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The 30 Best NYC Concerts of 2019

Enormous triage was required to trim this down to a manageable number. Despite a desperate climate where practically every corner property in this city is being removed from the stock of housing and commercial space and handed over to speculators, thousands of stubborn musicians and patrons of the arts won’t leave this sinking ship.

Time to celebrate that tenacity! Consider this an informed survey rather than a definitive statement:  this is the most personal of all the year-end lists here. It’s impossible to count the number of shows over the past several years where this blog was in the house even though most New Yorkers couldn’t get there (or, more likely, couldn’t get home from there) because of the subway melting down at night and on the weekend. The reverse is just as true. You want FOMO? Move to Brooklyn.

The best show of 2019 was Rose Thomas Bannister‘s wedding, at Union Pool in late September, where the Great Plains gothic songstress sang her heart out on a killer festival bill which also included her polymath guitarist husband Bob Bannister, her bagpipe wizard dad Tom Campbell jamming with the mesmerizingly trippy 75 Dollar Bill, plus sets by psychedelic indie rockers PG Six and delirious Afrobeat crew Super Yamba. For anyone who might consider it pretentious to pick a private event as the year’s best concert…it wasn’t really private. Anybody who was at the bar, or just randomly walking by, could have come in and enjoyed the music – and as the night went on, a lot of people did.

Here’s the rest of the year, in chronological order:

House of Echo at Nublu 151, 1/15/19
French keyboardist Enzo Carniel’s hauntingly improvisational quartet built Lynchian ambience throughout a smoky, hypnotic series of cinematic tableaux.

Golden Fest, 1/18-19/19
Night one of the annual blockbuster South Park Slope festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music was a delirious dance party with brass band Zlatne Uste, their smaller spinoff Kavala, pontic lyra player Dimitrios Stefanides and otherworldly Turkish oboe band Zurli Drustvo. Night two went for about nine hours with about a hundred bands. Some highights: chanteuse Eva Salina fronting the Balkan Doors, Choban Elektrik: Amir Vahab‘s plaintive Iranian ballads; Raya Brass Band‘s chandelier-shaking intensity; Souren Baronian‘s deep, soulful Near Eastern jazz; clarinetist Michael Winograd‘s lavish klezmer orchestra; and thunderous Rhode Island street band What Cheer Brigade closing the festivities

Ethel at the Jewish Museum, 2/28/19
It’s shocking that it took twenty years before there was ever a world premiere performance of the complete, witheringly intense Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle…and it’s a good thing these champions of 21st century music took the job

Hearing Things at Barbes, 3/1/19
Slinky, allusively sinister, Balkan and Doors-tinged organ-and-sax grooves with a surf beat: the crowd danced hard at this wild post-happy hour gig

Josh Sinton’s Krasa at Issue Project Room, 3/15/19
Seated with his back to the audience, pushing his contrabass clarinet to its extreme limits through a huge pedalboard, Sinton’s solo show was one of the most deliciously assaultive sets of the year, over and out in less than 40 minutes.

Girls on Grass and the Sadies at Union Pool, 4/2/19
Luscious clang and twang, some Nashville gothic and surf and a little punkgrass from the legendary, jangly psychedelic band who got their start in the 90s, with a similarly brilliant, psychedelic act they highly influenced opening the night

The Juilliard Trombone Choir at the Greene Space, 4/3/19
NY Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi‘s explosive, wickedly tight band of future classical stars ripped and pulsed through irresistibly imaginative, sometimes amusing arrangements of works from Gabrieli to Beethoven to Warlock

Mary Lee’s Corvette at the Mercury, 4/13/19
With former Pogue Cait O’Riordan bopping and slinking around on bass, Mary Lee Kortes’ rivetingly lyrical, multistylistically jangly band brought equal parts ferocity and fun

The Coffin Daggers at Otto’s in the wee hours of 5/5/19
The undisputed kings of horror surf were as loud as ever and maybe even more murkily, assaultively psychedelic

Lee Narae at Lincoln Center, 5/9/19
Backed by a terse psychedelic folk band, the individualistic pansori singer unveiled a withering, provocatively feminist remake of the ancient Korean epic Byeongangsoe-ga, told from the long-suffering bride’s point of view

Greek Judas at Niagara, 5/9/19
A great night – this is the first time there have ever been two separate shows from a single evening on this list. Guitarists Wade Ripka and Adam Good sparred through one sinister chromatic Greek rembetiko metal hash-smoking anthem after another, over the supple groove of bassist Nick Cudahy and drummer Chris Stromquist

Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, 5/10/19
Kalhor is the renowed, intense master of the Iranian kamancheh fiddle; this evening was a very rare performance on setar lute, building serpentine, hauntingly relevant epics with his protege

Loreto Aramendi at Central Synagogue, 5/14/19
In a rare US appearance, the pioneering Spanish organist played wickedly imaginative arrangements of Rachmaninoff’s iconic C# Minor Prelude, Saint-Saens’ Halloween classic Danse Macabre and pieces by Buxtehude, Liszt and Ligeti

Bobtown at Rockwood Music Hall, 6/9/19
The iconic folk noir harmony band cheerily harmonized, slunk and bounded through a mix of somewhat less creepy material than usual, with lots of tunes from their new album Chasing the Sun, plus a brooding cameo from cellist Serena Jost

The New York Philharmonic in Prospect Park, 6/14/19
In his Brooklyn debut, maestro Jaap Van Zweden led this country’s flagship orchestra through a stunningly vivid, resolutely vindictive performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 6/26/19
The psychedelic cumbia legends reunited and warmed up for a South American tour with a couple of shows on their home turf. This was the second night, the one this blog didn’t review, and it was even better than the first, beginning with the gleefully uneasy Papageno Electrico and closing after midnight with the group’s creepy electric bolero version of Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1

Nashaz and Gato Loco at Barbes, 7/5/19
Oudist Brian Prunka’s undulating Middle Eastern band jammed out both otherworldly Egyptian classics as well as similarly edgy, entrancing originals; afterward, multi-saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk’s mighty noir mambo band burned through an even more towering, angst-fueled set

Hannah vs. the Many and the Manimals at the Nest, 7/11/19
The most entertaining show of the year began with charismatic frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s withering, torrentially lyrical noir punk band and ended with catchy powerposters the Manimals’ incendiary bandleader Haley Bowery skidding to the edge of the stage on her knees, seemingly covered with blood. Costumes and a quasi-satanic ritual were also involved.

