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Tag: Corinna Snyder

The Best Concert of 2019 Is Just a Week Away

You don’t have to stay at Golden Fest until two in the morning. But pretty much everybody does. And an awful lot of those people are still dancing, eight hours after the festivities started. In terms of raw thrills, year after year, there is no other New York concert that can match this blissfully entertaining annual weekend festival of Balkan, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Slavic music and food. Golden Fest 2019 is this January 18 and 19 at the magnificent, old world Grand Prospect Hall on the south side of Park Slope, Brooklyn, just up the hill from the Prospect Ave. R station.

If doesn’t take much effort to discover a dozen or more acts you’ve never heard before, especially if you spend time in the smaller upstairs rooms rather than the big ballroom where most of the big brass bands play. You can also catch just as many of the best New York Balkan bands, or mix it up. At any moment, there’s always something worth seeing on at least four or five different stages spaced throughout all four floors of the mansion.

If the festival has one defining qualtiy, it’s that the earliest acts on the bill are just as good as the headliners, even if they tend to be little quieter. For this blog, the game plan for last year’s big Saturday night Golden Fest blowout as well as the year before was to see as many new acts as possible. Both times, the lure of some of this city’s most explosive bands proved too much to resist.

In their own quiet way, the Slaveya Women’s Choir – whose muted, otherworldly close harmonies spanned from Bulgaria to the Caucasus – were every bit as captivating as New York’s own Romashka. It was frontwoman Inna Barmash’s birthday, and she put on a party for the ages, with strings and guitar and tuba blasting behind her blissfully edgy wail, through one minor-key romp after another. That group had a great run back in the zeros; fifteen years or so later, they sill kick out the jams. Happily, their set was recorded; you can download it for free, and read a more detailed review here.

Where the Slaveya Women’s Choir had migrated so enigmatically between notes, the Istanbul Trio – fretless guitarist Ertugrul Erkisi, singer/percussionist Aslihan Erkisi and oudist Fatih Bayram – did the same, with even more edgy intensity and a classical Turkish focus. They would play an even more haunting show a couple of days later at Barbes under a different name.

The rest of the night was a crisscross between intended destinations and diversions. So many good bands, so little time. Here was where the hardcore triage set in. Kavala – a livewire Macedonian/Greek spinoff of Zlatne Uste, the festival’s founding icons – or Loza, a relatively rare meeting between the haunting oud of Adam Good and the similarly poignant vocals of Corinna Snyder? In this case, Loza won out.

How do you choose between the slinky, epic Dolunay and a rare New York appearance by the more cinematic Wind of Anatolia? In this case, the latter, a no less intense Turkish band won out. As the night went on, Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat wove plaintively undulating, trickily syncopated melodies, oudist Scott Wilson and Efendi put a twisted psychedelic rock spin on many of those same sounds and the nine-piece Novi Hitovi Brass Band made crazed jams out of searing minor-key Serbian riffs for the better part of an hour.

The loudest band to arguably ever play the festival was psychedelic rembetiko band Greek Judas, who reinvent the Middle Eastern-flavored sounds of the Greek gangster underworld and antifascist resistance movements in the 20s and 30s. The twin guitars of Adam Good and Wade Ripka (who doubled searingly on lapsteel) pummeled the crowd in one of the smaller side rooms, frontman Quince Marcum channeling a mad Dionysis in front of the band.

After midnight, the option to simmer down just a little with the elegant jazz of Tavcha Gravche – guitarist Dan Nadel, clarinetist Vasko Dukovski and bassist Daniel Ori – was a welcome chance to sit down and get lost in their improvisations, the night’s closest approximation of an American idiom. Zurli Drustvo -Tamberlaine and Drew Harris with percussionist Jerry Kisslinger – and Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions provided a surreal blast of fresh air with their microtonal zurla oboes

By the way, this is not how most people do Golden Fest. The big crowd hangs out by the big stage and gets down with a ferocious brass band lineup (clarinet wizard Michael Winograd’s titanic klezmer orchestra seemed to be the biggest hit – and largest ensemble – at this past year’s festival). And here’s a secret about the food: wait til midnight, you’ll be shocked by the quality and the quantity of what’s left over after the lines and lines of hungry dancers have finally satiated themselves. Although there are a lot of talented people circling the room and cutting a rug, there are no judgments if you’re a first-timer. Golden Fest 2019, here we come!

A Rare New York Appearance by an Allstar Balkan Crew

This blog was in the building but not in the room when Loza played what in turned out to be a pretty spellbinding set at Golden Fest 2018 back in January. That’s because there are five or six separate shows going on at once in different parts of the lavish, old-world Grand Prospect Hall, all through the night during New York’s funnest annual concert. Golden Fest 2019 takes place next January 18 and 19 and although it’s not clear if the allstar Macedonian group Loza are on the bill, there will be dozens of others who are just as good.

