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The 20 Best New York Concerts of 2020 Which Can Be Publicly Discussed

When Andrew Cuomo declared himself dictator and ordered a lockdown of the state of New York on March 16, that didn’t stop musicians from playing, or prevent crowds from coming out to see them. Chances are that most of the players you know have been doing underground shows since then. But because a lot of those performances were forbidden under lockdown regulations, careers could be jeopardized if the Cuomo regime were to find out about them.

Someday the whole story can be told and those artists, and their supporters, can receive due credit for their heroism, for helping to keep hope alive when it seemed there was none. For the time being, here’s a salute to the artists who played the year’s most entertaining shows before the lockdown, as well as a handful who played dictatorially approved gigs in the time since.

There were three multiple-night stands this past year that deserve special mention. Over the course of barely a couple of weeks in February, the Danish String Quartet played the entire Beethoven cycle at Alice Tully Hall. The group’s chops are world-class, but it was their insight, and attention to detail, and flair for picking up on both the hilarity and the angst in the immortal works as well as the more obscure parts of that repertoire that made those sold-out evenings so unforgettable.

At the end of January, Juilliard staged an equally memorable series of concerts featuring mostly obscure works by women composers from over the past couple of centuries. The quality of the material, as well as the student ensembles’ performances, were astonishingly strong. Much as it was rewarding to see some better-known works like the Ruth Crawford Seeger String Quartet, and Grażyna Bacewicz’s withering second Cello Concerto on the bill, it was even more fascinating to discover pieces like Israeli composer Verdina Shlonsky’s phantasmagorical 1949 piano suite Pages From the Diary. along with dozens of chamber and symphonic pieces, practically all of them New York premieres. Juilliard’s Joel Sachs, who programmed the shows and tracked down the material, deserves immense credit for what was obviously a mammoth job. Too bad concerts at Juilliard no longer officially exist – and unless we get rid of the lockdown, the continued existence of Juilliard itself is imperiled.

And, of course, in the middle of January there was Golden Fest, New York’s wild, annual Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music event, which always raises the bar impossibly high for the rest of the year. Slashing, female-fronted Russian Romany party band Romashka, slinky brass band Slavic Soul Party, the volcanic Raya Brass Band, the even louder rembetiko heavy metal band Greek Judas, agelessly soulful Armenian jazz multi-reedman Souren Baronian, a rare New York appearance by the Elem All-Stars, Lyuti Chushki – Bulgarian for “Red Hot Chili Peppers”  – romping original klezmer band Litvakus and the Navatman Music Collective – this hemisphere’s only Indian carnatic choir – were highlights among dozens of other acts over the course of about ten hours of music.

In keeping with the annual tradition here, the rest of the concerts are listed in chronological order. 2020 was looking so good until the lockdown, wasn’t it!

Andrew Henderson at St. Thomas Church, 1/5/20
The organist played a sometimes stately, sometimes thrilling program of works by Buxtehude, Howells, Reger and others

 Linda Draper at the American Folk Art Museum, 1/10/20
With her calm, resonant chorister voice, the eclectic songwriter mixed up edgy earlier material as well as several characteristically, pensively intense, lyrically brilliant new songs.

Sara Serpa at the Zurcher Gallery, 1/11/20
This era’s most luminously haunting jazz singer/composer aired out a soaring, immersive mix of new material featuring brilliant guitarist Andre Matos and keyboardist Dov Manski

The Susan Alcorn Quintet at Winter Jazzfest, 1/11/20
This era’s great jazz pedal steel player mixed up a set full of new material, by turns immersively haunting, raptly atmospheric and sometimes riotously funny

Mames Babagenush in the Curry Hill neighborhood. 1/12/20
This supremely tight but feral Danish klezmer band started out in the afternoon in a church basement and ended the night with a crazed coda at a scruffy hotel. A lot of aquavit was involved: it didn’t phase them. And they’d just played Golden Fest the previous night.

Souren Baronian and Big Lazy at Barbes, 1/24/20
The octogenarian king of Middle Eastern jazz followed by the similarly slinky, minor key-fixated, chillingly cinematic and strangely danceable noir soundtrack band at the top of their game. Best twinbill of the year.

