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Wildfire Klezmer and Reinvented Cumbias at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

Sometimes you have to light a fire under a musician to get them to elevate their game. Sunday afternoon on the Lincoln Center plaza, it was as if somebody, i.e. Mr. Sun, had taken a blowtorch – or a steam pipe, at least – to klezmer clarinetist Michael Winograd and his wryly named band the Honorable Mentshn. Onstage, Winograd is usually all business, generating thrills with his horn and his often sublimely catchy, subtly witty tunesmithing. This time, he was in rare form as a raconteur.

Maybe that was the heat…or maybe he was still riding the high of a return from his latest European tour. A heckler in the crowd suggested he take off his coat. “Dad, be quiet, I told you to stay in the car,” was Winograd’s response. Later, he alluded to how sardonic the title of his new album Kosher Style is: see, at a kosher-style restaurant, you can get a brisket sandwich with mustard and a pickle, but they also give you a piece of cheesecake at the end.

And this show was a feast, drawn mostly from the new record. Winograd was at the top of his game with his whirlwind trills, leaping and bounding through slashing chromatics and bracing minor keys with typically unwavering, crystalline, wind-tunnel focus, no matter how fast the music became. Trumpeter Ben Holmes had a similar, meticulously modulated resonance, often in tandem with trombonist Dan Blacksberg. The group’s bassist fingerpicked rather than using the traditional bow, while drummer Dave Licht switched from sticks to mallets and back, flickering his hardware, vaudeville style and then stomping with abandon through the colorful rhythms of one of the new numbers, Theme from David and Goliath.

Pianist Carmen Staaf got to employ her jazz chops most clearly in a moody, muted, especially plaintive take of Scenes From a Kosher Restaurant. The afternoon’s opening number, Bar Mitzvah Bulgar, was a blast right from the ridiculously catchy first few riffs. Likewise, the slower Dinner in Bay Ridge was a launching pad for a succession of brief, slashing solos from the horns, with a nifty interweave at the end. With its blend of gravitas and fire, It Pays to Buy the Best was a shout-out to Manischewitz, Winograd informed everyone They balanced out the somberness of a couple of slow horas with a boisterous diptych of wedding tunes to wind out the show.

This was part of the annual Heritage Sunday program assembled by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance. Over the last few years, it’s always been one of Lincoln Center Out of Doors‘ most consistently entertaining events, and this was no exception. A Puerto Rican bomba ensemble had opened the festivities. The afternoon closed with a serpentine and often hypnotic if somewhat abbreviated set by Inkarayku, who reinvent old cumbias and Andean panpipe tunes from what’s now Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.

Watching them bounce their way through their relentlessly catchy set in their matching purple ponchos while a series of circle dances spontaneously erupted in the crowd by the edge of the stage was a reminder of where the first wave of classic psychedelic cumbia bands like Los Destellos and Juaneco Y Su Combo got their inspiration. Inkarayku’s take on cumbia and ancient mountain melodies is more acoustic, although this particular edition of the band also featured a string synth player who doubled on traditional flute.

Singer/syndrum player Romina Cárnica Navarro delivered a lilting, catchy number in the original Quechua language; otherwise, when the tunes had lyrics, they were in Spanish. Frontwoman Naomi Sturm’s high harmonies were grounded by flute player Carlos Moises Ambia’s expressive, dramatic baritone while charanga player and lead guitarist Andres Jimenez’s spiky lines intertwined with acoustic guitarist Adam Negrin’s bright chordal work. Bassist Erico Benavente’s trebly groove kept the dancers twirling.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues tonight, July 31 at 7:30 PM out back in Damrosch Park with a group led by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington saluting the pioneering women of jazz and early rock. The eclectic lineup includes but is not limited to vintage Americana maven Rhiannon Giddens, Afro-Cuban singer Xiomara Laugart, legendary AACM singer/organist Amina Claudine Myers and formidable jazz vocalist/bandleader Charenée Wade.

An Oldschool Soul Show Offers a Break from a Scorching Summer at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

This has been a challenging year for summer outdoor concerts in New York, to say the least. It’s impossible to remember if events across the city parks were ever cancelled en masse as they were a couple of weekends ago because of the heat. If there was ever a July where the chickens came home to roost to crush the global warming deniers’ conspiracy theories, this was it.

