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Tag: byzan-tones review

Good Cop and Bad Cop Review LJ Murphy Plus the Byzan-Tones

Good Cop: I think this is our big break. We’ve never been given an assignment this good.

Bad Cop: Back on the Columbus shuttle.

Good Cop: You mean the Scranton shuttle.

Bad Cop: I can’t get used to Scranton being a Yankees farm club. It was part of the Phillies system for as long as I can remember.

Good Cop: Now that’s going back a ways! Anyway, tonight we get to review LJ Murphy, the best rock songwriter in town, and then the Byzan-Tones, an awesome surf band! This is a big deal for us! You notice we’ve been getting better assignments lately?

Bad Cop: If you say so…

Good Cop: Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside, then Red Baraat, and this the best yet! If we don’t screw this one up there’s no telling how far we’ll go! [Good Cop elbows Bad Cop in the ribs]

Bad Cop [winces} Ouch! Don’t kid yourself. We haven’t had any assignment from this blog, good or bad, since July. We only got to cover that Sallie Ford concert because the blog had reviewed the record a couple of days before. We only got to do Red Baraat because the story wasn’t the music, it was that horrible experience in Central Park. So if this blog hadn’t reviewed LJ Murphy back in November, we’d still be in Col…I mean, Scranton.

Good Cop: Well, goodbye Scranton. hello Parkside Lounge on a Saturday night! [LJ Murphy,wearing a black suit and porkpie hat and holding a big black acoustic guitar, takes the stage along with his lead guitarist, keyboardist and drummer. With no bass, they launch into a swinging blues]

Bad Cop: I guess this is soundcheck.

Good Cop: I don’t think so. They did the song all the way through. I know this one: it’s Another Lesson I Never Learned.

Bad Cop: Guess they lost their bass player.

Good Cop: Not as far as I know. Nils Sorensen’s also in Brothers Moving, you know, that great Danish Americana band so maybe he had a conflict. And check out Patrick McLellan, he’s playing basslines with his left hand on the piano! At this point they don’t need a bass player…

Bad Cop [emphatically] Oh yes they do. But this guy’s good. Real good. Picked up on what was missing right away and took care of business.

Good Cop: I can’t believe somebody this good is playing the Parkside.

Bad Cop: Classic case of a guy stuck in the New York scene. In this town, you play to your friends. There’s no central scene with any significant following that you can leverage anymore. Here’s a guy who’s as good a songwriter as Richard Thompson, or Steve Earle, or Aimee Mann – and he’s younger than all of them – but he never got to take the band on the road. And he’s a band guy, not a singer-songwriter.

Good Cop: And he’s got a sizeable European following too. Funny how these things happen, isn’t it?

Bad Cop: Sound is not good tonight.

Good Cop: You know the Parkside, it can be good one night and not so good the next.

Bad Cop: It’s the piano. The low mids are feeding. And you can’t hear the electric guitar.

Good Cop: That’s Tommy Hoscheid. Great player. I see he brought his Gibson SG.

Bad Cop: He’s gonna need it.

Good Cop: Oh, I love this song. This is Happy Hour. Anybody who’s suffered through having to hang out with work “friends” in the financial district needs to hear this, it’ll validate you. And I love how LJ has rearranged it as an oldschool Stax/Volt shuffle.

Bad Cop: I liked it better when it was straight up janglerock. At least that’s one thing you can count on with this guy: you never know what you’re gonna get. Always rearranging things. The Faulkner of the three minute rock song. And you notice, he changed the lyric: it used to be “brotherhood of useless warts” instead of “brotherhood of sold and bought.”

Good Cop: That doesn’t rhyme with “one eye on the secretary and the other on the quarterly report.”

Bad Cop: It does if you’re from Queens.

Good Cop: True. “Their daytime dramas wait at home on videocassette,” that’s a really twisted line.

Bad Cop: It wasn’t back when he wrote it. These days you think of a spycam, or a webcam, right? Back then it was like something you Tivoed – except in analog, in real time, and everybody did it, and it actually wasn’t twisted at all. Ha, necessarily, at least. I remember this one time rushing home to record an episode of Survivor for this chick…

Good Cop: I can imagine where you’re going with that. Anyway – check out that creepy cascade from Patrick! This is Mad Within Reason, title track from LJ’s most recent album. “The music was sampled from Bach to James Brown, they saddled the mistress and lowered her down.” Nobody’s writing lyrics like that these days!

