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The Best New York City Concerts of 2017

New York’s best concert of 2017 was Golden Fest, with two nights and about seventy brass and string bands from across the Balkans, the Middle East and the USA on several different stages. Year after year, this annual January extravaganza is unsurpassed in terms of both quality and quantity of talent. This blog managed to catch about fifteen of those acts over that marathon weekend, including but not limited to agelessly soulful Armenian reedman Souren Baronian, rapturous singer Eva Salina  and her whirlwind accordionist Peter Stan, haunting tar lute player Amir Vahab, the searing brass of Zlatne UsteNovi Maleshevski Zurli, Raya Brass Band and Cocek! Brass Band. Golden Fest 2018 is this coming January 12 and 13 at the magnificent Grand Prospect Hall in south Park Slope.

There were four other multiple-night events that deserve a special place on this list. In March, the first-ever collaboration between Lincoln Center and the annual Festival Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde in Essaouira, Morocco resulted in a trance-inducing series of concerts that began at the Upper West Side cultural mecca, moved to a cozy auditorium at the the New School for an approximation of a Moroccan lila healing ceremony and wound up at Pioneer Works in Red Hook for a collaboration with some New Jork jazz dudes including Marc Cary and Marcus Strickland. Three of the great sintir lute-playing maalems (masters) of mesmerizing gnawa music –Abdeslam AlikkaneHamid El Kasri (who was making his North American debut) and New York-based Hassan Ben Jaafer, who leads Innov Gnawa – got to flex their chops.

The annual Drive East Festival at Dixon Place in August featured a similarly rapturous, weeklong series of Indian classical music and dance performances. Poignantly nuanced singer Indrani Khare and sitarist Kinnar Seen shared one of the midweek bills; theatrical Punjabi folk troupe Rajasthani Caravan headlined the Saturday night show. But the most amazing set of all might have been sarod virtuoso Aashish Khan, with his gracefully flickering, saturnine ragas.

The 2017 Bryant Park Accordion Festival, a weekly series spread out over more than a month in midsummer, featured mini-sets from scores of artists playing everything from klezmer to forro to swing jazz. Balkan and Middle Eastern music in separate corners of the park. Closing night began with some of the world’s greatest Middle Eastern musicians playing a riveting recreation of Ziad Rahbani’s iconic, bittersweet 1975 Bil Afrah suite.

And for the first time ever, this blog was present at every single night of an artist’s monthlong weekly residency at Barbes. Clarinet powerhouse and composer Michael Winograd picked April since there were five Saturdays in the month, where he was joined by a killer cast of musicians including rising star pianist Carmen Staaf for some small-group shows as well as a midmonth big band gig that was the best of them all. New klezmer sounds never sounded so edgy, so purist yet so fresh and wildly fun.

Otherwise, dig in for the longest year-end concert list this blog’s ever put together. It was impossible to whittle it down to any less than a grand total of fifty shows. The real estate speculator blitzkrieg keeps turning neighborhoods to rubble, yet people in this melting pot refuse to stop making great music. The rest of the year’s concerts are listed in chronological order since trying to rank them would be an exercise in futility.

If you don’t see your favorite band or your favorite show here – “What, no Dream Syndicate at Bowery Ballroom, are you guys nuts?” –  it’s a good bet that this blog wasn’t there. If you think this list is epic, just imagine the wishlist that went into it. But it’s one thing to plan on going out every night; it’s another thing to actually do it. Counting all the nights when it actually was possible to get out of the house or the office, there was more than enough good music to somewhat mitigate one of the worst years in memory for the world as a whole.

David Yengbarian, Borbely Mihaly Polygon and Meszecsinka at Drom, 1/5/17
The annual showcases put on by the APAP booking agents’ association can be an insanely good bargain. Cover was ten measly bucks for the dynamic Balkan accordionist, the noir cinematic trio of saxophonist Mihály Borbély, pyrotechnic cimbalom player Miklós Lukács and drummer András Dés, and the wild Hungarian trance-dance band.

