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No New Abnormal

Tag: Chris Stromquist Drums

Quatre Vingt Neuf Reinvent Little Rascals Soundtracks, Hot 20s Jazz and Dixieland at Barbes

When Quatre Vingt Neuf launched into their most recent show last month at Barbes, it was a jazz power play. Bryan Beninghove came up with that term: it means more people onstage than there are in the audience. But by the time the irrepressible quasi oldtimey swing band wrapped up their show around midnight, the room was packed. Quatre Vingt Neuf are last-minute like that.

They played their first gig last year when the venue had a cancellation. Owner Olivier Conan emailed Wade Ripka, who would end up playing tenor banjo in the group, to see if he could pull a pickup band together. Sure, said Ripka, who’s in a bunch of other bands (rembetiko metalheads Greek Judas and retro Russian psych-pop crew the Eastern Blokhedz to name a couple) and has a deep address book. Since Conan lives in France now, all this was done over email.

And unlike most venues, Barbes actually promotes the artists who play there. So when Conan hadn’t heard back from Ripka by around midnight, European time, he sent a final reminder to make sure that the bar would have some kind of live entertainment that night.

Apparently the show was a success. When Ripka asked for another gig for this ensemble, Conan agreed – but insisted on naming the band. He came up with Quatre Vingt Neuf (French for Eighty-nine – a revolutionary year). Since then, they’ve featured as many as seventeen players onstage. Last month’s show featured a relatively small septet.

Quatre Vingt Neuf’s shtick is that they play hot 20s jazz and dixieland with a rock rhythm section, a rarity since when those styles first originated, technology hadn’t been developed to the point where bass or drums could be recorded in a full-band situation. Realistically speaking, Quatre Vingt Neuf hardly qualify as a rock band. At the May gig, drummer Chris Stromquist (who also plays in Greek Judas and Balkan brass band Slavic Soul Party) broke out his bundles and brushes and swung with an unexpectedly subtle flair – it’s a side of him not that many people get to see. The same with bassist Nick Cudahy – who also plays in Greek Judas and the Blokhedz – walking the changes and using horn voicings in a couple of wry solos.

Interestingly, bandleader Ripka stuck to rhythm and didn’t take any solos. But the band played several of his arrangements of Little Rascals theme music, from scampering Keystone Kops miniatures to longer, more coyly crescendoing, cinematic pieces. Even the ballads were upbeat. Soprano saxophonist Jason Candler sang a handful of them, when he wasn’t sending wildfire spirals upward. Trumpeter John Carlson played terse, centered good cop to trombonist Tim Vaughn’s boisterous honks and snorts and extended technique. They’re back at Barbes on June 13 at 10 PM, headlining a great swing twinbill that begins at 8 with plush singer/baritone uke player Daria Grace & the Pre-War Ponies, who excel at oldschool mambos and can also be a lot more boisterous than most retro swing bands.

Greek Judas Headline One of the Year’s Best Twinbills in the East Village

When Greek Judas took the stage at Niagara at a little after eleven a couple of Thursdays ago, everybody in the crowd suddenly had their phones out. Maybe that was because three of the five guys in the band were wearing animal masks. But it’s more likely that nobody in the audience had ever seen a Greek metal band.

And in that space, they were louder than ever. Singer Quince Marcum projects as well as any other frontman in town, but this time he was low in the mix. When the band got their start, guitarist/lapsteel player Wade Ripka and guitarist Adam Good would typically take long, careening, Middle Eastern-tinged solos. And that worked; both guys love their creepy chromatics, and they can get totally symphonic without being boring. Times have changed: instead of jabbing at each other to pull a song back on track, there’s a lot more interplay and at least semi-controlled chaos now. Ironically, the tighter they get, the more psychedelic the music is.

Bassist Nick Cudahy downtunes his axe now, for some serious tarpit sonics. Meanwhile, drummer Chris Stromquist makes the songs’ tricky rhythms look easy: the way he plays, no matter how bizarre the underlying beat is, you can stand and sway from side to side and not feel any more stoned than you might already be.

