New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: art-rock

Jamband Legends Leftover Salmon Reinvent Themselves at a Rare Small-Club Gig

What’s the likelihood of being able to see Leftover Salmon at the smallest venue the legendary jamband has probably ever played? It happened last night at Bowery Electric, a spot where you’d hardly expect to see these summer festival vets. For what it’s worth, this wasn’t the crew who made a name for themselves as jamgrass pioneers. Sure, many of the songs started out with a scampering bluegrass groove and then went further and further outside, but this new version of the group is more psychedelic than ever. Their brand-new album is aptly titled Something Higher, working an epically vamping, stylistically puddle-jumping blueprint that the Grateful Dead refined at their majestic, early 80s peak. Yet this version of Leftover Salmon are also a lot tighter than the Dead ever were.

The addition of keyboardist Erik Deutsch has completely transformed the band. He started out playing ragtime and honkytonk-influenced piano. By the time the set was over, he’d spun through lowdown clavinova funk, dub reggae, majestic art-rock synth vistas, swirly Doorsy organ interludes and a couple of wryly hobbity detours that wouldn’t have been out of place in early 70s Jethro Tull.

No matter what style they’re using as a lauching pad, this band has always been about the jam, and this show was a clinic. The trippiest, most adrenalizing tradeoffs were between Deutsch and Andy Thorn’s banjitar, which he was running through a delay pedal for a stunningly spot-on approximation of a steel pan. While Thorn’s rapidfire frailing fueled the most Appalachian-flavored moments, he was just as much a force throughout the show’s most ambitious, artsy points.

Bushy-bearded group partriarch and guitarist Vince Herman waited til the end of the set, during the cheery gospel-flavored singalong Let In a Little Light, before he fired off a series of breathtakingly effortless volleys of bluegrass flatpicking. Likewise, six-string bassist Greg Garrison hung back in the pocket for the most part, taking over lead vocals on the night’s two most vintage soul-oriented numbers. As it turns out, the band’s strongest singer is drummer Alwyn Robinson, who took over the mic on one low-key number and also harmonized with founding member/mandolinist Drew Emmitt (whose searing, tantalizingly brief Strat leads had every bit as much voltage as his endlessly machinegunning mando runs).

A Brooklyn violinist joined the group a few songs in and contributed bouncy bluegrass as well as more uneasy textures. The night’s most surreal song was House of Cards, a sticky tarpit of dub fueled by Deutsch’s tersely warpy, oscillating leads. The most exhilarating was Astral Traveler, which with its towering, gale-force chorus would have been a standout Bob Weir number in any 80s Dead second-setlist – it was easy to imagine that band taking a flying leap into it from, say, Saint of Circumstance as the show peaked out.

The new album’s title track was a launching pad for slashing Emmitt riffage and tight solos all around. The band opened both Foreign Fields and Game of Thorns as broodingly spiky, serpentine bluegrass and sailed into the clouds from there. And Burdened Heart was no less potent for being downbeat, the group eventually vamping out a long interlude midway through, Emmitt and Deutsch pawing the seeds and stems to uncover the sweetest, most pungent buds. Leftover Salmon’s endless tour continues; the next stop is this May 10 at 8 PM at the Boathouse, 11800 Merchants Walk in Newport News, Virginia; cover is $20.

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A Shatteringly Relevant New Suite Casts a Cold Eye on Surveillance State Terror

“The last refuge of privacy,” is how the central object in The Secret Diary of Nora Plain was described by the song cycle’s lyricist, Lucky Fonz III at National Sawdust this past weekend. In their US debut, premiering this haunting, labyrinthine yet often shatteringly direct suite to a sold-out audience, Dutch ensemble the Ragazze Quartet were bolstered by the eclectic beats of percussionist Remco Menting.

