New York Music Daily

Music for Transcending Dark Times

Tag: dream syndicate

Richly Jangly, Intricate, Smart Retro Rock Songcraft From Diane and the Gentle Men

What if the Dream Syndicate was fronted by a woman? That’s pretty damn high praise for singer Diane Gentile‘s new album White Sea, with her band the Gentle Men, streaming at Bandcamp – but a lot of the record sounds exactly like that. If imaginatively crafted, darkly bristling rock anthems with layers of guitars and keys and a distinctively downtown, oldschool New York ambience are your thing, this is your jam.

Drummer Colin Brooks opens the first track, Motorcycle, with a rolling surf riff. If the tight, dreampop-tinged downstroke pulse reminds you of recent Steve Wynn material, that makes sense since Wynn produced the song! All kinds of tasty touches here; a little creepy organ here, a surreal clang there from Wynn’s longtime Dream Syndicate sparring partner, Jason Victor, who plays lead guitar throughout the album

Track two, Perfect People is a new wave song as an older version of the DS – say, the Out of the Grey lineup – might have done it, Victor’s multitracks spiraling in both channels. It’s Gentile’s dis to shallow people in general. “Take off your makeup, wake up!” is the mantra.

The poignant, death-fixated Wicked Hours has a gorgeous web of acoustic guitars and keening, moody Victor slide work. The band rise from an elegant, spare waltz to a mighty sweep in the album’s similarly brooding title track.

Little Things could be an especially gritty early Blondie number. Gentile reaches for a towering angst in the backbear-driven, Orbisonian breakup anthem Just Pretend, then goes back to new wave with Boyfriend.

She mashes up catchy, vamping post-Velvets rock with a swirling, Lynchian anthemc sensibility in Joe: it’s a good guess that was the real name of the guy who didn’t work out. The album’s most chillingly relevant song is Memories, pushed along by bassist Matt Basile’s trebly growl with the rest of the band raging behind him. “And there’s not enough to pay the rent, the cost of living makes no sense, the dream I dream keeps me awake at night,” Gentile wails.

She closes the record counteirntuitively with a spare piano elegy, Second Hand Heart. On one hand, it’s always fun to discover music this smartly crafted. On the other, this kind of music is very imperiled at the moment. Gentile’s usual gig was booking one of the few remaining New York rock venues, Bowery Electric. Even with that kind of resume, survival is giong to be a struggle for everyone in the nightlife industry. A moratorium on evictions til just the middle of June isn’t realistic: we need rent amnesty in New York for the entirety of the coronavirus crisis.

The Dream Syndicate’s Most Epic, Psychedelic Masterpiece: A New Double Vinyl Record

The Dream Syndicate distinguish themselves from the legions of jambands out there with the sheer intensity and focus of the guitar duels between bandleader Steve Wynn and lead player Jason Victor – and their songs’ carefully crafted narratives. One of the band’s signature moves is to take Wynn’s tightly wound three-and-a-half-minute riff-rock gems and thrash the hell out of them.

Their new double viinyl album, The Universe Inside – streaming at Bandcamp – takes a turn in a radically different direction. It’s a suite, by far the band’s most psychedelic record: history may judge this as the fullest realization of the vision Wynn introduced on the band’s influential debut, The Days of Wine and Roses. There are element of jazz, art-rock and latin music here, but ultimately this is its own animal.

Bassist Mark Walton more or less loops a catchy, dry, trebly riff as Wynn and Victor triangulate in a spare exchange with guest Stephen McCarthy’s lingering guitar-sitar to open the album’s twenty-minute first track, The Regulator. Shards of reverb and sputters of sparks from the amps punctuate those succinct phrases amid the swirl and pulse: Chris Cacavas’ echoey electric piano becomes the icing on this space cake. With drummer Dennis Duck and percussionist Johnny Hott’s supple shuffle groove, Carlos Santana’s late 60s jams come to mind, but also Isaac Hayes’ sprawling psychedelic soul vamps – and Meddle-era Pink Floyd, and Angelo Badalamenti’s David Lynch film themes.

There’s a spoken-word vocal that concerns soothing the soul and blown fuses, both things this band know something about. Marcus Tenney’s one-man horn section wafts through the mix – some sax, some trumpet, sometimes both, frequently evoking Sonny Rollins’ work on the Stones’ Waiting on a Friend. It ends as you would expect it

The groove expands, the spacerock becoming more drifty in the second track, The Longing. This tragedy occurred “Like it happened moments ago, distant across the chasm…the harder you try to fix it, eliminate, deep-six it, all that remains is the longing,” Wynn sings, pushing against the top of his register.

The three six-string guys – that’s McCarthy on six-string bass here – trade off warmly major-key Ticket to Ride phrases as Apropos Of Nothing gets underway. It’s a classic, cynical, allusively grim Wynn narrative

What were you expecting
What did you become
Apropos of nothing
Chain reaction before the fall

And just when the band have lulled you into an alterred state, they hit a crunchy, roaring What Goes On drive.

The sardonic jousting that introduces the instrumental Dusting Off the Rust – a line from The Regulator – is one of the album’s funniest moments. This one’s a gritty slinker, a trippy dichotomy of punchy riffs and swirling cascades in the same vein as the spidery Topanga Canyon Freaks, from Wynn’s iconic 2001 Here Come the Miracles album.