LadamaAlash,Eva Salina and Peter Stan, Miramar and Innov Gnawa at Drom, 1/7/17
This APAP evening was even more insanely good – and this isn’t even the whole lineup! Pan-latin, mostly female dance band Ladama made a good opener for the energetically trancey Tuvan throat-singing trio, the stellar Balkan chanteuse and her accomplice on accordion, the hauntingly psychedelic Puerto Rican bolero revivalists and the only sintir lute-driven, mesmerizing traditional Moroccan trance-ritual band in this hemisphere. That group has good management: Innov Gnawa managed to get themselves on more than one bill on this page.

The Pre-War Ponies and Tipsy Oxcart at Barbes, 1/12/17
Singer/uke player Daria Grace’s swing band opened the evening on a lush, elegantly romantic note; the fiery Balkan band ended up charging into the audience as the show hit peak intensity.

Shilpa Ananth, Rini and Humeysha at Drom, 1/29/17
A diverse triplebill of Indian-influenced sounds, from psychedelic soul, to towering cinematic art-rock and spacerock.

Dave Fiuczynski’s Kif at Drom, 2/3/17
The legendary jamband leader’s microtonal guitar trio were as otherworldly as their albums – and funny too.

The Super Bolus at Footlight Bar, 2/5/17
With half the nation supposedly glued to a soporific pre-Super Bowl gabfest, a posse of A-list Brooklyn improvisers from the Gold Bolus  circle including but not limited to singers Anne Rhodes  and Anais Maviel, trumpeter Daniel Levine, saxophonists Angela Morris and Erin Rogers, vibraphonist Sam Sowyrda, bassist Lisa Dowling and oboeist Dave Kadden paired off for all kinds of strange and beguiling sounds. Kadden’s rampaging microtonal assault was the high point, in fact the most intense solo performance at any show on this list other than Amir ElSaffar’s Soho set in January.

The Musical Chairs String Quartet at the Staten Island Museum, 2/11/17
An unlikely spot to see a riveting performance of Shostakovich’s macabre, anti-fascist String Quartet No. 7 and two world premieres of fantastic quartets by Andrew Rosciszewski.

Laurie AndersonChristian McBride and Rubin Kodheli at the Town Hall, 2/23/17
Avant garde violin icon joins forces with renowned jazz bassist and protean cello wizard for a night of sometimes lively, sometimes raptly sepulchral improvisation, with Anderson’s signature political relevance

Rachelle Garniez at Barbes, 3/2/17
She may be the foremost songwriter working right now, and treated an intimate crowd to a typically eclectic, intensely lyrical set of noir cabaret, Renaissance rock, latin-tinged parlor pop and pricelessly funny between-song banter.

Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal at the French Institute, 3/3/17
The Malian kora player and French cellist teamed up for a magical duo performance staged by the World Music Institute that blended phantasmic, cinematic themes, jaunty West African melodies and the baroque. More than one audience member was brought to tears.

Girls on Grass at Halyards, 3/23/17
Guitarist Barbara Endes’ psychedelic janglerock band sounded like the Dream Syndicate with a woman out front – that good, that anthemic, that catchy.

Steve Ulrich and Mamie Minch, and Pierre de Gaillande’s Bad Reputation at Barbes, 3/25/17
Minch’s playful live movie score and Big Lazy mastermind Ulrich’s noir cinematics followed by the former Snow bandleader’s hilarious, brilliant English language parlor pop versions of Georges Brassens classics.

Changing Modes at Webster Hall, 3/26/17
The album release show by New York’s most smartly lyrical, unpredictable, keyboard-driven art-rock band was as protean and poignant as the record.

Miqayel Voskanyan at Drom, 4/5/17
Speaking of protean, the Armenian tar lute virtuoso and his quartet shifted between Near Eastern art-rock, folk-rock, Balkan turbo-folk and Romany dance music.

Meklit at Lincoln Center, 4/6/17
And while we’re still on the protean tip, how about the charismatic, fearlessly populist Ethio-jazz soulstress and her amazing band airing out new tunes from her kinetic, eclectic new album?

Easy Dreams and Karla Rose at 11th Street Bar, 4/11/17
Further proof that some of the best shows sometimes happen way under the radar. Rose, arguably the most captivating and versatile singer in all of New York and a haunting tunesmith as well, took a turn behind the drums in a mini-set by the uneasily jangly indie band, then picked up her guitar and haunted the crowd with her own brooding, film noir-influenced soul and psychedelic rock.

