New York Music Daily

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Greek Judas Headline One of the Year’s Best Twinbills in the East Village

When Greek Judas took the stage at Niagara at a little after eleven a couple of Thursdays ago, everybody in the crowd suddenly had their phones out. Maybe that was because three of the five guys in the band were wearing animal masks. But it’s more likely that nobody in the audience had ever seen a Greek metal band.

And in that space, they were louder than ever. Singer Quince Marcum projects as well as any other frontman in town, but this time he was low in the mix. When the band got their start, guitarist/lapsteel player Wade Ripka and guitarist Adam Good would typically take long, careening, Middle Eastern-tinged solos. And that worked; both guys love their creepy chromatics, and they can get totally symphonic without being boring. Times have changed: instead of jabbing at each other to pull a song back on track, there’s a lot more interplay and at least semi-controlled chaos now. Ironically, the tighter they get, the more psychedelic the music is.

Bassist Nick Cudahy downtunes his axe now, for some serious tarpit sonics. Meanwhile, drummer Chris Stromquist makes the songs’ tricky rhythms look easy: the way he plays, no matter how bizarre the underlying beat is, you can stand and sway from side to side and not feel any more stoned than you might already be.

Obviously, you don’t have to be high to appreciate the band. One of the reasons why they’ve tightened up the show is that they have a lot more songs and they don’t have to stretch them out so much. They’re all covers, from the 1920s to the 1960s, most of them from the criminal and revolutionary underworld who fought against dictatorial terror and then a British invasion after World War II. Many of those tunes were written by ethnic Greeks who’d escaped persecution in Cyprus and Turkey, only to find themselves second-class citizens in their ancestral land.

The best song of the night was I’m a Junkie, which might have just been a shout-out to good hash, or something stronger – Marcum sings everything in the original Greek. The most lyrically innocuous love song of the night was also one of the most macabre. Police brutality, heavy partying, black humor behind bars, trans-Mediterranean drug smuggling and crack addiction were some of the other topics Marcum addressed – he almost always gives the audience a little translation for just about everything. They’re back at Niagara (Ave. A and 7th St., the former King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut across from the southwest corner of Tompking Square Park) this Thursday at 10. As a bonus, the excellent Trouble with Kittens – who play similarly edgy if somewhat quieter and faster, new wave-influenced songs – open the night at 9. Noir cinematic trio Sexmob‘s brilliant drummer, Kenny Wollesen is sitting in with them this for this show. It’s a pass-the-tip-jar situation.

The Best Concert of 2019 Is Just a Week Away

You don’t have to stay at Golden Fest until two in the morning. But pretty much everybody does. And an awful lot of those people are still dancing, eight hours after the festivities started. In terms of raw thrills, year after year, there is no other New York concert that can match this blissfully entertaining annual weekend festival of Balkan, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Slavic music and food. Golden Fest 2019 is this January 18 and 19 at the magnificent, old world Grand Prospect Hall on the south side of Park Slope, Brooklyn, just up the hill from the Prospect Ave. R station.

If doesn’t take much effort to discover a dozen or more acts you’ve never heard before, especially if you spend time in the smaller upstairs rooms rather than the big ballroom where most of the big brass bands play. You can also catch just as many of the best New York Balkan bands, or mix it up. At any moment, there’s always something worth seeing on at least four or five different stages spaced throughout all four floors of the mansion.

If the festival has one defining qualtiy, it’s that the earliest acts on the bill are just as good as the headliners, even if they tend to be little quieter. For this blog, the game plan for last year’s big Saturday night Golden Fest blowout as well as the year before was to see as many new acts as possible. Both times, the lure of some of this city’s most explosive bands proved too much to resist.

In their own quiet way, the Slaveya Women’s Choir – whose muted, otherworldly close harmonies spanned from Bulgaria to the Caucasus – were every bit as captivating as New York’s own Romashka. It was frontwoman Inna Barmash’s birthday, and she put on a party for the ages, with strings and guitar and tuba blasting behind her blissfully edgy wail, through one minor-key romp after another. That group had a great run back in the zeros; fifteen years or so later, they sill kick out the jams. Happily, their set was recorded; you can download it for free, and read a more detailed review here.

