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Tag: klezmatics

The 100 Best Songs of 2017

This is a playlist. Click on each song title to stream it, click on the artist name for their webpage.

It was tempting to pick one of the segments of the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York’s new release, Fukushima, as the best song of the year. But the single most relevant and mesmerizing album of 2017 is best heard as a contiguous suite. Taking one of its five movements out of context would spoil the experience. And it’s nowhere to be found online at the moment, anyway.

In lieu of that, the single best song of 2017, Kitten, by Dennis Davison, is still in the embryonic stage. It wasn’t released by a record label, or even recorded in a studio. It reached this blog as a voice memo, just vocals and guitar in a practice space. The frontman of cult favorite psychedelic band the Jigsaw Seen has written a lot of great songs over the years, but this one is the most harrowing. On the surface, it’s about a homeless guy who finds a kitten. He’s in trouble: he lives by the exit sign. And this is not a sweet love-conquers-all narrative. It’s a wish song – and a portrait of terminal depression as vivid and chilling as anything Phil Ochs or Ian Curtis ever wrote. And it’s as catchy as it is depressed.

Rather than trying to rank the other 99 songs here, they’re listed in rough chronological order of when they were either received or witnessed onstage. Rather than regurgitating the Best Albums of 2017 list, this one has a lot of songs that either haven’t been officially released, or were just so amazing to see live over the past year that it wouldn’t be fair to exclude them. Same rules as last year: one song per band or artist. Otherwise, half this list would be Ward White and Amir ElSaffar, and that would be counterproductive. You can go down the rabbit hole with any of the hundred artists on this list all by yourself without any further help from this blog.

Ward WhiteCoffee Maker
A pair of accomplices grow more desperate by the hour in this catchy yet characteristically enigmatic, Charming Disaster-esque post-murder narrative. The way White caps off his guitar solo is as cruel as it is priceless. From the even more inscrutable As Consolation, best rock album of 2017.

Jack GraceGet Out of Brooklyn
The baritone Americana crooner’s somber, heartbreaking requiem for a pre-real estate bubble New York. “The place held its own ground, the rivers separated where you bothered to go – really used to try to get out of Brooklyn, now everybody’s trying to get in.” From the album Everything I Say Is a Lie.

The Dream Syndicate  – Like Mary
The most harrowing track on Steve Wynn’s recently regrouped, legendary 80s band’s new album How Did I Find Myself Here is a catchy, tensely muted, grim portrait of a woman who may be a child killer…or just an Oxycontin casualty.

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son)
A vast, oceanic Iraqi-flavored lament from the paradigm-shifting trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist’s Middle Eastern orchestral jazz group’s latest album Not Two. 

The Sadies – The Good Years
A brisk shuffle beat beneath hypnotically lingering guitars in this chilling Nashville gothic elegy for a disastrous marriage: “She couldn’t wait to clean out the place he occupied.” From the album Northern Passages.

Alice Lee – Your Blues
A savagely lyrical, spot-on soul anthem for the era of Ferguson and Eric Garner from the ex-New York singer/multi-instrumentalist’s brilliant new album The Wheel.

Charming Disaster – What Remains
The New York noir supergroup– led by Jeff Morris of lavish, dark, latin-flavored rockers Kotorino and Ellia Bisker of parlor pop existentialists Sweet Soubrette – slink their way through this chillingly allusive post-murder narrative inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s The River. From the album Cautionary Tales.

Los WemblersSonido Amazonico
A brand-new version of the eerie, slinky national anthem of psychedelic cumbia, which the Peruvian band wrote and first recorded almost fifty years ago. This one’s a lot longer and more psychedelic than any other version in existence, Chicha Libre’s included. From their unlikely and amazing comeback album Ikaro Del Amor.

 Sofia TalvikLullaby
Catchy, anthemic and resolutely optimistic on the surface: “Still you wish you were dead.” When the Nordic Americana songwriter played this at the American Folk Art Museum this past spring, you could have heard a pin drop. From the album Big Sky Country.

Castle Black – Broken Bright Star
Guitarist Leigh Celent’s evil, spare icepick intro kicks off this slowly marauding anthem that eventually explodes in a fireball of reverb. From the album Trapped Under All You Know.

Morricone YouthClunes Town
Del Shannon mashed up with Ennio Morricone – makes sense, right? – with distantly ghostly multitracked Karla Rose vocals. From the band’s Mad Max soundtrack

LusterlitCeremony
Frontwoman/drummer Susan Hwang gives this long, creepy, ineluctably crescendoing, chromatically-charged Cormac McCarthy-inspired anthem her most luridly Lynchian vocal ever. From the album List of Equipment.

Lorraine LeckieAmerica Weeping
Leonard Cohen died the day before the fateful 2016 Presidential election. This careening psychedelic riff-rocker is the eclectic bandleader’s anguished response. Free download!

Son of SkooshnyUntold History
With Steve Refling’s keening slide guitar, this is one of the band’s harder-rocking numbers, Mark Breyer’s chillingly autobiographical account of growing up amid all sorts of familial and social Cold War-era dysfunction. From the album Matchless Gifts.

Aimee MannLies of Summer
Slow and lush, heavy like a thunderstorm, this mutedly depressed orchestral rock tale doesn’t reveal whether the narrator is addressing a prisoner or a dead person until the very end. From the album Mental Illness.

Brian Carpenter & the ConfessionsCity on Fire
The Ghost Train Orchestra trumpeter/bandleader plays keys and guitar and lends his baritone voice to this brilliantly Lynchian band, duetting with chanteuse Jen Kenneally in this slinky, bolero-tinged smash. They managed to steal the spotlight from Big Lazy on a Friday night in the East Village last month, no joke. 

Changing ModesDust
Awash in orchestral keys and troubled close harmonies from the band’s two frontwomen, this slowly crescendoing apocalypse anthem makes an apt coda to the New York art-rock band’s brilliant album Goodbye Theodora.

James Williamson and Deniz TekNo Sense of Crime
The best and most death-obsessed track from the Stooges’ immortal Kill City album, reinvented as lush, poignant, similarly opiated acoustic parlor rock. Giant Drag’s Annie Hardy adds plaintive high harmonies, with violin from Petra Haden. From the killer, wryly titled ep Acoustic K.O.

Miramar  – Sin Ti
A psychedelically Lynchian, allusively Middle Eastern-tinged bolero, the highlight of the Virginia group’s show at Drom back in January.

Joshua GarciaThat’s the Way You Drop a Bomb
Oldschool first-wave-style folk revival narrative as one of the crew of the Enola Gay might have heard it. Chililng beyond belief, and a staple of the New York songwriter’s live show.

Greek JudasKontrabandistas
A drug-smuggling anthem from the 1930s Greek underworld reinvented as searing, menacing, twin guitar-fueled metal. From the band’s brand-new debut album. 

