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Tag: black sea hotel band

Sarah Small’s Provocative Secondary Dominance: Highlight of This Year’s Prototype Festival

Sarah Small’s work draws you in and then makes you think. It says, “Get comfortable, but not too comfortable.” It questions, constantly. Throughout her fascinating, understatedly provocative multimedia work Secondary Dominance last night at Here – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – there was so much happening onstage that the leader of the Q&A afterward confessed to having a page worth of notes and no idea where to start.

Executive produced by Rachelle Cohen, the roughly hourlong performance began immediately as the audience settled into their seats, a warm, lustrous voice singing a gorgeous love song in Arabic wafting over the PA. Who was responsible for this gentle and reassuring introduction? It turned out to be Small’s Black Sea Hotel bandmate Shelley Thomas, seated stage right with an assortment of drums and percussion implements.

About midway through, the composer herself emerged from behind her two keyboards and mixing desk – mounted on a podium colorfully decorated like a curbside shrine out of the George Lucas universe – and stooped over, to the side as a trio of dancers – Jennifer Keane, Eliza S. Tollett and Carmella Lauer, imaginatively choreographed by Vanessa Walters – floated on their toes. Meanwhile, Small’s chalked-up collaborator Wade McCollum lurked tenuously behind her as her calmly uneasy vocalese mingled with the atmospherics looming from Marta Bagratuni’s cello, Peter Hess’ flute and Thomas’ voice and drums. A simultaneous projection of the action onstage played on a screen overhead, capturing Small’s lithely muscular, spring-loaded presence in shadowy three-quarter profile.

McCollum’s wordless narrative behind Small’s music explores power dynamics, memory and family tension. Gloria Jung and Henry Packer exuded regal integrity and a stolidity that cut both ways:  there was a moment where someone tried to pry something out of someone’s hand that was as cruelly funny as it was quietly vaudevillian. Ballet school, its rigors and demands was another metaphorically-loaded, recurrent motif, and the dancers held up under duress while barely breaking a sweat. McCollum’s ghostly character didn’t emerge from a fetal position until the spectacle had been underway for awhile, which ended up transcending any ordinary, otherworldly association.

What was otherworldly was the music, which, characteristically, spans the worlds of indie classical, art-rock and the Balkan folk traditions that Small has explored so vividly, as a singer, arranger and composer since her teens. What’s most notable about this surreal, nonlinear suite is that while it encompasses Balkan music – with brief, acerbic, closer harmonies sung by Small, Thomas, Bagratuni and McCollum, in addition to a projection of a lustrously lit seaside Black Sea Hotel music video directed by Josephine Decker  – the majority of it draws on western influences. Inspired by a series of dreams and an enigmatic, recurrent character named Jessica Brainstorm – who may be an alter ego – the sequence has the same cinematic sweep as Small’s work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, grounded by Bagratuni’s austere, sometimes grim low register, Hess sailing warily overhead, sometimes mingling with the voices and electronic ambience. As the show went on, the music grew more detailed, with interludes ranging from gently pulsing, midtempo 80s darkwave, to rippling nocturnal themes evocative of Tuatara’s gamelanesque mid-90s psychedelia.

The work as a whole is a stunning example of how Small so often becomes the focal point of a collaboration that brings out the best in everyone involved.  Over the years, these efforts cross a vast swath of art forms: from her playfully ambitious body of photography in the early zeros, to Black Sea Hotel, to her surrealistically sinister starring role in Decker’s cult classic suspense/slasher film Butter on the Latch, and her lavish “tableaux vivants” staged earlier in this decade, equal parts living sculpture, slo-mo dance flashmob, dada theatre and fearless exploration of intimacy in an era of atomization, data mining and relentless surveillance. Small and McCollum have plans for both a more small-scale, “chamber version” of this piece as well as an epic 1200-person version for the Park Avenue Armory, still in the early stages of development. For now, you can be provoked and thoroughly entertained at the remaining three performances at 9 PM, tonight, Jan 12 through 14 in the downstairs theatre at Here, 145 6th Ave south of Spring (enter on Dominick Street). Cover is $30.

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Shelley Thomas Channels an Entire Bulgarian Vocal Choir on Her Stunning New Solo Album

Shelley Thomas‘ debut solo album, Joy – streaming at her music page– is as exhilarating to listen to as it is a towering display of vocal prowess. Thomas is not only one of New York’s great voices; she’s one of the world’s most highly sought-after interpreters of Middle Eastern and Balkan music. What’s most impressive about this album is how she multitracks her voice, essentially becoming a one-woman Bulgarian vocal choir, a self-contained Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares or Black Sea Hotel (of which she is a member). As she explains in the album’s liner notes, Bulgarian music is “a vast and exciting repertoire of wildly diverse regional styles, dialects and ornaments, rich in history, storytelling and feeling.” That’s an understatement. Thomas has such vast range, formidable technique and minutely nuanced command of microtones that she can do it all. The result is rapture that sometimes borders on terror. Olivier Messiaen understood that; so does Thomas.

Beyond the otherworldly, microtonal beauty of the arrangements, sometimes what’s most striking about these seventeen songs is their surrealism. Other times it’s the subtext, as in the album’s distantly plaintive, solo vocal opening track, where a girl goes out into the woods, ostensibly to pick flowers. But what she’s really up to is searching for her missing brother, a freedom figther against the local tyrant, or Ottoman invaders.

Most of the other tracks are packed with the close harmonies typically associated with the Bulgarian vocal tradition. Thomas juxtaposes a hypnotically enveloping field holler of sorts with a bride-price diptych full of the echo effects typically associated with mountain music. She channels the wistfulness of a girl beseeching her mother not to marry her off before she’s been able to enjoy a bit more of her carefree childhood, and the bounciness of a tune that belies its macabre lyric about a construction worker who falls victim to a murderous prank. Thomas delivers the album’s celebratory title track as a brisk but stately pavane of sorts.