Michael Winograd at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/19
The supersonic klezmer clarinetist and composer defied the heat, leading a similarly sizzling band through wildly cinematic originals from his new album Kosher Style

The Drive East Festival, 8/5-11/19
NYC’s annual celebration of traditional and cutting-edge Indian classical arts featured rapturous ragas from sitarist Hidayat Khan, hypnotic soundscapes by saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan, spellbinding violinists Trina Basu & Arun Ramamurthy’s Carnatic-inspired Nakshatra Quartet, and a sardonically riveting Metoo-themed dance performance by Rasika Kumar, festival creator Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek, with a dynamic live score by Roopa Mahadevan

Looking at You at Here, 9/6/19
Kamala Sankaram and Rob Handel’s new opera, billed as a mashup of the Edward Snowden affair and Casablanca, is a satire of Silicon Valley technosupremacists falling for their own bullshit. It was as chillingly Orwellian as it was hilarious, with a subtly immersive live score .

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Combo Lulo at Barbes, 9/14/19
The dynamic, resonant, klezmer and noir-inspired trumpeter, guitarist Brad Shepik and drummer Shane Shanahan built darkly chromatic mood pieces and more jaunty, acerbic tunes; it was a good setup for the organ-driven psychedelic cumbias, edgy Ethiopiques and trippy dub sounds afterward.

Wajde Ayub at Roulette, 9/28/19
The powerful Syrian baritone crooner – a protege of legendary Syrian tarab singer Sabah Fakhri – led a lavish, kinetic orchestra through a mix of harrowingly vivid, socially relevant anthems and ecstatic love ballads.

Nights one and two of the Momenta Festival, 10/15-16/19
To open their annual festival of underperformed and brand-new string quartet music at the Americas Society, the perennially relevant Momenta Quartet played a haunting Julian Carrillo microtonal piece, premiered a fierce, allusiveley political Alvin Singleton quartet as well as a more elegantly circling one by Roberto Sierra plus works by Ligeti and Mario Lavista.

The Takacs Quartet play the Bartok string quartet cycle at the 92nd St. Y, 10/18-20/19
A revelatory, slashingly energetic, insightful tour of some of the most harrowing, intense work for string quartet ever written

Big Lazy’s album release weekend at the American Can Co. building, 11/8-9/19
Bandleader and guitarist Steve Ulrich had lost his mom the night before the sold-out two-night stand started. He’d played Cole Porter’s I Love You to her that evening, and reprised the song on night one with his cinematic noir trio, bolstered by organist Marlysse Simmons, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and baritone saxophonist Peter Hess. Night two’s music was less mystical and pensive, more thrillingly, grittily menacing and macabre – when it wasn’t slinky and cynically playful.

Hamid Al-Saadi and Safaafir at Roulette, 11/23/19
The gritty, impassioned Iraqi crooner and this hemisphere’s only ensemble dedicated to classical Iraqi maqam music were tighter and more electric than they’d been at Lincoln Center in the spring, through a mix of metaphorically charged, socially relevant themes and more lively, traditional repertoire.

The Grasping Straws and Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons at the Mercury, 11/24/19
For anybody who might have missed seeing Patti Smith back in the 70s, or Jimi Hendrix in the 60s, this was a good substitute, the openers’ elegant, incisive lead guitarist Marcus Kitchen contrasting with the headliners’ feral, Hendrixian Hugh Pool

Karen Dahlstrom at Scratcher Bar, 12/8/19
The powerful, gospel-inspired singer and folk noir champion held the crowd rapt through brooding Old West narratives, wryly torchy blues, gorgeously plaintive laments and the fierce Metoo anthem No Man’s Land, the title track from her brilliant new album.

Thrills, Gravitas and Cinematic Color with the Nakshatra Quartet at the Drive East Festival

Considering how much great live music there is in New York, a festival has to be pretty special to be worth going to four out of five nights during the work week. But this year’s edition of the Drive East Festival has been that good. And it’s been as diverse as always. So far this week’s concerts have featured laments, ragas both epic and fleeting, a harrowing Metoo-themed dance piece set to a live score, and blissfully peaceful improvisation. Last night’s performance by violinists Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu’s Nakshatra Quartet was the most viscerally thrilling and solo-centric of all of them up to this point. But it was also about dynamics, and pushing the envelope, and keeping a clear eye on the grim realities of this year’s political environment…and what we can do about it.

Ramamurthy and Basu would probably laugh if someone called them New York’s #1 power couple in Indian music, but it’s impossible to think of another family with equally formidable chops. When they perform as a duo, it’s hard to tell who’s playing what unless you’re watching. In this ensemble – which also included Jake Charkey on cello and Dan Kurfirst on percussion – their individuality was much more defined, although the two have a near-telepathic rapport.

Basu came to carnatic music from a classical background, and plays with her violin on her shoulder. In this context, she revealed a lighter, more delicate tone than her husband, who’s been immersed in carnatic music since his student days but also excels at jazz improvisation. Where her approach had more a silken legato, Ramamurthy dug in hard with his glissandos and jaunty ornamentation, seated crosslegged, the head of his axe balanced on the stage. Both husband and wife delivered spine-tingling solos.

They opened with the colorful, cinematic pastorale, Tempest. The intensity went through the roof when Charkey joined the tense intertwine between the violins, adding an ominous drone on the G string. From there they negotiated a maze of increasingly agitated echo effects and circular phrases, up to a stormy peak and then an uneasy clearing, coming full circle at the end,

The rest of the set combined edgy jazz flair with Indian majesty and gravitas. Basu introduced the mini-epic Migration as a parable of the increasing terror and obstacles facing refugees and immigrants since the fateful 2016 Presidential election – an insight underscored by her participation in the Borderless Lullabies benefit project for refugee children incarcerated at the US-Mexico border. The interplay was dancingly optimistic to begin with but then climbed to stormy, increasingly syncopated territory.