In front of the ensemble, charismatic singer Nora Fischer channeled the increasing terror of being caught in the spycams’ deadly web, whether calm and stoic, shivering on the floor or twitching like a marionette, Ian Curtis-style.  “Let bygones be bygones,” she encouraged coolly during one of the early songs, hope against hope. At that point it wasn’t clear just what this story’s everywoman had done – if anything – to catch Big Brother’s merciless eye, a conclusion that the suite left hanging. That only raised the suspense, underscoring how anyone with an identifiable cellphone or a Facebook page  – or without one, conceivably – could be caught in the trap.

Fischer is force of nature. At her quietest, she brought a plaintive, sometimes prayerful quality to the narrative; at her loudest, she belted with a gale-force wail worthy of Aretha. Likewise, the quintet of musicians began with an atmospheric whisper and rose in a series of waves, through as many different styles as a string quartet augmented by a drummer with a full kit plus vibraphone could possibly play.

The stage direction was spare yet tightly focused on an ever-encroaching menace, pushing Nora further and further toward the edge. There were moments when the quartet drew ominously closer and closer to her; other times, they fell in line as good soldiers in a police state are required to. Menting took a couple of turns behind a small keyboard during quieter, more atmospheric interludes. Likewise, violinists Rosa Arnold and Jeanita Vriens shifted to Menting’s vibraphone and bowed icy, airy textures at a couple of the suite’s most whispery ebbs.

The songs, with music by Morris Kliphuis, rose and fell, akin to Elvis Costello’s Juliet Letters with music by Philip Glass and Caroline Shaw and played by Rasputina, perhaps. Cellist Rebecca Wise propelled those shifts with stark, raw washes along with elegantly incisive pizzicato; violist Annemijn Bergkotte was a spare, striking presence in both the low and higher registers as well. Stylistically, the segments ran the gamut from hypnotically circling, kinetic chamber rock – often spiced with allusively macabre, Glass-ine phrases – to an emphatic detour into funk, murky mood pieces, and a couple of rises to sheer terror, most grippingly in Rat in My Room. Whether that rat was the four-legged or two-legged kind was left to the audience to figure out.

Was Fischer’s final exit what it seemed on the surface, a coyly triumphant slip out the side door? Or was she going elsewhere? Readers of Lois Lowry‘s dystopic classic The Giver will get that reference. Anyone concerned with the perilous state of civil liberties should see this hauntingly enigmatic, rivetingly disturbing, potently relevant work. 

Emma Grace Stephenson Brings Her Dynamic Piano Songcraft to Gowanus This Weekend

If state-of-the-art tuneful songcraft is your thing, the place to be this weekend is at Shapeshifter Lab on April 29 at 7 PM where brilliantly eclectic Australian pianist and singer Emma Grace Stephenson opens a fantastic triplebill, leading a trio with a surprise mystery guest singer (the venue says it’s Kristin Berardi). Afterward at a little after 8 another pianist, Richard Sussman leads his sweeping, enveloping allstar Sextet, which includes Tim Hagans on trumpet; Rich Perry on tenor sax and Zach Brock on violin. Then at 9:30 by the Notet with saxophonist Jeremy Udden, trombonist JC Sanford, guitarist Andrew Green and guests playing he album release show for their new one.

Stephenson is an artist who rightfully could headline a bill like this. She’s an extraordinarily vivid composer whose work gravitates toward the dark side. Her greatest achievement so far is probably her work with the Hieronymus Trio, whose 2016 album is a high-water mark in recent noir cinematic jazz. But she’s also a songwriter, and has a plaintively dynamic new album, Where the Rest of the World Begins, with them and singer Gian Slater, due out soon but not yet up at her music page.

Maybe coincidentally, the opening track, Crows Will Still Fly comes across as a more rhythmically tricky take on the same kind of moody parlor pop that Stephenson’s fellow Oz songwriter Greta Gertler Gold has perfected over the past decade or so. Slater’s airy, expressive high soprano is a cross between Gertler Gold and Minnie Riperton, but more misty than either singer. The lithe bass and drums of Nick Henderson and Oliver Nelson push the song into a bright, triumphant clearing for Slater’s scatting; then Stephenson follows with a similarly crescendoing piano solo. “With great joy comes great sorrow” is the theme.

