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Tag: emel mathlouthi

Three Charismatic Women Push the Envelope with Arabic Music at the Met

Last night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the World Music Institute staged a triplebill of three individualistic, charismatic women bandleaders who’re pushing the envelope with how far music across the Arabic-speaking diaspora can go. The concert raised many questions, one of them being that as New Yorkers, is it our birthright to be able to immerse ourselves in great art from cultures around that world that we may not necessarily be immersed in? Or are we being priced out? Tickets for this one were $35, and while there was a big crowd, the Met’s Rogers Auditorium wasn’t sold out. Likewise, the museum is charging everyone but us full-price admission now – and probably making a killing from all the tourists.

Alsarah & the Nubatones opened the show with a very brief set of bouncy, catchy, vamping dance numbers, rising from a gathering hailstorm of notes from Brandon Terzic’s oud. The bandleader calls their music “retro Nubian pop,” a 21st century update on the slinky sounds produced in the wake of forced migrations to northern Egyptian cities in the 1960s. Blending the edgy chromatics and modes of Arabic music with catchy grooves from deeper in Africa, the band pulsed and pounced, Terzic trading riffs with bassist Mawuena Kodjovi over percussionist Ramy El Asser’s supple drive. Alsarah remarked that she’d come to reinvent the notion of a museum being “where art goes to die,” and then left that thread hanging: art never dies as long as people have access to it.

Tunisian-born Emel Mathlouthi received an overwhelming standing ovation for barely half an hour onstage, leading an icily atmospheric trio with multi-keys and syndrums. Resolute in a black dress, twirling slowly and elegantly and singing in both Arabic and English, she channeled simmering anger and defiance. Her slowly swaying opening number was an invitation to gather and join forces against oppression. After that, another minimalistic, slowly crescendoing minor-key dirge – whose Arabic title translates roughly as “Hopeless Humans” – sent a shout out to the working classes whose exhaustive efforts benefit nobody besides the bosses.

She closed on a more optimistic note with a tone poem of sorts, an Arabic counterpart to an epic from Nico’s Marble Index album – except with infinitely stronger vocals. Mathlouthi’s stage presence, her vocals and lyrics are vividly and often wrenchingly emotional; the mechanical thump of the syndrums made a jarring contrast with all the subtlety she brings to the stage. The music was plenty cold and foreboding without them.

Singer/acoustic guitarist Farah Siraj headlined. “She reminds me of Lauryn Hill,” an attractive, petite Jewish woman in the audience remarked. That observation was on the money, considering how Siraj blends elements of 90s American radio pop, flamenco, Romany ballads, bossa nova and Andalucian sounds with classical Arabic music. Her lead guitarist provided spiky intros and exchanged hard-hitting riffs with oudist Kane Mathis and bassist Moto Fukushima over the drummer’s shapeshifting grooves, moving effortlessly from the tropics to the Middle East. From there they took a detour toward India with an undulating ballad that Faraj wrote with Bollywood composer legend A.R. Rahman – which became a chart-topping hit for her. 

A hauntingly crescendoing Jordanian ballad gave Siraj a launching pad for her most chillingly melismatic vocal of the night – and a chance to salute the bravery and resilience of refugees from Syria, Palestine and around the world. After that, she blended habibi pop, Brazilian balminess and Spanish sizzle, sometimes within a few bars of each other. 

Fans of global sounds ought to check out the free show the WMI is putting on at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. on May 3 at 7:30 PM with hypnotic Saharan rock band Imharhan.

Two Thirds of a Potentially Magical Triplebill Revisited at the Met Tonight

More about that great triplebill staged by the World Music Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art tonight, March 24 at 7 PM: it’s a reprise of two thirds of what should have been the best concert of 2017 but wasn’t. The problem wasn’t the artists on the bill: it was the sound. But the Rogers Auditorium at the Met has superb sonics. Central Park Summerstage is an outdoor venue and can’t compare, and although the sound there last summer was usually pretty good, it was problematic that August evening when two charismatic singers with North African ancestry, Emel Mathlouthi and Alsarah led their respective bands, opening for the godfather of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke.

Mathlouthi and Alsarah & the Nubatones are both on tonight’s bill along with Jordanian chanteuse Farah Siraj, and as of this morning it wasn’t sold out, probably because of the price, $35. But if you have the cash, it’s worth it, especially if you figure that each artist is only about twelve bucks apiece.

On one hand, the Central Park gig was a chance for each woman to put their strengths front and center. Both draw on a long tradition of allusive, imagistic classical Arabic poetry for their lyrics and subject matter. Alsarah’s kinetic dancefloor anthems address themes of Nubian longing and displacement in Aswa Dam-era Egypt. Mathlouthi’s icy, cinematic art-rock opaquely references struggle and resistance: in her formative years, she was a heroine of the  Arab Spring in her native Tunisia.

Alsarah’s set kicked off the afternoon. Her not-so-secret weapon is oudist Brandon Terzic, whose rippling microtones drove the rise and fall of the songs. It wasn’t til the end that he got a chance to stretch out and solo; the time out, the band’s most wildly applauded solo spot was a boomy trip through a funhouse mirror of North African rhythms from master percussionist Rami El Asser. Given less time onstage than her epic album release show at Flushing Town Hall back in the spring of 2016, the bandleader didn’t talk to the audience as much but still found room to mention how the Nubians’ forced relocation to cities mirrors the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East as well as anti-immigrant violence here at home.