Gato Loco at Barbes, 4/20/17
This was more of a show for the drinkers than the stoners, a toweringly crescendoing mix of slinky noir instrumentals, psycho guitar-driven mambos and bouncy, carnivalesque themes.

Michael WinogradKill Henry Sugar and Las Rubias Del Norte at Barbes, 4/22/17
Goosebump-inducing klezmer clarinetist and his quartet, artfully lyrical, sardonic Americana rock duo and a farewell show (for now, at least) by keyboardist Alyssa Lamb and singer Emily Hurst’s hauntingly harmony-driven pan-American noir band.

Miklos Lukacs’ Cimbalom Unlimited at Drom, 5/22/17
Lukacs’ second appearance on this list was as a bandleader, playing fiery, relentlessly crescendoing themes, fingers flying across his magically rippling Hungarian dulcimer.

Rahim AlHaj at Lincoln Center, 5/25/17
The Iraqi oud virtuoso, joined by Iranian santoor player Sourena Sefati and Palestinian percussionist Issa Malluf, played the most haunting and understatedly relevant small-group New York show in a year when anti-Muslim bigotry reached a new low.

Sara SerpaSofia Rei and Aubrey Johnson in the West Village, 6/2/17
Three of the most distinctive, individualistic voices in all of music – the intense, noir-inspired Serpa, the irrepressibly fun Rei and the enigmatically lustrous Johnson – shared a characteristically eclectic bill of a-cappella songs and improvisations in a storefront church space. Unexpected venue, magical show.

Hearing Things at Barbes, 6/3/17
Brooklyn’s funnest band – JP Schlegelmilch on organ, Matt Bauder on sax and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums – are a cross between the Doors, the Ventures and maybe WIBG. The result: a brand new style. Psychedelic surf noir jazz dance music!

The Barbes Benefit at Drom, 6/9/17
Brooklyn’s best venue was in trouble. Some of New York’s best bands joined forces for a wildly successful fundraiser to make sure it’s here for another five years. On the bill: thunderous Brazilian drum troupe Maracatu NY, noir icons the Jazz Passengers, Romany song maven Sanda Weigl, a subset of the haunting, soaring all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache; charismatic singer Carolina Oliveros’ Afro-Colombian trance-dance choir Bulla en el Barrio , the similar but lower-register Innov Gnawa; one-off Balkan brass supergroup Fanfare Brooklyn – and Lynchian guitar-bass-drums trio Big Lazy .

Michael Winograd and Ben Holmes, Sean Cronin and Dolunay at Barbes, 6/10/17
The clarinetist and his trumpeter compadre opened an eclectic early-summer evening with a quartet show and lots of darkly chromatic new tunes, followed by the similarly eclectic guitarist and his purist band playing Hank Williams covers, and then riveting singer Jenny Luna’s haunting, oud-infused Turkish band

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble Outdoors in the Financial District, 6/16/17
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer and his big band played a titanic set of Middle Eastern jazz from his latest album. His show at the Fridman Gallery in SoHo back in January, which he began with a distantly harrowing solo trumpet improvisation, was much more quietly transcendent.

Rose Thomas Bannister and Goddess at Corkscrew Wines, 6/21/17
A witchy, psychedelic twinbill in a comfortable Fort Greene back courtyard with the lyrically ferocious, Shakespeare-influenced chanteuse and the theatrical psych-folk band. Backed by lead guitar monster Bob Bannister, she was also awfully good there a couple of months later on a doublebill with oldtime Americana singer Stephanie Jenkins.

Lara St. John at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, 6/27/17
In front of an impressively game pickup group, the violin virtuoso treated the crowd to a kinetic Jessie Montgomery piece, a lyrical take of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and a harrowing world premiere by Matthew Hindson, Maralinga, a narrative of terror in the wake of a 1950s Australian nuclear disaster. After that, Stravinsky was anticlimactic.

Orkesta Mendoza and Lila Downs at Prospect Park Bandshell, 6/29/17
The slinky psychedelic cumbia and noir mambo band set the stage for an epic set of classic mariachi and fearlessly political ballads by the iconic Mexican-American singer and her titanic band, joined on several numbers by Mariachi Flor de Toloache. The afterparty down the hill at Barbes, with wild Veracruz-style folk-punks Radio Jarocho, was pretty intense too.