Song For My Piano is a wry, saloon blues-love ballad: “While you throw stones in the water, blowing my cover, who am I kidding?” Slater wants to know; then the bandleader goes for a cautiously rippling spiral of a solo. As a pianist, Stephenson brings to mind Mara Rosenbloom’s blend of neoromantic gleam and brushfire improvisation.

If the Sun Made a Choice has a jaunty Dawn Oberg-like bounce and an imagistic lyric pondering the pitfalls of narrow, dualistic thinking. Rising out of purposeful chords and washes of cymbals, Love Is Patient is much more expansive, even rubato in places: ”Always in the present tense with every sense, do less, live more,” Slater cajoles.

Stephenson switches to Rhodes, then eventually moves back to the grand piano for Going In Circles. an unlikely but successful mashup of artsy ELO-style pop, 70s soul and trickily metric, tightly  unspooling Philip Glass-ine melody. The final cut is the epic title track, which takes a turn in the brooding direction of the trio’s previous album. Stephenson opens it spaciously and expands from there with her rippling water imagery:

An endless flow of useless thoughts and consequent sensations
Can govern every step we take filling us with trepidation
But we are not the thoughts within nor just an empty vessel…

From there a magically misterioso drum solo and Stephenson’s pointillistic, music-box-like solo punctuate this poetic meditation on impermanence and change. Lots to sink your ears into here from a fearlessly individualistic talent who defies easy categorization.

An Epic East Village Show by Haunting Turkish Rock Singer Mehmet Erdem

Friday night at Drom, intense crooner Mehmet Erdem led his four-piece band through an epic, towering, majestic set of elegant, darkly crescendoing Turkish art-rock. Wearing a wireless headset, he and the sound guy had an animated dialogue going during the first few numbers of a concert that went on for well over two hours into Saturday morning. Which makes sense – although Erdem is a talented multi-instrumentalist who plays several Turkish lutes, his first gig as a professional was not as a musician but as a sound engineer. After a few tweaks, he was content: Drom is one of New York’s most sonically pristine venues.

That calm, meticulous approach extended to his vocals as well. In a powerful, resonant baritone, he stood resolute and mostly motionless in the center of the stage, intoning a long series of brooding, slowly crescendoing ballads in his native vernacular. You could call him the Turkish Leonard Cohen – although Erdem has a lot more range beyond Cohen’s foggy low register.

As is often the case with Turkish rock, Erdem’s lyrics are enigmatic and allusive, with the occasional mythological reference. What appear to be brooding lost-love laments on the surface may have political overtones, thinly veiled nostalgia for freedom and basic human rights. As the night wore on, the crowd sang along: even for non-Turkish speakers, it was easy to get a sense of meaning from Erdem’s articulation and forcefulness, and from the audience as well. The ladies sang along lustily on the night’s most carefree ballad; other times, phones were raised defiantly. Let’s hope some of this footage makes it to youtube.

The band were fantastic. Interestingly, for all his fretboard talent, Erdem only played oud, and only on a handful of songs midway through the show. And he never cut loose, negotiating a couple of serpentine intros with a brooding terseness, choosing his spots and slowly building suspense. His acoustic guitarist added incisive melody that occasionally shifted toward flamenco or the Middle East, especially when the music’s minor modes grew darkest (Turkish rock can be gothic AF, an effect that really kicked in when he switched to keyboards on the night’s most majestic numbers). Meanwhile, the rhythm section lurked in the background, occasionally rising when the tempos picked up.

But the star of the show was the clarinetist. In the Balkans and eastward, clarinet is often the lead instrument, and this band’s lead guy is killer. Opening with a dazzling, microtonal flourish was a red herring, considering that he matched the bandleader’s moody resonance most of the way through. As the set picked up steam, he opened a couple of numbers with all-too-brief taqsims, parsing every haunting tonality he could get out of his reed.

