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The Top Thirty New York City Concerts of 2016

An informed snapshot of some of the most amazing performances across the five boroughs from a year that started out with some promise and ended with the whole world on edge and dreading the worst. Of all this blog’s year-end lists, including the 50 Best Albums and 100 Best Songs of 2016, this one’s the most fun to put together. And the most most individualistic: everybody’s got their own favorite concert moments. While it wouldn’t be hard to think of a hundred from the past year that deserve mention, that would be overkill. It all comes down to triage: apologies to the dozens of artists who played transcendent shows in this city in 2016 who aren’t represented here because of space constraints. Next year, dudes!

Concerts are listed chronologically; the very first one could be the best of the bunch.

Karla Rose at 11th St. Bar, 1/6/16
With her allusive lyrics, her silken voice and enigmatic stage presence, Karla Rose personifies noir. In 2016, out in front of her psychedelic, darkly cinematic twin-guitar band Karla Rose & the Thorns, she played Webster Hall, opened for first-wave punk legends the Dickies and the king of powerpop, Paul Collins. But her most intriguing show of all might have been this low-key trio set with World Inferno bassist Sandra Malak and pianist Frank LoCrasto, unveiling several new, mysterious numbers.

The 35th Anniversary of BC Studios, 1/15-16/16
Producer/guitarist/art-rocker/professional antagonist Martin Bisi booked a global cast of talent to perform and record a long timeline to commemorate his legendary Gowanus space, which might not last much longer if it isn’t landmarked. Highlights of the marathon weekend included slinky jazz punks Barbez, goth legend JG Thirlwell, haunting Middle Eastern noir singer and bandleader Ajda the Turkish Queen, a historic reunion of legendary 80s noiserock band Live Skull – who, back in the day, were better than Sonic Youth – and Bisi himself.

Gato Loco at Joe’s Pub, 1/29/16
The mighty psycho mambo band ambushed the audience with a battalion of baritone sax snipers throughout the space to bolster their explosive, darkly majestic reinventions of themes from the Verdi Reqiuem

Greg Squared’s Circle at Barbes, 3/6/16
The pyrotechnic multi-reedman and co-leader of Raya Brass Band – who’ve made frequent appearances on this page over the last few years – brought a bunch of A-list Brooklyn Balkan talent to work out about two hours’ worth of epically explosive new original pieces

Big Lazy and Mercury Radio Theater at Barbes, 4/1/16
The cinematic noir legends continue their monthly Friday night residency at Brooklyn’s best music venue; pound for pound, this twinbill, with the ferocious Philadelphia circus punk band, was probably the best of the bunch. Big Lazy’s best gig without a supporting act was probably this past May at the Lively, a great little Meatpacking District basement bar that lasted only a few weeks.

Kinan Azmeh and Erdem Helvacioglu at Spectrum, 4/9/16
Syrian clarinetist and Turkish guitarist join forces for a smoky, sinisterly ambient depiction of the horrors of war. Keep your eyes out for a forthcoming album of this material.

The Bright Smoke at Mercury Lounge, 4/14/16
Mia Wilson’s harrowingly intense art-rock band took their dynamic, explosively crescendoing live show to the next level at this one: it wouldn’t be overhype to say that they’re the closest thing to Joy Division that New York’s ever produced.

Greek Judas and Choban Elektrik at Barbes, 4/28/16
Greek Judas play careening psychedelic metal versions of classic hash-smoking and gangster music from Greece and Cyprus in the 20s and 30s. Choban Elektrik do the same with themes from across the Balkans, with organ and violin out front instead of screaming guitars. A real wild night, sort of like seeing the Doors and Iron Maiden on the same bill somewhere in the Aegean.

Ambrosia Parsley, Chris Maxwell and Holly Miranda at Hell Phone, 5/5/16
Short sets from the goth-tinged songbird and then the Arkansas gothic songwriter, followed by a raptly intense set from the cult favorite noir Americana singer, who showed off her chops on bothTelecaster and piano.

The Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York at I-Beam, 5/17/16
The room was so packed it was impossible to get inside, after the start of the great jazz pianist/composer/conductor’s shattering, angst-drenched suite reflecting horror and terror in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown on March 11, 2001. Watch out for the forthcoming album.

Eden Lane at Caffe Vivaldi, 5/29/16
Velvet-voiced jazz chanteuse Stephanie Layton channeled a century’s worth of existential angst and longing in front of her tightly swinging band, with a set packed with obscure treats from across the ages, including a vivid detour into the Erik Frandsen songbook.

Goddess, Ember Schrag and David Grubbs at a private party in Brooklyn, 6/3/16
Unsettlingly theatrical psychedelia, opaquely venomous Shakespeare-influenced Great Plains gothic songs and vast, deep-space guitarscapes to wind up one of the funnest nights of the year.