The Mary​ ​Halvorson Octet at the Village Vanguard, 7/18/17
The world’s best jazz guitarist not named Bill Frisell or Marc Ribot and her lush, enveloping ensemble – featuring brilliant pedal steel player Susan Alcorn – aired out a lot of dynamic, uneasy new material.

Rev. Billy & the Church of  Stop Shopping Choir and Sexmob at Prospect Park Bandshell, 7/27/17
A brand-new set of original apocalyptic, anti-fascist and anti-racist original gospel tunes by the firebrand activist and his gargantuan choir, followed by the cinematic jazz quartet playing a darkly undulating, colorful live score to the 1920s Italian silent film Maciste All’Infierno.

The Trio Joubran at the Lincoln Center Festival, 7/29/17
The three Palestinian oud-playing brothers charmed and haunted the crowd with a dynamic tribute to their late collaborator, iconic poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Big Lazy at Barbes, 8/4/17
Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s cinematic noir trio made it onto the bill on more than one of the year’s best concerts, but their best single show – this blog was in the house at many of them – might have been this wildly jam-oriented night, two creepy sets at the band’s Park Slope home base. How did it feel afterward? “Free,” grinned drummer Yuval Lion.

Kill Henry Sugar and Anbessa Orchestra at Barbes, 8/11/17
Guitarist Erik Della Penna and drummer Dean Sharenow’s Americana lit-rock band have a ton of new material up their sleeves, and aired it out here before the wild Israeli Ethiopian dance band took the intensity to redline with a ferocious, psychedelic couple of sets.

Castle Black at the Well, 8/25/17
Guitarist Leigh Celent’s power trio have grown from a haphazardly promising band into a dark, fearsome monster: not even the sonic interference from the adjacent labyrinth of rehearsal rooms could silence this beast.

Melissa & the Mannequins at LIC Bar, 9/3/17
Put up a good youtube video and the crowd will come. With their killer chops and songs, New York’s best new band switched from jangly new wave to psychedelic soul and tantalizing hints of noir.

Bobtown at the Brooklyn Americana Festival, 9/23/17
Plaintive Anglo-American folk maven Jan Bell books this annual event: it would have been a lot of fun to have been able to catch more of it. With their gleaming four-part harmonies and songs about ghosts and other dead people, New York’s finest folk noir band were at the top of their game.

Greek Judas and the NY Fowl Harmonic at Hank’s, 9/28/17
Volcanic twin-guitar heavy metal versions of Greek songs from the 1920s and 30s about smoking hash, smuggling drugs and outrunning the cops, followed by Gato Loco bass sax monster Stefan Zeniuk’s carnivalesque punk-mambo group.

Seungmin Cha and Ned Rothenberg in Tribeca, 10/1/17
A riveting, intense, enveloping electroacoustic jazz loft set by the paradigm-shifting avant garde Korean daegeum flute player with the downtown multi-reed virtuoso.

The 24-Hour Raga-Thon at the Rubin Museum of Art, 10/22/17
This blog was only around for the wee-hours part that started about three in the morning: prime time for haunting, rarely heard morning ragas reinvented by an adventurous cast of Indian musicians including but not limited to saxophonist Aakash Mittal, guitarist Rez Abbasi, sarodist Camila Celin , trumpeter Aaron Shragge, bansuri flutist Eric Fraser and santoor sorceress Deepal Chodhari. 

Tom Csatari’s Uncivilized Playing Twin Peaks at Barbes, 10/29/17
Brooklyn’s best and most individualistic jazz guitarist led his fearlessly adventurous group through some careening and some absolutely chilling versions of iconic David Lynch tv and film scores.

Edna Vazquez at Lincoln Center, 11/2/17
You could call this charismatic guitarist/singer’s music “noiriachi” – haunting, kinetic, fearlessly relevant dark mariachi rock.

La Mar Enfortuna at the Jewish Museum, 11/9/17
Elysian Fields guitarist Oren Bloedow’s lush, luscious twelve-string jangle and his bandmate, singer Jennifer Charles’ multilingual reinventions of ancient Ladino songs and themes from across the Sephardic diaspora ran the gamut from haunting to even more so.

