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A Deliciously Psychedelic Album and a Saturday Night Barbes Show by One of New York’s Best Bands

Lately Bombay Rickey are calling themselves “operatic surf noir.” What’s coolest about that observation is that this irrepressible, individualistic group realize just how dark a lot of surf rock is – and how much grand guignol there is in opera. In reality, the only real western opera references in their music are channeled via frontwoman/accordionist/sitarist Kamala Sankaram’s spectacular, practically five-octave vocals. Otherwise the group transcend their origins as a Yma Sumac cover band, mashing up cumbia, Bollywood, spaghetti western, brassy Nancy Sinatra Vegas noir and even classical ragas into a wildly psychedelic, danceable vindaloo. Their new album Electric Bhairavi is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’re headlining their usual haunt, Barbes, this Saturday night at 10 PM.

The album title refers to the Indian goddess: Bhairavi is Lord Shiva’s squeeze, an eastern counterpart of sorts to Hera in Greek mythology. While the band can jam like crazy in concert, the new album is surprisingly more terse. The first track is a wildly psychedelic, Bollywoodized reinvention of the old Yma Sumac hit Virgenes del Sol, Sankaram vocalizing with tongue-in-cheek, pointillistic, Verdi-ish flair over Drew Fleming’s spiky guitar, alto saxophonist Jeff Hudgins adding a luscious solo packed with otherworldly microtones and chromatics.

The group kick off Frantic with a scream: from there, they veer from Fleming’s growling guitar against Sankaram’s flitting accordion, down to a pulsing, insectile, distangly bhangra-tinged interlude where drummer Brian Adler gets his hardware flickering, Hudgins’ sax channeling a neon-crazed moth. Kohraa, one of the band’s catchiest and most wickedly serpentine live numbers, has a slinky guaguanco beat and an uneasy interweave of surf guitar, accordion and sax. Sankaram blends allure and nuance in this beachy reminiscence.

Bhonkers – a typical title for this band – leaps between a wistfully opaque, accordion-fueled raga theme and tinges of sunbaked border rock. Likewise, Megalodon – saluting a sea monster who’s been extinct for forty thousand years – alternates between lush majesty and surf drive, Adler and bassist Gil Smuskowitz’s pulsing, syncopated riff signaling the charge.

Gopher is classic Bombay Rickey, a sly mashup of mambo, psychedelic cumbia and Bollywood. Sankaram’s droll Betty Boop accents bring to mind another  brilliant New York singer, Rachelle Garniez, in similarly sardonic mode, Hudgins and Fleming both kicking in with bristling solos. LIkewise, with Sa-4-5, they make dramatic raga-rock out of a spine-tingling, well-known Indian carnatic vocal riff.

Meri Aakhon Mein Ek Sapna Hai brings a purloined Meters strut back full circle from Bollywood: this band can really jam out the funk when they want, Hudgins pulling out all the microtonal stops as he weaves around, Sankaram reaching back for extra power in her vocalese solo during a long, hypnotic interlude over Adler’s tabla. 

The album’s most brooding track, Cowboy & Indian is a reference to band heritage – Fleming is a native Texan while the California-born Sankaram’s background is Indian. It’s an unexpectedly elegaic southwestern gothic ballad: “Midnight comes when you least expect it, but springtime will never come again,” the two harmonize. 

They wind up the record with the towering, epic raga-rock title track, rising from Sankaram’s mystical sitar intro to a mighty, guitar-fueled sway. Like the group’s previous release, Cinefonia – rated best debut album of 2014 here – this one will end up on the list of 2018’s best albums at the end of the year

The Irrepressibly Fun Bombay Rickey Return to Barbes This Saturday Night

Bombay Rickey are one of the funnest and most individualistic bands in New York. They mash up surf rock, psychedelic cumbias and Bollywood into a constantly shapeshifting, danceable sound. They’re playing this Saturday night, Sept 24 at 8 PM at Barbes. Then they’re at Brooklyn Conservatory of Music the following night, Sept 25 at 7.

They played a couple of Barbes shows over the past couple of months At the first one, frontwoman/accordionist Kamala Sankaram was battling a cold, although she still hit every note in her four-and-a-half octave range, useful since she and the band did a whole bunch of Yma Sumac covers. It was a dress rehearsal, more or less, for an upcoming London show, and since Barbes doesn’t have a dressing room, she word several outfits on top of another. One by one, they came off, but by the time she was down to the final shiny dress – you know how hot it gets onstage at Barbes in the summer – she was drenched.