By about one in the morning, Erdem had methodically worked up to a peak, through grooves that a couple of times snuck their way from cumbia to straight-up stadium rock, with a couple of lively detours into funk and even roots reggae. From there, the group hit the hardest, with a series of singalong anthems. They brought it down somewhat at the end, closing on a somewhat disquieting, unresolved note. At that point, there was no need for an encore.

Drom is one of only a handful of clubs in the US, and the only one in New York which regularly features Turkish rock. Extraordinary chanteuse Sertab Erener – whose music is somewhat quieter but just as lavish – is there on May 25 at 7 PM.

A Rapturous, Hauntingly Spare Solo Album From Enigmatic Cello Rock Songstress Serena Jost

The sheer hummability of cellist/multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost’s music contrasts with the opaqueness of her lyrics. In her music, nothing is ever as it seems despite all indications to the contrary. That enigmatic sensibility has served her well over the past fifteen years. The closest comparison is ELO’s Jeff Lynne, a similarly brilliant tunesmith whose signature sound blends classical ideas with rock, and has a similarly distinctively, elegant production style as well. Jost’s newest album, Up to the Sky – streaming at her music page – is her most ambitious to date. It’s a solo recording, just cello and vocals, recorded in the rich, reverberating sonics of St. Peter’s Church at 346 W 20th St. in Chelsea, where she’s playing the album release show on April 19 at 7:30 PM. Cover is $10; a reception will follow.

Window opens the album. Jost’s stark, ambered low chords, circling in a Philip Glass vein, anchor her clear, pensive vocals. A recurring shooting star reference adds to the nocturnal rapture and unease.

The influence of Jost’s frequent collaborator Amanda Thorpe shines through plaintively in The Cut, a canteringly hypnotic, Britfolk-tinged, plaintively imagistic lament. Likewise, the wave motion of Clement – just vocalese and cello – sets the stage for Great Conclusions. Playing this with her band, Jost cuts loose with a galloping, crescendoing intensity, but in this version, her pizzicato attack is muted, her vocals understated and clear, echoing Linda Thompson as the song’s gloomily allusive narrative winds out.

Hallway. another instrumental with vocalese, brings in a hazy late-afternoon sun, introducing the baroque-flavored vignette Happiness. “Happiness has come and gone without warning, just a lantern in the night.” Jost intones.

Lullaby is a melody much of the world knows from childhood; the cello adds a newly somber undercurrent. By contrast, It’s a Delight rises to an unexpectedly triumphant crescendo over the sparest, circling low-register riff. Jost works that dichotomy again in Silver Star, its images of escape and release over subtle variations on a mantra-like cello phrase. The album concludes, unresolved, with the fragmentary, echoing, mysterious Red Door. Fans of darkly individualistic songwriters from Carol Lipnik to Connie Converse will devour this. Indie classical people ought to check this out as well – for what it’s worth, Jost once arranged and led a fifty-cello performance of Terry Riley’s In C!

Jazz Guitar Mastermind Mary Halvorson Embraces Lush, Uneasily Rapturous Improvisational Art-Rock

Mary Halvorson may be known as one of the world’s most brilliantly individualistic jazz guitarists, but some of her work skirts the edges where experimental rock and postrock spill over into jazz. She’s also a rare example of a world-class fret-burner who’s also an excellent singer. And she’s also an intriguing lyricist. For whatever reason, the words to the genre-defying songs on her new album Code Girl – streaming at Bandcamp – aren’t imbued with as much of the sardonic humor and stiletto wit that runs through her instrumental work. Amirtha Kidambi sings them with dynamics, drama and passion. The album title is ironic in the genuine sense of the word: it has absolutely nothing to do with tech worship. March tempos are everywhere here: a political reference, maybe? Halvorson and her quartet are playing the album release show tomorrow night, April 3 with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM at the Jazz Standard; cover is $25.