Where the Slaveya Women’s Choir had migrated so enigmatically between notes, the Istanbul Trio – fretless guitarist Ertugrul Erkisi, singer/percussionist Aslihan Erkisi and oudist Fatih Bayram – did the same, with even more edgy intensity and a classical Turkish focus. They would play an even more haunting show a couple of days later at Barbes under a different name.

The rest of the night was a crisscross between intended destinations and diversions. So many good bands, so little time. Here was where the hardcore triage set in. Kavala – a livewire Macedonian/Greek spinoff of Zlatne Uste, the festival’s founding icons – or Loza, a relatively rare meeting between the haunting oud of Adam Good and the similarly poignant vocals of Corinna Snyder? In this case, Loza won out.

How do you choose between the slinky, epic Dolunay and a rare New York appearance by the more cinematic Wind of Anatolia? In this case, the latter, a no less intense Turkish band won out. As the night went on, Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat wove plaintively undulating, trickily syncopated melodies, oudist Scott Wilson and Efendi put a twisted psychedelic rock spin on many of those same sounds and the nine-piece Novi Hitovi Brass Band made crazed jams out of searing minor-key Serbian riffs for the better part of an hour.

The loudest band to arguably ever play the festival was psychedelic rembetiko band Greek Judas, who reinvent the Middle Eastern-flavored sounds of the Greek gangster underworld and antifascist resistance movements in the 20s and 30s. The twin guitars of Adam Good and Wade Ripka (who doubled searingly on lapsteel) pummeled the crowd in one of the smaller side rooms, frontman Quince Marcum channeling a mad Dionysis in front of the band.

After midnight, the option to simmer down just a little with the elegant jazz of Tavcha Gravche – guitarist Dan Nadel, clarinetist Vasko Dukovski and bassist Daniel Ori – was a welcome chance to sit down and get lost in their improvisations, the night’s closest approximation of an American idiom. Zurli Drustvo -Tamberlaine and Drew Harris with percussionist Jerry Kisslinger – and Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions provided a surreal blast of fresh air with their microtonal zurla oboes

By the way, this is not how most people do Golden Fest. The big crowd hangs out by the big stage and gets down with a ferocious brass band lineup (clarinet wizard Michael Winograd’s titanic klezmer orchestra seemed to be the biggest hit – and largest ensemble – at this past year’s festival). And here’s a secret about the food: wait til midnight, you’ll be shocked by the quality and the quantity of what’s left over after the lines and lines of hungry dancers have finally satiated themselves. Although there are a lot of talented people circling the room and cutting a rug, there are no judgments if you’re a first-timer. Golden Fest 2019, here we come!

Magic Microtones and Modal Menace at Barbes

Was the Barbes show on the first of the month by Greg Squared’s Great Circles going to turn into a Balkan power play? That’s the Eastern European version of a jazz power play. The great saxophonist Bryan Beninghove came up with that one: it’s when there are more people in the band than in the audience.

By the time the quartet had wrapped up their set, there was a full house, who ended up being treated to one of the most exhilarating shows of 2018 so far. But things didn’t look promising at the start. Guitarist Adam Good sent a shout to his friend in the back, who was texting and looking pretty oblivious. Half of searing metal band Greek Judas – Good and drummer Chris Stromquist – were also onstage with bassist Reuben Radding and the bandleader. And that was pretty much it.

Great Circles is Greg Squared’s vehicle for his more expansive tunes that don’t fit with Raya Brass Band – the perennial star attraction at Golden Fest, New York’s legendary festival of Balkan and Middle Eastern music – or with the more vocally-oriented Sherita, who seem to be on hiatus at the moment. For most of the set, he ran through volley after volley of eerie microtones, edgy melismas and sharp-fanged chromatics. And he wasn’t even playing all that fast. Most of the tunes were slinky and upbeat – this is dance music after all – but for a guy who plays a ton of notes, this show was all about suspense and intensity stretched to breaking point.

