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Tag: Adrian Quesada

An Oldschool Soul Show Offers a Break from a Scorching Summer at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

This has been a challenging year for summer outdoor concerts in New York, to say the least. It’s impossible to remember if events across the city parks were ever cancelled en masse as they were a couple of weekends ago because of the heat. If there was ever a July where the chickens came home to roost to crush the global warming deniers’ conspiracy theories, this was it.

So maybe it’s understandable that on the one deliciously cool night of the week, people would be slow to get out of reflex mode, holed up in front of their air conditioners while Lee Fields and the Expressions were playing a simmering set of mostly midtempo oldschool soul songs at Damrosch Park. At its peak Saturday evening, the space might have been at half capacity. And that’s not a fault of programming: anyone who remembers the huge crowds that Sharon Jones used to draw around town knows how popular 1960s-style soul music remains. Still, it was weird to see a Lincoln Center Out of Doors bill that wasn’t close to being sold out.

The synergy between the gritty-voiced sixtysomething frontman and his devoted backing band, at least a generation removed, is clear. They get a seasoned master of moving crowds and getting people to get down, and he gets a bunch of guys who totally get what he does. Over the years, they’ve been a rotating cast of characters, although their collective sonics are spot-on retro.

This particular bassist had tweaked his big Marshall stack and Fender Jazz model to get a perfect, late 60s style clicky attack and decay that fell away almost as fast. In tandem with the group’s nimble, precisely swinging drummer, it wasn’t quite as if Fields had Booker T & the MGs backing him – but it was close. The keyboardist switched between a smoky B3 organ sound and subtle, low-key, bubbling Rhodes piano. The two-man horn section – trumpet and tenor sax – added spicy staccato and looming ambience, while the group’s conguera provided extra texture as well as animated backing vocals. Guitarist Thomas Brenneck ran his vintage hollow-body through generous amounts of reverb, shifting expertly between expansive chords, plaintively lingering accents and a little chicken-scratch funk.

After awhile, two-chord soul vamps tend to blend into each other, but the band mixed them up. At one point Brenneck nicked the “if we ever get out of here” riff from Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run and then ran with it. Methodically and seamlessly, they shifted from the sly come-on Will I Get Off Easy, to the insistent, practically hypnotic Love Prisoner, to the indignantly forceful Wake Up. “I’m sick of all these lies!” Fields railed.

Getting a listless crowd to sing along proved to be as much of a slog for Fields as it was for the other artists on the bill. On one hand, watching Grupo Fantasma guitarist Adrian Quesada play similarly expert soul riffs behind a parade of oldschool and newschool Texas soul singers was impressive. On the other hand, not everybody crossing the stage seemed up for it. And while it’s admirable that he would assemble an album resurrecting several veteran Tejano soul stars from the 60 and 70s, doing it as a deal with the devil is something we should not encourage. We’ve all read the horror stories coming out of Amazon: the Dickensian working conditions, employees having to carry pee bottles because they don’t get bathroom breaks, and the relentless, Orwellian surveillance, everybody scrambling to beat the clock that keeps track of every single movement. Corporations like Amazon love the PR that comes from token attempts to support the arts and create an illusion of dedication to multiculturalism. But let’s not fall for it.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues tomorrow night, July 31 at Damrosch Park at 7:30 PM featuring a wildly diverse all-female lineup including but not limited to Americana soul songstress Courtney Marie Andrews, vintage Americana maven Rhiannon Giddens, Afro-Cuban singer Xiomara Laugart, legendary AACM singer/organist Amina Claudine Myers and formidable jazz vocalist/bandleader Charenée Wade.

Grupo Fantasma Bandleader Adrian Quesada Headines a Cutting-Edge Soul Triplebill at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

More about that oldschool and newschool soul triplebill at Lincoln Center Out of Doors on the 27th of this month: at 7 PM, British band the Black Pumas open the night, followed by late 60s singer-survivor Lee Fields & the Expressions. Headlining at around 9 are psychedelic guitar maven Adrian Quesada. leading a Texas soul band with a rotating cast of singers from his home state.