So maybe it’s understandable that on the one deliciously cool night of the week, people would be slow to get out of reflex mode, holed up in front of their air conditioners while Lee Fields and the Expressions were playing a simmering set of mostly midtempo oldschool soul songs at Damrosch Park. At its peak Saturday evening, the space might have been at half capacity. And that’s not a fault of programming: anyone who remembers the huge crowds that Sharon Jones used to draw around town knows how popular 1960s-style soul music remains. Still, it was weird to see a Lincoln Center Out of Doors bill that wasn’t close to being sold out.

The synergy between the gritty-voiced sixtysomething frontman and his devoted backing band, at least a generation removed, is clear. They get a seasoned master of moving crowds and getting people to get down, and he gets a bunch of guys who totally get what he does. Over the years, they’ve been a rotating cast of characters, although their collective sonics are spot-on retro.

This particular bassist had tweaked his big Marshall stack and Fender Jazz model to get a perfect, late 60s style clicky attack and decay that fell away almost as fast. In tandem with the group’s nimble, precisely swinging drummer, it wasn’t quite as if Fields had Booker T & the MGs backing him – but it was close. The keyboardist switched between a smoky B3 organ sound and subtle, low-key, bubbling Rhodes piano. The two-man horn section – trumpet and tenor sax – added spicy staccato and looming ambience, while the group’s conguera provided extra texture as well as animated backing vocals. Guitarist Thomas Brenneck ran his vintage hollow-body through generous amounts of reverb, shifting expertly between expansive chords, plaintively lingering accents and a little chicken-scratch funk.

After awhile, two-chord soul vamps tend to blend into each other, but the band mixed them up. At one point Brenneck nicked the “if we ever get out of here” riff from Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run and then ran with it. Methodically and seamlessly, they shifted from the sly come-on Will I Get Off Easy, to the insistent, practically hypnotic Love Prisoner, to the indignantly forceful Wake Up. “I’m sick of all these lies!” Fields railed.

Getting a listless crowd to sing along proved to be as much of a slog for Fields as it was for the other artists on the bill. On one hand, watching Grupo Fantasma guitarist Adrian Quesada play similarly expert soul riffs behind a parade of oldschool and newschool Texas soul singers was impressive. On the other hand, not everybody crossing the stage seemed up for it. And while it’s admirable that he would assemble an album resurrecting several veteran Tejano soul stars from the 60 and 70s, doing it as a deal with the devil is something we should not encourage. We’ve all read the horror stories coming out of Amazon: the Dickensian working conditions, employees having to carry pee bottles because they don’t get bathroom breaks, and the relentless, Orwellian surveillance, everybody scrambling to beat the clock that keeps track of every single movement. Corporations like Amazon love the PR that comes from token attempts to support the arts and create an illusion of dedication to multiculturalism. But let’s not fall for it.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues tomorrow night, July 31 at Damrosch Park at 7:30 PM featuring a wildly diverse all-female lineup including but not limited to Americana soul songstress Courtney Marie Andrews, vintage Americana maven Rhiannon Giddens, Afro-Cuban singer Xiomara Laugart, legendary AACM singer/organist Amina Claudine Myers and formidable jazz vocalist/bandleader Charenée Wade.

The Best Manhattan Venue of 2018

To echo yesterday’s pick of the Jalopy as Best Brooklyn Venue of 2018, there aren’t many Manhattan commercial venues left which even remotely deserve consideration as the borough’s best spot for music.

Sure, you could pick Carnegie Hall or the Vanguard, but that would be lazy: each is world-famous and hardly needs the press. Since this annual tradition began a little over a decade ago, there isn’t much left to choose from without falling back on a previous pick. Since 2007, four places rated Best Manhattan Venue have closed, and another, Spectrum, moved to Brooklyn. Do the math and you realize this equates to almost fifty percent of Manhattan’s best real estate for music, gone forever.

Every year, the idea of giving a shout out to a different Manhattan destination becomes more and more of a stretch. This blog’s last three picks include a museum; the free concert annex at this nation’s flagship cultural institution; and an Italian restaurant which at the time was booking both jazz and cabaret music. Maybe it’s time to think even further outside the box. How about a park?

There’s plenty to choose from. Damrosch Park, home to the gloriously diverse Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival, might seem to be the obvious choice, but that only runs from late June through mid-August. Riverside Park and others on the Hudson have some good shows, but those usually amount to no more than a handful spread out over the course of the entire summer.

