New York Music Daily

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Tag: dean sharenow

Big Lazy: 2016’s Ultimate Halloween Band

What better way to kick off Halloween month, 2016 than with the world’s slinkiest, most shadowy instrumental trio, Big Lazy? They play both kinds of Halloween music, the trick-or-treat stuff as well as the sinister. In all seriousness, they’re a lot closer to the latter than the former. Guitarist/founder Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion return to their monthly first-Friday-of-the-month, 10 PM residency this coming Friday, Oct 7 at Barbes.

It’s a fair guess that the people who were running Punk Magazine back in 1976 caught the Ramones at CB’s more than a few times that summer. And at least some of the hippies at the Village Voice back in the 60s might well have seen Phil Ochs at Folk City more than once. If you buy the premise that this blog is to New York what, say, Punk Magazine was to this city forty years ago – or what the Voice was a decade before then – it makes sense that New York Music Daily would be in the house for several Big Lazy Barbes shows in 2016. The funnest one might have been the most recent and cleverly improvisational, where Lion was just plain having a ball with all sorts of counterintuitive rhythms and syncopation, and Michael Bates – who shares a jazz pedigree with Hall – took over on the four-string. Another fun set was a couple of months back when Kill Henry Sugar‘s Dean Sharenow, a frequent Ulrich film score collaborator, sat in on drums, bringing his signature snare sound along with a dry wit to match the bandleader’s unparalleled, bleak sense of humor.

But the year’s best Big Lazy show – this blog has caught pretty much all of them – wasn’t at Barbes. It was at the Lively, a refreshingly laid-back basement bar located in the Meatpacking District, of all places. That joint had nice people working there, cheap drinks (at least by the standards of that neighborhood), a real stage in the back and a fantastic PA system. Sadly, this year’s strongest contender for “best Manhattan venue” barely lasted a couple of months.

But what a show Big Lazy played there. They ripped through Princess Nicotine, a machinegunning, barely three-minute minor-key ghoulabilly sprint that Ulrich wrote as a soundtrack piece to an obscure early 20s short film of the same name. The creepiest number of the night was Skinless Boneless, a slowly swaying, macabre tableau adrift in oceans of guitar reverb and tremoloing tritones. They didn’t do their serial killer strut version of Piazzolla’s Pulsacion No. 5, or their uber-noir cover of Thelonious Monk’s Epistrophy, both of which they aired out at Barbes this past summer, but they did do the early Beatles hit Girl, reinventing it as a dirge in the same vein as their deadpan take of Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me. And they did some new stuff, including one serpentine mini-epic that swung from neo-Nino Rota Fellini score, to more rocking and psychedelic, to sheer terror in places. As at Barbes, there were couples up front, dancing. Which is what noir is all about, anyway: grabbing what you can while the shadows close in.

Kill Henry Sugar Bring Their Subtly Amusing, Erudite Folk Noir and Americana Back to Barbes

For the last few months, smartly lyrical Americana rock duo Kill Henry Sugar – guitar and banjo luminary Erik Della Penna and his similarly nuanced, artful drummer bandmate Dean Sharenow – have held down a monthly 8 PM Friday residency at Barbes. They’re back this Friday, May 6 at 8, followed by Big Lazy, a band you presumably know about if you spend any time at all at this blog  – and which Sharenow has drummed for in a pinch. If you’ve just stumbled on this page, reverb guitar, noir cinematics and crime jazz are their thing. Are they this blog’s favorite band? Along with Beninghove’s Hangmen and Karla Rose & the Thorns, maybe.

