Leonhart and Vuyo Sotashe took turns and often harmonized Sung’s settings of poems by Dana Gioia, whose recorded words wafted through the PA as each song got underway. Alternately brooding, sardonic or droll, Sung wove them into constantly shifting shapes, Dashiell getting the most time in the spotlight with her airy, often vividly wistful delivery bolstered by Leonhart’s sometimes brassy harmonies, Sotashe reaching toward Al Green territory from time to time with his balmy falsetto.

Ellis intoned mournful, blood-and-blues-drenched motives off the inside of the piano as a steady, hauntingly reflective elegy for a  murdered inmate in the US prison system got underway. Likewise, bassist Ricky Rodriguez gave a Lower East Side wee-hours lament a starkly bowed intro as percussionist Samuel Torres and drummer Kendrick Scott added their misty accents to the wounded ambience: it was the most avant garde moment of the night.

Yet there was as much adrenaline as poignancy in the set. Dave Brubeck famously joked that there’s a little lounge in every pianist, but whenever Sung hinted that she might go there, with a playful little trill or a chromatic downward run, she’d break it up with a fierce block chord or two. Her work defies standard A/B/C sectionality – these songs seemed to have an F, a G and an H too – and she has a flair for latin jazz. She wound up a couple of the more upbeat numbers with an altered couple of mambos that made a launching pad for tantalizingly brief duels between Torres and Scott.

The joyous closing number, the most straight-ahead of the evening, had echoes of funk. The opener – illustrating Gioia’s early 70s memories of a smoky West Coast jazz joint – grew out of Ellis and then Jensen blistering through a thicket of bluesy eights to Sung’s long, majestically driving solo, artfully expanding toward tropicalia and then back. As kaleidoscopically lyrical as the rest of the set was, it would have been even more fun to hear her cut loose like that again. As the saying goes, always leave them wanting more. Sung plays next on June 3 at 8 PM at Lulu Fest in Austin, Texas.

Microtonal Merrymaking at the Mayflower

It was a treat to get to hear Concetta Abbate on Sunday at Mayflower Bar in Fort Greene. Abbate is best known as a violinist and composer of beguiling chamber-pop miniatures, but she’s also a magically nuanced, expressive singer. Lately she’s been working on finishing up her Master’s at Columbia, so she hasn’t been playing out a lot.

This time was a rapturous, mostly improvised duo set with Kyle Farrell, who played a marimba-like instrument invented by Skip Laplante. Its series of eighteen evenly tuned metal pipes covered the span of an octave, laid flat atop a styrofoam box doing double duty as resonator and carrying case. Guitar maven Bob Bannister, who was in the house, called it a styrophone, and the name stuck.

Abbate began the show by improvising gracefully strolling melodies. singing and then riffing on a series of Rumi poems from an older and almost surrealistically literal English translation. Meanwhile, Farrell kept the otherworldly, microtonal ripples and pings going, occasionally using a daf frame drum for extra texture or rhythm. Later in the set, he removed a handful of pipes to pare down the available tones for what ended up sounding both more western and more Asian, depending on how close the harmonies were.

Singing in Spanish, Abbate also treated the crowd to a couple of Peruvian tonadas, one a plaintive traditional number and the other an original inspired by a training ritual employed by shamanic healers. After the set was over, impresario Rose Thomas Bannister – who has one of the deepest address books in New York and runs the weekly music series here – took a playful turn on the mallets. The show this coming Sunday, Feb 19 stats at around 2 PM and features excellent cellist/composer Leah Coloff, who’s best known for her Lou Reed collaboration but has an impressively eclectic solo catalog as well.

The Attacca Quartet Make a Strong Segue with Visionary Art-Rocker Jeff Lynne’s ELO at Radio City

No less august a figure than ELO’s Jeff Lynne had asked the Attacca Quartet to open his sold-out stand at Radio City this past weekend. The string quartet responded with an ecstatic, robust performance that, while tantalizingly brief, threatened to upstage the headliners. It was as much a testament to the group’s ability to connect with an audience most likely unfamiliar with their repertoire as it was Lynne’s confidence in his thirteen-piece band’s ability to pull off a similarly electric set of ambitious, iconic chamber pop and art-rock hits.