Saawee at Flushing Town Hall. 2/21/20
Violinist Sita Chay and percussionist Jihye Kim’s all-female Korean dance-and-ritual group summoned the spirits via a witchy, hypnotic, delicately shamanic performance

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore at Barbes, 2/22/20
With his otherworldly, crystalline trumpet, edgy Balkan chromatics and wry sense of humor, Holmes’ trio with guitarist Brad Shepik and percussionist Shane Shanahan built biting variations on subtly familiar klezmer themes.

Alicia Svigals and Donald Sosin play a live movie score at Temple Ansche Chesed, 2/23/20
The iconic klezmer violinist and her pianist collaborator delivered a dynamic mix of haunting traditional tunes, spirited originals and some coy classical interludes as a live score to E.A. Dupont’s irrepressibly sweet, groundbreaking 1923 German silent film The Ancient Law

Lara Ewen at Rockwood Music Hall, 2/24/20
Well known as the impresario behind the amazing, mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays concert series that ran for years at the American Folk Art Museum before being put on ice by the lockdown, Ewen is also a songwriter of note. And a hell of a singer, and a storyteller, and she’s really come into her own as an acoustic guitarist.

Jackson Borges at the organ at Central Synagogue, 2/25/20
Another excellent, long-running performance series that bit the dust when Cuomo’s insane lockdown regulations were imposed was organist Gail Archer’s semimonthly Prism Organ Concerts in midtown. Borges was the latest of a long line of global performers to play there, with a dynamic mix ranging from a majestic Mendelssohn sonata, to many more obscure works

Nicholas Capozzoli at St. Thomas Church, 3/1/20
What, another organ concert? Hey, this past year officially got cut off in mid-March. And this was a rousing one, with another mighty Mendelssohn sonata plus airy modern works by Leguay and Peters

Slavic Soul Party at Barbes, 3/3/20
Their mainstage show at Golden Fest was all the more traditional, blazing Balkan stuff. This one had the hip-hop, and the funk, and the James Brown and the Ellington. With breaks for European tours, they played this little Brooklyn boite just about every week for fifteen years until the lockdown.

The Vienna Yiddish Duo at the  Austrian Cultural Center, 3/10/20
A rare mix of edgy, Moldovan-flavored versions of klezmer classics as well as some ubiquitously familiar sounds from extrovert pianist Roman Grinberg and virtuoso clarinetist Sasha Danilov

Dolunay at Barbes, 3/12/20
Another one of the many Golden Fest bands on this list, playing an undulating, plaintive set of Turkish laments and originals…with just three people in the audience for most of the night.

The Pedro Giraudo Tango Quartet at Barbes, 3/14/20
The possibly last-ever indoor crowd at the historic Park Slope venue gathered for a sweeping, gorgeous set of originals and a couple of Piazzolla classics.

The American Symphony Orchestra String Quartet at Bryant Park, 9/14/20
The first of two outdoor shows featuring works by black composers was an alternately stirring and stark mix of material by Florence Price, Jessie Montgomery and William Grant Still.

And that’s where it ends. Get ready for some fireworks in 2021!

Beware of Greeks Bearing Loud Guitar Amps

Balothizer are among the most recent heavy psychedelic bands to realize how delicious haunting old Greek folk tunes sound when you crank up the volume and hit the distortion pedal. The obvious comparison is New York’s own Greek Judas, who, like Batholizer, are one of the few rock acts releasing new material these days. Check out the Brooklynites’ latest single, Snakey Song, which is probably the most succinct number in their repertoire of heavy metal versions of hash-smoking and protest songs from the 1920s and 30s..

Balothizer have a whole new album, Cretan Smash, streaming at Bandcamp. The eerie Arabic-influenced chromatics and fearless pro-freedom content of music from Crete are everywhere here, starting with the epic, defiant first track, Jegaman, kicking off with a slashing cadenza from guest violinist Stratos Skarakis. Frontman Nikos Ziarkas multitracks sizzling electric lute riffs over Pav Mav’s gritty, galloping bass and Steve J. Payne’s pummeling drums as the song veers between speedmetal and a slow, relentlessly doomy sway.

The second track is Peace, a slow, grimly stomping anthem until the shreddy stampede out. You want grim? The third number, Aleppo – a bitter exile’s tale – gets reinvented as sort of Greek Motorhead, but with more of a hypnotically propulsive drive, while the fourth, Ponente Levante, a vengeful chronicle of finding nothing but trouble in the world, has an even faster, circling attack.