As usual, Halvorson’s compositions here go far beyond stereotypical verse/chorus/bridge architecture. The intro to the opening track, My Mind I Find in Time sounds like Bill Frisell playing calypso; then Halvorson shifts to a steady, pulsing drive with hints of Vegas noir. Drummer Tomas Fujiwara’s cymbals ice the backdrop, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire contributes wary resonance and then grit. Kidambi’s soul-infused mantra, “Reconstruction is required in time” has unexpected drama. Bassist Michael Formanek’s final flourishes close it deviously.

Fluttery arioso vocals contrast with the dark lyrical undercurrent of Possibility of Lightning, which morphs into a growling march capped off by some mean tremolo-picking, spins through a vortex of improvisation with Akinmusire anchoring the bandleader’s savagery, then the two themes merge.

The epic Storm Cloud begins as a spare, ominously tremoloing Lynchian set piece, then the whole band march it into moody pastoral terrain. Halvorson hits her pedal for Dave Fiuczynski microtonal warp and Akinmusire wafts as Fujiwara pushes the anthem’s methodical metric shifts:

The clearing of the storm
Finds extra ordinary lives
Pulsing behind the blood

Halvorson and Akinmusire work coy counterpoint over a steady backbeat in Pretty Mountain. The bandleader’s steady, twisted folk arpeggios hold the center; scatting vocals signal an implosion before this wistful travel reminiscence’s punchline kicks in.

Moving between staggered jangle and another march groove, Off the Record has unexpectedly tropical flavor.Formanek artfully hands off the broodingly terse melody to Halvorson as In the Second Before gets underway,Akinmusire and Fujiwara shifting gears from droll to stern. Halvorson builds a roaring crescendo from there, part doom metal, part frantic squall: it’s the album’s high point.

The bandleader has a lot of fun toying with the Orbison noir ballad melody of Accurate Hit, a twistedly spare nocturne for guitar and vocals. Her tantalizing latin noir allusions fuel The Beast, the album’s most picturesque song: is this a seduction or a murder in progress? That song foreshadows the album’s haunting centerpiece, The Unexpected Natural Phenomenon, shifting between atmospheric dark, bossa-tinged folk and a spare sway. Then the group give it a long, thorough, rather wry wringing-out:

Why
In the water
Does laughing make you sink

Rustling counterpoint over yet another march beat give way to a pensive Akinmusire solo and desolate, reverbtoned tremolo-picking from Halvorson in Thunderhead, the closest thing to Frisell she’s ever written.

Halvorson’s muted pulses and enigmatically lingering lines contrast with Kidambi’s majestic delivery and Akinmusire’s uneasy airiness in the simply titled And; the unexpected turn toward New Orleans and then Indian drollery is irresistibly fun. Unsettled yet steady, Deepest Similar is a bittersweet love song, guardedly weighing hope for the future while letting go of the past: perhaps instructively, Kidambi’s angst-fueled vocals rise to their most tortured point here.

The album winds up with an amusing miniature, Armory Beams and then Drop the Needle, where Halvorson manages to orchestrate a shift from tongue-in-cheek and techy to slowly shuffling, moody resonance punctuated by Akinmusire’s pensively sailing lines and Formanek’s steady, bluesy melismas. Much as Halvorson has always been on the cutting edge, this is her most ambitious album to date – and there’s irony in that, considering how catchy most of these tunes are.

Dark Beasts: Brooklyn’s Most Riveting, Relevant Young Band

The cold gaze of a black python greeted the crowd on their way up the stairs at the Gatehouse concert series in Fort Greene last night, where Dark Beasts played a tantalizingly short set of catchy, surreal, unflinchingly relevant songs that defy categorization. The band name suits the trio perfectly: their songs are dark, and they are definitely beasts.

Lead singer Lillian Schrag was responsible for that menacing creature and its removable green scales, in addition to the lowlit stage design and her band’s painted bestial faces. Their first song, The Python’s Lament, was more distantly sinister, Schrag’s torrents of lyrics over Trixie Madell’s enigmatically anthemic psych-folk guitar chords, violinist Violet Paris-Hillmer running an icy, creepy loop over and over.

