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The 30 Best New York Concerts of 2012

Of all the end-of-the-year lists here, this is the most fun to put together. It’s the most individual – everybody’s got a different one.  Last year’s list had 26 shows; this year’s was impossible to whittle down to less than 30. What was frustrating was looking back and realizing how many other great shows there were. Erica Smith, Rebecca Turner, Love Camp 7 and Pinataland all on the same bill at the Parkside? The club didn’t list it on their calendar. Neil Young in Central Park? Completely spaced out on that one. Pierre de Gaillande’s Georges Brassens translation project, Les Chauds Lapins and Raya Brass Band at that place in Tribeca in January? That night conflicted with Winter Jazzfest. The Brooklyn What at Littlefield, Rachelle Garniez at Barbes, Ward White and Abby Travis at Rock Shop, Spanglish Fly at SOB’s…all of those conflicted with having a life. But it was still a great year, arguably better than 2011.

Of all the multiple-act bills, the longest marathon, and arguably most exhilarating show of the year was Maqamfest on January 6 at Alwan for the Arts downtown with slinky Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat, haunting vintage Greek rembetiko oud band Maeandros, torchy Syrian chanteuse Gaida, rustic Iraqi classicists Safaafir, deviously intense Palestinian buzuq funk band Shusmo and then a crazy Middle Eastern jam with the brilliant Alwan All-Stars. Maqamfest 2013 promises to be just as good.

Rather than trying to rank the rest of these shows, they’re listed chronologically:

Walter Ego at Otto’s, 1/28/12 – the witty, brilliantly lyrical multi- instrumentalist/songwriter, minus his usual theatrical shtick, instead running through one clever, pun-infused, catchy song after another.

Eva Salina at the Ukrainian National Home, 3/31/12 – this was the debut performance of brilliant Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina Primack’s new band with Frank London on trumpet and Patrick Farrell on accordion. She swayed, lost in the music and sang her heart out in a bunch of different languages over the haunting pulse behind her.

Closing night at Lakeside Lounge, 4/30/12 with co-owner Eric Ambel’s Roscoe Trio, Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith’s band, Mary Lee Kortes, Boo Reiners from Demolition String Band, Charlene McPherson from Spanking Charlene and many others giving the legendary East Village rock venue a mighty sendoff.

Little Annie, Paul Wallfisch and David J at the Delancey, 5/7/12 – the smoky, sureallistically hilarious noir cabaret chanteuse, Botanica’s brilliant keyboardist playing three sets, and the legendary Bauhaus bassist/songwriter/playwright at the top of their brooding noir game.

Ben Von Wildenhaus at Zebulon, 5/14/12 – at one of his final shows before leaving town, the noir guitarist played solo through a loop pedal and turned the club into a set from Twin Peaks.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices at Otto’s,  6/16/12 – backed by the ferocious piano of Patrick McLellan, Tommy Hochscheid’s classic Stax/Volt guitar attack and a swinging rhythm section, the NYC noir rock legend careened through a politically-charged set of songs from his reportedly phenomenal forthcoming 2013 album.

Black Sea Hotel in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, 6/17/12 – the trio of Willa Roberts, Corinna Snyder and Sarah Small sang their own otherworldly, hypnotic a-cappella arrangements of surreal Bulgarian folk songs from across the centuries, their voices hauntingly echoing in the cavernous space of an old synagogue.

Veveritse Brass Band at Barbes, 6/28/12 – over the absolutely psychedelic, bubbly pulse of the trubas, this ten-piece Balkan jam band burned and roared and turned the club’s back room into a cauldron of menacing chromatics and minor keys.

Kotorino at Joe’s Pub, 6/29/12 – transcending a series of snafus with the sound system, the lush, artsy chamber-steampunk band evoked other countries and other centuries throughout a set that was as jaunty and fun as it was haunting.

Aaron Blount of Knife in the Water with Jack Martin from Dimestore Dance Band at Zirzamin, 7/9/12  – although the two hadn’t rehearsed, Martin evoked the ghost of Django Reinhardt against the reverb cloud swirling from Blount’s guitar amp, through a mix of moody, gloomy southwestern gothic songs.

Magges at Athens Square Park in Astoria, 7/10/12 – the Greek psychedelic rockers played a long show of spiky, often haunting songs spiced with Susan Mitchell’s soaring electric violin and Kyriakos Metaxas’ sizzling electric bouzouki – it seemed that the whole neighborhood stuck around for most of it. Too bad there wasn’t any ouzo.

