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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.

Gato Loco’s Perilous Mambos and Noir Cinematics Capture These Dark Times

Perilous times, perilous measures, perilous bands. In an era in New York when seemingly half the population  doesn’t know if they’ll have a roof over the heads a month from now, it’s only logical to expect that the music coming out of this city at this moment would reflect that unease. Many of New York’s elite bands and artists – Karla Rose & the Thorns, Big Lazy, Rachelle Garniez, Beninghove’s Hangmen across the river, and now Gato Loco – speak for this new Age of Anxiety. Of all those bands, Gato Loco might be the loudest and most explosive.

Most bands pump up the volume with loud guitars, and Gato Loco have Lily Maase to bring that firestorm. But more than anything, Gato Loco’s sound is an update on the oldschool mambo orchestras of the 50s, emphasis on low brass. Frontman Stefan Zeniuk can be found on bass sax, baritone sax, and, ironically, mostly on tenor sax these days. “Tuba Joe” Exley brings the funk and the funny stuff (is there a tuba player alive without a sense of humor? Perish the thought). Trombonist Tim Vaughan takes over front and center since he’s often the guy with the most dynamic range; likewise, drummer Kevin Garcia supplies just as much color as groove, on his hardware and rims and cymbals and pretty much everywhere that can be hit.

Like so many of New York’s elite, Gato Loco’s home base these days is Barbes. Last month, they played a Williamsburg gig that gave them the benefit of a big stage, which was fun considering that it afforded them a lot more space to stretch out, yet didn’t compromise the intimate feel of their Park Slope gigs.

A tense, syncopated stomp introduced the show. Slowly, the horns converged with a similarly dark riff that suddenly flared into a classic Ethiopian tune: a noir latin spin on Musikawi Silt, an iconic Ethiopiques hit from the 1970s. Trumpeter Jackie Coleman fired off a plane-crash slide, then the band hit a monster-movie mambo pulse. That was just the first eight minutes or so.

Maase anchored the next song with her shadowy Brazilian riffs, a blazing Lynchian bossa of sorts, horns leaping from the shadows like flames on an old building whose landlord finally decided to show the remaining tenants the Bronx, 1970s style, the guitarist putting a tighter spin on spiraling Carlos Santana psychedelia. The highlight of the set came early with The Lower Depths, a slow, murderously slinky, blackly backlit number: the striptease theme from hell, essentially, something that wouldn’t be out of place in the Beninghove’s Hangmen catalog. Flickers of Lynchian dub and 60s Quincy Jones noir soul cinematics appeared before all hell broke loose, Vaughan contributing a long, cloudbusting major-on-minor solo. Zeniuk has been writing a lot of theatre music lately, and this is a prime example.

Likewise, with the set’s next song, the group worked a serpentine path upward through brooding exchanges of voices over Garcia’s nebulous woodblock-fueled groove, chaos threatening to break out every other measure. It was the sonic equivalent of a Sequieros mural. From there they hit a hint of dub reggae on their way to a brisk clave stomp and then more Ethiopiques fueled by Coleman’s tersely joyous blues and the bandleader’s cynically fleeting tenor sax.

Tuelo & Her Cousins opened the night with a rather epic set that drew equally on jaunty, jangly late 80s British guitar pop, oldschool soul and the exuberant, dynamic, socially aware frontwoman’s South African heritage. They’re at Union Hall on Sept 9 at 8 PM; cover is $8.

Gato Loco Bring Their Creepy Latin Cinematics to Williamsburg

Probably the best way to describe how Gato Loco has evolved is to call them a noir jamband. Which on one level might seem ludicrous: jambands tend to play upbeat, goodtime psychedelic music. Gato Loco, on the other hand, play slow, slinky latin themes that suddenly become bustling and frantic, stalkers on the run from the cops and maybe vice versa. They spent a lot of time developing that suspenseful dynamic at their show last month at Barbes. Frontman/saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk first conceived of the group as an all low-register combo playing 1920s era Afro-Cuban classics. Then they started writing period-perfect originals, then branched further out into cinematic territory. Much as the first version of the band was an awful lot of fun, this is the best edition yet. They’re headlining a somewhat unlikely but solid twinbill on July 19 at around 9:30 at Brooklyn Bowl, with the considerably sunnier but similarly eclectic Tuelo & Her Cousins, who mash up jangly guitar pop with retro soul, opening at 8 PM. Cover is $8, which is two bucks cheaper than the ten bucks for the Barbes tip jar: two bands this good, what a deal!