The record’s final cut, The Slowest Rendition rises from a web of aching bent-note cries, to a pummeling drive and then a brooding, summery haze. Elegantly animated interplay aside, it’s one of Wynn’s most haunting, death-fixated songs. “Chaos flickers in the night” on “this silent, darkening, empty beach,” his disembodied narrator bracing for what comes next as the sax winds down. It’s an apt ending from the guy who wrote John Coltrane Stereo Blues. If there’s still a reason, or a means, for music blogs to exist at the end of 2020 – let’s hope there are – you will see this high on the annual best album of the year list here

The 50 Best Albums of 2019

This is a playlist, plus one last record at the very end that can’t be heard anywhere online but might be the best of all of them. You can listen to everything else here, almost all of it ad-free: it couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

Lots of triage was involved. A very ambitious listener with a dayjob that allows for multitasking can hear maybe eight or nine hundred new albums a year, all the way through. An insanely dedicated blogger can hear bits and pieces of maybe five thousand more. That’s about the limit of what one human can do. You may see a few stragglers here which were technically 2018 releases but got overlooked that year. If your favorite album from 2019 isn’t here, that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good…and it might just turn up here next year.

Other than the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Being chosen as the #50 band out of 50 is like getting picked last for kickball, and that’s kind of mean. Besides, if an album is one of the fifty best out of the literally hundreds of thousands released every year, it has to be damn good. Here we go!

Big Lazy – Dear Trouble
The subtlest, most desolate and ultimately most dynamic album from a group synonymous with cinematic noir menace. Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s sense of irony has never been more refined, and the rhythm section of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion has never been slinkier. Ulrich is the only musician in history who has been on three albums rated #1 for the year here. Listen at youtube

Changing Modes – What September Brings
Best album of the year with lyrics, the New York art-rockers’ finest, most cinematic, and most political release, a savagely lyrical, spot-on reflection on Trump-era narcissism and repression, laced with shapeshifting instrumentals and frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam’s disquietingly lush harmonies. Listen at youtube

The Bright Smoke – Gross National Happiness
The title reflects frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson’s signature, withering sarcasm. It’s the band’s most savagely political record, a grimly allusive measure of Trump-era inequality, despair and resistance against all that, with a haunting Joy Division undercurrent. Listen at Bandcamp

Karen Dahlstrom – No Man’s Land
The best short album of the year, with metaphorically-loaded, sharply picturesque narratives referencing apocalypse, smalltown anomie, late-night despondency and a ferocious, defiant anthem for the Metoo era from the powerful Bobtown alto singer and Americana songstress. Listen at her music page 

Hearing Things – Here’s Hearing Things
The best debut albun of 2019, by Brooklyn’s funnest dance band, mashes up horror surt, Booker T & the MG’s, twisted go-go music, Afrobeat, Ethiopiques and the Doors, with organ, sax and surf drums. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – These Times
Steve Wynn‘s iconic, feral, influential psychedelic guitar-duel band’s quietest, most allusively political and arguably most brilliantly lyrical album. Not bad for a group who put out their first record back in the 80s. Listen at youtube

Michael Winograd – Kosher Style
Unsurpassed for his sizzling clarinet chops, Winograd is also a very colorful composer. With sabretoothed chromatics and slashing minor keys, these new klezmer tunes run the gamut from blisteringly fun to mournful to sardonic, and the band is killer. Listen at Bandcamp

Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
Here’s another world-class clarinetist and ensemble playing an especially dynamic, inescapably vivid take on one of the most iconic, haunting pieces of classical music ever written (much of it composed in a Nazi prison camp). Riveting as it is, it raises questions as to how fair it is for this blog to rank it alongside the rest of the artists here. Listen at Spotify

Layale Chaker – Inner Rhyme
The brilliant violinist writes vivid, intense, often hauntingly beautiful compositions built around the rhythmic sophistication of classical Arabic poetry, equal parts Lebanese, Egyptian and western classical music, with occasional detours toward jazz or film score atmospherics. Listen at her music page

Los Wembler’s de Iquitos – Vision Del Ayahuasca
With almost all of their original members, this iconic psychedelic cumbia jamband from the heart of the Peruvian Amazon are as wildly trippy and original as they were fifty years ago. Along with Hearing Things‘ debut, this is the best party record of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

Miguel Zenon and the Spektral Quartet – Yo Soy la Tradicion
The formidable alto saxophonist teams up with one of the world’s edgiest string quartets for a mix of acerbic works with an unselfconsciously Bartokian intensity Listen at their music page

Rev. Screaming Fingers – Music for Driving and Film, vol iII (The Desert Years)
Dusky, loping southwestern gothic tableaux, twangy noir Americana, a little horror surf and ominous big-sky themes from these great guitar instrumentalists. Listen at their music page

Girls on Grass – Dirty Power
Like a female-fronted Dream Syndicate, guitar goddess Barbara Endes’ band rips through paisley underground psychedelia, spaghetti westen themes, snarling new wave and garage rock, with a defiant, politically fearless lyricism Listen at Bandcamp

Russ Tolman – Goodbye El Dorado
Jangly, vividly lyrical western noir rock: disappeances, shattered Hollywood dreams, dead-end kids who don’t have a prayer, and roadtrip anomie from the leader of 80s legends True West. Listen at youtube

Julia Haltigan – Trouble
Turns out that the torchy mistress of Manhattan noir is just as fluent with new wave and vintage CB’s-style powerpop, throughout these tales of nocturnal prowling in the East Village before it was yuppified and whitewashed. Listen at Bandcamp

The Felice Bros. – Undress
This could have been the great lyrical, populist record that Springsgteen made in between Born to Run and Darkness: surreal political broadsides, down-and-out characters and death lingering over everything. Listen at Bandcamp

