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Big Lazy Bring Their Sinister, Slinky Noir Grooves Back to Barbes

Noir instrumental trio Big Lazy‘s two sold-out album release shows at the American Can Company building in Gowanus late last year were completely different. For a group whose usual sonic palette is a magically detailed but typically grim greyscale, that was unexpected – and obviously influenced by some devastatingly sad circumstances.

Frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich had lost his mom the previous night. Only a few hours before the first show, he’d played Cole Porter’s I Love You to her at her bedside – and the group, who typically don’t play many covers, reprised that with a gently starry, expansive instrumental take featuring Sexmob’s Steven Bernstein on trumpet. As far as emotional ironman performances go, this was right up there with Exene Cervenka’s gig the night her sister was killed in a car crash. Word spread throughout the venue; nobody knew how to react. Yet the pall over the space lifted as the band went on and played two long sets, the crowd hanging on every creepy chromatic and wry bent note. If there ever was proof of love being stronger than death, this was it.

The second night’s two sets were more boisterous. The Onliest, the desolately loping theme that opens the band’s latest album Dear Trouble, was especially dusky and spare the first time, but the group gave it a more sinisterly windswept take the second time around. There were unexpected treats from deep in the band’s catalog: the hammering Human Sacrifice, like Link Wray doing the Mission Impossible theme, on night two, and the gleefully macabre Skinless Boneless on night one. Bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion also dug in and cut loose more, the former finally indulging the crowd with a slap-happy rockabilly solo late Saturday night during a full-throttle, rat-a-tat take of Princess Nicotine.

The special guests fit seamlessly with the music: it was as if they were a regular part of the band. Miramar organist Marlysse Rose Simmons, with her funereal tremolo and murderously slinky riffs, completely gets this music. Baritone saxophonist Peter Hess, of Slavic Soul Party, added extra smoke on the low end. Bernstein provided disquieting animation on the highs, particularly when he picked up his slide trumpet for all sorts of bloody slashes and smears. And the guitar interplay between Ulrich and Marc Ribot, particularly on Ramona, a brooding quasi-bolero, had an especially bittersweet, saturnine depth.

Big Lazy return to their monthly Barbes residency this Friday, Jan 24 at 10 PM on the year’s best twinbill so far: ageless. Rapturous Armenian jazz multi-reedman Souren Baronian and his amazing band with Adam Good on oud open the night at 8. If you’re on the fence, you should know that this will be Big Lazy’s last Barbes gig for a couple of months. Although they’ve been playing around town more lately, they’re at their peak at what has been their home turf for the last six years.

The 30 Best NYC Concerts of 2019

Enormous triage was required to trim this down to a manageable number. Despite a desperate climate where practically every corner property in this city is being removed from the stock of housing and commercial space and handed over to speculators, thousands of stubborn musicians and patrons of the arts won’t leave this sinking ship.

Time to celebrate that tenacity! Consider this an informed survey rather than a definitive statement:  this is the most personal of all the year-end lists here. It’s impossible to count the number of shows over the past several years where this blog was in the house even though most New Yorkers couldn’t get there (or, more likely, couldn’t get home from there) because of the subway melting down at night and on the weekend. The reverse is just as true. You want FOMO? Move to Brooklyn.

The best show of 2019 was Rose Thomas Bannister‘s wedding, at Union Pool in late September, where the Great Plains gothic songstress sang her heart out on a killer festival bill which also included her polymath guitarist husband Bob Bannister, her bagpipe wizard dad Tom Campbell jamming with the mesmerizingly trippy 75 Dollar Bill, plus sets by psychedelic indie rockers PG Six and delirious Afrobeat crew Super Yamba. For anyone who might consider it pretentious to pick a private event as the year’s best concert…it wasn’t really private. Anybody who was at the bar, or just randomly walking by, could have come in and enjoyed the music – and as the night went on, a lot of people did.

Here’s the rest of the year, in chronological order:

House of Echo at Nublu 151, 1/15/19
French keyboardist Enzo Carniel’s hauntingly improvisational quartet built Lynchian ambience throughout a smoky, hypnotic series of cinematic tableaux.

Golden Fest, 1/18-19/19
Night one of the annual blockbuster South Park Slope festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music was a delirious dance party with brass band Zlatne Uste, their smaller spinoff Kavala, pontic lyra player Dimitrios Stefanides and otherworldly Turkish oboe band Zurli Drustvo. Night two went for about nine hours with about a hundred bands. Some highights: chanteuse Eva Salina fronting the Balkan Doors, Choban Elektrik: Amir Vahab‘s plaintive Iranian ballads; Raya Brass Band‘s chandelier-shaking intensity; Souren Baronian‘s deep, soulful Near Eastern jazz; clarinetist Michael Winograd‘s lavish klezmer orchestra; and thunderous Rhode Island street band What Cheer Brigade closing the festivities

Ethel at the Jewish Museum, 2/28/19
It’s shocking that it took twenty years before there was ever a world premiere performance of the complete, witheringly intense Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle…and it’s a good thing these champions of 21st century music took the job

Hearing Things at Barbes, 3/1/19
Slinky, allusively sinister, Balkan and Doors-tinged organ-and-sax grooves with a surf beat: the crowd danced hard at this wild post-happy hour gig

Josh Sinton’s Krasa at Issue Project Room, 3/15/19
Seated with his back to the audience, pushing his contrabass clarinet to its extreme limits through a huge pedalboard, Sinton’s solo show was one of the most deliciously assaultive sets of the year, over and out in less than 40 minutes.

