As far as esoteric jambands go, Tribecastan have few if any rivals. The group’s ringleaders, multi-instrumentalists John Kruth and Jeff Greene have led a rotating cast of characters since this wild, psychedelic beast first made its appearance on the streets of lower Manhattan about a half-dozen years ago. To try to pigeonhole or categorize them would be useless. Like their closest comparison, Hazmat Modine, jazz is a frequent reference point, but where that group uses horns, this crew employs a vast arsenal of central Asian, Middle Eastern and African stringed and percussion instruments along with a rock rhythm section. And they’re funny – if Spike Jones and Juan Esquivel aren’t direct influences, they’re distant relatives. The group’s latest album, Goddess Polka Dottess – streaming at Bandcamp – is their most straightforward and psychedelic rock-oriented release. They’ve got a rare Brooklyn show coming up this Friday, Sept 9 at 8 PM at Shapeshifter Lab; cover is $12.
Tribecastan also distinguish themselves as one of New York’s most prolific bands. The latest album is a bit of a change from their previous output in that most of the songs are by Kruth. The opening number, Repo Rodeo follows a droll, cartoonish, cajun-flavored sprint fueled by Kruth’s mandolin, Greene’s vibraphone, the horns of baritone saxophonist Claire Daly, trumpeter John Turner, alto saxophonist Premik Russell Tubbs and trombonist Chris Morrow until keyboardist Kenny Margolis leads them down a Middle Eastern rabbit hole. From there the group keeps the Middle Eastern noir psychedelia going with Konjo – the first of two songs by Greene here – driven by Kruth’s watery electric mando and Eric Halvorson’s tumbling drums.
Bassist Ray Peterson’s snappy riff opens Bangalorious, a wry mashup of latin soul and Bollywood – a sitar, played by Kruth, finally makes a cameo. Vagabundo is an unlikely successful hybrid of creepy klezmer and dub ska – imagine a Belorussian James Bond theme. The even more macabre Charnel Waltz brings to mind Kruth’s other, more stripped-down group, Villa Delirium.
Majestic Ganesh, one of the band’s few vocal numbers, pokes playful, Beatlesque fun at the Indian pantheon. The band takes a turn into brassy psych-funk with Trouble in a Fur Coat and follow that with the silly calyspo flute tune Myrtle & Mable. Then they march through the somewhat subtler Zoli’s Strut, with its microtonal banks of Asian reed instruments.
The Mahakala Stomp, Greene’s second track here, is a catchy hi-de-ho swing number with boisterous solos all around. (you’ll have to supply the band intros yourself). The Surfing Swami makes a return to Beatlesque Indian psychedelia, followed by Kilopatra, the album’s best and most Middle Eastern track, awash in uneasy, icy mando, snakecharmer flute and biting banjo. The next track, Borislav, a slinky Balkan brass tune with a hilariously over-the-top break that’s too funny to give away here, is another real winner. Constantly shifting from one instrument to another, Tribecastan are very entertaining to watch onstage, with Kruth affecting a mad pied-piper-on-acid persona.