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Big Lazy Bring Their Lurid, Creepy, State-of-the-Art Noir Back to Barbes

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.

This Saturday, January 24: A Great Night for Noir

This Saturday night, Jan 24 is a good one for noir music. At 7 PM LJ Murphy and his band the Accomplices are slumming at Sidewalk, bringing the nattily dressed, charismatic songwriter’s menacing urban narratives to life over careening, darkly bluesy rock. Then at 10 Big Lazy, New York’s preeminent noir instrumentalists for the past couple of decades, are headlining at Barbes. What’s the likelihood of being able to see two band this good on the same evening? Nights like this are why we live in New York. This blog’s covering both shows. No need to sign up or meet up or anything, just come along for the ride.

Big Lazy’s latest album, Don’t Cross Myrtle (a cautionary deep-Brooklyn reference) was ranked best album of 2014 here: it’s an absolute masterpiece of noir. Bandleader/guitarist Stephen Ulrich hit a high point with his soundtrack to the documentary film Art & Craft last year, then kept going with this one. At the album release show late in the year at the Manderley Bar in the Sleep No More building in Chelsea, the band was a little low in the mix, something that won’t be a problem at Barbes. But they didn’t let it phase them, turning in a performance that matched the haunted mood they created in the studio. Bassist Andrew Hall (who also happens to be first chair bass in the Greenwich Village Orchestra) opened the stygian waltz Swampesque with pitchblende bowing before Ulrich entered with a wash of shivery, ultraviolet reverb. Deep in its black heart, the song’s a blues, a twisted, monstrous one.

Drummer Yuval Lion kicked off the frantic Just Plain Scared, a big crowd-pleaser from right around the turn of the century, with a suspensefully tense gallop until Ulrich came in with his lingering, ominous phrasing, part downtown jazz skronk, part Bernard Herrmann. Then Hall took a verse and took it even further into the depths before Ulrich wrenched the band onto the express track for a harrowing ride to the end of the line. In much the same vein as Marc Ribot‘s noir soundtrack pieces, the band built Black Sheep out of a seemingly innocuous phrase of the utmost simplicity, then took it on a stroll through uneasily pastoral, Bill Frisell-ish territory.

They staggered through the tricky tempos of Avenue X, a shadowy, chromatically menacing original that Ulrich took his time with, finally reaching for the rafters with some hacksaw tremolo-picking. He went off on a more digressive, rather sardonic tangent on the loping highway theme The Low Way, then led the band through the mysterious improvabilly of Night Must Fall with his clusterbombing, reverb-drenched attack.

Charlie Giordano of Bruce Springsteen’s band guested on accordion on a plaintively swirling take of Unswerving, a slowly swaying lament. Baritone saxophonist Peter Hess – of Slavic Soul Party, and a frequent Big Lazy collaborator – joined them on the sepulchrally dubby Bring Me the Head of Lee Marvin. Then the band’s original drummer Willie Martinez took a turn on creepy congas on the new album’s opening track, Minor Problem. They closed with arguably the most menacing, slowly stalking number of the night, Skinless Boneless, followed by the Link Wray-tinged Human Sacrifice. It’ll be interesting to see who they might pull out of the woodwork for a guest appearance at the Barbes show – last time here it was Mamie Minch, putting a twisted spin on Patsy Cline.

Big Lazy’s Don’t Cross Myrtle – Best Album of 2014

Film composer/guitarist Stephen Ulrich has been on some kind of roll lately. He scored the Academy Award-shortlisted documentary Art and Craft with characteristically vivid noir unease. His one-off album with his cinematic instrumental project Ulrich Ziegler, with ex-Pink Noise guitarist Itamar Ziegler, was rated best album of 2012 here. Most recently, Ulrich has regrouped his legendary noir instrumental trio Big Lazy, who set the bar as far as menacing reverbtone guitar cinematics are concerned. The title of their latest album, Don’t Cross Myrtle – streaming at Spotify – is a creepy deep-Brooklyn reference, and it’s apt. Pound for pound, it’s the best album of 2014.

Some backstory: the group broke up in 2007. Meanwhile, Ulrich continued on with a semi-rotating cast of characters including drummer Yuval Lion, who ended up sticking around for this project along with prominently ubiquitous bassist Andrew Hall, who’s never played with more stygian intensity than he does here. The new album covers all the desolate, shadowy, knifes-edge territory that previous incarnations of the band have evoked since their iconic 1996 debut, Amnesia, released under the name Lazy Boy (the reason for the name change is a sick and hilarious indictment of American corporate fascism). And this unit turns out to be the best version of the band, ever, surpassing even the slinky menace of Ulrich’s original trio with Paul Dugan on bass and Willie Martinez on drums.