Girls on Grass and the Sadies at Union Pool, 4/2/19
Luscious clang and twang, some Nashville gothic and surf and a little punkgrass from the legendary, jangly psychedelic band who got their start in the 90s, with a similarly brilliant, psychedelic act they highly influenced opening the night

The Juilliard Trombone Choir at the Greene Space, 4/3/19
NY Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi‘s explosive, wickedly tight band of future classical stars ripped and pulsed through irresistibly imaginative, sometimes amusing arrangements of works from Gabrieli to Beethoven to Warlock

Mary Lee’s Corvette at the Mercury, 4/13/19
With former Pogue Cait O’Riordan bopping and slinking around on bass, Mary Lee Kortes’ rivetingly lyrical, multistylistically jangly band brought equal parts ferocity and fun

The Coffin Daggers at Otto’s in the wee hours of 5/5/19
The undisputed kings of horror surf were as loud as ever and maybe even more murkily, assaultively psychedelic

Lee Narae at Lincoln Center, 5/9/19
Backed by a terse psychedelic folk band, the individualistic pansori singer unveiled a withering, provocatively feminist remake of the ancient Korean epic Byeongangsoe-ga, told from the long-suffering bride’s point of view

Greek Judas at Niagara, 5/9/19
A great night – this is the first time there have ever been two separate shows from a single evening on this list. Guitarists Wade Ripka and Adam Good sparred through one sinister chromatic Greek rembetiko metal hash-smoking anthem after another, over the supple groove of bassist Nick Cudahy and drummer Chris Stromquist

Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, 5/10/19
Kalhor is the renowed, intense master of the Iranian kamancheh fiddle; this evening was a very rare performance on setar lute, building serpentine, hauntingly relevant epics with his protege

Loreto Aramendi at Central Synagogue, 5/14/19
In a rare US appearance, the pioneering Spanish organist played wickedly imaginative arrangements of Rachmaninoff’s iconic C# Minor Prelude, Saint-Saens’ Halloween classic Danse Macabre and pieces by Buxtehude, Liszt and Ligeti

Bobtown at Rockwood Music Hall, 6/9/19
The iconic folk noir harmony band cheerily harmonized, slunk and bounded through a mix of somewhat less creepy material than usual, with lots of tunes from their new album Chasing the Sun, plus a brooding cameo from cellist Serena Jost

The New York Philharmonic in Prospect Park, 6/14/19
In his Brooklyn debut, maestro Jaap Van Zweden led this country’s flagship orchestra through a stunningly vivid, resolutely vindictive performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 6/26/19
The psychedelic cumbia legends reunited and warmed up for a South American tour with a couple of shows on their home turf. This was the second night, the one this blog didn’t review, and it was even better than the first, beginning with the gleefully uneasy Papageno Electrico and closing after midnight with the group’s creepy electric bolero version of Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1

Nashaz and Gato Loco at Barbes, 7/5/19
Oudist Brian Prunka’s undulating Middle Eastern band jammed out both otherworldly Egyptian classics as well as similarly edgy, entrancing originals; afterward, multi-saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk’s mighty noir mambo band burned through an even more towering, angst-fueled set

Hannah vs. the Many and the Manimals at the Nest, 7/11/19
The most entertaining show of the year began with charismatic frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s withering, torrentially lyrical noir punk band and ended with catchy powerposters the Manimals’ incendiary bandleader Haley Bowery skidding to the edge of the stage on her knees, seemingly covered with blood. Costumes and a quasi-satanic ritual were also involved.

Michael Winograd at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/19
The supersonic klezmer clarinetist and composer defied the heat, leading a similarly sizzling band through wildly cinematic originals from his new album Kosher Style

The Drive East Festival, 8/5-11/19
NYC’s annual celebration of traditional and cutting-edge Indian classical arts featured rapturous ragas from sitarist Hidayat Khan, hypnotic soundscapes by saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan, spellbinding violinists Trina Basu & Arun Ramamurthy’s Carnatic-inspired Nakshatra Quartet, and a sardonically riveting Metoo-themed dance performance by Rasika Kumar, festival creator Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek, with a dynamic live score by Roopa Mahadevan

Looking at You at Here, 9/6/19
Kamala Sankaram and Rob Handel’s new opera, billed as a mashup of the Edward Snowden affair and Casablanca, is a satire of Silicon Valley technosupremacists falling for their own bullshit. It was as chillingly Orwellian as it was hilarious, with a subtly immersive live score .