Marcus Garvey Park, with its amphitheatre, may be the most comfortable of all city parks to catch a concert, but those only happen once or twice a month. Tompkins Square Park is a shadow of its former self, and the once-excellent Madison Square Park series has gone to hell. Central Park still has the New York Philharmonic at the end of June, and the perennially popular Naumburg Bandshell classical series. But Summerstage has been on a steep downward slide for the past couple of years, focusing on expensive paid shows by top 40 moppets rather than the eclectic slate of artists you could see there twenty years ago, for free. Considering that the Parks Conservancy brass have further cemented their ongoing relationship with the odious Live Nation, that sad decline is bound to continue.

Those are some of the reasons why this year’s pick for Best Manhattan Venue goes to Bryant Park. Another is that there are more performances here than in any other Manhattan public space. Last year’s performance series began in early spring with ragtime piano and ended with country music in October. In between, there was the ravishingly fun Bryant Park Accordion Festival, a vastly entertaining mix of Middle Eastern, Balkan, latin, Indian, Romany, Italian and cabaret sounds, to name just a handful. There was also plenty of music from south of the border, along with classical, a little jazz and some Americana. Texas psychedelic polka band Brave Combo put on a hell of a show here last summer; so did the otherworldly Bukharan Ensemble Shashmaqam.

Although you’d expect that an open space bordering 42nd Street would be plagued by the shrieks from the door alarms on city buses, that hasn’t been a problem here for several years. If you don’t feel like sitting on the lawn, there always seem to be plenty of folding chairs, and you can even borrow a blanket from the blanket booth by the back steps to the library. And since alcohol is sold by a couple of vendors, you can actually drink on the lawn without getting arrested. Fun fact: Bryant Park also has the cleanest restrooms of any New York public space.

State-of-the-Art Americana Jamband Rock to Close Out This Year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival

Margo Price dropped a bombshell at Lincoln Center a couple nights ago. Taking her only turn of the evening at the piano for the Lennonesque ballad All American Made, she recalled how by 1987, the world had discovered that “Reagan was selling weapons to the leaders of Iran.” To any student of American history, the October Surprise and the Iran-Contra affair are old news. But for a self-described Midwest farmer’s daughter to mention the ugly truth about that President – who despite every shred of evidence remains a hero throughout parts of that world – it was a radical move.

As the song goes, it wasn’t the first time something like that has happened, and it won’t be the last. And the current blitzkrieg against immigrants makes her want to run for the border. That was Price’s only unvarnished political song in a set of high quality, deep-fried southern jamband rock. Unsurprisingly, it was also the number that drew the loudest roars of appreciation from a crowd who’d braved the threat of a torrential downpour to come out to see her.

Price’s music seems to be contrived to appeal to every single potential audience member on the summer festival circuit. As a fierce frontwoman with a big wail that with a few nuanced tweaks works equally well in classic honkytonk, 60s soul and bluesy rock, Price delivers for the ladies. The six hairy dudes working up a sweat behind her seem like they’d be just as much at home in many other styles beyond choogilng four-on-the-floor rock. The best and most epic of the big psychedelic numbers, Cocaine Cowboy, featured long interludes for Jamie Davis’ stinging electric blues guitar, Luke Schneider’s searing, noisy pedal steel  and the night’s most nebulous break, where keyboardist Micah Hulscher abandoned his judicious Rhodes chords for swirls and dips of string synth straight out of the early Genesis playbook – to the point where band members were exchanging “where the hell are we” grins with each other.

Price went behind a second drumkit for that one. She knows what she’s doing back there, and she flurried up a storm when she played acoustic guitar – which she did throughout the majority of a long set. She stayed behind that kit for the song after that, a wryly undulating take of the Grateful Dead’s Casey Jones, which the band ended with an irresistibly amusing stampede out. It never hurts to know your subject matter.

The rest of the show ranged from careening electric honkytonk numbers like Paper Cowboy and Put a Hurting on the Bottle – with spot-on detours into George Jones and Willie Nelson classics – along with a defiant,snarlingly amped oldschool C&W breakup ballad. The covers were a mixed bag: the band found soul-infused redemption for Tom Petty but could not do the same for Melanie Safka or Dolly Parton’s disco era. Throughout the night, individual band members kept solos short and sweet, often trading off, up to mighty peaks or descents toward suspense. Most of the crowd who’d stuck around gathered down at the front; at the end of the show, Price rewarded them by flinging roses from a big bouquet into the crowd, one by one.

Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real were a hard act to follow. It’s hardly an overstatement to rank Nelson alongside fellow Texas blues greats like Stevie Ray Vaughn and Freddie King. Yet Nelson kept his guitar solos much more concise than either of those two hotheads – maybe because he’d learned that trick playing with another great Texas guitarslinger, his dad Willie. This band is excellent: bassist Corey McCormick was a spring-loaded presence throughout the set and made his one long solo count, hard. Drummer Anthony LoGerfo swung like crazy alongside conguero Tato Melgar, and organist/pianist Jesse Siebenberg doubled on second guitar and lapsteel as well.

They opened with the spaciest number of the night, a multi-part epic about aliens that veered from post Neil Young electric intensity to echoes of Pink Floyd during a long, starry interlude. From there they blended oldschool soul, Texas shuffles and stark red dirt folk with a surreal humor that brought to mind Nelson’s famous dad as much as the vocals did. Yet Lukas Nelson’s voice is a lot bigger, even if he has that signature twang.

They brought the lights down for a pensive, solo acoustic take of Just Outside of Austin?and then what seemed like a rewrite of Gentle on My Mind – the younger Nelson clearly has just as much of a thing for classic Nashville songwriting as his dad. After a slight return to Led Zep-influenced riff-rock, Nelson encored with a brand-new acoustic number where he resolved to “turn off the news and build a garden.” Clearly, Price wasn’t the only populist on this bill.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors may be done for 2018, but there’s the annual Brooklyn Americana Festival, taking place all over Dumbo Sept 20-23, to look forward to.

Mavis Staples Throws a Party For Our Right to Fight at Lincoln Center

By the time Mavis Staples had launched into her second catchy, singalong soul groove at Lincoln Center Out of Doors last night, she was already referencing economic deprivation and political exploitation. At least half of the crowd were on their feet, dancing and swaying. Her voice has weathered over the years, but her message and presence have not. The heir to a seven-decade, politically fearless soul music legacy is as relevant today as she was in 1962, when she marched throughout the South with the family patriarch, Pops Staples, and put her life on the line.

One hand, she’s a friendly, down-to-earth Chicagoan. On the other, she carries herself with the gravitas but also the optimism of someone who won a lot of battles back in the day and remains an inspiration to this generation’s freedom fighters. “We live in troubled times,” she mused soberly. But then she grinned. “I’m thinking about going down to Washington,” she announced, to wild applause. “But I’m not going alone. I’m not stupid. I’m bringng my posse!”

“But they’d just throw me out. ‘You’re not from here, you’re from Chicago, go home.’” No doubt that was the reaction of the rednecks who jailed her alongside Martin Luther King, and her dad, who wrote the gospel call-and-response of Freedom Highway for those marchers. Staples sang that one midway through the set, backed by a tight, terse five-piece band with guitar, bass, drums and two passionate, purposeful harmony singers.

They opened with Are You Ready and its “come go with me” mantra, which came across as more of a challenge to join forces against oppression than simply with the rest of the choir. She evoked a similar call-and-response a couple of songs later: “Don’t rock the boat – who told you that?” The line that drew the most thunderous roar from the crowd was when the gentleman on harmony vocals sang, “Take the sheet off your face, boy, it’s a new day now.”

The rest of the set ranged from comfortable 1960s-style two-chord soul/gospel jams, to more energetic funk and some nifty, shifting tempos in a couple of tunes. Along the way, Staples’ alluded to more contemporary issues including but not limited to the blitzkrieg of gentrification and the war on immigrants. At the end of the set, they finally vamped their way through a joyous singalong of the Staples Singers’ 1971 hit I’ll Take You There.

Throughout the show, the band were tight and purposeful, with a couple of surprisingly volcanic, noisy guitar solos from Telecaster player Rick Holstrom, a little snap and pop from Jeff Turmes’ bass toward the end and some acerbic cameos from both harmony vocalists.

Joe Henry opened. He’s a very serious guy, choosing his words carefully as he addressed the crowd. “Every song I write is part Amazing Grace and part Let’s Get It On,” he explained. That description held up throughout his roughly forty-five minutes onstage: he’s the missing link between Leonard Cohen and Wilco. Another reference point was Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, which kept popping up tunewise throughout the show. Playing acoustic guitar, using both standard and open tunings, he led his six-piece band through a breezy set of slow-to-midtempo parlor Americana ballads. It would have been a treat to be able to hear the great Cindy Cashdollar’s diverse lapsteel textures, which more often than not were drowned out by Levon Henry’s sax. More often than not it takes somebody the caliber of Bob Wills to get horns and country-influenced songwriting to work together. 