Nocturne, a dramatic and incisively haunting tableau, had Middle Eastern tinges, ominously shivery chromatic cascades from Basu and slashing microtones from Ramamurthy, in solos that were tantalizingly short. He introduced the night’s one cover, Kalamabike, by 18th century composer Muthuswami Dikshitar, as being very dear to his heart, which was understandable: it’s a gorgeous coda to one of the composer’s many suites, its stark, plaintively unwinding variations anchored by an elegant, broodingly serpentine bassline from Charkey.

You might not expect a drummer to be using a djembe, cajon, daf frame drum and cymbal at a show like this, but this isn’t your typical Indian band, and Kurfirst provided understated color and texture with each of those implements. Charkey also got a couple of moments to pitch in with darkly slithery, microtonally bristling solos. The trio’s closing number echoed the loping, quasi trip-hop groove that many of the other songs followed in their most straightforward moments, in addition to vivid raga riffs from all three of the stringed instruments. Was all this jazz? You could call it that. Indian music? Most definitely. But ultimately, all this defied categorization: it’s unique to the Nakshatra Quartet. You’ll see this concert on the Best Shows of 2019 page here at the end of the year.

This year’s Drive East Festival continues tonight, August 10 at 7:20 PM with a rare US performance by another spectacular, dynamic violinist, Sruti Sarathy at the Mezzanine Theatre, 502 W 53rd St.; cover is $20.

A Harrowing, Mesmerizing Multimedia Meetoo Parable at the Drive East Festival

Sitarist Hidayat Khan‘s haunting raga last night at this year’s New York edition of the annual Drive East Festival could easily have upstaged the rest of the week’s performances. But it didn’t. This past evening, bharatanatyam dancers Rasika Kumar, Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek performed their seethingly relevant yet often sardonically hilarious Metoo parable, Unfiltered, to a series of standing ovations from a sold-out crowd. If this is typical, the rest of the week is going to be pretty amazing – and this blog is giving away tickets.

Singer Roopa Mahadevan‘s live score was every bit as compelling, to the point where it could easily be adapted as a stand-alone concert suite. And the three dancers’ forceful, stunningly imagistic performance works as well as theatre and mime as it does as a choreographed work. Each of the trio has a very distinct character and role. Perhaps ironically, Thekkek portrays the quietest of the three as she encounters a sexual predator. Kumar has to fend off a boss without boundaries; Sambamoorthi battles trouble on the home front.

We never get to see these womens’ male adversaries. There’s very little dialogue, and until the coda, everything spoken is in the form of a question. All the interaction is portrayed by facial expressions and gestures. Kumar’s many faces are absolutely priceless as she tries to maintain a sense of humor and inner calm while her situation deteriorates. Sambamoorthi imbues every aspect of her role – her arm movements, her determined attempts to get her point across, and her thousand-yard stare – with a simmering intensity. Thekkek endows her character with unexpected poise throughout an understatedly harrowing solo.

The narrative is hardly predictable. The grisliest details are only alluded to, and the constant cat-and-mouse game between the three women and their respective predators leaves much to the audience to figure out. Yet there’s also great humor – sometimes vaudevillian, sometimes grim – throughout the piece. The visual jokes, especially early on, are too good to give away – phones and social media are part the picture, at least to the extent that we can imagine it.

And the score is as dynamically rich, and haunting, as the dancing. Mahadevan’s famously powerful mezzo-soprano vocals remained mostly in a moody low register throughout the suite, backed by Arun Ramamurthy on violin – who supplied the biggest crescendos of the night – along with Rohan Prabhudesai on piano, Kavi Srinirasavagavan on mridangam and Malavika Walia on vocals and nattuvangam castanets. They opened with hypnotic, calm variations on a carnatic theme and then drifted toward slowy swaying horror-film tonalities. Constant rhythmic and stylistic shifts matched the dancers’ intricate footwork, whether lithe and slithery or stomping and emphatic. As the drama reached critical mass, Mahadevan and Walia countered the dancers’ defiance and reslience with an all-too familiar spoken-word refrain: “Get over it. This happens to everyone. What will people say? Do you really want the atttention?” Ad nauseum.Without giving away the ending, it’s fair to call this a capsule history of Metoo.

It’s also a good bet that the dancers may reference iconic bharatanatyam dance pieces from over the centuries: those more knowledgeable about classical Indian dance than anyone at this blog may get them. The Drive East Festival continues tomorrow night, August 7 at 6 PM with tabla players Rohan Krishnamurthy and Nitin Mitta’s North and South Indian Percussion Duo with the versatile Prabhudesai on harmonium at the Mezzanine Theatre, 502 W 53rd St; cover is $20.

A Haunting, Riveting Opening Night at This Year’s Drive East Festival of Indian Music

The Drive East Festival has rapidly become the Indian music counterpart to the Charlie Parker Festival: New York’s most highly anticipated concert series in a rapidly growing demimonde. In recent years, opening night has been a feast of thrills and chills. This past evening, sitarist Hidayat Khan may have set the bar impossibly high for the rest of the week with his relentlessly haunting duo performance with tabla player Enayat Hossain. Then again, the rest of the schedule promises similarly transcendent moments.

In about an hour and a half onstage, Khan”s approach to a bracingly chromatic South Indian raga was nothing short of symphonic. What was most striking, intellectually, was how effortlessly and imaginatively he built a series of several thematic variations and then interpolated them into the piece. What was most emotionally riveting was how relentlessly sad the music was: Khan’s brow remained furrowed throughout the entire duration of his opening alap. If there was ever a raga to reflect this grim historical era, this was it.

Khan may have serious chops on the sitar, but he quickly made it clear that this wouldn’t be about searing solos: it was about poignancy, and longing for some kind of closure. He finally delivered that about three-quarters of the way through the concert, but not until then. The alap was spare, somber, bristling with unresolved phrases that tantalized but eluded any decisive landing. Khan’s virtuosity revealed itself the most in a series of wrist-twisting bent notes that he delivered with such force that it seemed he might be using an icy electronic effect like a chorus pedal.

Maybe whoever invented the chorus pedal once saw a sitar virtuoso doing the same thing to build that kind of ambience.