Zeniuk has never written better or more murderously. The highlight of their set in Park Slope turned out to be Liar, a slowly crescendoing, boleroish noir cabaret theme, like Beninghove’s Hangmen at their most epically focused, or Big Lazy about fifteen years ago, when they were more likely to cut loose with a longscale jam. To compare this band to those two cult favorites isn’t overhyping them: Gato Loco have always been a lot of fun, but they’ve never been this fun before.

Gato Loco’s belated album release show for their mighty Enchanted Messa (a reimagining of the Verdi Requiem), at Joe’s Pub back in January, was more of a dark carnival, with a guerrilla team of baritone saxophonists leaping out of the audience to bolster the group’s low-register sound at optimum moments. The Barbes set, by contrast, was more creepily cinematic, awash in long tangents rising out of ominously catchy themes. “Tuba Joe” Exley held down the low end while Zeniuk switched between bass and tenor saxes, leading the horns through tightly biting minor-key mambo and bolero riffage, trombonist Tim Vaughan wailing with a majestically bluesy intensity while drummer Kevin Garcia added all kinds of evil rattletrap accents. Guitarist Lily Maase ranged from terse, acidic jangle, to some straight-up hard funk, to a Hendrixian tsunami of noise and meticulously rapidfire volleys of notes. Having her and Vaughan out in front of the band have really transformed this group’s sound: if darkly energetic cinematics are your thing, miss this show at your peril.

Gato Loco Play Explosive, Cinematic Noir Latin Sounds at Joe’s Pub

When a trio of smart, stylish, resourceful women – Nicole (a.k.a. Coley), Lindsay and her vivacious mom Sue – conspire to take over the best table in the house, and then ask you to join them, do you resist? That would have been impossible. Things like that happen at a Gato Loco show.

It’s hard to imagine a set of more explosively dynamic noir music anywhere in New York this year than the “psycho mambo” group’s show at Joe’s Pub a week ago Friday. The energy was Gogol Bordello-level – and they did it without lyrics, and with a pair of frontmen who played bass sax and trombone, respectively. Bandleader/multi-reedman Stefan Zeniuk’s expansively cinematic, toweringly crescendoing latin themes smoldered and slunk and scampered and often blazed for minutes on end, carried at gale force by an amazing band.

Zeniuk started out uncharacteristically on tenor sax but was soon back on his usual bass model, switching back and forth several times, often in the same song, at least when he wasn’t playing bass clarinet – this guy lives for the lows. Teaming with him to anchor them  were “Tuba Joe” Exley and bassist Ari Folman-Cohen (leader of exciting new ska band Pangari & the Socialites). Trombonist Tim Vaughn spent the duration of the show centerstage, literally, and made the most of it, whether looming, blasting or negotiating Zeniuk’s haripin-turn changes with soulful, resonant aplomb. Drummer Kevin Garcia – also of the similarly menacing Karla Rose & the Thorns – teamed with percussionist Matt Hurley as the grooves rose from lowdown to frenetic and everywhere in between while the trumpets of Jackie Coleman and Evan Honse, Rachel Drehmann’s french horn and Lily Maase’s eclectically virtuosic guitar blazed overhead.

The night’s opening number, The Big Sleep, began with Hurley’s rumbling digeridoo, then Maase led them into an ominous stroll with hints of mariachi and swing jazz, Zeniuk’s sirening solo kicking off a twisted New Orleans theme that they finally wound down from, slowly and elegantly. Die, You Sucka! – the first of a trio of sureral, darkly frantic Keystone Kops themes – sounded like the Bad Brains taking a stab at scoring a Mack Sennett film, then Garcia wound it down with a misterioso rimshot groove, Maase’s savage chords bringing it back to redline as the trumpets punched at the ceiling.