Jay Vilnai – Thorns All Over
Poet Rachel Abramowitz supplies the lyrics for this haunting, mysterious collection of new murder ballads, over the guitarist/bandleader’s cold starscapes, Lynchian dirges and a relentless, lingering guitar menace. Listen at Bandcamp

Karine Poghosyan – Rachmaninoff & Stravinsky
Nobody plays the Russian Romantics with as much insighful flair as this irrepressible virtuoso. As with Raphael Severe above, it is fair to rate this ravishingly intuitive, picturesque performance of achingly beautiful Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableaux and punishingly difficult Stravinsky piano transcriptions against the current-day artists here? Listen at Spotify

Dina Maccabee – The Sharpening Machine
Epically eclectic, trippy art-rock, chamber pop, pastoral themes and occasional coy new wave from this shapeshifting violinist and songwriter. Listen at Soundcloud

The Sirius Quartet – New World
This adventurous, microtonally-inclined string quartet’s collection of original compositions is a fierce concept album in defiance of the current fascist climate in the US. Listen at Spotify

Yale Strom’s Broken Consort – Shimmering Lights
The un-cheesiest Hanukah instrumental record ever made, the violinist-bandleader’s new arrangements blazing with ferocious solos and bracing Middle Eastern modes. Listen at rockpaperscissors

Eleni Mandell – Wake Up Again
The iconic dark Americana and torch singer’s most hauntingly political album is a series of narratives set behind bars, inspired by her experiences teaching songwriting in the prison-industrial complex. Listen at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Spells & Rituals
The constantly shapeshifting murder ballad and dark rock superduo dive further into latin noir, 60s Britrock and even garagey psychedelic sounds, all with their colorfully dark lyricism. Listen at Bandcamp

Noctorum – The Afterlife
Lush, characteristically lyrical, jangly art-rock from iconic twelve-string guitarist Marty Willson-Piper – late of Australian psychedelic legends the Church – with a similarly allstar backing band. Listen at Bandcamp

Laura Carbone – Empty Sea
Bleak, Lynchian panoramas, highway-of-death narratives and some guitarishly snarling gutter blues from one of this era’s great noir singers. Listen at Bandcamp

Unnatural Ways – The Paranoia Party
A grimly surreal, volcanically noisy, rhytmically disorienting concept about contact with aliens from guitarist Ava Mendoza’s searing doom/art-rock power trio. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Maureen Choi Quartet – Theia
Epically twisting, high-voltage, flamenco and Romany-inspired string band music from the violinist and her equally eclectic ensemble Listen at Bandcamp

Budos Band – V
The imaginative Afrobeat and Ethiopiques instrumentalists’ most doom metal-inspired album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

JD Allen – Barracoon
A big comeback of sorts for this era’s most potent tenor saxophonist, scorching his way through a Zora Neale Hurston-inspired mix of ominously modal, tersely evocative protest jazz tunes with a new trio. Listen at youtube

Nancy Braithwaite – To Paradise For Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway
The classical clarinetist and her dynamic, nuanced chamber ensemble explore stunningly imagistic, darkly clever, tersely crafted pieces by a now Rhode Island-based, nonagenarian composer whose work has never been released on album before. A major rediscovery. Listen at Spotify

Fabian Almazan – This Land Abounds with Life
A glittering, epically cascading eco-disaster themed concept album from one of this era’s most tunefully virtuosic jazz pianists and his dynamic rhythm section Listen at Bandcamp

Doomstress – Sleep Among the Dead
Pervasive gloom, minor keys, purposeful guitar and unusual elegance from frontwoman Alexis Hollada on the Texas doom metal band’s debut album. Listen at Bandcamp

Bobtown – Chasing the Sun
Bewitching three-part harmonies from Katherine Etzel, Karen Dahlstrom and Jen McDearman and folk noir songwriting that’s just a hair less relentlessly dark than the material that put them on the map. Listen at Bandcamp

Petros Klampanis – Irrationalities
Slinky, brooding, Middle Eastern and Greek-inflected ballads and more kinetic, pulsing material from the eclecic bassist and his excellent trio. Listen at Spotify 

The Well – Death & Consolation
Grim, Sabbathy dirges, paint-peeling Stooges sonics and ornately macabre heavy psychedelia from this Texas band. Listen at Bandcamp

Jason Yeager – New Songs of Resistance
A short parade of first-class pan-latin singers deliver the pianist’s protest jazz reinventions of classic nueva cancion from across the Americas in the 70s, alongside some chillingly lyrical, politically-fueled instrumentals. Listen at Bandcamp

Amy Allison – Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun
A characteristically bittersweet, brilliantly crystallized, lyrical collection of rarities and outtakes by the inimitable Americana singer. Listen at youtube

Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith – Mummer Love
Rousingly hypnotic North African grooves and immersive atmospherics behind acerbic, often savage poetry by Patti Smith and one of her big influences, Arthur Rimbaud. Listen at Bandcamp

Andplay – Playlist
The meticulously focused, tightly intertwining, colorful violin/viola duo negotiate the dynamic twists and turns of pieces by David Bird, Ashkan Behzadi and Clara Iannotta on their debut ep. Listen at Bandcamp

The Shootouts – Quick Draw
Spot-on, classic 1965-style honkytonk, hard country, Bakersfield twang and a little rockabilly from this slyly aphoristic Akron, Ohio band. Listen at Soundcloud 