The rest of the album is just as colorful. Brides are sought after again and again; grooms are rejected (usually because they’re too impoverished) and accepted once in awhile. An abusive boyfriend runs up against karmic payback; another hothead meets his match with a girl who wants to tie him up, yikes! Thomas’ lush, hushed reinvention of Mesechinko Ljo is simply exquisite, one part Arvo Part, one part African-American gospel. The next-to-last track is even more epic. Many of the remaining songs are very short, clocking in at barely two minutes; in each case, the emotion in Thomas’ vocals, sometimes tender, sometimes wounded, often uneasy, transcends linguistic limitations. You don’t need to speak Bulgarian to be entranced by this music: it’s one of the half-dozen best albums of 2016. Thomas’ fascinating liner notes include both the original Bulgarian lyrics and English translations as well as historical and musicological background.

The Sway Machinery and Hydra Stage a Magical, Otherworldly, Psychedelic Collaboration at Joe’s Pub

While a whole lot of New Yorkers were up at Lincoln Center Out of Doors to hear Lucinda Williams, an audience of cognoscenti filled Joe’s Pub to witness this city’s most auspicious musical collaboration this year, between the magically Balkan-influenced all-female trio Hydra and the Sway Machinery, who could be described as a cantorially-influenced psychedelic desert rock band. Hearing frontman/guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood’s impassioned, melismatic baritone amidst the pulsing, distantly gospel-inflected harmonies of Luminescent Orchestrii’s Rima Fand, Nanuchka’s Yula Beeri and Black Sea Hotel‘s Sarah Small was viscerally spine-tingling. Lockwood might be the strongest male singer in New York, and stood out even more when bolstered by the three women’s uneasy, deep-sky close harmonies.

It wasn’t until late in the set that Fand persuaded Lockwood to explain the origins of his band’s songs. He related modestly that they drew on Jewish liturgical melodies that vary widely, depending on where in the Jewish diaspora you come from, to the point of being very individual, from family to family. What he didn’t add is that he’s the scion of a famous cantorial legacy, and that the Sway Machinery’s songs take those millennia-old themes into the present day via a host of influences every bit as global.

Lockwood’s guitar playing draws equally on his mentor, the late country bluesman Carolina Slim, as well as loping, hypnotic Saharan Tuareg rock and Afrobeat: it wouldn’t be a stretch to call the Sway Machinery the American Tinariwen. When his voice wasn’t reaching for the rafters with a soaring, sometimes imploring intensity, he drove the band with his slinky, snaky, incisively spiraling Telecaster riffs and a handful of snarling, tightly coiled solos. In one of the night’s most dynamic numbers, there were two basslines going, Nikhil P.Yerawadekar on the low end and Lockwood slightly higher up the scale, holding down his low E with his thumb while fingerpicking out a snaky lead at the same time. Strat player Tim Allen alternated between airy, astringent textures, jangly interplay with Lockwood and a couple of blue-flame solos. Drummer John Bollinger kept a tricky, rolling beat going, punctuated by Matt Bauder’s tenor sax and Jordan McLean’s trumpet.

Midway through the set, the Sway Machinery left the stage to Hydra to sing a brief and tantalizingly dazzling, eclectic set. The interplay between the three personalities was as interesting to witness as their harmonies. This may seem overly reductionistic, and it probably is, but Fand the mystic, Beeri the Secretary of Entertainment and Small the badass, tall and resolutely swaying to the beat, brought a dynamism and nuance that was every bit the sum of its formidable parts.

Their first number without the band behind them evoked Small’s innovatively intimate arrangements of Bulgarian choral music. While that’s what she’s made a name for herself with in the popular trio Black Sea Hotel, Beeri and Fand proved just as much at home in those eerie close harmonies and microtones. From there they ventured into a diptych of flamenco and Ladino-tinged Spanish folk tunes, then a starlit, mandolin-driven lullaby by Fand, a stark Russian Romany tune, then the Sway Machinery returned for the night’s most intricately orchestrated, ornately thrilling mini-epic. Between everyone onstage, they sang in Hebrew, Spanish, Ukrainian and English. Let’s hope this isn’t the only time this otherworldly, entrancing collaboration gets staged in this city.

Powerful, Provocative and Playful Performances at the Opening of the New St. Ann’s Warehouse

If you could perform a Yoko Ono world premiere with the Kronos Quartet and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, wouldn’t you jump at the opportunity? That’s what the audience at the grand opening of the new St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo did Saturday night…literally. It was a playful Pauline Oliveros-style improv: everybody got to be rain, and snow, and a momentary thunderstorm. It wasn’t on the bill: from the looks of it, those of us who knew about it beforehand kept that information to ourselves.

The rest of the program embraced the cutting-edge, the profound and the warmly familliar. Choir leader Dianne Berkun-Menaker guided a beefed-up take of Americana band the Wailin’ Jennys‘ One Voice, plus an easygoing audience singalong of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Our House. Accompanied by vibraphonist David Cossin, the chorus opened the show with Aleksandra Vrebalov‘s Bubbles, a deliciously entertaining suite juxtaposing droll water noises with achingly lush, neoromantic atmospherics. The composer smartly chose to end on a humorous note: even the most serious-minded performer would have had a hard time getting through this one without collapsing in laughter. Caroline Shaw’s Its Motion Keeps, reprised from the chorus’ earlier performance this month at National Sawdust, maintained the kinetic pulse with its dynamic shifts, quirky accents and challenging polyrhythms, all seamlessly performed.