The New Pornographers – High Ticket Attractions
Motorik Pulp-style new wave satire of yuppie status-grubbing. Llittle do they know how much corporations are taking advantage of them. From the album Whiteout Conditions.

Kerem Guney – Sicak Bir Sevda
Is it fair to put a haunting Turkish psychedelic rock anthem from the late 70s – like the Doors with an electric saz – on a list of 2017 songs? It hasn’t been released outside Turkey until the Uzelli Psychedelic Anadolu compilation came out earlier this year. 

MeszecsinkaHajnalban (At Dawn) – fifteen minutes of evil shamanic post-Velvets Balkan crash and wail from this phantasmagorical female-fronted Balkan group. Another band who killed it back in January at Drom.

Jaye BartellSwim Colleen
With his deadpan baritone and reverb-drenched, spare guitar hooks, nobody’s better at allusive macabre narratives than this guy. From his album In a Time of Trouble, a Wild Exaltation.

Carol LipnikMy Piano
Stately, graceful art-rock eco-disaster parable: after all, pianos are made from trees. Her vocal crescendo will give you goosebumps. She and pianist Matt Kanelos held the crowd rapt with this at Pangea back in January.

The Jigsaw SeenMy Name Is Tom
A rare successful mashup of dark Indian raga theme and American psychedelic rock, and one of the LA band’s most iconic songs. They ripped the roof off with this at Bowery Electric back in March.. From their latest album For the Discriminating Completist.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
The iconic noir pianist and the brilliant jazz singer outdo Dylan’s original. Eade’s rapidfire articulation underscores the venom and bitterness in this exasperated capitalist treadmill tirade as Blake anchors it with his signature blend of eerie glimmer and murk. From their album Town & Country.

Rev. Billy & the Stop Shopping Choir End of the World
The fearless environmental activist and his mighty, roughly sixty-member choir opened their towering Prospect Park Bandshell set this past summer with this ominous original gospel tune: “Only so many beautiful days on earth!”

The Robert Sabin Dectet – Ghost
A portrait of a house whose occupant has just died, a somber belltone pavane punctuated with artfully suspenseful use of space and moody horns. From the bassist’s album Humanity Part II with his lushly cinematic large ensemble

Gacaltooyo Band – Ninkaan Ogayn (He Who Does Not Know)
Never before released outside of Somalia, this late 70s jam is a slow, haunting mashup of noir soul, Bollywood balladry, Ethiopiques and what sounds like J-pop – Somalian pentatonic scales come across as positively Asian in places here. From the compilation Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa

The Mehmet Polat TrioEverything Is in You
Joined by kora and ney flute, the brilliant Turkish oudist shifts between otherworldly Middle Eastern modes, Asia and Africa in this pensive epic. From the album Ask Your Heart

Black Lesbian FishermenRagged Ritual
This trippy, practically fifteen-minute drone-rock dirge has subtle Indian raga allusions, moody Middle Eastern ambience and a slow build to a darkly majestically macabre, resonant swirl of organ and guitar. From the album Ectopic Apiary.

Hearing ThingsStalefish
A mashup of growling go-go funk, horror surf, Middle Eastern music and the Doors, it’s a staple of Brooklyn’s funnest band’s live show.

NO ICELeave Her Alone
Musically, it’s a bitter, fiery soul-rock anthem. Lyrically, it’s one of the year’s classiest numbers: cool guys don’t harass women. From the Brooklyn band’s amazingly multistylistic, fun debut full-length album Come On Feel the NO ICE.

Orkesta MendozaContra La Marea
The  briskly strutting noir centerpiece of the slinky psychedelic mambo/cumbia band’s latest album ¡Vamos A Guarachar!, brooding baritone sax and clarinet alongside bandleader Sergio Mendoza’s reverberating guitar multitracks.

The Trio JoubranLaytaka
The gorgeously fluttering, understatedly elegaic intro to the oud-playing brothers’ album and DVD A’Lombre Des Mots (In the Shadow of Words), their tribute to their longtime collaborator, iconic Palestinian poet and activist Mahmoud Darwish. They mesmerized the crowd with this at their Lincoln Center show this past June.

Doug Wieselman’s Trio S  Dreambox
A cello drone and flickers from the drums underpin the bandleader’s moody Balkan melismas. building to a ferocious, Macedonian-flavored dance – the high point of their new album Somewhere Glimmer.

Money Chicha – Tamborcita
The most epic number on the debut album by the Austin psychedelic cumbia monsters (a spinoff of the slightly less psychedelic Grupo Fantasma), simmering and swooshing with ominous chromatics, reverb guitar and dub tinges.

Ella AtlasLeave Me in Blue
The most darkly lingering, epically sweeping track on 2017’s best debut album, The Road to Now, the Lynchian first release by enigmatic singer Tarrah Maria and Lost Patrol guitarist Steven Masucci.

King Gizzard & the Lizard WizardOpen Water
A hash-smuggling Red Sea speedboat theme of sorts, it’s got an energetic, hypnotically shuffling, qawwali-ish groove, icepick staccato guitar and all sorts of eerie chromatic hooks. From the album Flying Microtonal Banana.

Timatim FitfitLiving in the City
A stabbing parlor pop tune, John Cale mashed up with the Handsome Family from the menacing, carnivalesque solo album The Sugar Man, a creepy side project by Orphan Jane accordionist Tim Cluff.

Omar SouleymanMawal
An uncharacteristically slow, hauntingly violin-driven refugee’s lament from the gruff Syrian-born crooner’s album To Syria With Love.

Clint Mansell – Wheatfield With Crows
With its shivery violins, lustrous long tones and darkly ambient washes, this is where the film composer’s score to the Van Gogh movie Loving Vincent breaks into a scream.

 What Cheer? Brigade Black Cannon
Sort of a swaying Balkan brass Hawaii 5-0; the stampeding doublespeed bridge and the breathless charge on the way out are the high points of the East Coast’s largest brass band’s album You Can’t See Inside of Me.

The Legendary Shack Shakers  – White Devil
“White is the color of hipsters,” frontman JD Wilkes snarls as this noir blues stomps along, flickering with out-of-tune piano and Rod Hamdallah’s screaming distorted guitar. From the album After You’ve Gone.

BobtownMagilla Lee
New York’s best folk noir band blend their charming voices for this blithely bouncy narrative about “true meditation through medication” with dire consequences. They slayed with this at this year’s Brooklyn Americana Festival.

Nicole Atkins  I Love Living Here
A slow-simmering, crushingly sarcastic, angst-driven piano-and-horns anthem set in 2017 Brooklyn gentrifier hell. From the noir soul singer’s latest album Goodnight Rhonda Lee.

Anbessa OrchestraNagatti Si Jedha
The Israeli-American Ethio-jazz band jam the hell out of this uneasily catchy, slinky, reverb guitar-driven anthem, a mashup of vintage soul and ancient African riffs, when they play it live. From their most recent ep.