There was plenty of daunting interplay between sitar and tabla throughout the set, Khan challenging Hossain to match his increasingly thorny syncopation note for note: Hossain nailed every phrase. Other sitar virtuosos like to build dynamic contrasts and ride the waves up and down, but Khan was intent on watching the darkness. The central theme was a close approximation of the edgy Arabic hijaz mode, but without the microtones – unless you count the sometimes subtle, occasionally savage bent notes in his matter-of-fact, unrelentingly brooding phrases over Hossain’s sometimes galloping, sometimes stark four-on-the-floor beat

The two alluded to an Afro-Cuban clave for extra slinkiness about three-quarters of the way through, then hit the passing lane, only to detour to the shoulder of this musical road as Khan brought the plaintiveness of the central theme full circle. The Drive East Festival continues tomorrow night, August 6 at 6 PM at the Mezzanine Theatre at 502 W 53rd St with Bharatanatyam dancers Rasika Kumar, Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek performing their new piece Unfiltered, inspired by the Metoo movement. There’s also a live score by spellbinding singer Roopa Mahadevan with violinists Sruti Sarathi and Arun Ramamurthy. Tickets are $30.

The Flute Raman Trio Weave a Magical Textural Web to Close Out the Drive East Festival

Yesterday evening was the final night of the New York edition of this year’s Drive East Festival of Indian music and dance at LaMaMa. Lucky residents of the Bay Area will get to witness the debut of the California version of the festival, which begins Aug 22 at 7 PM with a performance by sarod virtuoso Alam Khan at the Goode Performance Group, 401 Alabama St. in San Francisco. You can get in for $28; keep in mind that year after year, many of the shows here in New York routinely sell out fast

A pickup version of bansuri flutist Raman Kalyan’s Flute Raman Trio gamely rose to the challenge of closing night festivities here. It seemed that the bandleader had brought his whole arsenal of axes, in various shapes and sizes neatly arranged at the front of the stage. He ended up using just four of them, mostly a standard-issue model but also a misty-toned bass flute and a small model for some especially high notes during a crescendo in the evening’s big central number.

The trio began with a relatively brief raga in the north Asian pentatonic scale, the violinist shadowing Kalyan’s spare introductory phrases. As the call and response developed, there came a point where his glissandos and short bursts became impossible to replicate on a stringed instrument, so she backed toward the shadows with more spare, resonant washes. Through rises and falls and hypnotically spiraling motives, they wound up joyously and ended with a flourish.

The centerpiece of the night was raga Rasikapriya, the very final raga in the 72-raga cycle. Perhaps because it’s at the end of such a vast lineage, it’s a gorgeous, often very saturnine theme. Kalyan and the rest of the group seemed to revel the most in the moments where it took on a chromatically slashing, Middle Eastern intensity. The violinist anchored her shivery, sharp ornamentation with grave, low washes while Kalyan spun effortlessly from silken spirals to moody resonance. The mridangam player got plenty of chances to show off every possible variation on the central sixteen-beat cycle and made the most of it, urged onward by bandleader.

The three closed with a medley of catchy carnatic themes, including an especially energetic, downwardly cantering melody recognizable from the previous evening’s concert. The Flute Raman Trio get a second challenge, providing a coda to the San Francisco edition of the festival on Aug 26 at 5 PM; cover is $21.

Thrilling, Purposeful Veena Music from Nirmala Rajasekar at This Year’s Drive East Festival

Last night’s headline performance at this year’s Drive East Festival – the New York edition of one of this hemisphere’s most exciting annual Indian music and dance events – featured Saraswati veena player Nirmala Rajasekar and her kinetic quartet. This time out, Rajasekar – heir to an eight-generation legacy of veena players who also sing – was in a particularly emphatic, rhythmic, purposeful mood. She made breathtaking yet extremely terse use of the instrument’s low register, judiciously ornamenting her often spacious phrases with voltage-spiking upward slides as well as vigorously bending, shivery ornamentation. The material spanned the centuries, from ancient carnatic themes to the late 20th century “Recent, to us, means the last hundred years,” Rajasekar grinned.

The group behind her – Balaji Chandran on ghatam, Srinivasan Venkatakrishnan on mridangam and her daughter on vocals – supplied a rippling, kaleidoscopic backdrop. They got the concert going with a goodnatured take of a Sri Thiruvotriyur Thyagyyar composition utilizing raga Sahana, rising from a thoughtful, spare alap to a jaunty doublespeed romp.

Mother and daughter sang a salute to Ganesh by Sri Papanasan Sivan, utilizing raga Tilang, over a clickety-clack swing that was practically a clave.  The high point of the concert was a thrilling, dynamically rich take of Sri Shamya Shatri’s Mari Vere Gathi, on raga Anandha Bhairavi, a theme that originated in folk music. Singing without a mic, Rajasekar wrung every ounce of suspense from its allusive, often brooding modes, through an uneasily steady introduction through insistent peaks, to a delicious series of downwardly stairstepping riffs.

Much as this was about adrenaline, it was also about sly rhythmic jousting, a trope that the group would work to the point where they’d almost run out the clock, at the end of a rainmaker rage by fellow veena player and composer Shri Muthuswami Dikshidhar. Sometimes coyly, sometimes strikingly, Rajasekar interpolated snippets of other ragas, especially early on before she led the percussionists on a seemingly endless tour of rhythmic ideas.

The group closed with a brief but dramatic and often fiery ode to bravery and then a tantalizingly short, benedictory outro spiced with the shadowy, vigorously ornamented lows that Rajasekar had been working so memorably throughout the evening. For those on the west coast, she’s playing the San Francisco edition of the Drive East Festival at the Goode Performing Group Annex at 401 Alabama St. on Aug 25 at 8:30 PM; tix are $23. And the New York festival concludes today, Aug 19, at LaMaMa at 66 E 4th St. with dance starting in the afternoon and then a 5 PM concert featuring carnatic music for bansuri with the Flute Raman Trio. You can get in for $21.