Obviously, you don’t have to be high to appreciate the band. One of the reasons why they’ve tightened up the show is that they have a lot more songs and they don’t have to stretch them out so much. They’re all covers, from the 1920s to the 1960s, most of them from the criminal and revolutionary underworld who fought against dictatorial terror and then a British invasion after World War II. Many of those tunes were written by ethnic Greeks who’d escaped persecution in Cyprus and Turkey, only to find themselves second-class citizens in their ancestral land.

The best song of the night was I’m a Junkie, which might have just been a shout-out to good hash, or something stronger – Marcum sings everything in the original Greek. The most lyrically innocuous love song of the night was also one of the most macabre. Police brutality, heavy partying, black humor behind bars, trans-Mediterranean drug smuggling and crack addiction were some of the other topics Marcum addressed – he almost always gives the audience a little translation for just about everything. They’re back at Niagara (Ave. A and 7th St., the former King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut across from the southwest corner of Tompking Square Park) this Thursday at 10. As a bonus, the excellent Trouble with Kittens – who play similarly edgy if somewhat quieter and faster, new wave-influenced songs – open the night at 9. Noir cinematic trio Sexmob‘s brilliant drummer, Kenny Wollesen is sitting in with them this for this show. It’s a pass-the-tip-jar situation.

Trippy, Kaleidoscopic Salsa and Latin Soul and a Barbes Gig from Zemog El Gallo Bueno

Abraham Gomez – who goes by Zemog El Gallo Bueno – was one of the pioneers of the psychedelic salsa revival back in the zeros. His surrealistically entertaining latest album, YoYouMeTu, Vol. 3 is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a lot more African-influenced than his earlier work, with hypnotically vamping interludes slowly morphing into all sorts of strange musical shapes. Lately his home base has been Barbes, where he’s been playing an off-and-on monthly residency for the last couple of years. His next gig there is Dec 8 at 10 PM; brilliant trumpeter Ben Holmes plays beforehand at 8 with his haunting Middle Eastern-tinged trio, Naked Lore.

A balmy, bluesy horn intro opens the new album’s first track, Americae, a bad way to start: this spastically loopy, petulantly annoying red herring should have been left on the cutting room floor, Things get better from there, first with The Balance Imbalance Dance, a chirpy, trippy clave bounce that veers back and forth into cumbia, then the creepy, carnivalesque mambo Chains. “You say it’s high school? More like prison,” Gomez intones dramatically.

Motivate is a funny, subtly clave-driven parody of singsongey corporate reggaeton-pop that gets a lot more serious as the horns blaze and the groove goes further back toward Africa. A hypnotic web of spiky guitar spiced with kaleidoscopic brass counterpoint filters through the album’s title track; the band finally take it out with a George Clinton-esque vocoder break

Maria Christina Eisen’s tasty, smoky baritone sax opens Quiero Correr, a psychedelic latin soul number that looks back to the early 70s in Spanish Harlem. A lingering guitarscape introduces Sexy Carnitas – A Telenovela, the album’s funniest song: if 60s assembly-line pop bands like the Turtles really knew their way around latin soul, they would have sounded like this.

With its scrapy guiro beat and reverbtoned, slightly out-of-tune piano, Wedding Song has the feel of a 40s Peruvian cumbia – until the music goes completely off the cliff. The album ends with the rustic bomba theme Agua a Peso, then Pianola – its most epic track – which sounds like an update on an old Veracruz ballad from the 1930s. This music is as weird as it is catchy – the Barbes concert calendar doesn’t lie – and onstage the band negotiate its innumerable, unexpected twists and turns without missing a beat.

Magic Microtones and Modal Menace at Barbes

Was the Barbes show on the first of the month by Greg Squared’s Great Circles going to turn into a Balkan power play? That’s the Eastern European version of a jazz power play. The great saxophonist Bryan Beninghove came up with that one: it’s when there are more people in the band than in the audience.