Over the past couple of years, Dark Beasts have built a devoted following among their fellow musicians. Many of those fans are three or four times older than the group’s members. Each is a multi-instrumentalist. Schrag, the daughter of Rose Thomas Bannister – one of this era’s greatest songwriters – plays piano and bass, but in this group her main contribution is vocals. She’s also the primary lyricist. Whether on guitar or piano, Madell brings a deep David Bowie influence to the songs. Paris-Hillmer plays percussion in addition to violin, and has a background in classical music as well. Technique-wise, they’re a work in progress – although their proficiency continues to grow in all kinds of  unexpected ways. And their songwriting is astonishing. We give children too little credit for their depth and their insights. 

Madell switched to piano, balancing eerie highs against stygian lows throughout the second number, Soldier’s Song, a terse, brooding, mythologically-influenced antiwar anthem. Paris-Hillmer moved to frame drum for that one, where she’d remain for the rest of the set.

Standing tall – about four feet eight inches – in front of the band, Schrag was a somber, charismatic presence throughout the third song, Stop Polluting or the World’s Going to Die. Madell’s uneasy guitar vamps anchored Schrag’s clever wordplay in Night Animals, a Maurice Sendak-ish catalog of nocturnal wildlife. They closed with The Wolf, a brief, forlorn anthem

Schrag played the encore solo on bass, churning out a pitchblende drone beneath a lyric that seemed at least partly improvised. “If you’re smart enough to fire a gun, you should use your mind,” she cautioned. The crowd responded with a standing ovation. Afterward, the group signed balloons for the audience, then got into the ice cream.

Dark Beasts will probably be on hiatus until school vacation this June. In the meantime, at least one adult Brooklyn band has been playing Dark Beasts material. There are innumerable other children’s bands in Brooklyn, but most of them are cutesy, or at best they struggle to play cover songs. As Margaret Atwood once said – more or less  – compared to other little girls, Dark Beasts are lifesize. Watch this space for upcoming live appearances.

Three Charismatic Women Push the Envelope with Arabic Music at the Met

Last night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the World Music Institute staged a triplebill of three individualistic, charismatic women bandleaders who’re pushing the envelope with how far music across the Arabic-speaking diaspora can go. The concert raised many questions, one of them being that as New Yorkers, is it our birthright to be able to immerse ourselves in great art from cultures around that world that we may not necessarily be immersed in? Or are we being priced out? Tickets for this one were $35, and while there was a big crowd, the Met’s Rogers Auditorium wasn’t sold out. Likewise, the museum is charging everyone but us full-price admission now – and probably making a killing from all the tourists.

Alsarah & the Nubatones opened the show with a very brief set of bouncy, catchy, vamping dance numbers, rising from a gathering hailstorm of notes from Brandon Terzic’s oud. The bandleader calls their music “retro Nubian pop,” a 21st century update on the slinky sounds produced in the wake of forced migrations to northern Egyptian cities in the 1960s. Blending the edgy chromatics and modes of Arabic music with catchy grooves from deeper in Africa, the band pulsed and pounced, Terzic trading riffs with bassist Mawuena Kodjovi over percussionist Ramy El Asser’s supple drive. Alsarah remarked that she’d come to reinvent the notion of a museum being “where art goes to die,” and then left that thread hanging: art never dies as long as people have access to it.

Tunisian-born Emel Mathlouthi received an overwhelming standing ovation for barely half an hour onstage, leading an icily atmospheric trio with multi-keys and syndrums. Resolute in a black dress, twirling slowly and elegantly and singing in both Arabic and English, she channeled simmering anger and defiance. Her slowly swaying opening number was an invitation to gather and join forces against oppression. After that, another minimalistic, slowly crescendoing minor-key dirge – whose Arabic title translates roughly as “Hopeless Humans” – sent a shout out to the working classes whose exhaustive efforts benefit nobody besides the bosses.