The opening track, Minor Problem, is a a twisted tango, Ulrich tracing a sleaze-infested trail with his guitar and then his lapsteel over a misterioso clatter from Lion as Hall holds it all together. The slowly undulating Unswerving blends Charlie Giordano’s accordion into Ulrich’s spaciously eerie chromatics for a tinge of Peter Lorre-era musette. The Low Way opens as a jauntily swinging, Bill Frisell-esque highway theme, but Ulrich wastes no time edging it toward the shadows: it’s sort of the reverse image of Junction City, the one relatively easygoing track on the band’s debut.

Human Sacrifice makes horror surf out of a flamenco theme – with its savage clusters and sudden dips and swells, it’s one of the most suspenseful tracks here, and a real showstopper live. Black Sheep brings back the pastoral flavor with a muted, psychedelic sarcasm – Lion’s snorting barnyard flurries on the drums are irresistibly funny. Avenue X – another Brooklyn reference and a popular title in the horror surf demimonde – revisits the murky, dubby depths that Ulrich explored for awhile about ten years ago, with a snide, faux-blithe trumpet cameo from Sexmob‘s Steven Bernstein.

Night Must Fall motors along on an ominously sketchy ghoulabilly shuffle groove in the same vein as classic late 90s Big Lazy tracks like Princess Nicotine and Just Plain Scared, hitting a similarly explosive, jagged peak. The single best cut here is the funereal waltz Swampesque, Lion and Hall shadowing Ulrich’s alternately lingering and icepicking lines. Bring Me the Head of Lee Marvin pairs crime-scene guitar with guest Peter Hess’s brooding baritone sax over an almost imperceptibly shapeshifting groove.

The album’s title track is also its funniest, a ba-BUMP stripper theme that the band, and Bernstein again, fire poison darts at with considerable relish. Whereabouts takes a balmy jazz ballad deep into Twin Peaks territory; the album winds up with a bonus track, Lunch Lady, a narrative that turns on a dime from bouncy and bluesy to murderous. Throughout the album, Ulrich and the rhythm section pepper the shadowy cinematics with bits of black humor and the occasional devious quote – Hendrix, the Mission Impossible theme and allusions to Nino Rota’s Fellini soundtracks, a well that Ulrich has drawn deeply from over the years. Obviously, picking this album over similarly brilliant if stylistically unrelated releases by Jennifer Niceley, Robin Aigner, Paul Wallfisch’s Ministry of Wolves and Arborea (all of whom you may see on this page in the near future, hint hint) is completely subjective. It’s like choosing Sergeant Pepper over Are You Experienced in 1967, or Public Enemy over Sonic Youth in 1987. If you buy the idea that somebody has to make that call, this album makes it a no-brainer.

Best Halloween Show of 2013: Carol Lipnik, Villa Delirium, Big Lazy and Mamie Minch

Is there a style of music that John Kruth can’t play? On Halloween, he brought his witty, ghoulish circus-rock band Villa Delirium to Barbes on a triplebill that was as darkly entertaining as it promised to be. Vllla Delirium are as eclectic as Kruth’s other project, Tribecastan but more grounded in classic Americana than the Middle Eastern, Romany and Central Asian sounds that kitchen-sink instrumental unit explores. As the band name implies, there’s a gleefully dark humor to most of Villa Delirium’s songs. This time out, Kruth switched between mandolin, acoustic guitar and wood flute, alongside the band’s not-so-secret weapon, Tine Kindermann on vocals and singing saw, plus Kenny Margolis on accordion and multi-keys and Doug Wieselman on bass clarinet and mandolin.

Kruth kicked off the night with one of a handful of canivalesque waltzes, followed by the surreeal La Vie de Madame Tussaud, sung in French by Kindermann, with the first of several shivery, sepulchral saw solos. A little later on, she sang the Doors’ Crystal Ship in German, its creepy Weimar psychedelics enhanced by a minimoog solo where Margolis played through a choir patch, adding an uber-goth edge.

Kruth grinningly delivered a mash note to a flirtatious ghost who was hot in her time over Message to You Rudie riffage, followed by the first of a handful of pretty country waltzes, a klezmer-tinged tune and then Kindermann’s Russian/klezmer spoof Nyet Is All You’ll Ever Get. They went a little further west to the Balkans for a murderous tale about the Countess Bathory, who reputedly bathed in virgins’ blood as a medieval precursor to botox. Then they did their funniest song of the night, a droll waltz sung by Kruth that twisted the story of the pied piper into a cautionary tale about how you should never stiff a musician.