Bad Cop: Oh yeah they are. Four words for you: Hannah Versus the Many. But this guy’s good, always has been. “While everybody tried to become what they hate” – and another creepy piano cascade. This is sweet.

Good Cop: This next one’s even sweeter. Pretty for the Parlor – Long Island sniper gone on a spree. What a great tune this is – it’s anthemic, but not derivative or Beatlesque, it’s just good. And full of surprises. “The machinegun mama’s boy has called in sick today,” yum!

Bad Cop: OK, he’s gonna bring it down now. Waiting by the Lamppost for You: a period-perfect blend of sixties soul and blues. “Moonlight delays me, daylight betrays me, I’m hungover and showing my years.” Do you hear Nightclubbing, you know, the Iggy song?

Good Cop: Not unless it’s blasting through the wall from next door. Is that place still a disco?

Bad Cop: We’re at the Parkside, not the Mercury. Nobody next door. Deli across the street.

Good Cop: Oh yeah! Now this drummer’s good. A jazz guy maybe. They’re really rocking out Lonely Avenue – you know, the old Elvis song.

Bad Cop: Doc Pomus wrote it. Orthodox Jewish guy from Brooklyn. Now this is where you lose me, white guys playing the blues.

Good Cop: Aw, c’mon, the audience loves it.

Bad Cop: Once you’ve heard T-Bone Walker do Stormy Monday, all other versions are useless.

Good Cop: T-Bone Walker died before you were born.

Bad Cop: T-Bone Walker actually died when I was in the third grade I think. But I have the album.

Good Cop: This next song is Damaged Goods. What did LJ say, this is the first song he ever wrote in Brooklyn after moving from Queens?

Bad Cop: Guess he must have had the Wall Street job back then. Dungeoness and her crabs, more or less. This guy was on to what Eliot Spitzer and that crew were up to before anybody else was.

Good Cop: Now they’re going back from new wave to noir. This is Fearful Town. Did you hear Patrick quote Riders on the Storm?

Bad Cop [derisively]: Everybody does that. But this is a good song. This is why I came out tonight. Now this speaks to me. This is why I’m here and not someplace else. This guy speaks for anybody who used to live in this neighborhood. “Raided my old hangouts, put away my friends, now I’m sitting on a bonfire on a night that never ends.” LES, 2014, we are with you LJ Murphy!

Good Cop: You’re breaking character. You’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to hate everything.

Bad Cop: And you’re breaking the fourth wall. You’re not supposed to do that. What am I supposed to do? I complained about the sound. The blues medley left me cold. But I like this guy. Despite myself. Even this one. This next song is Nowhere Now. Sort of a twisted Chuck Berry kind of thing. I can’t figure it out for the life of me. Maybe it’s about America, all that “200 years of hoping, you’re not hoping anymore” stuff. What do you think?

Good Cop: That’s what I love about LJ’s songs, they draw you in and make you figure out what’s going on. Now this one’s easy, Blue Silence – they’re going to rock the hell out of this.

Bad Cop: And they do. And then they close with Barbed Wire Playpen, another Wall Street dungeoness crab scenario.

Good Cop: Ha ha funny.

Bad Cop: Couldn’t resist. And now we’re off to Otto’s.

Good Cop [about ten minutes later, at Otto’s Shrunken Head]: Holy shit, this place is packed. I haven’t seen Otto’s like this, maybe, ever.

Bad Cop: And we didn’t even get carded walking in.

Good Cop [laughs]: Nobody would ever card you.

Bad Cop: The doofus at the door, the skinhead, once chased me to the back and screamed at me until I showed him my I.D. This is recent, like, last year.

Good Cop: You can’t be serious.

Bad Cop: I’m completely serious. A guy at the bar saw the whole exchange, he came up to me afterward and said he couldn’t believe what he’d just witnessed.

Good Cop: I can’t either. But we’re here. And this band is great! What a cool doublebill it’s been, two venues, two great bands. That’s George Sempepos on lead guitar, I can’t see who’s playing bass or drums, and that’s Steve Antonakos on guitar too.

Bad Cop: They used to have an electric oud. Now that was wild. Psychedelic Greek surf music. I remember coming back from seeing them at the Blu Lounge in Williamsburg, this must have been around 2003 or so, completely shitfaced, this is at about four in the morning and I’m waiting forever at 14th Street for the F and I’d recorded the show so I pulled out my recorder and started blasting the Byzan-tones right there on the platform. And everybody was down with it.