Red Baraat – Gaadi of Truth
Fiery, chromatic horn-driven live bhangra with a little hip-hop flavor: like an Indian Slavic Soul Party. From the album Bhangra Pirates.

The Sirius QuartetSpidey Falls!
This high-voltage microtonal string epic is part Big Lazy crime jazz, part Bernard Herrmann, part Piazzolla and part turbocharged tarantella.

Rahim AlHajChant
The Iraqi-born oudist and his trio entertained the crowd at Lincoln Center this past spring with an intimate version of this uneasily bouncy, subtly sardonic theme inspired by his mom trying to keep her kids out of trouble. This video link above is the full orchestrated version

Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta – Red
Slinky, luridly organ-driven psychedelic cumbia mixed up withChicano Batman-style psychedelic soul. From the album Fonografic.

Nina Diaz – Star
Towering, angst-fueled noir punk cabaret, like a mashup of Vera Beren and Nicole Atkins. From the Girl in a Coma’s excellent debut album The Beat Is Dead.

Kalyani SinghEllis
An allusively grisly Ellis Island scenario set to a soaring Indian carnatic melody recast as gothic Americana – told from the point of view of a ghost. Or is she? You could have heard a pin drop when Singh sang this at the American Folk Art Museum last year. 

The NYChillharmonicBlumen
A lush, hypnotic, uneasily circling Radiohead-inflected epic from singer Sara McDonald’s mighty 22-piece New York band, who mash up big band jazz and symphonic rock. They raised the roof with this at Joe’s Pub last spring.

Dalava – The Bloody Wall
A murder victim haunts the crime scene over almost imperceptibly crescendoing art-rock in guitarist Aram Bajakian and singer Julia Ulehla’s reinvention of this old Moravian folk tune from their latest album The Book of Transfigurations.

Electric YouthIt’s Them
The Canadian duo’s enveloping, slowly crescendoing take on a classic Lynch film theme – in this case, for a movie that never came out. From the album Breathing.

Mulatu AstatkeYekatit
The godfather of Ethio-jazz, backed by an impressively tight pickup band including keyboardist Jason Lindner and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, kept the uneasy, brassy groove going for almost fifteen minutes with this classic in Central Park back in August.

Los Crema Paraiso – Shine On You Crazy Diablo
The cinematic Venezuelan psychedelic trio have been playing their deadpan version of the Pink Floyd epic all the way through in concert. for more than a year now. They didn’t extend it all the way through at Barbes back in July, but it was still amazing how they can recreate it while adding wry dub tinges. This is a similar, relatively brief eight-minute studio version.

Melissa & the MannequinsCan’t Let Go
The latest deliciously catchy, jangly single from New York’s best new band of 2017; bittersweetly coy vocals, ringing guitars and a little vintage soul too. 

BrigaBela Sum
Mesmerizing singer Eva Salina and Balkan accordionist Sergiu Popa join the Quebecoise violinist on this broodingly gorgeous ballad from the album Femme.

Funkrust Brass Band – Dark City
The title track, and most distinctively chromatic, Balkan-flavored anthem from the debut album by New York’s largest and most explosive brass band.

 Sofia Rei – Arriba Quemando El Sol
The stark Violeta Parra peasant’s lament reinvented as relentless, marching art-rock fueled by Marc Ribot’s unhinged guitar. From the album El Gavilan.

Kelly GreenCulture Shock
A bustling, epic noir jazz theme that eventually descends into dissociative Sketches of Spain allusions, flutters loosely and then jumps back into the rat race again. Centerpiece of the album  Life Rearranged.

David Smooke & the Peabody Wind Ensemble – Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The epic, sixteen-minute title track to the toy pianist’s new album is a real cinematic showstopper. Horrified tritone cadenzas, thunderous swells, unexpectedly dusky microtonal banjo, and then toy piano plinking and clicking mutedly under extreme duress.

Mike Neer’s Steelonious – Off Minor
Smoking steel guitar, organ and a rhythm section take Thelonious Monk’s classic to the next Lynchian level. From the band’s debut album.

Vigen HovsepyanGulo
The most haunting track on the powerful Armenian singer and multi-instrumentalist’s new album Echoes: Revived Armenian Folk Music is this slowly swaying 6/8 piano ballad.

La Mar EnfortunaAman Minush
Elysian Fields guitarist Oren Bloedow and singer Jennifer Charles’ Sephardic art-rock side project made entrancing psychedelic rock out this darkly bouncy old tune at their November show at the Jewish Museum

Noura Mint SeymaliSoub Hanak
A microtonal duskcore anthem, the most straight-up rock number from the fearless jamband leader’s album Arbina.

Hilary DownesSecrets of Birds
The art-rock songwriter’s band take their deepest plunge into noir on the album’s title track: “Save me from these thoughts, divebomb every part,”…yet, “I am not afraid of the  darkness in my way.”

Trina Basu & Arun RamamurthySindhu Bhairavi
Haunting, edgy, hypnoticallly dueling Indian violins – since this live recording from their amazing Noguchi Museum show in September is an audio-only clip, it’s tantalizingly hard to figure out who’s playing what.

The Hooten Hollers – Scrapper’s Lament
An amusing, amped-up oldschool country ballad about the joys of scrounging for scrap metal – a perfect job in these new depression times. From the band’s 2017 album.

Borbely Mihaly Polygon2/1
A bouncy, uneasy, staccato Hungarian bass clarinet/cimbalom/drums theme, one of the highlights of the trio’s amazing show at Drom back in January.

Tomas Fujiwara’s Triple DoubleLove & Protest
Mournful, spacious blues trumpet over a twin-drum stampede spiced with burns and scrapes from guitarists Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook: Wadada Leo Smith clarity and Amir ElSaffar majesty. From the group’s debut album.

River CultShadow Out of Time
Epic Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth slides into galloping post-Sabbath in this careening live track from the heavy psych band’s latest ep Live at WFMU.

Bridget KibbeyToccata in D
This is the famous J.S. Bach organ piece that’s been used in a million horror movies…played solo, matter-of-factly and celestially, on the harp. It’s as funny as it is subversive, but ultimately it’s still arguably the creepiest piece of music ever written. A downtown crowd at the Times Arrow Festival earlier this year didn’t know what to make of it. 

Dawn ObergNothing Rhymes With Orange
The most bleakly hilarious song of the year is this sharp, literary middle finger raised at “Putin’s little bitch” in the Oval Office. Title track from the parlor pop pianist’s latest ep.

Kacy & Clayton – A Certain Kind of Memory
A dead ringer for Jenifer Jackson in wounded dark country mode circa 2007, down to the slow, lingering, Richard Thompson-esque arrangement. From the album The Siren’s Song.

Super Yamba BandControl Per Capita (C.P.C.)
One of the Brooklyn psychedelic Afrobeat band’s most lavish, funky jams. They got a packed house at Barbes boiling over with this last summer. 