She closed on a more optimistic note with a tone poem of sorts, an Arabic counterpart to an epic from Nico’s Marble Index album – except with infinitely stronger vocals. Mathlouthi’s stage presence, her vocals and lyrics are vividly and often wrenchingly emotional; the mechanical thump of the syndrums made a jarring contrast with all the subtlety she brings to the stage. The music was plenty cold and foreboding without them.

Singer/acoustic guitarist Farah Siraj headlined. “She reminds me of Lauryn Hill,” an attractive, petite Jewish woman in the audience remarked. That observation was on the money, considering how Siraj blends elements of 90s American radio pop, flamenco, Romany ballads, bossa nova and Andalucian sounds with classical Arabic music. Her lead guitarist provided spiky intros and exchanged hard-hitting riffs with oudist Kane Mathis and bassist Moto Fukushima over the drummer’s shapeshifting grooves, moving effortlessly from the tropics to the Middle East. From there they took a detour toward India with an undulating ballad that Faraj wrote with Bollywood composer legend A.R. Rahman – which became a chart-topping hit for her. 

A hauntingly crescendoing Jordanian ballad gave Siraj a launching pad for her most chillingly melismatic vocal of the night – and a chance to salute the bravery and resilience of refugees from Syria, Palestine and around the world. After that, she blended habibi pop, Brazilian balminess and Spanish sizzle, sometimes within a few bars of each other. 

Fans of global sounds ought to check out the free show the WMI is putting on at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. on May 3 at 7:30 PM with hypnotic Saharan rock band Imharhan.

Two Thirds of a Potentially Magical Triplebill Revisited at the Met Tonight

More about that great triplebill staged by the World Music Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art tonight, March 24 at 7 PM: it’s a reprise of two thirds of what should have been the best concert of 2017 but wasn’t. The problem wasn’t the artists on the bill: it was the sound. But the Rogers Auditorium at the Met has superb sonics. Central Park Summerstage is an outdoor venue and can’t compare, and although the sound there last summer was usually pretty good, it was problematic that August evening when two charismatic singers with North African ancestry, Emel Mathlouthi and Alsarah led their respective bands, opening for the godfather of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke.

Mathlouthi and Alsarah & the Nubatones are both on tonight’s bill along with Jordanian chanteuse Farah Siraj, and as of this morning it wasn’t sold out, probably because of the price, $35. But if you have the cash, it’s worth it, especially if you figure that each artist is only about twelve bucks apiece.

On one hand, the Central Park gig was a chance for each woman to put their strengths front and center. Both draw on a long tradition of allusive, imagistic classical Arabic poetry for their lyrics and subject matter. Alsarah’s kinetic dancefloor anthems address themes of Nubian longing and displacement in Aswa Dam-era Egypt. Mathlouthi’s icy, cinematic art-rock opaquely references struggle and resistance: in her formative years, she was a heroine of the  Arab Spring in her native Tunisia.

Alsarah’s set kicked off the afternoon. Her not-so-secret weapon is oudist Brandon Terzic, whose rippling microtones drove the rise and fall of the songs. It wasn’t til the end that he got a chance to stretch out and solo; the time out, the band’s most wildly applauded solo spot was a boomy trip through a funhouse mirror of North African rhythms from master percussionist Rami El Asser. Given less time onstage than her epic album release show at Flushing Town Hall back in the spring of 2016, the bandleader didn’t talk to the audience as much but still found room to mention how the Nubians’ forced relocation to cities mirrors the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East as well as anti-immigrant violence here at home.

Mathlouthi was next on the bill. Her not-so-secret weapon is her voice, a powerful weapon that began looming and eventually took some dramatic flights upward. Backed only by keys and drums, she stood more or less motionless, drawing the crowd in. But while the stage monitors were probably working, the PA wasn’t. Midway through the show, the atmospheric keys that have been a major part of her sound lately disappeared from the mix and didn’t return until almost the end. Much as her voice was strong against the beats – a trippy, techy electroacoustic mix – the grandeur and angst of her songwriting never reached altitude. As with the opening act, she didn’t interact with the crowd as much as at her own epic show at the Global Beat Festival downtown back in 2015: “The world’s biggest terrorist is capitalism,” was her most acerbic comment.