The foursome – violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Nathan Schram and cellist Andrew Yee – spiced their set with codas by Haydn and Beethoven, practically jumping out of their shoes to be playing to such a vast audience. Beyond that, they impressed with their choice of material, opening with John Adams’ acerbically percussive miniature Toot Nipple, then a bit later slinking up his Alligator Escalator with its steady, apprehensive drive out of a rondo of sepulchral high harmonics. It was arguably the high point of the night. While the group could have taken the easy route with standard Romantic repertoire, or the ostentatious one with, say, Bartok, they cemented their cred by showcasing material from their pals, emerging composers Paul Wiancko and Michael Ippolito. Stark low-midrange washes and enigmatically lively exchanges held the crowd’s focus before the headliners hit the stage.

Opening with a low, ominously swirling vortex of sound – one of several recurrent tropes this evening – Lynne and company launched into the stark, misterioso intro to Tightrope, the uneasily dynamic, Dvorak-influenced first cut on the group’s platinum-selling 1976 New World Record. The only remaining member from the band’s several chart-topping 70s lineups is keyboardist Richard Tandy; the rest of Lynne’s merry band is on the young side, and they were stoked to the nines to be able to share the stage with one of the greatest rock tunesmiths of alltime.

They didn’t play Do Ya – the cult favorite by Lynne’s previous band the Move that ELO reprised much more ornately for an American audience – but they also didn’t segue into it like they used to do back in the day, when they’d cut off the galumphing, phantasmagorical outro to 10538 Overture, the alienation anthem that opens the band’s 1972 debut album. This time out they played that all the way through. Other than that and Tightrope, the night’s only other deep cut – an epically pulsing take of Secret Messages, title track to the band’s 1983 album – also rose out of a stygian reflecting pool.

The crowd saved their most heartfelt ovation for a particularly gorgeous, majestic take of the 1974 ballad Can’t Get It Out of My Head, lit up with terse Tandy keyboard flourishes that held very closely to the kind of fun the band would have with it onstage forty years ago. Otherwise, the band’s two additional keyboardists, as many as four guitarists at once and a couple of backup singers over a hard-hitting but swinging rock rhythm section brought new energy to Lynne’s already hefty studio arrangements.

The one new song in the set, from the late 2015 release Alone in the Universe, was the Lennonesque, autobiographical piano ballad When I Was a Boy. Otherwise, this was a clapalong show. The band followed an inspired version of the bluesy, minor-key 1976 kiss-off hit Evil Woman with a similarly terse performance of their 1973 British hit, Showdown. Their late-70s disco era was represented by the bouncy Shine a Little Love and All Over the World as well as a hypnotically spiraling run through Turn to Stone, from the 1977 double album Out of the Blue.

The rest of the set drew on fun, imaginatively orchestrated arrangements of radio hits including Livin’ Thing, with its spiraling violin solo; a boisterously strummed Sweet Talking Woman; and the stately, angst-drenched ballad Telephone Line, shimmering with surreallistic, melancholy keyboard textures. They closed with the crescendoing pastorale Wild West Hero and then a full-length version of Mr. Blue Sky – a nod to a well-known jazz standard – and encored with an expansive cover of Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven, a popular FM radio staple from 1972. Throughout the set, Lynne sang strongly, from the bottom of his formidable baritone, to the falsetto he used with such frequency in the late 70s. It would have been a treat to hear Eldorado, or Kuiama, or similar early material voicing his visionary; dystopic worldview. Guess we’ll have to wait til next tour for that.

The Attacca Quartet’s’ next New York performance is on October 21 at 8 PM at Holy Trinity Church, 3 W 65th St. where they’ll be performing works by Beethoven and Caroline Shaw. General admission is $20.