Loza are making a rare non-Golden Fest appearance tomorrow night, Nov 20 at 7 PM at Barbes, opening for perennially entertaining, spectacular Balkan brass band Slavic Soul Party. Fortuitously, WFMU made a field recording of the band’s Golden Fest set, available as a free download at the Free Music Archive.

The first number is a slinky, Middle Eastern tinged number, Vedran Boshkovski’s snakecharmer wood flute soaring over Adam Good’s frenetically picked tanbura lute. Seido Salifoski supplies a rat-a-tat beat on his big tapan drum underneath Corinna Snyder’s stark vocals.

The second tune is a bouncy major-key dance that could pass for Neapolitan, aside from the Macedonian lyrics. Boshkovski switches to zurla – the haunting, otherworldly trumpet-like Balkan reed instrument that sounds like a less drony Scottish bagpipe – for the final two tunes. The first is a trickily syncopated, chromatically edgy instrumental; the second is a more hypnotic epic with an icepick solo from Good. In both instances, the zurla’s keening microtones are just a hair enough outside traditional western harmony to be truly scary. Download this and crank it up if you need a jolt of adrenaline.

A Tantalizing Taste of Golden Fest Last Night at Trans-Pecos

It’s not likely that the WNYU folks had Golden Fest in mind when they booked three of New York’s most exciting bands to play Trans-Pecos last night. But the triplebill of riveting Macedonian duo Glas, hotshot oudist Kane Mathis and haunting Turkish band Dolunay are all vets of the annual Brooklyn mecca for sounds from across the Balkans and the Middle East as well. Golden Fest 2018 takes place next January 12 and 13; this was a hint of the kind of wild intensity and stark rapture that will be in almost absurd abundance there that weekend.

Glas, the duo of tamburist/kaval player Vedran Boškovski and singer Corinna Snyder, opened the night. This was more a showcase for her elegance and subtlety than the floor-to-ceiling power and feral microtones of her vocals in pioneering Bulgarian choral trio Black Sea Hotel. Boškovski made it look easy, steadily strumming his open-tuned tambura, alternating between allusive, hypnotic modes and more ominous, acerbic Middle Eastern-flavored tonalities. He brought more of a stark, rustic touch to a couple of songs, backing Snyder’s wary cadences with stark, overtone-infused lines on the kaval, a wooden Balkan flute.

That Snyder speaks the language further enables her to channel the relentless grimness in these old songs. The road is treacherous, highwaymen are everywhere, war is omnipresent, all omens are bad and love is fleeting. Their most riveting number was a dirge, a guy kidnapped by the enemy giving his last goodbyes. They closed with a somewhat more upbeat number: so you’re already engaged? Let’s elope anyway!

Mathis is the not-so-secret weapon in Alsarah & the Nubatones, filling the enormous shoes left behind by the late, great oudist Haig Magnoukian. Leading a trio with a percussionist on boomy dumbek goblet drum and House of Waters’ Moto Fukushima on eight-string bass, he opened with a hypnotically circling, rippling West African-flavored number that sounded like a tune for the kora – an instrument Mathis also plays virtuosically. From the three went into a serpentine Middle Eastern theme, Mathis adding fiery chords to the mix early on, Fukushima’s solo going off into hard bop before finally making an emphatic, chromatic flourish of a landing. Mathis’ endless, machinegunning flurries in his closing epic left his rhythm section wide-eyed: it’s hard to think of anyone else in town who can play as hard and fast, yet as precisely, on any instrument.

The most haunting song of the entire night was an original by another oudist, Dolunay’s Adam Good, evoking the shadowy majesty of the Trio Joubran with his brooding resonance. Where Snyder had been all about distance and solemnity and mystery, Dolunay frontwoman/percussionist Jenny Luna went for the jugular with her plaintive, angst-fueled melismas. Violinist Eylem Basaldi echoed that poignancy, playing achingly beautiful, low-midrange, grey-sky washes of microtones, almost as if she was playing a cello.

Dolunay like diptychs and segues of all kinds; this time, they did sets of threes. Most of their material is on the slow and somber side, and this was typical. Most of their songs are about absence and longing: boyfriend goes off to war or over the mountains, never to be seen again, ad infinitum. Plus ça change, huh? What was new was getting to hear Luna sing in Ladino, the Sephardic Spanish dialect, in a couple of moody Andalucian-flavored numbers, something she’s especially suited to since she’s a native Spanish speaker. Dolunay’s next gig is on an amazing triplebill with feral yet supertight original Balkan group Raya Brass Band and hard-grooving Balkan/reggae/rock band Tipsy Oscart at Littlefield on Nov 30 at 9 PM; cover is $10.

