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

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

The New York Philharmonic, maybe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best, Most Darkly Cinematic New York Show of 2016: Mamie Minch and Steve Ulrich at Barbes

The best show of 2016 in New York – at least the best one where this blog was in the house – was in mid-October at Barbes, where guitarists Mamie Minch and Steve Ulrich played a live score to silent films supplied by filmmaker Russell Scholl. And it was unquestionably the the year’s most cinematic, which makes sense considering both the context and the artists involved. Ulrich gets lots of work for film and for PBS, when he’s not fronting his slinky, Lynchian reverb guitar band, Big Lazy. Minch plays her own darkly individualistic, wit-infused take on classic country blues and Americana when she’s not running New York’s only woman-owned instrument repair store, Brooklyn Lutherie,. Both players have shows coming up. On Dec 6 at 6:30 PM, Minch is part of an excellent triplebill with fellow oldtime country blues purveyor Eli Smith and rustic 19th century style string band the Four O’Clock Flowers at the American Folk Art Museum, playing songs on the time-honored theme of death and mourning to coincide with the museum’s latest, wonderfully creeyp exhibition. Then she’s at Barbes at 8 on Dec 16. Ulrich is at Spectrum on Dec 10 at 7:30 PM with his Big Lazy bandmate, drummer Yuval Lion, where they’ll join Bob Dylan keyboardist Mick Rossi, Barbez‘s Peter Hess and Zion80‘s Jon Madof for a night of similarly creepy improvisation; cover is $15.

The night’s first movie at Barbes was a surrealistically nostalgic Coney Island tableau by Scholl, Minch singing a sad waltz that she’d originally written as a member of the badly missed oldtime harmony quartet the Roulette Sisters. Low and somber, she built a similarly moody Brooklyn oceanside scenario, the amusement park as a metaphor for passion that could go drastically wrong. It’s her Wall of Death.

Then Ulrich joined her for a brief set of his own shadowy film noir compositions while another Scholl pastiche – a defiantly individualistic, snidely anti-authoritarian work, like a Donald O’Finn mashup without the endless parodies of oversexed tv – flickered on the screen behind them. The two musicians have collaborated a lot over the past couple of years. Hearing Minch play Ulrich’s signature, menacing chromatics on her resonator guitar was a real treat, Ulrich supplying his usual macabre, resonant twang through a skeletally dancing number with hints of Romany jazz, then a morose graveyard stroll, Ulrich’s angst-fueled insistence against Minch’s steady, mournful chords. They wound it up with tricky syncopation and more rain-drenched chromatics that gave way to reflecting-pool psychedelia as the film hit a comedic coda.

Minch scored the night’s final film, Windsor McCay’s pioneering 1921 early animation flick The Flying House, chronicling the adventures of a man who motorizes his home and then takes it up into the clouds in order to escape the evil bankster who wants to foreclose on it. You want relevance? Minch switched slowly and masterfully from one oldtime blues tuning to another. interpolating those graceful blue notes into the score as she retuned, moving seamlessly through gemtly waltzing, pastoral passages, bouncily romping interludes, elements of psychedelic folk and 70s British art-rock, hardly styles that you would associate with someone regarded as one of this era’s great blueswomen. After the movie. the two treated the crowd to a cover of Johnny Cash’s Committed to Parkview – a Hollywood nuthouse if there ever was one – as well as a take of the Beatles hit Girl that really brought out all the menace in a femme fatale. They closed out the night with a solo Ulrich jazz tune and then Minch’s funereal rendition of the Bessie Smith murder ballad Sing Sing Blues. Only in New York, folks.

Big Lazy: 2016’s Ultimate Halloween Band

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

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

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

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

Mitra Sumara Keyboardist Jim Duffy Puts Out a Wickedly Catchy, Cleverly Fun Instrumental Album

Jim Duffy is one of New York’s most irrepressibly entertaining and individualistic keyboardists. He had a longtime gig with Americana rockers Martin’s Folly; these days he plays organ in the wildly psychedelic Mitra Sumara, who specialize in covers of classic/obscure Iranian art-funk hits from the 60s and 70s. But he’s also a distinguished songwriter in his own right. His third and latest instrumental album, ominously titled Pale Afternoon, is streaming at Spotify (there are also a bunch of tracks at soundcloud and youtube for those of you who can’t stop multitasking long enough to jump on that fader and ride it down to zero when the ads pop up).