By the time the quartet had wrapped up their set, there was a full house, who ended up being treated to one of the most exhilarating shows of 2018 so far. But things didn’t look promising at the start. Guitarist Adam Good sent a shout to his friend in the back, who was texting and looking pretty oblivious. Half of searing metal band Greek Judas – Good and drummer Chris Stromquist – were also onstage with bassist Reuben Radding and the bandleader. And that was pretty much it.

Great Circles is Greg Squared’s vehicle for his more expansive tunes that don’t fit with Raya Brass Band – the perennial star attraction at Golden Fest, New York’s legendary festival of Balkan and Middle Eastern music – or with the more vocally-oriented Sherita, who seem to be on hiatus at the moment. For most of the set, he ran through volley after volley of eerie microtones, edgy melismas and sharp-fanged chromatics. And he wasn’t even playing all that fast. Most of the tunes were slinky and upbeat – this is dance music after all – but for a guy who plays a ton of notes, this show was all about suspense and intensity stretched to breaking point.

Stromquist made all the tricky tempos look easy – a couple of numbers in 9/4 and one especially serpentine one with so much syncopation that it was impossible to count along. He does the same in Greek Judas,  but more subtly here, first with his rims and snare, then with a clave groove in a minor-key song that seemed like it was going to morph into a Russian tango but didn’t. He finally got to take a tumbling solo – something he doesn’t do in Greek Judas – trading eights with Good.

The guitarist also got to do the same with the sax for a bit, the two like a couple of wolves going at each other through a wire fence. Radding kept a fat, low-key end going for the first half of the set before cutting loose with a solo laced with horn voicings, then some booming chords and nifty slides to drive a chorus or a turnaround home. Most of the material was originals; at the end, the group did a couple of traditional Macedonian numbers, veering from tense and overcast to sunny and then back. A couple of the last tunes brought to mind the glory days of Ansambl Mastika, Greg Squared’s great Balkan guitar band from the late zeros, who put out two deliriously good albums. If you can, snag them.

Greek Judas: New York’s Best New Psychedelic Band

Greek Judas made their debut last night at Barbes. They’re amazing. Comprising most of the members of Greek rembetiko revivalists Que Vlo-Ve, they’ve reached the inevitable point where it made sense to completely and explosively electrify the colorful, gritty repertoire from the 1920s and 30s underground that they’ve mined up to this point. Wade Ripka alternated between roaring, poinpoint-precise, menacingly chromatic electric guitar leads and and searing lapsteel lines, joined by a masked rhythm guitarist who doubled on tenor sax on one of the later numbers. Slavic Soul Party drummer Chris Stromquist nimbly led the group through the songs’ relentlessly tricky changes with stomp and aplomb while bassist Nick Cudahy was the picture of cool, chilling in the back, delivering the same kind of effortless psychedelic groove that he did for so long in the late, great Chicha Libre. Toward the end of the set, frontman Quince Marcum picked up his horn and joined with the sax player for some intricate twin leads on what sounded like a brass band mashup of Macedonian folk and Led Zep.

Was Marcum running his resonant baritone vocals through a phaser? Yesssssss! And a whole bunch of other trippy, creepy patches too! When not singing in Greek, he had a lot of fun explaining the gist of the songs. This stuff is wild. A seafaring anthem celebrated smuggling untaxed cigarettes and Iranian hash. In their jail cell, couple of magges conspire about what they’re going to do once they get out: “Restring my bouzouki for me, babe, I’m coming home,” one announces, more or less. A couple of rude guys drool over a Romany girl, while another complains that his icy girlfriend has driven him into the monastery, metaphorically at least. And one of the later numbers reminded that crack whores existed in Greece in 1927 – and that crack was just as wack then as it is now. The band wound up their roughly 45-minute set with a pounding one-chord stomp that sounded like the Bad Brains playing Greek music. A screaming guitar band playing hardcore punk rock at Barbes? Damn straight. If you’re in the neighborhood and you like artsy metal or psychedelia, you’d be crazy to miss the band’s second-ever show when they play here on August 27 at 8 PM.