Foustalieris, a popular tune with a witheringly metaphorical revolutionary message, has elegantly echoey acoustic twin lutes to kick things off, then the band barrel through to a long wah-wah stoner jam. They close the record with their most epic number here, Anathema, a shoegazy slowcore tune. Watch for this on the best albums of 2020 page at the end of the year.

Golden Fest: Best New York Concert of Whatever Year You Can Remember

It was early, a little before six, upstairs in the Rainbow Room Saturday night at the big finale to this year’s Golden Fest. A young mom with bangs in a simple black top and pants swung her daughter by the wrists. The two pretty much had the whole dance floor to themselves, and the little kid was relishing the attention. A friend of her mom’s joined them and took over the swinging.

Then the little girl decided she wanted to show off her dance moves – and schooled the two adults in how to get down to an edgy minor-key Balkan tune, in 7/4 time. Over the course of the next eight hours or so, she wouldn”t be the only preschooler who had those kind of moves down cold.

Many of those kids’ parents, or the kids themselves, are alumni of the annual Balkan Camp immortalized as the idyllic setting of Josephine Decker’s horror film Butter on the Latch. It seems like a great place to learn Romany dances or sharpen your chops on the accordion, or zurla, or gadulka. But not everyone who goes to Golden Fest every year goes to Balkan Camp, or has roots in the old country, or in Eastern European music. They just like minor keys, and chromatics, and what a lot of western musicans would call weird tempos (and eating and drinking too – there’s lots of both). Over the course of two nights every January, this is New York’s most entertaining music festival, year after year. At the risk of being ridiculously redundant, you’ll see this on the best concerts of 2020 page here at the end of the year.

The little girl, her mom and her friend were dancing to the sounds of Rodyna (which, appropriately, means “family”). That particular song had a rustic northern Greek or Macedonian sound to it, the women in the band singing stark and low, bouzouki player Joseph Castelli adding a bristling edge. A floor below, the Navatman Music Collective were joining voices in leaping, precise harmony throughout an ancient Indian carnatic melody.

Indian choral music at a Balkan music festival – with harmonies, no less? Sure. Over the years, Golden Fest has expanded beyond Serbian and Romany sounds to embrace music from all over: Egypt, Spain, and now, India. That’s where Romany music started, anyway. As the members of New York’s original Balkan brass band Zlatne Uste – who originated the festival, and were the centerpiece of the Friday night edition – view it, it’s all just good music.

To hell with the overcrowded, touristy Copacabana – this is the real Globalfest.

When careening Russian Romany dance band Romashka took the stage at about half past six, the big ballroom was pretty empty. As frontwoman Inna Barmash and violinist Jake Shulman-Ment took a couple of breathtaking cadenzas, was this going to be the year nobody came to Golden Fest?

Ha. About half an hour later, just in time for everybody to hear guitarist Jay Vilnai slink his way through an eerie, pointillistic solo, it was as if the floodgates broke and half of Brooklyn busted through the doors. In what seemed like less than five minutes, it was impossible to get through the expanding circles of line dancers. This party had a plan.

To the extent that you can bring a plan to it, anyway. Much as Golden Fest is one-stop shopping, a way to discover a couple dozen great new bands every year, there comes a point where Plan A and Plan B go out the window and you just have to go with the flow. In an age where social media is atomizing and distancing everyone from their friends, it’s hard to think of a more crazily entertaining way to reconnect with people you haven’t seen in months.

So this year’s agenda – to hang on the dance floor and catch as many of the headliners as possible, like a lot of people do – didn’t last long. Until the first distractions came into view, it was a lot of fun to discover Orchester Praževica, their surfy guitar and shapeshifting dance tunes from the southern side of the Danube. After them, it seemed that Slavic Soul Party spent as much time off the stage, in the middle of the floor surrounded by the circling hordes, as they did onstage. This time they didn’t do the Ellington, or much of the hip-hop stuff, as they’ve played in years past here; this was as close to traditional as this untraditional brass band gets.

While the Elem All-Stars were keeping the dancers going with their tight, purposeful Romany tunes, the first of the distractions led to some drinking – at Golden Fest, you really have to pace yourself – and a side trip to the atrium to see Wind of Anatolia playing their achingly gorgeous, lush mix of Turkish folk themes and cinematic originals.