As the leader of Grupo Fantasma and its many, many spinoffs, Quesada is no stranger to fans of psychedelic and latin music. His main band’s latest album, American Music Vol. 17 is streaming at Spotify. It’s the group’s most political album, and one of their best, right from the ominous flurry of guitars that opens the first track Fugitivo, a cantering norteno desert rock number with spaghetti western riffage, lithe accordion and a grim narrative about being on the run, from La Migra, or more than one enemy.

Nubes is a sly, brassy mashup of psychedelic cumbia and salsa, while LT, a sex joint, has bright horn accents over a slinky, oscillating soul groove. The band go back to cumbia for the aching, bolero-tinged ballad Que Mas Quieres De Mi, then shift to a mashup of lowrider funk amd reggaeton in The Wall, a snide dismissal of Trumpie anti-immigrant bigotry.

La Cruda is a brightly bouncy, oldtime Mexican folk-flavored party anthem, followed by the gritty, anthemic, fuzztoned Nosotros, set to a circling beat that’s practically qawwali. The brand come across as a latin soul Rare Earth in Let Me Be, a defiant individualist’s anthem fueled by organ and guitar.

The group sandwich a brief dubwise interlude amid circling, dancing psychedelic chamame in Ausencia. They kick off the album’s most epic track, Hot Sauce with a trickily rhythmic intro and then hit a mighty, horn-driven cumbia sway, Quesada contributing his most incisive guitar work here.

Cuidado is hard-swinging wah funk tune with a growly baritone sax solo. The album’s best and most broodingly trippy number is Yo Quisiera, Quesada’s bittersweet wah guitar over moody organ chords; then the band make psychedelic salsa out of it. They close with the darkly otherworldly oldschool Colombian-style cumbia Sombra Roja, flute and accordion swirling over icy reverb guitar. There are as many flavors here as you could possibly find on both sides of the Tex-Mex border. Now imagine if this music, or this band possibly could have existed if there was a wall there.

Oldschool and Newschool Soul at Lincoln Center Out of Doors This July 27

There’s an intriguing triplebill this July 27 at Lincoln Center Out of Doors exploring the glorious past and trippy future of soul music. British band the Black Pumas, who open the night at 7:30 out back in Damrosch Park, represent the dark, psychedelic side, as does headlining Grupo Fantasma guitarist Adrian Quesada, who’s joined by a parade of singers from his Texas home turf. In between, there’s veteran singer and bandleader Lee Fields, a James Brown contemporary who got his start in the late 60s.

For an idea of what the night’s second set is going to sound like, you can stream Fields’ arguably best album Special Night at Bandcamp. For a more cynical appraisal of a Fields show, playing to a crowd of entitled yuppie puppies in Williamsburg almost a decade ago, you can visit this blog’s predecessor. On the album, Fields’ six-piece band the Expressions does a good job replicating the gritty analog sound of the late 60s and early 70s when Fields was working overtime on the small club circuit.

The catchy, swaying, midtempo title track starts out with Adam Scone’s organ over the rhythm section: bassist Quincy Bright and drummer Homer Steinweiss, Then Thomas Brenneck’s guitar and the horns make their way in judiciously, on a long, satisfying upward tangent capped off by a brooding spoken word interlude over lush strings. “Loneliness is dangerous and should be avoided if possible,” Fields cautions. His voice holds up well throughout the record, hitting all the high notes with passion and a little growl in places.

In keeping with the oldschool vibe, there’s reverb on everything here: the drums, the trebly bass and even the backing vocals. I’m Coming Home has coyly punchy call-and-response between lead and backup singers, tumbling drums and hi-beam horns. An unselfconsciously gorgeous 6/8 ballad, Work to Do paints a picture of a party animal trying to pull his act together. Does he ditch work to go to the therapist, or did his nocturnal ways cost him his job? Fields doesn’t specify.