Lincoln Center Out of Doors winds up tonight, Aug 12 at 7 PM with another collaboration with the Americana Music Association, featuring sets by guitarslinger Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real and country-soul chanteuse Margo Price.

The Auspicious Future and Gloriously Melancholy Past of Americana Rock at Lincoln Center

For the last several years, the Americana Music Association has partnered to book the closing night of Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Yesterday’s festivities began with multi-instrumentalist Amanda Shires and her similarly brilliant band and closed soaringly and bittersweetly with the unselfconsciously gorgeous harmonies of the Jayhawks. There were other acts scheduled throughout the day, some of them rambunctious, one of them absolutely putrid, but if these two are the foundation and future of Americana, New York’s default listening music is in good hands.

Shires doesn’t exactly play violin like your typical Americana fiddler. From song to song, she’d fire off savage Romany chromatics, venomous tarantella riffs and stark blues along with plenty of extended technique, from muted pizzicato harmonics to slow, eerily surfacing glissandos. She’s also a hell of a storyteller, chooses her words and sings every song differently, in character. A brittle ingenue, wounded valkyrie and wistful red-dirt Texas songbird were just three of them.

She has a hell of a band. Her lead guitarist wove his way from biting minor-key blues, through menacingly Lynchian twang, often sparring with the bandleader. The bassist played what would have been new wave if the drummer hadn’t swung the music so hard: all those steady eighth notes and the occasional emphatic chord on the low end gave the music extra majesty.

They opened with My Love (The Storm), more or less a remake of Wayfaring Stranger, and brought the show full circle at the end, taking out Look Like a Bird with the day’s most searing guitar/violin duel. After a noir bolero and an amped-up romp through the sharp, bitter The Way It Dimmed, Shires told a funny story about an encounter with a Florida fan aromatic with “an herb that is legal in Colorado and other kind states.” He gave her a bag that turned out not to be filled with the obvious but with bits and pieces of a dead Siberian tiger – or so he said. “It’ll make you bulletproof!” he explained.

With that, Shires lit into  the song he inspired, which was funny for an instant but got dark quickly, a catalog of what might be worth protecting from gunfire, personal to political. A spare, lingering take of  Harmless, a cheating song that underscored dashed hopes rather than the potential fallout, contrasted with a loud, enigmatic rocker that brought to mind the Throwing Muses, then a loping, simmering Tex-Mex ballad that slowly crescendoed into growling psychedelia.

The Jayhawks have held up stunningly well since their glory days in the late 90s and early zeros. Frontman Gary Louris, pianist/organist Karen Grotberg and drummer Tim O’Reagan still blend voices for the most glistening harmonies this side of the Balkans, and bassist Marc Perlman still makes his slinky, seamlessly melodic lines look effortless. Meanwhile, the band’s newsboy-capped latest addition filled out the sound, switching between mandolin, airy violin lines, acoustic guitar and Telecaster.

In the years since the band’s legendary turn-of-the-century triptych of albums – 1997’s Sound of Lies, 2000’s Smile and 2003’s Rainy Day Music – Louris has grown into the lead guitar god he was struggling to be then. He’s switched out most of the screeching, Stoogoid dry-ice attack for a precise, meticulously dynamic, texturally rich volleys that varied from Mick Ronson heavy blues, to many subtle shades of clang and twang, enabled by fast footwork on a pedalboard. His signature sound – a little Beatles, a little Bowie and a whole lot of Big Star – has held up as well as the band.

They opened with the mighty, indomitable powerpop anthem I’m Gonna Make You Love Me and followed with an appropriately towering version of the evening’s best song, the angst-fueled individualist anthem The Man Who Loved Life and its bitter on-the-road narrative.

Trouble, the centerpiece of Sound of Lies’ thread of rejection and alienation, was as shattering as the album version, Louris hitting his flange for extra surrealism to raise the effect of being “Hung out to dry, backs against the wall, stoned out of our minds.”

The rest of the show followed a dynamic arc up to a big crescendo with Tailspin, its gloomy perspective muted within the framework of a mighty singalong anthem. O’Reagan took over lead vocals on the moody, C&W-fueled ballad Tampa to Tulsa. The material from the band’s latest album Paging Mr. Proust was surprisingly strong, including a vampy, vintage soul-inspired number that could have been the Zombies. Even the slighter, poppier material – like Angelyne and Save It For a Rainy Day – was fresh and forceful. How many other bands who’ve been around since the 80s still channel this much passion and intensity?

