New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: george sempepos

New York Guitar Star Homeboy Steve Antonakos Releases His Best, Most Eclectic Album

If you were a kid in New York back in the 80s, you had pretty much unlimited opportunities to see live music, theoretically at least. Sure, you could get into any club you wanted to: no venue owner was going to turn away a paying customer. The idea of bouncers hassling club patrons for identification was almost but not quite as faraway as the Orwellian nightmare of face recognition technology.

But getting into clubs could be expensive. Those who weren’t there may not realize just how much free live music, much of it outdoors, there was. For the sake of argument, let’s say you carried your beer into Union Square one evening. Everybody drank on the street back then since the implementation of “broken windows policing” as a means of making a revenue stream out of those least able to pay – kids and ethnic minorities, mostly – hadn’t gone beyond the drawing board.

Maybe you were drawn in by the twangy “rig-rock” sounds of the Blue Chieftains, who were doing a afterwork show on the plaza at the south end of the park. Maybe you wondered who was firing off that downward cascade of high-octane honkytonk guitar in that one big, stomping anthem.

That was Homeboy Steve Antonakos. The Blue Chieftains live on as a memory of a better time in New York history, a prestige piece of his resume. Since then, he’s played with a bunch of Americana outfits as well as the richly tuneful Greek psychedelic bands Magges and Dervisi, the latter with his fellow Greek-American guitar luminary George Sempepos. But Antonakos isn’t just one of New York’s great guitarists: he’s a strong songwriter too. His latest album, Bodega Rock is streaming at Bandcamp. His next gig is on March 30 at 9 PM at Espresso 77, 35-57 77th St. in Jackson Heights. where he does double duty playing his own material and then takes a turn on lead guitar with Drina Seay, New York’s answer to Neko Case. The closest train is the 7 to 74th St., but you can also take any train to the nearby Roosevelt Ave. stop.

The album opens with the Stonesy title track, guest guitarist Tim Heap fueling a shout-out to the 24-hour suppliers of Slim Jims, Bambus, beer and neighborly good cheer that help make this city so great. Antonakos sings the wry, aphoristic, ragtime-flavored The Improbability of Love backed by Bruce Martin’s piano, Seay a one-woman gospel choir.

Jeff Schiller’s smoky tenor sax wafts through the wistful shuffle Make It Swing, Antonakos raising a glass to an early influence in both jazz and pregaming. Seay sings the acoustic Americana ballad There’s Always Yesterday with tender restraint against Neil Thomas’ lilting accordion. Martin’s flurrying drums and Skip Ward’s bass propel One of Us, a pretty hilarious catalog of New York characters who might or might not exist. Awash in stormy layers of acoustic and electric guitars, He’s Still Not Over Her follows a much more ominous tangent.

Antonakos’ shivery lapsteel permeates the cynically shuffling It’s a Beautiful Day and its Sixteen Tons allusions; it might be the best song on the album. Seay ought to sing lead on this one: she’d hit it out of the ballpark.

With steel guitar and banjo lingering ominously in the background, the stark Nashville gothic ballad Poisoned Well is another standout. The album winds up with the gorgeously anthemic It Takes Time, another duet with Seay.

While we’re at it, could you imagine an album called 7-11 Rock? Actually, yes: it would be by Journey.

Dervisi Recreate a Shadowy World of Gangsters, Underground Revolutionaries and Hash Smoke

As guitarist Steve Antonakos puts it, Dervisi – his rembetiko guitar duo with fellow six-stringer George Sempepos – plays “gangster blues.” The two put a psychedelic spin on the haunting, Middle Eastern-flavored sound borne on waves of displacement when hundreds of thousands of refugees, most of them of Greek heritage, returned to their ancestral land from Cyprus and Turkey in the wake of brutality and repression in the years right before World War I. Aliens from a Middle Eastern culture suddenly thrown into a Mediterranean one, many of these people became part of the underground resistance to tyranny on their new turf. Their music is plaintive, full of cruel ironies and soul and colorful stories, in the same vein as American blues.

For the last couple of years, Dervisi have held down a couple of regular monthly residencies in Brooklyn and Queens. Sempepos is one of the real mavens of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern psychedelia, dating from his days leading Annabouboula, one of the few Greek psych bands to reach an audience beyond the Aegean. These days, he also leads even harder-rocking surf band the Byzantones. Antonakos also has a background in Greek psychedelia, notably with Magges, and is a ubiquitous presence in the New York Americana scene. He’s one of the most interesting and instantly recognizable lead guitar virtuosos around, but in this band he plays mainly rhythm. It was fun to catch their Greenpoint residency at Troost earlier this month; on June 16, they return to their regular Queens haunt, the intimate Espresso 77 at 35-57 77th St. in Jackson Heights; take the 7 train to 74th St./Broadway..