The decision to give Danish klezmer band Mames Babagenush the main stage paid off mightily. They’d just played a bunch of relatively intimate Manhattan club dates the past weekend, so this was their chance to use the big PA and really rock the house, and their energy was through the roof, particularly frontman/clarinetist Emil Goldschmidt. Upstairs, legendary Armenian-American multi-reedman Souren Baronian and his band weren’t as loud but were just as mesmerizing, the bandleader’s burbling, microtonal sax and duduk matched by oudist Adam Good and bassist Michael Brown’s slinky riffage.

Gauging the most opportune moment to join the food line (Golden Fest has a buffet starting at around 10) was more of a challenge this year – but so what, that only opened up the door for more music. The first-floor Chopin Room is where most of the wildest bands on the bill play, whether onstage or, like more and more of them seem to do, under the big chandelier. Representing Brooklyn for the umpteenth year in a row, Raya Brass Band scorched and blasted through one pulsing, minor-key original after another. Greek Judas‘ set of searing heavy metal versions of classic Greek rembetiko gangster anthems from the 20s through the 50s had some people scratching their heads at first, but by the time they hit their second song, the room was packed once again. One of the security guys couldn’t resist giving the group the devils-horns salute and joined the dancers on the edge. Frontman Quince Marcum has never sung with more Athenian fury than he did at this show; Good, meanwhile, had put on a mask, put down his oud and strapped on a Strat.

By the time midnight struck, Lyuti Chushki – Bulgarian for “Red Hot Chili Peppers” – were keeping the dancers twirling in the ballroom, the food was down to babagenoush, pitas and an irresistible but short-lived spread of ajjar (a sort of Turkish red pepper hummous). In the top-floor room, Zisl Slepovitch (hotshot clarinetist the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof) and his similarly sizzling klezmer band Litvakus were leaping to the top of their respective registers for a lickety-split, nonstop series of what could have been traditional Ukrainian tunes but were probably originals.

By one in the morning, if you’ve done things right, this is where the booze finally starts to kick in and the dilemma of where to go really hits home. The allstar Amerike Klezmer Brass in the ballroom, Klezmatics reedman Matt Darriau‘s five-piece Paradox Trio downstairs, or singer Jenny Luna’s haunting Turkish ensemble Dolunay? If you last any longer, you might discover that the calm, thoughtful-looking individual seated next to you during one of the early sets is actually a member of What Cheer? Brigade, the feral, gargantuan street band who took over both the stage and the dance floor to close the night. Meanwhile, there was a much quieter Turkish quintet still going strong on the topmost floor. You want to dance? Great. You want to chill? Golden Fest has you covered. Looking forward to 2021.

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.

Quatre Vingt Neuf Reinvent Little Rascals Soundtracks, Hot 20s Jazz and Dixieland at Barbes

When Quatre Vingt Neuf launched into their most recent show last month at Barbes, it was a jazz power play. Bryan Beninghove came up with that term: it means more people onstage than there are in the audience. But by the time the irrepressible quasi oldtimey swing band wrapped up their show around midnight, the room was packed. Quatre Vingt Neuf are last-minute like that.

They played their first gig last year when the venue had a cancellation. Owner Olivier Conan emailed Wade Ripka, who would end up playing tenor banjo in the group, to see if he could pull a pickup band together. Sure, said Ripka, who’s in a bunch of other bands (rembetiko metalheads Greek Judas and retro Russian psych-pop crew the Eastern Blokhedz to name a couple) and has a deep address book. Since Conan lives in France now, all this was done over email.

And unlike most venues, Barbes actually promotes the artists who play there. So when Conan hadn’t heard back from Ripka by around midnight, European time, he sent a final reminder to make sure that the bar would have some kind of live entertainment that night.

Apparently the show was a success. When Ripka asked for another gig for this ensemble, Conan agreed – but insisted on naming the band. He came up with Quatre Vingt Neuf (French for Eighty-nine – a revolutionary year). Since then, they’ve featured as many as seventeen players onstage. Last month’s show featured a relatively small septet.

Quatre Vingt Neuf’s shtick is that they play hot 20s jazz and dixieland with a rock rhythm section, a rarity since when those styles first originated, technology hadn’t been developed to the point where bass or drums could be recorded in a full-band situation. Realistically speaking, Quatre Vingt Neuf hardly qualify as a rock band. At the May gig, drummer Chris Stromquist (who also plays in Greek Judas and Balkan brass band Slavic Soul Party) broke out his bundles and brushes and swung with an unexpectedly subtle flair – it’s a side of him not that many people get to see. The same with bassist Nick Cudahy – who also plays in Greek Judas and the Blokhedz – walking the changes and using horn voicings in a couple of wry solos.