 Chicano BatmanThe Taker Story
A anti-imperialist broadside, part Isaac Hayes hot butter, part Gil Scott-Heron, with a hazy latin tint from the psychedelic latin soul stars’ latest album Freedom Is Free.

Marcellus HallStill in Range
The ex-White Hassle frontman treated a Williamsburg crowd to an unexpectedly slashing take of this deviously allusive, pouncingly catchy, sardonic social media-era critique last spring. From the album Afterglow.

The Klezmatics – The Yoke
A crushingly bitter Catalan dirge told from a slave’s point of view, the highlight of NYC’s original klezmer punks’ latest album Apikorsom/Heretics. They held a Central Park crowd rapt with this last summer. 

Agnes ObelTrojan Horses
Creepy horror-movie piano and dark low strings anchor the evil, whispery harmonies of this moody Nordic art-rock waltz from the album Citizen of Glass.

 Pokey LaFargeSilent Movies
An offhandedly stinging, sarcastically swinging oldschool soul anthem for an era of selfie overkill. He and his band motored through this at Bowery Ballroom back in July. From the album Manic Revelations.

Algiers – Cleveland
A fierce yet enigmatic anti-police violence anthem, part noir gospel, part postrock, part postapocalyptic film theme from the band’s second album The Underside of Power.

Paris ComboBonne Nouvelle
Big bustling noir swing tune with a bitter undercurrent from a darker, more lyrically hilarious French counterpart to the Squirrel Nut Zippers. From the album Tako Tsubo.

Bridget KearneyLiving in a Cave
Orbison noir through the prism of 2017 new wave revival. From the Lake Street Dive bassist’s excellent, catchy debut album Won’t Let You Down.

Gold DimeDisinterested
The side project by Talk Normal’s Andrya Ambro punctuates this surreal drone-rock epic with all kinds of delicious, darkly explosive riffage. From the band’s debut album Nerves.

The Dirty Bourbon River ShowPoor Boy, Rich Girl
A sly steamboat-soul slap upside the head of an easy target – but some targets deserve to be hit upside the head. From the album The Flying Musical Circus.

 Meaghan BurkeGowanus
A swirling, theatrical orchestrated rock lament from the charismatic cello rock songwriter’s new album Creature Comforts.

The Ed Palermo Big BandOpen Up Said the World At the Door
A wry big band jazz cover of the haphazardly careening Jeff Lynne cult favorite from the Move’s 1970 Looking On album that perfectly crystalizes the angst-fueled bustle the original was shooting for. From the album The Great Un-American Songbook Volumes 1 & 2.

Touched By GhoulMurder Circus
The title track from the darkly enigmatic, female-fronted Chicago punk/postrock band’s debut album works artfully cynical variations on a familiar carnival theme. 

 Marta SanchezScillar
The jazz pianist and her band artfully shift roles in this broodingly modal, looping, haunting elegy of sorts. From her new quintet album Danza Imposible.

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80African Dreams
“Conscious capitalism doesn’t exist,” the torchbearer of the original Nigerian Afrobeat legacy remarked at his Central Park show this past summer before launching into this pouncing, undulating cautionary tale for those who might want to play that game.  

Ensemble Mik Nawooj Gin & Juice
A deadpan, operatic orchestral cover of the Snoop Dogg driving-while-wasted classic. For real. They killed with this in Harlem back in March.

NehedarThe Grudge
Broodingly punchy 60s psych pop with coy 80s new wave tinges and a deliciously vengeful lyric. “Wanna step on me so you can rise to a better pedigree?…Put the claws back in your kitty paws.”

 Ani Cordero – Culebra
Growling surf bass contrasts with spare Spanish guitar and ominously reverberating electric riffage in this kinetic number from the fearless protest song specialist. From the album Querido Mundo.

Maximo ParkWork and Then Wait
A defiant 99-percenter singalong anthem, sort of a cross between mid-90s Blur and an artsy dance act like the Cat Empire. From the album Risk to Exist.

The PorchistasMr. Chump
Which raises a middle finger to the American Boris Yeltsin. This orange-wigged creep is a “draft-dodging scum” who “beats on little girls and cheats on Monopoly.” Then the girlie chorus chimes in: “Eats shit!” From the album Axis & Allies.

GalanosFeel Good
Echoey and surreal, this macabre, whispery, reverb-drenched noir theme slowly coalesces out of a Lynchian spoken word interlude laced with evil guitar flickers. From the album Deceiver Receiver.

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Powerful Singers and an Iconic Band Celebrate Global Yiddish Music in Central Park

What’s the likelihood of seeing the Klezmatics not only slink, and barrel, and slowly sway through a gorgeous and often haunting blend of minor keys and punk-klezmer romps…but also  getting to see them back two of New York’s most powerful singers? It happened Wednesday night at Central Park Summerstage, where cantors Chaim David Berson and Yanky Lemmer got to take tantalizingly short turns on the mic in front of the band, along with other entertainment on a night celebrating Yiddish music from around the world.

There was a time when being a cantor was just as competitive as, say, African-American gospel music, or a jazz cutting contest. The cantor was the treasure of the temple, the guy you’d send on tour to represent you and thrill the people with his powerful pipes. That tradition has sadly fallen into disrepair in recent years, but it is alive and well on the Upper West Side, at the Jewish Center on 86th St. and also the Lincoln Square Synagogue, where Berson and Lemmer, respectively, hold court.

Berson has a vibrato wide enough to drive a truck through, with Little Jimmy Scott nuance but also Johnny Cash intensity, if you buy those references. He also turned out to be a fluent guitarist as well, adding poignant, purposeful jangle to one of the set’s early numbers. Lemmer’s baritone has a tinge of grit and a similarly steely resonance, opera without the buffo.

He immediately made an impact, sending a shout-out to the 99-percenters in the crowd (which seemed to be pretty much everybody) with a stern march through We’ve Got to Make a Living, an anthem for solidarity in hard times. Then he led the band through an increasingly dynamic, lickety-split, sardonically funny medley of drinking songs. “Drinking songs?” Lemmer deadpanned, “Jews don’t drink. We’re too busy suffering.”

But a little l’chaim never hurt anybody – they did that one, too toward the end of the evening. Berson opened his own set with an impassioned, broodingly rapturous, melismatic improvisation while the band built an ominous wash of sustain behind him. From there, he worked the corners for every bit of chromatic mystery in a mix of numbers that looked forward to messianic redemption and sought worldly solace, either through transcendence or libations.

The Klezmatics finally got a set of their own and reveled in it with the energy of a group, well, thirty years younger. The original rebels of the 80s klezmer revival, they celebrated all things treyf, sexually and foodwise and otherwise in the high-voltage, Romanian-tinged dance numbers, and kept an eye on history with the slower ones. There’s no small irony in that the high point of the evening might have been the slow, subdued dirge The Yoke, a Yiddish translation of a Catalan protest song from the 1960s.

