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A Wild Night in Bushwick Thursday in Anticipation of This Year’s Golden Fest

Of all the accolades Ray Manzarek received, he was most proud of how Rolling Stone described his organ playing as “Balkan funeral music.” Manzarek was also proud of his heritage, and if he was still alive, no doubt he’d be a fan of Choban Elektrik. The Brooklyn band – Jordan Shapiro on organ, Jesse Kotansky on violin, Dave Johnson on bass and Phil Kester on drums – take folk music from across the Balkans and make psychedelic rock epics out of it. Sometimes they sound like the Doors, sometimes they bring to mind the Stranglers when the rhythms are more straight-up and Shapiro goes off on one of his long, spiraling tangents. They aren’t playing this weekend’s Golden Fest – New York’s single funnest musical weekend of the year – but they are in the middle of an amazing four-band pre-Golden Fest lineup this Thursday, Jan 12 at Sunnyvale in Bushwick. Cover is $12, music starts at 7 with the feral, intricate lickety-split, rare Polesian klezmer dances and grooves of Litvakus, then  Choban Elektrik, then epic, original, intense Raya Brass Band, with Greek Judas;, who play psychedelic metal versions of classic underground 1920s and 1930s Greek hash smoking music, headlining

Choban Elektrik earned a rave review here last year for a twinbill they played with Greek Judas at Barbes back in April. The group played an even more adrenalizing show show there three months later that didn’t get a writeup here – overkill, you know – but did earn a spot on the Best Shows of 2016 page. Here’s what happened.

A bubbly, syncopated minor-key vamp slowly coalesced and then Shapiro hit his smoky, eerily tremoloing organ patch, pouncing his way through a brooding chromatic theme. Eventually, Kotansky took it skyward as Shapiro’s organ smoldered and pulsed. They followed that with the night’s first vocal number, a minor-key mashup of tango and surf rock with a long, majestically rising organ solo that Shapiro finally took spiraling down, then punched in some noisy, staccato washes like an unhinged Jimmy Smith.

Shapiro’s arrangement of the next tune was packed with shivery melismas and trills, wildfire clarinet lines transposed to funeral organ, echoed by Kotansky’s lightning volleys of triplets when he took a solo. Then he took the song down to the lowest, most austere place on his fingerboard. They took it out with a whirlwind doublespeed outro.

Kester suppplied a dancing rimshot beat as the bouncy next number got underway, the organ dancing overhead, Kotansky keeping the danse macabre going as Shapiro hit his wah pedal for some mean funk. They hit a staggered groove after that, Shapiro turning the roto way up to max out the menace and intensity of the tune’s Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics, adding an echoey dead-astronaut-adrift-in-space electric piano solo midway through. Kotansky’s solo was almost as macabre and veered toward bluesy metal. Then the band flipped the script with a joyously driving, syncopated anthem, both the folksiest and most ELP-inflected number of the night. They followed with one of their really epic numbers, sort of a mashup of Duke Ellington’s Caravan, the Doors’ Light My Fire and a bouncy Serbian theme. That was just the first set – and probably a close approximation of what you can expect Thursday night in Bushwick.

And the most recent moment that this blog and Greek Judas could be found in the same room was a few weeks ago on a cold Monday night at LIC Bar. Why on earth would someone not from Long Island City make the trip out there in bitter December wind, late on a work night – on an injured limb, no less – to a little Irish pub to see a loud metal band run through what was was basically a live rehearsal?

If you’re hanging out just over the Pulaski Bridge, a couple of stops away on the G, why the hell not? On one hand, the show was as experimental and sloppy as you would expect from a rehearsal, but by the third song in, the Monday Night Football crowd at the bar was drawn in by the group’s animal masks and macabre riffage, had their phones out and were gramming away. All that attention apparently earned Greek Judas a return engagement on another Monday night later this month. But what the bar really ought to give them is an early Saturday night slot during the warmer months when the back courtyard is open and the place is packed.

Balkan Psychedelic Band Choban Elektrik Sets Park Slope on Fire: Bed-Stuy is Next

More about that killer original Balkan music twinbill at Friends & Lovers in Bed-Stuy on June 15 at 8 PM, with psychedelic Balkan organ band Choban Elektrik and the elaborate, artful, mighty Serbian-style Raya Brass Band. It’s not clear who’s playing first, but it doesn’t really matter: both put on a wild live show.

Choban Elektrik were part of another ferocious doublebill at the end of April at Barbes, opening for rembetiko metal band Greek Judas. The quartet – Jordan Shapiro on organ, Jesse Kotansky on violin, Dave Johnson on bass and Phil Kester on drums – opened with a familiar Madeconian folk song, switching from major to minor, violin in tandem with the organ through some labyrinthine tempo shifts, Shapiro adjusting his textures from swirly roto to smoky hot. He left the smoke on through the similarly knotty, leaping and bounding, ebullient instrumental after that, bass bubbling, drums tumbling and careening as the organ spiraled upward. It’s tempting to say that their performance was sort of the Balkan equivalent of Emerson, Lake and Palmer doing Moussorgsky, but the keyboard timbres and enigmatic cascades were probably closer to the Doors – with a violinist from ELO, maybe.

