New York Music Daily

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Tag: balkan music

A Rare Appearance by Wild Romany Party Band Romashka at This Year’s New York Gypsy Festival

At the peak of their late zeros popularity, Romashka were rivalled only by Gogol Bordello and maybe Luminescent Orchestrii among New York Romany party bands. Frontwoman Inna Barmash, one of the world’s greatest klezmer singers, has a diamond-cutter clarity that’s almost scary. Her husband Ljova Zhurbin is one of this era’s most eclectic and brilliant violists. They don’t play live as much as they used to, but when they reconvene it’s like they never left off and the party starts all over again. They’re bringing their signature blend of slashing minor keys, acerbic chromatics and fiery Russian Romany dances to the latest installment of the ongoing New York Gypsy Festival at Drom this Sept 20 at 8 PM; adv tix are $15. It’s going to be a little taste of Golden Fest a few months before the annual Balkan blowout takes place next January 12 and 13 in Brooklyn.

Unless they’ve been keeping their gigs a big secret, the most recent Romashka gig was at Golden Fest 2018, and it was killer. Fortuitously, their set was recorded and is available as a free download at the Free Music Archive. They kick it off with Hochu Lyubit, a scampering, pulsing dance, Jeff Perlman’s clarinet bubbling, Zhurbin weaving through one ominous chromatic after another, then giving way to guest trumpeter Frank London’s triumphant solo as guitarist Jai Vilnai skanks and jangles. With her intense, melismatic delivery, Barmash gives it an extra shot of dramatic angst at the end – it was her birthday, so she was especially amped.

From there the band take a detour into a couple of acerbic Romanian dance numbers. Veering in and out of the western scale, Rustemul sounds like the theme to a village that time really forgot, a rustically surreal, coyly bombastic theme pushed along by Ron Caswell’s tuba and Chris Stromquist’s drums. Tocul is a lot more lighthearted and lickety-split.

Ljova’s delicate incisions and London’s plaintive trumpet matched Barmash’s distant, nuanced poignancy throughout a muted Russian tango, Serdtse. Her insistent attack and ornamentation in Loli Phabay – “Red Apple,” a Russian Romany tune – is pretty wild, in contrast with Vilnai’s jaggedly precise, Middle Eastern tinged jangle and clang.

Perlman fires off triumphant trills while Holmes smolders throughout the old Romany hit Shimdiggy. Barmash goes to redline right off the bat as the band launch into the edgy bounce of Zarnobila, taking a careening segue into a rapidfire take of Baro Faro to end their show with a blistering stampede out.

Although Brooklyn’s Grand Prospect Hall wasn’t designed for electric bands, the sound quality is surprisingly clear and balanced. Get this set before it disappears (that happens sometimes at the Free Music Archive) – it’s one of this city’s great esoteric bands at the peak of their powers.

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A Promising, Characteristically Eclectic Start to This Year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival

This year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival runs through Sept 14 and promises to be as rapturously fun as last year’s was. On Wednesday evenings starting at 5:30 PM, a rotating cast of accordionists play half-hour sets of an amazingly eclectic range of music. This year there are five sets happening simultaneously, which created some dissonance on opening night when one group was going full steam while their neighbor played a quiet ballad. But the music was sublime.

For a connoisseur of accordion music – and who wouldn’t want to be one, right? – it’s always a triage. Forro or klezmer? Irish folk-punk or cumbia? The advantage of staggered sets is that you get multiple chances to see your favorite player or style of music. This week it was easy to choose a set by the brilliant and erudite Christina Crowder to begin the evening. Most of her numbers were minor-key Jewish wedding tunes, including a bouncy one about giving away the family’s youngest daughter, along with a mysterious, enveloping theme typically played early in the day for relatives of the betrothed. She romped through a jaunty bulgar and another, more somber tune, both of which contained the Twilight Zone riff. Late in the set, she treated the crowd to a Moldavian tune whose title translates roughly as “Freestyle Over This Groove.” Crowder didn’t rap; instead, she built an ambience that was as kinetic as it was hypnotic.

After that, it was time to head to the southeastern corner of the park for an even livelier set of oldschool cumbia and vallenato – “Colombian country music,” as accordionist Foncho Castellar termed it. Backed by a couple of percussionists, he played button accordion. The trio romped through some very brisk cumbias before the even more rustic stuff about peasants in the big city, or way out on the frontera, dancing, partying and chasing women.