The album opens with Boulevard Six, a dead ringer for a late 60s/early 70s Herbie Hancock movie theme in rambunctious 6/4 time, guitarist Lance Doss contributing a blue-flame solo. The way Duffy’s oscillating Wurlitzer electric piano riff fades into the terse resonance of trombonist Sam Kulik and baritone saxophonist Claire Daly is just insanely cool, like something Brian Jones would have overdubbed on Their Satanic Majesties Request.

Figurine is sort of a variation on the previous tune, a bittersweetly twinkling late-night stroll lowlit by Kevin Kendrick’s vibraphone. If Bryan & the Aardvarks had been a rock band, they would have sounded like this. Once again, Doss fires off a solo, this time channeling late 60s Mike Bloomfield.

The album’s title track turns out to be a slow, summery groove until Doss drifts into sunbaked, stately art-rock, pushing the song toward 70s Procol Harum territory. Duffy’s Fillmore Theme turns out to be a breezy, swinging number, part Bacharach bossa, part Free Design psych-pop, Duffy multitracking his rippling, upper-register Wurly along with lush, fluid organ.

Keep Keeping On is a soul waltz as Booker T might have done one circa 1967, or Quincy Jones might have on the In the Heat of the Night soundtrack, Paul Page’s bass bubbling over the washes of drummer Dennis Diken’s cymbals. The elegant Wurly clusters in Reverse Image are so close to the melody of Figurine that it begs a momentary switch between the two tracks, to see if Duffy is pulling something clever like doing that song backwards. As it turns out, no – they’re just both incredibly catchy, this one close to a goodnatured Big Lazy highway panorama without the exit into David Lynch territory.

Mission Creep is the album’s best and darkest track, Doss’ simmering lapsteel bringing to mind the Friends of Dean Martinez‘s Bill Elm doing something from Dark Side of the Moon. Then with Tenerife, the band return to a sunny Bacharachian backbeat spiced with Doss’ wry soul-jazz lines.

Duffy follows the gently allusive ballad We’ll Never Know (nice theremin impersonation there, dude) with Spurare Il Rospo (The Spitting Toad), a briskly tropical motorik theme that’s a dead ringer for Los Crema Paraiso. The album winds up with Evening Birds, an iconoclastic spin on a hallowed, funereal Floyd tune. Crank this at your next party and get the entire room dancing – ok, everything but that last song.

Fun and inspiring fact: Duffy is one of the few musicians to shift from being a first-rate bassist to an A-list keyboardist. And then put out one of the ten best albums of 2016, more or less.

Gato Loco’s Perilous Mambos and Noir Cinematics Capture These Dark Times

Perilous times, perilous measures, perilous bands. In an era in New York when seemingly half the population  doesn’t know if they’ll have a roof over the heads a month from now, it’s only logical to expect that the music coming out of this city at this moment would reflect that unease. Many of New York’s elite bands and artists – Karla Rose & the Thorns, Big Lazy, Rachelle Garniez, Beninghove’s Hangmen across the river, and now Gato Loco – speak for this new Age of Anxiety. Of all those bands, Gato Loco might be the loudest and most explosive.

Most bands pump up the volume with loud guitars, and Gato Loco have Lily Maase to bring that firestorm. But more than anything, Gato Loco’s sound is an update on the oldschool mambo orchestras of the 50s, emphasis on low brass. Frontman Stefan Zeniuk can be found on bass sax, baritone sax, and, ironically, mostly on tenor sax these days. “Tuba Joe” Exley brings the funk and the funny stuff (is there a tuba player alive without a sense of humor? Perish the thought). Trombonist Tim Vaughan takes over front and center since he’s often the guy with the most dynamic range; likewise, drummer Kevin Garcia supplies just as much color as groove, on his hardware and rims and cymbals and pretty much everywhere that can be hit.

Like so many of New York’s elite, Gato Loco’s home base these days is Barbes. Last month, they played a Williamsburg gig that gave them the benefit of a big stage, which was fun considering that it afforded them a lot more space to stretch out, yet didn’t compromise the intimate feel of their Park Slope gigs.

A tense, syncopated stomp introduced the show. Slowly, the horns converged with a similarly dark riff that suddenly flared into a classic Ethiopian tune: a noir latin spin on Musikawi Silt, an iconic Ethiopiques hit from the 1970s. Trumpeter Jackie Coleman fired off a plane-crash slide, then the band hit a monster-movie mambo pulse. That was just the first eight minutes or so.