The Ragas Live Retrospective
Members of the paradigm-shifting Brooklyn Raga Massive, who put all kinds of radical new spins on classic Indian raga themes, captured live in the studio over more than sixteen hours worth of music. Most of it is sublime; nobody at this blog has listened to the entire record yet. You can start at Bandcamp

Sarah Pagé – Dose Curves
Hypotically shimmery electroacoustic psychedelia and an Indian raga performed on the concert harp. Unselfconsciously magical,  cutting-edge stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Zosha Di Castri – Tachitipo
Vocal ensemble Ekmeles, the Jack Quartet, pianist Julia Den Boer, percussion ensemble Yarn/Wire  and a chamber orchestra join the thoughtfully eclectic pianist/composer in a diverse mix of acerbic, socially relevant compositions and art-songs. Listen at Bandcamp

Funkrust Brass Band – Bones & Burning
Sizzling Balkan chromatics, undulating New Orleans grooves and a pretty relentless sense of doom on the theatrical, sprawling brass band’s latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

Castle Black – Dead in a Dream
The ferocious female-fronted power trio look back to the most darkly ambitious of the first wave punk bands with their surreal, often haunting latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Manimals – Multiverse
Crunchy, catchy powerpop and a darkly pervasive Bowie influence on the new album from New York’s’ most entertainingly theatrical band. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 compilation
Digitized and somewhat sonically tweaked field recordings of icons like Howlin’ Wolf and cult figures like Magic Sam, shredding and wailing in their element onstage, captured by a college kid with a cheap tape recorder. Listen at Bandcamp

Beat Circus – These Wicked Things
One of the first and best of the carnivalesque rock bands of the 90s, back and revitalized with a lavish, darkly picturesque southwestern gothic concept album. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Sometime Boys – The Perfect Home
A characteristically enigmatic mix of distantly Americana-influenced, slinky originals and imaginatively reinvented covers from New York’s most charismatic, kinetically psychedelic band. Listen at Bandcamp

Locobeach – Psychedelic Disco Cumbia
Truth in advertising: trippy chicha, serpentine highway themes and some woozy dub from this tropical supergroup led by members of Los Crema Paraiso and Chicha Libre. Listen at Bandcamp 

Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee – The Newest Sound You Never Heard
Recorded live and in the studio for Belgian radio in 1966 and 1967, these radical reinventions and a handful of originals by the iconic noir pianist and the shatteringly subtle jazz singer rival the brilliance of their iconic 1961 debut. Not streaming anywhere but available on vinyl.

The Legendary Dream Syndicate’s Latest Album Is Their Most Political and Lyrical One Yet

“You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way,” Dylan said. But the Dream Syndicate proved him wrong. It’s mind-blowing how a band who put out their first album in 1981, broke up in 1989, regrouped early in this soon-defunct decade and influenced pretty much every noiserock and psychedelic band since are arguably better than ever. Their latest album These Times – streaming at youtube and available on autographed limited edition vinyl – is their quiet one so far.

As quiet as the world’s most brilliantly feral jamband gets, anyway. The janglerock ticks more tightly, and frontman/guitarist Steve Wynn goes deeper into his recent explorations of dreampop and psychedelic soul, taking advantage of drummer Dennis Duck’s slinky capabilities (anybody who thinks he’s just a four-on-the-floor rock guy hasn’t seen the band play John Coltrane Stereo Blues live). It’s also one of Wynn’s lyrically strongest albums, and his most allusively political one.

The first track on the record is The Way In, Wynn’s vampy downstroke guitar over a nebulous dreampop backdrop:

What a tangled web
What a piece of the puzzle
Hot licks and rhetoric
A syntactical muzzle
And we can’t begin
Until we find a way in

Put Some Miles On is the most motorik song the band’s ever done , a wryly defiant commentary on the wear and tear of the road, literally and metaphorically Wynn goes deeper into that theme with the haunting Black Light, its spare, resonantly jangly guitar and eerily blippy keys over a midtempo swing groove:

Crawled out from beneath the rock
Crustacean rough and steely strong
A weathered eye with a ticking heart
I know where and why but not how long

Awash in watery 80s guitar, Bullet Holes is a catchy backbeat hit over a classic Wynn two-chord verse, contemplating the ravages of time and knowing where the bodies are buried:

Barely surviving
Shell shocked, struck by lightning
And alone
Death defying
Acceptance without trying
Walking on gilded air
Down the boulevard without a care
Something reminds me
Nothing left to bind me
I see the bullet holes
The history that no one knows
Just the way the story goes…

Still Here Now is just plain gorgeous, a bitterly resolute midtempo anthem that picks up with incisive piano and distantly unhinged sheets of Jason Victor guitar, building to his first tantalizingly savage solo here:

I sing the song in vain
And I know there are those
Who might feel the same
Stunted by light
I just guess I wasn’t thinking right

The slyly allusive revolutionary anthem Speedway comes across as less lyrically dense Highway 61 Dylan:

Banging on the shuttered doorway
The owner is fast asleep
Gonna work it out this time
Maybe just for keeps

Recovery Mode is a brisk, new wave-tinged tune: the momentary guitar duel between Wynn and Victor is spot-on and like nothing they’ve ever done before. It’s a tense, metaphorically-loaded late Trump-era scenario:

You came to the right place
You got a kind face
What if your saving grace
Was lost in the chase

Duck opens The Whole World’s Watching with a sly lowrider clave groove, bassist Mark Walton turning up his treble for a little funk flash as the guitar swirl grows denser and more abrasive, distorto organ flitting through the mix. “Differentiate the sides,” Wynn instructs: “Same wrong, different time.”

