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The Best New York Concerts of 2014

Of all the year-end lists here, including the best albums and best songs of 2014 lists, this one is the most individual, and the most fun to put together. But as amazing a year for live music as it was, there were twice as many enticing shows that this blog never had the chance to cover as there are on this list. It’s called having a life – or trying to, in between concerts, anyway.

So consider this an informed survey rather than anything definitive, and ultimately, a reason for guarded optimism. Much as gentrification destroys the arts like Walmart destroys local economies, neither one has killed us. Yet.

What was the single best show of the year? Four multi-band bills stand out from the rest. Back in October at Trans-Pecos, charismatic Great Plains gothic bandleader Ember Schrag played a wickedly lyrical mix of mostly new material, some of it with a string section, the rest fueled by the snarling, spectacular lead guitar of Bob Bannister. Also playing that night: rapturously hypnotic, melancholic cellist/songwriter Meaner Pencil, dark art-rock duo Christy & Emily, plus a starkly entrancing set by two jazz icons, guitarist Mary Halvorson and violist Jessica Pavone.

A month earlier, renaissance woman Sarah Small put together a similarly magical night at Joe’s Pub featuring her Middle Eastern-inspired trio Hydra with Rima Fand and Yula Beeri as well as her otherworldly Balkan choral trio Black Sea Hotel with Willa Roberts and Shelley Thomas. There were also brief sets from the reliably entertaining all-female accordion group the Main Squeeze Orchestra and a trio version of one of NYC’s original Romany bands, Luminescent Orchestrii.

In mid-November, the Bowery Electric triplebill of hauntingly catchy Nashville gothic tunesmith/singer Jessie Kilguss, similarly lyrical and vocally gifted art-rock songwriter Ward White – both playing an album release show – and well-loved literate Americana rocker Matt Keating was pretty transcendent. And let’s not forget the Alwan-a-Thon back in January, the annual celebration of cutting-edge sounds from across the Arabic-speaking world held at financial district music mecca Alwan for the Arts. This one featured two floors of amazing acts including intense Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani and his trio, luminous Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina, amazingly psychedelic 1960s Iranian art-dance-rock revivalists Mitra Sumara, sizzling Romany party monsters Sazet Band, and the all-star Alwan Ensemble, who played bristling jams on classic themes from Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

Rather than trying to rank the rest of these shows, they’re listed in chronological order:

Avi Fox-Rosen and Raya Brass Band at Rock Shop, 1/9/14 – Fox-Rosen had just released an album every single month in 2013, so this was a triumphant sort of greatest hits live gig for the sharply lyrical, catchy art-rock tunesmith followed by a wild vortex of Balkan jamming, the group down on the floor in front of the stage surrounded by dancers.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices at Parkside Lounge, 2/1/14 – the charismatic, nattily dressed noir rocker led his explosive, blues-fueled band through a careening set of intensely lyrical, distinctively New York narratives.

Siach Hasadeh and Ichka in the basement at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the Upper West Side, 3/4/14 – every Tuesday, more or less, drummer Aaron Alexander – a prime mover in Jewish jazz circles – books a series of reliably excellent bands here. This twinbill kicked off with a rapturously haunting set by Montreal’s Siach Hasadeh followed by another Montreal outfit, the high-energy Ichka and then a jam with members of both bands joined by audience members.

Tammy Faye Starlite singing Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English at the Lincoln Center Atrium, 3/13/14 – a counterintuitive, sardonically hilarious reinterpretation of a haphazardly iconic new wave era album.

Jenifer Jackson at the Rockwood, 3/26/14 – the eclectic Austin songwriter brought her new band from her adopted hometown, reinventing older material and newer stuff as well with Kullen Fuchs’ rippling vibraphone as the lead instrument.

Gord Downie & the Sadies at Bowery Ballroom, 5/2/14 – a furious, often haunting sprint through the Canadian gothic Americana band’s most recent collaboration with the Tragically Hip frontman, ending with an explosively psychedelic Iggy Pop cover.

Hannah Thiem at Mercury Lounge, 5/29/14 – the haunting violinist/composer teamed up with an A-list string section to air out soaringly ethereal, cinematic new Nordic and Middle Eastern-tinged electroacoustic material from her latest album.

Nick Waterhouse at the Brooklyn Night Bazaar in Greenpoint, 6/13/14 – the LA noir soul bandleader and a killer pickup band featuring Burnt Sugar’s Paula Henderson on baritone sax brought moody Lynchian sounds to this grotesquely trendoid-infested space.