Frontman Lorin Sklamberg played that one on piano rather than his usual accordion, like he did much of the rest of the material, and showed off similar chops: at one point, he hit an unexpectedly feral barrelhouse groove. Likewise, trumpeter Frank London spent much of the night behind an electric piano, constantly tweaking it to get the textures right when he wasn’t hitting ecstatic heights or firing off hundred-yard spirals on his horn. Bassist Paul Morrissett took a turn on tsimbl, the Ukrainian Jewish ancestor of the cimbalom, while violinist Deborah Strauss switched between icepick precision and stark, rustic, otherworldly sustain over Richie Barshay’s playful, jazz-inflected drums. When he wasn’t reaching the rafters on alto sax, Matt Darriau was adding ethereal flute textures or channeling grim Balkan tonalities on clarinet. 

As an encore, Daniel Kahn – star of the upcoming immigration-themed musical Amerike – came up to deliver a Yiddish version of Leonard Cohen song whose expiration date passed a long time, joined by the rest of the night’s performers, among them tongue-in-cheek a-cappella unit the Maccabeats. But then everybody segued into a rapidfire dance number every bit as fun as Man in a Hat, the title track from the Klezmatics’ cult classic 1995 Jews with Horns album, a wry salute to their home turf: “I’m a man in a hat, a Manhattan man,” Sklamberg reaffirmed.

The next Central Park Summerstage event of note starts at 5 PM on June 24, a night of Portuguese music with newschool fado star Sofia Ribeiro and assaultive goth/Stooges punk duo Dead Combo with special guest guitarslinger Marc Ribot. Get there early if you’re going. 

The Klezmatics Build Their Legacy With Yet Another Explosive, Eclectic Album

This new record has a song about slavery. another about the joys of being out and gay in an oppressive society, one about the murder of an innocent immigrant, along with a pretty wild drinking song, a bunch of dance numbers and a handful of dirges. Pretty relevant stuff, right? Is this hip-hop? Blues? New wave? None of the above. It’s the new Klezmatics album, Apikorsom/Heretics, streaming at Spotify. And it’s one of the best releases of 2016.

The Klezmatics are the Clash of klezmer. Back in the 80s, the Clash were the one punk band that pretty much everybody knew and loved, and the Klezmatics were their Jewish folk-punk counterparts – although their musicianship was always a cut above even the most talented punk rock band. There have been plenty of other innovators in traditional Jewish music from around the world, but most  – Dave Tarras, Manny Blanc and Prince Nazaroff, noteworthy among them – edged toward jazz. The Klezmatics, on the other hand, brought the transgressive energy of punk to a vast legacy of global Jewish sounds, and vice versa. The new album only further cements their reputation as innovators and instigators, a band whose influence long ago reached far beyond the klezmer demimonde. It’s safe to say that without the Klezmatics, there probably would be no Gogol Bordello and probably no World Inferno either.

The album opens on a trad note with Lisa Gutkin’s instrumental Der Geler Fink, her rapidfire violin against a suspensefully vamping pulse, then trumpeter Frank London and frontman/accordionist Lorin Sklamberg lead the band off on a scampering tangent. London flips the script and clarinetist Matt Darriau follows suit, wary and soulful, before the band brings the lightning back.

Zol Shoy Komen di Guele is a swaying, elegant take on a midtempo oompah groove, a song of redemption and salvation. The band moves to elegantly waltzing, brooding Ladino territory with the bitterly metaphorical Der Yokh (The Yoke) originally recorded by Lluis Llach in 1968: “Although it’s rotten and rusty, it grips us like pliers,” Sklamberg intones in the original Catalan.

The traditional Party in Odessa follows a bounce that’s just short of frantic: It’s a funny song, a peasant gone wild in the big city: “The guy with no suspenders is the one who loses his pants,” more or less. The band ramps it up doublespeed at the end.

Dark Is the Night, a new original with music by London features stark violin against mournful washes of accordion punctuated by spare cimbalom. If John Lennon had grown up in a shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe, he might have written something like this.The title track is another London original; Sklamberg delivering a homoerotic Yiddish lyric over a happy bouncing melody that’s part early Beatles, part joyous shtetl stomp, taking an abrupt, welcome detour into a minor-key romp livened by the trumpeter’s terse, muted attack. Darriau’s Three-Ring Sirba is next, a bittersweet waltz fueled by the composer’s enigmatically sailing clarinet.

The bolero-tinged Vi Lang, London’s adaptation of David Edelstadt’s poem Vakht Oyf! sets Sklamberg’s understatedly imploring vocals against an elegantly slinky backdrop lowlit by funereal organ and latin-flavored horns, up to an uneasily shadowy, psychedelic outro underpinned by London’s insistent piano and Richie Barshay’s tumbling drums. Likewise, Sklamberg’s arrangement of Chava Alberstein’s Ver Firt Di Ale Shifn? (Who Guides the Ships?) has a moody late Beatlesque resonance and a boomy Barshay bolero beat. Then the band picks it up with the lickety-split Shushan Purim, contemplating the hangover of all hangovers. In case you’re wondering how to say “blotto” in Yiddish, the word is “farshnoshket.”

Green Violin, a London instrumental, has a dramatic ba-BUMP bounce and delicious Middle Eastern chromatics. Der Mames Spigl (Mama’s Mirror), a minimalist dirge by Gutkin with lyrics by Masha Shtuker-Paiuk, grimly contemplates the ravages of age. Even grimmer is the swaying, ominously Turkish-flavored murder ballad Tayer Yankele (Poor Yankele), Paul Morrisett’s guitar steady as the whole band builds a haunted call-and-response. It’s the album’s most epic and arguably best number.

The band handles the traditional, chromatically fueled dance Shtetl MO with a bouncy restraint that explodes on the chorus and then builds to a lickety-split romp as the horns blaze. The album winds up with Mazltov, a tender folk-rock waltz. Over the decades, the Klezmatics have put out some great albums and this one is probably in the top three along with their 2011 Live at the Town Hall album and their iconic 1997 collection, Possessed. The band are currently on US tour; their next show is at the Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St. in Berkeley, CA on Dec 21 at 8 PM. Advance tix are $28.

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.

Sandaraa Build a Magical Bridge with Pakistani and Jewish Sounds

You want esoteric…and way fun? How about a mashup of Pakistani and klezmer sounds? Meet south Asian/Jewish jamband Sandaraa (Pashto for “song”). While they have some rock instrumentation, they’re not a rock band. They sound more Middle Eastern than anything else, which makes sense since Jewish music has roots there, and those exotic modes filtered east centuries, even millennia ago. The brainchild of star Pakistani chanteuse Zebunnisa Bangash and klezmer clarinet powerhouse Michael Winograd, the band also includes Dolunay violinist Eylem Basaldi, Klezmatics/Herbie Hancock drummer Richie Barshay, bassist David Lizmi (of bewitchingly noir cinematic band Karla Rose & the Thorns and Moroccan trance group Innov Gnawa), supersonic accordionist Patrick Farrell, and Israeli surf/metal/jazz guitarist Yoshie Fruchter. Their debut album is streaming at Storyamp, and they’ve got an album release show on May 11 at 7 PM at the big room at the Rockwood; cover is $12. After that, they’re at Barbes on May 16 at 7 PM where they debut their new Urdu poetry-inspired project The Pomegranate of Sistan, addressing “religious orthodoxy and nationalism across cultural divides.”