After that, Susan Hwang – half of haunting literary art-rock duo Lusterlit – broke out her accordion for a deviously fun set. Backed by a djembe player, she opened with a coyly exasperated, new wave-flavored original, from her days with charming late zeros/early teens trio the Debutante Hour, concerning New York parking. Her funniest cover was a remake of the Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters blues classic, which she titled Hoochie Koochie Woman. Another fun one was an original from her lit-rock collective the Bushwick Book Club, a thoughtful, quirky bounce told from the point of view of physicist Richard Feynman.

Like Hwang, Dolunay frontwoman Jenny Luna is best known as a singer and percussionist. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to call her one of New York’s – and arguably the world’s – most riveting, shattering vocalists. She’s also a first-rate Balkan and Middle Eastern drummer. As it turns out, she’s a competent accordionist as well. Much as she got plenty of brooding, sometimes haunting atmospherics and chromatics wafting from her reeds, it was her voice that held the crowd spellbound,. She began with a moody tone  poem of sorts, then a couple of Rumeli (Balkan Turkish) laments that gave her a chance to air out both her soaring highs and haunting low register. She wound up the set with a jaunty if hardly blithe singalong, in Turkish – the chorus translated roughly as variations on “be my habibi.”

Next week’s installment of the festival, at 5:30 PM on Aug 22, features a similarly diverse lineup including but not limited to gothic Americana songwriter Sam Reider; the torchy, swinging Erica Mancini; edgy, avant garde-influenced chamber pop singer Mary Spencer Knapp; Argentine tango duo Tinta Roja and Mexican norteño crew Toro de la Sierra.

Trumpeter Ben Holmes Brings His Lyrical Brilliance and Distant Unease to Barbes This Weekend

According to Kate Attardo – the brilliant photographer who ran the music room at Barbes in recent years – trumpeter Ben Holmes and accordionist Patrick Farrell staged their ominous, cinematic Conqueror Worm Suite there three times. This blog was in the house for two of those rapturously haunting shows (here’s what it sounded like there back in September of 2016). Fortuitously, the suite is also available on album, and streaming at youtube complete with Natalie Sousa’s original concert visuals. Over the duo’s shapeshifting, often wildly eclectic backdrop, Holmes narrates Edgar Allen Poe’s grand guignol poem about a killer worm to rival all others.

The suite opens with Farrell’s moody, low solo accordion chords eventually joined by Holmes’ mournful theme; from there, the trumpeter picks up steam with lively flair, up to a sudden coda. Then the duo return with a variation that foreshadows the klezmer influence that grows more distinct as the suite goes on – which makes sense, considering that the two have shared membership in the Yiddish Art Trio.

“Mere puppets who go…who shift the scenery to and fro,” Holmes intones over Farrell’s creepy, carnivalesque oompah – did Poe have some foreknowledge of the plague of gentifiers who would imperil this city far more than any oversize, ravenous insect?

Whatever the case, the two build a march in the same vein as the first part of a hora, in this case hapless victims dreading their fate far more than any new bride required to dance and make nice with her mother-in-law. Then Poe’s “motley drama” in a “circle that ever returneth in” becomes “horror – the soul of the plot,” a brief moment of terror giving way to a strutting, catchy klezmer dance. Holmes’ melody bounces, blithe and surreal, over Farrell’s steady, rhythmic orchestration – as usual, he has a way of making the accordion sound like a whole reed section.

The oompahs grow more disquieting, as do the duo’s increasingly atonal harmonies, rising toward terror as the march continues toward an ineluctable conclusion.The ending is something of a surprise, yet a magnificent payoff in its own counterintuitive way. 

It was tempting to save this album in the stack waiting patiently for Halloween month this year – an annual tradition at this blog where there’s not only something new but also something macabre or monstrous every day. But that can wait – Holmes is playing this Saturday night, July 28 at 8 PM at Barbes, his usual haunt, with his latest trio project, Naked Lore which features Brad Shepik on guitar and Shane Shanahan on percussion along with frequent special guests. While their sound is completely different and a lot more improvisational than this masterpiece, there are plenty of moments of distant menace and frequent references to uneasy Middle Eastern and klezmer melodies. If you miss this weekend’s show, they’re back at Barbes again on Aug 24.

The Brooklyn Folk Festival Is Ten Years Old and Better Than Ever

Over the past decade, the Brooklyn Folk Festival has become a New York rite of passage. Like Golden Fest, Rev. Vince Anderson’s Union Pool residency, the Brooklyn Cyclones and Shakespeare in the Park, it’s something that everyone should experience at least once. It’s held over a weekend every spring, with both daytime and evening lineups; a lot of people go every year.