Kill Henry Sugar’s Barbes show last month was a lot of fun…and despite the early hour in Park Slope, they packed the place. Sharenow laid down a misterioso swing groove with his brushes as Della Penna launched into a moody, minor-key broodingly pensive narrative, like a tropically-tinged Tom Waits. Della Penna contemplated the ongoing brain drain from New York in the wryly swaying Tex-Mex inflected number after that: the girl at the center of the center of the story “can’t stand the smell of the bourgeoisie” and ends up considering nursing school in Santa Fe. They did another couple of funny ones after that, the jazzily shuffling, indelibly urban Neighbors, and then the tongue-in-cheek Air Conditioned Nightmare, propelled by Sharenow’s jaunty staccato thump with his brushes on the snare.

“Now I have the bomb, but it won’t fall on you,” Della Penna teased over his signature spare, lingering chordlets on Babylon, a snarky post-Cold War narrative, joined by tuba maestro Marcus Rojas, who added unexpectedly plaintive upper-register work. Della Penna warned the crowd that they’d never shared a stage before, but the chemistry was seamless. And this was a big deal: while they’ve played on and off with low-register instruments, they went bassless long before the White Stripes.

As expected, the best song of the night was a chilly, offhandedly murderous version of Mussolini, a cruelly nonchalant illustration of what goes around coming around with a vengeance over Sharenow’s resolute stomp. Rojas gave a surrealistically blippy intro to the doomed desert rock tune after that. They took things down with a wistfully pastoral, waltzing early 1900s reminiscence after that, shades of Matt Keating, then picked things up with a Stonesy drive and subtle hints of gospel. They’re likely to bring all these flavors and more – and who knows, maybe the tuba – to Barbes this Friday.

Bluesmistress Mamie Minch Joins a First-Class Oldtime Americana Bill on the 24th

There’s a really fun show coming up on March 24 in the quaint old 19th century upstairs auditorium at Greenwich House Music School at 46 Barrow St. in the West Village, when a bunch of familiar faces from the Jalopy’s oldtimey Americana scene take over the space. Check out the lineup that Eli Smith of the Down Hill Strugglers put together: his Struggler bandmate John Cohen; badass resonator guitarist and bluesmama Mamie Minch; charmingly retro, low-key front-porch songwriter Joanna Sternberg; dark Americana songwriter and Jalopy mainstay Feral Foster; bluesman Wyndham Baird, and others. Cover is $15 and includes open bar. And you don’t have to go all the way to Red Hook to see all this. Not that the Jalopy isn’t always a treat just to be at, let alone see a show at, but as messed up as the trains have been this past week, this makes things infinitely easier.

Minch is the star of this show. She played a set at Barbes a week ago Friday that was funny, and poignant, and full of razorwire repartee between her and Kill Henry Sugar drummer Dean Sharenow. Minch writes her own songs, springboarding from fingerpicked blues and folk styles that go back to the 20s and before, but she’s also a fierce advocate for the unsung women of the blues, mostly African-Americans from that era. Midway through the set, she and Sharenow pondered the question of changing lyrics if someone of the “original gender,” as she put it, sings a song written for a man’s voice (she’d just done a bristling, swinging, defiantly existentialist cover of Hank Williams’ Ramblin’ Man). That led into a brief discussion of how misogyny insinuates itself into language itself. “You notice how the word ‘woman’ has ‘man’ in it?” she needled him.

Sharenow wasn’t phased, but also didn’t offer anything to improve on that. “Maybe we can change the spelling, you know, like w-o-m-y-n or something,” Minch offered.

Sharenow cringed. “No!” he insisted. “How about…O.G.?”

“I like that,” Minch grinned back.

There’s nothing more original or gangsta than the blues, and there was plenty of that in this set. As she did on her debut album, she sang Pallet on Your Floor not as a come-on, like so many other would-be blues singers do, but as a haunting, plaintive plea, from the perspective of a low-rent hooker. Sharenow gave the song a jaunty shuffle groove with his brushes, throwing in the occasional unpredictable snare hit or swipe at the cymbals, especially when Minch would throw a mean upstroke from her guitar his way.

Minch asked Sharenow if he’d sing harmonies on Blues, Stay Away from Me, an old Delmore Brothers tune. “You want me to take the low one?” he asked her.