In Dervisi’s music, you can hear where Dick Dale got his inspiration. This time out Sempepos had not only his his guitar but also a saz lute, which he hit pretty hard for all manner of plinks and clanks: it has a very distinctive, spiky sound, well-suited to the music’s serpentine, slinky grooves. Singing in Greek in his signature, sonorous baritone, he and Antonakos were joined by ex-Annabouboula clarinetist George Stathos, who added uneasily quavery melismatics and tightly wound spirals as the stringed instruments fluttered and sputtered behind him. One by one, Sempepos explained the songs for those in the crowd (probably everybody) who didn’t speak Greek. A defiantly catchy, steadily pulsing anthem celebrated the joys of smoking hash with fellow stoners. A jailhouse scenario, a bunch of bad guys conspiring what they were going to do when they got out, was more low-key.

The most memorable tune of the night might have been a stalking number told from the point of view of Death, who goes out looking for the party just like everybody else. The duo also took a couple of the classics that the Byzantones play and brought them full circle, back to their smoky, rustic, broodingly modal roots. Late in the set, they surprised everybody with a jaunty Bollywood freak-folk theme. This music may seem esoteric, and one level it is, but so is cumbia, and look at how that went global. Maybe rembetiko is next: if Antonakos and Sempepos get their way, someday it will be.

Good Cop and Bad Cop Review LJ Murphy Plus the Byzan-Tones

Good Cop: I think this is our big break. We’ve never been given an assignment this good.

Bad Cop: Back on the Columbus shuttle.

Good Cop: You mean the Scranton shuttle.

Bad Cop: I can’t get used to Scranton being a Yankees farm club. It was part of the Phillies system for as long as I can remember.

Good Cop: Now that’s going back a ways! Anyway, tonight we get to review LJ Murphy, the best rock songwriter in town, and then the Byzan-Tones, an awesome surf band! This is a big deal for us! You notice we’ve been getting better assignments lately?

Bad Cop: If you say so…

Good Cop: Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside, then Red Baraat, and this the best yet! If we don’t screw this one up there’s no telling how far we’ll go! [Good Cop elbows Bad Cop in the ribs]

Bad Cop [winces} Ouch! Don’t kid yourself. We haven’t had any assignment from this blog, good or bad, since July. We only got to cover that Sallie Ford concert because the blog had reviewed the record a couple of days before. We only got to do Red Baraat because the story wasn’t the music, it was that horrible experience in Central Park. So if this blog hadn’t reviewed LJ Murphy back in November, we’d still be in Col…I mean, Scranton.

Good Cop: Well, goodbye Scranton. hello Parkside Lounge on a Saturday night! [LJ Murphy,wearing a black suit and porkpie hat and holding a big black acoustic guitar, takes the stage along with his lead guitarist, keyboardist and drummer. With no bass, they launch into a swinging blues]

Bad Cop: I guess this is soundcheck.

Good Cop: I don’t think so. They did the song all the way through. I know this one: it’s Another Lesson I Never Learned.

Bad Cop: Guess they lost their bass player.

Good Cop: Not as far as I know. Nils Sorensen’s also in Brothers Moving, you know, that great Danish Americana band so maybe he had a conflict. And check out Patrick McLellan, he’s playing basslines with his left hand on the piano! At this point they don’t need a bass player…

Bad Cop [emphatically] Oh yes they do. But this guy’s good. Real good. Picked up on what was missing right away and took care of business.

Good Cop: I can’t believe somebody this good is playing the Parkside.

Bad Cop: Classic case of a guy stuck in the New York scene. In this town, you play to your friends. There’s no central scene with any significant following that you can leverage anymore. Here’s a guy who’s as good a songwriter as Richard Thompson, or Steve Earle, or Aimee Mann – and he’s younger than all of them – but he never got to take the band on the road. And he’s a band guy, not a singer-songwriter.

Good Cop: And he’s got a sizeable European following too. Funny how these things happen, isn’t it?

Bad Cop: Sound is not good tonight.

Good Cop: You know the Parkside, it can be good one night and not so good the next.

Bad Cop: It’s the piano. The low mids are feeding. And you can’t hear the electric guitar.

Good Cop: That’s Tommy Hoscheid. Great player. I see he brought his Gibson SG.

Bad Cop: He’s gonna need it.