.While a lot of westerners may associate Pakistan with ghazals and qawwali, Sandaraa incorporate more rustic styles from remote regions of the country. The album’s opening track, Jegi Jegi Lailajan opens with an edgy Middle Eastern freygish riff and then slinks along on an undulating, syncopated groove, Bangash’s suspensefully enticing, air-conditioned delivery rising to warmer heights and then back to more pensive terrain. Who knew Barshay could play clip-clop south Asian percussion, or how effortlessly Fruchter would gravitate to the spiky phrasing of Pakistani rubab music?

Surrealistically blippy Their Majesties Satanic Request organ underscores Bangash’s expressive delivery as the band opens Mana Nele, then they ride Farrell’s pulsing, Qawwali-esque accordion waves, Basaldi and Winograd delivering achingly melancholy, Middle Eastern modal riffage in tandem.

Winograd opens Bibi Sanem Janem with a brief, starkly cantorially-inspired clarinet taqsim, then Fruchter pushes it along with his moody oud until Barshay’s tumbling qawwali groove and Farrell’s steady pulse take over. Winograd takes it out with a long, vividly austere, low-register solo.

A tenderly catchy, shapeshifting lullaby, Dilbarake Nazinim opens with an expansively rustic, pensive solo from Fruchter. The album winds up with the slinky, upbeat Haatera Tayiga, a jaunty mashup that best capsulizes the joyous stylistic brew this band manages to conjure: it’s amazing how much they manage to pack into a single song. As musical hybrids go, there hasn’t been an album this fun or full of surprises released this year.

Sometimes You Can’t Catch a Break, Sometimes You Can

The man in the long black coat stood alone, or so he thought, over the kitchen table, chomping on a plate of spicy Russian beet salad. He took a pull from a plastic cup of beaujolais nouveau. This year’s wasn’t anything special, nothing like the 2003, for that matter not even up to the level of 2008, at least this particular bottle. But enough of it still did the trick, just as it did in better years. In the living room, a pretty young mother played a Bach cello sonata, calmly and comfortably, to the small crowd of guests who remained at that late hour: her parents, a yoga girl and her dreadlocked white boyfriend, a petite, bookish brunette from Park Slope and her intense-faced, solidly built, bearded companion.

In the kitchen, the man in the long black coat turned around to see the woman’s reedy, bespectacled ten-year-old son staring at him. “Come here, there’s something I want to show you,” the boy urged him, the hint of a smile at the corners of his thin lips. He was small for his age, especially in profile against the fat, freckled, autistic girl who lingered in the doorway behind him.

The man in the long black coat took another pull from the cup and followed the children into an adjacent bedroom. Paint chips fell from the far wall, behind a leather reclining chair, a dartboard overhead. “Sit down,” encouraged the boy. “Everybody I do this to likes it.’

The man in the long black coat sat down slowly and leaned back. His head was driven further into the headrest when struck from behind, in the center of his forehead, with a sharp object. The man in the long black coat gasped and was just starting to pull himself out of the chair when struck a second time. This time the boy drew blood: for someone his size, he was strong, and on a mission to inflict pain. In the corner, the autistic girl began howling with laughter. The man in the long black coat pulled himself to his feet, but not in time to avoid being hit again, a glancing blow to the side of the head. That, too, drew blood.

Jarred from a red wine haze, the man in the long black coat moved out of the bedroom quickly, not looking back. The girl in the corner was still laughing, and by now the boy was giggling as well. The man in the long black coat saw a bathroom to his right and closed the door behind him. Droplets of blood trickled down the worn but now adrenalized face in the mirror. He reached for a piece of toilet paper, then thought better of it and pulled a napkin from his coat pocket. Gingerly, he blotted at his wounds.

He walked out into the hallway. The mother’s parents were there, glanced up and said nothing. The mother, behind them, did the same. No reaction, no offer of a band-aid, peroxide, even a simple “Are you ok?”

The man in the long black coat walked past them, toward the door, then stepped out into the cold Brighton Beach air. It was best to be out of this house of no empathy. Was this a ritual from the old country? A game to initiate outsiders? What would happen if he returned? Would he be skewered, eaten with beets and horseradish? Questions best left unanswered. He looked up, blinking the blood from his eyes as a B train rumbled into the station overhead.

The following night, the man in the long black coat reached the exit at the top of the stairs to the IRT local train at Broadway and 66th, the affectingly bittersweet, minor-key strains of what could have been an old Ukrainian Jewish song but was probably an original drifting from a couple of blocks south. Carefully, he adjusted the old black Mets hat over the wounds under the bandage.

A crowd of Jews were gathered in front of a Christmas tree near the point of the park where Columbus and Broadway cross at 63rd. The band onstage in front of them was fantastic: Alicia Svigals out front on violin, Patrick Farrell on accordion, Aaron Alexander on drums. The man in the long black coat didn’t recognize the bass player. Was this a comfortably typical New York moment or a subtle bit of subversion? What does it say about how far we’ve come that such a sight could be subversive in a city that at least on the surface seems to embrace so many cultures?

The man in the long black coat paused. This music was beautiful, and soul-stirring, a moment of comfort and warmth on an early winter night. But that’s not what he was there for. Halfheartedly, he moved ahead, south and west. Inside the Lincoln Center atrium space, with its desk for cheap day-of-show tickets and sandwich stand emanating smells of burnt cheese and sandwich meat, Fela cover band Chop & Quench were amassed onstage, ready to launch into a slinking, galloping set of Nigerian stoner dance grooves from the 1970s. An altogether different vibe from what was being played outside, notwithstanding that Afrobeat and Ukrainian Jewish music share a defiance and resilience.

Chop & Quench were the pit band for the Broadway musical Fela, arguably the most relevant production to appear on the Great White Way. The man in the long black coat was aware of this, but this show was all about the music. He leaned against the atrium wall, watching frontman Sahr Ngaujah, who starred as the Nigerian agitator bandleader in the theatrical run, spun and pounced across the stage, a trio of brightly skirted women to his right undulating along with the grooves spinning from Tim Allen’s bass and Greg Gonzalez’s drums. Guitarists Ricardo Quinones and Bryan Vargas clinked and jangled and mingled, trumpeter Jeff Pierce and tenor saxophonist Morgan Price taking the occasional long crescendo upward with a rapidfire solo.