The growlingly propulsive Space Age could be a snide come-on to a groupie, or an even snider commentary on politics as spectacle. The band wind up the record with Treading Water Underneath the Stars, a crushingly cynical eoo-disaster parable over lingering Meddle-era Pink Floyd atmospherics. It goes without saying that this is one of the best albums of the year.

Why did this blog wait so long to pitch in and spread the word? Waiting for the band to come back to town! Good news: there’s a 2020 tour in the works, keep your eye on Wynn’s tour page.

The Latest Evil, Psychedelic Chapter in the Skull Practitioners’ Brilliantly Noisy Career

Power trio the Skull Practitioners have been one of New York’s most assaultively excellent bands for several years, and have played a lot of seemingly impromptu show in between bandleader and lead guitarist Jason Victor’s gigs with Steve Wynn and the Dream Syndicate. It’s not an overstatement to say that at the top of their unhinged game, the Skull Practitioners are just as dark and intense. Their latest ep, Death Buy is streaming at Spotify.

They open the album with the instrumental title track, a slowly swaying, ominous groove with layers of reverb and evil sheets of sustain that Victor finally turns into chords – for awhile, anyway, until the trails of sparks and fumes return. Kenneth Levine’s gritty bass emerges from the toxic puddles, drummer Alex Baker flurrying like Dennis Thompson would do to pull the MC5 out of the murk.

Grey No More is one of the band’s most straight-ahead punk songs: you can hear echoes of the Cramps, the Damned and the Stooges over late 70s/early 80s SoCal drive. The epic instrumental jam Miami is a real departure for the band, the rhythm section more or less looping a quasi-funk fuzztone bass groove, Victor adding spacious, spacy sheets overhead, finally shrieking his way to the top of the fretboard. It gets a lot tripper from there.

The album’s last track is The Beacon, a growling gutter blues tune that sounds a lot like the early Gun Club with a better singer. Look for this on the Best Albums of 2019 page here at the ehd of the year

The Long Ryders Celebrate Americana Rock Legend Sid Griffin’s Birthday in Jersey City

“After this obligatory encore, I’ll be at the merch table where you can ask me anything about the Bangles and the Dream Syndicate,” Long Ryders founder and guitarist Sid Griffin told the packed house at WFMU’s Monty Hall in Jersey City last night.

He was joking, of course. But who ever imagined that the Long Ryders – or the Dream Syndicate – would be back in action, touring and still making great records, almost forty years after they started? The difference for this band is that the individual members seem to be more involved as songwriters this time around. “The world’s smallest Kickstarter,” as Griffin called it, crowdfunded the Long Ryders’ often astonishingly fresh, vital, relevant new album, Psychedelic Country Soul, which figured heavily in the set.

Griffin was celebrating his 64th birthday, and was regaled from the stage by his bandmates: guitarist Stephen McCarthy played the Beatles’ When I’m 64 into the PA from the tinny speaker on his phone, and the crowd revealed their music geekdom by not only knowing the words but also the instrumental break after the first chorus. Griffin held up his end: he still has his voice and his lead guitar chops, trading long, crackling honkytonk solos with McCarthy early in the set.

“I had a dream that Trump was dead,” McCarthy ad-libbed, updating the new wave-flavored I Had a Dream for the end of a new decade. The band had most recently played this particular venue the night of the fateful 2016 Presidential election, and had plenty of vitriol for the possibly soon-to-be-impeached tweeting twat in the Oval Office. That wasn’t limited to banter with the crowd: Griffin reminded how prophetic the broodingly jangling anti-Reaganite protest song Stitch in Time, from the band’s 1986 Two Fisted Tales album, had turned out to be. And bassist Tom Stevens switched to Telecaster for the plaintively jangling Bells of August, the song Griffin described as the best on the new album, a familiar story centered around a family’s beloved son finally returning home…in a body bag.

It’s been said many times that the Long Ryders invented Americana as we know it today, but despite their vast influence in that area, they were always a lot more eclectic. This time out, they broke out covers by the late Greg Trooper, Mel Tillis – the big crowd-pleaser Sweet Sweet Mental Revenge – and what sounded like the Flamin’ Groovies. Of the band’s classic 80s material, both Final Wild Son and the last song of the night, a delirious singalong of Looking for Lewis and Clark, came across as chicken-fried Highway 61 Dylan.

Stevens’ other standout among the new material was a garage-psych flavored tune, What the Eagle Sees. And Griffin put some muscle behind his punkish stage antics with a slashing, embittered new one, Molly Somebody, which for whatever reason sounded a lot like the Dream Syndicate. And that makes sense – if you know any of the baseball-hatted old guys who went to this show, or knew them when they were baseball-hatted young guys, everybody who liked the Dream Syndicate was also into the Long Ryders, and True West. And the other great 80s guitar bands, including the Del-Lords: their frontman and lead guitarist, Eric Ambel, had played the evening’s opening set.

The Long Ryders tour continues tonight, Sept 19 at 9 PM at the Lockx, 4417 Main St.  in Philadelphia? Cover is $30

A Dark, Jangly Americana Masterpiece From Russ Tolman

Back in the 80s Russ Tolman led the psychedelic Americana band True West, who were best known for their feral twin-Telecaster duels. He put out three albums with them, if you count the first ep and the posthumous outtakes-and-demos collection. The second one, Drifters is one of the fifty best rock records ever made, a jangling, clanging, surrealistically haunting masterpiece. But all the guitar savagery wouldn’t have counted for much if Tolman wasn’t such a slashing tunesmith and evocative lyricist. Since then he’s made a name for himself as a connoisseur of western noir, a sort of slightly less prolific Steve Wynn (his bandmate in the legendary/obscure Suspects, Wynn’s pre-Dream Syndicate college group).