Stromquist made all the tricky tempos look easy – a couple of numbers in 9/4 and one especially serpentine one with so much syncopation that it was impossible to count along. He does the same in Greek Judas,  but more subtly here, first with his rims and snare, then with a clave groove in a minor-key song that seemed like it was going to morph into a Russian tango but didn’t. He finally got to take a tumbling solo – something he doesn’t do in Greek Judas – trading eights with Good.

The guitarist also got to do the same with the sax for a bit, the two like a couple of wolves going at each other through a wire fence. Radding kept a fat, low-key end going for the first half of the set before cutting loose with a solo laced with horn voicings, then some booming chords and nifty slides to drive a chorus or a turnaround home. Most of the material was originals; at the end, the group did a couple of traditional Macedonian numbers, veering from tense and overcast to sunny and then back. A couple of the last tunes brought to mind the glory days of Ansambl Mastika, Greg Squared’s great Balkan guitar band from the late zeros, who put out two deliriously good albums. If you can, snag them.

Greek Judas Bring Their Ferociously Psychedelic Middle Eastern-Flavored Metal Back to Barbes

There’s so much going on in this city that even with the ongoing gentrification-driven brain drain depleting the talent base, there’s more good music than a single blog could conceivably cover. Which creates a triage situation. Doesn’t it make the most sense to cast as wide a net as possible rather than focusing on one scene, which in this city, these days, is probably more of a micro-scene anyway? On the other hand, some bands are so much fun that you want to see them again. For example, this blog caught Greek Judas’ first-ever show at Barbes last year, which was so interesting, and so much different from anything else in town right now. Their next gig is back at Barbes at 10 PM on February 25.

The prospect of seeing the group – who do artsy metal covers of obscure, Middle Eastern-flavored gangster songs from the 1920s and 1930s Greek underground – on Lemmy’s birthday (RIP) was impossible to resist, especially since it was an early afterwork show. That made it easy to run to the G train afterward before the line went dead and hightail it over to Williamsburg to grab a couple of drinks at Duff’s. And then head up to Grand Victory, where Karla Rose & the Thorns finally hit the stage just a little before midnight, then rampaged through a murderously intense set featuring a couple of tunes by the Misfits and Buzzcocks in addition to Rose’s own misterioso minor-key noir narratives.

Greek Judas’ show that evening, as you would expect, was a lot tighter than their debut back in August. The group have been mining the crime rhymes and drugrunning anthems popular among Greek Cypriot refugees of a hundred years ago for awhile, first doing them pretty straight-up under the name Que Vlo-Ve (whose Bandcamp page has an intriguing handful of free downloads). But electrifying the songs (Judas – get it?) seemed inevitable. Guitarist Wade Ripka now switches back and forth between his six-sring and a lapsteel, which he runs through a Fender tube amp with the reverb way up for a ferocious blast of sound. His six-string counterpart Adam Good draws on his chops as A-list Middle Eastern oudist: at this show, the two traded searing, chromatically slashing minor-key verses and ended up stomping all over the end of each others’ phrases to seal the deal.

At both this show and their most recent one at the end of last month at Barbes, frontman Quince Marcum ran his vocals through the board clean without any effects rather than using the trippy, pitch-twisting pedalboard he brought the first time out. He played horn on one of the final numbers, singing in Greek in a strong, resonant baritone. From the perspective of a non-Greek speaker, it’s impossible to get what they do on more than a musical level, but Marcum offers helpful translations and has an unselfconscious passion for the songs. Crack whores, hash smugglers, henpecked husbands, busted beggars trying to outwit the cops, gangsters in jail plotting their next move (let’s get our ouds and jam!) all make appearances. The band’s usual choice of closing number sounds like the Bad Brains.

It’s hard to figure what kind of ceiling any band in town has these days: there’s more money to be made from the road than there is here, that’s for sure. But at the very least, on an artistic level anyway, Greek Judas are on the way up. If only for the cred of being able to saying you were there when it happened, if dark and assaultive sounds are your thing, now’s the time to catch them.