Neko Case out back of the World Financial Center, 7/12/12 – the stage monitors weren’t working, which messed up opening act Charles Bradley’s set, but Case, Kelly Hogan and the rest of the band didn’t let it phase them, switching up their set list and playing a raw, intense set of noir Americana.

Niyaz at Drom, 7/22/12 – a  long, mesmerizing cd release show by the artsy Canadian-Persian dance/trance ensemble, frontwoman Azam Ali slowly and elegantly raising the energy from suspenseful to ecstatic as it went on.

Dimestore Dance Band at Zirzamin, 7/23/12 – since reviving this group, guitarist Jack Martin has become even more powerful, more offhandedly savage and intense than he was when he was leading them back in the mid-zeros when this witty yet plaintive gypsy/ragtime/jazz band was one of the finest acts in the Tonic scene. This show was a welcome return.

The Secret Trio, Ilhan Ersahin and Selda Bagcan at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/12 – the annual “Turkish Woodstock” began with short sets of haunting classical instrumentals, psychedelic jazz and then the American debut of the legendary psychedelic rock firebrand and freedom fighter whose pro-democracy activism landed her in jail at one point.

Bettye LaVette at Madison Square Park, 8/8/12 – the charismatic underground soul legend took songs from acts as diverse as George Jones, Paul McCartney and Sinead O’Connor and made them wrenchingly her own, a portrait of endless struggle followed finally by transcendence.

Bombay Rickey at Barbes, 8/11/12 – jaunty, jangly, surfy , psychedelic Bollywood rock fun, with guitar, accordion and frontwoman Kamala Sankaram’s amazing operatic vocals.

Daniel Kahn & the  Painted Bird at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/12/12 – grim, politically spot-on, lyrically brilliant klezmer-rock songwriting from the Berlin-based bandleader backed by an inspired New York pickup group.

Ulrich Ziegler at Barbes, 8/17/12 – of all the single-band shows, this was the year’s most intense, over an hour of eerie. reverb-driven noir cinematic instrumentals from genius guitarist Stephen Ulrich and his inspired colleague Itamar Ziegler, celebrating the release of the album rated best of 2012 here.

The Byzan-Tones at Zebulon, 8/22/12 – the recently resurrected Greek psychedelic surf rockers traded in the electric oud for Steve Antonakos’ lead guitar, and the result sent the haunting, Middle Eastern-fueled energy through the roof.

J O’Brien and Beninghove’s Hangmen at Zirzamin, 9/10/12 – a fascinatingly lyrical, characteristically witty set, solo on twelve-string guitar, by the former Dog Show frontman followed by New York’s best noir soundtrack jazz band at their most intense and psychedelic.

The Strawbs at B.B. King’s, 9/11/12 – it’s amazing how almost 45 years after the psychedelic/Britfolk/art-rock band began, they still sound strong, their lyrical anthems still resonant even in a stripped-down acoustic trio setting.

Sam Llanas at Zirzamin, 9/11/12 – rushing downtown to catch a solo show by the former BoDeans frontman paid off with a riveting, haunting set of brooding, austerely nocturnal songs, especially when J O’Brien joined him on bass.

Sex Mob at the World Financial Center, 9/27/12 – the downtown jazz legends got the atrium echoing with a hypnotic, absolutely menacing set of classic Nino Rota film themes – and they didn’t even play the Godfather.

Julia Haltigan at 11th St. Bar, 10/2/12 – the eclectic southwestern gothic/Americana/soul siren and songwriter at the top of her torchy, sultry, intense game, backed by a brilliant, jazzy band.

M Shanghai String Band‘s cd release show at the Jalopy, 10/5/12 – an hour of cameos from too many New York Americana luminaries to name, followed by two long sets from the massive oldschool string band, moving energetically from bluegrass, to Appalachian, to sea chanteys, gypsy sounds and Britfolk, sometimes fiery and intense, sometimes hilarious.

Theo Bleckmann backed by ACME, crooning Phil Kline song cycles at BAM, 10/25/12 – this was the premiere of Kline’s lushly enveloping chamber-rock arrangements of his acerbically hilarious Rumsfeld Songs, his eclectic Vietnam-themed Zippo Songs and his brand-new, luridly haunting new Sinatra-inspired cycle, Out Cold.

