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Powerful Singers and an Iconic Band Celebrate Global Yiddish Music in Central Park

What’s the likelihood of seeing the Klezmatics not only slink, and barrel, and slowly sway through a gorgeous and often haunting blend of minor keys and punk-klezmer romps…but also  getting to see them back two of New York’s most powerful singers? It happened Wednesday night at Central Park Summerstage, where cantors Chaim David Berson and Yanky Lemmer got to take tantalizingly short turns on the mic in front of the band, along with other entertainment on a night celebrating Yiddish music from around the world.

There was a time when being a cantor was just as competitive as, say, African-American gospel music, or a jazz cutting contest. The cantor was the treasure of the temple, the guy you’d send on tour to represent you and thrill the people with his powerful pipes. That tradition has sadly fallen into disrepair in recent years, but it is alive and well on the Upper West Side, at the Jewish Center on 86th St. and also the Lincoln Square Synagogue, where Berson and Lemmer, respectively, hold court.

Berson has a vibrato wide enough to drive a truck through, with Little Jimmy Scott nuance but also Johnny Cash intensity, if you buy those references. He also turned out to be a fluent guitarist as well, adding poignant, purposeful jangle to one of the set’s early numbers. Lemmer’s baritone has a tinge of grit and a similarly steely resonance, opera without the buffo.

He immediately made an impact, sending a shout-out to the 99-percenters in the crowd (which seemed to be pretty much everybody) with a stern march through We’ve Got to Make a Living, an anthem for solidarity in hard times. Then he led the band through an increasingly dynamic, lickety-split, sardonically funny medley of drinking songs. “Drinking songs?” Lemmer deadpanned, “Jews don’t drink. We’re too busy suffering.”

But a little l’chaim never hurt anybody – they did that one, too toward the end of the evening. Berson opened his own set with an impassioned, broodingly rapturous, melismatic improvisation while the band built an ominous wash of sustain behind him. From there, he worked the corners for every bit of chromatic mystery in a mix of numbers that looked forward to messianic redemption and sought worldly solace, either through transcendence or libations.

The Klezmatics finally got a set of their own and reveled in it with the energy of a group, well, thirty years younger. The original rebels of the 80s klezmer revival, they celebrated all things treyf, sexually and foodwise and otherwise in the high-voltage, Romanian-tinged dance numbers, and kept an eye on history with the slower ones. There’s no small irony in that the high point of the evening might have been the slow, subdued dirge The Yoke, a Yiddish translation of a Catalan protest song from the 1960s.

Frontman Lorin Sklamberg played that one on piano rather than his usual accordion, like he did much of the rest of the material, and showed off similar chops: at one point, he hit an unexpectedly feral barrelhouse groove. Likewise, trumpeter Frank London spent much of the night behind an electric piano, constantly tweaking it to get the textures right when he wasn’t hitting ecstatic heights or firing off hundred-yard spirals on his horn. Bassist Paul Morrissett took a turn on tsimbl, the Ukrainian Jewish ancestor of the cimbalom, while violinist Deborah Strauss switched between icepick precision and stark, rustic, otherworldly sustain over Richie Barshay’s playful, jazz-inflected drums. When he wasn’t reaching the rafters on alto sax, Matt Darriau was adding ethereal flute textures or channeling grim Balkan tonalities on clarinet. 

As an encore, Daniel Kahn – star of the upcoming immigration-themed musical Amerike – came up to deliver a Yiddish version of Leonard Cohen song whose expiration date passed a long time, joined by the rest of the night’s performers, among them tongue-in-cheek a-cappella unit the Maccabeats. But then everybody segued into a rapidfire dance number every bit as fun as Man in a Hat, the title track from the Klezmatics’ cult classic 1995 Jews with Horns album, a wry salute to their home turf: “I’m a man in a hat, a Manhattan man,” Sklamberg reaffirmed.

The next Central Park Summerstage event of note starts at 5 PM on June 24, a night of Portuguese music with newschool fado star Sofia Ribeiro and assaultive goth/Stooges punk duo Dead Combo with special guest guitarslinger Marc Ribot. Get there early if you’re going. 

An Intimate Brooklyn Show by the Hilarious and Haunting Honor Finnegan

Singer/ukulele player Honor Finnegan self-effacingly calls herself “the Susan Boyle of quirky indie folk, only hotter.” Vast understatement on both counts. Finnegan has a stiletto sense of humor, can’t resist a devious pun or double entendre and sings in a dramatic yet nuanced soprano, drawing on a theatrical background that dates back to her childhood. The songs on her latest album Roses and Victory – streaming at Bandcamp – span from jaunty swing, to country, jazz and Celtic-tinged balladry. She’s playing this Friday, March 11 at 8 PM at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture at 53 Prospect Park West. Cover is $10; take any train to Grand Army Plaza.