At the second show, last month, she’d won the battle and was back to her usual exuberant, charismatic self. The group opened with a brisk, ominously bouncing surf tune, Sankaram hitting an arioso high note and squeezing every ounce of drama out of it, saxophonist Jeff Hudgins adding a moody, modally-charged solo that disintegrated into hardbop. Sankaram scatted takadimi drum language as the song shifted shape behind her, hit another operatic surf interlude with a Drew Fleming guitar solo that could have charmed a snake, Hudgins taking it further up and outside over Gil Smuskowitz’s blippy bassline.

A coy mambo gave Sankaram a rare chance to show off her low register – as it turns out, she’s just as strong there as she is way up in the stratosphere. She might just well be the best singer in all of New York in any style of music (unsurprisingly, she also sings opera and jazz). Then the band took a turn into spaghetti western territory,Fleming spiraling while drummer Sam Merrick supplied a boomy drive on his toms in unexpected 6/8 time

Sankaram chose her spots for goosebump-inducing vocalese on the next number, a wickedly catchy blend of Bollywood dramatics and surfy bounce. They followed with a slinky, ominously Ethiopian-flavored tune over a clave groove, sax prowling uneasily over the guitar’s reverb-drenched resonance. Then they took a long, even more unexpected detour into vintage JB’s style funk.

Sankaram then broke out her sitar for what sounded like a 60s Vegas psychedelic pop number on Vicodin, until a purposeful, stately sax solo that echoed Coltrane’s Giant Steps. After a similar one from Fleming, the band took a long climb upward. They brought some funk to a version of Dum Maro Dum, the famous Bollywood weedhead anthem, and finally broke out the chicha for an undulating Yma Sumac hit, Fleming’s spiky solo skirting skronk and postbop. Then they went back to surfy Bollywood. Couples were dancing; so can you, this Saturday night at Barbes.

Bombay Rickey Plays Amazing Psychedelic Bollywood Rock at Barbes

It would be reductionistic to the extreme to describe Bombay Rickey as a psychedelic, Bollywood-influenced surf rock band. Their show Saturday night at Barbes was an example of the best kind of results a band can get blending literally dozens of styles from around the world, including ideas from American rock spun through the prism of other cultures who transformed them and then blew them back at us. That was apparent from bassist Gil Smuskowitz’s first few notes: he was playing the riff from Sonido Amazonico, the Peruvian chicha classic that the Barbes house band, Chicha Libre, immortalized on their 2008 debut album. That was only the beginning. Alto saxophonist Jeff Hudgins took the song, a rock arrangement of a Bollywood theme, deep into the shadows with a sinuous, noir solo, frontwoman/accordionist Kamala Sankaram adding a contrastingly boisterous, playful edge with some rapidfire, staccato vocalese over the jangle and twang. She’s probably the most powerful singer to play [fill in the name of your favorite venue – if she’s been onstage there, it’s most likely true]. Yet her mighty coloratura soprano is only part of the picture. When she sang off-mic, she was the loudest instrument in the band; when she went on mic to color the songs with minute, more subtle shades, the effect was no less exhilarating. Later on in the set, they did a Yma Sumac song as a psychedelic cumbia and Sankaram made hitting all those stratospherically high notes look like just another day at work.

Their most intricate number was a joint homage to Steve Reich and Ennio Morricone, intertwining a spaghetti western theme into a blithely circular indie classical accordion-and-guitar riff, Hudgins’ apprehensive, microtonal atmospherics building the suspense to breaking point. They followed a takadimi arioso surf song with a Mozart aria done as a jaunty bolero, the pinpoint precision of Sankaram’s upper-register swoops wowing the crowd. A weedhead hare krishna theme translated to English as “take another toke,” Sankaram explained with a grin. Then Hudgins sang a spaghetti western ballad driven by Drew Fleming’s ominously jangly reverb guitar, with a long, hypnotic interlude that Fleming finally took up with an off-center menace. A little later, Hudgins and Sankaram duetted on a torchy, pensive chamber-pop song that was a dead ringer for another Barbes band, the Snow: “Midnight comes when you least expect it, and spring will never come again,” Sankaram intoned with a wounded poignancy.

Another number started out as a spaghetti western theme, then went in a Beatlesque direction, then picked up with a klezmer-ish series of sax riffs and soaring, powerhouse vocalese from Sankaram. They closed with Tuco’s Last Stand, a pensive bolero galloping gently along on percussionist Timothy Quigley’s mysterioso groove. Folks, this is the future of music: every style, from every spot on the world is fair game. Bombay Rickey just happens to have more of those flavors in their fingers than just about anybody else. They’re at Branded Saloon on Ft. Greene on August 24 at 10.