Saturday Night at Golden Fest: Best Concert of 2017, Hands Down

Game plan for last night’s big blowout at this year’s Golden Fest was to see as many unfamiliar bands as possible. That wasn’t difficult, considering that there were more than sixty Balkan and Balkan-influenced acts playing five different spaces in about eight hours at Brooklyn’s magnificent Grand Prospect Hall. The way things turned out, it was fun to catch a few familiar favorites among a grand total of fifteen different groups. Consider: when the swaying chandelier hanging over Raya Brass Band looks like it could crash on top of them at any second, and sax player Greg Squared has launched into one of his signature, supersonic volleys of microtones and chromatics, and singer Brenna MacCrimmon is belting at full throttle over a machinegunning beat, there’s no resisting that. You just join the line of dancers, or step back, take a hit of tequila  – or whatever your poison is, this is a party – and thank the random chance that you’re alive to see this.

If you’re hell-bent on being a counterintuitive concertgoer, you can kick off the evening not with the fiery brass music that the festival is best known for, but with something along the lines of the brooding Romany and klezmer guitar folk of charismatic singer Zhenya Lopatnik’s four-piece acoustic band, Zapekanka. Their set of Romany laments, drinking songs, and a folk tune that foreshadowed Django Reinhardt turned out to be a lot more bittersweet than the Russian cheesecake whose name they’ve appropriated.

It was good to get a chance to see Niva – kaval player Bridget Robbins, tamburists Corinna Snyder and Kristina Vaskys and tapan drummer Emily Geller – since they don’t play out as much as they used to, considering their members are busy with other projects. This was a recurrent theme throughout the festival. A straw poll of informed participants picked percussionist Jerry Kisslinger as king of the night, so to speak: he was scheduled to play with seven different groups, jams not included. He wasn’t part of this band. The quartet joined voices for about a half an hour of ethereal close harmonies over hypnotically circling rhythms, a mix of Macedonian dances and tunes from just over the Bulgarian border, even more lavishly ornamented with bristling microtones. Meanwhile, the circle of dancers in the upstairs Rainbow Room – much smaller than the venue’s magnificent ballroom – had packed the space to almost capacity.

Driven by Gyorgy Kalan’s austerely cavorting, rustically ornamented fiddle, the trio Fenyes Banda kept the dancers going with a mix of Hungarian and Transylvanian numbers. As raw and bucolic (yet at the same time very musically sophisticated) as that group was, it’s hard to think of an ensemble on the bill more evocative of a get-together in a village square in some distant century than Ta Aidhonia. The mixed choir harmonized in a somewhat subdued, stately set of Thracian dances, backed only by bagpipe and standup drum. The dancers didn’t quite to know what to make of this in the early going, but by a couple of songs in they were back out on the floor.

By half past eight, it was finally time to make a move downstairs for the mighty Kavala, who played a considerably more contemporary update on late 20th century Macedonian brass music, propelled by electric bass and drums. Trubas bubbled and blazed through fiery chromatic changes until finally, practically at the end of the set, star tenor sax player Lefteris Bournias took one of his signature, wildfire, shivery solos. Back upstairs, Ornamatik took a similarly electric sound further into the 21st century, the music’s fat low end anchored by nimble five-string bassist Ben Roston and frontwoman/trombonist Bethanni Grecynski. Their slinky, shapeshifting originals brought to mind Brooklynites Tipsy Oxcart (who were also on the bill, and deserve a shout for their incendiary, stomping set of mostly new material at Barbes Thursday night).

While the Roma Stars entertained the dancers in the big ballroom with woozy P-Funk synth in addition to the brass, ageless Armenian-American jazz sage Souren Baronian held the Rainbow Room crowd rapt. The octogenarian reedman’s most mesmerizing moment came during a long, undulating modal vamp where he took his clarinet and opened the floodgates of a somberly simmering river of low-register, uneasily warping microtones. And then suddenly lept out of it with a hilariously surreal quote – and the band behind him hit the chorus head-on without missing a beat. As far as dynamics and judiciously placed ideas and unselfconscious soul go, it would be unfair to expect other musicians to channel such a depth of feeling.

Although two of the acts afterward, Eva Salina and Peter Stan, and tar lute player Amir Vahab’s quartet, came awfully close. While his singer bandmate reached gracefully for angst and longing and also unrestrained joy, Stan was his usual virtuoso self. At one point, the accordionist was playing big chords, a rapidfire, slithery melody and a catchy bassline all at the same time. Was he using a loop pedal? No. It was all live. That’s how the duo are recording their forthcoming studio album, reason alone to look forward to it. Vahab’s wary, panoramic take on classic Persian and Turkish sufi themes, and his gracefully intense volleys of notes over twin percussion and otherworldly, rippling kanun, continued to the hold the crowd spellbound

By this time in the evening, many of the dancers had migrated to an even higher floor for the blazing, often completely unhinged and highly improvisational South Serbian sounds of the Novi Hitovi Brass Band. By contrast, Boston’s Cocek! Brass Band rose to the challenge of following Raya Brass Band’s volcanic set with a precise, wickedly intricate performance of their own all-original material, complete with their shoutalong theme song to close on a high note. Trumpeter/bandleader Sam Dechenne’s command of microtones and moody Balkan modes matched Greg Squared’s devastating displays of technique, if in a somewhat more low-key vein.