The best thing about the festival is that it isn’t exclusively devoted to artists who play music by the greatest and most prolific songwriter of all time – whose name varies from language to language, but invariably translates as Anonymous. This past Saturday night’s lineup featured some of that repertoire but also originals drawing on a global expanse of influences, from high-voltage Romany dance music, to moody Balkan ballads,  ecstatic Afro-Colombian trance-dance chants, honkytonk, southern gothic and jug band sounds. Which makes sense, considering that the folks at the magical Jalopy Theatre – New York’s Americana music central – put this thing together.

By the time the nighttime lineup got underway, St. Ann’s Church on Montague Street was already packed with a diverse crowd of veterans and kids hell-bent on getting the most bang for the buck out of their all-weekend or allday passes. Italian pianist/singer Luca Ferraris kicked off the evening on the stage next to the beer stand with a dynamic set of originals and a few traditional numbers that ran the gamut from bouncy dance tunes with Romany or even Russian tinges, to ballads that sometimes sauntered unexpectedly in a jazz direction. A bassist joined him about midway through and became a vocal sparring partner. Even for those in the crowd whose Italian might be limited to restaurant menu items, the songs were infectious. 

In the church’s main space, pan-Balkan singer and song reinventor Eva Salina and sorcerer accordionist Peter Stan benefited from the rich natural reverb, which added yet another layer of mystery to their distinctive versions of songs from the catalogs of iconic Romany singers Saban Bajramovic and Vida Pavlovic. Nimbly negotiating the slithery sibilances of the Romanes language, the California-born Salina channeled resilience and grace in the face of longing and abandonment, sang a cartoonishly bouncy number from the point of view of a guy overjoyed with his three-foot-tall, extremely fertile wife, and didn’t shy away from the issues of displacement and exile that permeate so much of this repertoire. Stan sized up the sonics in a split-second and maxed them out with flickering torrents of bracing minor keys and chromatics that took on new dimensions, echoing off the walls.

There was a little overlap while one of the Jalopy house bands, Skalopy, played live dub reggae and some classic Toots & the Maytals material with a lineup that included both banjo and piano. Meanwhile, in the main space, Bulla En El Barrio built a frenzy of call-and-response with their hypnotically percussive chants, which draw a straight line back from Colombia to Africa. A succession of men and women took turns leading the choir over the thunder of the percussion; they closed with an original that was as rustic and otherworldly as any of the traditional epics.

They would have been a tough act to follow, but not for Jerron Paxton, who may be the most talented musician in all of New York. Playing a longer set than any of the other acts on the bill, solo, he nonchalantly showed off his spectacular chops as oldtime acoustic blues and ragtime guitarist, fiddler, banjo and harmonica player. This time out he didn’t take a turn at the piano, but he could have. In his genial Louisiana drawl, he entertained the crowd with stories from the kind of colorful past only a musician could have…but also didn’t hesitate to remind them of the sobering reality of how many ex-slaves died of starvation after the Civil War. And you wonder why so many old blues songs mention hunger. Moving methodically between carefree proto-bluegrass fiddle, wickedly precise blues fingerpicking, ominously ancient, hypnotically percussive banjo and some fierce harmonica blues, he made it all seem easy He encored on harmonica as well, with a breathless medley of 18th century blues tunes, including Abraham Lincoln’s favorite song.

Nick Panken, frontman of high-voltage Americana crew Spirit Family Reunion, didn’t waste time admitting that they had an impossible act to follow. And they’re a great band – but loud electric rock with drums doesn’t work in a space like St. Ann’s. In that context, the matter of who was playing before or after was irrelevant. The sound people really tried their best, and the band realized what was up, so their ballads worked out ok. But when they picked up the pace, the mix was just vocals, drums and Maggie Carson’s icepick five-string banjo lines. Their songs blend bluegrass, honkytonk and oldtime string band music and they can jam like crazy. And their fan base is crazy about them. But this was the wrong venue. The Jalopy is their New York home base when they’re not on tour; they’re best experienced there.

Speaking of Jalopy people, guitarist/singer Feral Foster – who’s been running the weekly Roots and Ruckus series there since forever – was next on the bill. Looking dapper in a sharp tan suit, he crooned, picked expertly in oldtimey open tunings and took a couple of unexpected and very successful turns into ragtime and slow blues. It’s hard to think of a more original songwriter in gothic Americana. Some of the songs were tongue-in-cheek but others were not: there’s an omnipresent dark undercurrent that always grounds them in grim reality. He’s at the Jalopy virtually every Wednesday sometime after 9 PM.