A Fond Look Back at a Brooklyn Show by Noir Chanteuse Gemma Ray

It’s hard to fathom that Gemma Ray hasn’t played a New York show since a tantalizingly brief, luridly delicious set at Rough Trade about a year and a half ago during Colossal Musical Joke week. While it would be understandable if CMJ turned her off to this city, the now Berlin-based noir chanteuse/guitarist was originally scheduled to make an auspicious return this April 9 at the new Owl in Lefferts Gardens. Unfortunately, that gig has been cancelled. Stepping in to fill the slot is none other than Patti Smith’s lead guitarist and powerpop mastermind Lenny Kaye. Botanica pianist/frontman Paul Wallfisch is booking the venue that night, and the rest of this week with some of the best acts from his deep address book, both from playing and booking artists at his long-running Small Beast night at the Delancey a few years back – one of the very few genuinely essential weekly rock events this city’s ever produced.

The grim, overcast, rainy atmosphere outside the venue set the tone for Ray’s set that September day. Inside on the high stage, backed by just a drummer, the black-clad, leather-jacketed, raven-haired singer brought down the lights and turned the venue into a sonic Twin Peaks set, opening with a mutedly percussive ghoulabilly number. Ray has a very distinctive, terse guitar style, flinging bits and pieces of chords in between strums, not wasting a note – Randi Russo comes to mind. Ray also had fun teasing the crowd by leaving her loop pedal going in between songs, a red herring of a segue machine.

Ray’s vocals rose from an icepick alto to a wounded upper register on the shuffling, staggering noir blues The Right Thing Did Me Wrong. She brought things down low with a skeletally creepy 6/8 soul ballad, adding a nonchalantly chilling guitar solo full of murderous passing tones midway through. Ray and her drummer swayed their way through the doomed, starlit, Lynchian number after that, her reverb turned up all the way. The two then made a return to shuffling, anguishedly bluesy terrain with There Must Be More Than This, Ray punctuating it with a series of tremoloing, gutpunch chords midway through. Then she fingerpicked her way through the folk noir gloom of If You Want to Rock and Roll. She closed with a cantering, low-key take of the Gun Club’s Ghost on the Highway, a slow, elegaic dirge and then a more direct, guitar-fueled number that was part Spector pop, part Julee Cruise. Ray has a new album in the works, and hopefully a return engagement here some time after that.

In the meantime, if noir is your thing, New York’s state-of-the-art noir band, Karla Rose & the Thorns are at the big room at the Rockwood on April 14 at midnight.

Hauntingly Stark Armenian Sounds from Arsen Petrosyan

One of the most hauntingly beautiful albums of recent months is Arsen Petrosyan‘s Charentsavan: Music for Armenian Duduk, streaming at Storyamp. For those unfamiliar with Middle Eastern music, the duduk is the world’s smallest low-register instrument, smaller even than the bass ukulele made famous by the Handsome Family‘s Rennie Sparks. With its ancient, otherworldly, resonantly woody tone, the duduk has been a staple of Armenian music for thousands of years. Over the past several decades, it’s also insinuated itself into the arsenal of many reed players around the world: Matt Darriau, for one, played it on a few numbers at his most recent couple of Barbes shows.

Petrosyan’s album is spare and relentlessly intense, played in minor keys, typically with very sparse percussion, lute or drone accompaniment. The instrumentals mix originals with ancient themes, many of them rescued from dusty archives where the music had been hidden away under Soviet occupation. On the opening track, Eshkhemet, he establishes a meticulously ornamented, woundedly expressive approach, in this case subtly embellishing a minimalist minor-key melody played over a single-note drone. The second track, Hazar Ernek follows the slow, funereally swaying pulse of a dombek goblet drun. On Naz Par, Petrosyan sails up into the instrument’s clarinet-like upper range, this time employing both percussion and what sounds like a harmonium lingering in the background.

In an imaginative piece of orchestration, Tapna Kervan Prtav sets Petrosyan’s imploring upper-register melody over tersely pulsing concert harp. He plays over a stately lute-and-guitar arrangement on Lullaby for the Sun, by contemporary oud mastermind Ara Dinkjian, finally rising out of an opaque, jazz-tinged pulse with an almost horror-stricken intensity. Javakhki Shoror opens with simple, doubletracked duduk, warily flurrying melismatics over a steady high drone until the drums and a full string orchesra kick in and then all of a sudden it’s an uneasy dance.

The gentle, lush, catchy pastorale Kessabi Oror features flurrying tar lutes: it’s the most distinctly modern piece here, contarsting with the 1100-year-old folk tune Havik, an austere, desolate tableau. The final cut, Hairenik is a plaintively airy, medieval-sounding ballad for duduk and harp.