Interestingly, bandleader Ripka stuck to rhythm and didn’t take any solos. But the band played several of his arrangements of Little Rascals theme music, from scampering Keystone Kops miniatures to longer, more coyly crescendoing, cinematic pieces. Even the ballads were upbeat. Soprano saxophonist Jason Candler sang a handful of them, when he wasn’t sending wildfire spirals upward. Trumpeter John Carlson played terse, centered good cop to trombonist Tim Vaughn’s boisterous honks and snorts and extended technique. They’re back at Barbes on June 13 at 10 PM, headlining a great swing twinbill that begins at 8 with plush singer/baritone uke player Daria Grace & the Pre-War Ponies, who excel at oldschool mambos and can also be a lot more boisterous than most retro swing bands.

Greek Judas Headline One of the Year’s Best Twinbills in the East Village

When Greek Judas took the stage at Niagara at a little after eleven a couple of Thursdays ago, everybody in the crowd suddenly had their phones out. Maybe that was because three of the five guys in the band were wearing animal masks. But it’s more likely that nobody in the audience had ever seen a Greek metal band.

And in that space, they were louder than ever. Singer Quince Marcum projects as well as any other frontman in town, but this time he was low in the mix. When the band got their start, guitarist/lapsteel player Wade Ripka and guitarist Adam Good would typically take long, careening, Middle Eastern-tinged solos. And that worked; both guys love their creepy chromatics, and they can get totally symphonic without being boring. Times have changed: instead of jabbing at each other to pull a song back on track, there’s a lot more interplay and at least semi-controlled chaos now. Ironically, the tighter they get, the more psychedelic the music is.

Bassist Nick Cudahy downtunes his axe now, for some serious tarpit sonics. Meanwhile, drummer Chris Stromquist makes the songs’ tricky rhythms look easy: the way he plays, no matter how bizarre the underlying beat is, you can stand and sway from side to side and not feel any more stoned than you might already be.

Obviously, you don’t have to be high to appreciate the band. One of the reasons why they’ve tightened up the show is that they have a lot more songs and they don’t have to stretch them out so much. They’re all covers, from the 1920s to the 1960s, most of them from the criminal and revolutionary underworld who fought against dictatorial terror and then a British invasion after World War II. Many of those tunes were written by ethnic Greeks who’d escaped persecution in Cyprus and Turkey, only to find themselves second-class citizens in their ancestral land.

The best song of the night was I’m a Junkie, which might have just been a shout-out to good hash, or something stronger – Marcum sings everything in the original Greek. The most lyrically innocuous love song of the night was also one of the most macabre. Police brutality, heavy partying, black humor behind bars, trans-Mediterranean drug smuggling and crack addiction were some of the other topics Marcum addressed – he almost always gives the audience a little translation for just about everything. They’re back at Niagara (Ave. A and 7th St., the former King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut across from the southwest corner of Tompking Square Park) this Thursday at 10. As a bonus, the excellent Trouble with Kittens – who play similarly edgy if somewhat quieter and faster, new wave-influenced songs – open the night at 9. Noir cinematic trio Sexmob‘s brilliant drummer, Kenny Wollesen is sitting in with them this for this show. It’s a pass-the-tip-jar situation.

A Rare Chance to See Haunting Large-Ensemble Turkish Music in the West Village

One of the most serendipitous developments in New York music this year is that Seyyah, who might be this city’s most epic Turkish band at the moment, have been playing more lately. Which is more impressive than it seems, considering that percussionist/singer Jenny Luna has been plenty busy with her own similarly haunting Turkish-Balkan band Dolunay. Pretty much everybody else in Seyyah plays with other bands as well. Tanbur lute player Adam Good is also in Dolunay, and lends his prowess on many stringed instruments to numerous other groups including sizzling rebetiko metal band Greek Judas. Oudist Kane Mathis has his own project, his Indian-tinged groove duo Orakel, and plays in Nubian band Alsarah & the Nubatones. Clarinetist Greg Squared is in Raya Brass Band (who played a sizzling set this past Saturday night at Barbes) and Sherita. Violinist Marandi Hostetter plays with slinky Egyptian bands Nashaz and Sharq Attack (some might say that they’re the same group) and others, as do percussionists Simon Moushabeck and Philip Mayer.