Finally, at around midnight, Birmingham, Alabama’s Steel City Jug Slammers took the stage, bolstered by Ernesto Gomez and one of his bandmates from Brooklyn’s Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues. It was amazing to watch Washtub Jay pick out swooping basslines on that clothesline string – without any tape on his fingers, either! – and play kazoo lines through a trumpet horn at the same time, and not miss a beat. Frontman Ramblin’ Ricky Tate played guitar and led the band through a sly series of shuffles and stomps as Maxwell Honeycup kept the low end going at the other side of the stage with his jug. By now, the crowd had thinned out, but these guys were not about to let anybody down.

That was it for this year’s Brooklyn Folk Festival, but a lot of these acts can be found at the Jalopy. Bulla en El Barrio are at Barbes on April 30 at around 10. Eva Salina and Peter Stan are at the American Folk Art Museum on May 4 at 5:30 PM, sharing the bill with irrepressibly fun, charming oldtimey chanteuse Tamar Korn, who can vocalize any wind instrument ever invented.. The Steel City Jug Slammers are at KGB Bar at around 9:30 PM on April 11. And Spirit Family Reunion are at the Knickerbocker, 35 Railroad Ave. in Westerly, Rhode Island on April 14 at 9 for $13 in advance.

The Irrepressibly Fun Klazz-Ma-Tazz Radically Reinvent Classic Yiddish Vaudeville Themes

Klazz-Ma-Tazz’s lusciously Lynchian 2016 album Tangibility was one of the half-dozen best releases of the year. Violinist Ben Sutin’s group bring fearless jazz adventurousness to an individualistic, darkly electric sound that draws equally on classic klezmer, Balkan and Middle Eastern sounds. Interestingly, their forthcoming album Meshugenah – streaming at Bandcamp  – is mostly reinventions of iconic Yiddish vaudeville tunes. Sutin’s objective here is to do with that repertoire what Charlie Parker and John Coltrane did with Broadway songs, in other words, establish a new Great American Songbook for future generations of jazz players. To say that the new record is as astonishingly original and irresistibly fun as the last one isn’t an overstatement. They’re playing the klezmer brunch at around 11 AM this Sunday, April 8 at City Winery; cover is $10, kids under 12 get in free and there’s no minimum. You better believe that this blog will be in the house.

Ben Rosenblum’s dark washes of accordion underscore Alec Goldfarb’s flickering guitar as the enigmatically tropical take of Alexander Olshantesky’s Mein Shtetele Belz gets underway; violin and guitar solos keeps the edgy bounce going, the latter edging toward Django Reinhardt territory. Elijah Shiffer’s clarinet veers from a party in the Pale to dixieland and then back. A Hawk and a Hacksaw and 3 Leg Torso come to mind.

Sutin’s arrangement of Svalava Kozatshok has a suspenseful trip-hop pulse anchored by Shifffer’s baritone sax, up to a shreddy fireball solo from Goldfarb; Sutin adds devious hints of bluegrass, then the band make Hava Nagila metal out of it. Are we having fun yet?

Drummer Tim Rachbach kicks into thumping techno mode in Cyberbalkanization, a suspensefully pulsing Turkish-flavored metal tune by bassist Mat Muntz, bristling with high-voltage tradeoffs and intertwining solos. They take it out with Beninghove’s Hangmen-style metal and then a psychedelic accordion outro

Sutin’s remake of the traditional tune Tumbalalaika has a desolate, glimmering poignancy, Rosenblum’s starry piano against Goldfarb’s languid Romany-tinged phrases, Sutin takes the energy up between a forlornly dancing Muntz solo and Rosenblum’s graceful, elegaic conclusion.

Astrid Kuljanic sings the first of two Joseph Rumshinsky numbers, Sheyn Vi Di Levone, a sardonic noir Vegas tango of sorts: her jazz kazoo solo has to be heard to be believed. Then they make Balkan metal out of Im Odessa – but with Rosenblum’s accordion, Shiffer’s airy alto sax and Sutin’s wild spirals interspersed up to a punchline that’s too good to spoil.