The press material for the album compares Petrosyan to the instrument’s most prominent 20th century virtuoso, Jivan Gasparyan, whose transcendent and reputedly final New York concert this blog was privileged to cover in 2014. Those are titanic shoes to fill, but Petrosyan is clearly up to the challenge. Fans of Armenian, Middle Eastern and Balkan music shouldn’t pass up the chance to give this a spin, and anyone inclined to low-key, melancholy sounds should do so as well. The album is available in the US from Pomegranate Music.

Pianist Alexandra Joan Brings Her Imagination and Intuition to a Solo Show at Bargemusic

On one hand, it’s risky to call a classical pianist an individualist. In some circles, that might imply that the artist takes liberties which could range from debatable, to suspect, to completely unwanted. On the other hand, pianist Alexandra Joan has such fearsome technique that she’s able to interpret whatever emotion she can evince from the material in front of her. And when that’s unexpected, as it often is, it’s a revelation. Classical musicians are expected from their earliest days at conservatory to be all things to all people and all music, and Joan’s performances in the recent past have reflected those demands. With that in mind, there’s no question that she likes the Romantics, yet she’s also a great advocate for new music and especially the protean and colorful Mohammed Fairouz. And she likes a challenge, which is exactly what she’ll tackle this Friday, December 11 at 8 PM at Bargemusic where she’ll contend with a program including works by Bach, Arvo Part, Elliott Carter, Kaija Saariaho and Schumann’s famously difficult Etudes Symphoniques. Cover is $35/$30 srs/$15 stud., and early arrival is advised; Joan is popular.

Her most recent solo album is titled Dances and Songs. Interestingly, the most striking piece on it isn’t the physically taxing Liszt works, or the richly enigmatic Ravel Valses Nobles et Sentimentales; it’s Bach’s English Suite No. 3 in G Minor. She plays it as if she was playing a harpsichord, giving full weight to the ornamentation and grace notes, proportionate to the rest of the score rather than lettting them just flit off the page. It’s a neat trick, and one that requires vastly more lightness of touch and completely different technique than if she was playing an actual harpsichord. And then, she finds the one part of the suite where she can make the greatest contrast with what, up to then, has been just short of lickety-split, and the effect is explosive. At that point, she hits a dirge tempo, so slow that it seems that the rhythm has fallen conpletely out. Essentially, she looked for the one place where she could wring every ounce of contrast (and raw, unvarnished angst) out of it, and pulled it off.

The album opens with a precise, emphatic take of Valse-Caprice No. 6 from Liszt’s Soirees de Vienne; she’ll return to waltzing Liszt at the end of the program to bring the album full circle. As the Ravel picks up steam from a stately tempo, Joan lets the distant gleam shine through, seemingly allowing the cascades to tumble from her hands rather than evoking a climb in one direction or another. It seems effortless even though it’s not.

After the intensity of the Bach, Liszt’s take of the Spinning Chorus from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman offers a dynamically shifting emotional respite. However, Joan’s muted approach at the end sets up another far more moody performance, Lizst’s arrangement of Schubert’s Der Doppelganger. Such segues are typical in her repertoire: she can’t resist making a connection where she can find one. The album isn’t up at any of the usual streaming spots, although Joan’s performances are well represented on youtube and at Instantencore.

The Steep Canyon Rangers Bring Their Cutting-Edge Americana and Newgrass to Bowery Ballroom

A few years ago, the Steep Canyon Rangers were best known as Steve Martin’s bluegrass backing band. On one hand, that gig catapulted them beyond the bluegrass highway into what remains of a mainstream in this country. On the other, they’re a fantastic band in their own right. Their previous album Tell the Ones I Love was a rich survey of Americana, from oldtimey front-porch folk to the Grateful Dead, channeled through the prism of bluegrass, ending with a fantastically creepy hi-de-ho swing tune. Their new one, Radio – streaming at Spotify – picks up where that one left off, but with an even more aphoristic lyrical vividness that draws deeply on classic 50s C&W. The group – bassist Charles Humphrey, fiddler Nicky Sanders, mandolinist Mike Guggino, banjo player Graham Sharp, guitarist Woody Platt and drummer Michael Ashworth – are on yet another US tour, with a stop at Bowery Ballroom at 9 PM on October 12; general admission is $20.