Hanging in the smaller rooms for most of the night while the biggest names on the bill – organizers Zlatne Uste and trumpeter Frank London’s klezmer ensemble on the top end – entertained a packed house in the ballroom, reached a haunting peak with  a vivid, hauntingly serpentine, all-too-brief set of Syrian exile anthems and lost-love ballads by levantine ensemble Zikrayat. Frontman/violinist Sami Abu Shumays led the group through this alternately poignant and biting material, the night’s furthest divergence from the Balkans into the Middle East, with his usual sardonic sense of humor and acerbic chops.

Finally, at almost two in the morning, it was time to head down to the main floor for the night’s pounding coda, from the night’s most epic act, massive street band What Cheer? Brigade. At one point, it seemed as if there were as many people in the group, gathered onstage and on the main floor as there were dancers, all romping together through a handful of swaying brass anthems that were as hypnotic as they were loud. The group’s explosive drumline had a lot to do with that. By now, the tequila was gone; so was a pocketful of Turkish taffy and Lebanese sesame crunch filched from one of the innumerable candy bowls placed around the venue by the organizers. Although everybody had been on their feet all night long, the remaining crowd looked like they really could have gone until dawn if the music had kept going. As the party did: a couple of rounds of ouzo and Souren Baronian classics on the stereo at a friends’ place up the block turned out to be the perfect way to wind down the best night of the year, musically speaking.

Black Sea Hotel Delivers Hauntingly Innovative Versions of Classic Balkan Songs

This blog’s predecessor affectionately dubbed Black Sea Hotel “a punk rock version of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares.” The Brooklyn a-cappella trio sing haunting, bracingly intense folk songs from the Balkans, specializing in Bulgarian and Macedonian tunes. That they were invited to perform at the Bulgarian Consulate attests to their cred and grasp of Balkan languages (none of the trio are native speakers). That it’s impossible to tell from the album who’s singing what testifies to the meticulously nuanced, otherworldly vocal sorcery of Willa Roberts, Sarah Small and Corinna Snyder (who has since left the ensemble). Their second cd, The Forest Is Shaking and Swaying, might well be the most magical album put out by any New York group in the past several years, let alone 2013.  The three women swoop and dive from stratospheric highs to resonant lows, with eerie close harmonies, ornamented trills, the occasional whoop of delight or dread suddenly cut off cold.

If their music sounds troubled, that’s because times were hard back when these songs were a central part of village life. Yet the themes are universal: girls want their guys to buy them stuff (and they like to strut it), neighbors are nosy, and everybody wants someone and something they can’t have. Much of the album was recorded at Temple Beth Emeth in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, whose rich natural reverb adds to the songs’ lingering mystery. The group’s favorite harmony is A-Bflat-B – can anything possibly be any cooler than that? And not to dis founding member Joy Radish, who left the group in around 2010, but these trio arrangements, most of them by the members themselves, are just as inventive as the charts sung by the quartet on their 2009 debut album. Some are beefed-up folk melodies, others are scaled-down versions of works typically sung by large choirs.

If you’re not Bulgarian. you’d probably never guess that the gist of the tricky metrics, pinpoint staccato and acidic harmonies of the opening track describes a guy promising to buy shoes and a dress for his sweetheart. Likewise, Small’s conspiratorial arrangement of a Macedonian song, where a guy asks for a bunch of basil from a girl’s garden and she basically tells him to get lost…unless he’s single. But a lot of the melodies and arrangements deliver a message that transcends language. There’s a wartime ache and longing in a brooding, atmospheric Macedonian tune whose message is essentially, “Come meet the rebels, they’re coming down from the mountain.” A Snyder arrangement of a song about a surreal dream concerning (symbolism alert) two doves being killed by bullets has the livewire intensity of a brass band. Roberts’ arrangement of a Bulgarian song about a woman asking a cuckoo where her lost love might be has a distantly imploring quality, as well as a sense of flight vividly captured in the vocals’ slides and atmospherics. There are eight other tracks here dealing with supernatural dragonmen, nobles greedily awaiting the death of a rival, flirtatious guys and their consequences in, maybe, the 17th century, a bitter contemplation of old age, and one song partially in tersely poetic English translation.  All of these have a similarly crystalline beauty and persistent unease. For non Bulgarian and Macedonian speakers, the album comes with a helpful digest of song meanings.

What is the future for these three edgy singers? Snyder has a career in academia; Roberts is also an accomplished violinist; and Small – daughter of acclaimed, individualistic pianist/composer Haskell Small – may actually be better known as a photographer. Her elegant largescale tableaux are sort of a classier counterpart to Spencer Tunick’s work.

A Whirlwind East Coast Tour by Black Sea Hotel

New York’s own pioneering Balkan a-cappella choral group Black Sea Hotel are on East Coast tour this week. The trio of Corinna Snyder, Willa Roberts and Sarah Small distinguish themselves not only with their ethereal, otherworldly, sometimes absolutely bloodcurdling harmonies but also their imaginative, breathtakingly spectacular original arrangements of centuries-old songs from Bulgaria and the rest of Eastern Europe. Here’s the  tour schedule. Spread the word!

