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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.