Seyyah’s next gig is this Jan 15, with sets at 8 and 9:30 PM at Cornelia St. Cafe. Cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum; the food at the downstairs West Village jazz boite is actually a cut above what most jazz club kitchens throw at you. Seyyah are also one of the latest bands with the good sense to release a live album, a free download recorded at Barbes last May on a live WFMU Transpacific Sound Paradise broadcast which also featured a rather rare, starkly intense set of Georgian folk tunes by guitarist Ilusha Tsinadze and his trio, plus a lustrous, hypnotic, tantalizingly brief handful of tunes by a subset of lavish, paradigm-shifting Indian carnatic choir the Navatman Music Collective.

Seyyah’s set – with a slightly altered lineup – opens with Mahur Saz Seman, a catchy, bouncy, somewhat bittersweetly anthemic tune. As the song goes on, the trills of Zoe Christiansen’s clarinet and Eylem Basaldi’s violin take it into more brooding territory before the main theme returns. Sultani Yegah veers between a jiggy, sea chantey-like bounce, and more wary, chromatically incisive interludes, with a spiky, moody tanbur solo. Basaldi takes centerstage with her microtonal nuance in the briskly flurrying, slashing Hicaz Zeybek, the set’s arguably best and most Arabic-inflected song.

Scampering percussion propels Hüzzam Oyun Havasi – like most of the songs here, it starts out with everybody playing the rippling, uneasy modal melody, then Good pulls away, then we get a moody, deliciously microtonally-spiced clarinet solo and a lively percussion break. The night’s coda is Çeçen Kizi, a wickedly catchy, broodingly intense, undulating theme with Basaldi leading the charge out this time. It’s amazing how good the sound quality is, considering how packed and noisy the bar was that Saturday night.

And if you’re going to Golden Fest this weekend, Greek Judas, Raya Brass Band and Dolunay will all be there on Saturday.

Brooklyn’s Creepiest Metal Band Hit Barbes Tomorrow Night, Golden Fest on the 13th.

Greek Judas have the creepiest, most twistedly psychedelic sound of any metal band in New York. They play electrified rebetiko music. Rebetiko was to Greece in the 1920s and 30s what metal was in the early 70s cinderblock slums of Europe: the default music of a disenfranchised criminal underworld. Rebetiko songs celebrate getting stoned, smuggling hash, running from the law and dealing with the consequences sometimes – what’s more metal than that, right? Greek Judas play those feral, frequently macabre, chromatically slashing anthems wearing animal masks, with their guitars turned up to eleven. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp; they’re playing Barbes tomorrow night, Jan 4 at 8 PM, then they’re at Golden Fest on the 13th where they will probably be louder than any of the blaring brass bands.

The album’s first track is Young Hash Smokers (the video is here). Adam Good’s sludgy growl anchors bandleader Wade Ripka’s nails-down-the-blackboard shrieks over the steady thud of bassist Nick Cudahy and drummer Chris Stromquist. Dressed in a monk’s robe, frontman Quince Marcum sings in Greek for a strong, expressive celebration of cannabis resin.

Ripka’s guitar prowls and slashes around the upper frets in How Long the Night, up to a sly trick ending. The band bookend the darkly sirening, slide guitar-fueled I’m a Junkie with ominously lingering pieces of the Beatles’ Within You and Without You, and the unexpectedly tasty addition of a string section.

Roma Girl comes across as a mashup of late Beatles clang and smoky Keith Richards riffage, with more darkness than either of those bands – suddenly it hits you that it’s a one-chord jam. The album’s high point and most recent number here, Kokkinia 1955, pulses like a desperately dying quasar, Ripka making evil tremolo metal out of what could have been a bagpipe tune in a past life.

The smugglers’ anthem Contrabandistas is both the album’s most broodingly catchy and epic track. Syndrofisses is a launching pad for the most hydroponically intertwining, Iron Maiden-style guitar here and an especially unhinged Ripka solo that Good leaps out of and takes the song into slyly sunbaked early 70s territory.

The most evocatively desperate number here is Why I Smoke Cocaine, a crack whore’s sad story – that stuff existed on the streets of Athens in the 20s. The final cut is I’ll Become a Monk, the closest thing to a poignant breakup anthem here. Best album of 2018 so far by a mile.