The most cutting-edge moment of the program was when the groups were joined by pioneering Balkan a-cappella trio Black Sea Hotel, who reinvent Bulgaian and Macedonian folk themes, sometimes cutting largescale choral works to their stark roots, sometimes creating 21st century arrangements of ancient folk tunes. The chorus seemed turbocharged for this one, poised to provide waves of dark earthtone color, elegantly slow glissandos and plainchant-like precision behind the microtonally-spiced, eerie close harmonies of Willa Roberts, Shelley Thomas and Sarah Small. The piece itself, titled Around the Forest, A Youth Roams; The Forest Is Shaking and Swaying, was composed by Small – whose repertoire extends to art-song, largescale ensemble works and tableaux vivants – in collaboration with Brooklyn Balkan icon and theatrical composer Rima Fand.

The most relevant pieces on the bill were both world premieres, Sahba Aminikia‘s Sound, Only Sound Remains, and Mary Kouyoumdjian‘s Become Who I Am. The former gave the quartet a stern and austerely waltzing arrangement, delivered with precision against multitracks of women singers in Iran along with a digitized copy of a hundred-year-old 78 RPM folk recording. In Iran, it’s illegal for a woman to sing unaccompanied by men; this expression of global solidarity spoke volumes. Likewise, the latter of the premieres incorporated a litany of increasingly cutting, sardonic spoken-word snippets from members of the chorus into its carefully crescendoing, plaintive sweep, contemplating ongoing challenges facing women inside and outside of music. Bottom line: the glass ceiling might have a few cracks, but it’s still there. And if you thought the pressure to conform – especially for girls – was bad when you were a kid, it’s brutal now.

About the new space: it’s gorgeous. Tiered seating offers clear sightlines, and the sonics are pristine. While you can hear a pin drop when it’s quiet, it’s not a completely dry space like Avery Fisher Hall. And the hot chocolate at the food stand out front was getting the thumbs-up from the chocoholics in the crowd.

The Brooklyn Youth Chorus Soar Through an Ambitious, State-of-the-Art Program at National Sawdust

To paraphrase Rebecca Turner, Brooklyn is so big because it has to hold a lot of beautiful voices. Last night at the newly opened and sonically exquisite National Sawdust in Williamsburg, approximately fifty of those voices performed an exhilarating, richly dynamic program of new works for choir and chamber ensemble by four of this era’s outstanding women composers. The singers’ average age, from the looks of it, was around sixteen. In case you haven’t seen them, director Dianne Berkun-Menaker has shaped the Brooklyn Youth Chorus into a magnificent, meticulous powerhouse of an ensemble. There are young women in this group who will be able to sing for a living, especially the two high sopranos on the far end, stage right. To the young blonde lady in the black suit and her bandmate in the peroxide pageboy and glasses: stick with this and you’ll never need a dayjob.

As if we need further proof that music doesn’t have to be dumbed down to appeal to younger musicians, this concert was it. These works were sophisticated, employed all kinds of intricate counterpoint, required considerable amounts of what an instrumentalist would call extended technique, and the group rose to meet those demands efficiently and expertly: they schooled the old people in the house. Caroline Shaw was represented by two works, Its Motion Keeps and Anni’s Constant. The former was pinpoint-precise, full of quirky staccato, dizzying polyrhythns, a delightfully dancing groove and the occasional playful, hair-raising accent leaping in unexpectedly. The latter took a comfortable, homespun folk tune and made an ecstatically swinging, sometimes stomping celebration out of it – with some hilariously goofy vocalisms midway through.

For Sarah Small‘s Around the Forest, A Youth Roams – an electrifying, bracing mashuup of Bulgarian folk and postminimalism – the paradigm-shifting composer/arranger and Balkan music specialist was joined by both the choir and her a-cappella trio Black Sea Hotel with Shelley Thomas and Willa Roberts. The trio handled its challenging whoops, microtones and exotic ornamentation while the chorus grounded the piece with equal parts lushness and austerity, bolstered by Small’s darkly ambered string score featuring orchestration and additional composition  by Rima Fand. Small’s inspiraton for the piece draws considerably on her time spent this past summer amongst the trees and bucolic scenery at the Avaloch Farm Music Institute in Boscawen, New Hampshire.

National Sawdust impresario Paola Prestini joined the chorus to narrate the choral segments of her forthcoming multimedia work Aging Magician, a soberingly surreal collaboration with director Julian Crouch, with lyrics by Rinde Eckert. The pieces worked well as a stand-alone suite, sharing a trickily rhythmic and dynamically-charged playfulness with the Shaw works, but were both more pensive and more baroque-tinged in places. While it wouldn’t be fair to spoil Prestini’s occasional musical jokes, they were pretty hilarious. Throughout the program, the chorus were accompanied seamlessly by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble: Ben Russell and Caleb Burhans on violins, Hannah Levinson on viola and Clarice Jensen on cello, augmented by Dave Cossin on percussion, David Dunaway on bass and Geremy Schulick on electric guitar plus a pianist uncredited in the program.

The Brooklyn Youth Chorus’ next performance will also be alongside Black Sea Hotel to celebrate the opening of the new space at St. Ann’s Warehouse on October 17 featuring works by Shaw, Aleksandra Vrebalov and others plus world premieres from Mary Kouyoumdjian and Sahba Aminikia. There are two performances, one for free beginning at noon and another at 8 PM for $25.

Ensemble Hilka Bring a World Wiped Out by a Nuclear Disaster Back to Life at the Ukrainian Museum

Say you record an album, and for all intents and purposes, the band goes on hiatus the moment the session is done. Three and a half years later, you regroup and perform those songs for the first time since then. And what you’re singing isn’t the music you grew up with – it’s an idiom from a country in another time zone, in an ancient dialect of a foreign language with a different alphabet and a completely alien system of harmony. That’s the challenge that the roughly fifteen-piece choir Ensemble Hilka rose to meet Saturday night at their sold-out show at the Ukrainian Museum in the East Village.

