How many bands have there ever been who were at their peak twenty years after they started? On one hand, just getting to the twenty-year mark as a band is quite the achievement. But composer/guitarist Stephen Ulrich just keeps getting creepier and more eclectic. And it’s safe to say that this edition of Big Lazy, the world’s most consistently haunting, reverb guitar-fueled instrumental band is the best ever. Which is not to be dismissive of original drummer Willie Martinez, who only left the group due to the demands on his schedule as a star of latin jazz and salsa. Nor is this a dis at original bassist Paul Dugan, whose darkly frenetic pulse was such an important part of the band’s first incarnation from about 1996 through 2007.
But the new rhythm section of Andrew Hall and Yuval Lion is the best ever, and the most consistent with Ulrich’s bleak, rain-drenched vision. Back in the day, the band made their home at Tonic, the late, lamented Norfolk Street hotspot for adventurous, jazz-influenced music. Since last year, maybe predictably, the band has made Barbes their home base. They’re playing there again on August 7 at 10 PM.
Between them, Hall and Lion give Ulrich a more minimalist groove than this band has ever had. And yet, they also get featured more prominently on solos, Hall using his bow for extra stygian resonance, Lion rattling the traps like a poltergeist left over from when Manhattan’s Record District (where you bought turntables and vinyl) was bulldozed to make way for the World Trade Center. It may not be safe to say that any one band in town is the very best, but it is safe to say that Big Lazy never play anything remotely the same way twice.
Ulrich saves his bloodthirsty volleys of tremolo-picking and savage chord-chopping when he really needs to take the energy to redline or bring a sonic narrative to a murderous peak (film soundtracks are his regular gig – Big Lazy is his fun project). He’ll often intersperse a loping highway theme or great plains noir atmospherics amidst all the crime-jazz chromatics and wall-bending noir surf riffs. Although on record, menace is the band’s stock in trade, onstage Ulrich can be very funny, quoting from all sorts of jazz songs and movie themes. Once or twice a set, he’ll put down the guitar and break out his lapsteel for high lonesome wails or lingering, floating body-in-the-pool sonics. And much as most of the songs are instrumentals, occasionally they’ll have a guest take a turn out front: one of the coolest moments in the trio’s recent shows has been where oldtime music maven Mamie Minch joined them for a nonchalantly Lynchian, plaintive version of Crazy.
When Ulrich regrouped Big Lazy in 2013 after a six-year hiatus, that was big news, and this blog covered them not once but five times that year and in 2014. Which explains why the band has been absent from the front page here since this past January. But this blog hasn’t been absent from Big Lazy’s Barbes shows this year, beginning in January and then in each of the last three months. In case you haven’t already figured it out, one more thing that’s safe to say about this decidedly unsafe band is that they’re worth seeing more than once. At the end of the year, along with the best albums and best songs lists, there’s also a list of the best concerts in New York and at least one of these gigs will be on it – the May show in particular was pretty amazing.