Good Cop: Oh, I love this song. This is Happy Hour. Anybody who’s suffered through having to hang out with work “friends” in the financial district needs to hear this, it’ll validate you. And I love how LJ has rearranged it as an oldschool Stax/Volt shuffle.

Bad Cop: I liked it better when it was straight up janglerock. At least that’s one thing you can count on with this guy: you never know what you’re gonna get. Always rearranging things. The Faulkner of the three minute rock song. And you notice, he changed the lyric: it used to be “brotherhood of useless warts” instead of “brotherhood of sold and bought.”

Good Cop: That doesn’t rhyme with “one eye on the secretary and the other on the quarterly report.”

Bad Cop: It does if you’re from Queens.

Good Cop: True. “Their daytime dramas wait at home on videocassette,” that’s a really twisted line.

Bad Cop: It wasn’t back when he wrote it. These days you think of a spycam, or a webcam, right? Back then it was like something you Tivoed – except in analog, in real time, and everybody did it, and it actually wasn’t twisted at all. Ha, necessarily, at least. I remember this one time rushing home to record an episode of Survivor for this chick…

Good Cop: I can imagine where you’re going with that. Anyway – check out that creepy cascade from Patrick! This is Mad Within Reason, title track from LJ’s most recent album. “The music was sampled from Bach to James Brown, they saddled the mistress and lowered her down.” Nobody’s writing lyrics like that these days!

Bad Cop: Oh yeah they are. Four words for you: Hannah Versus the Many. But this guy’s good, always has been. “While everybody tried to become what they hate” – and another creepy piano cascade. This is sweet.

Good Cop: This next one’s even sweeter. Pretty for the Parlor – Long Island sniper gone on a spree. What a great tune this is – it’s anthemic, but not derivative or Beatlesque, it’s just good. And full of surprises. “The machinegun mama’s boy has called in sick today,” yum!

Bad Cop: OK, he’s gonna bring it down now. Waiting by the Lamppost for You: a period-perfect blend of sixties soul and blues. “Moonlight delays me, daylight betrays me, I’m hungover and showing my years.” Do you hear Nightclubbing, you know, the Iggy song?

Good Cop: Not unless it’s blasting through the wall from next door. Is that place still a disco?

Bad Cop: We’re at the Parkside, not the Mercury. Nobody next door. Deli across the street.

Good Cop: Oh yeah! Now this drummer’s good. A jazz guy maybe. They’re really rocking out Lonely Avenue – you know, the old Elvis song.

Bad Cop: Doc Pomus wrote it. Orthodox Jewish guy from Brooklyn. Now this is where you lose me, white guys playing the blues.

Good Cop: Aw, c’mon, the audience loves it.

Bad Cop: Once you’ve heard T-Bone Walker do Stormy Monday, all other versions are useless.

Good Cop: T-Bone Walker died before you were born.

Bad Cop: T-Bone Walker actually died when I was in the third grade I think. But I have the album.

Good Cop: This next song is Damaged Goods. What did LJ say, this is the first song he ever wrote in Brooklyn after moving from Queens?

Bad Cop: Guess he must have had the Wall Street job back then. Dungeoness and her crabs, more or less. This guy was on to what Eliot Spitzer and that crew were up to before anybody else was.

Good Cop: Now they’re going back from new wave to noir. This is Fearful Town. Did you hear Patrick quote Riders on the Storm?

Bad Cop [derisively]: Everybody does that. But this is a good song. This is why I came out tonight. Now this speaks to me. This is why I’m here and not someplace else. This guy speaks for anybody who used to live in this neighborhood. “Raided my old hangouts, put away my friends, now I’m sitting on a bonfire on a night that never ends.” LES, 2014, we are with you LJ Murphy!

Good Cop: You’re breaking character. You’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to hate everything.

Bad Cop: And you’re breaking the fourth wall. You’re not supposed to do that. What am I supposed to do? I complained about the sound. The blues medley left me cold. But I like this guy. Despite myself. Even this one. This next song is Nowhere Now. Sort of a twisted Chuck Berry kind of thing. I can’t figure it out for the life of me. Maybe it’s about America, all that “200 years of hoping, you’re not hoping anymore” stuff. What do you think?

Good Cop: That’s what I love about LJ’s songs, they draw you in and make you figure out what’s going on. Now this one’s easy, Blue Silence – they’re going to rock the hell out of this.

Bad Cop: And they do. And then they close with Barbed Wire Playpen, another Wall Street dungeoness crab scenario.

Good Cop: Ha ha funny.

Bad Cop: Couldn’t resist. And now we’re off to Otto’s.

Good Cop [about ten minutes later, at Otto’s Shrunken Head]: Holy shit, this place is packed. I haven’t seen Otto’s like this, maybe, ever.