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Combo Lulo at Barbes, 9/14/19
The dynamic, resonant, klezmer and noir-inspired trumpeter, guitarist Brad Shepik and drummer Shane Shanahan built darkly chromatic mood pieces and more jaunty, acerbic tunes; it was a good setup for the organ-driven psychedelic cumbias, edgy Ethiopiques and trippy dub sounds afterward.

Wajde Ayub at Roulette, 9/28/19
The powerful Syrian baritone crooner – a protege of legendary Syrian tarab singer Sabah Fakhri – led a lavish, kinetic orchestra through a mix of harrowingly vivid, socially relevant anthems and ecstatic love ballads.

Nights one and two of the Momenta Festival, 10/15-16/19
To open their annual festival of underperformed and brand-new string quartet music at the Americas Society, the perennially relevant Momenta Quartet played a haunting Julian Carrillo microtonal piece, premiered a fierce, allusiveley political Alvin Singleton quartet as well as a more elegantly circling one by Roberto Sierra plus works by Ligeti and Mario Lavista.

The Takacs Quartet play the Bartok string quartet cycle at the 92nd St. Y, 10/18-20/19
A revelatory, slashingly energetic, insightful tour of some of the most harrowing, intense work for string quartet ever written

Big Lazy’s album release weekend at the American Can Co. building, 11/8-9/19
Bandleader and guitarist Steve Ulrich had lost his mom the night before the sold-out two-night stand started. He’d played Cole Porter’s I Love You to her that evening, and reprised the song on night one with his cinematic noir trio, bolstered by organist Marlysse Simmons, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and baritone saxophonist Peter Hess. Night two’s music was less mystical and pensive, more thrillingly, grittily menacing and macabre – when it wasn’t slinky and cynically playful.

Hamid Al-Saadi and Safaafir at Roulette, 11/23/19
The gritty, impassioned Iraqi crooner and this hemisphere’s only ensemble dedicated to classical Iraqi maqam music were tighter and more electric than they’d been at Lincoln Center in the spring, through a mix of metaphorically charged, socially relevant themes and more lively, traditional repertoire.

The Grasping Straws and Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons at the Mercury, 11/24/19
For anybody who might have missed seeing Patti Smith back in the 70s, or Jimi Hendrix in the 60s, this was a good substitute, the openers’ elegant, incisive lead guitarist Marcus Kitchen contrasting with the headliners’ feral, Hendrixian Hugh Pool

Karen Dahlstrom at Scratcher Bar, 12/8/19
The powerful, gospel-inspired singer and folk noir champion held the crowd rapt through brooding Old West narratives, wryly torchy blues, gorgeously plaintive laments and the fierce Metoo anthem No Man’s Land, the title track from her brilliant new album.

Yet Another Brilliant, Shadowy Album and a Gowanus Release Show From Noir Instrumental Icons Big Lazy

Big Lazy are the world’s most menacingly cinematic instrumental trio. They’re also the world’s darkest jamband, one of Brooklyn’s most popular dance bands…and they keep putting out brilliant albums. The cover of their long-awaited new one, Dear Trouble (streaming at youtube) has a 1972 Ford Country Squire station wagon off to the side of a desolate road somewhere in the midwest, facing a tower along the powerline as the clouds linger and the sun sets. That says a lot. They’re playing the album release show this Nov 8-9 at 8 PM at the old American Can Company building at 232 3rd St. in Gowanus. Night one is sold out, but night two isn’t yet; you can get in for $20. They’ll be joined by three of the special guests on the record: Sexmob‘s Steven Bernstein on trumpet, Slavic Soul Party’s Peter Hess on saxes and Miramar’s Farfisa sorceress Marlysse Rose Simmons. Take the F or the R to 4th Ave/9th St.

Interestingly, this turns out to be the band’s quietest, most desolate album. It begins with The Onliest, a loping, skeletal theme slinking along on Andrew Hall’s hypnotically bluesy bassline. They hit an interlude bristling with bandleader/guitarist Steve Ulrich’s signature, macabre chromatics, then eventually a false ending. It’s a good introduction to where the band are at now: there are echoes of horror surf, Angelo Badalementi David Lynch soundtracks, Thelonious Monk and Booker T. & the MGs in the rhythm, although Big Lazy’s sound is inimitably their own.

The album’s title track has Ulrich’s melancholy, resonant lead over a sardonically strutting blend of Nino Rota tinged with early 60s pop: if Tredici Bacci wanted to get really dark, they might sound like this. As is the case with so much of Ulrich’s catalog, the song takes on many different shapes, textures and guitar timbres and winds up far from where it started.

Ramona, with dubby accents from Simmons organ, is one of the spare, overcast bolero-ish tunes that Ulrich writes so well. Cardboard Man features Marc Ribot, a rare guitarist who can go as deep into noir as well as Ulrich, adding eerily flamenco-tinged touches. The exchanges between the two, switching in a split-second between styles, are expertly bittersweet.