Lorraine Leckie at Pangea, 6/8/16
Backed by a tight, stripped-down version of her incendiary band the Demons, the eclectic songstress treated an intimate audience to everything from noir cabaret  to surrealistic art-rock. Her full-throttle Bowery Ballroom gig in November might have been even better.

 Attack and Tipsy Oxcart at Barbes, 7/5/16
Violinist Marandi Hostetter’s slinky, classic Levantine bellydance group made a great opener for the boombastic Balkan/Middle Eastern dance jamband.

Mariachi Flor De Toloache and Patti Smith at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/20/16
The all-female Mexican-American folk ensemble mesmerized the crowd with a plaintive set that ranged from mariachi, to rancheras, to some sly psychedelic rock. Then the queen of dark downtown New York art-rock and her band scorched through a characteristically fearless, defiantly populist, epic set of classic anthems and poignant newer material.

Robin Aigner and Kotorino at Barbes, 7/21/16
Brooklyn’s most deviously lyrical, torchy historical songwriter/chanteuse and her excellent, swinging Americana band followed by the darkly intense, phantasmagorical circus rock/art-rock/mambo crew

The Sway Machinery and Hydra at Joe’s Pub, 8/4/16
The debut of the ongoing collaboration between the psychedelic cantorial rock jamband and singer/composer Sarah Small’s lustrous, haunting Middle Eastern/Balkan trio with Yula Beeri and Rima Fand was every bit as entrancing as it promised to be.

Sandcatchers at Barbes, 8/9/16
Surfy, uneasy, richly psychedelic Middle Eastern jamband with a lapsteel along with guitar. Wow!

Bombay Rickey at Barbes, 8/12/16
Powerhouse singer/accordionist Kamala Sankaram brought her four-octave vocal range and also a sitar to a characteristically serpentine set of psychedelic cumbias, Bollywood, southwestern gothic themes and an electric take of a classic Indian raga.

Dan Penta at Sidewalk, 8/14/16
“Now that’s songwriting,” marveled one listener gathered in the back room of the East Village shithole where the harrowing, surrealistically intense frontman of great, obscure New York bands like Jagged Leaves, the Larval Organs and Hearth played a relatively rare solo set of relentlessly doomed anthems and dirges.

The Chiara String Quartet play Bartok from memory at National Sawdust, 8/30/16
The group’s new double-disc set of the complete Bartok quartets has a bristling, conversational quality, echoed by this performance of the sullen Quartet No. 1 and the chilling Quartets Nos. 3 and 5

Ben Holmes and Patrick Farrell at Barbes, 9/3/16
The hauntingly tuneful trumpeter and his longtime Yiddish Art Trio bandmate, pyrotechnic accordionist Farrell, played their creepy, carnivalesque new Conqueror Worm Suite, based on the Edgar Allen Poe poem.

Ensemble Fanaa at Rye Bar, 9/7/16
Otherworldly, microtonal tenor saxophonist Daro Behroozi’s eerily trippy gnawa-jazz trio with bassist/gimbri player John Murchison and drummer Dan Kirfirst slayed at their debut at Barbes back in July. They were even better in this cozy downstairs South Williamsburg boite.

Anbessa Orchestra at Barbes, 9/9/16
The fiery guitar-and-horn-driven Ethiopian psychedelic funk band put on a pretty ferocious show here back in May. This one was even hotter, sweatier and wilder, with some auspicious new material.

Hearing Things at Barbes, 9/11/16
Another band who slayed at a Barbes show that earned a rave review here, but whose next gig at the Park Slope hotspot was even hotter. Saxophonist Matt Bauder, organist JP Schlegelmilch and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza spun and stomped and slunk their way through a darkly psychedelic mix of surf and go-go originals.

The Allah-Las at Baby’s All Right, 9/17/16
About an hour and a half of lushly catchy three-minute retro psychedelic jangle, clang and twang, fueled by the overtone mist from Pedrum Siadatian’s twelve-string. That the best song of the night was a surf instrumental speaks to the quality of this band’s tunes.