Sunrise, Sunset gets reinvented as a slinky, distantly lurid Twin Peaks Red Room theme, lit up with Rosenblum’s cascades, Shiffer’s summery alto trading off with Sutin’s knifes-edge violin before things get really crazy,

Pretty much every klezmer band does Rumshinsky’s Builgar; Klazz-Ma-Tazz’s epic version blends Hendrix, hints of an Appalachian dance and Balkan metal into a colorful salute to the song’s theatrical origins. And the take of Bei Mir Bist Du Schon is surreal to the extreme, balmy Rachelle Garniez-esque balladry bookending hard swing with Sutin at the center; Zhenya Lopatnik sings

Sutin’s only original here, the diptych Letting Go, is the album’s most cinematic track. A lushly vamping, edgy Middle Eastern groove gives way to a rippling Rosenblum piano solo, then Sutin gives the music in a brighter, more latin pulse, Golfarb’s icepicking signaling a return to an insistent attack. This band has a huge ceiling: fans of jazz, metal, Jewish folk, David Lynch soundtracks and all other things noir will not be disappointed. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2018 page if we make it that far.

Brilliant Balkan Singer Eva Salina Channels Empowerment in the Face of Despair

Since her days in the previous decade as an underage teenager belting over brass bands in Brooklyn bars, Eva Salina has established herself as one of the most distinctive and haunting voices in Balkan music. Although that’s her specialty, she doesn’t limit herself stylistically as a singer: her 20010  collaboration with fellow singer Aurelia Shrenker is a riveting glimpse of how radically she can reinvent classic Americana. Salina’s previous album was a blazing, horn-spiced, hard-rocking full-band tribute to legendary, tragic Romany crooner Saban Bajramovic.

Her latest album, Sudbina – streaming at Bandcamp– is a radical shift, a spare, rivetingly intimate reinvention of songs from the catalog of another Romany legend, Vida Pavlovic. For the most part, the instrumentation is just Salina’s voice backed by the accordion of her longtime collaborator Peter Stan. The two are playing the album release show this March 29 at 7:30 PM at Greenwich House Music School; cover is $15 and includes a copy of the new album.

Pavlovic was sort of a Balkan counterpart to Billie Holiday. She was unlucky in love; profound sadness and a sense of abandonment pervade her music. Yet there’s also a defiant, resolute joie de vivre, a quality that Salina explores deeply. In an era of global women’s marches and the Metoo movement, Pavlovic’s aching ballads are more relevant than ever. Which makes it all the more odd that it’s fallen to the American-born Salina to revive interest in her music.

The album opens with Pusti Me Da Zivim, an embittered born-to-lose theme, more or less. There’s despondency but also defiance in Salina’s slightly breathy delivery as Stan spirals and trills elegantly behind her: “Leave me to live my life alone,” is the main message; the moody minor-key melody has subtle bolero echoes.

E Laute Bašalen Taj Roven has a more brisk, marching rhythm, Stan a one-man accordion army as Salina’s voice chronicles the grim realities and constant displacement faced by Romany populations over the decades. The stark arrangement of Ostala Je Pesma Moja, Pavlovic’s signature song, underscores its theme. It’s a self-penned eulogy of sorts, the world-weary chanteuse addressing a new generation: “Remember, your mother gave you everything she had.”

Ćerma Devla Crikli is a lively dance number whose irrepressible bounce mutes an ever-present unease, a metaphorical perspective on the struggle to escape rural poverty. That dispersion comes into stark focus in the gently poignant Aven, Aven Romalen, a plea to men who’ve gone off to earn a living to come back to their families. It’s another study in contrasts, Salina’s brittle, vulnerable vocals against Stan’s balletesque leaps and pulses.

E Dadeći Cajori/Dema Miro is one of Pavlovic’s biggest hits:  the gist is “Give me peace, because you are eating my heart.” Salina’s wintry, ghostly vocals are arguably the album’s quietest yet most riveting moments.

The album winds up with Ostala, a final instrumental sendoff to Pavlovic featuring the simmering doublestops of popular Serbian trumpeter Demiran Ćerimović. Throughout the album, Salina maintains a meticulous focus on ornamentation and accents – she genuinely could pass for a Romany song diva. Which makes sense, considering she’s been singing this repertoire practically her whole life. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of this year.

A Wild, Astonishing Show in an Uptown Crypt by Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz

By the time Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz had finished their first number – an unpredictably serpentine Macedonian cocek dance arranged by Milica Paranosic – the violinist had already broken a sweat and was out of breath. That St. John and her pianist bandmate could maintain the kind of feral intensity they’d begun with, throughout a concert that lasted almost two hours in a stone-lined Harlem church crypt, was astounding to witness: a feast of raw adrenaline and sizzling chops.