Sizzle & Pops – referring to the imaginary roadhouse that Ulrich and his wife would be running in an alternate universe – is a rare moment of straight-up levity for this band, part Booker T, part pseudo Bill Black Combo 50s cheese. Bernstein adds distantly muted New Orleans flavor, both jaundiced and jubilant, on the group’s cover of the Beatles’ Girl: who knew what an ineffably sad song this was!

Drummer Yuval Lion takes the loose-limbed slink of the opening number and raises it several notches with his flurries in Dream Factory as Hall runs another trancey blues bassline, Ulrich’s baritone guitar pulling the song deeper into the shadows. Consider how the title of Cheap Crude could mean many things, and its sardonic rockabilly makes even more sense.

Exit Tucson, another tense, morose quasi-bolero, has all kinds of neat, rippling touches pinging through the sonic picture around Ulrich’s sad broken chords, disconsolately reverberating riffs and long, forlornly shuffling solo. The arguably even more gloomy Fly Paper has a deliciously disorienting blend of tone-bending lapsteel and furtive guitar multitracks: with its trick ending, it’s the most Twin Peaks of any of the songs here.

Ribot returns for Mr. Wrong, a disquietingly syncopted stroll: it’s amazingly how chameleonic yet grimly on task both he and Ulrich are here. The album’s final cut is Sing Sing, Peter Hess’ baritone sax adding extra smoke beneath Ulrich’s lingering, macabre tritones.

Ulrich and Big Lazy are no strangers to the best albums of the year page here. He took first place back in 2012 for the Ulrich Ziegler record, a quasi-Big Lazy album with guitarist/bassist Itamar Ziegler, which turned out to be a one-off project before he reformed the group.. And Big Lazy’s big comeback album, Don’t Cross Myrtle, was #1 with a bullet for 2014. As far as 2019 is concerned, no spoilers, check back here at the end of December…

Big Lazy Take Their Film Noir Sounds to Pleasantville

The house was full, and people were dancing. That’s inevitable at Big Lazy‘s monthly Friday night residency at Barbes, although it’s not what you would expect at a show by a band best known for film noir menace. Then again, you wouldn’t expect the bandleader to write a score for a PBS series about comedians, But composers who write for film and tv are expected to be able to create any mood the director wants.

The band have a long-awarited new album  due out later this summer. Frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich’s latest batch of instrumental narratives are just as dark, maybe even darker at the center, although parts of them extend into much brigher terrain than the trio have typically explored since they got their start in what was then an incredibly fertile rock scene on the Lower East Side back in the 1990s.

Onstage, the group reinvent their material, old and new, sometimes to the point where it’s almost unrecognizable. Was that a 6/8 version of Uneasy Street, the slow, macabre centerpiece of their first album, that they played at last month’s show? Maybe. Or it could have been a new number: tritones and chromatics slink out of the shadows constantly throughout this band’s catalog. Ulrich went further out on a limb than uusal this time, pulling himself off the ledge with savage volleys of tremolo-picking, taking a machete to the music. Bassist Andrew Hall used his bow for long, stygian, resonant passages, especially when the band took the songs toward dub, a welcome return to a style the band took a plunge into back in the early zeros. Drummer Yuval Lion was in a subtle mood this time, icing the intros and outros and quieter moments with his cymbals, rims and hardware.

The familiar material got reivented and tweaked as usual, too. Princess Nicotine, inspired by a 20s dada silent film, wasn’t quite as lickety-split as usual: maybe the princess has switched to lights. Their cover of the Beatles’ Girl was even more of a dirge than usual. Loping big-sky themes took unexpected dips into the macabre, balanced by the tongue-in-cheek go-go theme Sizzle and Pops. Guest trumpeter CJ Camerieri’s moody lines intertwined with Ulrich’s similarly spare incisions while another guest, Brain Cloud lapsteel monster Raphael McGregor added slithery sustain and flickering ambience at the edges as the songs moved toward combustion point.

Big Lazy are back at Barbes at 10 PM on July 26. Singer/guitarist Pierre de Gaillande‘s edgy parlor pop band Bad Reputation – who continue to build a rich catalog of English translations of songs by French chansonnier maudit Georges Brassens – play at 8.

One of the Year’s Best Triplebills at Drom Last Friday Night

“We don’t play with horns that much,” Big Lazy frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich told the crowd late during their show headlining one of the year’s best triplebills at Drom Friday night. “Horns are,” he paused – and then resumed with just a flash of a menacing grin – ”Evil.” Then guest trumpeter Brian Carpenter and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring added a surreal acidity to the slow, ominous sway of a brand-new, ominously resonant film noir theme, Bluish.

“I wrote those harmonies to be as dissonant as possible,” Ulrich confided after the show. Which is ironic considering how little dissonance there actually is in Big Lazy’s constantly shifting cinematic songs without words. The trio’s sound may be incredibly catchy, but Ulrich really maxes out the ten percent of the time when the macabre  bares its fangs.