A wistful, Celtic-tinged accordion waltz evoked Rachelle Garniez; a little later, they got the audience singing along on the swinging blues tune Calling the Monster Back Home, then the barrelhouse Jerry Lee-style anthem Turning up the Burners in Satan’s Steakhouse with Margolis rocking the piano keys. They wound up their set with the psych-folk waltz What Is the Moon on Tonight: “What is the moon on, mescaline or blow, and where can I get some, I just wanna know,” Kruth deadpanned. He was so taken by Wieselman’s first spiky, rapidfire mandolin solo that he asked for another one and presumably got what he wanted; the crowd roared for more.

Probably because the music was so good, the amateurs didn’t show up until late in headliners Big Lazy‘s second set, and by then it was past midnight. By then, guitarist Steve Ulrich, Andrew Hall (first chair bassist of the Greenwich Village Orchestra) and drummer Yuval Lion had stalked their way through murderous back-alley crime jazz romps, a couple of western swing-tinged blue-sky themes, slasher skronk and a pitchblende lament or two. The most spine-tingling moment of the night was when Mamie Minch came up to join them for a Lynchian version of Crazy. Most women who cover the song sing it whimsically, or bittersweetly; Minch sang it as if it had happened to her and she was living the cruel aftermath, working her way up to the top of her register and then eventually taking a long slide down into her moody alto, adding the occasional, flickering, bluesy melisma as the band tiptoed through the mist behind her. And Minch’s talents aren’t limited to reinventing the Americana songbook; she’s also adept at repairing guitars. She’s recently hung out her own shingle: if you’ve dropped your vintage Martin on the peg and split it down the back, she knows how to get it back in shape.

And Carol Lipnik and Spookarama, who would have been an equally good choice of headliner, opened the night, the chanteuse wowing the crowd with her four-octave range as she sang with an otherworldly resonance through her trusty echo pedal. Pianist Dred Scott played circus blues, noir jazz and hypnotic, Asian-tinged minimalism over Tim Luntzel’s slinky bass as Lipnik ran through a mix of phantasmagorical favorites and the darkly enigmatic, hypnotic songs she’s recently been adding to her repertoire. Right before her encore, she quoted Rumi, which pretty much spoke for itself: “My shadow is only as beautiful as your candle.”

Revisiting a Great Doublebill

As regular visitors here know, this blog’s original and pretty much single focus was live music. Then the publicists, and the artists themselves, got out their catapults and started flinging albums over the moat and the parapets and the siege was underway. It hasn’t ended yet, and it won’t anytime soon. But in the spirit of being different from the rest of the blogosphere and the media – let’s not even get into the social media babble-on – it’s time, once again, to do some catching up on what some usual suspects who make New York such a hotbed of live music, even in this era of death by gentrification, have been up to.

A few weeks back at the Gutter bowling alley in Williamsburg, it was a trip to see Kill Henry Sugar with a bass player. As frontman/guitarist Erik Della Penna told the crowd, it had been ten years since the sardonic Americana-tinged rockers had one. And the new guy didn’t just play roots, he did lots of fluid, melodic runs and even a couple of solos way up the fretboard. All this freed Della Penna to cut loose more than he usually does when it’s just him and drummer Dean Sharenow. As usual, the songs were catchy, Della Penna’s vocals were unselfconsciously soulful and imbued with his signature dry wit. These guys have been around since the 90s; much as they beat the White Stripes to the guitar-and-drums thing, it was good to see them reinvigorated by some welcome low end.

The world’s creeepiest cinematic instrumental band, Big Lazy regrouped earlier this year, with a new rhythm section of Pink Noise‘s Yuval Lion on drums and the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s principal bassist Andrew Hall. From the perspective of someone who first saw Big Lazy back in the 90s and was blown away – when they were known as Lazy Boy and popping up in detective show soundtracks all over the cable channels – they’ve never sounded better. Jarring as the segue with Kill Henry Sugar was, the two bands made a great doubleibll. With his reverb turned up to the usual eleven, guitarist/bandleader Steve Ulrich led the trio through the lickety-split, marauding noir rockabilly of Princess Nicotine and Just Plain Scared, Lion hitting all over his hardware, Ulrich’s prickly staccato attack like a sharpshooter with a machine gun. Their rhythm section has never been more purposeful or emphatic, and Ulrich’s relentless chromatics were as macabre as always. Hall bowed his bass to max out the murky menace of the classic Theme from Headtrader to open the night; a little later, Lion kept the ba-BUMP shuffle of a new song going on the rims and cymbal heads and anything else he could find to create an incisive ping or click.