Maase anchored the next song with her shadowy Brazilian riffs, a blazing Lynchian bossa of sorts, horns leaping from the shadows like flames on an old building whose landlord finally decided to show the remaining tenants the Bronx, 1970s style, the guitarist putting a tighter spin on spiraling Carlos Santana psychedelia. The highlight of the set came early with The Lower Depths, a slow, murderously slinky, blackly backlit number: the striptease theme from hell, essentially, something that wouldn’t be out of place in the Beninghove’s Hangmen catalog. Flickers of Lynchian dub and 60s Quincy Jones noir soul cinematics appeared before all hell broke loose, Vaughan contributing a long, cloudbusting major-on-minor solo. Zeniuk has been writing a lot of theatre music lately, and this is a prime example.

Likewise, with the set’s next song, the group worked a serpentine path upward through brooding exchanges of voices over Garcia’s nebulous woodblock-fueled groove, chaos threatening to break out every other measure. It was the sonic equivalent of a Sequieros mural. From there they hit a hint of dub reggae on their way to a brisk clave stomp and then more Ethiopiques fueled by Coleman’s tersely joyous blues and the bandleader’s cynically fleeting tenor sax.

Tuelo & Her Cousins opened the night with a rather epic set that drew equally on jaunty, jangly late 80s British guitar pop, oldschool soul and the exuberant, dynamic, socially aware frontwoman’s South African heritage. They’re at Union Hall on Sept 9 at 8 PM; cover is $8.

Gato Loco Bring Their Creepy Latin Cinematics to Williamsburg

Probably the best way to describe how Gato Loco has evolved is to call them a noir jamband. Which on one level might seem ludicrous: jambands tend to play upbeat, goodtime psychedelic music. Gato Loco, on the other hand, play slow, slinky latin themes that suddenly become bustling and frantic, stalkers on the run from the cops and maybe vice versa. They spent a lot of time developing that suspenseful dynamic at their show last month at Barbes. Frontman/saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk first conceived of the group as an all low-register combo playing 1920s era Afro-Cuban classics. Then they started writing period-perfect originals, then branched further out into cinematic territory. Much as the first version of the band was an awful lot of fun, this is the best edition yet. They’re headlining a somewhat unlikely but solid twinbill on July 19 at around 9:30 at Brooklyn Bowl, with the considerably sunnier but similarly eclectic Tuelo & Her Cousins, who mash up jangly guitar pop with retro soul, opening at 8 PM. Cover is $8, which is two bucks cheaper than the ten bucks for the Barbes tip jar: two bands this good, what a deal!

Zeniuk has never written better or more murderously. The highlight of their set in Park Slope turned out to be Liar, a slowly crescendoing, boleroish noir cabaret theme, like Beninghove’s Hangmen at their most epically focused, or Big Lazy about fifteen years ago, when they were more likely to cut loose with a longscale jam. To compare this band to those two cult favorites isn’t overhyping them: Gato Loco have always been a lot of fun, but they’ve never been this fun before.

Gato Loco’s belated album release show for their mighty Enchanted Messa (a reimagining of the Verdi Requiem), at Joe’s Pub back in January, was more of a dark carnival, with a guerrilla team of baritone saxophonists leaping out of the audience to bolster the group’s low-register sound at optimum moments. The Barbes set, by contrast, was more creepily cinematic, awash in long tangents rising out of ominously catchy themes. “Tuba Joe” Exley held down the low end while Zeniuk switched between bass and tenor saxes, leading the horns through tightly biting minor-key mambo and bolero riffage, trombonist Tim Vaughan wailing with a majestically bluesy intensity while drummer Kevin Garcia added all kinds of evil rattletrap accents. Guitarist Lily Maase ranged from terse, acidic jangle, to some straight-up hard funk, to a Hendrixian tsunami of noise and meticulously rapidfire volleys of notes. Having her and Vaughan out in front of the band have really transformed this group’s sound: if darkly energetic cinematics are your thing, miss this show at your peril.

Kill Henry Sugar Bring Their Subtly Amusing, Erudite Folk Noir and Americana Back to Barbes

For the last few months, smartly lyrical Americana rock duo Kill Henry Sugar – guitar and banjo luminary Erik Della Penna and his similarly nuanced, artful drummer bandmate Dean Sharenow – have held down a monthly 8 PM Friday residency at Barbes. They’re back this Friday, May 6 at 8, followed by Big Lazy, a band you presumably know about if you spend any time at all at this blog  – and which Sharenow has drummed for in a pinch. If you’ve just stumbled on this page, reverb guitar, noir cinematics and crime jazz are their thing. Are they this blog’s favorite band? Along with Beninghove’s Hangmen and Karla Rose & the Thorns, maybe.