Case in point: the wistfully loping big-sky tableau The Low Way, where a single, lingering, reverberating tritone chord from Ulrich’s Les Paul suddenly dug into the creepy reality lurking beneath blue skies and calm, easygoing facades.

Drummer Yuval Lion and bassist Andrew Hall held the sometimes slinky, sometimes stampeding themes to the rails as Ulrich shifted from the moody, skronk-tinged sway of Influenza to the brisk Night Must Fall, finally firing off an offhandedly savage flurry of tremolo-picking to bring the intensity to a peak in a split-second. From there the group took a turn into tricky tempos with the surrealistic bounce of Avenue X and then the crushingly sarcastic faux-stripper theme Don’t Cross Myrtle, the title track from the band’s latest album (ranked best of the year for 2016 here). Big Lazy’s next New York show is Dec 4 at 10 PM at Barbes.

As the leader of the Ghost Train Orchestra, Carpenter is known as a connoisseur of hot 20s swing and obscure, pioneering jazz composers from the decades after. This time he played mostly organ and guitar with his brilliant noir rock band the Confessions, second on the bill: it’s hard to remember two groups this good and this dark back to back at any New York venue in recent months. Guitarist Andrew Stern played murderously reverberating, sustained lines in a couple of long, suspenseful introductory buildups in tandem with violinist Jonathan LaMaster, bassist Anthony Leva and drummer Gavin McCarthy keeping a taut pulse through a mix of songs that sometimes evoked Tom Waits’ brooding Americana or the uneasy chamber pop of the Old Ceremony.

Frontwoman Jen Kenneally worked every offhand wiggle in her vibrato to add to the songs’ distantly lurid allure, often harmonizing with Carpenter’s brooding baritone. A relentless gloom pervaded the songs, rising to a peak in the tensely stampeding City on Fire and then hitting a high note at the end with Blinding Light, which ironically described darkness closing in as the band stomped into the chorus. Fans of Lynchian sounds shouldn’t miss this crew, who hark back to Carpenter’s early 90s circus rock days.

Opening act the Claudettes have gone in a completely different direction since ripping the roof off Barbes on a twinbill with Big Lazy a couple of years ago. These days, gonzo saloon jazz pianist Johnny Iguana has muted his attack somewhat: the band came across as a sort of Windy City counterpart to Lake Street Dive. Which isn’t a bad thing at all – Lake  Street Dive are a great blue-eyed soul band.

New frontwoman Berit Ulseth channeled brass, ice and brittle vulnerability through the sarcastic I Expect Big Things and then the cruel punchline that followed, Declined. In yet another of the evening’s many strokes of irony, the group’s biggest hit with the audience was a Debussy-esque, low-key tone-poem of sorts about discovering a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The bandleader brought to mind New York beatnik jazz cult hero Dred Scott in the sardonically frantic barrelhouse instrumental You Busy Beaver You and then the slyly bluesy cautionary tale Creeper Weed, about how to avoid getting blindsided by one hit too many. They wound up the set with the understatedly gloomy The Show Must Go On (Then the Show Must End), part Waits, part early Steely Dan. The Claudettes tour continues; the next stop is back in their Chicago hometown at 9 PM on Nov 17 at the Hideout; cover is $12.

And as always, Drom – downtown New York’s most consistently diverse music room – has some cool upcoming shows. One especially interesting one is on Nov 25 at 10:30 PM, and it’s a rare free event there, with Polish crew Nasza Sciana doing vintage Slavic turbo-folk hits.

Big Lazy Bring Their Noir Intensity to the East Village This Friday Night

Even by their own legendary standards, Big Lazy’s show Friday night at Barbes was a high point in the history of a band who go back twenty years. Having seen the cinematic noir instrumental trio in various configurations since the 90s, this could have been their most improvisational show ever. Their music is often described as crime jazz, but they also play noir boleros, and go-go struts, and uneasy big-sky themes that turn macabre in seconds flat. Those are just a handful of styles they’ve played over the years. In between songs, frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich alluded to surf music, which makes sense considering how much reverb he uses. But ironically, there were more latin rhythms and pouncing suspense themes in this set than there was the horror surf which was one of the band’s signature sounds during the early days.  Since Ulrich’s main gig is writing scores for film and PBS, that’s no surprise.

The guy can play anything. Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot get all the props for being this era’s preeminent jazz guitarists, but Ulrich can do anything they do, just more darkly. There was a lot of new material in this set, and as Ulrich cut loose with lingering, mournful approximations of wee-hours horn lines, bottom-of-the-well echoes, plaintive country twang or elegant proto-rockabilly Nashville riffs, creating a constantly shifting tableau that was as close to straight-up postbop jazz as this band’s ever played.

Amplifying that was how nimbly bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion negotiatid the songs’ tricky syncopation and odd meters. Hall is the one bass player in this group to actually carry the melody from time to time,  with a lot of conversational interplay, but this show was more or less Ulrich out alone over a taut, slinky backdrop, flying without a net. One common device that came back again and again with a wallop was how he’d answer his own semi-hopeful, soaring phrases with a crushing barrage of tremolo-picking,  akin to what Rachmaninoff would do.