Lincoln Center Out of Doors wraps up tonight, August 13 at 6 PM out back in Damrosch Park with oldschool 70s soul man Don Bryant and then veteran blues guitarist Bonnie Raitt, And the atrium space just north of 62nd Street continues to program some of the most exhilaratingly diverse acts from around the globe. Next up there: a rare twinbill of hypnotic, otherworldly, intense Colombian bullerengue with singer and tambolero Emilsen Pacheco Blanco along with singer Carolina Oliveros’ mighty 13-piece vocal/percussion choir Bulla en el Barrio on August 24 at 7:30 PM. The show is free; the earlier you get there, the better.

The Cactus Blossoms and Dwight Yoakam Capture New York in 2016

“I want to dedicate this to a son of Bakersfield,” Dwight Yoakam told the sold-out crowd at this year’s concluding Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival concert Sunday night. “I don’t mean Buck,” Yoakam explained, referring to iconic Telecaster player Buck Owens, who transformed the sound of country music in the early 60s. “He’s great, but Merle was such a mentor to me.” And then led his high-voltage, expert hard honkytonk band through a brief, poignant set of Merle Haggard tunes. There was an aptly airy, wistful version of Silver Wings, a bouncy take of Mama Tried…and a singalong on Okie From Muskogee, the widely misunderstood early outlaw-country anthem where everybody in the crowd knew the words. If you grew up a fan of country music, obviously you know them by heart. But you might not expect several thousand New Yorkers (and a smattering of tourists) to know them as well. And they did. Folks, this is what New York is listening to in 2016. Festival producer Jill Sternheimer and her crew were definitely not asleep at the wheel this year.

In a marathon, nonstop, tirelessly workmanlike two hours onstage, Yoakam crooned as strongly as he did back in 1985, when, as he related, he opened for the Blasters at the old Ritz (now Webster Hall). He thanked anybody “still ambulatory” from that era who might have come out for this show – and a handful of folks apparently did. He kicked things off with Guitars Cadillacs, from his first album from a year after that, when he was one of the great new hopes in purist country music, along with Steve Earle, Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Crowell. But Yoakam rocked harder than any of those guys, at least at the time, as he did here. Alternating between electric and acoustic guitars, Yoakam showed off some snazzy flatpicking chops, no surprise since his forthcoming album takes a turn into bluegrass (he’s another guy who has his finger on what kids these days are listening to).

Behind him, drummer Mitch Marine and bassist Jonathan Clark put down a swinging backbeat, a platform for lead guitarist Eugene Edwards’ sizzling, resonant Telecaster and hollowbody Gretsch work. Behind them, multi-instrumentalist Brian Whelan dazzled the crowd with his dexterity on – are you ready – guitar, pedal steel, piano, organ, percussion and fiddle. When Yoakam mentioned the word “Grammy,” there was a predictable dip toward generic New Nashville, and the material from his latest album didn’t hold up alongside his earlier stuff. Putting everything in context, he and the band covered the early psychedelic Beatles as expertly as fat Elvis. It was like being at a Oklahoma county fair, but better.

Minneapolis five-piece opener the Cactus Blossoms stole the show with a brooding, often mesmerizing set of originals and a couple of covers, one a low-key reworking of an early Kinks hit and another that sounded like the Black Angels, whose moody resonance blended in well with the rest of the material. Frontman Jack Torrey and his rhythm guitarist brother Page Burkum joined voices with similarly bittersweet high-lonesome sensibility that vividly evoked the Everly Brothers. Torrey (who adopted a stagename several years ago) also turned out to be an excellent guitarist, channeling Tal Farlow and an army of mid-50s pickers with his judicious, morosely twangy riffs and fills, bolstered by a Les Paul player whose similarly tasteful, spare lines lingered over the slow, echoey rimshot beat of drummer Chris Hepola in tandem with bassist Andy Carroll.

Their best song of the night was Powder Blue, a slowly swaying Nashville gothic number that used the opening notes of the Twin Peaks theme as a springboard. “We have some sad songs for you,” Torrey had cautioned the crowd as the group took the stage, and he meant it. Although there were a couple of jaunty Tex-Mex flavored numbers in the set, most of the material was slow to midtempo: as he explained, even the set’s lone lovestruck ballad had a similarly terror-stricken undercurrent, its protagonist dreading the moment his girl might leave him just as the others did. On one hand, what this band does is retro to the core, which might have something to do with their popularity. On the other, it’s cutting edge. It looks like we’ve come full circle, back to Nashville and Bakersfield, 1963. Which isn’t such a bad thing.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors Kicks Off with an Eclectic Triplebill