The album opens with an irresistibly coy Hawaiian swing number, Fortune Cookie, Finnegan’s voice rising to a gale-force cabaret delivery as her ravenous, Chinese food-fortified narrator weighs the possible promise of predicting the future:

I don’t have a predilection
For your crunchy sweet confection
I don’t want to learn Chinese
Lucky numbers only bore me…
I know there’s no Prince Charmin’
But I know there’s no harm in
Fortune cookie…

Paul Silverman’s accordion soars throughout the wryly galloping, Celtic-tinged The Librarian, possibly the only song ever written that mention a ISBN:

The Book of Love is still on hold
I searched in every single stack
Maybe someone’s forgot to bring it back

Aviv Roth’s leaping dobro and electric guitar team up with Pete Donovan’s bass and Eric Puente’s drums in Movie Star, a rapidfire hillbilly boogie that brings to mind Amy Rigby at her most hyper. By contrast, Swimming opens on a dead body floating in the river, a stark Irish ballad infused with broodingly resonant cello. Finnegan may be best known for her irrepressible wit, but her strongest material may be the dark stuff and this is a prime example.

Roth takes centerstage on dobro again on Take Me, a soaring, vintage C&W shuffle. Then Finnegan pulls out all the stops for In Bed. Conflating sex and religion is as old as punk rock, but this mighty gospel anthem takes it to the next level, Finnegan joining voices with the choir of Catherine Miles, Carolann Solebello and Karyn Oliver to bring the song completely over the top. The song that’s going to make everybody’s playlist is I Should Stop Having Sex with You, a familiar tale about a girl who can’t stay way from Mr. Wrong, set to bouncy Bacharach bossa-pop.

The witchy, vengeful folk ballad Stark as Stone sounds like a classic from centuries ago. Finnegan puts her own dynamic stamp on a cover of the moody jazz ballad When Sunny Gets Blue that stands up alongside the iconic Jeanne Lee version, no small achievement. The album winds up with the catchy, upbeat folk-pop number Wishing Flower. Can you think of another artist who’s this eclectic, haunting and hilarious, all at the same time?

Friday Night Hurricane Party at Barbes

Friday night was a hurricane party. Everybody in town was out because by Saturday noon they’d be more or less housebound, since the subway was shutting down in anticipation of what reasonably-minded New Yorkers expected – a big rainstorm, nothing this city hasn’t seen before or won’t see again. It wasn’t exactly 1821 or 1938, the two most recent years that hurricanes hit the city. In a fortuitous if predictable stroke of fate, New York’s best music venue, Barbes, had a characteristically excellent triplebill.

Mamie Minch opened, a late addition to the bill. It would have been nice to have seen the eclectically oldtimey Roulette Sisters’ charismatic frontwoman/guitarist – she always puts on a good show. Greta Gertler was next. This time out the unpredictable pianist and art-rock songwriter had an acoustic rhythm section and a backup singer who doubled on glockenspiel when she wasn’t artfully switching between high and low harmonies. The set was a mix of greatest hits and new songs from her lush chamber-pop project the Universal Thump. She did the poignant, regretful 6/8 ballad Damien, the massive top 40 hit that should have been, early on. Anticipating a little rain, she segued from the aptly pensive Wrist Slasher into the bustling Bergen Street, a vivid Brooklyn thunderstorm scenario from her ragtime-flavored 2008 album Edible Restaurant album. The new songs included a gently majestic ballad (Gertler told the crowd that she was edging further and further toward “theatre music”) and a somewhat Peter Gabriel-esque Universal Thump anthem lit up by drummer Adam Gold’s hypnotically swirling cymbals and joyously thunderous, symphonic drumming.

“Party band” probably wouldn’t be the first way you might consider categorizing Piñataland. But that’s what they were. On their new album Hymns for the Dreadful Night, the chamber pop band’s rhythm section really amps it up – interestingly, this time out, drummer Bill Gerstel and bassist Ross Bonadonna kept the groove more low-key, sometimes gracefully ornate, probably just as well considering that they were playing Barbes. Violinist Deni Bonet stole the show with her fiery, gypsy and celtic-flavored lines when she wasn’t building an orchestral swirl with the guest accordionist, while bandleaders Dave Wechsler and Doug Stone joined voices vigorously with Robin Aigner (who was making it her second night in a row here).

They opened with a big-sky country waltz by Wechsler, got quiet and gospelly on the new album’s title track before a joyous version of the Irish rock tune Island of Godless Men, told from the point of view of a pre-Revolutionary War era religious zealot, Bonet bringing an especially exuberant edge to the closing reel. The gypsy-rock numbers were the high point of the show, especially the bitter, defiant Death of Silas Deane, a tribute to another Revolutionary era figure who was instrumental in generating support for his new nation, then took a dramatic and tragic fall from grace. The single most gripping moment was on the set’s weirdest song, Wechsler’s elegant country-gospel piano set against the unlikely backdrop of a Roswell incident engineered by the KGB, where the aliens are actually surgically modified Russian children. That one was told from the point of view of a real alien. They closed with another waltz, a country shuffle with another searing Bonet solo, a gypsy rocker about a 19th century anti-gentrification protestor of sorts, and the inexplicable but irresistibly catchy Border Guard, Aigner sliding and slinking through the melody Kitty Wells style.