Ulrich usually saves that kind of unhinged attack for when he really needs it – he leaves the pick-melting to Dick Dale. But this time the angst and fury was relentless, through expansive and careening versions of the lickety-split Princess Nicotine, a gloomily gorgeous take of Uneasy Street and finally a warped version of Don’t Cross Myrtle. That’s the title track of the band’s latest album, and while New Yorkers might think it means “stay out of the bad part of town,” it could just as easily mean “keep your hideous condos and money laundering out of what’s left of our cool neighborhood.”

Big Lazy pick up where they left off this Friday night, Nov 10 at Drom at around 9 PM on one of the year’s best triplebills, which opens with wild, theatrical, female-fronted Chicago barrelhouse piano blues band the Claudettes, and trumpeter Brian Carpenter and the Confessions – the dark oldtime jazz maven’s Lynchian rock band. Showtime is 7 PM; $12 adv tix are highly recommended.

Big Lazy at the Peak of Their Darkly Cinematic Power in Brooklyn This Saturday Night

Friday night at Barbes the room was packed and the girls in the front row were dancing up a storm through two slinky sets by Big Lazy. Less than 24 hours later, seeing Los Straitjackets – a similarly twangy, virtuosic guitar instrumental band who go far deeper into the surf than Big Lazy but are nowhere near as picturesque – raised the question of how many other bands are actually better now than they were twenty years ago.

The New York Philharmonic, maybe?

Big Lazy had already earned iconic status in noir music circles before the end of the 90s, and continued that streak with a reverb-drenched series of albums that combined elements of crime jazz, macabre boleros, Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock themes, horror surf, ghoulabilly and bittersweet big-sky tableaux. But this current edition of the band is their classic lineup. If you were around when they were playing Friday nights at midnight at Tonic during the early to mid-zeros, and you haven’t seen the band since, you’re missing out  on the best part of their career.And you have a rare chance to see a very intimate show when they play this August 12 at 8:30 PM at Bar Lunatico in Bed-Stuy.

Drummer Yuval Lion can be combustible, but Friday night he was in misterioso mode. These guys haven’t had someone so colorful, who can build suspense with every part of the kit as subtly as this guy does, since Willie Martinez left the original lineup when his latin music career got in the way. Bassist Andrew Hall co-founded the Moonlighters and plays with western swing band Brain Cloud, so he swings, hard. And he’s also the funniest bass player this band’s had. He’ll sometimes fake a charge into the crowd, or do a wry faux-rockabilly slap thing, and he likes glissandos and swoops and dives. He always seems to be at the center of the eye-rolling “gotcha” moments.

Guitarist/bandleader Steve Ulrich can also be hilarious, notwithstanding how bleak most of the band’s music can be. But they never play the same thing remotely the same way twice. This time out the recurrent, unexpecr\ted quotes he’d randomly slip in were from My Funny Valentine and It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To. A couple of months before, it was Mission Impossible. And just when it seemed he’d go off on a couple of long, savage scenery-chewing chord-chopping interludes, he stopped both cold, in midstream: he spars with the crowd as much as he does with his bandmates.

This was one of the band’s best setlists ever: top ten, by this blog’s standards, and this blog and Big Lazy go back to the very beginning. The lingering chromatics and morose washes were balanced by a droll go-go strut, lickety-split artful-dodger escapades and matter-of-factly perambulating but increasingly grey western sky pastorales. As much jagged menace as they brought to Skinless Boneless, one of their signature songs, the two best songs in the evening’s two full sets were both brand new. The first was awash in distant longing and echoes of sad Orbison noir pop, the second a bloodstained bolero and a platform for both some nimbly creepy tumbles from Lion, and sniper-in-the-shadows fire from Ulrich. Because the Bar Lunatico gig is happening so fresh on the heels of this one, you’re likely to hear all this and more this Saturday night.

Manhattan’s Best Venue Stages a Thunderous Benefit for Their Brooklyn Counterpart

The Barbes benefit concert at Drom Friday night wasn’t sold out, but the East Village venue was close to capacity. Big Lazy headlined. By then the dancers had been on their feet for the better part of four hours, yet didn’t seem the least bit worn out. So the shadowy, cinematic trio of guitarist Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion played their slinkiest stuff. Ulrich shifted eerily between desolate big-sky tableaux, furtively chromatic crime jazz, a wryly strutting go-go theme or two and red-neon roadhouse scenes while Hall spun his bass, supplying a tight rubber-band low end in tandem with Lion’s thicket of textures from every part of his kit. Gato Loco trombonist Tim Vaughn and Balkan Beat Box baritone sax player Peter Hess added extra careening, elusive textures at the end of their tantalizingly brief set, whose centerpiece was the title track from the band’s latest album Don’t Cross Myrtle, a muted bump-in-the-night theme that turned completely savage in seconds flat.