The ClaudettesBrian Carpenter and the Confessions and Big Lazy at Drom, 11/10/17
The piano-driven Chicago group have reinvented themselves as a catchy blue-eyed soul band; Carpenter, a connoisseur of oldtimey swing jazz, mined a deep noir rock vein, capped off by NYC’s finest noir cinematic instrumentalists.

The Navatman Music Collective at Symphony Space, 11/19/17
This hemisphere’s only Indian carnatic choir sang and played a mammoth, shapeshifting set of reinvented classical themes from across the centuries.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra in the Lincoln Center complex, 12/2/17
A poignant, violin-fueled take of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise and Michael Daugherty’s timpani concerto Raise the Roof set the stage for a withering performance of Shostakovich’s classic antifascist Symphony No. 10. Anybody who thinks classical music isn’t relevant wasn’t there.

The Todd Marcus Orchestra at Smalls, 12/3/17
The bass clarinetist/bandleader led his brilliant eight-piece group through his brand-new, catchy, picturesque Middle Eastern jazz suite.

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Kill Henry Sugar Bring Their Subtly Amusing, Erudite Folk Noir and Americana Back to Barbes

For the last few months, smartly lyrical Americana rock duo Kill Henry Sugar – guitar and banjo luminary Erik Della Penna and his similarly nuanced, artful drummer bandmate Dean Sharenow – have held down a monthly 8 PM Friday residency at Barbes. They’re back this Friday, May 6 at 8, followed by Big Lazy, a band you presumably know about if you spend any time at all at this blog  – and which Sharenow has drummed for in a pinch. If you’ve just stumbled on this page, reverb guitar, noir cinematics and crime jazz are their thing. Are they this blog’s favorite band? Along with Beninghove’s Hangmen and Karla Rose & the Thorns, maybe.

Kill Henry Sugar’s Barbes show last month was a lot of fun…and despite the early hour in Park Slope, they packed the place. Sharenow laid down a misterioso swing groove with his brushes as Della Penna launched into a moody, minor-key broodingly pensive narrative, like a tropically-tinged Tom Waits. Della Penna contemplated the ongoing brain drain from New York in the wryly swaying Tex-Mex inflected number after that: the girl at the center of the center of the story “can’t stand the smell of the bourgeoisie” and ends up considering nursing school in Santa Fe. They did another couple of funny ones after that, the jazzily shuffling, indelibly urban Neighbors, and then the tongue-in-cheek Air Conditioned Nightmare, propelled by Sharenow’s jaunty staccato thump with his brushes on the snare.

“Now I have the bomb, but it won’t fall on you,” Della Penna teased over his signature spare, lingering chordlets on Babylon, a snarky post-Cold War narrative, joined by tuba maestro Marcus Rojas, who added unexpectedly plaintive upper-register work. Della Penna warned the crowd that they’d never shared a stage before, but the chemistry was seamless. And this was a big deal: while they’ve played on and off with low-register instruments, they went bassless long before the White Stripes.

As expected, the best song of the night was a chilly, offhandedly murderous version of Mussolini, a cruelly nonchalant illustration of what goes around coming around with a vengeance over Sharenow’s resolute stomp. Rojas gave a surrealistically blippy intro to the doomed desert rock tune after that. They took things down with a wistfully pastoral, waltzing early 1900s reminiscence after that, shades of Matt Keating, then picked things up with a Stonesy drive and subtle hints of gospel. They’re likely to bring all these flavors and more – and who knows, maybe the tuba – to Barbes this Friday.

Bluesmistress Mamie Minch Joins a First-Class Oldtime Americana Bill on the 24th

There’s a really fun show coming up on March 24 in the quaint old 19th century upstairs auditorium at Greenwich House Music School at 46 Barrow St. in the West Village, when a bunch of familiar faces from the Jalopy’s oldtimey Americana scene take over the space. Check out the lineup that Eli Smith of the Down Hill Strugglers put together: his Struggler bandmate John Cohen; badass resonator guitarist and bluesmama Mamie Minch; charmingly retro, low-key front-porch songwriter Joanna Sternberg; dark Americana songwriter and Jalopy mainstay Feral Foster; bluesman Wyndham Baird, and others. Cover is $15 and includes open bar. And you don’t have to go all the way to Red Hook to see all this. Not that the Jalopy isn’t always a treat just to be at, let alone see a show at, but as messed up as the trains have been this past week, this makes things infinitely easier.