Minch laughed and turned to the crowd. “You don’t always do that when you sing with an alto!” But she’s been airing out more of her upper register lately, really stretching her voice to places she’s never gone before.

The duo took a turn in a funkier direction with a biting, sultry new one, looking back to the funny food metaphors of oldschool hokum blues but also the defiance of that era’s blueswomen. Minch’s churning guitar, blending with Sharenow’s rolling and tumbling attack, took her big audience hit Razorburn Blues – title track to her cult favorite 2008 debut album – into Mississippi hill country Then they did a slow, sad number about a guy who likes stuff like Mad Dog wine more than he ought to, then a whiplash new hill country song, like R.L. Burnside gone acoustic. And that was just the first set. Whatever much time she gets at the Greenwich House gig will be worth the cover. That, and the booze.

Bluesmistress Mamie Minch Plays a Killer Barbes Show, Then Heads to City Winery

Saturday night at Barbes, resonator guitarist and Americana music maven Mamie Minch played just about every kind of blues except for the cheesy Eric Clapton kind. The co-proprietress of one of the world’s few woman-owned-and-operated instrument repair shops, Brooklyn Lutherie, embodies the fearlessness and charisma of her influences, notably Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie. Minch played a couple of their songs, including an absolutely chilling new arrangement of Smith’s Sing Sing Blues, a bitter courtroom drama that resonates just as much today as it must have eighty years ago. Running a line into the PA from her 1937 National steel guitar for otherworldly resonance and extra overtones, she was joined on drums by Kill Henry Sugar’s Dean Sharenow. The two bantered back and forth, an endless exchange of one-liners that was just about as entertaining as the music: they make a good team. And that extended to the music as well, as the two intertwined harmonies on several numbers.

And while most of the Jalopy-centric acoustic roots scene play covers and traditional material, Minch also writes her own songs, matching oldtime vernacular and lyrical wit to melodies that push beyond the blues scale into edgy acoustic rock territory. She romped restlessly through Razorburn Blues (the title track to her most recent album), a rapidfire litany of ridiculous things women have to endure. A little later she joined voices with Sharenow for a pillowy version of Border Radio, her Carter Family tribute which she had the good fortune to record on wax cylinder a couple of years ago. And she encored with Al Duvall‘s gut-bustingly funny, pun-fueled Kentucky Mermaid, a tale of a woman who has to be especially careful: since she’s a fishwife, she might get battered.

The covers were just as diverse, and gave Minch a chance to get frisky with her fingers through styles from the Mississippi hills, to the delta, to Memphis and points further north. She took her time through the creepy chromatics of Memphis Slim’s ghoulish Back to Mother Earth, then threw off plenty of sparks with a take of R.L. Burnside’s Old Black Mattie. And she took the Stones’ Prodigal Son back to its roots as an anxious number originally penned by Rev. Robert Watkins many years before the Glimmer Twins appropriated it. Between songs, she hummed as she retuned: who needs a digital tuner when all you have to do is sing the pitch?

Minch plays Jan 4 at City Winery at 8 PM on a guitar-rich twinbill with ex-Dylan lead player and fellow Americana purist Larry Campbell, who’s doing a duo show with singer/guitarist Teresa Williams afterward at around 9. General admission is $20 for standing room, more if you want a table

Revisiting a Great Doublebill

As regular visitors here know, this blog’s original and pretty much single focus was live music. Then the publicists, and the artists themselves, got out their catapults and started flinging albums over the moat and the parapets and the siege was underway. It hasn’t ended yet, and it won’t anytime soon. But in the spirit of being different from the rest of the blogosphere and the media – let’s not even get into the social media babble-on – it’s time, once again, to do some catching up on what some usual suspects who make New York such a hotbed of live music, even in this era of death by gentrification, have been up to.