The group – comprising some of the foremost musicians playing Balkan and Slavic music west of the Danube – first came together when singer Maria Sonevytsky enlisted legendary Ukrainian singer and archivist Yefim Yefremov to come to New York to conduct a series of master classes in some of the most ancient, otherworldly folk music from throughout his travels. One of Yefremov’s many areas of expertise turned out to be music from the irreparably toxic region surrounding the Chornobyl [spelling transliterated from Ukrainian] nuclear power plant, largely depopulated since the 1986 disaster there. The New York pickup group’s enthusiasm and aptitude for this largely forgotten repertoire was such that it resulted in the recording of the just-released Chornobyl Songs Project: Living Culture from a Lost World album for Smithsonian Folkways. Since many of the performers on the album are busy with their own projects, the choir members went their separate ways after recording it (although more than one new group, including the lustrous vocal trio Zozulka, first assembled as a result of the session).

Throughout the first half of the concert, the men and women of the choir alternated between songs, opening with boisterous numbers puncuated by animated call-and-response and triumphant swoops and dives as a phrase would reach the end. As the show went on, the full group would assemble, then regroup in subsets. The songs on the program, loosely assembled to trace the rituals and festivities through a year of village life to the immediate east of Kiev, had largely disappeared from the area by the time Yefremov went out to collect them back in the 70s. Their content is pretty universal: guys cajoling girls to come out…and striking out; a musician gone off to war and missing his collection of instruments; and various harvest, marriage and work songs. The melodies varied from simple, anthemic and largely minor-key to more complex, with occasional use of the eerie close harmonies common to Balkan music. Yefremov, now in his seventies, projected strongly as he led the group – which also comprises members of the folk ensembles Yara Arts Group and the Ukrainian Village Voices – through a couple of numbers, and then delivered a spare, pensive number solo, a-cappella.

The second half of the show featured individual band members performing traditional repertoire from their own projects. Hearing Eva Salina – the Romany music diva and leader of a wild, psychedelic, jazz and reggae-tinged brass group – and Bulgarian music reinventors Black Sea Hotel‘s Willa Roberts work every mighty inch of their spectacular vocal ranges out in front of the group was spine-tingling, They’d later regroup with Shelley Thomas (also of Black Sea Hotel) as Zozulka, for more Ukrainian songs. And although Black Sea Hotel’s shapeshifting, microtonally-spiced new arrangements of ancient Bulgarian songs are a completely different idiom, the crowd, heavy with Ukrainian expats, responded vigorously to the stylings of Roberts, Thomas and recently acclaimed indie actress/songwriter Sarah Small.

Another singer who wowed the crowd with her visceral power and spectacular vocal range was alto Nadia Tarnawsky, in a duo performance accompanied by long-necked lute. Eva Salina picked up her accordion and treated the audience to a handful of wrenchingly plaintive songs from her amazing recent solo album. Bandura virtuoso Julian Kytasty – who has a reputedly sensational new album of his own due out this June – drew just as much applause for his stately, elegant, stark solo songs. And it was kind of a trip to see Sonevytsky, who for several years co-led the elaborately or not-so-elaborately costumed, irresistibly quirky lit-rock trio the Debutante Hour, decked out in a simple black suit and singing these haunting numbers alongside a veteran expert from a previous era, the CTMD’s Ethel Raim (who can still belt!).

Veveritse Brass Band, a rotating cast of New York Balkan brass talent who specialize in Romany party anthems, serenaded the crowd afterward at a reception downstairs. One wonders how many if any of these musicians would have even come to New York, let alone met each other and shared their passion for this magical music, if ten or fifteen years ago this city had been gentrified to the extent it is now.

The Best New York Concerts of 2014

Of all the year-end lists here, including the best albums and best songs of 2014 lists, this one is the most individual, and the most fun to put together. But as amazing a year for live music as it was, there were twice as many enticing shows that this blog never had the chance to cover as there are on this list. It’s called having a life – or trying to, in between concerts, anyway.

So consider this an informed survey rather than anything definitive, and ultimately, a reason for guarded optimism. Much as gentrification destroys the arts like Walmart destroys local economies, neither one has killed us. Yet.

What was the single best show of the year? Four multi-band bills stand out from the rest. Back in October at Trans-Pecos, charismatic Great Plains gothic bandleader Ember Schrag played a wickedly lyrical mix of mostly new material, some of it with a string section, the rest fueled by the snarling, spectacular lead guitar of Bob Bannister. Also playing that night: rapturously hypnotic, melancholic cellist/songwriter Meaner Pencil, dark art-rock duo Christy & Emily, plus a starkly entrancing set by two jazz icons, guitarist Mary Halvorson and violist Jessica Pavone.

A month earlier, renaissance woman Sarah Small put together a similarly magical night at Joe’s Pub featuring her Middle Eastern-inspired trio Hydra with Rima Fand and Yula Beeri as well as her otherworldly Balkan choral trio Black Sea Hotel with Willa Roberts and Shelley Thomas. There were also brief sets from the reliably entertaining all-female accordion group the Main Squeeze Orchestra and a trio version of one of NYC’s original Romany bands, Luminescent Orchestrii.

In mid-November, the Bowery Electric triplebill of hauntingly catchy Nashville gothic tunesmith/singer Jessie Kilguss, similarly lyrical and vocally gifted art-rock songwriter Ward White – both playing an album release show – and well-loved literate Americana rocker Matt Keating was pretty transcendent. And let’s not forget the Alwan-a-Thon back in January, the annual celebration of cutting-edge sounds from across the Arabic-speaking world held at financial district music mecca Alwan for the Arts. This one featured two floors of amazing acts including intense Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani and his trio, luminous Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina, amazingly psychedelic 1960s Iranian art-dance-rock revivalists Mitra Sumara, sizzling Romany party monsters Sazet Band, and the all-star Alwan Ensemble, who played bristling jams on classic themes from Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

Rather than trying to rank the rest of these shows, they’re listed in chronological order:

Avi Fox-Rosen and Raya Brass Band at Rock Shop, 1/9/14 – Fox-Rosen had just released an album every single month in 2013, so this was a triumphant sort of greatest hits live gig for the sharply lyrical, catchy art-rock tunesmith followed by a wild vortex of Balkan jamming, the group down on the floor in front of the stage surrounded by dancers.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices at Parkside Lounge, 2/1/14 – the charismatic, nattily dressed noir rocker led his explosive, blues-fueled band through a careening set of intensely lyrical, distinctively New York narratives.