Wednesday, April 17th 5:30-7pm  – Washington, DC
Balkan Singing Workshop
The Field School “Club Room”, 2301 Foxhall Rd NW, Washington, DC 20007
Admission: $20 (for 4/17 Workshop plus 4/17 Germantown House Concert or 4/19 Holy City Church Concert:  $30 — $5 discount)
Email Willa at to reserve a spot
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Wednesday, April 17th 8pm  – Germantown, MD
House Concert
Relaxed hour long set in intimate setting
20505 Anndyke Way, Germantown, MD
Admission: $15  (for 4/17 Workshop plus 4/17 Germantown House Concert or 4/19 Holy City Church Concert:  $30 — $5 discount)
Email Susan Fraser to reserve
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Thursday, April 18th 5:30-7:00pm  – Richmond, VA
Balkan Singing Workshop
Illumination Studio
109 W. 15th St, Suite 104, Richmond, VA
Admission: $20, $15 students/seniors
Email Khalima or call 804.549.3982

Thursday, April 18th Doors 9:00, BSH  at 9:45pm.  – Richmond, VA
Balliceaux
203 N Lombardy Street, Richmond, VA
Admission: $5
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Friday, April 19th 8pm  –  Washington, DC
Church of the Holy City
Un-mic’d – gorgeous church acoustics
1611 16th Street NW, Washington, DC
Red Line to Dupont Circle
Admission: $20 (for 4/17 Field School Workshop plus 4/17 Germantown House Concert or 4/19 Holy City Church Concert:  $30 — $10 discount)

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For inspiration:
Black Sea Hotel on Youtube
Black Sea Hotel on Vimeo

Catching Up on Concerts…Again

The point of this blog’s Sunday Salon at Zirzamin is to create a scene. There are other good scenes in New York: all the good things happening at Barbes; oldtime Americana at the Jalopy; latin jazz at the Jazz Gallery, Jan Bell’s country and blues thing at 68 Jay St. Bar, Alexandra Joan‘s thematic classical series at WMP Concert Hall. But there’s no central rock scene in New York, unless you count the loser indie rock thing, whatever that is, in bush-WECK, as the gentrifier children there say in their funny accents. Because this blog’s focus is global, it’s been awhile since there’s been any report here on all the under-the-radar happenings at Zirzamin and elsewhere around town. So here we go!

Eclectic Canadian songwriter/chanteuse Lily Frost and her brilliant multi-instrumentalist husband Jose Contreras (not the guy who inadvertently springboarded the phrase “evil empire“) began their  most recent show at Zirzamin by cranking up Contreras’ phone, setting the mood with a delicious mix of vintage Hawaiian guitar tunes. Much as Frost had her sultry voodoo lounge voice in full effect, she was a whirlwind onstage, alternating between vocals, guitar, keys, percussion and theremin. She and Contreras gave a southwestern gothic menace to hazy Mazzy Star jangle, did Billie Holiday as gypsy jazz and Pink Floyd’s San Tropez as the cruel proto-Margaritaville satire that Roger Waters didn’t have the range to pull off. But Frost’s originals were the most memorable: lush Gainsbourg/Birkin style psychedelic pop, the deceptively biting if sugary bounce of Do What You Love and an especially menacing, noir cabaret-infused take of Grenade, the darkest song on her latest album. At the end of the set they channeled the Dream Syndicate and encored with an unexpectedly carefree Buddy Holly cover. Frost has been making frequent return trips here: let’s hope she makes it down again soon.

The featured artists at Sunday Salon 17 were Black Sea Hotel and they were as breathtakingly haunting and otherworldly as always. The trio of Sarah Small, Corinna Snyder and Willa Roberts have made a name for themselves in Balkan music circles for their original arrangements of large-scale Bulgarian choral works: that these Americans were invited to perform at the Bulgarian consulate pretty much speaks for itself. Small’s register-smashing range, Roberts’ wild ornamentation and Snyder’s powerful, soul-mutating wail matched against each other with eerie close harmonies, minutely gleaming microtones, rapidfire lyrical gymnastics balanced by lushly sustained passages. When Roberts announced that one of their songs had been featured in a horror film, that came as no surprise. They took care to explain the songs’ topics, from the idea of shoes as ghetto bling among the peasantry, to strange, shapeshifing, lethal dragon-men, to the town of Zborinka which apparently drew all the guys in centuries past since it was rumored you could always get a girl there. The more things change, etc. The trio closed with a new song which included a verse translated to English, and a brand-new arrangement with slinky polyrhythms and interwoven harmonies so tight they could have been a string section. Their debut album from a couple of years back is amazing, and they’re working on a follow-up. Canadian gothic songstress Lorraine Leckie – who’s been the most consistent star of the Sunday Salon since it debuted right after the hurricane last year – kept the lushly haunting intensity going with a stripped-down trio performance highlighted by several numbers from her most recent chamber pop album, Rudely Interrupted, a collaboration with social critic/journalist/personality Anthony Haden-Guest. And she and her band the Demons are back at Zirzamin on May 5 at 7.