There are probably half a dozen other violinists in the world who can play as fast and furious as St. John, but it’s hard to imagine anyone with more passion. A story from her early years as a seventeen-year-old Canadian girl studying in Moscow, right before the fall of the Soviet Union, spoke for itself. Determined to hear Armenian music in an indigenous setting, she and a couple of friends made the nonstop 36-hour drive through a series of checkpoints. “I’m Estonian,” she she told the guards: the ruse worked.

Although she’s made a career of playing classical music with many famous ensembles, her favorite repertoire comes from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This program drew mostly from the duo’s 2015 album, sardonically titled Shiksa, new arrangements of music from across the Jewish diaspora. The night’s most adrenalizing moment might have been St. John’s searing downward cascade in John Kameel Farah’s arrangement of the Lebanese lullaby Ah Ya Zayn, from aching tenderness to a sandstorm whirl. That song wasn’t about to put anybody to sleep!

Or it might have been Herskowitz’s endless series of icepick chords in Ca La Breaza, a Romanian cimbalom tune set to a duo arrangement by Michael Atkinson. Herskowitz is the rare pianist who can keep up with St. John’s pyrotechnics, and seemed only a little less winded after the show was over. But he had a bench to sit on – St. John played the entire concert in a red velvet dress and heels, standing and swaying on a 19th century cobblestone floor.

Together the two spiraled and swirled from Armenia – Serouj Kradjian’s version of the bittersweet, gorgeously folk tune Sari Siroun Yar – to Herskowitz’s murky, suspenseful, dauntingly polyrhythmic and utterly psychedelic rearrangement of Hava Nagila, all the way into a bracingly conversational free jazz interlude. They also ripped through the klezmer classic Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Reben, a Martin Kennedy mashup of the Hungarian czardash and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, and an elegant Kreisler waltz as the icing on the cake.

These Crypt Sessions, as they’re called, have a devoted following and sell out very quickly. Email subscribers get first dibs, and invariably scoop up the tickets. So it’s no surprise that next month’s concert, featuring countertenor John Holiday singing Italian Baroque arias, French chansons and a song cycle by African-American composer Margaret Bonds, is already sold out. But there is a waitlist, you can subscribe to the email list anytime, and the latest news is that the series will be adding dates in another crypt in Green-Wood Cemetery in the near future.

For anyone who might be intimidated by the ticket price – these shows aren’t cheap – there’s also abundant food and wine beforehand. This time it was delicious, subtly spiced, puffy Syrian-style spinach pies and vino from both Italy and France, a pairing that matched the music perfectly. Although to be truthful, barolo and spinach pies go with just about everything musical or otherwise.

Magic Microtones and Modal Menace at Barbes

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

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

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

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

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

20 Years of a Legendary Venue and a Legendary New York Punk Band

Is punk nostalgia an oxymoron? Or is a band’s refusal to calm down and be quiet something we should all aspire to? Gogol Bordello’s latest album, Seekers and Finders – streaming at Spotify – doesn’t pose those questions, but it offers a mighty, roaring answer.

Twenty years ago, the self-described gypsy punks – a term which ironically has become outdated – were a cult band playing midsize venues across the country. Since the band hadn’t yet embarked on their seemingly endless, global stadium tour, frontman Eugene Hutz frequently spun vinyl on Friday nights at Mehanata, the Bulgarian bar that was then located in a second-floor space at the corner of Canal and Broadway.

Those nights were insane – not just because of Hutz, or because it was the best dance party in town, but because in the early internet era, it was pretty much the only place in New York where you could hear Balkan turbo-folk music, at least playing over a good PA. Who would have thought that two decades later, Mehanata would still be in business – relocated to the Lower East Side – and that Gogol Bordello would still be together, let alone still vital?

The band don’t have any New York gigs coming up – their most recent was at a hideously overpriced corporate venue at the far fringes of Williamsburg – but Hutz is playing a very rare acoustic gig to celebrate Mehanata’s 20th anniversary on Feb 13. Doors are at 6, the party goes all night, Hutz is theoretically headlining – in a duo set with his Gogol Bordello bandmate Sergey Ryabtsev. Also on the bill are klezmer trumpeter Frank London with percussionist Deep Singh, Bulgarian sax titan Yuri Yunakov, accordion wizard Yuri Lemeshev and oudist Avram Pengas; other special guests are promised. Cover is $20; the first 200 through the door get a free Mehanata 20th anniversary t-shirt.