Siach Hasadeh and Ichka in the basement at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the Upper West Side, 3/4/14 – every Tuesday, more or less, drummer Aaron Alexander – a prime mover in Jewish jazz circles – books a series of reliably excellent bands here. This twinbill kicked off with a rapturously haunting set by Montreal’s Siach Hasadeh followed by another Montreal outfit, the high-energy Ichka and then a jam with members of both bands joined by audience members.

Tammy Faye Starlite singing Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English at the Lincoln Center Atrium, 3/13/14 – a counterintuitive, sardonically hilarious reinterpretation of a haphazardly iconic new wave era album.

Jenifer Jackson at the Rockwood, 3/26/14 – the eclectic Austin songwriter brought her new band from her adopted hometown, reinventing older material and newer stuff as well with Kullen Fuchs’ rippling vibraphone as the lead instrument.

Gord Downie & the Sadies at Bowery Ballroom, 5/2/14 – a furious, often haunting sprint through the Canadian gothic Americana band’s most recent collaboration with the Tragically Hip frontman, ending with an explosively psychedelic Iggy Pop cover.

Hannah Thiem at Mercury Lounge, 5/29/14 – the haunting violinist/composer teamed up with an A-list string section to air out soaringly ethereal, cinematic new Nordic and Middle Eastern-tinged electroacoustic material from her latest album.

Nick Waterhouse at the Brooklyn Night Bazaar in Greenpoint, 6/13/14 – the LA noir soul bandleader and a killer pickup band featuring Burnt Sugar’s Paula Henderson on baritone sax brought moody Lynchian sounds to this grotesquely trendoid-infested space.

Kayhan Kalhor and Jivan Gasparyan at the World Financial Center, 6/14/14 – the legendary Iranian-Kurdish spike fiddle virtuoso and composer joined the similarly legendary Armenian duduk reedman for a rapturous, otherworldly duo set of improvisations on classic themes from each others’ traditions.

No Grave Like the Sea at Ramirez Park in Bushwick, 6/21/14 – after a day running around aimlessly trying to find bands playing daytime shows during the annual Make Music NY buskerfest, the volcanically sweeping, epic set by bassist Tony Maimone’s cinematic postrock band made it all worthwhile.

Karen Dahlstrom at the American Folk Art Museum, 6/27/14 – while she may be best known as one of the four first-rate songwriters in Bobtown, arguably the best gothic Americana harmony band around, Dahlstrom is also just as captivating as a solo performer. She took advantage of the museum’s sonics and sang a-cappella and ran through a tantalizingly brief set of haunting, historically rich original songs from her Idaho-themed album Gem State.

Serena Jost at the Rockwood, 6/29/14 – a lush, sweeping, richly enveloping, tuneful show by the art-rock cellist/multi-instrumentalist singer and her band. The all-too-brief, eclectic set by southwestern gothic bandleader Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta about an hour beforehand at South Street Seaport – with psychedelic cumbias, rumba rock and the most twisted Fleetwood Mac cover ever – got the evening off to a great start.

Changing Modes at Bowery Electric, 7/19/14 – keyboardist/bassist Wendy Griffiths’ slinky, shapeshifting art-rock band has never sounded more anthemic or intense. And earlier that afternoon, scorching sets by the noisily atmospheric VBA, pummeling postrock/metal band Biblical and dark garage punks Obits at Union Pool kicked off what might have been the year’s single best day of music.

Jacco Gardner at South Street Seaport, 8/15/14 – he sort of plays the same song over and over, a dreamy, gorgeously chiming, psychedelic sunshine pop number straight out of London, 1967. But it’s a great song, and it was worth sticking around for what were essentially variations on a theme.

Bliss Blood & Al Street at Brooklyn Rod & Gun Club, 8/27/14 – the lurid but plaintive and haunting torch song icon teamed up with the brilliant, flamenco-inspired guitarist for a riveting, Lynchian set of mostly new material from their phenomenally good forthcoming album.

Gemma Ray at Rough Trade, 9/13/14 – the British noir songwriter played a similarly Lynchian set in a stark duo show, just guitar and drums, a showcase for her smart, individualistic, creepy playing and macabre songwriting.

The Dances of the World Chamber Ensemble at St. Marks Church, 9/14/14 – the improvisationally-inclined, cinematic instrumentalists ran through a magical blend of African, Middle Eastern, tango and jazz pieces by frontwoman/pianist/flutist Diana Wayburn.

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 9/15/14 – sadly, NYC’s funnest band have since gone on “indefinite hiatus,” whatever that means. At least they were on the top of their game when they played a wild, darkly psychedelic mix of trippy, surfy Peruvian psychedelic cumbia sounds in one of their last shows of the year.

Wounded Buffalo Theory playing Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway at Rock Shop, 9/19/14 – the art-rockers joined with a revolving cast including members of the Sometime Boys, Afroskull, 29 Hour Music People, and the Trouble Dolls for an impressively spot-on, epic recreation of the cult favorite 1974 art-rock album, WNYC’s John Hockenberry reading Peter Gabriel’s drolly surreal album liner notes in between songs.

Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes, 9/23/14 – this isn’t the show reviewed at this blog back in June. That show featured the octogenarian multi-reedman and his hypnotic but kinetic band playing an unselfconsciously deep, soulful blend of Armenian music and incisive American jazz. His next gig there was even better!