Good Cop: You’re lucky you didn’t get arrested.

Bad Cop: Nobody arrests me!

Good Cop: OK. Now I can’t keep track of whether these songs are originals, or they’re psychedelic rock hits from Greece in the 1960s.

Bad Cop: My understanding is that they’re originals. But they sound like old Mediterranean stoner music. Except with more of a surf beat. Now this version of the band is a little brighter and a lot tighter than I remember them being.

Good Cop: And look, the crowd is really into this! This is music from a culture that doesn’t even use our alphabet and peeps are loving this! And the place is so packed that we can’t even get into the back room!

Bad Cop: Hold your fire. We would be able to if this was Lakeside. Oh yeah, Lakeside is gone now. But you get my point. And besides, it’s surf night, half the crowd came from Connecticut, they’re not going to leave for awhile. Captive audience. What every band needs in this century in this town.

Good Cop: Lots of Arabic sounds in this band. And minor keys, and tricky tempos. I can’t figure out what this one is in.

Bad Cop: Me neither. I’ve been drinking since before I left for the Parkside. Sorry.

Good Cop: Now this song is called Pontic Pipeline. Doesn’t sound like Pipeline, though.

Bad Cop: I think the reference is a little…um…what’s the word I want? Oblique? How does that sound ?

Good Cop: Sounds like Arabic rock to me. I love this band, and how the two guitars sometimes harmonize…and how Steve fakes how he’s playing with a slide even though he’s just bending the strings…and now George is singing. In a low, cool baritone, in Greek! What’s the likelihood of seeing something like this outside of Astoria?

Bad Cop: Or outside of Athens.

Good Cop: Point taken. OK, time to go. What a cool night this was! I can’t wait to do this again!

Bad Cop [pulls a flask from inside his trenchcoat and drains it]: OK, see you in July. Or in Col…I mean Scranton.

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Wrapping Up a Good Month’s Worth of Shows

If you’ve been following this space over the last couple of weeks, you’ve probably been wondering where all the concert coverage went. That’s not to say that this has been a slow month for live shows – this is NYC, after all. To keep pace with what’s been happening, here’s a look at some of the highlights from the past month or so that didn’t get coverage here for one reason or another (the band just got written up here; the show wasn’t that good; it’s hard to come up with anything much to say about a performance where you show up late and only catch the last half hour).

After a long hiatus, a reconfigured version of psychedelic Greek surf/rebetiko rockers the Byzan-tones has made a scorching comeback in recent weeks. Their show at Otto’s in early August was off the hook and got a rave review here; a couple of weeks later at Zebulon, they were even better. The electric oud is sorely missed, but they’re incorporating more and more of the virtuosity of new guitarist Steve Antonakos into the show, a good idea considering his extensive background playing this kind of stuff with Magges. It was a feast of scary chromatics, and frontman/guitarist George Sempepos was getting all kinds of praise for his brooding baritone vocals.

Another first-rate instrumental unit that had been on hiatus for just as long, Dimestore Dance Band, is back together and has been playing a series of last-minute gigs as they reconfigure themselves (the drum chair has been rotating lately). They were a staple of the Tonic scene in the mid-zeros, and since guitarslinger Jack Martin and bassist Jude Webre decided to get back together, they’ve made Zirzamin – the closest thing to Tonic in New York these days – their new home. Like the Byzan-tones, their late July show at Zirzamin drew a rave here; their show there earlier this month was also arguably even better. Playing a borrowed guitar through a borrowed pedalboard, Martin broke a string on the first song, fueling a savage, volcanic performance that rocked harder than anything this elegant, cerebral gypsy/jazz/ragtime/jamband has done lately. Billing themselves as the Bob Dylan Deathwatch, they put Martin on vocals on a handful of searing, swampy, noir covers of Dylan, the Stanley Brothers and Martin’s old garage rock band Knoxville Girls. Sometimes musicians play their best when they’re pissed off: this show was a prime example.

One of the most reliably excellent free summer concert series in town is the jazz program put on by the Jazzmobile at a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces around the five boroughs. At the very end of last month, veteran pianist Barry Harris, who goes all the way back to the golden age of the 50s, played a suavely indestructible set of bop standards with a four-horn septet way up at Grant’s Tomb. Places to sit and watch (and try to figure out who the supporting cast was) were hard to come by: although the series’ site doesn’t list the concert, somebody must have spread the word because there was a big afterwork posse gathered around the monument with their picnics and lawn chairs. Does everyone in Harlem read the NY Jazz Record? It would seem like it.