The following Saturday at the National Underground, powerhouse ragtime pianist Jack Spann opened with a sizzling solo set of originals ranging from the haunting Roly-Poly Man – a chilling story of murder and karmic payback – to an unexpectedly pensive, catchy ballad written by his wife. Spann then joined lyrical rocker Walter Ego, amping up one of his bluesier numbers. Walter (to call him “Ego” just doesn’t sound right) was similarly on his game, running through a set that ranged from a morbid art-rock piano number told from the point of view of a subway motorman who’s just hit someone on the tracks, to the gorgeously, cruelly metaphorical I Am the Glass, to a couple of catchy guitar tunes that evoked influences as diverse as the Kinks, Elvis Costello and of course the Fab Four (this guy knows the Beatles like few others). The best of these – it’s hard to choose – could have been a sardonically catchy, jangly number about minimizing one’s life, to the point where the womb and points even lower on the evolutionary scale begin to look appealing. Walter Ego is at Zirzzmin after the Salon on Apr 28 at 7.

Raquel Bell headlined Sunday Salon 18 with her Mesiko bandmate, guitarist David Marshall  joining her for a characteristically uneasy, electric Neil Young-flavored tune. Bell has a history of brilliant collaborations: she co-led Norden Bombsight, an art-rock band who will be legendary someday when they’re rediscovered; lately she’s been singing and playing keys with violist Jessica Pavone in Normal Love, as well as fronting Mesiko with their dusky Americana menace. Bell has grown into an adept guitarist, playing solo on electric, shifting from distant jangly ominousness to an unexpectedly cheery, funky pop song titled Harry Partch. Then she switched to her vintage analog synth, sounding like a young Patti Smith backed by Tangerine Dream. The occasional moments where the synth went out of tune only added to the creepily carnivalesque atmospherics. Her voice lept and dove as the loops pulsed; she ended her set with a brooding, Marble Index-ish tone poem of sorts. She and Mesiko are at Zirzamin every Sunday for the remainder of April at around 10:30 PM.

The 30 Best New York Concerts of 2012

Of all the end-of-the-year lists here, this is the most fun to put together. It’s the most individual – everybody’s got a different one.  Last year’s list had 26 shows; this year’s was impossible to whittle down to less than 30. What was frustrating was looking back and realizing how many other great shows there were. Erica Smith, Rebecca Turner, Love Camp 7 and Pinataland all on the same bill at the Parkside? The club didn’t list it on their calendar. Neil Young in Central Park? Completely spaced out on that one. Pierre de Gaillande’s Georges Brassens translation project, Les Chauds Lapins and Raya Brass Band at that place in Tribeca in January? That night conflicted with Winter Jazzfest. The Brooklyn What at Littlefield, Rachelle Garniez at Barbes, Ward White and Abby Travis at Rock Shop, Spanglish Fly at SOB’s…all of those conflicted with having a life. But it was still a great year, arguably better than 2011.

Of all the multiple-act bills, the longest marathon, and arguably most exhilarating show of the year was Maqamfest on January 6 at Alwan for the Arts downtown with slinky Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat, haunting vintage Greek rembetiko oud band Maeandros, torchy Syrian chanteuse Gaida, rustic Iraqi classicists Safaafir, deviously intense Palestinian buzuq funk band Shusmo and then a crazy Middle Eastern jam with the brilliant Alwan All-Stars. Maqamfest 2013 promises to be just as good.

Rather than trying to rank the rest of these shows, they’re listed chronologically:

Walter Ego at Otto’s, 1/28/12 – the witty, brilliantly lyrical multi- instrumentalist/songwriter, minus his usual theatrical shtick, instead running through one clever, pun-infused, catchy song after another.

Eva Salina at the Ukrainian National Home, 3/31/12 – this was the debut performance of brilliant Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina Primack’s new band with Frank London on trumpet and Patrick Farrell on accordion. She swayed, lost in the music and sang her heart out in a bunch of different languages over the haunting pulse behind her.

Closing night at Lakeside Lounge, 4/30/12 with co-owner Eric Ambel’s Roscoe Trio, Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith’s band, Mary Lee Kortes, Boo Reiners from Demolition String Band, Charlene McPherson from Spanking Charlene and many others giving the legendary East Village rock venue a mighty sendoff.

Little Annie, Paul Wallfisch and David J at the Delancey, 5/7/12 – the smoky, sureallistically hilarious noir cabaret chanteuse, Botanica’s brilliant keyboardist playing three sets, and the legendary Bauhaus bassist/songwriter/playwright at the top of their brooding noir game.