The opening title track, a minor-key newgrass pop hit, is a bittersweet look back at life before Spotify: “Kasey Kasem told me I’d find her one day, and I believed…a skeleton key made just for you, and the open door we stumbled through and we crawled and we ran and we just flew.” After that, the swaying, bluesy midtempo Diamonds in the Dust looks back to Woody Guthrie and before: “These dreams are bust, chasin’ the silver in the starlight, the diamonds in the dust.”

Simple Is Me has an easygoing 70s Americana pop feel spiced by Sharp’s terse banjo lines, a sound echoed later on in Long Summer. By contrast, Blow Me Away has a blustering high-plains drive: anybody who’s ever raced to get home (or get down into the basement) after the twister warning comes over the radio or the fire station siren will relate to this. Again, Sharp takes centerstage before Sanders and Guggino follow with lickety-split solos. Blue Velvet Rain (what a great title, huh?) keeps the stormy imagery going, this time over a morose, morbid country waltz with biting solos from those two again: “Soaked to the bone and burning alone, a fire without any flame.” Then they pick up the pace with the brisk instrumental Looking Glass.

The gorgoeusly allusive Down That Road Again could be about crime, or addiction, or plain old heartbreak…or maybe all of those things. Break – a duet between Platt and his wife Shannon Whitworth – gets supersonic playing from Sharp and Guggino and a jagged, fabric-tearing solo from Sanders. The band brings it down again with a brutally picturesque George Jones homage: “The stronger stuff doesn’t help anymore, it’s barely enough to hold up the floor when the ceiling’s too low and it’s promising rain.”

When the Well Runs Dry grimly weighs the need to make a living against the potentially devastating consequences of fracking. The album winds up with Monumental Fool, an offhandedly apt look at how history forgets money-grubbers. Yet another brilliant mix of Americana songcraft and playing: no wonder these guys routinely take home IBMAs every year.

The Dastan Ensemble Put on an Unforgettable, Intense Performance in Brooklyn

Arguably the best concert in any style of music in New York this year took place when the Dastan Ensemble brought an alternately stately, somber and exhilarating mix of new and ancient Iranian music to Roulette Saturday night. The esteemed four-piece group, which has been through a few lineup changes over the years but remains undiminshed in vision and intensity, was joined by up-and-coming singer Mahdieh Mohammadkhani, making a riveting and powerful New York debut.

Throughout the show, the group’s acerbic, often biting riffs and fiery flourishes were simple and vivid, closer to the tonalities of the western chromatic scale than the exotic microtones of Arabic music, although those appeared from time to time when the sound became the most ghosly and otherworldly. Hamid Motebassem, on tar lute, fired off bristling volleys of notes when he wasn’t trading licks with kamancheh fiddle player Saeed Farajpouri, whose own lines were more allusive and airy. Percussionist Pejman Hadadi got the crowd roaring both with his dry wit and his colorful but carefully crafted, intricately individualistic playing on a six-piece kit composed mainly of boomy tombak drums. Hossein Behroozinia played barbat (the Iranian oud) with a judicious, often white-knuckle intensity, like-minded consideration and purpose.

Motebassem contributed the absolutely haunting suite A Window, an epic, plaintively cresendoing work utilizing poetry by Forough Farrokhzad. Hadadi explained the 1960s firebrand poetess’ lyrics as embodying an ultimately hopeful vision for the equality of men and women:. Baseline prerequisite for human civilization, maybe, but not a concept one might necessarily think of originating in Iran. Then again, for centuries during the Middle Ages, that nation was the intellectual capital of the world.

When Mohammadkhani first joined in, she was so quiet as to be practically peeking in from the mix. Was this a fault of the sound system? No. She was establishing herself on the whispery end of a vast dynamic range, her meticulously melismatic inflections finally rising to a dramatic, explosive peak during the final minutes of the show. Throughout her many rises and falls, poised on her chair with a gentle confidence, she was impossible to turn away from. Meanwhile, the music rose from a stark, wounded dirge to an uneasy gallop. Long, slinky, downwardly trailing passages gave way to gripping round-robin solos, a purposeful stroll, then back to severe and up again, Mohammadkhani channeling raw outrage, defiant triumph and just about every emotion in between.