Tolman’s latest album, Goodbye El Dorado – streaming at Spotify – is a mellower, more carefully crafted take on the True West sound, a masterful intertwine of acoustic and electric guitars along with mandolin, electric piano and a swinging rhythm section. He’s never written more vividly or with more allusive grimness. It’s a historically-infused song cycle about how people are drawn to California, only to see their dreams dashed. As a native Californian, Tolman has the inside track.

With its border-rock accordion, the album’s first song, Los Angeles, is typical in the sense that Tolman never lets on to what happens to the woman at the center of the story. He doesn’t usually hit anything head-on: he takes you down to the crossroads and lets you wait for the devil, alone.

The album’s best cut is Kid, a searingly spot-on account of a girl from a broken home whose teachers think that she “might be talented at art,” but her refrain is “Please don’t make me go home.” The janglerock backdrop, with Kirk Swan’s incisive terse guitar fills and Robert Lloyd’s mandolin, is a little more gentle and sparkly than True West typically was, but it’s obviously the same writer here.

The 6/8 ballad North Hollywood Dream traces the story of an Idaho kid who lands in LA, only to watch his hopes drift slowly away. In 405, over an inteweave of guitars and Rhodes piano – that’s the bandleader with Swan and Lloyd – Tolman paints a wryly knowing picture of LA freeway hell. The album’s title track is a shuffling Bakersfield country tune with mariachi horns: “Goodbye El Dorado, you’ve been a good companion, I’ve been a dutiful son,” the narrator muses as he heads out for good.

Yuba City – as in, “I’m going down to Yuba City, if I’m going down at all” – is another escape anthem with a bizarre mix of tinkling saloon piano, soaring pedal steel and string synth, with a tantalizingly gorgeous guitar solo in the middle. Moody brass, Kevin Jarvis’ ominous drumbeats and ex-Dream Syndicateer Dave Provost’s supple bass groove permeate the bolero ambience of California Winter, a wrenchingly heartbroken narrative: “In the merry month of November I turned my thoughts to the dead,” Tolman intones. The funereal outro, with its exchange of riffs between the horns, reverb guitar and organ is as good as anything True West ever recorded.

Do You Like the Way is a ruthlessly hilarious yet sympathetic portrait of a guy who doesn’t know when to stop: “You’re a free spirit, or at least you like to drink them.” Tolman raises the sarcasm factor several notches with the country ballad Almost Heaven, a twistedly cynical California wildfire scenario. He stays on the country tip for the album’s most epic number, Take It Easy Take It Slow, spiced with sparse twelve-string guitar and pedal steel.

“Knew it was the border from the giant ‘Need weed’ sign/And the liquor stores in the rearview mirror on the California side,” Tolman explains in the caustically funny coastal roadtrip tale Pacific Rain. Honkytonk piano mingles with a famous Stones guitar riff and  swooshy organ in Satellite Bar, a celestial place with dollar beer night once a month, free popcorn…and a dogwater bowl by the door. Tolman brings the record full circle with the grimly jangly Time Flies, a folksy, aphoristic take on the perils of getting older but not wiser. Good to see a revered cult figure – not the Jim Jones kind – still at the top of his game.

A Lusciously Jangly, Ferociously Relevant Masterpiece From Girls on Grass

Girls on Grass’ latest album Dirty Power – streaming at Bandcamp – has everything you could possibly want from a great rock record: slashing lyrics, soaring vocals, gorgeous harmonies, layers and layers of luscious guitar jangle and clang and roar, and tunesmithing that draws on styles from the 60s through the 80s. It’s fearlessly political, and it might be the best record released so far this year. Frontwoman Barbara Endes is on the shortlist of the best guitarists in all of rock – and she’s a great bassist too. Imagine the Dream Syndicate fronted by a woman, and produced by Eric Ambel (who was actually behind the board when this was made, and it’s one of the best projects he’s ever worked on). Girls on Grass are headlining one of the year’s best triplebills on May 12 at Coney Island Baby at around 9. Catchy, fun guy/girl indie soul band Sunshine Nights open the night at 7, followed by wickedly jangly surf/twang/country instrumentalists the Bakersfield Breakers at around 8. Cover is a ridiculously cheap $8.

The new album opens with Down at the Bottom, the harmonies of Endes and drummer Nancy Polstein rising over a soul-clap beat, spiced with icy twelve-string guitar jangle that’s part 60s Merseybeat, part 80s paisley underground psychedelia. Second guitarist David Weiss adds country-tinged twang as bassist Dave Mandl holds down an insistent groove, Endes reminding that all the best things are in the shadows and in the deepest waters. In status-grubbing real estate bubble-era New York, that subtext screams.

Street Fight is a cynical, sarcastic stomp, Weiss channeling Mick Taylor in simmering post-Chuck Berry mode, up to a slashing chromatic run. Friday Night is an indelibly simmering tableau, capturing the energy and anticipation of meeting a crush at what promises to be a hot show, chilling back by the soundboard, passing around a joint. The ending is an unexpectedly different kind of crush.