Mathlouthi was next on the bill. Her not-so-secret weapon is her voice, a powerful weapon that began looming and eventually took some dramatic flights upward. Backed only by keys and drums, she stood more or less motionless, drawing the crowd in. But while the stage monitors were probably working, the PA wasn’t. Midway through the show, the atmospheric keys that have been a major part of her sound lately disappeared from the mix and didn’t return until almost the end. Much as her voice was strong against the beats – a trippy, techy electroacoustic mix – the grandeur and angst of her songwriting never reached altitude. As with the opening act, she didn’t interact with the crowd as much as at her own epic show at the Global Beat Festival downtown back in 2015: “The world’s biggest terrorist is capitalism,” was her most acerbic comment.

Mulatu Astatke headlined. It was strange to see that the space wasn’t completely sold out for the guy who, if he didn’t invent Ethiopian jazz, has done more to bring it to a global audience than anyone else. Joined by an inspired, horn-spiced pickup group including but not limited to Jason Lindner on keys, Marcus Gilmore on drums and Roman Diaz on congas, Astatke delivered a haunting, gracefully rippling,  chromatic mix of mostly midtempo numbers punctuated by a very long percussion interlude. He took the lead on electric piano on most of the tunes, Lindner holding his own when taking over on the techier songs and taking them subtly toward P-Funk territory without ripping their austere fabric. It was great to finally get to see Astatke live, but a bad taste lingered. What an incredible show it would have been if the PA had been working for Mathlouthi.

The Best New York Concerts of 2015

On one hand, pulling this page together is always a lot of fun – and there could be a late addition or two, since the year’s not over yet. Of all the year-end lists here, including the Best Songs of 2015 and Best Albums of 2015, this is the most individualistic – everybody’s got their own – and reflective of the various scenes in this blog’s endangered but still vital hometown.

On the other hand, whittling this page down to a manageable number always hurts a little. With apologies to everyone who didn’t make the cut, for reasons of space or otherwise – seriously, nobody’s got the time to sift through the hundred or so concerts that realistically deserve to be on this page – this list feels bare-bones, even with a grand total of 28 shows.

In terms of epic sweep, intensity and gravitas, the year’s best concert was by Iran’s Dastan Ensemble in September at Roulette. This performance marked the New York debut of intense young singer Mahdieh Mohammadkhani, who aired out her powerful voice in a series of original suites on themes of gender equality by members of the ensemble, along with some dusky, austere traditional songs.

Since trying to rank the rest of these shows would be impossible, they’re listed as they happened:

Karla Rose and Mark Sinnis & 825 at the Treehouse at 2A, 2/15/15
The frontwoman of noir rockers Karla Rose & the Thorns in a chillingly intimate duo performance with her Tickled Pinks bandmate Stephanie Layton, followed by the Nashville gothic crooner and his massive oldschool honkytonk band.

Molly Ruth and Lorraine Leckie at the Mercury, 3/12/15
A savage, careening set by the angst-fueled punk-blues siren and her new band, followed by the Canadian gothic songstress and her volcanic group with newly elected Blues Hall of Fame guitarist Hugh Pool.

Lazy Lions and Regular Einstein at Rock Shop, 3/20/15
A feast of lyrical double entendres, edgy new wave and punk-inspired tunesmithing. Jim Allen’s band were playing their first gig since 2008 and picked up like they never stopped; Paula Carino’s recently resurrected original band from the 90s were just as unstoppable.

The Shootout Band and a nameless if good pickup band led by John Sharples at the Mercury, 3/22/15
Cover bands get very little space here for reasons that should be obvious, but the Shootout Band devote themselves to doing a scary-good replication of Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, Erica Smith shattering in her role as Linda Thompson and Bubble’s Dave Foster doing a spot-on-Richard. Afterward, multi-instrumentalist John Sharples led a similarly talented bunch song by song through Graham Parker’s cult favorite Squeezing Out Sparks album

Ensemble Hilka, Black Sea Hotel and the Ukrainian Village Voices at the Ukrainian Museum, 4/25/15
In their first performance in over three years (see Lazy Lions above), the Ukrainian choral group ran through a rustic, otherworldly performance of ancient songs from the area around the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site. Innovative Bulgarian/Balkan trio Black Sea Hotel and then the esteemed East Village community singers were no less otherworldly.

Mamie Minch and Laura Cantrell at Union Hall, 5/5/15
Resonator guitar badass and pan-Americana songstress Minch, and then Cantrell – the reigning queen of retro country sounds – each took their elegant rusticity to new places. Cantrell’s final stand of a monthlong residency here, a mighty electric show, was also awfully good.

Emel Mathlouthi and Niyaz at the World Financial Center, 5/8/15
Menacingly triumphant, politically-fueled Arabic art-rock from Mathlouthi and then mystically hypnotic, propulsive Iranian dancefloor grooves from Niyaz.

Rachelle Garniez and Carol Lipnik at Joe’s Pub, 5/14/15
Noir cabaret, stark Americana, soul/gospel and deviously funny between song repartee from multi-instrumentalist Garniez, followed by the magically surreal art-rock of Lipnik and her spine-tingling four-octave voice in a duo show with pianist Matt Kanelos.