[repost from NY Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture]

The Kronos Quartet are celebrating their fortieth anniversary this year, so it makes sense that the beginning of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival – one of the best ever – would be centered around that landmark occasion. The world’s most adventurous string quartet have an auspicious new cellist, Sunny Yang (replacing Jeffrey Ziegler) and their usual slate of premieres and new commissions. Even by their paradigm-shifting standards, their world premiere of Ukraine-born Mariana Sadovska’s Chernobyl: The Harvest – with the composer on vocals and harmonium – last night at the Damrosch Park bandshell was nothing short of shattering,  It’s a suite of old Ukrainian folk songs reinvented to commemorate the horror of the 1986 nuclear disaster, which by conservative standards killed at least a million people around the globe and caused the breakup of the Soviet Union, the world’s second-greatest power at the time.

Singing in Ukrainian, Sadovska began it a-cappella with her signature nuance, a thousands shades of angst, sometimes barely breathing, sometimes at a fullscale wail, occasionally employing foreboding microtones to max out the menace. Violist Hank Dutt got the plum assignment of leading the ensemble to join her, Yang’s foreboding drone underpinning a series of up-and-down, Julia Wolfe-esque motives. Quavering, anxious Iranian-tinged flutters from the cello along with violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, astringently atmospheric harmonics and a big, uneasy crescendo, the harmonium going full steam, built to a savagely sarcastic faux circus motif and then a diabolical dance. That was the harvest, a brutal portrayal whose ultimate toll is still unknown. Through a plaintive theme and variations, Sadovska’s voice rose methodically from stunned horror to indignance and wrath: again, the triptych’s final theme, Heaven, appeared to be sarcastic to the extreme, Sadovska determined not to let the calamity slip from memory. Nuclear time forgives much more slowly than time as we experience it: 26 years after the catastrophe, wild mushrooms in Germany – thousands of miles from the disaster scene – remain inedible, contaminated with deadly nuclear toxins.

In a counterintuitive stroke of booking, luminous singer Shara Worden’s kinetic art-rock octet, My Brightest Diamond headlined. They’re like the Eurythmics except with good vocals and good songs – hmmm, that doesn’t leave much, does it? Or like ELO during their momentary lapse into disco, but better. Sh-sh-sh-sh-Shara can get away with referencing herself in a song because she does it with tongue planted firmly in cheek, and because she’s as funny as she can be haunting. She loves props and costumes – a big cardboard moustache and a fez among them, this time out – and draws on a wide-ranging musical drama background. But she saves the drama for when she really needs to take a song over the edge, belting at gale force in contrast to a fat, droll synth bass pulse late in the show. Her lively arrangements rippled through the ensemble of Hideaki Aomori on alto sax, Lisa Raschiatore on clarinet and bass clarinet, CJ Cameriere on trumpet, Michael Davis on trombone and Alex Sopp on flutes, like the early/middle-period Moody Blues as orchestrated by Carl Nielsen. Sopp’s triumphant cadenzas capped off several big crescendos, as did Aomori on the second number, a circus rock song with dixieland flourishes. Worden brought the energy down to pensive for a bit, crooning with a low, ripe, Serena Jost-like intensity and playing Rhodes piano on a hypnotic trip-hop number. Worden switched to minimal but assured electric guitar on a slow, pensive tune and then a warm, gently arpeggiated love song, then to mbira on a similarly hypnotic but bouncier Afro-funk song. “A girl from the country had a dream, and the best place she could think of was here,” Worden beamed to the packed arena as she wound up the night. “We’re living the dream.”

Emily Wells was lost in limbo between the two. The smoky patterns on the kaleidoscopic light show projected behind her on the back of the stage offered more than a hint of the milieu she’s best suited to. It was a cruel if probably unintentional stroke of fate that stuck Wells, a competent singer, between two brilliant ones. Her music is quirky, playful and trippy to the extreme. Wells can be very entertaining to watch, when she’s building songs out of loops, adding layers of vocals, keys and violin, switching between instruments and her mixing board with split-second verve. But as her set – the longest one of the night – went on, it became painfully obvious that she wasn’t doing much more than karaoke. She sang her dubwise, trippy hip-hop/trip-hop/soul mashups in what became a monotonously hazy soul-influenced drawl without any sense of dynamics. Where Sadovska sang of nuclear apocalypse and Worden tersely explored existential themes, the best Wells could do was a Missy Elliott-ish trip-hop paean to Los Angeles. And when she addressed the crowd, Wells seemed lost, veering between a southern drawl and something like an Irish brogue. But the audience LOVED her, and gave her the most applause of anyone on the bill.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors is phenomenal this year: the Kronos Quartet will be there tomorrow and then Sunday night. The full calendar is here.