Minch is the star of this show. She played a set at Barbes a week ago Friday that was funny, and poignant, and full of razorwire repartee between her and Kill Henry Sugar drummer Dean Sharenow. Minch writes her own songs, springboarding from fingerpicked blues and folk styles that go back to the 20s and before, but she’s also a fierce advocate for the unsung women of the blues, mostly African-Americans from that era. Midway through the set, she and Sharenow pondered the question of changing lyrics if someone of the “original gender,” as she put it, sings a song written for a man’s voice (she’d just done a bristling, swinging, defiantly existentialist cover of Hank Williams’ Ramblin’ Man). That led into a brief discussion of how misogyny insinuates itself into language itself. “You notice how the word ‘woman’ has ‘man’ in it?” she needled him.

Sharenow wasn’t phased, but also didn’t offer anything to improve on that. “Maybe we can change the spelling, you know, like w-o-m-y-n or something,” Minch offered.

Sharenow cringed. “No!” he insisted. “How about…O.G.?”

“I like that,” Minch grinned back.

There’s nothing more original or gangsta than the blues, and there was plenty of that in this set. As she did on her debut album, she sang Pallet on Your Floor not as a come-on, like so many other would-be blues singers do, but as a haunting, plaintive plea, from the perspective of a low-rent hooker. Sharenow gave the song a jaunty shuffle groove with his brushes, throwing in the occasional unpredictable snare hit or swipe at the cymbals, especially when Minch would throw a mean upstroke from her guitar his way.

Minch asked Sharenow if he’d sing harmonies on Blues, Stay Away from Me, an old Delmore Brothers tune. “You want me to take the low one?” he asked her.

Minch laughed and turned to the crowd. “You don’t always do that when you sing with an alto!” But she’s been airing out more of her upper register lately, really stretching her voice to places she’s never gone before.

The duo took a turn in a funkier direction with a biting, sultry new one, looking back to the funny food metaphors of oldschool hokum blues but also the defiance of that era’s blueswomen. Minch’s churning guitar, blending with Sharenow’s rolling and tumbling attack, took her big audience hit Razorburn Blues – title track to her cult favorite 2008 debut album – into Mississippi hill country Then they did a slow, sad number about a guy who likes stuff like Mad Dog wine more than he ought to, then a whiplash new hill country song, like R.L. Burnside gone acoustic. And that was just the first set. Whatever much time she gets at the Greenwich House gig will be worth the cover. That, and the booze.

Bluesmistress Mamie Minch Plays a Killer Barbes Show, Then Heads to City Winery

Saturday night at Barbes, resonator guitarist and Americana music maven Mamie Minch played just about every kind of blues except for the cheesy Eric Clapton kind. The co-proprietress of one of the world’s few woman-owned-and-operated instrument repair shops, Brooklyn Lutherie, embodies the fearlessness and charisma of her influences, notably Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie. Minch played a couple of their songs, including an absolutely chilling new arrangement of Smith’s Sing Sing Blues, a bitter courtroom drama that resonates just as much today as it must have eighty years ago. Running a line into the PA from her 1937 National steel guitar for otherworldly resonance and extra overtones, she was joined on drums by Kill Henry Sugar’s Dean Sharenow. The two bantered back and forth, an endless exchange of one-liners that was just about as entertaining as the music: they make a good team. And that extended to the music as well, as the two intertwined harmonies on several numbers.

And while most of the Jalopy-centric acoustic roots scene play covers and traditional material, Minch also writes her own songs, matching oldtime vernacular and lyrical wit to melodies that push beyond the blues scale into edgy acoustic rock territory. She romped restlessly through Razorburn Blues (the title track to her most recent album), a rapidfire litany of ridiculous things women have to endure. A little later she joined voices with Sharenow for a pillowy version of Border Radio, her Carter Family tribute which she had the good fortune to record on wax cylinder a couple of years ago. And she encored with Al Duvall‘s gut-bustingly funny, pun-fueled Kentucky Mermaid, a tale of a woman who has to be especially careful: since she’s a fishwife, she might get battered.