Fun fact: before they were Greek Judas, the core of the band were in a stately, more traditionally-oriented rebetiko trio, Que Vlo-ve. You can still get their singles as free downloads from Bandcamp.

A Wild Night in Bushwick Thursday in Anticipation of This Year’s Golden Fest

Of all the accolades Ray Manzarek received, he was most proud of how Rolling Stone described his organ playing as “Balkan funeral music.” Manzarek was also proud of his heritage, and if he was still alive, no doubt he’d be a fan of Choban Elektrik. The Brooklyn band – Jordan Shapiro on organ, Jesse Kotansky on violin, Dave Johnson on bass and Phil Kester on drums – take folk music from across the Balkans and make psychedelic rock epics out of it. Sometimes they sound like the Doors, sometimes they bring to mind the Stranglers when the rhythms are more straight-up and Shapiro goes off on one of his long, spiraling tangents. They aren’t playing this weekend’s Golden Fest – New York’s single funnest musical weekend of the year – but they are in the middle of an amazing four-band pre-Golden Fest lineup this Thursday, Jan 12 at Sunnyvale in Bushwick. Cover is $12, music starts at 7 with the feral, intricate lickety-split, rare Polesian klezmer dances and grooves of Litvakus, then  Choban Elektrik, then epic, original, intense Raya Brass Band, with Greek Judas;, who play psychedelic metal versions of classic underground 1920s and 1930s Greek hash smoking music, headlining

Choban Elektrik earned a rave review here last year for a twinbill they played with Greek Judas at Barbes back in April. The group played an even more adrenalizing show show there three months later that didn’t get a writeup here – overkill, you know – but did earn a spot on the Best Shows of 2016 page. Here’s what happened.

A bubbly, syncopated minor-key vamp slowly coalesced and then Shapiro hit his smoky, eerily tremoloing organ patch, pouncing his way through a brooding chromatic theme. Eventually, Kotansky took it skyward as Shapiro’s organ smoldered and pulsed. They followed that with the night’s first vocal number, a minor-key mashup of tango and surf rock with a long, majestically rising organ solo that Shapiro finally took spiraling down, then punched in some noisy, staccato washes like an unhinged Jimmy Smith.

Shapiro’s arrangement of the next tune was packed with shivery melismas and trills, wildfire clarinet lines transposed to funeral organ, echoed by Kotansky’s lightning volleys of triplets when he took a solo. Then he took the song down to the lowest, most austere place on his fingerboard. They took it out with a whirlwind doublespeed outro.

Kester suppplied a dancing rimshot beat as the bouncy next number got underway, the organ dancing overhead, Kotansky keeping the danse macabre going as Shapiro hit his wah pedal for some mean funk. They hit a staggered groove after that, Shapiro turning the roto way up to max out the menace and intensity of the tune’s Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics, adding an echoey dead-astronaut-adrift-in-space electric piano solo midway through. Kotansky’s solo was almost as macabre and veered toward bluesy metal. Then the band flipped the script with a joyously driving, syncopated anthem, both the folksiest and most ELP-inflected number of the night. They followed with one of their really epic numbers, sort of a mashup of Duke Ellington’s Caravan, the Doors’ Light My Fire and a bouncy Serbian theme. That was just the first set – and probably a close approximation of what you can expect Thursday night in Bushwick.

And the most recent moment that this blog and Greek Judas could be found in the same room was a few weeks ago on a cold Monday night at LIC Bar. Why on earth would someone not from Long Island City make the trip out there in bitter December wind, late on a work night – on an injured limb, no less – to a little Irish pub to see a loud metal band run through what was was basically a live rehearsal?

If you’re hanging out just over the Pulaski Bridge, a couple of stops away on the G, why the hell not? On one hand, the show was as experimental and sloppy as you would expect from a rehearsal, but by the third song in, the Monday Night Football crowd at the bar was drawn in by the group’s animal masks and macabre riffage, had their phones out and were gramming away. All that attention apparently earned Greek Judas a return engagement on another Monday night later this month. But what the bar really ought to give them is an early Saturday night slot during the warmer months when the back courtyard is open and the place is packed.