Sherita at Barbes, 9/30/14 – the Brooklyn Balkan supergroup of sorts – reedman Greg Squared of Raya Brass Band, violinist Rima Fand of Luminescent Orchestrii, percussionis/singer Renée Renata Bergan and oudist Adam Good – played an alternately sizzling and sepulchral mix of originals and classic themes from Turkey, Greece and here as well.

Mary Lee Kortes at the Rockwood, 10/7/14 – the brilliant Americana songwriter and chanteuse and her band, feauturing John Mellencamp guitarist Andy York, aired out dazzlingly eclectic, intensely lyrical songs from her forthcoming album, The Songs of Beulah Rowley, a mix of saloon jazz, torch song and plaintive Americana.

The Skull Practitioners at Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick, 10/31/14 – it was the ultimate Halloween show, Steve Wynn lead guitar monster Jason Victor’s otherworldly, pummeling noiserock trio building a menacing but wickedly catchy vortex. That their half-hour set was as good as some of the four-hour bills on this list testifies to how volcanically good it was.

Karla Moheno at the Rockwood, 11/18/14 – the inscrutable noir songwriter and guitarist led a killer, Lynchian band through a mix of low-key, murderous, mysteriously lyrical narratives and more upbeat but no less shadowy material.

Mamie Minch at Barbes, 12/20/14 – this is why it always pays to wait til the very end of the year to finish this list. The charismatic resonator guitarist/singer and oldtime blues maven teamed up with Kill Henry Suger drummer Dean Sharenow for a killer set of blues from over the decades along with similarly edgy, sardonically aphoristic original material

If you’re wondering why there isn’t any jazz or classical music to speak of on this list, that’s because this blog has an older sister blog, Lucid Culture, which covers that kind of stuff in more detail.

A couple of things may jump out at you here. Nineteen of these shows were in Manhattan, eleven were in Brooklyn and one in Queens, which is open to multiple interpretations. More instructive is the fact that nineteen of the thirty-one were free shows where the audience passed around a tip bucket rather than paying a cover at the door. Most interestingly, women artists dominated this list. 26 out of of the 42 acts here were either women playing solo or fronting a group. That’s a trend. You’re going to see more of that here in the next couple of days.

Josephine Decker’s Menacing Balkan Noir Film Butter on the Latch Opens This Week

Filmmaker Josephine Decker is also an accomplished accordionist, and a member of all-female accordion group the Main Squeeze Orchestra. She credits the first time she saw a show by Raya Brass Band – the explosive Balkan brass jamband – as a life-changing experience. So it’s no surprise that experience would springboard what would ultimately become her first feature film, the deliciously creepy Butter on the Latch, which opens at the IFP Center, 30 John St. in Dumbo (on a double feature with her second full-length horror film, Thou Wast Mild & Lovely) on Nov 14, when it will also be out on VOD.

Reduced to most basic terms, Butter on the Latch contemplates how men disrupt or fracture relationships between women (although women do the same thing to men – talk to your buddy at the bar, if you can find him on a night when he’s not off with his girlfriend). The disruptions and fractures in this film come suddenly and unexpectedly, even if the progression toward those cataclysmic events makes perfect sense as the narrative unfolds. Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence are pure dynamite in contrasting roles as students at Balkan camp, a retreat in what at first seems like an idyllic northern California woodland setting where bemused expats from Eastern Europe teach the eerie harmonies and befuddling rhythms of their native folk music to an eager cast of American kids.

On face value, Balkan camp seems like the funnest place in the world, where half the population is half in the bag by lunchtime, and where getting laid seems like part of the curriculum. Although Decker’s version maxes out the dread of its deep-woods milieu, it owes less to the Blair Witch films than to David Lynch (much of its iconography borrows heavily from both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks), with a fond nod to Bergman’s Persona. The woman-to-woman dialogue couldn’t have been written any better, or more spot-on, than Sarah and Isolde (who each use their real first names in the film) improvise here. Their sometimes winking, sometimes feral, sometimes tender intimacy captures both the spontaneity and snark that Lou Reed was shooting for with the girls in the Velvet Underground’s The Gift, but couldn’t quite nail.

Ashley Connor’s cinematography careens in and out of focus, which is jarring at first, until it’s obvious that this story is being told from the point of view of a woman who literally can’t see straight. Complicating the picture is that Isolde relies on Sarah for stability, a misjudgment with disturbing consequences. One particular scene, the two staggering into the woods with what’s left of a bottle of wine as the sun goes down and then out, is as chilling as it is funny – and it’s absolutely hilarious.

Further complicating matters is the appearance of Steph (Charlie Hewson), a hunky guitarist that one of the duo can’t resist. A cat-and-mouse game with interchanging roles heightens the suspense, their interaction interspersed among what seem to be actual unstaged moments from music class or performances which help illustrate what the serious (i.e. not alcohol or sex-related) side of Balkan camp is all about. As cruel and cynical as it is surreal, Butter on the Latch is a riveting debut that solidly establishes Decker as an individual voice in 21st century noir cinema.

The soundtrack is sensationally good and appropriately haunting, with contributions by ensembles led by Merita Halili and Raif Hyseni along with Small’s own otherworldly Balkan choral trio Black Sea Hotel and others. It’s a playlist that deserves to exist as a stand-alone album: it could convert as wide an audience to Balkan music as the initial Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares albums did twenty-odd years ago.

Black Sea Hotel Top the Bill at One of 2014’s Most Spellbinding Shows

“This song’s about waiting for your neighbor to die so you can marry his wife,” one of Black Sea Hotel‘s three singers, Shelley Thomas, cheerily explained to the crowd at Joe’s Pub Wednesday night.