Amy Rigby at Hifi Bar, 5/28/15
The final show of her monthlong residency was a trio set with her husband Wreckless Eric and bassist daughter Hazel, a richly lyrical, puristically tuneful, characteristically hilarious career retrospective

Erica Smith, Mary Spencer Knapp, Pete Cenedella, Monica Passin and the Tickled Pinks at the Treehouse at 2A, 5/31/15
Guitarist and purist tunesmith Passin, a.k.a L’il Mo, put this bill together as one of her frequent “Field of Stars” songwriters-in-the-round nights here. Smith was part of a lot of good shows this year because she’s so in demand; this was a rare chance to hear her dark Americana in a solo acoustic setting, joined by eclectic accordionist Knapp (of Toot Sweet), irrepressible American Ambulance frontman Cenedella, and a surprise appearance by coyly edgy swing harmony trio the Tickled Pinks (Karla Rose, Stephanie Layton and Kate Sland).

Jim Allen, Kendall Meade and Ward White at Hifi Bar, 6/15/15
Songsmith Allen doesn’t get around as much as a lot of the other acts here, but he really makes his gigs count: this was a glimpse of his aphoristic, lyrical Americana side. Meade, frontwoman of the late, great, catchy Mascott, held the crowd rapt with her voice and her hooks, then White went for deep literary menace with a little glamrock edge.

Glass House Ensemble and Muzsikas at NYU’s Skirball Center, 6/17/15
Trumpeter Frank London’s collaboration with an all-star Hungarian group, recreating rare pre-Holocaust Jewish sounds, followed by the more stripped-down, rustic but high-voltage Hungarian folk trio.

The Claudettes and Big Lazy at Barbes, 7/11/15
Fiery, sometimes hilariously theatrical barrelhouse piano soul followed by New York’s most menacing, state-of-the-art noir soundtrack band. Big Lazy have an ongoing monthly Barbes residency; their two sets this past May were particularly scary.

The Bright Smoke at the Mercury, 7/25/15
This was the show where intense frontwoman Mia Wilson’s blues-inspired psychedelic art-rock band made the quantum leap and earned comparisons to Joy Division.

Robin Aigner & Parlour Game at Barbes, 8/8/15
The torchy, wickedly lyrical oldtimey/Americana songstress at the top of her captivating game with a trio including poignant, powerful violinist/pianist Rima Fand.

Ember Schrag, Alec K Redfearn & the Eyesores and Escape by Ostrich at Trans-Pecos, 8/23/15
The fearsomely talented Schrag did double duty at this show, first playing her own murderously lyrical, Shakespeare-influenced art-rock with her own band, then switching from guitar to organ in Redfearn’s equally murderous Balkan psychedelic group. Jangly no wave jamband Escape by Ostrich took the evening into the wee hours.

Sweet Soubrette and Kotorino at Joe’s Pub, 9/2/15
This time it was menacing chanteuse Ellia Bisker who did double duty, first fronting her richly horn-driven noir soul band, then adding her voice to the noir latin art-rock of Kotorino.

The Shannon Baker/Erica Seguine Jazz Orchestra at Shrine, 9/7/15
Lots of good jazz shows this past year, none more unpredictably fascinating and lushly gorgeous than the epic performance by this unique, shapeshifting large ensemble uptown.

Kelley Swindall at LIC Bar, 9/16/15
The noir Americana songwriter and murder ballad purveyor usually leads a band; this solo gig was a rare chance to get up close and personal with her creepily philosophical southern gothic narratives

Charming Disaster at Pete’s Candy Store, 9/30/15
Speaking of twisted narratives, this multi-instrumentalist murder ballad/noir song project by Bisker and Morris (look up three notches) never sounded more menacing – and epically inspired – than they did here.

Jenifer Jackson at a house concert on the Upper West Side, 10/1/15
A long-awaited return home by the now Austin-based Americana/jazz/psychedelic songwriter, in a rare trio show with amazingly virtuosic multi-instrumentalist Kullen Fuchs and violinist Claudia Chopek

Liz Tormes and Linda Draper at the American Folk Art Museum, 10/23/15
A rare solo acoustic dark Americana twinbill by two of the most potently, poignantly lyrical songsmiths in that shadowy demimonde.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices and MacMcCarty & the Kidd Twist Band at Sidewalk, 11/6/15
Murphy has defined New York noir for a long time – and now he’s gone electric, with searing results. McCarty has more of a Celtic folk-rock edge and equally haunting, politically-fueled story-songs.

Karla Rose & the Thorns at the Mercury, 11/17/15
Enigmatic reverb guitar-fueled Twin Peaks torch songs, stampeding southwestern gothic bolero rock, ominously echoey psychedelia, venomous saloon blues and stiletto between-song repartee from another artist who made multiple appearances on this list because everybody wants her to sing with them.

The Sometime Boys at Freddy’s, 11/20/15
One of New York’s most individualistic, catchy, groove-driven bands ran through a sizzling set of haunting, gospel-inflected ballads, jaunty newgrass, acoustic funk and blue-flame guitar psychedelia

Amanda Thorpe, Mary Lee Kortes, Lianne Smith and Debby Schwartz at the Treehouse at 2A, 11/22/15
Impresario Tom Clark remarked that there might never have been so much talent onstage here as there was this particular evening, with noir Britfolk songwriter Thorpe, the soaring and savagely lyrical Kortes, the ever-darker and mesmerizing Smith and the powerful, dreampop/Americana-influenced Schwartz. For that matter, there have been few nights on any stage anywhere in this city with this much lyrical and vocal power, ever.