Kayhan Kalhor and Jivan Gasparyan at the World Financial Center, 6/14/14 – the legendary Iranian-Kurdish spike fiddle virtuoso and composer joined the similarly legendary Armenian duduk reedman for a rapturous, otherworldly duo set of improvisations on classic themes from each others’ traditions.

No Grave Like the Sea at Ramirez Park in Bushwick, 6/21/14 – after a day running around aimlessly trying to find bands playing daytime shows during the annual Make Music NY buskerfest, the volcanically sweeping, epic set by bassist Tony Maimone’s cinematic postrock band made it all worthwhile.

Karen Dahlstrom at the American Folk Art Museum, 6/27/14 – while she may be best known as one of the four first-rate songwriters in Bobtown, arguably the best gothic Americana harmony band around, Dahlstrom is also just as captivating as a solo performer. She took advantage of the museum’s sonics and sang a-cappella and ran through a tantalizingly brief set of haunting, historically rich original songs from her Idaho-themed album Gem State.

Serena Jost at the Rockwood, 6/29/14 – a lush, sweeping, richly enveloping, tuneful show by the art-rock cellist/multi-instrumentalist singer and her band. The all-too-brief, eclectic set by southwestern gothic bandleader Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta about an hour beforehand at South Street Seaport – with psychedelic cumbias, rumba rock and the most twisted Fleetwood Mac cover ever – got the evening off to a great start.

Changing Modes at Bowery Electric, 7/19/14 – keyboardist/bassist Wendy Griffiths’ slinky, shapeshifting art-rock band has never sounded more anthemic or intense. And earlier that afternoon, scorching sets by the noisily atmospheric VBA, pummeling postrock/metal band Biblical and dark garage punks Obits at Union Pool kicked off what might have been the year’s single best day of music.

Jacco Gardner at South Street Seaport, 8/15/14 – he sort of plays the same song over and over, a dreamy, gorgeously chiming, psychedelic sunshine pop number straight out of London, 1967. But it’s a great song, and it was worth sticking around for what were essentially variations on a theme.

Bliss Blood & Al Street at Brooklyn Rod & Gun Club, 8/27/14 – the lurid but plaintive and haunting torch song icon teamed up with the brilliant, flamenco-inspired guitarist for a riveting, Lynchian set of mostly new material from their phenomenally good forthcoming album.

Gemma Ray at Rough Trade, 9/13/14 – the British noir songwriter played a similarly Lynchian set in a stark duo show, just guitar and drums, a showcase for her smart, individualistic, creepy playing and macabre songwriting.

The Dances of the World Chamber Ensemble at St. Marks Church, 9/14/14 – the improvisationally-inclined, cinematic instrumentalists ran through a magical blend of African, Middle Eastern, tango and jazz pieces by frontwoman/pianist/flutist Diana Wayburn.

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 9/15/14 – sadly, NYC’s funnest band have since gone on “indefinite hiatus,” whatever that means. At least they were on the top of their game when they played a wild, darkly psychedelic mix of trippy, surfy Peruvian psychedelic cumbia sounds in one of their last shows of the year.

Wounded Buffalo Theory playing Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway at Rock Shop, 9/19/14 – the art-rockers joined with a revolving cast including members of the Sometime Boys, Afroskull, 29 Hour Music People, and the Trouble Dolls for an impressively spot-on, epic recreation of the cult favorite 1974 art-rock album, WNYC’s John Hockenberry reading Peter Gabriel’s drolly surreal album liner notes in between songs.

Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes, 9/23/14 – this isn’t the show reviewed at this blog back in June. That show featured the octogenarian multi-reedman and his hypnotic but kinetic band playing an unselfconsciously deep, soulful blend of Armenian music and incisive American jazz. His next gig there was even better!

Sherita at Barbes, 9/30/14 – the Brooklyn Balkan supergroup of sorts – reedman Greg Squared of Raya Brass Band, violinist Rima Fand of Luminescent Orchestrii, percussionis/singer Renée Renata Bergan and oudist Adam Good – played an alternately sizzling and sepulchral mix of originals and classic themes from Turkey, Greece and here as well.

Mary Lee Kortes at the Rockwood, 10/7/14 – the brilliant Americana songwriter and chanteuse and her band, feauturing John Mellencamp guitarist Andy York, aired out dazzlingly eclectic, intensely lyrical songs from her forthcoming album, The Songs of Beulah Rowley, a mix of saloon jazz, torch song and plaintive Americana.

The Skull Practitioners at Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick, 10/31/14 – it was the ultimate Halloween show, Steve Wynn lead guitar monster Jason Victor’s otherworldly, pummeling noiserock trio building a menacing but wickedly catchy vortex. That their half-hour set was as good as some of the four-hour bills on this list testifies to how volcanically good it was.