The Sound & The Fury rode a slow sway, an Isaac Hayes soul criminnal theme with a John Zorn punk jazz edge giving way to a cruel parody of a patriotic march, interchanging with oldschool disco and a bit of beefed-up, brassy lowrider funk. The best number of the night, counterintuitively, was the quiest and most morose one, Orphans of the Storm, a hypnotic, Middle Eastern-tinged dirge: Zeniuk’s edgily chromatic bass solo, going way into the depths, was both the low point – in a sonic sense – and high point of the show.

From there they sprinted through another Keystone Kops number: as over-the-top as it was, the low/high contrasts in Zeniuk’s chart, and how the band edged it almost imperceptibly into creepier territory were artful to the extreme, and Zeniuk’s phony go-go interlude was just plain funny. A lingering, Cuban-tinged waterside nocturne, a lustrously melancholy, gospel-tinged interlude for the horns and a pretty straight-up salsa number that suddenly morphed into a frantic circus rock narrative were next on the bill.

They reprised Die You Sucka! even more wildly then they played it the first time around, Maase’s jagged riffage underneath the night’s most far-out free jazz-influenced passage, then hitting a vaudevillian pulse on the outro. They closed with Caridad, which sounded like a Cuban version of a moody mid-70s Burning Spear reggae theme, Maase finally getting a solo and a big round of applause for her sunbaked, psychedelic funk explosion. They took it out doublespeed with a series of irresistibly funny false endings. And a terrorist baritone sax quartet – Kevin Danenberg, Jessica Lurie, Josh Sinton and Maria Eisen – stormed in and made a surprise appearance midway through the show before joining onstage at the end. All this, except maybe for the terrorists, is immortalized on Gato Loco’s album The Enchanted Messa.

Psycho Mambos with Gato Loco Saturday Night at BAM Cafe

Gato Loco got their start putting a punk-jazz spin on classic old Cuban son and mambo styles, with low-register instruments: baritone and bass sax, tuba, bass and baritone guitar, among others. Snice then, they’ve expanded their sound with a rotating cast of characters: it wasn’t long before they’d added originals to their set. They had long-running residencies at the old Bowery Poetry Club and the late, lamented Zirzamin. Since then, gigs have been somewhat fewer and further between, especially since frontman/multi-saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk is so highly sought after as a sideman. It’s never exactly certain just what Gato Loco lineup is going to show up, but it’s a safe bet that their gig this Saturday night, November 21 at 10 PM at BAM Cafe will be a party.

Their most recent show at another frequent haunt, Barbes, was this past June, where they were joined by a hotshot Strat player along with Tim Vaugn on trombone, Tuba Joe, Ari F-C on bass and the brilliant Kevin Garcia (also of another similarly estimable noir band, Karla Rose & the Thorns) on drums. They opened with an agitatedly pulsing chase scene of sorts that rose to a wailing, enveloping forestorm as the rhythm went completely haywire along with the rest of the band, faded down into cinders and then sprang up again in a split second. Zeniuk’s ghostly bass sax mingled with lingering, reverbtoned Lynchian licks from the guitar as the slow, slinky second number got underway, then shifted shape into a warmly moonlit tableau before rising toward macabre Big Lazy territory. From there they segued into a dark clave groove, Vaugn punching holes in the sky, Garcia tumbling elegantly in the background as the horns joined forces, terse and somewhat grim as they went way down low. The careening, axe-murderer sprint to the finish line was one of the most exhilarating moments of any show anywhere this year – and probably one of the loudest ever at little Barbes.

From there the band went epic, making a slow, big-sky highway theme out of a wistful Gulf Coast folk-inspired tune, slowly elevating to a lively, scampering fanfare, then down again, Vaugn pulling the rest of the group along with a long, tightly unwinding staccato solo. The low instruments’ murky noir sonics contrasted with the guitarist’s spare, sunbaked blues  and Memphis soul lines as the next number got underway, Zeniuk finally signaling with a snort that it was time to build another funeral pyre on top of the serpentine groove. The best song of the night was a gloomy bolero, played in a dynamically shifting vein as Sergio Mendoza might have done it, featuring a muted trumpet solo, another pyrotechnically noisy interlude and an unexpected, clickety-clack dixieland outro. Name another band with as many flavors as these crazy cats.