Like last year, the numbers here suggest many interesting things. Eighteen of these shows were in Manhattan, eight were in Brooklyn and two in Queens, which is open to multiple interpretations. More instructive is the fact that half of the twenty-eight were free shows where the audience passed around a tip bucket rather than paying a cover at the door. Most interestingly, women artists dominated this list, even more so than they did last year: an astonishing 39 of the 53 acts here were either women playing solo or fronting a group. That’s a trend. You’re going to see more of that here on the Best Albums of 2015 and Best Songs of 2015 pages at the end of this month.

Two of the Most Compelling Frontwomen in Middle Eastern Music at the Global Beat Festival

That Emel Mathlouthi could sing almost entirely in Arabic to a mainly English-speaking audience, hold them spellbound and then earn a roaring, standing ovation from a crowd of maybe a thousand people in the financial district last night testifies to her power to communicate and transcend boundaries. That, and her charisma. There’s nothing like leading a revolution to boost your confidence: the Tunisian-born Mathlouthi’s self-assurance resides in her power to move people and, maybe, effect change. She did that on her home turf, where her hit Kelmti Horra (Freedom of Speech) became an iconic anthem in the early days of the Arab Spring. And she took a mighty stab at it yesterday evening at the Global Beat Festival with music that was relentlessly dark, and heavy, and anguished, aching to break free.

Mathlouthi’s Arabic lyrics are crystallized but allusive and heavy on symbolism. Her tempos are slow, her ambience swirling and stormy. Her most recent album blended levantine sweep, alienated Pink Floyd grandeur and icy gothic production. Her set this time out was similar, heavy with new material from a forthcoming release. Mathlouthi likes her vocal and instrumental loops, nebulous atmospherics and a tapestry of textures. Over that somber backdrop – provided mainly via live syndrums and multiple layers of synthesized orchestration, much of that seemingly from pedals or a mixer – she sang with a white-knuckle intensity, holding back just thismuch from a fullscale wail. With that wounded delivery and a withering, dismissive stare, she projects a fearlessness largely absent these days: think Patti Smith, Penelope Houston or Siouxsie Sioux (or, for that matter, Umm Kulthumm). She underscored the unease and tension of several numbers by turning her back on the crowd as the music wound down, striding impatiently to face the rear walll of the stage, hands on her hips, defiant and resolute and very much alone.

Themes of homelessness, exile and an interminable wait pervaded the material. Even the calm of the title of Houdou’On was cut loose in waves of syndrums pounding at an invisible, all-encircling wall. Her voice became a bitter stained-glass tableau amid the funereal, cathedral-like sonics, witness to the world of turmoil and torment that she’d addressed head-on early in the show.

Niyaz frontwoman Azam Ali is no less charismatic, although her music is considerably more kinetic. The five-piece Persian-Canadian trance band’s forthcoming album The Fourth Light takes its inspiration from eighth century mystic and poet Rabia Al Basri, who is ironically an underrated figure in Sufism, the movement she created, simply because she was a woman. Ali explained that she and her group have always focused on music of minorities and opppressed peoples from Iran and the surrounding areas, so it was no suprise to find that the new album – much of which the band played – is dedicated to “The world’s greatest minority: women.”

Ali also tackled the issue of how much music sung in an unfamiliar language could possible resonate with a crowd that doesn’t speak it, reassuring them that ultimately, it makes little difference, to simply focus on the melodies. And the audience responded vigorously: by the end of the show, a circle of dancers had taken over the roped-off area in front of the stage. Ali varied her approach from song to song, from delicately soaring to forceful and resonant, especially when she dipped to her lowest registers over the wash of otherworldly textures from Loga Ramin Torkian’s stark kaman fiddle or electric oud, or the keys and mixers of Gabriel Ethier. This was the group’s first show with new tabla player Vineet Vyas, who built a groove spinning pointillistic trails of notes that mingled with the rippling, often ecstatic kanun of Didem Basar. When Ali wasn’t swaying and intoning in front of the group, building a dynamic that was equally mesmerizing and pulsing, dancer Tanya Evanson brought to life the figure of a woman straining against her chains and, at least it seemed, gaining her freedom. Is it ironic that women from some of the most misogynistic places on earth also happen to be some of the world’s most potent voices for freedom – or is that simply a consequence of the natural human reaction to tyranny and oppression?

The festival continues tonight, May 9 at 8 with a rare Honduran twinbill: surf rocker Guayo Cedeño & Coco Bar  and then Garifuna guitarist/songwriter Aurelio & the Garifuna Soul Band. The concert is free, but getting there early is a good idea. Logistically, your best and fastest bet is to go straight down Vesey St. and hang a left into the World Trade Center Path station, take the escalator down, follow the corridor around the bend under the West Side Highway and then up again into the “winter garden” across the street with its stage in the center of the building’s west wall.