Ripka’s chromatically bristling spirals and leaps over Stromquist’s stately beat on the night’s opening number brought to mind killer Greek surf band the Byzan-tones. The band went for careening metal majesty on the night’s sescond number, resonant guitar snarl over an unexpectedly straight-up, hypnotic, boomy beat on the one after that. On the following tune, Ripka’s aching twang rang out over Stomquist’s tense, tight 7/8 beat as Marcum’s vocals swirled and echoed. The best song of the night was also the most Middle Eastern-influenced, a titanic blast of sabertoothed leads from Ripka’s guitar over the swaying roar of the rest of the band. This group’s ceiling is practically unlimited. First gig ever, there was a good crowd at Barbes, and that following will grow. St. Vitus seems inevitable; after that, Donington here we come!. Wait til the metal crowd discovers these guys: they’ll be able to make a living on their road til they’re in their eighties if they feeling like cranking it up like they did last night.

A Must-See Eva Salina Residency for All You Balkan Music Fans

Chanteuse/accordionist/bandleader Eva Salina is one of the world’s most sought-after singers of Balkan and Eastern European music. As a result, she spends a lot of time on the road. Right now she’s in town for an extended spell: when she’s not up at Lincoln Center, teaching New York City school kids about the thrills and chills of Romany and Macedonian and Bulgarian folk tunes, she and her killer band can be found on Monday nights at around 9 PM at Sisters Brooklyn, 900 Fulton St. (Washington/Waverly, right at the Clinton-Washington C train) where they’re playing a weekly residency for the foreseeable future. Their debut performance there was last week, followed by a deliriously fun show the following Friday at Friends & Lovers in Bed-Stuy.

The band opened the show there with an extended jam. Accordionist Peter Stan (also of Slavic Soul Party) is this group’s not-so-secret weapon, bobbing and weaving and ranging from misterioso intro improvs to endless, rapidfire volleys of chromatics and bristling minor keys. On one hand, it was surreal to see guitar shredmeister Brandon Seabrook hang on simple, ominously lingering minor chords for bar after bar, but he’d also shift into maniac mode when least expected, throwing off jagged shards of skronk, elephantine exuberance and unnameable toxic frequencies. Likewise, trumpeter John Carlson (also of SSP) alternated between moody, sustained lines, often in harmony with the accordion, when he wasn’t picking up the pace with an edgy, jazz-infused focus. Tuba player Ron Caswell teamed with drummer Chris Stomquist for some unexpectedly bouncy, spring-loaded grooves for music which isn’t known for being particularly funky.

They built from Stan’s first brooding intro to a dub-infused pulse, rising with Seabrook’s snorts and wails, then some elegant chromatics from Carlson, handing off again to Stan for a whirling vortex of a solo. The bandleader then joined them for an intense, achingly microtonal, melismatic, almost reggae-tinged cover of one of the numbers on her upcoming album Lema Lema: Eva Salina sings Šaban Bajramovic. The late Bajramovic, with his otherworldly, wounded, full-throated style, was revered in his native Serbia and remains a beloved cult figure throughout the Romany community. It’s hard to think of an English-language singer who channels heartbreak like he did – Orbison is close, but no cigar. Beyond the rock world, Hector Lavoe makes a better comparison, although Bajramovic didn’t rely on falsetto as much. Eva Salina has nuance and power to match his: that an American woman would spearhead a Bajramovic revival is pretty radical in itself, especially where that music comes from.

They followed with a jaunty minor-key strut, a springboard for Eva Salina’s torchy, brassy side. Her previous album, Eva Salina Solo – mostly just accordion and vocals, or a-cappella – is as plaintively riveting as anything released this decade. This band, on the other hand, is her fun project: up in front of the group, she swayed and shimmied, eyes closed, completely one with the songs. Check out their high-voltage take of Opa Cupa, another Bajramovic number from later in the night. The Sisters residency continues this Monday, Feb 23 at 9, features two sets of tunes and there’s no cover.