Ulrich dedicated the song to Barbes, the band’s embattled Park Slope home base, which serves the same purpose for many other artists, the rest of the night’s bill included. Considering the song’s title and its creepy themes (it’s an instrumental), on face value it seems to address deep Brooklyn nocturnal peril. But this time out, introducing the song, Ulrich alluded to a “changing Brooklyn,” and suddenly another meaning, 180 degrees the opposite, emerged: keep your wrecking balls and other weapons of mass destruction, your money-laundering, your swindler speculators and “luxury” condos, and the status-grubbing yuppies who move into them, out of our part of town. It may be sketchy, but it’s all we have left. There isn’t anyplace else in New York in 2017 where a working class person or an artist can survive.

The brain drain out of New York and the mass displacement of artists to the most remote fringes of the five boroughs aren’t the only reasons that Barbes is in trouble. Their building has been hit with a lien for city services, no fault of the venue; in the meantime, their Indiegogo campaign is almost eighty percent funded. “I can’t believe this place still exists,” marveled one patron under her breath at the bar Saturday night while Sean Cronin’s oldschool honkytonk band played in the back room. If there’s any Brooklyn venue that deserves support or patronage right now, it’s this one.

And they have a lot of overlap with Drom, their more spacious but similarly friendly Manhattan counterpart, where acts from around the world continue to make their North American debuts, month after month. It’s not clear whether MaracatuNY, who opened the benefit, had played there before; whatever the case, it’s probably safe to say that they’re the loudest band ever to play there. And they did it without amplification. Gathered in a semicircle on the floor in front of the stage, the roughly fifteen-piece drum troupe built a thunderous torrent of intricate Brazilian polyrhythms, turning on a dime as their conductor signaled changes with his whistle and hand signals in the eye of the storm. They’d return later on.

The Jazz Passengers were just as intricate and even more entrancing. Frontman Roy Nathanson played alto sax, soprano sax and on We’re All Jews, their most epic number, both at once, working his polytonal sorcery for extra overtones. Bass player Bradley Jones teamed with the drums for a serpentine groove and lowdown funk as vibraphone star Bill Ware took a rare turn on electric piano. Their first number was the most vividly murky exploration of the noir they’ve become known for; after that, Nathanson harmonized wryly with trombonist Curtis Fowlkes on a smoky take of the 70s soul standard Everybody Plays the Fool.

Romany chanteuse Sanda Weigl – who has a new album due out from Barbes Records this fall – went deep into her powerful alto for a couple of a-cappella Romanian songs. Then a three-piece version of the all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache, New York’s only all-female mariachi band, joined their soaring voices for a harmony-fueled, all-too-brief set that began like a Mexican-flavored Dixie Chicks and then went deeper into the tricky tempos and clapalong vigor of classic south-of-the-border string band sounds, with intertwining violin, cuatro and bajo sexto.

The next two bands each put their own rustic, exhilarating spin on ancient African call-and-response chants. Charismatic singer Carolina Oliveros’ Bulla En El Barrio led her ten-piece choir-and-percussion ensemble through a mesmerizingly kaleidoscopic series of Colombian bullerengue, which sounded like a South American take on African-American field hollers, the guys and women in the band taking turns spiraling and cavorting in front of the upraised voices.

Then Innov Gnawa – who brought the biggest crowd of the night – got the crowd bouncing with their trance-inducing forest of click-clack cast-iron castanets and sintir bass lute, first played by Samir LanGus and then bandleader, Moroccan expat maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer. Their first number kicked off a rousing Arabic welcome-to-the-party jam, with sub-Saharan rhythms from what could be two thousand years ago welded to undulating North African acoustic funk, infused with bracing, sometimes moody allusions to both Arabic music and the roots of the blues.

To keep the dancers on their feet, the massive Fanfare Brooklyn – a mighty twenty-plus piece Balkan brass band comprising most of Slavic Soul Party and Red Baraat – blazed through careening jams packed with some pretty unhinged soloing, drawing from both band’s catalogs of hip-hop-inspired Eastern European brass music and Indian bhangra.

All of these bands play all over town when they’re not at Barbes. Mariachi Flor de Toloache are playing an album release weekend for their new one, with shows on June 16 at 10 and the following night, June 17 at midnight at Joe’s Pub; cover is $25. Bulla En El Barrio are back at Barbes on June 26 at around 9:30. Innov Gnawa’s next big show is at Prospect Park Bandshell at 7:30 PM on July 21, where they open for intense, psychedelic Malian microtonal guitar band Amadou and Mariam. And Big Lazy return to their monthly Friday night residency at Barbes on July 7 at 10 PM.

Steel Player Mike Neer Darkly Reinvents Thelonious Monk Classics

Any fan of western swing knows how cool a steel guitar can sound playing jazz. The great C&W pedal steel player Buddy Emmons knew something about that: back in the 70s, he recorded steel versions of famous Charlie Parker tunes. In that same vein, steel guitarist Mike Neer has just put out an even more deliciously warped, downright creepy, dare we say paradigm-shifting album of Thelonious Monk covers for lapsteel, wryly titled Steelonious and streaming at the band’s webpage. Neer’s playing the album release show on Jan 25 at 8 PM at Barbes. If you like Monk, steel, and/or darkly cinematic sounds in general, you’d be crazy to miss this.