Spine-Tingling Moroccan Crooner Emil Zrihan and More at This Year’s Globalfest

Toward the end of Emel Mathlouthi’s set at Globalfest at Webster Hall Sunday night, right in the middle of one of her songs, the power onstage suddenly blew out. It was her birthday, too. What a crappy birthday present! But the Tunisian-born, now New York-based songwriter didn’t miss a beat. She went off mic and led the rest of her band – a couple of guys playing percussion – through an old Tunisian folk song. And that gave her the chance to really air our her powerful alto voice in all its microtonal magnificence. See, earlier in the set, her vocals had been running through a mixer, and a lot of the time the effects flattened her. Robbing Emel Mathlouthi of her nuance makes about as much sense as asking Johnny Ramone to turn down his guitar, or telling Louis Armstrong to stay away from the blue notes.

Left to her own devices, Mathlouthi is a force of nature. Her 2012 album Kelmti Horra (Arabic for “freedom of speech”) was a masterpiece of menacingly enveloping art-rock, and she sang a couple of enigmatic, brooding cuts from that album, which were considerably more stripped down considering that the instrumentation was just percusion and whatever was in the mixing desk. It seems that she’s focusing more on vocals at the moment than on the elegantly incendiary lyricism that made her such a popular figure in the optimistic early days of the Arab Spring. Which could be a function of learning a new language – her command of English is already pretty good – or something else. She played a Bjork hit solo, the only number on which she picked up her guitar, and it was an improvement on the original. But it didn’t hold up alongside Mathlouthi’s own ominous chromatics, moody minor keys and angst-fueled political sensibility. And that seemed muted this time out.

Globalfest is a spinoff of the annual booking agents’ convention. Beyond drawing on a wide spectrum of fans of all kinds of esoterica, the annual January concert pulls together a demimonde of aging hippies from the nonprofit sector and arts auditoriums across the country. Acts play on three separate stages at staggered intervals, so that talent buyers who might be so inclined can make the rounds and get a taste of what they could be doing at home in their pj’s, watching youtube…but a New York vacation on the company dime is a lot more fun, isn’t it?

Although the show was officially sold out, it didn’t seem nearly as crowded as last year, when a phenomenal lineup included Bollywood disco retroists the Bombay Royale, thunderous Kiev folk-punk crew DakhaBrakha, iconic Romany brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia and psychedelic southwestern gothic rockers Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta. Usually there aren’t a lot of hard choices: the best acts don’t generally conflict. For whatever reason, this year’s lineup had some solid acts, but didn’t feel as celebratory. Maybe that’s explained simply by the absence of Fanfare Ciocarlia, a band unrivalled for awe-inspiring power.

After Mathlouthi’s set was cut short, the crowd made their way upstairs to watch the end of the Nile Project‘s irresistibly slinky, hypnotically undulating grooves. This large and largely improvisational ensemble was pulled together by soul songwriter Meklit Hadero and her Egyptian pal Mina Girgis as a way of bringing together some of the best musicians from the Nile Delta to raise awareness of how the struggle over water rights there is destabilizing the region and threatening its many diverse populations – who have a lot in common, musicwise. There was a loose, easy chemistry among the many members, notably saxophonist Jorge Mesfin, with his eerie, resonant, distantly Ethiopian-tinged lines, and oudist Hazim Shaheen,whose long, nimble, spiraling phrases spiced the music with a dusky shimmer. And when singer Dina El Wadidi took centerstage to lead the band through a long, slowly crescendoing clip-clop anthem, there weren’t any effects on her voice other than a touch of reverb. Which was a thrill to hear, a thrill that could have been replicated in the downstairs space earlier but for the most part wasn’t.

After that, the Jones Family Singers were vamping their way out of their downstairs set: the Houston gospel-funk band has a lot of members, so it took them what seemed like a quarter of an hour to finish the band intros. They’re another force of nature: here’s what another fairly recent show of theirs sounded like.

The high point of the night was the Moroccan Nightingale, Emil Zrihan. He’s the cantor at a Sephardic synagogue in Israel, whose congregation must be very patient considering how in demand the crooner is all over the world. His backing band set a suspenseful, literally breathtaking tone immediately, blending the rippling, chromatically-charged interweave of oud, kanun, percussion, violin and accordion. Zrihan immediately launched into a long, downwardly spiraling series of otherworldly, microtonal melismas, aided by so much reverb that there was slapback. And from then on he worked that for all it was worth, seemingly going for a couple of minutes at a clip without drawing a breath. The music ran the gamut of the Middle East: a rousing, deliriously swaying wedding dance; a couple of waltzes interrupted by volleys of spine-tingling vocalese; a stately, wistful minor-key number that drew on Algerian chaabi balladry; and darker, more sweeping Sephardic and Egyptian themes.He wound up the set with a remarkably fresh, nuanced version of Ya Rayyeh, the famous 1920s rai hit that elevates everyone who plays it, or sings it – it’s one of those rare tunes that anyone from any culture around the world can hum. and suddenly it’s impossible to be in a bad mood. That alone made the concert worthwhile, reason to see what other stars from obscure corners of the globe will make their way here next year.

The 30 Best NYC Concerts of 2013

Of all the year-end lists here, which also include the year’s best songs and best albums, the best New York concerts list is usually the most fun to pull together. For one, it’s the most individual. The Bushwick indie rock clique may go to all the same shows together because they’re terrified of giving anyone the impression that they can think for themselves, but among the 99%, everybody has their own unique bunch of favorites from the past year.