A few weeks back at the Gutter bowling alley in Williamsburg, it was a trip to see Kill Henry Sugar with a bass player. As frontman/guitarist Erik Della Penna told the crowd, it had been ten years since the sardonic Americana-tinged rockers had one. And the new guy didn’t just play roots, he did lots of fluid, melodic runs and even a couple of solos way up the fretboard. All this freed Della Penna to cut loose more than he usually does when it’s just him and drummer Dean Sharenow. As usual, the songs were catchy, Della Penna’s vocals were unselfconsciously soulful and imbued with his signature dry wit. These guys have been around since the 90s; much as they beat the White Stripes to the guitar-and-drums thing, it was good to see them reinvigorated by some welcome low end.

The world’s creeepiest cinematic instrumental band, Big Lazy regrouped earlier this year, with a new rhythm section of Pink Noise‘s Yuval Lion on drums and the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s principal bassist Andrew Hall. From the perspective of someone who first saw Big Lazy back in the 90s and was blown away – when they were known as Lazy Boy and popping up in detective show soundtracks all over the cable channels – they’ve never sounded better. Jarring as the segue with Kill Henry Sugar was, the two bands made a great doubleibll. With his reverb turned up to the usual eleven, guitarist/bandleader Steve Ulrich led the trio through the lickety-split, marauding noir rockabilly of Princess Nicotine and Just Plain Scared, Lion hitting all over his hardware, Ulrich’s prickly staccato attack like a sharpshooter with a machine gun. Their rhythm section has never been more purposeful or emphatic, and Ulrich’s relentless chromatics were as macabre as always. Hall bowed his bass to max out the murky menace of the classic Theme from Headtrader to open the night; a little later, Lion kept the ba-BUMP shuffle of a new song going on the rims and cymbal heads and anything else he could find to create an incisive ping or click.

Most of the set was new material. Ulrich’s warped, quavery lapsteel bent a bolero out of shape with a mushroomy surrealism, followed by a warmly bucolic Bill Frisell-ish theme, moving methodically through apprehensive echoes to unexpectedly straight-ahead, distorted, anthemic rock. Spare, desolate riffs turned savage in a split second, Ulrich furiously tremolo-picking the strings, Dick Dale style. Bob Dylan keyboardist Mick Rossi made a cameo on harmonium, adding a surreal suspense on one of the new numbers. A little later, they brought up slide trumpeter and Sexmob mainman Steven Bernstein to wail and shimmy with his usual wry humor on a long, blackly amusing version of Gone, from the band’s third album, then a funky new number in 5/4 time with a droll fake fanfare and quotes from the Mission Impossible theme, and a long, shapeshifting Nino Rota movie mini-suite. They finally closed with a a haphazardly evil version of Uneasy Street, a concert favorite that could have been a trainwreck, as Bernstein built an unexpectedly bright break in the relentless cumulo-nimbus atmospherics, but wasn’t – Ulrich decided to stay in the sunlight a little longer before bringing it all back into the abyss. The band is scheduled to spend some time in the studio this summer, which couldn’t be better news from a group who for years were arguably the best band in New York.

Ulrich Ziegler: Album of the Year

Stephen Ulrich is arguably the preeminent noir guitarist of our time. With his signature reverberating blend of twang, skronk and occasional savagery, his playing is darker and more intensely focused than Marc Ribot, more urban than Bill Frisell. For several years Ulrich led the chilling noir instrumental trio Big Lazy; these days he writes big-budget soundtracks for film and tv. He also has a new project, simply called Ulrich Ziegler, with fellow reverb guitarslinger Itamar Ziegler from Pink Noise. Their self-titled debut album is the noir album of the year, maybe the decade – a menacing mix of echoey guitars, slinky beats and haunting cinematic themes. About half the tracks are streaming at the band’s Reverbnation site.