“Perky!” her bandmate Willa Roberts grinned. She was being sarcastic, of course. The ancient Bulgarian and Macedonian folk songs that the Brooklyn vocal trio sing date from an era when life was shorter and possibly more brutal than today, an atmosphere underscored by the music’s biting minor keys, edgy chromatics, eerie close harmonies and otherworldly microtones. The group treated the crowd to what was essentially a live recreation of their latest album The Forest Is Shaking and Swaying, along with a haunting, encore from the band’s debut cd. The three women held the crowd rapt with their original arrangements of both obscure and iconic themes, with intricate, intoxicating counterpoint, tightly dancing tempos, unexpected stops and starts and split-second choreography. There’s some irony in the fact that Black Sea Hotel’s often centuries-old repertoire is built on harmony as sophisticated and avant garde as anything being played or sung today.

Their camaraderie onstage was unselfconsciously warm, linking hands loosely as they sang, hugging each other here and there, high on the music. The three women’s voices are so similar that it’s hard to tell who’s singing what unless you’re watching. In terms of raw power, it’s a toss-up between Roberts and Thomas. but it seems that Small has the most astonishing range of the three: for a natural soprano, it’s stunning to witness how she can get so much power and resonance out of her low register And the three switch roles: Roberts got to handle the most highly ornamented, toughest leaps and bounds early on, then passed the baton to Small. Thomas is the latest addition to the group, reaffirming her status as one of the most eclectic of New York’s elite singers. That she managed to learn the entire set from memory on short notice wasn’t only impressive: without that feat, the concert probably wouldn’t have happened at all. And as spectacular as the three women’s vocal acrobatics were, it was the final number, with its long, slow fade down, building the suspense to breaking point, that might have been the high point of their set.

The opening acts, assembled by Small, were every bit as good. Her trio Hydra, with Rima Fand and Yula Beeri, a vehicle for original composition in antique Balkan and occasionally Middle Eastern styles, were first. The second song of their too-brief set, a soaring Balkan art-rock anthem of sorts, had a bulk and gravitas that that sounded infinitely more mighty than just three voices and a mandolin could deliver. Alternatingly sweeping and austere, they blended the Balkan and the Beatlesque.

A subset of the even mightier all-female accordion group the Main Squeeze Orchestra were next. Melissa Elledge, Josephine Decker, Rene Fan, Denise Koncelik, Rachel Swaner and Elaine Yau reminded that pretty much everything sounds good if played on an accordion, multiplied by six. A classically-tinged march, a couple of ominously cinematic themes, a coyly disguised generic new wave hit from the 80s, a campy anthem that sounded like it could be Queen but might have been something like Lady Gag. and a deliciously unexpected romp through a boisterous klezmer dance all got a seamlessly tight, winkingly virtuosic treatment.

And a trio version of one of New York’s original Romany-inspired bands, Luminescent Orchestrii (Fand and Sarah Alden on violins, with ringer Kyle Sanna on acoustic guitar) ran through a jaunty dance in medieval French; a bracing, hypnotically insistent Middle Eastern-spiced number; a similarly trance-inducing, circular Macedonian theme and a darkly blues-inflected art-rock violin number, all of which more than hinted at the kind of electricity this band can generate with all their members.

The 30 Best NYC Concerts of 2013

Of all the year-end lists here, which also include the year’s best songs and best albums, the best New York concerts list is usually the most fun to pull together. For one, it’s the most individual. The Bushwick indie rock clique may go to all the same shows together because they’re terrified of giving anyone the impression that they can think for themselves, but among the 99%, everybody has their own unique bunch of favorites from the past year.

This is also the easiest list to assemble. Every year, there are thousands of songs and hundreds of albums to sift through; the number of shows is thankfully a lot more manageable.

But this year, tragedy struck. The night of January 19, arguably the best New York rock show of 2013 featured a headline act whose core members would be murdered only a few months later. Lush art-rock/dance-rock band the Yellow Dogs topped the bill at the now-shuttered Public Assembly as part of a phenomenal lineup which began with female-fronted dreampop band Butter the Children, then reggae/soul band Osekre & the Lucky Bastards and the Brooklyn What playing a scorching, intense album release show for their latest one, Hot Wine. The Brooklyn What would go on to share another bill with the Iranian expats before a disgruntled ex-bandmate ambushed the group in their sleep in south Williamsburg in mid-November.

Otherwise, the game plan for this page was to list twenty shows. In the process of whittling the number down, it became obvious that there was no way to fairly choose any less than thirty. This city may be mired in a crushing economic depression, but somehow New York musicians rose above it and made 2013 a year to remember. The 29 other best shows of the year, from this perspective anyway, in chronological order:

Changing Modes at Spike Hill, 1/19/13. It was cool to be able to sneak away from the Brooklyn What/Yellow Dogs extravaganza around the corner to see this slashingly lyrical, female-fronted, keyboard-driven art-rock/new wave rock crew. They were missing one of their three singers, but the music was still killer.

Molly Ruth at Zirzamin, 1/27/13. From November of 2012 through this past July, when the club closed suddenly, this blog booked a lot of shows at the basement space on Houston Street. Given a supportive venue and unlimited access to New York’s best talent, what an amazing time that was! Molly Ruth’s fearless charisma and wickedly acerbic, assaultive punk-blues songs made for one of the best nights there.

Richard Thompson at Joe’s Pub, 2/5/13. Absolutely no plans to see this, tickets being as ridiculously overpriced as they were. Publicist sends an eleventh-hour email: wanna go? Sure! The veteran rocker who might be the greatest guitarist of all time – and maybe the greatest rock songwriter of all time – was at the top of his game, leading a power trio.

Jerome O’Brien and Beninghove’s Hangmen at Zirzamin, 2/18/13. This wasn’t one of the nights booked by this blog, but it could have been: the former frontman of literate punk/R&B rockers the Dog Show airing out old classics and deviously witty new material, solo acoustic on 12-string guitar, followed by saxophonist/composer Bryan Beninghove’s careening, menacing, psychedelic noir surf/crime jazz band.

The Polyse Project and Shofar at the Lincoln Center Atrium, 2/21/13. The two Polish groups made their US debut playing obscure, haunting folk tunes from the pre-Holocaust Polish-Jewish badlands along with equally haunting, lingering jazz reinventions of some of those themes.