Got to Laugh to Keep From Crying, a bittersweet account of betrayal and stalker behavior, is one of the album’s most gorgeous songs, Endes’ clang against Weiss’ country twang. Two Places at Once shifts between amped-up. briskly shuffling Morricone spaghetti western and an eerily surfy Radio Birdman highway theme. Then the band burn through the garage rock riffage of the escape anthem Into the Sun, with a searing, chromatically-fueled guitar solo midway through: it sounds like that’s  Endes, but it might be Weiss too.

“Capitalism ruins everything worth doing,” Endes intones to a guy who’s only in it “For the cash, and the underage ass” in the album’s most overtly political track, Because Capitalism: the rhythm section hits a fast Motown beat as the guitars stab and burn. Endes got the inspiration for the wounded, crescendoing anthem John Doe  from the time the X bassist wrote a carpe diem message in her journal, with a “We gotta stick together” mantra that works on more than one level.

The loping desert rock instrumental Asesino sends a shout-out to an iconic Ventures hit, with hints of vintage Public Image Ltd. at the very end. “I come from superior genes,” the narcissist-in-charge brags over a swaying Flamin’ Groovies drive in Commander in Thief: the faux bombast of the guitars matches Endes’ sardonic lyric. The band wind up the album with Thoughts Are Free, with a slow, richly lingering Dream Syndicate-style intro, then picking up with a brisk country shuffle beat. “Got my money, never mind what’s happening behind the scenes,” Endes sings sarcastically. Look for this on the best albums of 2019 page at the end of the year.

The 25 Best New York Concerts of 2018

2018’s best concert was Golden Fest. For the second year in a row, the annual two-night Brooklyn festival of Balkan, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean music tops the list here. This year’s edition in mid-January began with the original gangsters of New York Balkan brass music, Zlatne Uste – who run the festival – and ended around two in the morning, 36 hours later, with Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions playing otherworldly, microtonal Turkish zurna oboe music. In between, there were equally haunting womens’ choirs, more brass than you could count, rustic string bands playing ancient dance tunes, the most lavish klezmer big band imaginable, and a searing Greek heavy metal group, among more than seventy acts from all over the globe.

And there was tons of Eastern European and Turkish food – every kind of pickle ever invented, it seemed, plus stews and sausages and dips and desserts and drinks too. Golden Fest 2019 takes place January 18 and 19: it’s a New York rite of passage. Pretty much everybody does this at least once. The festival is going strong right now, but perish the thought that Grand Prospect Hall, the gilded-age wedding palace on the south side of Park Slope, might someday be bulldozed to make room for yet another empty “luxury” condo. If that happens, it’s all over. Catch it while you can.

The rest of the year was just as epic, if you add it all up. That live music continues to flourish in this city, despite the blitzkrieg of gentrification and the devastation of entire neighborhoods to make room for speculator property, is reason for optimism. That’s a rare thing these days, but the immigrants moving into the most remote fringes of Queens and Brooklyn, along with many millions born and raised here, still make up a formidable artistic base.

On the other hand, scroll down this list. Beyond Golden Fest, every single one of the year’s best shows happened either at a small club, or at a venue subsidized by nonprofit foundation money.

OK, small clubs have always been where the real action is. And historically speaking, larger venues in this city have always been reticent to book innovative, individualistic talent. But there’s never been less upward mobility available to artists than there is now. Which mirrors the city’s changing demographics.

Recent immigrants face the same situation as the majority of New Yorkers; if you’re working sixty hours a week just to pay your share of the rent, where do you find the time, let alone the money, to go out? And the ones who have money, the privileged children moving in and displacing working class people from their homes in places like Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, don’t support the arts.

So here’s to small clubs, nonprofit money, hardworking immigrants and the superhuman tenacity and resilience of New York’s greatest musicians. The rest of this list is in chronological order since trying to rank these shows wouldn’t make much sense. If you or your band didn’t make the list, sorry, that doesn’t mean you don’t rate. There were so many good concerts this year that it feels criminal to whittle it down to a reasonably digestible number.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at the Miller Theatre, 2/3/18
High-octane suspense, spy themes, blustery illustrations of doom in outer space and an Ellington-inspired epic by this era’s most politically relevant large jazz ensemble

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble at NYU, 2/10/18
Just back from a deep-freeze midwestern tour, the trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s epic Middle Eastern big band jazz suite Not Two – which the group played in its entirety – was especially dynamic and torrential

Greg Squared’s Great Circles at Barbes, 3/1/18
Two long sets of eerie microtones, edgy melismas and sharp-fanged chromatics from these ferocious Balkan jammers

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz in the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession, 3/15/18
The pyrotechnic violinist and her pianist collaborator turned a mysterious, intimate underground Harlem space into a fiery klezmer and Balkan dance joint

Tarek Yamani at Lincoln Center, 3/23/18
The Lebanese-American pianist and his trio evoked peak-era 70s McCoy Tyner with more Middle Eastern influences, a confluence of Arabian Gulf khaliji music and American jazz with a healthy dose of Afro-Cuban groove

Dark Beasts at the Gatehouse, 3/27/18
The three young women in the band – Lillian Schrag, Trixie Madell and Violet Paris-Hillmer – painted their faces and then switched off instruments throughout a tantalizingly brief set of menacing, haunting, often environmentally-themed, often glamrock-inspired originals. What was most impressive is that nobody in the band is more than eleven years old.

The Rhythm Method Quartet at Roulette, 3/29/18
Magical, otherworldly wails, wisps and dazzling displays of extended technique in the all-female string quartet’s program of 21st century works by Lewis Neilson, Kristin Bolstad and the quartet’s Marina Kifferstein and Meaghan Burke. It ended with a swordfight between the violinists.