Never Be Another You comes across as a sober (i.e. less psychedelically woozy) take on what Timmy Thomas did with Why Can’t We Live Together. Fields picks up the pace with the funkier Lover Man, then tackles issues of eco-disaster over the insistent, fuzztone Isleys pulse of Make This World.

Lingering jazz chords and jagged tremolo-picking from the guitar permeate Let Him In, along with a blaze of brass: it’s an uneasy look at a relationship that may be too damaged to resuscitate. The whole band add very unexpectedly subtle flavors in the stomping sex joint How I Like It. Where Is the Love – an original, not the 70s pop hit – has stiletto guitar chords paired with acidic, airy organ and horn incisions.

Fields wraps up the album with the bouncy, minor-key syncopation of Precious Love. Suddenly spycams and Instagram disappear, the internet is just a dialup connection for the Pentagon, gas is thirty-five cents a gallon, people make eye contact in conversation, and it’s 1970 again.

A Potently Relevant Pancho Villa-Themed Song Cycle at the Prototype Festival

Can you imagine Pancho Villa in Brooklyn in 2019? Considering how central the democratization of land was to his platform, it’s not hard to figure how the archetypal Mexican revolutionary would respond to the mass displacement of so many longtime residents to make room for “luxury condo” speculator property that no one will ever inhabit.

Last night at Bric Arts, keyboardist/composer Graham Reynolds led an energetic, supremely talented Austin band through what he termed a “multi-media theatrical concert,” exploring Villa’s life and myth via dark, ornate, Mexican-flavored rock interspersed with stormy, immersively cinematic interludes. Considering that so much of the action in the songs takes place on the US-Mexican border, there’s crushing irony in that the premiere took place in Marfa, Texas the day before the fateful 2016 election.

And there’s no small irony that the New York premiere – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – was staged in Brooklyn, less than a block from the property that corrupt former Borough President Marty Markowitz and his cronies conspired to turn over to a out-of-state developer to sell at a ridiculous profit.

Reynolds’ music draws equally on ornate 70s rock like Pink Floyd and the Alan Parsons Project as much as mariachi, rancheras and boleros. Beyond the songs’ sheer catchiness and potent contemporary relevance, what’s best about this nonlinear suite of sorts is the vocals of tenor Paul Sanchez and mezzo-soprano Liz Cass. Most of the lyrics – a team effort by Mexico City-based collective Lagartijas Tiradas Al Sol, drawing deeply on history and many quotes from Villa himself –  are in Spanish But each singer articulates them with a resolute determination to drive them home. No gratuitous, over-the-top arioso diva BS here: even a non-native speaker can easily follow along. As a bonus, there are English supertitles for the Spanish and Spanish supertitles for the occasional English interlude. The translations, both ways, are excellent.

Towering angst, hope against hope and imminent doom interchange over an elegantly dynamic backdrop. Reynolds leads the band from behind the keyboard, shifting between neoromantic piano, gothic organ and smoky electronic battlefield swaths. Bassist Utah Hamrick (who also doubled on tuba) took the single most breathtaking solo of the night, channeling lurid Lynchian noir. Violinist Alexis Buffum got centerstage in the most Tex-Mex flavored numbers, cellist Henna Chou bolstering the lows in tandem with the eclectically textured drumwork of Grupo Fantasma’s Jeremy Bruch. Mexican heavy psych titan Adrian Quesada played guitar, finally getting to cut loose with some toothsome metal on his Telecaster after many uneasily jangly southwestern gothic moments.

Was Villa a man of the people, a careless womanizer, an avenger archetype getting even for hundreds of years of conquistador evil…or a smalltime bandito hell-bent on the bigtime? At the very end, Cass reveals that all of the above and more may be only a small part of a very complex character who’s no less controversial almost a hundred years later. As this version of the story goes, Villa’s almost stubborn inability to read people translated to a series of increasingly poor alliances that eventually cost him his life. 