The Attacca String Quartet and Jeff Lynne’s ELO at Radio City, 9/18/16
A bucket-list show. The Attaccas impressed with their ability to hold a sold-out crowd who didn’t seem likely to have any interest in composers like John Adams, but the ensemble kept their attention with a blazing, smartly curated mini-set. Visionary art-rocker Lynne’s band included only one remaining member from the iconic mid-70s lineup, and they played mostly radio hits instead of deep album cuts. But the new, young-ish ensemble was stoked to share the stage with one of the world’s alltime great tunesmiths, and he sang as strongly as he did forty years ago. Not bad for a guy who notoriously hated touring and playing live.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at National Sawdust, 10/2/16
Along with the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York’s Fukushima suite, this was the most intense show of the year, the composer/conductor stern and enigmatic out in front of his mighty big band as they blustered and lurked through his crushingly relevant new conspiracy theory-inspired suite

Satomi Fukami, Masayo Ishigure and others at Merkin Concert Hall, 10/5/16
A feast of spiky, interwoven Japanese koto sounds. featuring the music of legendary 20th century koto virtuoso and composer Michio Miyagi

LJ Murphy in the East Village, 10/8/16
The charismatic noir blues bandleader was at the top of his game, skewering security state paranoia, smarmy East Village gentrifiers and little Hitlers of all kinds while his explosive three-guitar band the Accomplices careened and roared behind him.

Steve Ulrich and Mamie Minch at Barbes, 10/14/16
The debut live collaboration between this era’s definitive noir film composer and the darkly compelling resonator guitarist/blueswoman, a live score to Windsor McCay’s pioneering early animated film The Flying House, turned out to be even more haunting than expected. Then they played some blues, and some Johnny Cash

Sahba Motallebi at Symphony Space, 10/21/16
This concert never could have been staged in the pyrotechnic tar lute virtuoso’s Teheran hometown, because she’s a woman. Her slashing volleys of tremolo-picking and whirlwind riffage were pure adrenaline. That this was a duo performance with another woman musician, percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand made this a special slap upside the head of Islamofascists everywhere.

The Spectrum Symphony with organists Janos Palur and Balint Karosi at St. Peter’s Church, 11/4/16
Possibly this century’s only New York performance of concertos for organ and orchestra featured a richly textural take of the Poulenc concerto plus the world premiere of Korosi’s menacingly cinematic Second Concerto for Organ, Percussion and Strings plus works by Mendelssohn and Bach. Pound for pound, the most mighty, titanic, epic show probably staged anywhere in this city this year.

In 2015, women artists ruled this list; this year, acts were split evenly along gender lines. Tellingly, even more so than last year, about sixty percent of these shows were either free or a pass-the-bucket situation. Clearly the action in this city, in terms of live music at least, is on the ground floor.

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Dark Psychedelic Bandleader Ember Schrag Joins a Killer Triplebill at Trans-Pecos on the 23rd

Ember Schrag‘s most recent gig at Hifi Bar was one of the year’s best. For that matter, the enigmatic, charismatic psychedelic bandleader’s previous show at a house concert in south Brooklyn with phantasmagorical art-rock band Goddess was pretty amazing too. Schrag and her band open the night at Trans-Pecos at 8:30 PM this Sunday, August 23, followed by intense Balkan noir psychedelic band Alec K. Redfearn & the Eyesores, with whom Schrag will air out her chops on creepy Farfisa organ. Groove-driven no wave cult faves Escape by Ostrich give the evening an acidic coda; cover is a measly $8.

Counterintuitively, Goddess opened the Brooklyn show with their album release performance, a deliciously macabre, theatrical suite about a genuine monster who takes over a hapless New Jersey household. As electrifying as that show was, Schrag and her band were every bit as intense. On album, Schrag’s signature style until this year has been great plains gothic: low-key, reserved, with a subtle, white-knuckle intensity and allusively murderous narratives. This year, on the heels of her release of her live Folkadelphia session album, she and her band have taken those songs as well as a whole bunch of new material into vastly more trippy, artsy terrain.

Guitar polymath Bob Bannister alluded to Muscle Shoals and Fairport Convention and Blonde on Blonde Dylan, among numerous other reference points, but always twisted those styles into something terse and erudite of his own to match Schrag’s venomously symbolist lyrics. Bassist Debbie Schwartz (formerly of the Aquanettas and a fantastic, similarly psychedelic songwriter in her own right) played a surf groove on one number, slides and hammer-ons on a handful of others, and bolstered Schrag’s soaring, distantly angst-fueled voice with her high vocal harmonies. Meanwhile, drummer Gary Foster colored the songs with witchy rimshots and cymbal splashes, misty crescendos and, when necessary, a swinging four-on-the-floor garage rock drive.

Bannister’s nimble accents mingled with Schrag’s hypnotic, circular fingerpicked hooks and Foster’s brushwork on the pensive Sutherland, an understated murder ballad and the night’s opening number. Virgin in the Shadow of My Shoe, a swaying, psychedelic folk noir number, might be Schrag’s most definitive new song. She doesn’t even bother to stomp on a religious icon: she lets her shadow do it. Bannister and Schrag’s rainswept jangle blended as one on the late Beatlesque psych anthem The Real Penelope, followed by a catchy southwestern gothic clang-rock number, part Steve Wynn, part astringent 80s Boston.