Mulatu Astatke headlined. It was strange to see that the space wasn’t completely sold out for the guy who, if he didn’t invent Ethiopian jazz, has done more to bring it to a global audience than anyone else. Joined by an inspired, horn-spiced pickup group including but not limited to Jason Lindner on keys, Marcus Gilmore on drums and Roman Diaz on congas, Astatke delivered a haunting, gracefully rippling,  chromatic mix of mostly midtempo numbers punctuated by a very long percussion interlude. He took the lead on electric piano on most of the tunes, Lindner holding his own when taking over on the techier songs and taking them subtly toward P-Funk territory without ripping their austere fabric. It was great to finally get to see Astatke live, but a bad taste lingered. What an incredible show it would have been if the PA had been working for Mathlouthi.

A Lavish, Ambitious, Politically-Inspired New Album by Banda Magda

Banda Magda frontwoman Magda Giannikou writes fluently and fearlessly in an amazing number of styles from around the world. Accordion is her main axe, but she also plays the lanterna, an ancient, magically rippling Greek instrument. Her band’s debut album T’es La put a cheery Mediterranean spin on vintage French ye-ye pop. The follow-up, 2014’s Yerakina, was far darker, established the band as a major force in latin and Mediterranean psychedelia, and earned them a regular spot in the rotation on the New York outdoor summer concert circuit.

The songs on the band’s latest album Tigre –  streaming at Spotify – draw inspiration from freedom fighters in her native Greece battling Eurozone bankster terrorism. The Nicaraguan struggle against corporate-funded death squads became a focal point for punk rock forty years ago. Is this the 2018 counterpart to the Clash’s Sandinista album? It’s more opaque, maybe a wise move considering global circumstances at the moment, but it’s practically just as epic. This is all about the orchestration: sweep and grandeur punctuated by elegant guitar and keys, driven by an eclectic rhythm section. The central theme is stay strong: we’ve really got our work cut out for us.

The first track, Tam Tam, welds a slinky, surfy, Middle Eastern-tinged electic bouzouki line to lush, sweeping new wave: if Chicha Libre had been Greek and had existed in 1982, they might have sounded something like this. Giannikou sings this one in French. She welds those lush strings, lingering guitar and new wave touches to a bouncy samba beat in the chipper, cheery Coração – as the song rises, the orchestration and clickety-clack groove grow more hypnotic.

Ase Me Na opens with a long, sweeping, mournful string introduction, then becomes a swaying Aegean anthem – as with the first track, uneasy, spiky electric bouzouki punctuates the enveloping majesty of the strings. Giannikou saves her most hushed, tender vocal for Muchacha, the orchestra occasionally bubbling over a hypnotically circling tropical acoustic guitar tune.

She blends rapidfire Indian riffage into Brazilian forro in the insistent Vem Moren, rising from stark cello riffage to a brass-fueled dance. Chanson is a lush, starry throwback to the balmy pop of the band’s first album, then the band pick up the pace with the tricky, sauntering metrics of Reine de (Queen of…), which could be early 80s Kate Bush with simmering bouzouki, lithe strings and an ending that goes straight to the Sahara.

The title track is a triptych. Over a cinematic, lavish backdrop, Snarky Puppy’s Michael League narrates Giannikou’s thinly vieied political parable about three girls facing down a thieving tiger .The song itself is a vengeful, indomitably pulsing blend of Romany swing, psychedelic cumbia and qawwali, maybe, up to a mighty, shivery, orchestrated coda.

Starry vibraphone lingers over a brisk, emphatic clave beat in Venin (Venom), Giannikou’s French lyrics commenting on the frustrations of love rather than geopolitics. The album winds up with the swirling, droning spacerock of Thiamandi. Count this among the most wildly ambitious and original albums of the past several months.