Win Free Tickets to New York’s Most Exciting Indian Music Festival

This year’s Drive East Festival of Indian music and classical arts takes place this August 13-19 at LaMama at 66 E 4th St. – and you can get in free! For the third year in a row, New York Music Daily is giving away two free tickets to each musical performance:

Acclaimed Hindustani spiritual singer Rattan Mohan Sharma on Aug 13 at 7 PM
WE HAVE A WINNER

Vishal Vaid singing rapturous ghazals on Aug 14 at 8:30 PM

Rising star santoor player Vinay Desai on Aug 15 at 7:15 PM WE HAVE A WINNER

The mesmerizing Navatman Music Collective – the only carnatic choir in this hemisphere – on Aug 16 at 7:15 PM WE HAVE A WINNER

Nirmala Rajasekar and Group playing magical Saraswati veena music on Aug 18 at 8:30 PM

The Flute Raman Trio playing mystical, centuries-old bansuri repertoire on Aug 19 at 5 PM WE HAVE A WINNER

Tickets are first come, first served. Only one pair of tickets per person, please. To win, specify which concert you want and send an email to lucidculture [at] gmail [dot] com. Tickets will be available at the box office for pickup on the day of the show.

The Best New York City Concerts of 2017

New York’s best concert of 2017 was Golden Fest, with two nights and about seventy brass and string bands from across the Balkans, the Middle East and the USA on several different stages. Year after year, this annual January extravaganza is unsurpassed in terms of both quality and quantity of talent. This blog managed to catch about fifteen of those acts over that marathon weekend, including but not limited to agelessly soulful Armenian reedman Souren Baronian, rapturous singer Eva Salina  and her whirlwind accordionist Peter Stan, haunting tar lute player Amir Vahab, the searing brass of Zlatne UsteNovi Maleshevski Zurli, Raya Brass Band and Cocek! Brass Band. Golden Fest 2018 is this coming January 12 and 13 at the magnificent Grand Prospect Hall in south Park Slope.

There were four other multiple-night events that deserve a special place on this list. In March, the first-ever collaboration between Lincoln Center and the annual Festival Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde in Essaouira, Morocco resulted in a trance-inducing series of concerts that began at the Upper West Side cultural mecca, moved to a cozy auditorium at the the New School for an approximation of a Moroccan lila healing ceremony and wound up at Pioneer Works in Red Hook for a collaboration with some New Jork jazz dudes including Marc Cary and Marcus Strickland. Three of the great sintir lute-playing maalems (masters) of mesmerizing gnawa music –Abdeslam AlikkaneHamid El Kasri (who was making his North American debut) and New York-based Hassan Ben Jaafer, who leads Innov Gnawa – got to flex their chops.

The annual Drive East Festival at Dixon Place in August featured a similarly rapturous, weeklong series of Indian classical music and dance performances. Poignantly nuanced singer Indrani Khare and sitarist Kinnar Seen shared one of the midweek bills; theatrical Punjabi folk troupe Rajasthani Caravan headlined the Saturday night show. But the most amazing set of all might have been sarod virtuoso Aashish Khan, with his gracefully flickering, saturnine ragas.

The 2017 Bryant Park Accordion Festival, a weekly series spread out over more than a month in midsummer, featured mini-sets from scores of artists playing everything from klezmer to forro to swing jazz. Balkan and Middle Eastern music in separate corners of the park. Closing night began with some of the world’s greatest Middle Eastern musicians playing a riveting recreation of Ziad Rahbani’s iconic, bittersweet 1975 Bil Afrah suite.

And for the first time ever, this blog was present at every single night of an artist’s monthlong weekly residency at Barbes. Clarinet powerhouse and composer Michael Winograd picked April since there were five Saturdays in the month, where he was joined by a killer cast of musicians including rising star pianist Carmen Staaf for some small-group shows as well as a midmonth big band gig that was the best of them all. New klezmer sounds never sounded so edgy, so purist yet so fresh and wildly fun.

Otherwise, dig in for the longest year-end concert list this blog’s ever put together. It was impossible to whittle it down to any less than a grand total of fifty shows. The real estate speculator blitzkrieg keeps turning neighborhoods to rubble, yet people in this melting pot refuse to stop making great music. The rest of the year’s concerts are listed in chronological order since trying to rank them would be an exercise in futility.

If you don’t see your favorite band or your favorite show here – “What, no Dream Syndicate at Bowery Ballroom, are you guys nuts?” –  it’s a good bet that this blog wasn’t there. If you think this list is epic, just imagine the wishlist that went into it. But it’s one thing to plan on going out every night; it’s another thing to actually do it. Counting all the nights when it actually was possible to get out of the house or the office, there was more than enough good music to somewhat mitigate one of the worst years in memory for the world as a whole.

David Yengbarian, Borbely Mihaly Polygon and Meszecsinka at Drom, 1/5/17
The annual showcases put on by the APAP booking agents’ association can be an insanely good bargain. Cover was ten measly bucks for the dynamic Balkan accordionist, the noir cinematic trio of saxophonist Mihály Borbély, pyrotechnic cimbalom player Miklós Lukács and drummer András Dés, and the wild Hungarian trance-dance band.

LadamaAlash,Eva Salina and Peter Stan, Miramar and Innov Gnawa at Drom, 1/7/17
This APAP evening was even more insanely good – and this isn’t even the whole lineup! Pan-latin, mostly female dance band Ladama made a good opener for the energetically trancey Tuvan throat-singing trio, the stellar Balkan chanteuse and her accomplice on accordion, the hauntingly psychedelic Puerto Rican bolero revivalists and the only sintir lute-driven, mesmerizing traditional Moroccan trance-ritual band in this hemisphere. That group has good management: Innov Gnawa managed to get themselves on more than one bill on this page.

The Pre-War Ponies and Tipsy Oxcart at Barbes, 1/12/17
Singer/uke player Daria Grace’s swing band opened the evening on a lush, elegantly romantic note; the fiery Balkan band ended up charging into the audience as the show hit peak intensity.

Shilpa Ananth, Rini and Humeysha at Drom, 1/29/17
A diverse triplebill of Indian-influenced sounds, from psychedelic soul, to towering cinematic art-rock and spacerock.

Dave Fiuczynski’s Kif at Drom, 2/3/17
The legendary jamband leader’s microtonal guitar trio were as otherworldly as their albums – and funny too.