The title of the suite – Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance – is sarcastic to the extreme. It’s reference to how the El Paso Hotel Del Norte advertised its comfortable rooftop picnic area as the best vantage point in town for watching the carnage going down across the river. The concluding performance is tonight at 7:30; if you are a fan of history or artsy, ornate 70s rock, you would be remiss to miss it.

Brown Sabbath Play One of the Year’s Best Shows at Brooklyn Bowl

How did Austin Black Sabbath cover band Brown Sabbath‘s show Friday night at Brooklyn Bowl compare with the real thing on their first and supposedly only reunion tour at the end of the past century? Spectacularly well, which is the highest possible praise, considering how undiminished the world’s greatest metal band were when they reached Jones Beach, Long Island in the late summer of 1999. While there were moments at Friday’s show where it was as if Iommi, Butler, Ward and Osbourne had been teleported onstage, there were many more where Brown Sabbath’s reinterpretations were just as much relentlessly assaultive, creepy fun as the originals. Cover bands are known for being cheesy, and if there’s one band in the world whose catalog you can’t be cheesy with, it’s Sabbath’s. That would be perverted, like biting the head off a bat – who would want to do something like that?

Brown Sabbath are really Brownout with a change of clothes and a different lead singer who outdoes Ozzy in the power department. The band’s smartest move was not to start out with the Sabbath covers but with their own material. Their roughly 45-minute set of heavy latin stoner funk included a couple of straight-up deep psychedelic salsa vamps, a couple of long psych-funk tangents fueled by machinegun bursts from the three-piece horn section and tightly choreographed Santana-esque twin guitars that foreshadowed what the two players – Adrian Quesada and Beto Martinez – would do with the Sabbath. Each guy has vicious chops, Quesada favoring wild flurries of chord-chopping over grotesquely bent blue notes, an attack he kept up through the Sabbath set. It’s hard to imagine a guitarist getting as much of a workout as these guys did through almost three hours of music. Their take on an obscure cover, ostensibly introduced to the band by drummer John Speice, made ominous cinematics out of a biting minor-key blues-funk riff. It was too bad that most of the crowd didn’t get to the venue until their first set was over.

And Brown Sabbath didn’t disappoint. Their secret is in the rhythm. Making a slinky groove out of Black Sabbath is a lot more natural than it might seem: Bill Ward and Geezer Butler are one of the most fluid rhythm sections in rock, the secret ingredient in Sabbath’s haphazardly pollinated sonic bud. Five-string bassist Greg Gonzalez stuck mostly to Butler’s original basslines: all the slides, chords, hypnotic riffage and tunefulness that made him a second lead guitarist, essentially. Since Tony Iommi relied so heavily on multitracks, having Martinez as a second lead player added a layer of savagery missing even from the original band’s live show. Singer Alex Marrero belted with a sneering, defiant power, disappearing from the stage during instrumental breaks to change costume, finally reentering toward the end in a wrestler’s outfit for the high point of the set, a searing tyrannosaurus take of Electric Funeral.

The one song they completely reinvented was Iron Man, making a undulatingly unrecognizable, wry lowrider instrumental groove out of it and giving some actual dignity to that cartoonish riff. The Wizard and Black Sabbath were pretty close to the originals, right down to the stormy-night samples and Quesada’s fang-baring hammer-ons. They did the druggiest songs, Sweet Leaf and Snowblind a little faster and if anything, heavier than the originals: “Do you like cocaine in Brooklyn?” Marrero snidely asked the crowd. Through the twisted twists and turns of N.I.B. and Fairies Wear Boots, the guitars burned in tandem with Gonzalez’ growling, biting bass, Speice teaming with the two-man percussion section for a lunar-landscape beat, an undertow that drew the crowd inescapably into the sonic murk. And their take of Planet Caravan was a potent reminder of how Sabbath could be equally psychedelic in a rare delicate moment. Marrero seemed to remember that Brown Sabbath made their debut on this very same stage; let’s hope they come back. But next time, where they really ought to be is Madison Square Garden.