The Arturo O’Farrill Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra at Symphony Space, 11/2/12 – in the wake of the hurricane, O’Farrill decided to put on a couple of free concerts to lift peoples’ spirits. This was the first and better of the two nights, the brilliant latin big band pianist joined by special guests including Anat Cohen, Sex Mob’s Steven Bernstein, Rafi Malkiel and Larry Harlow, playing long, broodingly intense, towering themes, many of them based on classic Jewish melodies.

Katie Elevitch at Zirzamin, 12/16/12  – goes to show that you can’t really count the year’s best concerts until the year’s almost over. Backed by her fantastic four-piece band, the haunting, intense rock siren improvised lyrics, roared, whispered and seduced the crowd in the plush space with her voice and her achingly soul-inspired songwriting.

Ulrich Ziegler: Album of the Year

Stephen Ulrich is arguably the preeminent noir guitarist of our time. With his signature reverberating blend of twang, skronk and occasional savagery, his playing is darker and more intensely focused than Marc Ribot, more urban than Bill Frisell. For several years Ulrich led the chilling noir instrumental trio Big Lazy; these days he writes big-budget soundtracks for film and tv. He also has a new project, simply called Ulrich Ziegler, with fellow reverb guitarslinger Itamar Ziegler from Pink Noise. Their self-titled debut album is the noir album of the year, maybe the decade – a menacing mix of echoey guitars, slinky beats and haunting cinematic themes. About half the tracks are streaming at the band’s Reverbnation site.

The two guitarists play with such a singlemindedly commitment to maintaining the mood that it’s hard to distinguish between the two: those who’ve seen them live might be able to differentiate between Ziegler’s terse, clenched-teeth precision and Ulrich’s lapses into more slashing, unhinged phrasing. And as absolutely macabre as much as this music is, it’s also playful, imbued with plenty of gallows humor and lively jousting between the musicians. Ulrich’s old Big Lazy pal, Balkan Beat Box’s Tamir Muskat seems to be the guy rumbling behind the drums on most of the faster numbers, while Kill Henry Sugar’s Dean Sharenow holds down the backbeat on the midtempo ones; Wave Sleep Wave’s Yuval Lion is in there somewhere too. Peter Hess, also of Balkan Beat Box, plays a small arsenal of reeds along with Philip Glass collaborator Mick Rossi on keyboards.

The bucolic, Frisell-ish opening track, Since Cincinnati offers very little hint of the menace that’s coming down the pike. A slowly shuffling blue-sky theme, Ulrich’s lapsteel soars and sways, Rossi’s organ swirls as a southwestern gothic theme begins to appear on the distance. Likewise, Twice Town is Lynchian to the core, a Jimmy Webb-style country-pop melody somewhat ironically pinned by undercurrent of unease. A little flailing on the guitar strings, more lapsteel far on the horizon and then a quietly menacing pulse takes it out: a mini-movie for the ears.

Swords and Sandals is where the album really starts to get creepy, a chromatically-spiked, apprehensively tiptoeing bolero that builds tension to the breaking point. A Cuban string quartet eventually joins them and adds lushness – although this album was recorded in bits and pieces around the world, you’d never know it.

Another real creeper is Hermanos Brothers, a funky lowrider serial killer theme. The guitars go from brutal and skronky to a wide-open, warm tremolo, Ulrich eventually opening up the chorus to a shimmery lunar eclipse sostenuto. Tickled To Death sounds like a doublespeed remake of the jaunty Big Lazy latin noir classic Curb Urchin, Ziegler’s outrageously nimble, lickety-split bass pushing Ulrich into dizzying frenzies of tremolo-picking. The layers of guitar grow to the point where it’s literally impossible to tell who’s playing what.

The two best, and darkest tracks here might be the waltzes. His Story is sort of a theme for the haunted room at the Plaza hotel where the ballet dancer went out on the ledge and never came back. A gleefully macabre marionette theme, it sets evil upper-register guitar clusters over pinpoint rhythm, Hess’ baritone sax moving it out of the shadows just enough to raise the horror factor a tinge. Ita Lia is more moody and morose, with hints of Belgian musette and Django Reinhardt and ghostly high organ flourishes that offer something approximating comic relief but never quite go there.