The two guitarists play with such a singlemindedly commitment to maintaining the mood that it’s hard to distinguish between the two: those who’ve seen them live might be able to differentiate between Ziegler’s terse, clenched-teeth precision and Ulrich’s lapses into more slashing, unhinged phrasing. And as absolutely macabre as much as this music is, it’s also playful, imbued with plenty of gallows humor and lively jousting between the musicians. Ulrich’s old Big Lazy pal, Balkan Beat Box’s Tamir Muskat seems to be the guy rumbling behind the drums on most of the faster numbers, while Kill Henry Sugar’s Dean Sharenow holds down the backbeat on the midtempo ones; Wave Sleep Wave’s Yuval Lion is in there somewhere too. Peter Hess, also of Balkan Beat Box, plays a small arsenal of reeds along with Philip Glass collaborator Mick Rossi on keyboards.

The bucolic, Frisell-ish opening track, Since Cincinnati offers very little hint of the menace that’s coming down the pike. A slowly shuffling blue-sky theme, Ulrich’s lapsteel soars and sways, Rossi’s organ swirls as a southwestern gothic theme begins to appear on the distance. Likewise, Twice Town is Lynchian to the core, a Jimmy Webb-style country-pop melody somewhat ironically pinned by undercurrent of unease. A little flailing on the guitar strings, more lapsteel far on the horizon and then a quietly menacing pulse takes it out: a mini-movie for the ears.

Swords and Sandals is where the album really starts to get creepy, a chromatically-spiked, apprehensively tiptoeing bolero that builds tension to the breaking point. A Cuban string quartet eventually joins them and adds lushness – although this album was recorded in bits and pieces around the world, you’d never know it.

Another real creeper is Hermanos Brothers, a funky lowrider serial killer theme. The guitars go from brutal and skronky to a wide-open, warm tremolo, Ulrich eventually opening up the chorus to a shimmery lunar eclipse sostenuto. Tickled To Death sounds like a doublespeed remake of the jaunty Big Lazy latin noir classic Curb Urchin, Ziegler’s outrageously nimble, lickety-split bass pushing Ulrich into dizzying frenzies of tremolo-picking. The layers of guitar grow to the point where it’s literally impossible to tell who’s playing what.

The two best, and darkest tracks here might be the waltzes. His Story is sort of a theme for the haunted room at the Plaza hotel where the ballet dancer went out on the ledge and never came back. A gleefully macabre marionette theme, it sets evil upper-register guitar clusters over pinpoint rhythm, Hess’ baritone sax moving it out of the shadows just enough to raise the horror factor a tinge. Ita Lia is more moody and morose, with hints of Belgian musette and Django Reinhardt and ghostly high organ flourishes that offer something approximating comic relief but never quite go there.

Pieces, a murky, morbid one-chord jam, builds to a shivery baritone sax solo that bass saxophonist Colin Stetson (from Tom Waits’ band) bludgeons off the page. Pipe Dream, an opiated lullaby shifting in and out of rhythmic focus, sounds like the Beatles’ And I Love Her done as a jazz ballad. The most sardonic track here is the wryly bouncy Fornever, while Space Enthusiast, an outer space dirge of sorts, wouldn’t be out of place on a recent Church album.

They go deep into spaghetti western shadows with Cross My Heart, Ulrich’s menace growing as the band follows him from hypnotic to lush, then down to a dead rodeo clown interlude of sorts (that’s just one possible image out of many that this music evokes: give it a listen and come up with your own). The album ends with a casually expert twin-guitar cover of Caravan as laid-back as the Ventures’ version was frantic, Ulrich’s fuzzbox attack building from Ziegler’s offhand cynicism. After a certain point, to try to rank one classic album over another becomes meaningless. Is Mingus Mingus Mingus better than Angelo Badalamenti’s first Twin Peaks soundtrack? Is Miles Davis’ score to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) better than this album? Not really. They’re all classic. One thing for certain is that if this blog is still lurking in the shadows when they get really dark at the end of the year, you will see this album somewhere around the top of the best albums of 2012 list.