Trio Tritticali at Zirzamin, 2/24/13. Of all the shows booked by this blog at this venue, this was the most fun. Not only did the eclectic string trio play a sizzling mix of original indie classical, tango and Middle Eastern material, they also served as house band. Lorraine Leckie, Walter Ego and a bunch of other A-list songwriters got the benefit of a brilliant string section behind them.

Black Sea Hotel and Lorraine Leckie at Zirzamin, 3/3/13. The three women of the otherworldly Balkan a-cappella group and the Canadian gothic songstress might not seem like the ideal segue, but they built a dark ambience that Leckie and her band set ablaze.

Daphne Lee Martin at the Way Station, 3/6/13. The torchy, deviously literate songwriter and her killer band aired out songs from Martin’s excellent new album, refusing to let a horrible sound mix and a loud bar crowd that wouldn’t listen distract them from their sultry, sometimes luridly swinging intensity.

Tift Merritt and Simone Dinnerstein at Merkin Concert Hall, 3/21/13. The Americana chanteuse and classical pianist began their duo show with the lights off and kept them low throughout a deliciously nocturnal mix of chamber pop and art-rock.

Drina Seay at Zirzamin, 3/24/13. One of the great voices in Americana brought her sophisticated countrypolitan band for a mix of noir blues, honkytonk and more rocking songs.

Serena Jost at Joe’s Pub, 4/9/13. The cellist and art-rock songwriter brought her brilliant band and burned through songs from her equally brilliant new album A Bird Will Sing.

Brazda and Big Lazy at Barbes, 4/12/13. Eclectic singer Shelley Thomas’ edgy Balkan group followed by the first live show in six years by NYC’s most thrilling noir instrumental band.

The Sweet Bitters at Zirzamin, 4/21/13. A rare, impromptu NYC show by A-list tunesmith Sharon Goldman and Nina Schmir’s folk-pop duo plus cellist Martha Colby, mixing otherworldly harmonies, edgy lyrics and a triumphant good-to-be-back vibe.

Eva Salina at the American Folk Art Museum, 5/3/13. One of the most intense, original voices in Balkan music, in a riveting, rare solo show: just vocals and accordion.

Bryan & the Aardvarks at Subculture, 5/14/13. The glimmering, nocturnal, vibraphone-driven Americana jazz sextet put on one of the most lushly evocative, richly noir shows of the year.

Emel Mathlouthi at the Alliance Française, 5/22/13. Even without her full band – who were absent due to visa issues – the Tunisian Siouxsie Sioux played a subtle yet ferociously intense mix of Middle Eastern art-rock and Arabic liberation anthems.

A Conspiracy of Beards at Drom, 5/24/13. The mighty all-male San Francisco choir sang their own imaginative large-scale arrangements of Leonard Cohen classics that were haunting and intense but  just as often playful and funny.

Eilen Jewell at City Winery, 7/9/13. The Queen of the Minor Key with her amazing band featuring lead guitarist Jerry Miller, one of the most sizzling players in Americana.

The Go-Go’s at Coney Island, 8/1/13. Who would have thought that the original, breakthrough all-female new wave band would still be together (with a new bassist) thirty-three years after they started…and that they’d sound more rambunctious than ever?

El Gusto at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/3/13. While we’re on the topic of old bands, this bunch of virtuoso Algerian chaabi musicians were making their US debut fifty-three years after they’d broken up, in 1960. And they picked up right where they left off.

The Larch at Bowery Electric, 8/8/13. Playing mostly new, unrecorded material, Brooklyn’s finest psychedelic new wave outfit were at the top of their sardonically lyrical, guitar-fueled game.

Rosin Coven and Amanda Palmer at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/9/13. AFP was as fearless and charismatic and fun to watch as you could possibly want, but the story here was the opening act, whose wild, canivalesque art-rock upstaged the headliners.

Kotorino at Joe’s Pub, 8/29/13. Speaking of carnivalesque, this Brooklyn circus-rock outfit keeps getting larger and more menacing, this time out playing the album release show for their excellent second album Better Than This.

Till By Turning playing bassoonist Katherine Young’s Four-Chambered Heart at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Brooklyn, 9/6/13. This isn’t a classical music blog, but Young – who has made a name for herself in jazz improvisation as well as chamber music – established herself as one of the most individualistic and powerful composers in town with this chilling suite, inspired by Olivier Messiaen’s prison camp epic, Quartet for the End of Time.

Matthew Grimm at Rodeo Bar, 9/13/13. The former and occasionally current Hangdogs frontman – who’s sort of the Stephen Colbert of heartland rock – played a mix of wryly hilarious and white-knuckle intense Americana rock and powerpop numbers from his latest album Songs in the Key of Your Face.

Salaam at Alwan for the Arts, 10/26/13. Multi-instrumentalist Dena El Saffar’s eclectic Middle Eastern band burned through a mix of originals and classics from Iran, with special guests from her brother Amir’s equally intense jazz quintet.

Carol Lipnik, Villa Delirium, Big Lazy and Mamie Minch at Barbes, 10/31/13. The queen of Coney Island phantasmagoria with her noir chamber pop band, followed by John Kruth’s gleefully twisted circus rock outfit, NYC’s creepiest crime jazz/noir instrumental band (yeah, they made this list twice – they’re that good) with all-purpose retro Americana siren Minch taking a characteristically lurid turn in front of the mic.

Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard at the Asia Society, 11/16/13. The Iranian fiddle player and composer joined with the santoor virtuoso for a glimmering, wrenchingly intense suite inspired by the harrowing experiences of their fellow citizens during the Khomeini years.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices at the Parkside, 11/23/13. This list ends on a high note with this city’s most politically aware, charismatic noir rocker and his scorching, blues-infused band, careening through a mix of old classics and newly reworked material.