What’s the likelihood of being able to get what amounts to an intimate, personal show from the world’s greatest English-language songwriter? A handful of New Yorkers got to experience that at last night’s edition of the ongoing Bryant Park Accordion Festival, following Rachelle Garniez across the park to various stations for tantalizingly brief fifteen-minute mini-sets.
Even though there were two dozen other accordionists playing in the park’s four corners and next to the fountain on the Sixth Avenue side, it was impossible to resist taking in two sets from Garniez. What was most fascinating was to watch her mash up elements of latin, klezmer, zydeco, classical, punk rock and even a bit of opera, banging out one song after another without the hilariously surreal, politically-charged stream-of-consciousness intros and jams that have made her legendary among New York performers.
The best song of the night was Tourmaline, a bittersweet waltz that works on innumerable levels: ultimately, it’s about rugged individuality triumphing against all odds. Without any more fanfare, Garniez let the rest of her songs speak for themselves.
The funniest moment was during Jean-Claude Van Damme, a tongue-in-cheek shout-out to a pitchman for antidepressants. She got everybody laughing when she reached the part about certain personality traits that have to be brought under control – then hammered that word again, and again, until everybody within earshot got the message. The faux-operatic outro, where she took a flying leap to the very top of her formidable four-octave vocal range, was pretty funny too.
She also played the jaunty, cabaret-infused Just Because You Can (Doesn’t Mean You Should), whose corollary is “just because you should doesn’t mean you can,” along with the slyly strutting, seductive Medicine Man, packed with all kinds of coy double entendres. She’s emceeing the festival’s closing night a week from today on June 21 at 6 PM, which might be the single best concert of the year, a bill that includes the Bil Afrah Project, who recreate iconic Lebanese composer Ziad Rahbani’s legendary 1975 Bil Afrah album; pyrotechnic Romany accordionist Peter Stan’s new band Zlatni Balkan Zvuk, Brazilian accordionist Felipe Hostins’ new forro group Osnelda; and cumbia accordionist/crooner Gregorio Uribe leading his slinky big band in celebration of Colombian Independence Day.
The festival’s only drawback is that it’s such a feast that there isn’t time to see everybody on the bill. It was awfully cool last night to watch accordionist Simon Moushabeck make his way through Arabic modes with all sorts of enigmatic passing tones, in two abbreviated duo sets with oudist Brian Prunka, mixing up steady, serpentine originals with a Fairouz cover or two.
Further to the west, Sadys Rodrigo Espitia played equally slinky, catchy cumbia and vallenato numbers. When he forgot the words to the hit Cumbia Del Oriente, a woman in the crowd sauntered over to the mic: and sang them with serious Colombian pride.
It was also cool to get to watch popular busker and Thee Shambels accordionist Melissa Elledge jam out cinematic themes and a Johnny Cash classic, then make noir blues out of Beethoven. Late one night a couple of years ago in the Second Avenue F train station, after a Bowery Ballroom show, Elledge played what had to be the most heartwrenchingly gorgeous version of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1 ever. So it was refreshing to be able to just chill on the grass and hear her think outside the box without the usual subway stresses. Garniez may be the world’s most brilliantly eclectic songwriter, but as an instrumentalist, Elledge is on the same page.
Before the big blowout on the 21st, there’s another night of mini-sets from another amazing cast of accordionists at Bryant Park on July 19 starting at 6 PM, with a lineup including avant garde and klezzmer player Shoko Nagai, pan-Mediterranean wizard Ismail Butera, jazz luminary Will Holshouser and Ed Goldberg & the Odessa Klezmer Band.