Most of the set was new material. Ulrich’s warped, quavery lapsteel bent a bolero out of shape with a mushroomy surrealism, followed by a warmly bucolic Bill Frisell-ish theme, moving methodically through apprehensive echoes to unexpectedly straight-ahead, distorted, anthemic rock. Spare, desolate riffs turned savage in a split second, Ulrich furiously tremolo-picking the strings, Dick Dale style. Bob Dylan keyboardist Mick Rossi made a cameo on harmonium, adding a surreal suspense on one of the new numbers. A little later, they brought up slide trumpeter and Sexmob mainman Steven Bernstein to wail and shimmy with his usual wry humor on a long, blackly amusing version of Gone, from the band’s third album, then a funky new number in 5/4 time with a droll fake fanfare and quotes from the Mission Impossible theme, and a long, shapeshifting Nino Rota movie mini-suite. They finally closed with a a haphazardly evil version of Uneasy Street, a concert favorite that could have been a trainwreck, as Bernstein built an unexpectedly bright break in the relentless cumulo-nimbus atmospherics, but wasn’t – Ulrich decided to stay in the sunlight a little longer before bringing it all back into the abyss. The band is scheduled to spend some time in the studio this summer, which couldn’t be better news from a group who for years were arguably the best band in New York.

Big Lazy Returns with a Vengeance

With a big echoing crash and then a swipe of toxically reverb-drenched guitar, Big Lazy were back like they’d never left. If memory serves right, the world’s darkest noir instrumental band’s last gig had been a record release show in June of 2007 at Luna Lounge in what would soon afterward become the Knitting Factory space. It was the loss of a drummer (Tamir Muskat leaving to join Gogol Bordello and then lead Balkan Beat Box) that did them in. In the wake of the breakup, guitarist Steve Ulrich composed for film and tv, and joined forces with Pink Noise’s Itamar Ziegler, with whom he eventually put out the best album of 2012, the luridly menacing if prosaically titled Ulrich Ziegler. Friday the 12th at Barbes, the back room was packed, a mix of neighborhood folks along with what’s left of the band’s cult following from when they were a regular weekend attraction at Tonic.

Second and third versions of bands are usually pale imitations, but this lineup might be Big Lazy’s best ever  – and they had the brilliant Willie Martinez, the band’s original drummer, guesting on bongos on several songs. The new guys seemed to be jumping out of their shoes to be playing Ulrich’s material. Who knew that drummer Yuval Lion (another Pink Noise alum) could swing as hard as he did? And it figures that Ulrich would have to go outside the rock world, in this case, to the Greenwich Village Orchestra, for their first-chair bassist Andew Hall. Amped as high in the mix as Ulrich’s guitars, Hall anchored the songs in a murky yet precise pulse, adding an occasionally wrathful, pitchblende wash when he played with a bow. Meanwhile, Lion was having a ball with his hardware, pinging and rattling away when he wasn’t swinging a country backbeat or a nonchalant funk groove.

In practically two hours onstage, the band began with the brand-new Bernard Herrmann-style 6/8 blues Swampesque and ended with a typically out-of-breath, desperate Princess Nicotine. In between, they played mostly new material: Ulrich may not have been doing many shows lately, but he’s hardly been idle. Don’t Cross Myrtle blended monster movie improvabilly and purposeful Mingus swing, Lion riding the traps. Lunch Lady chugged along, shedding jagged chromatic sparks, followed by the Lynchian highway anthem Minor Problem, Ulrich’s lapsteel swerving eerily like Eraserhead behind the wheel.

Another new grey-sky highway theme, The Low Way unwound apprehensively, paving the way for a murderously spacious take of Skinless Boneless, a standout track from the band’s second album. Ulrich never stops reinventing his songs – no disrespect to Bill Frisell or Marc Ribot, but there is no more intense guitarist in the world right now. Martinez came up to join them and underscore the murderous tiptoe insistence of Gone, from the band’s third album, and then the rapidfire chase scene Just Plain Scared. The highlight of the second set was Uneasy Street, a morose classic from the band’s first album, Hall unleashing a river of ultraviolet ambience when Ulrich let his lurid, tremoloing lines fade out and handed over the melody. Big Lazy are at the Gutter bowling alley in Williamsburg on May 3 at atound 10 with Sexmob’s Steven Bernstein guesting on trumpet: if dark sounds are your thing, this is a show not to miss