The covers were just as diverse, and gave Minch a chance to get frisky with her fingers through styles from the Mississippi hills, to the delta, to Memphis and points further north. She took her time through the creepy chromatics of Memphis Slim’s ghoulish Back to Mother Earth, then threw off plenty of sparks with a take of R.L. Burnside’s Old Black Mattie. And she took the Stones’ Prodigal Son back to its roots as an anxious number originally penned by Rev. Robert Watkins many years before the Glimmer Twins appropriated it. Between songs, she hummed as she retuned: who needs a digital tuner when all you have to do is sing the pitch?

Minch plays Jan 4 at City Winery at 8 PM on a guitar-rich twinbill with ex-Dylan lead player and fellow Americana purist Larry Campbell, who’s doing a duo show with singer/guitarist Teresa Williams afterward at around 9. General admission is $20 for standing room, more if you want a table

Revisiting a Great Doublebill

As regular visitors here know, this blog’s original and pretty much single focus was live music. Then the publicists, and the artists themselves, got out their catapults and started flinging albums over the moat and the parapets and the siege was underway. It hasn’t ended yet, and it won’t anytime soon. But in the spirit of being different from the rest of the blogosphere and the media – let’s not even get into the social media babble-on – it’s time, once again, to do some catching up on what some usual suspects who make New York such a hotbed of live music, even in this era of death by gentrification, have been up to.

A few weeks back at the Gutter bowling alley in Williamsburg, it was a trip to see Kill Henry Sugar with a bass player. As frontman/guitarist Erik Della Penna told the crowd, it had been ten years since the sardonic Americana-tinged rockers had one. And the new guy didn’t just play roots, he did lots of fluid, melodic runs and even a couple of solos way up the fretboard. All this freed Della Penna to cut loose more than he usually does when it’s just him and drummer Dean Sharenow. As usual, the songs were catchy, Della Penna’s vocals were unselfconsciously soulful and imbued with his signature dry wit. These guys have been around since the 90s; much as they beat the White Stripes to the guitar-and-drums thing, it was good to see them reinvigorated by some welcome low end.

The world’s creeepiest cinematic instrumental band, Big Lazy regrouped earlier this year, with a new rhythm section of Pink Noise‘s Yuval Lion on drums and the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s principal bassist Andrew Hall. From the perspective of someone who first saw Big Lazy back in the 90s and was blown away – when they were known as Lazy Boy and popping up in detective show soundtracks all over the cable channels – they’ve never sounded better. Jarring as the segue with Kill Henry Sugar was, the two bands made a great doubleibll. With his reverb turned up to the usual eleven, guitarist/bandleader Steve Ulrich led the trio through the lickety-split, marauding noir rockabilly of Princess Nicotine and Just Plain Scared, Lion hitting all over his hardware, Ulrich’s prickly staccato attack like a sharpshooter with a machine gun. Their rhythm section has never been more purposeful or emphatic, and Ulrich’s relentless chromatics were as macabre as always. Hall bowed his bass to max out the murky menace of the classic Theme from Headtrader to open the night; a little later, Lion kept the ba-BUMP shuffle of a new song going on the rims and cymbal heads and anything else he could find to create an incisive ping or click.

Most of the set was new material. Ulrich’s warped, quavery lapsteel bent a bolero out of shape with a mushroomy surrealism, followed by a warmly bucolic Bill Frisell-ish theme, moving methodically through apprehensive echoes to unexpectedly straight-ahead, distorted, anthemic rock. Spare, desolate riffs turned savage in a split second, Ulrich furiously tremolo-picking the strings, Dick Dale style. Bob Dylan keyboardist Mick Rossi made a cameo on harmonium, adding a surreal suspense on one of the new numbers. A little later, they brought up slide trumpeter and Sexmob mainman Steven Bernstein to wail and shimmy with his usual wry humor on a long, blackly amusing version of Gone, from the band’s third album, then a funky new number in 5/4 time with a droll fake fanfare and quotes from the Mission Impossible theme, and a long, shapeshifting Nino Rota movie mini-suite. They finally closed with a a haphazardly evil version of Uneasy Street, a concert favorite that could have been a trainwreck, as Bernstein built an unexpectedly bright break in the relentless cumulo-nimbus atmospherics, but wasn’t – Ulrich decided to stay in the sunlight a little longer before bringing it all back into the abyss. The band is scheduled to spend some time in the studio this summer, which couldn’t be better news from a group who for years were arguably the best band in New York.

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.