Bad Cop: And we didn’t even get carded walking in.

Good Cop [laughs]: Nobody would ever card you.

Bad Cop: The doofus at the door, the skinhead, once chased me to the back and screamed at me until I showed him my I.D. This is recent, like, last year.

Good Cop: You can’t be serious.

Bad Cop: I’m completely serious. A guy at the bar saw the whole exchange, he came up to me afterward and said he couldn’t believe what he’d just witnessed.

Good Cop: I can’t either. But we’re here. And this band is great! What a cool doublebill it’s been, two venues, two great bands. That’s George Sempepos on lead guitar, I can’t see who’s playing bass or drums, and that’s Steve Antonakos on guitar too.

Bad Cop: They used to have an electric oud. Now that was wild. Psychedelic Greek surf music. I remember coming back from seeing them at the Blu Lounge in Williamsburg, this must have been around 2003 or so, completely shitfaced, this is at about four in the morning and I’m waiting forever at 14th Street for the F and I’d recorded the show so I pulled out my recorder and started blasting the Byzan-tones right there on the platform. And everybody was down with it.

Good Cop: You’re lucky you didn’t get arrested.

Bad Cop: Nobody arrests me!

Good Cop: OK. Now I can’t keep track of whether these songs are originals, or they’re psychedelic rock hits from Greece in the 1960s.

Bad Cop: My understanding is that they’re originals. But they sound like old Mediterranean stoner music. Except with more of a surf beat. Now this version of the band is a little brighter and a lot tighter than I remember them being.

Good Cop: And look, the crowd is really into this! This is music from a culture that doesn’t even use our alphabet and peeps are loving this! And the place is so packed that we can’t even get into the back room!

Bad Cop: Hold your fire. We would be able to if this was Lakeside. Oh yeah, Lakeside is gone now. But you get my point. And besides, it’s surf night, half the crowd came from Connecticut, they’re not going to leave for awhile. Captive audience. What every band needs in this century in this town.

Good Cop: Lots of Arabic sounds in this band. And minor keys, and tricky tempos. I can’t figure out what this one is in.

Bad Cop: Me neither. I’ve been drinking since before I left for the Parkside. Sorry.

Good Cop: Now this song is called Pontic Pipeline. Doesn’t sound like Pipeline, though.

Bad Cop: I think the reference is a little…um…what’s the word I want? Oblique? How does that sound ?

Good Cop: Sounds like Arabic rock to me. I love this band, and how the two guitars sometimes harmonize…and how Steve fakes how he’s playing with a slide even though he’s just bending the strings…and now George is singing. In a low, cool baritone, in Greek! What’s the likelihood of seeing something like this outside of Astoria?

Bad Cop: Or outside of Athens.

Good Cop: Point taken. OK, time to go. What a cool night this was! I can’t wait to do this again!

Bad Cop [pulls a flask from inside his trenchcoat and drains it]: OK, see you in July. Or in Col…I mean Scranton.

Wrapping Up a Good Month’s Worth of Shows

If you’ve been following this space over the last couple of weeks, you’ve probably been wondering where all the concert coverage went. That’s not to say that this has been a slow month for live shows – this is NYC, after all. To keep pace with what’s been happening, here’s a look at some of the highlights from the past month or so that didn’t get coverage here for one reason or another (the band just got written up here; the show wasn’t that good; it’s hard to come up with anything much to say about a performance where you show up late and only catch the last half hour).

After a long hiatus, a reconfigured version of psychedelic Greek surf/rebetiko rockers the Byzan-tones has made a scorching comeback in recent weeks. Their show at Otto’s in early August was off the hook and got a rave review here; a couple of weeks later at Zebulon, they were even better. The electric oud is sorely missed, but they’re incorporating more and more of the virtuosity of new guitarist Steve Antonakos into the show, a good idea considering his extensive background playing this kind of stuff with Magges. It was a feast of scary chromatics, and frontman/guitarist George Sempepos was getting all kinds of praise for his brooding baritone vocals.

Another first-rate instrumental unit that had been on hiatus for just as long, Dimestore Dance Band, is back together and has been playing a series of last-minute gigs as they reconfigure themselves (the drum chair has been rotating lately). They were a staple of the Tonic scene in the mid-zeros, and since guitarslinger Jack Martin and bassist Jude Webre decided to get back together, they’ve made Zirzamin – the closest thing to Tonic in New York these days – their new home. Like the Byzan-tones, their late July show at Zirzamin drew a rave here; their show there earlier this month was also arguably even better. Playing a borrowed guitar through a borrowed pedalboard, Martin broke a string on the first song, fueling a savage, volcanic performance that rocked harder than anything this elegant, cerebral gypsy/jazz/ragtime/jamband has done lately. Billing themselves as the Bob Dylan Deathwatch, they put Martin on vocals on a handful of searing, swampy, noir covers of Dylan, the Stanley Brothers and Martin’s old garage rock band Knoxville Girls. Sometimes musicians play their best when they’re pissed off: this show was a prime example.