Although the long rectangular room was pretty full, there weren’t many people dancing. After awhile, it was as if the band was playing a single, long song. After about forty minutes, they finally hit a snarling minor-key riff and launched into Water No Get Enemy, an aptly relevant number for this era. That was enough for the man in the long black coat, who exited back onto Broadway. Were the Jewish bands still playing? Yes!

Onstage now were trumpeter Frank London, accordionist Lorin Sklamberg and pianist Uri Caine, two thirds of the original New York punk klezmer band, the Klezmatics. “We may be in Manhattan, but this show is all about Brooklyn,” London grinned, explaining how much of their repertoire they’d discovered hanging with a Hasidic crowd there. Together they followed the rises and falls of a set of dances, a stately, cantorially-flavored hymn for peace and finally a droll, jazzed-up version of the dreydl song – it was Hanukkah season, after all. Violist Ljova Zhurbin came up onstage and added an acerbic edge for a couple of numbers; London encouraged him to stay for more, but he obviously had other places to be.

The man in the long black coat spotted Zhurbin’s wife, the great Yiddish singer Inna Barmash, in the audience. She smiled and waved; the man in the long black coat waved back. He looked up at the big evergreen behind the stage, festooned with ornaments, then at the lights twinkling down the avenue. In the austere washes of the accordion, London’s balmy trumpet and Caine’s careful, focused, sometimes darkly bluesy phrases, it was easy to call this home, good to be alone in the crowd.

Orient Noir: Klezmer Sounds from the Edges of the Diaspora

On the Orient Noir compilation, billed as a “WestEastern Divan,” the folks over at Piranha Records in Germany raid their own archives for an instant album…and a pretty killer playlist that goes on for well over an hour. It’s quite an inspiration for adventurous downloaders (most of this stuff is on youtube – follow the links below). It’s noir to the extent that the sexy and mysterious microtones of Middle Eastern and Jewish music are noir. This is first and foremost a klezmer playlist, one that ranges across more of the Jewish diaspora than most, with a handful of tasty levantine numbers thrown in for good measure.

The weakest tracks are from French band Watcha Clan: a brief klezmer intro and a woozy reggae cover of an Ofra Haza hit. The track most instantly identifiable as klezmer is from Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars, Susan Sandler out in front of the band, giving the song a barely restrained longing. London also appears in a low-key, moody collaboration with Serbian brass virtuoso Boban Markovic, while another project he’s been involved with for decades, the Klezmatics, are represented by the understatedly ferocious, gospel-fueled I’m Not Afraid.

A couple of instrumentals are stripped down to the basics of slinky percussion and a single melody line: a flute-and-accordion jam from Nubian artist Mahmoud Fadl, and Ali’s Nay, credited to veteran Lebanese composer Ihsan Al-Mounzer. The most eye-opening stuff here is the Jewish music that pushes the boundaries of klezmer with influences from Africa – Moroccan cantor Emil Zrihan’s amusingly titled, flamenco-flavored Maka Shelishit, and Moroccan Sephardic crooner Maurice El Medioni ‘s long diptych Ya Maalem/Kelbi Razahi, a noir cabaret tango with Balkan horns!

Ruth Yaakov’s Las Esuergas de Angora – from her album Sephardic Songs of the Balkans – offers a tricky blend of flamenco and gypsy music with what sounds like creepy, swirly West African riti fiddle. And a track by popular Zanzibar taraab chanteuse Bi Kikude blends Bollywood-flavored, surfy rock with lushly suspenseful levantine orchestration.

Interestingly, on this klezmer-oriented playlist, the most outright haunting tracks are by the Arabs. Salwa Abou Greisha sings a sweeping, haunting multi-part Egyptian bellydance epic, and iconic Egyptian trumpeter Samy El Bably provides his hit Ana Bamasi El Haba Doll, an elegant vamp with richly nuanced solos from trumpet and accordion. The playlist ends the way you might end your own playlist, with something completely random and weird: in this case, The Garden, a cantorially-tinged 1979 song by short-lived German hippie-rock band Efendi’s Garden. If Hotel California-style twin guitars playing vaguely Middle Eastern riffs are your thing, you’ll love this one. Happy hunting, wink wink!

Troubled Transcendence: Daniel Kahn & the Painted Bird at Lincoln Center

When you think about it, noir cabaret music is basically klezmer. Which is no surprise when you consider that so many of the songwriters in Weimar Germany and further east were Jewish. Berlin-based songwriter Daniel Kahn takes that tradition and updates it, with one eye on the past and the other on a very uncertain future. Kahn’s music transcends any label, Jewish or otherwise: it is cosmopolitan in every sense of the word. His dissidents always have their bags packed and ready go to. They expect to be surveilled, whether by the narc next door with his ear on a glass pressed to the wall, or by a spycam. His songs celebrate defiance and rebellion, with the hope for a better future that anchors all true revolutions. Loaded with puns, multiple levels of meaning and an often crushing irony, one of their most persistent themes is that if we forget the past, we’re doomed to repeat it in all its colossal ugliness. Sunday at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Kahn and a pickup band consisting of Avi Fox-Rosen on Telecaster, Benjy Fox-Rosen on bass, the Klezmatics’ Richie Barshay on drums and Michael Winograd on clarinet ran through a riveting mix of songs that drew on traditions dating back decades if not centuries, yet which are completely in the here-and-now.

Kahn opened the show with an ominous wash of minor chords from his accordion, slowly launching into the song in Yiddish before switching to English for the chorus. Over a steady, pensive sway, Kahn told the tale of a Depression-era Robin Hood, the King of the Thieves who in the end is “sick from the streets, from the prison walls, but on his gravestone, etched in gold, he should have his story told.” They followed that with The Good Old Bad Old Days, a richly lyrical look at ostalgie, the ambiguous sentimentality for the utter predictability of the Berlin Wall era held by some Germans of a certain age. As he did with many of the songs, Winograd lit it up with a biting, aching clarinet solo, Kahn recounting how now the vendors along the “border that cuts through the town like a surgical scar” are Turkish, the watches they sell actually work, and that there’s now a market where a musician can “keep the esthetic ‘cliches,’ in this market of fleas, selling klezmer cd’s for the good old bad old days.”

“Prepare for your inner emigration,” Kahn warned on a briskly shuffling number that chronicled a couple of girls who decided not to leave after all: a Berlin cabaret dancer who won’t give up her old haunts, then a kibbutznik who falls in love with a Palestinian and tries to win over his family, with dismal results. So, “They thought about leaving to visit her cousin David in Michigan…but David wanted to marry his boyfriend, so they were moving to Berlin,” Kahn deadpanned. Emigration is a state of mind, after all: it may make you absolutely paranoid, but as he hinted, that might be a small price to pay. After that, Kahn put down his accordion for a ukulele and ran through a misty, nocturnally Americana-flavored Woody Guthrie homage, picturing the songwriter away from his Mermaid Avenue home, entertaining the troops while his wife waits anxiously for his return.