The album opens with a tongue-in-cheek slide down the frets into a surf stomp, and the band is off into their tight version of Epistrophy, a devious mix of western swing, honkytonk and the Ventures. Neer is amped up with plenty of reverb and just a tad of natural distortion for extra bite. By contrast, he plays Bemsha Swing through a watery chorus effect against the low-key pulse of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Diego Voglino as pianist Matt King stays in the background.

The rest of the album is a mix of iconic material and deeper cuts. In deference to the composer’s purist taste, King’s piano keeps things purposeful and bluesy, with the occasional hint of New Orleans. Neer’s take of Round Midnight echoes the Hawaiian sounds he played for so long, first with the Haoles and then the Moonlighters. In its own twisted way, this simmering quasi-bolero is closer to the spirit of the original than most straight-up jazz versions. It’s easy to imagine Beninghove’s Hangmen doing something as noir as this with it.

Likewise, In Walked Bud gets reinvented with all sorts of slinky bossa nova tinges, Tom Beckham’s echoey, bluesy vibraphone over lingering organ. If Neer’s version is historically accurate, Bud Powell wasn’t just crazy – this cat was scary!

Bye-Ya has more of a western swing feel, partially due to Neer’s droll, warpy tones. I Mean You positions Neer as bad cop against purist, good cop King. Putting organ on Off Minor was a genius move – what a creepy song! Voglino’s surf drums provide an almost gleeful contrast. In the same vein, the band does Ugly Beauty as a waltzing, noir organ theme, Neer’s menacing solo echoing Charlie Rouse’s sax on the original before veering back toward Bill Monroe territory.

It’s amazing how good a country ballad Ask Me Now makes; same deal with how well Blue Monk translates to proto-honkytonk. Straight No Chaser is so distinctive that there’s not a lot that can be done with it other than playing it pretty much as written, and the band keep their cards pretty close to the vest. But their starlit waltz version of Reflections is anything but trad: it’s sort of their Theme From a Summer Place. It’s awfully early in the year, and much as it might be cheating to pick a cover album, this is the frontrunner for best release of 2017 so far.

Big Lazy: 2016’s Ultimate Halloween Band

What better way to kick off Halloween month, 2016 than with the world’s slinkiest, most shadowy instrumental trio, Big Lazy? They play both kinds of Halloween music, the trick-or-treat stuff as well as the sinister. In all seriousness, they’re a lot closer to the latter than the former. Guitarist/founder Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion return to their monthly first-Friday-of-the-month, 10 PM residency this coming Friday, Oct 7 at Barbes.

It’s a fair guess that the people who were running Punk Magazine back in 1976 caught the Ramones at CB’s more than a few times that summer. And at least some of the hippies at the Village Voice back in the 60s might well have seen Phil Ochs at Folk City more than once. If you buy the premise that this blog is to New York what, say, Punk Magazine was to this city forty years ago – or what the Voice was a decade before then – it makes sense that New York Music Daily would be in the house for several Big Lazy Barbes shows in 2016. The funnest one might have been the most recent and cleverly improvisational, where Lion was just plain having a ball with all sorts of counterintuitive rhythms and syncopation, and Michael Bates – who shares a jazz pedigree with Hall – took over on the four-string. Another fun set was a couple of months back when Kill Henry Sugar‘s Dean Sharenow, a frequent Ulrich film score collaborator, sat in on drums, bringing his signature snare sound along with a dry wit to match the bandleader’s unparalleled, bleak sense of humor.

But the year’s best Big Lazy show – this blog has caught pretty much all of them – wasn’t at Barbes. It was at the Lively, a refreshingly laid-back basement bar located in the Meatpacking District, of all places. That joint had nice people working there, cheap drinks (at least by the standards of that neighborhood), a real stage in the back and a fantastic PA system. Sadly, this year’s strongest contender for “best Manhattan venue” barely lasted a couple of months.

But what a show Big Lazy played there. They ripped through Princess Nicotine, a machinegunning, barely three-minute minor-key ghoulabilly sprint that Ulrich wrote as a soundtrack piece to an obscure early 20s short film of the same name. The creepiest number of the night was Skinless Boneless, a slowly swaying, macabre tableau adrift in oceans of guitar reverb and tremoloing tritones. They didn’t do their serial killer strut version of Piazzolla’s Pulsacion No. 5, or their uber-noir cover of Thelonious Monk’s Epistrophy, both of which they aired out at Barbes this past summer, but they did do the early Beatles hit Girl, reinventing it as a dirge in the same vein as their deadpan take of Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me. And they did some new stuff, including one serpentine mini-epic that swung from neo-Nino Rota Fellini score, to more rocking and psychedelic, to sheer terror in places. As at Barbes, there were couples up front, dancing. Which is what noir is all about, anyway: grabbing what you can while the shadows close in.