Ben Von Wildenhaus at Zebulon, 5/14/12 – at one of his final shows before leaving town, the noir guitarist played solo through a loop pedal and turned the club into a set from Twin Peaks.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices at Otto’s,  6/16/12 – backed by the ferocious piano of Patrick McLellan, Tommy Hochscheid’s classic Stax/Volt guitar attack and a swinging rhythm section, the NYC noir rock legend careened through a politically-charged set of songs from his reportedly phenomenal forthcoming 2013 album.

Black Sea Hotel in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, 6/17/12 – the trio of Willa Roberts, Corinna Snyder and Sarah Small sang their own otherworldly, hypnotic a-cappella arrangements of surreal Bulgarian folk songs from across the centuries, their voices hauntingly echoing in the cavernous space of an old synagogue.

Veveritse Brass Band at Barbes, 6/28/12 – over the absolutely psychedelic, bubbly pulse of the trubas, this ten-piece Balkan jam band burned and roared and turned the club’s back room into a cauldron of menacing chromatics and minor keys.

Kotorino at Joe’s Pub, 6/29/12 – transcending a series of snafus with the sound system, the lush, artsy chamber-steampunk band evoked other countries and other centuries throughout a set that was as jaunty and fun as it was haunting.

Aaron Blount of Knife in the Water with Jack Martin from Dimestore Dance Band at Zirzamin, 7/9/12  – although the two hadn’t rehearsed, Martin evoked the ghost of Django Reinhardt against the reverb cloud swirling from Blount’s guitar amp, through a mix of moody, gloomy southwestern gothic songs.

Magges at Athens Square Park in Astoria, 7/10/12 – the Greek psychedelic rockers played a long show of spiky, often haunting songs spiced with Susan Mitchell’s soaring electric violin and Kyriakos Metaxas’ sizzling electric bouzouki – it seemed that the whole neighborhood stuck around for most of it. Too bad there wasn’t any ouzo.

Neko Case out back of the World Financial Center, 7/12/12 – the stage monitors weren’t working, which messed up opening act Charles Bradley’s set, but Case, Kelly Hogan and the rest of the band didn’t let it phase them, switching up their set list and playing a raw, intense set of noir Americana.

Niyaz at Drom, 7/22/12 – a  long, mesmerizing cd release show by the artsy Canadian-Persian dance/trance ensemble, frontwoman Azam Ali slowly and elegantly raising the energy from suspenseful to ecstatic as it went on.

Dimestore Dance Band at Zirzamin, 7/23/12 – since reviving this group, guitarist Jack Martin has become even more powerful, more offhandedly savage and intense than he was when he was leading them back in the mid-zeros when this witty yet plaintive gypsy/ragtime/jazz band was one of the finest acts in the Tonic scene. This show was a welcome return.

The Secret Trio, Ilhan Ersahin and Selda Bagcan at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/12 – the annual “Turkish Woodstock” began with short sets of haunting classical instrumentals, psychedelic jazz and then the American debut of the legendary psychedelic rock firebrand and freedom fighter whose pro-democracy activism landed her in jail at one point.

Bettye LaVette at Madison Square Park, 8/8/12 – the charismatic underground soul legend took songs from acts as diverse as George Jones, Paul McCartney and Sinead O’Connor and made them wrenchingly her own, a portrait of endless struggle followed finally by transcendence.

Bombay Rickey at Barbes, 8/11/12 – jaunty, jangly, surfy , psychedelic Bollywood rock fun, with guitar, accordion and frontwoman Kamala Sankaram’s amazing operatic vocals.

Daniel Kahn & the  Painted Bird at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/12/12 – grim, politically spot-on, lyrically brilliant klezmer-rock songwriting from the Berlin-based bandleader backed by an inspired New York pickup group.

Ulrich Ziegler at Barbes, 8/17/12 – of all the single-band shows, this was the year’s most intense, over an hour of eerie. reverb-driven noir cinematic instrumentals from genius guitarist Stephen Ulrich and his inspired colleague Itamar Ziegler, celebrating the release of the album rated best of 2012 here.

The Byzan-Tones at Zebulon, 8/22/12 – the recently resurrected Greek psychedelic surf rockers traded in the electric oud for Steve Antonakos’ lead guitar, and the result sent the haunting, Middle Eastern-fueled energy through the roof.

J O’Brien and Beninghove’s Hangmen at Zirzamin, 9/10/12 – a fascinatingly lyrical, characteristically witty set, solo on twelve-string guitar, by the former Dog Show frontman followed by New York’s best noir soundtrack jazz band at their most intense and psychedelic.

The Strawbs at B.B. King’s, 9/11/12 – it’s amazing how almost 45 years after the psychedelic/Britfolk/art-rock band began, they still sound strong, their lyrical anthems still resonant even in a stripped-down acoustic trio setting.

Sam Llanas at Zirzamin, 9/11/12 – rushing downtown to catch a solo show by the former BoDeans frontman paid off with a riveting, haunting set of brooding, austerely nocturnal songs, especially when J O’Brien joined him on bass.