The second half of the program featured a similarly dynamic set of instrumentals by Behroozinia, livened with plenty of interplay, Farajpouri often delivering shivery swirls  in the same vein as Kayhan Kalhor, Mohammadkhani projecting with a gale-force power that drew the loudest applause of the night. They closed with the closest thing to a catchy pop song that they had – the expat contingent sang along – and encored with a brief, elegant improvisation on an enigmatic folk theme. Robert Browning Associates, who have been booking a terrific series of concerts by artists from around the world, have several other enticing shows coming up at Roulette. On October 3 at 8 PM there’s one of Spain’s leading flamenco guitarists, Antón Jiménez, On the 24th, also at 8 PM, west African kora virtuoso Foday Musa Suso – a one-man orchestra of circular rhythmic riffage and intricate ornamentation – plays a rare solo show. Cover for each show $30/$26 stud/srs.

Rachel Mason Unveils Her Gorgeously Lurid, Erudite Historical Song Suite at Joe’s Pub

Rachel Mason is best known as an uncategorizable performer who refuses to be pigeonholed. Throughout her extensive body of work, the theatrical and narrative aspects are typically as important as the music. Focusing strictly on songcraft, what was stunning at her performance at Joe’s Pub on Sunday night was how impactful her tunes are even without those theatrics – and what a spellbinding singer she is. In a rare concert performance, backed by a tight and inspired band – Tanner Beam on lead guitar, Stu Watson on bass, Robbie Lee on flute, Michael Durek on piano and theremin and Chris Moses Kinlow on drums – Mason aired out songs from her brand-new film and accompanying soundtrack album, The Lives of Hamilton Fish. Auspiciously, Mason’s latest magnum opus is currently in development as a theatre work written by Pia Wilson, to be produced by Cindy Sibilsky. As lurid and downright haunting as Mason’s music and the accompanying art-film are, a stage version could have mass appeal far beyond the confines of cutting-edge downtown New York performance.

Although Mason serves as a Greek chorus of sorts both in the film and on the soundtrack, her point of view takes a backseat to the twin narratives of two men, both named Hamilton Fish, who died on the same day in 1936. Mason has really done her homework, historically speaking – while the serial killer and pedophile Hamilton Albert Fish provides plenty of grisly grist for the mill, what might be most impressive is how she brings to life the other Hamilton Fish. He was the second in a line that would number a total of five men with that improbable name, a seemingly dour and tormented upstate New York political lifer upstaged by his famous father, a United States Secretary of State central to the doctrine and practice of manifest destiny. Exactly the kind of complex characters Mason loves to illuminate.

She opened the show with a tensely pulsing janglerock number, 60s Laurel Canyon pop through the swirly prism of 80s psychedelia in a Plan 9 vein, then going deeper into paisley underground territory as she traced the two lives that ended in side-by-side obituaries “tied together by the Evening Star.” She gave voice to the more benign Fish’s familial angst in Distinguished Line, a matter-of-factly strolling folk noir number, then took a stark, horrified, operatic tour through the deadly Fish’s horrific younger days in Wild Fish Pt. 1, an electrified take on late 19th century front-porch folk.

The narrative continued its harrowing, mysterious course with the uneasily Dylanesque, aptly titled Nightmare, the politician haunted by the ghost of his wife as the theremin whistled ominously in the background. Mason waited until The Werewolf of Wisteria – as the serial killer was known after a Staten Island murder – to spiral around at the top of her vocal range; throughout most of the show, her moody alto made a powerful vehicle for her grimly detailed story. The stark Broken Soul of a Hunan Being – based on a letter the killer wrote to the mother of one of his victims – made for a chilling example.

And in a cameo, pianist/singer M. Lamar delivered chills with his otherworldly falsetto and murky attack on the keys, channeling the horror and pain of a tortured child – throughout both the album and the film, Mason leaves no doubt that the killer Fish wasn’t born that way, he was made. It’ll be fascinating to see how this translates to the stage.