Another enjoyable end-of-the-month show was Demolition String Band’s Friday night gig at Rodeo Bar. Frontwoman/guitarist Elena Skye has never sung better or with more nuance, and lead guitarist Boo Reiners remains one of the most soulfully pyrotechnic players in country music. He flatpicked and twanged and jangled while Skye led the band through a mix of well-received, biting twangrock and C&W originals from earlier in their career along with some more rustic material from their sensationally good new album Gracious Days, plus a handful of bluegrass classics.

Quirky instrumentalists This Spy Surfs, who’ve been around forever, made a return to the stage Labor Day weekend at Otto’s and proved no worse for a long layoff. The bass growled and popped, the guitar snaked and slashed and the drums switched from a new wave scamper to a surprisingly funky pulse. The band name is a misnomer: what they play is basically catchy 80s rock without the vocals. It’s good to see such an original band back in action.

One of the year’s most amusing concert moments happened about a week later at Tompkins Square Park, where David Peel forgot the lyrics to The Pope Smokes Dope. The original stoner freak-folk songwriter has only been playing the song for about 45 years – and he had to stop in the middle and then restart it when he remembered what they were. Maybe he’d had a marijuana….duh, of course he’d Have a Marijuana at a time like this.  That’s the title of his John Lennon-produced debut album, which reputedly went multi-platinum despite being banned from radio and the Top 40 charts for obvious reasons. He sang that one, and a new song for the Occupy movement, and a handful of other singalongs. There seemed to be just about as many people gathered in front of the crowd, playing with Peel – there’s a reason why his scruffy band is called the Lower East Side – as there were watching. The band before Peel, a tunefully sludgy metal trio called the Aliens, who sounded like the Melvins doing Social Distortion, weren’t bad either. They’re also impossible to find online (try googling “aliens” and “Tompkins Square”…)

While the summer concerts are over, there’s still plenty of interesting free music around town. The series of ongoing performances of new music by an eclectic mix of European composers – primarily from Austria – programmed by the Austrian Cultural Center on 52nd Street got off to a good start Friday night at the Bohemian National Hall with the Talea Ensemble. The respected avant garde chamber group’s first piece was Ondrej Adamek’s Ca Tourne Ca Bloque, an electroacoustic work that had the ensemble mimicking spoken phrases in French and Japanese. There was clearly some improvisation going on along with what was on the scores; it wasn’t easy to figure out which was which, particularly when the piece began swirling as the laptop started spitting out random spoken phrases. Music is often described as having the quality of speech – emphatic, conversational, laughing, teary, you name it – and this was an interesting exploration of that concept, even if it went on a little long.

The group followed that with a percussive suspense movie for the ears, Pierluigi Billone’s Dike Wall, interspersing tense washes of sound from the strings amidst even tenser scrapes, scampers, suspenseful footfalls and the occasional ominous crash from inside the piano as well as from the vast collection of instruments employed by percussionist Alex Lipowski, who was given centerstage and got a real workout. The series at the Austrian Cultural Center is ongoing: reservations are required..

Much as it’s been a typically good month for concerts in this city, there were a few disappointments as well. That Summerstage show last month was a sad reminder that just because a girl has a southern accent and plays the banjo, it doesn’t make what she does any more interesting than what you’d hear in the dentist’s office. That classical pianist with the lovely musical name did her best with a difficult program, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the screeches of the security gates at that ill-advised anniversary tribute series way downtown. And that rock & roll reverend needs to drop that hideous hair-metal cover from the set list. It’s worse than a bathroom tune: it’s enough to clear a room.

New York Surf City

There’s a method to the madness of covering so many outdoor concerts here. At some point in our lifetime, all these shows will be just a memory. Sooner or later at this time in August in New York, it might not be technically impossible to put on an outdoor show, but it’ll be unrealistic to expect anyone to come out into the heat and watch it. For the moment, it’s good that we have Julie Rozar, part of the brain trust behind the snarkily entertaining Alien Surfer Babes and Witches in Bikinis, and Deb Noble of Blue Stingraye Productions, who emceed a summer storm of surf bands Saturday afternoon on the Coney Island boardwalk out in front of the Wonder Wheel. They’d actually scheduled most of these bands for a concert here last year, but then Mayor Bloomberg decided to shut down the city for the “hurricane” which of course never arrived. Was this eclectic lineup worth waiting almost a year for? Depends on your heat tolerance. Even with a gusty breeze off the ocean, Coney Island was sweltering, and the show was scheduled to go into the early evening, with Connecticut’s Commercial Interruption followed by Long Island’s Strange But Surf, psychedelic Ohio instrumentalists Purple k’niF, the retro, purist Clams, Boston horror surf maniacs Beware The Dangers Of A Ghost Scorpion and then the ASB’s headlining [excellent set of photos on Flickr].