The Super Bolus at Footlight Bar, 2/5/17
With half the nation supposedly glued to a soporific pre-Super Bowl gabfest, a posse of A-list Brooklyn improvisers from the Gold Bolus  circle including but not limited to singers Anne Rhodes  and Anais Maviel, trumpeter Daniel Levine, saxophonists Angela Morris and Erin Rogers, vibraphonist Sam Sowyrda, bassist Lisa Dowling and oboeist Dave Kadden paired off for all kinds of strange and beguiling sounds. Kadden’s rampaging microtonal assault was the high point, in fact the most intense solo performance at any show on this list other than Amir ElSaffar’s Soho set in January.

The Musical Chairs String Quartet at the Staten Island Museum, 2/11/17
An unlikely spot to see a riveting performance of Shostakovich’s macabre, anti-fascist String Quartet No. 7 and two world premieres of fantastic quartets by Andrew Rosciszewski.

Laurie AndersonChristian McBride and Rubin Kodheli at the Town Hall, 2/23/17
Avant garde violin icon joins forces with renowned jazz bassist and protean cello wizard for a night of sometimes lively, sometimes raptly sepulchral improvisation, with Anderson’s signature political relevance

Rachelle Garniez at Barbes, 3/2/17
She may be the foremost songwriter working right now, and treated an intimate crowd to a typically eclectic, intensely lyrical set of noir cabaret, Renaissance rock, latin-tinged parlor pop and pricelessly funny between-song banter.

Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal at the French Institute, 3/3/17
The Malian kora player and French cellist teamed up for a magical duo performance staged by the World Music Institute that blended phantasmic, cinematic themes, jaunty West African melodies and the baroque. More than one audience member was brought to tears.

Girls on Grass at Halyards, 3/23/17
Guitarist Barbara Endes’ psychedelic janglerock band sounded like the Dream Syndicate with a woman out front – that good, that anthemic, that catchy.

Steve Ulrich and Mamie Minch, and Pierre de Gaillande’s Bad Reputation at Barbes, 3/25/17
Minch’s playful live movie score and Big Lazy mastermind Ulrich’s noir cinematics followed by the former Snow bandleader’s hilarious, brilliant English language parlor pop versions of Georges Brassens classics.

Changing Modes at Webster Hall, 3/26/17
The album release show by New York’s most smartly lyrical, unpredictable, keyboard-driven art-rock band was as protean and poignant as the record.

Miqayel Voskanyan at Drom, 4/5/17
Speaking of protean, the Armenian tar lute virtuoso and his quartet shifted between Near Eastern art-rock, folk-rock, Balkan turbo-folk and Romany dance music.

Meklit at Lincoln Center, 4/6/17
And while we’re still on the protean tip, how about the charismatic, fearlessly populist Ethio-jazz soulstress and her amazing band airing out new tunes from her kinetic, eclectic new album?

Easy Dreams and Karla Rose at 11th Street Bar, 4/11/17
Further proof that some of the best shows sometimes happen way under the radar. Rose, arguably the most captivating and versatile singer in all of New York and a haunting tunesmith as well, took a turn behind the drums in a mini-set by the uneasily jangly indie band, then picked up her guitar and haunted the crowd with her own brooding, film noir-influenced soul and psychedelic rock.

Gato Loco at Barbes, 4/20/17
This was more of a show for the drinkers than the stoners, a toweringly crescendoing mix of slinky noir instrumentals, psycho guitar-driven mambos and bouncy, carnivalesque themes.

Michael WinogradKill Henry Sugar and Las Rubias Del Norte at Barbes, 4/22/17
Goosebump-inducing klezmer clarinetist and his quartet, artfully lyrical, sardonic Americana rock duo and a farewell show (for now, at least) by keyboardist Alyssa Lamb and singer Emily Hurst’s hauntingly harmony-driven pan-American noir band.

Miklos Lukacs’ Cimbalom Unlimited at Drom, 5/22/17
Lukacs’ second appearance on this list was as a bandleader, playing fiery, relentlessly crescendoing themes, fingers flying across his magically rippling Hungarian dulcimer.

Rahim AlHaj at Lincoln Center, 5/25/17
The Iraqi oud virtuoso, joined by Iranian santoor player Sourena Sefati and Palestinian percussionist Issa Malluf, played the most haunting and understatedly relevant small-group New York show in a year when anti-Muslim bigotry reached a new low.

Sara SerpaSofia Rei and Aubrey Johnson in the West Village, 6/2/17
Three of the most distinctive, individualistic voices in all of music – the intense, noir-inspired Serpa, the irrepressibly fun Rei and the enigmatically lustrous Johnson – shared a characteristically eclectic bill of a-cappella songs and improvisations in a storefront church space. Unexpected venue, magical show.

Hearing Things at Barbes, 6/3/17
Brooklyn’s funnest band – JP Schlegelmilch on organ, Matt Bauder on sax and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums – are a cross between the Doors, the Ventures and maybe WIBG. The result: a brand new style. Psychedelic surf noir jazz dance music!

The Barbes Benefit at Drom, 6/9/17
Brooklyn’s best venue was in trouble. Some of New York’s best bands joined forces for a wildly successful fundraiser to make sure it’s here for another five years. On the bill: thunderous Brazilian drum troupe Maracatu NY, noir icons the Jazz Passengers, Romany song maven Sanda Weigl, a subset of the haunting, soaring all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache; charismatic singer Carolina Oliveros’ Afro-Colombian trance-dance choir Bulla en el Barrio , the similar but lower-register Innov Gnawa; one-off Balkan brass supergroup Fanfare Brooklyn – and Lynchian guitar-bass-drums trio Big Lazy .

Michael Winograd and Ben Holmes, Sean Cronin and Dolunay at Barbes, 6/10/17
The clarinetist and his trumpeter compadre opened an eclectic early-summer evening with a quartet show and lots of darkly chromatic new tunes, followed by the similarly eclectic guitarist and his purist band playing Hank Williams covers, and then riveting singer Jenny Luna’s haunting, oud-infused Turkish band

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble Outdoors in the Financial District, 6/16/17
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer and his big band played a titanic set of Middle Eastern jazz from his latest album. His show at the Fridman Gallery in SoHo back in January, which he began with a distantly harrowing solo trumpet improvisation, was much more quietly transcendent.