Hannah vs. the Many at LIC Bar, 4/4/18
Frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s banshee voice channeled white-knuckle angst, wounded wrath and savage insight as she delivered her torrents of puns and double entendres over a tight, pummeling punk rock backdrop. There is no lyrical rock band in the world better than this trio.

Klazz-Ma-Tazz at City Winery, 4/8/18
Violinist Ben Sutin’s pyrotechnic band transcended their klezmer origins and the early hour of eleven in the morning at this ferociously eclectic brunch show, reinventing classic themes and jamming out with equal parts jazz virtuosity and feral attack.

Shattered Glass at Our Savior’s Atonement, 4/13/18
The string orchestra stood in a circle, facing each other and then whirled and slashed through Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite for Strings, plus harrowing works by Shostakovich and hypnotic pieces by Caroline Shaw and Philip Glass. 

Yacine Boulares, Vincent Segal and Nasheet Waits at Lincoln Center, 4/19/18
The multi-reedman, cellist and drummer hit breathtaking peaks and made their way through haunted valleys throughout Boulares’ new Abu Sadiya Suite of Tunisian jazz nocturnes

The Chelsea Symphony at the American Museum of Natural History, 4/22/18
Other than a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, maybe, it’s impossible to imagine a more lavish, titanic concert anywhere in New York this year. The intrepid west side orchestra enveloped the audience in an environmentally-themed program: the world premiere of an ominous Michael Boyman eco-disaster narrative, a shout-out to whales by Hovhaness, and John Luther Adams’ vast Become Ocean, played by three separate groups in the cathedral-like confines of the museum’s ocean life section.

The Dream Syndicate at the Hoboken Arts & Music Festival, 5/6/18
That the best New York rock show of the year happened in New Jersey speaks for itself. Steve Wynn’s legendary, revitalized, careeningly psychedelic band schooled every other loud, noisy act out there with their feral guitar duels and smoldering intensity.

Rose Thomas Bannister at the Gowanus Dredgers Society Boathouse, 6/16/18
A low-key neighborhood gig by the ferociously lyrical, broodingly psychedelic, protean Shakespearean-inspired songstress, playing what she called her “bluegrass set” since drummer Ben Engel switched to mandolin for this one.

The Sadies at Union Pool, 6/30/18
A ringing, reverb-iced feast of jangle and clang and twang, plus a couple of trips out into the surf and some sizzling bluegrass at one of this year’s free outdoor shows

Charming Disaster at Pete’s Candy Store, 7/3/18
What’s most impressive about New York’s creepiest parlor pop duo is how much new material Jeff Morris and Ellia Bisker have – and how eclectic it is. Hints of metal, psychedelia and the group’s signature folk noir and latin-tinged sounds, with some of the most memorably macabre stories in all of rock.

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Big Lazy at Barbes, 8/24/18
The perennially tuneful, cinematic trumpeter/composer’s edgy Middle Eastern-tinged trio, followed by this city’s ultimate cinematic noir instrumentalists, who took a dive down to dub as deep as their early zeroes adventures in immersively menacing reverb guitar sonics.

Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes, 9/7/18
The ageless octogenarian multi-reedman and king of Middle Eastern jazz channeled deep soul, and Parker and Coltrane, and seemed to be having the time of his life throwing elbows at the music, and his bandmates. The older he gets, the more energetic he sounds. His gig a month later in midtown – which was videotaped in its entirety – was awfully good too.

Mohamed Abozekry & Karkade at Roulette, 9/21/18
The Egyptian oudist and his sizzling, eclectic band paid their respects to a thousand years of otherworldly, kinetic sounds while adding an individualistic edge equally informed by American jazz, psychedelic rock and even funk.

International Contemporary Ensemble playing Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up at the Miller Theatre, 9/26/18
An endlessly suspenseful, bloodcurdling, macabre New York debut for Mazzoli’s latest avant garde opera, a grim parable concerning the American Dream and how few actually attain it – and what happens when they don’t.

Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Ogresse at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 9/28/18
Everybody’s pick for this era’s best and most versatile jazz singer turns out to be as diverse and haunting a songwriter. Darcy James Argue conducted a mighty alllstar ensemble shifting between torch song, noir Americana and lavish, Gil Evans-like sweep throughout this withering suite, a parable of racial and gender relations in the age of Metoo.

Youssra El Hawary at Lincoln Center, 10/4/18
The Egyptian accordionist/singer and her fantastic band mashed up classic levantine sounds with retro French chanson and an omnipresent, politically fearless edge, no less defiant when she was singing about pissing on walls in the early, optimistic days of the Arab Spring.

The Ahmet Erdogdular Ensemble at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia, 11/13/18
The brooding, charismatic Turkish crooner and his brilliant band – featuring Ara Dinkjian on oud, Dolunay violinist Eylem Basaldi and kanun player Didem Basar – played rapt, haunting anthems, ballads and improvisations spanning three hundred years’ worth of composers and influences.

Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and many others at Symphony Space, 11/17/18
Giddens’ soaring wail, multi-instrumental chops and searingly relevant political focus was matched by powerful contralto singer, guitarist/banjoist and songwriter Kiah, who brought a similar, historically deep edge to a night of protest songs from across the ages.

Single of the Day 11/6/18 – Lynchian Psychedelia

Not quite sure what dark songbird Ezza Rose’s American Man, a surreal mashup of Lynchian femme fatale waltz and slow Dream Syndicate psychedelia (via soundcloud), is all about, but it’s hard to turn away from