Sex Mob at the World Financial Center, 9/27/12 – the downtown jazz legends got the atrium echoing with a hypnotic, absolutely menacing set of classic Nino Rota film themes – and they didn’t even play the Godfather.

Julia Haltigan at 11th St. Bar, 10/2/12 – the eclectic southwestern gothic/Americana/soul siren and songwriter at the top of her torchy, sultry, intense game, backed by a brilliant, jazzy band.

M Shanghai String Band‘s cd release show at the Jalopy, 10/5/12 – an hour of cameos from too many New York Americana luminaries to name, followed by two long sets from the massive oldschool string band, moving energetically from bluegrass, to Appalachian, to sea chanteys, gypsy sounds and Britfolk, sometimes fiery and intense, sometimes hilarious.

Theo Bleckmann backed by ACME, crooning Phil Kline song cycles at BAM, 10/25/12 – this was the premiere of Kline’s lushly enveloping chamber-rock arrangements of his acerbically hilarious Rumsfeld Songs, his eclectic Vietnam-themed Zippo Songs and his brand-new, luridly haunting new Sinatra-inspired cycle, Out Cold.

The Arturo O’Farrill Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra at Symphony Space, 11/2/12 – in the wake of the hurricane, O’Farrill decided to put on a couple of free concerts to lift peoples’ spirits. This was the first and better of the two nights, the brilliant latin big band pianist joined by special guests including Anat Cohen, Sex Mob’s Steven Bernstein, Rafi Malkiel and Larry Harlow, playing long, broodingly intense, towering themes, many of them based on classic Jewish melodies.

Katie Elevitch at Zirzamin, 12/16/12  – goes to show that you can’t really count the year’s best concerts until the year’s almost over. Backed by her fantastic four-piece band, the haunting, intense rock siren improvised lyrics, roared, whispered and seduced the crowd in the plush space with her voice and her achingly soul-inspired songwriting.

Otherworldly Cutting-Edge Balkan Beauty from Black Sea Hotel

Yesterday evening’s program at the Bang on a Can Marathon was enticing, but it couldn’t have been any more cutting-edge than Brooklyn Balkan a-cappella trio Black Sea Hotel’s performance at a reverb-rich synagogue in Ditmas Park. Willa Roberts, Corinna Snyder and Sarah Small sometimes take largescale arrangements of Bulgarian folk music and strip them down to just three voices; other times they do their own inventive arrangements of traditional melodies. They sing microtonally, in close harmony, an effect which can be hypnotic, utterly chilling, or both. When they’re in the western scale, it’s invariably in a moody minor key. Rhythmically, they weave an intricate counterpoint between the three voices, sometimes with a dizzying series of handoffs, exchanging low, sustained lines with soaring, high ornamentation and the occasional guttural wail, trill or unleashed whoop. But they don’t overuse those devices: most of their songs tend to be plaintive and haunting.

This time out, they sang unexpectedly upbeat, brisk versions of material from their brilliant 2007 debut album (in those days, they were a quartet) along with some brand-new repertoire which turned out to be even more adventurous. They even left the Bulgarian behind and sang a couple of verses in English in one characteristically irony-drenched number, about a bride whose popularity turns out to be a mixed blessing: the wedding party is successful to the point where she has to go hungry in order for all the guests to get fed. Back when the now-unknown parade of songwriters came up with these old folk tunes, life was hard, and both the lyrical and musical content reflect that. The most haunting song of the night described a nightmare where the girl turns into a bird and eventually flies head on into a tree, killing her along with her bird boyfriend: that one ran up and down with a brooding chromatic Middle Eastern feel. But a particularly slow, resonant, poignant-sounding number was actually about the joy of getting a new pair of shoes (centuries go by but some things never change). Snyder joked that back in the day this was probably written, it was a big deal to have something other than a bundle of straw to wrap around your feet and there was more than a grain of truth in that. Other topics included having to ward off a deadly mythical bird-man and all sorts of drama having to do with weddings (again, some things just don’t change).

The trio’s voices are very similar. They all have spectacular range and seemingly just as much power in the low registers as when they go way, way up. There’s an inevitable element of surprise in the tricky tempos of what they sing, but they didn’t miss a beat (although they did have to start one over because it was too high – sometimes singers have to deal with the same kind of issues guitarists have when they capo up). Their newest song was a brand-new arrangement with a more modernist, hypnotic indie classical ambience, its resonance enhanced by the venue’s richly echoey acoustics. Their most energetic one boisterously and menacingly illustrated a couple of younger women giving their thirtysomething unmarried friend a hard time about it, “na na na NA na” raised to a power. The simplest was a catchy, sad waltz; the most ornate had all three taking turns switching off in a split second between low ambience and then embellishing the melody. The most stunning leap of the night belonged to Snyder; Roberts got to relish her way through the most intricately nuanced, stylized series of melismas while Small’s unearthly wail hovered intensely overhead. There’s both a matter-of-factness and a casualness in how they deliver these songs, as if they take their magic for granted. Watch this space for upcoming shows and check out their songs at the Free Music Archive.