What does the new album sound like – in case you haven’t heard it? It’s a throwback to the2005 classic Gypsy Punks, arguably Gogol Bordello’s definitive statement (even though the word “gypsy” now has a connotation akin to “colored” – we are all better off saying “Romany”). The opening track, We Did It All comes across as a stomping Balkan brass number transposed to the electric guitars of Hutz and Boris Pelekh, with a characteristically surreal Hutz stream-of-consciousness lyrical interlude before the band explodes again.

Walking on the Burning Coals is a classic, metaphorical GB anthem spiced with brass, Sergey Ryabtsev’s violin and Pasha Newmer’s accordion over the guitar fury and the surprisingly slinky rhythm section: bassist Thomas Gobena and Alfredo Ortiz.

Break Into Your Higher Self is closer to 90s Warped Tour punk, with a typical Hutz exhortation to get with the revolutionary program. Harmony singer Vanessa Walters duets with Hutz on the singalong title track, followed by Familia Bonfireball and its unexpected spaghetti western tinges. Ryabtsev’s slithery violin pans the mix as it winds out.

Clearvoyance has a sotto-vocce bounce: “It’s like running from my prison of your mind,” resolutely solitary Hutz insists. Then the band picks up the pace with the album’s best track, the magnificently scorching, chromatically charigng Saboteur Blues. They keep the energy at redline with Love Gangsters, which begins as reggae tune as the Clash would have done it and builds from there. If I Ever Get Home Before Dark follows the same blueprint but more quietly.

Pedro Erazo-Segovia’s trippy, echoing charango kicks off You Know Who We Are before the big guitars kick in. The album ends with Still That Way, the band taking a stab at a big, dramatic Celtic ballad. After all these years, Gogol Bordello haven’t lost sight of a message that’s more relevant than ever: it’s never too late to party for our right to fight.

Globalfest 2018: The Best Ever?

Yeah, Globalfest this year was cold. But it’s winter. Judging from the number of midwestern and Canadian accents in the crowd last night, an awful lot of people at this year’s annual festival of sounds from around the world are on familiar terms with it. At this point in history we should be grateful that anything approximating winter still exists.

And it was reassuring to see such great throngs of people coming out on what might have been the coldest night of the year to see music from shithole countries. Neither of the two nations officially designated as shitholes by the Oval Office – El Salvador and Haiti – were represented among the dozen acts on the bill. But Iran has been on a White House shitlist for a long time, Cuba for far longer. And by today’s White House standards (if not tomorrow’s), the cities of New Orleans and Detroit can’t be far behind. So a lineup, which by European standards would have made for a good, solidly eclectic summer festival bill, was positively subversive here in the US in 2018.

Mohsen Namjoo set the bar impossibly high for the rest of the night, opening up the evening with his Persian rock band at the Liberty Theatre stage on the south side of 42nd Street. How did the Iranian setar lute player handle singing to an audience of non-Farsi speakers? Mostly by just vocalizing. “Understand it as sound,” he said with a sardonic wink to the crowd jammed at the front of the stage. Which is a step outside the box for a guy known for his incendiary lyrics.

He’s been called the Iranian Bob Dylan, although Tom Waits is a better comparison – and Namjoo rocks a lot harder than both of those guys put together. Showing off every octave of his formidable range, he prowled from gritty lows to overtone-enhanced highs, evoking a ney flute during one long interlude. His snarling band – lead guitar, bass and drums – made fanged Iranian art-rock out of Metallica, and took innumerable twists and turns through a dynamic mix of multi-part epics in 5/4, 7/4 and 11/4.

Namjoo, who has a withering sense of humor, cynically dismissed the American fixation with four-on-the-floor rhythms. His funniest moment of the night was when he played sarcastic bebop on his setar and scatted – after opening the song with a plaintive, haunting, spacious minor-key lute intro.

Later in the night there were similarly spectacular vocals from Georgia’s Iberi Choir, who are not only a choral ensemble but what could be termed an acoustic psychedelic folk band. Georgian harmonies are unlike music from anywhere else on the globe, with plenty of uneasy adjacencies but not the microtones of Middle Eastern or Balkan music. There was a brooding sensibility throughout much of the group’s set, and also a relentless, sometimes hypnotic intensity, alluding to but never hitting the kind of big minor-key crescendo you might expect from, say, Russian music.

Like Namjoo, the group members all seem to have impressive range, leaping far from monklike gothic lows within thirty seconds of the start of the set. The group’s instrumental chops were also as gripping as their vocals. Throughout a mix of dance numbers, Central Asian field hollers, laments and celebrations, various subsets of the ensemble would move to the front, accompanying themselves on a variety of lutes. In the most spectacular moment of the entire evening, the group leader played jaunty harmonies on two wood flutes at once and didn’t miss a note.