Kill Henry Sugar’s Barbes show last month was a lot of fun…and despite the early hour in Park Slope, they packed the place. Sharenow laid down a misterioso swing groove with his brushes as Della Penna launched into a moody, minor-key broodingly pensive narrative, like a tropically-tinged Tom Waits. Della Penna contemplated the ongoing brain drain from New York in the wryly swaying Tex-Mex inflected number after that: the girl at the center of the center of the story “can’t stand the smell of the bourgeoisie” and ends up considering nursing school in Santa Fe. They did another couple of funny ones after that, the jazzily shuffling, indelibly urban Neighbors, and then the tongue-in-cheek Air Conditioned Nightmare, propelled by Sharenow’s jaunty staccato thump with his brushes on the snare.

“Now I have the bomb, but it won’t fall on you,” Della Penna teased over his signature spare, lingering chordlets on Babylon, a snarky post-Cold War narrative, joined by tuba maestro Marcus Rojas, who added unexpectedly plaintive upper-register work. Della Penna warned the crowd that they’d never shared a stage before, but the chemistry was seamless. And this was a big deal: while they’ve played on and off with low-register instruments, they went bassless long before the White Stripes.

As expected, the best song of the night was a chilly, offhandedly murderous version of Mussolini, a cruelly nonchalant illustration of what goes around coming around with a vengeance over Sharenow’s resolute stomp. Rojas gave a surrealistically blippy intro to the doomed desert rock tune after that. They took things down with a wistfully pastoral, waltzing early 1900s reminiscence after that, shades of Matt Keating, then picked things up with a Stonesy drive and subtle hints of gospel. They’re likely to bring all these flavors and more – and who knows, maybe the tuba – to Barbes this Friday.

Murder Ballad Mondays Makes a Mean Return to Fort Greene on the 21st

A monthly residency is a sneaky way to keep your fanbase coming out without stating the obvious, that they could always blow off your show this month and catch you next time around. After all, who can keep track of when the third Thursday of the month is going to fall, other than the band playing that night?

A lot of touring artists use small New York venues as an anchor when they’re here – or as a rehearsal room, basically. Barbes is home base to many of the elite among them, most notably Big Lazy (first Friday of the month at 10) and Rachelle Garniez (first Thursday at 8). There are also a trio of good acts using Sidewalk to keep themselves sharp: guitarist Lenny Molotov’s bitingly lyrical original oldtime swing band the Fascinators (first Saturday at 8), Mac McCarty‘s careening folk noir Kidd Twist Band (first Saturday at 9) and the darkly eclectic, avant garde-inclined Lorraine Leckie (third Friday at 11, including tonight the 18th).

This blog’s favorite monthly residency is Murder Ballad Mondays at Branded Saloon. Like Paul Wallfisch‘s late, lamented Small Beast at the Delancey, it’s blogbait. Any lazy blogger can save himself or herself four or five separate nights out and catch several of the best acts in town all on the same bill on an off night that doesn’t conflict with anything. And it’s become a hit with the local Fort Greene contingent.

Last month’s was a prime example: with cold rain pelting the slush outside, torchy noir singer Ellia Bisker and her guitarslinging Charming Disaster conspirator Jeff Morris packed the place and treated folks to a deliciously lowlit, lurid evening. They used to treat the crowd to at least a short set, but lately they’ve been teasing everybody with just a song or two. This time out their contributions were a slinky version of a shadowy, swing-infused new number with some hilarious rhyme schemes as well as Murderer, Charming Disaster’s signature song of sorts, a coldly wary, subtle cautionary tale reminding that the perfect crime has no witnesses.

Jessi Robertson set the bar high right off the bat. Hauntingly resonant, deeply soul-infused vocals fused with lead guitarist Rony Corcos’ similarly lingering, bluesy lead lines and elegantly jangly phrasing. Part of Robertson’s appeal is that her big crescendos sometimes seem triumphant and celebratory when they’re actually venomous, and their first song was a prime example. They also made their way through the bristling underbrush of a folk noir number and closed with a fiery PJ Harvey cover.

Liz Tormes, this city’s leading exponent of murder ballads, brought the ambience down to a blue-flame intensity, mining the catalogs of Peter Rowan and Bill Monroe, her own calmly and murderously alluring repertoire and closed with a stark Elizabethan suicide song. Former Snow frontwoman Hilary Downes sang a calmly brooding version of the Townes Van Zant classic Pancho & Lefty. And Mudville – singer/keyboardist Marilyn Carino and brilliant bassist Ben Rubin – kept the simmeringly ominous ambience going with noir cabaret takes on the Misfits and Tom Waits as well as an even more allusively venomous original.