Rose Thomas Bannister and Goddess at Corkscrew Wines, 6/21/17
A witchy, psychedelic twinbill in a comfortable Fort Greene back courtyard with the lyrically ferocious, Shakespeare-influenced chanteuse and the theatrical psych-folk band. Backed by lead guitar monster Bob Bannister, she was also awfully good there a couple of months later on a doublebill with oldtime Americana singer Stephanie Jenkins.

Lara St. John at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, 6/27/17
In front of an impressively game pickup group, the violin virtuoso treated the crowd to a kinetic Jessie Montgomery piece, a lyrical take of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and a harrowing world premiere by Matthew Hindson, Maralinga, a narrative of terror in the wake of a 1950s Australian nuclear disaster. After that, Stravinsky was anticlimactic.

Orkesta Mendoza and Lila Downs at Prospect Park Bandshell, 6/29/17
The slinky psychedelic cumbia and noir mambo band set the stage for an epic set of classic mariachi and fearlessly political ballads by the iconic Mexican-American singer and her titanic band, joined on several numbers by Mariachi Flor de Toloache. The afterparty down the hill at Barbes, with wild Veracruz-style folk-punks Radio Jarocho, was pretty intense too.

The Mary​ ​Halvorson Octet at the Village Vanguard, 7/18/17
The world’s best jazz guitarist not named Bill Frisell or Marc Ribot and her lush, enveloping ensemble – featuring brilliant pedal steel player Susan Alcorn – aired out a lot of dynamic, uneasy new material.

Rev. Billy & the Church of  Stop Shopping Choir and Sexmob at Prospect Park Bandshell, 7/27/17
A brand-new set of original apocalyptic, anti-fascist and anti-racist original gospel tunes by the firebrand activist and his gargantuan choir, followed by the cinematic jazz quartet playing a darkly undulating, colorful live score to the 1920s Italian silent film Maciste All’Infierno.

The Trio Joubran at the Lincoln Center Festival, 7/29/17
The three Palestinian oud-playing brothers charmed and haunted the crowd with a dynamic tribute to their late collaborator, iconic poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Big Lazy at Barbes, 8/4/17
Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s cinematic noir trio made it onto the bill on more than one of the year’s best concerts, but their best single show – this blog was in the house at many of them – might have been this wildly jam-oriented night, two creepy sets at the band’s Park Slope home base. How did it feel afterward? “Free,” grinned drummer Yuval Lion.

Kill Henry Sugar and Anbessa Orchestra at Barbes, 8/11/17
Guitarist Erik Della Penna and drummer Dean Sharenow’s Americana lit-rock band have a ton of new material up their sleeves, and aired it out here before the wild Israeli Ethiopian dance band took the intensity to redline with a ferocious, psychedelic couple of sets.

Castle Black at the Well, 8/25/17
Guitarist Leigh Celent’s power trio have grown from a haphazardly promising band into a dark, fearsome monster: not even the sonic interference from the adjacent labyrinth of rehearsal rooms could silence this beast.

Melissa & the Mannequins at LIC Bar, 9/3/17
Put up a good youtube video and the crowd will come. With their killer chops and songs, New York’s best new band switched from jangly new wave to psychedelic soul and tantalizing hints of noir.

Bobtown at the Brooklyn Americana Festival, 9/23/17
Plaintive Anglo-American folk maven Jan Bell books this annual event: it would have been a lot of fun to have been able to catch more of it. With their gleaming four-part harmonies and songs about ghosts and other dead people, New York’s finest folk noir band were at the top of their game.

Greek Judas and the NY Fowl Harmonic at Hank’s, 9/28/17
Volcanic twin-guitar heavy metal versions of Greek songs from the 1920s and 30s about smoking hash, smuggling drugs and outrunning the cops, followed by Gato Loco bass sax monster Stefan Zeniuk’s carnivalesque punk-mambo group.

Seungmin Cha and Ned Rothenberg in Tribeca, 10/1/17
A riveting, intense, enveloping electroacoustic jazz loft set by the paradigm-shifting avant garde Korean daegeum flute player with the downtown multi-reed virtuoso.

The 24-Hour Raga-Thon at the Rubin Museum of Art, 10/22/17
This blog was only around for the wee-hours part that started about three in the morning: prime time for haunting, rarely heard morning ragas reinvented by an adventurous cast of Indian musicians including but not limited to saxophonist Aakash Mittal, guitarist Rez Abbasi, sarodist Camila Celin , trumpeter Aaron Shragge, bansuri flutist Eric Fraser and santoor sorceress Deepal Chodhari. 

Tom Csatari’s Uncivilized Playing Twin Peaks at Barbes, 10/29/17
Brooklyn’s best and most individualistic jazz guitarist led his fearlessly adventurous group through some careening and some absolutely chilling versions of iconic David Lynch tv and film scores.

Edna Vazquez at Lincoln Center, 11/2/17
You could call this charismatic guitarist/singer’s music “noiriachi” – haunting, kinetic, fearlessly relevant dark mariachi rock.

La Mar Enfortuna at the Jewish Museum, 11/9/17
Elysian Fields guitarist Oren Bloedow’s lush, luscious twelve-string jangle and his bandmate, singer Jennifer Charles’ multilingual reinventions of ancient Ladino songs and themes from across the Sephardic diaspora ran the gamut from haunting to even more so.

The ClaudettesBrian Carpenter and the Confessions and Big Lazy at Drom, 11/10/17
The piano-driven Chicago group have reinvented themselves as a catchy blue-eyed soul band; Carpenter, a connoisseur of oldtimey swing jazz, mined a deep noir rock vein, capped off by NYC’s finest noir cinematic instrumentalists.

The Navatman Music Collective at Symphony Space, 11/19/17
This hemisphere’s only Indian carnatic choir sang and played a mammoth, shapeshifting set of reinvented classical themes from across the centuries.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra in the Lincoln Center complex, 12/2/17
A poignant, violin-fueled take of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise and Michael Daugherty’s timpani concerto Raise the Roof set the stage for a withering performance of Shostakovich’s classic antifascist Symphony No. 10. Anybody who thinks classical music isn’t relevant wasn’t there.

The Todd Marcus Orchestra at Smalls, 12/3/17
The bass clarinetist/bandleader led his brilliant eight-piece group through his brand-new, catchy, picturesque Middle Eastern jazz suite.

