“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.