Karla Moheno at the Rockwood, 11/18/14 – the inscrutable noir songwriter and guitarist led a killer, Lynchian band through a mix of low-key, murderous, mysteriously lyrical narratives and more upbeat but no less shadowy material.

Mamie Minch at Barbes, 12/20/14 – this is why it always pays to wait til the very end of the year to finish this list. The charismatic resonator guitarist/singer and oldtime blues maven teamed up with Kill Henry Suger drummer Dean Sharenow for a killer set of blues from over the decades along with similarly edgy, sardonically aphoristic original material

If you’re wondering why there isn’t any jazz or classical music to speak of on this list, that’s because this blog has an older sister blog, Lucid Culture, which covers that kind of stuff in more detail.

A couple of things may jump out at you here. Nineteen of these shows were in Manhattan, eleven were in Brooklyn and one in Queens, which is open to multiple interpretations. More instructive is the fact that nineteen of the thirty-one were free shows where the audience passed around a tip bucket rather than paying a cover at the door. Most interestingly, women artists dominated this list. 26 out of of the 42 acts here were either women playing solo or fronting a group. That’s a trend. You’re going to see more of that here in the next couple of days.

Haunting, Transcendent Iraqi Sounds at Naseer Shamma’s Sold-Out Show at the Met

[repost from sister blog Lucid Culture, in case you’re wondering where this came from]

There was a point during oudist Naseer Shamma’s sold-out show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last night where in the middle of an expansive, bucolic theme, he suddenly transformed it into a menacing raga, wailing and then sirening downward on the high strings against an ominously reverberating low note. It was one of many such moments for the Iraq-born, Cairo-based virtuoso, performing with a seven-piece version of his extraordinary Al-Oyoun Ensemble and earning a standing ovation from a crowd that throughout the show spontanteously broke out into clapping and singing along with Shamma’s instrumentals.

His music is as cutting-edge as anything in the Arabic-speaking world, yet remains rooted in ancient traditions and often in familiar themes. Shamma began the concert judiciously with a solo improvisation that rose and fell dramatically, using his fret hand to tap out rapidfire clusters with a precision that was both spectacular and uncanny. The show ended with the ensemble hamming up a bright pastoral theme, nay flute player Hany ElBadry firing off a wildly trilling, buffoonishly masterful display of chops that drew the most explosive applause of the night. In between, the group – which also included Saber AbdelSattar on qanun, Hussein ElGhandour and Said Zaki on violins, Salah Ragab on bass and Amro Mostafa on riq frame drum – made their way through an eclectic program rich with emotion and intensity. Shamma and AbdelSattar engaged in several wryly adrenalized duels and exchanges, while a long, droll call-and-response between the oud and drum grew more amusing as it went on. But as much fun as the band and audience were having, the majority of the themes were sober, even severe, marked by a shared terseness and restraint that often spilled over into unselfconscious plaintiveness as the group mined the microtones of the maqams (Arabic scales) with a sophistication that was stunning both for its technical skill and emotional attunement. This pensive, raw quality may well have had something to do with the fact that this was Shamma’s first American concert in over a decade since he’d boycotted this country throughout the Iraq war.

Opening act the Alwan Arab Music Ensemble (better known as the Alwan All-Stars) were just as cutting-edge and intense. Bandleader/santoor player Amir ElSaffar, who brought this bill together, also programs the music at Alwan for the Arts, the downtown hotspot which has become a home for paradigm-shifting Middle Eastern sounds much as CBGB was for punk rock in the 70s: if you’re somebody in that world, you want to play there. In a set that could have gone on for thee times as long as it did without losing any interest, the group – also including ElSaffar’s virtuoso sister Dena on violin and jowza fiddle, Lety AlNaggar on nay, George Ziadeh on oud, Shusmo bandleader Tareq Abboushi on buzuq, Apostolis Sideris on bass, Zafer Tawil on qanun and percussion, and Johnny Farraj on riq – played variations on an Iraqi repertoire that has all but disappeared since its heyday sixty or seventy years ago. Stately, steady themes were interspersed with solo passages that in the band’s epic second number had been devised to represent the individual styles of the various regions in Iraq. Amir ElSaffar also took care to mention that the mini-suite also memorialized the ten-year anniversary of the Bush regime’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq, which may have accounted for the understatedly brooding, lingering effect of a purposeful but mesmerizing santoor solo, ElSaffar’s sister raising the ante with an edgy intensity before Ziadeh took it back down with a shadowy unease. Let’s hope that it isn’t another ten years before another such a riveting, exhilarating doublebill as this one happens on American turf.