The early part of the show was full of examples of why surf rock is so much fun, and why it’s sometimes so exasperating. Spontaneous dancing was breaking out everywhere, even during at least two versions of Surf City Here We Come (there might have been more as the afternoon went on, you never know). Both Commercial Interruption and Strange But Surf write good original songs: they don’t have to fall back on cheeseball covers like that. There’s unfortunately a bunch of those in the surf repertoire along with classics like Misirlou (Strange But Surf’s closing tune) and Pipeline (Commercial Interruption opened with that one: since they’ve got a keyboard, their version was especially cool, in the spirit of the original). Since their songs don’t usually have lyrics, surf bands have to get over on music alone, which explains why so many good players end up becoming part of the surf music cult. Commercial Interruption, whose name alludes to the fact that they do a lot of old tv themes, covered an impressive range of styles, starting with the Mothers of Invention, complete with a noisy psychedelic freakout mid-song and then an amusing segue into a series of corny 70s hits including the Andrea True Connection’s immortal More, More, More. From there they tackled a couple of early Beatles tunes, then the loping C&W of The Magnificent Seven, and eventually a breezy, jazzy I Dream of Jeannie theme. Their frontman/bass player took a couple of solos full of slides and punchy chords that managed to be flashy but not stupid; they also did a couple of edgy, stomping minor-key originals.

Strange But Surf’s originals were also the highlight of their roughly 45-minute set, as they switched instruments, had fun putting their own spin on the Ramones’ “hey ho, let’s go,” sped up Lee Hazlewood’s spaghetti western theme Baja to a gallop, unearthed Where the Action Is (a mid-60s Dick Clark show theme) and turned Marbles, their drummer loose on guitar and vocals on The Martians Are Pissed. After swooshing their way through the Avengers Theme, Link Wray’s grandson joined them for a surprise appearance on guitar for The Rumble: as far as brushes with surf rock royalty go, it doesn’t get much more personal than that. There’s another free show here on August 18 with Witches in Bikinis headlining at 7.

The surf didn’t stop when the tide came up and the sun went down, either. Since this was the first Saturday of the month, tireless promoter Unsteady Freddie was putting on his monthly surf show at Otto’s. By half past eleven, the Tarantinos NYC had taken the stage. They’re an unlikely-looking bunch – jazz drummer, metal guitarist, rock bassist and pop keyboardist – but they have the kind of chemistry that comes from constant gigging and the kind of diverse, cinematic sound their name implies. And they don’t just do songs from Tarantino movies: this particular show featured a lot of unpredictable, anthemic originals, a digression into Link Wray like the one on the boardwalk earlier in the day but with a lot more alcohol involved, and finally a majestically lurid version of Henry Mancini’s You Only Live Twice.

For anybody who might have questioned the decision to put a psychedelic Greek rembetiko band at the top of the bill, the Byzan-tones’ eerie, chromatic, sometimes microtonally-spiked stomp generated a lot more spontaneous dancing and absolutely stunned the crowd: it was half past one in the morning by the time they finished, but nobody left the room. Recently regrouped, with Steve Antonakos’ guitar taking the place of the electric oud they employed back in the mid-zeros, they’re once again one of New York’s best bands. From the apprehensive, Arabic-tinged Byzan-Tone Beat, to the tricky Black Sea tempos of Pontic Pipeline, to the high point of the night, a murky chromatic vamp that morphed into a macabre samba, the intensity didn’t let up. In his resonant baritone, frontman/guitarist George Sempepos intoned a somber yet bouncy rembetiko song about a street urchin bumming for cigarettes and accosting the wrong guy (who turned out to be a cop; the kid asks him anyway). The music got a little bit lighter, with one number that sounded like a syncopated version of the Stones’ Beast of Burden before going back into the shadows with a slinky, furtive vamp that Antonakos lit up with some surrealistically searing slide work and then a warped variation on the Peter Gunne theme. They closed with a tongue-in-cheek song called Crawfish Saganaki, pulsing along on a Bo Diddley beat. All this made dealing with the heat seem like afterthought.