New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: lorin sklamberg

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.

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.

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.