Pieces, a murky, morbid one-chord jam, builds to a shivery baritone sax solo that bass saxophonist Colin Stetson (from Tom Waits’ band) bludgeons off the page. Pipe Dream, an opiated lullaby shifting in and out of rhythmic focus, sounds like the Beatles’ And I Love Her done as a jazz ballad. The most sardonic track here is the wryly bouncy Fornever, while Space Enthusiast, an outer space dirge of sorts, wouldn’t be out of place on a recent Church album.

They go deep into spaghetti western shadows with Cross My Heart, Ulrich’s menace growing as the band follows him from hypnotic to lush, then down to a dead rodeo clown interlude of sorts (that’s just one possible image out of many that this music evokes: give it a listen and come up with your own). The album ends with a casually expert twin-guitar cover of Caravan as laid-back as the Ventures’ version was frantic, Ulrich’s fuzzbox attack building from Ziegler’s offhand cynicism. After a certain point, to try to rank one classic album over another becomes meaningless. Is Mingus Mingus Mingus better than Angelo Badalamenti’s first Twin Peaks soundtrack? Is Miles Davis’ score to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) better than this album? Not really. They’re all classic. One thing for certain is that if this blog is still lurking in the shadows when they get really dark at the end of the year, you will see this album somewhere around the top of the best albums of 2012 list.

Ulrich Ziegler at Barbes: Best Single-Band Concert of 2012

Friday night at Barbes, the back room was packed. Some of the crowd swayed, lost in the menacing grooves that echoed from Ulrich Ziegler’s amps, while other people responded with more obvious enthusiasm. This was a diverse bunch: that they were all entranced by this band’s hypnotically pulsing noir soundscapes is a welcome reminder that there still is an audience for dark sounds in a city increasingly decked out in simpering pastel shades.

Over the last five years or so in this project, Itamar Ziegler has gone from apprentice to sorcerer. The Pink Noise guitarist carried most of the lead melodies – such that there were distinct leads – digging in hard as the reverb resounded from his amp in tandem with his guitarist pal, Stephen Ulrich, the noted film composer and heir to the Bernard Herrmann noir soundtrack legacy. And who knew Ziegler was such a great bass player? The first number he played four-string on was a lickety-split, bustling tune that built to a screaming crescendo capped by one-man woodwind section Peter Hess’ shivery, shuddering, sustained clarinet lines. Ulrich delivered more softly screaming, minutely tremolo-picked lines as the organ’s funereal tones swirled and dipped over Wave Sleep Wave drummer Yuval Lion’s tense pulse. It seemed that these guys had come to kill – literally.

Ulrich had a memorable run as the leader of Big Lazy, arguably the world’s best and darkest instrumental rock band for a good ten years starting in the mid-90s. Since then, he’s collaborated with Sway Machinery’s Jeremiah Lockwood and written all sorts of film scores for PBS and others. Which put this project on the back burner, at least as far as live performance is concerned, until recently. They’ve got a new album just out and played several tracks from it. The highlight of the night was a macabre waltz driven by a cruel marionette theme, Ulrich’s spiky slashes contrasting with Hess’ pensively atmospheric flute, building to a toxic mist of organ, bass clarinet and guitars. Or, it could have been the lickety-split Tickled to Death, equal parts 4 AM urban drizzle, southwestern gothic and warped latin groove. The most morbid of all the song was another absolutely morose, haunting waltz, Ulrich’s endlessly meticulously, surgical tremolo-picking anchoring Hess’ tensely suspenseful flute and Ziegler’s menacingly direct lead lines.

A Bill Frisell-ish grey-sky tableau quickly got dragged deeper into the shadows, cleverly concealing its simple, innocent, underlying 60s pop riff. Then they got quieter and more jazzy, swinging into 7/4 time. They closed their first set with a hypnotic, bitterly sad vamp that Ulrich sardonically predicted would clear the room. But it didn’t, and those who stayed were rewarded with brooding close harmonies, murky bass clarinet and a theme that morphed into a Russian dirge of sorts before retreating to its earlier angst and alienation. And for all the darkness, there were all sorts of deviously humorous touches. The organist delivered quietly bone-rattling percussion on woodblock and syndrums on a handful of songs, Hess swooped and dove when least expected, and Ulrich tuned down his Les Paul a la Alvin Lee at the end of the Frisell-ish number. Other than Beninghove’s Hangmen at Zirzamin a couple of weeks ago, there hasn’t been such a darkly engrossing show in this town in a long time.