That’s what makes Murder Ballad Mondays so interesting – it’s taking the concept of songs about killing people far beyond the time-honored Britfolk/Appalachian tradition. The more you know about music, the more you realize just how much we have in common: no matter the culture, people around the world just love to kill each other. And then write about it. This coming Murder Ballad Monday on March 21 starts at 8 sharp and features Charming Disaster, Elisa Flynn – whose rapturously haunting voice is matched by her historically-informed, erudite tunesmithing – and others TBA who will probably be just as good.

Beninghove’s Hangmen and Big Lazy in Brooklyn: Noir Music Heaven

Considering that we’re only in March, it’s hardly safe to say that the twinbill coming up this Monday the 14th at around 9 at Manhattan Inn, with Beninghove’s Hangmen and Big Lazy, is the best one of the year. The April 15, 10 PM doublebill of Desert Flower and Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons, at Sidewalk, of all places, looks awfully good. And there will be others. But as far as dark and blackly amusing sounds are concerned, it doesn’t get any better than Monday’s lineup in Greenpoint.

Big Lazy’s set last Friday night at Barbes was surprisingly quirky. Gallows humor, and funny quotes from other songs are familiar tropes for the noir cinematic trio, but frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich was having an especially good time with them: Mission Impossible, My Funny Valentine, Caravan – which Ulrich has covered murderously well in the past – and a whole bunch of others. And a trio of creepy cover tunes: Girl, by the Beatles, a stabbing version of an Astor Piazzolla tango and an absolutely lurid take of John Barry’s You Only Live Twice, with a savagely tremolo-picked solo midway through.

It was kind of a weird night, if a good one. The crowd wasn’t the usual mobscene that this band draws. Out front at the bar, it looked like the prom bus from Jersey or somewhere in Alabama had just disembarked. Scarier than Big Lazy’s originals – even Park Slope isn’t safe from yuppie puppy zombie apocalypse anymore. But in back, people were dancing in an oasis of reverb guitar and pitchblende basslines.

This Monday’s opening act, Beninghove’s Hangmen work the same turf: raindrenched wee hours crime jazz tableaux and more overtly humorous interludes. Like Ulrich, frontman/multi-saxophonist Bryan Beninghove gets a lot of film work, so his instrumentals can shift shape from, say, blithe to brutal in a split second and the segue doesn’t seem the least bit jarring. Case in point: the title track to their deliciously creepy upcoming album, Pineapples & Ashtrays.

And they’re more of a jamband than Big Lazy. While a lot of their material can be grim, and ghoulish, and sometimes downright morose, they can also be hilarious. The best example is Zohove, their instrumental album of Led Zep covers, streaming at Spotify.. Zep’s music can be awfully funny by itself, and Beninghove’s reimaginings are even funnier.

On the opening track, Kashmir, Rick Parker’s elephantine trombone snorts and Beninghove’s spectacularly swirling soprano sax lines over the stomp behind it elevate it to Vesuvius heights. Heavy new wave rhythm from drummer Kevin Shea (of another even funnier band, Mostly Other People Do the Killing) and bassist Ezra Gale (of dub reggae crew Super Hi-Fi, who are also hardly strangers to funny songs) might be the last thing you might expect to work in a cover of Misty Mountain Hop, but it does. And the guitar is trippy behond belief: Eyal Maoz’s droll Spinal Tap bends over Dane Johnson’s Jabba the Hut Space Lounge electro-breakdown.

What Is and What Never Should Be is a droll mashup of quotes:You Can’t Just Get What You Want, ad infinitum. Likewise, the album’s title track, a sort of a greatest-riffs collection, cleverly disassembled in the same vein as what you find in how-to books like “Play Guitar in the Style of Tony Iommi.”

The group’s version of Immigrant Song substitutes Bennghove’s sax and Parker’s trombone for Robert Plant’s bleat – and it’s priceless. A shivery twin guitar solo decays toward the noir the band’s known for, over dancing bass to match Beninghove’s bluesy tenor spirals

It’s amazing how they reinvent D’yer Maker as uneasy, metrically tricky noir ska, and then an Afrobeat epic, And the Specials quote at the end is LMFAO too. The album ends with a slinking, incendiary take of When the Levee Breaks fueled by blue-flame slide guitar worthy of Jimmy Page himself. It’s the one place on the album where the band actually seems to take the material seriously, and it might be the best track of all. Get this and get a roomful of Zep fans laughing their collective asses off. Beninghove’s Hangmen usually play at least one Zep cover at most of their shows, so we’re likely to get some of this buffoonery Monday night in Brooklyn.