One of the most reliably excellent free summer concert series in town is the jazz program put on by the Jazzmobile at a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces around the five boroughs. At the very end of last month, veteran pianist Barry Harris, who goes all the way back to the golden age of the 50s, played a suavely indestructible set of bop standards with a four-horn septet way up at Grant’s Tomb. Places to sit and watch (and try to figure out who the supporting cast was) were hard to come by: although the series’ site doesn’t list the concert, somebody must have spread the word because there was a big afterwork posse gathered around the monument with their picnics and lawn chairs. Does everyone in Harlem read the NY Jazz Record? It would seem like it.

Another enjoyable end-of-the-month show was Demolition String Band’s Friday night gig at Rodeo Bar. Frontwoman/guitarist Elena Skye has never sung better or with more nuance, and lead guitarist Boo Reiners remains one of the most soulfully pyrotechnic players in country music. He flatpicked and twanged and jangled while Skye led the band through a mix of well-received, biting twangrock and C&W originals from earlier in their career along with some more rustic material from their sensationally good new album Gracious Days, plus a handful of bluegrass classics.

Quirky instrumentalists This Spy Surfs, who’ve been around forever, made a return to the stage Labor Day weekend at Otto’s and proved no worse for a long layoff. The bass growled and popped, the guitar snaked and slashed and the drums switched from a new wave scamper to a surprisingly funky pulse. The band name is a misnomer: what they play is basically catchy 80s rock without the vocals. It’s good to see such an original band back in action.

One of the year’s most amusing concert moments happened about a week later at Tompkins Square Park, where David Peel forgot the lyrics to The Pope Smokes Dope. The original stoner freak-folk songwriter has only been playing the song for about 45 years – and he had to stop in the middle and then restart it when he remembered what they were. Maybe he’d had a marijuana….duh, of course he’d Have a Marijuana at a time like this.  That’s the title of his John Lennon-produced debut album, which reputedly went multi-platinum despite being banned from radio and the Top 40 charts for obvious reasons. He sang that one, and a new song for the Occupy movement, and a handful of other singalongs. There seemed to be just about as many people gathered in front of the crowd, playing with Peel – there’s a reason why his scruffy band is called the Lower East Side – as there were watching. The band before Peel, a tunefully sludgy metal trio called the Aliens, who sounded like the Melvins doing Social Distortion, weren’t bad either. They’re also impossible to find online (try googling “aliens” and “Tompkins Square”…)

While the summer concerts are over, there’s still plenty of interesting free music around town. The series of ongoing performances of new music by an eclectic mix of European composers – primarily from Austria – programmed by the Austrian Cultural Center on 52nd Street got off to a good start Friday night at the Bohemian National Hall with the Talea Ensemble. The respected avant garde chamber group’s first piece was Ondrej Adamek’s Ca Tourne Ca Bloque, an electroacoustic work that had the ensemble mimicking spoken phrases in French and Japanese. There was clearly some improvisation going on along with what was on the scores; it wasn’t easy to figure out which was which, particularly when the piece began swirling as the laptop started spitting out random spoken phrases. Music is often described as having the quality of speech – emphatic, conversational, laughing, teary, you name it – and this was an interesting exploration of that concept, even if it went on a little long.

The group followed that with a percussive suspense movie for the ears, Pierluigi Billone’s Dike Wall, interspersing tense washes of sound from the strings amidst even tenser scrapes, scampers, suspenseful footfalls and the occasional ominous crash from inside the piano as well as from the vast collection of instruments employed by percussionist Alex Lipowski, who was given centerstage and got a real workout. The series at the Austrian Cultural Center is ongoing: reservations are required..

Much as it’s been a typically good month for concerts in this city, there were a few disappointments as well. That Summerstage show last month was a sad reminder that just because a girl has a southern accent and plays the banjo, it doesn’t make what she does any more interesting than what you’d hear in the dentist’s office. That classical pianist with the lovely musical name did her best with a difficult program, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the screeches of the security gates at that ill-advised anniversary tribute series way downtown. And that rock & roll reverend needs to drop that hideous hair-metal cover from the set list. It’s worse than a bathroom tune: it’s enough to clear a room.