Rapturous Vocal and Sitar Ragas Last Night at the Drive East Festival

There was a point last night at the ongoing, weeklong 2017 Drive East Festival of Indian music at Dixon Place where tabla player Dibyarka Chaterjee looked up at singer Indrani Khare with a sudden grin, all the while maintaining a steady, syncopated volley of notes. Was she going to throw something else like that him again?

Although the greatest Indian classical musicians are all great improvisers, when they fly without a net those flights tend to be on the subtle side. An elegant, graceful presence onstage, Khare had begun her vast, profoundly bittersweet interpretation of raga Puriya Kalyan with a velvety calm, slowly adding ornamentation, up to a big, meticulously modulated crescendo where her melismatic vocalese became a tightly wound trill that basically required her to be in chest voice and falsetto at the same time. It’s a common if breathtaking device in carnatic music, and she was obviously taking some unexpected liberties. Meanwhile, her singing guru, Mitali Banerjee Bhawmik, watched approvingly, occasionally signaling to her star protegee from the front row.

There was another point where Chaterjee and young harmonium prodigy Srikar Ayyalasomayajula exchanged a momentary, wide-eyed stare as Khare sang unacompanied for a few bars: was this really happening? Could a human being possibly channel such depths of tenderness, and sadness, and guarded hope, so unselfconsciously? Chaterjee has obviously played with countless A-list Indian musicians, but something special was clearly going on here.

He eventually got a solo spot where he flickered through similar low-key simmer, matched occasionally by Ayyalasomayajula, whose nimble phrasing often doubled or shadowed the bandleader. Shifting back and forth between crystalline, unadornedly warm phrasing and the occasional fluttering cadenza, even her most dramatic moments never reached for the kind of stratospheric, chirpy tone that a lot of Bollywood singers embrace. At the end of her hour onstage, she incorporated all those same devices in a more concise context with a devotional bhajan ballad.

The next performance on the night’s bill was by sitarist Kinnar Seen, who played a similarly dynamic if much more wildly energetic take of two evening pieces, raga Rageshwari and raga Mishra Bhairawvi. Seen had programmed this as a suite, barely taking time between the two. With a slow, purposeful, nocturnal stroll punctuated by the occasional emphatic low bent note, he followed a series of tangents through torrents of upward and downward riffage, sometimes adding stark accents that brought to mind ancient British folk music.

There were a lot of surprises in the music: the only point where Seen telegraphed where he was about to go was when he hit chopped his strings for what seemed like a minute, building a deep mist of overtones that would resonate when he finally resumed his frenetic cascades down the fretboard.

It’s not often that students get to play with an acclaimed international touring artist, but the two teenage tabla players behind him held their own and were given several turns in the spotlight, the most engaging one being a rapidfire charge together which was a triumph of seamlessness – and these dudes aren’t afraid of showing how much fun they’re having. By contrast, tanpura player Melissa Cheta lingered in the background with her stately accents. 

The Drive East Festival at Dixon Place (161A Chrystie St., just north and around the corner from Bowery Ballroom) continues tonight with music and dance tonight starting at 6 PM with a cross-pollinated Indian-Korean percussion-and-dance piece by Jin Won and Seu Yeon Park, followed at 7:15 by the festival’s artistic director Sahasra Sambamoorthi’s Navatman Dance ensemble with Sridhar Shanmugam and then carnatic vocal crooner Shankar Ramani at 8:30; tix for all of these shows, in various price ranges, are still available as of this hour. Be aware that last night’s performances were pretty full, so some of you might want to reserve those before they’re gone.

Aashish Khan Plays a Transcendent Opening to This Year’s Drive East Festival of Indian Music

Anyone who doubts the curative power of Indian music obviously didn’t see sarod virtuoso Aashish Khan’s transcendent show at Dixon Place last night.

Chosen to open this year’s lavishly eclectic Drive East Festival of Indian music and culture, things didn’t look good for the son of the iconic Ali Akbar Khan, heir to a musical legacy that dates to the 1500s.. “I wanted to cancel, but my word is bond,” he shrugged.

And then struggled through a relatively brief ten minutes or so worth of a spacious, enigmatic evening raga where the main theme seemed to be “let’s not go there.” Time after time, Khan reached for flurrying intensity and then pulled back. It’s not like he was dealing with a life-threatening illness, but he was having a hard time finding his game – and apologized prosueful to the audience beforehand for being under the weather.

Then he and tabla player Nitin Mitta took a deep breath and launched into a stark, distantly anguished, ultimately indomitable performance of a brooding south Indian raga which had made its way into the northern repertoire, he said.

As it unwound, was Khan going to put the finishing touches on a triumphant, bitterly chromatic crescendo that seemed to say, “Take that!” to whatever had threatened to reduce him to an inhaler-dependent, shivering mass?

Not yet, no way. If there was any takeaway from this show – other than the harrowing, lingering, Middle Eastern-tinged phrases that Khan parsed early on – it was how much of a force of nature Mitta is. After Khan had found new life and sank his teeth (and fiery fingers) into it, hard, he handed the biggest crescendos to his tabla player. And did Mitta ever deliver. Devious, rat-a-tat twelve-on-four riffs, droll spirals from the depths to the flitting outer rims of the drums, and a jet-engine crescendo out of a plaintive Khan phrase brought the energy to redline.

The other message, if anybody hasn’t guessed by now, is that if this is Khan at halfspeed, imagine the guy at full steam. Which he and Mitta finally hit, after a long, sepulchrally modal, eerily contemplative stroll through the sarod’s upper-midrange, Khan picking his targets and then leveling a savagely precise chainsaw attack. The two then exchanged a sardonic series of congratulatory riffs – holy smokes, we actually pulled this thing off! – and wound up the set in a final careening volley of notes, heavy metal as it might have been played in Punjab in 1600 but with better instruments.

The Drive East Festival continues tonight, August 22 at 6 PM with a killer twinbill: Hindustani singer Indrani Khare (cover is $15) followed at 7:15 by by rising star sitar player Kinnar Seen ($20 cover). And the rest of the week’s lineup is pretty spectacular as well. Dixon Place is at 161A Chrystie St., just a block east and around the corner from Bowery Ballroom. The closest train is the J//M to Bowery, but it’s also an easy walk from the B/D at Grand St and the F at Second Avenue