Across the street at Lucille’s, Brazilian rock singer Ava Rocha led her wickedly psychedelic four-piece band through a deliciously acidic, unpredictably shapeshifting set. South of the border, the 80s are still very much alive, but in a much darker way than they are here. American indie bands tend to ape the blithest, poppiest side of the Cure or New Order; down there, the sound tends to be much darker. Rocha’s mask finally came off three songs into her set. By then, the band had prowled through enigmatic early 80s Souxsie terrain, then a hypnotic series of interludes that were best appreciated as a contiguous whole rather than individual songs.

Tightly and methodically, the band negotiated sharp-fingernailed no wave, clenched-teeth Gang of Four skronk and insistently pulsing postrock interludes, the Telecaster player often hanging on the same tense, unresolved hook for what seemed minutes on end, at a couple of points switching to mini-synth for a series of woozy, warpy textures. The other Fender player handled the more aggressive, jagged lines over the rhythm section’s relentless drive. Rocha’s moody mezzo-soprano made a strong match with the songs’ often pained intensity, another case of many this evening where the mood of the music transcended any linguistic barrier.

That was most vividly the case in singer Eva Salina’s rapturous set of music from across the Balkans, in a rising and falling intimate duo set with her longtime accordionist Peter Stan. Where he’d animated a big ballroom full of dancers at Golden Fest a couple of nights before with his whirlwind arpeggios, cascades and looming low pulse, this time he fired off bright rivet-gun staccato riffs and similarly nimble spirals when he wasn’t lowlighting the sadder numbers.

Which would eventually go in all sorts of different directions. Eva Salina reminded the crowd that there’s a little bit of sadness – and happiness too – in pretty much everything, varying her delivery from delicate microtonal nuance, to lustrously sustained midrange, to lively, bounding passages. A handful of numbers – including a surreal tale of a drunk trying (or not trying) to pull his life together, and a bouncy celebration of a rotund little bride who’s eventually going to bear nine children – were taken from the catalog of legendary Romany crooner Saban Bajrmovic. Salina’s forthcoming album mines a completely different repertoire, that of the tragic but indomitable chanteuse Vida Pavlovic, most poignantly exemplified by a couple of ballads about abandonment – with and without children.

Finally, as midnight approached, it was time to move next door to B.B. King’s, the biggest room at this this year’s festival, for Mariachi Flor de Toloache. Where Eva Salina had been all about subtlety, New York’s only all-female mariachi band were all about fire and drama, breathtaking vocal acrobatics and audience participation. Bandleader Mireya Ramos played nimble basslines on her guitarron but saved her most spectacular chops for violin, in a sizzling solo during the night’s final cumbia. Her counterpart on tenor guitar also showed off a sensational top range during an unexpected and wildly successful detour into noir soul- somewhere Amy Winehouse is very jealous. With two trumpets, soaring violin and balmy flute, the group made their way through a defiant shout-out to Puerto Rico, a handful of rhythmically tricky, punchy dance numbers and a droll medley that quoted Led Zep along with other more snarky riffs.

Serendipitously, there was less of a need to triage this year than at past festivals. The only major disappointments were missing Miramar – who are playing Barbes tonight, Jan 15, at 9 – and also Indian carnatic hip-hop duo Grand Tapestry, who if they played at all, were done by half past midnight. And it would have been a lot of fun to see the whole set by slinky, shuffling New Orleans trio Delgres, who with slide guitar, sousaphone and drums played a kinetically hypnotic mashup of Mozambiquean duskcore over New Orleans-tinged rhythms. It was akin to watching Tinariwen playing R.L. Burnside tunes – with a fat low end that frequently bubbled over with distortion.

And what a difference a venue makes. What a pleasant change to see the calm, comfortable faces of the staff at B.B. King’s instead of the paranoid stares of the goons at Webster Hall, a place where just getting inside felt like trying to break into Riker’s Island. Even as transcendent as many of the past fifteen years’ worth of Globalfest lineups could be, being treated like a criminal from the git-go always leaves a bad taste.

But revenge is sweet. At Globalfest 2013, a daily New York music blog proprietor managed to sneak two bottles of wine through Webster Hall’s security gauntlet. Not to drink there – to take home afterward, and carry out through that same exit door, a raised middle finger to every little Hitler in the house.