This is also the easiest list to assemble. Every year, there are thousands of songs and hundreds of albums to sift through; the number of shows is thankfully a lot more manageable.

But this year, tragedy struck. The night of January 19, arguably the best New York rock show of 2013 featured a headline act whose core members would be murdered only a few months later. Lush art-rock/dance-rock band the Yellow Dogs topped the bill at the now-shuttered Public Assembly as part of a phenomenal lineup which began with female-fronted dreampop band Butter the Children, then reggae/soul band Osekre & the Lucky Bastards and the Brooklyn What playing a scorching, intense album release show for their latest one, Hot Wine. The Brooklyn What would go on to share another bill with the Iranian expats before a disgruntled ex-bandmate ambushed the group in their sleep in south Williamsburg in mid-November.

Otherwise, the game plan for this page was to list twenty shows. In the process of whittling the number down, it became obvious that there was no way to fairly choose any less than thirty. This city may be mired in a crushing economic depression, but somehow New York musicians rose above it and made 2013 a year to remember. The 29 other best shows of the year, from this perspective anyway, in chronological order:

Changing Modes at Spike Hill, 1/19/13. It was cool to be able to sneak away from the Brooklyn What/Yellow Dogs extravaganza around the corner to see this slashingly lyrical, female-fronted, keyboard-driven art-rock/new wave rock crew. They were missing one of their three singers, but the music was still killer.

Molly Ruth at Zirzamin, 1/27/13. From November of 2012 through this past July, when the club closed suddenly, this blog booked a lot of shows at the basement space on Houston Street. Given a supportive venue and unlimited access to New York’s best talent, what an amazing time that was! Molly Ruth’s fearless charisma and wickedly acerbic, assaultive punk-blues songs made for one of the best nights there.

Richard Thompson at Joe’s Pub, 2/5/13. Absolutely no plans to see this, tickets being as ridiculously overpriced as they were. Publicist sends an eleventh-hour email: wanna go? Sure! The veteran rocker who might be the greatest guitarist of all time – and maybe the greatest rock songwriter of all time – was at the top of his game, leading a power trio.

Jerome O’Brien and Beninghove’s Hangmen at Zirzamin, 2/18/13. This wasn’t one of the nights booked by this blog, but it could have been: the former frontman of literate punk/R&B rockers the Dog Show airing out old classics and deviously witty new material, solo acoustic on 12-string guitar, followed by saxophonist/composer Bryan Beninghove’s careening, menacing, psychedelic noir surf/crime jazz band.

The Polyse Project and Shofar at the Lincoln Center Atrium, 2/21/13. The two Polish groups made their US debut playing obscure, haunting folk tunes from the pre-Holocaust Polish-Jewish badlands along with equally haunting, lingering jazz reinventions of some of those themes.

Trio Tritticali at Zirzamin, 2/24/13. Of all the shows booked by this blog at this venue, this was the most fun. Not only did the eclectic string trio play a sizzling mix of original indie classical, tango and Middle Eastern material, they also served as house band. Lorraine Leckie, Walter Ego and a bunch of other A-list songwriters got the benefit of a brilliant string section behind them.

Black Sea Hotel and Lorraine Leckie at Zirzamin, 3/3/13. The three women of the otherworldly Balkan a-cappella group and the Canadian gothic songstress might not seem like the ideal segue, but they built a dark ambience that Leckie and her band set ablaze.

Daphne Lee Martin at the Way Station, 3/6/13. The torchy, deviously literate songwriter and her killer band aired out songs from Martin’s excellent new album, refusing to let a horrible sound mix and a loud bar crowd that wouldn’t listen distract them from their sultry, sometimes luridly swinging intensity.

Tift Merritt and Simone Dinnerstein at Merkin Concert Hall, 3/21/13. The Americana chanteuse and classical pianist began their duo show with the lights off and kept them low throughout a deliciously nocturnal mix of chamber pop and art-rock.

Drina Seay at Zirzamin, 3/24/13. One of the great voices in Americana brought her sophisticated countrypolitan band for a mix of noir blues, honkytonk and more rocking songs.

Serena Jost at Joe’s Pub, 4/9/13. The cellist and art-rock songwriter brought her brilliant band and burned through songs from her equally brilliant new album A Bird Will Sing.

Brazda and Big Lazy at Barbes, 4/12/13. Eclectic singer Shelley Thomas’ edgy Balkan group followed by the first live show in six years by NYC’s most thrilling noir instrumental band.

The Sweet Bitters at Zirzamin, 4/21/13. A rare, impromptu NYC show by A-list tunesmith Sharon Goldman and Nina Schmir’s folk-pop duo plus cellist Martha Colby, mixing otherworldly harmonies, edgy lyrics and a triumphant good-to-be-back vibe.

Eva Salina at the American Folk Art Museum, 5/3/13. One of the most intense, original voices in Balkan music, in a riveting, rare solo show: just vocals and accordion.

Bryan & the Aardvarks at Subculture, 5/14/13. The glimmering, nocturnal, vibraphone-driven Americana jazz sextet put on one of the most lushly evocative, richly noir shows of the year.