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.

Istanbulive 2012: A Historic Night at Lincoln Center

Last night’s Turkish Woodstock, a.k.a. Istanbulive night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors was probably the closest in spirit to the original Woodstock, meteorologically speaking: with the rain, gently cool and comforting as it was, the sight of empty seats in Damrosch Park was surreal to the extreme. This year marked the fourth annual festival of Turkish music put together by Serdar Ilhan and Mehmet Dede, the brain trust behind Drom, the downtown world music mecca: as usual, the concert was brilliant, with a special historical significance. This show was especially notable for the American debut of legendary Turkish chanteuse and freedom fighter Selda Bagcan. It took her til age 64 to get here; she sang for almost two hours as the rain picked up and then abated, and got stronger as she went along. Dressed in her native Anatolian colors of red and white (and waving a Turkish flag during one song, to thunderous applause), she’d often sing a verse and then turn her mic to the crowd, or even let the audience open a song after a familiar intro. Known for her clever, satirical, politically-charged Turkish lyrics (which resulted in her imprisonment by the junta there in the early 80s), she frequently ad-libbed them to reference current events, which further energized the audience. Watching a circle of young people pushing their way to the front, linking hands in a circle, then spinning and bouncing to a psychedelic folk protest song that had to be at least 40 years old was heartwarming to the extreme: this kind of thing doesn’t happen in Bushwick, at least not in the trendy areas.

Much of the psychedelic rock that came out of the non-English speaking world during the 60s and 70s makes the American and British stuff seem sober and timid by comparison, often because the Peruvians, and Koreans, and Estonians and so forth used a broader sonic pallette. Bagcan was backed not only by electric guitar, keyboards and drums but also by saz (Turkish lute) as well as clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski and kanun virtuoso Tamer Pinarbasi, who comprised two-thirds of the evening’s extraordinary opening act, the Secret Trio. Microtones and overtones flew from the Turkish instruments as the rock band held the center, acoustic guitar and saz frequently blending together for an intoxicatingly, glimmering river of jangle and clang as the kanun flickered in the upper registers and Lumanovski added tersely plaintive washes of sound. With her minutely jeweled, muanced melismas, Bagcan sang like a woman forty years younger, as subtle as she was undeterred and defiant.

Yet a sense of longing pervaded much of what she and the band played. Big, sweeping anthems were bisected by quiet, tense interludes where the crowd quickly filled in the empty spaces with their voices. Hearing these many of these songs done as relatively straight-up, Pink Floyd-style art-rock was quite a change from the woozy textures (synths imitating a ney flute and tinny guitar without much sustain) of many of the original recordings. Bagcan has been called the “Turkish Piaf,” and there’s some truth in that considering her unwavering support for the working classes and her occasional penchant for drama: one of the evening’s best-received numbers was a torrent of lyrics, Istanbul cabaret style. As the end of the set neared, she and the band reached back for a more starkly acoustic, traditionally Middle Eastern flavored vibe, kanun and saz taking centerstage on an undulating, Egyptian-tinged anthem.

With grey skies overhead, the Secret Trio’s dark intricately pensive instrumentals set the tone perfectly and never let up through their abbreviated three-song set, Pinarbasi and Lumanovski’s lines grounded by oudist Ara Dinkjian’s terse countermelodies. Opening with the clarinet stark over a moody, neoromantic theme that could have been Ravel, or Morricone until an even darker detour into Arabic mode, they took it down even lower and more elegaically over a hypnotic web of prickly pointillisms. Then tenor saxophonist Ilhan Ersahin’s Wonderland treated the crowd to the most night’s most hypnotic moments, clarinetist Husnu Senlendirici spinning magical, ominously microtonal spirals in tandem with Ersahin over the ringing backdrop of Pinarbasi (who was doing triple duty tonight) and an electric rhythm section featuring a trance-inducing goblet drummer. Ersahin’s signature sound is swirling and dub-influenced: maybe because he and the band kept getting mixed signals about when they were supposed to wrap up their set (everybody seemed to be expecting a cataclysmic storm), there was a welcome edge and gypsy-flavored bite to the music along with the pulsing, shapeshifting atmospherics.