Schrag likes to turn Biblical imagery inside out, and she also has a Shakespearean side, most evident in the Arthur Lee-esque number that followed that, and later the ominous Lady M, Bannister’s icepick accents taking the place of the resonant, keening Susan Alcorn steel guitar on the recorded version. From there the band made their way through another ominous waltz that also brought to mind Arthur Lee, as well as a sad, misty Laurel Canyon psych-folk anthem that exploded the Abraham myth. Schrag wound up the set with another wounded waltz where she raised her voice to a shivery Ann Wilson wail, then the slow, cruellly sardonic I Ain’t a Prophet, and a wickedly catchy janglerock song spiced with nimble triplet figures and a biting, bluesy solo from Bannister: the guy can play anything and make it his own. The Trans-Pecos show should be every bit as good.

Goddess Releases One of the Year’s Best and Most Hauntingly Psychedelic Albums

Goddess are one of New York’s most phantasmagorical, individualistic bands. There is no other group in town who sound remotely like them. Part creepy 60s psychedelic act, part folk noir, part underground theatre troupe, they create a magically eerie ambience, whether live or on record. It was a treat to be able to catch their most recent performance at a private party in south Brooklyn: the album release show for their fantastic new one, Paradise, streaming at Bandcamp. Maybe it was the low lights over a leafy back courtyard – or maybe it was Ember Schrag‘s dangerous gin punch-  but as it went on, the show built an electrically suspenseful ambience, like being invited to a wiccan ceremony or some kind of sacrifice, a real-life Stonehenge hidden away just up the block from Fourth Avenue.

Andy Newman’s lushly enveloping multi-keys are one of the keys to the band’s sound. The other is Tamalyn Miller’s one-string violin, which she built herself. With no training as a violinist, she created her own otherworldly style, sometimes trancelike, other times savage and menacing. Singer Fran Pado maxes out both the band’s surrealistic, theatrical side and also the creepiness factor. Bassist/keyboardist Bob Maynard and polymath guitar sorcerer Bob Bannister complete the picture.

The album’s opening track, Leave Here builds a gorgeously enveloping web of acoustic guitars, the women adding their eerie vocal harmonies, rising to a hauntingly bracing interlude, the stark overtones of the violin contrasting with the gently suspenseful lattice behind it. Death by Owls, a mini-suite, juxtaposes an uneasy lullaby theme with pulsing, warily echoey vocals and then a psych-folk march that looks back to vintage King Crimson or the Strawbs at their most psychedelic. Begins sets soaring, stately, gorgeous vocal harmonies over what could be a horror-film piano theme. By now, it’s clear there’s a narrative of sorts, if a rather opaque one: “Like a finger in the palm, like the death of remorse,” the women intone.

Ponies, a slow folk-rock piano theme, switches from a Brothers Grimm-style tale of mass drowning to a balmy, nocturnal Peter Zummo trombone solo. The band builds contrastingly ethereal vocals and droll electronic keys throughout the anthemic, late Beatlesque Belladonna Honey. Grey Skull works a disquieting dichotomy between ethereal, mellotron-like art-rock orchestration and stark, spare strings, Prado’s mysterious vocals soaring calmly overhead.

Married opens with the mantra “this is not a dream,” those richly soaring vocals over spare, baroque-tinged classical guitar, Miller providing a menacing, multitracked outro. The album winds up with the majestically elegaic title track, an escape anthem fueled by organ and violin, Pado’s gently alluring vocals joined by a choir of voices: a shot of hope breaking through the gloom that’s been gathering all the way to this point. What is this all about? It’s not clear. What is clear is that this is an album you have to spend some time with, and get lost in. Its closest relative is Judy Henske and Jerry Yester”s 1969 cult classic Farewell Aldebaran; someday this too may be just as prized by collectors of magical esoterica.

The outdoor show featured another, similarly phantasmagorical suite, this one a sinister, tragicomic tale of a witch who hypnotizes and then moves in with a hapless New Jersey family, who must then use what little strength they have left to break free of the spell. No spoilers here! And for the icing on the cake, Schrag played a set afterward with her full band, Bannister doing double duty on lead guitar, with Debby Schwartz playing lusciously slippery slides and chords on bass and Gary Foster behind the drum kit, matching Bannister’s edgy nuance. Highlights of the set were not one but two Macbeth-themed new ones. What’s become more and more intriguing, watching Schrag’s repertoire grow over the past several months, is how she takes fire-and-brimstone biblical imagery and turns it back on itself, a savagely articulate critique set to similarly biting, incisive psychedelic rock. Speaking of which, she’s playing Hifi Bar (the old Brownies) at 8 PM on July 2. Watch this space for upcoming Goddess gigs – with their theatrical, multimedia bent, they like to make their events special and for that reason haven’t been playing live a lot lately.