Shapiro sang the next song, a rousing tune that for some reason sounded like amped-up Jamaican rocksteady with a more complicated groove and a hypnotically vamping, glimmering, upper-register Ray Manzarek-style organ solo. Appropriately, Shapiro switched to an echoey Riders on the Storm electric piano patch for the next number as the rhythm section delivered a sliced-and-diced gallop. A gritty, insistent, distorto organ crescendo gave way to uneasily sailing violin that surged forward toward shivery In the Hall of the Mountain King menace. A molten-metal, altered organ cha-cha practically segued into an organ arrangement of a punchy, pouncing Macedonian brass tune, then a number that sounded like a Balkan take on Rare Earth: surreal to the extreme. It’s almost funny to consider that such as tuneful band as this could be a spinoff of Zappa cover act Project/Object.

Greek Judas headlined. They haven’t changed their set much since they first started, but they haven’t really needed to since their songs are so creepy, and colorful, and the band jams the hell out of them. As is their custom, bandleader Wade Ripka alternated between distorted lapsteel and Strat, running each through a big Fender amp – inarguably the loudest band ever to play Barbes. Bassist Nick Cudahy and drummer Chris Stromquist wore deer and moose masks, respectively, if memory serves right (it was late; Kate kept bringing beers and that was impossible to resist). Guitarist Adam Good did not. Frontman/horn player Quince Marcum was decked out in a Byzantine gothic monk’s outfit: with his bushy beard, he really looked the part. With one long, searing, Middle Eastern-flavored jam after another and Marcum doing his usual bit explaining the Greek lyrics in detail, they kept the drinkers in the house through tales of lost love, drug smuggling, henpecked husbands and crack whores on the Athens streets in the late 1920s. Greek Judas bring their trippy attack to Leftfield this Saturday night, June 11 at 10 PM, where they threaten to be the loudest act ever to play there as well.

Psychedelic Balkan Grooves from Choban Elektrik

Choban Elektrik made some waves last year when they debuted as Electric Balkan Garage, a psychedelic keyboard rock band playing traditional Balkan melodies. Since then keyboardist Jordan Shapiro and bassist Dave Johnsen (both formerly of Zappa cover band Project/Object) and drummer Phil Kester have made a mind-warpingly original album and have continued to play live around New York, with a gig this Thursday the 15th at 7:30 PM at Littlefield opening for the Debutante Hour, who’re doing their album release show. Choban Elektrik’s album is creepy and intense and like nothing that’s been made since probably the late 70s, maybe earlier. And the acts who were playing this kind of stuff back then, like Estonian acid rockers Suuk, were basically metal guitar bands. Music doesn’t get much more original than this.

And this isn’t fusion: it’s rock. 95% of the time, Shapiro carries the solos: no slaphappy Dave Matthews bass, no retarded brontosaurus drums. While the tempos here are sometimes cruelly tricky, Kester keeps it steady: he could go in a metal direction if he wanted to, but he doesn’t. Likewise, Johnsen plays warmly and melodically, sometimes doubling the keyboard line as the band hits a crescendo on a turnaround, occasionally firing off deep, earthtoned chords or tremoloing a note for extra menace. Shapiro is a monster player: fast and precise when he’s playing a clarinet line as he does on the album’s tenth track, dark and murky on the organ, surreallistically bright and edgy on Fender Rhodes. He also plays murderously slithery, roaring Balkan metal guitar on the album’s fifth track, similar to Eyal Maoz’s adventures in this kind of music but with a more nimble rhythm section and more of a corrosive noiserock edge.

The opening track sounds like the New York Gypsy All-Stars (or similar Turkish or Bulgarian electric gypsy jazz outfit) on opium, basically a one-chord jam with Shapiro’s organ doubling guest violinist Jesse Kotansky’s biting lines, the violin throwing off microtonal sparks before going off what sounds like a Macedonian tangent, the organ taking on a funky approach like Jimmy Smith gone to the Balkans. That’s just the first song on the album, by the way. A similar track later on begins with accordion carrying the melody and winds up with the organ swirling around.

Eva Salina Primack lends lush, otherworldly vocals to the echoey, dub-flavored second track, wah-wah electric piano giving way to sweeping organ and then back again. She also sings the poignant eighth track with aching but intricate microtonalities as it morphs from a pastoral violin tune, to funk, to echoey, prickly psychedelics. The darkest track here is amusingly called Mom Bar, trippy atmospherics rising to a torrential organ crescendo and a noisy outro that’s downright macabre. Their version of Steve’s Gajda, by Raif Hyseni goes from burbling to blippy to biting with a surprisingly bluesy organ solo and then downwardly spiraling violin, steadily speeding up to where everything eventually collapses on itself: it’s the most metal moment here. There are also a couple of bouncy Mediterranean-flavored numbers, one with trippy gamelanesque sonics, the other a funk song with growling bass and wah-wah Rhodes piano. The album ends with what’s essentially a big roaring powerpop instrumental with a tricky Balkan tempo. Right now cdbaby has it; watch for an album release show sometime this spring.