The most haunting song of the afternoon was Sunday After the War. Kahn recounted how he’d started writing it after the Iraq war had begum, and that it was unfortunate that he didn’t finish it after the war – and that it’s a song that he needs to keep singing. A slow, harrowing dirge, Kahn offered to “pay for your sorrow if you pay for mine,” ending with the sobering reality that “they’re always recruiting after the war.” From there the band took an unexpected and very successful detour into reggae and then pensive, Pink Floyd-tinged art-rock with a couple of reflections on Zionist and Palestinian nationalist points of view, watching idealistic settlers “coming to Judea with a shovel and a gun.” They closed with a bouncy, snarling klezmer-punk anthem “”written for Occupy Wall Street in Poland sometime in the 1920s.” A sarcastic call to “join the jobless corps…let the yuppies have their wine, bread and water suits us fine,” it was an apt way to close the show. Over the past few years, the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival has had some absolutely brilliant shows, from Dave Brubeck to Laurie Anderson last year: this one ranks with the most memorable of them.

Even More Live Chronicles

This is an attempt to get caught up on some of the more intriguing live shows of (relatively) recent days, beginning with the klezmerfest at Central Park Summerstage exactly two weeks ago. Why so late on this? Great albums have been coming in over the transom left and right. Besides, none of the groups chronicled here have broken up (let’s hope not, anyway), so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to see them if you’re in town and they’re your type of thing.

The klezmerfest, co-sponsored by the Workmen’s Circle, featured a mix of familiar and not-so-familiar faces playing Jewish music from across the diaspora and the decades that was alternately playful, haunting and powerfully insightful. The high point of the evening was Daniel Kahn, leader of klezmer group the Painted Bird, which in this particular instance was something of a pickup band. But they rose to the occasion. Kahn’s songs are intense, historically aware and rich with irony, and his brooding, sardonic delivery and stage presence enhance those songs’ power. He sang several numbers first in Yiddish and then in English, opening solo on pizzicato violin and harmonica with the first song he ever translated, an early 60s Broadside-style folk tune about “how we reap what greed is sowing,” taking considerable pride that the late musicologist Adrienne Cooper had given it her seal of approval. He switched to piano and was then joined by the band for a raging, gorgeously caustic tune about a “king of the thieves,” dismissing “all you people sick from being fed,” memorializing somebody “sick from the streets, sick from the prison walls,” but “on his gravestone etched in gold he should have his story told.” It was the high point of the night. Electric guitarist Avi Fox-Rosen then came up and added a scorching solo to a klezmer-punk song that Kahn wryly explained was about “the lumpenproletariat at odds with the petit bourgeoisie.” They closed on a bitter, elegaic note with Sunday After the War, a haunting, utterly defeated waltz, Kahn adding especially intense emphasis to the line “they always recruit after the war.” That song may have been written in the wake of the Iraq war, but its message was timeless. Kahn and band play outdoors on the back plaza at Lincoln Center on August 12 at 1 PM.

The Klezmatics preceded Kahn onstage. The original klezmer punks have a somewhat different lineup these days (and a monstrously good double live album from the Town Hall released last year), but their music is just as timeless. Trumpeter Frank London led them through a blazing, swaying minor-key opener, then accordionist Lorin Sklamberg – whose voice has mellowed like a good slivovitz over the years – took over the mic on a London arrangement of Woody Guthrie’s Mermaid Avenue, the Coney Island street where “the lox meets the pickle and the sour meets the sweet,” where you might see the occasional shark, but no mermaids. They wrapped up their unexpectedly short set with a sad, bitingly satirical number about how the Russian Tsar prefers his tea, then a lickety-split “antifascist love song” (he’s in Brooklyn, missing his sweetheart back in the old country) and then a rousing singalong with the message that we’re all brothers and sisters in this mess.

Strangely, at least as far as the first part of the show was concerned, the longest set came from the comedic Yiddish Princess, where many of the folks who’d backed Kahn switched instruments or styles and played satirical hair-metal versions of klezmer and old Jewish pop hits. Their frontwoman can’t really sing, but that’s part of the joke. Fox-Rosen paired off with fellow axemeister Yoshie Fruchter for an endless series of tongue-in-cheek twin solos and metal duels over the canned swoosh of the string synthesizer. Their incessant barrage drove a lot of the alte kockers out of the arena, but the kids loved them.

A theatre troupe opened the evening with a series of songs illustrating the deep cross-pollination between American black and Jewish music early in the past century. As educational as their presentation was – for example, you knew that Cab Calloway ripped off a klezmer hit for Minnie the Moocher, right? – the stagy presentation and generically legit, Broadwayesque vocals dragged down the eclectic mix of songs. And the headliner, a so-called rapper, seemed to be gung-ho on being sort of a Jewish-specific version of Beck. That we don’t need: the Scientologists can keep that guy.

A shout-out to Walter Ego, the sharp, cleverly lyrical rocker who played a solo show at Otto’s the following Saturday night, switching from guitar to piano and then back again in an often savagely witty mix of catchy, sometimes Beatlesque tunes. He surprised with a couple of new ones, one a Dead Kennedys-style punk number, another an uneasy minor-key blues, along with the chillingly metaphorical dirge I Am the Glass, the John Lennon-esque piano anthem Big Life and the LOL-funny Adventures of Ethical Man, a comic book hero hell-bent on doing the right thing…sort of.

And then this past Saturday, Kelli King and Lorraine Leckie treated the crowd at the National Underground to tantalizingly brief sets. King sang her bitingly catchy Americana rock and country/blues songs beautifully, in a nuanced voice that was equal parts jazz sophistication and country sugar, backed by an excellent lefty bassist and a guitarist whose uneasy psychedelic guitar chops made a great match with the songs even if he sometimes didn’t know where to stop. And Leckie – whom you’ll be hearing more about here shortly – took her time with a handful of coldly sarcastic Canadian gothic rock tunes that she played solo on guitar. Her collaboration with Anthony Haden-Guest is already starting to pay dividends in terms of songs, and she brought the characters twistedly to life – the alienated old couple in the cruelly titled Bliss, the starstruck ingenue Little Miss X, and the bewildered one-percenter of Rudely Interrupted, all of those brand-new tunes. At one point, when Leckie hit the end of a chorus, she simply refused to let go of the last note and sang it out to the point where she didn’t seem she’d ever let it go. It was an unexpectedly dramatic moment in an otherwise quietly intense set.

To wrap up the last couple of weeks, concertwise, not everything was this good. It would have been nice if those ageless reggae guys from the 70s had focused on their good songs instead of their poppy stuff at their outdoor concert downtown the day after the klezmer show; then again, once a cover band, always a cover band. And the day after that, it would have been ideal if the organizers could have moved the outdoor concert by that Ellington alum and his band indoors: those old vets still have their chops, but the heat stifled them. Then again, a group half their age would have been affected just as adversely.