Wild, Crazy, Deep Danceable Sounds at Last Night’s Borscht Ball in Bushwick

The dancing crowd at last night’s second annual Borscht Ball at Paperbox in Bushwick got to watch singer Svetlana Shmulyian – who has a gig with her bittersweetly torchy, cosmopolitan swing jazz band the Delancey Five coming up at Lucille’s on June 24 at 8 – sing coyly quirky old Soviet pop songs from the 60s in her native tongue, with a knowing happy-hour gleam in her eye.

They got to hear klezmer firebrand Daniel Kahn – who’s got a gig tonight at Joe’s Pub at 9:30 – unveil an obscure old Russian tune he’d never played before, which he’d just translated on the way down from Utica with fellow singer Psoy Korolenko. The gist of it was, “If the devil won’t take me, how about your bed.” Kahn had matched his English rhyme scheme to the original, quite a feat.

They got to pogo and linedance and twirl around the room as the Klezmatics aired out a fiery, characteristically ambitious series of new songs from their long-awaited forthcoming album. They got to see a parade of some of the world’s most sought-after talent in Jewish roots music – irrepressible Litvakus clarinetist/singer Dmitri Zisl Slepvovitch and charismatic Golem bandleader Annette Ezekiel Kogan among them – beat a path on and off the stage as the music shifted from defiantly joyous, to wounded angst, to full-throttle klezmer punk.

The festival’s raison d’etre is to provide a snapshot of the many different flavors of klezmer punk from around the world. If you think that’s a little esoteric, consider that there are hundreds of bands who would have fit this bill. If the Klezmatics weren’t the first, they opened the floodgates and have since inspired more than a generation of musicians. Playing their thirtieth anniversary show, they drew on sounds as disparate as Romanian, Turkish, Ukrainian and Catalan folk traditions while adding their signature firepower and jazz sophistication. Trumpeter Frank London played his usual, alternately crystalline and ferociously elephantine trumpet with his right hand while doing catchy arpeggios and comping chords on organ with his left. Matt Darriau ripped through careening postbop jazz on tenor sax and spun off spirals on clarinet over the stampeding, sometimes vaudevillian pulse of drummer Richie Barshay and bassist Paul Morrissett while frontman/accordionist Lorin Sklamberg sang in Yiddish, Russian and English. At the end of their sizzling opening set, he told the crowd that they’d be back, and by the end they pretty much all were, joining the members of Opa in careening versions of well-loved classics like Limonchiki and Bei Mir Bist Du Shein.

Brooklyn supergroup Svetlana and the Eastern Blokhedz – Shmulyian backed by bandleader Wade Ripka on guitar, his Greek Judas bandmates Quince Marcum on horn and vocals and Nick Cudahy on bass, Isaak Mills on guitar, sax and glockenspiel, Choban Elektrik‘s Jordan Shapiro and Las Rubias Del Norte‘s Allyssa Lamb on keys, and Slavic Soul Party‘s Chris Stromquist on drums – kept the dancers on their feet, opening and eventually closing with psychedelic garage pop that sounded straight out of France, 1969. Who says the Russians ever outgrew their French fixation, anyway? From there Shmulyian led them nimbly and warmly through a Russian pop counterpart to Dancin’ in the Rain, to nostalgic salutes to motherhood and romance and eventually a Soviet equivalent of “Celebrate good times, c’mon!” True to form, their deadpan version of the Ventures’ Cold War instrumental classic Spudnik was irresistibly funny in context.

Making their U.S. debut, eclectic Russian band  Opa headlined and offered an unstoppably kinetic take on many of the directions klezmer continues to expand into. With tenor saxophone, trumpet, trombone, guitar, bass and drums going full force, they opened with a catchy old Russian riff that they built into straight-ahead oldschool disco. From there the band romped back and forth through time, vocally and instrumentally, flavored with acidic no wave guitar, Talking Heads funk and maybe a little Gang of Four. As the special guests made their way to the stage until there wasn’t much room left up there, the group took a detour into the tropics with some rocksteady, a couple of snaky klezmer cumbia mashups, a bit of Balkan reggae, hints of salsa and then a rousing return to the classics at the end of four nonstop hours of music. By then most of the oldsters – an impressive number, considering how deep in the ‘Shweck the venue is – had gone home, leaving the floor to the kids, many of them couples, who’d spent pretty much the entire time on their feet. By then it was as if the music itself had taken on a personality of its own, overjoyed to be brought back from death’s door in the nick of time.