Emel Mathlouthi at the Alliance Française, 5/22/13. Even without her full band – who were absent due to visa issues – the Tunisian Siouxsie Sioux played a subtle yet ferociously intense mix of Middle Eastern art-rock and Arabic liberation anthems.

A Conspiracy of Beards at Drom, 5/24/13. The mighty all-male San Francisco choir sang their own imaginative large-scale arrangements of Leonard Cohen classics that were haunting and intense but  just as often playful and funny.

Eilen Jewell at City Winery, 7/9/13. The Queen of the Minor Key with her amazing band featuring lead guitarist Jerry Miller, one of the most sizzling players in Americana.

The Go-Go’s at Coney Island, 8/1/13. Who would have thought that the original, breakthrough all-female new wave band would still be together (with a new bassist) thirty-three years after they started…and that they’d sound more rambunctious than ever?

El Gusto at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/3/13. While we’re on the topic of old bands, this bunch of virtuoso Algerian chaabi musicians were making their US debut fifty-three years after they’d broken up, in 1960. And they picked up right where they left off.

The Larch at Bowery Electric, 8/8/13. Playing mostly new, unrecorded material, Brooklyn’s finest psychedelic new wave outfit were at the top of their sardonically lyrical, guitar-fueled game.

Rosin Coven and Amanda Palmer at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/9/13. AFP was as fearless and charismatic and fun to watch as you could possibly want, but the story here was the opening act, whose wild, canivalesque art-rock upstaged the headliners.

Kotorino at Joe’s Pub, 8/29/13. Speaking of carnivalesque, this Brooklyn circus-rock outfit keeps getting larger and more menacing, this time out playing the album release show for their excellent second album Better Than This.

Till By Turning playing bassoonist Katherine Young’s Four-Chambered Heart at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Brooklyn, 9/6/13. This isn’t a classical music blog, but Young – who has made a name for herself in jazz improvisation as well as chamber music – established herself as one of the most individualistic and powerful composers in town with this chilling suite, inspired by Olivier Messiaen’s prison camp epic, Quartet for the End of Time.

Matthew Grimm at Rodeo Bar, 9/13/13. The former and occasionally current Hangdogs frontman – who’s sort of the Stephen Colbert of heartland rock – played a mix of wryly hilarious and white-knuckle intense Americana rock and powerpop numbers from his latest album Songs in the Key of Your Face.

Salaam at Alwan for the Arts, 10/26/13. Multi-instrumentalist Dena El Saffar’s eclectic Middle Eastern band burned through a mix of originals and classics from Iran, with special guests from her brother Amir’s equally intense jazz quintet.

Carol Lipnik, Villa Delirium, Big Lazy and Mamie Minch at Barbes, 10/31/13. The queen of Coney Island phantasmagoria with her noir chamber pop band, followed by John Kruth’s gleefully twisted circus rock outfit, NYC’s creepiest crime jazz/noir instrumental band (yeah, they made this list twice – they’re that good) with all-purpose retro Americana siren Minch taking a characteristically lurid turn in front of the mic.

Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard at the Asia Society, 11/16/13. The Iranian fiddle player and composer joined with the santoor virtuoso for a glimmering, wrenchingly intense suite inspired by the harrowing experiences of their fellow citizens during the Khomeini years.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices at the Parkside, 11/23/13. This list ends on a high note with this city’s most politically aware, charismatic noir rocker and his scorching, blues-infused band, careening through a mix of old classics and newly reworked material.

Emel Mathlouthi, Heroine of the Arab Spring, Brings Her Transcendent Voice and Revolutionary Songs to New York

Last night Tunisian-born, Paris-based singer and bandleader Emel Mathlouthi treated a sold-out crowd at Florence Gould Hall at the French Institute to a performance whose stripped-down, intimate format did nothing to diminish the volcanic intensity and raw power of her symphonic, revolutionary Middle Eastern art-rock anthems. Singing in Arabic with a couple of extremely successful ventures into English, Mathlouthi played both acoustic and electric guitars with an edgy efficiency, backed by guitarist Karim Attoumane, whose ethereal, majestically atmospheric lines gave the songs heft and bulk, and pianist Emmanuel Trouve, whose elegant chromatics enhanced both the songs’ neoromantic European and moodily levantine passages (in addition to a biting Doors quote, in a nod to the late Ray Manzarek).

Technically speaking, Mathlouthi is an astonishingly powerful, individualistic singer, maintaining an almost otherworldly clarity from the depths to the heights of what could be a four-octave range, whether with a ghostly whisper or a gale-force wail. Few other singers in the world have so much raw power at their disposal. With that kind of voice, Mathlouthi can afford to be straightforward, and she usually is, although the two most exhilarating moments of the concert were when she hit a rapidfire, serpentine Middle Eastern glissando, and when she went to the absolute top of her register during a riveting, angst-fueled rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah that put to shame any other version including the original.

Emotionally, Mathlouthi vents a venomous contempt for and hostility to oppression, but more than anything else, she gives voice to longing. But the longing she evokes isn’t a solipsistic desire for attention or affection: it’s a longing for freedom – and a chance to transcend the hellish experience of the battle for it. She wasted no time in disdainfully explaining that the reason that the audience was seeing only a trio onstage was because that two of her Tunisian bandmates had been denied US visas. But at the end of the show, after a poignant, dynamically bristling version of her folk rock-flavored signature song, Kelmti Horra  (Freedom of Speech, one of the iconic anthems of the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring) she backed away from the mic, retreated toward the piano and then twirled, jaunty and triumphant, knowing that she was about to dance away victorious.

Ornate and intricately intertwining as her songs are, they’re not art for art’s sake. Mathlouthi knows that she and others like her are a dictator’s worst enemy, and she revels in that, if with an understandable bitteness. “The pen and paper are the strongest, most powerful things in the world,” she reaffirmed as the band launched into a broodingly swaying minor-key ballad. Although what she was doing with pen and paper endangered her life in Tunisia to the point of forcing her into exile, ultimately they saved her and others like her. She dedicated the shapeshifting anthem Ethnia Twila (The Long Road), with its middle period Pink Floyd sweep and majesty, to “the brave and courageous people who fight for freedom and dignity.”

As the show went on, Mathlouthi mimicked oud voicings on her guitar via a series of nimble pull-offs, used a series of loop effects to sing Bjork possibly better than Bjork does herself, brought to mind Randi Russo or early PJ Harvey with a hypnotic, insistent, slow-burning anthem and eventually took the intensity to a searing peak with Ma Ikit (Not Found). “I cannot find a melody strong enough to break human hatred,” she intoned before building the song to an imploring, exhausted crescendo. Whether or not the audience understood the lyrics -and many did, and spontaneously clapped along in several places – it was impossible not be drawn into the drama of a battle whose conclusion is ultimately ours to either concede, or to join in with Mathlouthi and reach for victory.

Thanks to the French Institute, here’s some great Youtube footage of the early part of the concert: that Manzarek quote is at 6:35.

Emel Mathlouthi Captures the Horrors of Fascism and the Thrill of Revolution

Fifty years ago, it was Americans who were writing some of the most powerful and resonant protest anthems and songs of freedom; a generation later, it was the British. Today, it’s the people of the Arabic-speaking world. To fail to acknowledge these artists at this moment, as their message of transformation and genuine hope spreads around the globe, would be the same as dismissing Bob Dylan in 1964 or the Clash in 1979. A star in France where she moved after leaving her native Tunisia, singer/guitarist Emel Mathlouthi became to last year’s Tunisian revolution what Warda was for the Algerians a half-century ago: a lightning rod, and a particularly fearless one. Mathlouthi’s album Kelmti Horra (Arabic for “Freedom of Speech”) is out recently worldwide from World Village Music – while the obvious audience is an Arabic-speaking one, it’s a riveting listen whether or not you understand the lyrics.

By any standard, Mathlouthi is an extraordinary singer, highly nuanced, evoking an intense tenderness yet often direct to the point of being confrontational. She cites both Dylan and Cheikh Imam as influences, and draws as much from American soul music and new wave rock like Siouxsie & the Banshees as she does from Arabic pop and classical styles, often layering her vocals into a mighty, ornate wall of harmonies. Behind her, violin and piano stand out stark and plaintive against murky low-register keyboard drones and the ominous boom or thud of a drum machine or percussion loop. This is haunted, exhausted, angry, bitter, wounded wartime music, with the inescapable message that if we continue to let the world be run by dictators and speculators, that choice is suicidal.

The album begins on a soul-infused but wary note with Houdou On (Calm), rising and then falling down into a nebulous interlude that she comes out of with an insistent intensity. Ma Ikit (Not Found) alternates a growling Marilyn Manson-ish synth bassline with an anguished, sweepingly anthemic minor-key melody. Rhythms here tend to be straight-up and closer to rock than the Middle East, whether the slow, stalking, Peter Gabriel-ish Stranger, with its stern chromatic riffage and Mathlouthi’s perfect English lyric, or the bittersweet, surprisingly delicate title track, a cautionary tale familiar to anyone watching his or her back while the spycams roll and the troops roll out.

Ya Tounes Ya Meskina (Poor Tunisia), the anthem that started the ball rolling, sets vocals that offer comfort rather than fueling the fires of rage, against a backdrop of ominous motorik synth, echoey syndrums and a string arrangement that’s absolutely majestic – it’s no surprise that this was such a hit. By contrast, Dhalem (Tyrant) is crushingly sarcastic, a faux lullaby with a creepy music box interpolated into its pleading, longing melody. And the epic Ethnia Twila (The Road Is Long) slowly and wistfully unwinds through constant tempo changes into a final crescendo of crowd noise and children chanting resolutely.

The single most gripping track here might be Dfina (Burial), a bitter Tunisian-flavored art-rock anthem that shifts between distant disillusion and raw, unhinged rage. The most pop-oriented one is Hinama (When), with its ominous post-new wave production and watery guitars. The album ends with another multi-part epic, Yezzi (Enough), shifting from a pensive folk rock-tinged intro as it reaches for freedom once and for all, resolute and indomitable. The album is best enjoyed as a whole – it’s hard to turn away once Mathlouthi hits her stride. There aren’t many albums that pack this kind of impact: simply one of 2012’s best, and probably destined for iconic status as both historical artifact and artistic achievement.

Emel Mathlouthi and her band play the Alliance Francaise, 55 E 59th St. in Manhattan on May 22, 2013 at 8 PM. Tickets and information are available here.